Sean Matgamna

The Great Gadsby

The paradoxes of Tony Cliff, 1917–2000


From Workers’ Liberty, No. 64, 2000.
Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The miners’ strike is an extreme example of what we in the Socialist Workers Party have called the ‘downturn’ in the movement.”
Tony Cliff, Socialist Worker, 14th April 1984


Sammy lugged his papers up and down Fourteenth Street yelling about a war in Europe. He used to come home with a hoarse throat and 30 or 40 cents in pennies. He would count the money and say, ‘God dammit, I’m yellin’ my brains out for nuttin’.
Several weeks later Sammy came in with a dollar seventy-eight. Papa, Momma and Israel danced around him.
‘Sammy, you sold out all the papers?’ said Papa in amazement.
‘Yeah,’ Sammy said, ‘There’s a guy on the opposite corner doin’ pretty good ’cause he’s yellin’ “U.S. may enter war”.
So I asks a customer if there’s anything in the paper about that. So when he says no, I figure I can pull a fast one too. So I starts hollerin’ “U.S. enters war” and jeez you shoulda seen the rush!’
‘But that was a lie,’ Papa Glick said. ‘To sell papers like that is no better than stealing.’
‘All the guys make up headlines,’ Sammy said. ‘Why don’t you wise up?’

Budd Schulberg: What Makes Sammy Run?

* * *

Tony Cliff (Ygael Gluckstein), who died last April a few weeks short of his 83rd birthday, was one of the most influential socialists of the last three decades. He is physically dead, but, as a eulogist might put it, Cliff lives on. He taught a certain politics, and, more to the point, a certain conception of what revolutionary politics is, to generations of socialists. The biggest socialist organisation in Britain now, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), embodies Cliff’s ideas and Cliff’s approach to politics. In that sense, Cliff remains very much alive.

Of the generation of revolutionary socialists formed in Trotsky’s Fourth International, and, most importantly for their political characteristics, in the FI movement of the 1940s, Cliff was in his own terms the most successful.

When I heard that Cliff was dead, I remembered a conversation I had had with him in the middle of 1968. Tremendous prospects for working class socialism seemed to have been opened up by the French general strike of May that year. Nine million workers had seized the factories and for a week refused even to discuss the big concessions the bosses and the government were falling over themselves to offer. If only the workers would release the grip on their throat and let them breathe again. Everything in Europe seemed to have been shaken up, including Cliff’s politics.

In Britain, the Socialist Labour League (SLL), the authoritarian organisation that had dominated revolutionary politics for 20 years, was now behaving in an increasingly lunatic, and – so we fervently hoped – terminally self-destructive fashion.

The possibility of a future in which we could hope to do things better than they had been done in the recent past seemed to have opened up. We agreed that we should begin to regroup the left in an open, democratic organisation. The immediate first step? To fuse the small group of “orthodox” Trotskyists called Workers’ Fight (WF) – which a few of us, believing the two existing “orthodox Trotskyist” groups, the Socialist Labour League and Militant, to be politically bankrupt, had put together in the previous 18 months – and the more eclectic, much larger group to which Cliff was central, International Socialism (IS). It had existed for 18 years and been self-proclaimedly “Luxemburgist” for half that time. But now – if Cliff won the faction-fight – IS was turning “Leninist” and “Trotskyist”.

Quiet and ruminative, as if talking to himself, Cliff said: “I’m not even 52 yet. I can live to see the socialist revolution!” It was a man taking stock for a new star, having decided on his direction.

Alas, he did not live to see the socialist revolution. He lived to see tremendous defeats for the labour movement, and a tremendous reflux of socialism. He saw the fall of Stalinism in Europe and saw it replaced not by working class power, but by chaos and capitalism. He saw the “Russian state capitalism” he had defined as the highest possible stage of capitalism – the development of capitalism in part beyond capitalism, to the degree that its economic forms overlapped with the next, socialist, stage of social development – mysteriously turn into an extremely backward capitalism (in some ways, into pre-capitalism) as if it had slipped down half a dozen notches on History’s ratchet.

