Tony Cliff

50 Years of the International Socialist Tradition

Ahmed Shawki interviews Tony Cliff


From International Socialist Review, No.1, Summer 1997, pp.27-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Fifty years ago, Tony Cliff’s Marxist analysis of Stalinism, State Capitalism in Russia, was a seminal work for revolutionaries.

Cliff’s formulation of the theory of state capitalism renewed revolutionary practice and created the International Socialist tendency. On the anniversary of this pioneering work, Ahmed Shawki interviewed Cliff on the origins and significance of the theory and its relevance for revolutionary Marxism today.


Shawki: What was the genesis of the theory of state capitalism? What caused you to question previous Marxist theory?

Cliff: I became a Trotskyist in 1933. The theory of state capitalism is a development of Trotsky’s position. The emphasis on internationalism and the impossibility of socialism in one country, on the self-emancipation of the working class, on the reactionary role of the Stalinist bureaucracy – all those are fundamental to Trotsky’s position, and through him, to our theory as well.

But at the end of the Second World War, the perspectives that Trotsky had put forward were not realized. Trotsky wrote that one thing was certain, the Stalinist bureaucracy would not survive the war. It would either be overthrown by revolution or by counterrevolution. When the war ended in 1945, James P. Cannon, the leader of the American Socialist Workers Party, recalled that Trotsky had said the Stalinist bureaucracy could not survive the war. The Stalinist bureaucracy was still there. It was proof the war hadn’t ended.

The assumption was that the collapse of the Stalinist bureaucracy would be a fantastic opening for the Trotskyist movement, for the Fourth International. The Stalinist bureaucracy not only didn’t collapse but it expanded. Stalinism spread to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania, East Germany. And Stalinism was also expanding in China.

Therefore, at that time, Stalinism had a fantastic strength. And we had to come to terms with it.

Now either you look at Marxism as a talisman, as a warm coat that protects you from the elements, that you can hide underneath, or you look at Marxism as relating to what is happening in the real world. And if the theory is in conflict with actuality; then something is wrong not with the events, but something is wrong with the theory.

Being an orthodox Trotskyist, I was completely shocked that the perspectives simply didn’t work.

One of the reasons I came to Britain was to write a book on Eastern Europe. It was obvious for me that Eastern Europe is an extension of the Stalinist regime in Russia; state ownership, the same plan, the same state. Napoleon wrote that the army abroad is the state traveling. The Hungarian state, or the Polish state, were extensions of the Russian state.

This raised a problem. Some comrades in the Fourth International avoided it. For example, Ernest Mandel, its leading theoretician, wrote in 1948 that Russia was a workers’ state; Eastern European countries were capitalist. You can say it, but either Eastern European countries were workers’ states too or Russia was not. You can’t have both. Now if Eastern European countries are workers states, then there are a number of conclusions. The first is that the heart of Marxism, that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class, doesn’t apply here at all. The workers played no role at all in establishing the Stalinist regimes. Even in China, the Chinese working class never recuperated from the massive defeats of the Chinese revolution of 1925-27, and therefore they played no role in establishing Mao’s regime. So if you accepted that China and Eastern Europe are workers’ states-then the working class is not crucial.

If the working class is not crucial, the concept that ideas are crucial is absolutely ridiculous. Why do you need ideas if you have tanks? Therefore you retreat from the concept of the working class as an actor in history. You retreat from the ideas of Marxism as an important factor.

That is one alternative.

Or you can say something is wrong with the theory The more convinced you are about basic Marxist ideas, the more you are ready to throw overboard things that are secondary to those basic ideas. If you are really convinced of your ideas you can face reality But it was a very difficult period. For more than a month I hadn’t slept in the transition from the old theory to the new.

Shawki: What were the theoretical questions that the concept of state capitalism first grappled with?

Cliff: Ninety percent of any development of theory is not the answers but the questions. Once you ask the questions, you can see new theoretical possibilities. You ask the question, why did Trotsky take for granted that the Stalinist bureaucracy would not survive the war? Why did Trotsky take for granted that Russia is a workers’ state? Trotsky defined Russia as a workers’ state because of the form of property; the state form of property the abolition of private property. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx defined communism in one sentence: the abolition of private property. And moreover, in Russia, state ownership came as a result of the proletarian revolution.

The question then becomes, what is the relation between the form of property and the relations of production? Marx did a critique of Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy, in which he says that Proudhon defines capitalism as private property. Marx next says that private property is a juridical abstraction, because private property existed under slavery, serfdom and capitalism. All are private property, but slavery, serfdom and capitalism are not the same. The form is private property but the content, the social relations, are different. Now if the form and the content are not attached to one another, and you can have private property with capitalism or with slavery; then you can have capitalism with private property or with state ownership.

