The recent monumental biography of Tony Cliff, one of the great post-war Marxist organisers and theorists, is a highly readable and valuable account of the man’s long life in the movement, and will be a permanent classic.

Ian Birchall, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time (Bookmarks 2011), xi, 664.

Tony Cliff’s political activism began in British-occupied Palestine, and after transplantation to Britain in 1946, never ceased through the many subsequent years. This is a remarkable achievement in itself, given the grim years in Cold War Britain, when he was stateless and actually forbidden from political activity for some time, and then all the peaks and troughs of the struggle in subsequent decades. Cliff, born Ygael Gluckstein, was able both to weather considerable hardships, and to seize the political opportunities when they came. No one could reasonably deny his significant impact on socialist politics in Britain, and so the appearance of Ian Birchall’s thorough, even magisterial, biography is greatly welcome.

The rich history of Cliff’s times means that, despite the length of the book, at no point does it seem excessively detailed. Moreover the consistency of Cliff’s Marxism acts as a clear thread regularly bringing the great range of material into focus. Among Cliff’s contributions to Marxist theory, Birchall concentrates considerable attention on the theory of state capitalism as applied to Stalinist Russia and after 1945 other supposedly ‘socialist’ states. The period which provoked the most intensive development of this theory was the Cold War, and the need for socialists to respond to the periodic crises in international relations.

Cliff’s activism, taken across all these decades, actually serves as a lesson in the meaning of praxis, demonstrating a genuine unity of theory and practice that avoided the dogmatism in which socialist groups can so easily become trapped. This concept is of course central if Marxism is to be understood as more than just another social theory. Knowledge of the world is obtained precisely through activity in it, not through any detached ‘objectivity’. The proletariat’s capacity to change the world is therefore directly connected to its ability to understand the world and develop its own self-consciousness as a social actor, that is to say class consciousness. So, praxis does not entail an abstract development of the ‘right’ theory, which is then applied to reality. Rather theory is developed through practice, as consciousness arises and changes through activity: theory and practice exist in a dialectical relationship.

The state capitalism thesis was precisely a theory developed through practice, and through the needs of socialist activism, but it was not thereby flimsy propaganda. In fact, Cliff showed considerable talent for the gritty end of empirical research. One early reaction to his work on the theory noted that ‘few writers on Chinese Communist economics have made Communist statistics reveal so much that they were intended to conceal’ (p.164). While Cliff never aspired to academic status, this observation in itself makes it clear he did not disdain hard scholarly graft when it was necessary for a well grounded development of Marxist theory.

Events during the Cold War consistently lent themselves to demands that the left take sides. As a case in point, during the Korean War, the left was under pressure to line up behind their own imperialisms, otherwise being driven to support Stalinism outright (p.129). In these circumstances, the difficulty of maintaining independent socialist politics was considerable. That only two Labour MPs were willing to oppose the war represented, notes Birchall, a total collapse of the Labour left. In contrast, the theory of state capitalism allowed Cliff the space needed for independent manoeuvre.

It was also the occasion of the expulsion of Cliff’s group from the Club, the Trotskyist organisation then existing in Britain. The Cold War encouraged some socialists, even figures like Isaac Deutscher, to regard the class struggle as having been displaced onto the international level. Thus despite everything, the degenerated workers’ state under Stalin was seen as leading the international workers’ struggle. The debilitating effect of this stance on the left in the West should be obvious. Cliff, in contrast, arguing that the Cold War was a conflict between two imperialisms, was able to affirm that ‘the struggle between workers and those who exploited them remained primary, whether in the East or in the West’ (Birchall, p.131).

It would be possible to trace Cliff’s independent socialist politics, and his break with Trotskyist orthodoxy back to his time in Palestine. His original group there, unlike most Trotskyist organisations, originated outside any communist party context, and was sustained solely by the intense commitment of its isolated members. While these circumstances were clearly significant, they could just as easily have led to a narrow and truculent sectarianism. Indeed, there have been a number of other different ‘state capitalist’ interpretations of the Soviet Union, which have not led their originators to any kind of fruitful mass politics.

For Cliff, his total commitment to Marxism was not a dogmatic attachment to certain propositions, but a grasp of the core methodology. The insistence was always that a Marxist analysis be applied to the present circumstances, without any necessary attachment to past interpretations. Thus Trotsky’s conception of ‘degenerated workers’ states’ may have seemed a reasonable view at one stage, but certainly after World War II and during the Cold War, it needed to be re-assessed. The modification of this stance did not stop Cliff from being inspired by Trotsky’s own practice and general understanding of socialist politics, as opposed to any particular conclusion.

The key principle was that the revolution had to be the conscious work of the working class itself. It could not be done by another agency. Cliff repeatedly insisted on this point. He linked it to the argument that the revolution was to be history becoming conscious of itself, quoting from Engel’s Anti-Dühring that ‘men, with full consciousness, will fashion their own history; it is only from this point that the social causes set in motion by men will have, predominantly and in constantly increasing measure the effects willed by men. It is humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom’ (p.127).

