Arguably the greatest Russian composer of the 20th century, Dimitri Shostakovich, was once asked which of his musical compositions he loved the most. His reply was that he loved all of the music he composed – otherwise he would not have composed it and brought it to musical fruition!
He believed that all of the music he conceived needed to be written and to be heard – from the patriotic response to the 1905 October Revolution (2nd symphony), to that which expressed his hostility to the Soviet regime (5th symphony); from his view of the horror and destruction of the siege of Leningrad (7th symphony), to his autobiographical 8th string quartet, which was subtitled “To the victims of fascism and war”.
Dimitri Shostakovich could be described as a “conviction” composer of a range of music that included jazz, ballet, classical and more modernist compositions. He wrote music that expressed his emotions, beliefs and life commitments. He had a firm grasp of what he wished his music to say and the direction in which he wanted it to go.
I have joined in the lament at the recent death of Anthony Neil Wedgwood “Tony” Benn (1925-2014). Tony Benn was a British Labour Party politician who was a Member of Parliament for 50 years and a cabinet minister under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. He was described in one newspaper editorial as being “one of the most charismatic, most controversial, most inspirational and most divisive public figures in the second half of the 20th century”.
I listened with great interest in, and growing admiration for, what Tony Benn said – especially in his later years when he became something of a travelling guru, appearing on stage and in the television studio. He will always be remembered. Probably his most valuable legacy, however, will be the diaries he wrote – to which he made a written contribution every day whilst in public office. My memories will also include what I most admired about him. He was a “conviction” politician.
In the same way that Shostakovich composed music that expressed his beliefs, emotions and commitments, so Tony Benn’s personal convictions were expressed in his politics and public life. His politics were always within the traditions of the British Labour Party’s left-right divisions and were a development of a trade union-socialist position. Of particular note was the fact that he was anti-nuclear and anti-American and he positioned himself “against a more outward-looking, modernizing centrism” within the Labour movement.
In some ways Tony Benn could be regarded as a “champion of lost causes”. He certainly saw things differently to many others. Personally speaking, as someone who attracted a reputation of this kind at various times in my life, I would happily stand alongside Tony Benn. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that his are the giant shoulders on which I would gladly stand (with appropriate apologies to Stephen Hawking).
It has been said that conviction politicians are so rare and are appreciated so much nowadays that they are accepted, warts and all. Yet Tony Benn was demonized during his life and, in death, much of what is being said is patronizing – as if he is still a challenge, a threat, to the status quo.
A major concern of Tony Benn’s commitment to politics caused him to ask a recurring question: “Why did Labour in power fail to live up to its ambitions, and what mechanisms could ensure a better outcome in future”. He was an activist who believed in the “inherent radicalism” of the ordinary person. So, he campaigned to bring popular pressure against established power, in such areas as British membership of the EU – of which he was against, and, within his own party, he campaigned for reselection of MPs and the electoral college for party leadership elections.
There is no doubt that he was divisive. It is impossible to be a conviction politician, or a conviction composer, without dividing opinion. Shostakovich’s music was not admired by everyone, even apart from the guardians of the USSR. Benn’s politics wrought a modicum of havoc within his own party. One contemporary right-wing member of the Labour Party, Gerald Kaufman, said that the one-time left-wing manifesto drawn-up by Benn was “the longest suicide note in history”.
Mindful of Dimitri Shostakovich and his distinctive blend of music during the Soviet age, as well as Tony Benn and his somewhat unique brand of politics in the second half of the 20th century, it is useful to reflect on the idea that “making the state a religion while using the powers of the state to shape its citizens according to consensus politics is neither the product of love or justice” (anon). It is, rather, the product of a mind given over to authoritarian beliefs which always end up eventually at fascism. The contemporary British state needs to be mindful of this. In the Soviet Union of his day, Dimitri Shostakovich was so mindful. as was Tony Benn in the UK.
Perhaps one of my favourite lines from all the obituaries written about Tony Benn is this: “Like his Puritan heroes, Tony Benn belongs in the great tradition of English revolutionaries – a passionate radical destined to be loved in popular memory for his defence of democracy and freedom, and whose passing leaves the political world a smaller place”.
I like that. Amen.