Cliffism against Cliff
Ian Mahoney reviews ‘More years for the locust: the origins of the Socialist Workers Party’ by Jim Higgins
Jim Higgins - the ex-industrial organiser of the International Socialists - writes with some wit on the origins of today’s Socialist Workers Party and in particular on the eccentricities of the organisation’s founder and leader to the present day, Tony Cliff.
Ostensibly, his aim is not to produce simply a string of jocular anecdotes, but to draw up a political balance sheet of the experience. For in Higgins’s view, “the International Socialists (IS), successors to the Socialist Review group and precursors to the Socialist Workers Party, was the very best chance we had had since the 1920s to build a serious revolutionary socialist organisation. It was a chance that was not taken and those who were responsible for that error have much to answer for and should be called to account if only in the pages of this book” (p13).
This is debatable, of course. Very debatable. But even if one shares the assumption, Higgins’s book does little to damn the guilty. His essential grouse with Cliff appears to be that he betrayed Cliffism - a hopeless illusion he shares with the International Socialist Group, of course - and thus Higgins is fundamentally unable to interrogate his own past in sufficient depth to really extricate the truth.
Instead, too much of the book is taken up with some witty - some not - stories of Cliff’s exploits. I presume much of this is meant to convince the reader of Cliff’s eccentric impatience and fickleness. Despite the intentions of Higgins however, as I read his cautionary tales I actually find myself warming to Cliff. Thus, there is Cliff’s methods of building an organisation:
“At an early stage in his career, Cliff also learned another practical lesson in making recruits: keep at them - you never know when they might weaken” (p17).
Even Cliff’s slightly wacky attempts to bring a smile to the lips of comrades on a long and miserably fruitless recruitment foray to Leeds endeared the bloke to me:
“In what I can only assume to be an attempt to cheer us all up, Cliff decided [to] put on a bit of Jewish folk dancing. This, apparently, could only be performed on the [railway station] waiting room table and so we help him up on this impromptu stage. Think of the Riverdance ensemble and then banish it completely from your mind; it was nothing like that. Think more of Anastas Mikoyan dancing the gopak at Joe Stalin’s cruel command. Next, imagine that Anastas was on speed rather than Georgian brandy and wearing his truss upside-down and you have got some idea of the steps. Then, add on some bloodcurdling, and possibly obscene, Hebrew cries and ... you have just a partial understanding of the full horror of the performance” (p19).
Of course, Higgins’s book does also chronicle the political development of the organisation, even if it is a highly individual (and highly selective, according to other reviewers) account. And this is the weakest part of the book. The witticisms here come across as the tired cynicism of a blown out old revolutionary, despite some limp protestations. “Life goes on ... and we must keep trying”, he sighs at us, but I am at a loss having read the comrade’s book exactly what it is we should try next.
Unsurprisingly, the last chapter is the weakest. Here, Jim reflects on the odd preoccupation of the left with “democratic centralism”, now an “inappropriate Russian organisational form”, apparently (p131). Thus, the SWP is a “paradigm of the worst possible application of democratic centralism and a reductio ad absurdum of Lenin’s politics” (p129). A puerile example of the ineffectiveness of democratic centralism is given where a 49% minority is subordinated to a 51% majority for a particular action. Foolishly, Higgins asks if such a split ‘democratic centralist’ organisation will be effective as one where “100 per cent of the members are agreed ...?” (p126).
In fact, genuine democratic centralism would allow (though not guarantee, of course) the conditions where this minority or majority could be convinced in practice of the other’s point of view. The sad individualism that Jim seems to offer as an alternative is a recipe for our continued impotence and atomisation. Thus, we have this criminally flip comment on the morality of building a working class organisation:
“... the only sanction available against those who refuse [to participate in agreed Party actions] is that they will not be allowed to carry out future orders, to pay the extortionate subscription and to attend meetings. Not much of a frightener when you come down to it: indeed, it sounds more like a promise than a threat” (p127).
Having rubbished democratic centralism in this juvenile way, we are told that “new forms, new forces and new ideas that accord with the world in which we live are more important than yesterday’s failed certainties” (p133).
Unfortunately, Jim does not even sketch in outline what on earth he means by this throwaway remark in the book’s last paragraph. Indeed, it is all the more puzzling given the fact that implicitly he seems to have spent much of the preceding 132 pages defending what I would see as some form of democratic centralist practice against the undoubted bureaucratic arbitrariness of Cliff and his minions. Thus, despite merits, the book’s political worth is extremely limited.
Nevertheless, a good read. Get yourself a copy. Shame about the proof-reading, though.