Tag Archives: Tony Cliff

“The 1930s in slow motion”: origins and (mis)uses


One of the things I’ve discussed in this blog is my 1999 book Fascism: Theory and Practice (FTP) and in particular the metaphor I used there of the 1990s as being like the 1930s albeit in slow motion. Now this idea was not mine alone but was happily plagiarised – as any reader at the time would have spotted – from the Socialist Workers Party of which I was then a member. For within that part between about 1994 and 2001 that was one of the group’s verbal tics.

The words suggested that the world would see quite quickly (i.e. possibly by the end of the decade) the emergence of mass fascist and mass Communist parties, or their apparent successors, and that these two camps would then face off in an ideological civil war akin to the conflict at Spain in 1936, etc.

Those auditioning for that part on the right were the Euro-fascist parties (FN, MSI/AN, Freedom Party, here the BNP) while on the left there was the SWP which had grown in recent times to a claimed 10,000 members (a figure which was not a fantasy in 1993-4, although the group began to shrink again soon after). The SWP’s international affiliates in the US, Germany, Turkey etc, were also cast to play huge roles in history.

This perspective was not quite as inflated as I’ve made it sound. Depending on who you spoke to, and what was in the news that day, the emphasis might be put either on “the 1930s” or the “slow motion”. By about 1996, for example, it had become apparent that in Britain Tony Blair was popular. And would remain so for some years to come. (I remember SWP conferences where we used to debate how long the honeymoon would last: some thought there would be none, pessimists suggested perhaps as long as a year). But, as soon as Blair started to lose ground with voters, we predicted, everyone to his left would grow. And the SWP with its Marxism conference, its members in the unions, its credibility arising from involvement in student, anti-war and anti-fascist campaigns, was as well placed as anyone to win over disappointed Labour supporters.

My sole tweak to that perspective in FTP was a literary one, to speak of the 1930s as a mediated experience – one captured on newsreel: “the film winds, but for the moment at a slower speed”.

Here what I want to do is explain where that perspective came from – and what it meant for the SWP and the way we thought about the far right. In a second piece I’ll then try to explore it in its own terms, asking how much value there is or was in drawing that analogy between the 1930s and our own times.

The 1930s and Trotskyism

Plainly, the distant origins of the term lie in a particular reading of world history, and in the Trotskyist tradition to which the SWP increasingly obviously belonged.

If you go back to the 1938 founding congress of Trotsky’s Fourth International, the programme published by its founding congress was titled, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International.

Here, Trotsky argued that the victory of fascism in Germany, and the collapse represented by the failure of the German Communists, hundreds of thousands strong, to organise any resistance to Hitler represented a break in Socialist history.

1933 and the events which followed it were “the greatest defeats of the proletariat in history.” They were the fault of international Stalinism which now lay utterly discredited: “The cause for these defeats is to be found in the degeneration and perfidy of the old leadership.”

At any moment, there was available only one party of the working class: “The class struggle does not tolerate an interruption.” Therefore it was legitimate to launch a new party, indeed a series of parties, which would soon take over from the Communists as the most significant forces of the global far left. “Workers – men and women – of all countries, place yourselves under the banner of the Fourth International. It is the banner of your approaching victory!”

The SWP had previously had quite a conflicted relationship to this passage in Trotskyist history. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the predecessors of the SWP had argued that this programme offered hardly any useful guidance at all.

For the Trotskyists of the 1930s had been in no position to lead the global working class. They were too few, too weakly rooted. What they built (in 1938-9) were discussion groups, factions without armies. Then, the SWP argued, between 1945 and 1968, the world had gone into an extended boom. Thus, a perspective which saw the world as being on the verge of revolution had been invalidated by events. Rather the 1950 and 1960s had been an epoch of reformism, the peaceful growth of trade unions, etc.

Here is one SWP leader Duncan Hallas writing in 1971, on the difference between the 1930s and the situation of the postwar left:

“When, for example, Trotsky described the German Communist Party of the 1920s and early thirties as the vanguard of the German working class, the characterisation was apt. Not only did the party itself include, amongst its quarter of a million or so members, the most enlightened, energetic and self-confident of the German workers; it operated in a working class which, in its vast majority, had absorbed some of the basic elements of Marxist thought and which was confronted, especially after 1929, with a deepening social crisis which could not be resolved within the framework of the Weimar Republic.”

“In that situation the actions of the party were of decisive importance. What it did, or failed to do, influenced the whole subsequent course of European and world history. The sharp polemics about the details of tactics, history and theory, which were the staple output of the oppositional communist groups of the period, were entirely justified and necessary. In the given circumstances the vanguard was decisive. In Trotsky’s striking metaphor, switching the points could change the direction of the whole heavy train of the German workers’ movement.”

“Today the circumstances are quite different. There is no train. A new generation of capable and energetic workers exists but they are no longer part of a cohesive movement and they no longer work in a milieu where basic Marxist ideas are widespread. We are back at our starting point. Not only has the vanguard, in the real sense of a considerable layer of organised revolutionary workers and intellectuals, been destroyed. So too has the environment, the tradition, that gave it influence.”

A first lurch to catastrophism

The perspective of the 1930s in slow motion was drawn up in sight of what was plainly going to be a coming Labour government.

This wasn’t the first time that the SWP (or, at least enlarged post-1968 IS/SWP) had had to respond to a Labour government.

In 1974-9, the group had gone into a previous Labour government with an unspoken perspective of expecting strikes to break out and the stewards’ movement to continue. That perspective had smashed against the actual experience of Labour government, the mass increase in unemployment, the demobilisation of the trade unions, etc.

But rather than dial down expectations, the 1974-9 International Socialists (as the group was then called) and then SWP (the name was changed in winter 1976-7) had ramped them up.

So that in 1974-9 the group had already swung towards an over-inflated sense of what it could do (save that this was seriously moderated by the group’s involvement in the mass movement of the Anti-Nazi League). Rank and file groups withered, emphasis was placed instead on a nascent unemployed workers’ campaign (Right to Work).

Socialist Worker was changed into a “punk paper” with a sports column and soaps and a perspective of winning thousands of new readers.

Candidates stood in elections, often winning derisory votes.

