Democratic Centralism

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2. The character of the party, democracy and centralism

Character of the Party

GIVEN THAT the necessity of a party is clear then what should be the character of this party? Marxism has answered, particularly after the experience of the revolutionary movement in Russia and the successful Russian revolution, that it should be a party that should possess special features which no bourgeois or petit bourgeois organisation, trend or party could possess. It should be a 'democratic centralist' organisation.

Unfortunately this term has been partially discredited, the concept mangled and distorted by Stalinism in particular. It has come to mean, for uninformed people, something entirely opposite to its original meaning. Seeking to discredit genuine Marxism the reformists, both the left as well as the right, link this idea to the grotesque caricature of socialism manifested in Stalinism. Moreover, the right-wing Labour leadership who usually hurl insults against the Marxists on the alleged undemocratic character of 'democratic centralism' themselves actually practice an extreme form of 'bureaucratic centralism', as the experience of the witch-hunt against Militant and others on the left in the Labour Party demonstrated.

It is not possible to put forward publicly in a bald way the term 'democratic centralism', without a preamble and explanation as to what exactly this term means. However, the terminological difficulties that we have has raised another danger, that the real content of democratic centralism will not be understood, or even rejected within our ranks. This would be absolutely fatal for the development of our organisation in the next period but particularly in the process of becoming a major and a mass force at a later stage.


A REVOLUTIONARY party is not a debating club, let alone a debating circle, so beloved of the minuscule sects on the outskirts of the labour movement, it must, of course, be thoroughly democratic. Democracy is like oxygen for a genuine revolutionary party. Without the full freedom of discussion, genuine, comradely and fraternal debate, it would be incapable of correctly arming its members with an understanding of the current situation, and the demands and programme upon which it is necessary to intervene in the class struggle.

Contrary to what our opponents have attempted to argue Militant, over 30 years, allowed debate, including oppositional ideas, at every level of our organisation. Even then there was a disquieting tendency of some, mainly those who became the minority, not to want to discuss different points of view. But that we possessed a relatively homogenous, united organisation flowed not from any powerful apparatus in the possession of the leadership, but came from genuine agreement on the basis of broad perspectives, the programme, the tactics of work in the mass organisations, etc. This agreement was only gained through discussion and debate within the ranks of the organisation.

To listen to some of the sects who criticise the past record of our organisation and who light-mindedly delve into the history of the revolutionary movement in Russia it would be possible to draw a conclusion that the absence of organised tendencies, factions, etc. within the ranks of Militant over a protracted historical period was itself a symptom of an unhealthy internal regime. On the contrary, Trotsky commenting on the disarray in the ranks of his followers in France in the 1930s, who presented a spectacle very similar to organisations which claim to be Trotskyist' at this moment in time, comments: "An organisation that is smaller but unanimous can have enormous success with a correct policy, while an organisation which is torn by internal strife is condemned to rot."

Bolshevism and Factions

DOES THIS statement of Trotsky contradict the experience of Bolshevism? It is true that the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) divided into two main factions, the Bolsheviks (majority) and the Mensheviks (minority) in 1903. They remained factions of the same party, however, contrary to what some of the sects have argued in the past, right up to 1912. Lenin only split to form a separate party at this stage when the Bolsheviks commanded the support of four fifths of the organised workers in Russia. At the same time the history of the Bolsheviks, even when they were a faction of the RSDLP shows the development within its ranks of different tendencies, and even factions at a certain stage. When the unification of Mensheviks and Bolsheviks took place at the Stockholm party congress in 1906 there were already two factions inside the Bolshevik faction, involving an open struggle at the congress over a major question, the agrarian programme. At the same time in 1907 a sharp factional struggle was fought over the question of boycotting the third state Duma (parliament). As Trotsky comments: "The supporters of the boycott subsequently aligned themselves into two factions which over the next few years carried on a fierce struggle against Lenin's faction, not only within the confines of the 'united' party but inside the Bolshevik faction as well."

Subsequently, there were other factions formed, in 1914, with an oppositional faction to Lenin on the issue of national self-determination around Bukharin and Piatakov. At the time of the conquest of power a faction of 'left communists' (Bukharin, Yaroslavsky, and others) was formed with even a daily newspaper in opposition to the line of Lenin and of Trotsky on the issue of 'revolutionary war'. In answer to the monolithic model of Stalin and the Stalinist parties Trotsky referred on many occasions to the real history of Bolshevism as a "mobile balance" between discussion, including the formation of trends, tendencies and even factions, and the need for a centralised, disciplined and organised party capable of confronting a ruthless enemy, the Russian landlord and capitalist class.

