Duncan Hallas

Tony Cliff

‘He sensed before anyone else the need for change’

(May 2000)

From Socialist Review, No.241, May 2000, p.14.
Downloaded from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Cliff’s importance to the movement consists of two elements. First of all was his consistency. Once he had broken with Stalinism he never wavered. He viewed the social system in the USSR on the one hand and the US and Western Europe on the other hand as essentially the same – the class relationships were the same. The detail was considerably different, but these differences were entirely secondary. There was something else, however. He was consistent but he was also able to be inconsistent. Now that may sound rather foolish. What I mean is this: Cliff had an absolutely unerring sense when something was going wrong, when we were missing opportunities, and he’d produce lots of solutions. He sensed before anyone else the need for a change.

He came to Britain at an absolutely critical time, in the period after the Second World War when the whole Trotskyist movement was splintered. The majority went towards centrism and the notion that the East European regimes were somehow workers’ states. Others went into deep entry in the Labour Party as a principle – to convert the Labour Party. It was an absurd move. Cliff never believed in deep entrism. It was purely tactical: we went into the Labour Party because there was nowhere else to find people to talk to. It was a tiny group, about 20 or so.

I first met Chanie in 1947 when I came out of the army. Cliff was in Dublin a lot of that time and I went back to Manchester to work in engineering. I first met Cliff in a comrade’s bedsitting room. Perhaps there were 20 of us, perhaps only a dozen. The first task he gave me was to write a rebuttal of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism. Our little group entered into the Labour Party. There was never any perspective of shifting the Labour Party. As soon as we could get out we did, and then we went back in again. The occasion of getting out was of course 1956, the crisis of Stalinism. It was possible to find people around the CP and in particular its periphery, younger people. The second generation of our group we really recruited there.

Things changed again in 1968, when the struggles politicised a new generation and Cliff won many towards our politics. This wasn’t done without a fight. We held two conferences in 1968. At the second one there were big arguments about democratic centralism. I chaired that second conference – what a job! But out of it we got a permanent leadership, which was what was needed.

We called ourselves the SWP from 1977. We said we are acting as a party – we might as well call ourselves a party. Life was often very hard in the 1980s, but today we’re by far the largest thing on the left. We have made lots of mistakes, but I believe the organisation has done the best that could be done. Cliff was absolutely central at every stage, and his legacy is a party that can begin to make a difference and influence the struggle.


Last updated on 27.12.2003