Tony Cliff, A World To Win: Life of a Revolutionary, Bookmarks, London, 2000, pp247, £11.99
READING Cliff’s autobiography has brought back to me a host of images and incidents, hardly any of which feature in the book. Its tone is serious, displaying little of his humour, and conferring on the author a quite unmerited gravitas. I remember once saying to Jock Haston how impressed I was by CLR James’ book Black Jacobins. Jock, who did quite a nice line in patronising cynicism, replied: ‘I always find James impressive unless I know something about the subject he is writing about.’ I feel much the same about Cliff’s last book. I know a little about his life from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, and the virtually unsullied character presented here does not sit too well with the multiple-charactered personality I knew for years on an almost daily basis.
For example, some time in the 1960s, Tony Cliff and his family moved house from Finsbury Park to more commodious premises in Stoke Newington. This larger property had been purchased from a Jewish family, and came not only with more room, a garden and the usual offices, but also with a mezuzah nailed to a door frame. Anxious that he should not have to walk about his home with a rope of garlic round his neck, I suggested to Cliff that he hand me a screwdriver, and I would have the offending religious item in the dustbin in a trice. To my surprise, he refused this handy offer. ‘No, no, you will spoil the paint’, he insisted. Now this mezuzah was a tinny little item fixed with panel pins, definitely at the Woolworths end of the religious artifacts market. For my part, I would sooner have a slightly damaged architrave than suffer this piece of pious persiflage. Cliff, however, was adamant, and the mezuzah stayed. It may be there to this day.
Over the years I have occasionally wondered why the atheist Cliff, whose disregard for appearances was immediately apparent, should worry so about a few slivers of gloss paint. I believe that I can now shine a small light on this puzzle. In every mezuzah there is a tiny scroll with 20 lines from Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Bible, in which Moses sets down his last injunctions to the Israelites. It demands absolute adherence to his words, and that the message shall be taught during every waking hour. Such fidelity will be rewarded by a land flowing with milk and honey, fat cattle and tables groaning with comestibles and good wine. Cliff, it seems to me, steeped as he was in biblical lore, saw himself as just such a Moses figure, who would lead his people to the promised Socialist land. Even if he did not get there himself, he would set out his law for them to follow. Of course, his Moses days would have to fit in with this busy programme, so that it did not conflict with his Lenin days (very frequent these), or his Trotsky days, neglected for many years, but a bit bullish in recent times. There would, of course, be no problem with his Luxemburg days, because he forswore that rôle in 1968.
Cliff’s last, posthumously-published work, A World to Win, sees him very much in a valedictory Moses mode. This is a book for Socialist Workers Party members, and one that will prove, despite the odd setback, that the organisation has over the years developed, under his wise tutelage, into a firmly-based expression of Bolshevism in the twenty-first century. If the comrades will pay careful attention to Cliff’s application of the Marxist method, as he learned it from Lenin, then they too can become instruments of history.
Most of us who have spent some years in the revolutionary movement have found it all too easy to forget the generous impulses that drew us to it in the first place. The revulsion against discrimination, exploitation, poverty and war, usually through some heightened personal experience, provides the live evidence that makes Socialist ideas both relevant and inspiring. That high passion is too often lost sight of in the practice of everyday sectarian or factional organisation. What we fondly imagined was the means is all too often transformed into an end in itself. For most of Cliff’s life, it was the organisation and what he perceived to be its needs that formed the basis of his thought and deed. If those thoughts wandered beyond the immediate concerns of the party to the sunlit uplands of the Socialist commonwealth it was, more often than not, that species of May Day peroration calculated to enthuse the comrades to greater efforts on behalf of the Party. The turning point in Cliff’s life came very early when he witnessed the wretched conditions of Arab children in his native Palestine. An essay by the youthful Cliff on his sadness that there were no Arab children in his school was prophetically marked up by his teacher as ‘Communist’. Most of us have a teacher with a talent for prophecy like that in our past, mine with prescient accuracy wrote ‘abject failure’. This part of the autobiography dealing with Palestine is probably the most interesting. For some inexplicable reason, I find it quite pleasing that somewhere in the Gluckstein family album there may still exist a picture of Cliff’s uncle, Banker Gluckstein, leading a Jewish delegation to Tsar Nicholas II, bringing loyal blessings to that doomed and dim Romanov. Perhaps part of the charm of Cliff’s Palestine reflections is that one was not there to know what actually happened and what he actually did, nevertheless there is certainly an air of authenticity about his assertion that in a country where the tiny working class was divided by religion, language and tradition, the minuscule Trotskyist organisation had virtually no contact with organised workers. Cliff goes so far as to say that ‘the average branch of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain today has greater impact than we had in Palestine’. Those of us who knew the International Socialists when a good third of its members were manual workers, and saw what kind of a sorry fist Cliff made of that, might give him an argument on that one.
