Tony Cliff: Three Appraisals
Readers will no doubt be aware that Tony Cliff, the leader of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain and the international current to which it was affiliated, died in April 2000 at the age of 82. Cliff’s contribution to the revolutionary Marxist movement, both in Britain and the world as a whole, is as controversial as it was influential. Here, Duncan Hallas, a founder member of the Socialist Review Group and a member of the Socialist Workers Party today, and Ray Challinor and Ted Crawford, two former members of Cliff’s organisation, give appraisals of his political legacy. We invite readers to provide their own appraisals for publication in future issues of this journal.
Obituaries of Cliff in mainstream publications included Lindsey German, ‘Tony Cliff’, Independent, 15 April, Paul Foot, ‘Tony Cliff’, Guardian, 11 April, and M Tennison and Bill Martin, ‘Cliff Tops’, in the 12 April issue. The Guardian pieces provoked various letters in response, Julie Burchill, Einde O’Callaghan and Paul Steeples, ‘Far Left Groupuscules Rise from the Dead’, in the 13 April issue. Birchill’s typically vile attack on Cliff was answered by his four children, Anna, Danny and Donny Gluckstein and Elana Dallas, in the 14 April issue, along with letters from Matthew Bowles and Clyde Strathers, ‘It’s Birchill We Loathe…’, and the discussion continued with Joe Hartney, ‘Heckled in Hebrew’, in the 15 April issue.
Cliff’s own tendency ran a series of articles, including tributes in Socialist Worker, 15 April; John Rees, ‘Tony Cliff: Theory and Practice’, and Ygal Sarneh, ‘A Revolutionary Life’, International Socialism, Summer, and Duncan Hallas, Eddie Prevost, Ian Mitchell, ‘Above All, He Was a Revolutionary: Tony Cliff 1917-2000’; ‘Optimism of the Will’; Nicholas Walter, ‘Nothing So Romantic’, an interview with Cliff; and Chris Harman, ‘Movie With an Open Ending’, Socialist Review, May.
There were many obituaries in other left-wing publications. Standard Trotskyist appraisals included François Duval, ‘Tony Cliff’, Rouge, 20 April; Phil Hearse, ‘Tony Cliff: A Life for Revolution’, Socialist Democracy, May-June; Charlie Van Gelderen, ‘Tony Cliff: A Personal Reminiscence’; Alan Thornett, ‘Tony Cliff: A Leading Figure on British Left’, Socialist Outlook, May, and Alan Thornett, ‘SWP Founder Tony Cliff: Strengths and Theoretical Weaknesses’, in the September issue. Other obituaries included Dave Spencer, ‘Tony Cliff and IS Democracy’, Weekly Worker, 9 April; Chris Jones, ‘Internationalist for Socialism’, Weekly Worker, 13 April; Jim Higgins, ‘Tony Cliff: A Man of His Time’, Weekly Worker, 20 April; Marcus Larsen, ‘Don’t Moan, Organise’, Weekly Worker, 11 May; a huge four-part series by Jack Conrad, ‘A Twentieth-Century Revolutionary’, Weekly Worker, 20 and 27 April, 4 and 11 May; Paul Flewers, ‘Tony Cliff: Farewell to a Class Fighter’, New Interventions, Summer; Ian Birchall, ‘Tony Cliff’, New Interventions, Autumn; Ted Crawford, ‘Tony Cliff: An Appreciation’, What Next?, no 16; David McNally, ‘Tony Cliff, 1917-2000’, and RF Kampfer, ‘Memories of Tony Cliff’, Against the Current, September-October; and two critical pieces by Sean Matgamna, ‘The Life, Times and Theories of Tony Cliff’, Action for Solidarity, 17 April, and ‘The Great Gatsby: The Paradoxes of Tony Cliff’, Workers Liberty, September-October.
Some Thoughts on Tony Cliff
I DIDN’T meet Cliff for some years. Chanie, his wife, was a British citizen; Cliff was not. He came from Palestine when it was a British mandate, which did not confer British citizenship. I can’t remember when I first met him. He was in Ireland for some years.
