Tony Cliff

Nothing so romantic

An interview by Nicholas Walter


First published in Idiot International, June 1970.
Reprinted in David Widgery (ed.), The Left in Britain, Harmondsworth 1976.
Reprinted in Socialist Review 241, May 2000.
Downloaded from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Here is Cliff as many will remember him in a fascinating interview from the archives. His defence of socialism and the revolutionary party is combative and passionate as he answers questions on everything from Northern Ireland to the Labour Party

Your name is not in fact Tony Cliff. Why do you find it useful to use a pseudonym?

I worked for 13 years in illegal conditions in Palestine under British rule and there we had to use pseudonyms, and I think it just became habit forming.

It isn’t part of the Bolshevik tradition, this use of pseudonyms?

No, I don’t think it came from that, nothing as romantic.

You mentioned Palestine. Would you like to say briefly what your personal background was before settling in this country?

I was born in Palestine in 1917 to a Zionist family, but from very early youth I was disgusted by the terrible conditions of the Arab children. I was from a middle class family with quite good educational opportunities and quite a good standard of living, whereas the Arab children were very poor with no chance of education. I became, very early on, anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist.

You are now best known in this country as one of the leading members of the IS group. Would you like to say what the origins of the group are and what its position is now, and how it is distinguished from other British political groups?

Central to our position is the statement that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class – which many only mouth on May Days and other occasions of celebration. This statement is for us the beginning and the end of all our analysis. And if you put the working class at the centre of the arena then socialism cannot be established except through the expression of the potentialities of the working class.

As a group which emphasises the central role of the working class, IS does seem to be a group which has a very large proportion of intellectuals in its membership. Would you like to explain this?

I think that the picture people have about IS from outside is not exactly correct. Even members of IS are sometimes misled about our social composition. Out of about 1,000 members we have just over 200 manual workers and, because they have a base in industry, are much less known in national terms but are much more important for the organisation. It is very bad that we still have such a small minority of workers in the group, but this is largely because militant workers have traditions of their own and are very often in their own organisations. They are not ready to accept us and it takes a much longer time for them to accept us than for intellectuals who are playing with ideas and not really facing the problems of life.

How do you stand in relation to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and to the liberalisation movement in Czechoslovakia in 1968?

The Hungarian Revolution threw forward the form of the workers’ council, the most democratic form of organisation of the working class, and it is thus in the same tradition as the Paris Commune and October Revolution, and we wholeheartedly supported it. The Czech events were different – merely an effort by part of the Czech bureaucracy to bring reform from above in order to prevent a revolution from below.

You began your political career by rejecting Zionism. What is your present attitude towards the Middle East, with regard to Israel and the semi-socialist Arab countries?

The term semi-socialist is absolutely wrong. One would have to speak of middle class state capitalist regimes in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Naturally we support unconditionally the Arab revolution against imperialism and Zionism, and I believe that this struggle will never be won unless the struggle of the Arab peasant for land is connected with the struggle against Zionism. That is why the struggle against Dayan cannot be separated from the struggle against Feisal, Hussein, Nasser and the Ba’ath. Therefore the only two organisations we support in the Middle East are the Democratic Front and Maatzpen within Israel itself.

To move much closer home. You have written about France in 1968 – what do you think of the events of 1968 and the position since then?

For 20 years the myth existed amongst some so called “Marxists” that the working class in Western Europe was completely integrated by washing machines and televisions, and that they had therefore lost all their revolutionary potentialities. Many people looked to anyone but the workers of Western Europe – students, peasants in Bolivia, or anyone – but not the working class itself. The French events proved such people completely wrong. For 20 years we had said so and we were proved right – the working class is the only real agent for social change. But the French events also proved something else. They proved that even with the biggest strike in world history, without the organisation to link up the different sections of the working class the ruling class in its centralisation will triumph. Thus the French events confirm the working class as the agents of social change and also confirm the need for a revolutionary party.

Would you still agree that it needed the intellectuals to detonate the revolution or would you say that it was coming anyhow?

It is easier for students to act because a minority of students can act on their own to start with. Workers cannot go on strike in a minority – for students it is much easier to act. But their impact is far more limited, and therefore students rise like a rocket and fall like a stick. They are manic depressive, whereas workers, once they move, are much more effective – there is no question about that.

But didn’t the students’ movement continue after the workers’ movement had subsided?

I think as a matter of fact that the student movement declined after the May events. There was fantastic dissension and bitterness, and a feeling of hopelessness leading to adventurism and the search for short-cuts, and the lesson is really quite simple. You can’t lead the working class from outside – you need an organisation that is part of the class and not superimposed from outside.

Doesn’t this contradict Lenin’s theory of the consciousness of the working class?

