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.


Submitted by Critical Reading (not verified) on Thu, 07/12/2012 - 13:32


There are a lot of criticisms that have been raised against Cliff's theory of state capitalism, but it's odd to claim that the shift to market capitalism refutes it. If anything, the ease with which the existing rulers transformed the economy and maintained their own power as a political and economic elite, might suggest that rather than a counter-revolution taking place there was a shift from one variety of capitalism to another—something which Cliff and his many followers certainly believed was always possible.

Submitted by Renfrey Clarke (not verified) on Fri, 07/13/2012 - 05:49

In reply to by Critical Reading (not verified)


Mate, you didn't live through it. I did.
If the social order in the Soviet Union had been any kind of capitalism, the transformation that took place after 1990 would have amounted in essence to hanging out a new shop-sign and getting on with business. The reality was unimaginably different.
The counter-revolution of the 1990s was a decade-long trauma whose low point, following the 1998 default by the Russian state on its bonds, saw GDP at a level barely half that of eight years earlier. In the course of the collapse Soviet science was sacrificed; many of the most technologically advanced sectors of the economy were effectively shut down (Western capital had no need of extra competitors), and production was reconfigured on a narrow basis of extractive industries serving export markets. The cadres who represented one of the world's great concentrations of scientific expertise were dispersed, going into emigration or forced to try to remake themselves as petty entrepreneurs.
The suffering of working people was pitiful to behold. Skilled workers who had put aside money over decades for their retirement lost their savings overnight when the currency was allowed to collapse. Among my friends and neighbours in Moscow were many people who went for months at a time without being paid, living on the potatoes they dug from the soil of their dacha plots.
The central reason why the transition wasn't "easy" but catastrophic is that the Soviet economy wasn't capitalist at all. It had been set up in order to be run on a planned basis that was quite incompatible with capitalism. Its rationale wasn't the maximising of private profit, but the meeting of a broad range of social, institutional and strategic needs, worked out in involved discussions and struggles within the party-state bureaucracy.
When the enterprises were privatised, the new owners very often found that operating them on a capitalist basis was simply impossible. Enterprises were often in the "wrong" places, having been built there in order to meet the need of local populations for employment. In social terms this had made ample sense - but the plants couldn't be run at a profit.
Local monopolies were the norm - the Soviet territorial production complexes had had no place for capitalist competition. Once released from the strictures of state planning, the managers of the monopoly enterprises went on orgies of price-gouging, often rendering the whole complexes of which they were part economically unviable.
What were the managers-turned-capitalists to do with their impossibly uncapitalist assets? In a great many cases the "solution" was to turn the enterprises, which had produced useful goods while providing employment and social support for thousands of people,into scrap metal which was then shipped to the West. In the 1990s one of the world's prime exporters of non-ferrous metals was - Latvia.
Meanwhile the bureaucrats and enterprise managers, who had exchanged power for property, hadn't the slightest notion of how to operate as capitalists - not that the textbooks of western "ekonomiks" were of much use in the bizarre post-Soviet context anyway. Where Russian industry continued to function, which was largely in the resource-based sectors, the new "oligarchic" structures - highly monopolistic, symbiotic with the state bureaucracy, and extensively criminalised - reflected the managerial habits of the Soviet planned economy far more than any model to be found in the capitalist West.
I came away from Russia in 1999 convinced that if "state caps" in the West were still holding their heads up, it could only be on the basis of an irreducible ignorance of realities both Soviet and post-Soviet. The "state caps" are still around - and so too, it's clear, is the ignorance.
It's worth noting that a rich school of post-Soviet Russian Marxism, led by such figures as Aleksandr Buzgalin, Andrey Kolganov and Boris Kagarlitsky, has taken up the task of analysing both the USSR in its final decades and the strange semi-capitalist mutant that has succeeded it. I do my bit by translating their writings.
Note also a forthcoming Pluto title by the economist Ruslan Dzarasov, who takes apart the internal regime of the oligarchic empires, and traces its evolution from the forms of Soviet bureaucratic planning.
A final observation - Barry Healy is far too kind in his review. Tony Cliff was a great left activist, but he was a lousy Marxist. His theory of Soviet "state capitalism", in my view, was an attempt to skyve off from the hard necessity of distinguishing and defending the progressive elements that survived, against all the odds, in Stalin's USSR. Cliff's stance here amounted to sheer political poltroonery.

"Mate, you didn't live through it. I did."

Renfrey, I am not sure why you feel the need to run with so much sneer in this debate. There are other people who lived in the Eastern Bloc during the transition who have analysed it through the lens of the theory of state capitalism (see, for example, Gareth Dale's work on East Germany). My own family lived in Poland both before and after 1989 and their (non-Marxist but experiential) assessment would provide little with which to settle the argument in your favour.

