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Cliffites 'bend the stick' like a reed in the wind

A Response to James Heartfield

Corey Ansel

Platypus Review 70 | October 2014

An image from John Sullivan's classifying of the British Left, 'As Soon As This Pub Closes', 2004.

An image from John Sullivan's classifying of the British
Left, 'As Soon As This Pub Closes', 2004.

SPEAKING FOR THE International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) at the Left Forum, Jason Wright recently observed, “It seems for a while now that it has been the desire of Platypus to have a three-way conversation be tween New Left Maoism (as one of the more palatable faces of Stalinism), orthodox Trotskyism,” and Platypus themselves, who tend to put speakers in situations significantly less comfortable than their catechistic internal meetings. At a roundtable with the IBT, Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), and Platypus, it would be difficult to discern which group has done a larger disservice to the workers’ movement.  The necessity of a steeled Leninist party is more critical than ever, but it is a concept that some of these outfits only promote in print. While the IBT has tried for years to punch above its miniscule weight, it has remained a caricature of the orthodox Trotskyism it claims to represent. The RCP cadre, entombed in the starry-eyed cultism that has become their raison d’être, can at least take credit for representing the logical continuity of a warped Stalinoid politics. Platypus has succeeded in making both of them squirm in the face of their intrinsic contradictions. But my emphasis here rests on the Cliffite International Socialist Tendency (IST), a tendency that has avoided these discussions altogether.

There has been no lack of trying to include representatives of the IST within Platypus’s public forums and discussions, but the Cliffites have always been conspicuously absent. Whether it be the mothership Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain or the International Socialist Organization (ISO) here on American shores, the most predominant third-campists have erred towards putting a pox on any house that doesn’t fall within their comfort zone.  In light of this, I was perplexed to see a member of the Revolutionary Socialists (RS) in Egypt on the same stage as author James Heartfield during Platypus’ last international convention. What explains the recent change of tune?

Heartfield points to some familiar paradoxes regarding the IST and its lengthy history. While numerous groups have long since packed up their bags, the assortment of organizations filling the branches of Tony Cliff’s family tree are still around, whether actively participating in the international foundation or not. And they continue to remain largely unaccountable for some of the more odious positions they have taken in the past.

Heartfield’s lecture mentions the orientation toward the Soviet Union that the IST was notorious for defending. This brings to mind the debates over “the Russian question” in the American Socialist Workers Party during the late 1930's. This dispute sought to discern what role the Soviet Union continued to play in the working class movement–whether it was still a workers’ state (albeit degenerated), a position that was upheld by James P. Cannon and Trotsky. Fiercely opposing this view within the American Socialist Workers Party were the followers of Max Shachtman, James Burnham, and Martin Abern, all three of whom argued that, after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, there no longer remained anything to defend within the Soviet Union, which had clearly reverted to capitalism (or at least to some form of bureaucratic collectivism) under Stalin's misleadership. Their grouping would spend the following Cold War decades accommodating itself to American imperialism. With respect to the Cliffites, what is relevant about this earlier debate over the Russian question is the birth of third-campism: the notion that there was some imaginary position to take in regards to the battle between the Soviet degenerated workers state and American imperialism. In this vein, the Cliffites would later declare that, “Communism has collapsed […] It is a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing.” [1]

A class line was drawn by the existence of the Soviet Union. Heartfield, however, puts the matter far less starkly, stating that the IST and other Trotskyist currents were, during their early days, “saddled with the unpopularity of the Soviet Union,” and that those in Cliff’s camp were therefore less than reluctant to proclaim that, “Yes, we hate the Soviet Union too, because it is capitalist.” Here Heartfield stretches the boundaries of reality: he suggests that the Cliffites' disdain for the Soviet Union was not programmatic, but instead a tactical move made in the face of the Soviet Union's unpopularity. It is beyond arguing that those coming out of the IST hated the Soviet Union and disregarded the gains of the world’s first workers’ state in favor of a rather peculiar “state capitalist” interpretation of its limits. It was elementary for Trotskyists outside of the IST to take the above-mentioned class line in regards to the Soviet Union—to consider it a degenerated workers' state—and it is clear that the IST did not merely brush off the question of the Soviet Union’s class character for fear of extensive elaboration, as Heartfield suggests. In fact, the IST’s position on the Soviet Union embodies its utter reconciliation to its own ruling class, and this reconciliation extended into later aspects of the Russian question: the IST defended the U.S.-backed Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the early 1980’s, and they similarly refused to defend Korea against American imperialism in the 1950’s.

