Bureaucratic centralism and its apostates
Jack Conrad argues that SWP claims about the pre-1917 Bolshevik organisation are bogus
The terrible internal regimes that characterise the confessional sects make an easy target for every domesticated leftwinger, every backslider, every renegade. Eg, Richard Seymour, Laurie Penny, Alan Johnson, David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen to name just a few who are given generous space by the capitalist media. Democratic centralism has, as a result, become something of a dirty word.
And, unintentionally providing further ammunition, Socialist Workers Party loyalists stupidly excuse everything - from the unelected district full-timers to the banning of factions, from the rigging of conferences to the physical attacks on leftwing critics, from the botched handling of the Delta rape case1 to the lurid threats to unleash “lynch mobs” - by invoking their adherence to the organisational theory and practice of Bolshevism. A big lie put together by Tony Cliff, most notably in his four-volume Lenin biography (1975-79), and, of course, subsequently repeated by Alex Callinicos, the founder-leader’s disciple, amanuensis and effective successor.2 With a sad predictability, therefore, the SWP’s July 9-13 Marxism event saw John Molyneux, Charlie Kimber, Dave Hayes, Sue Caldwell and a string of apparatchiks, and aspiring apparatchiks, regurgitating what is now an article of faith.
The purpose of this article is twofold. Firstly, to show that SWP accounts of the organisational theory and practice of Bolshevism are entirely bogus. That, moreover, far from guaranteeing unity and success, the SWP’s internal regime guarantees the exact opposite. Secondly, having taken on the faithful, I want to challenge the apostates.
SWP loyalists admit that 1968 was the date when the International Socialists, as the Cliffites were then known, decided to “adopt a Leninist model of organisation”. Not that the SWP’s “Leninist model” emerged as some immaculate conception. No, rather it came about through a series of damaging splits, bruising faction fights and unplanned adaptations. Having suffered too many internal disputes, having expelled the Right Faction and then Sean Matgamna and Workers Fight, having lost his former Socialist Worker editor and national secretary with the IS Faction, Tony Cliff decided enough was enough. He clamped down on internal debate, restricted minority rights and put in place an apparatus of dependants.
Naturally, given his 1968 swapping of ‘Luxemburgism’ for ‘Leninism’, this package of measures was justified by maintaining that his model, his inspiration, had its origins in “the way the Bolsheviks organised under Lenin’s leadership in the years leading up to the October revolution”.3
The three ‘Leninist’ pillars fashioned by Cliff underpin the SWP to this day:
- A three-month pre-conference discussion period, during which officially sanctioned factions are tolerated - “Permanent or secret factions are not allowed”.4 Any differences which exist are meant to hidden away from outsiders. The Pre-conference Bulletin is pointedly labelled for “members only”.
- A self-perpetuating central committee. It is elected by a slate drawn up by the previous CC. It also “appoints all full-time organisers”.5
- After a majority vote at conference, no matter how narrow, all matters are considered resolved. In public members are expected to parrot the CC line, whether they agree with it or not.
Hence the SWP’s approach, priorities and tactics are supposed to be fixed - unless decided otherwise by the CC. The SWP’s democratic centralism therefore amounts to three months of highly restricted “democracy” and nine months of apparatus-imposed “centralism”.6 In other words, the democratic centralism of the SWP is bureaucratic centralism.
The CC in effect constitutes itself a permanent faction and keeps differences which arise within its ranks to its ranks. Political thought, which back in the 1960s was fairly creative, therefore had to shrivel into a dead orthodoxy. Naturally, top CC members came to regard the organisation as akin to their private property. And, as with any board of directors, they needed junior managers and a hierarchical chain of command. Inevitably, therefore, SWP district organisers function as minions of the chief executive officer. Not being elected and recallable by the membership - as they had been in the International Socialists - it is no surprise that district organisers are widely despised in the branches. The end result must be cynicism at all levels. Hence, although the SWP describes itself as a “disciplined, activist, combat organisation”, it is no wonder that the vast majority of the membership is totally passive.7
As any serious historian of the Russian Revolution will tell you, the Bolsheviks had a very different regime. Admittedly, Lenin is famous for his 1902-03 advocacy of centralism in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Under conditions of tsarist autocracy there was no other effective way of organising. What was true for the RSDLP was equally true for the Constitutional Democrats. Okhrana spies were everywhere. Siberian exile was the fate of far too many fine revolutionaries. Therefore the RSDLP could not operate with full democracy and the regular election of all office-holders.
