Sheila Cohen review’s Tony Cliff a Marxist for his Time, by Ian Birchall, Bookmarks 2011.
Cliff’s story, which of course is the story of the International Socialist Group/Socialist Workers Party (IS/SWP) reveals two fundamental tendencies endemic in the “revolutionary” left : prediction and “the line”. Both of course are the product of the centralist non-democracy which,in some only too faithful version of Michel’s Iron Law,continues to dominate today’s innumerable small “mass parties”.
In writing this response to Birchall’s favourable biography,my concern is to locate what went wrong with what-briefly-looked like a revolutionary group which was actually taking the working class seriously. As such it is also the story of my own disillusionment-and that of many others-in what we might call the “initialled” revolutionary left.
To borrow an analogy from Christopher Phelps’ contribution to the 1997 Socialist Register commemoration of the Communist Manifesto, leafing through the pages of Birchall’s biography is rather like surfing through a familiar classic – (Christopher’s example is Casablanca). In other words, the story from the earliest days of the pre-IS Socialist Review Group follows a tantalisingly promising path evoking hope of a happy ending until the beginning of the end in the mid 1970s – the period Cliff was to retrospectively classify as his famous “downturn”.
Such glib definitions and predictions were a long way off when the youthful Ygal Gluckstein began his revolutionary career in Palestine. Having read Capital at the age of 15 (“he later recalled how he had enjoyed the sections on the ‘transformation problem’ and differential rent…” in Volume Three), Ygal quickly grew tired of the “reformist milieu” of the Israeli organisation Mapai and joined the Marxist Circles in Haifa. As Birchall notes, Ygal thus “became involved in forms of activity which would characterise the groups led by Cliff [until] the end of the century.” As an example, “Firstly there was paper-selling.” On a healthier note, the strike support work Ygal also became involved in featured “frequent examples of Arab and Jewish workers coming together in mixed workplaces and [attempting] to build joint unions” (pp22-3).
Ygal’s development as a Marxist in Palestine depended on “no existing body of tradition and theoretical analysis…they had to begin the task of theoretical analysis themselves…while holding firm to the fundamentals of Marxism, [Cliff] could develop new analyses of a changing reality…” (p27). By 1938, this independent approach began to bear more sophisticated fruit; at 21 the young theorist, now calling himself “L. Rock”, produced two seminal articles which argued for an integrated approach on the Arab-Jewish question based on “understand[ing] the position of the Jews in Palestine in class terms” as opposed to the crass CP approach of regarding Jews as “an integral part of the imperialist camp” (p43). As Birchall comments, “The great strength of the Rock articles is the way they put class at the centre of the analysis…[and] advocated] unity of Jewish and Arab workers” (p49).
Yet by the late 1940s Ygal was becoming increasingly frustrated; the failure of a general strike in 1946 had put paid to any immediate hopes of joint action by Arab and Jewish workers, and European Trotskyist exiles in Palestine were drifting back to their homeland. In the late summer of that year Cliff moved to London with his life partner Chanie, who had a British passport. They immediately joined the Trotskyist RCP, then “largely working class”, but fixated on questions of “entryism” into the Labour Party rather than noting and building on existing working-class struggles.
The early contributions of our hero, who was “rapidly welcomed into the party and…promptly invited to attend meetings of the political bureau”, focussed on the Middle East and the colonies, particularly India. More germane to at least some of Cliff’s later activity was the task allocated to him of defending the RCP’s economic perspectives against those of the Fourth International, specifically as expressed by Mandel under the pseudonym E. Germain.
However, Cliff was very shortly to depart from such mundane preoccupations to get stuck into the real deal: “The question which dominated Cliff’s thinking in 1947, and which would become his major contribution to Marxist theory, was the class nature of Russia” (p97). Yet it was from our hero’s then highly controversial analysis of “state capitalism” that the first signs of his later, disastrous addition to Building The Party emerged. Although the American Trotskyists Raya Dunayevskaya and C.L.R. James provided welcome support for Cliff on this question, they parted company from him on this question – or rather Cliff parted company with them. As Dunayevskaya later recalled, “Opposition to the ‘party to lead’ was the very first topic I fought with Cliff on…[when] I asked for his help…[h]e refused on the basis that my ‘giving up’ the theory of a vanguard party permitted no ground for our collaboration” (letter quoted on p106). This is ironic in view of the fact that for many years Cliff, at least in practice, also repudiated the “vanguard party”.
Yet at this stage Cliff continued to display many aspects of political (if not emotional) intelligence. Attacked by monster sectarian Gerry Healey, Cliff argued against Healey’s insistence that “the confrontation between workers’ states and capitalism was now the primary form of class struggle in the world”. As Birchall records, Cliff’s response was that “the struggle between workers and those who exploited them remained primary, whether in the East or the West. This insistence would orient his politics over the coming decades” (p131).
