The death in April of Tony Cliff, leading figure in the Socialist Workers Party, and, before that, the International Socialists (1962-76) and the Socialist Review Group (1950-62), was greeted with expressions of solidarity and criticism from his fellow Trotskyists. For the SWP it was an opportunity to declare that "his unique intellectual contribution was to describe, in the late 1940s, the Soviet Union as state capitalist, and therefore imperialist" (Paul Foot in the Guardian 11/4/00). In his autobiography Cliff says that he thought about the question for two months and then "One early morning I jumped out of bed" and told his wife "‘Russia is not a workers’ state but state capitalist’".
The class nature of the Russian state
Revolutionaries (a category which does not include Cliff) have developed an understanding of the nature of the state in Russia as an integral part of their defence of working class interests. As early as 1918 the Russian communist left were warning of the dangers of state capitalism. In the 1930s, while the degenerating Trotskyists used the idea of a ‘proletarian’ sof a ‘proletarian’ state as grounds for the unconditional defence of the USSR, other revolutionaries wrestled seriously with this fundamental issue. For the German and Dutch Left there was state capitalism, but a tendency to put into question the proletarian nature of the 1917 revolution. For the Treint group in France there was state capitalism, but they were going toward the idea that it was a new form of system, neither proletarian nor bourgeois. The comrades of the Italian Left were more cautious. They saw the state in Russia as proletarian, because of its origins in the revolution of 1917, but increasingly becoming part of international capitalism - as it was recognised by the US, and "Russia’s entry into the League of Nations immediately poses the question of Russia’s participation in one of the imperialist blocs for the next war" (Bilan no 2, December 1933). While the Italian Left grappled with the Russian question they were quite clear on the rejection of any defence of the USSR.
Russia’s participation in the Second World War settled the question. The ex-Trotskyists of the Revolutionare Kommunisten Deutschlands (RKD), for example, dropped their defence of the USSR and, influenced by Ciliga’s book The Russian Enigma, defined Russia as state capital defined Russia as state capitalist. G Munis broke from Trotskyism over the defence of any imperialist camp and denounced Russia as state capitalist. The majority of the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left broke from "the great lie of the ‘proletarian nature’ of the Russian state and to show it for what it is, to reveal its counter-revolutionary, capitalist and imperialist nature and function. It is enough to note that the goal of production remains the extraction of surplus value, to affirm the capitalist character of the economy" (Bulletin International de Discussion no 6, June 1944).
Trotskyism’s defence of imperialist war
While revolutionaries in the Second World War took an internationalist position against both ‘democratic’ and ‘fascist’ camps, the Trotskyist movement defended Allied imperialism. In defending the imperialisms of the democracies and Stalinist Russia (and some Trotskyists in France and Belgium sided with German imperialism) they became part of capitalism’s political apparatus. Just as Social Democracy went over to capitalism during the First World War, so it was with the Trotskyists and the Second. Their activity ever since has been determined by the needs of the bourgeoisie.
This, then, is the context of Cliff’s ‘ground-breaking’ work in the late 1940s. Cliff arrived in Britain in September 1946. He joined the Revolutionary Communist Party, a Trotskyist organisation made up of the merger of a number of groups that had all shown their loyalty to British imperialism. They had all, for example, called for a Labour government during the war, a period when Labour was a major constituent of the coalition government, with a particular commitment to the repression of the struggles of the working class. Cliff and his various groups always defended Trotskyism’s participation in the war "It was not possible to simply call for the defeat of one’s ruling class ... It was necessary to defend democracy against fascism" (Socialist Review May 1995).
Cliff had come to Britain from Palestine via Paris. It was here that he had been briefed by the Trotskyist Fourth International on the latest discussions in the RCP. A majority, who had previously been ardent defenders of Russian imperialism, had come round to the idea that Russia was state capitalist. Cliff, as an orthodox defender of the ‘degenerated workers’ state’ idea apparently said "The Old Man [Trotsky] iot;The Old Man [Trotsky] is not yet cold in his grave and already they want to renege on his teachings. ... I will destroy them!" (Charlie van Gelderen in Socialist Outlook, May 2000). By some time in 1947 Cliff was saying that Russia was ‘state capitalist’ and the leadership of the RCP that it was a ‘Bonapartist workers state.’
The fact that these Trotskyists swapped positions is certainly a curiosity. It did not change the nature of their politics. Those who defended the ‘state capitalist’ line were expelled or resigned from the RCP. The RCP dissolved itself in 1949 to enter the Labour Party. The first meeting of Cliff’s Socialist Review Group was in 1950. It was also in the Labour Party. Before the 1951 General Election the membership was directed to get known "as the most energetic and anti-Tory Labour Party workers" (document quoted in a 1981 SWP ‘official’ history). Cliff’s groups remained part of the Labour Party until at least 1967. They have never subsequently deviated from their support for the Labour Party - all, of course, in the name of ‘anti-Toryism’.
The Trotskyist view of the Labour government of 1945-51 is ‘critical’ of its austerity regime, its re of its austerity regime, its repression and its constant military mobilisations in the interests of British imperialism. However, the nationalisation of several major industries is always seen as cause for celebration. In fact the intervention of the capitalist state in the face of the ravages of a economic crisis is the dominant tendency within decadent capitalism. Far from being something for workers to cheer, it is integral to the bourgeoisie’s organisation of its system. Regardless of the different Trotskyist ‘theories’ about Russia, they all defend state capitalism at home.
Danger of the SWP
The political history of Cliff’s tendency is little different from the rest of British Trotskyism. Throughout the Vietnam war it supported North Vietnamese capitalism, backed by Russian imperialism. In contrast to other leftists the IS supported Labour when it sent troops to Northern Ireland in 1969. In Afghanistan it defended the US-backed guerrillas against the Russian-backed government. In the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, in which more than half a million people died, the SWP took the side of Iran. However, they switched to defence of Iraqi capitalism during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Last year in ex-Yugoslavia they defended Serbian repression of ded Serbian repression of Kosovo. Yet, in the recent election for London mayor they called for a vote for Ken Livingstone, the keenest supporter for NATO’s bombing of Serbia. The fact that the SWP appears to be inconsistent in bestowing its favours is not important. Its basic loyalty will always be to British capitalism, particularly as a left cover for the Labour Party.
The one thing that marks the SWP out is its size; it’s far and away the biggest Trotskyist group in Britain. A lot of the reason for this can be put down to the SWP’s ‘theory’ of ‘state capitalism.’ During the whole period of the Cold War they were the most anti-Stalinist organisation, which fitted in with the dominant anti-Russian ideology in the West. With the collapse of the Russian-dominated eastern bloc they had their alibi waiting.
One of the reasons that the SWP is such a pernicious organisation is that it talks about ‘state capitalism’ - a key understanding of the working class - while providing a cover for the capitalist state. Tony Cliff has died, but, unfortunately, the SWP’s influence lives on.