Tony Cliff

Tony Cliff (born Yigael Gluckstein; 20 May 1917 – 9 April 2000), was a Trotskyist who was a founding member of the Socialist Review Group which went on to become the Socialist Workers Party. Born to a Jewish family in Palestine, he moved to Britain in 1947 and assumed the pen name Tony Cliff.

TONY CLIFF, who died on Sunday April 9 at the age of 82, was a major figure  of the far-left in Britain and internationally. He built an organisation in Britain, which during the 1990s, has been by far the biggest on the far-left.

Whilst I have had a range of disagreements with his politics and analysis the contribution he made to revolutionary politics in Britain was clearly substantial. His energy and integrity will be greatly missed and the workersí movement will be the poorer without him.

I first met Tony Cliff nearly 40 years ago when I was a young shop steward in the car industry in Oxford and still a member of the Communist Party, even if a dissident one. There were two Trotskyist organisations in Oxford at the time the Socialist Labour League (SLL) and the International Socialists (IS).

The SLL was a growing organisation which had won the leadership of the Labour Partyís youth organisation the Young Socialists, and was recruiting young people in quite large numbers and had an impressive trade union intervention in some parts of industry. The IS was a much smaller organisation seeking to build itself a base in industry. The major problems with the SLLís internal regime were not apparent to us at that time.

My growing interest in Trotskyism, along with other militants from the car industry, was triggered by contact with a group of SLL students in the University.

In the same period we had a discussion with Tony Cliff as well. He came and addressed a group of us from the car plants. We were unconvinced by Cliffís rank and fileist politics, and ISís consequent reluctance to take positions in the trade unions and shop stewards movement.


Of course it was key to build support amongst the rank-and-file. But to build only amongst the rank and file, and as a result leave key leadership positions in the hands of the right-wing to be used against the rank-and-file never made sense to us.

The other issue of disagreement was on the theory of ëstate capitalism. Tony Cliff had long rejected Trotskyís analysis of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workersí state, set out in Revolution Betrayed, in favour of the idea that it had been state capitalist from some point in the second half of the 1920s.

We proposed a debate between Tony Cliff and SLL leader Gerry Healy on the issue, but in the end it took place with Healy and a local member of the IS.

Our decision to join the SLL a couple of years later was based on our rejection of Tony Cliffís two key ideas, rank and fileism and state capitalism.

Cliff rightly pointed to the Stalinist nightmare, at a time when it was not so easy to do so. He concluded that what had happened in the Soviet Union was not that the power had been taken from the working class by a counter revolutionary bureaucracy on the basis of existing property relations, but that the mode of production had changed back to a form of capitalism - state capitalism. The bureaucracy were now a new ruling class extracting surplus value and accumulating capital as capitalism does.

This led him to conclude that there was nothing at all to defend in the USSR and that it was as much an imperialist power as the USA. The practical application of this theory came when he took a position of neutrality in the Korean war, but it is a position which was not carried through consistently.

The IS/SWP was not neutral in the Vietnam war but correctly opposed US imperialism and later developed a more consistent anti-imperialist position whilst maintaining its ëNeither Washington or Moscowí slogan.

Tony Cliff saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSRand the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe as a massive vindication of the theory of state capitalism. This view was shared by the SWP as a whole, and it gave them confidence at a time when the Communist Parties went into free fall in many countries including Britain and sections of the far left drew pessimistic conclusions out of these events.

The SWP was unencumbered by the events because it regarded those regimes as capitalist anyway. Nothing had changed, and this confidence gave SWP members an advantage.

But you did not have to be a state capitalist to be unencumbered by the fall of the wall. The problem was for those who had attributed something  progressive to Stalinism.

Trotsky characterised Stalinism as a counter revolutionary force on a world scale. But he also argued that whilst control of societies by the working class had been destroyed, the mode of production had not been changed. He therefore called for a political revolution to overturn a parasitic bureaucracy, not social revolution to overturn a capitalist bourgeoisie.


In my view it is this analysis of Trotskyís which was confirmed so convincingly by the collapse of the USSR, not the theory of state capitalism.

This is shown in the immense problems encountered in re-capitalising the Russian economy. Even 10 years later the capitalist mode of production does not predominate in the former Soviet Union. Most of the population survives by various forms of barter and individual subsistence production: many still have no contact with the market at all.

Of course Russia and the other ex-USSR countries have rabidly pro-capitalist governments. And they have an emerging comprador capitalist class. But whilst that represents the existence of a capitalist market in parts of the economy, non-capitalist social relations continue to predominate.

Collectivised property relations have been broken up and dislocated, but capitalist social relations have not been established to replace them as the dominant mode of production. Governments exist which defend capitalist social relations of production but lack the political or economic conditions to make them a reality. And the social layer in power remain a bureaucracy, even if their foremost ambition in life is to become capitalists - and many of them already have albeit of the gangster variety.

Wherever you stand on state capitalism the relevance of the debate is diminishing in todayís world. And the political situation Tony Cliff leaves behind today is very different to that which prevailed during much of his time building the IS and the SWP in Britain.

Political alternative

Whilst the defeats of the 1980s hang over the workersí movement, and the  level of strikes remains at an all time low, a real possibility of building a political alternative to Blairism and to reshape the left is beginning to present itself.

Stalinism has fragmented and its influence has declined: the far left has a greater weight within the left as a whole.

It is to his great credit that Tony Cliff recognised these changes and emerging opportunities in the last months of his life, and fully backed the London Socialist Alliance.

The organisation he built, regarded by many as insular for a very long time, has partly opened itself up to a dialogue, joint work, and collaboration with other sections of the far left. It would be a tribute to him for this to continue towards the construction of an effective alternative to the rightward march of new Labour.

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Alan Thornett wrote:
In my view it is this analysis of Trotsky which was confirmed so convincingly by the collapse of the USSR, not the theory of state capitalism.

Very clumsy assertion here. Trotsky argued the bureaucracy was an extremely transitory phenomenon, not a social force that would last another half century! The "loyalty pledge" to Trotsky in several of these unorthodox critics of Cliff has much in common with the Stalinist glorification of Lenin and disingenuous claims to the "mantle".

Kevin Murphy