Soon afterwards, in late 1950, a small (inevitably) but promising group was formed on the basis of opposition to “Healyism” and support for Cliff’s position on Russia; its first issue contained a major article by our hero on the two “world imperialisms” of Russia and America. The conclusion previewed the slogan which would later adorn each issue of Socialist Worker: “The battle-cry of the…genuine socialists today must be: Neither Washington nor Moscow, but International Socialism” (p136). Yet the boast of this initially minute group was “Our grouping…is the nucleus of [the] new Marxist party…” Furthermore “[that party] can be built firmly ONLY on the acceptance of party discipline in the tradition of Bolshevism under Lenin’s leadership”. It was not a promising start.
Yet Cliff’s first book, Stalinist Russia; A Marxist Analysis, was notable, according to Birchall, for a “focus on working class agency” – itself to be bourne out very shortly by the dramatic workers’ uprising in Hungary. Birchall quotes the censored Daily Worker correspondent Peter Fryer as noting that the Hungarian workers’ councils showed “a striking resemblance” to Soviets in 1905 and 1917 Russia. And Cliff was equally enraptured by this workers’ uprising, staying up “practically every night listening to the radio” (p156).
As is well known, “Neither Washington nor Moscow” was not the only slogan to be associated with what would later become IS. The next policy innovation was the theory of the Permanent Arms Economy, developed by staunch Cliffite Michael Kidron. As Birchall points out, Cliff himself wrote little more on this question, while even Kidron came to see the theory as “inadequate” by the 1970s. However, Birchall notes (correctly) that “it was not so much the technical details of the theory as its general thrust” that was strategically important for the group: firstly “it established that the boom was real and likely to last…” and secondly – an equally valid point – that “capitalism was still a contradictory system prone to crisis” (pp166-7). Top marks to Cliff.
These – for the Trotskyist movement – exceptionally subtle insights were linked in a new contribution on the key issue of reformism. Addressing Lenin’s labour aristocracy theory, Cliff argued that in the postwar period “the whole of the working class [had] benefited from increased living standards”, lessening the differences between skilled and unskilled workers, and that, as Birchall puts it in rather circular fashion, “It was this ability of capitalism to grant reforms…that made reformism possible.” This argument could hardly be challenged in the mid-20th century – an era which had provided, in addition to higher wages, substantial educational and health improvements for the mass of workers under western capitalism. Yet Cliff’s analysis went little further in examining the complex and contradictory dialectic between capitalist concessions and workers’ continuing struggles around the effort-reward relationship and beyond. The related – and crucial – question of trade union bureaucracy is subsumed under the same rubric: “as a result, a reformist bureaucracy came into existence which saw its aim as mediating between workers and bosses…” (p168). As I hope I have managed to show, the question of worker representation and bureaucratisation is both more complex and more strategically significant than this.
But never mind the theory, feel the organisation…The still modestly-sized SRG was impressed when in November 1958 the Healey group organised a rank-and-file conference attended by over 500 “mainly shop-floor workers” (p172). The numbers show the potential of the period – even the miniature SRG was able to attract workers, and “by the early 1960s there was a small group of experienced trade unionists” around Cliff, including engineering worker Geoff Carlson, who stood against the Amalgamated Engineering Union’s far-right general secretary. Carlsson attracted a “respectable vote” despite competing with the much better-known CP candidate Reg Birch (p181).
At this point, marked by “growing theoretical ferment and the growth of a Marxist milieu outside the CP”, the SRG decided it was time to launch a theoretical journal; the first issue of International Socialism appeared in September 1958. More importantly for our purposes, however, was the publication in 1959 of Cliff’s Rosa Luxemburg. With this began a far more promising questioning of conventional “Leninism” by the budding organisation, and with it a scepticism over SLL-style party-building which was to characterise the group for over a decade. As Birchall points out, Cliff “had previously had little to say about the question of the revolutionary party”, despite being busy founding one for the last decade or so. Perhaps this freshness of approach was responsible for Cliff’s dismissal of the orthodox adherence to What Is To Be Done as “fitt[ing]…all times and places” and his argument that “forms of organisation must be understood in their historical and political contexts” (p185). Given the very different conditions in Germany, Cliff was able to recognise that “Luxemburg had a much earlier and clearer view of the role of the labour bureaucracy than Lenin or Trotsky” and thus that “For Marxists in advanced industrial countries Lenin’s original position can serve much less as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’s” (p186).
As Birchall points out, Cliff’s assent to Luxemburg’s formulation, “Mistakes committed by a genuine revolutionary movement are much more fruitful…than the infallibility of the very best Central Committee” was “a phrase that stuck in the memory of many of his audience…when Cliff himself was a Central Committee member” (p186). But all that was far in the future; in one of two perspectives documents Cliff wrote to mark the dawning of the 1960s, he noted that “The question of inner democracy is absolutely central to the Marxist movement…Unity in action [must be] combined with freedom in discussion…” (p191).
The burgeoning radicalism of the early 1960s, signalled by the growth of the New Left and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), was reflected in “small but significant progress” in recruiting to the SRG; an “important addition” was Jim Higgins, later to be a vocal critic of the IS leadership. In 1960 International Socialism was relaunched as a quarterly and featured an impressively non-sectarian approach, with its Editorial Board drawn from “almost all the Trotskyist-derived currents except the SLL” (p200). The SRG was renamed the International Socialism group (IS) in December 1962, but this did not signal a turn to SLL-style sectarianism; rather, the group’s structure “remained loose and lacking in formalism”. Meanwhile, the Labour Party’s founding of a youth wing, the Young Socialists (YS), opened up the political scene; IS established a youth paper, Rebel (p202), and “new recruits were soon made”.
