Cliff’s greatest hits

Lefties, or rather left groups, aren’t generally very good at reflecting critically on the past. And for all we talk about the Stalinist airbrush, Trot groups are particularly bad at it. It’s probably because most Trot groups combine a top-down leadership culture with a “golden thread” worldview according to which their history is one of unique ideological correctness. One thinks immediately of the pre-split Militant’s publication of a volume of the best of Grant, which somehow managed to omit most of Ted’s barmier prophecies. Not a great record for a tendency that used to claim it could stand over anything it had ever published.

One of the better examples, I suppose, was set by Cliff Slaughter’s faction of the WRP after the Healy implosion. Slaughter promised he would open up the pages of Workers Press to a free and honest debate, and actually there was some refreshing self-criticism for a while. This process was only slightly undermined by the a priori insistence that Cliff Slaughter was a nice man who, in all his thirty-year association with Healy, had never had the faintest idea what Gerry was up to.

Which brings me to the current ISJ, where there are a couple of articles of interest. Firstly, Renaissance Man Chris Harman has a review of Marcel van der Linden’s encyclopaedic book on the debates within western Marxism on the nature of the Soviet Union. Now, Chris has for as long as I’ve know him, and undoubtedly longer, been a tireless defender of Cliff’s line on state capitalism. He has even gone beyond the call of duty by claiming the law of value operated in the USSR when even Cliff didn’t attempt to do so (although Cliff did reintroduce it by the back door via foreign trade). Chris is also a stalwart advocate of the Permanent Arms Economy, a theory that Kidron abandoned thirty years ago on the reasonable grounds that, while an interesting hypothesis, it had never been validated. There’s little to do in this context except to salute Chris’s indefatigability.

And so we find in this review mainly a complaint that van der Linden’s determination to provide a comprehensive overview of the question means that he doesn’t devote enough space to explaining why Cliff was right. Indeed, van der Linden is cheeky enough to criticise Cliff, and apparently doesn’t give Chris Harman his due for enriching Marxism. Given that Chris spent decades playing Lou to Cliff’s Andy, one can understand his sensitivity on the point, but it all seems a little sour.

Moving swiftly on, there is a much more interesting article by my old chum Ian Birchall on Cliff in 1968. I must admit, I like Ian. He’s genuinely erudite, has an unbelievably accurate memory and is also possessed of a nice sardonic streak which for some reason always reminds me of Dogbert. But here we find Ian in his Byzantine court chronicler mode. One suspects that this is a sneak preview of Ian’s forthcoming biography of Cliff. In the meantime I direct readers to Jim Higgins’ More Years For The Locust, which Ian has criticised on some minor points of fact, but which is a genuine pleasure to read and paints a portrait of Cliff that will instantly ring true to anyone who ever had dealings with him.

In this instance, Ian’s stress is on Cliff’s seizing the moment. Immediately anyone who has struggled through Building The Party will cringe. Yes, it’s the context for Cliff’s rediscovery of Lenin, and 1968 is important not only in that IS did rather well out of the year’s events, but in that Cliff’s Leninist turn ended up being extremely important for how the organisation ended up. Ian, as always, provides plenty of useful information, but what’s perhaps more interesting is what he doesn’t say.

For instance, how was it that IS ended up playing such a prominent role in the Vietnam solidarity movement, and calling for “Victory to the NLF” forbye? After all, the Fourth International had been doing Vietnam solidarity work for years, and had often been disparaged for this sort of thing by the Cliff group, who adduced further evidence of the Pablo-Mandel FI’s softness on Stalinism. IS, by contrast, believed the NLF was fighting to establish state capitalism – a theory that got a new airing a few years back in Jonathan Neale’s little book. Cliff’s Deflected Permanent Revolution thesis, indeed, sought to combat the virus of Third Worldism in the ranks by positing that Third World revolutions would more or less automatically wind up in state capitalism, and were therefore of little intrinsic interest. An anti-imperialist campaign came up against the problem that Kidron had demonstrated, at least to the satisfaction of those IS members who read his thesis, that imperialism in the Leninist sense no longer existed. No wonder IS’s emergence at the head of the movement left the likes of the IMG and the Healyites scratching their heads.

