Lord Acton and the guillotine: our Tendency after Cliff

A guest post from ‘Comrade Sigma’



The big failure: A party in decline

The battle for Cliff’s heritage is raging. The result is the destruction of his life’s work.

Throughout the 80s, the CC stubbornly claimed that the SWP had 4,000 members. In the nineties the numbers floating around rose to 6,000, later to nearly 8,000 and on very enthusiastic summer days reached close to 10,000 members. Today the SWP is down to 2,400 sub-paying members. Active membership is surely below 30%.

Whatever the credibility of any of the aforementioned numbers, we have arrived at the lowest number of party members in three or even four decades: the SWP is in decline! (1)

Now. Contrast these sobering realities with all those “historic opportunities” in conference papers and strategic documents. Contrast these declining numbers with the global crisis of capitalism, the ideological meltdown of neoliberalism, the longing for new perspectives throughout society. Contrast it with the tireless activism of the remaining and newly recruited members, the boundless self-sacrifice of a shrinking, but devotedly fighting active membership!

No doubt: the level of class struggle still is rather low and the strategic context remains complex. But while these objective factors do prevent a mass breakthrough in recruitment, they hardly explain the continuous decline. Should not a party that somehow found ways to organize modest, but real and continuous growth in the “downturn” eighties, find ways to at least not shrink under our present conditions?(2)

Accountability, Cliff-Style

Comrades who knew Tony Cliff in a position of leadership, will remember what this meant, and it was not easy. Cliff’s method of leadership was “hands-on”. Accountability was something he not only expected, but ensured and enforced. Whether you organized a demonstration, a national recruitment drive or an event like Marxism, Cliff would demand to know what numbers you expected. If your results missed that mark there would be a lot of questions asked to find out what went wrong.

Normally, Cliff remained encouraging. But make no mistake: having Cliff question you after a big failure was hardy a relaxing experience. Filing false excuses not only was futile, but a big, big mistake, because an angry Cliff was not something you would like to have on the phone.

Cliff in alarm mode, finally, was quite a show. Whenever he sensed something going very wrong, he would go berserk on all available channels until the reason for failure was corrected, or, often enough, the comrade in charge replaced.

The frequently asked question “What would Cliff say / think / do?”, by the way, has a very easy starting point. Each and every comrade who knew Cliff, even from afar, will agree that for him, the health, growth and strength of the organisation was at the heart of revolutionary politics – and it was his unforgiving measure to judge any leadership’s achievements.

The fish rots from the head

All this was the flipside of the radical centralism Cliff believed in: if you were the one in charge, you were the one to blame. If you occupied a position of centralized power, you had to live up to the pressures of centralized responsibility.

To commit errors was forgivable, of course. Cliff would consistently encourage you to be daring, to act, to be fearless and bold. If he then felt that you had tried and given everything, but still you had failed, he would simply say: “That’s alright!”, laugh it off and move on to the next project. For what he sought to create, was active leadership. He preferred a leadership actively committing errors to all variations of passivity and drifting, which he saw as the cardinal error in revolutionary politics.

Still: whenever something seriously went wrong, whenever the party was drifting or going down a dangerous path … it was automatically and without exception the leadership that had to question itself, its perspectives and its actions. Shifting the blame downwards, to your members, was an absolute No-Go. “You are the leadership. You take the blame.”

A decade of decline? A shrinking membership in times of increasing struggle? Cliff would be furious! His sense of alarm boundless! Cliff would be mad as hell and his anger and rage would rattle the party. And his full wrath would be directed to the people in charge: to the CC and the top echelon of the party! Certainly not to a bunch of blogging youngsters or abstract excuses like “a lack of discipline”.

Lacking discipline?!

A lack of authority, leadership!

“The fish rots from the head”, Cliff would scream.

The late Cliff: a difficult heritage

But, Clixton: it isn’t so easy. Measured by your own standards, it must be said that you, too, carry quite some responsibility for the decade of crisis following your final journey.

Repeating it through the nineties, Cliff coined the phrase: “Weimar in slow motion” (3) to characterize the state of the world capitalist system, adding, that the slow crisis had to spin out of control, sooner or later. The feeling he conveyed was that there would be deep crisis, sooner or later. The feeling he conveyed was clearly that this escalation was to happen rather soon.