In fact, the growth and class composition of the revolutionary groups during this period appears today almost miraculous; a merger between Rebel and another youth paper, Rally, “drew in a group of apprentices in Glasgow” who had been politicised by their strike in 1960 and had joined YS. In fact, the working-class bastion of Glasgow became a stronghold for the budding IS, leading to an interesting early critique of Cliff’s already burgeoning obsession with membership numbers; one new recruit prophetically noted that Cliff “had a messianic element [sic] similar to Gerry Healey…” (p210). Yet he and other Glasgow members established “a solidly working class group”; one shop steward member was able to sell 100 copies of Labour Worker at his workplace, the historic Singer factory.
At about this time the new organisation launched a new paper “aimed specifically at trade union activists”. The new publication, at first far from successful, consisted mainly of industrial reports but “became increasingly oriented to entry work in the Labour Party” (p221). Yet in the meantime Cliff was busy producing more promising theoretical analysis, publishing a series of influential articles in the early 1960s which included an interesting analysis emphasising Trotsky’s pre-1917 critique of substitutionism. Although Birchall concedes that “critics might counterpose some of its formulations to Cliff’s later practice in the leadership of a revolutionary organisation” he insists that it “stands as a statement of how [Cliff then] conceived of revolutionary organisation” (p223).
In fact, in the following two pages we find a positively stellar analysis of the relationship between revolutionary organisation and class vanguard. In support of the statement “Cliff…was contemptuous of the pretensions of small groups to claim to be the vanguard of the class”, Birchall produces a number of quotes: “…it is clear that little groups cannot…substitute for the mass revolutionary party, not to say for the mass of the working class’ ”; “The party…should…put as its first duty to learn from the experience of the mass movement and then generalise from it”, and “all the party’s issues of policy are those of the class, and they should therefore be thrashed out in the open, in its presence” (pp224-5). Quite a contrast…
In late 1960, a general strike in Belgium spurred more thoughts of working-class self-activity and the impact of struggle on consciousness; Cliff noted that the logic of the action pointed to crucial questions of class unity and dual power. At the time British workers were seen as relatively passive; yet Cliff again rejected Lenin’s conception of a reactionary labour aristocracy, and also criticised those who reiterated Trotsky’s Transitional Programme, commenting “Parrots never made a revolution” (p229). Even more astonishingly for today’s SWP observers, he commented, “Marxists should not set themselves up as a party or embryo of a party of their own…” (p230).
As we know now, a significant upsurge in class struggle was not long in the future; according to Birchall, Cliff had predicted these developments, although he provides little evidence for this. In any case, “[T]he IS group’s roots in the labour movement were…rather limited” at this point; even “the handful of older industrial militants” were becoming less active. Yet one of those, the faithful Geoff Carlsson, was able to build a group of stewards and activists around him, and in 1966 “an ENV workplace branch was set up, the first…in the history of the organisation” (257).
In January 1966, ENV convenor Geoff Mitchell set up a Shop Stewards Defence Committee (SSDC) to protect activists from the kinds of attacks often aimed at militants by the more conservative elements of the labour movement. Impressively, “the committee was an attempt at a united front”. There was plenty of scope for defending stewards from attacks by both trade union bureaucracy and the Labour government, which imposed a total wage freeze in autumn that year.
The CP’s intervention via its own newly-established front organisation, the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU) overpowered the SSDC; yet the committee had already published the highly influential pamphlet “Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards”, co-authored by Cliff and Colin Barker. Birchall’s throwaway remark that “This was a major turning point for Cliff…He had written little on the British labour movement” (p259) illustrates the central paradox typifying so many “revolutionaries”; that the class, and the society, closest (at least potentially) to their own daily experience appears as the least significant. Like the US SWP member disseminating pro-Cuban propaganda in the aisles of an assembly plant, the more exotic,and less relevant the more worthy of concentrated “revolutionary” effort.
In fact the pamphlet was a raging success within Britain’s insurgent shopfloor movement, selling well over 7000 copies. Its theoretical arguments, including the dubious notion that “unofficial strikes were symptoms of an aspiration for workers’ control” (Birchall’s words, p261) were probably less of an attraction for its audience than the detailed and concrete analysis of the threat posed by the government’s policy. In fact,the short sharp “wildcats” now erupting across the movement were concerned more with effort vs reward than with the grandiose theoretical aspirations now becoming common among middle-class socialists.
Predictably, the authors did not resist the temptation to predict: “Out of the shop stewards’ organisation will rise a new socialist movement, much mightier than ever before…” More concretely, “The pamphlet…reoriented the whole strategy of the IS group for the coming years.” IS had, it seems, discovered the working class. Yet logistical problems stood in the way of ambition; Cliff and Barker “were noticeably vague about how the shop stewards’ struggle would develop into a socialist movement.” Although “Cliff was now rethinking his 1962 position that revolutionaries should remain within the Labour Party…” Birchall notes that “what form of organisation would be required was still unclear” (pp262-4).
