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Tony Cliff: theory and practice

(Summer 2000)

From International Socialism 2:87, Summer 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Tony Cliff’s death leaves this journal short of a loyal friend. International Socialism has always opened its pages to debate and discussion from across the spectrum of the left but it remains the theoretical journal of the Socialist Workers Party and, as such, Cliff maintained a close interest in its development across many years. That interest tells us a great deal about Cliff’s conception of the relationship between revolutionary theory and political activity.

This relationship was central to Cliff’s life, as his Trotskyism After Trotsky and his posthumously published autobiography, A World to Win, make clear. In this last book Cliff is at great pains to locate his own theoretical contribution – the theory of state capitalism, the development of his understanding of the permanent arms economy and the course of revolution in the Third World, and his recovery of Lenin’s theory of the party – in the context of unfolding problems facing revolutionary socialists. The whole point of these books is to demonstrate that, no matter how small the forces of revolutionary socialism, they cannot progress without a clear theoretical grasp of the fundamental nature of the system with which they are confronted. But it is equally the point of Cliff’s life story that such theoretical enquiry can never choose its subjects, or conclude successfully, unless it develops in the closest possible contact with active participation in the business of building a revolutionary organisation. Cliff was so far removed from the academic notion of knowledge as an end in itself that he repeated to me on many occasions, ‘I only ever write when I have a problem.’

International Socialism began publication in 1960. Naturally Cliff contributed to the journal. Trotsky on Substitutionism, his seminal essay on party-building now collected in the book Party and Class, first appeared in the second issue. As Cliff notes in A World to Win, his critique of Isaac Deutscher’s capitulation to Stalinism appeared in it in the mid-1960s. What I remember most clearly as I became politically active in the mid-1970s was the series of articles on Lenin and the party, and on Lenin’s conceptions of the revolutionary paper and of democratic centralism, in which the themes of Cliff’s biography of Lenin first appeared in print. These were of course directly related to the transformation of the International Socialists, as it still was then, into a small but real revolutionary party.

When the first series of International Socialism came to an end, leaving the magazine format to the new Socialist Review, and reappeared in its second and still current series in 1978, it remained the forum for theoretical innovation. Crucially for Cliff, it became the arena where his analysis of the downturn was given its most elaborated shape in the debate with Steve Jeffreys, then a leading member of the SWP. Jeffreys’ Striking Into the 1980s appeared in issue five, and Cliff’s reply, The Balance of Class Forces in Britain Today, appeared in the following issue.

The debate over feminism, closely related to the discussion of the general state of the class struggle, began around the same period, and Cliff’s crucial interventions – essays on Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai – appeared first in the journal and only later formed chapters in Cliff’s book Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation. This polemical function of the journal, the function with which Cliff was most closely associated, continued up to and through the miners’ strike of the mid-1980s. It was the defeat of this emblematic struggle of the decade which prompted Cliff’s Patterns of Mass Strikes, which patiently explained the difference between the spontaneous and elemental revolts of a rising strike movement and the defensive ‘bureaucratic mass strikes’ of which the miners’ strike was a classic exemplar. This understanding helped the SWP orient in the late 1980s through the printers’ strike at Wapping, the seafarers’ strike in Dover and many others.

There are two other aspects of Cliff’s relationship with International Socialism that are worth noting. The first is Cliff’s attention to detail. Cliff had no great concern for style. I cannot remember a single occasion where the look of the journal, its cover design or the appearance of the text excited any comment from Cliff. But he did care passionately about the precision with which the text was presented. Soon after each issue of the journal appeared, especially when I first became its editor, Cliff would ring me and list any typographical errors he had noticed. An even greater crime would be if the footnotes to any article contained factual errors, no matter how minor. ‘For me,’ he would say, ‘if I can’t trust the article to get the date of publication of a book correct how can I trust anything else the article says?’ The second and final aspect of Cliff’s relationship to the journal is not very flattering to International Socialism. He said to me on many occasions, ‘If the party were to fall on hard times do you know which publication would go first? The journal. Then Socialist Review. The paper would be the last thing we would ever let go.’ It was a way of saying this: the last thing we must ever let go is the most direct link between Marxist theory and political practice.