In pursuit of a relationship with the working class, Cliff came to Britain in 1946. It is part of his and our tragedy that in the next 50 plus years that contact was never more than skin deep and oh so fleeting. En route to the UK, he stopped off in Paris to meet the leaders of the Fourth International, and discovered, as so many of us did later on, that this powerhouse of the ‘World Party of Bolshevism’ was in fact an empty shell just kept afloat by Michel Pablo’s and Ernest Mandel’s windy rhetoric. Nevertheless, he agreed to defend the workers’ state thesis against the state capitalist leanings of Jock Haston and Ted Grant when he got to the UK. You will not find any mention of this particular arrangement in Cliff’s book, although on page 51 you might read: ‘Jock did toy with the idea that perhaps Stalin’s Russia was not a workers’ state. But a few months later he dropped this idea completely.’ The entire text is littered with small evasions of this sort.
In that confusing postwar time, the nature of the Stalinist regime exercised the minds of Trotskyists throughout the world. Trotsky’s predictions and promises after the Founding Congress of the Fourth International in 1938 looked particularly thin in the light of the war and its aftermath. If Trotsky predicted that the Stalinist bureaucracy could not survive the convulsions of a world war and it turned out that Stalin was not only still in charge in Russia but was presiding over half of Europe in addition, then James P Cannon, in his self-appointed rôle of Trotsky’s successor, decreed that the war was not over. Mandel let it be known that news was expected by the next post that Stalinism had succumbed to a rejuvenated proletariat. If this suggests that Mandel’s mind was less brick-shaped than Cannon’s, nevertheless both had only the most tenuous grip on reality. Max Shachtman in the USA saw this as a chance to convert the Fourth International to his bureaucratic collectivist theory, and replace Cannon in the driving seat. Haston at least was attempting to come to terms with reality, even if his ideas were extremely tentative. It is now possible to say with some confidence that all the protagonists in this debate got it wrong, and they are still in error to this day. For all of them, the argument was cast within the old categories that had been found wanting. It was all form and no content, the working class, the proper study for Socialists, was not in it. It was rather like three blind men feeling their way around different parts of an elephant and, from their researches, attempting to describe the beast. There would certainly be elements of truth in their reports, but it would bear no relation to a living, breathing, complicated flesh-and-blood jumbo interacting with the real world. It is this inability to see beyond the boundaries of their own dubious certainties that ensured that the fall of Stalinism was unheralded in workers’ statist, state capitalist and Shachtmanite publications. As Al Richardson wrote in the introduction to his collection In Defence of the Russian Revolution: ‘It has to be said that the collapse of the Soviet Union caught them all napping. In spite of their claims to scientific Socialism, possession of this science gave them no predictive powers whatever… you can scan their journals right up to the event in vain for any suggestion of what was coming. Nor has any coherent explanation emerged since.’ Al also makes a significant point, in the same introduction: ‘Those who hold to a state capitalist analysis came up with the illuminating suggestion that a state capitalist class had slimmed down its bankrupt concern into smaller private firms, oblivious of the observation that while many a small shopkeeper dreams of becoming a monopoly capitalist, few monopoly capitalists dream of becoming small shopkeepers.’ Similarly, when I consider the arguments for the idea that Russia was a workers’ state, I like to think that the Russian workers, having for all those years exerted pressure on the bureaucracy to retain state property, awoke one day with an overwhelming craving to put on a pair of 501 jeans and queue for a Big Mac, while they listened to their Sony Walkmen. What has state property and the monopoly of foreign trade to offer to match the seductive charms of these powerful symbols of personal freedom? After much heart-searching and sleepless nights, Cliff came to the conclusion that Jock Haston was right, Russia was state capitalist. At the same time, Jock decided that not only was Russia a workers’ state, but so were all the countries of the Eastern bloc. Which nifty piece of footwork not only put Jock at odds with Cliff, but also with Mandel and Pablo, who insisted that the Eastern bloc regimes were capitalist states with an ‘extreme form of police Bonapartism’. It is true that they did not hold this view for long, because in 1948 Tito broke with the Cominform and, for the Fourth International, was transformed from a semi-fascist into an appropriate ally for Trotskyism. In later years, Mandel had the good grace to be embarrassed if you twitted him about his mental gymnastics in 1948.
Into this maelstrom Cliff tossed his 150-page Revolutionary Communist Party internal bulletin on state capitalism. Right or wrong, it was the most coherent argument on the disputed questions around at the time. It formed the central core of all subsequent editions of Stalinist Russia: A Marxist Analysis, except that Cliff removed the original material about ‘Soviet millionaires’, such as the odd collective farmer and Alexei Tolstoy, who were thought to be of great significance in the RCP just after the war. Reading this internal bulletin today, aside from its antique charm, one can appreciate that it had some persuasive power, even though, for me, it is no longer persuasive enough. Certainly it is more appealing than the tediously longer accretion of supporting evidence with which Cliff felt it necessary to burden later editions.
This was Cliff’s attempt to reconcile Trotskyism with the postwar reality, to give the party a defensible theory. That this inevitably required that he contradict and replace large chunks of Trotsky’s prewar politics ensured that the response to his ideas would be hostile. His personal base in the RCP was negligible, after just a few months in Britain and Haston’s rejection of state capitalism meant that there was no significant figure to pursue the argument internationally. From this point on, the idea was to form a distinct state capitalist group. Now theory would serve to build a new organisation, and he set about building a cadre. The pool from which these recruits would come was the RCP as it subsided into Labour Party entrism and Gerry Healy’s maw. In A World to Win, Cliff mentions only three of the original band: his wife Chanie Rosenberg, Duncan Hallas and Geoff Carlsson, which is less than generous to Jean Tait, Ray Challinor, Bill Ainsworth, Ken and Rhoda Tarbuck, Peter Morgan and Anil Munesinghe. This unwillingness to acknowledge that comrades other than Cliff and Chanie made some contribution to building the group runs throughout the volume. Suffice it to say that many others were involved in NCLC lecturing, speaking to YS branches, writing for Socialist Review, setting type for the pocket Adana editions of Rebel, and making contact with likely recruits. The difference between Cliff and the rest of us was that we worked for a living before we engaged in all these exciting pursuits. Cliff, for example, makes much of his heroic contact visiting trip to Glasgow on the back of a comrade’s motor-bike, no doubt a long and arduous ride. What he does not say is that the heroic rider of the machine was Stan Newens, who was pressed into this primitive chauffeuring activity on a regular basis. Stan, of course, lost his right to any credit when he left the group in the late 1950s, compounding this offence when he later became a Labour MP and later still an MEP.
