Tony Cliff and IS democracy

My first encounter with Tony Cliff was in Digbeth Civic Hall, Birmingham in 1968 when he came to deliver one of his mad professor acts at a regional IS rally designed to recruit students and others in the wake of Paris, May 1968 and the mass anti-Vietnam War demos in Grosvenor Square.

Cliff could see that there was a new radical movement developing and he wanted to position International Socialists in the forefront. He promised faction rights for political tendencies and regular internal bulletins for open discussion. He invited all existing left groups to join IS. In my opinion Cliff was absolutely correct in making this move. Jim Higgins suggests the unity move was a "total disaster", because the only group to take up the offer was Matgamna's Workers Fight which he thinks caused so much trouble later on (J Higgins More years of the locust London 1997, p79).

Tariq Ali in his autobiography talks of the discussion in the International Marxist Group at the time about Cliff's offer, where he argued for joining IS, whereas the majority were frightened about being swamped or out-manoeuvred by Cliff. I think Tariq Ali was correct.

Nevertheless the question of which groups joined is less important than the effect of the offer on individuals who swarmed into IS on the basis of Cliff's promise of openness. There were, if I recollect rightly, at least five different political factions in IS in 1968, which changed the whole nature of the group.

At the Birmingham meeting, I made a vitriolic attack on IS politics, having been trained in the Gerry Healy school of political invective during the early 60s. I accused IS of arsing around in the Labour Party for 15 years to no avail, of having centrist politics vacillating between ultra-leftism and reformism, and of having a woolly, federalist organisational structure. Some IS members made a spirited defence of their group. However, Tony Cliff's reaction was most disarming. Whereas Gerry Healy would have been apoplectic with rage at such an attack, Cliff said, "The comrade is quite right!"

After the meeting he came up to me and said he needed ex-Socialist Labour League members like myself to "harden up" IS and asked if I could provide him with any contacts.

It did not matter that we disagreed on state capitalism and the theory of the permanent arms economy: the important question was building the organisation on a democratic centralist basis and turning it outwards to the working class, who were becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Labour government. Later we sold thousands of copies of Cliff's book The employers offensive in shop stewards' committees and used the new contacts for Lutte Ouvrière-style fortnightly rank and file bulletins. This built a base in the shop stewards' movement for IS in the late 60s/early 70s.

This period in IS was a very creative one with students and workers bringing different skills and experience to the building of the group. However, Tony Cliff did not take democracy seriously. The opening up of IS was a tactic he employed to expand the group and to direct it in the way he wanted. There was no attempt to engage in a dialogue with the shop stewards, learning from their experience and applying the basics of Marxism to their lives. Strikes and militancy were seen as the only answers to every problem. Demagogy and flattery took the place of reasoned discussion.

Eventually political factions were discouraged and a full-scale witch-hunt launched against Workers Fight, which remained as the only declared faction. Now it was only a small group of comrades, to which I belonged at the time. The attack on it was out of all proportion to its size - which means that there was more involved than getting rid of Workers Fight. It was an attempt by Cliff to harden up the group, to create hacks and unquestioning disciples in the main branches and on the National Committee: people who were prepared to tell lies and to engage in dirty tricks which would have created outrage in a trade union. It was also a warning to individuals or groups who wished to dissent from the line.

As was the case with the invitation to join in 1968, it was not only Workers Fight as a group that was affected by the policy change, but the independent, thinking members of IS. Most knew that the whole expulsion process was a pack of lies and a stitch-up and they did not like Cliff's method. Many who voted against the expulsion of Workers Fight in 1971 got caught up in the next round of expulsions or the one after that. Many voted for the expulsions on the basis of 'You can't cook omelettes without breaking eggs'. They agreed with the political programme of IS; the organisational methods of achieving that programme to them were secondary questions, the small change of politics.

To me the questions of organisation, democratic discussion, dialogue, learning from the experiences of the members and education are central to the building of any future Socialist Alliance. Packing meetings, rigging ballots, ignoring constitutions, lies and misinformation are completely out of order, whoever does them with whatever political programme. They are not just Stalinist methods: they are endemic in capitalist workplaces. Unfortunately they have been the general rule in left groups as well.

We need to expose them, as we did in the Socialist Labour Party, and to find new methods of democratising our organisations.

Dave Spencer