“Wicked Or Merely Stupid?” Tony Benn and the Orwell Question

His father was a lord. He is married to a wealthy woman. But Tony Benn is by no means a typical British aristocrat.

Illustration: Fred Otnes

George Orwell once remarked that “whether the British ruling class are wicked or merely stupid is one of the most difficult questions of our time, and at certain moments a very important question.” One might have to amend that by a few degrees of emphasis in 1981. It is no longer, in this post-imperial epoch, quite such an urgent matter. For all that, Britain does present certain points of interest, and there are lessons to be learned from the British crisis by other developed countries. The core of it can be stated fairly simply. Britain, the first mature capitalist system and the one on which Marx and Engels cut their teeth, is gradually ceasing to become a producing country. It has become the world’s first moribund industrial society. This means that it faces problems that have no historical precedent. And it faces them with an astonishingly antiquated and incompetent set of institutions—exemplified by the pomp and toadying of the royal wedding earlier this year. Unemployment stands at nearly three million: there is war in Ireland; the cities are on fire; the pound sterling has become a joke: productivity is at prewar levels, and all eyes turn to the throne for salvation. In a country like this it is not surprising, and may even be necessary, that the new leader of the Left is a member of the aristocracy.

Parliament member Tony Benn and the new left-wing movement within the Labour party that has become associated with his name are the products of three separate but related things. The first is the rise of an enormous mass of unemployed, a result of Britain’s collapse as a manufacturing nation. The second is the experience, in the same period, of two very cautious and disappointing Labour administrations. The third is the decision by the Conservative party to recognize the deep nature of the crisis, to seize the initiative from the compromised Labour party and to instigate a regime of unashamed Toryism behind a façade of military and national fervor.

He is portrayed
as a megalomaniacal individual;
the chieftain of a
radical horde that
is bent on taking
over the Labour
party and turning
Britain into a
gray, Orwellian

Some background is, I’m afraid, necessary. The briefest way in which it can he supplied is this. For many years protected by imperial trade advantages and cushioned by having been first in the Industrial Revolution field, Britain’s economy is now very run-down and based on outmoded plants and machinery. The protection, meanwhile, has been stripped away. Powerful competitors, such as Germany, Japan and the United States, are now in the field. Only considerable reinvestment can salvage the system, and that has not been forthcoming. British capital has been either invested in overseas markets or used on quick-return speculative ventures at home. The only sure way to make money in Britain now is to lend it; the profit margin on investment is too low to tempt our lazy bourgeoisie.

There is another solution, and Margaret Thatcher has decided to try it. It consists quite simply of forcing the working class and Labour to give up the gains they have made in the past 30 or 40 years. This explains the tremendous surge in unemployment and in bankruptcy. It is designed to discipline the labor force and restore a competitive edge to British industry. It shows not the least sign of doing that: business would not respond to tax cuts when Labour was in power, and it shows no willingness to do so today (memo to Reagan). But it has meant the reemergence of ideological politics in Britain and the breakup of the old center-left consensus, which was based on an all-party commitment to welfare and full employment.

Not unlike the Democratic party since the New Deal, the British Labour party has been a coalition of the unions, the more liberal-minded professional classes, and sections of the intelligentsia. In the past few years a fourth similarity has emerged, because the Asian and West Indian immigrants who settled in Britain since the war have identified their fortunes almost exclusively with Labour, as did Jewish and Irish immigrants before them. These kinds of coalitions work fairly well in good times, when there is something left over for Welfarism. But they are subject to intense strain during lean periods, most especially when Labour is in power. One of the most shocking facts about the Thatcher victory was that it was made possible by large working-class defection. To many people, Labour had ceased to be the party of the working man and woman. Why not, in that case, vote for a tax break? (American readers may find much of this familiar.)

