Sunday, 31 January 2010

Work in Progress: Tony Cliff: Biography

Work in Progress: Ian Birchall on writing Tony Cliff's Biography
From LSHG Newsletter, No. 37, January 2010

Many comrades and friends have enquired after the progress of my biography of Tony Cliff. Without
wishing to commit myself too firmly, I am hoping to have a first draft completed within the next six months. While I recognise that I have taken an inordinately long time on the job, I can only plead that Cliff lived a very long life and that he was remarkably active. A whole number of people have told me that at various phases of their lives Cliff used to telephone them every single day. If the British authorities should make available the tapes of Cliff’s phone calls, it would add another five years to my task.
Moreover Cliff’s life is tied up with a number of historical topics – Palestinian Trotskyism, the crisis of the revolutionary left in the aftermath of World War II, industrial militancy in Britain in the early 1970s etc.
I have conducted over a hundred interviews with people who knew Cliff at various times in his life. These include a number of former members of the SWP and its predecessor organisations who have in some cases moved quite a long way politically, including three former MPs and a member of the House of Lords. While the interviews focus on memories of Cliff, of necessity many of those interviewed also talk about their own personal evolution, so the material (much of which will not be used in the book) will be of value to researchers on the history of the British left.

For example, I recorded a two-hour interview with Chris Harman shortly before his untimely death, in which he spoke of his own first political involvement in an independent left youth group formed after the 1959 election in Watford (and loosely connected with  the similar group in Newcastle described in John Charlton’s recent book Don’t you hear the H-bomb’s Thunder?). While there may be problems about making this material public in the immediate future, I hope it will  eventually be archived and available to researchers. I have also found some fascinating material in the Modern Records Centre at Warwick University. Cliff’s own papers include two unpublished  books – one on the Middle East, the other on the collectivisation of agriculture. Hopefully at some point they can be scanned and placed on the Marxist Internet Archive. We also have the booklet which constitutes Cliff’s Certificate of Registration with the Irish authorities during the period he was resident in Dublin, and which gives the exact dates of his visits to England during the period of the foundation of the Socialist Review Group.

The Ken Tarbuck archive contains minutes and correspondence from the early years of the Socialist Review Group, including a letter to Natalia Trotsky inviting her to write for Socialist Review -  this apparently never received a reply. The Steve Jefferys archive contains some fascinating material about the dispute about Socialist Worker (the so-called  “punk paper”) in 1978.

Other curiosities are a report of a day-school held by Shoreditch Labour Party Youth Section in 1958, where Cliff lectured on “Sex and socialism” – as far as I know the only time he spoke on this subject. I think the book will contain quite a bit that is new even for those who, like myself, knew Cliff from the 1960s onwards. For younger readers I hope it will recreate at least some aspects of one of the most remarkable characters in the history of the socialist movement.
Ian Birchall


  1. Hey,

    I'm starting a new socialist blog called Rosa's Ghost. I
    was hoping you might add it to your links page. It would be a great
    help. Thanks in advance.

  2. Hi - once I have worked out how to do a links page for this blog I will certainly consider adding your blog jon - cheers