Socialist Equality Party (UK)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Britain)

Tony Cliff and the origins of the International Socialists

81. The factional struggle within the RCP occasioned the entry into British political life of Tony Cliff, a supporter of Shachtman’s state capitalist thesis. Cliff was to build his own tendency by recruiting from amongst disaffected RCP members. The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 proved a test case for the adherents of state capitalism. Provoked by US imperialism in response to the Chinese revolution the previous year, the conflict presaged an enormous intensification of the Cold War, including the remilitarisation of Europe. In just three years, three million Koreans were killed. British imperialism participated actively in the conflict, with the Labour government extending military conscription to two years as part of its mobilisation of some 70,000 soldiers, and raising health care prescription charges in order to fund it.

82. Adapting to official anti-communist hysteria, Cliff rejected the defence of North Korea. Insisting that the war was between rival imperialist powers―the USSR and the US―he argued for neutrality. This position provided the origins of the International Socialists’ exhortation, “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but International Socialism”. At a time when the British Trotskyists were working within the Labour Party and the trade unions to mobilise opposition to the Korean War, Cliff intervened against their efforts. He had been working with a secret faction of former Haston supporters within the RCP, based in Birmingham, who had agreed to assist him in splitting the Trotskyist movement. To this end, they decided to use a Trades Council meeting to publicly repudiate the line of the Fourth International on Korea. Group members later admitted that their action was intended to catch Healy in “a trap”. They knew that such an open break with party discipline would leave him with no alternative but to expel them, enabling them to posture as “martyrs” in the hope of waging a factional struggle internationally.[1]

83. Cliff was to argue that the Stalinist dictatorship was only the most finished expression of a new stage in the evolution of world capitalism, which was partially expressed by Labour’s post-war nationalisations and those conducted by the newly independent colonial regimes. He placed the intelligentsia alongside the Stalinist bureaucracy as the midwife of yet another variety of state capitalism. The industrial working class had “played no role whatsoever” in the Chinese revolution, while in Cuba, “middle-class intellectuals filled the whole arena of struggle”. From this, Cliff declared that Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution was wrong because, “While the conservative, cowardly nature of a late-developing bourgeoisie (Trotsky’s first point) is an absolute law, the revolutionary character of the young working class (point 2) is neither absolute nor inevitable… Once the constantly revolutionary nature of the working class, the central pillar of Trotsky’s theory, becomes suspect, the whole structure falls to pieces.”[2]

84. For Cliff, the Labour bureaucracy articulated the social interests of the entire working class. He wrote, “An inevitable conclusion following upon Lenin’s analysis of Reformism is that a small thin crust of conservatism hides the revolutionary urges of the mass of the workers,” whereas, the history of reformism in the UK and elsewhere proved its “solidity, its spread throughout the working class, frustrating and largely isolating all revolutionary minorities”. Reformism was not simply based on an aristocracy of labour, but infused the working class, which, Cliff argued, benefited in its entirety from capitalist expansion. “We go up together”, he proclaimed, “not only an infinitesimal minority, but the whole of the working class.”[3]

85. He concluded: “To a large extent, what makes the Labour Party tick is what makes the British people tick”. Consequently, “Marxists should not set themselves up as a party or embryo of a party of their own. They should remember that the working class looks to the Labour Party as the political organisation of the class (and no doubt when a new wave of political activity spreads among the working class millions of new voters will flock to its banner and hundreds of thousands will join it actively).”[4]

86. Notwithstanding terminological differences between Grant and Cliff, both attributed to the Stalinist bureaucracy a legitimate position within Soviet society, and projected the historic viability of Stalinist-type states. In the ensuing years, they would again and again find themselves in a political alliance against the Healy group.


Cited in The Methods of Gerry Healy, Ken Tarbuck, http://www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/Pages/Healy/Walters.html.


Tony Cliff The Deflected Permanent Revolution, (1963) http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1963/xx/permrev.htm.


Tony Cliff Economic roots of reformism ( June 1957) http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1957/06/rootsref.htm.


Tony Cliff The Labour Party in Perspective, (1962) http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1962/xx/labour.htm.