Joseph Choonara spoke to Ian Birchall, author of Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time (Bookmarks, 2011), which looks at the life of the founder of the International Socialist tradition
You have made your biography of Tony Cliff as objective as possible, standing back from episodes that you were personally involved in and setting out both sides of arguments. So I wanted to start with a subjective question: how did you first encounter Tony Cliff?1
I first heard Cliff in February or March of 1963. I had joined the Socialist Review Group a couple of months earlier but I was actually far from being convinced about state capitalism.2 I heard Cliff speak on the subject and I don’t think I have had any reservations since then. I was enormously impressed by him as a speaker.
Cliff discovered that I knew various foreign languages, so I was given the job of reading foreign magazines, translating and so on. It was clear that as soon as he got his teeth into my neck he was going to start sucking blood. At that time he was absolutely remorseless in getting hold of people and pulling them in. When I joined the wretched organisation I thought it was a discussion group. Over the next six months or so I discovered it was something very different!
What kinds of people were drawn towards his group?
I met people like Colin Barker, Sandra Peers, Richard Kirkwood, Peter Binns and Richard Hyman. It was an organisation where you could feel at home, which took itself seriously but didn’t take itself too seriously as an organisation of 100 people. We didn’t think we were going to be the vanguard of the revolution in two or three years.
One thing which I kept being reminded of when doing interviews with people from the 1960s is that Mike Kidron was at that time almost as important as Cliff. Kidron had come to Britain in 1953 and was pulled in almost immediately. If you read Socialist Review from that period Kidron wrote about half of some issues under three pseudonyms. That lasted till about 1964-5, when Kidron started to distance himself a bit. But during the period from 1953 to 1965 Kidron was essential. To me he seemed phenomenally clever—that man really seemed to understand how the world worked. Cliff came across as much more rooted in the tradition and would talk about the Russian Revolution a lot; Kidron would talk about modern developments in capitalism. I think Kidron also had an enormous influence on Cliff. The period when he was working closely with Kidron was one of the most creative in his life.
Before he came to Britain in 1946 Cliff was active in a Trotskyist group in Palestine. The chapters that look at that period are among the most fascinating in your book. How much of that was a revelation to you?
Oh quite a lot. Cliff would make occasional references to his time in Palestine and we knew he’d been in jail there but he didn’t talk about it a lot. I managed to track down ten people who had known him in Palestine, all of whom of course were pretty old and three of whom have died since I interviewed them.
I think I’ve got a reasonable picture of the sort of activity he was involved in even though some things were hard to pin down. For example, in the articles he wrote in 1938 for the New International he’s still in favour of unrestricted Jewish immigration into Palestine; by 1945 he’s completely reversed that position. What nobody seems to remember is when exactly that reversal came and how it happened.
The group in Palestine was very small, with at most about 30 members. It was semi-clandestine and everybody had pseudonyms. I believe Cliff was the only native born Palestinian—Jewish Palestinian—in the group. Everybody else was an exile from Europe. There were a few Arab members. The only one I know anything about was Jabra Nicola, a remarkable individual who I think later ended up on the executive of the Fourth International and died in 1974. The group did apparently publish in Arabic as well as Hebrew, although Cliff didn’t know much Arabic.
How important were those early experiences of building a small Trotskyist group?
I think they were crucial. The thing that struck me was just how isolated he was. In the 1930s if you wanted to know what the Trotskyist movement said about Britain or Spain or Germany there were these bloody great volumes of writings by Leon Trotsky. On the Middle East there are occasional interviews where Trotsky is asked about it and he says, “Sorry I don’t know much about the Middle East.”
So Cliff had to work it all out for himself. And likewise if you look at his early stuff, in particular his book on the Middle East,3 it is basically Cliff trying to apply the theory of permanent revolution to the Middle East.
Cliff was essentially driven out of the British section of the Fourth International by Gerry Healy. Obviously Cliff had developed a different analysis of Soviet Russia and a particular account of world capitalism. But to what extent was it inevitable that Cliff would have to form his own political organisation?
It’s hard to establish that because there are very few people who I’ve been able to talk to who were involved at that time. Cliff doesn’t seem to have made any real effort to form a faction within the RCP, which had dissolved in 1949, or what replaced it, which was called “The Club”. There were all sorts of problems with senior people such as Jock Haston becoming disillusioned and dropping out. Healy was becoming increasingly influential and running the thing in an extraordinarily bullying manner. So there were dissident groups, notably in Birmingham where a group of half a dozen people or so were becoming dissident—although not necessarily over the question of state capitalism.
If you look at the Fourth International and the way various groupings broke away from it in the period, I think probably it was inevitable that Cliff would have to split. But in a sense the way Healy handled things probably made Cliff more successful than he would otherwise have been, because many people were disgusted by the way Healy was behaving.
