When I went to Glasgow as a young reporter in the autumn of 1961 I carried the good wishes of the socialists who were grouped around the New Left Review. ‘Be careful,’ warned Stuart Hall, NLR editor of the time, ‘there are a lot of Trots in the Glasgow Young Socialists.’ I replied that I was quite confident I could deal with the Trots, even though I hadn’t the slightest idea what a Trot was. I conjured up a vision of social misfits, slightly deranged and hysterical, against whom the masses could easily be convened by a dose of standard Oxford Union rhetoric. I had been President of the Union that previous golden summer at Oxford, and had only recently come into contact with socialists of any description.
As predicted, I met the Glasgow Trots very quickly. Most of them were in the Govan and Gorbals Young Socialists on the south of the River Clyde. Their mentor at that time was a lively barber called Harry Selby, who toured Young Socialist branches in the city. If he thought you were remotely interested in his ideas, he would reach for his bag and produce tracts from Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky which he would lend you on payment of a small deposit. Selby was a member of the Labour Party. He believed passionately that revolutionary socialists should be members of workers’ political organisations until those organisations became revolutionary. So steadfastly did Harry believe in this concept of ‘deep entrism’ that he eventually became a rather ineffectual Labour Member of Parliament for Govan. He was treated with suspicion by the Labour Party, and with something approaching hatred by the Communist Party which in these days controlled the Glasgow Trades Council To the young workers who flocked to join the newly-established Young Socialists – the youth organisation of the Labour Party – he brought enthusiasm, humour and some electrifying ideas about how the ugly and cruel capitalist society could swiftly be changed by a revolution. When asked about Russia, he would reply that Russia was a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ whose socialism had been corrupted by a Stalinist clique. The clique could quite easily be removed by a political revolution, though not a social revolution. The distinction was a little difficult to understand but, it seemed to me, would have to be accepted for the time being. My general approach was that the Oxford Union had little or nothing to contribute to these young firebrands, and my most sensible course was to keep quiet. Thus did I fulfil my promise to ‘deal with the Trots’ by effectively accepting everything they said. If I had any doubts, I quickly relegated them. The building of the Berlin Wall, I explained at one Young Socialist open air meeting just off Sauchiehall Street, had a clear purpose: to stop ‘bourgeois elements’ so vital to economic growth from leaving the country. When a rude fellow shouted, ‘Nonsense, man – it’s to keep the workers in,’ I conveniently (and accurately) wrote him off as a drunk.
Some time during the winter of 1961-62 Gus MacDonald, the most able and engaging of the Govan and Gorbals Young Socialists, decided that the movement needed a theoretical shot in the arm somewhat stronger than that provided by Harry Selby. He told me he had heard of a Trotskyist sect based in London called the Socialist Review Group, and that its two leaders, Tony Cliff and Michael Kidron, were outstanding speakers. He duly set up a weekend school addressed by the two men. Their subjects covered the entire face of the earth, including Russia.
I went down with Gus to the British European Airways terminal in St Enoch Square to meet the mysterious duo. They arrived late on a flight from London. As they walked into the terminal I was struck by the differences between them. Mike Kidron was impeccably dressed, urbane and charming. His companion Cliff, short and scruffy, was plainly terrified of being bored. The usual chatter about the times of the plane and the journey to the place where they were staying noticeably irritated and embarrassed him. As we climbed into a taxi I spotted a newspaper poster about the war in the Congo. ‘The Congo,’ I sighed. ‘I just haven’t a clue what I think about that.’ Quick as a flash, the dishevelled mess in the corner of the taxi sprang into life and, without pausing for even a moment’s dialogue, let loose a volley of sentences impossible to decipher but equally impossible not to understand. I can’t remember exactly what he said over the next ten minutes or so, but I do know that I never again had any doubts about the role of European and US imperialism in the Congo, and the subservience to that imperialism of the United Nations. I found to my surprise that I was laughing, not because anything said had been especially funny but just because the political explanation was so obvious.
