Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Book Review: Cohen on Birchall on Cliff part III

From LSHG Newsletter # 54 (January 2015)


Editor’s note: this third and final part of an extended review by Sheila Cohen of Ian Birchall’s biography of Tony Cliff follows on from the previous two issues of this Newsletter - see Part I here: 
See Part II here: 

This issue of the Newsletter contains Ian Birchall’s reply to the entire review - see here

Of course, in retrospect a case could be made for the “downturn” thesis in terms of the rapid erosion of the trade union movement under Thatcher (elected in 1979). But a case can also be made for recognition of, and socialist leadership of, the quasi-revolutionary potential of the Winter[i]. The leadership seemed to be blind to this; while Steve Jefferys demonstrated what Birchall calls a “highly over-optimistic perspective” at the time, this optimism was “based on the successes of the ANL.”  It was as if the SWP leaders were suffering from a form of political Attention Deficit Disorder. It gets worse; although by late 1978 the leadership had managed to notice that a major strike wave was going on, it was not until this point that “[t]he rank and file strategy, which had been dormant for some time, began to resume its relevance” (p436). A bit late, maybe…?

The disorientation was confirmed when Steve Jefferys resigned as industrial organiser, not in protest against the strategic confusion but because “The decay of working-class organisation and the shift to the right in the trade union movement has gone so far that all we can do in this period is to make socialist propaganda as actively as possible.” This in the midst of – shall I say it again? – the biggest strike wave ever. While Tory ministers complained about “little Soviets”, a leading SWP intellectual could turn from class-oriented agitational organising to…propaganda.

Of course, all this can be retrospectively justified by the Thatcher victory and all that followed. But apart from the fact that Thatcher’s win was hardly a landslide, the reality is that trade unionism was at a historic high in 1979-80. An effective workplace-based activists’ network could have played an effective part in combating the many betrayals that followed. But rather than noting this tragic loss of potential, Birchall comments happily at the end of this chapter, “The SWP, despite internal disputes, had held together well, and Cliff could feel some satisfaction that…his party was in reasonably good shape.” It resembles the complacency of a small business owner rather than a revolutionary socialist noting the tragic ending – for the time being – of an at times quasi-revolutionary period of intense working-class struggle.

The next chapter, headed “1979-84: Enforced Retreat”, begins with the report of a speech to the 1979 SWP Easter Rally at which Cliff commented, “[1969-74] was a period when the class struggle achieved a level unprecedented in British working class history for generations…” However, as Birchall sums up the argument, “the Labour election victory in 1974 had marked a sharp turning point” after which (Cliff again) “we did not have one national strike in any key section of the class.” The leader’s “logic” ignored such minor matters as the national Ford strike in late 1978, not to mention the subsequent waves of public sector and civil service actions. Logic and history must fall by the wayside; it was time for the (retrospective) declaration of the “Downturn” (p441).

From this point, our Casablanca passes its peak, and we can only resign ourselves to the torrent of diversion-cum-sectarianism that follows. As an unrepentant “workerist”, I will pass over the extended discussion of Cliff’s initially hostile response to the Women’s Liberation movement and the demands of women members of the SWP for increased representation and attention to the issue; they were right, of course, but as with most “movement” demands the response could be little more than symbolic (though contrast the excellent, class-based restructuring of TDU from its inception along lines that queried truckers’ “macho” and at times racist culture – a very different dynamic). Like the rest of the left, the SWP poured resources into support for the 1984-5 miners’ strike; yet this herculean struggle  was almost from its beginnings more symbolic than effective, despite the enormous bravery of its participants.

The year after the miners’ defeat (which Cliff, to his credit, had predicted) the leader was back on the numbers game. He rightly criticised those who reversed Gramsci’s doctrine of “optimism of the will…” to “optimism of the intellect and pessimism of the will”, instead recommending an approach of “Everything in the garden is terrible, but there are things we can do.” Yet such “things” were immediately translated into recruitment numbers: “Can we grow to 6,000 instead of 4,000?” (p487).              

