The most unforgettable person I’ve ever met in my life

Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time by Ian Birchall (Bookmarks, £16.99)

Well, hello again. (Waves uncertainly at passing tumbleweed.) Yes, I know, the real world has been keeping me away from online tomfoolery, but I’m not going to pass up the chance to reflect a little (or, more likely, at infinitely tedious length) on the book of the year. If you neither know nor care who Tony Cliff was, feel free to skip this, because much of it will be incomprehensible.

Moreover, I suppose there’s a question of why anyone outside of the organisation founded by Cliff should be remotely interested in his life story. Most political biographies, after all, are about politicians who’ve actually done something quantifiable in the real world. A man who spent sixty-plus years beavering away in the world of hard-left sects – and quite a lot of that time spent on writing about the sociology of the USSR, rather than practical activity – might not seem terribly promising material. All I can tell you, and I hope this will come through, is that Cliff was important to me. I could make an argument that Mike Kidron, or particularly Chris Harman, informed me more in the sphere of ideas, but they made their bricks from Cliff’s straw, and the personality of Cliff was such that he couldn’t fail to make an impact on anyone who crossed his path. You could say that I went to Cliff’s kheyder, and I’m grateful to him for what I learned there, even those things I no longer agree with. He was a unique figure – capable of being genuinely inspiring one moment, and an incredible pain in the hole the next – whose like we shall not see again.

There’s been a gap I’ve felt for quite a while that Ian Birchall’s lovingly crafted biography goes to fill. I was terribly disappointed by Cliff’s posthumously published autobiography, A World to Win. Granted that the old fellow was seriously ill at the time and was writing from memory rather than a researched work: all the same, I was unimpressed by Cliff’s assertion of his own unfailing correctness, even when he was patently wrong; even less impressed by his serial failure to give credit to the contributions of anyone other than himself; and worst of all, it didn’t really capture what Cliff was like. Maybe it would have been better had Bookmarks released it as an audiobook.

But that was one thing about Cliff that was always striking. Ian remarks towards the end of the book that those who know Cliff from his writings only half know him. This is true. Not even Cliff’s admirers would claim him to have been a great literary stylist. Credit must go to his indefatigable wife, Chanie Rosenberg, who long had the thankless task of not only doing the typing but of turning Cliff’s manuscripts (often in an idiosyncratic mixture of bad English and Hebrew) into something resembling idiomatic English. No, there was none of the literary panache of LD Trotsky or Isaac Deutscher to be found here; there was functional prose which served the purpose of getting Cliff’s ideas across, and such appeal as it had was down to the strength of the ideas.

I read Cliff’s book on state capitalism (in a battered old second-hand copy) some considerable time before I ever saw him in person. It was a hell of a shock. Though the writing didn’t suggest an image of the author, the pseudonym “Tony Cliff” did call to mind a suave 1950s crooner of the Dean Martin or Andy Williams variety. Had I known to expect Ygael Gluckstein from Zikhron Yaakov, the shock would have been much less. The great man turned out to be short, elderly, bespectacled, with a hairstyle best described as mad scientist chic, and – let’s not put too fine a point on this – dressed like a tramp. When he spoke, it was in a very strong Russian-Hebrew accent that took a minute to get your ears around. He was a grumpy bastard, incapable of normal social pleasantries, but when he got up to speak…

…the Cliff meeting, of course, was a performance. Offstage, Cliff was extremely reserved, and perhaps the willpower needed to perform gave his speaking its force.[1] The arm-waving, the wisecracking, the obligatory reference to Eric Hobsbawm’s latest pronouncement as a lot of bloody rrrubbish, these were the easily satirised visible elements. On a more basic level, he was trying to explain often quite complicated ideas in accessible language – so the humour, the performance aspects, were the spoonful of sugar. On more than one occasion I sat through a 45-minute talk on the theory of the Permanent Arms Economy[2] and actually enjoyed it. That’s how good Cliff was when he was on good form.

