Friday, 3 October 2014

Book Review: Part II of Sheila Cohen on Ian Birchall on Tony Cliff

From LSHG Newsletter # 53 (Autumn 2014). 


A Marxist for his time
By Ian Birchall
Bookmarks 2011
Paperback 552pp
ISBN 9781905192809

Editor’s note:  this second part of an extended review by Sheila Cohen of Ian Birchall’s biography of Tony Cliff follows on from the previous issue of this Newsletter. See here:
The final part will appear in the next issue.

Sheila Cohen is an academic and labour movement activist currently based at the University of Hertfordshire.

The rest of this extended review will be less detailed as Birchall’s biography traces the various moves away from non-sectarian support activity towards ever more blatant  party-building. Although the Rank and File conference which took place early in 1974 attracted considerably more delegates from union branches and shop steward organisations than had been expected (p354) its potential was subordinated to Cliffite announcements that major changes were needed in IS’ internal organisation and strategy; as Birchall comments (favourably), the disputes of the period “were about real issues of party-building” (p359).

Rather prematurely, Cliff declared that “[t]he working class was in a process of rapid change” away from a primarily industrial base; perhaps as another excuse for moving away from the tank-and-file strategy, he argued that shop stewards were becoming increasingly incorporated into joint management-union workplace structures, an position later theorised by ex-IS member Richard Hyman in his notorious “workplace bureaucratisation” thesis [i]. Birchall’s support for Cliff’s “turn from the class” is argued particularly clumsily here: “If IS had continued to orient…on the layer of experienced workers, it would have been condemned to disaster”, the “logic” of this being is that major strikes of the period were not led by experienced workers. True enough (and disastrous the outcome, at least at Grunwick[ii]) but this overlooks the staggering strike record of the period, in which some highly experienced activists were involved. Nor would a primarily working-class orientation preclude support for and building from struggles conducted by “inexperienced” workers  – which in fact hold the potential for radicalisation and rapid class education of the workers concerned.
This ABC of party-and-class relations does not seem to have been available from the early 1970s onwards; although “Cliff was committed to the rank-and-file perspective” he “saw a danger of rank and file work becoming an end in itself. For Cliff, politics was paramount…” So “rank and file work” intrinsically lacks “politics”? Cliff’s obsession with “party-building” swept aside the recognition that there is always a layer/periphery of particularly committed activists in the working-class activists open to political ideas; perhaps the central critique that must be made of Cliff/IS’ turn, so to speak, to the Party. 
By autumn 1974 IS membership was over 3000, with over 1,200 manual workers – a substantial achievement. Contradicting Cliff’s future analysis of a “downturn” beginning at this point, “industrial struggle continued at quite a high level…In Scotland…so many disputes came together there was almost a general strike…almost 90 percent of strike days were unofficial” (p373). Such a downturn we can only dream of. Yet IS insisted on “pessimism of the will”; a 1975 conference document argued gloomily, “We underestimated the speed with which the economic crisis would drive workers to draw political conclusions” (p376).

Apart from anything else, this is a particularly clunky way of understanding political consciousness amongst workers. As Luxemburg writes, working-class consciousness “does not proceed in a beautiful straight line but in a lightning-like zigzag” [iii]. Yet such subtleties were now a very long way from the radar of a manically impatient Cliff. At this point revolutionary upheaval was at full tilt in Portugal, and IS’ far from constructive intervention reflected the organisation’s increasing obsession with “party-building” and the correct “line” in a situation requiring fluid response to concrete working-class struggle. One outcome of IS’ position on Portugal was that it led to “a dispute with IS’ fraternal organisation in America, the International Socialists of the United States(ISUS).”  Although Birchall says little about ISUS’ development in the mid-late ‘70s, it is clear retrospectively that the split provided the political “room” for invaluable initiatives like TDU and, later, Labor Notes (neither of which features in Birchall’s index).
Back in Britain, Cliff moved on to his major work on Lenin, in which he highlighted Lenin’s conviction that “[o]rganisation…should be subordinated to politics”. Birchall rightly notes how “radical” this point was, arguing that Cliff’s analysis “repudiated the myth” of the “Leninist party”. Recently Lars Lih’s re-reading of Lenin has indicated the widespread misinterpretation and mis-appliance of “What Is To Be Done?”, stressing the continuity of Lenin’s views on party organisation, while Cliff’s favourite phrase “bending the stick” implies inconsistency or at least an opportunistically “flexible” perspective on building revolutionary leadership of the class.

Our purpose here is not to parse Cliff’s writings, but to reflect on how his theoretical analysis influenced his leadership of IS. On this front, the next development was disastrous – in only too symbolic a way. As Birchall reports, in late 1975 “the longstanding internal dispute” – presumably over rank and file organising versus party-building  - “came to a head”. The issue was the refusal of IS engineering union members to put forward an IS candidate for a union post, instead supporting the existing Broad Left (aka CP) candidate. Rather than understanding and commending these activists’ informed choice, IS expelled the dissident engineering workers.