The name SWP, and its underlying perspective that the group was capable of being transformed into a mass party was adopted with a minimum of discussion, save only for the notable dissent of one former long-time member Peter Sedgwick:

“Since we cannot, in the present bad political climate, change class reality very much, the conclusion is drawn that we have to perform changes on the name of IS itself, in the delusion that this is some step towards the actual construction of a revolutionary socialist workers’ party. If the CC decided that we should walk around with our bottoms painted bright green, doubtless it would have a electrifying effect on the morale of our membership (for a short time at least). There might even be a case for some such publicity venture; joking apart, we can always do with fresh propaganda on party questions. But what would anyone think of a Party whose Central Committee produced its suggestions for Green Bottoms in a few badly argued paragraphs, circulated, without real District discussion, before a Party Council, got a resounding 99 per cent vote for the proposed face-lift from the Council with virtually no argument on this or the obvious points about the election, and proceed to give us six months to declare ourselves to the world in this new disguise. This is not a party, but a circus. it does not form the basis for a democratic workers party but for a bureaucratic charade, sanctioned by plebiscite without discussion.”

Sedgwick blamed the shift on the founder of the SWP Tony Cliff, and his still-recent shift to a model of organisation which Cliff termed Leninism:

“How easy it is in these circumstances to shoot off-course, trusting to the ‘intuition’ which Comrade Cliff has celebrated in the life of Lenin but which is, at its worst, impressionism mingled with emotion.”


Tony Cliff was also the most important (but not the only) person advocating for the adoption of the “slow motion” phrase, and the thinking which underpinned it.

I recall attending a student event in February 1995 at which he spoke, suggesting that fascism was on the rise, and that the people in the room had only a few years left. Either Marxism or fascism would triumph, and we should apply ever sinew to make sure it was the former.

I recall the speech, and my surprise at it, for its vision of soon-coming millennial transformation was at odds with anything I had heard in the group until then.

Even when the idea of the 1930s in slow motion became more pervasive, which it did over the next few months, the way most people argued it was as kind of structuring idea, a warning an ambition, rather than a prediction of imminent catastrophe.

“Sometimes,” writes Cliff’s biographer Ian Birchall, “Cliff seemed torn between two timescales.” In this period, he was still capable of pointing out that the transition from feudalism to capitalism had taken several centuries.

But alongside these moments, you could also see Cliff writing (as in one late book, Trotskyism After Trotsky) that Trotsky’s 1938 programme “fits reality again”.

I want to focus on what this strategy told us about the fascist groups. For in 1922 and 1933, Mussolini and then Hitler had come into power alongside other parties and capable of governing (it seemed) only with the support of parties closer to the centre: conservatives, nationalists and representatives of the army.

For half a year between spring 1994 and early 1995, a party of fascist origin the National Alliance held several seats in Berlusconi’s Cabinet. Again between 2000 and 2005 a second party of fascist origin the Freedom Party was a minority within an Austrian government.

Was this history repeating itself? If not, why not?

Fascist in government: Italy and Austria

“Fascists are in government for the first time since the end of the Second World War,” Dave Beecham warned in May 1994, on the announcement of the first Berlusconi government.

“Anyone who doubts the true nature of the MSI merely has to open their eyes and unblock their ears. Before the election the MSI leader Gianfranco Fini made a ‘pilgrimage’ to the graves of murdered partisans to demonstrate his repudiation of the past. Directly the results were announced, Fini appeared in Rome surrounded by 1,000 goose stepping thugs. He then gave an interview to the newspaper La Stampa in which he declared that Mussolini was ‘the greatest statesman of the 20th century’ and that Berlusconi would have great difficulty in living up to him.”

So should we expect concentration camps to be built, and the Italian left jailed?

Well, yes it seemed, “These are critical days for Italian socialists.”

And then straight away no: “The new government is riddled with contradictions. Berlusconi is attempting to ride three horses moving in different directions. There are clear signs that many of those who voted for the League want nothing to do with the MSI.”

We predicted the worst. But then, when it failed to materialise, we had no explanation for why it had not come.

Lindsey German wrote, in the aftermath of Berlusconi’s fall: “The danger in this situation is that the fascists can grow from the weakness and divisions of the other right wing parties. While Berlusconi himself could not create a stable government, he could pave the way for the much greater threat of Gianfranco Fini’s MSI.”

Thus we lived in a present where fascism was always coming, but it never quite arrived.

We were like Atalanta in Zeno’s paradox, who can walk from place to place only by covering half the distance between where she is now and her final destination. She covers a half the ground in one stride, and then in her next step a quarter, then an eighth, with the result that she never quite arrives at the point she was aiming.

So it was with us when we thought about fascism. It could be a small minority party in government, an equal partner. Its ministers could have responsibility for the army and the police. But still we were warning about the prospect of fascism in the future.

And this, I want to suggest in my next piece was not a unique position to one small group on the British left. It is also the main way in which much larger numbers of people have been thinking about the far -right in the US and Europe since 2016.

Lindsey German, Sheila McGregor and sexual violence: the SWP after Cliff



Following from my last piece, arguing that Tony Cliff’s book Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation has had a negative effect on the SWP’s and our allies’ thinking about women, discouraging us from taking a sustained interest in sexual violence (i.e. rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment), if I am right, then you would expect to see this omission not so much in Cliff’s book (although it does neglect all three topics) but also in the writing of other Marxists in the SWP who have written about women’s equality.

Lindsey German has already anticipated and responded to this criticism, arguing on the website of her new party Counterfire that “whatever the differences exist between socialists and socialist feminists on questions of theory or practice, the mistakes that have been made cannot be explained by adherence to one particular analysis.” She goes on to defend Cliff’s book and the IS tradition on women. She provides links to pieces by Kathy Ennis, Irene Breugel, Chris Harman, John Molyneux and Sheila McGregor. Her article is in general is a useful starting summary of the articles written about women by leading members of the SWP. To that extent, I would encourage everyone who has seen this and my previous piece to also read hers.