Even Cliff’s dodgy grasp of the language could be turned to good effect. His idiosyncratic approach to English syntax and his mixed metaphors added a lot to the humour. Then there were the characteristic mispronunciations, as seen in Ian’s account of a meeting on racism where Cliff informed a bemused audience that in the 1930s the working class had been prejudiced against the yetis. (Disappointingly, it turned out that he meant the Eyeties; thus, Italian immigrant workers rather than abominable snowmen.) All that went towards getting an audience chuckling, and there’s no better way to lighten up what threatens to be a boring topic.

One thing that was immediately apparent about Cliff, lifelong atheist and anti-Zionist though he was, was how profoundly Jewish he was. You got this from the very cadences of his speech. There was a broad streak of the Borscht Belt comedian in there (if I heard the joke about the rabbi and the goat once, I heard it a dozen times); one could also, if one closed one’s eyes, imagine Cliff bearded and wearing a shtrayml, in the role of a Hasidic rebbe expounding his mystical interpretation of the Toyre to his fanatical band of followers. But it’s a broader cultural thing. If I say Cliff was a Talmudist, I don’t mean that as an insult. You all know, of course, that the Talmud is a codification of halokhe, of Jewish religious law, but that’s far from all it is. The Talmud is also five thousand or so pages of rabbinic sages scoring off each other using not only halokhic erudition, but also puns, insults, bad jokes, gossip and anecdotes of dubious relevance. Sound familiar? Put Cliff two millennia in the past and have him speaking Aramaic, and he’d have fit right in.

One thing that’s long intrigued me was the detail of Cliff’s youth in the old Mandate of Palestine – Cliff himself rarely said much about it, though he wrote a little in A World to Win. Gaps still remain, not least because most of the people who might remember are now dead, but immense credit goes to Ian Birchall for giving us a sense of what Cliff’s background was like. I’ll get onto the politics at a later stage, but there are suggestive hints about Cliff’s formative influences, and in particular his parents. From his mother, Esther, he seems to have got his intellectual curiosity and occasionally frail health. But his father, Akiva Gluckstein, seems to have been a most appealing character:

Gluckstein was a handsome, jovial man, greatly liked by those who knew him. He was a born actor; he loved to tell jokes, and though he constantly told the same stories, he always varied them. In later life he joined a Yiddish theatre company and travelled around the country with it. He retained his curiosity and zest for life into old age.

Well, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

What else comes to mind? Cliff’s legendary single-mindedness, which had a couple of aspects to it. Some of us used to jokingly call Chris Harman the Renaissance Man, which was a bit scurrilous but also paid tribute to the breadth of his interests, the way no aspect of human life was safe from Chris trying to analyse it. Cliff didn’t really have any interests outside of the organisation, and even then he would have a very narrow focus on the issue in hand. Sometimes that would stand you in good stead; sometimes it would tip over into a lack of perspective. And it could also feed his impatience with those who didn’t see the needs of the moment as clearly as he felt he did. Cliff could deploy a formidable amount of charm when he had to, but if he felt he needed to read you the reproof, you wouldn’t soon forget it:

In John Molyneux’s words an argument with him could be like a “benign hurricane”. On one occasion Cliff was having a heated argument with Molyneux when Molyneux’s four-year-old son intervened: “Don’t argue, Dad; can’t you see he’s just a little old man?”

Some people who in their time had been subjected to an eight-hour Cliff harangue may want to quibble with John about the “benign” bit, but not with the “hurricane”. Cliff himself used to have a good joke about this single-mindedness, which was that of his four children only one, his younger son Danny, had inherited his fanatical temperament. The punchline was that Danny was the only one of the kids never to join the SWP; his fanaticism was directed into his music. Moreover, Cliff himself had zero interest in music, though he was always very encouraging towards Danny.

I realise I’m in danger here of simply repeating favourite Cliff anecdotes, but there is a purpose. Cliff’s organisation can’t be understood separately from Cliff the man; organisations have their own cultures and personalities, and small organisations with a dominant founder tend to reflect the founder’s personality. The late Jim Higgins quipped that Gerry Healy’s group had been paranoid and thuggish, Ted Grant’s group had been stultifying boring, and Cliff’s group had been hyperactive and overexcitable – and that this was not an accident. This is to simplify matters somewhat, but it’s not untrue.

