Ian Birchall

Tony Cliff remembered

(April 2010)

From Socialist Review, Nr. 346, April 2010.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Ten years ago this month Tony Cliff died. Cliff was a founder of the Socialist Workers Party, and, Ian Birchall explains, made a huge contribution to the left in Britain and around the world


Tony Cliff (photo)

Ten years ago this month I was telephoned late one Sunday night to be told that Tony Cliff was dead. I knew he was 82 years old and had recently had a major heart operation. Yet I was devastated to realise that after nearly 40 years I would never again hear Cliff’s judgements on events – judgements I had sometimes disagreed with, but which I had always respected as being based on a remarkable political understanding.

In those ten years many people have joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), or worked with us, who never knew Cliff and are perhaps a little bewildered as to why so many older comrades speak of him with such admiration and affection.

Cliff – his original name was Ygael Gluckstein – was born in Palestine in 1917. The son of Russian immigrants, he grew up in a middle class Zionist family but soon began to question Zionism – why had Jews, themselves victims of terrible oppression, become the oppressors of the Arab population? From his early teens he became politically active, at first in left-Zionist “Marxist circles”. In 1938 he made contact with the Trotskyist movement and began to build a section of the Fourth International.

He was jailed at the outbreak of the Second World War. On his release he carried on trying to build an internationalist group consisting of both Jews and Arabs – one of his comrades was the remarkable Arab intellectual Jabra Nicola. He also recruited an immigrant from South Africa: for the next 54 years Chanie Rosenberg was to be his wife and without her comradeship and support his achievements would have been inconceivable.

By 1946 the formation of the Zionist state seemed inevitable. Cliff decided to move to Britain to fight imperialism at its heart rather than at the edge. The British authorities were scarcely welcoming – for four years he had to live in Ireland – but he flung himself into the work of the Revolutionary Communist Party.

Trotskyism was in crisis. Trotsky’s pre-war predictions had been belied by events – the resurgence of the capitalist economy and the expansion of the Soviet Empire into Eastern Europe. As Cliff put it, the Trotskyists were like people trying to find their way round the Paris Metro with a map of the London tube.

Cliff came to the position that Russia was a state capitalist regime. During the 1950s he developed this analysis, publishing books on Russia, Eastern Europe and China. When his supporters were expelled from the Trotskyist movement he regrouped a handful of comrades in the Socialist Review Group. Their paper appeared (with luck) monthly, and for ten years the membership never reached three figures.


Then, around 1960, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament radicalised a new generation who had not experienced the defeats of their parents’ generation. They were open to the idea of a socialism independent of both Washington and Moscow. Cliff’s ideas reached a new audience, and the International Socialists, as the organisation was now called, grew to a membership of a few hundred.

The Wilson government of 1964 set out to tame the trade unions with an incomes policy. Cliff abandoned the two books he was writing and, with Colin Barker, produced a small handbook for industrial militants which sold several thousand copies.

Then came 1968. Around the world student revolt erupted. In France a strike of 10 million workers showed that the working class had not disappeared or been bought off. But the French Communist Party contained the struggle and there was no political alternative. For Cliff the lesson was clear: now was the time to build an open revolutionary party.

The next few years were hectic, with big confrontations. A mass picket by Birmingham engineers helped the miners win their 1972 strike, the threat of a general strike freed dockers jailed under Tory laws, and in 1974 a second miners’ strike brought down the Heath government. Cliff was tireless, writing a book on productivity deals that sold nearly 20,000, helping to recruit workers and to build factory branches.

In 1977 the organisation became the SWP. It played a key role in launching the Anti Nazi League (ANL) which helped to check the rise of the far right in the late 1970s. But working class militancy was beginning to ebb. Cliff began to argue, against stiff resistance from many of his own comrades, that there was a “downturn” in struggle, and that forms of organisation like the rank and file groups which had flourished in the 1970s were no longer appropriate. Yet when the 1984 miners’ strike started, Cliff was again tireless in his activity, realising that a defeat could set the working class back for a generation.

He continued to write – two volumes on the British labour movement (written jointly with his son Donny) and a four-volume study of Trotsky. Despite serious illness in his last years, he never slackened his deep involvement in the organisation.

So why was he important? His theoretical contribution was considerable – the development of the theory of state capitalism, the related work on the arms economy and permanent revolution in the underdeveloped world, a substantial biography of Lenin, and much more.

In a little book written shortly before his death, Trotskyism after Trotsky, Cliff set out a summary of his theoretical contribution. More important than the specifics was the method: “The moment Marxism stops changing, it is dead.” Cliff showed that while it was necessary to hold firm to the core of Marxism, the self-emancipation of the working class, at the same time Marxist theory had to be constantly revised in the light of changing reality.

Cliff was not just a theoretician – he despised academic Marxism. For him theory was futile unless it constantly related to practice. He was also a remarkable propagandist. While writing Cliff’s biography I have interviewed dozens of comrades about their first impressions of Cliff. They recall their initial reaction to his appearance – scruffy, with hair all over the place – but also amazement at his gifts as a speaker. Though he broke all the rules, his meetings were a theatrical performance in which he managed to inspire, analyse and entertain all at the same time. He could sum up complex political arguments with a joke or an image. Thus he dismissed the argument that we should join the Labour Party in order to change it, by saying, “You don’t move a wheelbarrow by jumping inside it.”

Living the struggle

Alongside this was Cliff’s constant attention to detail. Comrades who held key positions in the organisation will tell how Cliff would telephone them every day to check on what was being done. He would remind people organising a meeting not to put out too many chairs, because if there were too few seats it created a good atmosphere.

