The first time I met Tony Benn was years ago at the WBAI Pacifica radio station in New York. We were both being simultaneously interviewed about the events of the day. He was delighted to be able to speak his mind and share his progressive views with mine on the radio. “There’s much more freedom of speech in the U.S. than in the U.K.,” he remarked to me. “Not that much more,” I said. That was the closest we came to a disagreement.
Later that evening, before a large symposium audience, we both spoke (along with one or two other guests) about “Fascism, Past and Present.” I also remember that sometime along the way he expressed his doubts to me about Tony Blair who was taking the Labor Party ever rightward under a banner called “New Labor,” away from socialism and ever closer toward the moneyed oligarchs. Blair and his coterie were being endorsed and funded by Rupert Murdock, the reactionary media tycoon. Murdock understood that there was no reason to own just one political party when you could own both. Blair was for sale. Benn was not.
Benn was one of those rare political leaders who become more progressive rather than less after occupying public office for many decades. Having served in Parliament for fifty years, Benn decided not to run for office in 2001, claiming that he was leaving Parliament “in order to spend more time on politics.” And so he did, working with a number of protest organizations.
The next and last time I met Benn was at a Marxist conference in London about six years after New York. I gave a plenary about my newly minted book, The Assassination of Julius Caesar. He appeared on a panel the next day. I met him in the hall between scheduled events and reintroduced myself as the individual who had shared an interview with him on WBAI in New York some years ago. Ever the gentleman, he pretended that he remembered who I was (he didn’t). But we had a pleasant exchange.
An outspoken champion of social justice and social democracy, Tony Benn also was a man who was easy to like and respect. Along with his principled politics and his omnipresent pipe, he showed a kindly regard for others. His bright and humane politics were his trademark.
In a decent world, Tony Benn would have been prime minister, using power in a democratic way to build the popular spirit and move toward a better society. In these worst of times, he did as much as he could. He was special, decent, and progressive. He died today (14 March 2014) at the age of 88. I miss him already.
Michael Parenti is an award winning, internationally known author. His two most recent books are The Face of Imperialism (a critique of the U.S. global empire; 2011) and Waiting for Yesterday: Pages from a Street Kid’s Life (an ethnic memoir about his early life in Italian Harlem; 2013). For further information about his work, visit his website: www.michaelparenti.org.
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