Seizing the time: Tony Cliff and 1968

Issue: 118

Ian Birchall

Revolutionaries do not determine events, nor do they predict them.1 Lenin was surprised by both 1905 and 1917. What revolutionaries can do is understand events and develop a strategy to take advantage of them. “All revolutions in history have begun spontaneously. None have ended so”.2 At a time when the momentous events of 1968 are being commemorated, it is interesting to look at how a revolutionary socialist, Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and its predecessors, responded to them.

The events of 1968 developed at a hectic pace. For the revolutionary left it was the most important turning point since 1945. The Tet offensive in Vietnam showed that the world’s biggest military power was vulnerable, producing a political crisis in the US in which Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were killed. The Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia marked the end of a monolithic international Communist movement. Student revolts erupted around the world. The Ford sewing machinists’ strike for equal pay launched the women’s movement in Britain, and in Northern Ireland the civil rights movement was born.3

In Britain possibilities for the far left had been improving for some time. A Labour government, elected with high hopes in 1964 and re-elected with a massive majority in 1966, had alienated much of its support with policies that attacked the working class, and slavish support for the Americans in Vietnam.

In October 1967 and March 1968 there were two large, militant demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Many of those involved were students, and as the Labour government rapidly expanded higher education to modernise British capitalism, many students were drawn towards a radical critique of society. A long occupation at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1967, protesting at the appointment as director of an active supporter of the racist regime in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), marked the beginning of the student movement in Britain. There were various student actions in the first months of 1968.

Another symptom of the growing ferment on the left was the publication in 1967 of the May Day Manifesto in the names of Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams and Edward Thompson.4 This reflected a real revulsion towards the Labour government’s policies. Its contradictions were neatly summed up by Peter Sedgwick:

So far the manifesto campaign does not appear to be on its way to selecting revolutionaries, or possible revolutionaries. Several of the sponsors I know to be zombies or faint-hearts who have no intention whatsoever of carrying through the manifesto’s purported aims. Whatever the future of its ambitions, however, the manifesto will remain the most readily available and on the whole best written summary of Wilsonism’s crimes. It deserves its excellent sale.5

But the milieu open to serious socialist ideas was expanding.

For socialists in Britain two events in 1968 were paramount. In April Tory MP Enoch Powell made a viciously racist speech predicting violence—a river “foaming with much blood”. Various groups of workers, including traditionally militant London dockers, took strike action in his support. This was a tremendous blow to left wing activists; as one wrote at the time:

I remember Nigel walking into the room with this Evening Standard headline… We were just completely shocked numb… You suddenly realised how little influence the left really had, how the roots of the political organisations like the Communist Party had been rotting in the soil. How pathetic the squabbling between groups all was. Just how urgent things had become… I seemed to spend the next few days leafleting solidly and I’ll never forget the look on the faces of the Pakistani postmen when they read the leaflets and found out they weren’t fascist. For those few days after Powell, they were petrified. But so was I.6

This alarming prospect was followed almost immediately by the news that just over the channel in France some ten million workers had stopped work, many of them occupying their workplaces. For a generation to whom even the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was no more than a childhood memory, this created an unprecedented situation, in which ideas like “revolution” and “working class power” stopped being items of abstract debate and became realities on their television screens.

It was also the occasion of the re-emergence of the revolutionary left. Within the French student milieu there were a number of revolutionary groupings—Maoists, Trotskyists and anarchists. They were small in size (what the Communist Party dismissively referred to as groupuscules), with a total membership of at best a few thousand. But in a situation of rising struggle they set differences aside, and were sufficiently strong to attract public attention. In June the government banned 11 of the groups.

The stark juxtaposition of these two events showed enormous dangers and great possibilities.

Tony Cliff (Ygael Gluckstein) was born in Palestine, and spent years trying, without much success, to build an internationalist, anti-Zionist organisation there. He came to Britain in 1946 and in 1950 formed the Socialist Review Group. In the 1950s he wrote books on state capitalism in Russia, China and Eastern Europe. In the early 1960s the organisation, now renamed the International Socialism (IS) group, grew through entry work in the Labour Party Young Socialists, and counted its members in hundreds rather than tens. When the Labour government’s policies produced a rising level of industrial struggle, Cliff and Colin Barker wrote a book called Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards,7 which looked to the emergence of a socialist movement out of the localised struggles of trade unionists.

