Tuesday, 13 January 2015

A reply to Sheila Cohen by Ian Birchall on Tony Cliff

From LSHG Newsletter # 54 (January 2015)
Class Struggle and Socialism

A reply to Sheila Cohen by Ian Birchall

I am most grateful to Sheila Cohen for the extended review she has written of my biography[i] of Tony Cliff.  That she has devoted so much space to the topic[ii] is a clear indication that she recognises the significance of Cliff’s life and work, and the influence it has had on one of the main currents of the British far left. She has focussed in particular on certain themes in Cliff’s work confronting the relationship between political organisation and working-class struggle. Though she expresses major criticisms of Cliff’s thinking and organisational practice, her articles are an important contribution to an ongoing debate about strategy for the left. My reply, I hope, will not be couched in defensive terms, but will try to contribute constructively to that debate.

I must say that I was therefore a little disappointed at the tone of some her remarks, notably the rather sneering manner in which she refers to Cliff as “our hero” and myself as “the faithful Birchall”.  Irony is like salt; a little enhances flavour, but too much can make a dish inedible. I shall try (perhaps not always successfully) to avoid imitating this tone, and to respond positively to the arguments put forward. And whereas I am referred to in distant/academic style as “Birchall”, I shall call her Sheila, since I know her.

I should add as a preliminary that I believe most people read biographies because they are interested in the subject matter, not in the author. I saw my job as being to establish the facts about Cliff’s life and work, and to draw out the main substance of his political arguments. I don’t think readers would expect me to make constant obtrusive interventions to express my own opinions.

Nonetheless various reviewers have commented on the fact that my account is at times quite critical – Nigel Harris, for example calls it an “unflinching exposure”.[iii] I might add that when I submitted a first draft I confidently expected to be asked to tone down some of the more critical remarks. It is entirely to the credit of the SWP Central Committee (and of Alex Callinicos in particular) that they did not ask me to withdraw any of my criticisms.

Sheila’s main theme is that Cliff and the SWP became increasingly obsessed with “party-building”, and that as a result the organisation “began to depart from its relatively healthy, non-sectarian and workplace-oriented approach”. This point, repeated several times, takes us to the very heart of the question; as she quite rightly observes, “for some of us at least the issue of how socialists relate to the working-class vanguard remains as central as ever”.

The question is clearly posed, and it is one which remains of central relevance for all socialist activists. However, I am less than convinced that Sheila provides an adequate answer to the question.

Socialists welcome and encourage self-organisation and resistance by all oppressed groups in society – ethnic minorities, nationalities, women, gays etc., etc. But socialists, and especially those in the Marxist tradition, have always attributed a particularly important role to the working class. It is the value created by workers’ labour  which enables capitalism to exist as a system; workers engaged in collective production offer the potential for an alternative organisation of society. Hence, for example, Lenin argued that “Every strike brings thoughts of socialism very forcibly to the worker’s mind.”[iv]

I don’t think Sheila disagrees with this. But having read her review and various of her other writings, I am still genuinely confused as to how she perceives the question of socialist organisation. There are at least four possible answers:

i.       There is no need for socialist organisation. Working people will carry through the transition to a socialist society through their own spontaneous self-activity.

ii.      Trade-union organisation will carry through the transition to socialism as well as engaging in the day-to-day defence of workers’ conditions. This is of course the classic syndicalist position whose weaknesses were revealed by the First World War, but which still survives.

iii.     A socialist organisation will be necessary at some point in the future, but we’ve a long way to go before we get there, so we don’t need to discuss it at present.

iv.     We do need a socialist organisation, but it needs to be radically different from the model offered by the SWP.
Sheila repeatedly accuses the SWP of “sectarianism” and suggests that this flows from Cliff’s preoccupation with party-building. Now I would certainly not want to claim that there are no examples of SWP members acting in a stupid or sectarian fashion – I am sure there are plenty. But I would not accept that such sectarianism was systematic. I think the SWP’s relative success (relative within the context of the far left) in recruitment in the 1970s and 1980s could not be explained if the SWP was consistently sectarian. When I used to travel around the country speaking to SWP branches I would frequently ask members I met when and why they had joined. Frequently the answer was a reference to a major campaign – ANL, miners’ strike, poll tax etc. People had become involved in struggles against racism and war, and for workers’ rights – and had been attracted to the SWP because they were perceived as among the best fighters in the campaign. People do not join an organisation whose only concern is to build itself.

