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Obituaries: Bob Crow and Tony Benn

They stood out because the other “workers leaders” had stepped back

Eddie McLaughlin

23 March 2014

Bob Crow will be sincerely missed by working class activists everywhere but his departure has also been marked by a deluge of crocodile tears. Boris Johnson, who not so long ago was calling him ‘demented’ and refusing to talk to him joined the chorus of hypocritical regret, but through the chorus of regret can be heard the bitter grudging mutterings of the bourgeoisie; “dinosaur”, “last of his kind”, “hated by commuters… but loved by his members”, … weasel words!

Bob Crow personified two things. He represented the basic standard required of a trade union leader, that he would fight for his members interests. Bob did this with gusto and impressed his membership in the process putting them in the recognised position as the last organised workforce in London with decent rates of pay and decent conditions. Not another existing trade union leader comes near his record in this regard and it is that which marks him out from his fellow trade union leaders. In the run up to the London Olympics, in the midst of a jingoistic haze, Bob did not shy away from confronting Johnson and the bosses, promising them a determined stoppage and winning substantial bonuses and overtime payments for train staff in the process. In the face of a general assault on final salary pensions he managed to get Network Rail to reintroduce a final salary scheme.

The reason the bosses gave way was because they knew he wasn’t bluffing. This was due to the accumulated cultural capital of previous strikes and stoppages and the corollary of this, a confident workforce well practiced in the art of industrial action. This is the point missed, or more likely ignored by the prosaic leadership of the labour bureaucracy when they compile data, analyse the economic ‘realities’, consider the ‘national interest’, and lastly consider how to convince their own members that they are doing something useful while at the same time avoiding a confrontation with employers who are brimming with the confidence that comes from knowing that the opposition has no fight in them. 

Bob Crow, alone, represented among the union leadership a tradition of class struggle. The leadership of the trade union movement who have for decades kept a cap on their members expectations, content to collect their salaries and remain dormant, do not realise the extent to which they stood in stark relief to that tradition. The leaders who have abstracted themselves from that “old fashioned” tradition of class antagonism and feel themselves intellectually superior because they understand and appreciate the employers’ position appear to the bosses negotiating teams as paper tigers, as weak, devoid of any root in actual class struggle.  The RMT may have been in a better bargaining position than many groups of workers but under Bob’s leadership it was clear that they would fight, and the employers knew it. This was the reason Bob stood out, because he had the courage to play a traditional trade unionist’s role when all the rest had moved so far to the right. He stood out because the rest had stood back.

Bob’s willingness to take on the employers and fight, making himself unpopular with the bosses and the right wing press, did the RMT no harm at all. His tenure in the leadership position saw RMT membership jump from 57,000 to more than 80,000 and perhaps the most pointed legacy he can leave the trade union movement is the knowledge that this growth was due to a tradition of struggle, not the one of compliance and passivity that is generally peddled as a ‘responsible’ defence of trade unionism. The simple truth that lies at the bottom of his popularity is summed up in his attitude to the capitalist crisis; 

“It wasn’t our members who created the downturn and we will not be bullied into accepting that they should be forced to pay for an economic crisis that was cooked up by the bankers and the politicians.” 

This unequivocal position alone placed Bob far ahead of the entire Irish Trade Union leadership and a substantial proportion of our political ‘Left’.

Bob was closely followed by Tony Benn, a determined defender of the idea of socialism, or at least the parliamentary version of it. In his later years he never stopped campaigning when it would undoubtedly have been more comfortable to sit by his own fireside.  Again he stood out for activities and policies that would once have been routine for left social democrats but are now almost unknown in the world of new labour. Tony Benn represented what was best about the English liberal left; principled in discarding his title but tied hand and foot to what Marx and Lenin described as ‘parliamentary idiocy’ – that is believing that the institutions of the capitalist state can be used to oversee a transition to socialism.  If Bob Crow represented the limits of what a radical leftist can do as a strong individualist entering a bureaucracy then Tony Benn represented the limits of a parliamentary road to socialism. 

Principled and determined within the confines of their own ideology, their efforts deserve the respect of all class fighters.  However their memory is best served by recognizing the weaknesses of individualistic approaches and the flaws in their perspectives trapped within trade unionism and the limited role within the structures of parliament and advancing a struggle to build a revolutionary party of the working class and a mass movement, based on a vibrant workers democracy and the rank and file workers they both were keen to represent.


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