In a second article, for the Australian website Links, German criticises Sharmon Smith and Abbie Bakan, accepting in principle that Marxists should see feminists as allies, but saying that this insight is useless unless it is also accompanied by a deepening of the analysis of women’s oppression. If she is right, then I hope I have already begun this process by pointing out what I think was the key omission in Cliff’s analysis – an inability to theorise what he saw as the divisive areas (or, in his words, “the areas where men and women are at odds”) of working-class women’s oppression, i.e. their oppression through rape, violence, and an unequal burden of childcare, in all of which the agents of division (if not its beneficiaries), he assumed, were working-class men. She’s right; we need to state a new, positive theory. In due course, I’ll be posting on this site relatively lengthy pieces setting out my own attempts at a Marxist theory of sexual violence. First thought, I think we need to pause a bit longer on the SWP’s record.

Of course, if I am right that the key weakness has been an inadequate theory of sexual violence, then this potentially answers German’s first article. Because if it is true that for years our leading members encouraged us not to think deeply about rape, domestic violence or the allied phenomenon of sexual harassment – then you could expect this omission to have been significant in the three years since the party was first obliged to consider complaints of rape and harassment.

So, going back to the (several) pieces named by German, how many consider rape? The word does not appear once in Kathy’s Ennis original 1974 article on women’s consciousness, nor in Irene Breugel’s 1978 analysis of the family, nor in German’s Theories of Patriarchy, not the pieces German cites by Molyneux or McGregor on whether men benefit from women’s oppression.

Chris Harman’s 1984 piece on women’s liberation cites once in passing the “radical feminist” position that rapes are carried out by men rather than capitalism, but only in the “divisive” sense in which Cliff refers to rape – using it as an instance of the sorts of politics that bad people (feminists) talk about, and against which good comrades (male or female) should steel themselves.

None of these pieces refers at any point either to sexual harassment or domestic violence.

They do cover one of the areas which Cliff sought to remove from discussion – the question of whether men benefit from childcare – where there was a heated debate with McGregor and Molyneux taking opposed sides. But all of these writers treated the capacity of some men to behave in an aggressive or in a humiliating way to some women as theoretically off limits.

In her recent piece for Counterfire, German explains that she wrote her 1989 book Sex, Class and Socialism “to develop our theories further and in different directions from the ones in which Cliff had taken them. The book dealt extensively with different contemporary and historical aspects of the family, and with various socialist and feminist theories of oppression, as well as looking historically at a range of topics from the suffragettes to women in trade unions to the women’s movement of the 1960s.”

I suspect there is more to this notion of developing Cliff than German will say directly. Sarah Cox, an SWP member of 50 years’ standing, has written elsewhere that many of the leading women in the SWP were very critical of Cliff’s book. And few women played a more leading tole in the SWP than Lindsey German. But if German thought Cliff needed correcting, does her book make good the absences in his? It is true that her book is more contemporary than Cliff’s and less historical, more political and less of an narrative of inspiring episodes in past struggles. But in an 256 page book her analysis of rape, sexual harassment or domestic violence is limited to the following two paragraphs only:

Violence against women first became an issue inside the movement in 1974, when Women’s Aid came into being. By 1975 there were 90 women’s refuges across the country. These were mainly funded and run by volunteers. Women’s Aid served to highlight a major scandal: that many women lived in fear of physical beating from the men they lived with, and that the capitalist state itself colluded in this situation. The police would not normally interfere in domestic disputes, and local councils would not normally rehouse women made homeless through violence. The idea of the refuges was that women would at least have somewhere safe to go where they could be safe from battering. They quickly became accepted, even be some Tory councils”.

Similar arguments arose over issues such as rape and pornography. There were a number of controversial rape cases at the time, and in 1975, the first Rape Crisis Centre was set up. The following year saw the establishment of Women Against Rape. WAR was influenced by the same people who had set up the Wages for Housework campaign two years previously. Is therefore combined a strong radical feminism, a theory which located women’s oppression in the home with a level of activism which ensured that it gained some support.”  (1989 edition, at page 189, emphasis added).

In a 75,000 or so word book, that is by my reckoning just 32 words on rape and 20 on domestic violence, and they don’t tell you  very much. These passages could not plausibly represent a developed theory of rape or sexual violence. This is an important omission. German’s book was taken for years as the complete statement of the SWP’s position on women’s oppression, one of the best-sellers on party book stalls, routinely recommended as the definitive work. I recall German herself telling me that it had sold around 10,000 copies altogether; that is, about the same number as the maximum membership which the SWP claimed at its mid-1990s height. No doubt some readers will tell me that this gap in her argument was accidental. But, I would see it rather as part of a pattern of “unseeing” which had been equally evident in Cliff’s book and was typical of the post Women’s Voice SWP.

(For completeness’ sake, I should add that German has written several further books since Sex, Class and Socialism; Material girls has a richer discussion of sexual violence; and her most recent book How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women has a complex and original section on rape during warfare. As these were written in one case after German had left the SWP, and, in the other, after she had adopted a different role in the organisation, working primarily for Stop the War – I won’t do more here than urge people to read them. They are important and interesting books).

German’s list of IS writing about women in her recent Counterfire article is incomplete. She doesn’t mention anything published from the 10 years of Women’s Voice magazine (1972-1982), which sadly no-one has ever published online, and even its paper copies are now rare. On this website, over successive weeks, I’ll post a number of articles from Women’s Voice, which did take sexual violence seriously, and wrote about it repeatedly, always from a perspective of justice for women. Between about 1976 and 1982 in there were a cohort of women who tried to write systematically about women’s politics in general and male sexual violence in particular, and they did so in varied and imaginative ways. Unfortunately, of course their magazine was closed down, and the majority of them found themselves outside the organisation. Cliff’s book, as I’ve pointed out, was written in this context, to justify Women’s Voice’s closure, and it is the dual effect of his book and that decision which has left our theory struggling.

There are a few pieces from the Socialist Review of the 1980s which did look at inter-personal violence – a Lindi Gonzalez book review, and a piece by Julie Waterson (one of the relatively few remaining people in the SWP who had written for Women’s Voice) in Socialist Review in 1986 in which Waterson calls for socialists to be part of the movement dispelling rape myths. Rather than taking Cliff’s position – that a class analysis and the need for male-female unity overrides the need to talk about rape at all – Waterson argues there that it is possible to oppose rape and take a class position on it. It is a short article but reading it, it is hard not to feel regret that in the next 25 years we have never thought fit to publish anything this angry on this topic since.