He was, of course, the theoretical leader of the group. Chanie visited him in Ireland regularly, and his influence on the group was largely communicated through her. He wrote regularly, and she brought the articles over, as well as playing an important rôle in her own right.
Tony Cliff’s fundamental belief was that of Marx, that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. He was not, of course, an anarchist. A revolutionary party is necessary. That party can only be built by intervention in working-class struggles, big and small. If they failed, Trotsky believed the result would be the decline of the productive forces, the end of civilisation. Thus Trotsky had written of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), in The Lessons of Spain, the Last Warning.
Cliff rejected this early on. He also rejected a then popular alternative, the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, the best known proponent of which was James Burnham. This stated that capitalism was being replaced throughout the world by a new system. Its proponents held that the Communist parties were the nucleus of a new ruling class. The actual producers would not be proletarians; they would be the slaves of this new ruling class. Obviously, there could be no united front with the Communist parties, or their followers. In practice, this meant the total rejection of the united front tactic.
Events proved that Trotsky’s perspective was not viable. Immediately after the Second World War came a profound and prolonged boom. The productive forces grew faster than ever before. So did scientific and technological developments.
The view that the USSR was a deformed workers’ state had a longer run. Not until the regime collapsed did it become an avowed and obvious capitalist society.
Tony Cliff built a revolutionary Marxist organisation that always related to the real world, but not painlessly. There were various splits and secessions, but he built it. Not alone, of course, but he was indispensable. I can’t say that about any of the rest of us.
Cliff had his idiosyncrasies. He always refused to learn to drive, but insisted on telling Chanie, who was driving, how to drive.
Tony Cliff’s Early Years in Britain
MORE than anyone else in my life, Tony Cliff has had the most profound influence on my political development. His tigerish energy, his vast knowledge, his highly individual sense of humour, and his ability to explain complicated concepts in a way that made them easily comprehensible — in my opinion, these qualities he possessed to a greater degree than any other individual.
But in this piece, to use a phrase beloved of Cliff, I intend to bend back the stick, concentrating on those points where I consider he can be justly criticised. No person deserves to be treated as God, showered only with adulation: to do so is only to insult.
I first met Cliff in November 1947. I was living with Karl and Kath Westwood in Staines. Cliff came to address a Revolutionary Communist Party meeting in their café on the French Communist Party’s left turn. He explained how the Stalinists had been prised out of the French cabinet, partly by the emerging Cold War and partly because, as a result of their reactionary policies, they were losing control of their rank and file in factories like Renault. After the meeting we had a discussion. Both of us accepted the theory that the Soviet Union was no longer a degenerate workers’ state.
I had come to this conclusion because of three things. Firstly, Jock Haston, the RCP’s General Secretary, had argued that in three years the Labour government had taken a greater proportion of the British economy into public ownership than the Soviet government had of the backward Russian economy, where industry was insignificant, in the same time-span. From this, Haston concluded that the Attlee administration was, in essence, Socialist, whereas I concluded that by making public ownership the criterion for whether or not a country was Socialist left one liable to a capitulation to Social Democracy. Secondly, I recall hearing that veteran Marxist FA Ridley say that it was the reactionary Tory Prime Minister Lord Palmerston who introduced the first nationalisation measure into Parliament. This was to nationalise the Indian railways. Apparently, the Indian Mutiny demonstrated the difficulty of moving troops swiftly around the country. The railway lines of one company were not compatible with another’s. Nationalisation, therefore, far from easing the lot of the Indian masses, sought to crush revolt, and to make their oppression more secure. Only if workers democratically controlled industry, argued Ridley, could they be certain it would operate in their interests. Thirdly, and most important, I have always regarded Socialism as a doctrine of human liberation. In the sunny glow which followed the October Revolution, many on the left made enormous sacrifices, sometimes losing their lives, to reach Russia. In contrast, by the end of the Second World War, many class-conscious workers were prepared to risk life and limb to leave the Stalinist hell. My views appeared in the June 1948 issue of Left, a Socialist discussion journal, under the heading ‘State Capitalism — A New Order’.