Cliff quickly grasped the importance of the emerging student movement. As John Rose, an LSE student in 1967, recalls, Cliff “began spending a lot of time talking to student activists” and spoke at a teach-in about the 1967 Middle East war. Rose, a Zionist, was convinced and joined IS, as did a number of other LSE students.8

At the beginning of 1968 Cliff had just turned 50, an age at which many tend to become less energetic and more set in their ways. IS had some 447 members. It was the biggest organisation Cliff had ever belonged to.9 It was a tiny group, yet without the base and the orientation established before 1968, the breakthrough could not have taken place—if IS had begun the year with only 200 members, it might have ended up with few more.

It is highly unlikely that Cliff had any inkling of the events that would shake the world in the coming 12 months. But the central commitment that united his work on state capitalism to his more recent writings on shop stewards was an unswerving belief in the self-emancipation of the working class. It was this that enabled him to orientate himself amid the flood of unexpected events.

The response to the Powell speech revealed the weakness of the British left, what an editorial in International Socialism described as “the vacuum on the left”.10 The Labour Party had made so many concessions over the question of immigration that when racism began to get out of control it had no response. For a fortnight after the Powell speech Wilson and other Labour leaders remained silent, offering no answer to Powell. The only comments came from David Ennals, a junior minister at the Home Office. The Communist Party, which had some influence in the docks, failed to use it to fight Powellism. Danny Lyons, a leading CP militant, brought along two clergymen, one Catholic and one Protestant, to try and dissuade dockers from striking.

IS, which had been active in support of the 1967 dock strike, had just one docker, Terry Barrett, in membership, but he made every effort to argue the point in class terms. Cliff recalled discussing with Barrett late into the night as to the best way to respond to the situation.11 Barrett distributed a leaflet to dockers putting the class case against Powell:

Who is Enoch Powell? He is a right wing Tory opportunist who will stop at nothing to help his party and his class…What does he believe in?… Mass Sackings in the Docks. Again and again he has argued that the docks are “grossly overmanned”.

The Powell speech led to a series of new initiatives on the part of IS. The first was an appeal for left unity. A leaflet distributed with the May issue of Labour Worker was headed “The Urgent Challenge of Fascism”.12 This called for the establishment of a united organisation on the basis of four points of principle:

  1. Opposition to imperialism; for the victory of all genuine national liberation movements.

  2. Opposition to racism in all its forms and to controls on immigration.

  3. Opposition to state control of trade unions; support for all progressive strikes.

  4. Workers’ control of society and industry as the only alternative to fascism.

The context of the unity proposals was well summed up a few years later by Duncan Hallas, a veteran Trotskyist who himself rejoined IS in 1968:

The situation in 1968 was that there was a big movement of youth, especially student youth, towards socialist politics and this was given organisational form by the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC). There was a reasonable possibility that if a united revolutionary socialist organisation could be established it would be possible to draw in some thousands of anti-Vietnam War demonstrators. In particular, it was hoped that the IMG13 (then only two years old) would agree to unite with IS. These two organisations had between them the dominant position in the VSC and, if united, could probably have converted it into a revolutionary socialist organisation of some substance. There were also prospects that, given the impetus generated by such a unification, various New Left May Day Manifesto elements and unaffiliated left wingers could be drawn in.

Such a unified organisation, overwhelmingly student in composition and “libertarian” and voluntaristic in sentiment, would have had powerful ultra-left tendencies. The perspective was of a long, hard fight inside it for marxist politics and a working class orientation. Splits would have been inevitable. These costs were considered acceptable in the circumstances, given the opportunity and the urgent need to break out of small group politics.14

The IMG did not agree to unity,15 and in terms of organisations the appeal achieved little.16 But it was of great importance in the development of the IS group. It established IS as the group which recognised the urgency of the situation, which wanted a united, non-sectarian, interventionist organisation, and which therefore became a pole of attraction for many activists looking for a political alternative, and to whom the debates which had divided the Trotskyist movement over the previous 20 years seemed relatively unimportant. It was undoubtedly a major factor in IS’s rapid recruitment during the year.