This means that Labour rank-and-file activists, who are normally the soul of loyalty, have begun to revolt. They now wish to secure for themselves a say in how the leadership and the program of the party is decided. In doing so, they have driven out a group of “Social Democrats,” representing the old-guard right-wingers of the party, who address themselves mainly to the middle-class voters repelled by Thatcherism and its dire consequences for small enterprises. There are quite a number of these disenchanted voters, and since the newly formed Social Democratic party has established an electoral pact with the Liberal party, there may be a large centrist bloc available to ward off the Left when Thatcherism fails.

I don’t want to sound like a deterministic Marxist, reducing every political battle or ideological contest to a matter of economics. But something of the desperation of the British economy must be understood if an analysis is to make any sense. The dominant term in the British equation is class. The Victorian Conservative reformer Disraeli once said that the country contained two nations—the rich and the poor. Today, this disparity is just as apparent. The ranks of the poor have been reinforced by a new underclass of the permanently unemployed, mainly young and disproportionately black, who have been consigned to the bottom of the heap and who can expect little help even from those with union cards. At the top is the no-less-permanent elite, who, despite all the upheavals of this century in the rest of Europe, continue to govern the United Kingdom whichever party is in power. It is from within this latter group that Tony Benn has emerged to make his challenge.

Benn’s father was Lord Stansgate, a viscount who had served with mild distinction in Liberal and Labour governments between the wars. Lord Stansgate, who was at one point secretary for India, was sufficiently well connected to ensure his son a good start in political life and to help him find a parliamentary seat with a reliable Labour electorate. The name by which the son became known in public life, and by which he was known until recently, was Anthony Wedgwood Benn.

The event that first drew him to public attention was his father’s death, because it automatically made him Lord Stansgate. Which, in turn, automatically meant that he had to leave the House of Commons and abandon any hope of a political career. (In Britain, members of the nobility are not even allowed to vote.) Outraged by this, Benn proposed a law allowing heirs to disown and renounce their father’s titles. After a long legal and constitutional battle, the law was passed and young Wedgwood Benn stood again for his old seat—and won it back. This may seem nothing more than another quaint British anecdote, but it did give Benn his first taste of the encrusted and backward nature of the class system and the way in which it operates against the democratic process. He is, today, the only senior Labour politician who calls openly for the abolition of the House of Lords—Britain’s scarcely believable, hereditary second chamber—which can exercise veto power over legislation and which is one of the chief instruments of political patronage in the country. It is a stand that has won him considerable respect in a country where upper-class radicals are famous for having their privileges and criticizing them.

It has also brought him considerable hatred and scorn. Benn is regarded as a traitor by the rest of the Establishment and is loathed far more than the usual Labour leader. The Bible of our “upper crust” (once fittingly described as “a load of crumbs held together by dough”) is the annual Who’s Who. Benn first deleted from his entry all mention of his birth and parentage and his education at the exclusive Westminster School in central London and at New College, Oxford; then dropped out of the book entirely. He also stopped using Wedgwood day to day and changed Anthony to the more plebeian Tony. This may seem rather affected, but in a country as thickly coated with snobbery as Britain the importance of such symbolic gestures is considerable.

New faces, same movement: the Cruise missile decision has set off a new wave of Ban the Bomb” protests in Britain, a crusade in which Benn has long been involved.

The United Kingdom is relatively small. Its full-time governing class is quite closely knit, with a strong sense of its own solidarity and history and with very few factional rivalries. It has an unusual capacity to reproduce itself, to make sure that its children are educated apart from the rest of the population and to make sure that these children inherit the jobs and positions they are thought to deserve. Of the Conservative members of Parliament, for instance, almost one-fifth attended the very same school—Eton—which the British call “public” because it is so very private and exclusive. Armed with the power of patronage—the ability to distribute honors endorsed by the queen and jobs in key positions—a British government can manipulate and bribe on a huge scale.

This has been especially true of Labour party administrations, which are often more easily impressed by the trappings of office and splendor because they are less familiar with them. And in Britain, Parliament has almost no role in checking the executive branch. Judges, heads of the diplomatic service, or Foreign Office and senior bureaucrats of all kinds are appointed by the prime minister without any confirmation. The names of many of them, such as the head of the Secret Services, cannot even be legally divulged. An Official Secrets Act covers all manner of disclosure and punishes any discussion of the workings of state institutions. As a result, the executive branch has become almost impervious to the legislature and very few large decisions are made in Parliament anymore.

