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Ian Birchall


(Spring 1995)

From Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 4, Spring 1995, pp. 238–245.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Dear Comrades

Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no. 3 contains a hostile review by Al Richardson of Tony Cliff’s book Trotsky: The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star (Bookmarks, 1994). Since this follows similarly hostile reviews of earlier volumes of the same work, and since it raises questions of substance, methodology and tone which are relevant to the whole project of Revolutionary History, I should like to respond to some of the points raised.

Richardson’s basic complaint is that Cliff has harnessed history to ‘current factional concerns’. (This echoes the suggestion by Ted Crawford (Revolutionary History, Volume 4, no. 2, p. 100) that the second volume of this series related to an ‘internal dispute’ in the Socialist Workers Party; an internal dispute none of the members seem to have noticed.) Richardson graciously concedes that Cliff is not guilty of ‘anything like the scale of Stalinism’s monstrous distortions’, neatly implying that Cliff’s affinity with Stalinism is qualitative rather than quantitative.

This is a serious charge, but what does it in fact relate to? That Cliff sees his work as an historian as inextricably bound up with his involvement in building a revolutionary organisation in the 1990s. I thought that the whole point of Revolutionary History was that we should learn from the past in order to shape the future. Of course, if we don’t tell the truth about the past, we can’t learn from it; but in fact the only ‘monstrous distortion’ Richardson has found in Cliff’s work is that he disagrees with Richardson’s interpretation on certain questions.

In an earlier review, Richardson refers to the ‘painful impression’ caused by a comparison between Cliff’s work and Pierre Broué’s Trotsky (Paris 1988) (Revolutionary History, Volume 2, no. 3, p. 46). Broué’s book is certainly an important piece of historical scholarship. But in its final section, it evades the central issues of Trotsky’s perspective in the late 1930s, and in particular the question of the founding of the Fourth International. One gets the impression that Broué is not prepared to defend the detailed political perspective that lay behind the founding of the Fourth International, but that he is also not willing to subject it to rigorous criticism. Since he has been arguing that the building of the Fourth International was the central task of Trotsky’s life, this produces a bizarre inconclusiveness. Cliff, on the other hand, makes no attempt to evade the difficult questions raised by Trotsky’s strengths and weaknesses.

Richardson touches only in passing on what is one of the most important themes in the volume, the ‘gaping abyss’ between Trotsky’s ideas and the tiny organisations that tried to put them into practice. The question of size is discussed in relation to Stalinist infiltration, to the tendency for organisations to be dominated by internal discussion, and to the appropriateness of organisational forms to different sizes of grouping. This discussion of the relation of theory to practice is rich in lessons; much of the history of the Trotskyist movement has consisted of heated debates about the ‘correct line’ when there was nobody there to implement the line even if it was correct. Of course, Richardson would be quite right to relate this discussion to Cliff’s belief in the importance of building a substantial revolutionary organisation over the next few years. But no apology need be made for that.

Richardson chooses instead to focus on Cliff’s alleged shortcomings on the question of ‘entry’. He laments Cliff’s ‘strange omission’ of any discussion of the question of entry in relation to the British labour movement. Perhaps it is a pity that Cliff did not discuss this question. But his omission is scarcely ‘connected with the SWP’s self-proclamation as a revolutionary party’. For whatever Trotsky might have said, it has no immediate relevance to strategy in the 1990s.

The question of revolutionary entry is a concrete one, to be judged in terms of the size of the revolutionary nucleus, the nature, organisation and base of the party to be entered, and the historical conjuncture. (Richardson concedes that entry is a question of tactics and not principle when he points out that Trotsky would have preferred entry into the French Communist Party, but recognised that it was impossible in practice.) We cannot simply quote Engels, Lenin or Trotsky, and apply their words directly to the Blair-led Labour Party of today. If learning from history were that simple, we could all do it. What is needed is a concrete study of the past combined with an equally concrete evaluation of the present. (To take one example among very many, the Pivertist left in the SFIO in 1935 had armed anti-Fascist squads; when my local branch of the Campaign Group organises armed patrols against the BNP, I’ll rethink my position on entry.)

Richardson condemns Cliff for suggesting that it is an ‘eternal truth’ that ‘if entry were not seen as a short-term tactic it must lead to opportunism’. But as Richardson himself points out, all Trotsky’s strategy was directed towards the impending war; he certainly never envisaged the case of entry extended over a period of several decades. Now that we can evaluate the impact of such long-term entry, and see its effect on political strategy and on the education and training of cadre, we don’t need quotations from Trotsky to tell us that long-term entry leads to opportunism.

