By Dave Osler
They say that no man is a hero to his valet. But the late Tony Cliff was very obviously a hero — and more — to one of his chauffeurs. Ian Birchall, who took 10 years to research and write his mammoth 559-page life story of the founder of the Socialist Workers’ Party, casually mentions in the book that he used to undertake driving duties for his subject.
Obviously there can be no objection to authors writing lengthy volumes on persons they admire greatly. Were that not the case, few biographies other than the ghost-written memoirs of footballers and pop stars would ever be produced.
But my guess here is that Bookmarks, the SWP’s internal publishing house, did not have to fight off a flurry of interest from commercial publishers desperately lodging six figure bids to secure exclusive rights on this one.
So was this a decade well spent? By the yardsticks that dominate in this society, Cliff’s sole achievement was to create a political organisation with a four-figure membership that has almost nothing concrete to show for 60 years of continuous struggle.
Leading SWPers routinely make laughably inflated claims for the influence of the organisation. The truth is rather harsher than the cadre can bring themselves to admit; Cliff’s SWP simply is not a factor in British politics.
That stipulation applies to the socialist left as a whole, I hasten to stress. It’s just that some of us can recognise the reality rather better than others.
Yet as one of the principal architects of today’s left, Cliff’s life does deserve examination, not least in a bid to ascertain responsibility for some of the obvious faults in the building.
The point that Birchall endlessly reiterates by way of justification — that for half a century Cliff was an inspirational figure for countless activists — is to a considerable extent true.
To many in my generation and the one before it, Cliff seemed vastly more attractive than boring old Ted Grant or bombastic Gerry Healy.
He rightly stressed the idea of the self-emancipation of the working class, at a time when his rivals did not, and was more strongly influenced by what this newspaper calls “the Other Trotskyism” than he himself ever cared to admit. In a sense, he was the Third Campist who dare not speak the doctrine’s name.
Cliff’s obvious charisma on a public platform was one of the SWP’s prime recruitment weapons. Among the people who signed up for the party largely as a result was the twentysomething me. The culture I found inside it seemed to me in obvious contrast to the one that Cliff had been advertising, including a vast degree of automatic deference to the de facto leader, even though he was never described as such.
Birchall’s book does acknowledge Cliff’s failings, particularly his frequent ruthlessness in dealings with others. When I say that he “acknowledges” them, I mean exactly that. The point is never really explored. On the few occasions in which it is conceded that these criticisms possibly have some substance, they are brushed aside as somehow necessary for the greater good.
Controversial incidents in SWP history receive only a few cursory paragraphs. There are noticeable errors of omission, too. Why no word of the disagreements with Militant Tendency over Liverpool, which, while of little importance now, seemed significant at the time?
Yet for all the detail, there is little here that would be new to anyone versed in the literature on the history of British Trotskyism, although perhaps younger comrades will learn something. There is also disappointingly little on Cliff the man, especially his personal relations. He may not always have been as doting a husband as he is portrayed in these pages.
Birchall also argues strongly throughout that Cliff made important independent contributions to Marxist theory. The validity of that assertion requires more detail than can be slotted into a short column, although neither the concepts of state capitalism or the permanent arms economy were original ideas.
It is for these reasons that this book is not a “must read”. Yes, it is of value in understanding a chapter from the past, and a chapter of the past that older activists had a hand in shaping. But it is a chapter that today’s far left must rise above if it is ever to make real progress and begin to enjoy mass support.