Importantly, your response does nothing to rebut Critical Reading's central assertion, which is about "the ease with which the existing rulers transformed the economy and maintained their own power as a political and economic elite". The debate on the nature of Stalinist Russia cannot simply be based on how much suffering was imposed on the Russian working class in the course of the 1990s. This was indeed catastrophic but on this issue you would get zero disagreement from those of us who adhere to a state capitalist interpretation.

Yours is an appeal to outcomes (socio-economic, technological, cultural) that tells us no more about the class nature of of Russia pre & post 1990 than the horrific suffering of the Chilean working class under Pinochet tells us about the class nature of Chile pre & post 1973 (in both periods Chile was a capitalist society).

You write that, "If the social order in the Soviet Union had been any kind of capitalism, the transformation that took place after 1990 would have amounted in essence to hanging out a new shop-sign and getting on with business", yet the IS tradition was crystal clear on the depth of the crisis that the Stalinist ruling class faced in the late 1980s, one that would require massive and deep restructuring if they were to settle it in their own favour (rather than allowing genuine workers' control of society). It is hard to square the detailed descriptions by Harman, Zebrowski and others of the seriousness of that crisis with an expectation of smooth transition. Specifically, it was the way that an almost 100% state run economy proved no longer able to adapt to the vicissitudes of a changing and internationalising global economy, as well as the *relatively* greater burden required to match the West in military competition, that meant that any process of restructuring in favour of the existing ruling elite would inevitably be massively destabilising and destructive.

Indeed, the suffering the managerial and bureaucratic elites were able to impose on workers that you describe is actually grist to Critical Reading's mill, unless you can demonstrate that the Stalinist elite was truly dethroned from effective control of Russian society in the process. To debunk the state capitalist interpretation would require you to shift from your axis of interpretation and actually describe how class relations (social relations of production, if you will) changed in the transition. That, rather than state property title or levels of working class suffering, seems to me to be the key for any genuine Marxist understanding of the nature of these societies.

While I disagree with Tony Cliff's theory of state capitalism, I strongly object
to describing it as "political poltroonery". This is the kind of abusive
language we should not use in debates on the left.

People can be mistaken without being "poltroons".

Submitted by Barry Healy (not verified) on Fri, 07/13/2012 - 00:55


I know that it’s possible to chase the greasy pig of the exact nature of the Stalinised Soviet Union all over the place, but the essential difference comes down to: should the Soviet Union have been defended by Marxists because it represented, even in a degenerated form, progressive elements of the Russian Revolution.

Proponents of Cliff’s state capitalist theory say ‘No’, supporters of Trotsky’s ideas say ‘Yes’. Neither side of the argument actually supports or defends Stalinism. It’s a dispute about the quality of the decay of the Stalinised USSR.

I mentioned the destruction of the USSR in my review because the counter-revolution brought about a massive immiseration of the working class. There were elements of social organisation and economic life under the old state which enhanced the life of workers, which had been worth defending.

I think that Rebecca Kay in Men in Contemporary Russia: The Fallen Heroes of Post-Soviet Change? (see my review at very graphically demonstrates that the changes associated with the Soviet Union in 1991 were qualitative, that something new came into economic and social relationships then. It was capitalism and the lives of countless Russian men and women have been blighted by it.

Trotsky thought that such a counter-revolution could not occur without quelling a mass struggle by the workers. In 1991 there were struggles, but nothing on the scale that he imagined would be sparked. The relative ease with which the Stalinist bureaucrats were able to get away with it highlights that Trotsky wasn’t a prophet, merely a Marxist.

The Stalinists, in a degenerate manner defended social structures that were preferable to capitalism. To that extent the Soviet Union needed defence, nothing more.

I was a fresh SWP recruit in the mid 1980s when the conflict between Thatcher and Liverpool council was hot. I never heard Cliff on the subject, but I distinctly remember being told that the slogan to be shouting, at my very first paper sales, was "Defend Liverpool Council!" and "Liverpool council builds council houses, but Thatcher puts the boot in!" or words to that effect.

Submitted by KrisS (not verified) on Fri, 07/13/2012 - 22:46


The SWP welcomed the election of the Militant-led Liverpool council with the headline, “Sold Down the Mersey”.

