Socialism’s Legacy, Socialism’s Future

Against the Current, No. 28, September/October 1990

Tony Benn

The following is an excerpt from Tony Benn’s lecture in Cincinnati:

What we are seeing in Eastern Europe now — and I think it is only beginning — will provide a test for the theory that market forces represent the answer to its problems, because, of course, the social cost of market forces is going to be enormous. Lech Walesa came to London recently and gave a lecture at the Institute of Directors – what I think you would call the National Association of Manufacturers — and his face appeared on the cover of their magazine. Underneath that face it said, ‘Our reforms are your profits.” He was saying, cheap Polish labour for Western capital to exploit.

I think there is no doubt whatever that the development of that type of economy in Eastern Europe will involve its re-colonization by Western capital. Chancellor Kohl virtually bought the East German elections by offering one Deutschmark for one Deutschmark – one for one – which was an irresistible offer for people in the GDR.

There is a distinguished right-wing professor in Britain with whom I discussed this matter on television the other day. He said that what they need in Eastern Europe is General Pinochet. And I can see circumstances where in order to enforce capitalism in Eastern Europe, you will need the toughness of a military machine to see that it is taken on board. Because, don’t forget, whatever the political crimes and errors that may have been committed in the Eastern European countries, the social provision there was at a very much higher standard than it is in Britain.

Every child who was born in East Germany, for example, had proper crèche facilities and proper health facilities. These are going to have to be sacrificed if you’re going to move to a market economy. And there is a certain type of what you might call a Time or Newsweek view of democracy claiming that when the first McDonald’s opens in Moscow, it will prove that freedom has finally arrived.

The effect of all of this is going to be quite considerable on Western economies. We have a huge balance of payments deficit. I know the United States is the biggest debtor country in the world and that the debt is covered in part by inward investment and soon. We have a 20 billion pound deficit, which is $35 billion, the biggest we’ve ever had, and it’s covered now by Japanese and German inward investment But, of course, the Japanese and Germans are not going to put money into Britain when you can get cheap labour in Romania, cheap labour in Hungary, cheap labour in Poland. So don’t underestimate the economic effect of this on the stability of the West.

Now I think there is another angle of this that needs to be mentioned and I know that some Third World countries are worried about it: Could not this tremendous concentration on building bridges between East and West Europe be interpreted by some as an attempt to correct the damage done to Europe in two world wars when Europeans fought each other, thereby re-establishing European ascendancy in the world? With all this emphasis on putting money into Eastern Europe, what about Third World countries? What’s going to happen now to them?

I know some people, like our first Black member of parliament (we’ve got four now), feel this way. He sees in this a Eurocentrism that is actually an attempt to recreate European dominance in respect to China, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

I put this in your mind because I think it’s something that needs to be reconsidered. Unquestionably, if you look at the world as a whole and not just at the United States domestically or at Europe domestically, there are pressing demands that cannot possibly be pushed to one side: for development, for social justice, for planning of the world’s resources, for greater equality – a challenge to imperialism. And in Latin America I would be surprised if there wasn’t increasing pressure for greater freedom from control by Washington. I have long believed that the American Empire is in decline, and I know how painful that can be because I’ve lived in a declining empire myself.

Now, may I just finish by asking whether out of this rapidly changing situation it’s possible to identify any elements of what you might call a philosophy or vision for the future. The general view among the triumphalist Western press is that socialism is dead, that it is inevitably repressive in character, and that therefore we have got to look forward to a post-socialist, post-Marxist world where everything will be conditioned by what you might call the principles of liberal capitalism.

I must say that when I look back on history, it seems to me that every economic and political and religious system has led to repression it is not confined to the Stalin period … Feudalism was repressive; capitalism has been enormously repressive. We had no political democracy in the 19th century in Britain, during our industrial revolution. In 1832, which is less than a hundred years before I was born, only two percent of the population had the vote: they were all men, and they were all rich, and, of course, they were all white.

So this idea that there is something uniquely repressive in socialism is quite wrong. Imperialism is quite repressive. And of course, to be fair, religion has been very repressive throughout the world, from the Inquisition through to the fundamentalist regimes in the Islamic republics. So let’s dismiss from our minds the thought that the ideas of socialism are of themselves different in character and repressive in nature. It simply isn’t true.

September-October 1990, ATC 28

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