Issue 87 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Summer 2000 Copyright © International Socialism
About a month ago I heard from Akiva Orr, an Israeli emigrant who returned from London after many years, that Tony Cliff, leader of the big Trotskyist movement in England, was in fact Ygal Gluckstein from Zikhron Yaakov. With the removal of the heavy Russian stone that covered the dark well, strange interests are coming into their own. What the emigrant told me, which I merely noted down in a few brief words as we were talking about something else, brought me later on to seek out Tony Cliff. Akiva gave me the names of some people who might have Cliff's address, but warned me, 'You should know what's happening among them today. This is a small group with highly charged connections. Those who once loved one another could well now be enemies. If you mentioned his name the telephone could well be cut off. The world, you know, is turning upside down.'
From Tel Aviv it took me time to try to locate Cliff over there and his old friends over here, the remnants of the newspapers, leaflets, and words that he wrote in heat 50 or more years ago, in the Israeli half of his life, on issues that were then burning and fateful. I followed Cliff's footsteps and entered an old world of struggle, the majority of whose heroes are dead. There were photographs whose memory was almost vanished, forgotten lists, high hopes and suffering. Despite all this it is a very touching story, with some people still living whose ardour has not waned with the years--like Cliff himself, or his wife, Chanie Rosenberg, who now live in relative poverty in an old house in London, believe in world revolution and lead 6,000 activists.
Exactly 45 years this autumn have passed since Cliff, aged 29, left Palestine-Eretz Yisrael, a land bleeding prior to the partition between Jews and Arabs. When he left in autumn 1946 trains were being blown up, buildings were collapsing through terrorist activity, barrels full of explosives were rolling about. The ocean of time covers the story, but Cliff's English still sounds so like Hebrew when he says, in an unmistakable accent, 'Of course I'm a Sabra, from Zamarin.' Because he is the child Ygal born in Zamarin, that was Zikhron Yaakov; he is the youngster Gluckstein that Abba Khushi (a leading figure in Mapai, the Zionist Labour Party) instructed to have his finger broken; he is the youth Tsur, persecuted by the British, beaten by Etzel (a fascist paramilitary organisation) in Jerusalem, and pushed away by Ygael Sukenik of the Haganah. And he is the British Tony Cliff.
A fortnight ago I saw him in London. I came to the city to meet him, and in Time Out, an entertainment listings journal, in the section on politics, I found a small notice advertising a speech by one Tony Cliff on the future of socialism after the death of Communism, to be given on Wednesday in Islington Library. When I came there was a Japanese TV crew and later a BBC crew. In the dust rising from the collapse of the Soviet Empire there is suddenly an interest in all the tiny bodies that for years stormed like locusts on the steel giant, and now celebrate its fall. So too does the SWP, the Socialist Workers Party of Cliff.
Fifty one years have passed since the Mexican summer of 1940 when Stalin's agent Ramon Mercador killed Trotsky with an ice pick, the man in whose teachings Cliff still believes today. 'Many things in my life I have forgotten,' he says, 'personal details. But not the exact hour, midday, on 21 August, when I was in Haifa walking up the Hadar on a very hot day, when suddenly I saw a headline in an evening paper: "Trotsky Murdered". I bit my lip and said to myself, "We will continue. His death only proves how right Trotsky was".'
Now the Trotskyists feel that 'the revenge of history is stronger than the revenge of the general secretary', as Trotsky prophesied to Stalin in 1927. Out of their long expectation grew an unexpected consolation--the fall of the Soviet Union. There is a sudden flowering, in the English centre of which stands Tony Cliff, and all of it is happening on the fringes of English politics.
So in Islington Library, near a station on the Victoria Underground, I saw Tony Cliff standing in front of 250 activists of his movement, assembled on a cool evening. He spoke with growing enthusiasm on the fall of Stalin, the failure of collectivisation, the heavy Russian tractor, on Trotsky and the future of socialism that is still before us notwithstanding the slanders. The drama was too astonishing to be true, because when he spoke, Tony Cliff, the small enthusiast with his white mane that grew from both sides of his head, he looked like a British Ben Gurion with a Sabra accent. His voice rose for emphasis at the end of his sentences. Even the art of the composition of his speech, with its emphases, was reminiscent of the old speeches of Mapai.
