Paul Foot

Tony Cliff

Revolutionary political theorist and organiser who fired the Socialist Workers Party with his charisma, charm and vision

(11 April 2000)

Originally published in The Guardian, 11 April 2000
© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 2000.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the REDS – Die Roten.

The first I heard of Tony Cliff, who has died aged 82, was from Gus Macdonald, now Lord Macdonald, Minister of Transport. Forty years ago, Gus was a charismatic leader of the Govan and Gorbals Young Socialists and had an awesome reputation from a Clydeside apprentices’ strike. In late 1961, he reckoned it was time the Young Socialists took some serious lessons in Marxist theory, and arranged a weekend school to be addressed by two leaders of an obscure Trotskyist sect called the International Socialists.

Gus and I met the couple in an airport lounge. I can still see them coming in: Mikhael Kidron, smart, suave, urbane, and Tony Cliff, short and scruffy, looking and sounding like a rag doll. As we mumbled through the niceties of introductions, the rag doll looked irritated and shy. We climbed into a taxi.

As we did so, I saw a newspaper poster about events in the Congo, and remarked, partly to break the silence, that I’d never really understood the Congo. Quick as a flash, the rag doll came to life, and started jabbering with amazing speed and energy. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I do remember my clouds of doubt and misunderstanding suddenly disappearing and the role of the contestants in the Congo, including the United Nations, becoming brutally clear.

I met Cliff many hundreds of times subsequently, sometimes for private conversations, more often on shared platforms, from which we urged our audiences to join IS and its successor, the Socialist Workers Party, and to organise for socialism. Though he often made exactly the same speech and cracked the same jokes, I never failed to be astonished and enthused.

His death is shocking. Very few of us who knew him well believed that such an essentially youthful figure could ever pass away.

Tony Cliff was born Ygael Gluckstein, the son of a Zionist building contractor, in Palestine, in May 1917, in between the great Russian revolutions. He was speedily converted out of Zionism by observing the treatment of Arab children. Aged 13, he wrote in a school essay: “It is so sad that there are no Arab kids in the school.” The teacher scrawled across the page the single word: “Communist”.

She was right, and Cliff was always grateful for her perception. He fought vigorously against the exclusion of Arabs from the closed Zionist economy. When a speaker from the Haifa trades council spoke glowingly of the anti-fascist uprising in Vienna in 1934, and ended his speech with a tribute to the Paris Commune and workers’ unity, Cliff, aged 17, heckling from the back of the hall, added the one word “international”. In this context, “international” meant Arab, and the stewards responded by twisting his finger till it broke.

Cliff joined the Communist party, but was quickly disillusioned by the party’s nationalism. He became a Trotskyist before he was 20 and devoted the rest of his life to building revolutionary socialist organisations. He came to Britain with his newly-married South African wife, Chanie, and was promptly expelled from the country on the advice of the Special Branch; he spent five years in poverty in Ireland until allowed to return.

In the 1950s, he formed the Socialist Review Group, which grew into IS in the early 1960s and the SWP in 1977. For a long time, these groups remained tiny. But when the Communist party, with its (comparatively) huge roots in the organised working class, collapsed in 1989, the SWP became by far the largest and most confident of the socialist organisations to the left of the Labour party.

This achievement was due largely to Cliff’s most striking qualities; his immense intellectual power and his ability to explain his libertarian Marxism in simple language. His unique intellectual contribution was to describe, in the late 1940s, the Soviet Union as state capitalist, and therefore imperialist – a proposition as shocking to most socialists of the time as it was inspiring to those of us who were convinced by it.

With the theory of state capitalism came a number of associated ideas, all of them based on Marx’s message that the emancipation of labour must be the work of labour itself; that capitalism is far too strong and sophisticated a system to be brought down or replaced from on high; and that the workers alone, through their union organisations and instinctive solidarity, have the power to bring about that vital change. This power, moreover, cannot be effectively mobilised without political organisation in the working class rank and file.

These themes emerged from Cliff’s early books about Russia, China and eastern Europe, and his later four-volume biographies of Lenin (in the 1970s) and Trotsky (in the 1980s).

They emerged even more clearly from Cliff’s tireless public speaking. His wild accent often startled his audiences, but they were soon giggling at his folksy jokes, like the parable in which a flea boasts to the ox on whose back he is riding: “Look how far we have ploughed today.”

My favourite featured an Arabian sultan, who went to Manchester to buy a cooling system for his palace. As he was chatting to the managing director in his office, the sultan heard a blast on a hooter. Out of the window he saw, to his horror, thousands of workers walking out of the factory. In a hysterical panic, he shrieked at the managing director, who told him not to worry. Half an hour later the hooter went again, and the workers returned from their break. “Don’t worry about the cooling system,” concluded the sultan. “Just give me the hooter.”

Cliff died without a penny in his pocket or any property to speak of. He was always bored stiff by property or talk of property. He left a far richer inheritance: thousands of us socialists, who, without him, would have degenerated into apathy, opportunism or careerism; a wife, who lived and fought by his side for 55 years, and two sons and two daughters, all of whom, in their different ways, are inspiring socialists and engaging companions.

“Don’t mourn, organise!” was one of Cliff’s most consistent slogans, and somehow we must try to live up to it.

Tony Cliff (Ygael Gluckstein), socialist activist, born May 20 1917; died April 9 2000


Last updated on 21.1.2005