Tony Cliff — a life for revolution



Tony Cliff — a life for revolution

LONDON — Tony Cliff (real name Ygael Gluckstein), founder and central leader of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), died on April 10, aged 82. Cliff built what is today the largest revolutionary socialist party in the English-speaking world.

His boundless enthusiasm was infectious. While he wrote several books (the most important being his multi-volume biography of Lenin), it was in the punishing round of public meetings, convincing newcomers of the socialist message, that he was in his element.

Cliff was a person with complete contempt for bourgeois niceties, something obvious in his dress and extremely modest financial circumstances. As Paul Foot noted, he died without a penny in his pocket.

A teenager in Palestine, Cliff was won to Trotskyism in the 1930s. Based on his experiences there, he became a life-long opponent of Zionism and champion of the Palestinian people's national rights. Arriving in Britain after the second world war, he joined the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), the main Trotskyist group.

When Ted Grant — the later founder of Militant — came up with the idea that Russia was a "state capitalist" country and not a "degenerated workers state", the RCP gave Cliff the task of writing a rebuttal.

PictureDisappearing into a library for several months, Cliff emerged convinced that the theory of state capitalism was correct and produced the draft of the founding text of his tendency, State Capitalism in Russia. Expelled from the RCP, Cliff organised a small band of supporters, the Socialist Review group, and operated inside the British Labour Party.

State capitalism

The state capitalist theory was always ambiguous. Did it mean that the Soviet Union (and similar societies) embodied a variant of the same mode of production as the imperialist powers, or was it a different mode of production? What did it change about the attitude of revolutionaries?

During the Korean War (1950-3) the supporters of Cliff maintained a strict neutrality and blamed US imperialism and "Russian imperialism" equally for the war. In the light of recent revelations of US-backed incursions into North Korea before the war and US atrocities against Korean civilians during it, such a position seems outlandish.

When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, the SWP argued it was only a "move sideways" — neither a defeat nor a victory — which in the light of the huge collapse of the productive forces and impoverishment of the population in Russia and eastern Europe, seems equally bizarre.

Growing support

However, the state capitalist theory did not prevent Cliff's tendency from taking the correct position in the major clashes in world politics, for example by supporting the 1956 Hungarian anti-Stalinist revolution and backing the national liberation struggle of the Vietnamese people.

Cliff's group, now the International Socialists (IS), won supporters during the first wave of the British anti-nuclear movement from 1958-63. It published the only Marxist theoretical journal in Britain at the time that was worth reading (International Socialism). The IS also organised within the Labour Party's Young Socialist movement, although it was marginalised by the dominance of supporters of Gerry Healy's Socialist Labour League supporters.

In the mid-1960s, the IS broke from the tactic of "entrism" into the Labour Party. The move proved to be well-timed as by 1967 the student movement was in full swing, and the revolutionary-led Vietnam Solidarity Campaign was organising its first successful demonstrations. The IS won dozens of student activists.


The breakthrough year for the British far left was 1968, as events in France, Vietnam and Czechoslovakia galvanised the revolutionary tendencies. Cliff responded to the May-June general strike in France with a new edition of his long pamphlet on Rosa Luxemburg, and a pamphlet on the lessons of the May-June events in France, co-authored with Ian Birchall. These were the opening shots in his campaign to turn the IS into a "Leninist" organisation.

Cliff argued that in France only the Leninist tendencies — the Trotskyists in Voix Ouvriere (later Lutte Ouvriere) and the Fourth International's youth group the Jeunesses Commmiste Revolutionnaire — had made any impact, while the loosely organised anarchist and syndicalist groups had failed. A revolutionary group in its early stages, he argued, could be informally organised on a federalist basis, but a real national organisation needed discipline and leadership.

The pamphlet on Rosa Luxemburg had previously championed what it claimed was her more spontaneist and libertarian views on revolutionary organisation against Lenin's democratic centralism. The new edition changed the line 180 degrees, supporting Lenin against Luxemburg.

Many older IS stalwarts were outraged. In retrospect, we can see that this debate was falsely posed. Luxemburg's writings did stress the importance of working class spontaneity, but her practice in building the Spartakusbund and the German Communist Party reveals no major differences with Lenin on organisational questions. The IS's previous "Luxemburgism" was a myth, used to fight the "orthodox" Trotskyist groupings.

Bending the stick

What content was the IS's new "Leninism" going to have? Part of the answer was to be found in the first volume of Cliff's book on Lenin, which presented Lenin as a master of "bending the stick". It tended to portray Lenin as a master tactician whose theoretical positions at any one time were a function of his latest tactical moves. This inverted the relationship between theory and practice in Lenin's work — and was an all-too-obvious justification for sharp and unexplained tactical turns.

This approach could be seen in Cliff's explanation of the differences between Lenin and Luxemburg over Polish self-determination. Lenin's main task, Cliff argued, was to oppose Great Russian chauvinism and therefore he was right to champion Poland's independence from the Russian empire. Luxemburg's key task was to oppose reactionary Polish nationalism, so she was right to oppose self-determination. They were both right!

In the early 1970s, the IS grew rapidly. It was challenged only by the Fourth International's section, the International Marxist Group (IMG). As the IS dived into the major industrial struggles then breaking out, building a series of factory branches around its agitational paper Socialist Worker, internal conflicts saw one opposition group after another expelled or resign. Rumours of harsh internal methods spread through the left.

