Tony Cliff, 1917-2000

Against the Current, No. 88, September/ October 2000

David McNally

THE 1930s SAW a number of truly outstanding young revolutionaries rally to Trotsky’s alternative to the Stalinism that dominated the international left: CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Ernest Mandel, Hal Draper, to name some of the most important. Tony Cliff, who died on April 10 of this year at age 82, ranks among this impressive group.

Born Ygael Gluckstein in 1917 to Zionist parents in Palestine, Cliff came to Trotskyism as a teenager. Immigrating to Britain in the 1940s, he would become for half a century the main leader of the British Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and its predecessors, the Socialist Review Group in the 1950s, and the International Socialists throughout the 1960s and most of the 1970s.

As well as leaving behind a sizable revolutionary organization, Cliff is survived by his activist wife Chanie Rosenberg, and by his four lively, socialist children, Elana, Donny, Anna and Danny.

The political tendency that Tony Cliff led originated in debates at the end of the Second World War, growing out of disorientation over the failure of Trotsky’s predictions, made toward the end of his life, to the effect that the world war of the 1940s would usher in a revolutionary crisis: Capitalism would sink deeper into depression, and Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union would collapse.

In fact, western capitalism embarked on a quarter-century-long boom, and Stalin’s regime carved out a new sphere of influence in eastern Europe. As they struggled to sort out the meaning of these events, some leaders of the British Trotskyist group, the Revolutionary Communist Party, broke from Trotsky’s analysis of Russia as a degenerated workers’ state and pronounced it a state capitalist regime.

The task of rebutting this analysis was given to Cliff. Taking some months to read and reflect on the question, Cliff emerged with a weighty document — later published as Russia, A Marxist Analysis and now known as State Capitalism in Russia — which, rather than exposing the heresy he had been sent to refute, embraced it. Shortly thereafter, Cliff and his supporters were expelled from the organization.

Cliff’s about-face on the nature of Stalinism is testimony to one of his great strengths throughout the difficult years of the 1950s and 1960s: a terrific ability to break from orthodoxy in order to critically reexamine old positions. During this period, he engaged in a thorough rethinking of a series of “orthodox” Trotskyist positions.

Against claims that capitalism was in its “death agony,” he developed, along with his comrade and brother-in-law Michael Kidron, an account of the role of permanent military spending in stabilizing western capitalism.

In defiance of arguments that workers were in a revolutionary mood but merely lacked the right leadership, he examined the tenacity of working-class reformism. And against doctrinaire applications of Lenin’s ostensible “model” of the revolutionary party, he returned to the libertarian Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg, publishing a short book on her life and legacy in 1958.

International Socialism

Cliff’s organization of the 1950s, the Socialist Review Group, was distinguished by an open-minded, libertarian socialism. Cliff endlessly poked fun at the pomp and pretense of tiny, marginal groups with their endless list of central committees, secretariats, and international leaderships.

He argued for modesty and realistic self-assessment while condemning as “substitutionist” the other-worldly claims of small groups to be the “vanguard” of working classes who have never heard of them. And he insisted on the need for revolutionaries to learn from real struggles rather than preach at people, especially emphasizing the need to attend closely to the actual struggles and forms of organization of rank-and-file workers.

At the height of Stalinism’s influence on the international left, the Socialist Review Group held to the revolutionary democracy at the core of Marxism by insisting that socialism could only come about through the self-emancipation of the working class.

Refusing to treat any of the Marxist “masters” dogmatically, it undertook a critical assessment of Trotsky’s own writings. And on questions of socialist organizing, it adopted a uniquely flexible, open-minded approach.

The group and its successor, the International Socialists (IS), were thus well-equipped to creatively assess political developments and events without clinging to doctrinaire positions from earlier stages of the Trotskyist movement.