These positions were supplemented by an utterly reformist program. The ISO has consistently embraced every opportunity to accommodate the ruling class, whether by cozying up to Ralph Nader and other nonsensical “green” alternatives to capitalism or by promoting the China-bashing “anti-globalization” demonstrations in Seattle in the late 1990’s. Whenever petty bourgeois protests such as the Occupy movement rear their heads, groups like the ISO fawn first and ask questions later. In this way, they seek to be little more than a pressure group on the Democratic Party– and they certainly come home to roost every election cycle. Whether historically or in the present, reconciliation with the bourgeoisie continues to define the IST's political core.

Like identical twins who are separated at birth yet go on to pursue the same lifestyle choices without notice of each other, are the ISO and SWP still maintaining a distinct heritage despite the ostensible fissures between them? This is of interest for the radical left, as Cliff’s descendants dance to a different drum from other Trotskyist currents—with respect to the Soviet Union as well as to the sheer baseness of their reformism—regardless of the national borders that separate the tendency's operations. It is impossible to point to a section of the IST that does not harbor any of the aforementioned characteristics.

From its inception, Cliffism occupied territory on a distinct plane of the reformist left. One need not spend all afternoon repudiating the premises of state capitalist theory in the interest of a Marxian critique of the contradictory nature of Stalinism to get to the bottom of the Cliffites’ appetites. In critiquing third-campist politics, it is helpful to cite Lenin’s Better Fewer, But Better, written towards the very end of his life, where he notes:

Our state apparatus is so deplorable, not to say wretched, that we must first think very carefully how to combat its defects, bearing in mind that these defects are rooted in the past, which, although it has been overthrown, has not yet been overcome, has not yet reached the stage of a culture, that has receded into the distant past. [2]

Lenin wrote this in the context of the rapid agricultural changes taking place in the Soviet Union as the hopes of a victorious proletariat in Germany and a socialist Europe began to seem like a fainter possibility. However, such an analysis of ambiguity is relevant to our political perspectives as well. Lenin understood that the Tsar's overthrow did not imply that the lingering presence of Russia’s past had been overcome. This insight did not necessitate an utter renunciation of the Marxian framework—implying that it was time to pack up their bags and leave Marxism behind solely because the world’s first workers’ state did not immediately overcome all social and economic contradictions. Lenin’s approach presumed a skepticism towards such hasty assumptions, especially in light of the actual construction of a working class dictatorship. By contrast, the Cliffites chose to combat the defects of Stalinism by hitching a ride with American imperialism, where the going is certainly not as tough. The Cliffites stand starkly counterposed to Trotsky’s reminder that “the task of the vanguard is above all not to let itself be carried along by the backward flow; it must swim against the current." [3]

Cover of the International Socialist Review on January 2009

Cover of the International Socialist Review on January 2009

Even if we suspend our disbelief for a moment and assume that the Cliff lineage seeks a similarly Leninist soundness of political judgment, we cannot help but observe, as Heartfield does, that the SWP and its sister groupings put on the radical mask when necessary, only to repudiate their prior tactics as foolishly sectarian when it becomes clear that organizational successes are significantly limited. Heartfield observes that, “At key points they were lifted by events (like the trade union militancy of the 1970's) and then, when those movements moved on, they fell.”[4] He refers to this as the “classic problem” that not only the Cliffites, but the radical left as a whole found themselves hopelessly submerged in. Observing the relationship between a shameful past and a despairing present, it becomes possible to observe how these shifts are symptomatic of a much broader disease: The ISO can be summoned like a child to supper by the ringing bells of bourgeois social movements, as exemplified by their swift embrace of feminism—an ideology organically intertwined with the bourgeoisie—now that it has been smiled upon by the part-time left.

Trotsky was quick to point out that the class interests of the proletariat should swiftly supersede immediate democratic rights. Lenin called the emphasis on the latter “cringing before the bourgeoisie.”[5] The petty-bourgeois groupings that pulled the Cliffite heartstrings certainly could not bear to grasp such a notion; this counts among the innumerable reasons why their analysis will always fall short. Whatever form of economics they attempt to analyze, whether in Stalinist China or the imperialist heartland, the IS tendencies are drawn to abstractions regarding questions of power, as opposed to concrete economic analysis—which tends to be a litmus test for Marxists.