Norah Carlin’s 1986 pamphlet Women and the Struggle for Socialism contains passing references to rape (“a kind of violence which men don’t face, perhaps the most humiliating of all”) and domestic violence (“25 per cent of all violent crime reported to the police”, the product of “the small family household … a boiling cauldron of intense emotions focussed on a few people”). Again, while these ideas are simply too brief to constitute a developed theory of sexual violence, there is at least an awareness of the issues, and more politics than in either Cliff or even German’s books.

Judith Orr published a piece in the ISJ in 2010 which mentions each of rape, harassment and violence against women, although each is problem name-checked at breakneck speed, and she says very little more than that rape is still happening.

Some friends who I’ve discussed this piece with have pointed out that beneath the level of high theory (i.e. books, articles in Socialist Review and International Socialism) it was possible to discuss domestic violence and rape, in Socialist Worker and at branch meetings. Here is Hazel Cox for example,: “I gave at least 20 branch meetings on violence against women and rape in the 1990s … I also remember around the Sara Thornton case (in 1996) giving branch meetings entitled ‘women, domestic violence and the law’.”

I too recall articles about Sara Thornton in Socialist Worker, although they stand out as relatively exceptional within my 20 years of reading the paper since I first joined the SWP in 1990. The few pieces which have been solely about domestic violence against women and have been more than simple news pieces have tended to have been written by non-members of the SWP – eg a good piece in 2005 by Ann Henderson of the Women’s National Commission in Scotland.

As for the branch meetings, my sense is that on the closure of Women’s Voice, there was for several years an attempt to integrate women’s politics within the SWP and prove the sceptics about the decision wrong, by taking the more overtly “political” topics the magazine had raised and adding them to the list of regular branch topics. With many of the most passionate Women’s Voice identifiers leaving after the decision to close the magazine, the number of people remaining in the party who saw the need to maintain this practice three or four years later must have been relatively few. In the eight or so SWP branches I was in during the 1990s, I only once heard a discussion of women and socialism which was less general than just the SWP’s perspectives for women’s work (it was a meeting by Jonathon Neale on the politics of abortion), and while I may have been unlucky in my choice of branches (including Sheffield, Nottingham, Oxford and Liverpool, i.e. away from London where the “national” speakers are congregated), the pattern has been repeated in the last 10 years, with women’s liberation meetings becoming successively more general.

Another friend, Josh Clarke, tells me that in Ireland the SWP which is in general no less “Cliffite” than the London-based party has campaigned regularly against the closure of women’s refuges. I can well believe it. Of course, there have been the long-running culture wars in Ireland around abortion, divorce, and the role of the Catholic church and the Irish SWP has been active around all these campaigns. It would be remarkable if that activity hadn’t caused people, to some extent, to move away from positions which in London are treated as immutable truths. It is the difference, if you like, between Eamon McCann and John Molyneux. Much the same could also be said about the Socialist Alternative group in Australia, and the International Socialist Organisation in the US: orthodox Cliffite or not, both have actively campaigned about women’s issues, and  as ever on the left, theory tails activity.

Returning to Britain, I have left to last the two major pieces in which the SWP has acknowledged (after a fashion) sexual violence, Sheila McGregor’s two pieces Marxism and women’s oppression today (2013) which has a single paragraph about rape, and an older, more analytical piece by her in the same journal, Rape pornography and capitalism (1989).

(McGregor has already been subject to one critique, by Ruth Lorimer and Shanice McBean; keen readers will see that the analysis which follows is derived, substantially, from points these comrades have made before me).

Rape, pornography and capitalism is summarised on the SWP’s “theory” website as “an intervention in debates about some of the aspects of women’s oppression from 1989”. The word “intervention” is accurate; the piece criticises various “radical feminists” (Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin) who, it complains, had a “single dimension” explanation of rape, reducing it to a recurring form of “male behaviour”. The article’s polemical purpose is well set out in the final sentence where McGregor concludes “Marxism is far superior to radical feminist theory as a guide to changing the world.”

In so far as she explains rape, McGregor writes that it is an act of late capitalist society. She illustrates this by leaping in a single bound from pre-class societies in which there were no structural divisions of labour between men and women (and therefore, she implies, there was no rape) to the early twentieth century while missing out everything that happened in between (i.e. the vast majority of human history).

The idea that there was no rape in pre-historic hunter-gatherer societies is at best a guess. It assumes, for no reason at all, that the most distant past shared the same sexual customs as post-1968 Europe and the US, when we know that people’s sex lives have changed dramatically even between the 1940s or the 1970s and today.  As Colin Wilson has pointed out, historic hunter-gatherer societies had limited technology, and their lives were often bleak. The equality they practised was rough, and consistent with the limited means people possessed. Societies within this group practiced (at different times and to different extents) torture, war, slavery and infanticide and it makes no sense to base a whole theory on the assumption that there could have been no rape.

The history “in between” is far from trivial. There very clearly was rape in pre-capitalist societies and under early capitalism: almost every society with a law code has had a prohibition on something like rape. (In another piece, I’ll set out what these prohibitions were, and some of the subtle ways in which they varied over time and between different modes of production).

A far more compelling argument would have been that capitalism understands rape in different ways from slave or feudal societies (for example by focussing on the consent of women themselves rather than husbands or fathers), i.e. it actually opens the way towards our present broadly-drawn criminalisation of any non-consensual sex as rape, an opening which required the agency of the women liberation movement for its completion. (Again, I’ll make this point in detail in that future piece)

McGregor portrays rape in 1980s Britain as the act of three types of men; primarily young men (ie those dating young women, before they have formed long-term relationships), but also some husbands, and strangers. McGregor cites different figures, but all of them suggest that the first of her three categories is the key one, and one estimate she cites approvingly suggests that dating teens account for 90% of all rapes. McGregor concludes that most rapes are significantly like most other youthful sex, “Given that premarital sex is fairly common and that young men are supposed to go out and get sex from young women, it is hardly surprising that there is some incidence of breakdown, i.e. rape.”

McGregor looked to blame rape (which was, in her words, a “minority occurrence”) on untypical men, the young, career criminals, or (in an echoing of Freudian categories) men incapable or sex, in order to buttress the argument that not all men rape. The problem is that when rape did become a universal criminal offence, i.e. one which even married men could commit, which was only in 1991, the whole meaning of the crime changed. The police stopped disregarding the  majority of rapes (i.e. rapes committed in long-term relationships) and for the first time treated even “typical men” as potential rapists.