Cliff was a remarkably single-minded person, with no interests in life outside the revolution. Asked by the New Statesman about his cultural tastes, he responded, “I don’t listen to music.” Yet the key figures in the ANL and Rock Against Racism acknowledge their debt to Cliff. He may not have appreciated the melodic subtleties of The Clash, but he knew that punk was the music of rebellion and that Marxists could not ignore it.

Tony Cliff (cartoon)

He did not recruit clones of himself. Cliff’s enthusiasm and his flexible Marxism drew around him a number of trade union militants and talented intellectuals. When I joined the International Socialists in 1962 there were only about 100 members – but they included a number who would make their mark, inside or outside the organisation – writers Mike Kidron and Nigel Harris, journalists Paul Foot and John Palmer, criminal solicitor Jim Nichol, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, and Peter Sedgwick (translator of Victor Serge). It was an exciting place to be.

Cliff had his faults, but essentially they were the reverse side of his merits. Rightly he was impatient – impatient for an end to the filthy system we live under – but sometimes, when he got a new insight, he failed to deliver the patient explanation necessary to convince his comrades. He was always keen to encourage new members, but sometimes he would shower praise on a young comrade and then drop them in favour of someone else. This could cause distress, though those of us who were picked up and dropped as often as the proverbial rubber ball learned to get used to it.

There was no false modesty about Cliff. He knew his own importance for the organisation. But he never abused his position for personal advantage. Much of his life was lived in near poverty. I remember meeting him at King’s Cross tube station late one night. He was 76 years old, had just come back from a meeting in the Midlands and was obviously dog tired. Anyone else would have got a taxi and charged it to the party. I don’t think the idea even occurred to him.

Cliff made misjudgements – often he erred on the side of excessive optimism. He did not live to see the revolutionary change he longed for, but on the essentials he was proven right: Stalinism was a viciously repressive system that had nothing to do with socialism; parliamentary reformism has failed to put an end to war and inequality; the working class – bigger than ever on a world scale – remains the force potentially capable of changing the world.


As the song says, “Now for ten years we’ve been on our own.” We face new problems which cannot be solved by simply quoting Cliff – as he put it, “Parrots have never made a revolution.” But Cliff’s flexible Marxism and his sheer driving enthusiasm have laid a foundation on which we can build for the future.

* * *

“The emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class.”

Revolution comes because there are contradictions. If the whole working class had one level of consciousness there would not have been any need for revolution, there would never be any need for a strike, there would not have been any need for a picket line. There is a picket line because workers act differently.

In every revolution there are millions on the revolutionaries’ side. Because of that, if there was no unevenness in the level of consciousness we wouldn’t have needed a workers’ government or the organisations of the proletariat, because there wouldn’t have been anybody to suppress. To fight millionaires you don’t need a picket line, because the duchess never crosses picket lines.

Workers cross picket lines. To fight the reactionary labourers in Russia you didn’t need a Red Army, you needed a workers’ state. That’s why in reality we need revolution, strikes, picket lines, a workers’ government – the uneven level of consciousness.
From an interview with Idiot International, 1970

* * *

When I came to the theory of state capitalism, I didn’t come to it by a long analysis of the law of value in Russia, the economic statistics in Russia. Nothing of the sort. I came to it by the simple statement that if the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class, then you cannot have a workers’ state without the workers having power to dictate what happens in society. So I had to choose between what Trotsky said – the heart of Trotsky is the self-activity of the workers – or the form of property. I decided to push away the form of property as determining the question.
From an interview with The Leveller, 1979

* * *

The appalling pauperisation of the masses of workers and peasants in Egypt and the exacerbation of class tensions are manifested very clearly in the spontaneous eruptions of the masses.

The bitterness pent up in them erupts fruitlessly, as all these eruptions and insurrections are unplanned and are not guided by a proletarian leadership able to convert the destructive force of rebellion into the creative power of socialist construction.
From Cliff’s first known article, written when he was 18.

* * *

“Power corrupts, but lack of power corrupts absolutely.”
Cliff on left Labour MPs.

* * *

Two Jews were sitting in a park in Berlin around 1930. One was reading a Zionist newspaper, the other a Nazi newspaper. The one with the Zionist paper asked, “Why are you reading that disgusting Nazi paper?” The other replied, “Your paper is so depressing. Look – Jews beaten, Jews arrested, Jews killed. But look at my paper – we Jews rule the world.”
A joke often told by Cliff

* * *

The worst damage that can be done inside a revolutionary party is if there is an attack on the intellectuals inside the party, in the name of a proletarian attitude. As a matter of fact such an attack is not so much on the intellectuals but on the workers in the party. It is an insult to the workers as it assumes the workers are unable to grasp theory.
From Marxism at the Millennium, 2000

* * *

The Stalinists always claim that Lenin invented the idea of the soviet. Of course in the Stalinist literature Lenin invented everything! They had a concept of religious hierarchy. We have the correspondence of Lenin, and when workers established the first soviet in Petrograd in 1905, Lenin wrote four days later – what the hell is that for?

In the struggle the workers needed a new form of organisation. They learnt the hard way that if they had a strike committee in one factory it was not effective in a time of revolution. You need a strike committee which covers all the factories. And that’s what the soviet was: delegates from all the factories meeting together to run the show. They did it. Lenin followed them. The party has always to learn from the class, always.
From Marxism at the Millennium, 2000

* * *

You can find a wide selection of Tony Cliff’s writings from seven decades at the Marxist Internet Archive.

Some of his talks can be heard at Resistance MP3. [Unfortunately, no longer available – Note by MIA]

There is a special offer on Cliff’s books throughout April at Bookmarks Bookshop, including A World to Win: Life of a Revolutionary (£5), and his selected writings in three volumes: International Struggle and the Marxist Tradition, In the Thick of Workers’ Struggle and Marxist Theory after Trotsky (£10 each or all three for £25)

Last updated on 19 April 2020