Issue 241 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Above all, he was a revolutionary
Tony Cliff 1917-2000
'He sensed before anyone else the need for change'
Optimism of the will
Tony Cliff, who died on 9 April, was a revolutionary socialist for nearly 70 years. He combined a theoretical understanding, which enabled him to make a real breakthrough in understanding the world, with a constant revolutionary practice which made possible the building of the SWP into a substantial, if still small, revolutionary party. In this special issue, three long standing comrades pay tribute to Cliff, we reprint an early interview with him, and we look at his political analysis today
Cliff's importance to the movement consists of two elements. First of all was his consistency. Once he had broken with Stalinism he never wavered. He viewed the social system in the USSR on the one hand and the US and Western Europe on the other hand as essentially the same--the class relationships were the same. The detail was considerably different, but these differences were entirely secondary. There was something else, however. He was consistent but he was also able to be inconsistent. Now that may sound rather foolish. What I mean is this: Cliff had an absolutely unerring sense when something was going wrong, when we were missing opportunities, and he'd produce lots of solutions. He sensed before anyone else the need for a change.
He came to Britain at an absolutely critical time, in the period after the Second World War when the whole Trotskyist movement was splintered. The majority went towards centrism and the notion that the East European regimes were somehow workers' states. Others went into deep entry in the Labour Party as a principle--to convert the Labour Party. It was an absurd move. Cliff never believed in deep entrism. It was purely tactical: we went into the Labour Party because there was nowhere else to find people to talk to. It was a tiny group, about 20 or so.
I first met Chanie in 1947 when I came out of the army. Cliff was in Dublin a lot of that time and I went back to Manchester to work in engineering. I first met Cliff in a comrade's bedsitting room. Perhaps there were 20 of us, perhaps only a dozen. The first task he gave me was to write a rebuttal of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism. Our little group entered into the Labour Party. There was never any perspective of shifting the Labour Party. As soon as we could get out we did, and then we went back in again. The occasion of getting out was of course 1956, the crisis of Stalinism. It was possible to find people around the CP and in particular its periphery, younger people. The second generation of our group we really recruited there.
Things changed again in 1968, when the struggles politicised a new generation and Cliff won many towards our politics. This wasn't done without a fight. We held two conferences in 1968. At the second one there were big arguments about democratic centralism. I chaired that second conference--what a job! But out of it we got a permanent leadership, which was what was needed.
We called ourselves the SWP from 1977. We said we are acting as a party--we might as well call ourselves a party. Life was often very hard in the 1980s, but today we're by far the largest thing on the left. We have made lots of mistakes, but I believe the organisation has done the best that could be done. Cliff was absolutely central at every stage, and his legacy is a party that can begin to make a difference and influence the struggle.
'Cliff has been vindicated time and time again'
It was back in 1972 that I first became aware of the International Socialists [forerunners of the SWP]. Dockers around Britain had struck in support of the five dockers who had defied the Industrial Relations Court. They had been jailed for picketing the unregistered container depots--inland warehouses deliberately constructed by the port employers to undermine the National Dock Labour Scheme (as discovered by Socialist Worker). Through the scheme dockers were able to regulate the flow of labour into the docks. We quickly generalised our struggle, and hundreds of thousands of unofficially led trade unionists were won to the slogan, 'Five trade unionists are inside. Why aren't you outside?'
I first met Tony Cliff in 1973 at a meeting organised by the IS. At the time I was in the Communist Party, although I had doubts about the CP's commitment to revolutionary change. First, I had read Milovan Djilas's book The New Class where he described the 'socialist countries' as state capitalist. He acknowledged that this description was shared by others, without putting a name to these people (Cliff had first published his description of the Eastern Bloc as state capitalist in 1948). Secondly, I had opposed Russian intervention in Czechoslovakia and had disagreements with Jack Dash, the dockers' rank and file leader, who was a friend and comrade in the CP.
At the meeting where Cliff spoke I quickly warmed to what he had to say. My first impression was of his humour. His entire manner was that of a supremely confident man without arrogance, a man who had the capacity to talk openly and honestly to workers, with an ability to turn abstract ideas into concrete tasks.
He was very critical of the role of the bureaucracy in our struggle. My most abiding impression was of his flexibility of thought. Naturally, he described the need for a revolutionary socialist party to take on the capitalist class. He offered the IS as our party in embryonic form. Cliff was quick to add that if it fouled up then we would have to rebuild anew.