When the so-called “tiger crisis” terminated the long boom in East Asia, the subsequent revolution in Indonesia against Suharto in 1997 electrified the Tendency. Even more so, as we were in comradely contact with a group of revolutionary youngsters over there. Tony Cliff was a living legend for them. To have him on the phone in person drove them crazy with excitement. We had a real chance of recruiting them to IST.

When he and I were discussing the situation in Indonesia, he shouted out: “If there will be just one workers state today, it will spread around the world, like wildfire. Like wildfire! Like wildfire!!”

This, to be sure, was not an isolated outbreak of enthusiasm on Cliff’s behalf. His predictions became increasingly dramatic as he approached the black door. So, when Cliff and I spoke at a rally shortly before Tony Blair’s election, he declared his conviction that there would be “no honeymoon at all” for Blair – but “a race between the SWP and the BNP”, starting the very day after election night, to win over the myriads of rapidly frustrated Labour voters.

Nor was Cliff alone with such high-flying expectations. American comrade Joel Geier saw the tiger crisis as the start of an imminent meltdown of world historic proportions. Alex Callinicos repeated the metaphor “Weimar” or “the 1930s” in “slow motion” more than once in spoken and written form.

Seattle and the fire next time

After the “downturn” of the 1980s and a “period of transition” in the 1990s, a “new upturn” was the logical next stage. This was the general expectation within our ranks at the turn of the millennium.

As we know today: the revolution in Indonesia stopped right where it was. Despite several most important outbreaks of anger and some massive mobilisations, Tony Blair did not meet resistance on the scale most of us had expected, while global capitalism reached a new, though increasingly shaky equilibrium. This particular Weimar in slow motion was moving very slowly, indeed.(4)

At first, however, events seemed to vindicate our optimistic outlook. In 1999 the successful blockade of the WTO conference in Seattle made the global left break out in jubilation. The “Anti-Globalization Movement” was born. “The fire next time” had been lit, in the heart of the beast.

Hence, when Cliff died in 2000, it seemed that his boldest predictions were about to come true. The Tendency was bristling with confidence and longing for the real battle, Cliff had so artfully prepared us for, to finally commence. Also, the revolutionary household Cliff left behind seemed perfectly ordered, so the leading layer of activists imagined to be in position to weather the upcoming storm.

Tony Cliff’s final distributions of tasks

Cliff left behind some clarification of the distribution of power he wished to see in place after his departure. If you read Cliff’s autobiography, you will find that there is quite some name dropping going on. A careful arrangement of a post-Cliff power pattern is clearly intended. Chris Bambery as National Secretary, Alex Callinicos heading the Tendency, and so on. The German experiment – Cliff’s beloved child of late – receives one final upgrade with a whole chapter entitled: “Linksruck – a success story”. The American comrades, on the other hand, could have been treated somewhat more nicely in the book, you might think.

In Britain, Cliff’s heritage seemed particularly well-ordered and power was to remain were it used to be: it automatically fell to the CC left over from Cliff: Chris Harman, Alex Callinicos, Chris Bambery, John Rees, Lindsey German, Pat Stack, Julie Waterson, Dave Hayes … this CC had been selected by Cliff himself and commanded authority. Below it were some rising stars. There existed a broad layer of well established, highly respected elder comrades. Finally, there were a handful of founding comrades left from Cliff’s own generation.

All this gave you the impression of a skilfully-built, rock solid construction – too solid, perhaps.

The first year without Cliff: the Linksruck implosion

Revolutionary leaders traditionally seem to have bad luck with such pre-posthumous arrangements. In Cliff’s case, too, there were more than cosmetic problems with the given pattern, which were clear even by the time his autobiography was published.

Florian Kirner, for instance, who is quoted at some length in the Linksruck chapter and presented as the editor of Linksruck, had in the meantime resigned from all party positions, very soon to be expelled. Ahmed Shah, for almost ten years “Cliff’s man in Germany”, descended from power under scandalous circumstances soon after.

The German success story took a sharp, nasty turn, and within months Linksruck imploded, losing the bulk of its 1,000 or so members.