And he spent the third of a century left to him in building something very different from the sort of organisation we talked about in that glorious early summer of 1968. He developed an approach to the politics of “party building” that systematised traits that exist in much of post-Trotsky Trotskyism and for a very long time were exemplified in Britain by Gerry Healy and the SLL.


Cliff was in political flux in 1958. He had come out in support of the Vietnamese Stalinists against the war planes and troops of the USA. There were differences, but no fundamental differences, between the war in Vietnam and the Korean war, on which Cliff’s refusal to take the position he now took on Vietnam had led to his separation in 1950 from the Fourth International of the “Orthodox” Trotskyists .

For a decade, self-proclaimedly “Luxemburgist”, he had been deriding the idea that Marxists in British conditions should work to build a small “Bolshevik”-style organisation in the labour movement. That, he had insisted, was “toy-town Bolshevism”. The Bolshevik Party, he would heatedly tell you, speaking as one who understood Russian and knew, was a myth. Now Cliff had rediscovered himself as a Leninist and was proclaiming the need to build a revolutionary party.

But he had done it in his own peculiar fashion: by publishing a second edition of his 1960 pamphlet on Luxemburg with nothing changed in the argument and exposition, but with diametrically opposite conclusions tacked on to the old arguments. (A couple of key paragraphs were cut and surreptitiously replaced.)

He had, he would insist, been right in both his old and in his new conclusions. Or maybe he had just decided that the “myth” was a myth worth inhabiting, that it could be used as he had seen others, especially the SLL, using it.

Rosa Luxemburg – Cliff’s idea of Luxemburg – had, in 1960, been the best guide: “For Marxists in advanced industrial countries, Lenin’s original position can much less serve as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’s.” Now Lenin – Cliff’s idea of Lenin – was the model.

Workers’ Fight would comment:

“Of course people change their minds. When Marxists do so it would be good to know why and how ... A Marxist’s exposition is based on an analysis of the real world, to which he brings certain conceptions: his conclusions are drawn [in this way]. Thus the train of thought is clear, the reasoning and considerations are designed to expound, to convince. In this case there is a mystery: one and the same exposition (without supplement) leads to opposite conclusions. Why? How does comrade Cliff reach his conclusions?” (WF, new series, Easter 1969)

That is the central question in accessing the career of Cliff. The episode in which Cliff changed from a “Luxemburgist” back to a “Leninist” was emblematic of his whole career. But so, though I didn’t know it then, had been the manner in which he had become a “Luxemburgist” in 1958.

That too had been a sudden lurch when a big majority of Cliff’s small organisation momentarily decided to join Gerry Healy’s, then a sane, impressive and comparatively large “Bolshevik”-style organisation.


With Cliff, the space between his person and his politics, where it existed at all, was a very narrow one. In most areas, it simply did not exist, as he proudly insists in his autobiography, where he boasts of his narrowness, and though he baulks at the word philistinism, in effect he boasts about that too. He would not have noticed that what was perhaps more striking than his concentration on politics, was the extreme narrowness of his concerns within politics.

You could say that all his vices were political ones, or rooted in a conception of what revolutionary politics is. But they were all-pervasive. I spent three years after the fusion of WF and IS as Cliff’s factional opponent, in a small minority most of the time. Often that was nasty, as by its nature such a thing is. But there wasn’t much gratuitous nastiness on Cliff’s part. You could say that he was a more than halfway decent human being.

Compared with, say, his nearest equivalent, the grotesque Gerry Healy, who ran the Socialist Labour League for decades, Cliff was a decent human being. But Cliff, so to speak, was a politician, not a human being. Politics is his proper measure. What matters is what he did in politics, his way of functioning in politics. That in its turn is a matter of political judgment.

