Friday, 13 January 2012

Book Review – Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time by Ian Birchall

I Joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1977. The first properly socialist book I read (as opposed to newspaper or journal article) was Ian Birchall's Workers Against the Monolith. This book, written in 1973, was a discussion of the Communist Parties, primarily European, since the Second World War. A couple of years ago I reread this work to see how well it stood up to the intervening years. Of course much has changed within the CPs over this period. Some have all but disappeared; for example the British CP where all that remains are a few squabbling fragments. All have seriously declined and what little remains is largely indistinguishable from labour or social democratic parties. So I was pleasantly surprised to find much of Birchall's thesis stood up reasonably well to the test of time; albeit on a vanishing issue for socialists.

In practical terms I drifted away from the SWP in the mid 1990s. There was no grand haemorrhage or bickering, simply inactivity. Though I still pretty much agree with these politics, read their publications, and contemplate getting involved again – in the near future but not right now. So it was of interest to read Birchall's latest book on the principle founder of this tradition.

Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time is so much more than a celebrity biography; the kind stacked high on supermarket shelves and disposed of alongside the remnants of that ready meal. It takes on many big issues. From the class nature of Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, through the post war boom and subsequent decline, along the sixties rising tide of rebellion and its subsequent downturn. In fact much of post war history is touched upon in some way.

During the early period Cliff and the International Socialists (later the Socialist Workers Party – IS/SWP) got three big questions, broadly speaking, right. Three questions that developed Marxism and updated its power in explaining the world. The first issue was the State Capitalist nature of Russia and the other so called 'communist' states. Most critics of the theory view it in ahistorical terms. But it only makes sense when you view capitalism as a world system, a system of interconnecting rivalries, and this system had developed to a certain point. The theory explained the how state could act as a unit of capitalist development. So a strangled revolution, as in Russia by Stalin, or a military takeover, as in Eastern Europe, could lead to state economies competing on the world stage. In turn this explained the internal workings of these systems. This understanding made sense of events like the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the Prague Spring, and later, the collapse of 'communism'.

Also State Capitalism was never narrowly about the so called 'communist' states. It also had meaning for the incomplete forms in the west where nationalised industries and other forms of state intervention existed. And, as such, it has relevance today, despite the ruling classes adherence to neoliberalism.

The next big theoretical question was the issues raised by the post war boom of the fifties and sixties. The boom was a reality, though a fundamental core of poverty always remained, and those on the left who denied the boom railed against the system to little long term effect. The Permanent Arms Economy was not a perfect theory but it explained much that was fundamental to the system. This theory identified how arms spending had replaced imperialism as a stabiliser of capitalism (though imperialism itself did not disappear but evolved). Cliff did the early work but the more detailed theory was developed by Michael Kidron and Chris Harman. The world we live in today should be seen as a declining, or ageing, permanent arms economy.

I firmly believe that if you want to understand the current crisis then you need to understand the previous boom as well as how and why it unwound. For example if you want to understand the collapse of the 1930s then you need to know something of imperialism; of how it developed at the end of the Nineteenth century and how it tumbled into crisis. Similarly if you want to fully understand the current capitalist crisis then you need to know something of the post war boom and the Permanent Arms Economy; without this you can never fully know why the boom unwound and why the current crisis emerged. This is a significant laps in much current economic discussion.

The final big issue was explaining the class nature of what appeared to be third world revolutions, starting with those in China and Cuba. These claimed to be socialist in some sense but occurred in countries with a working class too small or inactive to lead the revolutions. Cliff called this process Deflected Permanent Revolution. This could only occur at a particular juncture in the development of the world economy; when the state appeared as if could spearhead capitalist development in an undeveloped country. Again the early work was done by Cliff and then developed by others, particularly by Nigel Harris. The theory saved IS/SWP from acting as cheerleaders to third world coups, dressed up in left wing rhetoric, which later became all too obvious brutal dictatorships.

From the 1970s Cliff's writing and activities largely concentrated upon one issue – the issue of party and class. This issue is massive when you consider all the historical evidence possible or required for a thorough account. Still it represents a shift away from trying to understand capitalism as a world system; this task Cliff now largely left to others and only revisited the theoretical side when reminiscing. The book is illuminating on the twists and turns of the left as revolution looked a real possibility, as least within participants lifetimes. Much as those dreams faded away towards the end of Cliff's life they appear again as the book is released; even if as only the very first tentative and hesitant step.

The book also has many pocket portraits of those involved in the left. I found these interesting having known, at least by reputation, many. Though I can see that they might seem a little tedious to the casual reader.

Many of Cliff's writing are available on the internet and this source is useful to view when reading this biography. Also available are some of the writing of his collaborators, some participating more briefly than others and all mentioned in this biography. Cliff after all never worked alone. See for example: Raymond Challinor, Paul Foot, Duncan Hallas, Chris Harman, Jim Higgins, Michael Kidron, Peter Sedgwick, David Widgery, and others.

Birchall has produced a truly political biography; one as much about Cliff's times and ideas as the man himself. A biography that truly deserves to stand alongside Cliff's own biographies of Lenin and Trotsky – I can give it no better praise than that.

1 comment:

  1. Good review, I'm looking forward to reading it. His personal bio and political ideas have always interested me, since I first heard about him. I like the fact that IS politics seem to be a libertarian-democratic approach to revolutionary Marxist politics, while not rejecting the insights of people like Trotsky, who, for all his problems (cough, Kronsdadt, cough) sincerely wished for a democratic socialist society of freedom and abundance, and had a lot of good strategic and tactical advice to offer. Although sometimes I feel figures like Lenin and Trotsky (while hardly the most evil monsters of world history that exists in the right wing imaginary, or as if they were the equivalent of Genghis Khan or Mao) should be rejected as sources of inspiration (given their inconsistentcies), in favour of a more consistent libertarian socialist politics, like that of Bakunin, Berkman, Kropotkin, Goldman, etc, which affirms both the socialist values and ideas any Autonomist Marxist or Unorthodox Trot could agree with, without painting someone like Trotsky in an excessively heroic light. I suppose I'm ecletic about this, and draw from all sorts of sources to be as open minded and remain a consistent radical democrat and libertarian, in both theory and practice. I would like to join a socialist (preferably IS related)/anarchist group, but I sometimes feel that would be ideologically limiting, as I draw from both traditions, and don't neccesarily want to priviledge one over another. Any opinions on what I should do?


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