Paul Hampton reviews Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time by Ian Birchall (2011)
Tony Cliff: “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice”
“Si monumentum requiris, circumspice” [If you seek his memorial, look around you] — plaque on the grave of Christopher Wren, architect, in St. Paul’s Cathedral
Ian Birchall was once derided for writing a loyalist history of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), tragically entitled The smallest mass party in the world. His new biography of the SWP’s founder and inspirer, Tony Cliff is equally farcical.
Cliff was born Ygael Gluckstein in 1917. He grew up in the British mandate of Palestine. After briefly flirting with Stalinism in 1933, he became a left Zionist and then a Trotskyist. He was imprisoned for anti-war activity in 1939-40. More information on that early part of his story would be interesting. But after Gluckstein moved to Britain in 1946 and became Tony Cliff, much of what he did was destructive of building a healthy revolutionary left.
The standard “Cliffite” line on Cliff is that he contributed three theories vital to re-arming the left after 1945: state capitalism (in the USSR), “permanent arms economy” and “deflected permanent revolution”.
Instead of the celebrated troika, Birchall attempts to elevate Cliff’s importance in other areas: first his writing on the Middle East; second his contributions on the class struggle in Britain; third and most importantly, his efforts to build the SWP.
In fact, Cliff’s “lost” book on the Middle East (written in 1946), merely indicated his break from his relatively sane early writings (as L. Rock) and his embrace of what would become left anti-semitism on the question of Israel. Thus Cliff came to oppose Jewish immigration into Palestine just as the extent of the Holocaust became clear.
Cliff wrote off the Jewish working class as well as the possibility that Palestinian Arabs could win on their own. With no progressive force in the conflict, Cliff laid the basis for other substitutes — intellectually prefiguring the SWP’s flirtation with Hamas and other Islamists. Though Cliff would acknowledge in the early 1960s that “what’s done is done — the state of Israel existed and history could not be rolled back”, he drew no conclusions from this assessment and soon lurched into “destroy Israel” mode. Israeli Jews were treated as an exception from every other nation. Cliff’s mature legacy on the Middle East is thoroughly rotten.
Cliff’s writing on the British class struggle in the 1960s produced some snappy descriptions of “do-it-yourself reformism”. It was far harder to break militant workers from the grip of Labourism, the trade union bureaucracy and Stalinism. In all this, Cliff lurched from an extreme voluntarism to the most arid pessimism by the end of the 1970s. While trade union militancy did abate from the late 1970s, it was still vibrant, uneven and capable of victories. The worst element of Cliff’s “downturn” perspective was not the attempt to assess the strength of working class forces, although even in that he was prematurely defeatist. Rather it was the political conclusions — principally that revolutionaries should walk away from trade union structures and from efforts to build an unofficial, rank-and-file organisation that could fight back.
The nadir of this period in the SWP’s history came during the miners’ strike. It virtually wrote off the struggle from the beginning and denounced those who backed the miners’ support groups as “left-wing Oxfam”. It offered no strategy beyond more picketing. Persisting with pessimism, the SWP initially denounced the poll tax non-payment campaign that emerged in 1988-89, then chased after Militant in the wake of their growth.
The ultimate measure of Cliff’s legacy is the organisation he spent 50 years building — the SWP. A fair chunk of the biography consists of vignettes of various people who met Cliff and remain transfixed. Many are still nominally members of the “party”. For those like Birchall who have endured every twist and turn, none of it accounted for, the review of Cliff’s life begs the question: what’s left?
Politics is not in command in the SWP. What’s left is whatever the current central committee says it is. There is no coherent and consistent politics behind it. Cliff’s legacy is that the organisation comes above the politics and before the ideological front of the class struggle.
Cliff’s version of “Leninism” downgraded the need to work out a clear, consistent Marxist view of the world and instead substituted machine politics, where “tactics contradict principles”, where anything — any twist, turn, zigzag — is acceptable if it appears to build the SWP.