Instead, Lenin proposed the publication of Iskra from the safety of abroad and the appointment of trusted agents who would distribute the paper inside Russia. Thereby the foundations of the party were to be laid. But, as Lars T Lih shows in his magnificent study of Lenin’s What is to be done?, the aim was not to establish a tight-knit party consisting of professional revolutionaries.8 No, far from it. Lenin wanted a Russian version of the German Social Democratic Party. That is, a mass workers’ party based on a Marxist minimum-maximum programme, with an elected and fully accountable leadership. Lih describes Lenin as a “passionate Erfurtian” (after the 1891 Erfurt congress of the SPD, which adopted the new programme, explained and elaborated in Karl Kautsky’s The class struggle).9
The idea that Lenin wanted an elitist party run by intellectuals is a cold-war myth invented by rightwing academics - but it is repeated, albeit with various ifs and buts, by SWPers such as John Molyneux and, of course, Tony Cliff. As might be expected, where the cold-war right paints Lenin as the devil, Cliff and Molyneux paint him as an angel. But the undemocratic Lenin suits both sides. The cold-war right wants to show that the undemocratic Lenin inevitably led to Stalin, while the SWP wants to show that the undemocratic Lenin led to the bureaucratic-centralist regime Tony Cliff put in place over the years 1968-75.
Needless to say, Lenin strongly argued for the “need to promote workers into the leadership”.10 As to being undemocratic, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it was the Mensheviks, the minority, who refused to abide by the decisions of the RSDLP’s 2nd Congress. The three-strong central committee elected by the congress delegates were all Bolsheviks - an outrage for the Mensheviks. As was the election of Lenin, Plekhanov and Martov as the editors of Iskra - now the RSDLP’s central organ. Plekhanov and Lenin had been on the same side during the congress. The Mensheviks did, however, manage to get hold of Iskra through the defection of Plekhanov - which they then proceeded to treat as their factional mouthpiece.
Using the pages of Iskra, they protested about central committee dictatorship and Lenin seeking to impose a “theocracy” (Pavel Axelrod). For his part, Lenin rounded on the Mensheviks, using phrases such as “intelligentsia indiscipline” and “intelligentsia anarchism”.11 He contrasted their thoroughly undisciplined behaviour with the natural discipline of the workers. This led Rosa Luxemburg to express the view that Lenin was intelligentsia-phobic and worker-philic. Indeed, in her reply to One step forward, two steps back, she writes of Lenin fearing that the “independent revolutionary movement of the working class” was in danger of being transformed “into an instrument of ambitious bourgeois intellectuals”.12 A picture totally at odds with the one normally drawn by the cold-war academics and SWPers alike.
Following hot on the heels of the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks adopted the term ‘democratic centralism’ at their Tammerfors conference in November 1905. The centralism necessary to survive against tsarist oppression had to be complemented with the fullest democracy.
Because of the revolutionary situation - which began when tsarist troops fired on the father Gapon-led procession to the Winter Palace - there was a massive explosion of political activity. There were countless strikes, demonstrations, street meetings and the flowering of hundreds of local organisations - crucially the workers’ councils (soviets). Put on the back foot, tsarism had to concede a degree of political freedom. Lenin seized the moment. The working class wanted to do away with tsarism and Lenin wanted to do everything he could to organise the working class towards that end.
Old, secretive methods of work had to make way immediately for the politics of mass agitation, mass education and mass participation. In other words, a Russian version of the German SDP. Lenin, it hardly needs adding, did not have to junk his What is to be done? outlook. Despite that, John Molyneux writes of Lenin freeing himself from the “elitist foundations” of What is to be done?13He takes for granted the myth of the worker-phobic Lenin. No, What is to be done? had been vindicated, fulfilled and now was the time to move on to better, bigger and far more daring things.