Cliff realised that opportunities had to be grasped, and grasped very quickly. He travelled tirelessly, speaking at meeting after meeting, trying to convey to his audiences the urgency of the situation. At some meetings he spoke together with Chris Pallis, the leading figure in the Solidarity grouping, who had published a remarkable eyewitness account of the events in Paris.17

At a meeting in Hornsey in north London on 29 May (the day after the start of a six-week occupation at Hornsey College of Art) Cliff told a large audience that capitalism and trade unions could no longer coexist. Perhaps it would be five years, perhaps it would be seven, before the final confrontation. He concluded, “If I am wrong, I see you in the concentration camps”.18

Over the next weeks, as the French Communist Party and the trade union leaders succeeded in liquidating the strike movement, he modified his analysis somewhat. Yet we should not dismiss Cliff’s warning with the complacent wisdom of hindsight. Concentration camps were not on the agenda for Hornsey, but just three years later, in 1971, internment would be introduced in Northern Ireland. In five years time the Chilean coup would show just how ruthless a threatened capitalism could be.

Cliff also seems to have gone through a philosophical conversion, though with his distaste for philosophical argument he did not make it explicit. Previously he had tended to stress the deterministic nature of Marxism. Now there was a shift to voluntarism. As he put it, “History, that old horse, does nothing”.19 Change depended on human action. He wrote, “If the study of history—even the most recent—were enough by itself to solve political questions, social democracy would have died a long time ago, and so would Stalinism. Alas, this is not how history works. And there is nothing more foreign to socialism than fatalism”.20

Recognising that a more interventionist approach needed a different form of organisation, Cliff proposed that IS should adopt a democratic centralist structure. He argued the point in a short document entitled “Notes on Democratic Centralism” circulated in June 1968.21 He began by observing that IS had moved in recent years from being a purely propaganda organisation, which sought to win a small audience for its ideas, to an agitational organisation, able to intervene in the class struggle. “A revolutionary combat organisation—especially if it becomes a party—needs a democratic centralist structure.” Cliff justified this with historical references to the First International and the Bolshevik Party. A federal structure was “unstable and inefficient”, since “a revolutionary combat organisation faces the need for tactical decisions—daily and hourly—hence the need for great centralisation”.

The actual organisational proposals were modest. The most controversial element was the insistence on tighter discipline: “All decisions of conferences and between conferences of the executive are binding on all members of the organisation.”

The IS group had traditionally been fairly lax organisationally. In the 18 years since the founding of the Socialist Review Group there had been just three expulsions. Where there was little intervention, and hence no experience to be evaluated, there was no value in a centralised structure. There was a legitimate reaction against the vanguardism and hyperactivism of IS’s main rival on the far left, the Socialist Labour League.

The document was short—just over 1,000 words. Jim Higgins, at that time one of Cliff’s closest allies, later argued that it was inadequate for its purpose in introducing such a radical change.22 There is some truth in this. Cliff had, quite justifiably, a considerable faith in his own ability to convince the organisation, but perhaps he underestimated the difficulties. Among the older membership libertarian ideas were quite deeply implanted, and most of the new members had come from the anti-authoritarian milieu of student struggles. Undoubtedly Cliff was impatient. He was quite right to be so, for the opportunities offered by the unfolding situation were immense, and there was no time to waste. Yet as Cliff himself later noted, even amid the dramatic events of 1917 Lenin stressed the need for patient explanation.23

Cliff’s main contribution to the understanding of 1968 and the reorientation of the organisation came in the pamphlet he wrote with myself during the summer of 1968, France: The Struggle Goes On.24 It was written from afar. In the heated atmosphere of 1968, Cliff, not having British citizenship, could not travel abroad for fear that he might not be permitted to return.25 But he had long discussions with various French activists who visited London, including two leading members of the French Trotskyist organisation Lutte Ouvrière.

The pamphlet gave a narrative account of the French events, stressing the centrality of working class struggle and the development of the factory occupations. It thus contrasted with other analyses then available in English. Chris Pallis’s eyewitness account gave a vivid description of the rising movement, but ended too soon to show how the bureaucrats had regained control. The Penguin book by Seale and McConville26 focused largely on the student movement.27 For Cliff the main lesson of the French experience was clear:

None of the capitalist powers of our era is stable enough to be immune from proletarian revolution… France has shown, more clearly even than Hungary or the Belgian general strike, that the working class of the advanced countries has not been bribed or integrated into complacency, but retains enormous revolutionary potential.

