Chris Harman


Learning from the past
to shape the future

(April 2001)

Reviews, Socialist Review, No.251, April 2001.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

International Struggle and the Marxist Tradition
Tony Cliff
Bookmarks £14.99

Many readers of Socialist Review will be acquainted with Tony Cliff’s classic work, State Capitalism in Russia, and with the three books he wrote shortly before his death a year ago – Marxism at the Millennium, Trotskyism after Trotsky and A World to Win, his political autobiography. But he wrote much more in his nearly 70 years of political activity, with hundreds of articles and 15 books providing incisive Marxist analysis on things as varied as Zionism in his native Palestine, Mao’s China in the 1950s, the shop stewards organisations of the 1960s, the great strikes of the 1970s and the Labour left in the 1980s. Some of the books remain in print. But some of his writings have been difficult, and sometimes near impossible, to get hold of.

This first volume of his selected works begins to rectify the matter. And it shows how much people who have only read a very small portion of Cliff’s output have been missing, for each of the pieces in it shows how the Marxist method should be used. They combine a scrupulous regard for facts, even when these clash with old dogmas, with the ability to fit the facts into the broader picture of the development of the world system and the forces fighting against it.

The core of the volume is made up of three of Cliff’s major works. His 1959 study of the Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg is an invaluable introduction to the life and ideas of one of the most inspiring figures in the history of revolutionary socialism. His 1968 analysis of the events in France in May of that year remain relevant today, showing how great struggles can erupt but also how old political forces (in this case Stalinism in particular) will seek to neutralise them. And Portugal at the Crossroads, written in the summer of 1975, was an intervention into a vital argument about what needed to be done to turn the sort of revolutionary turmoil Portugal was undergoing after the collapse of fascism into a successful socialist revolution.

The volume would be worth getting just to have access to any one of these writings. But it also contains other gems. Especially interesting are pieces on the interplay of imperialism, Zionism and liberation in Cliff’s native Palestine. In the first piece, published in 1938 when he was only 21, he grappled with the dilemmas created as the colonial power (Britain) set out to divide and rule by using Jewish people who had fled vicious persecution in Europe as a means of confusing and weakening the anti-imperialist struggle. He developed the argument further in a second piece, written a year later, pointing out that the Arab upper classes benefited from this state of affairs despite occasionally clashing with imperialism themselves.

Finally, Cliff laid out a marvellously clear Marxist approach to the whole problem in The struggle in the Middle East, originally published as a pamphlet in 1967. It came when the third war between Israel and Arab states (the Six Day War of June 1967) was presented by the whole of the media and by nearly all the parliamentary left as ‘a struggle for survival’ by ‘plucky little Israel’.

He showed that the roots of the conflict lay in the machinations of the same imperialism (US) that was devastating Vietnam, that all wings of the Zionist movement were drawn into collaboration with it, and that none of the Arab regimes could wage a serious fight against it. The pamphlet had the immediate effect of enabling a new generation of young revolutionaries – including some from Zionist backgrounds – to understand the real issues involved and recognise the need for solidarity with Palestinian resistance. It is an understanding that has served well down the years. 

The volume in its entirety provides wonderful insights into some of the great issues that confronted socialists in the 20th century – issues that usually remain central today. But it also provides a sense of what living, undogmatic revolutionary Marxism is about. This was something which was rare through much of Cliff’s lifetime, as Stalinism paralysed all too many minds. But it is something the new movements of the 21st century will desperately need. Get the volume, read it and learn from it.

Last updated on 26 December 2009