Directly after the meeting Mickey Fenn, Ian Olley and myself joined the IS. Bob Light was already a member. Those were heady days. For the first time in our lives we had seen the bosses get a bloody nose. But as often happened the seventh cavalry in the shape of the trade union leaders, Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, rode to their rescue.
Cliff's arguments for a movement of workers organised independently of the trade union bureaucracy have been vindicated time and again. Think of the miners, steel workers, print workers, dock workers, car workers, etc.
Cliff's jokes were designed to better illustrate the point. For nearly 27 years I listened to the same jokes over and over again. Yet, because they were applied to a new situation, they always retained their freshness.
Cliff was physically built like a leprechaun, small in stature, but tough as old boots. He came across as a latter-day James Cagney, Edward G Robinson or Bill Shankly. He was a giant upon whose shoulders we were all privileged to stand. He was our teacher and motivator. Through his high-octane energy Cliff's bright flame lives on through us.
It is ironic that Cliff has gone at this particular juncture. After years of downturn, where we've had the fight against the fascists, the struggles against the poll tax, and the wars in Kosovo and Iraq, now we can see a chink of light. For the first time in years there is the possibility, through the crisis of reformism and the crisis of the system, that we have a chance to transform the smallest mass party in the world into a bigger mass party.
He built on the efforts of Trotsky, and laid the theoretical foundations upon which the SWP stands. Now he has passed the torch of socialism to us.
We'll miss those jokes and expressions. Here are some that spring to mind: 'My good god!' 'I'll tell you a secret.' 'I'll tell you straight.' 'Never lie to workers.' 'I don't give a damn.' But for sure he did give a damn, fighting against the filth of oppression all his life.
We don't need to build any statues--his party, our party, is his greatest monument. Philosophers have interpreted the world--the point is to change it. Just like all great revolutionaries, Cliff was in the world-changing business, and so are we.
' He had the respect of the best left wing militants'
Tony Cliff was a giant who touched many lives in the fight for socialism. During the 1984-85 miners' strike Cliff worked tirelessly in support of the miners. He did countless public meetings across Britain to build support and solidarity.
As a young miner new to revolutionary socialist ideas, I had the privilege to attend some of these meetings. Like thousands of other socialists, Cliff saw in the miners' strike the opportunity to stop Thatcher.
This 67 year old, white-haired Palestinian Jew had the respect of the best left wing militants across the coalfields. The strike had politicised people, and it was easy to see why. For 12 months the British state kicked the miners and their families from pillar to post. Thousands were arrested, two miners were killed on picket lines, and the media cheered Thatcher and her bootboys on. Under this sustained attack many of the old illusions in capitalism were being broken. This is why, in mining areas, socialists like Cliff always had a receptive audience. People listened intently as he put the argument for the miners and the struggle for socialism.
Cliff was in his element as he introduced us to the ideas of Marxism. He would tell us it was not good enough just to be a trade unionist, and that socialists had to fight for their class, not just one segment of it. In that fight he told us we had to be what Lenin called 'the tribunes of the oppressed', and fight all the divisions that the bosses foster. So when blacks were being attacked we were all black. And if it was gays under fire we were all gay.
But Tony Cliff was not just somebody who could hold a good meeting and make a fine speech of socialist propaganda. Cliff's Marxism was concrete at each twist and turn of our strike. He was always the first to argue what needed to be done. Thatcher's attempt to starve us back to work meant we had to build mass pickets at Orgreave, and miners' support groups.
I learned from Cliff that it was not good enough to be just a trade unionist, but a revolutionary first, second and third, then a member of the NUM. Cliff always put a stress on the words of the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci: pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.
This interview was first given to Nicolas Walter in June 1970 and reprinted in The Left in Britain by
The French events proved such people completely wrong
Everything came from the experience of the working class
We prefer to have the hypocrite in office
Nothing so romantic
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?
It isn't part of the Bolshevik tradition, this use of pseudonyms?
You mentioned Palestine. Would you like to say briefly what your personal background was before settling in this country?
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?
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?
How do you stand in relation to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and to the liberalisation movement in Czechoslovakia in 1968?
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?
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?
Would you still agree that it needed the intellectuals to detonate the revolution or would you say that it was coming anyhow?
But didn't the students' movement continue after the workers' movement had subsided?
Doesn't this contradict Lenin's theory of the consciousness of the working class?