This did not come as total surprise to every observer, maybe. These German young Turks had displayed some overconfident zealousness. No surprise: Cliff had agitated their youthful leaders over and over again that Germany was the key to the international situation, with them, personally, being the key to the German revolution. Messages like that were a lot to stomach for youngsters in their early twenties. This was part of an educational program Cliff unapologetically called: “cloning”.

Risen to the sky of the Tendency like a rocket in Cliff’s final years, crashing down like a stone within months after his passing, Linksruck paid the price for ambitious dreams of an upturn, but also stumbled over the downsides of a particular style of education.

The first year without Cliff: the expulsion of our American section

The disastrous shake-up inside the Tendency in the first year without Cliff did not stop in Germany. What happened in Germany and America are connected in curious ways.

While Linksruck, sharing and regularly surpassing Cliff’s urgent expectations for “the fire next time”, imploded – the American ISO, mildly sceptical of such prophecies, was expelled from the Tendency, accused of “conservatism” and “abstentionism”. Allegedly, the ISO failed to share “the Seattle perspective”. The real reasons for the expulsion of one of our most prominent sections were never clear to the vast majority of comrades.

So how then did this expulsion (it was, damn it: not a split!) come about? Who was responsible for this disaster, leaving us without any serious representation in the United States to this very day?

Some were responsible due to their irresponsible lack of action and interest. Pat Stack, for instance. When I once asked him about an important international issue, he declined to make a judgement saying: “You have to ask Callinicos about this. He is the man who rules the Tendency.” Take Lindsey German. At the height of the conflict with the ISO, I presented her with an extended hypothesis that the conflict might have to do with a lasting influence of Shachtmanism. “You seem to have a whole theory about this!” Lindsey exclaimed lightheartedly. She did not seem to bother even having any kind of serious explanation for the loss of our American section – while her partner, John Rees, happily played a very pro-active role in pushing the ISO out of the Tendency.

And internationally? The leaderships of the tiny sister groups of the mighty SWP understandably felt insecure in face of this utterly unexpected and quickly unfolding crisis. They left the decision to the British CC.

Starfleet & the IST: the Prime Directive

To be fair: the expulsion of ISO did meet some resistance. SEK split in the process and lost a third of its members. There were fierce conflicts about the issue in the bigger IS groups like Canada or Australia. The implosion of Linksruck also was fuelled by the opposition’s solidarity with ISO.

That this bizarre expulsion could be pulled off at all, had to do with the structure of the IST. Apart from the “International Meeting” once a year – a very casual kind of gathering, lacking all the glamour you might associate with it – there was practically no regular, formal communication going on, not to speak of any proper decision making. (5)

The assessment behind this lack of formal structure was twofold. First, there was some reluctance to follow other left currents in their mimicry of an International en miniature, having absolutely no mass support behind it. Secondly there was the connected insight that some chronic problems in the history of the Third International from 1919 onwards had to be avoided.

Rosa Luxemburg had been opposed to the Comintern’s very foundation and her worries were tragically justified before long. “The Russians”, carrying huge weight as the victors of the worlds’ first communist revolution, and having superior means at their disposal as owners of a sizeable state apparatus, soon started to intervene with gusto all around the world. The list of utterly disastrous interventions by this or that Russian representative is long and painful. People like Bela Kun or Karl Radek were able to destroy more than one promising revolutionary situation.

The official doctrine of the IST therefore was the good old “Prime Directive” of the United Federation of Planets (aka Starfleet’s “General Order #1”): no interference with the internal development of alien civilizations!

Digressions from the Prime Directive

The one big exception to the Prime Directive was called: “Tony Cliff”. Tony Cliff sending letters abroad, Tony Cliff hanging on the phone, Tony Cliff using every occasion to chat with comrades from all over the world in London, making up for his legal inability to travel. A chat with or a letter from Tony Cliff might have dramatic consequences.

Cliff became much more active in international matters in his final decade. The German experiment, for instance, of dissolving the old organisation in favour of Cliff’s cunning plan of entrism into the SPD’s youth, did not command much initial support. Cliff’s unquestioned authority in tactical matters combined with a feeling that the situation in Germany was bad enough that not much could be lost anyhow, carried the day. But even with Linksruck’s “success story”, tensions never really ceased.