Hence the SWP model fillets “Leninism” — little internal democracy, no sharp ideological demarcation, little fight for clarity, no political accounting with earlier and other politics. Hence Cliff’s decisive 1971 shift on the European Community (to oppose it) to avoid isolation from the nationalist left. Hence the SWP’s promotion of anti-fascist “festivals” over the active anti-fascist defence of black and Asian communities. Hence Cliff could characterise the Muslim Brotherhood as clerical fascists, and the SWP could form alliances with them.
The SWP’s rationalisations — most of them worked out when Cliff was in charge — were not justifiable changes because reality had changed. They were manoeuvres in the hope of building the SWP — irrespective of what was being built.
The SWP is a machine for mangling militants. It despoils the British left. It ruins promising initiatives, it offers no concrete strategies in struggles and it instead substitutes stripped-down banality in place of socialist answers. Cliff built the SWP into the locust of the left it is today.
Cliff had an almost-Maoist way with catch-phrases. He often said that post-Trotsky Trotskyism was like trying to find your way around the Paris metro with a map of the London Tube. But Cliff’s “Marxism” burned the map and instead navigated using his own astrology.
The three great theories?
The Cliffite mythology held that he explained the expansion of Stalinism with his theory of state capitalism, explained the revival of capitalism with his permanent arms economy (PAE) theory, and understood third world developments with his theory of “deflected permanent revolution”. The AWL has long argued that this Cliff-fable does not withstand scrutiny. Remarkably Birchall concedes these weaknesses.
The theory of “deflected permanent revolution” amounted to one scrappy, obscure article. It treated “the revolution” in the third world as a semi-automatic process much like other “orthodox” post-Trotsky Trotskyists did, allowing middle class intellectuals and other strata to substitute for working class leadership, with only a disagreement about the outcome (almost inevitably a form of state capitalism). Nowhere did Cliff anticipate the rise of industrial working classes and labour movements in places such as Iraq, Indonesia, South Korea, Brazil and South Africa, which could lead the fight for democracy and potentially for socialism.
Birchall concedes that Cliff borrowed the permanent arms economy without attribution from Shachtman’s tendency. He acknowledges that the idea of arms production propping up capitalism was commonplace. And it explained neither the long boom nor the slump that followed after 1973. What really defined Cliff’s group in the CND period (early and mid 60s), when it talked most about PAE, was its belief in the stability of capitalism. Despite Chris Harman’s efforts to breathe life into the PAE corpse, the SWP have largely discarded it.
As for Cliff’s “state capitalism”, his 1948 analysis treats Russia as one big factory. But “capital” which doesn’t compete with other capitals is not capital in the Marxist sense. Cliff thought he could neutralise this objection by postulating international use-value competition in the form of armaments. This was certainly an innovation, but not one consistent with Marx’s political economy, where capitals compete for a share of the surplus value pumped out of waged workers. Originally Cliff admitted that Soviet labour power was not a commodity. His “theory” was actually a description of a bureaucratic collectivist state, with “state capitalism” an arbitrary label.
The downfall of the USSR showed the paucity of Cliff’s assessment. He had defined state capitalism as a higher stage of development than Western capitalism. In 1948 he had referred to the USSR as “the extreme theoretical limit which capitalism can reach” and a transition stage to socialism. However when the Soviet Union reached its structural impasse, Cliff’s supporters simply floundered. As late as 1987, The SWP’s Russia “expert”, Mike Haynes, criticised those who believed that the crisis of Soviet society was terminal. Harman argued in 1990 that after rapid industrialisation from the 1930s to the 1960s walled off from the world market, the USSR had suffered a “normal accumulation crisis” which forced the bureaucracy “to try to change its ways”.
It is possible to define Russia as “state capitalist” in Cliff’s sense only by reasoning with dubious analogies: i) In capitalism of type X, Y occurred; ii) Y occurred in the Soviet Union; iii) therefore, the Soviet Union is capitalist. Cliff’s “theory” of state capitalism never succeeded in being both Marxist and consistent with the facts.