Tony Cliff rediscovered

Issue: 132

Nigel Harris and Christian Høgsbjerg

Two reviews of Ian Birchall, Tony Cliff: A Marxist For His Time (Bookmarks, 2011), £15

What a remarkable man Tony Cliff was. Readers of this journal may find this hardly worth saying, even a slight, but for someone outside that circle of readers1—but who knew Cliff for nearly half a century—it is a confession of my staggering ignorance. One of the strongest merits of Ian Birchall’s biography is in this revelation of the sheer stature of the man—talented and dedicated as a thinker, activist and a political leader. He has created, or revealed (and documented), a Cliff of such extraordinary talent, of lifelong zeal, from the moment in the late 1930s when he came upon the October Revolution, through to the very end. It seems hardly to relate to the real human being we knew—and with his careless modesty, his refusal to tolerate even a hint of a personality cult. Such talent, energy and application usually merits wealth and status, statues and public honour, but, outside his circle of followers, here and abroad, Cliff died virtually as poor and obscure as he began, a testimony both to his integrity and his uncompromising lifelong opposition to the status quo.

This book is Cliff’s monument and is of a scale worthy of the man. Meticulously detailed and referenced, it is a staggering piece of work in ambition and accomplishment. It is beautifully written, engaging and surprisingly frank, admitting Birchall’s hero’s errors or imperfections with a judicious suavity. The task was immense as it involved retelling the history of the period since Cliff’s life was by design a continuous reaction to events.

The book is divided into three parts. The introduction takes us from Palestine, through Cliff’s transition from Zionism to Trotskyism, to London (1917-1960). Rightly, the heart of the book (74 of the 559 pages) is devoted to the extraordinary years, 1968 to 1974, a crescendo when it seemed for a moment as if proletarian revolution might once more be on the agenda. Thereafter there was a slow fading away of the music, punctuated with continuous campaigns and what seemed maniacal activity, now no longer riveted to a central task as it had been in the earlier period, but rather reacting piecemeal to events.

Those crescendo years are much the main interest, when Cliff took a political club with some political interventions and tried simultaneously: (i) to shape it into an instrument of political class struggle (with intervention as its raison d$7_$ _être), and (ii) to embed it as deeply as possible in the most militant sections of the working class.

There was no time to be lost since the upsurge could subside as swiftly as it had begun, and if the opportunity—possibly the last to occur before social and economic change transformed the old society—was to be exploited. With what seems sometimes an almost day by day account, Birchall shows the ramifications of this task and how Cliff himself learned what was required and, most remarkable of all, successively transformed himself from being a Palestinian refugee with a talent for historical research on Stalinism in Russia, Eastern Europe and China, into an active authority on and analyst of British wages and work, “industrial relations”.

The transformation of the political club into a centralised
quasi-combat group, and the successive efforts to embed it in the working class were never fully accomplished despite Cliff’s extraordinary application. On the one hand, the club resisted full-scale centralisation in the name of democracy (as if a stable continuing organisation were more important than the power to intervene swiftly and change direction at short notice). On the other, the upsurge failed and working class militants drained away (as indeed did much of the old working class—witness the liquidation of the mining and other major industries—deindustrialisation was far more important than any government actions). Even within that, the “working class” became an ambivalent concept—the workers willing to fight were opposed by the existing leadership of the rank and file, so a reorientation towards the young “without traditions” was implicit in orienting on those willing to fight.

Birchall is at his best in showing how Cliff learned and, apparently, almost completely reinvented himself to meet the requirements of the struggle as he saw it. Often he could not spell out in advance what he was learning, why he needed a radical change of direction (and personnel), thus being obliged to rely for the moment on those who agreed with him, a changing and unelected selection of immediate followers. Of course, where a shadowy leadership clique is combined with full-time paid organisers, this seemed to create a self-perpetuating oligarchy. Few lasted long enough under the pace of activity to formalise this, but the style, at its worst, created sometimes poisonous feuds and splits that could not be healed. Cliff himself vindicated the method by his successes in predicting events and making interventions (but of course, he was involved in deciding the record). Sometimes, it seemed, theory had gone and voluntarism was all.

The key question is whether Cliff was right in his assessment of the period. There can be no answer other than the gamble of trying to prove it—optimism of the will, as Cliff was fond of citing, overrides pessimism of the intellect. There was enough evidence—including what now seem the absurdly inflated terrors of the ruling order—to try.