Both the practical and the political responsibility for the witch-hunt quality of much of the internal life of the post-’68 IS organisation when serious political differences emerged – on Ireland, to take the most extreme but by no means the only case – was Cliff’s. So was the character of the organisation that IS became in the five years after 1968. With Cliff, to try to isolate personal traits, or to decide whether, politics aside, you found him likable or not, is especially unproductive: he was his politics.


The memories of Cliff that come into my mind tend to be about things that instructed, surprised or astonished me: his recklessness and complete lack of scruple when he had a point to get across – “bending the stick”, he called it, adapting a phrase of Lenin’s.

Late 1971, at an IS gathering at a holiday camp in Skegness. Cliff makes a very, very long speech about the history of socialism. In the audience are many who are politically very raw – youngsters and some older militants from different traditions, some of them, inevitably, influenced by Stalinism. Cliff wants to inoculate them politically against Trotsky’s Transitional Programme, the main document which had been adopted by the founding conference of the Fourth International in 1938.

Inoculation is very urgent. The organisation’s main rival, the SLL, now far gone in sectarian craziness, uses the Transitional Programme, as they will eventually use such things as Leon Trotsky’s death mask, as an icon for religious veneration. Cliff warns his audience: using Trotsky’s Transitional Programme in prosperous 1971, he tells them, is like trying to find your way around the London Underground with a map of the Paris Metro! In the course of his survey of socialist history, Cliff had greatly praised Rosa Luxemburg. Luxemburg had, in December 1918, at the founding conference of the German Communist Party, advocated such an approach, but the audience wouldn’t know that. Cliff is “bending the stick”. He needs to damn the whole concept of a transitional programme and transitional demands: the IS opposition grouping, the Trotskyist Tendency (WF), which is in process of being expelled, are aggressive advocates of the method of Trotsky’s programme.

Warming to it, whipping himself up, he screams at the audience that if they “accept” Trotsky’s Transitional Programme, the logic of it will lead them to Posadas, about whom he proceeds to regale them. Juan Posadas was a crazy Latin American Trotskyist who believed in flying saucers and that they came from distant socialist planets. (They implied a higher technology than anything on earth: therefore they had gone beyond capitalism: workers’ states in space ...)


To say that Trotsky’s 1938 Programme would get you believing in socialist flying saucers is only an especially bizarre example.

One incident more than any other sums up Cliff’s entire approach to politics – the “tactical” surrender to British nationalism during the labour movement crisis over Britain joining the European Community – a startling political U-turn executed so that the group could have the organisational benefits of joining in the very powerful campaign being run by Stalinists, left-Labour Tribunites, trade union bureaucrats, and a sizeable chunk of the Tories, against Britain entering the European Community. It was a nationalist, indeed a chauvinist, campaign, part of an upsurge of British nationalism which included the early stages of an alarming growth of the fascist National Front.

One aspect of that rising tide of nationalism was a strong current of rampant and unashamed racism even amongst industrially militant workers. Already, in early 1968, London dockers, who six months earlier had fought and lost a tremendous 10-week strike against reorganisation of the ports, struck and marched in support of Tory racist Enoch Powell. Dockers would strike in the same cause and join a fascist-inspired march early in 1972, when the Tory government let in the British-passport-holding ethnic Indians being expelled from Uganda.

In 1968 Cliff had responded to the dockers’ march by raising the alarm about “the urgent threat of fascism” and calling for left unity to fight it. (It was a blatantly cynical “come on” to the radical youth of the times.)

By 1971, however, when the same sort of issues were coming to the boil again, things were different. The Tories had come back to power in mid-1970, and immediately launched a strong attempt to bring in legislation to curb the trade unions, triggering prolonged labour movement resistance. IS was now “centralised” and “Leninist” – indeed increasingly, though not uncontestedly, run by full-time officials. It would soon ban generalised internal opposition to Cliff.

