Visit To A Small Philosopher: Dinner With Tony Cliff

Author: 
Mike Kyriazopoulos

An AWL postal worker reports on a dinner engagement with Tony Cliff (1998).


I happened to meet Tony Cliff and his partner Chanie Rosenberg of the Socialist Workers Party recently and they invited me to dinner. Why? To recruit me to the SWP! I accepted. Dinner that is, not membership.

Cliff, ideological leader of the SWP, would I thought be worth a chat, and would provide a better argument than your average SWPer, who tends to be politically ill-educated and disablingly out of touch with the labour movement. I might learn something. Who knows, I might be able to put the old bugger straight on a couple of points.

I was to be disappointed. The food was fine; the politics, however, were indigestible. Cliff fleshed out and pressed home SWP policies with greater skill and subtlety than your average SWPer. He is wittier. But his politics are no better, nor his arguments noticeably more sophisticated.

Cliff's central argument? We're the biggest because we're the best; we're the best because we're the biggest. We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here...

He was little better on detail. No SWPer had tried to stop me selling papers on the train to the recent lobby of Labour Party Conference (where I'd met Cliff). Neither had the SWP (which really does have 10,000 members) tried to stop us selling Workers' Liberty at their summer school. SWPers had never tried to smash up any Workers' Liberty meetings or assaulted any of our comrades! But I have witnessed or been involved in such things. No I haven't! “Bloody rubbish!”

Yes, Cliff conceded, in 1978, the SWP had ignored the fascists' attempt to march down Bengali-inhabited Brick Lane, east London, in favour of building the Anti-Nazi League Carnival (a party) in Brockwell Park, prioritising building the ANL and SWP over stopping the fascists. So what? They were right!

Yes, in 1992, as the Tories closed the last pits, the SWP had raised the call for a general strike , suddenly, from nowhere, and then just as suddenly dropped it. That was, “completely right.” It went down well. It caught a mood. They sold a lot of papers. They didn't mean it? Obviously. But so what?

Doesn't the SWP expel anyone disagreeing with the leadership? “Bloody rubbish!” The SWP has expelled “maybe 50 people” in the last two decades, only for things like violence to other comrades. (Not for violence to members of other groups, though!) Most people claiming to have been expelled from the SWP haven't really been expelled; they're just, “making it up.” Pardon? “Bloody rubbish!”

Why was WL's forerunner expelled from the International Socialists, forerunner of the SWP? Because they thought the Soviet Union was a degenerated workers' state. They did, I said, but weren't they expelled because they opposed the decision to join Little Englanders and Stalinists in opposition to Britain joining the EC? They said that in the choice between a bosses' Britain and a bosses' Europe workers should say in effect: Neither Westminster nor Brussels but International Socialism! “Bloody rubbish!”

Why not debate WL now , on the Middle East, for example? Because WL is “small”, “sectarian”, irrelevant”, “nothing.” Straight to the heart of the political issues! In what way are we sectarian? We criticise the SWP! Oh... The problem is that WL, “sees the flea but not the elephant.” I'll repeat that for less sophisticated readers: we see the flea but not the elephant.

And so it went on. The ANL/SWP alone prevented the rise of fascism in Britain. The SWP is “a big force” in the unions (and not just the white collar unions); it is “massive”, makes all the campaigning initiatives... Drawing on my experience as a union activist in a large workplace I tried to prick Cliff”s fantasy bubbles with the odd fact, but Cliff”s bubbles are made of tougher stuff than soap suds.

Finally we got to Israel-Palestine, and then the cutlery was drawn and the croutons really started to fly!

Why, I asked Cliff, a Palestinian Jew in origin, were the Israeli Jews the only national/communal group on earth who do not have the right to self-determination? He listed every real and alleged atrocity committed by Israel. I agreed to condemn many things about Israel. My sympathy is with the Palestinians. But what about Jewish-Arab working class unity? There can be no unity of Jewish and Palestinian workers, shouted Cliff, writing three million workers out of history, nor can there be a compromise giving national rights of both groups. In this portion of the Middle East class politics cannot apply. Ever? Never!

The SWP never used the phrase “smash Israel” but, Cliff agreed, their policy amounted to that. Any Jewish state in Palestine will inevitably oppress Arabs, and be a tool of US imperialism.

To advocate any kind of Jewish state in Palestine, he insisted, was to favour immigration controls. This was bizarre, coming from the man who in an autobiographical piece in Socialist Review (issue 100) said that, in retrospect, he felt he was wrong in 1938-9 not to have favoured immigration controls to keep Jews out of Palestine. Jews fleeing Europe, when the alternative was certain death, before and during the Holocaust!

“The Zionists” had used the Holocaust to brainwash Jews into advocating imperialism and oppression in the Middle East. I — Cliff had twigged that I am Jewish in background — had been brainwashed, though my conscience made me advocate “concessions” to the Palestinians. Cod-psychoanalysing me, while he himself argued more from emotion and distant personal experience, heatedly evading what I thought was a reasoned case, I felt Cliff revealed more about his own psychology than mine.

The row became increasingly charged. Isn't the SWP's a policy hostile to all Jews alive today? Yes, he said, with a candour that surprised me. But only because they have been brainwashed! Cliff was being a vicarious Arab chauvinist, I argued. And so it went on... Cliff, I had said, was objectively an anti-semite. He had attacked me as a pro-imperialist fruitcake.

The evening, I thought, had been a social failure: I had missed my chance to join “the socialists”. I stood (or rather, sat) denounced as a murdering Zionist, Labourite, pro-imperialist, an idiot with the wrong idea about absolutely everything!

But no. Cliff and Chanie, their expressions softened, aren”t sectarians. I would be more than welcome, said Chanie warmly, producing a membership form, in the SWP!

Paul Foot somewhere calls Cliff the Philosopher in Stoke Newington. As I left Cliff”s house that night I knew for sure that Foot was half right. Tony Cliff does, indeed, live in Stoke Newington.

Workers' Liberty #50/51