I should add that my argument here refers to the period covered in my book, up to Cliff’s death in 2000.  I am no longer a member of the SWP and I do not want to comment here on the post-Cliff SWP. I have written another piece on this question, which anyone interested can consult at http://grimanddim.org/political-writings/2014-so-sad/

In similar vein Sheila writes: “In 1995, again at Marxism, Cliff backflipped once more; lecturing on Engels, he ‘drew out’ what Birchall describes as a ‘fundamental point’, viz that ‘the whole history of Marxism was about learning from the working class.’ Even more bizarrely, he ended his speech by fulminating against what had in effect been his own long-term practice: ‘I can never understand the idea…that the party teaches the class. What the hell is the party?...The dialectic means there is a two-way street…’

Here I think she is plain wrong. The idea that the revolutionary party must learn from the class and generalise from the experience of workers is a constant theme in Cliff’s work, from the early essay on Substitutionism through the biography of Lenin up to the last articles in Marxism at the Millennium.[v]  I could illustrate with quotations, but it might be wearisome. A careful reading of my book would prove the point.

Likewise Sheila repeatedly mocks Cliff’s “obsession with numbers”. But she fails to notice or comment on the explanation I give. (pp.84, 413) Cliff’s experience in the 1930s and the whole experience of the left in this period illustrates the simple fact that the best political programme in the world is useless if it does not have the social forces to fight for its implementation. To take the most obvious and tragic example:  Trotsky was absolutely correct to argue that a united front could have prevented Hitler’s accession to power. But the tiny forces of the Trotskyists were quite unable to do more than to put this forward as a propaganda point. The consequences we all know. 

Cliff’s “obsessions” were no more than a recognition that in order to achieve their goals socialists need to be organised. That imperative runs through all his writing, speaking and political activity, and explains why he inspired so many to commit themselves to the socialist cause. Of course his judgments may have been mistaken and they deserve to be subjected to rigorous criticism.  But I remain unconvinced that Sheila offers any viable alternative.

Thus she tells us that “Cliff appears to have lost, or at least severely damaged, his antennae regarding the significance of workplace struggle: ‘When a German comrade told how they had set up a regular informal meeting for contacts from a factory, Cliff…shouted that most people were attracted by revolutionary ideas, not by discussion about the workplace’ (p. 407). Hmmm – no dialectical relationship between the two, then?”

Sheila’s indignation here seems unnecessary. Most workplaces are not in a state of permanent confrontation. Workers have grievances, and often they will elect militants to represent them because they want someone who will stand up to management. But when a strike is not imminent, discussion of these issues can easily become tedious. All Cliff was saying is that to maintain a workplace discussion group, exciting and interesting ideas are necessary, and generally these will not be generated inside the workplace. As far the “dialectical relationship” between the workplace and general politics, I think Cliff understood it far better than Sheila, for whom the latter seems to remain something extremely vague.

Likewise Sheila points to what she calls “the central paradox typifying so many ‘revolutionaries’; that the class, and the society, closest (at least potentially) to their own daily experience appears as the least significant. Like the US SWP member disseminating pro-Cuban propaganda in the aisles of an assembly plant, the more exotic and less relevant the more worthy of concentrated ‘revolutionary’ effort.”

Now I have no particular sympathy for the  US SWP (no connection to the British SWP) and I don’t share their enthusiasm for the Cuban regime. But if it were indeed true that a socialist society were being built in a neighbouring country, might that not be very “relevant” to US workers as showing an alternative to the alienation and exploitation they suffered? Does Sheila think British (or French, German, Italian, American, etc.) workers in the early 1920s who were fired with enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution should have disregarded such an “exotic” topic in favour of an exclusive preoccupation with their own wages and conditions? Was Eugene Debs capitulating to “exoticism” when he declared ““From the crown of my head to the soles of my feet I am Bolshevik, and proud of it”? Should he have forgotten Russia and concentrated on workers’ “daily experience”? I think it is Sheila who is in danger of forgetting the “dialectical relationship” between workplace struggle and general politics.