One interpretive consequence of this focus on the revolution as a conscious act of the working class, was that the top-down imposition of Stalinist states in Eastern Europe after the Second World War could not be regarded in any way as a progressive development. This freed Cliff from having to defend authoritarian, repressive states. As a result, he and his followers were able to regain and champion the original notion that socialism would mean a more profound liberation than capitalism could ever provide for humanity. Further, this view of the revolution still points towards the necessity of democracy being a key element of socialism, as how can it be the conscious act of the proletariat if the ‘revolution’ is accomplished by an elite working on its behalf?

Any theory attempting to define Stalinist states, if abstracted from the rest of Marxist theory and of a real sense of social movements, could easily break down into a sterile sectarianism lecturing the workers’ movement from the outside. Thus an early disagreement within the Socialist Review Group (the precursor of the International Socialists, which was in turn the precursor of the SWP), concerned relations with communist parties in the West. Some adherents of ‘state capitalist’ theories, particularly in the US, followed the logic of theory to a point that it lost touch with reality. It was claimed that since the Communist Party of the Soviet Union represented a ruling class that exploited its workers, then the Stalinist parties elsewhere could not be part of the working class movement (p.143).

This logic entailed the rejection of united fronts with communists in the unions. The consequences of this position would have been terrible, rendering useful trade union activism near impossible for SRG members. It is hard to imagine a better illustration of the necessity for theory to arise through the exigencies of practice. Otherwise, the ‘correct’ theory, applied to circumstances in a dogmatic manner, ignoring the practical realities, quickly becomes incorrect.

Clearly communist parties in the West, however problematic their politics, were nonetheless a genuine part of the working class movement. Revolutionaries wishing to advance class consciousness and working class struggle would have to co-operate with members of the CPs. If possible, the desired result would be to pull people away from obedience to Stalinist priorities, in which workers’ interests really were not central, and towards the activity of the movement itself. Whatever the result, nothing would be achieved by turning into a sect denouncing or cajoling people from the outside.

The relationship between revolutionaries and reformists was, and remains, a perennially difficult topic. Yet the basic principles of operating in united fronts flow from Cliff’s positions here. Profound differences may exist between different strands in the workers’ movement, and some ideas may be thought to be very damaging. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the principled revolutionary simply denounces all those who are in error.

When the SRG became involved with the Bevanite Labour-left in the early 1950s, it was affirmed that the ‘first task of socialists is to defend Bevan and his colleagues against the Party bureaucracy’. Despite the reformist limitations of Bevanism, this was the key arena where revolutionaries could make a difference, working alongside committed activists in the movement (p.143). Reformist ideas can only be superseded through the struggle and therefore only in such a context can revolutionaries exert that influence on the general consciousness of the class: ‘Reformism can never be defeated by programmes. It can only be defeated by deeds’ (p.308).

Other alternative theories to the orthodox Trotskyist line, such as the American Max Shachtman’s ‘bureaucratic collectivism’, in which Russia represented a new mode of production altogether, led in disastrous directions almost precisely because they ignored or sidelined the possibility of workers’ own agency. Shachtman ended up in the right wing corner in the Cold War, denouncing the Soviet Union as an entirely retrograde step in human history. Thus western imperialism became, for him, the right side in any conflict. There are any number of theoretical paths that can be taken to discover the superior progressive status of one’s own ruling class, but what they all have in common is a dismissal of the potential agency and consciousness of the proletariat.

Compared to Shachtman, Isaac Deutscher was a figure of far greater stature, whose three volume biography of Trotsky is still essential reading. However, he too abandoned the idea of working class agency, and saw hope rather in anti-colonial leaders of the Third World. From the vantage of the present, belief in the liberating potential of essentially nationalist leaders like, say Nkrumah in Ghana, or even the likes of Gaddafi, might seem mystifyingly naïve to some, but it was much less obvious at the time. This was why it was so essential for Cliff to insist on the need for the revolution to grow out of the conscious, organised and democratic mass movements of the working class.

Democracy is essential to socialism because without that, the participation of the widest layers of working people is not possible. Such a democracy requires careful organisation of theory as well activism. The problems and pitfalls of revolutionary practice are not understood and solved spontaneously. If much has been written, it takes collective organisation to absorb, interpret and transmit this to new generations of activists and to discover how old lessons apply to present and new circumstances. One way of learning how this is done is to read about how it was done before, and in this Birchall’s biography of Cliff is a splendid example.