How important was the theory of state capitalism in holding the group together? And how much was down to Cliff$7_$_s organisational ability, his bloody mindedness and so on?
State capitalism was important. However, I think if you look at the earliest period, the group basically saw itself as orthodox Trotskyist but with a state capitalist position. It’s only in the mid-1950s that Cliff and Kidron start broadening out the perspective. It’s after the uprising in Hungary in 1956 that Cliff starts writing about subjects other than state capitalism. There are one or two articles, including an appalling article on Puerto Rico which you wouldn’t class among Cliff’s great achievements, but generally he was very much focused on developing the theory of state capitalism with his books on Eastern Europe and then on China.
The China book is where I think he first develops his theory of deflected permanent revolution.4 And I think around that time he also produced articles on the arms economy and on the labour aristocracy.
When you talk about holding the group together, actually relatively few of the initial group survived—you’re talking about Cliff and Chanie Rosenberg, Ray Challinor, Geoff Carlsson and one or two others. A number of the people who had been involved in the foundation, including of course Duncan Hallas who was very important in the first few years and then moved away for many years, a lot of those people didn’t last through the 1950s.
There was also a heated internal argument about the question of the Labour Party, because some of the people in the Socialist Review Group saw it as a kind of Labour Party ginger group. There is a polemic, ostensibly signed by London branch secretaries but clearly written by Cliff, in which he was very hard on this. He said, “We are in the Labour Party because it’s a good place to met people, not because we want to reform it. We are in there because we want to build a revolutionary party.”
I was struck by the fact that many people in the group rose quite high in the Labour Party.
Remember Labour was much bigger and more active than it is now. It was also more open. Stan Newens, who left the group in 1959, became a Labour MP in 1964. Sid Bidwell became a Labour MP in 1966 and was expelled almost immediately, not for being an MP but for the way he waged his campaign in Southhall. John Palmer ran as a Labour candidate in 1964 and then in 1966 was removed by the Labour executive for being politically unacceptable. The constituency party were instructed to reselect and they reselected Palmer, so he had a real base there. So yes, up to 1968 people were heavily implanted in the Labour Party. I think Cliff was always a bit suspicious about this but he didn’t push the point. I remember him saying to me that he didn’t really approve of people becoming Labour councillors but nobody ever disciplined anybody. Ray Challinor was a Labour councillor for a number of years and afterwards was very critical of what it is possible to achieve as a councillor.
You$7_$_ve written in this journal about Cliff$7_$_s role in 1968.5 What seems to emerge out of that year is something a great deal more like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) today.
Yes, although it happened gradually. But generally 1968 was when we became an open membership organisation rather than existing in a slightly clandestine form in Labour. There had been some witch-hunts against us in the Labour Party although not very serious. I tried very hard in 1967 to get myself expelled from Labour and failed. I’ve got the correspondence somewhere. I was saying “come on expel me” and they didn’t have the nerve. The Labour Party was very different in those days.
Cliff goes back to Lenin in 1968. On top of everything else he was doing, I remember visiting him at his home in Stoke Newington and he had the complete works of Lenin piled up on the floor. This was the beginning of his work on his Lenin book.6 The question of the Leninist party is a bit problematic because, maybe not everyone understands it this way, but one of the fundamental lessons I’ve always taken from Cliff’s Lenin is that there is no such thing as “the Leninist party”. Lenin had six or seven different concepts of the party according to the situation he was in. But yes, in terms of democratic centralism, that was carried through in 1968.
Frederick Engels writes somewhere that, while Karl Marx might not have had the sharpest vision at every point, in moments of revolutionary struggle Marx was always the one with the finest instincts. You get the impression that Cliff was likewise someone who thrived on workers$7_$ _struggle. Is that fair?
Oh yes. I think he says in his autobiography that he was never happier than between 1968-74. You go back to state capitalism and, while it is very important, it’s a negative. It’s saying what socialism isn’t. I’m not saying that wasn’t an enormously important point to make, but then when you get the Saltley pickets and the Pentonville five and so on, this is what the emancipation of the working class looks like, and I think for Cliff that was always what was more important.7
You describe the late 1970s as a period of $8_$_moving on up but with complications$9_$. _It is also a period in which the party is riven with arguments. People leave, there are expulsions and so on. It must have been one of the more difficult bits of the book to write, both in terms of trying to give an objective and balanced account and assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Cliff.
Yes, I think particularly the 1975 split, when the Birmingham engineers were expelled and a number of other people left to form the Workers League. I think about 150 people left, but probably we lost more because a lot of people just dropped out. I talked to a number of people, including those who left, and I’ve tried to give a balanced account.