He examined the history of working class grievances before 1968, the “dry tinder” before the conflagration. Above all he stressed the need for “strike committees democratically elected by all workers, union or non-union”. In a situation where perhaps only a quarter of the ten million strikers were unionised, fetishising the union structure could only be a brake on the movement. If such committees had existed, “they would have been basically the same as the soviets of 1917 or the workers’ councils of Hungary in 1956”. He showed the difficulties the union bureaucracy had in bringing the strike to an end, and the various ways in which they manipulated the ballots. The strike broke down barriers between economic and political struggle, and he judged that the situation in May had been “pre-revolutionary, potentially revolutionary”.

Beyond this Cliff set out to confront a number of more general issues raised by the French events. First, there was the question of the new student movement, something of great strategic importance for building a revolutionary organisation in Britain. In France students had acted as the “detonator” for a mass working class struggle, but in Britain the left was divided as to what attitude to take to student struggles. On the one hand there were those who still saw students as the small privileged minority who had scabbed on the General Strike of 1926. On the other there were those who saw students as a replacement for the traditional role of the working class. The new radical newspaper Black Dwarf had just appeared with the slogan “Students: The New Revolutionary Vanguard”.28 An ultra-left current in the student movement thought that provoking clashes with the police, or building barricades in Hyde Park,29 would be sufficient to “detonate” mass struggles in Britain, forgetting that detonators without explosives are singularly useless.

In seeking to avoid both extremes, Cliff noted that traditionally students had identified with bourgeois values. But over recent years student numbers in Britain and throughout the world had increased massively: “The majority of students are not being trained any more as future members of the ruling class…but as white-collar employees of state and industry, and thus are destined to be part and parcel of the proletariat.”

Cliff located the upheaval in higher education in terms of contradictions within capitalism:

The central contradiction of capitalism is that between the production of what Marx called use-values, and the production of value. The first are natural. The second are specific to the capitalist order of society. In the university this is reflected as a contradiction between the ideal of unlimited intellectual development, free from social, political and ideological restraint, and the tight intellectual reins imposed by capitalism. The liberal mystique of education clashes with its social content.

Cliff argued that, whereas workers’ militancy began from trade union consciousness, students tended to think in abstracts: “Behind the complaint about the tangible reality of low grants, bad food, strict rules and overcrowded amenities, the student feels the intangible manipulation of his mind.” As a result, “students at present rebel more readily than workers because they are less shackled mentally by the traditional…organisations… The rootlessness of the student acts as oil to the wheels of revolt.” (Whatever else had changed, Cliff had not lost his taste for mixed metaphor.)

Cliff’s observations here were no more than a first approximation. Much more could and would be said about the political role of students in the coming years.30 But Cliff’s analysis provided the crucial argument that student struggles were of immense importance, but could only succeed if linked to the working class movement.

He warned, “We must expect many zigzags in the struggle, from economic strikes to political battles and vice versa.” As a counter to the optimism of those who believed that the French struggle would revive in the autumn, he stressed, “The long haul ahead will be the work of years, rather than of months.”

In political terms he predicted the decline of the French Communist Party, which would find it increasingly difficult “to retain custody of the working class”, since “Moscow has lost its magical influence in the world”.31 In the short term he was wrong—the French Communist Party grew considerably in the 1970s. In the longer term his prediction was fully justified.

Comparing the British movement to the French, he argued that Britain had certain advantages: the Labour Party was less able to hold back struggle than the French CP, and the British shop stewards’ organisation made the class much stronger. His conclusion was optimistic:

France today, Britain tomorrow! We cannot be sure of the rhythm of events, but there can be no doubt that there will be an acceleration… We cannot gauge the timing, duration and sweep of the coming revolutionary crisis in British capitalism, but it is not far off.

Within less than six years industrial action would bring down a Tory government.