On the other hand, to cast the modern SWP as a triumph of Cliff’s will just won’t do. Cliff could have been as brilliant as anything, and it would have meant naught had he not had people around him. This is where the great strength of Ian’s book lies, in the hundred-plus interviews, what saves it from being a simple story of Cliff writing this and then doing that and then speaking on something else, which would be of little interest to anyone other than historians of Trotskyism. This is where we get to hear the voices of those whose paths crossed Cliff’s, who give their impressions of him and his impact on them. And while we see some very pertinent points made about his failings, it’s also apparent how much warmth and loyalty he was capable of inspiring.

The quotes are where it comes alive, whether it’s from a miner telling you about hearing Cliff speak in the 1984-5 strike, or from Alex Callinicos being remarkably candid about old arguments on the Central Committee (and filling in the detail on a couple of things I only half-knew), or from Cliff’s family, to whom he was ferociously devoted, telling us what he meant to them. A particular favourite is from Anna Gluckstein, on being asked in primary school what her dad did for a living. Unwilling to say he was a professional revolutionary, she replied that he was a writer who wrote children’s books about a wizard called Lenin. For some reason, this pleases me immensely.

And with that, I’ll sign off, though with the confirmed intention (I know, I know) of coming back to ruminate on this some more. But, just as a taster of the old fellow’s style, here’s a Cliff meeting on a wizard called Lenin. The animation captures the spirit quite well, I think.

[1] This may also have been true of Chris Harman, though not to the same extent.

[2] If you don’t know what the Permanent Arms Economy was, don’t worry. Life’s too short.

33 Comments

  1. Derek Wall said,

    August 29, 2011 at 7:35 pm

    My affections are orientated pretty much to Hugo Blanco and the best of rest of the Latin American left rather than Cliff, amusing review though and against my better judgement I think the book sounds interesting.

  2. John Palmer said,

    August 29, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    The most interesting (and for me unexpected) aspect of Birchall’s biography is his criticism of some key aspects of Cliff’s role in the party. These relate not just to his persistence in extreme tactical swings (some of which even in the short term were contradictory) but to his increasingly sterile defence of Marxist and Leninist “orthodox” in his last decades. This contrasts with the extraordinarily creative revisionism which Cliff displayed in the post-war years (State Capitalism, Permanent Arms Economy, Luxemburgism etc) in the period following the collapse of the Revolutionary Communist Party. An extraordinary man. He left an indelible impression even on those who came to profoundly disagree with him.

  3. charliethechulo said,

    August 30, 2011 at 8:52 am

    Cliff was certainly a charismatic figure, and much more attractive than the other two founding fathers of British Trotskyism, Healey and Grant (leaving Haston out of it for now). But he also built a cult and had a loathsome effect, especially on the question of “zionism”; Sean Matgamna nails him here:

    http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2011/08/29/atrocities-libyan-rebels-some-consistency-please

  4. charliethechulo said,

    August 30, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    Sorry: wrong link from me in that last comment (though it’s good stuff); here’s (hopefully) the correct one:

    http://www.workersliberty.org/node/14514

    Btw: I tried to post under my real name, but wasn’t able to:

    I’m Jim Denham

  5. Snowball said,

    August 30, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    Good review in the sense it is wonderfully evocative of Cliff’s personality – it would be nice sometime to have more rumination on the revolutionary politics. To put it bluntly, Cliff was one of the most original Marxist thinkers of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s internationally – for the reasons John Palmer mentions above – and that is why Ian Birchall’s excellent biography should be of interest to the whole revolutionary Left and not just the SWP.

