From Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2, 2002.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
In the last issue of Revolutionary History (Volume 8, no. 1), Ian Birchall took Ted Crawford and myself to task for our criticisms of Tony Cliff’s autobiography A World to Win. Ted dealt with most of Ian’s letter in the same issue, but there are a couple of matters I would like to set straight, if possible. In a patronising passage, calculated to strain my amiability to its limit, Ian writes:
Personally, I always found Jim Higgins an amiable and amusing individual, and I should be quite happy to let bygones be bygones. But since he insists on scratching at the wound, let me say that the real difference between Cliff and Higgins is as follows: if Cliff had lost the 1975 faction fight, he would have got on with rebuilding what was left of his organisation; he would certainly not have spent the next 25 years writing articles about how badly he had been treated.
In this short half-paragraph Ian marks up an impressive score of errors, which suggests to me that for all his closeness to Cliff he was not too aware of what was going on. For starters, I do not, so far as I am aware, have any ‘bygones’ with Ian. Indeed, I can recall quite vividly some fairly acrimonious debates that I had with Cliff, but not so much as a cross word with Ian. He may, of course, have voted for Cliff’s side of the dispute with noisy enthusiasm, but that would be quite insufficient to be noticed among the strident clamour of Cliff’s noisier loyalists. Again, contrary to Ian’s suggestion, I have not spent my time for the last 25 years whinging about how Cliff did me wrong. I have, of course, written fairly extensively about the International Socialists and the Socialist Workers Party when requested to by various journals. In all of that I have attempted to keep my own part in this out of the narrative, except in so far as it clarified the text. Where I have written with some defence of my personal involvement, it has been in response to Ian, who has been pursuing me through the pages of these same journals with such doggedness as to put him in danger of prosecution under the anti-stalking legislation.
Ian’s most substantial error is in the passage where he guesses what Cliff might have done if the IS Opposition had won the 1975 faction fight. The fact is that the ISO was a most reluctant opposition and, assuming that we had won, had no intention of expelling Cliff and his camarilla. The ISO was a response to Cliff’s depressingly ingrained inability to operate in any kind of collective where there was a chance that he might not get his own way. Now this failing, observable and forgivable in kindergartens, is destructive and ultimately pathetic when practised in an organisation with pretensions to Bolshevism. Had he lost the faction fight, he would have been expected to abide by the line that he had supported (and had been in large measure responsible for initiating) until a few months before the arguments erupted.
This outcome might have saved him from the embarrassment of fathering the ‘all shop stewards are bent’ line that with total irresponsibility he tossed into the 1975 debate. This particular piece of crass stupidity is described in Mike Sheridan’s moving obituary of Sean Halloran in the same issue of Revolutionary History as Ian’s letter. The real difference between Cliff and Higgins was that I was unwilling to discard valuable parts of the IS heritage, much of which I had originally learned from Cliff, for a passing factional advantage. Cliff embraced the opportunity, performing political convolutions of herpetic proportions, that by some alchemy damaged neither his backbone nor his credibility among the faithful. But as Ian Birchall knows perfectly well, Cliff was prepared to lie and cheat to retain his untrammelled control of the organisation. Ye Gods, on occasion he was even prepared to perpetrate such notorious porkies as his rewriting of the anti-Lenin bits of the first edition of Rosa Luxemburg, then denying he had done so, so that he could pretend that his Leninism was pure, unwavering and lifelong.
In his concluding paragraphs, Ian presents a vision of Cliff as candidate for imminent beatification, well good luck on that one Ian. Perhaps if he eventually gets round to producing, Tony Cliff: The Movie, he might cast Julie Andrews in the title rôle.
Ian Birchall adds that he does not wish to continue this correspondence, but wishes to point out that the republication of Cliff’s pamphlet on Rosa Luxemburg in the first volume of his Selected Works does include both of the passages to which Jim Higgins refers.
Last updated on 10.10.2011