IS had grown, and had had limited but real and very promising success in implanting itself in the factories. Its anti-nationalist politics, however, so it was reasonable to believe, might cut the group off from further serious growth in the period ahead. Socialists who were stroppy about the politics of international working class unity were not best adapted to get the most out of a situation dominated by a tide of British chauvinism.

Ruthless revolutionary choices had to be made. A proper sense of priorities had to be brought into play. And subtlety, lots of subtlety. What, after all, was the main thing? The great abstractions and general political slogans of Marxist international socialism or building the organisation? That way of putting it is defeatist, comrade. The question is, how can the great ideas of socialist internationalism be served and the organisation built? The best way to serve the great ideas was to build the organisation.

Not bending to the nationalist wind would mean not being able to get maximum returns and “gate receipts” for the organisation that embodied and represented international socialist ideas. That would weaken international socialism. Only a blinkered pedant could fail to see that.

Thus, though it was paradoxical, international socialism could only be served in deeds if in mere words it was not stressed too much, indeed if, at the crucial point, it was abandoned. The tree that bends with the wind survives and grows; the stiff and stubborn sectarian old conifer is uprooted and left to rot. Cliff was equal to reconceptualising the issue for himself, and then selling it to his less talented comrades. First he proposed that the organisation should stick to its political guns. But, having said their piece against the left-wing nationalists, IS members should vote with them in a trade union branch, against “the right”. First respond to their nationalism and advocate the alternative, European working class unity, and then vote with them on the issue? But how could that not make your politics into a joke and convey to observers that you didn’t believe in them yourself.

Arguing for this absurd solution to the problem at the IS NC in mid-71, Cliff explained himself: “Tactics contradict principles.” Unsure if I had heard right, I interrupted him. He repeated it. Principles, “theory”, are in one dimension, “tactics”, practice, in another ... For Cliff, the “unity of theory and practice” meant not that Marxism guides practical work and is itself enriched by the experience, but that theory serves – not guides, serves – practice.

In fact, the proposal to argue one way and then vote against your own position in order to “keep in with” the nationalist left was only a trick. Once it was through the NC, the emphasis in the paper, “the arguments”, became entirely anti-Common Market little Britainism: Cliff’s Internationalists had, so to speak, fused with the British nationalists.

You could argue that the whole issue of socialist internationalism did not hang on the attitude one took to the anti-EC campaign. Before they changed under pressure, Cliff and his friends thought it did. Internationalism that does not dare challenge rampant nationalism and chauvinism, and which dares not proclaim its own programme against the nationalists in the labour movement, is a vicious hypocrisy. The approach was quintessentially Tony Cliff.


Cliff picked up a phrase of Lenin: “bending the stick”, meaning that in politics you often have to push things strongly and even one-sidedly in a desired direction in order over time to achieve balance. Cliff worked the expression to death, but in fact, “bending the stick” was not quite what Cliff himself did. He did to political ideas what I used to see my father do with six-foot long hazel rods or “scallops” [used in thatching]. A hazel sapling can be twisted until it is stringy fibre, can be used as a sort of rope – for example, to bind big, heavy “barths”, or bundles, of other scallops together. You can even tie the, so to speak, ex-stick into loose knots. In the west of Ireland, the name for a stick thus twisted out of the normal consistency of wood but retaining considerable strength is a “gad”. Cliff did not “bend” political sticks, he twisted them into gads: the Great Gadsby.


Cliff spent his life – more than 60 of his 83 years – as a participant in the long march of the Trotskyists. Like other youngsters who rallied to Trotsky in the ’30s, Cliff joined a movement that had inherited, and developed, the programme and perspectives of the Communist International, but was far too weak to win them.

This was an epoch of convulsive capitalist crisis, in which the working class was repeatedly crushed where we might have won. In order to win, we needed a revolutionary organisation of such a size and scope that it could win the leadership of the working class.