Cliff did his best to shield the young German leadership from the ongoing controversy. But it was clear that his position inside the CC was not always very comfortable, and during Marxism and other occasions these tensions were acted out below Cliff’s radar.

Thus, the Prime Directive of non-intervention was increasingly undermined during the 90s. Mostly by Cliff himself, but also by various British CC members. John Rees and Chris Bambery, in particular, started to “cliff around” a bit on their own account. Meanwhile the role played by the International Secretary lacked any palpable definition beyond Alex Callinicos being it.

The ISO and the SWP: a complex affair

There were other factors of some weight inside IST. The Greek SEK seemed on their way to catch up with the SWP in size and influence (which they did in the meantime, mostly by the SWP shrinking). SEK’s leadership was ostentatiously treated as equals by the British CC. Yet their interest in international issues remained generally low.

The much smaller ISO on the other hand achieved a stubborn and steady buildup of their numbers under difficult political circumstances. Like SEK they were not too interested in other organisations’ business, but leading members of the ISO played a very prominent and independent role in the development of IS theory and general perspectives, in analyses of the world economy, the twists and turns of imperialism and so on. Several ISO leaders were among the most popular speakers at Marxism and contributed regularly to the ISJ or Socialist Review. The top cadre of the ISO and SWP was intertwined by quite a few intense friendships. It all looked like another Anglo-American love affair – except that there was a sizeable legacy of past hostilities and distrust, stemming from as far back as 1978.

Back then, our “man who rules the tendency” had played a prominent and typically dubious role in a split occurring in the ISO’s predecessor.

The ISO rejoined the tendency in the wake of the first gulf war in 1990. A meeting to test the grounds for this re-union took place in Cliff’s house in Hackney. Everything went smooth – until the old issues came up in the discussion. This immediately resulted in a terrible row. Still, the ISO re-joined the IST and during the following decade this cooperation grew ever more intense.

Nevertheless, the atmosphere between the ISO leaders and Alex Callinicos was not rosy. When I visited the ISO in the late 1990s, the opinion about the man’s character was expressed by a then member of the ISO’s steering committee in the words: “He lies with impunity!” (6)

The man who rules the Tendency wants to rule it … alone!

Where did this setting leave us in the event of Cliff’s death? Unlike the SWP, the household of the Tendency was not very well ordered at all. A formal structure did not exist. The natural heir of Cliff’s long standing prerogative to override the “Prime Directive” of Non-Intervention was its International Secretary. To believe, however, that the ISO would from now on happily follow the lead of Alex Callinicos, required a lot of wishful thinking. And as we know, Alex Callinicos is not a man of such extended imagination.

You really have to understand these hidden dynamics to grasp the full monstrosity of the ISO’s bizarre expulsion. What happened in that so-called “split” against the ISO was nothing else, but a pre-emptive strike, orchestrated by the man who wished to rule the Tendency alone in the future. Alex Callinicos just loves “pre-emptive strikes”.

You cannot believe this? In that case explain the political reasons. Go back and read the documents leading up to that brutal ousting. (They are mostly available on the net.) The disturbing truth is that there are no political reasons to be found for this mysterious disaster! If minor differences in the post-Seattle analyses can be detected at all, the ISO’s “conservatism” has been vindicated. But you will have a very hard time to find any basis for a serious disagreement out of these thoroughly weird documents, let alone discover any sufficient justification for kicking out a successful sister organisation.

On giants, dwarfs and my poor father

When it comes to the situation in the SWP and the qualification of the leading personnel Cliff had left behind, we discover a few problems deriving from Cliff’s overwhelming authority. Cliff often used the metaphor “standing on the shoulders of giants”, referring to the heritage of classical Marxism and revolutionary history. Up there, on the shoulders of Marx and Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, you can see far and wide, it was meant to say, even without being a giant yourself. But of course: you also can be seen quite well by others, up there.

Cliff himself was a giant in our eyes, and rightly so. The way up to his shoulders could be crowded at times, and those “leading comrades” who had managed to climb up there, could easily be mistaken for giants themselves, if watched from below. The authority various IST stars and SWP leaders enjoyed, was, however, not a mere fake. The general theoretical level back then was superb. The spirit of togetherness was real. We were in the thick of the struggle, whenever a struggle was fought.