It is this that has fueled the Labour activists’ drive to democratize the political system and to have more direct control over their elected representatives. And it is that that has given Benn his chance to lead. As a man who has been a member of several Labour cabinets, holding important portfolios, he can testify from the inside—and has—on the way that decisions are arrived at in Britain. Indeed it is this, he says, that has moved him to the left in the past few years.

In private, Benn is fond of saying that his enemies do not fear him for being a Socialist. They fear him for being a democrat, for being an exponent of “open government” and a champion of the rights of Parliament.

When he was minister for energy in 1976, a waste silo at Britain’s largest nuclear reactor developed cracks and leaked radioactivity into the environs. Benn was battling at the time to discontinue the country’s nuclear program, which a knife-edge majority of the cabinet continued to support. His civil servants kept from him, until well after a crucial cabinet meeting, the news they had received from inspectors at the Windscale reactor. He learned about it only from the newspapers, when it was too late. Such experiences can be deeply educational.

In Britain the national press is very highly conglomerated and very widely distributed. Fleet Street dominates the reading habits of Londoners and non-Londoners alike. And Fleet Street, with its nine morning papers (and one evening), is owned by three or four conservative families and businesses. Never friendly to Labour, they have become hysterical about Tony Benn.

He is portrayed routinely as a mentally unstable and megalomaniacal individual, the chieftain of a horde of Trotskyists who are bent on seizing control of the Labour party and turning Britain into a gray, Orwellian tyranny. This propaganda, which is echoed by much of radio and television, has had a considerable effect on Labour voters as well. Many Labour leaders and organizers fear that if Benn became leader, the party would never win another election. His reply to this is twofold.

First, Benn points out, the previous Labour governments were a disappointment to their own supporters. They were voted out not because of Tory and media hostility, but because they could not generate enthusiasm and because they surrendered, once in office, to the International Monetary Fund and the civil service. Benn accuses those forces of having consciously sabotaged plans for industrial democracy and economic planning when he was a minister and of “destabilizing” reformist programs by cutting off investment and squeezing the pound on the international market. Therefore—and this is his second point—the root problem with Labour’s strategy is not too much advocacy of socialism and decentralization, but too little.

This last point is most important. Conventionally, Britain and its fairly conservative electorate have only turned to the Labour party in times of crisis, such as the immediate postwar period. In times of crisis, Labour prime ministers tend to move very cautiously. They warn their voters and activists that the New Jerusalem may have to wait while urgent repairs are carried out on the existing structure. They postpone policies of redistribution and emancipation to better days. When the better days come, the electorate votes Tory again, and Labour becomes psychologically identified with austerity and instability. This three-card trick has discredited and trapped the Left in Britain on three occasions since World War II.

The point about Benn is that he, alone of the senior Labour leadership, seems to have learned from the past. He has upset all the rules by claiming, as he did when the party was last in office, that “conditions of crisis are not an excuse for postponing Socialist and radical measures, but an occasion for implementing them.” This is the most profound heresy—and not just from the Conservative point of view. The union bosses who finance the Labour party and who greatly influence its direction are not in favor of all this talk about open government, radicalism, and accountability. They do not allow it in their own unions; they have always fought it in the party and they don’t greatly relish it in society either. With democracy, who would need them?

So it is an uphill fight, one in which Benn has had to take his allies where he could find them. This has mainly been among the unpaid volunteers who run the local party organizations. Many of these have been in the Labour party before, but left or were expelled during the febrile ’60s, when the Wilson government was supporting Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and colluding with Ian Smith in Rhodesia while reneging on its social program at home. Various efforts to build left-alternative parties have since failed. though not all of them have been abandoned. Still, a number of politically experienced people have returned to the fold, and Benn has been fairly receptive to their presence. All this is new; previous left-wing leaders in the House of Commons would have nothing to do with extraparliamentary activists or groups.

