Defective permanent revolutionary

Jan 22nd, 2009 | By Matthew Brown | Category: Articles, Democratic Socialist

MIKE WADSWORTH reviews the autobiography of  SWP founder Tony Cliff.

Tony Cliff’s autobiography was published shortly after his death last year. It is written in an almost conversational manner and shows that, as Paul Foot writes in the introduction, “Tony Cliff was not a humble man and his account (which he started only because he was afraid he was about to die under the surgeon’s knife) seldom errs on the side of modesty.”

For Foot this was justified. For me, the “I did this”, and “I did that” tone, followed by “… and I was proved right” tends to wear a bit thin. Yet the writing style is not totally dry and there are attempts at humour, with the odd anecdote.

There is a need for the left to look at the record both of individual socialists and of socialist groups in order to learn from those “things to be proud of”, while confronting those actions which have been done in the name of socialism but in fact were a corruption of it. This can be applied both to the social democracy of the post war Labour government and to Soviet-style communism. I am not sure whether this autobiography does this effectively, but to an extent it raises issues that are worthy of discussion, even if they are confined by the Trotskyism of the SWP.

Tony Cliff was born and grew up in what was the British Mandate of Palestine during the inter-war period. His political life began with Zionist-influenced socialism but his politics moved towards Trotskyism. The small Trostkyist group he joined tried to seek an alliance between the Jewish and Arab working class but without much success. It was here that he met and married his wife. They lived in poverty, as Cliff never held down a full-time job and spent all his time working for revolutionary socialism.

In the late 1940s he came to Britain. Cliff was supposed to be the representative of his father-in-law’s business, but that did not occupy much of his time. After being expelled to Ireland for a few years, Cliff returned to Britain and formed the Socialist Review Group in the 1950s, which went on to become the SWP, via the International Socialists.

Three key areas are discussed: the development of Cliff’s ideas of state capitalism, the need for democratic centralism, and what Cliff calls the “turn to the working class” by the IS/SWP. It’s worth a quick look at these.

State capitalism

The idea of state capitalism, which Cliff links with his thoughts on the permanent arms economy and on deflected permanent revolution, grew out of his dissatisfaction with the late 1940s Trostkyist movement’s description of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state. For Cliff the Soviet state bureaucracy had accumulated large scale capital through the collectivisation of farming and rapid industrialisation. It acted in much the same way as the capitalist class did in the west by exploiting the working class and by competing internationally via the arms race. However, it was different from the western capitalist class because production was owned by a corporate group, the state bureaucracy, rather than by individuals.

To Cliff, Trotsky had been wrong to argue that this bureaucracy was insecure and that a crisis, such as a war, would lead to its downfall. Cliff states: “The year 1929 is significant because it was the moment when Stalin transformed the programme of the dominant bureaucracy, making it one of deliberate accumulation of capital. It became a capitalist ruling class and simultaneously converted the mass of the population into an exploited proletariat through forced collectivisation and industrialisation.”

Cliff equated this with a return to classical Marxism, as the idea of a degenerated workers’ state did not square with the self-emancipation of the working class. This act of self-emancipation took place during the Russian revolution of October 1917, which created what Cliff saw as the first workers’ state since the 1871 Paris Commune.

Cliff’s idea of the ‘deflected permanent revolution’ was an attempt to explain the popularist revolutions that took place in the Third World. Cliff saw these as an evolution of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. For example, Cliff maintained that the forces led by Castro in Cuba could not bring socialism to the workers. They were a force that came from outside the cities and the factories, and so the workers remained in a passive state. In conditions of crisis, where the leadership of the forces of revolutionary change is not rooted within the working class the result will be state capitalism, he claims.

Cliff’s concept of the permanent arms economy broke with many in the Trotskyist movement in the 1940s, who argued that capitalism was about to collapse. He said the high levels of expenditure on the production of arms on both sides of the Iron Curtain kept demand high and maintained employment, not allowing the rate of profit to fall.

The need for democratic socialism is described as being like a bus journey for which there is no clearly defined route. There is a need for tradition within the revolutionary party for free debate that is linked to party members’ experiences of the world they live in. The experiences of the working class must be used as a guide to the debate and to shape the party’s strategy. However, there is a need to bring these experiences together to avoid sectionalism and a narrowness of vision – a need to centralise experience and for a clear picture of class consciousness.

Democratic centralism

Secondly, he argues that the forces of capital are centralised and, therefore, those who oppose capitalism need to be so as well. Cliff sees democratic centralism as combining free discussion of the way forward with a centralised method of carrying out decisions. The “turn to the workers” is described as a return to the maxim that the emancipation of the working class will be carried out by the working class itself. While there are lessons to be learned from single issue campaigns, ranging from CND to anti-racism to the civil rights movement in Ireland, there cannot be a group that substitutes for the working class as an emancipatory agent.

What follows is a discussion of the evolution of the IS into the SWP during the 1970s. Space is given to the interest in, and the move away from, ‘rank and file’ activities, the arguments over the eventual closure of Women’s Voice, and the decision to launch the Anti-Nazi League.

Intertwined with this is an analysis of what is wrong with the Labour Party and the trade union movement. Cliff argues that the role of the Labour bureaucrat is to mediate between the demands of the working class and capital. The Labour government of the 1970s is portrayed as laying the foundations of Thatcherism while talking of forwarding the interests of the working class. In fact, says Cliff, with the collusion of the trade union leadership, it undermined the confidence of the working class to take direct action.

Cliff does attempt to discuss mistakes, although his attitude of always being right, or more right than others, is unhelpful. There is a need to look at how things worked out and then learn from them. In this book there is too much mock humility that belittles any attempt at seriously analysing the past. Such analysis as there is, is used to show that he was right most of the time.

It is interesting that his arguments for a socialist party are built around Leninist principles and his willingness to break with orthodox Trotskyism in the late 1940s, even if his ideas were mostly taken from elsewhere and given a particular twist of his own.

A World to Win: Life of a revolutionary, by Tony Cliff, is published by the SWP.

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