You view it historically, of course. Serfdom is usually connected with the lord of the manor, and with serfs in the villages around the manor. But there was also serfdom on the Catholic Church land, which was a quarter of all the land in Europe. On this church land the serfs were serfs, but there was no lord of the manor, and no right of inheritance. The property of the Church was called the patrimony of the poor. The assumption was that it was not privately owned. So the form of property by itself doesn’t apply.

In addition, Trotsky explained why he thought the bureaucracy was so unstable. He thought there were still two forces in Russia: the working class, fighting for state ownership, and the forces of capitalism, fighting to restore private ownership. Because of that, he believed the bureaucracy had no stable base.

Again, Trotsky assumed that the bureaucracy appears, as he put it, in the process of distribution.

He says, when there is a queue, you need somebody to control it, and the gendarme that controls the queue looks after number one. The source of the queue is scarcity. But the theoretical question that has to be asked is, why does scarcity exist?

In Russia they managed to send people to the moon, but they didn’t manage to build enough houses. If the emphasis was on housing, or consumer goods, there would be less scarcity; The bureaucracy decides how to distribute flats, clothing or food. But previously the bureaucracy also appears in the decision over whether to produce flats, or to produce machines, heavy industry; tanks and airplanes. Therefore the bureaucracy appears not only in the process of distribution but also in the process of production.

The next question that arises theoretically is why are the priorities on heavy industry, on militarism.

They can launch Sputniks, but you can’t get decent razor blades. Where do these priorities come from? Is it a question of Stalin being such a nasty piece of work that he doesn’t want people enjoying themselves by having consumer goods? That explains nothing.

Trotsky speaks about the bureaucracy as being parasitic, on the assumption that there is no dynamism of production. But if there is this dynamism, there must be some other reason why workers are being oppressed. Marx argued in Capital that the anarchy of capitalist production is the other side of the tyranny of the individual enterprise. Because the capitalists compete with one another, in order to survive they have to accumulate. In order to accumulate they have to exploit workers more and more. Therefore anarchy and tyranny are the two sides of the same coin.

What was the other side of the tyranny of Stalin? What anarchy did Stalin face? The anarchy was the pressure of world capitalism, and the pressure of world capitalism at that time took mainly military forms. Therefore, I came to the conclusion, that the same laws that Marx spoke about for the individual capitalist enterprise, applied to Russia as a capitalist, as a single capitalist unit.

The term state capitalism best fits the reality.

Shawki: How did the new theory help clarify the impasse of the Trotskyist movement?

Cliff: The theoretical breakthrough that state capitalism provided was important. It was immediately clear to us that Trotsky’s perspectives were wrong. There was no great space for revolutionaries. The Stalinists themselves filled a very big area, and at the same time Stalinism gave indirect support, on a massive scale, to reformism. And reformism had solid support because of the postwar boom. What was obvious therefore was that in the immediate future Stalinism on the one hand and reformism on the other closed the path to us. This was depressing, but we had to face reality and develop realistic perspectives. That meant looking into the nature of Stalinism itself, to find the roots of its own destruction, and likewise with reformism.

Marx wrote about capitalism that “all that is solid melts into air”. This applies to state capitalism and to reformism. I remember in 1956 when the Hungarian Revolution occurred. I didn’t sleep for four nights, listening to the radio. It was confirmation that Stalinism was not a monolith, that class conflict was there, that workers were rising.

The theory also gave us the basis for continuing the struggle. To continue the struggle you must understand perspectives. Therefore the theory was fundamental to our survival. Fifty years ago the organization started with eight of us. We survived and we grew, while much bigger organizations based on faulty theories and perspectives have collapsed.

The soft Trotskyists who gave critical support of sorts to Stalinism collapsed. We survived because our basic theory was right. We made lots of mistakes, little mistakes, but the general sense of direction was right. And 50 years after the event, in a way-you feel quite happy with it. If a theory is confirmed, it gives you strength to continue the struggle. And therefore our comrades are very confident in their ideas, very combative, because our theory has stood the greatest of all tests, the test of time, of history.

Shawki: What conclusions should revolutionaries draw from the great changes in Stalinism and capitalism in recent years?

Cliff: The collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe in 1989 opened a great space for revolutionary socialism throughout the world. The impact of this collapse was massive on the world Stalinist movement. In some cases the Communist Party practically disintegrated. In Britain Nina Temple, the general secretary of the Communist Party; declared that the Socialist Workers Party was right, Russia is not socialist but state capitalist. That was as if the Pope declared that God doesn’t exist – in which case it would be very difficult to keep the Catholic Church intact.

