Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2


International Struggle

Tony Cliff
International Struggle and the Marxist Tradition: Selected Writings, Volume One
Bookmarks, London, 2001, pp314, £14.99

THIS book contains a selection of Cliff’s writings on international themes over six decades. The first article dates from 1938, when he was barely out of his teens, and the last is a study of the Indonesian workers’ struggle published in 1998. Some are now of mainly historical interest, while others are still relevant.

British Policy in Palestine, The Jewish-Arab Conflict and Class Politics in Palestine were all published in the American Trotskyist journal The New International. The Jewish-Arab Conflict describes how the reactionary positions of both Arab and Jewish leaders prevented working-class unity. The Arab leaders, who were the traditional landlords, used anti-Jewish religious sentiments, and looked to the fascist powers for support. The Zionists’ main objective was to drive out Arab labour, so they mounted picket lines to force Jewish employers to sack Arab workers. The ‘left’ Zionists in Hashomer Hatzair, who considered themselves to be Marxists, would have allowed some well-established Arab workers to remain in Jewish establishments. Neither the Arab nor the Zionist leaders demanded that the British rulers introduce democratic rights. Cliff outlined a programme of democratic and transitional demands in an effort to unite a bitterly divided working class. It was a thoughtful attempt to tackle a horrendous problem, but unfortunately there was no sizeable force prepared to support it. Such frustrations led Cliff to leave for England in 1946, but before doing so he had written a book on imperialism and the Middle East, a chapter of which is published here. It shows his ability as a researcher, but one cannot imagine him ever wishing to be an academic. Whether he was writing an agitational pamphlet or researching economic statistics, Cliff was always a man of action.

The Trotskyist movement Cliff joined in Britain was only a little stronger than in Palestine, and was soon to fragment. In 1951, he led one such fragment, which eventually became the Socialist Workers Party. The tiny forces available and the slight audience for Marxist politics meant that there were very few socialist publications, so for some years Cliff’s output was not great. The gradual disintegration of the Communist Party after Stalin’s death created some space for revolutionary politics, so in 1959 Cliff was able to publish his pamphlet Rosa Luxemburg. Till then we had accepted a picture of her as a socialist martyr who had been hostile to ‘the party’ and had advocated something called ‘spontaneity’. The pamphlet is still well worth reading, in spite of the numerous books about Luxemburg which are now available. Cliff was extremely favourable to Luxemburg at that time, arguing that her ideas were a better guide than Lenin’s for Marxists in advanced industrial countries. The rise in class struggle during the 1960s caused Cliff to revise his estimate – or to adjust to changes in the market for ideas – so the 1968 reprint was changed, without acknowledgement, to give top marks to Lenin. Political opponents seized on that change to accuse him of opportunism, so every aspiring polemicist needed a copy of both pamphlets. The present edition includes both versions of the offending text, and as the main alteration amounts to only three lines, it is worth taking time to read the rest of the pamphlet. The radical student milieu of the late 1960s was much more receptive to Lenin’s ideas than Labour Party activists had been in the previous decade, so a different style was required. The argument on the nature of the party had no practical consequences, as Cliff always preferred an organisation resembling a religious fraternity to a political party. In expansionist times, membership cards were thrust on bystanders outside meetings. During ‘downturns’, members lived quieter lives, with activity geared to maintaining group morale. To ask whether Lenin’s or Luxemburg’s model was closer to Cliff’s is like enquiring which part of the planet is closer to the moon.

France: The Struggle Goes On, written with Ian Birchall, made a considerable impact, and compares well with anything produced following the events of May 1968. The authors understood the significance of the sudden rise of the student movement, but unlike some Marxists, they did not allow it to overwhelm them. Whereas Ernest Mandel briefly adopted student power as a replacement for working-class struggle, Cliff and Birchall saw the students as a detonator for that struggle, the only force which could overthrow capitalism. The French Communist Party’s efforts to contain the revolt are described, as were the reasons why they were able to do so. The PCF had gathered a cadre over years of struggle, and their rôle in the Resistance still brought them enormous respect. Although it had bailed out French capitalism at key points and had a poor record on anti-colonial struggle, its militants were fiercely committed to it, and when it moved against the students and striking workers, the revolutionary left forces were no match for it. France … had a considerable influence on left-wing students and workers in Britain. Cliff’s organisation, the International Socialists, grew rapidly as many radical students became convinced that they must turn to the working class. This enabled the IS to become more than a propaganda group.

Cliff’s pamphlet Portugal at the Crossroads, written as a response to the revolutionary developments following the coup of April 1974, highlighted the tension between the need for an accurate analysis and the building of an instrument which would lead the revolution. Published shortly after the IS’ influence in the British labour movement had peaked, it describes the colonial crisis, the structure of Portuguese industry and the activities of the various political organisations. At the time, Cliff was backing a group, the PR-PB, which had begun as an armed struggle tendency, with hardly a trace of Marxist understanding. It remained rather incoherent, containing a breathtaking mixture of incompatible tendencies. A few years later, in Spain, during the transition from the Franco regime, Cliff sought to win over the OIC, another bizarre creation, led by the charismatic Diego Fabregas. It seems absurd to imagine that such groups could be transformed into revolutionary parties. However, Cliff considered that as the Communist parties were reformist, bureaucratic and tightly controlled, and the Fourth International groups were weak and confused, there had to be another tendency which could be helped to provide revolutionary leadership, so disbelief had to be suspended.

The last item in the book, Revolution and Counter-Revolution: Lessons for Indonesia, summarises the lessons of 1917 and subsequent attempts at revolution elsewhere, and adds a couple of pages on Indonesia – ‘One size fits all.’ These lessons are of some value to people everywhere, not just in Indonesia. The need for a revolutionary party is stressed once more, but as an incantation rather than a guide to action. The article is not of the same quality as those on Palestine, written 60 years earlier.

Cliff’s unremitting effort over nearly seven decades evokes admiration and astonishment, when you consider that his interventions abroad had to be carried out through intermediaries or in writing, as the government never granted him citizenship, and he was not free to travel abroad. Subsequent volumes should describe his political activities in Britain, and present a more rounded picture of his political life. The present volume should be read in conjunction with his autobiography, A World To Win, written just before he died, which does describe his efforts to build a socialist organisation, firstly in Palestine, and then in Britain.

Cliff liked to remind us that theory is grey, while the tree of life is green, and it is sometimes difficult to understand what the relationship between his theory and practice was. He rejected Leninist organisation in practice, without actually saying so, understandably, given the odious outfits which have traded under that name. Certainly, no collection of articles can convey the impression given by his charm, energy and ability to inspire masses of people.

John Sullivan

Updated by ETOL: 17.10.2011