I get the impression that the period of the downturn$5_$_although there are very important struggles, for example the 1984–5 miners$7_$ _strike where Cliff played a crucial role going to meetings with Paul Foot and so on$5_$_lasted far longer than Cliff or anyone else anticipated. I think you mention somewhere about him scanning the back pages of SW looking for any indication that struggle is reviving.
I don’t think that when Cliff started talking about the downturn in 1979 he had any notion of how long it would last. He was always looking for possibilities. The miners’ strike was crucial there. Cliff clearly did believe that the miners could have won, and that if they had won, things might have shifted. I think Cliff was depressed by the outcome of the miners’ strike very briefly. But the remarkable thing about Cliff was not that he was depressed by that, but that although he was nearly 70 he didn’t say, “Well I’ve done my bit. I’m going to write a couple of books but I’m going to pull out of taking a leading role in the party.” I don’t think it crossed his mind for more than a couple of days.
I think Cliff’s concern always was to not miss an opportunity. There’s a danger that you see opportunities when there aren’t really opportunities and so you wear people out. But I don’t think we did that. For example, the 1992 pit closures led to a few weeks in which there was a phenomenally transformed mood, with all sorts of people you would not have thought of as even mildly political saying “a general strike would be a good idea”. That mood was real and we did relate to it. But it dispersed quickly; it had vanished by Christmas. That was always Cliff’s attitude, that you’re always alive to possible opportunities.
What was it the made you feel you had to write this book?
Cliff had been an enormous influence on me personally; my whole life would have been very different if I’d never met him, and I knew that was true of a lot of people. I thought that a good biography of Cliff should be written and obviously it had to be done relatively soon because people would die. If you look in the front of the book you’ll see the number of people in the acknowledgments who have little daggers by their name, meaning that they have died since I interviewed them.
Then I was talking to Paul Foot at a party and I mentioned casually that I would like to write Cliff’s biography. I was unsure about it, partly unsure if I was up to the job and also unsure whether the SWP central committee would let me! Paul was enthusiastic and encouraging.
Paul Foot would have been the other obvious candidate to write a biography after Cliff died.
Remember though, Foot had been very ill. He’d already been in a coma for a period and I don’t think he felt up to it. He would have done something very different from what I’ve done. It would have been much better written obviously, much more lyrical! Whether Foot would have spent as much time as I did chasing up obscure internal documents I’m not sure. But Foot and Cliff’s partner Chanie were enormously encouraging to me. And, somewhat to my surprise, the central committee didn’t veto it.
A final question$5_$_if an 18 year old who had just joined or was thinking of joining the party asked you $8_$_Why should I be reading a book about Tony Cliff?$9_$$_5$how would you respond?
There is a wonderful quotation in one of Cliff’s meetings towards the end of his life where he said, “If we stand on the shoulders of giants we see a long way. If our eyes are closed, we don’t see much at all.” I think that’s always the essence of Cliff. Sticking by the fundamental principles of Marxism, in particular the self-emancipation of the working class which is the core of the whole thing, but a willingness to constantly explore what is changing in the world.
And I would say to this 18 year old: “Don’t take what Cliff has said as gospel—Cliff did it, as my title suggests, for his time. You’ve got to do it for your time, and your time will be very different from anything Cliff experienced.”
1: A longer version of this interview can be found on our website: www.isj.org.uk
2: Cliff’s theory that the Soviet Union was “state capitalist” rather than a “degenerated workers state” or a socialist society, and the detailed picture of the society that he derived, was one of his major contributions to Marxist theory. See Cliff, 2003. The Socialist Review Group was the forerunner of the International Socialists, which later became the Socialist Workers Party.
3: This fascinating and hitherto unknown document is now available in the Cliff section of the Marxists Internet Archive-www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1946/probme/index.html
4: Gluckstein, 1957. On deflected permanent revolution, see Cliff, 1981.
5: Birchall, 2008.
6: Cliff, 2010.
7: Saltley was the crucial battle in the 1972 miners’ strike when trade unionists shut down the largest coke depot in the country. The Pentonville Five were dockers jailed for their activity in a 1972 strike who were released after a wave of union struggle.
Birchall, Ian, 2008, “Seizing the Time: Tony Cliff and 1968”, International Socialism 118 (spring 2008), www.isj.org.uk/?id=426
Cliff, Tony, 1946, Middle East at the Crossroads, www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1946/me/index.htm
Cliff, Tony, 1981 , Deflected Permanent Revolution (International Socialism Reprints),
Cliff, Tony, 2003 , The Nature of Stalinist Russia, in Marxist Theory After Trotsky: Tony Cliff Selected Writings, volume 3 (Bookmarks), www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1948/stalruss/
Cliff, Tony, 2010 , Lenin, volume 1: Building the Party (1893–1914) (Bookmarks),
Gluckstein, Ygael [Tony Cliff], 1957, Mao’s China: Economic and Political Survey (Allen & Unwin).