Tony Cliff A Marxist For His Time
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TONY CLIFF was born in 1917, five months before the October revolution in Russia that toppled the provisional government and brought workers to power. He died in April 2000, five months after tens of thousands of American workers and environmentalists shut down the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle and kicked off the anti-capitalist movement. They are fitting bookends of a life spent in the struggle. Ian Birchall’s new book, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time, is about the years in between.
As Birchall rightly describes, Cliff’s legacy is certainly a body of theory that renewed Marxists’ understanding of the world. But just as importantly, it is also embodied in “an organisation of living people”. Cliff’s life work was the building of the British Socialist Workers’ Party and the international grouping, the International Socialist Tendency, of which Solidarity is a part.
Cliff was born Ygal Gluckstein to a Jewish Zionist family in Palestine. It was Zionism’s commitment to Arab exclusion that instilled in Cliff a lifelong hatred of racism. In a school essay he wrote, “It is so sad there are no Arabs in the school”. His teacher wrote “Communist!” on the page. Birchall says “many years later Cliff recorded his deep gratitude to that teacher who had pointed him towards his future.”
Cliff became a Trotskyist after reading Trotsky’s argument for a united front to fight fascism in Germany. He was jailed in 1939 for producing a leaflet agitating against the Second World War. It argued that rather than being a “good war” against fascism, the war was driven by imperialist competition between major powers that workers had no interest in dying for.
Developing as a Trotskyist in Palestine was a challenging task; Trotsky himself rarely wrote on the region. Cliff’s first theoretical article, in 1935, was an attempt to apply Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution to Egypt.
Birchall argues it was Cliff’s experience in Palestine that taught him how to think independently instead of relying on orthodoxy. It was a talent he took with him when he moved to Britain in 1946, right into a crisis inside the Trotskyist movement.
Heart of the beast
Trotsky, murdered by Stalin’s agents in 1940, had bequeathed to the Trotskyist groups in his Fourth International both “basic socialist principles” but also a series of false predictions. As Cliff later put it, with characteristic humour, it was like they were, “trying to find their way around the Paris Metro with a map of the London tube.”
Birchall describes how Cliff’s experience in London helped him see that Trotsky’s prediction that capitalism would go into crisis after the Second World War was wrong: “Children didn’t get rickets anymore. This helped me realise that the final crisis was not around the corner.” Later Cliff and others developed the theory of the permanent arms economy, to explain how the military spending associated with the Cold War arms race was fueling the post-war boom.
The debate over the nature of the Soviet Union was particularly important. Trotsky had called Russia a “degenerated workers’ state”, a socialist regime with bureaucratic distortions. But Russian tanks occupying Eastern Europe during the Second World War had established mirror images of Russia, so-called “deformed workers’ states”.
While debates raged about these “workers’ states”, Cliff began to develop the theory of state capitalism. Cliff realised that the idea that Russian tanks could establish socialism completely contradicted Marx’s vision that “the emancipation of the working class will be the act of the working class itself.”
He went back to Engels’ warning that socialism should not be confused with state ownership, and Lenin’s pamphlet, State and Revolution, in which Lenin attacked the idea that socialism was about taking over the existing state.
Cliff showed that in Russia, as the revolution was strangled in the 1920s, a new ruling class led by Stalin took over. Workers experienced poverty and repression as Russia pushed to compete militarily with the West and catch up economically. In his book, The Nature of Stalinist Russia, Cliff argued that Russia and its Eastern European satellite states were state capitalist and a genuine socialist revolution was needed (again) in Russia just as much as anywhere else.
Birchall argues Cliff’s state capitalism theory enabled him to go back to the essence of Marxism: the self-activity of the working class. This was particularly important in helping Cliff analyse the revolutions in China in 1949 and Cuba in 1959.
Trotsky’s theory of “permanent revolution” argued that only workers could throw out foreign imperialists in colonial countries. But China and Cuba’s revolutions had both succeeded in kicking out foreign capitalists. Most of the Left mistakenly concluded that these regimes were socialist.
But in his book, Mao’s China and later his essay Deflected Permanent Revolution, Cliff showed these revolutions were based on peasant armies and the intelligentsia who established state capitalist regimes based on the Russian model.
