From Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 1, 2001.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
As one who knew and worked with Tony Cliff over 37 years, I should like to add a few remarks to the various comments in the last issue of Revolutionary History (Volume 7, no. 4, pp. 183–94, 212–21). At the risk of being accused of sycophancy, I shall begin by saying that he was undoubtedly the most remarkable person I ever met, and that it was a privilege to have known him.
I felt some of the comments on Cliff’s autobiography (A World to Win, London 2000) were a trifle harsh. Perhaps comrades were not fully aware of the circumstances under which it was written. Cliff was awaiting a major heart operation, and had been instructed not to leave his home and to have complete rest. In such circumstances most of us would be happy to lie back and be waited on. But ‘rest’ was utterly foreign to Cliff’s nature, and he was determined to use the time. Repeatedly his phone calls dragged me out of bed at 8.00 a.m. to demand whether I had internal ‘byooletins’ from the 1970s.
Of course, under such circumstances the book could not be properly researched, and it is scarcely surprising that many names evaded Cliff’s memory. But it is nonetheless a fascinating document, in that it gives an account of how Cliff himself saw events. It does not, of course, preclude a properly documented history of the Socialist Review Group, nor a serious critical biography of Cliff, both of which I hope will eventually be written.
I do, however, agree with Duncan Hallas (Revolutionary History, Volume 7, no. 4, p. 185) when he says that Cliff was ‘indispensable’. Of course many others made important contributions. In 1968, I jointly authored with Cliff a short book on the French general strike; I suppose in some sense I was one of the leading figures in the organisation. Yet when I look back I realise how little I then understood of what was going on, and how much I learned from Cliff. Or rather, as Richard Kirkwood has very well put it, ‘like any good … educator he helped me to learn it for myself’ Programme of Cliff Memorial Meeting, 7 May 2000). Of course, if we applied Cliff’s methods and came to different conclusions from Cliff, we got the sharp end of a very sharp tongue. But that was all part of the learning process.
Jim Higgins writes off Cliff’s entire life as a failure. Since he invokes my ‘phenomenal memory’, I might mention that on Saturday, 11 October 1997, at 6.00 p.m. in the urinal of the Calthorpe Arms, Jim told me he had not read anything published by the Socialist Workers Party since 1980. So perhaps he isn’t the best qualified of judges. I’ve said what I had to say about the events of 1973–75 in a previous issue of Revolutionary History (Volume 7, no 1, pp200–3) and I won’t repeat myself. 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.
I don’t intend to list all of Cliff’s achievements here. Let me just mention two, which possibly outweigh the various alleged tactical misjudgements which Ted Crawford so painstakingly lists. Firstly, the Anti-Nazi League. As one who was politically active in the 1970s, I am quite convinced that this was the one time at which we did make a major impact on mainstream politics. After all, in many European countries the far right has grown much bigger than it ever did in Britain. If we don’t attribute this to the natural tolerance of the British racial character, then it can only be explained by the fact that the Nazis here were confronted, physically and politically. Sadly, the revolutionary left in France in the early 1980s did not do this, and Le Pen became a permanent fixture on the political stage. Of course, Cliff personally did not launch Rock Against Racism – but those who did, notably Roger Huddle and Dave Widgery, always acknowledged their debt to Cliff. (For the record, the ANL was not a ‘Popular Front’; a Popular Front is an alliance with the political representatives of sections of the bourgeoisie, for example, the French Radical Party. I think one student Conservative Association affiliated to the ANL, but otherwise there was no representation of bourgeois parties. Of course it wasn’t a classic united front either, it was a genuine innovation.)
Secondly, contrary to Al Richardson’s ill-informed assertion that the SWP’s ‘turnover … is proverbial’ Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no. 4, p. 245), the SWP has held together a group of experienced revolutionaries over a long period. I was recently at a meeting in Haringey where a comrade spoke of the IS-led campaign against council rent rises in 1967. To my knowledge, five of the comrades involved in that campaign are still in the SWP – three were in the room at the time. Many of the ‘veterans’ hailed in the pages of Revolutionary History spent much shorter periods in revolutionary organisations. The ability of the SWP to keep the loyalty of its membership owes much to Cliff’s principled but flexible approach to organisation and his hatred of all formalism.
If Jim Higgins and Ted Crawford want to see the real legacy of Tony Cliff, the organisation he built, I cordially invite them to attend the next Marxism. (Ray Challinor is already a regular attender and a much respected speaker.) Or do they not want the facts to get in the way of their prejudices?
Ted refers to the election campaigns of the late 1970s as ‘idiotic and adventurist’. This seems excessive – the campaigns were not successful, but they didn’t lead to any serious losses. Yes, we underestimated the strength of reformism – in Britain and in Portugal. But remember that not only the SWP, but also the Workers Revolutionary Party and the International Marxist Group contested elections in this period, so it was hardly a peculiarly Cliffite heresy. Indeed, one of the problems was that voters were sometimes faced with two or even three Trotskyist candidates on the same ballot paper; small wonder they chose none of them. Happily, the Socialist Alliance has learned from that experience.