In the long decline following that crescendo (113 pages of Birchall’s text), it seemed there was little let-up in the pace of interventions, even if they were now no longer tied to a single overall strategy. Cliff knew, better than anyone, that a revolutionary party without a revolution cannot fail to become a sect, driven first and foremost by faith and the need for self-perpetuation. The cadres cannot keep their consciousness on ice, waiting for the next bus of history to pass by (a dreadful mixed metaphor, worthy of Cliff himself, and rightly subject to a sharp Birchall rap of the knuckles).

What might have saved something was to turn back to the strategy of the 1950s, rewind the clock to the old political club and start to confront what was now revealed as a theoretical vacuum on the left, drawing the lessons of the failure of the upsurge—especially, as it seemed, the radical decline of the working class and the atrophy of its trade union and political institutions, economic globalisation and the redistribution of the world working class from Europe and North America to Asia. Perhaps that is what Cliff thought he was doing in writing a four-volume2 biography of Trotsky, but it smacked of iconography more than “learning lessons”. Ian cannot avoid a sober comment: “As the 20th century approached its end, the Russian Revolution…remained the solitary success story for revolutionary socialism. That Cliff in his last years had to return to the inspiration of 1917 (rather than, say, examining the nature of the British working class) was a sign of the weakness of the movement”.3

Worse than that, even where workers were involved—in Lech Walesa’s Poland or Lula’s Brazil—workers merely reinforced reformism. It might seem that it was only the voluntarism of the intelligentsia that made a revolution “proletarian”; was Marx himself coming apart?

But retreat was impossible (for example, ending the pretence of any longer being a party). It might have destroyed what was left, demoralising the members. They had been groomed for history and would not settle for mere faith. On the contrary, Cliff seemed not to embrace the emerging world but to retreat to the verities of his teenage years, symbolised in his preposterous description of the times as “the 1930s in slow motion”. All Cliff’s savage mockery of the Fourth International’s efforts to pretend continuous slump and mass unemployment persisted through the boom of the 1950s (because Trotsky said this was the nature of the times in 1938)4 seemed to have faded. It was worse than that—as massive slump and dereliction supposedly racked the system, China and east Asia soared ahead with rates of annual growth of more than 10 percent per year—and an unprecedentedly resulting massive reduction in world poverty. India was not far behind. If this was a capitalism in terminal decline, it might seem to the millions marvellous beyond words.

Cliff could not avoid some of these issues even if he seemed theoretically on 1938 autopilot. Ian cites a Cliff riposte that shows he was aware of some of the problems of the new world: “the growing integration of the world economy meant that not only was it impossible to have socialism in one country, ‘it is stupid to speak even about capitalism in one country’.”5 He was scornfully dismissive of those who talked of the decline of the old working class, saying triumphantly that the Korean working class was now bigger than the whole working class in Marx’s time, but with nimble sophistry avoiding the question of what should be the role of a Marxist in this little corner of the globe when the world working class had decamped to east Asia. And if there was to be no repetition of 1917, what was now to be the strategy to achieve collective universal self-liberation? A continual
contemplation of the heroic victories of the past strongly suggested there was no future: these were not lessons of history but epitaphs. In such circumstances, could Marxism avoid becoming a religious cult, false consciousness itself, faith defying all the evidence, will defying intellect?

Had Cliff become a tragic prisoner of his own creation? That marvellous facility to reinvent himself—so vividly displayed during the years of upsurge—failed. He was captive to his combat group, requiring continuous campaigns (some of them were excellent initiatives) to perpetuate its mere survival. There was no time to return to the tasks he did so well in the 1950s in reconstructing theory, much less gather around himself the thinkers required to contribute to this process as was briefly attempted with Mike Kidron in the early 1960s in the creation of the International Socialists. He had become a vested interest with its own dynamic. Theory had become mantra, to be repeated in unison, not applied.