Over and over again in the 40 years or so since that first conversation I have had to stop myself bursting out laughing at something Cliff said. This is not only because he was a public speaker of natural and exceptional wit, but chiefly because of his ability to explain an issue with such clarity and force that I could not help laughing at my own inability previously to understand it. Another point struck me during that momentous weekend. The contributions from the platform seemed to be completely free of the self regard or self interest which I had come to expect as standard qualities in political speakers. There were no votes to be won, no careers at stake. There was only one driving force, one reason for what was being said: conviction.
The first bombshell dropped by Cliff was that Russia was not a degenerated workers’ state, indeed not a workers’ state at all. The forms of political organisation in Russia – no stock exchange or private profit – might appear socialistic but the content of that organisation, exploitation of the working class by a new ruling class, was capitalist. If Russia was state capitalist, moreover, so were the Russian satellites in Eastern Europe, so was China, so (this was far too much for me to take at the time, so soon after the Cuban Revolution) was Cuba.
In this little life story Cliff reveals how he puzzled over this issue for years before bouncing out of bed one morning and declaring to his long-suffering wife, Chanie, ‘Russia is state capitalist.’
This issue may seem arcane, almost irrelevant in the 1990s, but to a young socialist at the beginning of the 1960s it was utterly crucial. The entire politics of the left were dominated by Russia and its supporters in the British Communist Party. My very first recollection of a difficult political argument was the alleged difference between the British and French invasion of Egypt in 1956 and the Russian invasion of Hungary a few weeks later. The first was plainly an act of blatant imperialism; the second (since Russia was a degenerated workers’ state) a skilful device to protect the workers’ states from reactionaries elsewhere, including the right wing fifth column in Budapest, Another consequence of supporting Russia against the West was a scepticism about democracy. Indeed, the very word ‘democracy’ was suspect, since it appeared to exist only in the capitalist West and hardly at all in the workers’ states in the East.
Cliff laid waste to all this. Russia was state capitalist, he asserted, and therefore imperialist. The Russian invasion of Hungary was every bit as outrageous as that of Britain and France at Suez. The essence of socialism was the social control of society from below; and there was none of that in Russia, even less in any of what he called Stalin’s satellites in Eastern Europe. Indeed, he observed, although he was down to speak about the Soviet Union, he could not even begin to do so since ‘soviet’ was die Russian word for workers’ council and there were no proper Soviets in any of the Russian Empire.
It is hard, after so long a period, to convey the effect of such opinions in the political atmosphere of the early 1960s. In this book Cliff tells the story of his conversion to the theory that Russia was state capitalist almost in passing. For those of us young socialists of the time to whom the theory was entirely new, the effect was the very opposite of transitory. It was devastating. It threatened not only a residual sympathy for what seemed at least like state planning in Russia, but also a whole view of politics, including, crucially, the notion that socialist change could come from the top of society, planned and executed by enlightened people, educated ministers and bureaucrats. The whole purpose of the Oxford Union was threatened by this message. For if Russia was state capitalist, what was the point of working politically with other enlightened people, for instance for more state control of British industry?
I resolved on no account to be hijacked by this new heresy. I got hold of a moth-eaten paperback edition of Cliff’s book on the subject, then entitled Stalinist Russia: A Marxist Analysis, and read it so carefully that it fell to pieces. The broad brush of the theory fascinated me almost as much as it horrified me. But the broad brush did not matter. Cliff’s writing style was hopeless – he had not the slightest idea how to use the English language to make his point. What finally convinced me was the relentless detail of the argument. It was in the chapter on the separation of the Russian Communist Party from the rank and file of the Russian walking class, in the pages in which Cliff traced the removal from all political office of any trace either of the Russian Revolution or of the working class rank and file, that my resistance finally snapped. There was no way in which such a rigid and brutal bureaucratic society could be described either as socialist or as a workers’ state, or indeed as even marginally democratic. ‘State capitalist’ exactly fitted the bill.
