Australasian Spartacist No. 233
Edward Cliffel, 1939-2017
Our comrade Ed Cliffel died in Orlando, Florida, at the age of 78. At his side were his wife, Linda, and daughter Lauren. Also, two comrades were sent to be with him in his final hours. Ed had been in New York assisting Workers Vanguard and the central party leadership when he became gravely ill and had to be hospitalized. He died on September 23, only three weeks after a diagnosis of aggressive metastatic cancer.
Edward James Cliffel was born in Cleveland on 28 August 1939 and grew up in a working-class family. In a 2012 interview, recorded as part of a younger comrade’s oral history project aimed at preserving the experiences and knowledge of senior party cadre, he described his family’s politics as “right-wing Catholic” and anti-Communist. He was moved by the injustice of his father’s life—just working and sleeping—and thought the working class deserved better. In 1957, he enrolled at Case Institute of Technology but left two years later after getting involved in other pursuits—mainly politics but also playing bridge. Having worked as a postal worker for a year and a half, Ed then returned to education, eventually earning a master’s degree in psychology. His professional knowledge and understanding of people were invaluable to the party in many situations. His job was psychology, but Ed’s profession was communist politics.
Ed was a leader of our organization for nearly four and a half decades. He was elected an alternate member of the Spartacist League Central Committee (CC) in 1977. He was a member of the Central Control Commission from 1980 to 1983. He became a full CC member in 1983 and served in that capacity until his death. Ed became a full member of the International Executive Committee (IEC) of the ICL beginning in 1992. He took a hard stand in defense of Leninism on the national question in the fight leading up to our Seventh International Conference earlier this year (see Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 65, Summer 2017). He actively participated in that conference, even as he was recovering from open-heart surgery, and became a consultative member of the IEC.
Ed joined the party in 1973 as part of a fusion process between the Spartacist League and the Cleveland Marxist Caucus (CMC). At 34 years old, he was older than most of those we were recruiting at that time. While many of those who burned with revolutionary fervor during those tumultuous years of anti-racist and antiwar struggles soon returned to the more comfortable options available to them, Ed was steadfast in placing his life in the service of his communist convictions.
The Cleveland Marxist Caucus was a loose collective of friends and sometime cothinkers who were moving toward systematic study of Marxism. The political origins of the CMC members lay in the breakup of the New Left, coming individually from the Cleveland Students for a Democratic Society, the Movement for a Democratic Society and Weatherman. Other members came out of the Cleveland women’s liberation movement.
In this period, the SL and its youth organization had a number of regroupments with local New Leftist groupings that were studying Marxism and becoming convinced of the need for a revolutionary party. One of these was the Buffalo Marxist Caucus, which had ties with and strongly influenced the CMC. Our fusion with the Buffalo Marxist Caucus in November 1972 paved the way for winning Ed and other CMC members, including his lifelong friend and comrade, Corky.
Ed authored the article for WV that described the CMC’s roots and its process of fusion:
“The group’s definitive break with New Leftism, opening the door to development on the basis of Marxism, thus came from the piecemeal recognition that isolated sectors of the oppressed, organized around struggles for immediate needs, do not automatically come to socialist conclusions. The group’s illusions as to the revolutionary potential of the lumpenized ‘community’ dwindled as the destructive effects of lumpenization were realized. Such struggles do not spontaneously come together and unite in socialist revolution...but must be united behind the class struggle of the workers through the agency of a mass, working-class vanguard party.”
—“Cleveland Workers Vanguard Committee Formed,” WV No. 17, March 1973
As a party member, Ed moved from Cleveland to New York in 1974. He played a leading role in the NYC local, including as education director, and wrote for the party press. Ed transferred to Chicago in March 1979 and, over time, became the central political leader of that local. A frequent and effective public spokesman, Ed was the SL’s presenter at a formal debate with the Chicago-based Sojourner Truth Organization in 1981 on “The Polish Events and the Russian Question.” The account in WV No. 275 (27 February 1981) includes extensive quotes from Ed’s remarks—he wiped the floor with his anti-Soviet opponent.
Comrade Ed possessed a keen understanding of the U.S. and its peculiarities, of the many ways in which black oppression has been and remains at the core of American history and political life. In a 1995 exchange with an official of the International Association of Machinists who defended the union bureaucracy’s chauvinist protectionism, Ed skewered the union tops:
“The class collaborationism of the union officialdom has sapped the organized strength of the working class. Nor is that all. The savage attacks on the living standards of working people and on the very ability of the poor and helpless to live, the slashing of health care at all levels, the McJobs and empty futures of youth, the rampant racist attacks and massive incarceration of blacks (a social agenda neatly fitting with that of the Ku Klux Klan) are, no less, the products of this treacherous collaboration. Those who you defend, with the bosses, have made this bed. Others, however, must sleep in it.”
—“Exchange on Boeing Strike,” WV No. 634, 1 December 1995
Ed was arguably WV’s best writer, and drafted many of our front-page articles. His prose was always eloquent and persuasive, drawing on a broad range of sources—from Shakespeare and the King James Bible to popular movies. He presented complex issues concisely and often with mordant humor. His knowledge was wide-ranging, as reflected in his incisive remarks in meetings and contributions to our internal bulletins.
To cite one example, Ed was instrumental in strengthening our programmatic understanding of the Chinese deformed workers state. In 1997, he initiated a discussion on a formulation that had appeared in Spartacist which defended “the right of independence for a Tibetan soviet republic.” Ed pointed out that there was no objective basis for an independent soviet Tibet, one of the most backward and inaccessible regions on earth. By offering such an illusory perspective, we were making a “curtsy toward ‘human-rights’-led counterrevolution,” i.e., the Tibetan “independence” movement of the Dalai Lama and his imperialist sponsors. Ed was right and was the author of an article correcting the line in the Spartacist piece. It was published in WV No. 695 (28 August 1998) under the headline “‘Free Tibet’: Rallying Cry for Counterrevolution in China.”
Ed was a presence, his booming laugh irresistible. He was a voracious reader of everything, from politics and history to science, poetry and literature, and enjoyed a wide range of music—classical, jazz, Sinatra, Meat Loaf. He thought outside the box and was one of the most creative, independent and critical Marxist thinkers in our party. Ed was always looking for political discussion and debate—usually over copious amounts of alcohol. His mind was brilliant and his spirit was kindly belligerent; his gusto for life was Falstaffian. He had a deep sense of the human condition. In his public political work, people of every background quickly opened up to him.
Ed’s death is a great loss to the ICL. It is an indescribable diminution of our collective knowledge, culture and political understanding. We extend our condolences to Linda, Ed’s companion for 45 years, and Lauren. Linda has told us that Ed used to say, “My one wish is to die a communist.” Indeed, Ed lived as he had wanted to and died with his boots on, in the trenches of the struggle for a communist future.
Memorial meetings for comrade Ed Cliffel were held in Chicago and New York.
Slightly adapted from Workers Vanguard No. 1119, 6 October, newspaper of the Spartacist League/U.S.