Of course, it is quite unfair to reproach Cliff, after such a life, for not undertaking in his declining years such an immense task, the reconstruction of a critique of a contemporary global capitalism, and defining the realistic means to overcome it. But he had built a structure and selected a cadre,6 defined an agenda and a culture which meant they too could not undertake these tasks. Instead the criterion of success became survival (with some spectacular successes—the Anti Nazi League, the Stop the War movement, etc), self-perpetuation, and compared to the miserably low standard of other tiny revolutionary groups (a measure Cliff would have indignantly rejected in his heyday—it was not the task of a revolutionary just to survive). Meanwhile, the older cadre slipped away quietly—into having children, pursuing careers, golf or opera.

Originally I had no intention of reading Ian’s book—it seemed to repeat the errors of a left invariably picking over the past to avoid confronting the present and the future7—but I am delighted that I did so. It is a superb work, a pleasure to read, and, as it should do, raises far more questions of substance about the future than it can possibly answer. Cliff indeed found himself a worthy biographer, and it is a great tribute to the relative health of the SWP that its leadership allowed this unflinching exposure of its founder to public gaze. For that, we are all in their debt.


The Egyptian revolutionary socialist Sameh Naguib, speaking at the final rally of this year’s Marxism festival, noted how in recent years Marxist theory had been vindicated by first the capitalist crisis and secondly the “Arab Spring”, the democratic revolutions which erupted this year in the Middle East and North Africa. The third and final thing that was needed to vindicate theory, he suggested, was the practical task of building of mass revolutionary parties internationally to prepare for and ensure the successful overthrow of the system itself. For those who take such a task seriously, as Naguib himself would doubtless attest, the life and work of the Palestinian Trotskyist Tony Cliff (1917-2000)—the founder of the International Socialist Tendency associated with the Socialist Workers Party in Britain and so with this journal—both deserves and demands critical attention. Cliff, one of the most original and creative revolutionary Marxist thinkers of the mid-20th century, has long been an overlooked figure in the wider scholarship on the socialist and labour movement. The publication of Ian Birchall’s masterful biography of Cliff, the result of a quite monumental amount of impressive and in places ingenious archival research and gathering of personal testimonies from a diverse range of individuals, is not only timely but in a sense represents a historic event of some significance in itself.

Alasdair MacIntyre once described the great Irish revolutionary socialist James Connolly as “the man who answered the Irish question”, as Marxists posed that particular question of national liberation.8 One could say of Tony Cliff, “Here is the person who most coherently answered the ‘Russian question’.” Even today, those who advocate the revolutionary transformation of society and the collective democratic control by workers over the economy are asked the question, what about the historic experience of Stalinist Russia? The question about the class nature of Stalinist Russia was—unsurprisingly—a
vexing one for the Trotskyist movement which Cliff himself identified with from the age of 15 and in which he learnt his Marxism. While not altogether original, Cliff’s contribution to answering the Russian question—first formulated in 1948—was to more thoroughly demonstrate than ever before that the Soviet Union since the first Five Year Plan was not any kind of socialist “workers’ state”, whether “degenerated” as Trotsky himself saw it or otherwise. Rather, amid Stalinist terror and counter-revolution, what Lenin had once called a “workers’ state with bureaucratic distortions” had become “bureaucratic state capitalism”. There may have still been state ownership of the means of production, but a new class of Stalinist bureaucrats now presided over an oppressive and exploitative system, one that was locked into competition with Western capitalist states and doomed to internal crises and inevitable collapse as a result of its own inherent contradictions. As Cliff wrote in Russia: A Marxist Analysis (1964), in a passage which gives the reader some flavour of the analytical power of his Marxism:

Capitalist state ownership raises the ire of the masses. From the beginning of the bureaucracy’s formation as a class, therefore, the sword of Damocles has hung ominously over its head. Whereas the capitalist of the 16th to 19th centuries could visualise a glorious future with himself as the representative of the whole of humanity, the Stalinist bureaucracy, today fulfilling the historical function of this capitalist, cannot but feel that its roots are in a temporary and transient concatenation of national and international circumstances. Hence its totalitarianism.9

Cliff’s role in helping develop a Marxist analysis of Stalinist Russia, through what Birchall notes was “a more comprehensive and convincing version of the theory of state capitalism than anything that had gone before”,10 was perhaps the most outstanding and critical of all of his intellectual achievements. Cliff built on and extended the heritage of classical Marxism not simply through an outstanding application of Marx’s analytical categories in Capital, but also through preserving Marx’s central insight: that the emancipation of the working class would be the conquest of the working class itself. The theory was then also a crucial intervention in clarifying the meaning of the idea of socialism itself. As Cliff himself would always stress, “you cannot have a workers’ state without the workers having power to dictate what happens in society”.11