Here you are wrong. It is true that in 1902 he said that consciousness can only come to the working class from outside, but in 1905 he wrote, “The working class is instinctively and spontaneously social democratic” (in those days that was the name of the revolutionary party), or again he wrote, “The special condition of the proletariat in capitalist society leads to a struggle of the workers for socialism.” A union of them with the socialist party burst forth with spontaneous force. And he was not an elitist – in the act of the revolution he knew that the workers had to be organised in mass revolutionary organisations.

From which one learns that Lenin must be treated with great care.

From which one must learn that Lenin as a Marxist knew that Marxism is a guide to action, and that action depends always on the concrete situation.

Isn’t there a danger that the party which tries to organise the workers will suffer the same degeneration as the Communist Party of France?

There are two conceptions of the vanguard party – one is of the party that stands in front of the class, the other is that the most advanced sections of the class are organised in a party. This second concept is the Marxist concept, and if you say that any organisation is bound to degenerate then really you have to accept the pessimists’ conception of original sin, and if you accept this pessimistic conception then you can say goodbye to socialism. There is nothing inherently bad in organisation. If there is, then there is no future for socialism.

To move to Northern Ireland, there have been great difficulties amongst left groups as to what position to adopt towards Northern Ireland. What is the IS position?

Our attitude has two elements to it. First of all we argue that only the working class of Ireland, both Catholic and Protestant, can emancipate themselves nationally and socially. But at the same time we argue that for wholly historical reasons a Catholic worker doesn’t identify himself with a Protestant worker, and vice versa, and therefore our attitude towards the Catholic is like our attitude towards black rebels in America. We are for black and white uniting and fighting, but we are for the black rebels acting for themselves without waiting for the white workers to catch up. Therefore we support the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland even though it is Catholic, and at the same time we believe that the civil rights movement can never win unless the bread and butter questions of jobs, houses, etc, come to the front so that Catholics and Protestants unite and fight.

But didn’t IS support the introduction of British troops into Northern Ireland?

Absolutely not. We never supported this idea. But let me give you an analogy. If there are 50 fascists and 5,000 of us, and 100 police between us, then we say, “Get the police out of the way, we want to smash the fascists.” But if there are 5,000 of them and 50 of us then we don’t say, “get the police out.” We never welcomed British troops. We recognised that their role is to stabilise British imperialism in Northern Ireland, but we couldn’t ask Catholic workers in Belfast to demand the right to be pogromed against.

What is your relationship to the Labour Party at the present time?

The Labour Party is a capitalist party. It carries capitalist policies, but it does this with the consent of many workers who believe that it is not a capitalist party. Therefore our job is to do two things: first of all to expose the truth about what the Labour Party is – that it carries out capitalist policies on things like unemployment, immigration, imperialism, etc, etc, etc – and this is the most important job. No one should ever tell lies to the class, and we should tell them that in the real world this is what the Labour Party is like. The Labour Party is not a socialist alternative to the Tories, and therefore there is no alternative at present. That’s the first thing to say – but on election day we have to say in all honesty that if the Tories win, the ruling class that identifies itself with the Tory Party, and has done so for hundreds of years (after all, big business gives subsidies only to the Tory Party, not to Labour), and their pleasure is enough to say, “We must wipe their smiles off their faces, even if we have to use such a bastard as Harold Wilson.”

Secondly, Wilson in opposition would take out the little red book of the sayings of Nye Bevan that he keeps in his pocket, and Anthony Greenwood, instead of murdering the Adenese workers, would be chairman of the Movement for Colonial Freedom. We prefer to have that hypocrite in office where he cannot hide behind his left face. Therefore, from the standpoint of exposure of both parties, it is better to have Labour in power. Or as good old Lenin put it, “We will support the Labour Party like the rope supports a hanging man.” Therefore tactically, when the election comes, we will continue to attack the Labour government’s record of a capitalist government and at the end we will say, because we have no other alternative, it is tactically better to have Harold Wilson than Ted Heath.

Would you go further than this and say that IS should work inside the Labour Party as actual members of the party?

Because we have no respect at all for the Labour Party, our attitude vis-à-vis entrism into the Labour Party is like that of someone going poaching. If it helps in poaching to get a licence, then you do it. That is our attitude vis-à-vis the Labour Party. If we were in Nazi Germany we certainly would have been in the Arbeitsfront. One decides such questions upon the concrete reality of the day. At the moment it would be pointless to become members of the Labour Party.

What is your relationship towards the Communist Party of Great Britain?

The CP has a dual role. On the one hand it is a community of militants, mainly industrial militants, that join the party because they don’t want to be isolated at their place of work. On the other hand the leadership is an agency of the foreign policy of the Russian bureaucracy and the result is, of course, that every time Stalin sneezed, Harry Pollitt got his handkerchief out of his pocket. We oppose consistently the policies of the party and the leadership of the party, especially now that the CP has become such a right wing social democratic party, supporting the parliamentary road to socialism, very soft on trade union bureaucrats like Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon. But at the same time we collaborate with rank and file industrial members of the CP in various joint activities.