The tragedy was that the armies of subjectively working class revolutionaries were led by Stalin and by the agents and dupes of the Stalinist ruling class in the USSR, who had stolen the banners and symbols of communism The other “big battalions” of the working class were led by the parties of social democracy – parties that had long ago made peace with capitalism and at best sought reform.

Thus when Cliff became a Trotskyist, the entire world labour movement and all its large formations was influenced by, or tightly tied to, either the bourgeois or the Stalinist ruling classes. Politically independent revolutionary working class parties did not exist, in a world rotten-ripe for socialist revolution and speeding towards the tremendous catastrophe of World War Two.

It was an experience that shaped most of Cliff’s – and not only Cliff’s – political life. Like others of his generation of anti-Stalinist Marxists, Cliff’s conclusion from the tragic dichotomy between the communist programme and the small forces of authentic communism fighting for it, was that a “party” had to be built on any terms, almost with any politics. He veered away from that for the decade 1958–68, then returned to it with a vengeance. For his own socialist goals, he elaborated an approach to politics not too far from mainstream politicians who take a poll before they decide what they will say. It was a refined, sophisticated variant of the approach developed by such “orthodox Trotskyist” tendencies as those of Healy and Lambert.

These two, on the face of it, seem to be very different from Cliff. Not so. Gerry Healy came to dominate British Trotskyism from the late ’40s, and Pierre Lambert much of French Trotskyism from about the same period, because in the 1940s and ’50s the world posed big political and theoretical problems to the old-style Trotskyists, and most of the political leaders of the movement collapsed in demoralisation, confusion or perplexity. The Healys and Lamberts came to the fore because they cared about the ideas and accessed them only as crude working tools that did, or did not, help build the organisation. They could propose what to do on the basis of short-term calculations, without any political or intellectual qualms.

The Trotskyists in Trotsky’s time had drawn confidence, despite the gap between their tiny numbers and their very large perspectives, from the idea that “the programme creates the party”. What might be called the “Organisation-first” schools of neo-Trotskyism turned this upside down. For them the old formula came very much to mean: arrange a programme, and lesser postures, that will assist the organisation to grow. After he asserted his political independence in the early ’60s, Healy’s politics were blatantly cut, and frequently “recut”, to fit his organisational needs and calculations. So were and are those of the Lambert groupings. (The Lambertists were, I believe, the first of these groupings to use “build the revolutionary party” as a general slogan.)

Not “the programme creates the party” but “the needs of the party create, and recreate the programme”. Not the unity of theory and practice in the proper sense that theory, which is continually enriched by experience, guides practice, but in the sense – Tony Cliff’s sense – that “theory” is at the service of practice, catering to the organisation’s needs.

The very literary and “theoretical” Cliff, on one side, and Healy and Lambert on the other, had a common conception of the relationship of theory, principle and politics to the revolutionary organisation. The fact that Healy couldn’t easily write a hack article and Cliff prided himself on the number of his books, is mere detail. It meant only that Cliff could do his own ideological chicane-work. What he did with theory was identical to what Healy and Lambert had their conscienceless “red professors” do [and what certain shameless academics do now for the SWP].

From 1970/71, if not from 1968, Cliff set out to adapt to his own needs the techniques and methods that had allowed the SLL to grow into a formidable organisation.


Cliff worked according to his belief that for practical politics “tactics contradict principle”. His genius was for political manoeuvring and “positioning”, which was also his central concern. His last three decades were spent in the elaboration of techniques for building a “revolutionary party” by way of pushing politics into the background so as to maximise “the party”’s stability and possibilities of growth and self conservation – irrespective of political events. He built up “the party” by way of a bewildering succession of political zig-zags, dropping or picking up political positions according to calculations about their efficacy in “building the party”. Political positions that might get in the way of the organisational needs of “the party” were ruthlessly jettisoned; those that might help embraced.