In fact,the question began to be answered by the nature of the group’s activity around this intrinsically workplace-oriented publication. “[M]embers were sent off to visit shop stewards…and persuade them to buy a copy…The book was taken to stewards, who were asked if they knew of other people who might want it.” In other words, the basic link-up activity characteristic of the Labor Notes project.
Yet Birchall’s biography now departs from this exciting potential; in fact he emphasises the “weaknesses” of shop steward organisation at the time (would that we had such weaknesses today). The account digresses from the workplace to other important working-class struggles such as council tenants’ rent strikes and, inevitably, the ongoing conflict between leftists and Labour Party. In fact, the increased activism of the group alerted Cliff to new “dangers”; at an IS aggregate in April 1967 he argued that “we [have] moved into much more activism, and there’ll be a danger that we’ll become mindless militants” (p271). Becoming mindful militants was clearly not an option. Nevertheless, Cliff recognised that “the organisation was in a transitional phase” although “what it was in transition to was not yet apparent” (p271).
By this time the Vietnam war was causing almost as much opposition in Britain as in the US, sparking largely student-based mass demonstrations. Although “IS activity around shop stewards and tenants left little time for campaigning on Vietnam”, by 1967 Chris Harman, then a student at LSE, “helped reorient the IS towards a greater involvement with the Vietnam question.” Cliff himself “was adamant in insisting that the IS should become involved in the VSC [Vietnam Solidarity Campaign]” and in fact was to admit years later that if not for the anti-war movement “the IS might never have moved beyond being a tiny propaganda group” (p275).
In fact,Cliff was now “devot[ing] great attention to the small growing-points of the organisation, some of which at least appeared to exist in significant sections of industry; one long-time member, Sabby Sagall, was encouraged to “get involved with activity around Ford in Dagenham, and when Sabby organised a small group…Cliff travelled to Dagenham every week to speak to them…he didn’t hector workers but listened to them.” As Sagall recalled, “He used to say ‘We learn from the class, and we teach the class’ ” (p283). While IS of course continued to mobilise in the anti-war movement, “It strove to recruit on the basis of linking the anti-war activity to the struggle at home”, issuing a leaflet which argued in part “In the factories workers are fighting against the wage freeze…If we are to help the Vietnamese we must go on from Grosvenor Square to fight these struggles.”
The group also intervened – non-censoriously – amongst dockers who had marched in support of Enoch Powell’s racist “rivers of blood” speech, distributing a worker-friendly leaflet written by the talented journalist Paul Foot. The development sparked an appeal for left unity in the face of what was described as the “urgent challenge of fascism”. Yet, as always, any meaningful cooperation between the sects was impossible. Interestingly, that same year – 1968 – IS overtook the “inherently sectarian” SLL in numbers (this may have been partly explained by Cliff’s remorseless approach to recruiting, a portent of his later obsession with numbers; Tariq Ali recalled that on one occasion when he paid a visit to Cliff’s house, the IS leader “locked the kitchen door and said he would not let Tariq leave till he joined IS” (p287).
The events of May 1968 in France “surprised everyone”, but of course the left “responded with delight”. Perhaps few of his revolutionary counterparts would have jumped to the conclusion Cliff expressed to a student audience that “capitalism and trade unions could no longer coexist” (p289). This somewhat overblown analysis may have been behind what Birchall describes as “a distinct shift towards voluntarism” at this point; at any rate, June that year saw not only a change of name for IS’ paper from Labour Worker to Socialist Worker, but – “more controversially” – the proposal that the organisation should adopt a democratic centralist structure” (p290).
For the moment, the “most controversial” aspect of this was the requirement for much tighter internal discipline, with conference and Executive Committee decisions binding on all IS members. Cliff’s next move, a pamphlet written jointly with Birchall himself on the French May events, is described here as having the “main aim [of] argu[ing] for an immediate strategy of building a revolutionary party, a sharp shift in the orientation of the organisation” (p296). This comes as a surprise to the present reviewer, who joined IS in 1970 but understood it then as being very far from a “vanguard”-style organisation.
Cliff did get one prediction right – that “within less than six years industrial action would bring down a Tory government”. Another optimistic slogan – “France today, Britain tomorrow!” was less accurate. Yet Cliff was now throwing himself full tilt into the well-worn task of Building the Revolutionary Party. The pamphlet on the French events was used to develop his thinking on the nature of such an organisation; however, he argued the case here for IS becoming “an open revolutionary organisation, committed to turning itself into a party” rather than emerging instantaneously as The Revolutionary Party itself.
In any case, however, Cliff had a hard time convincing his membership of even this “party lite” approach; persuading them to accept a new constitution based on democratic centralist principles was tough enough to “panic” the normally ebullient leader. Heated internal debate followed, creating a number of “factions and platforms” in the process, in sharp contrast to IS’s unforgiving attitude to factions less than five years later. During this time Duncan Hallas, “a powerful speaker and prodigious writer”, was recruited to the leadership; IS “moved ahead of its rivals on the far left”, the sectarian SLL and the student-oriented International Marxist Group (p302).