    The fact that – as Palmer also notes – Birchall’s ‘authorised’ biography is critical of aspects of Cliff’s method of party building – for example bringing out some of the ways in which that the ‘stick bending’ Cliff so admired in Lenin had weaknesses as well as strengths and led at times to tactical blunders etc at times – shows that, contra to Jim Denham’s allegations, Cliff did not build a cult in his own image. Incidentally, if one wants to see what a cult built around one ‘theoretician’ might look like, imagine what a biography of Sean Matgamna written by Jim Denham might read like…

  6. neprimerimye said,

    September 1, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    John might it not be the case that you find Cliffs defence of Marxist and Leninist ‘orthodoxy’ unconvincing because you have broken with said ‘orthodoxy’? Although I must say that his writings on these topics, in his later years, do lack the originality of earlier years.

    Personally I feel that although as a propagandist Cliff still did first rate work in his later years I do wish that he had retired from active leadership at least a decade before his death. Although given that he had by then imposed the odious Rees regime on the organisation his active involvement was needed.

    It is curious that the SWP (USA), once eulogised by Sean Matgamna, entered into its final phase of degeneration once Cannon finally bowed out. In retirement in California the poor old guy was known to moan about the lack of revolutionary élan and intellectual of his ‘party’.

    It gives the lie to the absurd claims of Jim Denham that the group Cliff built is currently showing signs of regenerating itself intellectually and organisationally. How fares the AWL by contrast? Where are the original theoretical works from the supporters of that tendency?

  7. Andrew Coates said,

    September 2, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Mike, just one point.

    As a gauge on his importance: Cliff is not widely known internationally as a theorist. I can assure you that I have never heard any French lefty talk about him – nor Cannon for that matter – in that context.

    Callinicos by contrast is.

    • neilcaff said,

      September 2, 2011 at 10:03 pm

      Given the amount of chancers and charlatans posing as left-wing intellectuals who end up with attractive book deals these days I’d say that’s a point in Cliffs favour.

      And if so called Marxists have never heard of Cannon, given the importance of the SWP in the development of the US labour movement in the 30’s then that says a lot about them rather than Cannon.

    • neprimerimye said,

      September 4, 2011 at 12:24 am

      There is a flaw in your argument Andrew. Without Cliff there would be no Callinicos. Again we know that Harmans writings on Islam have proven influential in Egypt for example the idea that Harman would have developed as he did without Cliff and the organisation he founded is daft.

      Come to think of it Marxism from France is pretty dire on a theoretical level. I would refer you to many many issues of NLR for proof or failing that the wonderfully named Theoretical Practice journal of blessed memory. Yuck.

  8. John Palmer said,

    September 3, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Neprimerimye – Lenin never imagined his version of democratic centralism lasting indefinitely. It was essentially designed a/ for conditions of illegality and authoritarian rule and b/ for a revolutionary crisis in the near term. Nearly 100 years later these conditions simply do not apply in Europe and many other parts of the world. Cliff originally saw in long term centralism (following Luxemburg) a danger that “the party will substitute itself for the working class, then the leadership will substitute for the party and finally an individual will substitute for the leadership..” Having worked closely with Cliff for some 20 years I knew his many fine qualities (not the least of which was his sense of humour) but in the end he was not able to to confront the massive changes which have taken place in capitalism (above all the massive decline in class consciousness). The working of understanding those changes – in order to change the world – has barely begun.

  9. neprimerimye said,

    September 4, 2011 at 12:32 am

    John must a Leninist attitude towards party building automatically mean reproducing the scenarios of 1903? Was it not the case that Lenin himself argued that the Organisational Theses produced by the Comintern were ‘too Russian’ and that ‘no one’ would understand them?

    Again is it not the case that Rosa was an advocate of a centralised party. Centralised on her politics by her supporters and that very much emerges from a reading of her letters to my way of thinking.

    I feel that there was not much between Rosa and Lenin in reality as regards the party question. Not in principle albeit tactically there were numerous sharp clashes. In terms of a theory of class consciousness now there Rosa was better than Lenin as her understanding of reformism demonstrates.

    As for Cliff I say nothing here. He made some right bad errors is all. The merit of Ians book is he makes that clear. it’s a good augury for the SWP today. Well I hope so!

