Too early to say

Mike Macnair reviews Ian Birchall's 'Tony Cliff: a Marxist for his time' Bookmarks, 2011, pp664,

Tony Cliff, born Ygael Gluckstein in Palestine in 1917, was the effective founder-leader of the Socialist Workers Party. When I had finished reading Ian Birchall’s biography of him, my first thought was to begin this review with the Latin tag, Si monumentum requiris, circumspice: ‘If you need a monument, look around you’. Googling it to confirm my recollection of the source, I found that Paul Hampton had already used it for his September 7 review in Solidarity.[1]

Hampton and I independently had the same thought because this is actually the substance of comrade Birchall’s message. Tony Cliff was above all else a ‘party man’, and his monument is the SWP and its international tendency, the International Socialist Tendency. Birchall says at the outset: “I have written a biography and not a history of the SWP and its predecessors”; but he precedes this with the point that “Cliff’s life was bound up with the organisation he helped to build” (piv).

The book is divided into three parts. Part one, ‘The making of a revolutionary’, covers Cliff’s early life and his political involvement, including in early clandestine Trotskyism, in mandate Palestine, his migration to Britain and involvement in the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party and its collapse, and the early history of the ‘Cliff state-capitalist’ Socialist Review group, which emerged as one of the fragments of the RCP. Part two, ‘From theory to practice’, covers 1960-79, a period when revolution in the short term seemed increasingly possible. It covers the passage from the Socialist Review group to the International Socialists and from there, in 1976, to the SWP. Part three, ‘Building for the future’, covers 1979-2000: the ‘downturn,’ as Cliff identified it, and - as he began to imagine towards the end of his life - the beginnings of a new ‘upturn’.

The chapters within each part are similarly chronological. There is only in any sense a thematic treatment of Cliff’s ideas to the extent that his major writings in a particular chapter give some thematic shape to that chapter. Each chapter after the first contains a combination of: (1) narrative of the political situation, as seen from a Trotskyist-SRG-IS-SWP perspective; (2) narrative of the activities of the Trotskyists-SRG-IS-SWP, their debates and Cliff’s involvement in them; (3) discussion of Cliff’s writings of the period of the chapter; and (4) personal memories of Cliff, mostly from people who were inspired by him to join the SRG-IS-SWP at the period of the chapter, but also some from those who disagreed with him at this time. These last are perhaps a little toned down by passage through interviewing by Birchall, as compared to published statements at the time and since.

The book is not completely a hagiography (life of a saint, or the equivalent) since there are points at which Birchall is willing to criticise Cliff. These are summarised in a paragraph in the conclusion:

“Cliff, like all of us, had his weaknesses. His ‘stick-bending’ could lead him to exaggeration and overstatement, which produced errors of judgement. He was not always a good judge of character, adopting comrades as favourites - when it was often obvious to others that they had serious limitations - and then dropping them again. He could be impatient and operated best when others took care of details he could not be bothered with. He was sometimes unkind and even ruthless. In his later years he largely concentrated on defending the Marxist tradition rather than developing a critical Marxism appropriate to new conditions, as he had done in the 1950s and 1960s” (p559).

In addition, the book is thorough, systematic and well-documented. The ‘oral history’ element is useful, in the sense that Birchall’s interviews and communications have been done while memory is still relatively fresh; though reading a series of stories of Cliff the inspirer, which predominate in this material, becomes after a while a little tedious. If at some future date a full critical appreciation of Cliff’s life, work and ideas proves desirable, Birchall has laid a large part of the foundations for such a study.

Nonetheless, Birchall’s book is not itself a critical biography. It is not even a critical biography within the ‘IS tradition’ or within the framework of general agreement with Cliff’s basic idea - ‘Cliff state capitalism’, or a radical modification of Trotsky on Russia, which retained the fundamentals of Trotskyism on the nature of the epoch, the party, and so on.