Entry is in fact only a minor theme in Cliff’s book; it is Richardson who elevates it to such central importance. There is an obvious reason for this. Richardson is a man with a key to history. Already in 1989 he told the world:

‘On this question the verdict of history is universal and conclusive. Except in countries where there was no working class parties of any sort already in existence, there has never been a revolutionary party created by recruitment in ones or twos to a sect. All the mass parties of the Third International – not excepting the Russian – issued from splits inside previously existing working class parties.’ (Revolutionary History, Volume 2, no. 3, p. 49)

Would that life could be so simple! Outside Russia there were at least half a dozen ‘mass parties’ in the Communist International – France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Italy, Bulgaria. Moreover, in the case of the French Communist Party, the people whom both Lenin and Trotsky thought should be the leadership were precisely those – the revolutionary Syndicalists – who had refused to enter the mass working class parties before 1920. At no other time than the historically unique conjuncture of 1919-22 have mass revolutionary parties been formed in this way. That’s rather a shaky basis for the establishment of a ‘universal and conclusive’ verdict. In this concern to teach the left the correct methods of party building, Richardson rather reminds me of those people who publish books advising us how to win the lottery. One wonders why they don’t just go ahead and win.

Richardson also complains at Cliff’s state capitalist analysis of Russia. It is a well-rehearsed argument, and not one, I suspect, that will cause much anguish to a new generation of revolutionaries. But again it must be related to the question of party building. If I ask Richardson whether in the Russian workers’ state under Stalin, the actual workers in factory, mine, dock and office controlled the state machine, he will answer ‘of course not’. As he points out in his reply to Willie Thompson, the state that jailed the Guildford Four is rather more favourable to workers than the state which conducted the Moscow Trials (Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no. 3, p. 277). And he is on record as saying that ‘the very term “workers’ state” is a dialectical contradiction’ (Revolutionary History, Volume 3, no. 4, p. 34).

Now this is all very well if one spends one’s entire life talking to veterans of the Trotskyist movement. Most workers do not speak Richardson’s esoteric dialectical language, and want to know who is on their side and who is the enemy. If I tell Socialist Worker buyers at Edmonton Green Shopping Centre that Russia under Stalin was a workers’ state, they will assume that I mean that people like them controlled the state. An organisation with the workers’ state position must either stay condemned to isolation or capitulate to Stalinism.

Richardson also muddies the water by alleging that Cliff’s position is the same as that of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. This is not a mere slip – he has made the same accusation in the past (Revolutionary History, Volume 2, no. 3, p. 46; Volume 3, no. 4, p. 36, in the latter case twice on the same page!). Now the SPGB’s position is that ‘the Bolshevik Revolution ... was not and could not have been a proletarian revolution’ (The Russian Revolution: Its Origin and Outcome, Socialist Party of Canada, distributed by the SPGB, p. 12). Cliff’s position is that there was a proletarian conquest of power, but that this was followed by a counter-revolution. The SPGB repudiates Bolshevism, Cliff endorses Bolshevism. Richardson is entitled to criticise and reject both positions, but he cannot refuse to admit that they are different. A vegetarian may refuse both beef and mutton, but he would be singularly obtuse if he couldn’t tell a cow from a sheep. This looks remarkably like what Richardson describes as the ‘time-honoured Stalinist tactic of the amalgam’ (Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no. 3, p. 278).

Two other smaller points call for comment. Firstly, Richardson claims that Cliff ‘told his followers that with another few thousand on their section of the last miners’ demonstration they could have made a bid for power’. What Cliff actually said is rather different:

‘Imagine if we had 15,000 members of the SWP and 30,000 supporters: the 21 October miners’ demonstration could have been different. Instead of marching round Hyde Park, Socialists could have taken 40 or 50,000 people to parliament. If that had happened, the Tory MPs wouldn’t have dared vote with Michael Heseltine. The government would have collapsed.’ (Socialist Worker, 23 January 1993)

Cliff used virtually the same words at a number of public rallies.

Nothing about a ‘bid for power’. The collapse of the government would, presumably, have led to a Labour success in the ensuing general election. I assume that Richardson is not so warped by years of entry that he can’t tell the difference between a Labour election victory and an SWP ‘bid for power’. Richardson has a justified reputation for his works on British Trotskyism, but he seriously imperils his reputation as an historian with misrepresentations of this sort.

Secondly, there is the fantasy about the footnotes. From the fact that Cliff follows the fairly standard scholarly practice of footnoting original texts rather than translations, Richardson deduces a conspiracy to prevent SWP members ‘reading more widely in the contributions of others’. I can assure Richardson that no such totalitarian regime exists in the SWP, and that Cliff does not attempt to limit anybody’s readings. (Does Richardson imagine that the bands that played at the ANL Carnival were Tony Cliff’s personal favourites?) In fact, quite a lot of SWP members read Revolutionary History, and more would do so if the editor could curb a regrettable tendency towards sectarianism.