Yet it was in that promising year that Cliff has been accused of “switch[ing] from Luxemburgism to Leninism”. This, avows Birchall, “is a misleading oversimplification” (p302). For one thing, both Leninism and Luxemburgism are, as he rightly states, “slippery concepts”; Cliff’s own interpretation of Lenin was “far from conventional” in bending the stick (one of Cliff’s favourite sayings) towards the “democratic” rather than “centralist” wing of the dialectic. On the Luxemburg side of the equation, “Cliff did not make a dichotomy between spontaneity and organisation”, an important nod towards dialectical thinking.
The next chapter, “Years of Hope”, neatly covers the period 1969-74 when Cliff moved from the conception of a relatively open, non-sectarian and non-party building grouping to his insistence on founding the SWP. This began with a document, “On Perspectives”, in which Cliff was prescient in noting the “deep alienation of workers from traditional organisations”, although at a time when trade union membership was reaching its highest historic levels this seems premature. 1969 was, however, a year when the working class was showing its dissatisfaction in no uncertain terms with Labour’s first postwar attempts to bring in anti-strike legislation; it was also the period when workplace organisation was at its liveliest and most combative; in fact, it was in many ways a potentially revolutionary period.
IS membership was if anything becoming less working class than before, yet it was at this point that “the main priority…became…the turn to the class”. In the same year, The Employers’ Offensive: Productivity Deals and How to Fight Them appeared (p311); even more than the incomes policy pamphlet, this was a publication of direct use and relevance to industrial workers, based on a detailed examination of over 100 productivity deals, with concrete examples of deals affecting bus workers, miners, steel workers, car workers and print workers among many others. Productivity Deals “did much to establish the credibility of the IS within the established labour movement…the organisation began to draw around it more industrial militants and other activists” (pp317-8). The results were jaw-dropping; shortly after one “legendary militant” in Teesside joined IS after hearing Cliff speaking on the pamphlet, “the Teesside district of the IS had 27 stewards in the steel industry”.
At this point, in fact, sectariana was beginning to be swept aside by something much more powerful – working class struggle. In early 1972 a series of dramatic industrial dramas was set in train, from Scargill’s “Saltley Gates” struggle to the triumph of the imprisoned “Pentonville Five” dockers against the Tories’ Industrial Relations Act. Cliff assessed the dockers’ victory in an article which “[w]hile continuing to stress the importance of building a revolutionary party…underlined the importance of a rank and file strategy” (p333). Defining this in terms of a “cog wheel” between revolutionaries and the working class, he proposed “the organisation of militants in different unions and industries who work together around specific issues…wider than those affecting a small group of workers in one place of work [but] not going as far as to aim at a complete emancipation of the working class…” Common sense at last.
The prototype for this organising was not, as with Labor Notes, one movement-wide publication, and (eventually) organisation, but a range of separate rank-and-file papers built on the model pioneered by IS members in the National Union of Teachers – a separate rank-and-file and group for each industry. One “model” for a class-wide grassroots network was the CP’s Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU), also built at around the same time, but since this provided a master-class in sectarian exclusiveness the smaller, but livelier IS was in a good position to attract the growing layer of activists disillusioned by this chicanery.
Yet the beginning of the end of this relatively healthy period was by now in sight. At the 1973 IS conference Cliff informed delegates that “history was knocking” at IS’ door, generating tasks among which “rapid recruitment” was to the fore; “In meetings all over the country, Cliff urged that time was short and that it was necessary to build rapidly” (p337). The obsession with numbers derided by Jim Higgins – “Never mind the quality, feel the width” – was beginning to dominate (not that it had ever been far in the background). But the growth was impressive in qualitative terms; 49 per cent of new recruits that year were manual workers, and “[f]or the first time we are recruiting more TGWU and AEF members [than teachers]” (p338).
Another positive development was the building of factory branches; within months of the 1973 conference “about 40 were established”. Cliff wrote a short pamphlet on this form of organisation, which counter-intuitively (but rightly) warned against over-rapid recruitment: “Think ‘small’, don’t overreach and risk demoralisation.” The pamphlet “raised the argument about party and class to a new level” by pointing out that only a minority of workers would be principled class activists. Yet, astoundingly for students of present-day left activity in “the unions”, Cliff also recognised that (in Birchall’s words) “the central question was [raising] consciousness…This was far more important than passing particular resolutions or winning particular elections” – both activities apparently central for 21st-century socialists.
It was at more or less this point, however, that the canker began to develop within the rose. The question of “how to take the rank and file movement forward” prompted the call for a national rank and file conference. But, in Birchall’s words, “There was also an argument about recruitment. The organisation was growing rapidly. Would the building of a rank and file conference…contradict the aim of recruiting as widely as possible while favourable circumstances lasted?” (p349). This, of course, was the central “obstacle”; and it was at this point that IS began to depart from its relatively healthy, non-sectarian and workplace-oriented approach, and begin to become what we see today.
The rest of this extended review will therefore be less detailed as Birchall’s biography traces the various moves away from non-sectarian support activity towards ever more blatant party-building. Although the Rank and File conference which took place early in 1974 attracted considerably more delegates from union branches and shop steward organisations than had been expected (p354) its potential was subordinated to Cliffite announcements that major changes were needed in IS’ internal organisation and strategy; as Birchall comments (favourably), the disputes of the period “were about real issues of party-building” (p359).