Before my journey one exile described to me how he was shocked by Cliff's appearance, as if he saw before him the ghost of a leader of the left from the 1940s. And it is as if British time froze his manner, his looks and his way of speaking, and also the small leather bag in which he carries pieces of paper that he raises from time to time to his glasses to support the argument about the failure of the wheat harvest.
In the great hall of the library, under the gold ceiling, built at the beginning of the century, it is like a miracle. English youngsters of the early 1990s assembled--white and black, Indian and members of other minorities who have been alienated from English life. At the entrance five activists stand in a rising wind, selling papers about world revolution. It is similar to the activities of members of Matzpen (a left wing group) in the entrance of Beit Agron.
'We are now attacked from the left,' Cliff-Gluckstein started his speech. 'I am shocked that the English Communists are the ones attacking us.' He quoted an article from 1956, spoke about the collapse of the Soviet Union, and prided himself on always having thought it was rotten. 'The past lives with me,' he told the youngsters opposite him. 'I can't understand the present without it... Now, with the disappearance of the old rubbish, we can at last speak about socialism.'
The blonde chairperson handed him a note to end as he was speaking about the death of Rosa Luxemburg. But to stop him was like halting a revolutionary train on its way to war. After he finished people asked questions. 'We have the key to the future,' shouted a black youth. He stood beneath a fire bell next to a declaration that Cliff had been brandishing for 25 years: 'Neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism.'
In 1969, the Orientalist Professor Yehoshua Porat, finishing some research in London, saw posters on the walls of some houses in a London borough that had been stuck up that night by youth of the English fascist movement the National Front. On them was written, in black letters, 'Tony Cliff is really Ygal Gluckstein, a Jew from Palestine.'
Correct. Tony Cliff, the youngest child of Akiva and Esther Gluckstein, was born in 1917 in Zikhron Yaakov, a weak baby inclined to die. It was then that the British conquered the country and removed the Turks. The English thus entered into Ygal Gluckstein's life and never went out. Enemies and lovers.
His parents had settled in the country in 1902, before the Second Aliyah (immigration), a young couple who came from Lithuania in the footsteps of his uncle, Mr Kalvarisky, who was the director of Rothschild in Palestine and later one of the leaders of the small Brit Shalom, which believed that only on the basis of peace with the country's Arabs could normal life be established. The baby Ygal had two brothers older than himself, Shimon and Haim, and a sister, Alexandra. All were born in different towns as the family moved around following the business of the father who was a big contractor who built sections of the Hedjaz Railway.
'I remember nothing of Zikhron Yaakov,' Ygal-Tony told me in the garden of his house when we were sitting there on a bright English morning after his speech in Islington. 'No picture of my childhood has remained with me except for the summers when we travelled to the small village of Bat Shlomo near Zikhron where I spent my summer holidays as a child with the Levita family.'
His old dog ('in the reincarnation my soul will enter into him') was moving around us. An old iron swing was hanging under an apple tree, all of whose branches were full of unripe green apples. An English back garden like in a million houses, but more neglected because of the endless revolutionary activities of the owners of the house. On the front window which faces Allerton Road, I saw a poster against the poll tax--the tax that led to Thatcher's final downfall.
Although Tony Cliff has been writing the biographies of Lenin and Trotsky for years, it is difficult to draw out of him any personal details of his own past life: 'I have thousands of words in my head but all political. That's my world.' He always lives in the dream of his faith, blind to the daily world passing him by. He always preferred libraries in which he could delve into books 'because they explain all, they make the generalisation I so need'.
At the age of five he lived with his parents in Haifa. From the years there remains a yellowish photograph in which you can see the boy Ygal in white clothes, his brother Haim and sister Alexandra, and next to them an unidentified relative. This picture was given me before my journey by Alexandra's son, the graphic artist David Tartakover.
Gluckstein's memory starts being active the moment he becomes a political youth:
Hillel Yoffe (a leading Zionist) was also his uncle. Such things remain in his memory--also the moment the teacher told him he was a Communist.
And at the age of 15, after he had clarified some ideas and delved deeply into books, as he would do all his life, the consciousness of the small boy, pampered because of his delicate health, was pointed in a Zionist Marxist direction--a strange and impossible animal, such conflict between equality of workers and the struggle for the conquest of Hebrew labour. This conflict between workers' internationalism and Hebrew nationalism lies like gunpowder beneath the Israeli scene.