From which one learns that Lenin must be treated with great care.
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?
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?
But didn't IS support the introduction of British troops into Northern Ireland?
What is your relationship to the Labour Party at the present time?
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?
What is your relationship towards the Communist Party of Great Britain?
Ideally you would like to see a revolutionary socialist party of your own?
How do you see the revolutionary party as being organised?
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 of 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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
What happens when a minority refuses to accept?
What do you think of the many groups active in this country who consider that the revolutionary situation is above all abroad?
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?
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.
Tony Cliff, who died last month, had a wonderful facility for using simple concrete phrases to put across complex abstract ideas. So, about ten years ago, he came out with the expression, 'The 1990s are like the 1930s in slow motion.' Like any metaphor it emphasised certain important features of the phenomenon it described rather than providing an exact scientific description. It summed up very succinctly the effect of successive economic crises at the base of society. This was creating political polarisation such as Europe had not known since the war.
On the one hand, fascist and racist movements were managing to grow and have an impact on the mainstream of political life--with the rise of Le Pen in France and the wave of racist attacks by Nazi organisations in Germany. On the other, there were signs of a swing to the left politically in the consciousness of many young people and workers, sometimes accompanied by sudden revivals of working class industrial struggle. To this extent it was very like the 1930s. There was, however, an important difference in the speed of events.
Whereas in the 1930s the process lasted one decade, this time it would stretch over a longer period. The economic crises would initially not be as deep as the great slump of 1929-34, because the US still maintained a level of arms spending which provided a floor beneath which the economy does not drop even in the deepest recessions. The middle class was not yet being driven to the edge of starvation, as in the early 1930s in Germany and central Europe, and so the radicalisation to the right was not yet on the same scale as that which brought Hitler to power in 1933. The fascists were not yet able to translate piles of voting papers into Stormtroopers fighting for control of the streets.
The radicalisation on the left was not yet on the scale as that in the 1930s either, with the Spanish revolutions of 1931 and 1936, the French factory occupations of June 1936, and the mushrooming of mass unionism in the US in 1936-37.
None of this, however, did away with the elements of similarity in the way in which the bitterness among millions of people was finding expression in contradictory ways, to the right and to the left. Nor did it do away with the need to learn the lesson from the 1930s: unless revolutionaries built organisations capable of giving leadership to much wider layers of people the new Nazis would seek to be the beneficiaries of the bitterness.
The formulation was immensely important. It cut through the facile optimism of people like the old Marxism Today crowd who substituted faith in the latest fashions of capitalism, with the strange belief that designer labels meant instant prosperity all round, for their former faith in the ageing bureaucrats of the USSR. But it also cut through the mirror-image pessimism of large numbers of those who stuck with the left--the belief that capitalism in general and US imperialism in particular had seen off all possible opposition. It is a pessimism that dies hard.
It is carried to its logical extreme in an editorial statement by Perry Anderson in the latest New Left Review: 'Socialism has ceased to be a widespread ideal. Marxism is no longer dominant on the culture of the left. Even Labourism is largely dissolved... The principal aspect of the past decade...is the virtually uncontested consolidation, and universal diffusion, of neo-liberalism... For the first time since the Reformation, there are no longer any significant oppositions within the thought-world of the west, and scarcely any on a world scale either.'
New voices of opposition
Cliff's analysis was very different. He recognised the decline in the anti-capitalist movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s long before most other people. He never concealed the seriousness of the defeats workers' organisations suffered in the 1980s, especially in Britain after the miners' strike and Wapping. But he also saw we were entering a new period of turmoil which was creating new oppositions to the system. Spells of apparent stability for the system would suddenly give way to economic and political crises. There would be despair at the base of society, but there would also be repeated ideological and political splits at the top.
Neo-liberalism, with its pretence that the capitalist state no longer matters, might be a fine ideology for capitalists trying to cut welfare provision to the bone and divert funds into their own pockets. But big capitalists would ignore their own ideology and turn to states to bail them out if major bankruptcies threatened. This would lead to bitter rows with other capitalists and their political representatives. At the same time the drive by nationally based multinational capitals to control the world would lead to more, not fewer, clashes between their states than in the past. The result would be global instability and unexpected wars.