I am not exactly sure where or how ‘democratic centralism’ originated. But there are good reasons to believe that the source was German. After the struggle against Eduard Bernstein’s revisionism the authority of the SDP’s executive committee had been considerably strengthened (with the full approval of the party’s radical left). As a result, “discipline was strict, and the elected representatives in the mass organisations were subject to tight control in the party fractions which the full-time members of the leadership controlled”.14 Maybe it was Wilhelm Liebknecht, maybe it was August Bebel, maybe it was some other SDP leader who invented the term ‘democratic centralism’. One of our German-speaking comrades has promised to investigate the matter. In any case, there can be no doubt that the “model” for Lenin was the SDP. Except that, whereas the SDP was determined to centralise, the RSDLP was determined to democratise. Nonetheless, the Bolshevik’s democratic centralism was a deliberate attempt to translate German norms into the language of the new conditions 1905 had created in Russia.
Here is the relevant resolution agreed at the Tammerfors conference:
Recognising as indisputable the principle of democratic centralism, the conference considers the broad implementation of the elective principle necessary; and, while granting elected centres full powers in matters of ideological and practical leadership, they are at the same time subject to recall, their actions are to be given broad publicity [glasnost], and they are to be strictly accountable for these activities …
The conference orders all party organisations quickly and energetically to reorganise their local organisations on the basis of the elective principle; while it is not necessary for the moment to seek complete uniformity of all systems for electing institutions, departures (two-stage elections, etc) from fully democratic procedures are permitted only in the event of insurmountable practical obstacles.15
There is another series of facts that need emphasising. From the birth of the Bolsheviks in 1903 there was a never-ending stream of polemics - and not only against opponents such as the Cadets, Popular Socialists and Socialist Revolutionaries. The Bolshevik press was full of criticism of other groups in or around the RSDLP: the Bundists, Mensheviks, Trotskyites, Gorkyites, liquidators, etc, etc.
More than that. The Bolshevik press featured intra-Bolshevik debate. Lenin argued with Bukharin and Bukharin argued with Lenin. Eg, over national self-determination in 1916 and revolutionary war versus the grossly unequal Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with imperial Germany in 1918. The same went for Lenin and Bogdanov, Kamenev, Lunacharsky, etc. Sometimes oppositional factions were formed. Sometimes they had their own publications. The ‘left’ communists produced a daily paper, Kommunist, under the name of the St Petersburg Committee and the St Petersburg Area Committee of the RSDLP in March 1918. Eleven issues appeared. There was certainly no three-month limit on the right to form factions or the concealing of differences.
Regular conferences and congresses there were too. They heard reports from leading comrades, registered the changing factional balances and agreed particular lines of action. But they did not close debate. Indeed, though the Bolshevik’s elected their CC using various methods, it is worth noting that delegates themselves were in general elected according to a proportional principle. Not the ‘winner takes all’ system used by the SWP for its conferences. Lenin’s tried and tested approach of cementing unity through actually winning the argument also applied to central committee elections. So, when in March 1918 Bukharin refused to accept his seat on the central committee because of Brest-Litovsk, he was accused of evading his party responsibilities and jeopardising unity. There was no thought or suggestion that the CC should be politically monolithic. Nor was there a provision in the rules to the effect that being a member of the central committee was to commit oneself to a vow of ‘collective responsibility’. CC members were quite open about the political disputes and factional alignments on the CC.
Factions were “temporarily” banned in March 1921 at the 10th Congress under conditions of working class disintegration, imperialist encirclement, renewed war threats, Kronstadt and peasant uprisings. Despite that, public criticism of shortcomings were still deemed “absolutely necessary”, etc. There were also ringing declarations that inner-party democracy would soon be restored and that, once the emergency situation had passed, there could once again be election by platform. Of course, it never happened. Stalinism saw to that.