My disagreement with Cliff at Staines arose as a consequence of our different evaluations of Trotskyism. In my opinion, the idea of Russia as a degenerate workers’ state had become the ark of the Trotskyist covenant, an uncritically-repeated mantra that did not remain open to critical scrutiny. Cliff, on the other hand, thought it imperative to relate entirely to the Trotskyist movement. By factional struggle, he believed that the Fourth International could be won to our position. To me, this remained an illusion. We had to relate ourselves to new cadres who would emerge in the course of fresh struggles.
The issue was really settled for us by Gerry Healy and his comrades. They unceremoniously turfed us out. We met in Jean Tait’s flat to form the Socialist Review Group in October 1950. Officially, we had a grand total of 34 members. Actually, it was much less. Many who joined were birds of passage, already burnt out by factional struggles. Those who remained were almost all young and inexperienced. We also had virtually no money. At our quarterly aggregate meetings, we would agonise over whether we could afford to place a small ad in Tribune or produce 300 copies of the journal, not merely 240. In the early years, Socialist Review was duplicated. This involved the mind‑rotting toil of repeatedly turning the handle of a Gestetner duplicator, followed by plodding around a table again and again, collating the sheets. This ‘slave labour’ was eventually terminated when I secured a small printer to produce the journal almost at cost. Oliver Amey’s print‑works were situated in Lune Street, Preston, the road where the military shot the Chartist demonstrators during the general strike of 1842. At the bottom of the street, bullet‑holes still scarred the bricks.
Cliff’s autobiography suggests that he did all the work almost single-handedly in these early years. This is complete fantasy. I hope an historian conducts an investigation before the dwindling band of survivors finally vanishes. Cliff was quite unable to play the rôle he claims to have done. Firstly, for well over two years he was not allowed into England. He had to choose between Ireland and Israel. He decided on Dublin. Then Cliff had a further problem — his knowledge of English was only slightly better than that of Mao Zedong. As editor, I recall labouring for well over a day struggling with one of his articles, trying to put his so‑called ‘English’ into proper English. It took me a long while to fathom that ‘a slow work strike’ was what we call ‘a go‑slow strike’. Linked to this weakness, Cliff had another handicap — a lack of knowledge of the British working class. At a time when the Labour Party was much more proletarian than today, with an individual membership of a million plus as against about 350 000 now, Cliff improbably tried to convince us that the members were all middle-class lawyers and teachers. Then there was a final reason why he did not play a key rôle: most of his time was devoted to writing two books, Stalin’s Satellites in Eastern Europe and Mao’s China.
A small band of dedicated workers shouldered the immense burden. Our position was worsened as a result of Anil Moonesinge and Jean Hoborn’s departure for Ceylon. Much of the painstaking drudgery of editing fell on Bill Ainsworth and Peter Morgan, while Ken and Rhoda Tarbuck strove to keep the organisation out of intensive care. They all belonged to the Socialist Review Group’s biggest and most experienced branch, Birmingham, which started with five members, and grew to an impressive nine.
After the inaugural meeting, I went round to see Jock Haston and Millie Lee. He was painting their basement flat. In this country, Trotskyism had fractured into three grouplets. Jock thought that the one led by Ted Grant and Jimmy Deane, the precursor of the Militant Tendency, would be left dead in the water. Grant was completely unable to organise himself or, for that matter, anyone else. As for the second, Tony Cliff’s lack of knowledge of this country, and his inability to secure residency here, made the state caps a non‑starter. My best bet, Jock advised me, was to go with Gerry Healy, who had the dynamism, flair and organising ability. But my answer was that I did not decide the issue in this manner. In my opinion, as long as a general perception continued to exist that the Soviet Union was Socialist, or even a workers’ state, then our struggle for a new society was doomed. The bureaucracy’s treatment of Russian workers as well as national minorities made it one of the most oppressive, exploitative regimes ever to exist. The illusion that it was Socialist needed to be dispelled.
