Dreams of a socialist paradise

“Socialism died this week not once but twice,” says Tim Stanley on Telegraph.co.uk: first with the death of working-class union leader Bob Crow, and then with that of “aristocratic firebrand” Tony Benn.

Their dream – “that the economy should run on the basis of need, not profit; that power should be in the hands of the many, not the few” – was beautiful. But it was just a dream.

Benn thought “paradise” could be built from Whitehall by nationalising companies and taxing the rich, but the 1970s Labour government failed to be a better manager than the free market. Instead, it fuelled inflation. “Benn became shorthand for everything Britain risked” if it voted Labour again.

Eventually he became a cultural icon because his politics were “irrelevant” and he could still be admired as a patriot and genial diarist. Crow, active much later, “embodied the spirit” of 1970s militant trade unionism.

Benn and Crow were “demonised in life and… patronised in death”, says Owen Jones in The Guardian. Obituaries “suggest (or hope)” that the left died with them. But they believed social change hinged on collective action, not on individuals. And on many issues, voters are “to the left of the Labour leadership, let alone the political establishment”.

Benn’s death certainly represents an opportunity for Labour, says Stephen Bush on Newstatesman.com. The founding “myth” of New Labour was that it represented the first time the party had been “anything other than an economically incontinent and ideologically crazed rabble”. This gave rise to an “illusion of Old Labour purity”, embodied in Benn’s refusal to compromise.

But the tendency of the party’s left to say “no to everything” has left Labour starved of ideas. Four years ago, Ed Miliband’s election as leader “buried New Labour”; Benn’s death gives the left a chance to “do the same to the Old” and re-embrace compromise.

Benn “was only latterly a favourite socialist uncle: more importantly he was a poisonous force for insanity in his party”, says Matthew Parris in The Times. Crow was “a Luddite”. Their deaths raise a question: why are “so many moderate Britons… reluctant to say what we really think about the dead icons of the left”?

Neither Benn nor Crow would “dissemble about people they thought bad for our country” – Crow publicly hoped the late Margaret Thatcher would rot in hell. Yet figures of the British left have been lionised in the last century. “In failing to challenge these uncritical legacies, we’ve allowed myths to take shape that make a sensible reading of history harder to explain to younger generations.”

Benn and Crow were both “wrongheaded men who would have dragged Britain on to the rocks if they could”. Death shouldn’t make us hold back “from putting the boot in to these people’s malignant legacy”.

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