Party notes: Democratic centralism unites and directs

Jack Conrad continues the debate on revolutionary organisation following discussion at the CPGB's Communist University

Unity in action; freedom of debate

As we have explained on many occasions, democratic centralism is not an antiquated set of rules and regulations inherited from 1906. Nor is it a trick designed to ensure the perpetual domination of incumbent leaders. Nor is it a cynical device for silencing awkward minorities. Only the damaged, the ignorant or the disingenuous could argue otherwise.

Democratic centralism is an indispensable weapon in the class struggle - one of the sharpest and most effective at that. To abandon democratic centralism is therefore to voluntarily disarm our side in the face of the enemy. Frankly such a course is little short of treachery. The capitalist state is massive, well equipped, highly coordinated and deadly. That is why at every stage of the struggle, and at every turn of events, democratic centralism must be guarded against those who would for one reason or another sabotage it or water it down.

Democratic centralism is a fundamental communist principle. It is, however, a principle which is readily understood and appreciated by experienced trade union militants. Centralism ensures the maximum unity in agreed actions. We are strong only because we are well organised and strike as one. Our democracy - which includes the election and recallability of all leaders - provides the best conditions to ensure that our actions are directed against the right target. Overcoming mistakes and rectifying shortcomings are not private matters though. Open debate around key issues of theory, strategy and tactics is vital and serves to educate wider forces.

Evidently democratic centralism - genuine democratic centralism - is diametrically opposed to the suffocating practice of so many present-day left groups and sects. Whether it be the Socialist Workers Party or the Socialist Party in England and Wales, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain or Workers Power, the fear-fuelled message to the membership is exactly the same. Always agree in public with the existing leadership line; always keep doubts or differences strictly private. Imposed from on high to prevent splits and ensure growth, ironically such bureaucratic methods actually ensure ruinous schisms, grey conformity and a chronic inability to gain a mass following.

The SWP leadership cannot, will not, grasp why, after seeing two million people take to the streets of London on February 15, membership and circulation of Socialist Worker have remained frustratingly static. The fault lies not only with the ruling quadumvirate of John Rees, Chris Harman, Alex Callinicos and Chris Bambery, but with the whole rotten regime.

An obvious example. The SWP’s political committee has just overseen a headlong flight from the totally misjudged and thoroughly opportunist Peace and Justice adventure. Negotiations with Birmingham’s central mosque humiliatingly petered out. In the process allies in the Socialist Alliance were alienated and needlessly turned into enemies, the SWP suffered an avalanche of biting criticism and the rumblings of discontent amongst the cadre was unmistakable.

Despite all that - and Lindsey German’s apostatical statement at Marxism 2003 to the effect that women’s rights and gay equality should not be treated as “shibboleths” - there was no hint of debate in Socialist Worker. Not even a single letter of protest.

Throughout the whole sorry episode only the dominant faction was allowed a public voice. John Rees, for example, tried to rescue his battered reputation inside the SWP’s ranks by dishonestly attacking unnamed critics in the SA. According to comrade Rees, they were “opposed” to the Stop the War Coalition and working with the “muslim community” (Socialist Worker August 2). He can get away with such unfounded nonsense for one reason and one reason alone - no one in the SWP’s rank and file is allowed to differ or object.

JV Stalin would have been proud. No wonder Andrew Murray - STWC chair and a member of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain - keenly expresses his warm admiration of the SWP nowadays. Some fellow Stalinites worry that he has gone native in the STWC. However, it would be more accurate to say the SWP has gone Stalinite.

The reader will be aware that we have recently been debating the question of democratic centralism within our own ranks. Specifically this arose when one CPGB comrade - John Pearson - put the discipline of his Stockport SA branch above the discipline of the CPGB. In explanation the comrade says he was “mandated” to vote for a particular amendment on the SA’s national council. To “act differently” would apparently be contrary to “democracy, accountability, openness and political honesty” (Letters, July 31).

In various e-caucus exchanges, and then at this year’s Communist University, other comrades have in their turn raised the difficulties involved when trade unions mandate delegates. Clearly the answer for communists lies not in dry technical solutions - some rulebook of dos and don’ts. Politics must be put in command.

Blithely or contemptuously ignoring a trade union or any other mandate in the name of the CPGB’s democratic centralism would be grossly irresponsible. That is self-evident. Communists painstakingly seek to build trust between themselves and those whom they seek to lead. When achieved, such trust should not lightly be thrown away or needlessly sacrificed. So balance is required.

Our discussions on this knotty subject are still ongoing. They have though been very instructive and fruitful. My conviction that democratic centralism should never be treated as a set of fixed rules and timeless regulations has certainly been reinforced. Rather democratic centralism is best understood as a process of bringing about ever closer unity around the revolutionary programme.

A number of comrades - not least those in Unison and the PCS - have explained that mandating delegates is routine. Indeed branch delegates to conference are often elected well before specific motions and amendments are considered. Of course, the idea that a union branch would choose a CPGB member and then vote to back completely objectionable or downright reactionary motions is rather unlikely.

Nevertheless, mandated or not, it is surely an obligation for a communist to think and take due notice of others. Interestingly in this context some trade unions - Aslef, for instance - bar delegates from being tied by mandates. Certainly within a Communist Party there should be no mandating. The second congress of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party - which had Lenin, Plekhanov, Trotsky, Martov, etc as members, revoked all prior mandates. Debates should be real.

Communists do not seek to emulate either anarchistic freelancers or pre-programmed bureaucratic automatons. Circumstances change, arguments should be allowed to sway opinions and the collective will of a communist organisation should in the last analysis be viewed as a higher form of discipline - crucially by communists. On that there can be no compromise.

Naturally breaking a mandate should not be done lightly. But sometimes it is not only correct to do so, but vital. Mandates work both ways. Executive and other such trade union committees have, for example, been known to mandate prominent communists and thereby ensure that their established authority and standing - and that of the party - is used to divert anger and effectively sell out the rank and file. Should communists feel themselves obliged - as the elected delegate - to “carry out that decision” once it is made? Not in my opinion.

On the contrary a communist leadership would be duty-bound to get such a comrade to break their mandate. Many communist militants would not need to be told to do that in the first place. They would instantly rebel and instinctively bypass the rigid official structures and appeal directly to the rank and file.

However, there are bound to be others. Those tempted or already half-succumbing to the mores and social privileges of the trade union bureaucracy, yet who can be hauled back from the brink of betrayal and saved for communism. Either submit to communist discipline, we would tell them, or you face expulsion. A Communist Party that issued such a stark warning - if need be publicly - would earn the respect of the rank and file. To bow before a trade union mandate would in such a case be to substitute formal democracy for the class struggle.

Demanding that a comrade votes in a particular way is a matter of judgement, not unbending principle. That goes without saying. Nevertheless there can be no question that a Communist Party that deserves the name has the right to insist upon its discipline when it comes to its own members.

Certainly if there is a healthy relationship between our mandated comrade and those who mandated them from below there is nothing particularly problematic if that mandate is broken. How the comrade voted and why must be fully explained and the argument patiently conducted. Trust will be rewon and in due course taken to a higher level.