While the studies used by McGregor suggested that only one in ten rapes took place in long-term relationships, the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the true figure is 56%. Her entire evidence base, in other words, was made up of a number of sources which all shared the same common mistake of ignoring the majority of all rapes.

Now statistics change, and of course people can get things wrong – it is no disgrace. The problem is that the exact terrain on which McGregor had chosen to rebut supposedly “separatist feminism” was the claim of writers such as Brownmiller that rape was a crime of ordinary men, and that if properly investigated there would be many more male protagonists than were then admitted by the police, the courts, and the state. In so far as she thought this, Brownmiller was right. McGregor made the criticism of this position central to her argument and she was wrong. Far from refuting radical feminism, she showed only the limitations of her politics.

In conclusion, the route joining Tony Cliff, Lindsey German and Sheila McGregor’s mistakes was not altogether straight. Cliff taught the members of the SWP to think that rape, sexual harassment and domestic violence were actually taboo: topics which socialists should preferably not raise at all for fear of giving succor to separatist feminism. German may well have improved other parts of Cliff’s analysis, but she left this silence about sexual violence substantially unchallenged.

McGregor wrote about rape, and was until recently the only member of the SWP since the demise of Women’s Voice to have done so at any length. Her failure, when seeming to move beyond Cliff’s prohibition, was that she did not go beyond its underlying assumptions. She continued to see rape as an issue which was the natural property of radical feminists. She used the same starting assumption, that if you admit that hundreds of thousand of men rape women every year you are somehow making solidarity between male and female workers harder to acheive. This false premises guided her choice of the ground on which to fight.

In choosing to fight Brownmiller where she was correct – at the point of her insight that rape was much more pervasive than anyone had then admitted – McGregor left socialists ill-equipped to deal with an actual rape inside or outside our ranks. We were made to seem like people who minimised its extent and had no solidarity to offer to its victims.

She inadvertantly gave ammunition to all those members of the SWP who have been so quick in the last year to insist that women exaggerate the incidence of rape or that women who complain of rape should not be believed any more than the police spies who harassed “Parnell, Lenin, Joe Hill, Scargill” (and, by implication, the SWP’s recent National Secretary).

The key weakness – an unwillingness to give solidarity to the victims of sexual violence – continues to haunt the SWP.

Women’s Liberation: what Cliff got right and where he went wrong



Two articles in July’s Socialist Worker (US), one by Sharon Smith and one by Abbie Bakan, ask whether it is helpful for socialists to adopt a position towards women’s oppression which Bakan characterises as “Marxist Anti-Feminism” (MAF)? The question is hardly neutral; Smith is a leading member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) in the US, and one of its leading authorities on what used to be called “the women’s question”. Bakan has in the past played the same role within the International Socialists in Canada, which (although she has now left it) is within the SWP’s International Socialist Tendency (IST).

Behind both articles lies the shadow of the rape and sexual harassment complaints against a member of the Central Committee of the SWP which have been hanging over the SWP since summer 2010.

Bakan and Smith could be read as suggesting, by implication, that a root of our present difficulties can be traced back to the theoretical positions taken by the SWP’s founder Tony Cliff, who maintained that Marxism and Feminism were incompatible. The grotesque mishanding of the complaints, it follows, occurred at least in part because the SWP had long trained its members into a deep-rooted and sustained blindness to all aspects of feminism and women’s oppression.

The first thing to note in response is that the argument mixes together different kinds of evidence, and that at times this method makes their case unpersuasive. For example, Bakan alludes to Cliff’s autobiography on gender politics, cites a talk Cliff gave after his interest in women’s liberation had lapsed, and quotes a sexist joke which his biographer Ian Birchall recalls Cliff telling about political expectations, “I’d like to sleep with Gina Lolabrigida, but I have to put up with what I’ve got.”

It was indeed a sexist joke, but Cliff made a number of jokes in his life, and this was not the only one to have backfired. One particularly destructive example was his joke, in the middle of the Anti-Nazi League campaign of the 1970s, that “If i saw a bunch of skinheads beating up a rabbi, I’d beat up the skinheads, then I’d beat up the rabbi”. This remark was used against the ANL as a sign of the left’s incipient anti-Semitism, and quoted by the League’s critics on the left at countless meetings. But anyone who ever heard Cliff speak and was capable of recognising his actual strengths as well as his real flaws would have recognised immediately both how Jewish he was, and how comfortable he was with this part of his personality. Far from desiring to beat up rabbis, a young Cliff would have lost a thumb-wrestling contest to Woody Allen. The joke was ill-judged, and destructive. It was not the essence of Cliff.

Bakan cites against Cliff the passages of his autobiography, but, as she admits, these weren’t written by Cliff himself but by Lindsey German. In doing so, I think she misses a more obvious thought. Tony Cliff clearly saw women’s liberation as something that was important to Marxism (he did, after all, dedicate a chapter of his memoirs to it). Yet, having decided that it mattered, he also decided that someone else was needed to write the chapter, not him. Why not? Cliff was never someone to admit his weaknesses readily, nor did he ever happily allow others to carry out intellectual work for him, and I don’t think he would have asked German to write the chapter if he had felt able to do it himself.

What I take from the poverty of the examples that Bakan quotes against Cliff is a different, and potentially more troubling thought, that except for his 1984 book, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation 1640 to the present day, Cliff said or did very little about either feminism or women’s liberation, and what he said was (especially when compared to his ideas about unions or socialism) shallow and unimpressive. Despite recognising the need to integrate women’s liberty into any satisfactory theory of socialism, for most of his life he did little to assist that project. Despite giving 65 years of his life to the struggle against capitalism, with one exception, he thought little about equal pay, domestic violence, homework or childcare. For the most of the time he acted as if he thought socialism needed no sexual dimension.

Now of course Tony Cliff did write an entire book on women, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation 1640 to the present day, and this is the place where Cliff made good that otherwise omission.

Published by Bookmarks two years after the SWP had closed down our women’s magazine Women’s Voice (1974-1982), the first two-thirds of the book collected some impressive moments in history when socialist or working-class women have raised demands which were recognisably those of or for working-class women, or played a part in great historical movements of the left which are often and lazily assumed to have been primarily “men’s campaigns” (the Levellers, the Diggers, the French and Russian Revolutions). The second two-thirds is a contemporary, sociological analysis of the problems of working-class women in the family and the workplace.