Factions for Factions Sake?

SOME ORGANISATIONS, some even claiming to be Trotskyist, have taken Trotsky's words to mean that not just factional struggles, but a kind of permanent factional battle, is the hallmark of a genuine 'revolutionary' organisation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Trotsky himself was compelled to refer to the example of the French Socialist Party in the inter-war period which had legalised factions in its statutes, even introducing the principles of proportional representation for all party elections. The leaders of this party, therefore, were able to pass themselves off as examples of the "purest expression of party democracy". But this formal display of 'democratic rights' masked the rule of the right-wing apparatus which consistently dominated this party. Left-wing 'factions' were permitted to exist but as soon as a genuine Marxist faction opened up the possibility of winning the arguments and even capturing significant support in the party the ruling apparatus faction quickly resorted to expulsions.

We had a similar experience at the hands of the right-wing leaders of the Labour Party in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s. In a revolutionary party, that is a genuine one, things stand entirely differently. Of course, when there are serious issues under dispute sometimes it is necessary to resort to the formation of trends, groupings, even tendencies and ultimately perhaps a faction. But such steps should not be easily resorted to. Where it is a question of nuances and emphasis such differences should be pursued, in general, through oral and written discussions first.

Only on a serious policy issue and after having exhausted some of the other possibilities for changing the views of the party should it be necessary to resort to measures such as the formation of factions. In the case of the ex-minority they existed as an unofficial faction well before they came out against the majority in 1991. This was not a principled faction formed on the basis, at least in the beginning, of a clear political opposition to that of the majority but was in effect a crude attempt to grab power. This was shown by the fact that their first step was to propose the removal of certain individuals from their positions, rather than a discussion on ideas, methods, etc. This immediately embittered the conflict which developed, originally on organisational issues but ultimately on a whole range of political questions. As comrades know, this resulted ultimately in a split, which was long in preparation, because the ex-minority were utterly incapable of facing up to the new changed situation developing in Britain and on a world scale.

A Healthy Regime

IN OPPOSITION to those organisations who argue for the idea of permanent fractions, as an antidote to an unhealthy, or 'undemocratic regime' Trotsky pointed out: "The conversion of groupings into permanent fractions is in itself a disturbing symptom that signifies either that the struggling tendencies are totally irreconcilable although the party as a whole has reached a deadlock. It is impossible to reverse such a situation, of course, by simply banning factions. To wage a war against the symptom does not mean to cure the disease. Only a correct policy and a healthy internal administrative structure and procedure can prevent the conversion of temporary groupings into ossified faction." These lines are sufficient, in and of themselves, to raise doubts about the internal situation which exists in even some of the organisations who we have friendly relations with and are discussing with at this moment in time.

It seemed to us (see Report of USFI IEC in MB 15 [United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI) International Executive Committee(IEC) to which Peter Taaffe was invited]) that in our recent exchange with the comrades of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International they have something similar to the existence of 'permanent factions' in some of their national sections. One individual even commented to me in private discussion that he could live without factions for one of their world congresses, perhaps for two, but if a third world congress took place in succession without factions this alone would signify that the regime was "unhealthy"! The scepticism displayed by this individual is symptomatic largely of intellectuals of petit bourgeois origin, who prefer a debating society rather than an organisation seriously challenging for mass influence and ultimately for power.

Revolutionary Centralism

THE OTHER and vital aspect of the question, absolutely requisite for a revolutionary party, is that of centralism. It is that part of the formula of 'democratic centralism' which is most misunderstood, wilfully by the enemies of Marxism, and unconsciously even by those who sympathise with the Marxist and Trotskyist movement. It seems to smack, particularly in the light of Stalinism and of various Trotskyist organisations which imitate Stalinism, of a top-down, bureaucratic, 'leadership-dominated' organisation.

But the need for a centralised party flows from the tasks which confront the working class in our epoch. The ruling class has concentrated in its hands not just the means of production - less than 300 firms on the planet dominate most of production, distribution and exchange of the world's goods - but enormous means of repression, both legally and physically, against any organised protest. This is particularly the case in Britain with the anti-trade union laws, the CJA, etc.