    Mike Pearn

  10. John Palmer said,

    September 4, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    You are right Mike – it does not follow that if you support democratic centralism you have to take the 1903 scenarios. But all the Bolsheviks saw democratic centralism as inseparable from the perspective of a revolutionary crisis in the relatively short run. Reportedly Lenin acknowledged as much when he discussed the fate of Paul Levi who was expelled from the German CP. What can be the justification for democratic centralism when no group of marxists is within long distance spitting range of anything resembling power? Cliff never even entertained the idea when Social Review was seeking to better understand a changing world. The premium then was to capture as many creative minds for the task as possible. I suggest that is rather where we are today. You misunderstand my reference to Rosa. I was precisely referring to the danger of centralism fe3eding substitutionism which Cliff – in the early 60s gave free expression to. By the way in the Trotslyist movement – in my view – Zivovievite bluster and sectarianism poisoned the well even before Stalisn (cf the dreadful Fisher and Mazlow).

  11. charliethechulo said,

    September 4, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    As a matter of personal opinion, I think Cannon (for all his many faults) was a much more important figure than Cliff. I hope history awards Cannon his rightful place at The Old Man’s right hand…despite his having lost the debate with Shactman b- the greatest post-Trotskyist of them all.

    In fact, beside the giant intellectual Shactman, you have to conclude that Cliff was a bit of a charlatan and a music hall act.

  12. charliethechulo said,

    September 4, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    Mike asks of me and the AWL: “Where are the original theoretical works from the supporters of that tendency?”

    I’d say, Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Cannon (critically and Shachtman. A much better grounding than the flimsey works of that shyster Cliff.

  13. John Palmer said,

    September 5, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Amazing – Charlie – I had no idea that Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky etc had been members of the AWL. I appreciate Matgamna has appropriated selective parts of Shactman’s work in recent years but presumably not including Shactman’s defence of US wars in Korea and Vietnam.Where does all of this add up to any original contribution to Marxist thought?

  14. neprimerimye said,

    September 6, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    At some point this evening I might pen a few words in reply to John but for now I find it too difficult given the fits of laughter that charlie has fermented.

  15. charliethechulo said,

    September 6, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    Yeah, neptonise or whatever you call yourself, I’m sure you find the antisemitism given a “left” gloss by Cliff, ever so funny.

  16. charliethechulo said,

    September 6, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    And John Palmer: someone of your age, whio claims to be some sort of ‘Marxist’, realy should educate themselves in basic Marxism, insread of the Cliffite “Marxism for Idiots” as seved out by Duncan Hallas, and apparently digested whole by John Palmer.

  17. Dr Paul said,

    September 8, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    Jim D wrote: ‘In fact, beside the giant intellectual Shactman, you have to conclude that Cliff was a bit of a charlatan and a music hall act.’

    To call Shachtman a ‘giant intellectual’ really is pushing it. A witty writer and speaker, no doubt, even if he tended to rabbit on rather a bit in his writings, but he was no great innovative thinker. The idea with which he is most famous — ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ — was commonplace in the late 1930s and 1940s, and he never managed to develop his observations into a proper theoretical work. His other writings were not really much above the average of the US left, and I don’t think that he wrote anything much at all after his group dissolved itself in the late 1950s.

    Although Cliff got it wrong on state capitalism, at least he tried to present a theoretical exposition on it. And he didn’t end up as a hack in the service of the bourgeoisie.

    Why anyone would want to champion Shachtman is a mystery. He was a talented man, no doubt, but no deep thinker. His group did some positive things from 1940 to the mid-1950s, but it was constantly sloughing off rightward-moving tendencies from the very start, and Shachtman himself spent the last dozen years of his life as a willing prisoner of the appalling Cold Warriors of the US labour bureaucracy.

  18. Ken MacLeod said,

    September 10, 2011 at 11:14 am

    I’ve finally twigged why Matgamna called his collection of articles from Shachtman and Schachtman’s followers ‘the Dead Sea Scrolls of 20th century revolutionary Marxism’. The scrolls are the writings of a sect that seems to expect the coming of a great teacher, and to have a sort of dim, groping foreknowledge of the future gospel.