Before my voyage I burrowed in the archives of the labour movement, in the old editions of the paper Haor published by the lawyer Mordechai Stein. There I found a song written in 1934 for children of Ygal's sort:
I read this satirical song to Cliff, written 57 years ago, and Cliff in his English backyard laughs. He grew in the heart of hearts of Zionism. His piano teacher was Chaim Weitzman's (the country's first president) sister, his father's building partner was Chaim Weitzman's brother. Kalvarisky and Moshe Sharet, Hillel Yoffe his uncle, Levita and Bentwich. Round him was the building of the country and the railways, a youth movement, and a motherland in its swaddling clothes. But in him burned, and will never be extinguished, the desire for international revolution. His youthful eyes grasped the hard contradiction in the ideological ferment:
His memory is composed like a kaleidoscope of one colour, of sections of political pictures. In vain did I try to get from him some particulars of his youthful life and how he became what he was.
After my return from London I came across Professor Alon Talmi in Ramat Aviv. He was the youth who was with Ygal in the conflict with Abba Khushi in 1934. In spite of the years, Talmi remembers well the moment the two stewards approached them following Abba Khushi's pointing. They tore Talmi's coat and broke Ygal's finger. Talmi, who at that time was call Feldman, is the son of Rabbi Binyamin, the Brit Shalom (Peace League) man. Talmi was the one who recruited Ygal in Haifa to the Chugim Marksistim (Marxist Circles of Left Poale Zion), which was led by Abramovich and Yitzhaki, and also the building worker Nadel, father of Baruch Nadel:
They called Ygal Gegi 'a youth with an inner fire,' says Talmi about him, 'a boy/old man who drew happiness not from the love life of youth but from complete dedication to the revolutionary cause. Intelligent girls were charmed by his sharpness.'
In 1936 Talmi left the Chugim Marksistim, went to Poland, and later joined Israel's scientific community. For a time he was a scientific attache in Paris and a renowned chemist: 'Only once, many years later, did I see Ygal in a street in Jerusalem. He was walking on the opposite pavement and we did not greet each other. Perhaps I only dreamt it. Now I don't know.'
'Yaakov Moshaev.' Suddenly, as we were talking, Cliff remembered the name of one of his friends from that time. Others he forgot. Jacob Moshaev now lives in Long Island. It is many years since he left Jerusalem. But his brother Yitzhak, many years younger, who was pulled behind Jacob and Ygal Gluckstein, remained in Jerusalem, and when I asked him he recalled the meetings of the Chugim Marksistim youth: 'In a small house in the backyard of the Ethiopian Church in Abyssinian Street, Ygal would come and speak and enchant everyone, a brilliant, riveting speaker--there in Jerusalem, where priests, black as coal, were coming and going.'
At the age of 15, Gluckstein read Marx's Capital in one volume, an abridged edition that was translated into Hebrew from the German edition of Julian Burkhardt, and My Life by Trotsky, translated by Shlonsky. He swallowed books and got his elder brother Haim, who was pulled behind him, to go to meetings with him. The leader of the Chugim Marksistim in Jerusalem was Gershon Moshaev, a charismatic and courageous youth killed some two years later by the explosion of a hand grenade at night when he was defending Kiryat Anavim. It takes time to locate the group--some lived without using a family name, others under a false name.
In the year of the 1936 events, when the Arab uprising took place, corpses of victims were lying in the streets, and difficult questions were burning. Gluckstein wrote an article in the Chugim paper Eamifneh (At the Turning Point) in which he argued that Zionism from a class standpoint brought blessings to the country and the Arab fellah. This article was brought to England 30 years later by Professor Yehoshua Porat, who used it in sharp debate with Tony Cliff, who by then would not have dreamt of saying such a thing. In 1936 he was still torn between Zionism and socialism, and looked to Marx for the answers to the shocking phenomenon of a people returning to its country because of real and difficult suffering, who in their turn imposed suffering on other people: 'I was then for the Arab right of self determination and also for the right of the Jewish refugees to come to Palestine.'
