Thursday, 31 December 2009

Cliff reloaded: the revolutionary tradition

During the summer I compiled a blog dedicated to Tony Cliff (1917-2000), a key figure in the modern revolutionary socialist tradition. In 25 posts, added over the course of six weeks, I collated a selection of Cliff's work covering a wide range of topics. I also added commentaries of my own, geared towards providing relevant context and sometimes (hopefully!) clarifying issues in Cliff's writing.

As the year closes, in reflective mood, I thought I'd briefly re-visit my summer project. I have since been expelled by the party Cliff founded - the Socialist Workers Party - so I have a particuarly keen interest in reconnecting with the guiding principles of my own political tradition. It goes without saying I think the SWP has lost its way vis-a-vis some of Cliff's core ideas, but this is a positive re-appraisal of Tony Cliff - not a critique of the party's current direction.

So, let's re-establish four crucial points about Tony Cliff's ideas and practices:

1. Cliff was preoccupied with developing Marxism as a living practice, with the self-emancipation of the working class at its heart. He was consistent in representing socialism from below. This followed the near-extinction of authentic revolutionary socialism, as it became marginalised by Stalinism and reformism in the 1930s and beyond.

An important consequence was the need to focus on independent grassroots organisation by workers, whether within the unions or outside them. The rank and file, not the generals, were the important people for revolutionaries to relate to. What this means in practice can vary - the specific tactics are influenced by the strengths and weaknesses of workers' resistance - but it obviously means a highly critical approach to the union bureaucracy. He did important work in critiquing the bureaucracy's role, seeing union leaders as mediating between workers and bosses (and therefore always liable to compromise). He also dissected the union bureaucracy's close relationship with Labourism - as well, of course, as writing about workers' struggles.

2. Cliff was committed to the two key principles of the Leninist tradition regarding political organisation. Firstly, there needs to be an organised core of revolutionaries. Secondly, these revolutionaries need to be rooted in wider movements and struggles, uniting with reformists and others in campaigning for shared demands. Otherwise they shrivel into being a dogmatic sect (a familiar fate on the far left).

Cliff recognised that great flexibility is required in how these two principles are expressed, depending on context. He moved towards arguing for, and building, an independent revolutionary party (SWP), but had earlier adopted different models for organisation, as befitted the context in which he and his comrades operated. During the early 60s, for example, his small group grew considerably through participating in Labour Party's then-vibrant Young Socialists. At different times there were very different methods of organising, but always guided by those two core principles. He was fond of citing Lenin's gift for being highly flexible while remaining unshakeably firm in principle.

3. Another thing Cliff took from Lenin was his notion of revolutionaries aspiring to be tribunes of the people, who champion all sorts of political causes, not syndicalists operating purely at an economic or trade union level. He foregrounded Lenin's turn against 'economism', which Lenin expressed most forcefully in 1902's 'What is to be done?'. Cliff would have surely been mortified by the phrase 'a turn to the class': while the working class was always central to Cliff's political vision, it was precisely a political vision, which means seeing further than the narrow horizons of immediate bread-and-butter struggles.

4. Finally, there's Cliff's adoption of Lenin's 'bending the stick', which refers to the need for socialist leadership to argue and fight - when necessary - for radical changes in how an organisation operates. This requires firm and decisive leadership, imagination and a determination to overcome conservatism in the ranks. It is one of the more controversial aspects of Cliff's thinking, mainly because such changes can meet with resistance inside the organisation.

This is only natural: we all become accustomed to comfortable ways of working, we feel a need for stability and holding organisation together, so it can feel like a threat. All changes in the history of the SWP (and its forerunners) have met with some resistance. And the danger of missing opportunities - of failing to make necessary changes, as the political conditions change - is always present. This becomes obvious when something on the scale of, say, a major crisis of the capitalist system happens.

So, these are some (but not all) of the central ideas that enabled Cliff to sustain the thread of genuine revolutinary socialism. He was simultaneously loyal to Lenin and creative in adapting his methods to the very different conditions of an advanced Western capitalism in the second half of the 20th century. Entering a new decade, in the wake of an epoch-defining economic crisis, the challenge is again to apply those principles to changed conditions.

1 comment:

  1. "This requires firm and decisive leadership, imagination and a determination to overcome conservatism in the ranks"

    ... and to overcome ultra-leftism too, of course. That also requires decisiveness. The history of the labour movement shows that it is just as often necessary to overcome the harebrained propagandism and ultra-leftism of inexperienced people such as yourself, who seem to think that all problems can be solved by beating their own chests a bit about how 'decisive' they are.

    I think you might find Chris Harman's history of the German Revolution interesting, where he describes how the KPD dealt with the ultra-lefts by picking off their cadres one at a time (boldly and decisively) and expelling them in a quite carefully conceived plan in order to root out their malign influence in the party. I'm guessing that members of the SWP CC have been reading the book recently.

    Lenin to Clara Zetkin:
    I can well understand that in such a situation there should be a 'left opposition'. There are, of course, some CLP [KAPD] elements left, disorientated, suffering workers who feel revolutionary, but are politically raw and confused. Things move forwards so slowly. World history does not seem to hurry, but the discontented ... workers think your party leaders don't want it to hurry. They make them responsible for the rate of the world revolution, cavil and curse. I understand all that...But what I don't understand is a leadership of the 'left opposition' such as I listened to...No, such an opposition, such leadership does not impress me. But I tell you frankly that I am just as little impressed by your 'centre' which does not understand, which has'nt the energy to have done with such petty demagogues. Surely its an easy thing to replace such people, to withdraw the revolutionary minded workers from them and educate them politically. Just because they are revolutionary minded workers, whilst radicals of the type in question are at bottom the worst sort of opportunists".