In retrospect, the Ho Chi Minh turn can be seen as an early example of the Cliff method of accumulating recruits by being the most forceful advocate of whatever is popular with the kids, and not worrying too much about whether it’s compatible with your formal ideology.

Now let us take the “Urgent Challenge of Fascism”, and the subsequent unity appeal. We may see in retrospect that the dockers’ march for Enoch, shocking though it was, hardly marked any sort of fascist danger. Nonetheless, IS and Terry Barrett in particular did stirling propaganda work on the issue. The half-baked left unity campaign was another matter. Ian, quoting Duncan Hallas, is good enough to admit that the object of the exercise was to swallow up the IMG, or at least to poach a chunk of its cadre. The IMG were canny enough not to fall for the ruse. But this did usher in the Workers Fight episode, which Ian relegates to a tactful footnote.

The occasion for this was Cliff’s turn to Leninism. In Manchester IS Colin Barker found himself short of allies in his struggle against the libertarian wing, and had heard that this bloke Sean Matgamna (for it was he) was a red-hot Leninist. The mechanics of the fusion were that Colin introduced Sean to Cliff, the pair shook on it, and Cliff breezily informed the next EC meeting that IS had acquired a tendency. Sadly, it was not long before Colin Barker had figured out Sean was more trouble than he was worth, and not long after that that Cliff started cursing the fact that he couldn’t get rid of Sean as summarily as he had brought him into the group. This marked the beginning of a three-year faction fight culminating in Sean being defused (he complains about the procedure bitterly to this day, despite long since having graduated from serial expellee to expeller). One might also attribute some of the group’s later illiberal atmosphere to this ill-considered fusion, one of the earlier although by no means the last of Cliff’s get-rich-quick schemes.

This all took place in the context of Cliff’s conversion to a rather stentorian Leninism. The issue of the democratic centralist constitution was the occasion for an enormous outpouring of hot air. We will remark on only two points. Firstly, Cliff took it for granted that a democratic centralist party would have factions and tendencies, and that minorities would have proportional representation on the leading bodies. This may surprise SWP members who have been schooled for decades to see the monolithic party as an ideal. Secondly, even in the democratic centralist camp there were multiple agendas. A large chunk of the leadership saw democratic centralism as a device for exercising some discipline over Cliff and curbing his tendency to appoint himself a one-man politburo. Cliff saw democratic centralism as a device for getting the group to more effectively implement Cliff’s brainstorms. It took several years and several hundred expulsions, but we know who won that one.

The rationale for all this was France, where Cliff coined the theory of the “missing party”. Ian, who knows a great deal about French politics, does not stress this as much as it’s often been stressed, which reflects well on him. The idea was that the eventual failure of the French events was down to the lack of a revolutionary party. As Ian knows, and as Cliff surely knew, there were in fact quite a few pretenders to the revolutionary party, but discussing why they didn’t measure up leads us into messy territory. In later years this theory would be refined into what one might call “the missing party of a new type”, which essentially means an SWP-type party. A whole library of books and articles have issued from the SWP on Portugal, Iran, Chile and any number of other lost revolutionary opportunities which might have turned out differently had there been an SWP-type party armed with Cliff’s theory of state capitalism.

All this, Ian stresses, was profoundly Leninist. For my part, I tend to think that, when a group leader proclaims a turn to Leninism, it’s time to run for cover. Not least because these gurus have a tendency to paint Lenin in their own image. If you have the patience, go back and read Cliff’s Lenin biography. You will find in it rather little about the Marxist programme, nor considerations of what is and what is not relevant for the modern day in the thought of a man who died in 1924. What you will find is a portrait of a Lenin whose overriding concern was always building his organisation, and whose genius resided in his unparallelled ability to seize the moment and bend the stick. If this Lenin sounds uncannily like Cliff to you, pat yourself on the back. Not to mention, those 45 bloody great volumes of the Collected Works are just full of quotes that could be drummed into service to lend authority to whatever Cliff wanted to do.

This may seem a little harsh. There were plenty of positive developments in the group as well, which Ian is right to flag up. Not to mention that in the immediately following years IS would begin to sink quite serious roots in the working class, to the point where a third of its members were manual workers. This may also come as an eye-opener to those who say “industry” when they mean “schoolteachers”. It’s clear that IS could have gone in a number of different directions. But I do hope that, when Ian’s book comes out, it gives us a reasonably unvarnished portrait, although this might cause Ian some discomfort. We already have a devotional work praising Cliff’s nonpareil wisdom and perspicacity, in the form of Cliff’s memoirs. I’m not sure that more hagiography performs a service to someone who really did make a contribution that’s worth remembering.

