This past month has seen the passing of two icons of the British left, demagogues whose antics have been widely celebrated beyond as well as within the circle of revolutionary Marxism. The mortal remains of one, the former Labour MP, Comrade Tony Benn, will have actually lain in state in the chapel of St Mary Undercroft. Benn has thus become only the second politician (after Maggie Thatcher) to be so honoured – a privilege granted by the Queen. Had Benn had his way there would have been no monarch to bestow such a tribute.
Meanwhile, the funeral has taken place of Comrade Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union and a former member of the Communist Party.
Although Crow’s funeral was advertised as private (in accordance with the wishes of the family), many trade unionists and fellow-travellers lined its route, thereby turning it into a public spectacle. Like Benn, Crow was a vocal republican; he is on record as having called specifically for Benn to become president of a post-monarchist British state, claiming that
Benn was a “true representative of working people.”
Crow and Benn were certainly comrades in arms. And while they did not agree about everything (Crow supported the death penalty, which Benn did not, for instance), they did see eye to eye on two matters: the virtues of Stalinism and the vices of the state of Israel. Their careers constitute an object lesson for those wishing to understand how it is possible for socialism and anti-Zionism to coalesce, and live happily together.
Benn – whom Labour prime minister Harold Wilson shrewdly characterised as someone who “immatures with age” – began his political career as an apparent supporter of Israel, but ended by calling for its dissolution. How else are we to interpret his comparison of Israeli policy in Judea and Samaria to a holocaust, his patronage of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and his demand (2011) that “we have to dissolve Zionism?”
Crow was also a PSC patron, which is why the glowing tribute paid to him by the Trade Union Friends of Israel struck me as particularly shocking. As well as reproaching Israel as a racist state, the PSC condemns its “Zionist nature” and campaigns for its disappearance. Little wonder, therefore, that on November 24, 2012, Crow should have used his position as RMT leader to advertise a PSC demonstration against Israel. Or that he should have signed a Guardian letter (May 27, 2013) demanding that the Union of European Football Associations ban Israel from hosting the European Under-21 football championship.
It is tempting to excuse Benn and Crow as curious (even endearing) throwbacks to a past that is now dead. Benn’s public life was in large measure one of failure. True, by renouncing his hereditary peerage he struck a blow against the unelected House of Lords, which has no place in a polity claiming to be democratic.
But as a Labour politician his ambition (aptly summarised by Matthew Parris in The Times as an attempt “to turn Labour into some kind of East European socialist party”) was completely misplaced, paving the way for Thatcherism and condemning his party to 18 years in the political wilderness.
As for Crow, he certainly served the interests of his union, quadrupling its membership and negotiating above-inflation salaries for its members. But he did this by resorting to the crude tactics of a latter-day Luddite bully-boy. His victories were achieved exclusively through heaping misery on others — I mean the commuters who suffered grievously just so that he could justify his salary of £145,000 per annum whilst living in a council property at a subsidised rent.
I am far from arguing that the anti-Zionism displayed by Crow and Benn was central to their political philosophy. But it was an important component, one that is now virtually obligatory for anyone claiming a seat on the hard Left. My own MP, Grahame Morris (Easington), chair of the Labour Friends of Palestine, is of this ilk. Last month I asked the Easington Labour Party how best it might serve the interests of its Jewish constituents. I was told that “due to pressure of business … it will not be possible to discuss this issue.” I rest my case.