Bakan quotes from the introduction to Class Struggle: “Feminism sees the basic division in the world as that between men and women … For Marxism, however, the fundamental antagonism in society is that between classes, not sexes … There can be no compromise between these two views, even though some ‘socialist-feminists’ have in recent years tried to bridge the gap.”

If Cliff had argued, consistently, that no compromise was possible between those who believed in socialism and those who opposed the oppression of women, then his book would indeed deserve criticism. But it is not unusual for an author to include in their book a polemical statement of aims which its contents do not deliver. A good example is Susan Browmiller’s anti-rape classic Against Our Will (1974) which has a similarly polemical opening, analysing rape as a crime of “all men”: “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” Various IST writers have quoted this opening ever since as proof of Brownmiller’s exaggerated militancy and her misplaced distrust of working-class men. But read as a whole, Brownmiller’s message is more nuanced, and at the end of her book she calls for a collective anti-rape consciousness among both women and men – something that would be impossible if she really did think that all men were rapists. There is something similar about Cliff’s book which far from proving the incompatibility of Marxism and feminism, barely considers either as theories at all.

Another difficulty with Cliff’s history is that there was already a book in print and well known to older members of the SWP which followed the same historical method as his book did, even looking at many of the same examples of women’s struggle. This was Sheila Rowbotham’s Hidden from History, published by the SWP’s then in-house publishers Pluto just eleven years previously. Cliff “corrects” Rowbotham much as his biography of Trotsky “corrected” Isaac Deutscher’s earlier, greater biography of the Russian Marxist: i.e. it disregards the literary and the character-establishing digression in favour of a narrower, more concentrated focus on the political.

So, for example, while Rowbotham only spoke very generally about Puritan attitudes to women and sexuality, Cliff’s more political account finds women who took part in the Leveller and Digger campaigns. While Rowbotham takes a passing interest in family structure and the historical apparatus of inequality, as well as the arguments of anti-feminists, Cliff primarily raids socialist literature for  inspiring examples of women organising alongside men.

The focus of the final third of Class Struggle is on the potential for women to take part in workers’ struggles alongside working-class men. In a key passage, Cliff writes,

“Many women in the women’s liberation movement have consistently focussed on the areas where men and women are at odds – rape, battered women, wages for housework – while ignoring or playing down the areas of struggle where women are more likely to win the support of men – such as opposition to the cuts in hospitals and schools, the right to abortion, and battles at work for equal pay or the right to join a trade union.”

The word “rape” appears in the book five times, but not once does Cliff ask how rape is possible, or what could be done to end it. Sexual harassment at work, which had been part of the vocabulary of the women’s movement in the Britain and US for a decade by the time Class Struggle was published, Cliff does not even mention once.

Cliff criticised supporters of women’s liberation for focusing on these three areas – in contemporary language, rape, domestic violence and childcare – accepting that they pitted men against women. One purpose of his book (albeit only one, among several) was to invite socialists not to dwell on these matters, but focus our limited campaigning energies on the more uplifting topics of union rights and anti-cuts campaigns.

The section I have just italicised is worth thinking about carefully. In general, there is nothing unusual about people trying to take certain questions “off limits”. Anyone who has debated with an opponent of reproductive rights will know that the discussion takes place in just this way, on both sides. The “pro-life” activist asks repeatedly, “when does a foetus’ life begin?” The pro-choice activist responds, “I’m not interested in that, what about the mother’s rights?” Both tries to take the discussion to where they feel their arguments are strongest. During the Iraq war, anti-war activists would confront our opponents by asking them rhetorically, “So where are the WMDs then?” I doubt we will be doing that over Syria.

The usual justification for Cliff’s position is that within the women’s liberation movement of the mid-1980s there were voices which emphasised the division between men and women, which exaggerated the similarity of women’s experiences at the expense of class, and which were prescriptive about who people could have sex with and how they could have sex with them. And the closer you were in the movement to the people who were most passionate about these ideas, the more damage they could have done.

Cliff’s book appeared in print just two years after the SWP had closed down its women’s magazine Women’s Voice. These days, most people outside the party see that as just another one of the bureaucratic exercises by which the SWP’s leadership has routinely purged the party of potential critics. But it is also arguable that Cliff genuinely believed that the combination of closing down the magazine and the publication of his book, would prevent some women members of the SWP from being pulled towards ideas which would actually make solidarity between the genders harder to acheive.

(Whether the official SWP narrative that Women’s Voice was a bridge out of Marxist politics is true is a larger topic than I can address in this post – suffice to say here that I’ll be coming back to it, in several articles, over my next few postings).

Whenever you try to make a subject off-limits, there is always a risk. And here, there were at least three. First, Cliff seemed to be saying that in the areas of rape, domestic violence and childcare, women and men were “at odds”, had different interests and different priorities. Given that the unequal, gendered allocation of childcare in the privatised capitalist family was right at the heart of what Cliff took to the the Marxist explanation of women’s oppression, it is a strange admission. Without an analysis of the changing nature of the family, there is no recognisably Marxist explanation of women’s oppression. The topic of childcare is simply too important to the socialist argument about women’s liberation to be left indefinitely unexplored. (And in fairness to the people who have written and done IS’s women’s politics since Cliff, I don’t think that they have followed him in treating this subject as off-limits).

Second, it is not obviously right that all of these areas do in fact “just” pit men against women. Most sexual harassment in the workplace, for example, is between a more senior man and a more junior woman. (Of course, some also takes places between people in equal roles; but almost never do you find a more junior person sexually harassing their manager). In a sense, it is a male-female struggle. But for most people, including most working-class men, it is more obviously a problem which pits workers against managers. Workers more often identify with the co-worker than they do with the harassing manager. In other words, Cliff’s voluntary disinterest to subjects such as sexual harassment closed off the possibility of arguments which would actually support the message of class struggle which he was trying to win in his book.

