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What is Cliffism worth? A response to James Heartfield

David Renton

Platypus Review 65 | April 2014



JAMES HEARTFIELD’S REVIEW of Ian Birchall’s biography of Tony Cliff, founder of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and therefore of the International Socialist Tendency, is a curious affair. ((James Heartfield, “The anti-political party: book review: Ian Birchall, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time, (London: Bookmarks, 2011)”, Platypus Review 55, (April 2013). Available online at Heartfield fails his readers by declining to situate himself in the story, as a champion of the changing perspectives of the late British Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), unique among British left groups in having evolved from Trotskyism first to a neither-left-nor-right iconoclasm and then to a pro-market libertarianism. So when for example the SWP and Cliff are criticized for having failed to guide the striking miners of 1984–5 in the direction of a ballot, American readers should be aware that a ballot was the demand of the Conservative Party, the Times and Telegraph newspapers, and of everyone opposed to the strike. No one dared go among the miners arguing that they were wrong, and should only strike at all after having paused, given up the initiative, and taken a postal vote, save for a few dozen brave souls from the Fulham and Chelsea branches of Heartfield’s own RCP. While it is possible to judge the worth of a 50 year political project to which thousands of people dedicated the best years of their lives solely through the eyes of a different, long-dead party which was always hostile to it, this is the method of the political necrophiliac. Heartfield’s judgment says little about what Cliff’s SWP did, or did not, achieve.

To the sin of an intense predictability, Heartfield adds a second flaw. He works from memory without checking the accuracy of his recollection of the shibboleths which the RCP once used as ammunition against its far-left rival.

Nigel Harris could hardly have been one of Cliff’s “early collaborators”: he was born in 1935, two years after Cliff became a political activist in a recognizably Trotsky-ish milieu in Palestine. ((Ian Birchall, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time, (London: Bookmarks, 2011), 22–3.)) Perhaps Heartfield confuses Harris with such of Cliff’s early British collaborators as Ray Challinor who claims to have formulated his own theory of state capitalism before Cliff published his, in 1948. Harris was by then still just thirteen years old, and years away from collaborating with Cliff.

Heartfield portrays Cliff as a political philistine opposed to political reading, without mentioning that Birchall’s book contains a short biography of his major works, running to 44 pages in a two-column format, amounting by my count to 28 books, 14 pamphlets, and at a rough guess around 1000 other articles.

Cliff’s published criticism of orthodox Trotskyist economic catastrophism did not begin in the 1960s, but with an article, “All that glitters is not gold”, ((Ibid., 95.)) published in 1947, just a year after Cliff had arrived in Britain.

The description of Imperialism as Capitalism’s “Highest Stage but One” was not a phrased coined by Cliff but belongs to his brother-in-law Michael Kidron. ((Michael Kidron, “Imperialism—Highest Stage but one”, International Socialism, 1, no. 9, (Summer 1962). Available online at: The permanent arms economy was not, contrary to what Heartfield suggests, a program for Keynesian works to boost an economy out of a slump, rather an analysis that the excessive, wasted arms spending of the Korea- to-Vietnam-era U.S. was slowing that economy’s, and other economies’ tendency to overaccumulate capital and thus bring down the rate of profit.

IS’s recruitment of Paul Foot and Gus MacDonald in Glasgow might be explained by the post-war student revolt, if Heartfield means in fact the late 1950s revolt of the original New Left; but, if so, this can hardly explain Christopher Hitchens who he describes as their contemporary. Hitchens’ best days in the International Socialists came as a student in Oxford in the early 1970s.

Heartfield detects that Cliff’s comrades were hostile to the politics of anti-imperialist struggles and suggests that their subsequent involvement in anti-Vietnam campaigns was unprincipled. He is quarter-explaining a turn in IS politics, from relative neutrality at the time of the Korean War to support for the Vietcong nearly 20 years later. There is a simpler explanation, that IS was hostile to imperialism in general, and inclined to see the earlier conflict as primarily an inter-imperial conflict, in contrast to Vietnam where there was a much greater element of revolutionary war. The shift might be criticized, and others on the Left called the earlier conflict differently. But the response of many on the Left to events in Crimea this year—that merely because Russia is outside the U.S. bloc, we must not automatically support what is objectively a land-grab on its part—suggests that it is possible to be skeptical about more than one imperialist power without lapsing into apostasy.