12 Comments

  1. ejh said,

    July 1, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    Lefties, or rather left groups, aren’t generally very good at reflecting critically on the past

    So much for “practice makes perfect”.

  2. ejh said,

    July 1, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    The idea was that the eventual failure of the French events was down to the lack of a revolutionary party.

    Shouldn’t this read:

    The idea was that the eventual failure of [insert specifics here] was down to the lack of a revolutionary party.

    …?

  3. July 2, 2008 at 4:13 pm

    I loved that crack about the Lenin books reading like a biography of John the Baptist written by Jesus Christ. Higgins IIRC?

  4. July 2, 2008 at 4:56 pm

    probably the voluntarism of one Cliff has found its musical manifestation in a song, written by another Cliff

  5. Doug said,

    July 3, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    If Higgins version of events is anywhere near accurate, what tremendous potential to develop a significant number of genuinely working class revolutionaries over the course of the 1970s, with who knows what consequences. The crass stupidity of Cliff’s toytown Leninism in expelling/alienating all those people in or close to IS beggars belief. I knew one of those personally – Tony Barrow, then on the IS National Committee, Convenor at Fords (Leamington) and part of the IS factory branch there in the early 70s (yes, there were revolutionary factory branches).

    We must learn from these things – I’m almost tempted to say never, ever trust leaders of any kind Or at least look out fort the signs of degeneration in an organisation. Don’t accept it , thinking it’ll magically improve or change when important issues arise – do something about it. If that fails, walk away – you’re wasting your time and helping to con the working class.

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 3, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    The John the Baptist crack is from Sullivan IIRC. An apt way to characterise a Lenin painted in Cliff’s image.

  7. Ian Birchall said,

    July 6, 2008 at 6:01 am

    Thanks for these comments, many (if not all ) of which were constructive and useful.

    You’ll have to wait until the boof appears to see if is hagiography. I do not intend it to be such. As Cliff himself said: ““The worst thing in the world is hagiography. To come and say Engels knew everything, that he was always right – that makes me absolutely sick.”

    Whatever I write, I shall be accused by some of being a sycophant, and by others of being too critical, so I shall just write what seems to me to be the truth.

    It is interesting that Lars T Lih (whom I just heard debate with John Molyneux), who has written a work of monumental erudition on Lenin, treats Cliff’s Leninism rather more seriously, though he makes some important critcisims.

    Finally if you, or any of your contributors, have recollections of Cliff or observations that might be useful to me, I can be contacted at ian@ibirchall.wanadoo.co.uk I am anxious to incorporate serious critical perspectives into my account. Don’t bother sending purely abusive or factional comments, as I have a very good spam filter.

  8. ejh said,

    July 6, 2008 at 5:43 pm

    You can get spam settings for factionalism?

    I know several sites that could get one fitted…

  9. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 7, 2008 at 8:08 am

    I’m most grateful to Ian – if you get stick from both sides it’s probably an indication of a job well done.

    Actually, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, what I found most attractive about Cliff was his self-deprecating humour. A shame that never really found its way into his writing, it was the thing you noticed first on encountering him live.

  10. prianikoff said,

    July 8, 2008 at 7:47 am

    DaveStokeNewington wrote:


    “I loved that crack about the Lenin books reading like a biography of John the Baptist written by Jesus Christ. Higgins IIRC?”

    Did Jimbo really say that?

    One of Cliff’s better sayings was: “I’m not bloody Jesus Christ”


    Theme Tune

  11. Andy Newman said,

    July 8, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    The John the baptist quote was definitely from john Sullivan.

    I used to quite like John Sullivan, though he was quite scornful of my SWP membership, and he could never be shifted from his unrepentant homophobia, which belonged to a different era.

  12. chuck wilson said,

    July 17, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    No doubt in my mind that the late 60s to early mid 70s IS/SWP had real potential but the successful Bolshevization of the organisation was the beginning of its downfall.

    Cliff was both infuriating and hilarious but nearly always infectious and I absolutely adored Hallas.


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