For these last points can only be explained by sectarianism, a sectarianism so entrenched that it finds the recognition that Edward Thompson was a first-rate historian ‘embarrassing’ (Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no. 3, p. 287). And it is a sectarianism that does not even have the excuse of a sect to justify it.

Twice in the most recent issue, Richardson rejoices that ‘our movement’ greatly outnumbers the remnants of Stalinism (Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no. 3, pp. 234, 277). But while wishing to ride on the success of the revolutionary left, Richardson cannot resist a contemptuous dismissal of its various components, describing the largest British revolutionary organisation as ‘a couple of thousand or so students, civil service clerks and team leaders on job creation schemes’ (Revolutionary History, Volume 2, no. 3, p. 49). He can’t have it both ways.

I am not asking the editor of Revolutionary History to abandon his political independence. I am not against vigorous polemic, and I am certainly not against humour. I am against a style of unsubstantiated sniping that prejudices the credibility of the journal.

There is an old American song about a character called ‘Bill Bailey, the ultimate sectarian’. Having refused all recruits to his organisation on the grounds of political inadequacy, Bill finally dies and goes to heaven. But when Karl Marx himself comes to open the gates, Bill slams them in his face, saying:

‘You may be a friend of Karl Kautsky, and a pal of Ferd Lassalle,
You may get along with Wilhelm Liebknecht and the First International,
You may have inspired every radical movement from the Hudson to the Rhine,
Yes, you may be a comrade to all of those folks, but you ain’t no comrade of mine.’

If Revolutionary History plays its rôle as a serious historical journal, respecting the facts of past and present, if it exercises a rôle of independent but constructive criticism, it can make a real contribution to the development of the British left. If it becomes a journal of Bill Baileys, I see no future for it.


Ian Birchall

The Editor replies:

Paragraphs 2–3: Did I accuse Cliff of ‘monstrous distortions’? Please read my review again. Are polemics against ‘squadism’, for example, a strategic concern for the construction of a revolutionary party? Were Islington street politics really a topic of burning interest to Trotsky while Hitler was rising to power?

Paragraph 4: Broué and Trotsky support the formation of the Fourth International. Cliff, having built a peculiarly British organisation, tries to clone it into other countries, with less than startling success. Which of them has the ‘strengths’ and which the ‘weaknesses’ on this point?

Paragraphs 6–8: Come off it, Ian! Don’t the facts that Cliff’s reference to your organisation’s 16 years in the Labour Party occupies part of a tiny footnote in his 426-page book about it, and entrism in Britain is wholly omitted in his Trotsky book, remind you just a teeny weeny bit of the historical methods of the notorious Short Course? And if learning from history were so ‘simple’ for your comrades as you make out, why do they describe the formation of the Independent Labour Party as a result of a ‘defeat’ for the movement, when Engels applauded it and became a card-carrying member? And would they have succeeded quite so easily in blacking out from their historical memories the fact that during the whole period of Trotsky’s last exile the Trotskyist groups in Britain were supposed to be entrist organisations, first of all in the Communist Party, then in the ILP, and finally in the Labour Party, a foresight that was so dramatically confirmed in 1945? You are quite right, learning from history can be ‘simple’ – providing you are allowed to get to know about it in the first place. As for size being a criterion for judging the viability of entry, I wouldn’t be so quick to invoke it if I were you. Trotsky called the ILP and the POUM sects when they had tens of thousands of members, the overwhelming majority of them workers, and were far better implanted in the class than you are. Where are they now?

Paragraph 9: Have mass revolutionary parties been founded at any other time than in 1917–22? Well, perhaps. In Vietnam and Ceylon the Trotskyist parties were formed precisely in the same circumstances – from splits inside previously undifferentiated organisations. The possible exception of Bolivia obviously does not count against this historic pattern, since before the rise of the POR there was no real working class party in that country at all. Should serious revolutionaries utterly disregard this whole history, as well as the entire theory of the united front applied to the mass organisations, the essence of the revolutionary experience of Lenin and Trotsky?

Paragraph 10: Obviously myself and Sam Bornstein should not have spent 13 years researching the material for our books on the movement’s history, or wasting the time since in doing the work for this magazine. We should have contributed to the revolutionary movement in more concrete ways – promoting feminism, black power and political correctness, attacking Jewish student clubs for racism, apologising for Islamic fundamentalism, selling Socialist Worker on Edmonton Green, or assaulting the odd seller of Socialist Organiser.

