Tony Cliff on substitutionism

26 01 2013

Barry Biddulph re-examines Tony Cliff’s organisational views,  before Cliff’s turn to Leninism in 1968. This insight of Cliff from 1960 could almost have been written with recent events in the SWP in mind: “all discussions on the basic issues of policy should be discussed in the light of day, in the open press. Let the mass of the workers take part in the discussion, put pressure on the party, its apparatus and leadership”.  (1)


Tony Cliff’s interpretation of Trotsky’s views on substitutionism written in 1960 (2) does not appear to be fully grounded in Trotsky’s response to the second congress and the discussion of the excessive centralism of Lenin’s organisational suggestions following the congress. Nor does he draw on the important criticism of Rosa Luxemburg. He roots substitutionism in the uneven consciousness among the working class and ultimately in the backward circumstances of Russia at the time.

Cliff seems to follow Trotsky’s view that the basic task of communists is the development of the self-activity of the class. He states that “the revolutionary party that seeks to overthrow capitalism cannot accept the notion of a discussion on politics inside the party without the participation of the mass of workers. (3)  However, he then veers away from the essential need for democratic methods in organising to locate the source of the danger of substitutionism in the uneven consciousness of the working class, rather than the lack of democratic participation. (4)

But Trotsky, in the Report of the Siberian Delegation in 1903, and Our Political Tasks in 1904 ,placed the danger of substitutionism in top down centralism, factory style discipline, and identification of the party with the programme.In this context leadership, was  a form of working class  Jacobinism. He argued that to have an influence on political life is to act through the working class and not to act in its name.  This echoed the criticism of Lenin’s centralism by Rosa Luxemburg. (5) Lenin’s centralism was the organised distrust of the party members by a leadership who expected confidence in their policies. Trotsky and Luxemburg did not reduce the party form to the direct pressure of external circumstances or vulgar materialism, nor to an uneven consciousness.

As Trotsky famously predicted undemocratic methods in the party would lead to the party substituting itself for the class, the party apparatus substituting for the party, and finally the leader substituting for the apparatus. This would be the result of an undemocratic organisational form; a  subjective factor which could not be directly read off from adverse material circumstances. Uneven consciousness would be overcome by various forms of struggle: defeats, victories and the ups and downs on the bumpy road to transform capitalism.

Despite warning of the threat of substitutionism, Cliff inconsistently invoked the cult of the infallible Lenin. Lenin’s “ear was faultlessly attuned to the stirrings of the masses in motion”. (6)Here is a pointer to his own future role as the leader who had  a sensitive political nose to instinctively follow  the stirrings and interests of the workers. Who requires party democracy with such leaders? But even so he still  had insight alongside this orthodoxy. There was Lenin’s comments about working class rule in the context of claims that the working class, in so far as it still existed, had become de-classed in Russia. Cliff rightly described this as a substitutionist formula: the Cheshire cats smile after the cat has disappeared! (7)

Lenin’s claims about the disappearance of the working class were  exaggerated. His polemic was a one-sided distortion. Recent research as shown that the working class was still a significant factor, but was in conflict with the Bolshevik government who did not hesitate to take tough repressive measures. (8) When workers criticised or acted against the Bolshevik government they were dismissed as economistic or workers who were not really proletarian for one reason or another. Routine white-collar workers were described as petty bourgeois. The dictatorship over workers with the party identified as the dictatorship of the proletariat was the counter-revolutionary road to Kronstadt.

Despite his insights, Cliff followed Deutscher and the orthodox Trotskyist tradition in diverting attention from Bolshevik substitutionist policies by seeking an explanation mainly in backward conditions, downplaying Jacobin vanguardism, and  failing to value the essential requirement of democratic means of  representation. So for Cliff, the working class base of Bolshevism “disintegrated, not because of some mistakes in the policies of Bolshevism, not due to one or another conception of Bolshevism regarding the role of the party and its relation to the class, but because of mightier historical factors. The working class had become de-classed” (9) Apart from anything else the concept of a de-classed working class had a strong ideological component. But this method of Deutscher and orthodox Trotskyism, excused the authoritarian politics of the Lenin-Trotsky government and more importantly their top down organisational methods in 1918-23.

When the various Bolshevik factions said the party no longer trusted the masses, and feared the initiative of the workers, the party leaders blamed the circumstances. But the form of Bolshevik organisation fusing with the state was also causing adverse circumstances. Material backwardness does not directly explain how the counter-revolution originated in the party apparatus or how Stalin was placed at the centre of the party machine with the task of monitoring and checking bureaucracy. Material circumstances do not explain why workers control was suddenly dropped after 1917 or why one-man management was introduced. As one Lenin critic put it, the dictatorship of a boss in the factory will lead to the dictatorship of a boss in the party.

Members of the Socialist Workers Party can find support for challenging the leadership in Cliff’s undeveloped insights in his piece on Trotsky’s substitutionism. He does make a plea for the toleration of factions, correctly dismissing the Bolshevik leadership habit of reducing the presence of factions to alien class forces. He asks the rhetorical question of what material pressures directly accounted for the bewildering changes in alliances among the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party members. This insight and others were not built on. Instead, there was a stampede to Leninist methods of organising in 1968 on the flimsiest of grounds. (10) Today we urgently need to reassess how we can democratically relate to the class and among ourselves.

End Notes

1 Tony Cliff, 1982,Neither Washington nor Moscow,page 207, Bookmarks.

2 as above, page 192

3  Tony Cliff ,page 202

4 Tony Cliff, page 207

5  Rosa Luxemburg,2004, organisational questions of  Russian Social Democracy, in the Rosa Luxemburg Reader,edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B Anderson,page 248.

6 Tony Cliff as above page,203

7 Tony cliff page 197.

8 One example,Simon Pirani,2008,the Russian Revolution in Retreat.

9 Tony cliff page 197

10 Tony Cliff,page  215

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2 responses

26 01 2013
robert ford

The left is its own worst enemy, diluting its power by thinking that its particular sect of ideas are the only true way forward and dismissing any variation and thus co-operation in fighting the real enemy…Capital which still laughs all the way to the bank!!!

30 01 2013

I don’t think the left is to blame for the still resounding laughter of the capitalist. I think this stems from the working class itself, the recompositioning the class has undergone, open class war on behalf of the ruling class and so on. Though, of course, that doesn’t imply any kind of “blaming” (in retrospect, it might be a case of bad word choice in the first sentence, but I’m too lazy to go and change it).


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