Though extremely valuable, Cliff exaggerated his rôle in the early period of the Socialist Review Group. He also exaggerates the uniqueness of his theoretical contribution. Some comrades like Seymour Papert — incidentally, a scientist who helped to pioneer the development of computers — and James D Young, whose numerous books have been much neglected by the revolutionary left, were influenced more by the American Johnson‑Forrest Tendency than by Tony Cliff. And then there is the whole question of Cliff’s attitude to Marxist philosophy — or lack of it. Despite writing four volumes on Lenin, a magnificent biography of enduring worth, he fails to find space for a consideration of Lenin’s titanic labour with the Hegelian dialectic in 1914‑15, which provided him with the ideological armoury to battle against the social patriots. Similarly, in Cliff’s four volumes on Trotsky, no proper consideration is given to Trotsky’s warning, contained in In Defence of Marxism, that in their analysis of the Soviet Union some comrades had adopted the wrong methodology. Buffon said style is the man; but Trotsky said method is the political party. Cliff neglects this.
I plan to return to Cliff. It is vital that his colossal contribution is both recognised and critically assessed. It would be a tragedy if a little bit of tar were allowed to ruin a barrel of honey.
A Political Appreciation of Tony Cliff and of his Autobiography
ALTHOUGH the death of Tony Cliff is unambiguously a loss to the revolutionary left, a balanced assessment of his political life must indicate his political weaknesses and mistakes as well as his strengths. This review will assume that the politics and tactics of his creation, the Socialist Review Group/International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party, were those of Tony himself, and any criticisms of the group are also of him. Even someone like myself, far less capable than Cliff of assessing political situations, can do this with the benefit of perfect hindsight. So a hard look at where he went wrong as well as where he was correct would, I think, be of greater service to his memory than uncritical praise, and he must be judged, as he would have wished, by the very highest standards. As an example, Cliff, alas, shared a weakness with Trotsky, that he could not really find a place in his organisation for experienced strong leaders who were independent of him, as Serge and Rosmer were of LDT. That is sad, but unfortunately true. So I will tend here to concentrate on crucial weaknesses and failures rather than on the modest successes of the SWP, which Cliff, in a somewhat immodest way, gives sufficient emphasis in his rather incoherent autobiography, A World to Win (Bookmarks, 2000, £11.99). Setbacks are often more fruitful of lessons than victories.
I will not say anything about his early years in Palestine, about which I know little except what he tells us in his book, but will focus on his time in Britain. Firstly, his great strengths and contribution. Whether or not the theory of state capitalism is correct, and I personally find all the varieties of explanation on offer for the Stalinist despotism inadequate, everyone should realise that the political consequences which flowed from this theory were absolutely correct at the time that it was promulgated. And it was hard on the left in 1950 to have these positions when the left wing of the working-class movement was so dominated by Stalinism. Young people today have no idea of the mood then. Indeed, the information that has come out of the ex‑Stalinist states since 1989 has shown that, if anything, Cliff was too kind in his description of them. The view that no concession at all should be made to them — they were after all ‘capitalist’, according to Cliff — was right, and was the only way that a revolutionary Socialist tradition could have been preserved.