Cliff does not claim to be the only begetter of state capitalist theory, perhaps because too many people have heard of CLR James. He does, however, let it be understood that the theory of the permanent arms economy was his very own brainchild and stands as the second of the three pillars holding up his political legacy. In fact, the theory made its first appearance in the American magazine Politics in February 1944 under the by-line of Walter J Oakes. This was one of the many pen names of Ed Sard, a member of Shachtman’s Workers Party. Sard expanded on his original article in the New International in a six-part series starting in January 1951, this time under the pseudonym TN Vance. True Sard called his theory the ‘Permanent War Economy’, but so did Cliff for several years until Mike Kidron changed the middle word to ‘Arms’. On chronological evidence alone, Cliff could not claim originality on this one.
It is possible to plough through this text and unearth many, many examples such as the Permanent Arms Economy where Cliff claims unwarranted primacy in thought, word and deed, but it would weary the reader almost as much as it would weary me. I believe there are those who find this kind of implacable self-aggrandisement strangely charming, I am not one of them. Perhaps Cliff thought that Ian Birchall (whose ‘phenomenal memory’ he rightly commends) would be the only one to remember the real facts, and, as the SWP’s premier apologist, he would keep mum. In every small revolutionary organisation, there is always a problem with the founding father (or mother, if you are talking about the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania). One feels a debt of gratitude for his founding efforts, he may well be older and more knowledgeable of revolutionary theory and practice, and, in any case, you can bet your bottom dollar he will fight like hell to get his own way. Ted Grant is like that, Gerry Healy was like that, and Cliff, although less boring than Grant and much more civilised than Healy, would go to considerable lengths to come out on top in any dispute. This trait was compounded by his absolute certainty that his current policy, because it was his, brooked no denial, and it was imperative that it be implemented by next Tuesday at the latest.
From about the mid-1950s, Cliff drifted away from the organisational conceptions of Trotskyism, and maintained and developed a more libertarian approach to these questions until the mid-1960s. This largely corresponds to the period when Mike Kidron exercised the greatest influence within the Socialist Review Group. It was incidentally the period when CND and the Labour Party Young Socialists were the main area of recruitment. For this work, Rosa Luxemburg was much more useful than Lenin. Cliff proclaimed in his short book on Luxemburg, published in 1959: ‘For Marxists in advanced industrial countries, Lenin’s original position can much less serve as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’s.’
By 1968, the International Socialists had grown modestly but not unimpressively to about 800 members. That year also saw the abomination of London dockers marching in support of Enoch Powell. This event led Cliff to propose left unity under the urgent menace of fascism. Let us leave aside the fact that if there had been an urgent menace of fascism, then the unity of say 2000 revolutionaries would not have been of much significance, it would have been far more sensible for all the revolutionaries to have joined the Labour Party if they wanted a real fight against fascism. Really, the object of the exercise, despite the fact that all the groups and the Communist Party were called on to unite, was the International Marxist Group, then the British section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. For such a unity to happen, let alone work, it would be necessary to adopt at least some of the forms of the Trotskyist tradition. For Cliff this was no great problem, and he assumed, his wish being father to the deed, that democratic centralism would be readily accepted by a grateful membership. In June 1968, he unleashed his Notes on Democratic Centralism on a less than appreciative group. This is a slipshod piece of work, more like a stream of consciousness than an internal bulletin, in which he seems to suggest that the First International had a democratic centralist constitution. It may surprise some current members of Cliff’s organisation that he once took it as the sine qua non of democratic centralism that factions could exist, and that they were entitled to representation on all the leading committees.
This pathetic two sides of quarto paper produced a storm of controversy. Almost overnight, about a dozen factions formed and produced long documents ranging in politics from ultra-libertarian to king-sized Bolshevism. Having sown the dragon’s teeth and reaped a whirlwind, Cliff restricted his intervention to long telephone calls, leaving the rest of the leadership to carry on the argument, despite the fact that we had not been privy to his plans. In the hope of great joy in heaven, I repent and confess that the two lengthy documents put out by the Working Committee that attempted to make up for the inadequacies of Notes on Democratic Centralism and to answer the plethora of opposing documents, were written by me. I sincerely apologise to the comrades. In his autobiography Cliff, for some inexplicable reason, dates his Notes on Democratic Centralism after October 1968.
