Socialist Worker

Tony Cliff: Always facing the harsh truth of reality

In the first part of our new series Gareth Jenkins looks at the life and theories of Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party

Issue No. 2021

Tony Cliff in 1946

Tony Cliff in 1946

Tony Cliff was born in Palestine in 1917. He came from a staunchly Zionist family. From an early age his anger about the way Arabs were treated in their own country led him towards socialism.

At first, he tried to combine Zionism and socialism. But he soon realised that this was impossible. This was clear from the kibbutz movement.

The kibbutzim were socialist collectives which tried to put ideas of cooperation and mutual help into practice. But they were built on land stolen from Palestinian peasants.

After a brief period as a Communist supporter, Cliff became a follower of Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary leader.

Joseph Stalin had expelled Trotsky from Russia because of his struggle to prevent the degeneration of the revolution.

Despite persecution and poverty, Cliff devoted himself to building a revolutionary group of Palestinian socialists. He understood that Zionism, which colluded with British imperialism, was not just a trap for Jewish workers.

It also pushed Arab workers into the arms of reactionary Arab leaders, who themselves wished to collude with the British.

Cliff’s group made little impact. When the opportunity came for Cliff to go to Britain in 1946, he jumped at the chance.

The Trotskyist Fourth International was small, but it believed the prospects for world revolution were good on the basis of what Trotsky had written before his assassination in 1940.

Trotsky had argued that capitalism was in terminal decline and it could not be reformed to raise workers’ living standards.

This became an item of faith with the Fourth International. Yet the realities of the Western world after the Second World War suggested the opposite. Capitalism was booming, there was full employment and living standards were rising.

Cliff recognised that if theory contradicts reality then it is the theory that needs junking. Cliff and his co-thinkers argued that it was the massive expansion of the arms economy of the Cold War that damped down the system’s tendency to crisis.

But this could not “cure” capitalism and crisis would re-emerge. Those who recognised that crisis was not round the corner could prepare for the long haul - and not despair of revolutionary politics.

The heirs of Trotsky also refused to face up to what was happening in Eastern Europe.

Trotsky had believed that the Soviet Union remained a workers’ state despite its degeneration under Stalin. He said that the bureaucracy would not survive a serious crisis like the war.

Yet it did and emerged strengthened and in control of Eastern Europe, which it transformed into a carbon copy of itself, with the complete nationalisation of industry.

Trotsky’s prediction was wrong. Many Trotskyists tried to argue that Trotsky had been right, it was just that the war hadn’t ended!

The leaders of the Fourth International also argued that the states of Eastern Europe were now workers’ states, though deformed ones.

How could this be? There had been no workers’ revolutions in Eastern Europe. Trotsky had argued that the bureaucracy was counter-revolutionary.

Yet if Stalinism could abolish capitalism, then it must be revolutionary. A crisis opened up in the Fourth International.

Cliff realised that to stick to Trotsky’s theory was to do violence to the most fundamental of revolutionary socialist beliefs - the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.

After months of painful doubt Cliff concluded that Stalin’s Russia was state capitalist. Cliff showed that after 1929 the Stalinist bureaucracy accumulated capital and transformed itself into an exploitative capitalist ruling class.

The only difference was that it owned the means of production “collectively” - as state property rather than as private property.

Cliff emphasised that he did not reject Trotsky’s theory in order to reject Trotskyism. Rather he could only preserve the spirit of Trotsky’s understanding by sacrificing the letter of what he wrote.

If he could see further than Trotsky - as a result of post war developments - it was because he stood on the shoulders of a giant.

Cliff completed his analysis in 1948 and had it circulated among the members of the British Trotskyist organisation. Cliff was expelled from the Fourth International.

Being able to look reality in the face and renew Marxist theory gave him, and the handful of other socialists in the newly formed Socialist Review Group, new opportunities.

Tony Cliff's books can be bought at Bookmarks, the csocialist bookshop. Go to

Many of Cliff's writings are available online at

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