But then I think of my poor father. He worked as a clerk for 45 years. In these long decades he was such a strong personality, full of willpower, a brave man, a man of conviction and values. After he retired, he changed radically. He became lazy and moody, bossing family members around and falling into self-pity the very next moment. I came to diagnose that his enduring stability in the long years of his working life had to do with a readymade structure imposed on him. Inside this structure he functioned smoothly and this structure also made him feel secure, which translated into confidence and strength.

Out of the job, he proved incapable of structuring himself.

For tactical option to concept to dogma: “Bending the stick” 

In the case of Cliff’s diadochi (7) this effect could be observed, too. This is not to say that Cliff only left epigones behind. Chris Harman, for instance, was a brilliant mind and a truly original thinker. (That he was a modest, comradely and sensitive person, greatly played to his disadvantage around 2004.) But generally it must be said that the leading personnel figured much larger with Cliff at the helm of the crowd than afterwards, without him.

To some extent this was due to the fact that Cliff was simply … Cliff. You had to be an idiot not to admire the energy and genius of the man. His determination transmitted a feeling of tremendous security to everyone connected to him. “Collective Leadership” was a mere ideal, as long as Cliff was alive.

There were some real problems, related to his style of leadership, too. Growing up in unforgiving opposition to a bureaucratically frozen Stalinist left, Cliff was very much aware of the danger of creeping bureaucratisation. So he came to simply love sharp turns, which he saw as necessity in revolutionary politics, a healthy counter measure to comfortable stagnation.

Initially, to bend the stick very hard in one direction in order to break inertia and make the party move, was just one tactical option, reserved for use in rare, extreme cases. In Cliff’s biography of Lenin, “Bending the stick” evolved as a full blown concept. Over time “Bending the stick” was in inflationary use and increasingly degenerated into a ready excuse for all kinds of crude turns at all levels of the party. Every cruelty and exaggeration tended to be legitimized as great tactical skills. “Bending the stick” lead to overcompensation for mistakes that had to be compensated by another round of “Bending the stick”. Sticks were broken more than once. And the cadre was educated to follow these sharp turns swiftly. (Naturally, sober hacks were much better suited for this regular exercise than hot-blooded independently-thinking rebels.)

Cloning the cadre: Cliffs revolutionary chemistry 

The “cloning” process was another, related problem.

Like Lenin, Cliff could suddenly fall in – and out! – of love with people. Had he fallen in love with some comrade he did everything to mould him to a fully fletched revolutionary. Being cloned by Cliff was a tough experience, however. ISO leader Ahmed Shawki had fled Britain for the United States to emancipate himself from Cliff’s influence. The list of people who neither made such a bold move nor survived their treatment in Cliff’s laboratory is long and sad.

This is not to say that Cliff intended to produce epigones. Far from it, he sometimes seemed to beg for someone disagreeing with him. And if you dared to do so, his reaction normally was one of surprising openness and warmth. Speaking publicly, Cliff never forgot to emphasise the need to put everything into question at all times, as the circumstances might change every minute – and with them, established truths could suddenly turn into obstacles. Also, ever since the theory of state capitalism, Cliff as a theoretician, was most impressive for his ability to intellectually break through systems of generally-accepted believes.

But it must be said that Cliff’s Menschenkenntnis followed Lenin’s example, too: his understanding of other peoples’ character was hopelessly poor at times. Cliff also underestimated the power and the impact of his personality. Without Cliff’s shoulders to lift them up and his brilliant directions, many “giants” turned out to be rather short-sighted dwarves.

They increasingly reminded me of my father, the retired clerk… But make no mistake: nothing is more dangerous than a short-sighted clerky dwarf impersonating a revolutionary giant.

Where is the old guard?

Did Cliff lead to Callinicos? Today, the old guard he left behind is mostly gone. Some are dead, and I am inclined to say: it was the best of the gang who have passed away: Duncan Hallas, Julie Waterson, Paul Foot, Chris Harman … Others have sunk into obscurity, like the former Linksruck leaders, or got kicked out of the family, like our comrades in the ISO. And what ever happened to Dave Hayes? Why did Mark Steel leave the party in 2007? Where are Kevin Ovenden, Elane Heffernan, Rob Hoveman, Guy Taylor? I do not miss John Rees and Lindsey German tremendously, but their replacements are not a great improvement on them, are they?