Cliff also grasped something which most of the left internationally could not see. Right wing social democratic politicians might be the first to be raised up by this wave of political radicalisation. But it would sweep on to create powerful ripples to the left of them. There would emerge new anti-capitalist oppositions, despite the pessimism of people like Anderson. Because the whole process was taking place much slower than in the 1930s there would be times and places when the system seemed to have stabilised. This proved to be the case in east Asia in the mid-1990s, leading to euphoric journalists and politicians claiming this showed the future for the world system. It happened again with the US boom of the late 1990s, with the same people claiming a 'new paradigm' spelt endless prosperity. Such claims, as always, confused some on the left.
The path for socialists was not one of simple, smooth advance. It involved detours and setbacks. There was always the risk of alternate spells of mania as things advanced, and of depression as the setbacks took place. The temptation was to fall into the slough of despond, to decide that the 1990s was not different to the 1980s, and to abandon activist politics for socialist propagandism. Yet by the end of the 1990s the new voices of opposition were to be heard alongside the old, even if not always singing the tunes the old left learnt 30 years before. They made a worldwide impact with the demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organisation.
In fact, the 1990s were more unstable in many ways than had been predicted. The world's rising economic power of the 1980s, Japan, got stuck in the sand, finding no way of escaping from an eight year recession. Post-reunification Germany was only in marginally better shape, leading to unemployment levels across Europe as a whole of 10 percent and more. The economy of the former USSR--the world's second superpower only a dozen years ago--went through a worse slump even than that which hit the US and Germany in the early 1930s. The 1990s became known as 'the lost decade' in Latin America. The east Asian 'miracle' came to a sudden end in 1997. And most of Africa experienced a continuation of three decades of declining output per head and, with it, malnutrition, recurrent famines and, in some key countries, massive falls in life expectancy.
If mainstream economic commentators were making so much of the US boom as the decade ended, it is largely because it is the only bright spot on their world maps--and most of them expect it to start flickering the moment reality catches up with share prices.
The economic instability was more than matched by political instability across wide areas of the globe. The decade began with a war of the western powers against Iraq and ended with one against Serbia. Civil wars swept much of Africa, the Balkans and the southern belt of the former USSR. Russia twice fought barbarous wars against Chechnya, and two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, came close to all-out war in the summer of 1999.
If there had only been economic and political instability, however, Cliff's metaphor for the early 1990s would have been proved incorrect. For what characterised the 1930s was not just the horror, but the rise of working class resistance to that horror in countries like France and Spain, even if it was eventually defeated. Fortunately the 1990s did witness a rebirth of resistance in some important countries.
Recovery of the workers movement
The early and mid-1990s saw new strike movements in Germany, much larger than any seen in the late 1960s or early 1970s. A general strike and demonstrations led to the fall of the Berlusconi government in Italy. One-day general strikes swept through one Canadian city after another. There were recurrent strike waves in Greece and South Korea. A spontaneous near-uprising brought down the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia. And there were the enormous November-December 1995 strikes and demonstrations in France against the neo-liberal agenda of the Juppé government.
The last, in particular, was not just an economic phenomenon. It has created a climate in which all sorts of left wing political movements are taking off: huge teachers' and students' struggles in the schools; demonstrations in support of 'sans papiers' immigrants; mass confrontations with the National Front; protests over ecological degradation; lorry drivers' blockades over the working week; 60,000 demonstrators in support of the Seattle protest; nearly a million votes for Trotskyist candidates in the European elections; and 60,000 supporters for a movement like Attac, anti-neoliberal if not yet anti-capitalist.
You can see a process at work we've seen so often before in the history of capitalism. The sudden recovery of the workers' movement produces new, more radical ways of thinking among some layers of intellectuals and students, and this in turn has the potential to feed back into the workers' movement. This was what happened in the 1840s, 1860s, 1880s, after 1917, in the 1930s and in the late 1960s. Academic Marxists like Anderson are blind to this process because they have never understood that social forces give rise to new ideas, not new ideas to social forces.
There are similarities with France itself in 1934-36 but, as Cliff's formula suggested, in slow motion. Four years after the winter of 1995, the wave of struggles in France have still not peaked and there is still nothing comparable to the occupation of the factories in June 1936. By contrast, four years after 1934, the movement was already on the downward slope that saw Petain in power in the spring of 1940.
As Cliff stressed with his metaphor, although the forces at work are similar to those of seven decades ago we are fortunate in having more time to cope with them and to ensure a different outcome. But the price if we fail to rise to the challenge can be even higher.