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.

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