True, the 3rd Congress of the Communist International in July 1921 agreed the ‘Organisational structure of communist parties, the method and content of their work’. It demanded that each affiliated party “as a whole must become a military organisation fighting for revolution”.16 This went hand in hand with stipulations basically demanding military levels of discipline. Members were expected to obey orders and keep criticisms of higher bodies private: “to weaken or break the unity of the common front is the worst breach of discipline and the worst mistake that can be made in the revolutionary struggle”.17 Naturally, for form’s sake, there was a declaration that there is “no absolute form of organisation which is correct for all communist parties at all times”.18 Nevertheless, the eclipse of democracy by centralism is unmistakable. Obviously - and this is the point - Comintern was convinced that the decisive struggle for power was imminent and that communists had to be prepared for international revolutionary war.
Here, perhaps, we find the real model, the real point of reference for the SWP’s version of democratic centralism. Recognising that possibility, but wanting to hide his own rightist trajectory, Richard Seymour branded the Callinicos-Kimber regime as Zinovievite. Eg, his reply to Alex Callinicos’s ‘Is Leninism finished?’ had the barbed title, ‘Is Zinovievism finished?’19
Gregory Zinoviev is remembered by many on the left not as Lenin’s closest lieutenant during his years of exile and his joint leadership of the United Opposition, jointly with Trotsky and Kamenev, in the mid-1920s. No, he is remembered as the president of Comintern who oversaw the ‘Bolshevisation’ of the communist parties; an example of this being the ‘Organisational structure of communist parties, the method and content of their work’, I quoted above. It has to be admitted, however, that Lenin and Trotsky undoubtedly approved of the 1921 theses. Nevertheless, there is a truth in the charge that the organisational model adopted by the SWP owes more to the democratic centralism of the early 1920s than the democratic centralism of 1905-08 and 1917-18.
A further point. The SWP is a paltry organisation compared with even the smallest Communist Party of the 1920s. And it is not just about crude numbers, but roots in the working class. Moreover, the SWP does not operate and has never operated in conditions of illegality or even semi-legality. Nor do we stand, or even appear to stand, on the threshold of global revolution and international revolutionary war. What was necessary before 1905 in Russia, what was understandable in the early 1920s Comintern is completely inappropriate for a small propaganda group operating in today’s Britain.
But, of course, the explanation of the SWP’s bureaucratic centralism lies not in objective conditions. It lies in the narrow needs of its CC apparatus.
Alex Callinicos shores up what is a thoroughly weak argument by projecting the SWP back into history. The Bolsheviks thereby come to resemble the SWP. We are therefore told in all seriousness that the Bolsheviks “represented for most of their existence before October 1917 a small minority of the Russian working class”.20
In absolute numbers it is undoubtedly true that before the 1905 revolution the Bolsheviks were the majority faction of a party that really existed in name only. The word ‘party’ coming from the Latin for ‘part’ - therefore, for us, a party equals part of the working class. Marcel Liebman gives a figure of just 8,400 members for the Bolshevik faction in January 1905.21 But tsarist terror and oppression had till then prevented the working class from freely organising. To be a member of the RSDLP was to run a high risk of arrest and Siberian exile. Nevertheless, the RSDLP was viewed with sympathy and hope by millions of workers throughout the Russian empire (there were Polish, Latvian, etc, sections).
Once the tsarist state wobbled and Nicholas II had to stage a forced retreat, the two main factions of the RSDLP grew in leaps and bounds. Soviets were formed in late 1905 and their debates and votes show that both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were successful according to their aims. Eg, the Bolsheviks took the lead with the Moscow soviet, while the Mensheviks held back the St Petersburg soviet. Needless to say, delegates to the soviets were elected by a definite constituency. In Moscow 400 workers elected each delegate, in St Petersburg it was 500 workers, while in Odessa it was 100.
A widespread demand, especially after the defeat of the December uprising in Moscow, was for the unity of the two factions. This happened in 1906. By the time of the 5th Congress in May 1907 the RSDLP had a membership of nearly 150,000. Given the increasingly difficult conditions in Russia and the small size of the working class, there can be no doubt that the RSDLP had become a real part of the working class. And, though Lenin appears to have thought that the Bolsheviks would gain a clear majority at the 4th (Unity) Congress, he was clearly mistaken. Because the Bolsheviks had initiated the December uprising, it was their comrades who bore the brunt of the arrests, prison sentences and executions. They therefore sent smaller delegations, compared with the Mensheviks. The central committee elected by the 112 congress delegates had three Bolsheviks … but seven Mensheviks. However, the 5th (London) Congress agreed Bolshevik resolutions and the 336 delegates gave them a central committee majority (the Bolsheviks were supported by the Polish and Latvian sections). Put another way, by then the Bolsheviks were the majority faction of a mass party.