A revolutionary personality

The article that follows is the view of an outsider, an Israeli journalist who met Cliff in 1991. No doubt some readers will find it strange that we should reprint an appreciation of Cliff written by someone whose roots clearly lie deep in the Zionist tradition which Cliff radically rejected from an early age. Yet for me the interest lies in part in the sympathy which both the SWP and Cliff personally evoke in someone so distant from the Marxist tradition. But the piece also reminds us that even someone who struck those of us born in Britain as an exceptional and unique personality is nevertheless formed as part of a common culture. I have never, for instance, heard anyone else who spoke with Cliff’s accent. And so to hear that it is instantly recognisable to this journalist as indicative of a certain type of political activist at a certain time in the past is suddenly to see the roots of Cliff’s particularity.

Nevertheless, there are certain central aspects of Cliff’s personality that it is harder to capture if one is not a socialist. It is only right that here we mention some of them. I want to concentrate on those which, it seems to me, are important for any socialist to develop. This is not an exercise in hagiography. Cliff, like all of us, had his faults. He would have wanted, if this were simply a personal portrait, to have been painted like Cromwell, ‘warts and all’. But the aim is not personal portraiture. The aim is simply to record those aspects of Cliff, some of which he strove quite deliberately to cultivate, which meshed most closely with the practical business of building a revolutionary organisation.

The first of these traits is willpower. Cliff was simply the most determined person I have ever met. It is impossible to read the section entitled Exceptional Single-mindedness in volume one of Cliff’s biography of Lenin without catching the note of admiration: ‘There has probably never been a revolutionary more single-minded, purposeful and persistent than Lenin. It is significant that the most commonly recurring words in his writings are probably “relentless” and “irreconcilable”. Above all he had unbending willpower.’

Cliff repeated many times Lenin’s injunction that if one wants to avoid being thrown out of a sleigh one must sit deeply in it. Cliff usually used this as an encouragement to think deeply about an issue or to study the Marxist tradition deeply. But it also speaks of his determination to seize a problem by its roots and to pursue it, both theoretically and proactively, to the finish. His most common self criticism in his autobiography is of those times when he felt that he did not do this with sufficient vigour – for instance, in not seeing the downturn and its consequences fully enough, early enough.

But once Cliff was convinced that he had grasped the nature of a problem clearly, whether the state capitalist nature of the Stalinist states or the practical details of a particular aspect of party work, he would pursue it relentlessly and with great impatience. No detail of such work was beneath his interest, no incident so insignificant that it would bore him. He hoovered up information from all those around him to see if it confirmed, amended or contradicted the main concerns of his line of thought. This close empirical interest was the dialectically related opposite of his commitment to grasping the theoretical roots of any question.

Theoretical seriousness always grew out of practical problems, but it was also only tested and modified by practice. Great pragmatism over the details of work was necessarily combined with theoretical depth. This was simply a recognition of the fact that, as Cliff repeatedly quoted Lenin quoting Goethe, ‘all theory is grey, my friend, but green is the tree of life’. That is, theory, because it is a necessary generalisation, can only ever give an approximation of the complexity and uniqueness of real life and therefore has constantly to be modified in a ‘pragmatic’ way by real experience.

The second aspect of Cliff’s personality that is of general significance is his honesty. I do not mean by this that he was any more or any less honest in his personal dealings than the next person. He was a shy man and he was very polite. He did not have that brutal personal ‘honesty’ which has become a feature of modern manners. But it was different where a political question was at stake, even though he quite often had to screw himself up to any personal encounter that even this might involve. But even this is not quite the point. The point is that Cliff was wholly unable to lie to himself or others about political questions, principally about the balance of forces in the class struggle and the prospects for socialists. Of course he could be wrong, but he was not a self deceiver and not at all afraid of arguing unpalatable or unpopular points of view.

