Cliff & “The Crisis of Leadership”
Many thanks to John Rudge for unearthing this previously unpublished document.
In this short piece of research, I present a previously unpublished document written by Tony Cliff titled “The Crisis of Society is the Crisis of the Leadership”.
Background: Orthodox Trotskyism Fails the Test
When the Socialist Review Group (SRG) was founded in 1950 it might be said that its origins had both proactive and reactive elements.
Its proactive elements were the three-key founding political texts of the SRG written by Tony Cliff between 1948 and 1950 to give a theoretical groundwork to the new post-war political situation. These were The Nature of Stalinist Russia written in 1948, Marxism and the Theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism written in 1949 and On the Class Nature of the People’s Democracies written in 1950.
The foundation of the SRG was, however, also a reaction against the failure of orthodox Trotskyism to come to terms with the fact that the predictions that Trotsky made in the last years of his life had not come true.
I am paraphrasing John Molyneux’s description of Trotsky’s series of predictions here:
“Firstly, he believed that capitalism had entered its final crisis.
Secondly, he saw the approaching world war as unleashing, like its predecessor only more so, an enormous revolutionary wave.
Thirdly, he believed the Stalinist regime in Russia to be highly unstable…and unable to withstand the shock of war.
Fourthly, in line with Lenin’s Imperialism and his own theory of permanent revolution, he thought that the colonies would be unable to gain independence without a head-on conflict with imperialism, and, since the national bourgeoisies would shrink from this conflict, the rising national liberation movements would have to take the road of socialist revolution…
For each of the predictions that made up this perspective there was much evidence, but the fact remains that every one of them was falsified by history.” (Molyneux, 1986).
In an important discussion titled The Theoretical Basis of the Fourth International Molyneux outlines how these predictions were links in the chain, the objective factors that helped make sense of Trotsky’s 1938 founding of the Fourth International. And why did Trotsky found the “Fourth” in 1938 when the forces at its disposal worldwide only numbered in the very-low thousands? Molyneux says:
“the answer lies in Trotsky’s theory of the “crisis of leadership” of the proletariat. It was Trotsky’s conviction that both capitalism and Stalinism had reached an impossible impasse. The successful resolution of this crisis for all humanity depended entirely on the emergence of a new revolutionary leadership. In the inevitably approaching revolutionary situations the crucial factor would be the quality of the revolutionary leadership, and equally in such situations it would be possible for initially tiny organisations to rapidly gain a mass following and exercise a decisive influence on events.” (Molyneux, 1986).
If the objective factors for revolution did not exist in 1938 they would soon!
Lest anyone doubt the extent to which Trotsky’s theory of the “crisis of leadership” inculcated the Fourth International from the start, one need only look at its 1938 founding document The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, which included the famous Transitional Programme. Its very first sentence reads:
“The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.”
Its very first section ends with:
“The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.”
Its second section ends thus:
“As time goes on, their desperate efforts to hold back the wheel of history will demonstrate more clearly to the masses that the crisis of the proletarian leadership, having become the crisis of mankind’s culture, can be resolved only by the Fourth International.”
And the same story goes on and on throughout.
Post-War orthodox Trotskyism refused to see that once Trotsky’s predictions had failed to materialise, once the objective conditions for revolutionary advance were in abeyance, so to was the grandiose idea that a few dozen Trotskyists could become the revolutionary leadership of the class. Tony Cliff, to his credit, saw this much earlier than others and had the courage to organise in the real world. Most, and Gerry Healy and his tradition particularly comes to mind, harboured outdated perspectives for years to come.
Cliff, whilst being open about his own past views, put it rather pithily in a seldom quoted 1962 footnote:
“From his view that any serious reforms in the framework of capitalism could not be achieved, Trotsky concluded that any struggle for reforms had an immediate revolutionary potential. This was the essence of his Transitional Programme. That future reforms snatched by the workers would help stabilise capitalism was the last thing he would have said. Of course, Trotsky’s views on this point – at the time, they were shared by the present writer – were rational for the 1930s. However, they sound ridiculous when repeated parrot-wise in the 1950s and 1960s by those who publish his Death Agony of Capitalism without comment or criticism. Parrots have never made a revolution.” (Cliff, 1962).