Rather prematurely, Cliff declared that “[t]he working class was in a process of rapid change” away from a primarily industrial base; perhaps as another excuse for moving away from the tank-and-file strategy, he argued that shop stewards were becoming increasingly incorporated into joint management-union workplace structures, an position later theorised by ex-IS member Richard Hyman in his notorious “workplace bureaucratisation” thesis . Birchall’s support for Cliff’s “turn from the class” is argued particularly clumsily here: “If IS had continued to orient…on the layer of experienced workers, it would have been condemned to disaster”, the “logic” of this being is that major strikes of the period were not led by experienced workers. True enough (and disastrous the outcome, at least at Grunwick) but this overlooks the staggering strike record of the period, in which some highly experienced activists were involved. Nor would a primarily working-class orientation preclude support for and building from struggles conducted by “inexperienced” workers – which in fact hold the potential for radicalisation and rapid class education of the workers concerned.
This ABC of party-and-class relations does not seem to have been available from the early 1970s onwards; although “Cliff was committed to the rank-and-file perspective” he “saw a danger of rank and file work becoming an end in itself. For Cliff, politics was paramount…” So “rank and file work” intrinsically lacks “politics”? Cliff’s obsession with “party-building” swept aside the recognition that there is always a layer/periphery of particularly committed activists in the working-class activists open to political ideas; perhaps the central critique that must be made of Cliff/IS’ turn, so to speak, to the Party.
By autumn 1974 IS membership was over 3000, with over 1,200 manual workers – a substantial achievement. Contradicting Cliff’s future analysis of a “downturn” beginning at this point, “industrial struggle continued at quite a high level…In Scotland…so many disputes came together there was almost a general strike…almost 90 percent of strike days were unofficial” (p373). Such a downturn we can only dream of. Yet IS insisted on “pessimism of the will”; a 1975 conference document argued gloomily, “We underestimated the speed with which the economic crisis would drive workers to draw political conclusions” (p376).
Apart from anything else, this is a particularly clunky way of understanding political consciousness amongst workers. As Luxemburg writes, working-class consciousness “does not proceed in a beautiful straight line but in a lightning-like zigzag” . Yet such subtleties were now a very long way from the radar of a manically impatient Cliff. At this point revolutionary upheaval was at full tilt in Portugal, and IS’ far from constructive intervention reflected the organisation’s increasing obsession with “party-building” and the correct “line” in a situation requiring fluid response to concrete working-class struggle. One outcome of IS’ position on Portugal was that it led to “a dispute with IS’ fraternal organisation in America, the International Socialists of the United States(ISUS).” Although Birchall says little about ISUS’ development in the mid-late ‘70s, it is clear retrospectively that the split provided the political “room” for invaluable initiatives like TDU and, later, Labor Notes (neither of which features in Birchall’s index).
Back in Britain, Cliff moved on to his major work on Lenin, in which he highlighted Lenin’s conviction that “organization…should be subordinated to politics”. Birchall rightly notes how “radical” this point was, arguing that Cliff’s analysis “repudiated the myth” of the “Leninist party”. Recently Lars Lih’s re-reading of Lenin has indicated the widespread misinterpretation and mis-appliance of “What Is To Be Done?”, stressing the continuity of Lenin’s views on party organisation, while Cliff’s favourite phrase “bending the stick” implies inconsistency or at least an opportunistically “flexible” perspective on building revolutionary leadership of the class.
Our purpose here is not to parse Cliff’s writings, but to reflect on how his theoretical analysis influenced his leadership of IS. On this front, the next development was disastrous – in only too symbolic a way. As Birchall reports, in late 1975 “the longstanding internal dispute” – presumably over rank and file organising versus party-building – “came to a head”. The issue was the refusal of IS engineering union members to put forward an IS candidate for a union post, instead supporting the existing Broad Left (aka CP) candidate. Rather than understanding and commending these activists’ informed choice, IS expelled the dissident engineering workers.
Understandably, this provoked something of a crisis in the organisation (again), with those identifying with the contours and complexities of working-class organisation on one side and the party-builders, including “hanging judge” Steve Jeffreys, who implemented the expulsions, on the other. A faction calling itself the “IS Opposition” was established on this basis; arguing that “the present lurch to ultra-leftism will destroy any working-class base”, it included former executive members such as Jim Higgins and John Palmer. They were duly expelled, while “a considerable number more were demoralised by the internal dispute and dropped out” (p403). Good work, party-builders.
Even the faithful Birchall is gently critical of Cliff over this episode, which saw “the biggest split in the history of the organisation and a very serious setback.” Nevertheless, he returns to the well-worn “downturn” theme in arguing that “The hopes of the IS in the early 1970s were not realised because the Labour government succeeded in enforcing the Social Conflict and large-scale industrial conflict virtually came to an end” (p405). As any superficial reading of 1970s working–class history demonstrates, this is way off the mark – and in fact on the next page Birchall contradicts himself, noting that “Cliff continued to be impatient, aware that the favourable circumstances of the mid-1970s would not last long.”
