A Marxist for Our Time

Review of Ian Birchall, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time (London: Bookmarks, 2011)

I have been really looking forward to Ian Birchall’s biography of Tony Cliff, but delayed in getting it till Xmas because it is not being sold yet in the United States- I hope that Haymarket Books will consider bringing it out at some point, because it contains many lessons for American revolutionaries, especially those in my organization, the ISO, who Cliff and his comrades had a rightly huge influence on.

Written by his close comrade and collaborator, it is hard to imagine that Cliff could have received a better treatment. It is the same one, in fact, that he himself took in writing his biographies of the Russian Revolutionaries V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky: a political treatment which restores their legacy, criticizes their errors, and brings out what in them is necessary for us as revolutionaries to understand today in carrying through the mission they devoted their lives to.

Birchall is rather at pains to do the same for Cliff, though he runs into trouble almost immediately because Cliff was not a figure of the same historical stature as Lenin or Trotsky. The revolution he spent his life working for did not arrive in Cliff’s lifetime. Rather he was the purveyor of somewhat more modest achievements: the formulation of the most prominent theory that saw the Soviet Union and the rest of the “Communist” states as state capitalist rather than socialist or Trotsky’s theory of “degenerated workers’ states,”  and author of numerous pamphlets, books and articles which updated Marxist theory and considered the class struggle in various countries, Britain, China, France, the United States, the Soviet Union, Portugal being just a few of these. He was also the founder and primary motivator of the International Socialist tendency in revolutionary politics, whose crown jewel was Cliff’s Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP) in Britain. Arguably groups who hail from Cliff’s tradition have been the most successful in the Western revolutionary left.

Still, this is nothing to sneeze at. Hence Birchall’s biography must be and is primarily intended for those who already consider themselves revolutionaries. His name-dropping of famous or semi-famous people (several future Labour MPs, a future minister in Sri Lanka’s government, influential academics, etc. all passed through Cliff’s organization) seems somewhat odd in this context, and probably would have been better toned down or left out entirely – in the chapters dealing with the early 60s, we get several lists of these figures whose inclusion is rather questionable.

Birchall deserves credit for tackling the early parts of Cliff’s career as a revolutionary in mandatory Palestine. This will also be of great interest to those already familiar with Cliff’s work in Britain. He was born near Haifa with the name Ygael Gluckstein, as many know, the child of Russian immigrants coming to Palestine in the Second ‘Aliya. Birchall traces his evolution from the left Zionist party Poale Zion (Workers of Zion) led by the future Prime Minister of Israel David Ben Gurion. His evolution from left-wing Zionism to an anti-Zionist revolutionary was not accomplished overnight and was incredibly uneven at times. I was interested to know that during World War II Cliff published articles in the international Trotskyist press which insisted on the progressive role of Jewish workers in Palestine and called for unlimited Jewish immigration, opposing a key demand of the Arab nationalist parties.

Increasingly depressed by the situation in Palestine as conflict between Jewish colonialists and Arab natives heated up, Cliff concluded there was nothing an anti-Zionist revolutionary like himself could accomplish and left for Britain in 1947. There he became a cadre of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) which was increasingly fragmented and subject to the same pressures as the rest of the Fourth International: revolutionary upsurge had not broken out after the war, Stalinism was healthy and gained the allegiance of new states in Eastern Europe, and Western capitalism had entered into a long period of growth at the same time Trotskyists were forecasting the end of both and the start of a new world revolution. Cliff later joked that he and his comrades were like people who tried to find their way around the Paris metro with a map of the London Underground.

Cliff’s exclusion from the RCP, which fell under the leadership of Gerry Healey, came as a result of his development of the “state capitalist” theory of the USSR and its satellites. At the time debate raged in the 4th International as to the nature of Stalinism. The idea that the USSR was a new form of capitalist had been previously developed or alluded to by Karl Kautsky, the Decist faction of the Bolshevik Party in the 1920s, the renegade Bolshevik Gavriil Myasnikov, and the Johnson-Forrest tendency in American Trotskyism. Other groups like the American Workers’ Party under Max Shachtman believed that the USSR was a new type of society different than capitalism or socialism. In his analysis of Cliff’s work Birchall gives all these their due as antecedents, but explains why Cliff’s theory of state capitalism was the most intellectually rigorous and best rooted in the classical Marxist tradition. For this explanation alone the book is worth a read.

The work of Cliff’s life, however, was in building an organization- from 1948 until 1963, the Socialist Review Group which worked inside the Labour Party, from 1963 to 1977 International Socialism which was increasingly independent from Labour, and from 1977 the fully independent SWP which today is the largest organization on the British revolutionary left. Like Cliff’s three-volume Lenin, Birchall’s biography is just as much the biography of the Party as it is of Cliff the individual. Consequently he gives a good sense of the men and women (they were, a sign of the times, almost universally men) such as Jim Higgins, Chris Harman, Duncan Hallas and others who led the SRG/IS/SWP alongside Cliff. When these men disagreed, as in the 1975 split between the majority led by Cliff and the IS Opposition led by Higgins, Birchall I think reasonably spells out the reasons for the dispute, although unsurprisingly he sees Cliff as almost always being right or at least more right than his opponents.