Cliff may have started organising separately to those in the Trotskyist movement who clung to the orthodox “crisis of leadership” theory from as early as 1950, but when he first very specifically wrote about the theory is less clear. In 1960 he wrote his article Trotsky on Substitutionism which touched on important aspects of the subject, but the article we have under consideration here is more of a mystery.
Ian Birchall discovered The Crisis of Society is the Crisis of the Leadership when sorting through Cliff’s papers after his death in 2000. It is a 4-page typed manuscript. Ian recognised that the document was important and on pages 198-199 of his biography of Tony Cliff he quoted two key paragraphs from it in support of the argument that:
“Cliff distrusted voluntarism because he thought it led to substitutionist and elitist politics.” (Birchall, 2011).
Birchall’s two-paragraph quote from this document clearly made a positive impression on Christian Hogsbjerg. When Christian reviewed Cliff’s biography he had a 664-page book to consider and yet, one of the key things he chose to pick up on, was Ian’s excerpt from this document. Starting with quoting the final paragraph of the document Christian summarised its meaning and how it related to Cliff’s politics as follows:
“The absurdities associated with this “orthodox Trotskyist” conception of the “Leninist Party” were perhaps most clearly self-evident in post-war Britain in the approach of the Socialist Labour League (later the Workers Revolutionary Party). When its leader Gerry Healy once boasted to Cliff that the SLL with its “few dozen” members now had the cadres for the revolution, Cliff responded that “you haven’t the cadres for a sanitary inspection of Tottenham”. Yet if there was then clearly a problem with “reifying” the question of “the Leninist Party”, there were also difficulties with going to the other extreme of simply “reifying” and glorying in the spontaneous struggles of the working class themselves. Cliff’s contribution—later developed in full-scale biographical studies of Lenin and Trotsky—was in not drawing a dichotomy between spontaneity on the one hand and leadership on the other, but to always stress the dialectical, living relationship between the revolutionary party and the wider working-class movement. As Cliff wrote in 1960, in an article on “Trotsky on Substitutionism”, real revolutionary leadership was about “companionship in struggle” and so “analogous to that between a strike committee and the workers on strike…the revolutionary party must conduct a dialogue with the workers outside it. The party, in consequence, should not invent tactics out of thin air, but put as its first duty to learn from the experience of the mass movement and then generalise from it.”(Hogsbjerg, 2011).
It is difficult to know precisely why and when Cliff wrote the document we have here. It is undated, but Ian Birchall speculated that it was probably written in the “late 1950’s or early 1960’s”. I can certainly say that it is typed on a manual typewriter – but I can perhaps go a little further than that in suggesting a date.
1959 – Rosa Luxemburg
Cliff has often been accused of plagiarism and several examples are mentioned in Ian Birchall’s biography. In fact, the author that Tony Cliff most plagiarised was – Tony Cliff! The more one reads of his work, the more one realises how often he lifted parts of his older texts and re-used them in later pieces without citation. This means that a good place to start in dating Cliff’s work is to ascertain whether parts of it have been used by him elsewhere. In the case of The Crisis of Society is the Crisis of the Leadership we come up trumps.
I can advise that a significant portion of the first half of this present document is the same wording as in Cliff’s 1959 publication Rosa Luxemburg. The section of the Rosa Luxemburg book in question is titled Criticism of Rosa Luxemburg’s Views on the Relations Between Class and Party on pages 43-45. For ease of reference I have italicised the Rosa Luxemburg section of this document text in my transcription.
Before he comes to the italicised document text included here Cliff writes in the Rosa Luxemburg book as follows:
“The main reason for Rosa Luxemburg’s overestimation of the factor of spontaneity and underestimation of the factor of organisation probably lies in the need, in the immediate struggle against reformism, for emphasis on spontaneity as the first step in all revolutions. From this one stage in the struggle of the proletariat she generalises too widely to embrace the struggle as a whole.” (Bold type in the original).
