Towards a peopled historiography of the far left
'This sketch simplifies the arguments, the details and dilemmas, the complexities and intractabilities of life as it is lived; it cannot do justice to the texture of [Tony] Cliff’s sixty years as a revolutionary. [Ian] Birchall’s book does. Written by a long-time member of the IS/SWP it is nevertheless no prolegomenon for a canonization. Birchall is unlikely to agree with many of my judgements; yet he places a range of criticisms of Cliff on the record. If we are usually left in little doubt as to where the author stands on these issues they are explained rather than dismissed or in some cases upheld. His text is exhaustively researched, elegantly composed and critically empathetic; it employs an authorial self-awareness some biographers of mainstream political figures and ‘official Communists’ could usefully emulate. Trotskyism has been part of the left and of the experience of many of its adherents.
This volume, the most comprehensive account we have of a leader of the British far left, his politics and organizations, suggests that it deserves enhanced attention from scholars; it illustrates that objectivity and partisanship are not incompatible in the writing of revolutionary history. It demonstrates once more that historians can recuperate with profit what dominant assumptions marginalize as blind alleys and lost causes – if we address their protagonists critically but as serious actors, and in terms of their own preoccupations. It affirms the potential for a peopled historiography of the far left which weighs agency and circumstance and eschews hagiography, on the one hand, and teleological social-democratic parables on the other...'
John McIlroy, 'A Trotskyist's Tale', History Workshop Journal (online, 2013), a review of Ian Birchall, Tony Cliff: a Marxist For His Time, London, Bookmarks, 2011, 664 pp - for more on writing the recent history of the British far left see here