Even when he is not in earnest dialogue with a group of striking workers or a huddle of revolutionary activists, Benn cuts a somewhat incongruous figure. He dresses with extreme conventionality, lives in a large but not luxurious house in a fashionable part of town, smokes a pipe, never touches booze, and subsists almost entirely on junk food. He is married to a radical American woman of some means, the former Caroline Middleton De Camp of Cincinnati, and they have four children (all keen Socialists, unlike most of the offspring of Labour leaders). He never raises his voice in an argument; he travels when possible by public transport and often addresses three or four meetings a day (since he became the chief national crowd-puller, invitations easily outnumber acceptances). He is fond of using Christian morality and imagery in his speeches, stressing the socialist character of biblical teaching in a fashion that makes some of his supporters rather nervous. (He once nearly made me fall off my chair by saying that the Labour party and the state of Israel had a great deal in common—both being based on the principles of the Old Testament.) He is a patriot, an Englishman to the roots of his hair. And, like many such people, he accuses the ruling classes of being effete and soft while the sturdy common people shoulder the burden of upholding the nation.

“There is no need to feel pessimistic about this country,” Benn has declared. “It is only the upper echelons who are licked.” Benn has to try to reach a conservative population with radical ideas and he must therefore clothe these ideas where possible in nationalistic and populist garb. This is fine as far as it goes—Labour is always being accused of being unpatriotic. But it raises some serious problems of interpretation, of how well Benn and his strategy really fit the needs of the hour.

Perhaps the best way to assess Benn and the British crisis is to assemble an agenda and measure him against it. In order to transform a backward, conservative but developed society, or even to prevent it from becoming an underdeveloped one, it will be necessary to do at least the following:

  • to end the huge waste of labor and machinery that is the result of the current Tory attempt to break the bargaining power of the wage-earners, and to begin rebuilding the nation’s industry under the democratic control of those who do the work;
  • to recover the many democratic and political freedoms that have been raided from Parliament by the defense establishment, by the civil service, by the large state-owned corporations, and by the Foreign Office;
  • to break the unelected and unaccountable power of the still-potent monarchy, the aristocracy, and the public-school-and-patronage stratum, all held over from a previous epoch;
  • to make a civilized settlement with our Irish neighbors after more than 700 years of misrule and bad faith;
  • to check the growing power (much of it derived from the repression in Northern Ireland) of the political police, the armed forces, the surveillance squads, and other manifestations of a badly rattled Establishment;
  • to combat the growth of racism and the spread of overtly Nazi organizations and to prevent the use of black and brown people, both native and immigrant, as a future subproletariat;
  • to end the subordination of women in both the home and the labor market—an especially sharp feature of the present slump;
  • to remove Britain from the list of countries automatically associated with hawkish and adventuristic policies toward the Third World, most especially to snap the links that make us the greatest business partner of South Africa; and
  • to become the first country making and possessing nuclear weapons to renounce them.

This is a fearsome agenda by any standards. Nobody should think that I rank it in any special order, though the first point is the condition for all the others.

How does Benn shape up? On the first, economic renewal, his performance is uneven. Benn is committed to industrial democracy and workers’ self-management and has done much to keep the issue at the fore. His supporters are fond of telling this story. A few years ago, while he was minister for industry, the last factory making motorbikes in Britain was abruptly closed. The workers took it over and announced that they could make better models and market them themselves. Benn argued for public money to help the workers’ cooperative and on one occasion turned up unexpectedly and worked through the night with them on a new design.

But Benn’s approach to the larger problem of economic revival is misguided. He favors withdrawal from the European Common Market and a policy of protection and import restriction to save British industry. As in the quotation above, he speaks here for some of the Left, much of the Right, and large sections of business. The major defect of that position is that it assumes an outdated, “Britain alone” stance and has no perspective for cooperation with the growing European Left (which, though highly critical of the Common Market, favors increased European integration). There is a point at which patriotism, especially British patriotism, becomes petty chauvinism. Tony Benn is perilously near this point. He also ignores the fact that protectionism has historically and invariably been a conservative cause in Britain—the cry of the inefficient capitalist in the face of competition and the cry of the subsidized worker who wants to export unemployment to poorer countries.