But a year later, when he was 20 years old, a charismatic activist and a powerful speaker with influence in the Chugim Marksistim, Ygal Gluckstein left the Chugim with a group of people like Gaby Baer, later an Orientalist, Jacob Moshaev and a number of Yekkes (German-Jewish immigrants) of the type who came to work in the refineries, the sculptress Chana Ben Dov, and Jabra Nicola, the Arab who married Alisa from the village of Hittin and whose Jewish grandson would be killed on the first day of the Yom Kippur War.
When I search for those people today I discover how much they were inspired by a great spirit. Some left many years back and did not return, others died of a broken heart or disappointment, or were killed through carelessness.
Gluckstein wrote under the name of L Rock for an English paper. In Hebrew he was Y Tsur, and when translated into Arabic was Yussuf Sakhry. For the majority of the articles he wrote he used a pseudonym, so that he nearly forgot his real name. In the winter of 1939, when the world was already involved in the great war that engulfed Europe, British police came to search Ygal's room and almost immediately found the draft of a leaflet that said, 'Our enemy is not the aggressor of 1939. Our real enemy is the aggressor of 1917 that occupied the country.' Always in his eyes England was the enemy, the representative of oppression and division.
Ygal and his brother Haim were detained. They went to Acre prison and Sarafend detention camp. They saw Moshe Dayan and Yair Stern, who were detained at the same time. On the way to the trial Ygal tried to raise the very depressed spirits of his brother Haim. 'Even if we are detained for ten years we'll come out young,' he told him. He always thought about things in a historical timescale. But after five months he was freed because of family connections with Bentwich, who was high up in the Mandate bureaucracy and was married to his cousin.
Ygal continued to travel between the comrades in the country. They printed leaflets in Tel Aviv and transferred them by train to Haifa. In 1941 two Revisionists (extreme right wing Zionists) came to his room and beat him up. He was then far from Zionism and close to brotherhood with Arab workers and people like Jabra Nicola. Around them stormed the distant war and the local war. They were on the fringes of the great streams.
The two who beat him up left him a warning to leave Jerusalem within 24 hours. Ygal remembered Ygal Sukenik, who was his classmate in secondary school. He turned to him to ask for help but Sukenik, who years later became chief of staff of the Israeli army under the name Yadin, said, 'Sorry, I can't help you.'
Gluckstein packed and left Jerusalem. Sometimes he met the comrades in Haifa who worked in the refinery. They discussed the ideas of Trotsky, who said that the Second World War, like the first, would be a war between robbers and workers should not join it. They were reminded of the high revolutionary algebra of Trotsky. They wrestled with the nature of the Russian regime--whether it was state capitalist or workers' state. The British police returned to his room and confiscated his small printing press: 'I was relieved, as it was endless labour to print every letter separately.'
Cliff doesn't remember anything that happened around him except his own activities. The struggle between the Hagana and Etzel, the British and the Arabs--all was looked at through the prism of workers' struggle, a narrow prism that broke up the strong light of the Middle East of the early 1940s in a particular way.
Two days after the first meeting I returned to his house in Allerton Road, a workers' quarter in north London. Tomato plants in the back garden, an uninhabited house at the corner of the road, three massive pear trees hanging like a chain of pomegranates in the neighbour's back garden. We sat in the back garden of the house in which there are no longer any children. The four children--two daughters and two sons--dispersed to other houses after years of living in the topsy-turvy house full of leaflets in which there was not one minute of silence. Around us rested cement sculptures, white bent figures, made by his wife.
'Sometimes people ask me, "How did I remain alive?"' said Chanie, his wife. 'I have no answer. I myself don't know how I survived. People think that I am mad that I lived like that, carrying three full time jobs: mother, sole earner, and secretary of the teachers' association. We were always poor--he never earned. He was not here at all.' Gluckstein was and remained a full time revolutionary, a kind of life in which there was no place for work except for half a year in his youth when he worked as a building worker. He sees that as a wasted year, as he neither wrote nor read anything, and did not advance the struggle.
Chanie Rosenberg, whose brother translated their name to Kidron, and whom Ygal married in 1944 in a modest ceremony in Tel Aviv, supported him financially all his life, 'But I wouldn't have supported him for a minute if I hadn't thought he was worth it.'
Was it really worth it to lead such a hard life for that?