This just isn't true. "Sold down the Mersey" was a real SW headline, but relating to the Liverpool Council sellout / glorious victory of the Liverpool working class (delete as applicable) in 1984 and not any election results.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 07/13/2012 - 23:18


'Socialist Worker', paper of the SWP did indeed have an alternative headline on its backpage "Sold Down The Mersey." However the headline had nothing whatsoever to do with the 'election' of a Militant dominated Labour council in Liverpool. The alternative headline - used by Liverpool SWP comrades on their street and workplace sales I believe - referred to Liverpool Labour council's financial settlement with the Tory government over the struggle against Tory rate capping of local authorities. Liverpool had led the resistance among Labour local authorities. This was against the backdrop of the 1984-85 Miners Strike. The SWP criticism was that the miners had been sold down the river Mersey, a second front against the Tories had briefly opened up and then closed down for the sake of a yearly settlement that merely delayed the inevitable reckoning. Whether this was entirely fair criticism I'll leave aside. BUt shortly after Neil Kinnock, Labour's PM in waiting who never made No.10, launched a witch hint against Militant in the Labour Party. As Birchall notes the SWP defended Militant and - as the two largest Trotskyist groups in Britain - also proposed unity between them at the end of 1985.

I'm sorry that I have taken so long to reply to these points. However I wanted to contact a comrade who is the widow of one of the heroic Liverpool councillors, Steve Jenkins to verify my memory of what he told me about the attitude of the SWP towards their struggle.

They and their family emigrated to Australia in the years following the struggle and he addressed at least one meeting of Socialist Alliance about it and attended other meetings. I asked him about the SWP’s role and he was scathing. That was where I heard about the “Sold Down the Mersey” headline. I’m quite happy to stand corrected on the intention of that headline, given that I never saw it myself.

However, on the general attitude of the SWP towards the Liverpool Council I simply quote here what his widow wrote to me in response to my question about it:

“The SWP continually played a negative role through-out. I’m not sure about the 'Sold Down the Mersey’ headline on election but they certainly dubbed the 1984 victory against the Thatcher government (or agreement with Patrick Jenkins!) a sell-out. Their headline then was “The No Surrender council gives in.....for a few measly concessions.” At the council meeting following, their few supporters were chased from the Town Hall by angry local authority workers. The reference to this is in Taaffe & Mulhearn’s book (1988) Liverpool: A City that Dared To Fight (pp. 153/154).”

Submitted by Adam Baker (not verified) on Sat, 07/14/2012 - 03:46


In response to Barry's post - those in the various IST groups around the world, who believe in Cliff's theory of state capitalism, as far as I know refer to themselves as Trotskyist. Only, they maintain that they are not orthodox Trotskyists - and hence they do not accept Trotsky's defence of a degenerated workers state, such as the USSR.

I think this is important only in relation to the fact that it doesn't seem that they regard themselves primarily as Leninists - although I'm happy to be corrected. The state caps in particular, do not accept Lenin's theory of Two Stage Revolution, nor do they accept Lenin's theory of the labour aristocracy.

State caps certainly believe in Permanent Revolution, which I think would outweigh the fact that they don't accept the theory of the degenerated workers' states, and would therefore qualify them as Troskyists. And of course, there are many strands of Trotskyism.

Submitted by Damien (not verified) on Sat, 07/14/2012 - 17:19


While not agreeing with the idea that the USSR was state capitalist,I have to agree with Dr Tad's comments on Renfrey Clarke's post. It is incumbent on those of us who believe that the Soviet Union was a degenerated workers state,that had to be defended from imperialist attack, to identify the relations of production that made the post-capitalist societies qualitatively different from the capitalist countries.I think the work of Ticktin and Moshe Lewin can be helpful in developing an understanding of the 'planned or unplanned' nature of those societies. Also,the fact that the standard of living of working people declined dramatically,forcing pensioners to sell their wares on the streets all over the ex-USSR, doesn't 'prove' that the USSR was qualitatively different from the capitalist countries.The issue really hinges on the extraction of surplus value,does it not?

Healy is correct that Cliff's Lenin volumes are "a defence of Cliff’s distinctive method." He cherry-picked Lenin quotes to make Lenin's methods resemble his own. In doing so, he did a disservice Lenin, the Bolsheviks, and most importantly, the many socialists that accepted Cliff's version of "Leninism."

Submitted by Barry Healy (not verified) on Tue, 07/17/2012 - 01:07


I’m finding it hard to contribute to this discussion because I’m away from home, the computer here is defective and I’m without access to my library.

Firstly, Dr Tad is inaccurate in his reading of Renfrey Clarke’s memories of the transition to capitalism in the USSR. Renfrey didn’t just talk about how hideious the transition has been, he explained why. The counter revolution was so destructive because it undid decades of economic development that was based on a logic other than capitalist. Renfrey illustrated that quite well and I agree with him on that.

Moreover, I believe that what occurred in the USSR proved Trotsky’s thinking about the USSR, that the Stalinist bureaucracy was a petite bourgeois layer that corrupted the system. Trotsky thought that eventually that layer would establish itself as a capitalist ruling class outright.

