Tony Cliff’s enduring legacy

imagePhilip Kane reviews Ian Birchall’s new biography of Tony Cliff.

Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time

Ian Birchall

Paperback: 552 pages

Publisher: BOOKMARKS


It’s been said that Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin is “like a biography of Jesus written by John the Baptist”. There was always the concern that Ian Birchall’s biography of Cliff, although carefully researched and written over the course of the past decade, might turn out to be similarly inclined towards hagiography. Birchall, after all, remains resolutely loyal to the Socialist Workers’ Party, the organisation that Cliff effectively founded after the Socialist Review Group in the 1950’s and then the International Socialists. In the circumstances, even such a conscientious historian as Birchall might be tempted to overlook some of his subject’s less appealing characteristics and some of his crankier mistakes.

As it happens, Ian Birchall has at least largely resisted any such temptation. He has written with considerable, even disarming, frankness about Cliff’s flaws and errors, as well as his strengths and achievements.

Tony Cliff, born Ygael Gluckstein in Palestine in 1917, lived a life defined by the politics of the revolutionary Left. Even attempting a serious biography rather than a political tract, as such, Birchall finds relatively little space for the personal in Cliff’s life. This is not surprising. Cliff was extraordinarily single-minded in pursuing what he saw as the necessary road, with all its twists and turns, towards building a revolutionary party.

Along with Gerry Healey and Ted Grant, Cliff was one of the three most influential figures in the development of post-1945 Trotskyism in Britain. His personal commitment and energy, and a storyteller’s charmed ability to communicate his ideas whether speaking to an individual or to a large audience, had much to do with that. When I mentioned to other local socialists, many of them former members of the SWP, that I was writing this review I was met with a flood of reminiscences. All of them remarked on Cliff’s charisma as a public speaker, and his abiding influence on them. Similar recollections, drawn from over a hundred interviews, are among the strengths of this book.

Meanwhile, the three most notable strands of theory that Cliff wove together to effectively define the political tradition of the International Socialists and then the SWP – state capitalism, the permanent arms economy, and deflected permanent revolution – remain controversial. Birchall places the development of Cliff’s, and hence the SWP’s, theoretical system in the context of the political period. But he is also honest about the weaknesses and the underdevelopment of these positions. As Mike Kidron once put it, rather well, two insights don’t make a theory.

Birchall also attempts to contextualise the many tactical turns that Cliff argued within the party. Cliff, as a strategist, was a keen advocate of “bending the stick” this way or that in response to changing circumstances. This is where Birchall is perhaps less critical than he should be. The whole approach of “bending the stick” derives from a single metaphor used by Lenin to describe his tactics in a particular situation, namely in a speech referring to his past struggle against Economism. Its elevation to the status of a general principle, and the consequent exaggerated lurches of the party line, has been a major cause of, among other things, the frequent shedding of members for which the SWP has become renowned.

There has to be an argument, too, that such turns all too often emerged from Cliff’s own personality traits rather than from any collective political analysis. Especially towards the end of the old man’s life, as the prospect of revolution in his lifetime receded still further than ever, the tactical shifts felt more frequent, even more desperate.

However, it has to be said that since Cliff’s death in 2000, even without his personality, the SWP’s leadership have continued in much the same vein. The suggestion has been made elsewhere that the three largest tendencies to have been created by British Trotskyism bore (and still bear) the stamp of their founders. In the case of the SWP, the legacy of Cliff’s over-excitability seems to live on, with the stick being bent ever more dramatically, repeating a mistake almost to the point now of farce.

Where Birchall’s continued party devotion is most apparent is in his accounts of various internal disputes within the IS/SWP, over the years. That’s hardly a shock, but given his honesty elsewhere it is a disappointment. While I wouldn’t suggest that there is a single authoritative source on any of these, especially the major crisis and haemorrhage of cadres in 1974-75, a reading of accounts by other participants, for example Jim Higgins, may assist a more balanced understanding.

All this is very well, but while it’s possible to give a good account of Tony Cliff’s life and political work – which Ian Birchall, in spite of such criticisms, has succeeded in doing – it’s probably impossible to capture the essence of the man in writing. In a very real sense, for many socialists including myself, Cliff was first and foremost a teacher. His meetings were always extraordinary. Not only was he expert in making the most complex ideas graspable, his public speaking was a performance. He was a storyteller in the best sense.

Whatever his faults, whatever the faults of the organisation that he built, his influence persists for thousands of other socialists too, and not just within the SWP.

It is necessary for those of us who have come through the IS/SWP tradition to draw up a balance sheet of the positives and negatives in that tradition; and as the SWP seems to decay further into a bureaucratic sect, to draw out the strengths and weaknesses of Cliff’s legacy. Because more than a decade after his death, the fundamental question that was always at the centre of Cliff’s life and political activity remains as crucial as ever – the question of how to build the revolutionary party. The SWP, as it stands, is not the answer; but the political tradition that Tony Cliff inspired may yet turn out to be one part of the answer, at least.

While not written exactly for that purpose, Ian Birchall’s biography of Cliff is a valuable contribution to the process. Others have called it “the book of the year”. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but it certainly earns its important place on the socialist bookshelf.

  1. The comment about the party adopting Cliff’s personality and the observation that the crucial question is how to build a revolutionary party, are related. In small(ish) groups, domination by an individual with charisma and bureaucratism reinforce each other. In the last ten years especially, I think we can draw the conclusion that lack of internal democracy and a democratic culture, in part brought on by charisma and a bourgeois deference to such personalities, have shown that most of the British far left is incapable of building a revolutionary party. (The FI in Britain was not immune, especially in 1975-1985).

    I would be interested to know if Birchall says anything about the lack of internal democracy in the SWP.

  2. Thanks for clarifying about John Sullivan’s original joke, Ken. As it happens, I’ve heard the “mangled” version repeated often enough too, and personally feel it’s more accurate that way round as a description of the Lenin biography, to be honest. If I’d used the joke in its original form I’d have ascribed it properly to its original source.

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