Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Tony Cliff ten years on - what did he achieve?

The Postmen's Office  at the North London Community
House, 22 Moorefield Road, London,  N17
Bruce Grove  British  Rail Station, Bruce Grove meets the High Road in Tottenham.  Wheelchair accessible
Any High Road bus is OK 

It is ten years since Tony Cliff   died and like him or not, it has to be admitted that he was a major figure in the politics of what is called revolutionary  politics in the last century.   His advocacy of a return to the politics of Marx and Lenin was distinctive,  rejecting the stalinism and trotskyism  of the day.

He was not the first with this message .  Hugo Oehler, an American ex Trotskyist,  achieved considerable organisation in the USA and Europe in the 1930s.  The awkwardly named Oehlerites had a high reputation before and after WW2.  A decade later, similar groups were established  from the official trotskyism,.The British group led by Ygael Gluckstein,  aka Tony Cliff,  came to be known as the Socialist Review group, later International Socialists  then, confusingly,  the Socialist Workers Party. Others followed the path.  In America, the partnership of CLR James, known as Johnson  and Raya Dunayevskaya  or Forrest , formed an alliance better known as Correspondence  then News and Letters. These are the marxist-humanists.  In France, Cornelius Castoriadis,  adopting the names Pierre Chaulieu and Paul Cardan, and Claude Lefort, responding to the name of Montal, set up Socialism or Barbarism in 1949.

The International Socialists, from 1962, were active in the CND and Labour Party Young Socialists, and soon gathered a membership of more than 1,000.  More libertarian groups like Solidarity (for-workers- power), and orthodox trotskyists also grew.  The IS platform was that the rank and file union members in the workplaces created by the post war adoption of a boom  permanent war economy,  were the crucial part of  the future; that the LP and  national trade unions were hopelessly compromised and that Russia was state capitalist - an idea from the 1920s, elaborated by Cliff - with  the Communists now reformists, despite their political manipulations. Libertarianism  also gained in numbers but  not organisationally as the mainstream and anarcho syndicalists remained separate.

The 1968 events in Paris changed the IS perspectives and Cliff now wanted an independent revolutionary party.  Together with his supporting intellectuals - Harman, Birchall and Harris - he pressed ahead but over the years lost  key members like Michael Kidron and a whole generation of committed members.  The SWP was set up in 1977, with a consolidation in 1982  resulting in more losses.  Regardless, the party gained further strength  from campaigns like those opposing the Labour government's Incomes Policy, a national Rank and File  movement , the Right to Work, a Shop Stewards Defence  Committee and the Anti Nazi League in the 1970s and 80s.  Cliff's books, on domestic matters and the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky, replaced Luxemburgism with leninism.

However the switch from a relatively libertarian open movement to a tight, revolutionary party began to have consequences. The Party expanded , partly by recruiting from other groups, at their meetings, and this activity was seen as parasitical..  The decision to close down the rank and file union journals just before the biggest strike of the century [the miners in 1984], the rejection of any possibility of  mass resistance  to the Poll Tax and the sudden somersault  to the politics of elections and  parliament  in 2002 were stages in a process that transformed  the revolutionary party into just another name on the voting paper.  Such is the inevitable fate of leninist groups.

However imperfect it had been, it had retained some integrity, a theoretical  base and reputation for grassroots campaigning.  It was, after 1989 collapse, the biggest left group. In its modern form, it has declined to a later day CPGB, more of an obstruction than a solution. The Party  still has a core of loyal members, a presence in the middle echelons of some trade unions and the responsibility - and blame - for a toothless Stop the War movement.

Tony Cliff died in 2000 presumably  happy with his creation, still with a popular, if repetitive, weekly paper.  Also a quarterly journal publishes competent, if selected, articles while a magazine puffs current concerns. The fragile international links plus a faltering list of TU personalities complete the picture. Sadly, we now see a practice of scape-goating individuals for a failed general practice. The members have been infiltrating, in the Long March through the capitalist institutions, like so many others beforehand  but  individually are often respected.

Many have been members, or fellow travellers, of  SWP, some have bitterly opposed it. Are the lions led by donkeys in irreversible decline? Is the age of the Party being replaced by a more open one? Come to  debate the situation.

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