Adam Baker has misunderstood the manner in which I counterpose the ideas of Trotsky to those who follow the state capitalist analysis. I don’t care if people call themselves Trotskyist or anything else. But Trotsky did care about that and he wrote In Defence of Marxism, which he regarded as his most important work, denouncing that thinking.

I don't think I was inaccurate in my reading, because Renfrey makes a set of assertions about the "planned" nature of the Stalinist societies without actually explaining how this reflects on their class nature or their social relations of production. Marx certainly does not reduce his critique of the capital relation to there being a lack of planning.

Renfrey also wrote: "[The Soviet economy's] rationale wasn't the maximising of private profit, but the meeting of a broad range of social, institutional and strategic needs, worked out in involved discussions and struggles within the party-state bureaucracy." Yet this does nothing to explain what those needs were, which social groups' interests were served, and what logic drove them.

Isn't *that* what is really at the heart of this disagreement?

Hi Dr Tad,
When I was travelling in Poland a few years ago I attempted (and unfortunately failed) to contact a Trotskyist grouping there that was successfully protecting sacked workers by using the old, Stalinist-era labour laws.

The new, capitalist authorities had never gotten around to abolishing the old laws after the transition, they simply ignored them. The activists used a combination of picketing and legal action and were very successful.

It is an illustration of how the legal structures under the old regime, as if through a glass darkly, relfected the tenets of a socialist society.

Renfrey’s assertions about the “planned” nature of the Soviet economy are supported by the observations made in Hedrick Smith’s brilliant, 1970’s (from memory, I’ve lost my copy) sociological exploration of life as it was lived in the USSR. Smith’s book shows pretty clearly the needs of the bureaucracy, the competing social interests within the USSR and their associated logic.

The Soviet bureaucracy disorganised production nearly as much as planned it, precisely because, as Renfrey said, the bureaucrats figured things out for their own needs first. However, they did that figuring against the background of the socio-economic parameters that were established by the 1917 revolution. Part of their calculations was the need to pay obeisance to the Revolution, while at the same time violating every tenet of its values.

The way in which the ill-gotten gains of this were distributed was very different to how such plundering is distributed under capitalism. Hedrick Smith showed that bureaucrats got access to special shops, special schools for their children, essentially a secret, parallel universe to the general population. But that access was strictly regulated by their level in the bureaucracy.

The higher their level in the pecking order, the better their access to the goodies. Even access to library books was decided by their position in the nomenclature. That is: unlike under capitalism where individual capitalists own wonderful libraries, Stalinist bureaucrats gained secret, advantaged access to the collective cultural wealth of society based on their position in the corrupt political structure.

Their benefits were obscured because they were supposed to be managing an egalitarian society. Capitalists don’t bother obscuring their wealth, because it is gained through the mechanism of the confiscation of surplus value, not the theft from a commonwealth. The ideology of capitalism aligns with that economic structure; the official ideology of the Soviet Union was aligned to a society in transition out of capitalism (the underlying economic structure) but not in alignment with the political reality.

The bureaucrats were caught in a cleft stick: needing to, in some degree organise production according to social needs, while serving themselves - and all this within an economic system that was in a transition away from production on the basis of profit. Not only that, the Soviet Union was under pressure from the world market and the inefficiencies built into the structure groaned under that. Little wonder that they wanted to finally ditch the whole pretence and revert of capitalism, as Trotsky said they would.

Trotsky, of course, believed that such a counter revolution would have to face a massive revolt of the working class. Perhaps Renfrey can comment better on the realities of what happened in the collapse of the USSR, but my impression is that it ended with more of a whimper than a bang, Stalinism had withered the socialist soul of the working class.

The USSR was an inherently contradictory phenomenon. It never progressed past being a transitional society, transitional between capitalism and socialism. Marx never wrote anything about such transitional societies because he was interested in a critique of capitalism. Lenin and Trotsky were the theoreticians of the post-capitalist era.

To find a useful path to understanding the USSR Trotsky posed three questions: (1) What is the historical origin of the USSR? (2) What changes has this state suffered during its existence? (3) Did these changes pass from the quantitative stage to the qualitative? That is, did they create a historically necessary domination by a new exploiting class? (In Defence of Marxism).

I think that those questions have stood the test of time; Trotsky was correct in his analysis. And, he went further and labelled the state capitalist analysis an anti-Marxist novelty!

What Cliff's theory of State Capitalism achieved was it managed to get him out of third class and allowed him to travel second class throughout the cold war. The reviewer writes Cliff never regulated his immigration status which seems surprising, but if true given the anti communism which was so prevalent during those years it makes one wonder why he led such a charmed life.

He was clearly a dedicated individual with great energy, as are his current day 'disciples,' but given the conservatism of the SWP and its undemocratic methodology one wonders if his legacy has not been a hinderance rather than a spur when it comes to creating a new Left Party in England.