Third, if you say to your fellow socialists (as Cliff was doing) that rape and domestic violence are politically off-limits, then it follows that you should not write about them or take part in campaigns about them, as this will distract you from more important tasks and involve you in politics which actively divides men and women workers. You will be contributing to the antagonism between Marxists and feminists, and (worst of all) you will be supporting the latter at the expense of the former. But every women who has been raped, every women sexually harassed or beaten by her husband or her partner, has suffered a grotesque failure of human solidarity. Her mistreatment has made the possibility of universal liberation more remote. To say “I am a Marxist; I shall not campaign  about rape” is to diminish the moral status of your Marxism and to reinforce the suffering of the oppressed.

As the book reaches the contemporary world, there are some direct polemical exchanges between “Marxism” (disembodied in the form of an idea, and perfect) and “feminists” (grounded in real people’s lives and writing and therefore prone to error). The social basis of the latter, Cliff maintains is the “new middle class”, “graduates of … universities and polytechnics … In Marxist terms they belong to the petty bourgeoisie, located between the basic classes of capitalist society, the bourgeoisie or ruling class, and the proletariat”. (In fairness to Cliff, there are also passages in which he suggests that university educated women – school teachers, for example, were a part of the working class, albeit very close to the middle class).

Cliff would have grasped more keenly than anyone the difference between strands kinds of Marxism. But his analysis of feminism lumps together all sorts of different strands of thought. Here Sharon Smith’s criticisms hits the mark: “Over the last few decades in the IST, feminism became a straw figure–even a caricature of a straw figure, made up of the unlikely mish-mash of separatists who simply hate all men and bourgeois feminists who selfishly care only about gaining access to corporate boardrooms – against whom we Marxists steadfastly defended the “interests” of working-class women and men.”

An enormous amount is made to rest in Cliff’s account on the figure of the “working-class woman, financially dependent on husband, carrying the double burden of housework and holding down a boring, low-paid job”. These women are portrayed as the carriers of a particular virtue, to which male workers can approach but from which middle class women are excluded.

I don’t believe we should treat this figure as mythical – which I suppose would be one reading of Smith and Bakan’s criticism – that Cliff’s “anti-feminist Marxism” invokes working-class women against middle-class women, but this is an artificial, pure rhetorical strategy on its part, for such gender-blind socialism will not even focus on working class women.

Anyone who had seen the SWP of the 1980s – in which a number of working-class women were pushed into leadership roles – would know that the party Cliff built was better than this criticism.

Cliff insists that middle-class women benefit from the oppression of working class women (who work for them as nannies, etc); and uses the higher proportion of women from grammar rather than comprehensive schools attending universities (16.9% and 2.9% in 1975-6) as proof that “bourgeois women have far more in common with their own class than with women of the working class.”

Cliff nowhere says directly that middle- or ruling-class women are entirely liberated from gender oppression, but his analysis of women’s oppression implies that its objective pain is lessened for people with property. The problem, as Cliff would have admitted in other contexts, is that oppression is a relationship, and therefore its pain always relative. Workers in Britain did not cease to be oppressed between 1850 and 1950, although the workers of the twentieth century had higher incomes than their predecessors.

Marx himself may have begun by thinking that the working-class were revolutionary because they were the most dispossessed group in society; by the time of the Communist Manifesto he had grasped that it was not their relative oppression that made one class or another more worth caring about but their capacity to change the world (and to change themselves in so doing).

Nowhere in Cliff’s book would you see an answer to a point which is made in Sharon Smith’s article that “There is … an important distinction … between ruling-class and middle-class women. By and large, ruling-class women support the capitalist system with all its injustices, whereas middle-class women, like all members of the middle class, tend to get pulled in different directions – some gravitating toward the bourgeoisie and others toward the working class.”

There is a problem with the book which, like so much other SWP writing, skips as if without noticing between two conceptions of class, one, ostensibly derived from Marx’s relations of production, in which almost everyone who works and everyone in their families is working class (the 99% model), and a different use, in which class excludes anyone who is a political opponent, who is then dismissed in “common sense” class categories with education often used as a proxy for class.

If a leading socialist today was to insist that only sceptical co-operation was allowed with university-educated people, as Cliff’s dismissal of 1980s feminism does, they would find themselves without allies. Should they look too closely at their own party, they might find themselves having to ditch most of its members too.

Here I think Smith and Bakan are right to fault Cliff for his “sectarianism” – he sociologises feminism and he makes himself blind to its nuances and different trajectories.

When my comrades in the SWP today try to “apply Cliff” today, they tend to do it by assuming that every feminist they would meet combines the very worst bits of Catharine Mackinnon, Andrea Dworkin or Sheila Jeffreys (and not the better sides of either, still less the politics of a Lynne Segal, a Laurie Penny or a Nina Power), in other words that – just as Cliff wrote – there can be no compromise between feminism and Marxism. They blank out the possibility that when feminists look back at us, they see the opportunism of Respect, the self-boosterism of John Rees, the basic lack of human empathy that has informed our old, morally-corrupted leadership throughout the Delta scandal… And they miss the way in which among contemporary feminists, the mainstream opinion is an activist common sense, closer in mood and intent to the feminism (and the Marxism) of the 1960s than it is to the feminism of the early 1980s. Sort ourselves out first, and there could be sensible alliances we could make.

I do think however that there is another, connected, fault, which Smith and Bakan do not adequately explore. Throughout his book Cliff is constantly alive to the occasions when working-class women suffer oppression as workers, he says little of help about the oppression they suffer as women – i.e. the issues of rape, domestic violence and housework (childcare) – which he had voluntarily left to “the feminists” leaving them permanently outside the possibility of creative Marxist analysis.

Prior to Cliff’s book, there had been writers in the SWP and IS  who did grasp that love, relationships, and the imbalances in relationships were all things which were of real importance to millions. Dave Widgery was one, Sheila Rowbotham another. But since Cliff’s book (and since the closure of Women’s Voice which preceded it), the SWP has written much less than we used to about these “female” concerns and campaigned relatively little about them. How many SWP members do you know who have organised a coach to an anti-racist demonstration; and how many do you know who have volunteered for a rape line or at a women’s refuge?

This blindness is the lasting gap in Cliff’s book, the part which cannot be rescued. It is not that Cliff’s focus on working class women was misplaced. Contrary to Bakan and Smith, the problem is not that he was blind to women’s oppression, although his writing does show a steady drift from gender oppression to class.  If people want to understand why it is that the book has never had the independent following that, for example, State Capitalism had, the error is not his focus on working-class women as the revolutionary subject of a Marxism conscious of oppression (“women’s liberation”), but his failure to say anything meaningful about the gender half of the dual oppression that working-class women face.

