From Workers’ Liberty, No. 21, May 1995.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
I was involved with the organisation from the first meeting. If I remember correctly that was October 1950.
There were 34 members. But that really exaggerates the size of the organisation. A number of the members had been in the Open Party faction of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) – that is, they did not want the RCP to fold up – and were really burnt-out. These people quickly dropped out.
Our biggest branch was Birmingham with six members.
I lived in Crewe and was associated with the Manchester branch.
I had been convinced for some time that Russia was not socialist and not, as the Trotskyists said, a workers’ state. I accepted the theory of state capitalism and had put the idea forward in an article which appeared in Left, a socialist discussion journal, in June 1948.
There were articles produced before then putting the state capitalist point of view. The first I have seen is in Peter Petrov’s book The secrets of Hitler’s victory, produced in 1934. Petrov was a veteran revolutionary, wounded in the 1905 revolution and subsequently a leading official in the Soviet government. When he fell out with Stalin in the 1920s he went to live in Germany, where he experienced the betrayal of Stalinism and reformism first hand. He developed his theory of state capitalism on the basis of his close knowledge of both the Russian state and the Comintern.
Dr. R.D. Worrell, a pioneer of British Trotskyism, wrote an article in Left in 1940 on the same theme.
Cliff’s book on state capitalism appeared in its original form in the RCP’s internal bulletin in 1948. So these ideas were being discussed.
I first met Cliff in December 1947 at a meeting of the Thames Valley RCP. We basically agreed on the theory of state capitalism. Our difference was that Cliff believed it was important to argue the case inside the Trotskyist movement. He believed it would be possible to convince them of the theory – and, in fact, at the time people like Jock Haston were toying with the idea.
I disagreed with Cliff because the Trotskyists were so dogmatic. Their workers’ state theory was the Ark of the Covenant and they were not about to abandon it. I thought that a new generation, with new ideas, would have to emerge from outside Trotskyism.
I think Cliff’s theory emerged in response to what he saw as the failure of Trotskyism. Remember that Trotsky had predicted that the Second World War would lead to either workers’ revolution or the degeneration of the working class. And that had led James P. Cannon, in 1945, to claim the war had not ended. The orthodox Trotskyists, with their rigid dogma, could not accept that the great man’s predictions had been wrong.
In the US the Johnson-Forest tendency – C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya – grappled with the lunacies of the Trotskyists’ position. They produced a lot of material developing the theory of state capitalism. I had a letter from Raya saying she met Cliff in 1946 at the Fourth World Congress. They agreed she would devote her time to study of the philosophical implications and that Cliff would look at the economic issues.
When the Red Army went into Eastern Europe and murdered large numbers of socialists and smashed their organisations the Communist Party said that socialism was being built and the Trotskyists said that workers’ states had been formed. This is all very difficult to come to terms with if you believe that the workers can only come to power when the working class is consciously in favour of socialism and fighting for it.
The theory of state capitalism was central to understanding what was happening in the world.
Cliff was absolutely correct in his economic assessment of post-war Britain. The Fourth International believed that there would be a slump. Cliff, backed by the RCP majority faction, advanced the theory of the permanent war economy. In a semi-Keynesian way, through vast military expenditure, capitalism could avoid crises of over production – at least in the short run. This was denied by individuals like Mandel and Grant.
Healy compounded the error by back-breaking activism.
Cliff played a useful role in standing up to a problem Trotskyist organisations – particularly those associated with Gerry Healy – have always had: the idea that the revolution was just around the corner. The Trotskyists did not have the perspective of the long haul. They wore people out. It was like trying to run a marathon as if it was a 100 meters race.
And the problem with the Trotskyists was not just a capitulation to Stalinism – they capitulated to reformism too. Just before the breakup of the RCP Jock Haston came to stay with me in Crewe. He argued that the Labour government, which had nationalised 20% of the economy, was transforming Britain towards a socialist society. I thought this was nonsense.
The same relations at the point of production still existed in the nationalised industries.
Haston went over to reformism and subsequently became Education Officer for the right-wing union, the ETU.
But even Healy made concessions. His paper Socialist Outlook claimed that the Bevanites “gave the lead the workers want.” Healy even said that the only thing wrong with Labour was its foreign policy.
We had no illusions in people like Bevan.
Tony Cliff has made a very useful contribution over many years to the socialist tradition. If I have any criticism of Cliff is that in factional fighting there are no holds barred. For example in the late 1960s Cliff brought into IS a group called Workers’ Fight around Sean Matgamna. He did this to deal with the libertarian wing of the organisation which people like Peter Sedgwick and myself were associated.
There were a whole series of events like this. And it stems from his view of the Bolshevik model of the party as the be-all and end-all for socialist organisation. But the problems which face us in Britain are not the same as those which confronted Lenin in Russia in 1917. Capitalism has changed since 1917 and Lenin’s old formula can not be applied mechanically.
Last updated: 13.6.2011