Beginning in the early 1960s, the IS began to reap the benefits of this approach, entering more than a decade of steady growth fired by its ability to relate effectively to four developments: first, the emergence of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the early `60s; second, a new wave of unofficial strikes, often led by shop stewards organizations in the mid- to late-’60s; third, the great student and anti-war upsurges associated with the New Left which peaked in 1968; and, finally, a huge burst of militant, mass strikes involving dockers, miners, building workers and others in the early 1970s.

Over this period, Cliff was at the center of reshaping and transforming a group that grew from under a hundred members in the early-1960s to several thousand members (a majority of them trade unionists) by about 1974.

In an unending flow of speeches, pamphlets and books, Cliff’s great talents as a political analyst, an untiring organizer, and a hugely infectious public speaker guided the emergence of arguably the most important far-left organization in the advanced capitalist countries.

It is unlikely that anyone else on the British Marxist left could have achieved as much. Yet it must be said that this transformation also came with real losses. Cliff concluded by the late 1960s that his loose, libertarian organization of the 1960s had to be tightened and hardened — and quickly, he argued, or the chance to build a revolutionary party would be lost.

While organizational changes were clearly in order, Cliff’s methods involved a growing intolerance for debate as an indulgence of those who weren’t serious about “the real tasks” of party-building. A large number of splits and expulsions took place over these years — in some cases involving the best-rooted trade union militants of the IS — as Cliff and the leading group around him moved against dissidents and critics of all stripes.

Not only were people of considerable talent and dedication lost, but an organization that had thrived for its democratic culture, open-mindedness and non-sectarianism became increasingly closed, rigid and allergic to dissent.

The books Cliff wrote after the mid-1970s reflected these developments. His four volume biographies of Lenin (1975-79) and Trotsky (1989-93), while full of insights, reflect an increasingly doctrinaire attempt to construct a party canon that emphasized the SWP (and its international groups) as the sole heir of revolutionary Marxism.

The spirit of critical, inquiring analysis that had characterized his writings for the twenty-five years or so after 1950 was increasingly displaced by an effort to offer up his version of a Leninist-Trotskyist orthodoxy which was to be the guide to all problems of the present and future. In his own way, Cliff had reverted to a variant of the “orthodox Trotskyism” he had earlier rejected.

Compounding these shortcomings was Cliff’s hostility to many of the social movements that emerged in the 1970s, particularly feminism. This hostility resulted in arguably his weakest work, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation (1984), which often descends into the crudest kinds of class reductionism, and which compares poorly with the best works of classical Marxism devoted to analyzing women’s oppression.

Perhaps because they rose farther than most, developing for a period a small but significant implantation within the British working class, and because they preserved their organization throughout the 1980s (although in weakened form) while many other groups disintegrated, Cliff and his supporters have been especially reluctant to concede their failures.

Rather than confronting current problems in a critical spirit, they have been content to repeat formulas. Since 1993, for instance, they have insisted that we are living through “the 1930s in slow motion” (and an attendant mass radicalization) — an analysis which, given its obvious flaws, has seriously disoriented their groups in many countries, producing a series of splits and organizational meltdowns.

Yet for all these criticisms, it must be acknowledged that Cliff’s difficulties speak to collective failings of the entire revolutionary left. Across the board, revolutionary groups have floundered when it comes to building sizable organizations with a real implantation in labor and social movements. And this remains true of the SWP, even if it has managed to maintain larger numbers than most.

Cliff’s errors in recent years were part of the general frustration bred by the disappointments that followed the great excitement of 1968-75, a period in which the IS distinguished itself as one of the most creative forces on the far-left. If Cliff failed in important respects, so, it must be said, have we all.

In the final analysis, the Marxist left has been stronger for the persistence of those pioneers who came to Trotskyism in the 1930s, and especially for those who helped connect a new generation of radicals with some of the best traditions of international socialism.

Tony Cliff was among the most determined and uncompromising of these figures, and one who contributed importantly to the revolutionary left for more than fifty years. That we will have to go beyond a number of the limits and shortcomings of his legacy should come as little surprise. That he gave us much to work with and build upon will be his enduring contribution.

ATC 88, September-October 2000