Socialist Worker

Tony Cliff: arming the party for future struggles

In the final column of our series on the life and theory of the SWP founder, Gareth Jenkins looks at the rank and file movement and the party

Issue No. 2023

Tony Cliff in 1986

Tony Cliff in 1986


The opportunities for revolutionary socialists in Britain began to improve in the 1960s. The long economic boom was faltering, with Britain falling behind its competitors.

Labour came to power in 1964 and its leader Harold Wilson promised a white-hot technological revolution to modernise a stagnant economy and talked about planning.

But in office, planning became control over wages. During the long boom workers had built up shop stewards’ organisation in the workplace, powerful enough to win improvements in living standards. Bosses could no longer tolerate this.

Wilson was determined to weaken the power of the shop stewards and the trade unions. In 1969 Labour sought to legislate against strike action. In 1970 the Tories returned to power and passed a raft of anti-union laws.

There was an explosion of workers’ militancy - including a semi-official general strike to release dockers imprisoned for defying the law on picketing, and two victorious miners’ strikes. This led to the Tories being slung out of office in 1974.

The argument about the centrality of the working class in changing society was now a practical issue. Tony Cliff’s writings in this period focused on how workers could resist the bosses’ offensive. They were based on extensive interviews with militants.

Cliff wanted to learn from workers’ experience and generalise the lessons.

Cliff’s group was now called the International Socialists (IS). It threw itself into building rank and file union organisation and building factory branches of the organisation in the most militant workplaces.

The IS was now a small but important player - even beginning to challenge the Communist Party’s dominance over a section of working class militants.

In 1974 Labour returned to office. Most workers thought that Labour would undo what the Tories had done. Instead it soon used its close relationship with the trade union leaders to impose an incomes policy that drove down real wages.

This produced confusion and demoralisation. With the decline in struggle rank and file union organisation disintegrated, as did the IS factory branches. The upturn in class struggle gave way to a downturn that lasted two decades.

The need now was to explain how Labour had retained its grip and what to do about it politically.

The IS, which became the Socialist Workers Party in 1977, needed to be rearmed if it was to survive and grow in a situation when the balance of forces was shifting back towards the ruling class.

The most important contribution Tony Cliff made to this was his four volume political biography of the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, published between 1975 and 1979.

Cliff set out to prove through his analysis of the way Lenin had built the Bolshevik Party that socialism will not come about spontaneously as a result of working class struggle.

Only the working class that can bring about socialism through its own conscious action.

But what kind of leadership did the struggle require that could challenge the misleadership of Labour or the trade union leaders?

It was no good arguing for more militancy when political solutions were needed. The pressure on most activists was to join Labour - to try to install a left wing leadership which would not sell out.

Cliff’s Lenin was designed to recover the Bolshevik tradition of party building from its Stalinist, and sectarian Trotskyist, distortions.

Cliff showed that Lenin’s view of the revolutionary party was not a top-down affair, in which leaders bring about socialism on behalf of the workers.

Rather, it was about having an organisation which could bring together all the best activists, to pool their experience and learn from the past. That way, the party could be the memory of the class, win respect inside the movement and strengthen the ability of workers to win.

This had to be done in advance of any revolutionary moment. Had the Bolsheviks not built their organisation beforehand they would not have been able to stand firm in the revolutionary rapids of 1917.

Rearming the party in the 1970s and 1980s was not just a question of surviving the downturn.

It was also a question of making sure that there would be a party of revolutionary socialists able to intervene in the future struggles, learning from new forms of action and having a tradition to offer.

Socialists would have to be sufficiently well organised and influential to make sure that our side would win.


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