Yet by this time Cliff appears to have lost, or at least severely damaged, his antennae regarding the significance of workplace struggle: “When a German comrade told how they had set up a regular informal meeting for contacts from a factory, Cliff…shouted that most people were attracted by revolutionary ideas, not by discussion about the workplace” (p407). Hmm – no dialectical relationship between the two, then? And in fact the mid-1970s were the beginning of the end, if not of workplace struggle then of IS’s primary orientation towards that dynamic. 1976 marked the setting-up of the Right to Work Campaign – addressed at unemployed workers rather than employed activists – complete with a Right to Work march, mass rallies and all. In the same year, the leadership decided to begin contesting parliamentary by-elections, a strategy rapidly shown up as a dismal failure (pp410-12).
After listing these diversions, Birchall casually notes that “at the end of 1976 it was decided to rename the organisation the Socialist Workers Party. There was some debate…” No, not over whether to take this drastic step, but over the name – a CC majority favoured the Socialist Party “on the grounds that the name SWP [presumably because of the W-word] would represent a barrier [!] to thousands of new recruits”. But leaving aside these important matters, “[t]he new name was a recognition of a change which had taken place over the preceding years…the IS was already functioning as a party” (p412). Cliff himself had commented in January of that year that “In the course of the last year, our organisation has become a party.” In an article justifying (or celebrating) the move, Cliff explained the rationale of the “new name” as Birchall refers to the change; for example that “[t]he SWP was now capable of electoral results at least as good as the CP’s” and that the 1976 Right to Work conference had been bigger than recent conferences of the now (largely abandoned) LCDTU. As Birchall notes – uncritically – “Cliff was preoccupied with numbers” (p313).
Worse was to come – or at least more moves away from any primary class orientation; “In the course of 1977 the focus of SWP activity…switched towards anti-racism” (p419). The popular front Rock Against Racism was established in 1976; although its roots were in the contemporary and highly anti-establishment punk zeitgeist , a leading role was played by SWP members. The Anti-Nazi League (ANL) was formed the following summer, imitating most popular fronts in involving “a number of prominent sportspersons, musicians and intellectuals” as well as “leading figures from the Labour Party such as Neil Kinnock…”. Neil Kinnock!?! No one could oppose such activity per se, but it was a long way from the old IS – or any primarily class-based – perspective.
Yet Birchall notes that “despite his involvement in so many other activities, Cliff remained committed to the importance of the industrial struggle” (p432). This is exemplified by the fact that “In December 1978 he published a short pamphlet for Chrysler workers” which focussed on rationalisation of the industry” but also found space to “quote…rank and file workers on the ill effects of the incorporation of senior stewards into the management structure” . So what not to like? Nothing, except that this period saw the biggest strike revolt (in terms of working days lost) of British history – the Winter of Discontent. Notwithstanding the evidence before his eyes, “Cliff began to argue for the need to recognise a downturn in struggle in 1978…” (p433).
Of course, in retrospect a case could be made for the “downturn” thesis in terms of the rapid erosion of the trade union movement under Thatcher (elected in 1979). But a case can also be made for recognition of, and socialist leadership of, the quasi-revolutionary potential of the Winter. The leadership seemed to be blind to this; while Steve Jefferys demonstrated what Birchall calls a “highly over-optimistic perspective” at the time, this optimism was “based on the successes of the ANL.” It was as if the SWP leaders were suffering from a form of political Attention Deficit Disorder.
It gets worse; although by late 1978 the leadership had managed to notice that a major strike wave was going on, it was not until this point that “[t]he rank and file strategy, which had been dormant for some time, began to resume its relevance” (p436). A bit late, maybe…? The disorientation was confirmed when Steve Jefferys resigned as industrial organiser, not in protest against the strategic confusion but because “The decay of working-class organisation and the shift to the right in the trade union movement has gone so far that all we can do in this period is to make socialist propaganda as actively as possible.” This in the midst of – shall I say it again? – the biggest strike wave ever. While Tory ministers complained about “little Soviets”, a leading SWP intellectual could turn from class-oriented agitational organising to…propaganda.
Of course, all this can be retrospectively justified by the Thatcher victory and all that followed. But apart from the fact that Thatcher’s win was hardly a landslide, the reality is that trade unionism was at a historic high in 1979-80. An effective workplace-based activists’ network could have played an effective part in combating the many betrayals that followed. But rather than noting this tragic loss of potential, Birchall comments happily at the end of this chapter, “The SWP, despite internal disputes, had held together well, and Cliff could feel some satisfaction that…his party was in reasonably good shape.” It resembles the complacency of a small business owner rather than a revolutionary socialist noting the tragic ending – for the time being – of an at times quasi-revolutionary period of intense working-class struggle.
The next chapter, headed “1979-84: Enforced Retreat”, begins with the report of a speech to the 1979 SWP Easter Rally at which Cliff commented, “[1969-74] was a period when the class struggle achieved a level unprecedented in British working class history for generations…” However, as Birchall sums up the argument, “the Labour election victory in 1974 had marked a sharp turning point” after which (Cliff again) “we did not have one national strike in any key section of the class.” The leader’s “logic” ignored such minor matters as the national Ford strike in late 1978, not to mention the subsequent waves of public sector and civil service actions. Logic and history must fall by the wayside; it was time for the (retrospective) declaration of the “Downturn” (p441).