Again and again he turned himself inside-out politically. He began as an advocate of independent working class politics and a bitter critic of the “orthodox” Trotskyists who lined up behind one of the two imperialist blocs – the Stalinist one. He ended with a spectacular example of reductio ad absurdum “blockist” politics: siding last year with Serb imperialism against its Albanian victims – because Serbia was against NATO.

Cliff’s position came more and more to be determined not by the necessary drive to shape and win support for an independent working class world outlook and policies, but by absolute negativism towards advanced capitalism-against no matter what. But to adopt that approach is to let your politics be rigidly determined by advanced capitalism – in a negative, inverted replica of big bourgeois politics. But that doesn’t matter if it helps “build the party”.

In Cliff’s conception of it, the “revolutionary party” rests on its own axis, is its own lodestar, its own self-sufficient point of reference. Like net revenue to a commercial enterprise, the organisation’s prosperity – its rates of expansion and recruitment – is, short of the revolution, the supreme revolutionary good, the criterion against which virtually everything else in politics is to be judged, and to which everything, including the specifics of politics and political doctrine, must if necessary be sacrificed.


The manner of Cliff’s quick-change act back to being a Leninist from 10 years as a “Luxemburgist” – simply reversing the old conclusions without changing the argument – neatly summed up the central paradoxes of Cliff. He was a theorist, an ideologue, a revolutionary Marxist intellectual – but to an astonishing extent he dealt with ideas just as means to an end, picking them up, using them and discarding them as primitive man picked up, used and discarded flints.

Shortly after Cliff’s death I was talking about him with a Marxist academic, who knew him. He posed the following question, which I would not have posed in that form for myself: “What was Cliff? He wasn’t an intellectual ...” He had in mind Cliff’s peculiar dealings with ideas and the attitude thereby implied. I replied: “He was a militant.”

On one level that is to say a great deal on his behalf. But a Marxist militant, even one with none of the intellectual ambition or pretenses of Cliff or his deftness at juggling with “theory” for organisational purposes, has to have a radically different attitude to ideas than Cliff’s dropping or picking up political positions according to calculations about their efficacy in “building the party”.

Books clearly mattered to him. That was one of the things he did, one of the things that defined his identity and gave him a gauge for what he was: he wrote books. But books are ideas. The paradox of an intellectual, for whom ideas, or anyway books were important, who yet, in the spirit of a machine politician for whom ideas, slogans, programmes are all mere instruments in the service of something else, regards ideas as mere tokens and ciphers, loose change to be picked up or thrown away when convenient – that was Cliff.

Cliff’s near contemporary, Ernest Mandel, the representative figure of post-Trotsky “orthodox Trotskyism”, lived to see all his “revolutionary perspectives” collapse with the disintegration in 1989–91 of European Stalinism – his fancied “degenerated and deformed workers’ states in transition to socialism” – and must have died (in 1995) a bitterly disappointed, defeated man. Cliff, by contrast, to judge by the autobiography published just after his death, approached dissolution with a sense of great achievement, of having been proved right about Stalinism and everything else.

In fact, the collapse of Stalinism – which Cliff had considered the highest form of capitalism, overlapping in its economic forms with socialism – shattered Cliff’s theories no less than Mandel’s. He lived to see events refute everything specific to his theory of state capitalism, so that he could only sustain the belief that he was “right” by jettisoning all but the name and praising himself not for what was unique to his thinking, but for what he had had in common with every theory of Stalinist Russia that defined it as a class society. To Cliff, ideas, including even his own much-prized theory of Stalinism as state capitalism – though that is still in service as a “party” shibboleth to be brandished triumphantly: as someone said, sects change their doctrines more readily than their names, or the names of their fetishes – were instruments, artifacts, means to organisational ends. As with “the party”, form – here a name-tag without its old content – is everything.

