Socialist Worker

Tony Cliff: How were Third World revolutions deflected?

In the second column of our series on the life and theory of the SWP founder Tony Cliff, Gareth Jenkins looks at struggles in the 1950s and 1960s

Issue No. 2022

Tony Cliff in the 1970s

Tony Cliff in the 1970s


Last week I discussed how Leon Trotsky’s followers were thrown into confusion when the reality of the world after 1945 failed to fit with Trotsky’s predictions.

The few revolutionaries who agreed with Tony Cliff’s theory that Joseph Stalin’s Russia was state capitalist were expelled from the British section of the Fourth International.

When Cliff’s Socialist Review Group was founded in 1951, it had 33 members.The 1950s were a tough period for revolutionaries, who were marginalised by the apparently endless prospect of crisis-free economic growth.

Cliff’s analysis of Russia as state capitalist and his understanding of the long boom enabled the Socialist Review Group to grow modestly and without sectarian delusions.

By the beginning of the 1960s, the idea that the only alternative to Western capitalism was a hideously distorted “socialism” in the east began to break down. Thousands left the Western Communist Parties after Russian tanks put down the 1956 revolution in Hungary.

In 1959 the Cuban Revolution showed that a guerrilla army led by young radicals could do what the Russian leaders could not - overthrow US imperialism in a Third World country.

Following the split between Russia and China in the 1960s, Maoism challenged Stalinist inertia with the idea that a “cultural revolution” was needed against backsliding elements inside the state bureaucracy.

The Cuban Revolution and Mao’s China became attractive to young rebels. And they presented problems for Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.

Trotsky had developed this theory in the early years of the 20th century to explain how there could be a socialist revolution in a backward, undemocratic country such as Russia, where the working class was small.

He later extended the theory to cover anti-imperialist revolutions.

Trotsky argued that only the working class could carry out the capitalist-democratic or anti-imperialist revolution, as the capitalists had become too timid and too willing to compromise with the old feudal or imperialist order.

But the working class, backed by the peasantry, could not stop halfway. Unless it moved towards socialist revolution it would be defeated.

Events in Russia in 1917 seemed to confirm Trotsky’s theory. What, though, of the Chinese Revolution of 1949 and the Cuban Revolution of 1959? Imperialism had been defeated - but not by the working class.

Instead, other forces had taken the lead and looked, more or less, to the Russian model as a way of developing their societies.

If anti-imperialist revolutions could only be successful if they went beyond capitalist democracy, then had China and Cuba embarked on the road to socialism, whatever the subjective intentions of their leaders?

If this was the case, a working class conscious of its own power and aims was not needed. It could be replaced by other forces as the agency of social transformation.

This was an attractive proposition for many who thought workers had been bought off by consumerism and who despised the immersion of Communist parties in parliamentary politics.

For Cliff, this went against the idea of workers’ self-emancipation, which was at the core of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. He asked what would happen in the event of anti-imperialist revolt if the working class proved too weak to play the role assigned to it by Trotsky.

In such circumstances a section of the intelligentsia, radicalised by opposition to imperialism, might become a political and military force capable of carrying through a revolution.

But in seizing state power it would set itself the goal of national self-sufficiency rather than working class power. That goal would be served by mobilising national resources through state capitalism.

Cliff called this deflected permanent revolution.

It enabled Cliff to preserve the core of Trotsky’s argument - that social change can only be won by workers fighting for themselves.

In the heady days of the late 1960s, when struggle by students and guerrillas, seemed to offer a better way forward, this was not always an easy argument to win.

But the theory of deflected permanent revolution, built on the theory of state capitalism, was essential in winning people to understanding the centrality of the working class as the force for change.


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