  19. Binh said,

    September 14, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    “…even less impressed by his serial failure to give credit to the contributions of anyone other than himself…”

    This seems to be a consistent feature of “Cliff’s” work.

    I became suspicious of the origins of theory of state capitalism after reading his autobiography in which he claimed to have literally rolled out of bed one day and told his wife Chanie about his sudden epiphany on the Russian question. A more likely explanation is that he encountered the theory when Raya Dunayevskaya came up with it back in 1942 but only became convinced that Trotsky was wrong and she was right after the U.S.S.R. became larger and more powerful after WWII (Trotsky said it wouldn’t survive the war). Jim Higgins in his “More Years for the Locust” recounts how Cliff plagiarized parts of “The Employers’ Offensive” pamphlet from Ken Coates. And now Lars T. Lih has discovered egregious examples of plagiarism in Cliff’s error-filled tome “Building the Party” (see Historical Materialism #18, 2010, p. 147).

  20. neprimerimye said,

    September 14, 2011 at 11:52 pm

    The problem with the argument that Cliff plagiarised the theory of state capitalism from Raja Dunajevskaja is that his theory has little in common with hers. More importantly as Ian explains in his book Cliff had been developing critical ideas about Russian society and its economic base during his years in Palestine.

    That said I do feel that Ian underestimates the influence that Jock Haston and the lively atmosphere of the RCP, the group Haston led, had on Cliff. In fact rather than explore this in detail in his work Ian provides us, at exactly the point here he ought to have detailed discussions in the RCP more fully, with a first rate précis of Cliffs theory.

    Funnily I totally trust Cliff as to his description of his Eureka moment. After all it is not unknown for a person to make a breakthrough, seemingly in a blinding flash, on a problem that has been consuming them for a considerable period of time.

  21. Harry Monro said,

    September 16, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    Thanks for the review, sound, only got my copy yesterday but I can see Ian has done a good job, Cliff warts and all. For some Ian will be a little harsh in places, for others a little soft in parts, but its his account and all the readers owe him a real debt for the work he put in.
    I’m not sure why a couple of sectarians here even see the need to comment, you think the old boy was a troll, you aren’t going to read the book (fair play to you) but why whine on?
    What outsiders can never understand is the warmth so many comrades felt to the the little bloke who ranted at them, but only left them in tears of laughter. Even when he was wrong you learnt something from him.
    harry

  22. Binh said,

    September 17, 2011 at 11:01 pm

    neprimerimye, I did not claim nor did I mean to imply that Cliff plagiarized Dunayevskaya’s theory. I mentioned two instances of clear-cut plagiarism in other works of his. I just find it highly unlikely that Cliff had never heard of it or that it had no bearing what so ever on his own thinking. Trotsky’s wife also embraced the theory.

  23. John Palmer said,

    September 18, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Binh – Of course Cliff had heard of the work of “Johnson/Forrest” (CLR James/Raya Dunayevskaya) on State Capitalism. There were other precedents including Bukharin’s very different take on the subject, and that of the SPGB and Dr Worrell in the early British Trotskyist movement. Indeed Cliff had debated Grant in the RCP initially taking the anti State Capitalist position. The importance and originality of his approach (much developed by Michael Kidron) was to try and identify the global east/west arms race competition which dove the priorities of Stalin’s industrialisation policy as – indirectly – importing the law of value into the Soviet economy. Whatever the shortcomings in his approach (and there were some) it served to help innocculate very many socialists from the obscene position that the Stalinist police state was some kind of “workers’ state’ which some (Healy, Posadas) took as far as distinguishing between the western nuclear mob (bad) and the “workers’ bomb” (defensible.