Funnily enough, if Cliff had a hidden agenda so did several of us working closely with him at the time. We calculated, given a more formal structure and with a clearly understood decision-making process, that Cliff’s propensity to appoint himself a central committee of one would be reined in so that he might become part of a collective, where his ideas would be respected and discussed, but not venerated as revealed truth. Not only that, we also took the view that as we were recruiting a few but still significant number of workers, democratic centralism would enable their ideas to enlighten and inform the leading committee’s decision-making. Oh comrades, what vain hopes we entertained when we were a lot younger than we are today. Cliff, of course, continued to run things as a piece of private enterprise whenever the whim took him, rather like the proprietor of an inefficient corner shop. His veneration for the worker members was unabated and had only one reservation — that they agreed wholeheartedly with his immediate preoccupation. On page 118 of A World to Win, Cliff lets us into the secret of leadership in a Marxist organisation. Lenin, following an original idea of Napoleon’s, believed ‘On s’engage et puis on voit’. Cliff translates this as ‘get stuck in and see what happens’, or putting it another way, suck it and see. He first let us in on this particular aperçu in the draft of Volume One of his Lenin, it was, he explained, profoundly dialectical. Whatever the merits of this, and I think there are none, Cliff unintentionally gives us a good insight into how his mind worked. You think of something to do, then do it, and if it does not work think of something else and do that, and so on. Now that has not got a great deal to do with dialectics, and is a system that over the centuries has made bookmakers rich and silly punters broke. Cliff seems to recognise this when he goes on to says: ‘Of course this method must lead to mistakes being made, but at the same time it is essential if there are to be breakthroughs, forward jumps into new ways of doing things.’ All of this seems to me to be closer to a superstition than a Marxist analysis. Because there is something missing here, how do you decide what is a good thing to do in the first place? Do you spread your analytical net as wide as possible, drawing on the advice and experience of the worker members? Or, do you dredge up the idea from your subconscious, seek out buttressing quotes from Lenin, and then talk to Chris Harman? If you have answered yes to the second of these questions, then you are not just a pretty face, nor are you Chris Harman.
Joe Stalin let it be known that, as a general principle, the closer the Soviet Union approached Socialism the greater would be the attacks of the counter-revolution abroad and the depredations of internal subversion. Thus the rising population of the isolators and labour camps marked not only the eternal vigilance of Comrade Stalin, but also the giant strides being made toward Socialism. In the early 1970s, as IS began to grow modestly but into the very low thousands, with a small, perhaps 30 per cent, working-class membership, Cliff seemed to operate on the general principle that the closer IS became to a serious and viable organisation, the more capricious and impatient he should be. Increased membership was at the centre of his preoccupations. On the principle of ‘on s’engage et puis on voit’, he appointed himself membership secretary and set up league tables of local organisers recruiting efforts where the biggest liar won the most plaudits. Naturally enough, on this criteria, Roger Rosewell was the man of the hour.
Cliff also produced his thesis on the leading areas. The most promising areas would be identified speakers, money and manpower would be dedicated to these places, and the less promising areas left to their own devices would benefit, according to Cliff, from a sort of Thatcherite trickle-down process. Then there was the risible ‘buyers into sellers’ campaign, where anyone who bought the paper was pressed to become a seller. This up-to-the-minute campaign was lifted direct from Lenin, spluttered briefly and died without regret, as did the leading areas and the league tables. Another dud was the Socialist Worker Supporter’s Cards, known to the cynical as ‘revolutionary beer mats’ because most of them were left soggily on public house tables. The cards idea, lifted from Lenin on the workers’ paper, were less for the money they might bring and more to get a commitment from the workers that might be the first step to full membership. Sad to say, this was another bummer, as I have never heard of anybody who graduated from Supporter’s Card to Membership Card. The strike rate for Napoleon and Lenin’s little aphorism was looking pretty poor, and those of us who thought it might be a good idea to consolidate some of our existing recruits, who were drizzling away almost as rapidly as we recruited them, were condemned as conservative elements, unable to grasp the great opportunities opening up before us. Cliff’s zeal now shifted, momentarily, to ridding the leadership of conservative elements (Cliffspeak for Duncan Hallas and Jim Higgins). Whatever merit this plan might have, the replacements were to be local full-timers from the provincial branches, who in the very nature of their work could not operate as a day-to-day leadership. Cliff would be back into his one-man central committee mode.