Appropriately, Cliff was himself of Russian descent, born Ygael Gluckstein in 1917, the year of the October Revolution. Ygael was born in a Zionist colony in Palestine, and all the contradictions of growing up at the heart of the Zionist project in what had become a British colony slowly dawned on him. “It is so sad there are no Arab kids in the school”,12 the young Ygal (he changed his name from Ygael when he was 13) wrote in one essay while at secondary school in Jerusalem. As Cliff would recall in his 1999 autobiography A World to Win, this statement drew from his teacher a helpful, strangely prophetic comment: “Communist”.

Birchall’s rich portrayal of the young Ygal and his early political and intellectual evolution in colonial Palestine is a remarkable achievement of scholarship, given the barriers of language and the obstacles to locating surviving archival source material. We see how, against tremendous odds, Ygal made the painful transition from left wing Zionism to the internationalist and humanist tradition which Isaac Deutscher once termed that of the “non-Jewish Jew”,13 and from his youthful sympathies for the “vulgar Marxism” of Stalinism towards what would be a lifelong commitment to Trotskyism. We get a rare glimpse of his emergence as an underground professional revolutionary and development as an organiser, journalist, agitator and theorist (who attempted a pioneering application of the Marxist theory of permanent revolution to the Middle East). Amid state repression and political persecution, Ygal took on innumerable pseudonyms, and “Tony Cliff”—a pseudonym suggested in 1945 by his partner and “companion in struggle” for over 50 years, Chanie Rosenberg, was to be the one that stuck.

Cliff’s outstanding characteristic—his singlemindedness with respect to building revolutionary organisation—was evident from a young age. It was forged in the crucible of his early experiences attempting to politically defend internationalist and socialist principles at a time when the revolutionary Marxist tradition itself was almost destroyed by Nazism and Stalinism. That Cliff maintained his hostility to Zionism as a nationalist project as the full horrors of the Nazi Holocaust were becoming apparent is a testament to his intellectual courage and the strength of his commitment to the tiny international Trotskyist movement. To evoke the great revolutionary novelist Victor Serge, Cliff was one of those revolutionary Marxists who were like “comets born at night” amid “midnight in the century”, and the best of the writing of the young Cliff penetrates the surrounding darkness like a searchlight with its clarity. As he wrote of Zionism in 1945, in what became a classic pamphlet, “The Middle East at the Crossroads”:

It is a tragedy that the sons of the very people which has been persecuted and massacred in such a bestial fashion, and which today is the unprovoking victim of national hatred—of fascism, the highest form of imperialism—should itself be driven into a chauvinistic, militaristic fervour, and become the blind tool of imperialism in subjugating the Arab masses.14

However, with the establishment of a Zionist state seeming more likely than ever, in the summer of 1946 Cliff left Palestine for Europe, soon settling with Chanie in the imperial metropolis of Britain. Over the next 50 years or so Cliff would dedicate his life to building what would become the largest revolutionary organisation in Britain. In 1950, having been effectively excluded from the official Trotskyist movement for his heretical ideas about state capitalism, Cliff rallied an organisation—the Socialist Review Group—around him. As Birchall notes, Cliff “had a rare ability to combine the theoretical, the political and the tactical”.15 He not only helped ideologically and politically to orientate a small but significant group of socialists in the difficult environment of the Cold War world, but also won an increasing number to seize the opportunities which existed nonetheless to build revolutionary socialist organisation. Birchall shows how subsequent generations of young socialists in Britain were inspired and pulled into activity by Cliff, impressed by not simply what David Widgery called Cliff’s “revolutionary ardour”, “hurdy gurdy oratory and organisational prowess”, but by the sheer explanatory power of his political vision.16