Sheila refers to the major dispute inside the International Socialists in 1975, where “The issue was the refusal of IS engineering union members to put forward an IS candidate for a union post, instead supporting the existing Broad Left (aka CP) candidate. Rather than understanding and commending these activists’ informed choice, IS expelled the dissident engineering workers.”

Now as I make clear in my book, I think there is reason to believe that this affair was handled badly and that the losses could have been minimised. Nonetheless it is clear that Sheila has not read my account carefully enough. (pp. 403-4) This was not simply a dispute between the “leadership” and “IS engineering union members”. It was a disagreement between different groups of engineering workers in IS, some of whom supported the Broad Left candidate, and some of whom (in fact the majority at a fraction meeting) backed an independent candidate. Perhaps if she thinks about it a little, instead of trying to score instant points, Sheila will realise there is a real problem here. Different activists were making different choices, presumably “informed” in all cases.

So what should happen? Should different members have been allowed to go their own way, arguing different positions? In which case it would have been very difficult for other people to work with IS, since they would never know what the organisation’s policy was. Or should comrades have agreed to accept a majority position, so that IS could have a consistent stance in the eyes of the world?  I’m quite happy to accept the argument that much greater efforts should have been made to achieve a compromise, but there was a real problem, and I don’t think Sheila enhances her credibility by refusing to recognise this.
And when Sheila refers to “the SWP’s rapid progression to a form of Leninist Stalinism” it is hard to take her seriously. The phrase “Leninist Stalinism” seems to imply a continuity between Lenin and Stalin, but that is another argument. It is certainly possible to argue that internal democracy in the IS/SWP has sometimes been deficient, with the organisation prioritising intervention in the external world over adequate internal discussion. But the term “Stalinism” takes us into a different universe. It trivialises the very real historical crimes of Stalinism, and suggests that Sheila has very little understanding of how Stalinist parties used to operate. That the “demonstration” of this was a debate (in public) at Marxism, in which Cliff spoke against the allegedly “Stalinist” position (pp. 493-4) merely underlines the fragility of Sheila’s argument.

Sheila tells us that “the mid-1970s were the beginning of the end, if not of workplace struggle then of IS’s primary orientation towards that dynamic”.  It was hardly the fault of the growing numbers of unemployed that they no longer had a workplace to orient to. Young jobless, potentially the most militant, had often never been employed and therefore were not eligible for union membership. Yet Sheila deplores the setting up of the “Right to Work Campaign – addressed at unemployed workers rather than employed activists - complete with a Right to Work march, mass rallies and all.”

In fact Sheila doesn’t seem to have read my account of the Right to Work Campaign. It was not addressed solely at unemployed workers, but aimed to achieve unity between employed and unemployed. The first Right to Work march in spring 1976 was sponsored by over four hundred trade-union bodies, including seventy shop stewards’ committees. Marchers joined picket lines and even entered factories where sackings were being threatened in order to encourage workers to fight. This was very different from the “hunger marches” of the twenties and thirties,  which had great difficulty in making contact with employed trade unionists, and scarcely ever entered workplaces. (p. 409)

Likewise Sheila dismisses the Anti-Nazi League: “Worse was to come – or at least more moves away from any primary class orientation.” Presumably Sheila recognises that racism is a class issue, and that racism is a fearsome obstacle to united action by workers. The ANL was not a move away from class; indeed, a lot of the ANL’s activity was aimed at winning support in labour movement organisations. But it also involved a recognition of something that Sheila, with her relentless focus on the workplace, seems to forget: workers (happily) do not spend their entire lives in the workplace, they also watch sport and listen to music, among many other activities. Hence an imaginative use of cultural struggle could be more effective than handing out dreary anti-racist leaflets at the factory gate.