  24. Harry Monro said,

    September 18, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    Binh if you’d like to read Birchall’s book you’ll see these points by John P expanded upon, and all the other points brought up about Cliff in greater detail as well, with the voices of Cliff’s critics given an extremely fair hearing. John in particular comes across as a thoughtful critic of much of Cliff’s more controversial actions.
    But if I could go a bit further on this point with an analogy, I’ve always been very politcally hostile to the Provies, but I understand their leaders were serious professionally revolutionaries. If the best criticism someone had of Adams was that he lifted sections from an academics book I’d piss myself laughing. Revolutionary leaders should be harshly criticised for their politics and their actions; comparing them to academics and the niceties of academic research is just plain silly.
    As for those who were upset at the time by Cliff’s “autobiography”, he was old and sick, I’m an admirer of Cliff (with criticisms) but I didn’t even bother reading it, I personally knew no SWP comrades who bothered looking at it either.
    harry

  25. Binh said,

    September 18, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    John, as a former ISO U.S. member, I’m pretty familiar with the permanent arms economy. “Trotskyism After Trotsky” was one of the first things I read at the age of 16 or 17. But thanks for the refresher course.

    Harry, I plan on getting and reading the book at some point. I’m not here to hate on Cliff. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, mistakes and successes. There’s a lot of Cliff’s work that has enduring value.

    My issue is with Cliff’s lack of honest accounting on a whole range of issues, both theoretical and practical.

    The problem with the plagiarized sections of Building the Party isn’t about academic nicities, it’s about substance. Cliff copy and pasted from academics who were completely and totally wrong about the 1905 Bolshevik congress and what the debates between Lenin and the professional party organizers were all about. Cliff’s account of that event has no basis in fact. There are actually quite a few egregious factual errors of this sort in Building the Party, on top of and aside from the political errors.

    It’s pretty hard to learn the lessons of the Bolshevik party if you don’t even know what it is they did, much less why or how. There’s no point in even writing books, whether they are autobiographies or studies of Lenin, if you can’t trust what you’re reading to be accurate. You might as well just stick to Wikipedia.

  26. Binh said,

    September 18, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    P.S. I have no idea who or what the Provies are. I’m just an ignorant American.

    • September 18, 2011 at 10:29 pm

      Provies = Provos = Provisional IRA / Sinn Féin.

    • harry monro said,

      September 19, 2011 at 2:29 pm

      Binh
      I’m going to guess you read the recent Historical Materialism issue on Lenin, do your criticisms of Cliff’s line also hold in regards of the Harman article?
      Cliff worked on documents available to him, and clearly thought he was invoking the spirit of Lenin’s writings as a means of winning and arguement with others.
      However others make this point, millions of Marxists, marxoids and others have read reems of Lenin, they come up with different versions of what he stands for, clearly interpretation is at work here not just which is the “factual” truth.
      harry

      • Binh said,

        September 19, 2011 at 7:05 pm

        I didn’t read what Harman had to say yet. I’m working on something now that will address Harman’s (and the IST’s) argument that Lenin and Kautsky had radically different “theories of the party” or conceptions of the party-class relationship. Stay tuned to planetanarchy.net for that.

        To say that Cliff didn’t know any better is pushing it. In Lenin’s Collected Works, Lenin’s report on the third party congress makes no mention whatsoever the fairy tale about conservative committeemen quoting WITBD in a fight against Lenin over whether or not to recruit workers to local organizations: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/may/27.htm

        Cliff had access to the Collected Works but was either 1) was too lazy to actually read what Lenin had to say about that event (really outrageous, given that Building the Party is supposedly a study of Lenin’s thoughts and actions!!) or 2) he knowingly repeated the untrue story in order to further his narrative of “Lenin vs. the party machine that he built” that served as historical justification for any number of Cliff’s actions against a “conservative” IS/SWP leadership.

        Either way, it’s inexcusable.

  27. harry monro said,

    September 21, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    Ah well, clearly put Binh.
    On another tack, I hope Splinty will be giving coverage of the Irish election, while I respect that the owner of a blog has the right to take himself off to retreat every now and again, their are lots of fans out here that need a dose of caustic Irish election news.
    all the best to all
    Harry

  28. NollaigO said,

    October 25, 2011 at 8:15 am

    Cliff himself had zero interest in music

    The man that hath no music in himself,
    Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
    Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.
    The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
    And his affections dark as Erebus.
    Let no such man be trusted

    How true these words are, even today.


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