Tony Cliff: biography of a devoted and enthusiastic socialist

Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time
by Ian Birchall
London: Bookmarks, 2011, 664 pp.

Review by Barry Healy

July 12, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Tony Cliff was one of the most significant English-speaking Marxist activists of the late 20th century. When he died in 2000, after half a century of unceasing activism, his monument was Britain’s Socialist Workers Party, which, having evolved from the earlier Socialist Review and International Socialism groups, is the largest far-left organisation in that country.

As depicted in Ian Birchall’s biography of Cliff, through the words of a large number of interviewees, not all of whom agreed with him, he refused to tolerate any hint of hero worship or personal cultism. Never a drinker, never a smoker and dying with no wealth to his name, his lived a life of energetic movement and party building combined with literary effort.

Perhaps what is most striking is that Cliff was a great charmer, a brilliant (if unconventional) political orator -- and ruthless within his own party, effectively conspiring against its elected leadership when it suited him. He also favoured allowing informal leadership bodies to develop, through which he could work.

Some of the fallings out in those structures led to bad blood between Cliff and a number of SWP ex-members. So, while an example of life-long dedication, Cliff certainly was not without his faults. Whether a fault or not (depending on your point of view) he also was utterly determined when it came to individual recruitment.

There are several stories in this book of individuals whom Cliff personally recruited, through never-ending talking. Modern-day Cliffs use ceaseless texting to the same purpose.

Born Ygael Gluckstein, Cliff was the son of Russian Zionist migrants to Palestine. As a teenager he became an active Zionist but after reading Leon Trotsky’s My Life, he joined a Marxist group and began his lifelong organising of meetings, supporting strikers and selling of the party press.

As an anti-Zionist, the establishment of Israel held no allure for Cliff and he moved to London, where he was to live -- with only one short interruption -- for the rest of his life, without a secure visa.

Shortly after he arrived, the British Trotskyist group, the Revolutionary Communist Party, split into three competing parts, each led by an individual who was to loom large in coming decades: Tony Cliff, Gerry Healy and Ted Grant. Of the three, only Cliff was fated to not be expelled by the organisation that he founded.

Cliff’s claim to fame in the universe of Trotskyism was penning State Capitalism in Russia, his theoretical explanation for the degeneration of the Soviet Union. For Cliff’s supporters the theory is their central tenet. Cliff’s “unique intellectual contribution was to describe, in the late 1940s, the Soviet Union as state capitalist, and therefore imperialist", wrote Cliff’s comrade Paul Foot in his obituary in the Guardian newspaper.

Whereas Trotsky had defended the surviving embers of socialised property relations in the USSR, while opposing Stalinism, Cliff denounced the Soviet Union as a new form of capitalism and refused to support it in any way.

While giving Cliff’s supporters a unique position to robustly present within the left, the state capitalist theory has uncertainties that weaken its force. For example: if the Soviet Union was just a variation on the theme of capitalism, given that it represented, albeit in a deformed manner, progressive politics, why should Marxists not offer it limited support?

The Stalinised USSR’s relationship with other countries was never wholeheartedly anti-imperialist. Yet, Third World revolutionaries looked to it successfully for support, which they never received from the USA or Britain. Despite that, Cliff hammered away at denouncing both Washington and Moscow as equivalents, beginning with the Korean War (1950-53).

While coloured by all sorts of international complexities the Korean War was, at heart, the attempt by the Korean people to reunify their country. However, Cliff maintained a strict neutrality, blaming US imperialism and “Russian imperialism” equally for the conflict.

Under the pressure of 1950s anti-communist witchhunts the state capitalist theory provided a safe haven for those wanting to distance themselves from the embarrassment of association with Stalinism.

According to the theory, North Vietnam and the Vietnamese National Liberation Front should have been as equally reprehensibly capitalist as North Korea, but Cliff was to change his position, though not his underlying theory, when US aggression in Vietnam sparked a worldwide youth protest upsurge.

In another element of differentiation from the rest of the Trotskyist left, for most of the 1960s Cliff’s group depicted itself as Luxembourgist, rather than Leninist, a particular wrinkle based on Cliff’s 1959 pamphlet about Rosa Luxembourg. Towards the end of the decade he quietly rewrote the pamphlet’s final conclusions and pushed his organisation towards a version of Leninism – a prime example of Cliff’s preparedness to “bend the stick” in debate.

Cliff never lost his Trotskyist orientation to the working class, insisting that it is the self-activity of workers that is the engine of socialist revolution. In this he was no different to the other British Trotskyists.

However, Cliff also knew when it was important to relate to any other social sector in left-wing motion, like students in the 1960s or anti-racist youth in the 1970s. The massive Rock Against Racism concerts organised by the Anti-Nazi League were products of the SWP’s preparedness to quickly pour all its energies into a campaign.

Later, the SWP turned vigorously towards mining communities when they struggled against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s brutal assaults.

While reporting most of the debates Cliff and the SWP engaged in during this period, Ian Birchall passes over in silence the SWP’s failure to support the Liverpool councillors, organised and led by the Militant Group, a competing Trotskyist tradition, when Thatcher attacked them. The SWP welcomed the election of the Militant-led Liverpool council with the headline, “Sold Down the Mersey”.

It is an unusual omission, because, despite his obvious admiration, Birchall has meticulously researched this work and does not flinch from mentioning Cliff’s failings.

Cliff gave a lot of energy to a multi-volume biography of Lenin, in which he emphasised Lenin’s tactical adroitness and his willingness to “bend the stick” in debate. The biography, while useful, has not become a standard text, largely because it also is a defence of Cliff’s distinctive method.

While not an influential historian outside of his own followers, Cliff was a dazzling public speaker with a special talent for communicating complex theoretical ideas in plain English (though his English was highly accented and unique to the day he died).

Through mangled metaphors and mispronunciations, stories and jokes, he communicated more than Marxist theory, he connected listeners to his absolute belief in the ability of ordinary people to raise themselves and remake the world. He held many an audience in the palm of his hand and countless who heard him were inspired to a lifetime commitment to socialism.

Tony Cliff’s state capitalist theory, which his followers still elevate as a central point of differentiation, has been disproved by the restoration of actual capitalism in Russia, and its effects. He nevertheless deserves honour as a devoted and enthusiastic socialist who won thousands of people to the banner of liberation.