To cut the history of the Tendency after Cliff short: we have lost too many of our very best people and promoted too many third-rate figures.

Chris Bambery was an active player in a cruel and deteriorating system of control, and it can be argued that he finally got to taste the fruit he used to dish out so generously. Yet reading Bilko’s bitter letter of resignation really makes you wonder how a mediocre figure like Martin Smith could dare to talk down to a devoted revolutionary of Bilko’s stature in such a derogatory fashion. By the way: did the CC make sure to pay Chris Bambery the money back he lent to the party? Or are we thieves now, too? How far we have come!

To be sure: not all that glittered was gold in the party of Cliff’s lifetime. There have been stupidities, cruelties and fuckups all along – and naturally so. You have every right to make mistakes if you are fighting for a better world. And there is no blueprint how to build a revolutionary party.

That said, you simply cannot keep on kicking out the most creative minds and best fighters year after year … and then be surprised if the moral and intellectual level continues to fall.

The master of disaster

What we see at this very moment is just the latest dramatic episode in a process of disintegration going on for more than ten years. You cannot keep on kicking out the most creative minds and best fighters year after year … and then be surprised if the moral and intellectual level continues to fall. This process has one central figurehead and his name must be called out in public to take the responsibility for a decade of permanent factional wars and a poisonous internal atmosphere full of lies, slander, intimidation and pre-emptive strikes from the top down.

Not, because he is the sole root of all problems.

But he is the single biggest obstacle to renewal!

It is absolutely evident that there can be no turn-around before falling off the … Cliff, without the removal of Alexander Theodore Callinicos from any leadership position.

He must be stripped from a lone power he has accumulated throughout a decade of decline, factionalism and moral corruption.

Cliff may have had too great a love for radical “turns” and the tactical device of “Bending the stick”. But this is a time to not only bend the stick hard – but to swing it like a dancing club over the heads of would-be leaders that have presided over a decade of decline.

If the party is lost, a new one has to be built. It happened before in revolutionary history. Still, there is hope.

The party is still alive. But in order not to die very, very soon, it must break free. The fish starts to rot from the head. But if there is anything a real revolutionary should be able to do, it is cutting off heads.

Breaking free!

The current crisis shows not only the depth of the degeneration the SWP and our Tendency have suffered. It also shows a surprising core of healthy spirit and very good people left inside this organism. Instead of freaking out about the lack of discipline on behalf of our “Seymourites” and “China-men”, I am damn grateful that this shadow of our once proud party managed to recruit such prolific representatives of a new radical generation. They might make up for the terrible drain of so many of our best people.

And instead of whining and screaming about the bad, bad internet we should at last develop a serious analysis of the bloody thing and use it to the best of our common cause.

Our common cause? The abnormal situation we face is that today there are far more people identifying themselves with the IS tradition outside of our official organisations than inside.

Many were kicked out, many have left in disgust thanks to a cruel and increasingly corrupt internal regime.

Others may have had real political differences, but I suspect that many of them would see these differences minimized by time and the terrible effects the auto-cannibalism of a decaying capitalist system is bringing about.

Should we rid ourselves of old mistakes and our own bureaucracy, if we open up for new people, if we take a fresh look at new ideas and new movements, fearlessly welcoming everybody to our ranks who is burning to take part in a real, global fightback – we will find that there are many more of us today than we see in the lists of our branches.

So fight for the SWP with everything you have, as good as you can.

Should the party be lost, however, a new one must and can be built.

(1) Internationally the picture is similar. The Greek SEK seems to experience some growth amidst a wild escalation of domestic class struggle, but this cannot cover up for a recent history of splits all over the Tendency and the loss of ISO (US), Linksruck (Germany) and a bulk of the Tendency’s once up to 20,000 global members.

(2) Before the party exploded to some size in the late 60s and early 70s, Cliff and a handful of comrades had built the nucleus of our Tendency in far less favourable circumstances.