At the end of the italicised document text included here, the Rosa Luxemburg book says:
“While accepting that perhaps Rosa Luxemburg underestimated the importance of such a party, one should not say too little of the really great historical merit of Rosa Luxemburg, in the face of prevailing reformism to emphasise the most important power that could break the conservative crust – that of workers’ spontaneity. Her enduring strength lay in her complete confidence in the workers’ historical initiative.
While pointing out some of the deficiencies in Rosa Luxemburg’s position regarding the link between spontaneity and leadership in the revolution, one should be wary of concluding that her critics in the revolutionary movement, above all, Lenin, were at every point nearer a correct, balanced, Marxist analysis than she was.” (Cliff, 1959).
For what it is worth, the quote that Cliff uses from Marx’s letter to Kugelmann in this document is a quote he also used in his 1949 document Marxism and the Theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism where he also wrote about the role of “accidents” in history.
Again, on the role of “accidents”. In this document, whenever it was written, he argues that if, by accident, Lenin had been prevented from returning to Russia in March 1917, there would not have been a victorious October revolution. In what was one of Cliff’s very last articles he made precisely the same point:
“Rereading this article, I became aware that it is possible the reader might take Marxism to be a dogmatic collection of iron laws of history. As a matter of fact Marx always knew that accidents play a significant role in history. Had Lenin died just before returning to Russia in 1917 the impact on the Bolshevik Party would have been massive and hence on the history of the revolution.” (Cliff, 2000).
Of course, the question is begged – what came first – the chicken or the egg? Was The Crisis of Society is the Crisis of the Leadership document written first and part of it lifted for use in the Rosa Luxemburg book or vice versa?
Rosa Luxemburg was published as a combined issue number 2 and 3 of International Socialism in May 1959. As Cliff’s Foreword to it is dated 15th January 1959 we can assume that it was mostly written in 1958 (or earlier). We have already referred to the fact that Cliff was studying Trotsky in the context of voluntarism, substitutionism and party organisation in 1960 for his article Trotsky on Substitutionism. So, whether it was chicken or egg, I feel that The Crisis of Society is the Crisis of the Leadership document most likely dates from the 1958-1960 period.
1968 – France: The Struggle Goes On
I rate The Crisis of Society is the Crisis of the Leadership quite highly, and so I think Cliff must have done. It is one of the few items that he retained in his files from a 60-year publishing “career” – note the small size of his personal archive at Warwick Modern Records Centre. In any event, he was certainly not yet finished with using the section of the text from Rosa Luxemburg. He used the exact same piece in 1968, in the pamphlet co-written with Ian Birchall titled, France: The Struggle Goes On. Here it was used in the closing chapter of the pamphlet, The Way Ahead, in a section headed The Limitations of Spontaneity – the Need for a Revolutionary Party.
On this occasion, before he comes to the italicised document text included here Cliff (1) writes in the France: The Struggle Goes On pamphlet as follows:
“The May-June events raised the two issues of the limitation of the effectiveness of spontaneity and the need for a revolutionary party in the sharpest and most urgent way.”
At the end of the italicised document text included here, the France: The Struggle Goes On pamphlet says:
“Spontaneity is inevitably irregular and uneven, and while all revolutions in history have begun spontaneously, none have ended so. The May days in Paris showed clearly that, while a few hundred students or workers can build a barricade, to overthrow the capitalist regime and seize state power a much larger centralised organisation is necessary.” (Cliff & Birchall, 1968) (1).
It is particularly interesting that Cliff used this extended piece of text both in 1959’s Rosa Luxemburg and 1968’s France: The Struggle Goes On. Some critics of Cliff, and Sean Matgamna is a prime example in this context, have written ad nauseam about Cliff’s turn from being a “Luxemburgist” (if such a thing exists) to a “Leninist” in 1968.