The problem is precisely the Si monumentum requiris, circumspice aspect of the book. Birchall’s commitment to the present SWP, considered as a success and as a fitting monument to Cliff, contains implicitly a rejection of political and theoretical criticisms of the SWP (and of Cliff’s ideas) on the basis that the SWP has succeeded in building “the smallest mass party in the world” (Cliff’s, or perhaps Birchall’s, own phrase) and that its rivals and splinters from it have, on the other hand, failed. Their criticisms are therefore at the end of the day not to be taken seriously: as Michael Raptis (Michel Pablo) wrote at the time of the 1953 split in the Trotskyist Fourth International, “They desert - we go on”. Within this framework, criticisms of Cliff’s ideas and choices, which at the end of the day produced today’s SWP, have to be - as Birchall’s are - marginal.

SWP ‘success’

It is a half-truth that - among the groups of the British far left - the SWP is a success and the rest are (comparative) failures. It is at best questionable whether this result follows from the value of Cliff’s specific ideas and his role as an inspiring leader. It also may be that under the conditions that have so far prevailed in most of the world, the ‘party model’ the SWP shares with most of the global far left can get up to 5,000-10,000 members, but no further. Reason: because splits and erosion of cadre through ‘turnover’ combine with a perception among the broad workers’ vanguard that the leading group in any country is not a ‘small mass party’, but the largest of several competing sects.

The half-truth is relatively simple. At the end of the World War II there was the ‘official’ CPGB, with its membership at its highest around 60,000 in 1943; there was the Trotskyist RCP, with a couple of hundred; and there were some very small Trotskyist groups outside the RCP. The RCP in 1949-50 broke up into smaller fragments, of which Gerry Healy’s ‘Club’ was the largest, Cliff’s Socialist Review group the second largest, and the Grant group (later Militant) the third largest. This pattern of relative size survived into the late 1960s.

In the early 1970s the Cliff group (by now the IS) grew to a few thousand and overtook the Healy group (then the Socialist Labour League, and from 1974 the Workers Revolutionary Party). The Militant, a long way behind at this stage, temporarily overtook the SWP in the mid-late 1980s, but broke up in the 1990s, and the current Socialist Party in England and Wales is smaller than the SWP. The International Marxist Group, which had effectively appeared in the 1960s, grew to 600 in the mid-70s, but blew up in the 1980s. The WRP blew up and collapsed into political gravel in 1985-87.

The old CPGB declined, revived and was eventually liquidated by the Eurocommunists in 1991. The Morning Star group/Communist Campaign Group/Communist Party of Britain managed to salvage a membership which is substantially smaller than the SWP, and predominantly aging, though still in the high hundreds. It retains a daily paper and substantially stronger links with the trade union bureaucracy - and stronger ideological influence in what remains of the Labour left than the SWP.

The upshot is indeed that the SWP has outstripped its rivals. This is a truth. But it is only a half-truth. What the SWP has not done, in spite of an aim of doing so, is to replace the Communist Party. Its paid-up membership is substantially smaller than its claimed membership, and its mobilisable membership substantially smaller than its paid-up membership. It is, in the upshot, an organisation larger than SPEW or the CPB, but on the same absolute scale; and perceived by the broad workers’ vanguard as one of the sects, not as a potential alternative.

Was this relative success a product of Cliff’s role as a thinker or as an inspiring leader? He clearly was an inspiring leader to his followers - Birchall documents the point - but the same was true of Gerry Healy till it came to the crunch in the 1980s. In relation to the ideas, ‘Cliff state capitalism’ certainly avoided some of the difficulties the Mandelites experienced, by simply distancing the IS-SWP from the ‘Soviet question’. ‘Deflected permanent revolution’ and the ‘permanent arms economy’ were no more than debating gambits. The biography of Lenin was said by John Sullivan to “read like a biography of John the Baptist written by Jesus Christ” - that is, it presented Lenin as a forerunner to Cliff.

The party conception adopted in 1973-76 was derived from James P Cannon. It certainly succeeded in preventing large, damaging splits by pre-emptive action against dissent - at the cost, however, of creating ongoing attrition of hostile ex-members and absolutely precluding any larger regroupment: as came to be seen when the SWP first took over the Socialist Alliance, then destroyed it for short-term tactical advantage, then, having created Respect, destroyed it in turn in a split without any real political motivation, because it was not delivering the gains the SWP central leadership had hoped for.