Ideally you would like to see a revolutionary socialist party of your own?

Yes, of course. We believe that the vanguard section of the class, in other words the most advanced section of the working class, the 200,000 shop stewards of this country, should be organised not only industrially but also politically. There should not be individual shop stewards like individual marbles in different shops, but a shop stewards’ movement that will also have political life of its own, and this will be the revolutionary party.

How do you see the revolutionary party as being organised?

Because the working class has to emancipate itself, the revolutionary party must reflect the class. But which section of the class is it to reflect? There is an unevenness of consciousness in the class, therefore the party must reflect the consciousness of the more advanced section of the class.

It must be extremely democratic, because the only way in which you can reflect the mass of the people is by having a great deal of internal democracy. It is not true that the working class has one cohesive point of view. The revolutionary party would reflect that lack of cohesion, of course. And therefore, if you speak in terms of dialogue with a class, the class itself has different views, and therefore this democracy is necessary. Centralism is necessary for obvious reasons. The ruling class is highly centralistic, and we can’t fight the enemy unless we have a symmetrical organisation to it, and every strike is centralistic. The worker goes to work as an individual. When he goes on strike he acts as a collective. Revolution is the most centralistic thing in the world, and that is why in time of revolution you speak about Paris 1789, you don’t speak about 5 million Frenchmen, when you speak about Russia, you don’t speak about 200 million Russians, you speak about Petrograd.

Do you see no contradiction, for example, between the 2 million of Petrograd and the much smaller numbers of the military committee the Bolsheviks in Petrograd who actually carried out the revolution? Can there be no contradiction between the centre of the party and its base in any particular area?

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.

But nevertheless, this does seem to suggest that the centralism of your democratic party, the militancy of the class, the militancy of the party, seems to be directed not so much against the class enemy – since you suggest this will fade away in a revolution – as against the less advanced sections of the working class.

The answer is this: up to now, with every strike, the fight is never between the workers and the employers, because the employers never did anything for themselves in their lives – they didn’t fight imperialistic wars, they sent workers to fight imperialist wars, they didn’t break strikes themselves, they sent workers to break the strikes. And if you want to say that every strike is a fight between workers and workers, it is absolutely true. A section of workers are serving the ruling class. It is the same in Vietnam: it is not a war between the South Vietnamese peasants and American multi-millionaires – on the contrary, the American multi-millionaires are not drafted, it is a struggle between Vietnamese peasants and American workers in uniforms.

This seems to suggest a rather interesting development in Marxism, where you no longer have classes acting out their destinies separately. You are suggesting that the working class is divided between those who are serving their real interests and those who are serving the interests of the ruling class. In a sense, the ruling class scarcely seems to exist in this analysis.

No, on the contrary. Even in 1789 the bourgeoisie didn’t make its own revolution – it was the sans-culottes of Paris who had to make the revolution. The capitalist never did anything for himself, by definition he never does anything for himself, he uses other people. In a revolution it is always the poor that are being used. It is the class struggle – the struggle between the workers and the capitalist class is always reflected in the struggle between the section of the working class which is under the influence of the capitalist class and the section which is opposed to the capitalist class.

I am still worried about some of your remarks about the party’s function. I should like to ask you more carefully: before any revolutionary situation, how should the party consider its relationship to other organs, either Marxist or non-Marxist, but still revolutionary organs nonetheless?

We are against substitution, but we are also against saying let’s wait until everyone is ready to march. You have to stand up and say when we want the majority to march. If the majority accept it they will march then. If not, you stand there as a minority and you stick to your position. The same applies to the revolutionary party – the revolutionary party cannot substitute for the class. The working class must emancipate itself. The emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class.

The role of the revolutionary party is to come forward and explain to other workers what the party thinks the correct policy should be. The only way the strike committee can win is by the members of the strike committee proving themselves more consistent, more loyal to the interests of the majority, etc, etc, etc. They have to be put to the test, and therefore we are absolutely for the freedom of all socialist parties to stand in competition, with the real hope, of course, that if we are correct 99.9 percent of workers will vote for us and 0.0001 percent will vote for Harold Wilson. But we have not arrived at that yet.

Let’s take a concrete example. In Russia after the Bolshevik revolution there were democratic elections, against which one can raise many objections, but nevertheless there was a majority in favour of moderate peasant socialism and a very small minority vote for the Bolsheviks. In such a situation what do you think the Bolshevik Party or any other vanguard revolutionary party should have done?

