Chanie Rosenberg, along with her husband Tony Cliff, were founder members of what is now the Socialist Workers Party.
‘Becoming a revolutionary lit a beacon which has shone on me all the time. My life has been spent working towards that beacon. I still have a lot to look forward to. I don’t mean my 100th birthday—but that there should be socialism somewhere in the world before I die.
I’m very optimistic, with what’s happened in Egypt and the other Arab countries and in Greece.
I think the strikes today are brilliant. I feel that the working class is listening better to our ideas than it has been in the past.
I was born in 1922 to a Jewish family in South Africa. It was the most racist country.
When white people read in the paper that someone had died they would check if it was a black person or a white person. For blacks they reacted as if an animal had died.
I was 11 when Hitler came to power in Germany. That background made most of the Jews in South Africa Zionist, including my family. At the time I agreed with them.
One day I got a letter from the Zionist headquarters saying that Hitler wanted to kill all the Jews. We laughed and said it was impossible.
When I was 15 years old a woman came from a kibbutz in Palestine. She spoke to us about the kibbutz movement. She said she was a socialist and I became a Zionist socialist.
About a dozen of us moved to Palestine to live on a kibbutz in 1944, while the war was still on.
I found the life absolutely wonderful—no money at all, you just do your work and the money goes to the kibbutz. All jobs were rotated, so everybody looked after the kids and worked in the kitchens.
I visited another kibbutz that I thought was brilliant. It made the best food and there was always music. But there was one room that I wasn’t allowed in and no one would tell me why.
Eventually somebody whispered in my ear, “That’s where they keep the guns.”
So that lovely kibbutz had the guns to get Palestinian land. At that point, I knew that I had become an anti-Zionist. I couldn’t stay there, politically, even though I loved the life. So I left.
Becoming a revolutionary
Chanie met the founder of the Socialist Workers Party, Tony Cliff—then using his real name, Ygael Gluckstein—in Palestine.
A speaker came to address us at the kibbutz. He spoke in Hebrew. I understood Hebrew better than anyone else there, but even I couldn’t follow a word he said.
He’d stop and say, “Any questions? Anyone want to say anything? Come on, you’re wasting time.”
Nobody said anything. This was Tony Cliff.
After I decided to leave the kibbutz, Cliff called me to Tel Aviv. This would have been 1945. As soon as I arrived I was swept up in his revolutionary Trotskyist group’s work.
We worked and worked for three days. And then I said, “Can’t we go for a walk or something?”
He said, “What, and waste time?”
But, we went for a walk. And after that we stayed together.
Eventually, Cliff decided to leave Palestine because he was writing a book on the history and politics of Egypt and needed access to a better library. He wanted to use the British Museum.
Coming to Britain
In Britain they joined the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party. After the war the group split in an argument over the new “communist” states. Cliff formed the Socialist Review Group in 1951, around the theory that Eastern Europe was state capitalist. This was the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party.
What I remember about that first meeting is that there were 40 people and we ate Marmite sandwiches.
At the second meeting we had eight. Subsequently we had six or something like that. And it was from there that we grew.
Fighting fascists, 1947
Hackney’s biggest market, Ridley Road, was closed on Sundays, so whoever got there earliest in the morning could rally the crowds for the rest of the day.
Sometimes Oswald Mosley and his fascists captured the rostrum, other times the left did.
One Sunday thousands of protesters came to oppose Mosley—a large number of Jews and all the left wing parties. The fascists tried to enter the market.
We pelted them with rotting fruit and vegetables. The attack was so heavy that all their ducking couldn’t save them from being drenched. The lorry turned round and left.
That was the last time the fascists tried to capture the market rostrum.
We had to get married so Cliff could be connected to my good passport. We were married in Palestine.
The wedding took place on the pavement because we didn’t have the money to buy a room. Poor people married on the pavement.
We bought some wine. The rabbi put it to our lips but then he kept the bottle!
Earning a living
When the couple arrived in Britain, Cliff had problems with his immigration status and was not allowed to work.
They were desperate for teachers. I’d done a Hebrew degree in South Africa. And if you had a degree I could become a teacher. I knew nothing about the education system in England.
They asked me to teach infants. I said, “I hardly know what an infant is.”
They said, “Have you got two legs to stand on?”
So I became a teacher. Still, it was two years before I considered myself an infant teacher. I had attended lectures on all aspects of infant education.
When I started teaching I was pregnant and I was getting bigger and bigger. I hadn’t told them I was married because married women were not allowed to teach.
I became an activist in the National Union of Teachers (NUT). And we decided, as left wing NUT members, to form a rank and file teacher group which had a journal of its own.
This was very active. Subsequently there were rank and file groups elsewhere.
Teachers changed from being “ragged trousered professionals”, where many had two jobs, to today where women teachers are among the best off women workers.
Three full time jobs
I ran the family, I was a full time teacher and I was a full time secretary of the NUT group.
Cliff helped with the kids. But he was over-busy studying and writing and meeting workers.
He was terribly busy and I was three full time people in one. That was how we lived.
Fighting fascists, 1978
We used to do a stall in Brick Lane in east London on Sundays. The fascists sold their paper nearby at the same time. One Sunday people came up to tell me, “They’re calling for Chanie Rosenberg”, which meant they wanted to find and attack me.
When we started going home I recognised one of the fascists across the street. I don’t know whether he recognised me or not but he started crossing the road.
My reaction was immediate.
As we were passing one another I put my hand to his head and pulled his hair—so hard some of it came away. This I proudly showed to my comrades.’