Democratic Centralism

By Peter Taaffe

Published in Militant Labour Members Bulletin No.16, 'A discussion on Democratic centralism', 18 March 1996.

This discussion took place in the UK section of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI), which at that time went by the name Militant Labour. This discussion on democratic centralism was followed immediately by the discussion on the name of the party, which dominated the following four members' bulletins (17 - 20) during 1996. It led to the decision to change the name from Militant Labour to Socialist Party in early 1997.

Edit: The document has been split into four web pages and page headings added numbered 1 to 4. Some extra paragraph breaks have been added.


1. The need for a party

RECENT DISCUSSIONS within the ranks of Militant Labour, particularly around controversial issues in the pre-conference period and at the conference itself, underlined the necessity for a discussion within our ranks on the issue of the party, the character of the party structures, party democracy, etc.

We have pointed out many times in the past period that the collapse of Stalinism has changed the political terrain upon which Marxists must now operate.

Anything which appears to be tainted with the mark of Stalinism repels the new generation looking for a political alternative. But at the same time, in this period which demands a greater openness, tolerance of others' points of view, and democratic discussion and debate, it would nevertheless be fatal to jettison those very good methods which have served us so well in the past.

Recent surveys have shown that the majority of those under 25 are political, indeed highly political, but look with disdain on traditional 'politics' and the existing traditional 'parties'.


THEIR INVOLVEMENT in politics is directed, at this stage, more towards single issues organised through umbrella 'networks'. From these movements can come some of the new, fresh layers who can be a vital ingredient in the regeneration of the labour movement and of Marxism itself.

But the tendency towards 'spontaneity', the hostility to anything which is 'organised' and particularly if it has a 'top down' approach is also a feature of this movement. To some extent this is a favourable factor in this period because those who are involved tend to be open and prepared to discuss ideas, with many undoubtedly attracted to the perspective and programme of our organisation.

But the underlying assumption of all these movements is that a general, broad, loose movement is capable, by itself, of defeating the attacks of the capitalists as well as enhancing the position of the youth and the working class.

Some of these ideas can spill over into the ranks of our organisation. Indeed there is evidence that they have already done so. This was shown in the pre-conference discussion which took place over the composition of the new National Committee. The idea of a national organisation and leadership, capable of drawing all the threads of the movement together, was implicitly challenged in some of the points that were raised in the discussion.

There is nothing wrong with discussion on this issue. But, the perception of our organisation as a clear, distinct, revolutionary organisation, in reality a party, albeit a small party, has become blurred in the minds of some comrades, particularly the new generation who moved into our ranks in the last couple of years. Even with an older generation of comrades the profile of our organisation, its exact character, can be dimmed.

Paradoxically, the flexible approach which we have adopted towards the idea of a new mass socialist party can have a negative effect on the ranks of our organisation unless there is a clear perception of the difference between a federal, mass reformist, left reformist or centrist party and the Marxist revolutionary party.

Main Features

IN THIS short document/article we wish to elaborate some of the main features involved in the discussion on this issue in order that we can begin to clarify these issues within the ranks of our organisation. It is necessary to begin with a basic summary on the need for a party.

This flows from the position of the working class as it develops in capitalist society. It is of course true that the working class is the most homogenous, united class through its role in production. In the transition from feudalism to capitalism the working class was dragooned, disciplined and organised in big industry, it is its objective position in industry which determines that the working class develops a collective consciousness.

The petit bourgeois on the other hand is heterogeneous, scattered, with its upper layers tending to merge with the bourgeois and its lower layers forced! by monopolisation, etc., into the ranks of the proletariat. There is then, of course, the ruling class, divided into different sections: finance capital, industrial capital, heavy industry, light industry, etc. These broad categorisations of the classes in society, first formulated by Marx 150 years ago, retain all their validity today. But while the working class is much more homogenous than the petit bourgeois or middle class, it is still divided into many different layers: men and women, racial divisions, skilled and unskilled, young and old, etc.

Class, Party and the Leadership

THE BOURGEOIS, from the dawn of its rule, has skilfully learned to play on these divisions to perpetuate its rule. A party, particularly a revolutionary party, is designed to overcome these divisions, to unite the working class for common objectives, the struggle against capitalism, its eventual overthrow and its replacement with a socialist society.

A party, including the most revolutionary party in history, the Bolshevik party, is not, however, an autonomous factor in history. It is dependent upon, and springs from, the working class. The relationship between the party, its leadership and the class has been a hotly disputed issue, right from the inception of scientific socialism, that is Marxism, formulated by Marx and Engels.