Leading figures like John Palmer, Stephen Marks and Peter Sedgwick found themselves outside the organisation. In the late 1970s, Cliff did not hesitate to unceremoniously boot out the whole of the Birmingham engineering workers' fraction for wanting to work in the Communist Party-dominated Broad Left, rather than SWP's (as the party was now named) "rank and file" group. In the early 1980s, the SWP lost dozens of cadres when it closed all its industrial rank and file groups and its "front" organisations, Women's Voice and the black group Flame.

Others on the left, particularly the IMG, took the lead in the 1970s in militant anti-racist and anti-fascist activity. In 1977, the SWP stole a march on everyone by launching the Anti-Nazi League, backed by leading sportspeople, musicians and Labour Party figures. Its carnivals and rock concerts mobilised hundreds of thousands of young people — and the SWP picked up members hand over fist.

But in the transition from the Socialist Review Group to the SWP, a very different concept of socialist organisation had come to the fore. The SWP became a by-word on the British left for dogmatism and sectarianism, for narrow-minded factionalism in dealing with others on the left, and for an approach to politics which prioritised paper sales and recruiting new members.

The SWP was accused of participating in or initiating campaigns and then dropping them when their usefulness as recruitment tools diminished. It gained a reputation for simplistic leftism, attempting to "out-militant" the rest of the left, irrespective of the circumstances.

However, the SWP's formidable propaganda machinery, and its near-monopoly in the student arena, enabled it to ignore the rest of the left and continue to grow.

International links

Another aspect of the SWP's politics which changed radically was its approach to the international organisation of revolutionaries. Against the Fourth International and others who attempted to organise international revolutionary tendencies, Cliff and his supporters claimed that a true revolutionary international could only be built by substantial revolutionary parties, with real national roots, coming together over time. The "roof" of an international, they claimed, could not be built before the "walls".

To this end, in the 1970s, the IS/SWP engaged in dialogue with a number of revolutionary organisations in Europe. Extensive discussions were conducted with the Italian organisation Avanguardia Operia (Workers Vanguard), which had established factory groups in several parts of Italy, especially Milan. A similar relationship with the French Lutte Ouvriere (Workers Struggle) was eventually dumped in favour of a link with a group which had split from the LCR.

During the 1974-5 Portuguese revolution, links were built with the ultra-left Revolutionary Proletarian Party-Proletarian Brigades. When this group became involved in the leftist putsch which ended the revolution, it was defended by the SWP.

All these discussions came to nothing. In response, Cliff and the SWP turned to building their own international political tendency, the International Socialists, whose affiliates were mainly in English-speaking countries.

The relationship with these groups was one of simple authority — the British SWP decided, the rest did as they were told. The result was a series of splits, as local leaders rejected the right of London to decide everything. The SWP had locked itself into an unworkable method for constructing a new revolutionary socialist international.

Today, with the semi-collapse of Stalinism, new leftist tendencies from a multitude of backgrounds continue to emerge. Revolutionary socialists must engage in a dialogue with these currents, as nothing about their evolution is certain.

Internal democracy

A dialogue with emerging revolutionary, or potentially revolutionary, tendencies cannot be conducted by ultimatum, or an attempt to force them into a pre-defined orthodoxy or unquestioning loyalty to a party in an imperialist centre.

If the SWP wants to break out of its international isolation and become part of the growing debate on the international left, it has to constructively engage in a dialogue with other revolutionary currents and admit some obvious facts: there is no one version of Marxism that is absolutely correct; there is no one tendency which has the monopoly of the truth; and there is no one left tendency — national or international — which is the sole repository of revolutionary Marxism. Relations between revolutionaries internationally must reflect these facts.

In the building of a revolutionary party, internal political differences are inevitable. Internal debate, and from time to time organised minorities, are vital for an organisation to successfully orientate itself. Gramsci said the party, as the historical memory of the working class, was a "collective intellectual".

To do its job properly, a revolutionary party's members have to have the space to think independently and to be part of the collective effort in defining the way forward at every stage — especially when major strategic or tactical turns are taken. The apparently cumbersome business of internal meetings, conferences and the publication of discussion bulletins — the whole time-consuming business of internal democracy — is not a diversion but a vital part of forming cadres.

If a division of labour is established in which leaders decide, then issue instructions, the life of the organisation becomes impoverished, the political level declines, and people who want to think for themselves drift away. The SWP under Cliff embodied this approach.

'Ourselves alone'

The SWP has paid a price for its "ourselves alone" policy towards the rest of the left. While the past 15 years as seen the collapse of Britain's Communist Party, the decline of Militant and the demise of the IMG, the SWP's political influence is much smaller than its membership size would suggest. The emergence of the Marxist-led Scottish Socialist Party, with a much clearer and audacious attitude to left unity, has made the SWP marginal to the key developments in the most politically advanced part of Britain.

There are signs that the SWP is trying to reposition itself. For the first time in more than 20 years it is engaged in a major election campaign in London, through the broad London Socialist Alliance. A dynamic of unity has galvanised and enthused the campaign, including among SWP members.

Tony Cliff built a substantial party which has been unbendingly hostile to capitalism, to bureaucracy in the workers' movement and to all forms of exploitation and privilege.

This is a formidable achievement. If those qualities are to be built upon, and the potential embodied in the thousands of SWP members maximised, the party needs to break from its attitude of knee-jerk hostility to the self-organised movements of the oppressed and to the rest of the left in Britain, as well as towards other revolutionary trends internationally.

If the SWP fails to do so, both it and the rest of the left will be worse off.