Of course, here Cliff was not really so original as his acolytes suggest. The dissident Trotskyists in the Workers Party in the United States were developing similar positions, though many of them whizzed off into reaction — often allied with Zionism. With the slogan ‘Neither Washington or Moscow’, Cliff maintained a balance that other ‘state caps’ or bureaucratic collectivists were often unable to do. Both he and Shachtman started with similar positions and oriented to the left wing of the trade union movement. In Britain, this was by and large influenced by the Communist Party, and Cliff’s state capitalist theory sharply demarcated his tendency from the main trend, while initially making it far harder to get any influence. However, to balance this, in Britain the left of the Labour Party provided another far more hospitable milieu for Cliff’s tendency than anything Shachtman had. In the USA, the trade union left wing was Reutherite, and had been distinguished in the war by taking a far more left line on trade union issues than the Communist Party. Crudely, the Communist Party, as in Britain, was against all strikes, the Trotskyists were favour of all strikes, but in the USA the Reuther faction was in favour of the strikes that were not in the war industries. The latter thus came out of the war far stronger than the Communist Party, but, though both Shachtman and Reuther agreed about Stalinism, gradually over the years they veered sharply to the right. As he did so, Reuther took with him not merely the Workers Party periphery, but Shachtman himself and much of the party’s leadership. But Cliff deserves some of the credit for his different path, and I do not think that the very distinct end result was entirely the result of objective circumstances. Certainly by the time that the Vietnam war started, the contrast between the two was complete, as Shachtman went over to imperialism.
Groups and individuals often take their tone from early experiences, and later on this lesson, that it was necessary to draw a very hard line between themselves and other ‘competing’ tendencies, so true of the Stalinists at the time, was often misplaced, particularly when the SWP was easily the largest of such groupings. Here the responsibility was that of Cliff. In any case, by the mid-1980s there was no ideological threat from Stalinism, but rather from other broader petit-bourgeois currents from which the IS/SWP saw no need to separate.
The case is partly similar with the theory of the ‘Permanent Arms Economy’, which, again, was originated in the USA, by Vance. Whether the mechanism that Cliff and Kidron posited for the very long and immense capitalist boom that followed the Second World War is correct or not (Kidron now rejects the theory, I believe), the fact of this boom, and the fact of rising working-class prosperity, were inescapable to anyone with eyes in their heads. But much of the Trotskyist left denied that the boom was taking place, and thought it was all about to collapse. What is more, some of them held this position for nearly 40 years! Most of the left which did face reality moved off in a very reformist direction. Cliff, however, faced reality, and stayed a revolutionary.
Finally, Cliff’s insistence that the mover of historical change was the working class and not the alternative social forces of Maoism and peasant guerrillaism meant that his organisation never had the illusions, invariably disappointed, in the colonial struggles which were such important political issues in the 1950s and 1960s. He focused attention on the nitty-gritty of trade union working-class struggle, which though profoundly reformist in sentiment, was a massive phenomenon of the first 25 years of the SRG/IS/SWP grouping. Again, a revolutionary tradition was preserved. As I remember the garbage advocated by some other tendencies, I feel that if Cliff had done nothing else, we would still be in his debt.
These three theoretical pillars of the old IS were, I think, the cause of the great growth of the group in the late 1960s and early 1970s that pushed it out in front of others, such as the Workers Revolutionary Party/Socialist Labour League, which had been much more significant in the earlier period. That is not to say that the old IS did not miss the occasional trick, fluff its opportunities and often fail to achieve its objectives, but its broad strategic thrust was correct, and in the long run such things pay off.
However, Cliff and his organisation made very big mistakes. It would be pointless to pick the old scabs on some of these wounds, many of which indeed are recognised by some of the more thoughtful SWPers, but suffice it to say that Cliff’s whims and sudden changes of course accounted for many of these problems. However, as he himself points out, the situation was often very complicated, and not easy to assess.