Sheila describes both the ANL and Rock Against Racism as “popular fronts”.  I was a little surprised by this, as this particular criticism generally emanates from the more dogmatic groupings of orthodox Trotskyists, and whatever else Sheila may be, I had never thought of her as an orthodox Trotskyist. In any case she seems to have missed my footnote (p. 421), where I make the historical point that “The Popular Fronts of the 1930s involved alliances with the political organisations of the bourgeoisie. The ANL contained people from a range of political positions, including some who were undoubtedly wealthy, but not the direct political representatives of the ruling class.”

Sheila also notes the involvement of Neil Kinnock in the ANL. She simply comments “!?!”. I’m not quite sure what the political significance of these punctuation marks is, but it seems to indicate disapproval. In 1978 Kinnock was a young MP on the left of the Labour Party; he was also a fluent and well-liked speaker. His many betrayals were still far in the future, as was his oratorical incoherence, which grew ever more disastrous as the responsibility of imagined future office weighed more heavily on his shoulders.

On what possible grounds could he have been excluded from the ANL? And if he had been, what message would it have sent to the thousands of left-wing Labour supporters who could be potentially involved in the ANL?  Once again Sheila has allowed the temptation of point-scoring to prevent her from thinking through the logic of her arguments.

Sheila’s other main complaint against the SWP, and Cliff in particular, concerns the “downturn” in struggle which Cliff started to analyse in 1978-79. She does not, apparently, disagree that there has been a downturn – indeed the decline in the level of industrial struggle since the 1970s is self-evident, and the “downturn” has lasted very much longer than Cliff ever expected. Her disagreement is more specific, and concerns mainly the analysis of the late seventies.

Thus she tells us that Cliff’s analysis is contradicted by “the biggest strike revolt (in terms of working days lost) of British history – the Winter of Discontent”, and even refers to “the quasi-revolutionary potential of the Winter”.

Now I am not an expert in industrial relations, but I have always understood that crude figures for days lost (or as Cliff always insisted “gained”) in strike action are not the most reliable indicator of the level of struggle. A quick victory involves far fewer strike-days than a long drawn-out defeat. (Miners were on strike for far more days in 1984-85 than in 1972 or 1974 – but they lost.)

In fact Cliff’s analysis of the downturn was set out in his article “The Balance of Class Forces in Recent Years”. Sheila does not appear to have consulted this, although it is available online.[vi] As I summarise in my book, Cliff did not confine himself to mere statistical arguments:

“…he allowed workers to speak for themselves. The article contained lengthy extracts from accounts written by militants and activists in the SWP …. Though …. he used statistics and graphs to support his argument, he also made a devastating critique of the inadequacy of official statistics. For example, these did not record occupations and political strikes, and did not distinguish between strikes and lockouts. He noted that there was ‘often an inverse relation between growth of union membership and the strength of shop organisation’. He drew on research by Dave Beecham on over 1,000 disputes in the period from 1977 to 1979. But his use of accounts by individual workers enabled him to give a picture of the total experience of workers.” (pp. 443-4)

A debate is always most informative and useful if one takes on one’s opponents at their strongest point rather than their weakest. If Sheila has taken on Cliff’s arguments in “The Balance of Class Forces in Recent Years” it would have been much more illuminating than the simple scoring of some rather flippant points.

Thus Sheila claims that the SWP “leadership seemed to be blind to” the potential of the Winter of Discontent.  Again she fails to justify this claim. She might well have done a little research, examining the issues of Socialist Worker for early 1979. Failing that she might at least have read my account of the period, which, like so much else in the book she is supposedly reviewing, she seems to have skipped:

During the “winter of discontent” Socialist Worker had hailed the revival of struggle. A front-page headline proclaimed that “1979 is the year to win”,[vii] and an editorial stated that “we are witnessing the beginning of a new period of confrontation between workers and government, and between pickets and the law, of the sort that took place between 1969 and 1974,” though recognising that “there are important limitations to the present movement”.[viii]  (p. 441, see also pp. 435-6)

When Sheila refers to “the ‘dual power’ nature of some sections of this nationwide strike wave” I think she is living in a fantasy world, but there were certainly elements of workers’ control which emerged in the strikes. I quote Paul Foot’s comments on this. (p. 436)  (Interestingly Sheila is derisive about my claim that “unofficial strikes were symptoms of an aspiration for workers’ control” in an earlier period. (p. 261) )