Heartfield describes how the SWP was called to task by events such as the miners' strike that swept the UK in the 1980's; he also describes how these events formally posed the necessity of revolutionary leadership of the working class. This point is elementary for Trotskyists and it is another litmus test that the Cliffites fail time and time again. While the Cliffites may certainly have been shaken by such events, much like how the reformist left in the United States appeared and was shooed away in its attempt to harness the nascent anti-war movement that existed after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, they could not transcend their willful caricature of Leninism. Their slogans, tactics and programmatic orientation rarely included more than pleading with Congress to be more compassionate, which is the equivalent of asking the bourgeoisie to renounce their fundamental class interests. These battles posed the historic role of the working class and demanded an elementary class analysis. However, when groups like the ISO took part in the United for Peace and Justice, “anybody but Bush” campaigns, such a working class perspective, founded upon concrete economic analysis, was surely not put forth publicly to the ISO's liberal allies. One did not have to be a prophet to predict how fast the Cliffites' knees would hit the pavement when the Obama “yes we can” ecstasy began.

When Cliff suggests that Lenin “bent the stick” too far in understanding the role of the political vanguard in awakening the proletariat to its historic tasks, Cliff is merely trying to twist the beam in the other direction. Cliff states in his three-part biography of Lenin that the leader of the Russian Revolution, “always made the task of the day quite clear, repeating what was necessary ad infinitum in the plainest, heaviest, most single-minded hammer-blow pronouncements. Afterwards, he would regain his balance, straighten the stick, then bend it again in another direction.”[6] For Cliff, however, who refrains from carefully dissecting the concrete political perspectives that Lenin gained in the course of his political development (an imperfect process, as was the case with Trotsky), the stick is left open to be bent in just about any direction. In the IST's case, the current pulled towards reformism and flagrant social-democracy. As if predicting the Cliffites’ political trajectory, Trotsky noted in 1939, “Only continuity of ideas creates a revolutionary tradition, without which a political party sways like a reed in the wind.”[7]

The IST retains a continuity only with the opportunistic methods of Shachtman and Co. who, like Cliff and his cohorts, swiftly found the scent of bourgeois ideology too intoxicating to resist. If anything, the existence of such a bogus trajectory suggests that the tide brought about by the death of the remaining Second International radicals swiftly spelled our doom as a force capable of changing society.  Many of the historical devices Trotsky left to his followers were willfully rejected by the Cliffites, but newer is not always better. The larger historical conditions that led to the formation of these groupings suggest that our Sisyphean task is more arduous than ever before.

This gets to the core of Heartfield’s conception that, indeed, there is a fundamental divide between the Cliffites’ ostensible Leninism and the actual application of their politics. No programmatic clarification could take place in light of their outright rejection of elementary Leninist theory. It certainly will not take place on Platypus’s stage, either.

In concluding, I’d like to once again point to Lenin in Better Fewer, But Better: 

It is time we did something about it. We must show sound scepticism for too rapid progress, for boastfulness, etc. We must give thought to testing the steps forward we proclaim every hour, take every minute and then prove every second that they are flimsy, superficial and misunderstood. The most harmful thing here would be haste. The most harmful thing would be to rely on the assumption that we know at least something, or that we have any considerable number of elements necessary for the building of a really new state apparatus, one really worthy to be called socialist, Soviet, etc. [8]


During the epoch of a considerable retrogression in the consciousness of the world’s working class, the necessity of a radical left worthy of being called socialist is paramount if we as Marxists seek to become something other than historical waste.|P


[1] Socialist Worker, 31 August 1991

[2] V.I. Lenin, “Better Fewer, But Better”, [Pravda, No. 49, March 4, 1923]. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1923/mar/02.htm

[3] L.D. Trotsky, Stalinism and Bolshevism. [1937] See http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1937/08/stalinism.htm

[4] James Heartfield, “Tony Cliff's legacy today: International Socialism and the tradition of Lenin and Trotsky”, The Platypus Review, Issue 68, July 2014 /2014/07/04/tony-cliffs-legacy-today-international-socialism-tradition-lenin-trotsky-2/

[5] V.I. Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky [1918]. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/prrk/soviet_constitution.htm

[6] Tony Cliff, Building the Party: Lenin 1893-1914, (Chicago: Haymarket, 2002)

[7] L.D. Trotsky, Trotskyism and the PSOP, [New International, Vol. 5, No. 10, October 1939]. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1939/07/psop02.htm

[8] V.I. Lenin, “Better Fewer, But Better”, [Pravda, No. 49, March 4, 1923]. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1923/mar/02.htm

One comment

  • Posted 4 years ago

    We are the left the right need us to be.

    by metrobusman on October 26, 2014 10:44 pm

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