Another leader called Tony
Cliff was 82 and had spent a lifetime advancing his own particular brand of the politics of the Russian Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky. Of the three great gurus of the Trotskyist movement in Britain — Gerry Healy, Tony Cliff and Ted Grant — only the latter is now left to act as the Old Man`s emissary in the birthplace of capitalism.
Cliff, who was also known as Ygael Gluckstein, came to Britain from Palestine in the 1940s and soon made a name for himself in the acrid environment of the fledgling Trotskyist movement. An engaging and vociferous public speaker, he devoted his entire life towards building up what is now the largest left-of-Labour party in Britain — from the Socialist Review Group of the 1950s, through to International Socialism right up to the modern SWP, an organisation conceived by him in late 1976 and created out of the old IS weeks later in January 1977.
The real significance of Cliff has been that only rarely has the SWP — or any of its predecessors — taken up a political position seriously at variance with Cliff`s own. His mark has been stamped on the SWP from beginning to end.
Cliff`s political trajectory has been an interesting one. Like all Trotskyists, he rejected Stalinism and the “actually exiting socialism” of the USSR without ever seriously speaking out against the Leninism which underpinned it. However, unlike his erstwhile colleagues Healy and Grant (who were to go on to found, respectively, the Workers Revolutionary Party and the Militant tendency) his Trotskyism was never of the orthodox variety. Indeed, for a period in the 1950s and 60s his politics — and that of the organisations he led — could only be described as Trotskyist in a loose sense, if at all.
The International Socialists had, particularly in their early years in the 1960s, an internal political structure based more on federalism than the hierarchical democratic centralism typically associated with Leninist and Trotskyist groups. But as that organisation grew and Cliff sensed the world political situation changing in the wake of the discontent of May 1968, he was instrumental in initiating what was termed a “turn to the class”. This was, in reality, a turn back to the Leninist politics of the vanguard party that he had openly identified with in his youth.
Whether Cliff`s apparent period of support for political federalism over democratic centralism was one born of conviction or was simply a cynical tactical manoeuvre is still debated. But that a change of sorts took place is undoubted and is reflected quite obviously in the subject matter for Cliff`s biographies — the first of Rosa Luxemburg (in 1959), followed in the 1970s and 80s by multi-volume biographies of Lenin and Trotsky. His one-time veneration of Luxemburg and her conception of the political party was later to cause some embarrassment to the hard-bitten Leninists of the SWP, particularly the following passage and some remarks associated with it:
“Rosa Luxemburg`s conception of the structure of the revolutionary organisation — that they should be built from below up, on a consistently democratic basis — fits the needs of the workers` movement in the advanced countries much more closely than Lenin`s conception of 1902–4 which was copied and given an added bureaucratic twist by Stalinists the world over.” (Rosa Luxemburg, p. 54)
This conception is very far removed indeed from the internal structure of the International Socialists after 1968 and especially from that of the present-day SWP, a hierarchical organisation which is dominated by a self-perpetuating Central Committee and which prides itself on ruthlessly banning all internal factions and organised dissension.
Cliff`s other main deviation from the scriptures of orthodox Trotskyism was more long lasting and came with the view he adopted towards the nature of the Soviet Union. An early adherent of the conventional Trotskyist view that Russia was some sort of degenerated workers` state under Stalinist rule, Cliff changed sides in a dispute which convulsed the international Trotskyist movement in the 1940s to side with the unorthodox minority who claimed that what operated in Russia was a system of bureaucratic state capitalism. This theory had been promoted in Trotskyist circles by elements in the main American Trotskyist outfit the SWP (no relation), most notably C.L.R.James and Raya Dunayevskaya. Cliff popularised the state capitalist thesis within the British Trotskyist movement, first of all in a discussion paper within the main Trotskyist party in Britain at the time, the Revolutionary Communist Party, and then in his book Russia: A Marxist Analysis, which was later re-published as State Capitalism in Russia.
That Cliff did more to popularise the main Trotskyist theory of state capitalism in this country than anybody else has led some to mistakenly suggest that he was actually the originator of the theory. This is often the view peddled by the modern SWP, though some have gone even further still to suggest that Cliff was in essence the originator of all the theories of state capitalism. None fall into this category more obviously than his disciple Paul Foot in his recent obituary of Cliff in The Guardian (12th April):
“His unique intellectual contribution was to describe, in the late 1940s, the Soviet Union as state capitalist, and therefore imperialist — a proposition as shocking to most socialists of the time as it was inspiring to those of us who were convinced by it.”
The reality is that Cliff`s description of the Soviet Union as state capitalist was not even “unique” within the Trotskyist movement itself let alone outside it. Furthermore, it is a matter of record that the theory of state capitalism when applied to the Soviet Union was not an invention of the Trotskyist movement at all. It was first developed by the Socialist Party of Great Britain in the years immediately following the Bolshevik coup d`etat of 1917 and by a number of council communist and left communist groups and theorists in Europe during the 1920s and 30s. Indeed, in Britain the Socialist Party was elaborating a state capitalist critique of Soviet Russia before Trotskyism was even identifiable as a political tendency and well before any “Trotskyists” as such existed.