To put this another way. The IS-SWP grew dramatically in the late 1960s-early 1970s. So did all the left groups; even the ‘official’ CPGB experienced an uptick in membership at this time. The SWP has become the biggest left group because the Healy group first took an ultra-sectarian turn, then went mad; because the Eurocommunists liquidated the old CPGB; and because Militant split, first over the Labour Party and then over the Scottish question. The SWP did not outgrow these groups: it out-survived them. As long as it pre-emptively suppressed dissent and did not engage too seriously with any ideas except the party conception,[2] it was in a good position to do so.

The British Trotskyists are not in the least peculiarly sectarian: the pattern of competing sects - each attempting to outgrow the others and thereby hegemonise the left - has been tried all over the world. Nowhere has it got beyond groups of a few thousand, except in actual revolutionary conditions - as in Iran in 1979, where groups recruited tens of thousands but continued to behave as if they were groups of a few thousand and proved useless. In the very late 1960s to early 1970s it was possible to think that revolution was on the immediate agenda in Britain. It is in retrospect pretty clear that this was an illusion. But there were plenty of countries where at that time revolution - or violent reaction - was on the immediate agenda. Organisations built on the Cannon model of the party proved as useless in revolutionary conditions as, in less violent conditions, they have proved unable to get beyond the level of a few thousand.

In other words, the Cannonite party conception is a trap; and Birchall’s belief that the SWP’s relative success is Cliff’s best monument is also a trap.

Look around you

Zhou Enlai reportedly responded in 1971 to a question about the impact of the French Revolution that it was “too early to say”. He thus earned a reputation in the west as an inscrutable Chinese sage. It is now reported that it was actually a misunderstanding: Zhou had thought he was being asked about the French events of 1968, for which “too early to say” was a pretty fair response in 1971.[3] Paul Hampton’s view is that Cliff was a complete disaster and to “look around you” shows it: “Cliff built the SWP into the locust of the left it is today.” On this question I am with Zhou Enlai.

It is true that the SWP is the biggest organisation of the far left. That represents in part merely the inheritance of being the second-biggest Trotskyist group in 1950, and therefore picking up more of the newly radicalising forces in the 1960s and 70s than smaller groups. But it does also represent certain strengths of Tony Cliff as a leader who inspired people with ideas of radical socialism. The same could, of course, be said of Henry Hyndman, who founded the Social Democratic Federation which eventually (after ousting Hyndman in World War I) became the core of the old CPGB.

It is certainly the case that the current course of the SWP on the party question - like that of the far-left groups in general, including Paul Hampton’s Alliance for Workers’ Liberty - is a disaster. But it is perfectly possible to damn the current course of the SWP out of the mouth of the older writings of Tony Cliff. The AWL has done so itself; and so have many people and tendencies that have departed from the SWP since the Protz-Palmer-Higgins faction in 1975.

The possibility therefore exists that SWP militants themselves could come to auto-critique their current course; and to do so in part by using the ideas of the older Cliff against the man’s development in the 1970s and that of his successors. If they were able to do so, the SWP could pass beyond being the largest among a range of sects, to making itself the core of a broader regroupment of the Marxist left: the SDF of a future communist party.

I admit that this possibility does not look very likely right now. The people who have recently emerged as oppositionists in the SWP, like Rees-German and Bambery, have stuck with party monolithism and hence walked before they were pushed in unprincipled splits. But we should seek a positive outcome of the SWP, not the negative ones of explosion like the WRP or withering away into a small sect like the US SWP; even if that positive outcome at present also looks unlikely.

Birchall’s book could be only very indirectly helpful in such a process. Helpful to some extent because of its data about Cliff’s ideas before the 1970s; but unhelpful because it reads the early Cliff as far as is humanly possible as in continuity with the later Cliff and the current SWP.



1. www.workersliberty.org/story/2011/09/07/tony-cliff-%E2%80%9Csi-monumentum-requiris-circumspice%E2%80%9D.

2. On not engaging too seriously with ideas, Sean Matgamna’s account of Cliff in Workers’ Liberty September 2000, is illuminating.

3. ‘Zhou’s cryptic caution lost in translation’ Financial Times June 10.