Cliff’s main aim in the pamphlet was to argue for an immediate strategy of building a revolutionary party, a sharp shift in the orientation of IS. The need for such a party was argued concretely, on the basis of the experience of the French struggle. Describing how the bureaucracy manipulated the return to work, Cliff commented, “What a difference would have been made by a revolutionary party with a daily newspaper and possibly even a radio transmitter!” Without such a party, French students and workers had built action committees to fill the gap: “As a substitute soviet that did not exist and a substitute revolutionary party that did not exist, arose the action committees! What a magnificent improvisation!”

Without a “credible revolutionary alternative”, he warned, the betrayals of the bureaucracies could be repeated. He concluded with the classic arguments for the revolutionary party:

The revolutionary party is, so to say, the memory of the class, the store of experience of the class struggle internationally, the university of the class. Facing the strictly centralised and disciplined power of the capitalists there must be no less centralised and disciplined a combat organisation of the proletariat.

Production of the pamphlet strained the resources of a tiny group already preparing to produce a weekly paper.32 Nonetheless it was widely read and created a certain amount of interest in student circles. It received a recommendation in the austere pages of New Left Review33 and was rapidly translated and published in Japanese.34

Despite the cogency of the pamphlet Cliff underestimated the difficulties of persuading the membership to accept a new constitution based on democratic centralist principles. He later admitted, “I myself was panicked by the situation”.35 Even Mike Kidron, his long term ally in the organisation, had reservations about Cliff’s position on democratic centralism, believing there should be a balance between a centrally elected political committee and a delegate executive. He wrote a document arguing this entitled “We are Not Peasants”.36 A stormy conference in September proved unable to resolve the situation. It was agreed that there would be a recall conference in December. This led to the most heated internal discussion the organisation had ever seen. Finally the December conference agreed a new constitution. A national committee of 40 was elected by conference, which in turn elected a London-based executive.

The constitution had been changed, but as Cliff, always opposed to formalism, well knew, the constitution was the least important thing. It merely opened the way for the real task, transforming and building the organisation. This would have to be done in a situation where the pace of events was accelerating.

At the end of 1968 IS had perhaps a thousand members. The task of building an independent revolutionary organisation had only just begun (until 1968 most IS members were still in the Labour Party, though activity in the Labour Party had declined sharply over the previous couple of years).

Central to IS’s new orientation was the weekly Socialist Worker, produced with a staff of three from a tiny printshop near the Tottenham Hotspur football ground. The new paper was something of a gamble (a few years earlier a fortnightly paper had been unsuccessful), but it aimed to relate the international mood to the industrial struggle at home. The first issue, dated 7 September 1968, led with an article by engineering worker Roger Cox: “No Retreat! Engineers Can Smash Pay Freeze”, next to a picture of Czech students climbing onto a Russian tank. Many years later Jim Nichol, the paper’s first business manager, recalled:

We needed a paper that workers would engage with. It couldn’t afford to be filled with worthy tracts that militants never read. And it had to be sold by workers, not just IS members. We needed shop stewards and other militants to see it as their paper.37

The paper was rather scruffy, had just four pages—and was very cheap, costing two pence.38 From the second issue it bore the slogan “The 2d paper that fights for YOU”. The initial print run was 8,000. It was sold at factory gates and on high streets. Each issue contained contact details for IS’s 47 branches, under the heading “Join International Socialism—For A Real Alternative To Capitalism And Stalinism”. Although Cliff did not contribute to the early issues of the paper (he was busy elsewhere, notably fundraising), he took a keen interest in its progress.

Early in 1969 Cliff wrote a document with the mundane title “On Perspectives”.39 It was one of his most thoughtful and perceptive articles. He assessed the situation after 1968, and set out the tasks for IS in the coming years. He stressed that what was now needed was “not a euphoric generalisation…but a sober analysis”. The French pamphlet had aimed to show the possibilities; now he stressed the harsh realities. The French strike had ended in stalemate, and it was necessary to recognise both the weakness of the revolutionary left and the resilience of the Communist Party.

This led to a discussion of class consciousness. The long post-war boom had seen an increasing alienation of workers from their traditional organisations. “It is true that the Labour Party has six million members, but it is doubtful if 10 percent of these know they are members.” Whereas the Russian Revolution had sprung from a growing politicisation of the working class, the French events had “followed years of depoliticisation”. Formerly class consciousness could be deduced from “institutional barometers” such as party membership, newspaper readership, etc. But now “the deep alienation of workers from traditional organisations smashed all such barometers to pieces”.