Cliff’s state capitalist theory may have been most central in the days before the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it still has important lessons for the future. One instance concerns how we imagine socialism itself. Many socialists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries assumed, without much questioning, that socialism would mean, or grow out of, state control. Cliff showed how inadequate this assumption was. On its own, state ownership or control is not even necessarily progressive in the smallest degree. Genuinely democratic control of workplaces, public infrastructure and so forth, is the necessary baseline of socialism. Thus, socialism has to be the conscious seizure of control of history. This is not a phrase of abstract philosophy: it means that people will have to decide, collectively and democratically, how the social institutions through which they live will function and what they will do.

This book is not a detailed, institutional history of the organised tradition founded by Cliff, however much the story of his life inevitably overlaps with it (p.iv). It might be thought that this would be a difficult distinction to pull off, and yet it is quite clear. As an instance, other important strands of the tradition’s theoretical stance, ‘deflected permanent revolution’ and the ‘permanent arms economy’, are discussed more briefly than state capitalism, because Cliff had less to do with their development than he did with the latter.

The permanent arms (or war) economy theory, however, is another example of a detailed theory arising from immediate political circumstances. The continuing capitalist post-war boom had, by the early 1950s, undermined confident far-left predictions that the system would soon be mired in renewed crisis once the stimulus of war had been removed. Some carried on insisting on empty slogans, while on the right of the Labour Party, people like Anthony Crosland proclaimed that a new kind of capitalism had emerged, and that therefore socialists had to come to terms with it, and abandon erstwhile aims. The Labour right has always produced figures that, like the more recent Anthony Blair, seek to ditch socialist principles on the grounds of capitalist success.

Cliff, however, delved deeper into the workings of capitalism, paying attention, as Marx encouraged, to the contradictions of the system. As a result, he was able to produce a robust argument explaining why the system was temporarily successful, but also why its tendencies to fall into crisis would reappear. The broad outline, at least, of this lesson seems obvious after a new crisis has broken, but before then there are all too many who buy the capitalist promise that it is all different this time (pp.165-6). Once again, theory needs to be deeply serious in what Marx would have called ‘scientific’ terms, but it can only be so if it is a theory developed through the necessities of activism.

And it was practical activism that consumed the much greater part of Cliff’s time throughout his life, building his group from its tiny but dedicated beginnings into a political force with decided influence over the wider movement by the 1960s. There are many personal and incidental accounts of Cliff’s demanding and exhausting round of party-building here, showing both his charismatic impact on many activists, and also his relentless energy. However, it is Cliff’s strategic and tactical ability to turn the focus of activism at given key moments that is instructive. There was never a one-sided adherence to a particular tactic, so that for example activity inside the Labour party was abandoned when the possibilities outside it were so much greater (p.303). Birchall dismisses ‘the myth of a Luxemburgism-Leninism transition’, and the attendant dichotomy between spontaneity and organisation. An organised party was always clearly a necessity for Cliff, but it also had to learn from and engage with the movements generated by general struggles.

His multi-volume work on Lenin clearly comes out of his tireless engagement with problems of immediate campaigning and strategic organisation of the party. Perhaps the key lesson also to take away from his interpretation of Lenin was Cliff’s insistence on appreciating Lenin and his work as a whole, and to avoid taking isolated quotations out of context. Particular statements and positions were appropriate to particular moments, but Lenin’s organisational approach needed to be seen over time (p.392). Perhaps the same should be said for Cliff himself, who could be, and has been criticised for particular decisions, but whose importance lies in his general approach to political organisation and activism.

Central to this general approach was the recognition of the importance of responding to new political moments and movements. The SWP is widely credited as having had a crucial impact on politics through the creation of the Anti-Nazi League, which was instrumental in seeing-off the threat of the National Front in the late seventies. At the very end of his life, Cliff was still determined to make sure the SWP was ready to learn from new kinds of mobilisation and to engage seriously in united front work. Hence, Cliff’s last struggle to orientate his tendency came at the time of the November 1999 Seattle demonstration. Here the American sister party to the SWP, the ISO, failed to mobilise effectively or respond to the newly emerging anti-capitalist movement. For all the differences this new movement had to past contexts of the IS tradition, ‘for Cliff, in the spirit of Rosa Luxemburg, a real movement was more important than any abstract formulation, and he felt immediate enthusiasm for the new activists’ (p.547). Counterfire, some of whose members were in the SWP in Cliff’s time, draws a good deal of its understanding of the relationship between movement-building and party-building, and much more, to Cliff’s work, both theoretical and practical.

Ian Birchall, in providing a selection of personal reminiscences on Cliff from a wide range of the people who encountered him, out of an apparently very large archive of clearly considerable value, documents vividly the many years. Moreover, the selection of these recollections appears scrupulously even-handed. This is a political work, but also a meticulously scholarly one, with the depth and breadth of research lying behind it making it of permanent value. Opinions about Cliff, his leadership and strategies, will continue to be exchanged, and debated, but this book will surely remain the reference point, and indeed a key resource, for future discussions of the politics of Tony Cliff.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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