The centralisation and concentration of capital, which has been taken to unprecedented lengths in the modern era, means that the overthrow of the ruling class is inconceivable without a centralised party capable of unifying the working class and acting decisively against the inevitable attempts of counter-revolution when the working class attempts to change society.


THE CONCEPTION of a revolutionary organisation as a loose 'network' is false and has in fact led to the impotence and virtual disintegration of organisations which have taken to this road. If we were to adopt such an approach, even now when we are a small party, it could seriously undermine our efforts to intervene in the movements which are taking place and would certainly shatter any possibility of becoming a decisive force within the ranks of the British working class. There is no danger that such an approach will be adopted by our organisation.

However, under the impact of day-to-day problems, particularly in a period when resources are so few and strained, it is possible for a mood of 'localism' and even parochialism to develop in regions, districts and branches of our organisation. The tendency towards

540 emphasising local factors to the detriment of our national profile is a real danger. We believe there has even been a manifestation of some of these trends in the discussions on the nature of the new National Committee and at our national congress on the issue of finance. Perhaps inadvertently, the decision of the NC, upon the proposal of the Executive Committee, to recommend a form of financial autonomy for Scotland has quite wrongly promoted the idea that a similar financial arrangement could exist for the rest of the organisation in Britain. If such an idea is accepted and implemented now it will lead to the dissipation and eventual break-up of what is at the moment a successful democratic centralist organisation into a loose federation (Judy Beishon deals with this issue fully below).


THE DECISION to go for autonomy in Scotland, on financial questions but also on other organisational issues, arose from the objective situation in Scotland itself. The growth of a distinct national consciousness requires a change in the form of organisation adopted by Militant with regard to Scotland. Scotland is not in the position of a separate section of the CWI. The workers of Scotland still confront, not a Scottish but the British state. This requires that the revolutionary organisation in Scotland should be part of an all-British organisation as also should the Welsh organisation. But the development of national consciousness means that the form of organisation appropriate to the rest of Britain is no longer appropriate to Scotland. This was recognised early on with the development of SML, and the high degree of autonomy for the Scottish organisation within the framework of the all-British Militant Labour. Scotland is in a kind of halfway house position at the present time. It has not reached the stage where the overwhelming majority are for independence but the growth of a clear and distinct national consciousness must be recognised, above all by the revolutionary organisation.

This has required us, in the field of policy, to alter our demands where we now advocate a socialist federation of Britain with full autonomy for Scotland. This change is determined for us by the change in the objective conditions, to repeat, above all because of the change in the national consciousness of the Scottish people. Recognising this we have therefore undertaken the change in the relationship between the Scottish organisation and the British organisation.

Unity on class issues and in action between the workers throughout the whole of Britain does not contradict the need for measures of organisational autonomy, including on finance, in Scotland where clearly there is a different situation to the rest of Britain. It is in this light that the EC initiated the proposals for Scottish autonomy on finance. In view of the widespread confusion existing in our ranks still, despite the discussions at the conference, on this issue, it is necessary to restate below the basis of the present financial arrangement with Scotland.

One thing is absolutely clear from this; if the arrangements adopted between the NC/EC and the Scottish organisation were applied now to the rest of Britain it would mean the collapse of the national centre. And yet, despite this, in discussions on a local level we have heard voices stating that "Scotland is the way in which the rest of England and Wales will be heading" in the not too distant future. Such an approach will be fatal for us, and would mean the diminishing of our national profile, or even of a coherent national presence of Militant Labour. We would not be able to produce a newspaper or deploy full-timers in the industrial, youth, women and all the other fields of activity. Does this preclude an element of autonomy for the regions, the districts, the branches, etc? On the contrary, the history of our organisation demonstrates that at different stages the NC and EC have suggested greater autonomous powers to the regions when, it has been agreed nationally that, the situation both of our organisation and the objective situation has required it. The argument that autonomy in and of itself is a guarantee of growth, recruitment, or that we will have a greater effect on the working class is not true. Between 1982-87 our organisation went from roughly 2,000 members to 8,000 members. At that stage 75 per cent of the subs came to the national organisation, alongside all of the fighting fund.

The step towards a retention of a greater percentage of the subs in the regions, again initiated by the EC, was a recognition of the growth of the organisation and of the impossibility because of size, etc., for the previous high degree of centralisation of financial matters to be concentrated at the centre. But the essence of the matter, particularly as far as finance is concerned, is that the change in the objective situation changed the position of our organisation as well.