So class struggle became much more unpredictable: “When the path of individual reforms is being narrowed, or closed—apathy can transform into its opposite, swift mass action.” The consequences were not necessarily progressive: “A declining interest in the traditional reformist organisations…does not mean the overcoming of reformist ideology.”

He went on to examine the current economic perspectives. The permanent arms economy had not reached its end, but it was past its peak:

The stability of Western capitalism is beginning to falter. This does not mean that Western capitalism is faced with collapse, as in the thirties. In the coming years we can expect an unevenness in the rate of economic growth, and intermittent expansions.

In this he was to be proved right. The 1973 oil crisis would mark the end of the boom, with a rapid rise in unemployment, but it was not a collapse on the 1929 scale, and it did not end working class resistance. Ahead lay increasing instability and a situation in which independent shopfloor organisation would be less tolerated.

The overall situation was uneven and contradictory: “The picture is mosaic, patchy and inelegant.” It was necessary to find ways of overcoming fragmentation: “We cannot follow the syndicalists in idolising fragmented militancy”.40 Sectional militancy did not automatically produce an understanding of the general situation; hence the same workers could be militant industrially but also racist. He pointed to ways in which the fragmentation of resistance could be overcome. A government incomes policy meant that workers had to confront the state. The new trend to productivity deals (in which workers negotiated on working conditions and traditional working practices as well as wages) would directly raise the question of workers’ control.

Cliff also drew attention to the way the French events had highlighted the division between young workers and older workers. Young workers were more self-confident, less bound by trade union traditions than their older workmates. However, they could not sustain their struggle except in unity with older workers in their workplace.

He argued that “transitional programmes of demands connecting the particular with the general are needed”. This was not a revival of Trotsky’s abstract and outdated Transitional Programme of 1938, but programmes geared to “the specific conditions of different industries, different plants, etc”.

Cliff also pointed to the facts that shopfloor organisation was under ever-increasing threat and that the trade union bureaucracy was “both reformist and cowardly”. The struggle for trade union democracy, for “workers’ control of the trade unions”, would become important.

As Cliff noted, “The old forest of reformism is withering away.” In particular the Communist Party was becoming increasingly irrelevant and divided. In 1969 the Communist Party still had a much larger organisation and much deeper roots in the working class than all the revolutionary groups combined. But Cliff was quite right to foresee that the next two decades would be a time of bitter splits and remorseless decline for the Communist Party until it finally liquidated itself in 1991.41 Cliff could foresee the very real possibility that IS could replace the Communists as the main militant force in the trade union movement. Before 1968 such a prospect would have seemed very distant.

In concluding, Cliff made a point he would repeat throughout his life, that change in consciousness can come only through struggle: “Reformism can never be defeated by programmes. It can only be defeated by deeds… Only struggle discloses to the workers the magnitude of the struggle, widens their horizons, and clarifies their mind.”

Hence revolutionaries had to be always ready to learn and to experiment, making mistakes and correcting them. They must not retreat into purely theoretical activity. On the contrary, in a phrase he would use again and again, it was necessary to “raise theory to the level of practice”. The “do-it-yourself reformism” of recent years had meant increased self-confidence, but at the price of a decline in more general class consciousness. Cliff rarely resorted to dialectical terminology, but here he made a cogent summary of the new possibilities:

The third stage the British working class has entered is a “negation of the negation”, synthesising elements of the first stage (the 1920s and 1930s)—class identification—and of the second stage (1945-65)—self-confidence. The synthesis is higher than the individual elements joined in it and pregnant of great revolutionary possibilities.

1968 saw a major change in IS and in Cliff himself. But it is important to be clear as to what the nature of the change was. It is often alleged that in 1968 he switched from Luxemburgism to Leninism. This is a misleading oversimplification. There is no such clearly defined doctrine as “Luxemburgism”. Rosa Luxemburg gave great importance to spontaneity, but she also spent most of her life in a Marxist party. “Leninism” is also a rather slippery concept, and Cliff’s interpretation of Lenin was far from a conventional one.