By far the greatest crisis came in 1973‑76, a period which until now most of the ‘official’ histories of the IS/SWP rather gloss over, and which is only today being publicly discussed. This was the time when his group reached the zenith of its influence. I can still vividly remember coming to Cottons Gardens, the IS headquarters, to collect papers after we had sold out during the dockers’ strike. There were no papers left, though the print run had been 50 000. Perhaps even more important at the time were the Saltley Coal depot events in 1972, which led on to the success of the next miners’ strike and the fall of the government in 1974, the first time that a British government fell as a result of industrial action. Saltley was closed because the miners were not alone, and much of the Birmingham engineering industry came out in support. True, the IS, in its then modest style, did not claim credit for this still untold story, but the leading engineering steward, Harper, a fine CPer who later joined them, was supported and influenced by a thin network of IS stewards and militants who provided him with the organisation and structure within the AEU, but outside the formal union channels. This backed up Harper, and led to the closure of the gates. Harper himself, now alas dead, had an almost cult following in the factories of which he was convenor, but might be considered rather un-PC by many present-day members of the SWP, and a trifle macho. A veteran of Arnhem, he proudly led his engineers on the gate wearing his red beret and parachute regiment badge. The IS network and organisation backing him in the AEU was still very weak and young, but it was just enough to do the job. Within two years, nearly all these very fine people had been expelled from the IS, or had left in disgust, and neither the IS/SWP, rival sectarian grouplets nor the bourgeoisie, for their three very different motives, cared to advertise the fact of the organisation’s past effectiveness. Only now, a quarter of a century later, when circumstances are so different, is Bookmarks bringing out a book which tells the story of what was certainly the IS/SWP’s finest hour.
At this point in 1974, Wilson’s new Labour government made a determined and successful effort to demobilise the class by concessions. Although much later Cliff recognised this sea change, he did not do so at the time, as he admits in his book. To be fair, nor did anyone else much. At the time Cliff gave the impression of being an old man in a hurry. Did he see 1973 as his 1905? It became apparent to people like me that Cliff and the leadership were losing their grip on reality, even if we were unclear about what was going on. Socialist Worker went on about British capitalism making vast profits, when it was in a dire condition throughout that decade. It was in late 1975 at a meeting in Southall that John Rose told us that there would be great repression, and we might have to go underground! This warning of repression is never mentioned by Cliff in his book. We found it increasingly difficult to defend the line. It was no accident that in this two-to-three year period there were a whole number of splits, which culminated in a deep crisis of the cadre led by Jim Higgins.
Yet this last opposition — like all the previous oppositions even if far better than the others — was very unclear, both about the period that we were in, and how to deal with the problem. They lacked all conviction about the IS’ perspectives, while Cliff was full of passionate intensity on a totally false prognosis, and was thus able to win. Higgins nowadays points out with some exaggeration that the difference between the two was that Cliff thought the revolution was coming in three months’ time, and Higgins in six months’ time! The point is that Higgins was on the saner side of the divide, and very slightly more aware of the demobilisation than Cliff. And it is a bit rich for Cliff to sneer that hardly any of the 150 people who left, or were expelled, are any longer active in politics. The same is true of many of those in his faction at the time, and the demoralising effect of expulsion on those who had made a huge emotional commitment to the IS should not be underestimated. But Cliff never did understand the personal damage done to those who were ejected from the group, and thus to the movement itself. I was totally confused, and saw the behaviour in the West London area in far too personal terms — quite missing the broader aspect — and thus was even more bitterly hurt and betrayed by my expulsion. Kidron, who was always very smart but lacked the iron to wage a factional struggle, saw more clearly than most that the crisis arose from the nature of the external conditions, but he just dropped away.
It is of course true that ex‑members of revolutionary organisations are inclined to say that the group was fine until the point that they left or were ejected (as has been said before by someone: ‘We all have our own Kronstadt.’). I would insist, however, that this period was a turning point, not merely for the IS/SWP, but for the class itself, and not merely in Britain but throughout Europe.
This culminated when the IS, which was rapidly losing its influence in the working class (it never had much, but with great effort had built up a small real presence over the years), proceeded in 1976 to turn itself into a Party — a sort of defiant raspberry at reality. (It is interesting that Paul Foot in his introduction to Cliff’s autobiography says that he cannot understand this either.) And Cliff came out of this period even more dominant in the organisation than he had been before. Much later (according to his own account, it took him three years, which may be an underestimate), he correctly recognised that there had been a great ‘downturn’ which had started much earlier, in 1974 or 1975. By the time he recognised it — true, before many others — IS had changed its name to the Socialist Workers Party, and had indulged in the idiotic and adventurist electoral campaigns of the late 1970s. Again, this is not hindsight on my part. To the plea that ‘we learnt from the experience’, I would reply that it was unnecessary, and a GCSE grade Z in politics would have been enough to spare them the trauma.
