Tony Cliff: a Marxist for his time

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Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party, made major contributions to revolutionary theory and practice. Ian Taylor reviews a new biography of Cliff and assesses his place in post-war Marxism

Few Marxist revolutionaries become household names, but it is a travesty that the greatest Marxist of the latter part of the 20th century is so little known. So the appearance of a biography of Tony Cliff is a major event.

Who was Cliff? Many people with an awareness of Marxism will not have heard of him, although Cliff authored 20 volumes and hundreds of pamphlets and articles while never believing such activity represented the core of his work. Only a handful of thinkers on the left in his time could match his literary output. Yet for Cliff, theory without practice was useless. So for 50 years his main preoccupation was organising. This magazine is one small part of his legacy.

Cliff was born Ygael Gluckstein to Jewish parents of Russian origin in Palestine in 1917 - the year of the Russian Revolution. He was raised in a Zionist settlement with David Ben-Gurion, a future prime minister of Israel, as a family friend. Cliff wrote later, "I grew up a Zionist." He came to political activity at 14, joining a left Zionist group. It was through the publication in Hebrew of works by Marx and Engels that he first made contact with Marxism, reading a version of Marx's Capital and Trotsky's My Life at 15. By the age of 16 Cliff was involved in Marxist circles in Haifa, selling papers and supporting strikes.

Hitler's rise to power in Germany in 1933 led Cliff to flirt briefly with Stalinism before concluding, "A defeated working class looked for a strong organisation to save it." Inspired by resistance to Hitler in Vienna in 1934, Cliff was assaulted after heckling a Zionist meeting at which the speaker ruled out working class unity against Nazism.
His first published article, in 1935, was on Egypt, which he saw as the key to revolutionary change in the Middle East, a view spectacularly vindicated so recently. He witnessed the brutal crushing of the Arab rising against the extension of Zionist settlements in 1936 and by 1939 had concluded, "There is no internationalist force in Palestine."


Having come into contact with Trotskyist groups, Cliff was arrested following the outbreak of war in September 1939 and held without trial for a year. Forced to operate clandestinely and in isolation, he developed a capacity for ceaseless activity that never diminished his sense of humour or optimism.

He came to Britain in 1946 having married Chanie Rosenberg, who would be his partner and collaborator for life - and settled on the name by which he is remembered. Apart from a five-year spell in Dublin, to which he was expelled in 1947, Cliff would spend the rest of his life in London.

The relatively high standard of living of British workers surprised Cliff. His realisation that the economy was not in terminal crisis led to a break with the group of "orthodox" Trotskyists he had joined - so called because they declined to develop the view of world capitalism expounded by Trotsky before his murder by an agent of Stalin in 1940.

Trotsky had kept the spirit of the Russian Revolution alive through difficulties that defy imagination. But crucially for those in the post-war world, Trotsky had died without reviewing two key assessments: that Russia was an inherently unstable "degenerated workers' state", and that capitalism had exhausted its capacity to offer reforms to workers. Trotsky had written of a "decaying capitalism...[in which] there can be no discussion of systematic social reform and the raising of the masses living standards". Unafraid to contradict Trotsky, Cliff noted in 1947, "There is a boom in Britain."

Charged with writing a defence of Trotsky's view of Russia for the group, Cliff produced a document that analysed the class nature of Russia following the consolidation of Stalinist rule in Eastern Europe and the beginning of the Cold War and concluded Russia was a form of state capitalism. If Russia remained a workers' state, he asked, what did that make Poland, Hungary and the rest of the Eastern Bloc? If these were workers' states, socialist revolution did not require working class self-activity - as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky had argued - but the tanks of a Red Army.

Cliff explained later, "The more convinced you are about basic Marxist ideas, the more... you can face reality." It was a conviction he carried for the rest of his life.
He was not the first to develop a theory of the USSR as state capitalist - arguing state ownership and control of the economy did not remove Russia from the capitalist world or, crucially, from an arms race with the US. But Cliff's contribution was by far the most detailed and developed. It circulated first as a document and later, in 1955, as a book, Stalinist Russia: A Marxist Analysis.