Cliff had always been a great admirer of Lenin. His 1947 document on state capitalism had been Leninist (unlike some versions of state capitalism), because it regarded Stalinism as a negation of what Bolshevism had stood for in 1917. One of the great weaknesses of the orthodox Trotskyist analysis was that it claimed workers’ states could be established without a revolutionary party. In his 1959 book on Rosa Luxemburg the references to Lenin are frequently positive.

In 1968 he turned back to Lenin because he thought there were new things to be learnt. In the summer of 1968, while working on the French pamphlet, he was rereading his way through the complete works of Lenin, piled up on the floor of the front room of his Stoke Newington home.42 The shifts in his position were a response to the changes in the real world rather than a radical reconsideration of his political philosophy. In particular Cliff did not make a dichotomy between spontaneity and organisation. Like Luxemburg he attributed great value to spontaneous working class action, and insisted that revolutionaries had to learn from the working class. He also gave enormous importance to conscious organisation, but believed that the form of organisation must be flexible according to circumstances. In real life spontaneity and organisation are always closely intertwined.43

The myth of a Luxemburgism-Leninism transition has been greatly encouraged by the story of the new edition of his 1959 book on Rosa Luxemburg, which was produced early in 1969. This story has been much misused by Cliff’s opponents. The new edition contained two alterations. These amounted to no more than a few lines out of 80 pages of text. Cliff saw no reason to amend the vast majority of what he had written ten years earlier. One alteration concerned the 1959 formulation, “For Marxists, in advanced industrial countries, Lenin’s original position can serve much less as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’s, notwithstanding her overstatements on the question of spontaneity.” This now became, “However, whatever the historical circumstances moulding Rosa’s thought regarding organisation, these thoughts showed a great weakness in the German Revolution of 1918-9”.44

The changes were significant, and reflected the way Cliff had rethought his position in the light of the events of 1968 (it would be a strange revolutionary who did not engage in some rethinking in the light of the biggest strike in history). But they did not show any deviation in his concern, in 1969 as in 1959, to assess the contributions of two great revolutionaries and show how their thought could be applied in the present.45

Through his writing, speaking and arguments with comrades, Cliff played a major role in reorienting the organisation in the course of 1968. The coming decade was to justify him. The years from 1968 to 1980 were to be the most favourable for revolutionaries since the 1920s. In Chile, Portugal, Iran and Poland there were “revolutionary rehearsals”.46 Massive strike waves rocked Italy and Spain. In Britain 1972 saw the Saltley picket, where miners and engineering workers united to win a pit strike by mass picketing. Later that year the threat of general strike action forced the release of dockers imprisoned under the government’s anti-union laws. In 1974 another miners’ strike brought down the Tory government and put Labour back in power—the only time in British history that strike action has brought down a government.

Throughout Europe the revolutionary left grew rapidly, showing the great possibilities that were available. But by the end of the decade much of the left was in crisis.47 Many swung to the right, while some turned to terrorism. The relative success of the SWP in holding together since 1980 cannot be attributed to any individual, but undeniably Cliff played an important part. 1968 showed both his clarity of analysis and his capacity to enthuse. A study of his role can help us face the problems of the future.


1: This article is based on material for a forthcoming biography of Tony Cliff. Thanks to Chris Harman for some acute criticisms of a first draft.

2: Cliff and Birchall, 2001, p210.

3: For the events of 1968 see Harman, 1988. For the mood of the time see Widgery, 1976.

4: A revised and enlarged version was issued during the following year: Williams, 1968.

5: Sedgwick, 1967.

6: Quoted by Dave Widgery as an extract from an unattributed diary, possibly his own. Widgery, 1976, p407.

7: Cliff and Barker, 2002.

8: Rose, 2007.

9: The membership of the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1947 was 336. Figures from RCP Conference Documents 1947, cited in Bornstein and Richardson, 1986, p207.

10: International Socialism 33, first series,

11: Cliff, 2000, p91.

12: The IS’s paper was renamed Socialist Worker in June 1968, indicating a break with activity in the Labour Party.

13: The International Marxist Group was the British section of the Fourth International. Its best known activist was Tariq Ali. It had played a major role in initiating and building the VSC.

14: Document “On Unity”, adopted by the January 1972 IS national committee, and published in the IS Bulletin, January 1972.