Duncan, whose affection for Cliff had not survived, having knowing him for 30 years, felt that the course Cliff was embarked on would seriously endanger the advances we had made, and he proposed that we form a faction. I, who was actually quite fond of Cliff (but then I had only known him for 15 years), felt that he had gone too far, and that a short sharp faction fight might clear the air a bit. John Palmer and Roger Protz agreed with us, and we set about contacting people around the group. I was surprised at the favourable response we got when we approached others with our worries and discontents. Typically, the people who responded to our call were members of several years standing, and with some experience in the wider working-class movement. Among them were shop stewards and trade unionists from Manchester, Teesside, Glasgow, Harlow, Birmingham, Exeter, London and several other places. Cliff’s response, on the other hand, was most uncomradely. In short order a series of organisational manoeuvres were put in place, usually preceded by a thin veneer of political justification. Roger Protz and I were working on Socialist Worker, and this became the object of close analysis. A paper that Cliff had shortly before praised somewhat immoderately, became unreadable. With much quotation from Lenin on the workers’ paper, Cliff indicated that journalist were not really needed, just somebody to put in punctuation and correct the spelling of the workers’ reports. Naturally enough, there were no more workers’ reports than there had ever been, but Roger and I were fired.
Far more serious than this piece of petty spite, however, was Cliff’s attempt to deal with the fact that our opposition contained a number of trade unionists, including a fair sprinkling of AUEW members. This was especially so in Birmingham, where we had 20 AUEW comrades, organised in two factory branches. Among them were 10 shop stewards, two convenors of big factories, six members of the AUEW district committee, and Arthur Harper, the president of that district committee, plus several trades council delegates. As Ted Crawford has written elsewhere, these people were the catalyst that brought the Saltley struggle to a victorious conclusion. This, if not the jewel in the crown, was of a similar character to the ENV branch of which Cliff had been so proud. Now he produced a novel thesis that shop stewards were rotted by years of reformism and routinism; many convenors, he discovered, worked full-time on their union work. Only the young were revolutionary, and we should be encouraging them to run for shop stewardships. Leave aside what serum Cliff would use to inoculate these eager thrusting youngsters against reformism in the unlikely event that they were elected, this bizarre novelty made nonsense of the declared policy of the group since its founding in 1950. Even more tragically, the policy that it sought to replace was having some success in integrating experienced trade unionists into the group.
This ultra-left nonsense was compounded by a decision to run an IS member from Glasgow for National Organiser in the AUEW elections. This decision, taken without any discussion with the IS-AUEW national fraction, was nevertheless reaffirmed when the AUEW fraction rejected it by an overwhelming majority. All this was extremely embarrassing to the Birmingham AUEW comrades, which is just what it was intended to be. As they explained, they had, as directed by IS conference decisions, been working in the Broad Left grouping in the union, and, as always when working with Labour Lefts and the Communist Party, this involved a fair amount of work around union elections. Long before Cliff had a rush of blood to the head and decided to run an IS candidate, the IS members working the AUEW Broad Left had committed themselves to working for the election of a CPer called Ken Higgs. Cliff was completely unable, or unwilling, to understand that initiatives like the Saltley success are based on contact with people of different or no political affiliation who have some respect for the character and trust in the word of our comrades. That trust would be lost, and with it future joint activity, whether electoral or militant. With all the splendid disregard for cost of a man who knows that he has enough money to last him the rest of his life, so long as he dies at 6.30pm tomorrow, Cliff and his satraps began expelling the Birmingham AUEW members. A couple of them had to be suspended at the door to a meeting of the IS district committee, of which they were members, so that they might not vote against their own exclusion. It was this action that convinced me that Cliff, with all his brains and all his years in the movement, was not a serious person.