Cliff summarised the breakneck expansion of Russia's economy and extreme brutality that resulted in a phrase: "Stalin accomplished in a few hundred days what it took Britain a few hundred years to do." He concluded that Russia's working class would prove the gravedigger of Stalinism at a point when the need to raise productivity necessitated a rise in living standards and led to rising expectations among workers. The fall of the Stalinist regimes - the rise of Solidarity in Poland in 1980, the process of glasnost (opening) in Russia that followed, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 - vindicated his analysis, developed at a time when the wholesale nationalisation of industry in Britain and elsewhere led most on the left to equate state ownership with socialism.

Largely ignored by academics and economists and dismissed by others on the left, Cliff's book did attract the attention of the KGB in Russia. The KGB review of the book concluded "Cliff characterises the USSR as a reactionary social system in which there exist deep class contradictions." Socialist Review could hardly have put it better.
The analysis led Cliff and a handful of supporters to establish a group of their own in 1950, around the first version of this magazine - calling themselves the Socialist Review Group. Reflecting their shared political understanding, they adopted the slogan "Neither Washington nor Moscow" - one that their descendents, the Socialist Workers Party and its paper Socialist Worker, would retain until the collapse of the Eastern Bloc.

Cliff developed the analysis in new editions of the book while also developing Marxist theory more widely. In 1957, he produced the first attempt to explain the post-war boom - the longest in capitalism's history - as a product of the "permanent war economy", the arms race between the US and USSR. He wrote on the economic roots of the "reformism" expressed by parties such as Labour. Cliff was not content merely to observe that the Labour Party so often betrayed the hopes millions placed in it, but analysed why.

His analysis of China and Cuba led him to re-examine another key aspect of Trotsky's thought - the theory of permanent revolution, which explained how socialist revolution was possible in countries where workers remained outnumbered by peasants. He wrote a political biography of Rosa Luxemburg, published in 1959 at a time when Luxemburg was largely ignored. In the 1970s he produced a four-volume political biography of Lenin that rescued the Bolshevik leader from the slanders of conservatives, reformists and Stalinists alike, and followed it with a multi-volume biography of Trotsky.

Yet Cliff was no historian. The value of history was "to help us build the future", he said - and it was building the future to which he devoted himself, immersing himself in the minutiae of developing a revolutionary organisation, a task that at times required great effort merely to stand still. As a revolutionary speaker and educator Cliff inspired generations of socialists - enthusing working class activists to widen their horizons by reading and academics to fling themselves into activity.

His speeches and articles were anchored in reality, never degenerating into tub-thumping or wild sweeps of fantasy. In a careful analysis following the upheavals of 1968, for example, Cliff noted, "The stability of Western capitalism is beginning to falter. This does not mean Western capitalism is faced with collapse... In the coming years we can expect unevenness in the rate of economic growth." Few who described themselves as revolutionaries at the time were as measured and none so spot on.

Cliff was guided by his understanding that, "The bloody-mindedness of workers and the 1,001 ways in which they express their demand...for control over their own lives, is the embryo of workers' power, of socialism."

As a speaker, he was akin to a Marxist stand-up comic who could hold an audience of engineers or students equally enthralled while offering profound insights into the workings of capitalism, the ruling class, the workers' movement or the process of revolution.

It is no exaggeration to say Britain would be a worse place without the 50 years Cliff spent in this country. The left would be considerably smaller and weaker. Fascism would be stronger. But the left elsewhere would be weaker too - in Greece, for example, where the sister organisation of Socialist Review is playing a significant role in the resistance to austerity.


Cliff would have been excited by the possibilities presented by the crisis that broke in 2008 and delighted by resistance to efforts to make workers pay the price. But he would not have wasted time dwelling on the vindication of his life's work that this represents. He despised the adulation of past revolutionary figures - the "worship" of Marx, Engels and Lenin "makes me sick", he would say. So Ian Birchall, a long-time comrade of Cliff, has walked a tightrope in capturing the man and his politics so clearly in his magnificent biography, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time.

Birchall has tracked down accounts of Cliff in Palestine and interviewed comrades past and present. His account of Cliff's work and life fully justifies Cliff's own reference to him as "a bloody pedantic bastard". The book is a wonderful work in its own right - theoretically clear yet funny, admirable and formidable, and impossible to do to justice in a short review. We owe Birchall a huge debt.

Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time, by Ian Birchall is available from Bookmarks bookshop, £22 hbk, £15 pbk.

The Problem of the Middle East, Cliff's newly rediscovered first book written in 1945-46, is to be published online at