Birchall is very good on developing a full portrait of Cliff as a political figure, and even covers his personal and family lives while not distracting from the narrative. I was interested to learn for instance, that besides his native Hebrew and his adopted English, Cliff was proficient in Russian, French, German, biblical Hebrew and Chinese – the last two being connected to his studies, although he never obtained a degree. He also gives insightful and critical appraisals of Cliff’s many writings that would fall under the rubric of “current affairs,” from the books on China, Eastern Europe, France in 1968 and Portugal in 1973 to his publications on the British class struggle, including a manual for shop stewards dealing with the employers’ offensive in the 70s and a Marxist history of the Labour Party written with his son, the historian Donny Gluckstein.

A key strength of this biography is that Birchall is unhesitant about exposing Cliff’s weaknesses as a leader and a theoretician. The most glaring of these seems to have been seen from the late 70s onwards, in which he first underestimated the extent of the downturn in class struggle and the victory of neoliberalism led by Margaret Thatcher in Britain, then in the 90s when he overestimated the return to struggle, saying as a survivor of the 30s that he was “watching the same film, only this time it is much slower.” Birchall recognizes that this perspective was erroneous. I would go further and call it disastrous. As Birchall points out, it led to several splits within the IS Tendency (including that of my own organization, the ISO) which Cliff seems to have had a hand in. As he notes,  as Cliff looked to the potential for struggle in the 90s, he failed to help develop new perspectives for the revolutionary left of the new era as he had so successfully in the 50s and 60s, and he had to turn to the past in the Russian Revolution with his monumental 4-volume Trotsky biography to offer hope to the new generation of revolutionaries.

One aspect of this failure, which Birchall seems reluctant to point out, is the impact this may have had on the SWP. During this period the organization which had been far ahead of the rest of the left in intervening in industrial action and building initiatives of its own such as the Anti-Nazi League developed an obsessive focus on recruitment and became incredibly top-heavy with organizers. Birchall notes the many thousands the SWP recruited each year or Cliff expected to recruit but rarely bothers to address how many stayed in the Party for long, and why they didn’t. Always looking for the upturn in struggle, Cliff and his comrades wanted to have as many fighters ready as possible, but it could perhaps be said that he “bent the stick” toward quantity over quality far too often. Furthermore, often comrades right out of school were allowed to become organizers without having worked a real job or having a base of support besides Cliff and the central committee, which could not have been very good for the Party’s working-class composition or independence from the leadership (as Cliff frequently noted, a revolutionary party must have everyone as a leader in some respect). One case I can think of is Chris Bambery, the Scottish organizer of the International Marxist Group (the British 4th International organization) who after joining the SWP became their Scottish organizer almost immediately. While the SWP has suffered several splits in the past couple years, with John Rees, Lindsey German, and Chris Bambery who all came up under Cliff leaving to form new organizations, it has still not yet recovered from these problems, which all date back to Cliff’s leadership.

Cliff and his collaborators such as Duncan Hallas often wrote of how, despite the ambiguous organizational legacy of Trotsky, his main service of his last years was that he “kept the flame of revolutionary Marxism alive,” by maintaining an uncompromisingly revolutionary stance opposed to the barbarism of fascism and the liberal West alike, while resisting the Stalinist and social democratic perversions of the Marxist tradition. Cliff and his comrades, though they did not live to participate in a revolution, can be seen as tending that same flame by overcoming the confusion of revolutionary Marxists in the wake of WW2, the survival of Stalinism and the unprecedented economic growth experienced by Western capitalism. In times that were never quite revolutionary, they maintained and developed the best of the revolutionary tradition while uniting this with the most successful organizational practice seen since the 20s in the mass Communist parties.

With revolutionary uprisings in the Arab world, mass protests in Europe and the United States, there can be no doubt that we are now living the upturn of class struggle from below that Cliff strained himself to see in his last years. To meet this challenge, we must learn from Cliff. This will be an intense process of reevaluating Marxism to make it fit with the changing times as we preserve its revolutionary core, just as Cliff did. Inevitably this will involve overcoming much of what Cliff left us that is outdated or mistaken. If we study him, then we will know as he said in his essay “Trotsky on Substitutionism,” the best tribute we can pay to great revolutionaries like Cliff and Trotsky is a critical study of their ideas and practices. I suspect that this biography will be the most important contribution to the study of Cliff’s ideas and practice in this manner for some time.

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