The result of Cliff’s approach to women’s liberation is that an SWP which has at times cared a great deal about the politics of different industrial or international struggles has not thought deeply enough about matters as important as domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment. For thirty years, and save for very brief exceptions (eg at the time of the Sara Thornon campaign in 1996) we have barely written or campaigned about these subjects; and we have not had anything distinctive to say about them. In general, we have failed to acknowledge the possibility of male sexual violence, and this weakness has not been purely theoretical – breathless activists in so many other respects, we have done very little in campaigns which revolved around sex. Treating divisions as if they were fixed and immutable, we have failed to acknowledge the possibility of equality in all of our lives.

When we most needed to have a literature of our own – during our recent crisis – we found that IST authors had written almost nothing on sexual harassment or rape, and the little we had written was derivative or seriously out of date. This gap has only been a small part of our recent difficulties, but it has been some of it.

Tony Cliff on Party Democracy


Prompted by Brian Roper, I repost below Tony Cliff’s considered thoughts on Party and Democracy; a concise section which itself summarises the first volume of his biography of Lenin. There are some among my comrades who would take the last two sentences and skip over everything else which Cliff says. But I prefer to read this passage as a totality, including his emphases on self-criticism within an organisation, on the correction of mistakes, on open debate without resource to administrative (i.e. bureaucratic) measures to silence party critics, and above all on taking party debates to the widest circles of people, far beyond the boundaries of the party itself. For Cliff, moreover, there was no limit on the times when open debate were necessary. Whether conditions were good and the party was in open warfare with the state (“a period of direct revolutionary struggle”) or whether conditions were hostile and ideas were moving rapidly to the right, for a party to survive, its discussions must be open.

The Party as a School of Strategy and Tactics

Questions of revolutionary strategy and tactics held a meaning for Lenin only if the possibility of implementing them, through the revolutionary party, was a real one. He saw the party as a school for strategy and tactics, a combat organisation for the conquest of power by the working class.

How can the revolutionary leadership learn from the masses and know what they think and feel, unless it forms an integral part of these masses, listening to them at their workplaces, in the streets, in their homes, in their eating places? To teach the masses, the leadership must learn from them. This Lenin believed and practised all his life.

The party must not lag behind the advanced section of the class. But it must not be so far ahead as to be out of reach. It must stand at its head and be rooted in it:

To be successful, all serious revolutionary work requires that the idea that revolutionaries are capable of playing the part only of the vanguard of the truly virile and advanced class must be understood and translated into action. A vanguard performs its task as vanguard only when it is able to avoid being isolated from the mass of the people it leads and is able really to lead the whole mass forward. [32]

The need for a revolutionary party, as we have already pointed out, is a reflection of the unevenness of consciousness in the working class. At the same time, however, the party exists in order to hasten the overcoming of this unevenness, by raising consciousness to the highest possible level. Adaptation to the average, or even to the lowest level of consciousness of the class is in the nature of opportunism. Organisational independence and isolation from the most advanced section of the proletariat, on the other hand, is the road to sectarianism. Raising the advanced section to the highest possible level under the prevailing circumstances – this is the role of the really revolutionary party.

To learn from the masses, the party must also be able to learn from its own mistakes, to be very self-critical.

A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfils in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification – that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class, and then the masses. [33]

The fighting party of the advanced class need not fear mistakes. What it should fear is persistence in a mistake, refusal to admit and correct a mistake out of a false sense of shame. [34]

The masses must be involved in correcting party mistakes. Thus on 21 January 1905, Lenin wrote:

We Social Democrats resort to secrecy from the Tsar and his bloodhounds while taking pains that the people should know everything about our party, about the shades of opinion within it, about the development of its program and policy, that they should even know what this or that Party Congress delegate said at the Congress in question. [35]

Open debate is even more vital and essential during a period of direct revolutionary struggle, as Lenin wrote in a leaflet on 25-26 April 1906.

In a revolutionary epoch like the present, all theoretical errors and tactical deviations of the party are most ruthlessly criticised by experience itself, which enlightens and educates the working class with unprecedented rapidity. At such a time, the duty of every Social Democrat is to strive to ensure that the ideological struggle within the party on questions of theory and tactics is conducted as openly, widely and freely as possible, but that on no account does it disturb or hamper the unity of revolutionary action of the Social Democratic proletariat. [36]

He urged repeatedly that debate should not be limited to inner party circles, but should be carried on publicly so that non-party people could follow it.

Our party’s serious illness is the growing pains of a mass party. For there can be no mass party, no party of a class, without full clarity of essential shadings, without open struggle between various tendencies, without informing the masses as to which leaders and which organisations of the party are pursuing this or that line. Without this, a party worthy of the name cannot be built. [37]


Criticism within the limits of the principles of the party programme must be quite free (we remind the reader of what Plekhanov said on this subject at the second Congress of the RSDLP) not only at party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism or such “agitation” (for criticism is inseparable from agitation) cannot be prohibited. [38]

There is a dialectical relationship between democracy within the party and the party’s roots in the class. Without a correct class policy and a party composed of proletarians, there is no possibility of healthy party democracy. Without a firm working-class base, all talk of democracy and discipline in the party is meaningless verbiage. At the same time, without party democracy, without constant self-criticism, development of a correct class policy is impossible.

We have more than once already enunciated our theoretical views on the importance of discipline and on how this concept is to be understood in the party of the working class. We defined it as: unity of action, freedom of discussion and criticism. Only such discipline is worthy of the democratic party of the advanced class. [39]

… the proletariat does not recognise unity of action without freedom to discuss and criticise.” [40]

If democracy is essential in order to assimilate the experience of the struggle, centralism and discipline are necessary to lead the struggle. Firm organisational cohesion makes it possible for the party to act, to take initiatives, to direct the action of the masses. A party that is not confident in itself cannot win the confidence of the masses. Without a strong party leadership, having the power to act promptly and direct the activities of the members, a revolutionary party cannot exist. The party is a centralist organisation that leads a determined struggle for power. As such it needs iron discipline in action.

Cliff article here: http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1975/lenin1/chap14.htm#s5

first published by me here: https://www.facebook.com/davidkrenton/posts/10151388371236269