(3) The Weimar Republic in Germany (1919 – 1933). The reference to “Weimar” was used in this context to describe a parliamentary democracy plunging into total crisis with society experiencing mass radicalisation in the wake of deep economic depression.

(4) Writing for an audience that displays some addiction to wilful misunderstandings of various kinds, I state here clearly: that the aforementioned passage is not intended to downplay or even make any analytical statement about the current state of the capitalist crisis – it purely serves to contrast the development with our expectations in the final years of Cliff.

(5) Actually the expulsion of ISO stands to this very day as the only formal decision the Tendency has made as a whole body in its whole history – while the formal correctness of the move is open to a lot of questions…

(6) This is an observation I have found to be true many times ever since, and if you wish: google any one of the uncounted unaccounted splits that took place in the Tendency all over the worlds since Alex Callinicos fully took over, unhindered by Cliff or anybody else: you will find hundreds of (ex-) comrades claiming the extensive use of lies and smear tactics on his behalf.

(7) After Alexander the Great’s sudden death in very young age, his empire was divided between his eight sons in a series of wars.



Filed under Left Politics

23 responses to “Lord Acton and the guillotine: our Tendency after Cliff

  1. Lovely work, although I’m always disappointed in these articles on the recent SWP crisis that no-one ever mentions the way that Socialist Worker NZ questioned the CC’s actions in RESPECT and got monstered for our troubles. (The group no longer exists due to internal political differences.)

  2. “(7) After Alexander the Great’s sudden death in very young age, his empire was divided between his eight sons in a series of wars.”
    Er, not quite. The Diadochi or “Successors” were made up of Alexander’s close friends, his most prominent generals, and one or two members of his family.

  3. neprimerimye

    There are many smaller disasters that have befallen the tendency, as opposed to the party, that are not discussed above. One might mention, among others the loss of the entire Belgian group, the splitting of the South African group and last not least the affiliation of a bunch of former Stalinists in Aotearoa who were never truly detoxified.

    • Okay, Mike, let’s have it out here. I joined Socialist Worker in New Zealand in 2001 on the basis of IST politics, not Stalinism. I know you’ve said elsewhere that you hold to the Callinicos principle of “ideological uniformity within the tendency”. To the extent that SW-NZ leaders acted badly, it was to the extent that they acted like Callinicos, Rees etc. I have had it up to here with your badmouthing of me and everyone else who joined SW-NZ on the basis of IS politics and I would like you to stop it.

  4. Bob

    The ISO is not really any better. They too are top-dow and will expel. Counterfire sucks too, anything related to the Cliffite history is a waste, as Cliff was.

  5. Reblogged this on The (Dis)Loyal Opposition to Modernity: and commented:
    From Cliff to the current?

  6. neprimerimye

    Daphne I’ve not bad mouthed you just the former SWO New Zealand. That said I’m prepared to accept that you joined on the basis of what you were told was the IS Tradition. In which case any fault lies with those who trained you, and they were former Stalinists (well Hoxjaites), and their distortion of IS politics. The leaders of the IST must also bear some of the responsibility for this given their knowledge of the situation.

    Frankly a proper knowledge of the IS Tradition would lead to an automatic rejection of the entire Respect garbage and the various populisms that developed elsewhere in the tendency. of course thats just my opinion and the SWP appears to have no properly settled position on hat happened but there you go maybe thats part of the problem?

    I’m pretty sure I’ve never said that I’m in favour of ideological uniformity within the tendency. In fact I find the opening up of the ISO to comrades not from the IS Tradition, for example Paul Le Blanc, to be exciting and positive. Similarly I’m excited by the fusion of Socialist Alternative in Australia with the Revolutionary Socialist Party. But Le Blanc and the former RSP are committed to building a revolutionary party not some kind of radical alternative based on a social force other than the working class.