What was disingenuous about Foot`s particular article about Cliff is that Foot knows how the theory of state capitalism arose quite well, having previously claimed in Socialist Worker that he was originally converted to socialism by speakers from the SPGB in Glasgow. And even the Introduction to the Pluto Press version of Cliff`s State Capitalism in Russia was honest enough to recognise that “[t]he conclusion that the USSR represents a form of state capitalism was in no way novel. It was a view that had often been advanced before, commonly in association with ultra-left ideas” so there really is no excuse for Foot`s attempts to lionise his deceased leader.
Interestingly, one contributor to The Guardian`s letters page claimed that Foot was justified in the sense that Cliff elaborated the first really coherent exposition of the theory of state capitalism even though that term had been used before. But this does not hold water on two grounds: firstly, the SPGB and others didn`t “label” Russia state capitalist, but developed a particular analysis to this effect; secondly, Cliff`s arguments were in no way coherent or well-rounded. In an attempt to absolve Lenin and Trotsky of responsibility for the development of Soviet society, Cliff sought to blame Stalin, as Trotskyists are wont to do. To achieve this he had to create an otherwise arbitrary distinction between Russia prior to 1928 (when it was supposedly some sort of workers` state) and then afterwards, when Stalin`s position was finally consolidated (and it somehow became state capitalist). Yet the essential features of the Soviet economy were just the same before as afterwards: commodity production, wage labour, capital accumulation and all the other features which defined it as specifically capitalist.
What Cliff did in his theory of bureaucratic state capitalism was to re-characterise the social formation in existence in Russia solely in response to a perceived change in political control rather than of the social and economic reality, a practice completely contrary to Marxist analysis and demonstrated to be such by Cliff`s critics both outside the Trotskyist movement (e.g. the SPGB, the council communists and left communists) and within it (notably by Ted Grant and Jock Haston).
The other main theory which Cliff helped to popularise was not mentioned at all in Foot`s obituary, this being the theory of the Permanent Arms Economy. It probably did not get a mention because it has pretty much fallen by the wayside in the SWP, though it deserves some comment because for much of their existence the Trotskyist grouping around Cliff (SRG/IS/SWP) has been almost as well known for this as for anything else.
Essentially it was developed by Cliff and one of his earliest supporters, Michael Kidron, in the 1950s and 60s as an explanation of why Britain and some of the other Western powers were enjoying a “long boom” after the Second World War, instead of suffering a major economic crisis. Their argument was that much of the productive capital in the economy at the time was being siphoned off into what they considered to be an unproductive form of expenditure on armaments production. They claimed this was important as it offset the tendency of the rate of profit to fall by minimising investment in the ‘productive’ sphere of the economy and the associated tendency of the organic composition of capital to rise (the ratio of constant to variable capital). Eventually, they thought, the burden of arms spending would become too great, leading to lower growth among high arms-spending states and deeper slumps.
The SWP used this thesis to inform a number of its arguments on the arms race, imperialism, uneven economic development and economic crises but it increasingly came under attack from other writers with a grasp of Marxian economics. Indeed, one of the best summaries of the arguments why armaments production is in reality little different from other forms of production and with few of the properties attributed to it by Cliff and Kidron is given by Cliff`s fellow (and recently deceased) Trotskyist Ernest Mandel in his Introduction to the Penguin edition of Volume Two of Marx`s Capital. In time, the Permanent Arms Economy and its related concepts drew some sustained criticism from within the SWP too (including from Kidron) and is today heard of a lot less than it was. This is appropriate, for in attributing magical powers to specific types of government expenditure
Overall then, the intellectual legacy of Cliff is far less substantial than his supporters like to claim. As befitted a man whose overriding aim was to “build the Party”, Cliff`s strength really lay in political organisation and the necessary weaving and manoeuvring through the internal strife that is the lifeblood of any Leninist organisation. Indeed, he built his party through the usual Trotskyist method of a centralised, vanguardist organisation on the one hand combined with openly reformist demands and opportunistic practices on the other, and there is nothing original in that — both Grant and Healy successfully achieved this in Britain too, at least for a time.
In one of the SWP`s main introductory texts, its leader-in-waiting Alex Callinicos expressed what Cliff must surely have seen as his own — and his vanguard party`s — pivotal role come the glorious day:
“A revolutionary situation places a premium on effective organisation and leadership. Events move very quickly, and on a snap decision may hang the fate of the entire revolution. What is needed is a cool and clear head, a firm sense of the ultimate objective, the ability to make rapid tactical judgements, and an organisation capable not only of making decisions, but of carrying them out.” (The Revolutionary Road to Socialism, p.46)
But the result of Cliff`s vanguardist approach has not been the glorious insurrection he so desired to lead or even, for that matter, a legacy of original and impressive theories for the working class to digest: far from it. Cliff`s main legacy has been the SWP`s long and shabby history of supporting wars and terrorist atrocities, of conning workers into voting Labour and of misleading them about how state capitalism is really socialism if presided over by the correct group of leaders.
The modern SWP is certainly the House That Cliff Built and can indeed boast about being the largest construction on the political left. It is not, however, an edifice of which any serious socialist could justifiably be proud.