Memories of Tony Cliff

Against the Current, No. 88, September/ October 2000

R.F. Kampfer

IT’S BEEN ABOUT 30 years since I met Tony Cliff, the leader of what was then called the International Socialism group in Britain, back before I borrowed a Party name from the rotefrontkampferbund.  I was recently out of the Army, and touring the Socialist Youth groups of Europe.  A note signed by Kim Moody, identifying me as a member of the Independent Socialists, was good anywhere for potluck, a couch, and a long political discussion.

I’d been reading Tony Cliff since 1962, and was looking forward to meeting him when I got to London.  Along with Hal Draper and Max Shachtman, he was among the few Marxist writers whose work was a pleasure, as well as a duty, to read. He combined encyclopedic knowledge with razor-sharp insight, and a wicked sense of humor.

Most of the articles of his that I’d read had been about recent struggles in the British labor movement.  His accounts were so vivid that I assumed he was a young British worker, something like Albert Finney in “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.”

When I found my way to his house that night (the London bus system seems designed to mislead German paratroopers), I was surprised to find an old man (younger than I am now, in fact) with a houseful of children and a Yiddish-British accent that Benny Hill would have a hard time imitating.

Due to a failure of communication from the IS office, he hadn’t known that I was coming over, but he showed no surprise at finding a scruffy young American on his doorstep.  Chanie brought me a cup of tea, and while the kids watched “Dr. Strangelove” on TV, we talked about everything from class-consciousness in the U.S. Army, to the role of the no-strike pledge in enabling the post-war purge of the Communist Party from the CIO.

Despite the vast difference in our movement seniority, it felt like he was genuinely interested in everything I had to say. I got the feeling that every fact and opinion was mentally evaluated, cross-indexed, and filed away for future reference.

Even when I disagreed with him, saying that waging an ideological war against unredeemable sectlets was a waste of time and resources that could better be devoted to trade union work, he remained patient and polite.

I never got back to London.  Even though organizations diverged, I always remembered Tony Cliff with admiration and affection.  He’s gone now, but his work lives on, and will be an inspiration to generations yet to come.

R.F. Kampfer’s Random Shots column appears regularly in Against the Current.  In real life, the author is a veteran socialist, an auto worker, rank and file activist and a member of Solidarity.

ATC 88, September-October 2000