In fact, the late 1970s and early 1980s were a period of great growth in the Labour Party left, and the IS/SWP, which had been dominant among British Trotskyists earlier, now competed on much more even terms with the Militant Tendency as a result. But as the industrial side of the movement fell away, so the broad political movement had an upsurge. Both of course were reformist, but revolutionaries have to work within them — not that I thought of entry at the time in the remotest degree. Cliff must have considered it, he was very sharp, but rejected this alternative, pointing out that if the SWP had moved in that direction it would have been sucked in behind the Labour left. This is no doubt true, but the only way to avoid such a fate is to have a mature, politically strong membership, for entry can only operate well with a clear and correct perspective and loose or minimal organisation. And this strong membership and clear perspective, whatever he claims, he did not have — more’s the pity.
Since 1976-77, the SWP has tried to build campaigns around issues like unemployment, wars and anti‑fascism — sometimes with a considerable element of a Popular Front in them. Excellent in conception as many were, they have failed to take off, except to a minor extent with the Anti‑Nazi League, and that was the most Pop Front of the lot. Sadly, despite great efforts, the Right To Work Campaign was a failure, and could not set things alight (though history tells us such campaigns are always difficult to undertake with far, far greater resources than those available to the SWP). Short and successful wars with few casualties against very unpleasant regimes provided no basis for a repeat of February 1917, but that was no fault of the SWP or Cliff — circumstances were against him, and a revolutionary silk purse could not be made out of a reactionary sow’s ears. Nevertheless, all these activities, in some ways reminiscent of the politics of the SLL/WRP earlier, brought in recruits who compensated for the inevitable slow wastage of older members, and gave activity, a little training and education to members.
Unlike the other Trotskyist ‘leaders’, at least Cliff was never afraid to admit mistakes and change the line when he saw things were not working. On two of the only three occasions since 1976 when there was really massive working-class action and sentiment, he got it wrong at first, and, by reversing the line, effectively admitted it. The first of these was the miners’ strike in 1984‑85, where initially the SWP set up its own support committees and kept itself out of those of the broader movement. The mistake was recognised and the policy reversed, but the chance of much influence was lost — essentially because of a sectarian attitude. This is not mentioned by Cliff, though of course, as he points out, a far more important reason for their lack of impact was the fact that the SWP had so little influence in the organised sections of the class and, like the rest of the left outside the Communist Party, was reduced to the worthy and useful activity of gathering support and raising money for the strikers.
In the next great struggle, that around Liverpool, the SWP played little part. This was a pity, but the Militant, with a sectarian reflex, did not want the SWP on their turf, and, to be fair, had they called on SWP support, the latter would probably have given them cause to justify their suspicions. Interestingly though, while Cliff mentions the International Marxist Group and Gerry Healy, he never names Ted Grant in his autobiography. Indeed, the two references in the index to the Militant do not appear on the stated page, though there is another reference, unindexed, on page 190, where, in an attack on the Bennites, he mentions them as the object of a witch-hunt in the Labour Party. This again is not quite correct. For sectarian motives, Militant refused to build a broad-based campaign within the labour movement to defend themselves, but since Cliff is going after the Bennites in this passage, he ignores this. Neither does he allude to Sammy Bornstein, one of Grant’s very early leading supporters, who, risking a prison sentence, gave him his own identity papers in 1947.
Even more strikingly and far worse than the mistake over the miners, the anti‑Poll Tax campaign was not at first seen as important. This was a massive misjudgement, from which Militant gained, and my criticism here is not from hindsight. And it may be highly significant that he says little about the Poll Tax struggle (pp197-8) which, though a defensive battle, was a victory, unlike the two terrible defeats of Liverpool and the miners’ strike. But the SWP, though its decent young comrades did their best and contributed once they were told it was important, could not be said to have led the fight, so Cliff skates over this and moves hurriedly on.
