When Rosmer reviewed Cliff

Issue: 103

Ian Birchall

In 1952 George Allen and Unwin published Tony Cliff’s first book, Stalin’s Satellites in Europe (under his real name, Ygael Gluckstein), in which he applied the theory of state capitalism to the ‘people’s democracies’ of Eastern Europe. The work was an extension of his 1950 document ‘On the Class Nature of the “People’s Democracies”’.1 The following year the book was published in French by the ëles d’or publishing house, which specialised in critical studies of Communism.

In November 1953 Cliff’s book was reviewed in the French journal Preuves by Alfred Rosmer.2 Rosmer was a veteran of the movement. A revolutionary syndicalist, he had been one of the few to oppose the First World War from the first day. After the war he played a leading role in the Communist International and the Red International of Labour Unions. He was expelled from the French Communist Party in 1924, was for a time a Trotskyist, and remained a close friend of Trotsky even after his political break with Trotskyism.3

Preuves was the journal of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, parallel to Encounter in Britain. This was a pro-US and anti-Communist outfit, but in France especially it sought to give itself credibility on the left by associating with anti-Stalinist leftists. It was only in 1967 that it became public that it was financed by the CIA. (The Communist Party had made accusations earlier, but since they also accused Preuves of being ‘fascist’, which it certainly was not, their criticisms were not taken seriously outside their own ranks.) Rosmer had some rather loose links with Preuves in the early 1950s, although by 1954 he seems to have resumed a fully non-aligned position.4

Rosmer already knew of Cliff’s work. In 1949 the Cuban Trotskyist Group wrote a letter to the French journal Socialisme ou barbarie (which had recently split from the Fourth International on a state capitalist basis) urging them to study Cliff’s 1948 internal document on Russia.5 It went on to state that Rosmer was translating Cliff’s document into French, though nothing seems to have come of this.6 However, it is clear that Cliff’s work was making some impact on the international movement.

Cliff recalls in his autobiography that he met Rosmer when he visited Britain,7 but there is no reference to Rosmer’s review, of which I have never seen mention previously.8

That Cliff’s work should have been recommended by Rosmer, one of the veterans of the Communist movement, and a man universally recognised for his honesty, integrity and commitment to workers’ democracy, is itself significant. But Rosmer’s review is very perceptive. He begins by referring to the show trials and executions of Slansky and Clementis in Czechoslovakia, but concludes by identifying the central strength in Cliff’s analysis.

In the circles around Preuves it was common to describe Russia and the East European states as ‘totalitarian’. While this identified the regimes as oppressive, it said little about the dynamics of their development. By insisting that they were capitalist, Cliff was also asserting that the oppressed were not slaves but workers, that they would rebel just as workers had done in the West, and that they would emancipate themselves rather than requiring ‘liberation’ from the Western powers.

To Rosmer, who had been politically active since the Dreyfus Case of the 1890s, and who had seen over 50 years of ups and downs, Cliff’s optimism seemed wholly plausible. In fact even before Rosmer’s review appeared, East Berlin building workers had launched a revolt in June 1953, to be followed in 1956 by the massive risings of Polish and Hungarian workers. For Cliff, as for Rosmer, it was workers’ capacity for self-emancipation that was paramount.


1: See D Hallas (ed), The Fourth International, Stalinism and the Origins of the International Socialists (London, 1971).

2: Rosmer refers to the original, rather than the translation, and the review may have been written before the translation appeared.

3: On Rosmer see A Rosmer, Lenin’s Moscow (London, 1987) and Revolutionary History, vol 7, no 4 (Autumn 2000) (special issue on Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer).

4: See letter of 2 November 1954 to Stan Newens of the Socialist Review Group, reproduced in Revolutionary History, as above.

5: Reproduced in T Cliff, Marxist Theory after Trotsky: Selected Writings Volume 3 (London, 2003), pp1-138.

6: Socialisme ou barbarie, no 4, (October-December 1949), p93.

7: T Cliff, A World to Win (London, 2000), p57.

8: It is not mentioned in the standard biography of Rosmer, C Gras, Alfred Rosmer (1877-1964) et le mouvement revolutionnaire international (Paris, 1971).