The 1968 pamphlet was undeniably an opening shot by Cliff in transforming IS from a loose propaganda group to a revolutionary party organised on democratic centralist lines (see Rudge, In Press). As Cliff wrote (1) as he was summing up the lessons of the May days in Paris:
“Facing the strictly centralised and disciplined power of the capitalists there must be no less centralised and disciplined a combat organisation of the proletariat. Both centralism and democracy are essential.” (Cliff and Birchall, 1968) (1).
It can, however, be safely argued that whilst there was indeed a significant change in Cliff’s views (why would there not be given the events of 1968?), there was also much continuity.
We can never now know for certain whether The Crisis of Society is the Crisis of the Leadership was written in the 1958-1960 period as I suggest. It does, however, fit neatly with Ian’s suspicion of “late 1950’s or early 1960’s”.
Even without having discovered the Rosa Luxemburg link I had favoured the earlier part of Ian’s date range rather than the latter. To my mind it is quite unlikely that Cliff would be quoting directly from the Workers’ International League (WIL) of the early 1940’s any time much later than the mid-to-late1950’s. Most of the activists from that earlier period of British Trotskyism had long since departed the scene by then and the WIL meant little to the newer SRG intake. If the document was from the 1960’s I feel that Cliff would have picked on an example of “absurdity” from, for example, the Healy camp.
That is the particular reason why I would discount the document as being from as late as 1968 and the period of the events in France. At that time Healy’s Socialist Labour League (SLL) was a particularly peculiar beast that even refused to take part in the huge anti-Vietnam demonstration of October 27th, 1968. As their famous “Why The Socialist Labour League Are Not Marching”, leaflet put it:
“The Socialist Labour League refuses…….to participate in the demonstration. Our task is to direct all young workers and students towards serious consideration for the theory and role of Trotskyism and the Fourth International towards the building of the revolutionary party……”. (Quoted in Widgery, 1976).
Why would Cliff pick on the WIL from 1942 when he had this sort of gem from the SLL available in the 1960’s? (2).
To my mind, however, whilst the date is important, it is not the most critical aspect. The key thing is always the political and this is certainly an important political document. Cliff, in four short pages provides, in a very readable format, some valid insights and significant political lessons on spontaneity, organisation, voluntarism, substitutionism, consciousness and leadership. I am delighted to reproduce it here as Appendix 1.
Whilst the pamphlet was “jointly authored” Ian Birchall (2011) tells us who wrote each section of the work. Cliff wrote each of the pieces quoted here.
- There is no need for me to continue highlighting Cliff’s propensity to plagiarise himself other than to say he also used the same Rosa Luxemburg section of text in his 1975 book The Crisis: Social Contract or Socialism. It was used (with the slightest change of wording) in the chapter The Need to Build a Revolutionary Socialist Workers’ Party. Here the text was linked with the dockerworker industrial action to free the Pentonville 5 in 1972 and again to France in May 1968. The document we are considering here would not have been written in 1975 – but I do not discount the possibility that the Rosa Luxemburg text was used by Cliff in other places!
Birchall, Ian. 2011. Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time. Bookmarks Publications, London, 664pp.
Cliff, Tony. 1959. Rosa Luxemburg. International Socialism, Harrow Weald, Middlesex, 96pp. Available online:
Cliff, Tony. 1962.The Labour Party in Perspective. International Socialism Number 9 Summer 1962, footnote 24a page 9.
Cliff, Tony. 2000. Is World Revolution Possible? pp.79-82 in Marxism at the Millennium. Bookmarks Publications Ltd., London, 86pp.
Cliff, Tony & Ian Birchall. 1968. France: The Struggle Goes On. Socialist Review Publishing Co. Ltd., London, 80pp. Available online:
Hogsbjerg, Christian. 2011. Tony Cliff rediscovered. International Socialism Journal Number 132 Autumn 2011, pp.180-186.
Molyneux, John. 1986. Marxism and the Party (Third Printing). Bookmarks, London, 192pp.
Rudge, John. In Press. The Turn to Democratic Centralism: Documents of the 1968 IS Conferences.
Widgery, David. The Left in Britain 1956-1968. Penguin Books Ltd., Middlesex, England, 549pp.