Jim and Ted both claim Cliff was a bad judge of character, and invoke the spectre of Roger Rosewell. But all groups have their renegades. Cliff encouraged Rosewell, he was a gifted organiser, but when the break came Cliff’s epitaph was short and sweet: ‘Roger was a talented boy, but he had no guts.’ (Tina’s Café, Hackney Road, April 1974) More generally, Cliff’s errors of judgement sprang from an over-eagerness to encourage young comrades. It is, of course, far easier to sneer at enthusiasm than to nurture it, as Jim Higgins well knows.
I saw Cliff twice in the last three months of his life. Once was at the launch meeting of the London Socialist Alliance, when formerly hostile groups came together to share a platform. The other was at a rally at Wood Green to discuss the implications of the 1999 Seattle demonstration. Cliff was frail, and obviously very tired; some of the old fire had gone, but there was still tremendous enthusiasm that a new wave of struggle was emerging, albeit from a quarter not expected by Marxists.
Cliff could indeed be ruthless in defence of the organisation he had done so much to build. But we always knew he never demanded more of others than he gave himself. And he never forgot the moral and humane impulses that had made him a Socialist in the first place. Cliff was the most single-minded person I ever met – but he was also passionately devoted to his family, something of which his daughter Anna spoke movingly – and hilariously – at his funeral.
Cliff was the only person I ever met who had no taste for any kind of music whatever. I was therefore surprised to see him at a Skegness Rally with his head almost inside one of the loudspeakers. When I asked him if he liked the music, he replied: ‘It is my son in the band.’
And it wasn’t only his own family. In the early 1970s, it was reported to the Executive Committee that the Manchester organiser had knocked down a child in a road accident. There was much concern expressed by EC members (notably comrades Higgins and Protz) that the organiser might lose his driving licence and be unable to fulfil his duties. Only Cliff showed any concern about the well-being of the child.
Ted Crawford replies:
Jim Higgins can look after himself. Let me briefly reply to your criticisms of my appreciation of Cliff.
1. ‘… which possibly outweigh the various alleged tactical misjudgements which Ted Crawford so painstakingly lists.’ I like the word ‘painstakingly’. It suggests I have carefully looked at every jot and tittle. I have not. Some of these ‘alleged tactical misjudgements’ were rather important – for instance on the poll tax. But it is quite possible that I have misjudged Cliff, and that he could not swing the organisation on some of these issues – he was not a dictator – in which case my criticism stands as far as the SWP was concerned. Since it is not a monolith, there have always been political arguments within the SWP but ‘pas devant les enfants’. The opacity of the organisation means that disagreements among the leadership seldom surface outside a very narrow range of people, and most members may be blissfully unaware until the matter is all done and dusted – and sometimes not even then.
2. ‘I think one student Conservative Association affiliated to the ANL, but otherwise there was no representation of bourgeois parties. Of course it wasn’t a classic united front either, it was a genuine innovation.’ What I said was that these activities had ‘a considerable element of a Popular Front in them. Excellent in conception as many were, they have failed to take off, except to a minor extent with the Anti-Nazi League and that was the most Pop Front of the lot.’
I would maintain that the ANL had some Popular Front tendencies, but I never said that it was a fully-fledged Popular Front. But were there no Liberal Party branches or youth groups involved in it? There were vicars and individual liberals, of course.
3. ‘If … Ted Crawford wants to see the real legacy of Tony Cliff.’ Unlike Jim Higgins, I always attend Marxism to meet old friends, and have even been called to speak at meetings!
4. ‘Ted refers to the election campaigns of the late 1970s as “idiotic and adventurist”. This seems excessive – the campaigns were not successful, but they didn’t lead to any serious losses. Yes, we underestimated the strength of reformism … But remember that not only the SWP, but also the Workers Revolutionary Party and the International Marxist Group contested elections in this period, so it was hardly a peculiarly Cliffite heresy.’ So they did not lead to any ‘serious losses’ – by this I assume Ian means splits. Perhaps not, but there was an effect on the broad periphery, much of which thought that Cliff had lost the plot. But this is more difficult to measure. And to compare the SWP and put it on the same level as the IMG and WRP, which have both made a speciality of many types of idiocy and adventurism over a long period of time, scarcely seems a recommendation for the SWP’s and Cliff’s political judgement.
5. ‘Ted claims Cliff was a bad judge of character, and invokes the spectre of Roger Rosewell. But all groups have their renegades … Cliff’s epitaph was short and sweet: “Roger was a talented boy, but he had no guts.”’ Yes, all groups have their renegades but the IS/SWP has had very few. Most have moved to the soft left, a few are Labour MPs, the worst is a Blairite minister and/or a Lord. But Rosewell – Cliff’s Crown Prince – joined the hard right at the height of Thatcherism, and was a keen spokesman for its most criminal wing. And if Cliff thought that Rosewell had no guts (presumably for the struggle for Socialism) that shows his misjudgement. Rosewell was a ruthless, hard shit both personally and politically when in the old IS, and he remains so to this day – but on the other side.
But I have a lot of time for Cliff, and I do not believe that a totally uncritical stance enhances the man. In that I must disagree with Ian.
Last updated: 5.10.2011