Saturday, 5 December 2015

Hilary, Tony and the "Family Row"

Tony Benn once said that arguments within the Labour Party were really "family rows." In the last week various accusations have been made about Tony Benn's son Hilary and the precise familial response his intervention in the Syria debate would have provoked in the old man. The likely answer is virtually none. Yet the elder Benn's remark, and indeed his attitude to Labour and reformist "rows" more generally, belong to an increasingly distant time. 

But that is, for the moment, beside the point. Hilary Benn's speech in the Commons in favour of air strikes in Syria - pointedly delivered to his Party's benches - was, however much you may disagree with it, in a very real Labour tradition. I disagree profoundly, for what it's worth, with his definition of internationalism and the uses he makes of it. Internationalism has a chequered history, its allegiance and its meaning shifting sides, at one time the preserve of "cosmopolitan" traders and artisans, later the watchword of otherwise national working class movements in the Second International, recently the intellectual blackmail of global capital against the nationalised welfare state. If it is to mean anything for socialists today, internationalism must be an argument for international peace and solidarity. 

Hilary Benn described internationalism as a moral commitment - "to never walk by on the other side" in the face of suffering. But to characterise an international bombing campaign in a primarily civilian area as an act of compassion is a gross distortion. To compare the campaign in Syria with the Red Brigades in Spain and the struggle against Nazism in Europe betrays the legacies of the many thousands of resistance fighters and the millions of innocent victims in those struggles. Of course, in the circumstances, the defence of the Spanish Republic from Fascism and later the fight against Hitler in Europe were the only right response. Syria is very different and to try to shrug off those historical differences is a form of emotional blackmail.

However, Benn's speech was not a betrayal of his father any more than it was a betrayal of the Labour Party. Labour has always been a militarist party. This is one fact about it that puts off many on the left. Its notion of internationalism has always been bound up with the right of the British state to pursue apparently noble ends via military means. It sees liberation where many see just the disastrous consequences of western militarism. Labour reformism can at times be peaceable but it clearly has a militarist and pro-imperialist aspect.

Tony Benn, who was a lifelong Labour member and an MP for most of his life after 1950 could not but have been aware, and even comfortable with, this militarism. He was a firebrand, fiercely anti-war, and yet devoted to Labour. He did not support Labour's imperial adventurism - especially under Tony Blair - but nor did he ever quit. Benn understood that Parties are complicated beasts, and that Labour contained multitudes. Moreover its deep commitment to the enduring ideology of reformism meant it could weather these storms. Benn may have been right that Labour could weather his own stormy protests. But it could not move structurally or permanently to the left. 

Hilary and Tony Benn were, by all accounts, very close. Tony Benn was surrounded his whole political life with colleagues - comrades - with whom he profoundly disagreed. He would not have been "ashamed" of his son any more than of colleagues he rebelled against in the past. The expectation that this would be the case tells us something about where Labour stands today.

There is nothing historically surprising about the differences that currently exist within the Labour Party. What is telling is how uncontainable these differences have become in the twilight of social democracy and the ideology of reformism. When this fight within the Labour Party is over, the Labour Party may no longer be recognisable as its old, reformist self, one way or the other.

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