As one of these young socialists pulled into what in 1962 would become the International Socialists himself, Birchall knew, worked alongside and greatly admired Cliff for 37 years. Yet Birchall’s political partisanship only enhances the value of this work. Indeed, Birchall admirably follows Cliff’s repeated warnings of the dangers of engaging in hagiography about past great revolutionaries, and quotes Cliff approvingly referring to the “contempt which Lenin was to retain throughout his life” towards “any dishonest covering up of the leaders’ own past mistakes”.17 For example, Birchall points to the potentially problematic aspects of Cliff’s method of party-building, noting that Cliff greatly admired Lenin’s “stick-bending” in order to prioritise urgent tasks for the organisation. This enabled Cliff at key moments—for example with the formation of the Anti Nazi League—to ensure the SWP was able to galvanise the potential for mass political anti-fascist action which existed and so make a tremendous contribution to the wider class struggle in Britain out of all relation to its actual size. Yet as Cliff himself noted, even Lenin at times “was almost bound to make serious tactical miscalculations” through “stick-bending”,18 and given Cliff himself was no Lenin, he inevitably made his own tactical blunders along the way.

Moreover, just as Trotsky’s most imaginative innovations were made when he was younger—for example, his development of the Marxist theory of permanent revolution in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution in Russia—so it was during the 1940s and then, under the influence of other critical thinkers such as Mike Kidron in the 1950s and early 1960s, that Cliff’s most outstanding “revisions” of existing theory were made. For Cliff, unlike “orthodox Trotskyist” figures like Ernest Mandel, content always came before form. He was not afraid to abandon old established categories and ways of thinking if they no longer helped explain new realities. Alongside Cliff’s development of the theory of state capitalism and its application to Stalinist Russia and Maoist China went analysis of the “permanent arms economy” to explain the long post-war capitalist boom in the advanced world, and the theory of “deflected permanent revolution” to understand the dynamics of many of the struggles for national liberation during the period of decolonisation in the “Third World”. This “troika”, as Cliff himself would come to call it in his short work Trotskyism after Trotsky,19 was subsequently taken up and developed further by others within the International Socialist tradition, such as Chris Harman and Nigel Harris. In the late 1960s Cliff himself turned his attention to the rising level of class struggle in Britain and, building on the lived experiences of militant trade unionists in and around the organisation, wrote some important studies in “industrial sociology” with the aim of helping to ideologically arm the very best militants on the front line of such struggles. Yet there is a sense in which Cliff himself now put his revisionist theoretical work to one side. For example, full-length works on the Middle East, Keynesianism and the collectivisation of agriculture simply never saw the light of day during his lifetime.

Rather, from now on Cliff increasingly looked back to the inspirations of his youth, returning to rethink the rich and inspiring legacy of classical Bolshevism in order that its best elements might be preserved and built upon by a new generation of revolutionaries emerging during the tumult of the late 1960s. Even here, however, the spirit of what Birchall celebrates as Cliff’s “non-defensive Marxism”20 can still be seen in the way Cliff insisted that the best way to pay homage to great thinkers like Lenin and Trotsky was not to treat their writings as holy writ. As Cliff had written in an unpublished four-page typescript, probably written around the time that the Socialist Review Group was evolving into the International Socialists:

Trotsky’s formulation that “the crisis of society is the crisis of leadership” can be misused as a general blanket to encompass the whole problem of the revolutionary party and its leadership, thus leading to the most absurd and “substititionalist” conclusions, to completely idealistic voluntarism. We, the few dozen Marxists, can decide history!21

The absurdities associated with this “orthodox Trotskyist” conception of the “Leninist Party” were perhaps most clearly self-evident in post-war Britain in the approach of the Socialist Labour League (later the Workers Revolutionary Party). When its leader Gerry Healy once boasted to Cliff that the SLL with its “few dozen” members now had the cadres for the revolution, Cliff responded that “you haven’t the cadres for a sanitary inspection of Tottenham”.22 Yet if there was then clearly a problem with “reifying” the question of “the Leninist Party”, there were also difficulties with going to the other extreme of simply “reifying” and glorying in the spontaneous struggles of the working class themselves. Cliff’s contribution—later developed in full-scale biographical studies of Lenin and Trotsky—was in not drawing a dichotomy between spontaneity on the one hand and leadership on the other, but to always stress the dialectical, living relationship between the revolutionary party and the wider working class movement. As Cliff wrote in 1960, in an article on “Trotsky on Substitutionism”, real revolutionary leadership was about “companionship in struggle” and so “analogous to that between a strike committee and the workers on strike…the revolutionary party must conduct a dialogue with the workers outside it. The party, in consequence, should not invent tactics out of thin air, but put as its first duty to learn from the experience of the mass movement and then
generalise from it”.23

