The slogan “Don’t Mourn, Organise!” was written in a telegram from Joe Hill to Bill Haywood before Hill’s execution on trumped up charges in Utah. Joe Hill wrote “Goodbye, Bill, I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize!”
This slogan is not a call for us to be beyond human and not grieve or mourn. What it is instead is a call not to get so caught up in grief and mourning that we give up the struggle out of despair; it is a call to remind us what we are fighting for and that the struggle continues irrespective of our losses. It takes the loss and puts it in the past (and of course part of our present) and brings to the forefront what those who have passed on have spent their lives fighting for! Presente Bob Crow and Tony Benn!
This week Britain’s left has seen the loss of two stalwarts, two great fighters for economic, political and social justice. Two men from different class backgrounds who spent their lives fighting in different arenas; one as a member of Parliament in the Labour Party and the other as a giant of the trade union movement, a militant trade union organiser. Both men were thorns in the sides of the ruling class and mainstream politicians … both men not only fought in their chosen arenas but were part and parcel of the general movement for socialism, for democracy, and worked alongside, not as an elevated leadership, those struggling against the not only the excesses of capitalism, but in favour of the creation of a better future for all.
Rather than speak for these men, I will let you have the pleasure of listening to them speak for themselves and am including speeches made by them. Both great orators in their own way, the comparison between Bob Crow’s east London working class accent and Tony Benn’s crisp Oxbridge accent in itself is a pleasure; what they are saying exemplifies their different approaches to the struggle for socialism.
Bob Crow (13/06/1961-11/03-2014)
Bob Crow was a working class hero in many senses. The son of a boxer, he was born in East London. He quit school at age 16 to go to work for London Transport and soon became involved in union politics. In 1983, he was elected a local representative to the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) and in 1985, was elected to the national of the Union representing track workers.
The merger of the NUR with the National Union of Seamen led to the formation of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) in 1990. Crow was elected in 1991 to the national executive representing the London Underground and in 1992, became assistant general secretary of the union. In 2002, he was elected general secretary of the RMT and held this position until his death.
During his time as general secretary of RMT, membership increased by 20,000 to 80,000 members; wages and conditions of work were not only protected, but improved. As the head of a union in a strategic sector, he was able to use a shrewd combination of strikes and collective bargaining to fight for his members. Unlike most of the union movement following the failure of the Miner’s strike of 1984-5, Crow never fell into the argument that the trade union movement needed to give up hard won gains. He won wage increases and protected jobs in a period of intense attack and capitulation of much of the rest of the union movement.
Bob Crow faced down not only the Tories, but Labour as well. He took the RMT out of the Labour Party when they shifted to the right with his union stopping funding of the party. Crow and his union members heckled Tony Blair in 2006 at the Trade Union Conference (TUC) national meeting, and in 2010, they staged a walk out when the governor of the Bank of England, Mervin King, spoke at the national TUC meeting.
Here is Bob Crow speaking on question time on 7th of March 2013 explaining exactly what the purpose of austerity is (the man that the camera keeps panning towards is Ken Clark of the Tory Party):
Scathing in his defence of his members and of the working class as a whole, he was a life-long Marxist, first a member of the Communist Party Great Britain (then when it split, a member of the Communist Party Britain), he later joined Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP). He left the SLP, but supported the Socialist Alliance (an attempted federation or united front of left parties). The RMT was one of the founding organisations of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). In many senses, TUSC shares the same failings as earlier attempts to unite the left along a federation of hard-left political parties where they only come together for an electoral campaign and where membership in their party and hence having their party up front to run is a priority. TUSC has not done wonderfully well in elections, even in areas where there is a strong trade union and left presence.
Most recently, he was one of the founders of the No2EU campaign in preparation to run in the upcoming EU elections in May. The majority of the left is sceptical about running a left-based anti-EU campaign attempting to draw the same conclusions as the right but for different reasons concerned about the impact of labour immigration and anti-union laws and regulations coming from the EU along with austerity imposition in the rest of Europe; invariably it was felt that the xenophobia and racism of the right could not be overcome by a left wing argument that seemed to be a nationalist agenda and up-holding the idea of “socialism in one country.” This is the case although much of the hard left is divided between advocating leaving the EU (while supporting the creation of a socialist Europe) versus attempting its reformation.
Here is Bob Crow speaking to his union members at the RMT save our railways rally, October 25th 2011:
The RMT, joined by the TSSA (Transport Salaried Staff Association) went on strike this February. The London Underground management tried to sack 900 worker’s jobs by shutting down ticket booths in some stations. The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, had refused to speak to Bob Crow for about years. They shut down the London Underground for 48 hours. Boris actually argued that he would take a case to the EU about preventing strikes due to the loss of revenue. The strike was successful and beyond that, watching the BBC trying to get commuters to criticise the unions and complain about the inconvenience was extremely pleasurable. Invariably, people not only supported the right to strike, but argued in support of the right of unionisation. The BBC actually reduced the coverage of the story from the top-story lines, attempting to minimise reporting on a strike that shut down the largest transport system in Britain; once again they exposed the BBC’s pro-government and pro-business bias in reporting.
Here is Bob Crow’s speech on May 10th 2012 at a rally in Central Hall Westminster, London, on the day of a strike called by public sector workers unions. “Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union, RMT, addressing the rally of the striking public sector workers, welcomed suggestions that the TUC would call another demonstration in the autumn, and called on the TUC to organise a one day general strike.”