In other places the Communist Parties are a much greater influence, of a much greater size. But in these cases also, there has been a radical change in the nature of the party. In South Africa, in France, in Italy, the Communist Party became proponents of the market and privatization. They are no different from right-wing social democratic parties. At the same time that openings for the revolutionary left occurred through the collapse of Stalinism, a lot of space was opened for revolutionaries by the crisis of world social democracy, of reformism.

Since the war, until the early ’70s , we had the longest boom in the history of capitalism. At that time the reformist parties delivered reforms. The Labour government from 1945 to 1951 preserved capitalism, but at the same time they achieved massive changes in the interests of working people.

The National Health Service was introduced. So was the 40-hour week. Every year 200,000 council houses were built. By comparison, in 1996, only 600 council houses were built. We had public ownership of the railroads, the mines, gas, electricity-20 percent of industry was publicly owned. Reformist politics delivered reforms, and therefore the government was popular. From 1945-51, there were 43 by-elections. Labour won 42 out of 43, a fantastic achievement.

Things have changed since then. So long as capitalism is expanding, the capitalist can get a big chunk in the form of profit, and workers get big crumbs in the form of good wages, or social services.

But if capitalism stagnates, then the workers have to give way. Because there is one thing you cannot have – capitalism without profit. The priority under capitalism is profit.

In the last 20 years, the total output in manufacturing and industry in Britain rose by less than 2 percent. For the 20 years before, output rose by 86 percent. Within that 86 percent, there was a big space for reforms. We are now confronted with reformist parties which don’t deliver reforms. Under the last Labour government, from 1974-79, no significant reforms were delivered. Unemployment rose to 1.7 million. There was a cut in real wages. There was closure of hospital wards, and even of complete hospitals. The result was the reformist Labour government became very unpopular. During that Labour government of 1974-79, Labour lost 16 of the 31 by-elections.

I have no doubt whatsoever that under Tony Blair’s government, when there are even more attacks on working-class conditions, he’ll be lucky to retain any seats in the by-elections.

For a whole historical period reformists were able to bring about labor reforms. When Lenin says that the only way to achieve reforms is by revolutionary struggle, it applied in Russia in 1905. It did not apply in Britain in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s. It did not apply in Europe since the war. It didn’t apply to the United Sates for a long time. Workers achieved reforms without revolutionary struggle. But the path of reform is closing. It is much more difficult to achieve reform now than, let’s say, 10 years ago. This is one of the reasons why the reformist leaders are promising less than they used to, and have moved massively to the right.

At the same time, however, workers have no confidence they can achieve reforms by revolutionary struggle. They don’t have enough confidence, enough unity, enough experience of a working class in struggle. Nor do they have confidence in achieving reforms by reformist efforts. This is why there is a very high level of apathy, and a very contradictory consciousness. Their consciousness is contradictory because of the situation. There is a lot of anger and at the same time this lack of confidence. The anger comes because the situation grows worse and worse with declining conditions and job insecurity. The lack of confidence comes from years of bureaucratic control, years of low level of struggle. And with that combination in these people when you say “Enough is enough” they nod their heads. But when you say; “Let’s do something about it” then it’s “Oh, wait, I’m not sure. I agree with you but our mates are not ready.”

The question is how to build bridges to these people who agree with you in part, but continue to disagree on other things. The problem is to find bridges all the time to what is common between us and people outside us, without limiting ourselves to this, and still being able to raise the questions they don’t agree with us on. We have to be able to cut with the grain and against the grain almost at the same time.

The difficulty is that, despite the crisis and the openings for the revolutionary left, we are still on the margin. There is not yet a mass movement in terms of activity, in which we could be a significant factor. This applies to Britain and to the United States. In France and some other places, the mass movement comes and goes.

The problem for us is that for a long, long time we have been a propaganda organization. Even at present 90 percent of our time is propaganda – discussing ideas, selling the paper, talking to individual workers. Ten percent at most is agitation. In some specific things we act – we lead strikes, in Brent, in Sefton, at UCH hospital. So the question of our ability to move from propaganda to agitation or from agitation to propaganda is very, very important. We have to repeat the argument that the only way to achieve reforms is by revolutionary struggle. This is becoming more and more true in Britain and the United States and elsewhere. Whether we lead straight-away to that, or we only remain at the level of propaganda, we still have to see. But even one big victory could be the signal that gives confidence to workers elsewhere, an event that spreads, and gives clearer shape to the contradictory period we are in.