From this point, our Casablanca passes its peak, and we can only resign ourselves to the torrent of diversion-cum-sectarianism that follows. As an unrepentant “workerist”, I will pass over the extended discussion of Cliff’s initially hostile response to the Women’s Liberation movement and the demands of women members of the SWP for increased representation and attention to the issue; they were right, of course, but as with most “movement” demands the response could be little more than symbolic (though contrast the excellent, class-based restructuring of TDU from its inception along lines that queried truckers’ “macho” and at times racist culture – a very different dynamic). Like the rest of the left, the SWP poured resources into support for the 1984-5 miners’ strike; yet this herculean struggle was almost from its beginnings more symbolic than effective, despite the enormous bravery of its participants.
The year after the miners’ defeat (which Cliff, to his credit, had predicted) the leader was back on the numbers game. He rightly criticised those who reversed Gramsci’s doctrine of “optimism of the will…” to “optimism of the intellect and pessimism of the will”, instead recommending an approach of “Everything in the garden is terrible, but there are things we can do.” Yet such “things” were immediately translated into recruitment numbers: “Can we grow to 6,000 instead of 4,000?” (p487).
Interestingly, a theoretical intervention by Cliff’s son Donny Gluckstein provoked a sharp response by Alex Callinicos accusing Donny of the twin sins of “absolving Luxemburg for her failure to build a revolutionary party and tending to give priority to soviets over the party”. A clearer demonstration of the SWP’s rapid progression to a form of Leninist Stalinism would be hard to find. Yet in a later publication written jointly with Cliff, Gluckstein “retrieved”‘ his reputation with a highly conventional analysis of the trade union bureaucracy, defining it as a “distinct, basically conservative, social formation” – an theoretically bankrupt analysis which did nothing to explore the complex dynamics which so often make bureaucrats out of activists. Obviously Donny had not escaped too far beyond his father’s coattails.
By 1992, Cliff was back in the prediction business; at a meeting in the annual “Marxism” jamboree he described the argument that there was a long-term decline in the working class movement as “a load of rubbish”. Instead there were “clear indications of the strength and resilience of the working class movement”. Cliff was lucky this time; late 1992 saw a huge popular protest movement over the government’s inept attempt to close a further 31 coal mines. True to form, “Cliff and the central committee decided that in this climate a call for a general strike would be a realistic demand”, and the next issue of Socialist Worker duly bore the heading “General Strike Now!” La plus ca change…
Cliff produced another revolutionary biography during these years, this time on Trotsky. The faithful Birchall concedes that “for the most part this was not Cliff at his best.” Yet the book revealed a spurt of anti-Leninism with our hero “quite critical about Lenin’s argument that the revolution should be carried out in the name of the party rather than the soviet” (pp518-9). The fact that this position contradicted most of what he had been up to for the last twenty-plus years did not seem to occur to the author (or indeed his biographer).
In 1995, again at Marxism, Cliff backflipped once more; lecturing on Engels, he “drew out” what Birchall describes as a “fundamental point”, viz that ‘the whole history of Marxism was about learning from the working class.’ Even more bizarrely, he ended his speech by fulminating against what had in effect been his own long-term practice: “I can never understand the idea…that the party teaches the class. What the hell is the party?…The dialectic means there is a two-way street…” (p530). By early 1995 he had decided that ‘the downturn proper’ was over; no upturn was to be expected, but the SWP briefly adopted a rank-and-file perspective in that year. This did not, however, lead to any lessening of the domination of the SWP in party-class relations; the present reviewer remembers distributing leaflets promoting the rank and file paper Trade Union News on the chairs of an SWP “rank and file” conference, only to turn round and see a small gnome-like figure following behind and picking them up. Not much non-sectarian class unifying going on there.
Cliff died in April 2000, an event signalling, of course, the end of Birchall’s biography. But the conclusion provides a number of useful pointers to how we might assess Cliff’s – and IS/SWP’s – trajectory. The outlook is not promising; for Birchall at least, “Cliff’s major theoretical contribution was the analysis of state capitalism” (p554). It is true that our cynicism as to the true nature of “socialism” in Russia meant that “Cliff’s followers were relatively immune to any sense of defeat” while “The collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’ after 1989 led to demoralisation among many sections of the left…” Fine, but 20-odd years later the issue somehow lacks centrality, while for some of us at least the issue of how socialists relate to the working-class vanguard remains as central as ever.
The sense of other-universe-ness continues when we discover that Cliff’s, or at least the SWP’s, “most visible success was the anti-Nazi League” (p556). And perhaps the most arcane “tribute” comes with Birchall’s recollection : “In the 1990s someone from one of the SWP’s rivals characterised the party’s mode of operation as, ‘If it moves, recruit it; if it doesn’t move, stick a poster on it.’ ”. Astoundingly, Birchall comments “It was meant as a slander, but may serve as a tribute” (p557). Perhaps this final conundrum should stand as an epitaph to “the biggest small mass party” in Britain?