Monday, 27 January 2020

Writing Socialist Biography (2006)

Writing Socialist Biography
Written By: Ian Birchall
Date: January 2006
Published In LSHG Newsletter  Issue 26: Lent 2006  

I am currently writing the biography of Tony Cliff (Ygael Gluckstein). Cliff, born in Palestine, was the founder of the Socialist Review Group, subsequently the International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party, and was the theoretician and driving inspiration of these organisations over fifty years. I outline here some problems of method I am still grappling with.

Socialist Biography
Biography seems alien to the socialist method. But since 1917 biography has made a surprising comeback (Deutscher, Broué, Jean-Jacques Marie, Cliff himself). The Russian events raise the question of the role of the individual, not soluble by Plekhanov’s simplistic formulations. More generally, the question of how individuals become socialists and remain such is of great significance.

(Dis)qualifications as a Biographer
I knew Cliff for thirty-seven years and was enormously influenced by him. But I am writing a biography, not a memoir. [I’m thinking of Richard Ingrams’ recent memoir of Paul Foot (My Friend Footy, Private Eye, 2005). Ingrams writes delightfully and movingly of the Foot he knew, and says nothing false or dishonest - yet totally fails to grasp the centrality of revolutionary socialism to Foot’s life.]
Trotsky’s Preface to The History of the Russian Revolution is a stern reminder of the demands of historical objectivity:
This work will not rely in any degree upon personal recollections. The circumstance that the author was a participant in the events does not free him from the obligation to base his exposition upon strictly verified documents.

There are two fundamental principles for establishing the “objective” nature of any historical work.

  • Any assertion, especially one that challenges conventional wisdom, should be backed up by appropriate evidence. Sources should be given so the reader can check the evidence independently.
  • Any opposing position should be presented honestly, then argued against, rather than as a caricature that is easily disposed of. Sources should be given.
Oral Sources
I have long been suspicious of oral history. My belief, based on observation and introspection, is that most people’s presentation of their memories is inaccurate, selective and politically biased. [See J Atfield & S Williams (eds), 1939: The Communist Party of Great Britain and the War, Lawrence & Wishart, 1984, for some examples of CP members’ recollections of the Hitler-Stalin Pact distorted by their knowledge of subsequent events.]
Yet I cannot write about Cliff without extensive use of interview material But if oral testimony is to be admissible evidence, where does that place my own memories? It would be absurd to cite other people’s memories, but to refuse to rely on my own. Hence I reject Trotsky’s formulation; I shall cite my own recollections, confirming them by other people’s memories if possible, but if not, labelling them as author’s recollections.
However, written evidence always has priority. If Cliff published an article arguing X, while a comrade recalls that at the time he was arguing Y, then X is the position Cliff wished the world to believe he held. Testimony about Y can never be used to challenge the validity of X.

There is little material on the first eighteen years of Cliff’s life, and I am reduced to speculation. As a child he must have become aware of contradictions within Judaism and Zionism, e.g.:

  • chosen people v universal religion
  • socialism v nationalism
  • Jews as victims v Zionists as persecutors
Most of us perceive contradictions in the world but learn to live with them. A few stubborn individuals refuse to accept them and become drawn into a life of intellectual enquiry.

Cliff had a remarkable ability to influence those from a different generation and culture to his own. This cannot be explained simply by charisma. Nor do I think the loyalty he inspired was akin to that of a cult or sect. He made no concessions to the lifestyle of those he sought to influence. The only answer lies in the content of the politics he put across.
I should be most grateful for any comments on methodological questions, and I should also be pleased to hear from anyone who may have relevant information.

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