Overall, revolutionary socialists of whatever age or experience today have much to learn from the very best spirit of Cliff’s “non-defensive
Marxism”, and the way in which Birchall’s authoritative biography of this remarkable revolutionary brings this theme out so clearly ensures that it stands as a tremendous contribution that will be not simply of interest to members and supporters of the International Socialist Tendency but across the revolutionary left internationally. By situating Cliff firmly in his historical context for the first time, Birchall’s study serves to enable a fuller, deeper and richer reflection on Cliff’s strengths and limitations as a revolutionary Marxist than was arguably hitherto possible. Birchall’s own wealth of knowledge and understanding of the history, politics and personalities of the socialist movement—together with his customary sharp wit and eye for the telling quotation—make this work a model of Marxist political biography.24 Like the best biographies, it illuminates much more than simply the individual life portrayed within it. In places there is so much new light shed on Cliff that the work might have been alternatively titled “Tony Cliff Rediscovered”.

Yet Birchall does more than simply demythologise Cliff from some of the legends and caricatures of his political positions and practice that have accumulated over the years—he reminds us that much of what Cliff wrote and lived his life preparing and fighting for retains a critical relevance for us today. By helping to build and then hold together a small but significant revolutionary socialist tendency Cliff gave Marxists in the 21st century a chance—no more and no less—of effectively intervening in the struggles of today to prepare for even greater mass struggles and eruptions in the future. After all, as Cliff noted in 1960 of the Belgian working class as they undertook a general strike at a time of general so-called “affluence” and “apathy” amid the post-war economic boom, “if workers who face deterioration on the present scale in their conditions show such militancy and revolutionary fervour, what heights of heroism and initiative will workers scale when the contradictions in world capitalism reach really tremendous dimensions, as they are sure to in the future?”25



1: But with a past-I was a member of the Socialist Review Group, the International Socialists and the Socialist Workers Party between 1960 and 1987, and thus a bit player in part of the story covered. Thus reading the most heroic years of Cliff’s life is a slightly bizarre experience, recovering part of one’s own life, albeit in much greater detail and judicious reordering than was possible at the time. For a person with a notoriously (and increasingly) defective memory, the experience was a revelation of what we did.

2: Four! There were great advantages in having a captive publisher.

3: Birchall, 2011, p518.

4: Come back Transitional Programme; all is forgiven.

5: He continues: “That’s why the nationalist and reformist ideas of the Labour Party and the idea of an alternative economic strategy are as effective in the face of world crisis as putting a brown paper bag on your head in the face of nuclear explosion”-p462. But if national economic sovereignty had drained away, what was any longer the point of a merely national revolution? Temporary national social reformism before world capital once again established its predominance?

6: This did not prevent an ambitious agenda of work by the talented group of intellectuals in and around the SWP, not least by the editor of this journal. Spectacular ambitions remained-witness the extraordinary but, in my view, unfortunately flawed A People’s History of the World by Chris Harman.

7: Forgive a personal note of illustration of the dilemmas. Not long ago I was obliged to refuse permission to republish my Mandate of Heaven: Marx and Mao in Modern China, since it was published in the 1970s and is accordingly now positively misleading as anything relevant to the transformed contemporary world.

8: Paul Blackledge and Neil Davidson (eds), Alasdair MacIntyre’s Engagement with Marxism: Selected Writings, 1953-74 (Brill, 2008), p171. Thanks to Paul Blackledge for comments on this review in draft.

9: Birchall, 2011, p242.

10: Birchall, 2011, pp110-111.

11: Birchall, 2011, p99.

12: Birchall, 2011, pp16-17.

13: Birchall, 2011, p16.

14: Birchall, 2011, p74.

15: Birchall, 2011, p556.

16: David Widgery, Preserving Disorder: Selected Essays 1968-88 (Pluto, 1989), ppxiii, 122.

17: Birchall, 2011, pp394-395.

18: Birchall, 2011, p398.

19: Birchall, 2011, p539.

20: Birchall, 2011, pp541, 555.

21: Birchall, 2011, p199.

22: Birchall, 2011, p224.

23: Birchall, 2011, p225.

24: While public (and university) libraries still exist, comrades should therefore try to get this work into them.

25: Birchall, 2011, p226.