Tony Cliff

A World to Win


A preliminary remark: why am I engaged in writing this biography? In 1998, having been politically active for some 65 years, and in recent times speaking on average at three meetings a week (quite often travelling away from London and staying for a night or two away from home), I was instructed by my doctors to slow down due to a heart condition. I shouldn’t complain. When I was 18 years old my doctor told me I would never reach the age of 30 because of my heart. However, he had not asked me when I had had my last meal. He did not know that as an activist I subsisted on a meagre diet of bread and of oranges ‘that fell off the back of an orchard’.

But now I have no alternative but to obey orders. To do much original research is too much for me. I did manage in the four weeks prior to the heart operation to write a short book, Trotskyism After Trotsky: The Origins of the International Socialists. This was an easy task as it relied on my writings over the years since 1946.I lifted whole chunks from previous works.

However, the thought of doing nothing filled me with horror. My daughters Elana and Anna suggested that the most useful thing I could do while waiting for the operation was to write my autobiography.

If in the end the essay is not worthwhile, the wastepaper basket is there to be filled. However, I hope it can be a useful companion to Trotskyism After Trotsky. Where that book dealt with theories developed to adapt to changes in the capitalist world, the first part of this book concentrates on the genesis of those theories from a milieu of isolation and imposed independence of thinking that was my situation in Palestine. The latter part of the book looks at the effort to implement strategies and tactics which relate these theories and the wider aspects of Marxism to the practice of building a revolutionary socialist party.

There are difficulties in writing a political biography. The personal story must be entwined with the social and political history. Human beings act in a social and political environment that shapes them while they affect and change it. How much space has to be given to

one element as against others depends on how much the reader is expected to know of the history of the period. I was politically active in Palestine for some 14 years (1932-46); then I was in Britain for a year; then four and a half years in Dublin (1947-52); and finally in Britain for the last 47 years. Readers probably know very little about the history of Palestine in the above period. Yet even when it comes to Britain the difficulties do not cease.

In a political biography of someone active in the revolutionary movement in Russia over four decades, the peaks of its history will be well known. It could be the 1905 revolution, the 1917 revolution, the civil war, or Stalin’s liquidation of all the old Bolsheviks and establishment of the gulag. It is true that British working class history also has impressive peaks over the last four decades. For example, in 1972 the five dockers jailed in Pentonville prison for union activities were freed as the result of an all-out strike in the docks, solidarity action by printers (who stopped Fleet Street), and widespread strikes in the engineering industry which prompted the TUC to call for a one-day general strike. Alas, the peaks in Russia look like the heights of the Himalayas, in Britain like Ben Nevis. Many people know about the Himalayas; far fewer about Ben Nevis. This forces me, in the twin story of history and biography, to devote a lot of space to the former.

Added to these difficulties is my longevity. Lenin was both delighted and proud that his party was a party of youth:

We are the party of the future, and the future belongs to the youth. We are a party of innovators, and it is always the youth that most eagerly follows the innovators. We are a party that is waging a self-sacrificing struggle against the old rottenness, and youth is always the first to undertake a self-sacrificing struggle.

No, let us leave it to the [liberal bourgeois] Cadets to collect the ‘tired’ old men of 30, revolutionaries who have ‘grown wise’, and renegades from [revolutionary Marxist] Social Democracy. We shall always be a party of the youth of the advanced class! [1]

Of course Lenin was right: the revolutionary party is overwhelmingly an organisation made up of young people. In Tsarist Russia, under the very harsh conditions of illegality, many revolutionaries drifted away in their 30s. In Britain possibly the threshold comes a little later, let us say, around the 40s. Of course many of the Bolsheviks who dropped out of activity in the period of reaction following

the 1905 revolution returned to the fold in 1917. I am sure that 99 percent of the comrades who have left the International Socialists or the Socialist Workers Party have not changed their basic political beliefs. But still my longevity demands more space being given to the historical element in the biography than had I died at, say, the age of 40. I apologise.

Readers may be shocked by the narrowness of my own life story outside politics, and they will be absolutely right. I so concentrated on the political side of life that I neglected wider emotional and cultural elements. Division of labour increases productivity. This was demonstrated brilliantly by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations, when he showed how, if one worker previously only producing pins, was replaced by a group of workers with a division of labour doing different tasks, productivity rose enormously. But there is another side to the coin. Division of labour raises productivity but, alas, it makes a person half-human. There is a round hole for a round peg, and a square hole for a square peg. However, there is no hole in the image of man. Scarcity of resources, belonging for a long time to tiny groups of revolutionaries, forced me to concentrate every sinew of my being on the task ahead. For 65 years I found the going hard, with very little leeway for relaxation, for avoiding the extreme specialisation I chose.

I remember in Palestine one member of the group said to me, ‘You fuck for world revolution.’ I thought that was a compliment. At the age of 16 I met my first girlfriend. She was five months younger than me and we stayed together for six years. After being together for a few months she asked me one day, ‘Do you remember what you said to me the first time we kissed?’ I said I did not. She reminded me: ‘You asked me, “If I gave you a hand grenade, would you throw it into a police station?”’ I asked her for her reaction. ‘I was simply petrified,’ she said. (I was never inclined to individual terrorism; it was simply a test of her revolutionary fervour.)

The way I met Chanie Rosenberg, my wife, is not a story of watching the full moon together, although in Palestine it is really beautiful in summer. Our getting together was far more prosaic. A few weeks after we first met in her kibbutz I contacted Chanie and asked her to come to Tel Aviv to translate into English and then type a leaflet for the British troops still in the country. I don’t know if personality traits are inherited but only one of my children seems to have inherited my

obsessive nature, and with curious results. My son Danny has the same attitude to music as I have to politics, which is probably why he is the only one of my four kids who has not joined the SWP. He is too busy composing and performing at the keyboard as the only white member of a well-known black band.

I was not always so narrow-minded. Until the age of 17 I devoured literary classics unceasingly. Decades later I still carried on a great love of the theatre. In Dublin, when I was financially hard up, I still managed to go to the theatre at least once a fortnight. But the priorities of revolutionary politics extinguished these aspects of my life.

My narrowness is not a demonstration of humanity under socialism. Thank heaven for the Chanies of this world whose interests are far more universal and who follow artistic and cultural pursuits with enthusiasm. Chanie and I are like chalk and cheese. She is very interested in the arts, goes to concerts, art exhibitions, and is herself a sculptress (and I think a talented one, if the sculptures that fill our house are anything to go by). With such a big difference between us, how can it be explained that we have been together for 55 years, and are at present closer to one another than ever? Basically we have something in common far more important than character traits: both of us are dedicated revolutionaries. Of Chanie I can say without exaggeration that she has devotion to the cause, energy, purity of character and unsurpassed steadfastness.

One incident demonstrates very well Chanie’s single-mindedness. Being not a very good driver, she knocked down a dustman in Hackney. She visited him in hospital and recruited him to our organisation. Since then I have repeatedly asked her why she does not run over other dustmen, as we have too few of them in the organisation. Alas, she does not listen to me.

I always look at myself as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. To sculpt a beautiful David, Michelangelo did not use a beautiful hammer and chisel.

If I had to live my life again I would not change it radically. Of course I would like to have committed fewer mistakes, and besides the commissions, also made less omissions.

This book is about my life, about the past, but I hope it will also be a weapon in the long struggle for the future.




1. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.11 (Moscow), pp.334-335.


Last updated on 19.12.2004