The Canon: Arguments for Socialism by Tony Benn

November 25, 2010

The back cover of Arguments for Socialism describes Tony Benn as "the most controversial man in British politics". It is hard to think of Benn, now a national treasure, as a divisive figure - but of course he was. As a result, the reception of Arguments for Socialism upon its publication in 1979 drew accusations of communist-inspired demagogy from the Right, and establishmentarianism from the radical Left. Both charges are unfair.

Benn divides his analysis into three sections, first outlining the history of the Labour movement, then examining the issues that faced the movement in the 1970s, and finally, writing on the eve of a new decade, he outlined likely key areas of interest for the Left in the 1980s.

In part, therefore, Arguments for Socialism is now a historical document, and, in part, it is a curiosity piece, interesting when examined from the perspective of whether or not Benn's analysis has stood the test of time. Where it has not, he can hardly be held to blame. His extensive analysis of industrial democracy, for example, was perfectly worthwhile at the time of writing, but was, in Thatcher's Britain, so much wasted ink.

Yet many of Benn's ideas speak to us even now, 30 years on.

He underscores the need for the Left not only to win elections but to win arguments too, so that an alternative discourse is available for those who want to see change. He reminds us that in the world of monetarism and laissez-faire capitalism, "if there is to be a competition there must be winners and losers". And, on natural resources, he argues that while fossil fuels may well be finite, humanity's ability to use and recycle them in a more intelligent way is infinite; crucially, however, he reminds us that it is education that will facilitate such innovations.

True enough, Benn is better at diagnosis than prescription. Nevertheless, in the contemporary world where the phrase "there is no alternative" has become a common political justification, it is good to be reminded that progressive solutions should be proposed and discussed.

My copy of Arguments for Socialism is as old as I am; I accept, therefore, that I come to it from a different social, cultural and political heritage to those who read it first time around.

Nevertheless, when I first read this book, as a doctoral student starting out on a career in academia, Benn's arguments for democratic accountability and open government - further developed in this book's sequel, Arguments for Democracy - were inspirational.

Even if Britain itself had not adopted industrial democracy, I fancied that such a policy could and should apply to university governance. Idealistically, I would take these ideas, and a pint-sized blue-and-white mug of tea, to various university meetings. Sadly, Arguments for Socialism pre-dates contemporary managerialism in the academy and I fear that such ideas were misplaced. Nevertheless, Benn's work still inspires me to become more irresponsible as I get older.

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