Just to make sure that the Opposition should not get a fair crack of the whip, Cliff then arranged that the basis of delegation to the conference should be changed, as would the election of delegates, in a way that was specifically designed to minimise the Oppositions representation. This was a neat trick, because according to the constitution the only way that its clauses could be changed was at a conference. No problem there, for a man with a stranglehold on the Leninist impulse. The delegates could vote to insert those provisions by which they had been improperly elected. It was not long before the Opposition was either expelled or forced out. Cliff describes this as follows: ‘One symptom of this situation [this refers to an alleged shift to the right in the unions in 1975 — JH] was a demoralisation among significant sections of our own members. They lost heart. Some left without any statement of disagreement (like Mike Kidron and Peter Sedgwick), but some, like the former national secretary Jim Higgins and former editor of Socialist Worker Roger Protz, led a split that included 150 members.’ It is difficult to imagine a statement with more misstatements in it than this one. ‘Demoralisation’ indeed, in our dispute Cliff was arguing that the workers would turn against the Labour government in three months, and I said it would be at least six months. Now you could say, with some justice, that both of us were talking nonsense, but hardly that my slightly longer-term perspective indicated demoralisation. We had not lost heart, just our patience with Cliff playing the fool. Mike Kidron and Peter Sedgwick certainly had a number of discontents that they expressed quite forcefully, and Kidron, in particular, blotted his copybook by rejecting the Permanent Arms Economy theory that he had done so much once to flesh out into some coherence. They left, together with a number of others, in 1977 when Cliff, still on his ultra-left binge, proclaimed the Socialist Workers Party. Finally, Roger and I did not lead a split, we were expelled.
One last entertaining and revealing example from the pages of A World to Win, on page 133, is that Cliff, so it seems, is confessing his mistakes about perspectives in 1975. He writes: ‘In retrospect it is clear that we were radically wrong in our prognosis regarding the shape of the class struggle and hence our fate. I cannot think how we could have come to a more correct prognosis at the time… at all breaking points in the past we find that the best Marxists get things wrong.’ Cliff then goes on to show that Lenin — what a reliable buttress for a chap to lean on, no matter how heavily — got it wrong in 1906. Well there you have it comrades, when he is wrong it is the case that he is right to be wrong, and in any case in changing circumstances even the best Marxists get it wrong, like Lenin in 1906. Phew, for a nasty moment I thought he was going to bring himself to account, there is nothing like a session of self-criticism for an easy acquittal.
This is a book that only Cliff could have written. It is clever but naive, cunning but transparently obvious, and a mine of misinformation with terminological inexactitude like a giant worm leaving a small deposit on every page. As with all his other works, it is not written to make the historical record, it would not pass any half-way rigorous test. It is intended that it will fill a rôle as an inspiration to the comrades in their task of building the Socialist Workers Party. That is a cause to which Cliff dedicated his life, and the ultimate sadness is that 60-odd years of thinking and scheming and plotting have built an organisation in his own image of a few thousand, whose influence in the working class is negligible. His background and training and the political milieu he chose in his formative years produced a particular mindset. His intelligence and his ego made him believe that the important thing was for him to lead. But his thinking was abstract, the secret recipe for the revolutionary cocktail could be found in Lenin, not in the working class. He did not generalise from working-class experience, but from Lenin’s tactics. With all due respect, that is a poor substitute.