Shawki: How does the rise of the fascist right in Europe affect revolutionary perspectives?

Cliff. We face real dangers. The crisis of reformism leaves a space for revolutionaries, but also it leaves a space for the fascists. In France in 1981, there were presidential elections. The Socialist candidate, François Mitterand, got 57 percent of the vote. The fascist candidate, the leader of the National Front, Le Pen, had the support of less than 1 percent. Fourteen years of Socialist rule, Mitterand died, and there were new presidential elections. The Socialist candidate, Jospin, got 23 percent of the vote, Le Pen got 15 percent, and Chirac, a right winger, won the presidency

In Italy the Christian Democrats and the Socialists dominated politics for decades and didn’t deliver reforms for many, many years. In the last election in April 1994 the Christian Democrats got a tiny number of MPs and the Socialists didn’t win one seat. The fascists took 115 seats. But the party that became the biggest in the Italian parliament was the PDS Communist Party with over 200 MPs. The reason is simple. The Socialists had formed the government twice. The Communists could turn around and say; “We have never been in the government. We are not responsible for all the muck.”

The situation is extremely volatile. I mentioned in France the growth of the right, but at the same time there were massive strikes that paralyzed the government. In Italy as well: Silvio Berlusconi, the right winger, took control of the government in alliance with the fascists. Six months later the government fell as a result of mass strikes.

France is more volatile than Britain. One of the reasons the fascists find it more difficult to expand in Britain than in France is because the unions in Britain are proportionately three to four times stronger in size. The fascists find it very difficult to invade the unions. Where the workers are not organized, it is much easier for them. And in France the unions are divided into three confederations, plus autonomous unions. Because the unions are smaller and weaker, the union bureaucracy is less in control of the situation. There is more leeway for spontaneous strikes stemming from the ranks, for trade union democracy Yet at the same time the weakness of the unions means that there is more space for the fascists to act.

I don’t believe that a victory of one side over the other is inevitable. But one thing is absolutely clear: the reformists cannot consolidate the situation because the crisis is too deep. And when the crisis is too deep the extremes will win. Either one extreme or another extreme. It will go backwards and forwards for quite some time, unlike the 1930s.

I remember the 1930s, and I have the feeling that I’m seeing the same film for the second time – mass unemployment, a rise in racism, the growth of the fascists. But this time the film goes much slower. In Germany from the crash of 1929 to the deep crisis of 1930-31 was a very short time.

Unemployment reached eight million straight-away. In Germany today it has gone from the crisis of the 1970s onward. It goes up and down. There are now 4.7 million unemployed in Germany, but the sharpness and impact on workers’ lives is much less deep than in the ’30s. Then unemployment benefits didn’t exist. Today; unemployment benefits in Germany are higher than the average wage in Britain. So workers are not starving, things are not as extreme as they were in the ’30s. But the trend is like it was in the ’30s, although the tempo is much slower. That means it is more possible to stop it than it was in the ’30s.

We have to fight the fascists but also try to stop the conditions that make fascism grow. And those are conditions of frustration, disappointment and suffering. Socialism is a movement of hope; fascism is a movement of despair. The tragedy of the reformists is that they don’t give hope and they don’t know how to deal with despair.

In 1977 the fascists in Britain, the National Front, were really on the march, they were expanding, they probably had 30-40,000 members at the time. We decided to stop them. So 2,000 of us went to Lewisham, where the Front was going to march in southeast London, where a lot of Black people live. And 2,000 of our comrades mobilized about 10,000 local Black youth. Together we broke through the police cordon and smashed the National Front. We launched the Anti-Nazi League out of this action.

Yet at that time, Michael Foot, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, said he doesn’t know which is worse, the Socialist Workers Party or the National Front. He called us “red fascists.” When Stalin called social democrats “social fascists,” he was an idiot. But social democrats are inadequate to the job of fighting fascists. They are accustomed to parliamentary democracy to the legal system, and they don’t know how to organize people in the streets.

It was the same in the 1930s. In Britain in 1936 Mosley’s Blackshirts tried to march at Cable Street, a Jewish area of East London. The Communist Party mobilized 100,000 people and they stopped Herr Mosley. They broke the back of Mosley’s movement. The Labour Party told people at that time, “Don’t go to East London. Remain at home. Let them march.”