The dialectical interrelationship between the class, the party and its leadership was touched on by Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution. Writing about the party he states; "Without a guiding organisation toe energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But, nevertheless, what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam." As we have commented in our book The Rise of Militant, there have been many Marxists who have completely misunderstood the connection between the leadership, the party and the working class.

Many of them still repeat to this day Lenin's formulation in his pamphlet What is to be Done that socialist consciousness can only be brought to the working class from the outside by the revolutionary intelligentsia. This wrong formulation of Lenin, which he corrected later, has been used to justify the haughty approach of self-appointed 'leaders' of minuscule sects, proclaiming to be 'the' leadership of the working class. The absurdity of this approach was illustrated in the events in France in 1968 where one group produced a leaflet with Lenin's phrases included, thereby implying that they were the leadership of the working class (see The Rise of Militant pp31-32).

Trotsky, both in History of the Russian Revolution and in his unfinished biography of Stalin, goes to some pains to correct this one-sided, therefore false, idea. The "piston box" is vital. But the dynamic factor is "the steam", that is the working class. Even before Marx and Engels came on the scene the working class had put forward primitive schemas for socialism: Babeuf in the French revolution, the socialist sects and societies in the 1830s in France, the Chartist movement in Britain, etc. The great historical merit of Marx and Engels was to sum up the experience of the working class in the form of a worked-out body of ideas, a programme for action and the perspectives for working-class struggle.

Even without Marxism the working class through day-to-day brutal experience will (indeed is now doing so) begin to draw socialist conclusions. Does this mean that the intervention of a party, and a far-sighted leadership is thereby made redundant? Not at all! The role of a Marxist mass party and leadership can enormously speed up the proletariat's ability to draw all the necessary conclusions from its situation. The role of the 'subjective factor', which is a mass party with correct Marxist leadership, is absolutely vital, and of course is decisive in a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation.

Subjective Factor

EVEN TODAY, the role of the 'subjective factor' (meant in a broad sense here) is vital when it comes to the question of the new mass socialist party. Even without the creation of such a party, the mass of the working class through bitter battles, defeats and some victories, will draw socialist and revolutionary conclusions. But a mass socialist labour party, which would not immediately be a revolutionary party in the Marxist sense of the term, could play a vital role in rehabilitating the idea of socialist change for hundreds of thousands and indeed millions of workers in Britain today. This in turn would lay the seed bed upon which a clear revolutionary consciousness and mass party would grow at a later stage. This is why we have raised the idea of a new mass socialist party in such an unequivocal fashion.

Twentieth Century Revolutions

THE VITAL role of a party is moreover attested to historically by the experiences of the working class and particularly in the course of the 20th century. Positively, we have the living experience of the Russian revolution, which would not have taken place without the existence of a revolutionary party, the Bolshevik party, and its leadership, primarily Lenin and Trotsky. Negatively, there are the numerous failed revolutions: the German 210 revolution of 1918, the Hungarian commune of 1919, the revolutionary upheavals in Italy in 1920, the 1926 general strike in Britain, the Chinese revolution in 1925-27.

In Spain between 1931-37 Trotsky commented that not one but ten revolutions would have been possible if a mass party and a clear revolutionary leadership had existed. In July 1936, the Spanish working class initially took four fifths of the country. The bourgeois state machine lay in ruins. And yet, three years later, Franco was able to put the fascist jackboot on to the necks of the Spanish proletariat. There is no other explanation as to why this could have happened but for the absence of a mass, genuine Marxist revolutionary party and leadership, allied to the conscious counter-revolutionary role pursued by the Stalinists and their allies. Even in the relatively recent era the vital role of the party, demonstrated unfortunately in a negative sense, has once more been underlined.

In May/June 1968 power could have been taken by the working class in France but for the leaders of the CP and SP. In Portugal, between 1974-76, in the economic sphere it went even further. The Times, then the most authoritative organ of the British bourgeois, commented that, "Capitalism is Dead" in Portugal. They had, however, failed to reckon with the counter-revolutionary role of the Mario Soares leadership of the Socialist Party, which together with the false policies of the Communist Party, derailed the revolution. At one stage 70 per cent of industry, the banks and finance houses were in the hands of the state.

Also in Chile, as the recent book demonstrates, the working class were prevented from carrying through a complete socialist overturn only because of the pernicious role of the Socialist and Communist Party leadership. Movements like these, only on an incomparably higher plane, will unfold not just in the colonial and semi-colonial world but in the advanced industrial countries in the period that we are going into.