We see in Heartfield’s elevation of David Yaffe to a major figure in the history of the IS a concern to elevate his own political ancestry (Yaffe having founded the then nano-sect from which Heartfield’s own RCP later split). But even after 40 years of continuous growth, you can gauge the size of Yaffe’s present party, Fight Racism Fight Imperialism, from the mere 178 people who follow its twitter account. Dividing by 20 would give a decent estimate of the Yaffe’s faction within Cliff’s party, at the time of its 1973 split (Cliff’s IS had by this time grown to around 3,000 people). If Birchall forgets Yaffe’s departure this is not an act of sectarianism on his part but a reflection of what most IS/SWP members would have said if told that Yaffe had once been in their group: “Yaffe, who?”

Heartfield tells his readers that “when, in 1972, the question of state power was put most starkly in Northern Ireland, the Socialist Worker supported the intervention of British troops”. Heartfield is mis-remembering not 1972, but 1969, when the British state sent troops to Northern Ireland. At this stage, the Catholic population of Belfast and Derry had erected barricades, not to challenge state power, but because they were on the receiving end of a pogrom at the hands of the Protestant (“Unionist”) population. In a situation where their lives were in danger, many Catholics initially welcomed the British troops, before they came to see them as their oppressors. In August 1969, before this radicalization had taken place, Cliff’s newspaper Socialist Worker far from supporting the intervention of British troops, had opposed their sending, under the headline, “The barricades must stay”. ((Ian Birchall, Tony Cliff (2011), 321–2.))

The IS was anti-feminist according to Heartfield, its male student cadre being invited to ape what was supposedly working-class sexism. Missed by Heartfield, but not from Birchall’s book that he was supposed to be reviewing, is the ten-year history of Women’s Voice (1972–1982), a socialist feminist magazine written by SWP members, which extended for two years to a separate women’s-only and women-led organization. ((Ibid., 464–6.)) One of Cliff’s gripes was the women members of IS refused to allow him to attend their conferences: an episode that is only comprehensible once you grasp that the SWP (into which IS morphed in 1977) was large enough for Cliff to be uncertain of getting his way, and its rank and file restless and independent, and its women members no shyer of their autonomy than its men.

Heartfield represents the Anti-Nazi League, the first authentic mass movement which the IS/SWP could genuinely claim to have led, a campaign of hundreds of thousands which involved repeated street clashes with the fascists, as “respectable”, an army of “bishops” and “footballers”. He does not mention Blair Peach, the SWP member killed in fighting with the police at Southall in April 1979, nor the violent demonstration at Lewisham in 1977 where IS and their allies drove the National Front off the streets, in a conscious rejection of the “bishops and brickies” strategy of the Communist Party to their right.

As for the “disengagement” represented by the 2003 Stop the War movement; this is a strange formulation to capture the mobilization of millions of people in the largest protests that Britain has ever seen: a movement which lasted in mass form for several years, and which called around a dozen large demonstrations attended by a hundred thousand people or more. I suspect it is the disengagement of Heartfield’s own RCP (wound down in 1997) that he is actually describing.

Having cleared this thicket of confusions out of the way, it is then possible to ask the most important question, How much of the history of the SWP is still worth caring about? Especially given the year we have had since Heartfield’s piece was published, during which the SWP split twice over rape and sexual harassment allegations concerning its former National Secretary, “Comrade Delta”?

I was in the SWP (from 1991 to 2003 and from 2008 to 2013) and was among the protagonists of the faction fight. Rather than pretend to stand from any position of neutrality (which would be as much a lie in my own case as it is in Heartfield’s), let me try to explain what lessons I have drawn about Cliff, Cliffism, and the IS tradition.

First, during the faction fight, I and other supporters of the women bringing the complaint were immensely hampered by a culture within the SWP that tended to downplay the significance of rape and other sexual complaints. We heard an enormous amount to the effect that the man’s innocence should always be presumed without any sense that when this precept is taken out from a legal context (in which a woman might bring a complaint and the man’s innocence or guilt is capable of being determined) into a political party (in which she is placed under immense informal pressure not to complain to the police for fear of destroying her own organization), the result is a condition of absolute innocence, in which the male accused is neither guilty nor ever allowed to be properly investigated (since, above all, the woman is not allowed to go to the police). The party solved the unattractiveness of the position into which it placed the women complainants by appointing an inner-party court to investigate the complaint composed of people who had worked with the man for years and who asked the female witnesses hostile questions manifesting their automatic disbelief of them.

