First published at http://www.martinshaw.org/cliff.htm (2000)
Tony Cliff, founder of the Marxist group that became the Socialist Workers Party, died on 9 April 2000. He was 82, having been born, as his follower Paul Foot pointed out in an appreciation, ‘between the two great Russian revolutions’ of 1917. His life spanned what Eric Hobsbawm has called ‘the age of extremes’ or ‘the short twentieth century’, and he epitomized the classic Marxist tradition of proletarian revolution that – although rooted in the nineteenth century and ramifying to the end of the twentieth – achieved its greatest success in October 1917.
Ygael Gluckstein became a Marxist in Palestine in the 1930s, but made his reputation after arriving in Britain in the 1950s. Tony Cliff, as called himself for the last half century, created a political group that, by the 1960s, had a membership in the hundreds and by the early 1970s of several thousands. In the late twentieth century the SWP, as it became in 1977, was (as Foot claims) the ‘largest … of the socialist organizations to the left of the Labour party’: not however because it had grown further in importance, but principally because its major rival, the Communist Party, dissolved itself.
Cliff was, as Foot says, a charismatic leader. Within his group, he was a constant source of stimulating theoretical ideas, imaginative political initiatives, energy and encouragement. His Marxism was rigorously honest in its recognition of brutal new forms of class power in the Soviet Union (notably in his book, Russia: A Marxist Analysis) and principled in its consistent support for worldwide workers’ emancipation. He was, however, less of an innovator than he appeared at first sight. Above all he was an upholder of a revolutionary orthodoxy that other Marxists were abandoning, compromising or (at best) transforming.
In the mid- to late 1960s the International Socialists, as the group was then known, recruited many of the most radical elements of the student movement in Britain. This movement, although less dramatically influential than its counterparts in America, France or Germany, nevertheless represented a radical upheaval in British politics. Like many others at LSE and other centres of the British revolt, I joined IS in 1966 – very much under the personal influence of Cliff. Joining IS was an immersion, often challenging, in radical working-class politics; I was active in the organization for over a decade.
The key issue for IS was to respond to the political ferment of the 1960s. Although Foot describes Cliff’s Marxism as ‘libertarian’, in 1968 his answer to the libertarian spirit of the French May evenements was to prescribe a return to Lenin and Trotsky – and to place the question of ‘the party’ above all. At this critical turning point of ‘post-war’ world politics, when democratic revolutions challenged Cold War order not only in the West but throughout the Communist and Third Worlds, from Poland to Pakistan, Cliff turned back to Communist tradition. In the West, as 1968’s libertarianism ramified through the women’s liberation, environmental and gay movements of the 1970s, tensions grew between the new ideas and Cliff’s worker-centred, increasingly Leninist orthodoxy.
To hold the line against the new radicalism (and an influx of other Trotskyist sects) Cliff and other leaders turned increasingly to authoritarian methods within IS. Like many others, I learnt that ‘democratic centralism’, Lenin’s organizational doctrine that Cliff resurrected, was more about centralism than democracy. By the mid-1970s, most of IS’s freer spirits had been expelled or left. By this time, like other Leninist groupings in western Europe, IS had lost its opportunity to influence the radical wave. (See my contemporary history of IS in this period.)
In Britain as elsewhere, the ferment had led mainly to the discrediting of social-democratic parties and the rise of the right, here in the form of Thatcher. The serious new left-wing parties that emerged were Green rather than Marxist. The movements that were to matter in the 1980s and 1990s, from feminism to the European peace movement to Amnesty and Greenpeace, developed despite rather than because of Marxist groups like the SWP.
Thus when Cliff proclaimed his ‘party’ it had already been left high and dry, no longer an authentic voice of radicalism. He had aimed to create an interventionist revolutionary force, but the SWP was reduced to a propaganda sect. Cliff himself never faltered in his routine, but his arguments had less plausibility. I last heard him speak at a meeting in the 1980s, when he improbably likened those who failed to support the Militant Tendency in its (hypocritical) battle to remain in the Labour Party with those who failed to back the Jews against Nazi persecution in the 1930s.
Tony Cliff was a highly unusual man, utterly dedicated to a cause he believed in, personally generous to all those who were open to his beliefs and without the conceits of most sectarian leaders. With hindsight, however, it is possible to see that the proletarian revolution was already peaking as he was born. It was a dream of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, already bypassed by mid-century, an inadequate answer to the radical yearnings of the 1960s and 1970s and with little to offer the global-democratic revolution of our times. Cliff’s pursuit of this dream against the historical odds was in some ways inspiring. But it led him into a political cul-de-sac, in which the political grouping that he founded is still confined.
Martin Shaw, April 2000
‘The Making of a Party? The International Socialists 1965-76‘, in Ralph Miliband and John Saville, eds., The Socialist Register 1978, London: Merlin, pp 100-45.