Tony Cliff was born 100 years ago last weekend, on 20 May 1917. Brought up a Palestinian Jew, he came to Britain in 1946.
This was two years before the proclamation of the State of Israel, which as an anti-Zionist and an internationalist he opposed. In Britain he founded and led the Marxist group that eventually became the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).
As a member of the SWP central committee, I worked with Cliff for more than 20 years. He had an extraordinary personality, a unique combination of intellect, determination, charm, humour, and sheer force of character.
But why should anyone who didn’t know him care about Cliff now, nearly 20 years after his death in April 2000?
The answer lies partly in his theoretical contribution. In the late 1940s Cliff developed a path-breaking analysis of the Soviet Union. He argued that far from being socialist or (as Leon Trotsky contended) a “degenerated workers’ state”, Stalinist Russia was a variant of capitalism—bureaucratic state capitalism.
The ruling bureaucracy exploited the working class as private bosses did in Britain and the US. Military competition with the West subjected Russia to the logic of capitalist accumulation that Marx had uncovered in Capital.
But Cliff didn’t just offer theory. Compare him with another brilliant Jewish Marxist intellectual born in 1917 who made Britain his home. Eric Hobsbawm was a great historian, but he apologised for orthodox Communism, helped to open the door to New Labour, and accepted an appointment as Companion of Honour from the queen.
Cliff by contrast renewed the revolutionary Marxism tradition politically. If the Stalinist despotism was state capitalist, then Marx’s conception of self-emancipation of the working class was still a living reality.
Cliff embraced the slogan, “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism”. In other words, the Cold War was a struggle between rival imperialist powers, not between capitalism and socialism. So, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the SWP and its sister organisations elsewhere were able to flourish and grow.
Cliff was above all determined to translate Marxist theory into a revolutionary political organisation. During the 1970s he wrote a four-volume biography of Lenin that is a toolbox of revolutionary strategy and tactics.
This was the decade when the class struggle reached its highest pitch in postwar Europe and North America.
In Britain a powerful shop stewards’ movement confronted and broke the Tory government of Ted Heath in 1970-74. Cliff threw all his energy into forging radicalised students and workers into the basis of a mass revolutionary party that could help shape the battles to come.
Alas, we saw after Heath’s fall, not escalating worker combativity, but a Labour government acting as chloroform.
Shop stewards’ organisation became increasingly bureaucratised and integrated into trade union officialdom and corporate structures. This meant that Margaret Thatcher confronted a much weaker workers’ movement when she launched her offensive after winning the May 1979 election.
Cliff was among the very first to spot these trends. This allowed the SWP to prepare for and survive the agony of Thatcherism. But this didn’t make the climactic confrontation between the Thatcher government and the National Union of Mineworkers any less painful or difficult.
Cliff spent the rest of his life under the rule of the Tories and of Thatcher’s apprentice Tony Blair. He reacted enthusiastically to every political opening both in Britain and abroad. And he worked tirelessly to pass the heritage of revolutionary Marxism on to new generations.
What I learned from him above all was revolutionary persistence. I said to him in 1990, “Thank God the 1980s are over.” Cliff just looked at me and said, “You should have been around in the 1950s.” In far harsher circumstances than the years of defeat under Thatcher, at the height of the Cold War, he had built a tiny Marxist group that could grow when new movements developed.
In all sorts of ways the political situation now is very different from those of Cliff’s lifetime. But we can still learn from his theoretical contribution and practical example.