  7. Pingback: The International Marxist Group and the SWP Crisis. | Tendance Coatesy

  8. Richard Searle

    With reference to Daphne’s point regarding the SW-NZ intervention around Respect crisis. The letter/article penned by SW-NZ to the SWP CC provided some much needed clarity during the whole debacle.
    I can therefore ‘fes – up’ to being the one that passed on to various blogs/usual suspects for publication. Though if I was to tell who passed to me, I’d have to shoot myself.
    I imagined being ‘monstered’ by Lord Acton & cohorts is rather unpleasant unfair, but I’m convinced it was better off being released into the wild

    • Should’ve posted this under Richard’s reply:

      I’m with Daphne here. Apart from anything else, the one thing we found in the UK was that our NZ comrades were much more open and willing to debate with us, never looked down on us – and during the Respect split, they took the time to really explore political differences. That simply didn’t happen in the UK – you were either a CC supporter or an enemy. It was thanks to the NZ comrades that so many people came through the crisis with their marxist politics intact and strengthened.

      And Daphne, if I’ve not said that to you before, I apologise. Certainly a lot of us feel grateful for the space you gave us.

  9. jon in seattle

    I was invited to leave the ISO in the mid-90s because I was “soft on democratic centralism.” Meaning, I questioned a few assumptions of the group, including the lack of issues discussed when electing leadership and how choosing leadership via slates warped the process. It has been noticed that in the ISO’s public comment on the SWP crisis, the ISO did not comment on SWP internal structures, which the ISO shares.
    Nevertheless, I still share a good deal of politics with and sympathy for the ISO. I recall trying to understand the expulsion of the ISO from the IST and coming to the conclusion that it must have come to down (apologies for the crudeness) “dick swinging” for tendency control post Cliff. But that’s my view from outside both organizations.

  10. The SW-NZ Respect critique was a breath of fresh air at the time. Amongst all the twaddle that was published around the dispute – particularly from the Reesite side of the argument – it stood out as a model of common sense and plain speaking.

  11. Henrietta St

    The American comrades played a leading role at international meetings well before 1990. I don’t recall them ever being anything other than full members- in fact they were the CC’s favoured group- even though the Greeks were building, they were suspiciously independent.
    Cast your mind back to the Iran/Iraq War debate (1988). Who agreed with Kieran Allen about refusing to support Iran? The Greeks.
    Finally, situated next door, enjoying a long history of both imperialism and mutual too-and-frooing, where stand the Irish these days?

    • An individual member of the Irish SWP issued a statement early on saying, essentially, “WTF?”; it was posted at Cedar Lounge. I forget the name; it may even have been anonymous. I don’t think the SWP collectively have taken a position, or not where anyone could hear them.

      • Dumper

        I’m not a member of the Irish SWP but I’d be very surprised that the group would not have privately condemned the handling of the ‘Delta’ case, after all one of the most significant aspects of the Irish SWP work is it stand against the church and state in struggling for Women’s Liberation. I doubt they would make that public though. Especially after Callinicos’s comdemnation of the ISO and it’s public staements about the case.

    • Smilga's goat

      The Irish SWP’s equivalent of the national committee passed a statement criticsing the British organisations hadling of the dispute despite protestions from John Molyneux and Kieran Allen I understand. This has not been made public.

      • Henrietta St

        Given that the SWP leadership were able to intervene in other IS groups, why are the Irish SWP so coy about having a say on this?

  12. I think there’s an error in the history here. The author says that the ISO “rejoined” the IST.

    But the ISO never left (until it was expelled) – it was a member of the IST from the start.

  13. The ISO itself was the result of a split in the International Socialists made in London with Steve Jeffries as the hatchet man. Overnight a faction appeared with a document that could only lead to a split. There was no advance consultation or discussion. From the start of the faction fight until the end no one changed their position.

    That said, their criticisms were mostly right. The IS were not the first and won’t be the last to misjudge the period. It wasn’t possible to build a mass rank and file movement which could have opened the way for a meaningful socialist organization based in the working class

  14. Pingback: SWP crisis: who is saying what « Jim Jepps

  15. A very welcome and informative article.

    As yet another former member, it often seems the SWP is a machine for producing ex-SWPers. In organisations from Unison to the Campaign for Real Ale, key members so often were in the SWP for years…before being purged, or leaving because they got sick of how they were treated.

    Whatever causes this or that member to finally leave, there’s always a background of resentment at being lied to, manipulated, threatened, and constantly told they’re not doing enough for ‘the cause’ – which is always somehow the same as ‘the party’, which is always somehow identified with ‘the leadership’.

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