There were other failures. The Poll Tax campaign could have enabled the leadership to put demands on the Labour Party to lead the struggle. Despite their ‘entrism’ for 40 years, the Militant could not see that either, which only goes to show that you need not be a keen member of the ward Labour Party to orient yourself correctly to mass organisations of the class — indeed, you can organise the Labour Party raffle brilliantly and still fail to understand transitional and mass politics. There was a frantic editorial in the Spectator at the time stating that if the SWP had focused on demanding that the Labour leadership call for a refusal to pay, it might have destroyed Kinnock, and pushed large sections of the Labour Party into support for breaking the law. This was seen as a great danger. So moved was I that I tore it out and sent it to the SWP with a covering note. There was no acknowledgement or response (it was almost certainly binned by an underling without a second thought). But I am sure the Speccie was right: they could see that — and Cliff could not, let alone the deadbeats in the office. You seldom get a second chance in revolutionary politics.
We all make mistakes, of course, but loud claims by the SWP to be the ‘leadership’ will provoke nothing but mingled rage and merriment if there is no evidence of it in their record since 1975. To be fair to Cliff, in public at any rate, he did not make such assertions, but he cannot have told his followers to cool their unfounded rhetoric.
Personally, Cliff was the kindest and most charming of men, and he and Chanie gave enormous hospitality to innumerable young people, but this went with being a terrible judge of character and with a ruthlessness in politics which, short of a real revolutionary crisis, was generally counter‑productive. Most bosses of small groups, noticing that Lenin was ruthless, successfully imitate him in this respect without managing to copy all the other aspects of his leadership. As evidence of the first trait, let me point out that at one time he thought a lot of Roger Rosewell, who was always and still is a palpable shit, that in 1968 he believed Ted Crawford would be an asset to the IS, that he thought Sean Matgamna was genuinely interested in unity, and that he backed John Rose as a capable full-timer in 1975‑76. I hesitate to be more specific than these four instances for fear of giving offence, but all too often Cliff’s swans have turned out to be geese. Indeed, that may be too kind. It was the impression of foreign observers close to the leadership then that Rosewell was the Crown Prince and the Anointed Heir. He would have been a Gerry Healy — or worse.
As evidence of ruthlessness, Cliff had no hesitation in pulling people out of union posts and jobs to build the organisation, and then discarding them so that they had to start their lives again, having lost any position they once had within the class. It made sense of a sort if he really did think the revolution was going to occur in five years time, but it was very cruel even if he himself, with a kind of naivety, was unaware of the implications of what he was doing to the individuals concerned. And if he did really think that the revolution was so imminent, his political judgement was at fault — to put it mildly.
The truth is that the times were unpropitious, and the postwar boom that he faced up to, though it cooled down in the 1970s, meant that most of the populace continued to become better off for the next 25 years after 1975. The weakness of the weapon that Cliff forged arose, not from the quality of the people that he was able to recruit, but at a much deeper level from the profoundly unrevolutionary and still diminishing Socialist consciousness of the working classes in all the wealthy industrialised world.
It was not, and is not, the fault of the IS/SWP that, except for Duncan Hallas and other retired people, their members lack any experience of working-class struggle, or indeed of struggle of any kind. The only individual in the present leadership who has been something of a leader in political struggle is Chris Harman, and, while I have the greatest respect for Harman’s intellectual strengths, he was a minor student leader, not a workers’ one. Everyone else has been formed within the narrow confines of the SWP. So perhaps what Cliff wanted done was often performed in a crude wooden way, though he contributed to this, often using the metaphor about ‘bending the stick’, with the result that his exaggeration became translated a couple of layers down the SWP into a gross distortion because of the rawness and inexperience in the organisation.
With all that, he had a kind of innocence, and we will miss his charm, his boundless and demonic energy, his sense of humour, his utter commitment to the cause of the working class, and, in his own way, his honesty. He built a revolutionary organisation that may be the biggest in the developed world, and most of us would have made much worse mistakes. The world is a poorer and duller place without him.