It should not have been a shock to discover that people in the SWP were capable of extreme sexism. Part of the theoretical armory of Marxism is the idea that the people who make a revolution will have to change themselves in the process of that revolution, and the completion of a party membership form could not by itself be a guarantee of anyone’s immunity to sexism. Why should the members of the SWP be better than the members of the trade unions or the Occupy camps which have seen similar allegations, and also dealt with them without sympathy?

My view is that Cliff’s hostility to Women’s Voice magazine (manifest in the closure of that magazine in 1982) had left the SWP with a long-term suspicion of sexual violence as something that was inherently a “separatist feminist” as opposed to a socialist issue, ((David Renton, “Women’s Liberation: what Cliff got right and where he went wrong”, (September 21, 2013), available online at: and that this tendency (to see rape as a mistaken campaign) shaped the thinking of other leading members of the SWP, not just Cliff . ((David Renton, “Lindsay German, Sheila MacGregor and sexual violence: the SWP after Cliff”, (September 24, 2013) Meaning that whereas SWP members might have had something interesting or valid to say about the politics of the Soviet Union (where Cliff’s theory of state capitalism offers genuine insights) or of trade unionism or bureaucracy, we had little distinctive to say about the politics of sexual violence, and far too many of us had been trained into default to a position of rape denial.

Second, during the last year, those of us who were willing to distrust the leadership of the SWP were undermined by the lasting effects of Cliff’s early 1970s “turn to Lenin”, which guided the majority of the party towards the view that their role in the organization was to protect either “Comrade Delta” himself as its former National Secretary, or the remaining figures in the leadership (Alex Callinicos, Charlie Kimber), who were trying to put together a compromise in which “Delta” could leave with his reputation intact and the remaining party leaders would escape sanction, even though they had minimized his actions and lied to the party about the complaints he faced.

Forty years ago, John Sullivan noted the tension between the ultra-democratic aspects of Cliff’s theory of state capitalism and the reversion to command styles of party building that the Lenin turn justified at its worst: “the group whose ideology most attacks bureaucracy and praises rank-and-file initiative has a bigger gap between the leadership and the rank and file than does any of its rivals”. ((John Sullivan, “As Soon As This Pub Closes” [1986], in Go Forth and Multiply/When This Pub Closes, (London: Socialist Platform, 2004), (Originally published by the Estate of Prunella Kaur).see part 3, “Socialist Workers Party”, available online at:

Third, despite these obstacles which we faced every day of the last year, there were also resources from the IS tradition which the party critics drew on: the key part in early Women’s Liberation shown by pioneering members of the IS such as Sheila Rowbotham, who had helped to organize Britain’s first Women’s Liberation conference, the politics of Women’s Voice, and the theories of rank and file initiative to which Sullivan alludes.

During the faction fight there was enough good in Cliffism so that the position that women are human as much as men and equally capable of telling the truth about sexual violence rapidly gained the support of the majority of active members; i.e. those who were serious about applying Cliffite politics in the future, as opposed to those for whom defending the party machine was the only way to protect the legacy of the years, in some case 30 or 40 years before, when they had been most active.

Even though their meaning apparently eludes James Heartfield, the virtue of the IS “troika” of state capitalism, the permanent arms economy and deflected permanent revolution, lay in a consistent approach by which these seeming abstractions were adopted in order to shorten the chain between protest and revolution.

So state capitalism, for example, by maintaining that there was no political reason to defend the Soviet Union over Western capitalism, enabled the SWP and its forerunners to relate with enthusiasm to the revolts of 1956 and 1968, and to the East European dissidents, and ultimately to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. State capitalism may have been right or wrong as a theory—I’ll leave that argument for another time—it was unquestionably an asset politically, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when other groups on the Left were demoralized by what one non-SWP Trotskyist activist ruefully acknowledged was a sort of “retrospective Brezhnevism”.

It was the same with the permanent arms economy, which schooled activists into patience during the long boom while promising it would not last forever; and with the theory of deflected permanent revolution which guided SWP activists away from seeing Che Guevara, as others on the Left did and do, as merely the new Trotsky. Again, I’m not concentrating on the theories’ scientific validity, which would be a whole different discussion, merely pointing out that, politically, they guarded the IS (for a time) from the follies of vanguardism and third worldism.

All these ideas belong to history now; but that method, of stripping away the factors in the present which guide the Left into taking unprincipled positions, is not a bad one.

If there is any hope for the activists who have left the SWP in the last year it will depend on us recombining a democratic method with the ideas that Cliff had, pointing in the direction of the control of society by the mass of its people. |P