The left in Britain lost two of its greatest figures last week. We need to move past the hypocritical obituaries and think about what we can learn from these two great men, that advocated that collective action is the only way to defend the rights of workers and that change occurs only from below.
The first loss was Bob Crow, the union leader of the most successful union in Britain, the RMT. Hypocrites of all sides, notably, of course, Tories, paid tributes to Bob for “defending the interests of his members.” They deliberately omitted to mention that the union he lead was successful because it stood up to the interests of neo-liberals of both sides of the Commons. Crow busted the myth that unions have no place in modern societies. He praised, above all, collective action—as long as workers organise, they can regain or retain their bargaining power; necessary for the fight for humane working conditions and a decent standard of living.
I disagreed with a lot of Bob Crow’s political views, especially his take on immigration and the EU. This is not relevant now. He should be celebrated for standing up to the bosses and for demonstrating that when workers organise, they can score great victories. The apathy and pessimism, as well as the negative predisposition against trade unions, are gimmicks that sustain the existing power relations where, as Owen Jones aptly put it, workers have to work hard to earn their poverty.
Another great socialist, Tony Benn, a labour politician and veteran parliamentarian, died last week. Benn opposed the imperialist wars of the New Labour government, criticised the privatisation of natural monopolies, succeeded in campaigning against hereditary rights in the House of Lords, attacked the undemocratic Royal prerogative, promoted diversity, and campaigned for the nationalisation of banks, claiming that bankers should not be trusted for if they are, they will do the same all over again.
The way the media and the political establishment treated Benn in the later part of his life, is indicative of their hypocrisy. Whilst in office he was attacked by his own comrades inside the Labour party and, of course, by the Tories. When he retired and he was no longer perceived as a direct threat to their interests, he was reincarnated into a “national treasure” celebrated by both. Even Louise Mensch, the ultra conservative former MP has written an obituary about Benn. According to Mensch, Benn was admirable because he was true to his convictions, he respected Thatcher, drank tea and smoked a pipe; a particularly English vice, she tells us.
Tony Benn should be celebrated for his contribution to the anti-war movement and for trying to keep the Labour Party to the left of the political spectrum. His opposition to the marketisation of politics, his attempt to keep Labour faithful to the working classes and his constant vigilance against the erosion of democracy by big corporations and European unelected elites, is something to be remembered, highlighted and celebrated. During an interview with Al Jazeera, Benn remarked that he would be content if his words and actions encouraged young people. And he did — he defended democracy and equality in an eloquent manner that captivated his audiences, always bringing up matters-taboo for the political establishment. The packed amphitheaters during his talks, speak for themselves.
We might have lost a lot in the past week, but there are lessons to be learned by these great men. That the people have the power to instigate change from below and that collective action is the only weapon that the workers have against the bosses and the politicians that serve their interests.