Whether the working class led a revolution was not inevitable—that depended on the level of organisation and political consciousness. If that was missing, there would be no socialist revolution, but a third force could successfully wage an independence struggle.
Cliff’s contributions were controversial. He and his supporters broke with the British section of the Trotskyist Fourth International. Cliff wrote that the Socialist Review Group (SRG) had eight members at its foundation in 1950. Birchall jokes this is perhaps the first time a Trotskyist group ever underestimated their membership, which he thinks was closer to 20. With such a small organisation, “great attention had to be given to every member”. Cliff said every comrade should be treated like “gold dust”.
Birchall recalls how many comrades were recruited over hours and sometimes weeks and months of patient political discussion. Cliff’s books and speaking tours played a huge role in recruiting young supporters, as Birchall explains: “His breadth of knowledge of the Marxist classics, and of current developments throughout the world, was combined with an ability to explain things simply, to sum up a complex problem with an image, a joke, or an anecdote.”
While the group’s activity was confined by its small size, they joined the Labour Party to relate to workers and a young left milieu. Birchall describes how “minutes of the Birmingham branch show regular discussion of intervention in the Trades Council, Labour Party and Union branches.”
While many other groups were confused about how socialism could be brought about—by the Labor Party, by Russian tanks, peasants or students—the SRG understood the working class must be at the centre. That meant they could orient correctly and build up an analysis of the world that fitted. A striking example of this is a leaflet the group produced in 1956. On one side was a denunciation of Russia’s invasion of Hungary, a revolutionary upsurge against Stalinism. On the other was a call to action over the UK’s invasion of Egypt, urging “INDUSTRIAL ACTION – STRIKES – DEMONSTRATIONS”.
The 1960s brought important new opportunities to grow as student struggles took off. In 1967, students from the group, now called the International Socialists (IS), led an occupation at the London School of Economics and there were mobilisations against the Vietnam War in 1968.
Cliff and the group were learning the lessons of struggles overseas. The general strike in France in 1968, which Cliff believed represented a “pre-revolutionary situation”, nixed by the thoroughly reformist Communist Party, brought home to him the need to turn the group, into a party that could seriously influence events.
Their orientation to the working class also meant a small “ramshackle” group was able to recruit a small base in the British working class.
In 1970, Cliff, along with Colin Barker, wrote an important book on productivity deals, The Employers’ Offensive: Productivity Deals and How to Fight Them, based on interviews with over 200 workers. Cliff took seriously the idea that socialists do not simply “teach” workers but also learn from them (as Marx asked, “who educates the educator?”). Thousands of copies were sold.
The early 1970s was a high point of working class struggle. In 1973, the Tory government jailed five dockers. The IS joined the pickets. Strike action stopped the national newspapers. The trade union leaders were pushed to threaten a general strike and the dockers were freed.
The group grew from the hundreds to a few thousand over the next decade and renamed itself the Socialist Workers’ Party in 1977. Cliff called these years “the best years of my life”.Between 1975 and 1979, Cliff developed his analysis of the party in his four volumes series, Lenin.
Theory and practice
Birchall’s book is meticulously detailed and discusses every dispute, controversy, criticism and split with generosity. It is not a hagiography—he discusses Cliff’s impatience and sometimes disregard for other’s feelings, for example. But these seem the flipside to what made Cliff such a brilliant revolutionary: his single-minded commitment to building a revolutionary organisation and his willingness to look reality in the face.
Cliff’s intellectual contributions, such as his theories of state capitalism and deflected permanent revolution, meant he was able to build an organisation with some influence. His many books, including volumes on Lenin, Trotsky and a book on Rosa Luxemburg, are useful not just for their detail and understanding, but because they mine the lessons of past struggle for today.
Cliff was known for his mixed metaphors and odd sayings. There is one that Birchall repeatedly comes back to that gives you a sense of what drove Cliff: the challenge of “raising theory to the level of practice”.
Understanding Cliff’s legacy should equip us all the better for meeting that challenge in our fight against capitalism in the 21st Century.