On the record, it is difficult to say exactly what there is, other than a tremendous shamanistic belief in himself and in the momentary centrality he could bestow for himself on whatever ideas he found useful, that is stable in Cliff’s politics. There were fixed poles – building the party, and a few political generalities, positive ones about socialism and, far more importantly, negative ones about capitalism – but beyond that you are left with the record of a personality, not of political continuity. Where there appears to be continuity, it is often nothing more substantial than a continuity of words and name-tags – on state capitalism, for example.


First impressions are often the best. I vividly recall the first time I encountered Cliff and his entourage – and entourage is the right word – and the impression they made on me.

September 1960. The movement to demand that nuclear weapons be outlawed was reaching its peak. The Trade Union Congress had just come out for unilateral British nuclear disarmament; at the beginning of October, the Labour Party Conference would follow suit, opening up one of the most important political struggles in the history of the British labour movement. In the month between the TUC and Labour Party conferences, there took place a tremendous rolling mobilisation of the anti-bomb movement in cities and towns all over Britain, organised around a column of mainly young people – myself, an adolescent “Healyite”, one of them – who were marching from Edinburgh to London.

I first noticed Cliff and his friends in Manchester, where there had been an enormous turnout – a very dark, prosperous-looking, tiny man in a crombie overcoat and frizzy hair – so my memory supplies it – surrounded by attentive, shepherding comrades.

They had just published the first regular issue of a 32-page A4 journal, International Socialism, and were out in force at the big rallies to sell it. (They were there too when we got to Birmingham, a week later.)

I stopped to buy the new journal and wound up wrangling with an exotic, elegant creature whose exaggeratedly smooth and effete upper-class English manner and accent set my national (Irish) prejudices on edge – Cliff’s comrade and brother-in-law, Michael Kidron, whose origins were in fact South African and then Israeli.

Kidron called to Cliff, “Come over here, Tony, you are better at this than at selling anyway.” I remember nothing of Cliff’s arguments except his strong, strange accent and jerky, hectoring manner of speaking them. I do retain a sharp memory of the impression made on me by the grouping, that of a family and a delicate, cosseted child. Kidron’s finessing comment about what Cliff was and was not good at, suggested a fond, more worldly sibling, or an organising, fussing parent, of the sort who proudly tells you that Johnny is no good at games, but ...

That impression of a favourite child and his cosseting entourage was not a false one. The capacity to create, to recreate and to sustain an admiring, sustaining, family-type structure with himself at the centre of it – “his majesty the baby”, Ygael, the genius – was central in Cliff’s long political life, as indeed the deep need for it must also have been. This is at the core of an understanding of Cliff’s highly personalised conception of what revolutionary politics is.


In an essay on the film director Roman Polanski, the late Kenneth Tynan wrote: “He has the assurance of all the great imposers. Let me clarify the concept of ‘imposing’. Derived from the French verb s’imposer, it is a quality of temperament or personality. It denotes the ability not only to impose one’s will on others (although that is a part of it) but to dictate the conditions – social, moral, sexual, political – within which one can operate with maximum freedom. In other words, assuming one has talent, the gift of imposing is what enables one to exercise it to the full. It does not merely stake one’s claim, it asserts one’s authority over a given field of work. ‘Inside this field’, it says, ‘you will defer to me’.

“Unfortunately, many untalented people have the knack of imposing; the arts are full of them, and very nasty they are. On the other hand, many talented people are quite unable to impose, being too gentle and reticent; and these are the saddest cases of all. Success or failure, fulfilment or frustration in almost every sphere of human activity is dependent on whether or not one has the trick of imposing.”

Cliff had it in spades. There is a touch of “greatness” in the sheer charlatan effrontery of the assertion at the head of this piece, designed to square the prematurely defeat-accepting concept of the “downturn” – which left the SWP utterly disoriented during the first months of the miners’ strike – with the greatest eruption of the class struggle in decades. It belongs in the same category as James P. Cannon’s attempt, when the shooting and bombing had finally stopped, to assert that, nonetheless, World War Two wasn’t really over. Reading Cliff’s remark, one has to remind oneself that this strike lasted 13 months, that at different junctures – when Liverpool dockers almost joined the miners; when the pit deputies (overseers) almost came out – the miners could have won and destroyed the Thatcher government.