Paragraph 12: I am sorry that you find Lenin’s definition of a workers’ state as ‘a bourgeois state without a bourgeoisie’ to be ‘esoteric dialectical language’. If you don’t understand it, of course I can’t expect any better of your Edmonton Green revolutionaries. Perhaps when you have read Lenin’s full argument about this in the book In Defence of the Russian Revolution that is about to go to the printers, we can have a real discussion about it. But be that as it may, whilst rejecting self-mystifying pseudo ‘dialectics’ of the Healy variety, I do not think in general that revolutionaries should hold its theory of contradiction up to ridicule, for it is vital for us to understand the difference between its contradictions and those of formal logic. A contradiction of this type in formal logic is an error in reasoning; in dialectics, a necessary aid to understanding. If, for example, I were to say ‘I have seen Cliff lie and manipulate in a quite outrageous fashion, but I have accepted it because I am totally convinced of his absolute revolutionary integrity’, that would be a straight logical absurdity. But if I said ‘I support the formation of a particular type of state, because in the long run I am against all states and want them to wither away’, that would be a perfectly acceptable dialectical contradiction. I am pleased to note that your comrade Paul McGarr takes a very different attitude to this question than you do.

Paragraphs 13–14: Again, a bit of reading is required before we can discuss this topic, too. The first theory of state capitalism applied to the Soviet Union within the British Trotskyist movement was worked out by Jock Haston, who learned his Marxism from the Socialist Party of Great Britain, and Cliff was put up to counter this from the workers’ state position by Mandel and Pablo. In the course of the discussion they changed sides. When you have read Haston’s argument in the Internal Bulletin of the RCP and in the series of articles in Socialist Appeal, I feel sure that you will see immediately the stamp of the SPGB’s reasoning. They certainly recognise the affinity between their views and yours, for they have reprinted my previous remarks about this in the Socialist Standard. If you haven’t the time to look all this up, at least read the little summary in War and the International, pp. 182–5.

Paragraph 15: Can the government of a bourgeois democracy collapse as a result of one demonstration? Did Cliff call for a Labour government in the event of a collapse of the Tories, or is it something you have tacked on yourself? From the remarks you made at our AGM that the Labour Party constitutes the same sort of problem for revolutionaries as do the Tories, I find this dialectical reasoning a bit mystifying – too esoteric for me to cope with.

Paragraph 16: I am not a lecturer in foreign languages, so I will have to take your word for this. But I would have thought that systematically avoiding a mention of English translations where they do exist, and quoting from a German quotation of something written originally in French (of which an English version had been around for a year or two) was a bit on the tortuous side. Why otherwise was it done? Perhaps there is a simple explanation for it. You tell me.

Paragraph 17: Of course E.P. Thompson was a superb historian. So were Thucydides and Gibbon, but we would not dream of taking our politics from them. And I do not think that Marxists and internationalists should add to the mass media’s fawning on Thompson’s memory at this time, especially as his political legacy includes an openly expressed hostility to Trotskyism, support for respectable Popular Front-style pacifism in END, and a cosy little English radical tradition contrasted with horrible foreign innovations. Moreover, this is by no means the first time your comrades have gone out of their way lately to praise the traditions, not only of the Communist Party historians’ group, but even of the party itself. In the last few years your party has promoted the myth of Cable Street in its paper, and one of your high profile comrades has even written to the national press in praise of that gruesome old Stalinist (and suspected GPU man) Bert Ramelson. Isn’t this an odd posture to be taken up by a state capitalist tendency? And as for Stalinist and Stalinist-derived historiography in general, I think that we have to admit that its usefulness for revolutionaries today is rather limited. It does, after all, diminish in truthfulness the closer we get to the present.

Paragraph 18: Obviously I am proud of the success of the British Trotskyists in replacing Stalinism as the main force to the left of the Labour Party. But if I wanted to ‘ride on the success’ of the SWP, I might be in for a bit of a steeplechase. I would certainly not like to crash against such a fence as you did in 1975, when your group purged a whole layer of seasoned industrial militants, including entire committees of convenors and shop stewards, along with some impressive second-rank cadre that included one of the founding fathers of British Trotskyism. And while your horse’s energy and grit are to be applauded, I don’t think much of its staying power. The turnover of your members is proverbial. And with your numbers, shouldn’t you by now have a higher working class content (not to mention a firmer implantation in the institutions of the industrial working class)? So why shouldn’t I be allowed to celebrate the fact that we Trotskyists are at least back in the race again, even if I have my doubts about the quality of some of our trainers?

PS: I am not against humour either. I like your little song. Sectarianism, as you know, is defined by our attitudes to the mass movement. Which of your comrades was Bill Bailey? Did I ever meet him?

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