More shocking is the incompetence of German reformism when Hitler came to power. I remember when Hitler became Prime Minister of Germany on the 30th of January, 1933. The leader of the Social Democratic Party in the Reichstag told people don’t worry, there are only six Nazis in the cabinet. The majority of the cabinet are conservatives. Don’t worry because the President is not a Nazi, but is the conservative, Field Marshal Hindenburg. Don’t worry because in a few months time, in April, there are going to be general elections. Don’t worry – that was the line. Then Hermann Goering, the Nazi Minister of the Interior, banned the Communist Party and arrested a number of socialist candidates for the Reichstag. The Nazis then won the elections.

The leadership of the union federation announced, “For over 60 years we collaborated with the Social Democratic Party. From now on, we are going to collaborate with the National Socialist Workers Party of Germany (the Nazis).” Hitler said thank you very much, and then banned the unions. Even more extreme – if anything can be more extreme – was the position of the engineers union. Hitler’s coming to power was greeted by their paper with the headline “Victory for Socialism.”

Shawki: What ongoing relevance does the theory of state capitalism have for today?

Cliff: The crisis of reformism and the collapse of Stalinism has created a fantastic opening for revolutionary socialism. It is much easier to build a revolutionary organization now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Then if someone moved to the left automatically they would say “I am a Communist,” and Communist meant Stalinist. To become a Trotskyist was extremely difficult.

Stalinism marginalized and isolated Trotskyism very effectively. The Trotskyists were by and large in tiny little groups with hardly any influence. Never before had revolutionaries been so marginalized. Even at the beginning of this century the Marxist forces were much more influential than the Trotskyists ever were. Stalinism represented massive political retrogression for the international working-class movement.

The problem for revolutionaries, for Trotskyists, in the years after the Second World War, was how to connect with the long historical chain of the revolutionary tradition. Unless we were clear that Stalinism was bound to collapse through its internal contradictions, we could not find a way to connect with the old revolutionary traditions of the working-class movement – from the Chartist movement in Britain in the 1840s to the Paris Commune in 1871 to the 1917 Russian revolution.

The theory of state capitalism was a small link, connecting the long chain of the revolutionary tradition of the past with the future reappearance of a mass revolutionary movement.

Not grasping the nature of the Stalinist regimes as state capitalist, the so-called orthodox Trotskyists went completely adrift after the war. This culminated in Michel Pablo, the secretary of the Fourth International, speaking about centuries of “progressive” Stalinism, and Posadas, a leader of the Latin American Trotskyists, calling on the Soviet Union to launch a nuclear war on the United States, saying if only 10 people remained alive it wouldn’t matter because the victory of Communism would be assured. If I was one of the 10, I would prefer the victory of cannibalism.

Of course these are comic excesses. But the rise of the Stalinist states of Eastern Europe and China caused orthodox Trotskyism to enter a cul-de-sac. The only way of breaking out was the theory of state capitalism.

When we started in Britain we were by far the smallest group among the Trotskyist organizations.

Those much large organizations have disintegrated and we have survived. The reason is simple, the theory of state capitalism. When Stalinism collapsed, we were not damaged. On the contrary, we were confirmed in our ideas, while they lost their confidence. For a revolutionary organization, the most important thing is confidence in ideas. Ideas are the most important thing for us – the confidence of our ideas in the future.

Because of our theory of state capitalism we viewed socialism not from the vantage point of state ownership, but from the self-activity of the working class. This brought us back to the basic heart of Marxism. It meant that in every situation we looked to the independent activity of the rank and file.

In Britain we couldn’t fight the Stalinist bureaucracy, but in every strike we fight to keep workers independent of the trade union bureaucracy The basic fact that we always rely on rank-and-file self-activity means that we are not demoralized when the movement goes wrong. Not every strike wins: many strikes are sold down the river by the union bureaucracy But we are not responsible for the defeat of the strike. We argue this correctly, the right policy, the right tactics, the right strategy for workers in struggle.

In British terms, those that attach themselves to the idea of socialism from above, attach themselves to the trade union bureaucracy They cave in to the union bureaucracy, they sell out every time they become demoralized.

Our ideas kept us alive, and we broke through when in local situations we found the opportunity to expand. It took 10 years for our tiny group to grow from eight to 60. Then in a couple of years we went to 400. Then we stagnated at 400, between 1964 and 1968. Then with the Vietnam War we grew from 400 in April of 1968 to 1000 in October of 1968. Again and again you jump forward, then stagnation, even retreat a little bit, then again a jump forward. Last week we recruited 135 members to the organization, which means we grew twice as much as we did in 10 years! It is not because we are more talented now. It’s because on the foundation of what we did originally; we can do a little bit better at each next stage.


Last updated on 25.9.2002