'We are fortunate. We are the happiest couple of old people that I know. Only when I look back I say to myself, "What an unbearably difficult life I lived. At the age of 17 I decided to change the rotten world and I haven't changed my views since then".'
When she says that both of them laugh. Two adult people, small in size, their hair white, their clothes simple, a dog lying at their feet in their flowerless garden--English revolutionaries who could easily now have been a couple of pensioners in a northern kibbutz.
They knew one another in 1944 when Chanie Rosenberg, with another four comrades, came from South Africa and went straight into a kibbutz in the north. She came from a Zionist family of seven children, but she already entertained the first seeds of doubt--and an inclination to Trotskyism. Somebody gave her the addresses of Trotskyist comrades here who lived in some kibbutzim. She got on a bus and travelled in a country she did not know, along dangerous roads to meet the comrades: 'And every place I came they told me the comrade I was looking for was working in the cowshed. So I discovered that all the Trotskyists here work with cows and do nothing for the revolution.'
One day comrade Hans, a tall Yekke leftie, came and brought with him a small Trotskyist with glasses by the name of Ygal Gluckstein, who spoke to the 13 comrades from South Africa who were in the kibbutz until early morning without stopping. Only at four in the morning was it realised that not one of them spoke Hebrew. In this way they came to know each other. Very quickly they came to live and act together. They rented a damp room in Shchunat Hatikva from a Yemenite, and there they prepared leaflets that called on the British soldiers to rebel against their rulers: 'Everything was bubbling around us and the English soldiers only wanted to return home--and they listened to us. It was easy to convince them.'
A paraffin lamp lit their room in Shchunat Hatikva, mice ate their books and what remained was eaten away by the damp. 'We were isolated, swimming against the stream. We had connections only with comrades from the Fourth International, the world Trotskyist movement. We struggled to survive, not to sink.'
From Shchunat Hatikvah they moved to the boiler room of 40 Ibn Gviron Street, in the cellar of a new house, a roomlet into which could fit a bed, a small cupboard and a door. They ate spaghetti and on holidays added camel meat. In the end they came to the conclusion that there was no way for them to influence the community of Arab toilers who were for them the key to the whole conflict. They were part of a small wave of communists who left the country for Europe and Russia in those years.
In the summer of 1946, at the time of the Morrison-Grade Plan which nobody today remembers, a plan that proposed a federal state with four districts as a solution to the problem of Palestine, Ygal and Chanie decided to travel from here to Britain to act in the heart of the empire. The same September the underground blew up oil pipelines, trains and the British intelligence building in Jaffa. Bombs exploded in railway stations and locomotives were destroyed. In Haifa Etzel murdered the symbol of British intelligence, Martin, after he identified Yitzhak Yezernitsky-Shamir and had him detained. Ygal and Chanie bought two tickets on a Romanian boat and travelled from Haifa to Marseilles on deck--in the same sea in which six ships of immigrants were approaching the shore. In the paper Haor, at the end of September 1946, Stein mourned the immigrant Schwartz who died on the refugee boat Palmach, his body thrown into the sea without burial.
'The world is my oyster,' said Tony Cliff in his London back garden. 'I am not a foreigner anywhere. I can be a coal miner or a docker or a seaman.' But to me he looks so foreign in England, bearing the likeness of an Israeli from the Mandate period with his Ben Gurion mane. He is not an emigrant because he has no longing for his old country. He is not an expellee. Other Israelis who have stayed in England for many years and were near to his views, like Moshe Machover, Akiva Orr or Shimon Tzabar, 'always appeared to me as if they were sitting on their luggage. All that interested them was the Middle East', while Gluckstein, the Sabra, cherished no dream of returning, forgot Hebrew by an irreversible decision, and uprooted himself from here forever without regret. And I, who grew up with longings and memories, look at him as if he were a creature I have never seen before. At the age of 15 he was caught up in an ideology which he didn't want to leave. Nothing besides that interests him.
'I have no family relations with anyone. My daily life bores me to death,' he says. His daughter, who lived with her mother while he was in Dublin, did not forgive him for her life until she reached adulthood. Happiness wakens in him only with the memory of struggle, the stormy days like 1972 with the great miners' strike, when the empire shook and ministers thought this was their last Christmas: 'How marvellous was it then to live in England.'