On the second issue, of open government, Benn has an excellent record, as we have already seen. He has criticized his own conduct while in office. He has endorsed the right of workers to scrutinize company accounts. And he has called for Parliament to set up special investigative committees and vote itself the power to drag generals, bureaucrats, and bankers before them.

On the third, or what might be called the Republican question, he performs quite well. Like most Labour politicians, he does not dare call for the abolition of the monarchy. But he does lead the campaign to abolish the House of Lords and he was the author of the policy that Labour party members should not accept baubles and bribes from the Royal Honours List (screams, at this, from those nearing retirement who hoped for knighthoods and such). He would certainly put an end to fee-paying education, probably along the lines recommended by his wife, who has researched the issue for the Socialist Educational Association. Benn’s own children, incidentally, were all sent to state school, though because they live in a posh area of town, they went to Holland Park, which is thought to be the most fashionable one.

Benn was silent on Ireland for many years, as too many Labour leaders have been—perhaps because it was Labour who first sent the British army to Ireland in 1969, when he was in the cabinet. But in May 1981 he became the first national politician to break the two-party consensus on the issue. He called for British troops to be withdrawn and to be replaced by an international peacekeeping force if need be.

Benn has also stressed in public what has been obvious for some time—that the British state has been learning techniques of repression and police surveillance in Ulster and has been preparing and rehearsing to use them at home.

It is important to note that no British politician ever attacks the police or the army, especially when they are in action. By the same convention, Labour politicians do so even less, because they fear the accusation of disloyalty and treason that would follow.

On racism and racists Benn has always been better than average. He was a leading advocate of liberation for the colonies in Africa. He denounced our leading anti-black demagogue, Enoch Powell, as a potential Hitler several years ago. He did remain in a Labour administration that removed citizenship from Kenyan Asians but he has had the grace to apologize for the fact. And he has spoken in favor of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), a coalition of leftist organizations formed to combat the increasingly aggressive harassment of nonwhite and Jewish citizens. Since the ANL is not a “respectable” anti-racist outfit, this marks a certain commitment on his part.

On the matter of women’s liberation, Benn takes what might be called a “straight” view. His family was historically involved in women’s battle for the franchise, and he has always opposed any legal disability inflicted on grounds of sex. He gives the impression of seeing the issue as primarily a social one, to be solved in a context of general egalitarian reform. Like most of the British Left, he has little or no theoretical interest in feminism, which in any case is a much weaker force in Britain than it is in America. And he is, as I mentioned earlier, very much the happy family man.

On foreign policy, Benn has moved gradually to oppose the two-party orthodoxy. For many years, Britain’s policy has been one of “me too.” Whatever the White House and the Pentagon have done, Britain has followed. This was most noticeable over Vietnam and in Iran (where, for a time, support for the shah was more a British than an American passion). Lately, Thatcher’s government was the only European one to endorse without a murmur the whole rascally US State Department “White Paper” on El Salvador.

Thatcher has, if anything, outdone Reagan on pronouncements about the Soviet threat, and many of her associates and advisors on foreign policy, such as Robert Conquest and Robert Moss (coauthor of the infamous novel The Spike) have moved to the United States recently to take advantage of the new boom in hawkishness. On Africa, too, London and Washington have been moving closer to each other and closer to the apartheid regime. (Lord Carrington, Thatcher’s foreign secretary, was a senior director of a multinational firm engaged in extracting uranium from Namibia.)

For many years, Benn did not make any great show of opposition to that kind of “special relationship,” exemplified in former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s fatuous offer to John Kennedy that Britain play Greece to America’s Rome. He stayed in the government of Harold Wilson throughout the period of support for the Vietnam War. But more recently he has argued for Britain to take its place among the nonaligned nations. He has occasionally pointed to the example of Yugoslavia, though this has had as much to do with his opposition to the Common Market as with anything else. On South Africa, the great dirty secret of British capital, he has always been consistent and publicly criticized the last Labour government for engaging in a joint military exercise with the South African navy. (He has, however, been greatly criticized on the left for sponsoring, while he was minister for technology, a deal involving Namibian uranium for British reactors. He denies that the decision was his.)