My thanks to Christian Hogsbjerg and Ian Birchall for their assistance with this piece of research.
“The Crisis of Society is the Crisis of the Leadership”
These words were repeated over and over again in Trotsky’s writings during the last two decades or so of his life.
We shall try to show that, conditionally, there is a large element of truth in this formulation, but that it can also lead to monstrous conclusions.
We know from experience that in more than one case a revolutionary situation has led to working-class victory and working-class power in the absence of a revolutionary party. (a)Revolutions do indeed start(b) as spontaneous acts without the leadership of a party. The French revolution started with the storming of the Bastille. Nobody organised this. Was there a party at the head of the people in rebellion? No. Even the future leaders of the Jacobins, for instance Robespierre did not yet oppose the monarchy, and were not yet organised into a party. The 14 July 1789, revolution was a spontaneous act of the masses. The same was true of the Russian revolution of 1905 and the February 1917, revolution. The 1905 revolution started through a bloody clash between the Tsar’s army and police on the one hand and the mass of workers, men, women and children, on the other, led by the priest Gapon (who was actually an agent provocateur of the Tsar). Were the workers organised by a clear decisive leadership with a socialist policy of its own? Certainly not. Carrying icons, they came begging their beloved “little Father” – the Tsar – to help them against their exploiters. This was the first step in a great revolution. Twelve years later, in February 1917, the masses, this time more experienced, and among whom there were a greater number of socialists than in the previous revolution, again rose spontaneously. No historian has been able to point a finger at the organiser of the February revolution, for it was simply not organised.
However, after being triggered off by a spontaneous uprising, revolutions move forward in a different manner. In France, the transition from the semi-republican government of the Gironde to the revolutionary one, which completely annihilated feudal property relations, was not carried out by unorganised masses without any party leadership, but under the decisive leadership of the Jacobin Party. Without such a party at the helm, this important step, which demanded an all-out fight against the Girondists, would have been impossible. The people of Paris could spontaneously, leaderlessly, rise up against the king, after decades of oppression. But the majority of them were too conservative, too lacking in historical experience and knowledge, to distinguish, after only two or three years of revolution, between those who wanted to drive the revolution to an extremity and those who aimed at some compromise. The historical situation required a struggle to the bitter end against the party of compromise the allies of yesterday. The conscious leadership of this great undertaking was supplied by the Jacobin Party which fixed the date and organised the overthrow of the Gironde on 10 August 1792, down to the last detail. Similarly the October revolution was not a spontaneous act but was organised in practically all its important particulars, including the date, by the Bolsheviks. During the zigzags of the revolution between February and October – the June demonstration, the July days and subsequent orderly retreat, the rebuff of the rightist Kornilov putsch, etc. – the workers and soldiers came more closely under the influence and guidance of the Bolshevik Party. And such a party was essential to raise the revolution from its initial stages to its final victory.
Lenin at one time could justifiably explain: “Give us an organization of revolutionaries and we will turn Russia upside-down.”
But the fact that he did have such an organization was largely the result of the objective conditions prevailing in Russia. Lenin’s greatness was that he found exactly the right place to intervene to create the revolutionary party and to “turn Russia upside down.”
However, the fact that there are no similar achievements in the most advanced industrialised countries cannot be explained in the main in terms of the failure of the objective factors.
We can put it in this way: between the objective factors – economic, political, military – that bring about a revolutionary situation, and the level of consciousness of the working class as a whole, or even its most advanced sections, there is no automatic synchronization. Again between the level of consciousness of even the most advanced section of the class and the revolutionary party there is also not necessarily a synchronization. The same applies to the leadership of the Party itself. The factors which participate in forging consciousness at different levels are so complicated that they produce an infinite variegation of permutations in the consciousness of different groupings and individuals belonging to one and the same movement. This kaleidoscope of consciousness changes very rapidly, especially in periods of stress of which none is more dynamic and swift than the social revolution.