In general England is a very pleasant country for revolutionaries--a giant working class, miners, printers, the unemployed--an old tradition of a working class with its separate life.
Although his second motherland never granted him a passport of his own, he has sat there since 1952, and there was never a threat of death over his head, not even when the fascists spread hate leaflets against him in 1969. Ten years ago Michael Foot, deputy prime minister, tried to arrange a passport for him, but failed. Tony Cliff is connected to the Foot family through the journalist Paul Foot, who works with him in the movement. This Foot was born in Nblus when his father, Lord Caradon, was the British governor there.
Ygal Gluckstein arrived with Chanie in London in 1946. He stayed there for a year until he was asked to leave the country, being refused a permit to stay. France refused to receive him. He adopted the pseudonym Tony Cliff and wandered off alone to Dublin in Ireland. There he stayed for four years and wrote his theory that 'Russia is not a workers' state': 'Nobody accepted my position then except for Chanie.' His first daughter was born in these years, and Chanie--who had a South African passport--raised her by herself in London in conditions of hunger, living in one room. Every few months she took the baby with her and travelled by train, then crossed the sea by ferry to visit Ygal, who had already joined a few Trotskyists in Dublin.
In 1951, when he returned to London with another eight comrades, he built the International Socialists. It took them ten years to raise it to 60 people. 'We were completely on the fringe,' says Chanie. 'Workers laughed at us because those were the post-war boom years.' Who listens to socialists when everything goes alright? Slowly, slowly, with suffering, their little revolution expanded. Stalin rose and died. Khrushchev confessed to mistakes committed, and committed some of his own. The comrades argued all the time that the Soviet Union would collapse. 'A mountain avalanche covers us. This is a degenerated revolution,' wrote the Trotskyist Victor Serge in a literary prophecy of striking beauty.
In the year 1968, the year of upheaval, Cliff's people already numbered about 1,000 activists. They established the Socialist Workers Party. And in 1972, at a time of massive strikes, they reached 3,000, an astronomic figure to someone who had lived all his life in a group of three comrades. 'It is 40 years that we are advancing slowly,' said Chanie, 'and one day it will happen.' Their faith in the victory of the revolution is similar to the faith of the Orthodox in the coming of the messiah. Man's days are too short to see the fruit of his toil: 'I never despair.'
Has anything remained of your Hebrew? Do you dream in Hebrew?
'In the first years here, in the middle of a speech I would say a word in Hebrew--"Chanie, how do you say that in English?" That passed. I speak a political language--the vocabulary is small and restricted, but all in English. When I wrote on Leninism, I thought to myself in Russian.'
When the wars of 1948 or 1973 broke out, were you afraid for your family in Israel, your parents and brothers?
'No. Because I never doubted that Israel would be victorious. So long as America supports it, it will be victorious.'
His elderly parents remained in Israel. His father's days stretched out to 93 years. His sister Alexandra died after the father. His brother Haim, who accompanied him in his youth in the Chugim Marksistim, worked as a journalist for Davar in the late 1950s. Very far from the Marxism of his youth, Haim indulged in dog racing, expecting to get rich, and instead he became very poor. Five years ago he died, sick and lonely, in a poor room with a suitcase.
Except for Ygal, the only one alive is the elder brother Shimon, who all his life was a veterinary surgeon in Haifa. Of Chanie's six brothers one, Mike, was active with them in the Trotskyist movement in London, while the other, Reginald, progressed in Israel's foreign ministry, and was the deputy head of the Israeli delegation in the United Nations. Chanie and Ygal have visited Israel twice since they abandoned it. Cliff, without any longing, moved little about the country, 'Only I suddenly noticed that Jaffa had no Arabs, and I felt like a Jew who returned to Poland, to a place he lived in until the war, and discovered there were no Jews there.'
Chanie still works as a teacher, and Cliff travels by train three times a week, even now that he is 74 but healthier than he has ever been, to speak to workers or Trotskyists who are not demoralised. In the week I was in London he spoke in Islington, and the next day travelled to Manchester to speak to miners. Sitting in the train Gluckstein writes notes for the fourth volume of his biography of Trotsky. Rural England passes by the window, in front of his eyes, but is not seen. Cows, green fields, trees, farmhouses, factory chimneys smoking and a scrap of blue sky. If he raised his head it would remind him of the bright azure above Haifa.