Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 21 April 2000
I never met Tony Cliff, the guru of the Socialist Workers Party, who died the weekend before last. But I’ll always be grateful to him. Back in the mid-seventies, a brief encounter with the International Socialists, as his tiny political sect was then called, inoculated me against Leninism for life.
It happened like this. I was a bored teenager at a public school in Ipswich — and, under the combined influence of the New Statesman, Tribune and my grandfather, I’d come to the conclusion that capitalism was a bad thing that ought to be overthrown.
But how to go about it? I flirted briefly with the idea of joining the Labour Party, but the prospect of being associated (however distantly) with Harold Wilson’s Government was too much to bear. The Communist Party locally consisted of a dozen or so pensioners whose hard-line Stalinism was a real turn-off — and the couple of Workers’ Revolutionary Party members I knew were stark raving bonkers.
Then, however, I started to read Socialist Worker, the IS newspaper. Unlike Tribune and the New Statesman, it had no qualms about attacking Wilson for being a reformist toe-rag — and unlike the Morning Star it was not hung up on the supposed wonders of the Soviet police state. The slogan underneath the masthead on each issue, “Neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism”, seemed to express in a nutshell precisely what I wanted. And the paper’s preferred means of achieving this state of bliss, a revolution led by rank-and-file workers, appeared absolutely spot on. (OK, I know it seems completely quixotic now, but at the time, just after the 1973-74 miners’ strike and in the middle of the Portuguese revolution, it wasn’t quite so daft. Honestly.)
Anyway, after a couple of months of following Socialist Worker‘s inspiring reports of class struggle throughout the world, I decided to send off the form in the paper asking for more information. A few days later two long-haired beardies from the Ipswich branch of IS presented themselves at my parents’ house — much to the consternation of my Tory grandmother, who was staying with us at the time and answered the door to them.
I started going to local IS meetings, selling the paper to my friends at school and reading my way through massive piles of IS pamphlets and books. I didn’t actually join — I think I was too young to be a member — but for six months or so I was as immersed in IS as I had previously been in railway modelling.
Then, however, all of a sudden, it all went sour. For reasons that were unclear even then, Cliff decided that the time was ripe to turn IS, at the time a relatively pluralist outfit that allowed serious differences of opinion in its ranks, into a “proper” disciplined Leninist revolutionary party. He set up a central committee to run the organisation and gerrymandered the annual conference to minimise dissent. Then he launched what seemed to us a ridiculous campaign demanding the “Right to Work” — East Anglia at the time still had full employment — and expelled everyone who disagreed with him, including the six or seven most active members of the 15-strong Ipswich branch.
It was hardly on the scale of Stalin’s Great Terror. Indeed, to the outside world all it meant was that no one sold — or attempted to sell — Socialist Worker outside the town hall and Crane’s engineering works.
But the arbitrariness of Cliff’s purge came as a real shock to me. I couldn’t see how he could justify chucking people out of IS just because they disagreed with him about organisational structures, campaigning priorities or the likelihood of revolution in the next couple of years. He was, I thought, a bright bloke — but no brighter than plenty of other people in IS. He certainly did not have a monopoly of truth. And if he could behave like this towards comrades in a tiny organisation on the political margins, what on earth would it be like if the IS seized state power?
A couple of the people who had escaped expulsion tried to explain that Lenin’s theory of democratic centralism dictated that, once decisions were made, every member of the party had to stick to the line. But I was unconvinced. Indeed, the more they talked about Lenin, the more I wondered whether what went wrong in Russia after 1917 might not have had a lot to do with Lenin’s conception of the revolutionary party.
I started to read everything about Lenin and the Bolsheviks I could lay my hands on — and before long, thanks to Leonard Schapiro’s The Origins of the Communist Autocracy, Gabriel and Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative and Robert V Daniels’ The Conscience of the Revolution, my suspicions were amply confirmed. I’m pleased to say that I’ve never been tempted by Leninism in any shape or form ever since.
The same is true, of course, of thousands of other people who left IS or the SWP disillusioned over the years. I’m not sure whether Tony Cliff put more British socialists off Leninism in the last quarter of the 20th century than anyone else — but my guess is that he’s up there with Gerry Healey, a much nastier man who ran the WRP.