Tony Benn: Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn (3 April 1925 – 14 March 2014)
Unlike Bob Crow, Tony Benn was born to wealth and privilege. Both of his grandfathers were Liberal members of Parliament and having crossed from the Liberals to Labour, his father William Wedgewood Benn was later elevated to a heredity Labour peerage (Viscount Stansgate). His mother was a feminist, theologian, and a founder and President of the Congregational Federation. He went to public (aka private) school (Westminster School). After enlisting in the royal air force in 1943 (he served in South Africa and the then Rhodesia), he went to Oxford studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics and was elected president of the Oxford Union in 1947.
Elected to Parliament as a Labour MP in 1950, he was actually on the centre of the Labour Party. He actually became radicalised through his experiences as a Member of Parliament and serving in government; in that sense, he took the opposite route that so many others have taken. He remained in Parliament until 1960 when his father died and he inherited the title of Viscount Stansgate which prevented him from sitting in the House of Commons. He tried to renounce his title, a by-election was called and he ran even though he could not take his seat if he won; he won and the seat was given to the Tory runner up . He continued to campaign to be allowed to renounce his title and in 1963, the Peerage act was passed and Tony Benn renounced his title. He ran for Parliament in a by-election and won the seat in August 1963 for Bristol SE until 1983. He remained in Parliament serving as a Member of Parliament from Chesterfield until 2001. During that time, he held several government posts under Labour governments: Postmaster General (1964-6), Minister of Technology (1966-70), Secretary of State for Industry (1974-5) and Secretary of State for Energy (1975-9). He served as Chairman of the Labour Party in 1971-2. By the end of the 1970s, Benn had shifted to the hard left of the Labour party.
Tony Benn speaking in Parliament following the removal of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by her own party discussing Thatcherism and the rotten ideology of the Tory government under Thatcher:
Whilst a very eloquent speech (he was an incredibly eloquent speaker), he was wrong in his conclusion about the abandonment of Thatcherism with her removal, not only did it survive in the Tory party, but it spread to his own Labour Party.
Benn essentially lost the struggle for socialism in Labour Party. Benn was a founding member of the Socialist Campaign Group, Bennism was the far left of labour. Never a Marxist, he was a hard-left social democrat. Bennism, a movement of political and economic principles centred around a programme of nationalisation, strong support for militant trade unionism and a fervent belief in democracy and democratisation of the political system. Supporting radical democracy, supporting the rights of oppressed groups, they successfully created black and women’s section in the Labour Party. The loss of three struggles in the Labour Party destroyed Bennism: 1) his defeat in 1981 for Deputy Secretary of the Labour Party; 2) the 1983 election of Neil Kinnock as Labour Leader; and 3) the defeat of the Miner’s strike of 1984-5.
One question that many have asked over the years was why didn’t Bennism survive? Here is Dave Kellaway‘s response:
Why didn’t the Benn current evolve into something more permanent either inside or outside (or both) the Labour party? On the one hand you had the continued defeats of working people under Thatcher’s offensive coupled with her election victories – made easier by the Falklands War and the rightwing split from labour. On the other hand you had the rise of New Labour, started under Kinnock and consummated by Blair. New Labour meant rule changes and direct expulsion of the Militant, so it became very difficult for the left to organise inside the party. Conference used to be a real opportunity to put forward some sort of socialist opposition and actually win significant support for it.
The other weakness in the Bennite current was the way it replicated the traditional division in the British labour movement between the industrial and political wings. Benn and his allies never really organised a class struggle current inside the unions, relying on alliances with ‘left’ leaders. For these reasons despite having the potential for developing into a mass class struggle current, Bennism died with a whimper rather than a bang. In the end there was a need for the leadership of the current to break with Labourism and start to build a political alternative to Kinnock/Blair. Benn’s strong commitment to Labour never really wavered so this was not going to happen (http://leftunity.org/benn-and-bennism/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=benn-and-bennism).”
The hard Labour left lost to Neil Kinnock and then the purge of the hard left that held an entryist position into the Labour Party began in 1983. The Labour Party moved from social democracy to liberalism to neoliberalism under Tony Blair. Benn never thought of leaving the Labour party, he was born into the Labour Party and died as a member of a party that abandoned the principles upon which it was founded.
Upon retiring from Parliament, Tony Benn said that being a member of parliament interfered with his actually doing politics and devoted the rest of his life to chronicling his years in parliament and participating in movements, speaking at demonstrations and events. His work included Stop the War coalition (he was the President), the Coalition of Resistance and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. A welcome and regular figure at demos, rallies, at conferences, at events. In an interview, he said that he tried to do 4-5 meetings a week as his way of contributing.
Speaking at a demonstration in Manchester calling for Britain to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan as the President of the Stop the War Coalition:
In his final speech to the House of Commons as an MP, Tony Benn said the following:
In the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person–Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates–ask them five questions: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”
Tony Benn speaks out against capitalism outside St. Paul’s cathedral as part of the Occupy London event. Saturday 9th November 2011.
Following Bob Crow’s death, a series of tributes were placed in the London Underground by RMT members, this is my favourite and it applies as much to the death of 52 year old Bob Crow as to that of 88 year old, Tony Benn:
It says “Fear of death follows fear of life. A man who lives life fully, is prepared to die at anytime” (Mark Twain) Rest in Peace Robert Crow (13/06/61-11/3/2014)