Jim Higgins

Tony Cliff: a man of his time

(19 April 2000)

From Weekly Worker, No. 332, 19 April 2000.
Copied with thanks from the Weekly Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There are very few people left who came to revolutionary socialism in the 1930s and remained dedicated to that uncomfortable commitment into the 21st century. Tony Cliff was one of those and certainly one of the more significant figures from the Trotskyist tradition. Although it has to be said, and in Cliff’s own words, “In the desert even a blade of grass looks like the cedars of Lebanon.”

He was born in Palestine, of immigrant Zionist parents, in 1917, just after Lenin published the April Theses and a few months before the triumph of October. Contrary to so many Jewish socialists, who sooner or later exchanged their Marxism for Zionism, Cliff by the age of 19 had vigorously rejected his Zionist heritage, had briefly rested in the Palestine Communist Party, finding it irredeemably wanting, before he finally settled into the tiny Trotskyist movement. Cliff was to spend the rest of his life in small groups. First in the minuscule Palestine section, with a handful of members; then the Socialist Review Group with a few tens of members; and later in the International Socialists starting with a few hundred and rising to a few thousand; finally in the SWP with its, claimed, few thousand more. None of them – however commendable it was just to exist – could have a significant, more than transitory effect on the working class movement.

From those early days in Palestine, Cliff hit on the recruitment stratagem known as ‘primitive socialist accumulation’. This entailed identifying the candidate for membership, then mounting a relentless pursuit of the potential recruit. In this way Cliff recruited the Arab editor of the Palestine CP magazine. Endless daytime discussion with this comrade, who worked nights, took its toll. Whether from conviction or lack of sleep, it worked.

Twenty years later, as I can testify from personal experience, it was still working. For all that Cliff lived, and hunted, in small pools, he was nevertheless a big fish. His intellectual eminence, allied to tremendous energy, persistence and intuition, qualified him for a leading role in much larger organisations than he ever experienced. Eventually, the disparity between his vaulting ambition and the limitations of the world in which he had to live resulted in the libertarian Marxism of his best days being replaced by a draconian regime, reminiscent of Stalinism – fortunately without the GPU.

Until 1947 Cliff was an orthodox Trotskyist, for whom Russia was a ‘workers’ state’, capitalism was in its “death agony”, and the war would inevitably lead on to revolution. On any reckoning, Palestine was not the place where one could participate in these world-shattering events. In 1946 Cliff and his wife Chanie arrived in England. In that hub of metropolitan capitalism it soon became clear that revolution was not imminent. Not only that: it seemed, to put it no higher, that a number of Trotsky’s other predictions and formulations were up for re-evaluation. State property, as the essential prerequisite of the definition of a workers’ state, took on a distinctly shabby aspect in eastern Europe, where the working class had nothing to do with its installation. The prophesied collapse of the productive forces was, perhaps, wanting in the light of the US-led rebuilding of the European economies.

The reaction of most Fourth Internationalists to this troublesome dose of reality was to retreat into the cosy certitude of Trotsky’s 1936 formulations. To his credit Cliff did not and, in 1947, he produced a monster-length internal bulletin on the class nature of Russia, in which he characterised it as ‘bureaucratic state capitalist’. This was not the first time that that regime had been so described, but it was certainly the most thoroughly worked through description of them all, up to that time.

At about this time Attlee’s Labour government, which, contrary to some present-day leftists, was quite as illiberal as Tony Blair’s New Labour model, deported Cliff, who took up residence in Ireland, where he not only suffered from poverty and real hunger but – for him much more seriously – from a complete lack of politics. Nevertheless, through correspondence and clandestine visits to England he was instrumental in setting up the Socialist Review Group in 1950.

The SR Group, formally committed to entry work in the Labour Party, was essentially a Trotskyist group with 30 members and a better line on Russia. After Cliff’s legal return to the UK the group grew by his tested method of accumulation. But entryism, which follows the leisurely calendar of the Labour Party, gives time for thought and fundamental discussion. From Shachtman’s group in the US he took over and developed the ‘permanent arms economy’ thesis, which was intended to explain the long post-war economic stability. Starting from the notion that revolutionary politics were not pre-Bolshevik but post-Bolshevik, he examined alternative sources to Lenin and Trotsky.

In Rosa Luxemburg he found a spirit who seemed to fit more snugly into the politics of the time. In 1958, Rosa’s politics were, in Cliff’s view, a more appropriate guide than Lenin’s. This leaning towards a more libertarian Marxism was the key to the first breakthrough into building a viable organisation. From CND and the Labour Party Young Socialists, over a period of four or five years, a few hundred people were recruited, a number of whom provided the cadre for the next stage.

It is this next stage that is the bone of contention for many people. By 1968, having built modestly but quite solidly, having recruited a small but significant number of manual workers, and with the growth of industrial militancy and an active but very short-lived racist campaign against immigration, Cliff saw the opportunity for growth through left unity. Unity with the existing parts of the Trotskyist movement was impossible on the basis of libertarian Marxism, a loose organisational form and a questioning attitude to the great icons of the movement.

Lenin was brought out and dusted down, Luxemburg came off the mantelpiece and went into the sideboard drawer. Democratic centralism was the order of the day. Questions of policy and organisation were settled by reference to texts by Lenin – on the principle, perhaps, that in the land of the blind the one-eyed man with a complete set of the Collected Works of Lenin is king.

Interestingly enough, the unity offensive had little or no success, but the Bolshevisation continued apace, based largely on Cliff’s total misreading of the lessons of the CPGB’s 1922 Dutt-Pollitt report.

Four volumes poured from Cliff’s pen on Lenin, each one justifying the latest lurch of Cliff’s famous intuitive nose. Then Trotsky, whose star had waned considerably, was brought to centre stage as capitalism was seen to enter its second death agony. And all the while an organisation that had been noted for its openness and tolerance became closed, intolerant, exclusive and arrogant. Ironically the attempt to get closer to other groups resulted in transformation into a sect.

For a great deal of all this Cliff must be held responsible: his impatience and unwillingness to brook any view other than his own once he had made up his mind; his disregard for any decisions that interfered with his own chosen path and his inability to acknowledge that he had ever been wrong. For him his part in the past is a seamless progression from the correct to the latest inspired idea. He was pre-eminent in his organisation and he owed a duty of loyalty to the people who were impressed with his erudition, inspired by his oratory, who laughed at his, often, very funny stories and who consequently gave their hearts to the movement and too often had them broken.

Cliff, too often, did not recognise that loyalty is a two-way street and the broken hearts of others seemed a price he was prepared to pay. His capriciousness and opportunism were very much the result of small group isolation in a world dominated by the twin demons of Stalinism and social democracy. To build at all there was always the temptation to bend the arguments, the facts and sometimes the principles to redress the balance. Of course, whatever transitory success this may bring is always vitiated eventually.

At the end, Cliff was a creature of his time and a product of a movement that has not been able to deliver on its promises. But for all that, while so many jumped ship and rowed off with the rats, he stayed on board and tried to guide that fragile, battered craft to the revolutionary shore.

About 40 years ago, I was having a discussion with Cliff – it was during that phase when he thought it was going to be a long haul to the revolution – and I asked him, “Do you think you’ll live to see socialism?” “Yes,” he replied. “I come from a very long-lived family.” Not long enough, I fear.

That he did not succeed should surprise nobody, but I for one am glad that he tried.

Last updated on 19 April 2020