Understandably, this provoked something of a crisis in the organisation (again), with those identifying with the contours and complexities of working-class organisation on one side and the party-builders, including “hanging judge” Steve Jeffreys, who implemented the expulsions, on the other. A faction calling itself the “IS Opposition” was established on this basis; arguing that “the present lurch to ultra-leftism will destroy any working-class base”, it included former executive members such as Jim Higgins and John Palmer. They were duly expelled, while “a considerable number more were demoralised by the internal dispute and dropped out” (p403). Good work, party-builders.

Even the faithful Birchall is gently critical of Cliff over this episode, which saw “the biggest split in the history of the organisation and a very serious setback.” Nevertheless, he returns to the well-worn “downturn” theme in arguing that “The hopes of the IS in the early 1970s were not realised because the Labour government succeeded in enforcing the Social Conflict and large-scale industrial conflict virtually came to an end” (p405). As any superficial reading of 1970s working–class history demonstrates, this is way off the mark – and in fact on the next page Birchall contradicts himself, noting that “Cliff continued to be impatient, aware that the favourable circumstances of the mid-1970s would not last long.”
Yet by this time Cliff appears to have lost, or at least severely damaged, his antennae regarding the significance of workplace struggle: “When a German comrade told how they had set up a regular informal meeting for contacts from a factory, Cliff…shouted that most people were attracted by revolutionary ideas, not by discussion about the workplace” (p407). Hmmm – no dialectical relationship between the two, then? And in fact the mid-1970s were the beginning of the end, if not of workplace struggle then of IS’s primary orientation towards that dynamic. 1976 marked the setting-up of the Right to Work Campaign – addressed at unemployed workers rather than employed activists - complete with a Right to Work march, mass rallies and all. In the same year, the leadership decided to begin contesting parliamentary by-elections, a strategy rapidly shown up as a dismal failure (pp410-12).

After listing these diversions, Birchall casually notes that “at the end of 1976 it was decided to rename the organisation the Socialist Workers Party. There was some debate…” No, not over whether to take this drastic step, but over the name – a CC majority favoured the Socialist Party[iv] “on the grounds that the name SWP [presumably because of the W-word] would represent a barrier [!] to thousands of new recruits”. But leaving aside these important matters, “[t]he new name was a recognition of a change which had taken place over the preceding years…the IS was already functioning as a party” (p412). Cliff himself had commented in January of that year that “In the course of the last year, our organisation has become a party.” In an article justifying (or celebrating) the move, Cliff explained the rationale of the “new name” as Birchall refers to the change; for example that “[t]he SWP was now capable of electoral results at least as good as the CP’s” and that the 1976 Right to Work conference had been bigger than recent conferences of the now (largely abandoned[v]) LCDTU. As Birchall notes – uncritically – “Cliff was preoccupied with numbers” (p313).

Worse was to come – or at least more moves away from any primary class orientation; “In the course of 1977 the focus of SWP activity…switched towards anti-racism” (p419). The popular front Rock Against Racism was established in 1976; although its roots were in the contemporary and highly anti-establishment punk zeitgeist , a leading role was played by SWP members.  The Anti-Nazi League (ANL) was formed the following summer, imitating most popular fronts in involving “a number of prominent sportspersons, musicians and intellectuals” as well as “leading figures from the Labour Party such as Neil Kinnock…”. Neil Kinnock!?! No one could oppose such activity per se, but it was a long way from the old IS – or any primarily class-based - perspective.

Yet Birchall notes that “despite his involvement in so many other activities, Cliff remained committed to the importance of the industrial struggle” (p432). This is exemplified by the fact that “In December 1978 he published a short pamphlet for Chrysler workers” which focussed on rationalisation of the industry” but also found space to “quote…rank and file workers on the ill effects of the incorporation of senior stewards into the management structure” [vi]. So what not to like? Nothing, except that this period saw the biggest strike revolt (in terms of working days lost) of British history – the Winter of Discontent. Notwithstanding the evidence before his eyes, “Cliff began to argue for the need to recognise a downturn in struggle in 1978…” (p433).

Sheila Cohen

[i] Richard Hyman The politics of workplace trade unionism: Recent tendencies and some problems for theoryCapital and Class 8 (54-67), 1979.
[ii] See Amrit Wilson, Finding a Voice (Virago 1978) and Ramparts for an account of this 1977 dispute.
[iii] Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike Merlin 1925, p.73.
[iv] Now the misnomer of the principal split from Militant.
[v] In the early-mid 1970s the CP moved to a strategy of courting left-wing MPs and trade union leaders rather than building from the workplace – with disastrous results (see Darlington and Lyddon 2001).
[vi] This was at roughly the time that Hyman’s influential article on this question was published.


(To be concluded in the next issue of this Newsletter)

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