Of course, if the leadership of the party reflected directly the experience of the party rank-and-file, and the party rank-and-file the experience and knowledge of the class, unevenness between different subjective factors in the workers’ movement would not have existed. Then also, however, the need for study, for carrying on the traditions of the past, of learning lessons from other countries etc., would have been superfluous. Then Marxism would influence the struggle as astronomy influences the movement of the stars.
When the different factors necessary for the victory of the working class are not synchronised, and when the speed of events is such that one day may count for a decade, as is the case during revolutions, but the need for straightening out the workers’ revolutionary front is most pressing, then an accident can be fatal for the fate of the revolution. When two ton weights balance each other, the addition of one gram on one side or the other can topple one side over. The experience and knowledge of leaders of a revolutionary party – or of one leader alone – can be decisive when the classes are in a tense and unstable equilibrium characteristic of a pre-revolutionary or even more, a revolutionary situation. This is one of the reasons for the dramatic character of revolutions. One could argue, correctly, I think, that if Lenin were by accident (1) prevented from returning to Russia in March 1917, there would not have been a victorious October revolution. The leadership of the Bolsheviks, tied to the old slogans of the Party, which opposed workers’ power as an immediate aim of the revolution, supported “critically” the Provisional Government, and without the authority of Lenin the conservative crust might have not have been broken in time to make it possible for the army (c) to rearm itself. Without the rearming of the Party, the workers’ struggle would have been dissipated in unorganised and unplanned battles (as happened in so many revolutions since 1917).
In March-April 1917 the crisis of Russian society was a crisis of leadership – meaning that the class was in a revolutionary mood and a considerable part of its most advanced section was organised in a revolutionary party, while the top of the party showed the greatest weakness.
There are other situations where the crisis of leadership has a much wider meaning – the class is in a revolutionary mood but there is no mass revolutionary party. (This was the case, for instance, in France in 1936).
However, the wider, the more massive, the missing revolutionary link, the less is it possible to explain the lack of fortuitous or accidental factors. The lack of a Lenin can be explained by an accident; the lack of 100,000 revolutionaries cannot be explained by accidental circumstances. An “accident” that occurs 100,000 times proves by this fact alone that it is not an accident, but the product of general objective factors.
Trotsky’s formulation that “the crisis of society is the crisis of leadership” can therefore be misused as a general blanket to encompass the whole problem of the revolutionary party and its leadership, thus leading to the most absurd and “substitutionist” conclusions, to completely idealist voluntarism. We, the few dozen Marxists, can decide history! (2)
Accidents do play a great role in history. “World history would…be of a very mystical nature if “accidents” played no part. These accidents themselves fall naturally into the general course of development and are compensated for, again, by other accidents. But acceleration and delay are very dependent upon such “accident” which include the “accident” of the character of those who at first stand at the head of the movement.” (Marx, “Letter to Kugelmann”. Marx/Engels, Selected Correspondence, London, 1941. pp. 310-1).
- One example of this is the statement of the British Trotskyist leadership in June 1942 telling its own handful of supporters: “…the key to world history lies in our hands. The conquest of power is on the order of the day in Britain…Revolutionary audacity can achieve everything. The organization must consciously pose itself and see itself as the decisive factor in the situation.” (Preparing for Power, London, June 1942, p. 33). (d).
- The section of the document shown in italics here is that section that appears in Cliff’s 1959 book Rosa Luxemburg. Italics are added by me for ease of reader-reference only. The typescript itself is not in italics.
- The word “start” is not shown in bold type in Cliff’s 4pp typescript. It is, however, in bold in Rosa Luxemburg where this whole section appears in print. It is therefore certain that if Cliff’s typescript had been published this word would have appeared in bold type.
This must be a typing error by Cliff – the word “army” should surely read “Party”.
- Cliff does not give the full citation here. The full title is Preparing for Power:Revolutionary Perspectives and the Tasks of the Fourth Internationalists in Britain. The part Cliff quotes was indeed written in June 1942 and is extracted from The Text of the Thesis adopted at the National Pre-Conference of Workers’ International League, August 22nd and 23rd, 1942. The text was revised for publication in Workers’ International News Volume 5 Number 6 September 1942.