The basic tragedy of the Russian Revolution – and this is really a tragedy – is that the Russian working class was such a small minority. And therefore in the Russian Revolution we had a combination of two revolutions: a working class revolution which was aiming at socialism and a peasant revolution which was aiming basically at what the French Revolution of 1789 achieved. Now the French peasant, once he got the land, became a conservative element that smashed the 1848 revolution, that smashed the Paris Commune of 1871, because the peasant had something to conserve. Now the Russian Bolsheviks knew that this was the situation in Russia, and assumed that the German Revolution would come to their help to get them out of the dilemma. But German Social Democracy smashed the German Revolution of 1918–9 and the Russian Revolution remained in isolation. Once the Russian Revolution remained in isolation the working class power base became very very narrow. Moreover, the Russian working class practically disintegrated in the course of the civil war. There were 3 million industrial workers in 1917, there were only 1 million in 1920. Under such conditions you couldn’t speak about the possibility of a democratic set-up. The Bolsheviks were really faced with a terrible tragedy. Their only mistake, if they made a mistake, was that quite often they made a virtue out of necessity.

If such a situation recurred as in France in 1968, when there were elections despite the massive strikes and the enormous social mobility, there was yet again a majority for social democracy and indeed for Gaullist democracy. Again, what should a revolutionary party do if it had the power to upset such elections?

So long as the majority of the workers don’t support the revolutionary party, the revolutionary party has no alternative but patience to go on trying to get the confidence of the mass of the workers. You can’t make a revolution behind the back of the working class. We don’t believe in the minority acting for the class. We are not terrorists – in other words liberals that despise the working class and suggest that a minority should use a bomb. The liberal with a bomb – that’s what a terrorist is, and that’s basically what the anarchists are, you know, because they really don’t believe in the working class or in action. If the majority of workers are supporting the Communist Party you have to go on and on explaining and showing in practice through the day to day struggle that they are wrong.

To go further with the revolutionary party, being democratic it will come to decisions in a democratic way. Being centralist, how will it carry out such decisions if there is dissension?

If a majority of workers decide on a strike, and even if you think this specific strike is wrong, you don’t cross the picket line. You accept the decision. For example – I will go to the extreme – the workers are going on strike on racialist grounds. I would not cross the picket line. I would stand next to the picket line and condemn the strike – I’ll say it is a wrong strike, that it is a reactionary strike, but I am not going to break democratic decisions of workers. Therefore there is no question about it; if a majority decides on it the minority has to obey it, the minority of course has to have complete guarantee that it will have all the time, the opportunity to express its views and influence the views of the majority – and not in secrecy, but in open debate in the face of the class.

What happens when a minority refuses to accept?
If the minority decides to cross the picket lines the majority are absolutely right in trying to stop them.

What do you think of the many groups active in this country who consider that the revolutionary situation is above all abroad?

Of course, I do not say that the revolutionary situation is at home. We are not yet there. But we are in a long transition towards a big convulsion and there is no question that the 1970s will be the red 70s – if they are not the red 70s they will be the black 70s. We are not going to repeat the disorganisation of 1948 onwards. And my attitude to the other groups – I believe the majority of them, because of many, many years of frustration and isolation, in the end turn to the game of sour grapes. They accept their impotence, accept their weakness, and therefore they get vicarious pleasure from people struggling elsewhere. And so they are absolute experts about the Paris Commune – every one of them will tell you what the Paris communards should have done. They are experts about Bolivia, they are experts about Vietnam, they know absolutely clearly everything that Lenin said to Plekhanov. But they know very little about British working class history, they know very little about the British working class, they care very little about the struggle in this country.

And why? Because in reality they are beaten! They are beaten, they are demoralised, because they really don’t believe Marxism is a guide to action. They believe that Marxism is a description of reality, instead of a factor in changing reality. If the only thing you are aiming at is not to fight the elephant but to make a picture of the elephant, there is no reason why you and I shouldn’t collaborate in picturing the elephant – you can picture your elephant and I can picture my elephant. Similarly, you can kill your capitalism and I can kill my capitalism; you can smash Wilson and I can smash Wilson tomorrow. And this way we don’t have to unite. If we have to fight with the existing real elephant we have to unite forces, and therefore sectarianism is the by-product of all this substitutionism, of giving up the real struggle.

You don’t feel at all incongruous as a non-member of the working class with almost the whole of your political philosophy directed towards the working class? You yourself, in a sense, are substituting, surely?

No, on the contrary, nothing of the sort. If you look at my book on productivity I don’t hide the fact at all that not one idea of it was created at the university, not one idea was created in the library, not one idea came from my own blooming brain. Everything came from the experience of the class, everything came from the experience of workers, and it came from the past.

It was the workers of Russia who created the soviet, and it was Lenin who understood how marvellous an organisation it was. It was the workers of Paris who created the Paris Commune, and it was Marx who understood the great importance of this type of workers’ government. You learn from the workers to the workers, from their struggle to the struggle. And that is why I don’t feel a substitutionist at all.


Last updated on 3 February 2017