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Tony Cliff: A Political Appreciation

Ted Crawford

ALTHOUGH THE death of Tony Cliff is unambiguously a loss to the revolutionary left, a balanced assessment of his political life must indicate his political weaknesses as well as his strengths. This review will assume that the politics and tactics of his creation, the Socialist Review Group/International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party, were those of Tony himself and any criticisms of the group are of him too. Even someone like myself, far less capable than Cliff of assessing political situations, can do this with the benefit of perfect hindsight. But a hard look at where he went wrong as well as where he was correct would, I think, be of greater service to his memory than uncritical praise.

First his great strengths and contribution. Whether or not the theory of state capitalism is correct, and I personally find all the varieties of explanation on offer for the Stalinist despotism inadequate, everyone should realise that the political consequences which flowed from this theory were absolutely correct at the time that it was promulgated. And it was hard on the left in 1950 to have these positions when the left wing of the working class movement was so dominated by Stalinism. Young people today have no idea of the mood then. Indeed, the information that has come out of the ex-Stalinist states since 1989 has shown that, if anything, Cliff was too kind in his description of them. The view that no concession at all should be made to them – they were after all "capitalist" according to Cliff – was right and the only way that a revolutionary socialist tradition could be preserved.

Of course, here Cliff was not really so original as his acolytes suggest. The dissident Trotskyists in the Workers Party in the United States were developing similar positions, though many of them whizzed off into reaction – often allied with Zionism. With the slogan "Neither Washington nor Moscow", Cliff maintained a balance that other "state caps" or bureaucratic collectivists were often unable to do.

The case is similar with the theory of the "Permanent Arms Economy", which again was originated in the States, by Vance. Whether the mechanism that Cliff and Kidron posited for the very long and immense capitalist boom that followed World War II is correct or not (Kidron now rejects the theory, I believe), the fact of this boom, and the fact of rising working class prosperity, was inescapable to anyone with eyes in their heads. But much of the Trotskyist left denied that the boom was taking place and thought it was all about to collapse. What is more, some of them held this position for nearly 40 years! Most of the left which did face reality moved off in a very reformist direction. Cliff, however, faced reality and stayed a revolutionary.

Finally, his insistence that the mover of historical change was the working class and not the alternative social forces of Maoist and peasant guerrillaism meant that his organisation never had the illusions, invariably disappointed, in the colonial struggles which were such important political issues in the 1950s and 1960s. He focused attention on the nitty gritty of trade union working class struggle, which though profoundly reformist in sentiment was a massive phenomenon of the first 25 years of the SRG/IS/SWP grouping. Again a revolutionary tradition was preserved. As I remember the garbage advocated by some other tendencies, I feel that if Cliff had done nothing else we would still be in his debt.

These three theoretical pillars of the old IS were, I think, the cause of the great growth of the group in the late ’60s and early ’70s that pushed it out in front of others such as the WRP/SLL which had been much more significant in the earlier period. That is not to say that the old IS did not miss the occasional trick, fluff its opportunities and often fail to achieve its objectives, but its broad strategical thrust was correct and in the long run such things pay off.

However, Cliff and his organisation made very big mistakes. It would be pointless to pick the old scabs on some of these wounds, many of which indeed are recognised by some of the more intelligent SWPers, but suffice it to say that Cliff’s whims and sudden changes of course accounted for many of these problems.

By far the greatest crisis came in 1973-76, a period which most of the "official" histories of the IS/SWP rather gloss over. This was the time when his group reached the zenith of its influence. I can still vividly remember coming to Cottons Gardens, the IS headquarters, to collect papers after we had sold out during the dockers’ strike. There were no papers left, though the print run had been 50,000. Perhaps even more important at the time were the Saltley Coal depot events in 1972, which led on to the success of the next miners’ strike and the fall of the government in 1974, the first time that a British government fell as a result of industrial action. Saltley was closed because the miners were not alone, and much of the Birmingham engineering industry came out in support. True, the IS, in its then modest style, did not claim credit for this still untold story, but the leading engineering steward, Harper, a fine old CPer, was supported and influenced by a thin network of IS stewards and militants who provided him with the organisation and structure within the AEU but outside the formal union channels. This backed up Harper and led to the closure of the gates. The IS network and organisation in the AEU was still very weak and young but it was just enough to do the job. Within two years nearly all these very fine people had been expelled from IS or had left in disgust, and neither the IS/SWP, rival sectarian grouplets nor the bourgeoisie, for their three very different motives, cared to advertise the fact of the organisation’s past effectiveness.

At this point, Wilson’s new Labour government made a determined and successful effort to demobilise the class by concessions. But this was not then recognised by the IS. Cliff gave the impression of being an old man in a hurry. Did he see 1973 as his 1905?! It became apparent to people like me that Cliff and the leadership were losing their grip on reality. Socialist Worker went on about British capitalism making vast profits when it was in a dire condition throughout that decade. In late 1975 we were told that there would be great repression and we might have to go underground! We found it increasingly difficult to defend the line. It was no accident that in this two to three year period there were a whole number of splits which culminated in a deep crisis of the cadre led by Jim Higgins.

Yet this opposition – like all the oppositions – was very unclear about both the period that we were in and how to deal with the problem. I myself was totally confused and saw the behaviour in the west London area in far too personal terms – quite missing the broader aspect. Kidron, who was always very smart but lacked the iron to wage a factional struggle, saw more clearly than most that the crisis arose from the nature of the external conditions, but he just dropped away.

