Tony Cliff's legacy in Cairo, Athens, London
|Tony Cliff speaks to a meeting of miners during the 1984-5 strike. Cliff's talks to workers and socialists, recalls Richard Seymour, left people 'confident and optimistic'.|
|Gigi Ibrahim, a leader of Egypt's revolutionary socialists used blogging, facebook and twitter to spread the struggle against Mubarak.|
Tony Cliff (1917-2000) was a fantastic man by all accounts. Cliff is best remembered as the founder of Britain's largest revolutionary organisation, the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) and the International Socialist Tendency which co-ordinates between similarly aligned revolutionary socialist organisations around the world. Socialist Aotearoa is a member of the International Socialist Tendency.
Cliff's autobiography, A world to win, and his biography A Marxist for His Time are both clever and amusing journeys into the history of post-war left politics in Britain and the ebbs and flows of the class struggle from the Vietnam war protests in 1968 to the great battles of miners against Margaret Thatcher's Tories in 1984-5.
Cliff's praxis is socialism from below, 'The working class, not the party, makes the revolution, but the party guides the working class...The revolutionary party must be built'. He tirelessly built, first by himself, and then with thousands of others the SWP and the IST. He wrote ceaselessly including biographies of Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky & Rosa Luxemburg and influential works on the capitalist economy in the West and the state capitalist Soviet world during the Cold War.
His legacy is not just theoretical in terms of forging a pragmatic and vibrant revolutionary socialist analysis and perspective of capitalism and revolution in the wake of reformism in the West and Stalinism beyond the Iron Curtain.
Cliff's legacy lives on in the hysterical newspaper headline of the British Daily Telegraph in February,
'Tiny band of left-wing radicals bring jobs policy to its knees', in reports on the Arab Spring like 'The “Brave Kids” of Egypt' and comments given to an Al-Jazeera journalist in Greece, 'George, a 19-year-old journalism student at Panteion University who wouldn't give his last name, said he planned to vote for ANTARSYA, but thinks the election was not as important as direct action.'
Cliff's life's work was to build a revolutionary organisation in Britain and support ones being built overseas also.
For Cliff building a revolutionary party was 'About having an organisation which could bring together all the best activists, to pool their experience and learn from the past. That way, the party could be the memory of the class, win respect inside the movement and strengthen the ability of workers to win.'
Revolutionaries needed theory but you couldn't build a revolutionary party with dogma. Cliff's famous quote cuts crisply here, ‘If you sit on Marx’s shoulders you see far, but if you sit on Marx’s shoulders and close your eyes, you don’t see very far at all.’
Cairo, Athens, London
The leading role played by the Revolutionary Socialists(RS) in Egypt, the Greek Socialist Workers' Party (SEK) in Greece which is part of ANTARSYA, and the SWP in Britain in the struggles against austerity, fascism, war and dictatorship shows the strength of Cliff's analysis and his activism.
All of these organisations share a similar commitment to building workers' struggles, confronting fascists on the street and to extra-parliamentary campaigning. The roots of this commitment come from the lessons learnt by Cliff and the SWP in the late twentieth century, fighting for a better world.
In Cairo, 'In 2007, [the Revolutionary Socialists] were the first to call for independent unions, after spending cold winter nights in front of the finance ministry in support of striking property tax collectors. When the strike ended, the first independent syndicate in Egypt was established, which later became the Independent General Federation of Workers.' The RS influence in Egypt grew from the student movement in Cairo to the workers' movement in Malhalla by following the praxis of Cliff and the revolutionary socialists in London in 1968 who were 'known for the line of taking students off to the picket line and factory gate' to help develop intellectuals into revolutionaries Cliff says in A world to win, 'The most important thing for the development of the students (as well as our implantation in the working class) was for the students to learn from direct contact with the workers' movement.'
In Athens SEK have recently had their offices raided by fascists and police and ANTARSYA is the only left organisation that openly supported and built the nationwide anti-fascist rallies against Golden Dawn yesterday. As A Marxist for His Time makes clear, Cliff and his comrades since the 1960s always advocated a strategy of both 'Fists against fascism' and building a large united front to fight neo-nazi organisations. In 1977 the SWP initated Anti-Nazi League stopped the National Front marching in Lewisham, London. Some comrades were jailed for their role in the street fighting in Lewisham and in 1979 an east London teacher and SWP member from New Zealand - Blair Peach - was killed by the police in an anti-fascist protest.
In London the SWP initiated Right to Work campaign allowed a small organisation of revolutionaries to smash a scheme that would have allowed large corporations to use slave labour. Having an organisation geared towards extra-parliamentary struggles to austerity gives socialists the ability to mobilise the power of workers and students to confront the ruling class in the streets. As the Telegraph told the story,
It is the Government’s flagship employment policy, designed to bring jobless youngsters back into the workplace. Signed up to help were some of Britain’s biggest high street chains, among them Tesco, Waterstones and TK Maxx.
But in the course of only a week, high-profile protests have dealt a series of damaging blows to the multi-million-pound scheme to get people into jobs through unpaid work experience.
What is astonishing is that the demonstrations, which at first glance appeared to have a groundswell of popular support, are being orchestrated by a small number of highly disciplined Left-wing revolutionaries.
It can be revealed that a cabal of no more than half a dozen people are at the heart of those protests.The protests may have been small but they drew on the experience and support of a revolutionary organisation of thousands of members with decades of experience and the financial and organisational resources to campaign on various fronts at once. As the SWP noted,
Right wing columnists attacked us for being “placard-toting obsessives” who had “zero impact”. Yet at the same time they accused us of orchestrating an anti-workfare conspiracy that had lured in the BBC and even the Mumsnet website. The Sun newspaper made us their “villain of the week”. And the Sun knows a bit about villainy.In any movement whether it is the trade union movement or the anti-austerity citizens' and student movements there will be people new to the struggle or those with more conservative views, a revolutionary organisation unites experienced activists to discuss and plan a way forward. Cliff's view of a revolutionary organisation was that it must be democratic, whereby all members get a say over the strategy, but must also have some centralism, that allows for an executive to co-ordinate the broad range of activities of the party over long periods of time (years and decades) - education, union work, anti-war activism.
Tony Cliff, was an important revolutionary and there are many lessons to be learnt by young activists from A world to win and A Marxist for His Time. He made plenty of mistakes but his central success is confirmed in the strength and contribution to the struggle organisations like the SEK, RS and SWP are making around the world. We are entering a new stage of the economic crisis that throws up new challenges and opportunities for socialists. Learning from the experiences of Cliff will be crucial to advancing the struggle in the coming year. His experience gives us confidence in our work building Socialist Aotearoa and the movements we are involved with. His excitement and enthusiasm for fighting for an alternative to war and capitalism are inspiring and energising. In 1994 Cliff told the SWP,
'Today we face a weak government which is forced to take on all workers - through tax rises and wage controls. It makes workers angry, but cautious about taking action, particularly in opposition to union leaders. It is a period of working class recuperation where we must inject socialist politics.'Today in Aotearoa things are much the same and across the world Cliff reminded us in his autobiography that the relevance of revolutionary socialism for workers grows,
The contradictions of capitalism today are much deeper than they were when Marx died in 1883, contradictions that appear in deep mass slumps, wars that go on and on in one country after another, etc. The working class is much stronger today than in 1883. As a matter of fact the working class of South Korea is larger than the total working class of the world when Marx died. And South Korea is only the eleventh economy in the world. Add to them the American, Japanese, Russian, German, British workers, etc, and the potential for socialism is greater than ever.