15: The other main Trotskyist group, the Socialist Labour League (SLL), was incurably sectarian. In October 1968, when 100,000 people marched against the Vietnam war, SLL members turned up to give out a leaflet headed “Why The Socialist Labour League Is Not Marching”. For the text of this amazing piece of sectarian stupidity, see Widgery, 1976, p349.

16: The only “success” was the entry into IS of Workers’ Fight, a small group which was the forerunner of today’s Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, though it had rather mechanical orthodox Trotskyist politics then. It was never a real fusion: WF retained its own probationary membership, subscriptions and disciplinary structures. The fusion was terminated by a special conference in 1971.

17: Brinton, 1968. Maurice Brinton was the pseudonym of Chris Pallis. Solidarity was a small, libertarian split from Trotskyism.

18: Author’s recollection.

19: Author’s recollection.

20: Cliff and Birchall, 2001, p192.

21: Cliff, 1982, pp215-217.

22: Higgins, 1997, p81.

23: Cliff, 1976, pp140-143. The reference was to Lenin, 1960.

24: I should clarify my own role in the pamphlet. I wrote most of the three chapters on the Communist Party and the non-Communist left, and provided material on the strikes and occupations. All the theoretical analysis was Cliff’s. I had been asked to provide Cliff with “background” notes. When I next saw my notes, Cliff had cut up the typescript and stapled pieces of it onto sheets of paper, interspersed with his own handwritten commentary. The pamphlet contained some rather inflammatory passages, for example, “In our epoch not a single serious issue can be decided by ballot. In the decisive class battles bullets will decide.” Since Cliff did not have British citizenship, he was concerned about possible reprisals, so it was agreed that I would take responsibility for such formulations, saying that Cliff had contributed only historical material.

25: I visited France in July, conducted interviews and collected published material.

26: Seale and McConville, 1968.

27: The excellent analysis of the factory occupations by Andrée Hoyles, Imagination in Power (1973), first appeared as an article in Coates, Topham and Barratt Brown (eds), 1969.

28: Though some of those involved claimed that a question mark had been inadvertently omitted. See Widgery, 1976, p313.

29: As occurred on one demonstration in the summer of 1968.

30: See for example Harman, Kuper, Clark, Sayers and Shaw, 1968; Cockburn and Blackburn, 1969.

31: In a public meeting he put it more dramatically: “For many years I have argued against the danger of capitulating to Stalinism. But now that danger does not exist. They are moving to the right so rapidly you cannot catch them up in order to capitulate” (author’s recollection).

32: I recall reading the proofs in what was reputed to be the cheapest printshop in London, sitting on the edge of the printing press under a naked light bulb. The printer, whose command of English was limited, responded to my proposed corrections by waving a dictionary at me.

33: New Left Review 52, 1968, p8.

34: Gendaishichosha, 1968.

35: Cliff, 2000, p101.

36: Document in the name of Hull IS, October 1968. Reproduced in Higgins, 1997, pp145-146.

37: Socialist Worker, 13 May 2006,

38: This was two pence in old money-equivalent to 0.83 of a modern penny. One could buy 12 copies of Socialist Worker for the price of a pint of beer.

39: Cliff, 1969, reprinted in Cliff, 2002, pp129-143.

40: Cliff tended to use the term syndicalism to mean unpolitical trade union militancy. Whether this was what syndicalism had meant in working class history is debatable.

41: The CP did enjoy a slight recovery in the 1970s, but mainly as the organisation of the moderate, non-revolutionary currents in the National Union of Students. This influx of members actually aggravated the divisions with the party.

42: Author’s recollection.

43: He would probably have agreed with Daniel Guérin, who argued that “pure” spontaneity was a myth, since spontaneous action is a product of conscious interventions. “There’s always someone pushing for spontaneity”-Guérin, 1971, p13.

44: Cliff, 2001, pp59-116 (the changes are listed on p113).

45: There was no intention of suggesting that Cliff had always held the same view. In the new edition the changes were inserted in a different typeface so that they were visible at a glance. Unfortunately in a meeting, perhaps flustered or impatient, Cliff denied that he had made any alterations. It was a foolish action which caused more trouble than it was worth.

46: See Barker, 1987.

47: See Harman, 1979.


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