The dilemmas that led Cliff in 1958 to turn “Luxemburgist”, mocking toy-town Leninism (and accepting Healy’s toy-town antics as Leninism or rooted in Leninism) were real and they are similar to dilemmas facing us now as a result of Cliff’s own work.

Bad slogans drive out good ones: raucous, pretend, ultra-leftism – it mainly is pretend, a matter of advertising slogan politics – makes measured, that is serious, left wing politics difficult. The existence of an ostensibly revolutionary organisation that is willing to say and do virtually anything for organisational advantage and is, in Tony Cliff’s style, utterly shameless about it, is a political curse. Not only is there the poisonous reality of such a sect, there are the inversions of itself it throws off repeatedly, making its effect doubly poisonous. That is Cliff’s legacy.

“The revolutionary party”, because it is an irreplaceable means for the socialist revolution, can seem to be a self-sufficient end in itself. That is a self-defeating delusion.

For Marxists, two ideas qualify their proper concentration on building a revolutionary organisation. One is to be found in the Communist Manifesto: the communists have no interests apart from the working class; they merely point out the necessary course of its own development to the working class and the existing labour movements, and fight to win them to that course.

The other is in the Transitional Programme of Trotsky’s Fourth International, listed amongst the cardinal principles that were to guide them in rebuilding revolutionary workers’ parties: the communists are always and everywhere, no matter what the consequences for themselves or their “revolutionary party”, guided by the logic of the class struggle.

Without these guiding notions there can be no such thing as a revolutionary socialist party, only onanistic sects. A revolutionary organisation not governed by these ideas in its quest for growth is free to counterpose itself to the labour movement, to access events in the class struggle according to its own needs, where the proper approach is the other way around. For Marxists guided by the injunctions of the Communist Manifesto, above, to go along with the nationalist poisoning of the working class in order to build their own organisation would be deeply senseless, though it might – and did – make sense to the “organisation first” neo-Trotskyists.

The joke is that those neo-Trotskyists who, for good “revolutionary” reasons, make an absolute fetish of “the party”, thereby stumble inadvertently into a conception of revolutionary politics that is the Second Internationalist notion of revolutionary politics – at its most degenerate. (With, in the case of the neo-Trotskyist groups, Zinovievist and Stalinist organisational patterns superimposed on it.)

The worst example in modern British labour movement history of what this can lead to was what Militant (the Socialist Party) did during the all-defining miners’ strike of 1984/5. In the leadership of the Merseyside labour movement, they could have thrown this substantial weight into the battle against the Tories. It might have meant the difference between victory and defeat, not only for the miners, but for the whole labour movement. Militant put its understanding of its own group’s best interests first, and made a deal with the Tories that removed the Mersey labour movement from the decisive battle. (It bought them a year. The miners defeated, the Tories came after them, the leaders of the Labour Party following after them.) If the revolutionary organisation is sufficient in itself, such an approach is reasonable. But the revolutionary organisation is not sufficient in itself.


Tony Cliff built a sect whose conception of politics puts its own structures in the central place the working class should occupy in its conception. It counterposes itself to the labour movement and puts its own perceived interests – how to recruit – above the interests of the labour movement, and even to the class struggle. It has for decades been organised as a cult around Cliff, with no democratic structures in which free debate or any power of decision in the affairs of the organisation is available to the members. He leaves behind a sizeable organisation whose members have no experience of resolving political questions: that was Cliff’s prerogative and those he chose to consult. Cliff’s departure will, though perhaps not immediately, throw that organisation into a crisis of self-redefinition in which his political and organisational legacy will come in for a very severe reappraisal.

Last updated on 19 April 2020