However it is hard to endorse Sheila’s claim that “trade unionism was at a historic high in 1979-80”.  The contrast with the events of 1972-1974 is visible. In 1972 over ten thousand engineering workers joined miners at the Saltley picket and the government was left with no alternative but to surrender. Later that year mass action in support of the five jailed dockers forced a head-on confrontation with the law courts and the government, and again the state had to back off. (I remember seeing the release of the dockers on the television in a pub in Hull – never in my entire life before or since have I had quite that sense that “our side” had won a victory.) And in 1974 strike action by miners led to the fall of Heath’s Tory government. Unfortunately nothing in 1979 revealed a similar level of struggle.

Sheila quotes Rosa Luxemburg as arguing that working-class consciousness “does not proceed in a beautiful straight line but in a lightning-like zigzag”.  Absolutely. But if our aim is, as Sheila correctly recommends, “noting and building on existing working-class struggles”, then we cannot sit back and watch the lightning; we have to attempt to estimate how consciousness will develop, so that we can relate to it. And that means attempting to predict. Sheila repeatedly mocks Cliff’s predictions, but unfortunately any form of action requires prediction. The important thing is to be flexible, so that when predictions prove inaccurate, we are able to correct our tactics as quickly as possible.
So Sheila notes sardonically that in 1975 “IS insisted on ‘pessimism of the will’; a 1975 conference document argued gloomily, ‘We underestimated the speed with which the economic crisis would drive workers to draw political conclusions’.” (Actually the document stated “overestimated”, not “underestimated” – otherwise Sheila’s observation would not make sense. (p.376) ) But clearly this was an adjustment of perspective based on a recognition of the uneven development of consciousness. Why Sheila finds this so lamentable, and what her alternative (short of always being right in the first place) would have been are not at all clear to me.

And Sheila does a serious injustice to Steve Jefferys. She alleges that he “resigned as industrial organiser, not in protest against the strategic confusion but because ‘The decay of working-class organisation and the shift to the right in the trade union movement has gone so far that all we can do in this period is to make socialist propaganda as actively as possible’.” In her haste to score a point she has skipped a line; this was emphatically not Jefferys’s view, but rather the position he (somewhat polemically) attributed to Cliff, and with which he disagreed sharply. (p. 437)

Finally, what is the alternative? What is the better path that Cliff and the SWP should have followed? With true proselytising zeal Sheila leaves us in no doubt – repeatedly she invokes the American publication and organisation Labor Notes. Now I know relatively little about Labor Notes. As Sheila points out, it is not in the index of my book –  because I saw my subject as being what Cliff said and did, not what he ought to have done.

I have tried to remedy my culpable ignorance by consulting the Labor Notes website.[ix] I have also read a fascinating interview with Kim Moody[x] (this was published in International Socialism, the journal of the SWP, perhaps suggesting that the SWP is not quite so sectarian as Sheila claims). Kim gives a wide-ranging account of industrial and political struggles in the United States.  I get the impression that Kim is rather less of an “unrepentant workerist” than Sheila. Thus he tells how Labor Notes supported the Nader presidential campaign in 2000, and attempted to relate to the effort in the 1990s to set up a “Labor Party”. He explains how environmentalism,  abortion and gay marriage have become important issues for trade unionists.

Obviously the work being done by Labor Notes is valuable and is to be commended. But I am left with a problem. The Labor Notes website gives us this account of the organisation’s activities:

“Labor Notes is a media and organizing project that has been the voice of union activists who want to put the movement back in the Labor movement since 1979.

“Through our magazine, website, books, conferences and workshops, we promote organizing, aggressive strategies to fight concessions, alliances with workers’ centers, and unions that are run by their members.

“Labor Notes is also a network of rank-and-file members, local union leaders, and Labor activists who know the Labor movement is worth fighting for. We encourage connections between workers in different unions, workers centers, communities, industries, and countries to strengthen the movement—from the bottom up.