It is of course true that ex-members of revolutionary organisations are inclined to say that the group was fine until the point that they left or were ejected (as Serge once said, "We all have our own Kronstadt"), but I would insist that this period was a turning point not merely for the IS/SWP but for the class itself.

It culminated when the IS, which was rapidly losing its influence in the class (it never had much, but had built up a small real presence over the years), proceeded in 1976 to turn itself into a Party – a sort of defiant raspberry at reality. And Cliff came out of this period even more dominant in the organisation than he had been before. Much later, he correctly recognised that there had been a great "downturn", but this had in reality started in 1974 or 1975. By the time he recognised it – true, before many others – IS had changed its name to the Socialist Workers Party and had indulged in the idiotic and adventurist electoral campaigns of the late seventies.

Since that time the SWP has tried to build campaigns around issues like unemployment, wars and anti-fascism – sometimes with a considerable element of a Popular Front in them. Excellent in conception as many were, they have failed to take off, except to a minor extent with the Anti-Nazi League and that was the most Pop Front of the lot. Sadly, despite great efforts, the anti-unemployment campaign was a failure and could not set things alight (though history tells us such campaigns are always difficult to undertake with far, far greater resources than those available to the SWP). Short and successful wars against unpleasant regimes provided no basis for a repeat of February 1917, but that was no fault of Cliff – circumstances were against him and a revolutionary silk purse could not be made out of reactionary sow’s ears. Nevertheless all these activities, in some ways reminiscent of the politics of the SLL/WRP earlier, made recruits who compensated for the inevitable wastage of older members and gave activity, a little training and education to members.

At least Cliff was never afraid to admit mistakes and change the line. On the only two occasions since 1976 when there was really massive working class action and sentiment he got it wrong at first and, by reversing the line, effectively admitted it. The first of these was the miners’ strike in 1984-5 where initially the SWP set up its own support committees and kept itself out of those of the broader movement. The mistake was recognised and the policy reversed but the chance of much influence was lost – essentially because of a sectarian attitude. Even more strikingly, the anti-Poll Tax campaign was at first not seen as important. This was a massive misjudgement from which the Militant gained. There were others.

The Poll Tax campaign could have enabled the leadership to put demands on the Labour party to lead the struggle. Despite their "entrism" for 40 years, the Militant could not see that either, which only goes to show that you need not be a keen member of the ward Labour Party to orientate yourself correctly to mass organisations of the class – indeed, you can organise the LP raffle brilliantly and still fail to understand transitional and mass politics. There was a frantic editorial in the Spectator at the time stating that if the SWP did put demands on the leadership it might destroy Kinnock and push large sections of the Labour Party into support for breaking the law. This was seen as a great danger. So moved was I that I tore it out and sent it to the SWP with a covering note. There was no acknowledgement or response (it was almost certainly binned by an underling without a second thought). But I am sure the Speccie was right: they could see that – and Cliff could not. You seldom get a second chance in revolutionary politics.

We all make mistakes, of course, but loud claims by the SWP to be the "leadership" will never get support if there is no evidence in their record, as in these instances. To be fair to Cliff, in public at any rate he did not go on much about being the leadership, but he cannot have told his followers to cool their unfounded rhetoric.

Personally he was the kindest and most charming of men, but this went with being a terrible judge of character and with a ruthlessness in politics which was often counter-productive. As evidence of the first trait let me point out that at one time he thought a lot of Roger Rosewell, who was always a palpable shit, that in 1968 he believed Ted Crawford would be an asset to the IS, that he thought Sean Matgamna was genuinely interested in unity and that he backed John Rose as a capable full timer in 1975-6. I hesitate to be more specific than these four instances for fear of giving offence, but all too often Cliff’s swans have turned out to be geese. Nor did he have any hesitation in pulling people out of union posts and jobs to build the organisation and then discarding them quite ruthlessly so that they had to start their lives again having lost any position they once had within the class. It made sense of a sort if he really did think the revolution was going to occur in five years time but it was very cruel even if he himself, with a kind of naivety, was unaware of the implications of what he was doing.

The truth is that the times were very often unpropitious. The weakness of the weapon that Cliff forged arose, not so much from the quality of the people that he was able to recruit, but at a much deeper level from the profoundly unrevolutionary and still diminishing socialist consciousness of the working classes in all the wealthy industrialised world.

It was not and is not the fault of the IS/SWP that, except for Duncan Hallas and retired people, their members lack any experience of working class struggle or indeed struggle of any kind. The only individual in the present leadership who has been something of a leader in political struggle is Chris Harman and, while I have the greatest respect for Harman’s intellectual strengths, he was a minor student leader not a workers’ one. Everyone else has been formed within the narrow confines of the SWP. So perhaps what Cliff wanted done was often performed in a crude wooden way, though he contributed to this, often using the metaphor about "bending the stick", with the result that his exaggeration became translated a couple of layers down the SWP into a gross distortion because of rawness and inexperience in the organisation.

With all that he had a kind of innocence and we will miss his charm, his boundless and demonic energy, his sense of humour, his utter commitment to the cause of the working class and, in his own way, his honesty. The world is a worse and duller place without him.