Friday, February 17, 2012

Tony Cliff (a life trying to smell the workers’ whisky)

Below is a review of a wannabee hagiography by long term SWP member Ian Birchall of Tony Cliff, the founder of the Trotskite revolutionary "Socialist Workers Party" (SWP). It is by Will Podmore who let us say is not that much of a fan of the SWP.

I meet Cliff once in Bethnal Green shortly before his death at a meeting to "celebrate" a strike which I had taken part in. The lead up to this meeting was pretty weird and Cliff was treated by his supporters as some sort of really, really important being who if you met him would change your life. However, despite the fact at the meeting that I didn't agree with him on a number of points and described the role of the SWP in our dispute as being our "useful idiots" he was pretty polite back and even quite good humoured. Anyway, the review of the book by Will Podmore....

"Ian Birchall, a long-time Socialist Workers Party member, has written a revealing account of its founder and leader, Tony Cliff. In 1936, Cliff did a year of paid work, after which he never did another day’s paid work in his life. He was never a member of a trade union, but this did not stop him spending the rest of his life telling trade union members what to do (like a monk telling us how to conduct our family lives).

Birchall calls Cliff’s notion that Russia was state capitalist his ‘major contribution to Marxist theory’. But it was neither new nor true. The renegade Karl Kautsky called Russia state capitalist in 1919. Capitalist classes use the state to grow the economy, but when a working class uses its state power to grow a socialist economy, Cliff denounced it as capitalist.

Cliff’s hatred of the Soviet Union led him to back nationalists, as long as they were anti-Soviet terrorists as well. In 1955, he praised the CIA-backed Ukrainian Resurgent Army, anti-Soviet terrorists who attacked the Red Army from 1942 to 1949. So, later, along with Thatcher and Reagan, he backed the Afghan mujehadin terrorists against the Red Army (see, for example, Socialist Worker, 4 February 1989.)

Similarly, Cliff praised looters and rioters, as in 1981, “The riots and looting have been fantastic, but they have not gone far enough. Because they have not been organised, the kids have attacked shops when they should have been attacking factories.”

The SWP still always misreads situations. For example, Birchall writes here that in 1980 “the industrial downturn was accompanied by a political upturn.” His evidence? Labour party members’ votes for Tony Benn - as if Benn’s brief rise (and inevitable fall) outweighed the dreadful effects of the millions of jobs lost in Thatcher’s onslaught.

Cliff always attacked ‘trade union bureaucrats’, falsely posing rank-and-file (good) against bureaucrats (bad). This was to split our unions. Cliff claimed that he wanted the SWP to have ‘worker leadership’, yet ensured that it was always led by full-time SWP staff (surely, bureaucrats?), living off other members’ dues. The SWP mimics the old CPGB organisation, of full-timers telling workers what to do, and its strategy, of seizing union positions in order to tell the members what to do.

Cliff made a policy of interfering in workers’ affairs. He urged the SWP to make “individual interventions in individual disputes. In ninety cases out of a hundred we will do it from outside.” He said, “We need to get back to the basics of trade union organisation – solidarity at every level between workers.” No - organising at the workplace is the basis. Without workplace organisation, solidarity is nothing.

The weaker the class, the more it allows the SWP to influence it, and the more influence the SWP has in a union, the worse the outcome for the class. For example, during the steelworkers’ strike of 1980, Cliff travelled the country speaking to steelworkers. The strike failed, with disastrous results. The SWP carried out the same ‘death by solidarity’ on the Fire Brigades Union in 2005, and is trying to do the same in the pensions dispute.

The SWP always proposes the wrong strategy and the wrong tactics: a general strike now is always the only right thing to do, whatever the situation (and as if 1926 was not a disaster).
The SWP takes in idealistic young people and burns them out. It spreads confusion and demoralisation and causes only harm to our class.

The central Trotskyist message to workers is ‘you can’t do it on your own’, which boils down to ‘you can’t do it’, which is why no Trotskyist group has ever won power anywhere, or ever will. Hence Cliff’s (inevitably ignorant) interference in other countries’, and other unions’, internal affairs.
Birchall wants his ‘lovingly crafted biography’ to help build the SWP. Instead, it will surely put people off having anything to do with a group that is not even a squalid travesty of a Bolshevik party".  Will Podmore.

(See my best mate ever, former trot and fellow blogging libel survivor Dave Osler on Trotsky and the importance of "smelling of the workers whiskey") 

Hope you enjoyed the inside YouTube story of the central committee of the SWP (now sadly dated) by Icepicker.


Anonymous said...

"The renegade Karl Kautsky called Russia state capitalist in 1919. Capitalist classes use the state to grow the economy, but when a working class uses its state power to grow a socialist economy,"

Methinks Podmore is as out to lunbh as Cliff.

I recommend "the Road to Power" by Karl Kautsky and assert that he was responsible for far fewer deaths than V I Lenin.

John Gray said...

Hi Anon

I really don't know enough to comment but I suspect while you are right it doesn't really prove anything. Are you suggesting if he had been in power then the deaths would have been less?

Anonymous said...

Hi John,

I think anon has a good point about Podmore being 'out to lunch'. He seems to have 'a thing for the Soviet Union.' Did Lenin say 'Socialism is Gulags plus the KGB?' :) Of course Lenin managed to bury (according to one estimate) 250,000 in his 4 years, whilst even the Tsars only managed to execute 14,000 (only!) in the last 50 of the old regime.

Also of course Podmore overlooks the fact that the Ukrianians might have been a bit pissed off by the famine caused under Stalin by a mixture of gross incompetence and malice towards any peasant with more than two cows. Resulting in the deaths of millions. Justified of course by gobbledy gook. Never heard of the Ukrianian bunch Podmore is talking about but I suspect that anyone resisting the 'workers' republic would be CIA inspired. Given the Cold War some might be, but plenty weren't.
I suspect Kautsky would not have been in power. Not sure, but I think he was closer to the Mensheviks who were not looking to overthrow the Provisional Government.

The one thing we can learn from the USSR is that you don't build Socialism by burying millions.
Of course he's right about the Trots. He just happens to inhabit a different section their parallel universe.

Dave Draycott

Didn't Bukharin - leading Bolshevik bumped off by Stalin in the 30's come up with 'state capitalism.' But what the hell its history and not in a good way. Collecting sea shells would be more productive.

John Gray said...

Hi Dave

Good points

I think that all forms of one party government of whatever hue will inevitable descend into mass murder.

macuser_e7 said...

"I think that all forms of one party government of whatever hue will inevitable descend into mass murder."

I find your candour refreshing, if a little disturbing ;-)

John Gray said...

Hi Macuser

come on, think about this please,