“That movement is needed because workers are being hit hard by their employers. We have lower real wages, less job security, and smaller, weaker unions than our mothers and fathers did.
“With more than 30 years of movement building behind us, Labor Notes exists as a resource for leaders and union members who want to combat these trends and chart a new course for the Labor movement.”

Now these are thoroughly commendable activities, and any socialist should be happy to support them. But there is a substantial gap in this statement of aims. While it unambiguously sides with workers against employers, it does not actually challenge the property relations which lie behind the conflict. It would be quite possible to support Labor Notes while having no objection to the existing ownership of the means of production, but simply thinking workers should have a bigger share of the cake. In short the word socialism is conspicuous by its absence.

Kim confirms this in the interview: “Most of us started with the International Socialists at that time, but the idea was that it would not be controlled by the organisation and that it would be independent, which is what by and large has happened, although the staff tend to be socialist for the most part.”

Now I am not trying to score points here. Because of the cold war experience communism, Marxism and socialism have been completely marginalised in the United States, and I appreciate that using the term might be seen as a barrier in some circumstances. And I am sure the Labor Notes staff are totally honest; if they get into discussion with trade-union activists they don’t conceal their personal commitment to socialism. (Failure to “come out” stores up trouble, leaving the possibility of a witch-hunt at a later date.) But it still leaves the question of whether an explicitly socialist organisation is needed. If socialism is ever to take root in the United States again, then surely explicitly socialist propaganda is required. In this connection I would mention the excellent work being done by Haymarket Books. And of course the applicability of the Labor Notes  model to Britain, where the socialist tradition has been rather more tenacious, is questionable.

One of the rare points at which Sheila commends Cliff is for his advocacy, in 1972, of “a rank and file strategy” (p. 333). Cliff defined this in terms of  a “cog wheel” between revolutionaries and the working class, proposing “the organisation of militants in different unions and industries who work together around specific issues…wider than those affecting a small group of workers in one place of work [but] not going as far as to aim at a complete emancipation of the working class…”

And Sheila comments: “Common sense at last”. But Cliff’s cog-wheel metaphor (borrowed from Trotsky) requires three cogs – the working class, the rank-and-file movement, and the socialist organisation. (p. 334). If we adopt the Labor Notes model, where is the third wheel?

For Tony Cliff socialism was paramount. Strategies and forms of organisation might vary according to objective circumstances, the state of the movement and the balance of class forces. But everything was subordinated to the struggle for socialism. Perhaps he made seriousmisjudgements at various points in his life. In my book I attempted to set out his changing positions so that they can be subjected to serious criticism and so we can learn from our mistakes.

I would add another consideration relating to our present situation. In a period where the level of struggle is lamentably low, I don’t think it is the case, as Lenin believed at one time, that workers first develop “trade-union consciousness”, and then have to move beyond that to an acceptance of socialism. On the contrary, often the only people willing to do the generally tedious and unglamorous work of keeping trade-union organisation alive are those who are already motivated by a socialist commitment. This is, by the way, clearly the case with Labor Notes, where Kim Moody was an active socialist over two decades before becoming involved in the establishment of Labor Notes. As a result I would argue, following Cliff (and William Morris) that our priority at the present time is to make socialists.

Despite my belief that many of her criticisms are seriously misguided, I welcome Sheila’s critique. I very much agree with Cliff’s formulation that “ideas are like a river and a river is formed from lots of streams”. (p. 529).  When – if – the working class reawakens, then I’m sure both the SWP and Labor Notes, as well as many other tendencies, will have made their contribution to the new movement that emerges..

Until then, perhaps a little modesty is called for. None of us have made the revolution, none of us have even managed to block the continuing onslaught against working-class organisation and living standards. We should aim for fraternal exchange of views and experience rather than the defence of entrenched positions. I’m sure I have much to learn from Labor Notes; I hope Sheila is prepared to return the compliment and study Cliff’s work a little more carefully.

Ian Birchall

[i] I Birchall, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Tine, London, 2011. All page references given in brackets in the text.
[vii] Socialist Worker, 6 January 1979.
[viii] Socialist Worker, 3 February 1979.

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