On the last but not the least point, Benn has a following far outside the confines of the Labour party. Britain is the only country making and deploying nuclear weapons that has ever seriously discussed getting rid of them. This is because Britain has no case for an independent nuclear capacity and because the country’s doddering economy just cannot bear the cost. In the 1960s, at least until the Tet offensive, nuclear disarmament was the issue on the left and one that formed a plank of Labour’s victorious 1964 election manifesto (very quickly abandoned). Now the issue has revived again on a very large scale. The decision of the Tories to buy the huge and costly Trident system from the United States, together with their decision to allow Britain to become the main forward staging post for Cruise missiles, has brought a whole new generation into antinuclear activity.

Last year, during a demonstration in London of nearly 100,000 people against the bomb, Benn drew tumultuous applause for his stand against nuclear weapons. He was able to say with some truth that he had been opposed to them for a very long time. And he was able to add what many people forget: that a state possessing such weapons and the means to guard them has insulated a whole part of itself from democratic control. Thus, two themes of his philosophy—active neutralism and open government—became conveniently dovetailed. On this issue, at least, he probably commands majority support in Labour’s own ranks.

For Benn to get anywhere near implementing this stupendous program, he has to do three things. The first is to become leader of the Labour party. Under the rules of election voted through by his supporters, whereby trade union and constituency votes are to be counted as well as the votes of members of Parliament, he has a better chance of this now than he used to have. He will probably be defeated narrowly for the deputy leadership this autumn by the old right-wing hard-liner Denis Healey. But since he is about ten years younger than either Healey or the current leader, Michael Foot, he need not despair on this. The crisis within the Conservative government, as its Friedmanite policy collapses, is such that Benn’s immediate position among Labour followers can only get better.

The second objective is a more difficult one. He must be able to bring his own cadres and supporters into the leadership as well and he must avoid the isolation and devitalization that so often overtake middle-aged radicals when they reach the top. This condition will be absolutely necessary in the event that he achieves the third objective, which is to head a victorious Labour electoral campaign fought on a socialist program. With victory within his sight, the temptation to begin denying that he is as radical as his enemies say will be very great. Some of his colleagues spend all their time worrying about it. If you ask him in person, he smiles and replies, “I just find that I get more left-wing as I become older.”

The old guard of Labour and the magnates of the Tory press have gone so far in poisoning opinion against him that they may not recognize the great irony—an irony that escapes many of the Left as well. In many ways, Benn’s agenda could rescue British capital.

After the terrible failure of Thatcherism, and with the subsequent risk of real social unrest, there are several farseeing Establishment figures who would like a new “social contract.” These are unsentimental people, who would not care if they lost the House of Lords, abandoned the historic British presence in Ireland, left the private schools to the children of Arab princelings, and had to invite workers onto their boards of management. Nor would they mind offending the French and Germans by quarreling with Common Market subsidy payments, many of which are ruinous to British industry in any case. Above all, they would not object to tariffs and protection for their uncompetitive products. If all this meant Britain’s having to leave the highly expensive nuclear club—well, it would hurt their pride a bit, but it could be swallowed.

They don’t like the language in which this is argued, however, and they don’t like Benn’s populism and his worship of the natural wisdom of the common people. As a result, many are blind to the possible benefits of a Benn victory. But they are fed up with the Conservatives and they regard the new Social Democrats as a bunch of middle-class conscience-mongers.

It was a similar short-sighted attitude that nearly prevented American business from seeing or getting the benefits of the New Deal and the National Industrial Recovery Act. Which is why I posed George Orwell’s question. If the British ruling class is wicked and clever enough, it could have Benn and not socialism. If it persists in its stupidity, then all bets are off; but the last chance for an intelligent British compromise will have evaporated.


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