It is indicative that one of Cliff’s most often repeated quotations from Marx involved a paraphrase which subtly alters the meaning of the passage in question. In The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels write that communists have ‘nothing to hide’ from the working class – meaning that they do not hide their revolutionary politics. Cliff repeatedly rendered this as ‘Marx said you should never tell lies to the class’, a broader and more absolute injunction. Cliff often used this quotation to insist that revolutionaries should not lie to themselves about their own prospects for success, that they should look reality in the face no matter how difficult that might be. This attitude must have been born out of the 1930s: the midnight of the century when the twin evils of Nazism and Stalinism almost obliterated the revolutionary tradition. If one could face this reality without giving way to the tempting embrace of Stalinism then the requirements of later situations, to acknowledge the downturn of the late 1970s for instance, must have been easier to meet.

The third aspect of Cliff’s personality that any socialist would wish to possess is his decisiveness. Once convinced of the correctness of a course of action, Cliff was never for pursuing it by half measures. He was a devotee of Lenin’s formulation that it is necessary in any given situation to grasp the key link that guarantees possession of the whole chain of events. Whether this was the turn to industry in the early 1970s, opposition to the Nazis in the late 1970s, insulating the party from the rightward moving activists in the class in the 1980s, or reaching out to the new mood of resistance in the 1990s, Cliff insisted that it was done speedily and completely.

Without such decisiveness it is impossible to tell correct from incorrect strategies. If a strategy or tactic is implemented in a weak and incomplete way it is impossible to tell whether it failed because it was wrong in its basic conception or because it was never fully and properly implemented. It is possible to learn even from an incorrect tactic if it is implemented thoroughly. At least it is clear that the error arose from the basic conception and not from poor implementation.

The final aspect of Cliff’s personality was his sense of humour. Much of Cliff’s humour had the same aim as satire: to puncture pomposity. He used absurdity to expose absurdity in the world. But there was little of the cruelty that sometimes attends this form of humour, mainly because its subjects were often part of the socialist movement. He often, for instance, told a story at the expense of longstanding SWP member Roger Cox, whom Cliff had known since Roger was a teenage engineering apprentice. The story went something like this:

Roger told me he had just been elected to a trade union post where he represented 17,000 workers. So I said to Roger, ‘How many people were in the room when you were elected?’ ‘Ten,’ said Roger. So I said, ‘In that case you represent ten workers. And, by the way, how many of the ten voted for you?’ ‘Six.’ ‘In that case, you represent six workers.’

It was a story about realism, about not pretending or exaggerating. So was Cliff’s legendary joke about the ox and the flea. At the end of a day’s ploughing the flea on the ox’s head says, ‘My, haven’t we ploughed a lot today.’ Same point: don’t claim for yourself things that are really a product of much greater forces.

Others of Cliff’s jokes were about timing in politics – about the necessity of saying the right things at the right time in the right place. The same point was made conversely when a comrade who had made the same argument, wrongly, for years suddenly made it in a situation where it fitted: ‘Even a stopped clock is right twice a day’ was a favourite Cliff response, or, ‘Even a blind hen can sometimes pick up a grain of corn.’

Many people will recall hard arguments they had with Cliff, but a lot of the loyalty which he drew from those around him was because he was unstinting and sincere when work was done which he admired. More often you felt that he was saying something so absolutely obvious that you could not believe how you had not seen it yourself.

These, then, are the aspects of Cliff’s personality which seemed distillations of the best aspects of the party he founded and which we should struggle to perpetuate: an unshakeable grip of the classical Marxist tradition, insistence that it can only be understood and only has any purpose as part of the struggle to build a revolutionary party, great tenacity and determination allied to great flexibility and pragmatism, and honesty and realism expressed with an eye for exposing the absurd and the ridiculous.

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Last updated: 23.5.2012