Nearly 80 years ago, the Communist Party of Great Britain had a few thousand members, probably not a great deal more than the SWP today. It did, however, exercise an influence in the working-class movement, in the Labour Party, the trade unions and the rank-and-file movement that was infinitely greater than the SWP has ever exercised — and when the latter did begin to build a periphery of some consequence, Cliff blew it. Of course, the Communist Party did not make the revolution, and it went out of business a few years ago. The SWP still has time to do either of these things, but I would not bet the mortgage on the revolution if I were you. Three individuals dominated British Trotskyism in the second half of the twentieth century: Gerry Healy, Ted Grant and Tony Cliff. Of the three, Cliff was the most accomplished, and, on a personal level, a man of great humour and charm. Gerry Healy also got the odd laugh, but that was generally from those who thought someone breaking a leg was funny. He had great energy, and Jock Haston commended his organising abilities, but for the rest he was a bully and a liar and a scoundrel. Ted Grant was, well Ted-like, what more can I say? If one were called to testify to any saving graces they might have shown, it would be quite in order to say that they kept alive a revolutionary Socialist tradition through some difficult times. After that it gets difficult, because they clung like limpets to the worst features of a framework that militated against them building anything more than a sect. In a way, perhaps, Cliff’s sin was the greater because for a brief time he started to look beyond the arid certainties of the tradition, before settling back into the easy embrace of a spurious Leninism. It is not easy to forgive him for that.
Sheila Lahr adds
While appreciating much of this book, especially Cliff’s recounting of his political experience of Palestine before and during the Second World War, and also being reminded of the political and economic events of the 1970s, I am unhappy with his attitude to women and feminism.
For instance, Cliff deplores the publication of Women’s Voice by the Socialist Workers Party in the 1970s because: ‘I was steadfast in following the Bolshevik tradition of insisting on the common interests of female and male workers.’ (p146) Cliff tells us that Lenin always insisted on the party leadership controlling women’s activities. He quotes Anne Bobroff’s criticism of Bolshevism on this point — ‘And although the editorial board [of Rabotnitsa — Woman Worker] was made up completely of women… Lenin had the deciding vote in the event of a tie.’ (p147) — only to reject her complaint. He adds with approval that women working under Lenin’s direction put through resolutions on his behalf.
It’s worth quoting Cliff’s own reasoning for opposing feminism: ‘Imagine a male worker writing to his friend. “I have good news to tell you. My wife’s wages are lousy. To add to my joy there is no nursery for our children. And to fill my cup to the brim my wife is pregnant and we want to have an abortion, but she can’t get one.”’ From this Cliff concludes that ‘male workers do not benefit from women’s oppression’. This hypothetical example is hardly the stuff of Marxist analysis! Surely Cliff should have understood the gender game played by the state for over the generations by which, to take a fairly recent example, both men and women have been brainwashed into rôles to suit the perceived needs of capitalism. For instance, before the Second World War, at a time of high male unemployment, women were ‘educated’ into a belief that their place was in the home, practising the womanly arts of cooking, cleaning, childcare and submitting to their menfolk. This message was carried by the media, various pundits and even by the popular women’s magazines. The men, on the other hand, were told that as the breadwinners they were masters in their own homes (if nowhere else), and that the women should submit. Even George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier applauds the fact that the wives of unemployed men returned home after a day’s work (no doubt gruelling and low-paid) to cook, clean and wait on the man, so maintaining male dignity!
As we know, the Second World War ended all this, because women were needed in the munitions factories, and following the war it proved impossible to return women to the home. Capitalism, of course, adapted, and now not only has the family wage disappeared, but women are being forced out to work in low paid jobs. However, the brainwashing of previous generations has been slow to erode, and women continue to receive 80 per cent of the male rate, and also retire on unequal pensions because of broken service from home and caring responsibilities. Additionally, in much of the Third World, women are under attack by governments supported by the West. While men in the Third World might not benefit in the long-term by women’s oppression, they obviously believe that they do so.
If nothing else, the women’s movement has made us aware that women need to fight for greater equality both in the home and at work, just as an earlier generation of women had fought for the vote. In this way, the women’s movement has changed the way in which women think about themselves. For that I am grateful.