Interestingly, a theoretical intervention by Cliff’s son Donny Gluckstein provoked a sharp response by Alex Callinicos accusing Donny of the twin sins of “absolving Luxemburg for her failure to build a revolutionary party and tending to give priority to soviets over the party”. A clearer demonstration of the SWP’s rapid progression to a form of Leninist Stalinism would be hard to find. Yet in a later publication written jointly with Cliff, Gluckstein “retrieved”‘ his reputation with a highly conventional analysis of the trade union bureaucracy, defining it as a “distinct, basically conservative, social formation” – an theoretically bankrupt analysis which did nothing to explore the complex dynamics which so often make bureaucrats out of activists. Obviously Donny had not escaped too far beyond his father’s coattails[ii].

By 1992, Cliff was back in the prediction business; at a meeting in the annual “Marxism” jamboree he described the argument that there was a long-term decline in the working class movement as “a load of rubbish”. Instead there were “clear indications of the strength and resilience of the working class movement”. Cliff was lucky this time; late 1992 saw a huge popular protest movement over the government’s inept attempt to close a further 31 coal mines. True to form, “Cliff and the central committee decided that in this climate a call for a general strike would be a realistic demand”, and the next issue of Socialist Worker duly bore the heading “General Strike Now!” La plus ca change…
Cliff produced another revolutionary biography during these years, this time on Trotsky. The faithful Birchall concedes that “for the most part this was not Cliff at his best.” Yet the book revealed a spurt of anti-Leninism with our hero “quite critical about Lenin’s argument that the revolution should be carried out in the name of the party rather than the soviet” (pp518-9). The fact that this position contradicted most of what he had been up to for the last twenty-plus years did not seem to occur to the author (or indeed his biographer). 

In 1995, again at Marxism, Cliff backflipped once more; lecturing on Engels, he “drew out” what Birchall describes as a “fundamental point”, viz that ‘the whole history of Marxism was about learning from the working class.’ Even more bizarrely, he ended his speech by fulminating against what had in effect been his own long-term practice: “I can never understand the idea…that the party teaches the class. What the hell is the party?...The dialectic means there is a two-way street…” (p530). By early 1995 he had decided that ‘the downturn proper’ was over; no upturn was to be expected, but the SWP briefly adopted a rank-and-file perspective in that year. This did not, however, lead to any lessening of the domination of the SWP in party-class relations; the present reviewer remembers distributing leaflets promoting the rank and file paper Trade Union News on the chairs of an SWP “rank and file” conference, only to turn round and see a small gnome-like figure following behind and picking them up. Not much non-sectarian class unifying going on there.

Cliff died in April 2000, an event signalling, of course, the end of Birchall’s biography. But the conclusion provides a number of useful pointers to how we might assess Cliff’s – and IS/SWP’s – trajectory. The outlook is not promising; for Birchall at least, “Cliff’s major theoretical contribution was the analysis of state capitalism” (p554). It is true that our[iii] cynicism as to the true nature of “socialism” in Russia meant that “Cliff’s followers were relatively immune to any sense of defeat” while “The collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’ after 1989 led to demoralisation among many sections of the left…” Fine, but 20-odd years later the issue somehow lacks centrality, while for some of us at least the issue of how socialists relate to the working-class vanguard remains as central as ever.

The sense of other-universesness continues when we discover that Cliff’s, or at least the SWP’s, “most visible success was the anti-Nazi League” (p556). And perhaps the most arcane “tribute” comes with Birchall’s recollection : “In the 1990s someone from one of the SWP’s rivals characterised the party’s mode of operation as, ‘If it moves, recruit it; if it doesn’t move, stick a poster on it.’ ”.

Astoundingly, Birchall comments  “It was meant as a slander, but may serve as a tribute” (p557). Perhaps this final conundrum should stand as an epitaph to “the biggest small mass party” in Britain?

 Sheila Cohen


[i] See among other sources Andy Beckett’s  which vividly describes the “dual power” nature of some sections of this nationwide strike wave.
[ii] In fact some of Gluckstein’s recent work on the question of Soviets contains compelling insights (see Ness and Azzelini eds).
[iii] Referring here to probably the largest “left” organisation in the world, ex-IS/SWPers.

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