Not much later, when I was still in Glasgow in 1963, the third volume of Isaac Deutscher’s majestic biography ofTrotsky was published. I read all three volumes in quick succession, utterly overcome by the depth of analysis and the grandeur of the language. When I exulted over the book to Cliff, he was not at all impressed. In an article in the 1963 winter edition of the quarterly magazine International Socialism, each issue of which, incidentally, I looked forward to with my first-ever intellectual passion, he wrote a ferocious attack on Deutscher, entitled The End of the Road: Deutscher’s Capitulation to Stalinism. With hardly a word of appreciation for the magnificent biography,. Cliff honed in on a passage in a separate Deutscher article in a collection of essays entitled Heretics and Renegades in which the sage set out this advice to an ‘ex-Communist man of letters’ like himself. ‘He cannot join the Stalinist camp or the anti-Stalinist holy alliance without doing violence to his better self. So let him overcome the cheap ambition to have a finger in the political pie. He may withdraw into the watchtower instead – to watch with detachment and alertness this heaving chaos of a world.’ This conclusion sent Cliff into paroxysms of rage. Anyone who ever said a word in support of Isaac Deutscher was screeched at interminably: ‘To die watchtower! To the watchtower!’ Of all the awful crimes of the left, none infuriated Cliff like passivity. For people who knew the world was rotten, to sit back and do nothing about it was for him the ultimate aberration.
So it was for Trotsky. Many years later Cliff himself wrote a four-volume biography of Trotsky. I would still recommend the Deutscher but, like his equally long biography of Lenin, Cliff’s Trotsky is indispensable to modern socialists. Throughout all his books the theme is action. The key question surpassing all others is Lenin’s – what is to be done? At every twist and turn in the tussle between the classes, some action needs to be taken by the exploited majority. This is why the most fundamental issue of all is the building of a socialist organisation which takes its cue from the workers’ battles against their rulers, and can unite in disciplined action the resources not just of those who want to change the world but of those prepared to do something about it.
This story starts in Cliff’s childhood in Palestine. He often said that the case for socialism takes less than two minutes to understand – a mere glance at the world and the way it is divided into rich and poor makes that case immediately. A mere glance at the way Arab children were treated in Palestine in the 1930s was enough to make Cliff a socialist. Disillusionment with the compromising Communist Party soon followed. And so Cliff’s youth was devoted unswervingly to a most fantastic aim: the building of a Trotskyist organisation in poor old impoverished, looted and divided Palestine. When he had little or no success at that, he duly devoted almost all the rest of his life to an even more fantastic aim: building a revolutionary socialist organisation in comfortable bourgeois post-war Britain. Everything round him militated against his objective. A Labour government was in office with a huge majority, supported by the vast mass of the working class. Any activity to the left of Labour was entirely monopolised by the Communist Party. For good measure, Cliff’s early efforts were frustrated by his expulsion from Britain and five years enforced, isolated and utterly impoverished exile in Dublin. Reading this book’s breezy account, you can’t help wondering – where did he get the resolve to continue? Even when he was allowed to return to his wife and family in London, membership of his Socialist Review Group seldom exceeded 20. This book tells the rather fitful story of how, against impossible odds, the Socialist Review Group grew into the International Socialists which in turn (for reasons which are still not entirely clear) became the Socialist Workers Party. Since the comparatively huge edifice of the Communist Party vanished in a puff of smoke in 1989, the (still tiny) SWP became by far the largest socialist grouping in the country. Indeed, the only socialists who have survived the fall of Stalinism of 1989 with some confidence are those who consistently denounced it.
Tony Cliff was not a humble man and his account (which he started only because he was afraid he was about to die under the surgeon’s knife) seldom errs on the side of modesty. Nor should it. For the characteristic which emerges from his life more than any other is single-mindedness. In spite of his wide-ranging intellect, his mastery of at least four languages and his extensive reading, he never allowed himself for a single moment of his 82 years to be deflected from his purpose. Such indomitable resolve is rare indeed among people who set out to change the world. When Cliff was accused, as he often was, of lionising the greats in socialist history – Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg – he replied that, if we want to see what is happening beyond the crowd, we have to stand on the shoulders of giants.
He would have been embarrassed, though I think quite happy, to be bracketed with the greats, but there are quite a few of us socialists in Britain over the past 40 years or so who thank our lucky stars that we had the chance to stand on his shoulders.
Last updated on 30.1.2005