Tony Cliff

Revolutionary traditions


From a speech at Wortley Hall, Sheffield, 22 April 1967, to an aggregate meeting of the International Socialism group.
Originally published in David Widgery, The Left in Britain, 1956–1968, Harmondsworth 1976, pp. 92–7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Now, first of all, I’ll not be as short as all that, I’m sorry to say. Second of all, there’s quite a danger that I’ll cover many things that everybody knows, but still I think they’ll have to be summed up and I think there are three reasons that personally I’m terribly interested in this subject. Reason number one is simply the fact that we moved into much more activism and there’ll be a danger that we’ll become mindless militants. It’s true that theory without action is sterile, but activity without theory is blind. Reason number two is simply that the British labour movement has such terrible traditions as regards theory that it’s very important to fight against this tradition. Third of all because on the left we are quite an attractive proposition, there’s really no competition, so to say, people would join us because there is nothing better so to say, and when reading letters by Roger Cummings and Ignatius Tsong it looks as if people didn’t know that there was thirty years of a debate on the subject of socialism in one country, as if the whole thing was dead, and it becomes absolutely clear that these things will have to be hammered up on the question of really what our traditions are. Starting from this point I must make clear about the question of traditions. Traditions sound as though they are a subject for a Conservative Party conference. Now the truth is this, that when you look at Marxism, if Marx and Engels defined in the Communist Manifesto the Communists as those that generalised the movement and the experience of the working class over time and over countries, then of necessity the question of tradition is central to it. We have to learn that the Paris commune of 1871, the lessons of the Paris Commune, are as alive today in 1967 as they were in 1871, but of course, because the truth is always concrete and because Marxism therefore has always to be bloomin’ concrete, always practical, has to change all of the time. Unless it changes it’s bloomin’ dead, and that’s why on the one hand you have to stick to tradition but on the other hand you have to stick to growth. This dialectical relation is central to the whole thing. Those that simply speak in the name of tradition are bloody useless, because what really happens happened like the German Social Democrats in 1914 – they quoted Marx and Engels from 1848. Marx and Engels said in 1848, said, “es, we in Germany should carry the battle against Tsarist Russia,” and the Social Democrats got up in 1914 and said, as Marx and Engels said, “We have to carry the battle against Tsarist Russia” and that’s why they supported the war in 1914. And you find the same experience repeats itself with the Mensheviks in Russia quoting Marx and Engels, that the backward countries have to follow in the footsteps of the advanced countries, as Marx said in the introduction of the first volume of Capital, and so on and so on and so on. In other words the danger of tradition is the danger of death; on the other hand the danger of no tradition is also death, because the whole idea of Marxism is really the idea of generalisation from the experience of the struggle. Therefore what I will say about the IS Group’s tradition is a very simple one – is that in reality we have changed all the time, and thank heaven for that. How much we owe to people that came before us is fantastic and as well when I quite often say “When you sit on the shoulders of a giant you see quite far”, and I think you’d also look quite tall, and this is really what happens and our basic ideas are taken really from an old old revolutionary tradition and this is what I’ll try to develop now.

I’ll try to go through every idea that we’re talking about and try to show the roots - where did it come from? Well, let’s start from when we broke from traditional Trotskyism. Now we broke on one simple thing on the Russian question. This was the central issue of the time. Now what did we accept from Trotsky? We accepted from Trotsky first of all that the working class is the agent of the socialist revolution, that the working class is the subject, not the object, but the subject of the socialist revolution, that the criterion to every change in society is what role the working class is playing actively in it. That’s what was so idiotic in the letter of Ignatius Tsong and Roger Cummings, because they didn’t ask what was the role of the workers. I don’t care whether the workers have a high standard of living or a low standard of living. It’s important what the workers are doing in the whole game. What is their role, that’s the first thing that we took from Trotsky straight. The second thing we took from Trotsky straight is opposition to all rising bureaucracies. Thirdly we took from Trotsky the theory of the impossibility of socialism in one country. The fact that the pressure of world capitalism distorts development in every workers’ state. In this case the Russian Workers’ State. We also accepted from Trotsky the question of the international nature of the revolution. Those things we accepted from him. Now what were the defects, where we didn’t agree – and it is quite important to see to what extent you are growing on the shoulders of somebody quite tall. Because the thing is this, there’s a danger that somebody makes a picture and you afterwards come and make a stroke next to the picture; he makes a picture, a beautiful picture, of something – a tree – and you come and make a stroke next to it and say, “Look how original I am, my good God! everything started from me, look at the stroke. Wasn’t it original?” Yes, but there was also a tree in the picture, remember that, and I’m not suddenly speaking in the name of modesty – I’m not modest at all but coming simply to have a sense of historical proportions and historical perspective. Now what we thought was wrong with Trotsky was this, that if it was true that the working class was the agent of the socialist revolution then the form of property is a bloody stupid criterion for deciding whether a state is a workers’ state or not, because the worker as an active element in society doesn’t give a damn about the form of property. What the worker as an active agent cares about is the relations in production, in other words what place the worker is in the process of production; whether the worker comes to a state enterprise like the railways or private enterprise like ICI it doesn’t come in relation to it as regards the form of property. But he doesn’t come and say I sell you my labour power because it is private, or in the other case I will sell you my labour power because it is the state. No, no. The form of property doesn’t appear at all to the working class as an active agent in society and therefore he says the form of property is not a criterion that decides the nature of the state. Trotsky was not consistent enough in his own criteria of approach. Second of all, planning is not a criterion of judging the nature of the state because the question is who is being planned and who is doing the planning, not simply planning in the abstract if you speak about in terms of active agency of the working class, and therefore we say quite simply that the form of property shouldn’t decide whether Russia is a workers’ state or not a workers’ state. Third of all, if we speak about internationalism then international capitalism not only distorts but international capitalism determines the laws of motion of the economy in every chunk of the international economy. What I mean by that, I mean that perhaps the pressure of Marks and Spencer over the Co-op is not only distorting the internal relations of the Co-op, but dictating the basic decisions of the Co-op, from wages policy, to advertising policy, to all the rest of it. And that’s why we came and said, “It’s not good enough to come and say Russia is distorted under the pressure of world capitalism,” we have to come and say, “What are the laws of motion of the economy of Russia when you look at world capitalism as the decisive one?” and we said quite simply that the decisive thing that accumulation is the motive force in every economy in the world including the Russian economy. Above all in the Russian economy, because of its backwardness and therefore of its incapacity to face world capitalism unless it imitates world capitalism. This is the payment of backwardness when it faces something much mightier than them. You see that many of those things are simply elementary things. The comrades have heard it and perhaps my summing up is not very useful, but I think it is quite important to be absolutely clear to what extent we really started from a developed idea that started long before us. For years and years and years the Bolshevik Party fought on the question of workers’ power and then the question of workers’ control and the question of the distortions and the fight against bureaucracy etc. and to what extent our development was a development of the same thing and not simply starting without any roots and without any connection with the past, and of course the central thing is quite simply that we came to the conclusion that workers’ control is the decisive thing in evaluating a workers’ state. That workers can get many many things from the top, they can get reforms, the cow can get extra grass, the farmer can give her extra hay. One thing the farmer will never give is the control over the shed. This has to be taken, and therefore a workers’ state is a state where the workers control their destiny. It cannot be given to them, they have to do it themselves. Once you abolish the element of workers’ control you abolish the essence of the workers’ state. This was really the first theoretical thing we were faced with and we are still with it, and when we are faced with new phenomena and new backward countries in the process of industrialisation we use the same criterion and the same general approach, and therefore for us it is not a surprise when what happened to Nkrumah, whatever happens in China, it is not a surprise we use the same basic method. The question of the international nature of capitalism, the question of the laws of motion of capitalism that emphasises the capital accumulation to subordinate everything to it, and the fact that workers’ power cannot exist unless you change completely the rules of the game, the whole rules of the economy etc.

From this we went to another problem: you know we are not living in Russia and whether you like it or not we can’t face straightforward in conflict with the Russian rulers because we are not facing them. What we are facing are the rulers of the West. Now here we face a very difficult problem. You see, by tradition, the Marxist tradition was a very simple one. We had slumps every ten years from 1817 onwards – 1827, 1837, 1847/8, 1857 and so on. We had slumps every time and we were absolutely convinced that the slumps would become deeper and the booms would become shallower. Came the end of the Second World War we had to face the simple fact, what to say. Should we say like practically all the Marxists, in inverted commas or not in inverted commas, said that the slump was around the corner. For example, the Daily Worker spoke of a million unemployed. You read Tribune when the Tories won in 1951, “millions of unemployed – the thirties are repeated – coming back because of the victory of the Tories”. Then of course there were even the funniest ones of course were the Revolutionary Communist Party, the predecessor of the SLL. They came in 1945 with a very clear statement saying that anybody who believes that there will be only three million unemployed in the immediate future is suffering from reformist illusions, in other words it won’t be three million it will be much more. If you say only three millions you are completely whitewashing capitalism. And Gerry Healy wrote you need a, the workers need an alarm clock. What for? To get up in the morning to run to the labour exchange. Now this was not the historical fact, this was one perspective. There was another perspective we could face. Simply what the right wing said at the time and the ex-left wing in the form of John Strachey and Harold Laski and G.D.H. Cole. Now in the thirties like good British empiricists what happened yesterday, what happened today will happen tomorrow but more emphasised. You see because quite naturally they know from experience that a boy aged ten is stronger than a baby aged one and a man aged twenty is stronger than a boy aged ten they should have drawn a simple conclusion that a man aged 100 must be as strong as Samson. Now British empiricism prevents them from doing that. They know that people die at the age of 100 or a little bit earlier. But in the case of British capitalism the picture is different. Therefore in the thirties everything was terrible, unemployment, fascism, war, etc. You read the Strachey: capitalism means war, capitalism means fascism, capitalism means unemployment. Marvellous clear consistent picture. Then, thanks to good old Adolph Hitler, or I don’t know exactly whom, we got full employment in 1939 and children of the war and this is a fact, British children who grew during the war were much better fed than the children who grew during the thirties. So the picture changed now. Today is pink, tomorrow pinker. Tomorrow will be nicer than today. Capitalism is not in decline any more, everything is marvellous in the garden. So we faced a very serious theoretical problem on the one hand: we couldn’t accept a thing that is breaking straightaway into your face that there are five or six or seven million unemployed in the streets. Simply statistics deny it.


Last updated on 3 February 2017