And it must be understood that both the main factions of the RSDLP remained mass in character despite the severe repression of the 1908-12 period. The results of elections to the tsarist fourth duma in 1912 showed their continued strength. Out of the nine deputies elected from the workers’ curia, six were Bolsheviks. A short while later the Bolsheviks secured trade union majorities in the two capitals of St Petersburg and Moscow. Then there was the legal Bolshevik daily paper, Pravda. The Bolsheviks had 5,600 worker groups collecting money for it in 1914 - an impressive figure that showed that the Bolsheviks represented four-fifths of the politically active workers in Russia. Hence, when it came to elections of the All-Russia Insurance Board, the entire workers’ group consisted of Pravda supporters.22 The allegation that the Bolsheviks “represented for most of their existence before October 1917 a small minority of the Russian working class” is therefore verifiably false.
Of course, comrade Callinicos needs the myth that in the months from February to October 1917 the Bolsheviks leapt from virtual insignificance to commanding a clear majority in the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets. Why? The SWP has always been nothing, today it is nothing … but, given some kind of sharp upturn in the class struggle (Callinicos cites the period 1968-74 and the 1984-85 miners’ Great Strike), he can promise his loyalists that the organisation will mushroom into a “small mass party” capable of leading the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. In effect a Bakuninite perspective.
Of course, here the ‘International Socialist tradition’ is far from alone on the revolutionary left. The Workers Revolutionary Party, Militant Tendency, International Marxist Group, Workers Power, International Spartacist Tendency, etc all proclaimed themselves to be the unique contemporary embodiment of the Bolsheviks and their democratic centralism. And like the SWP they too have suffered one eviscerating split after another. All that remains of the always insubstantial ‘Fourth International tradition’ is programmatically adrift fragments, fossilised remnants and the scattered sects of one.
There is a bigger canvas too. At its peak the ‘international Stalinite tradition’ boasted a membership numbering many millions, ruled states which included within their borders a third of humanity, provided inspiration for national liberation movements and in the form of the Soviet Union claimed to be on the verge of American levels of material wealth. In the authorised account the credit for this supposed “decisive tilt in the world balance of forces”23 was to be traced back to Lenin (in reality Stalin) and the establishment of a “party of a new type” and “absolute unity of action”.24
Now, it hardly needs saying, the ‘international Stalinite tradition’ is a mere husk of its former self. Vestiges such as the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain linger on. Other, bigger relics have morphed into left and not so left parties of neoliberal capitalism: eg, in Bulgaria, Italy, Poland and South Africa.
There is, of course, China. It is a weird social amalgam characteristic of a declining capitalism that cannot yet be killed off and a communism that cannot yet be born. China is a Dengist police state whose state-capitalist industries are dedicated to exporting cheap consumer goods to the west. Moreover, at least until the Shanghai stock market crash, a range of top western economists credited China with being the great hope for rescuing the US, EU, Japan, etc from stagnation. Martin Jacques, the former Eurocommunist, wrote the “remarkably prescient book”, When China rules the world (2009). Daniel Bell, the Canadian political scientist, even recommended what he calls China’s Confucian “meritocracy” as a political model.25 Testimony, surely, of the poverty of current bourgeois thought.
The collapse of the Soviet empire, the general crisis of ‘official communism’, the abandonment of reforms by reformism and a string of working class defeats inevitably produced capitalist triumphalism. The writings of Robert Kagan, Francis Fukuyama, Irving Kristol and the Project for the New American Century being the ‘highest’ expression. In that same triumphalist spirit Margaret Thatcher coined the dour phrase, ‘There is no alternative’.
But, just like nature, politics too abhors a vacuum. Sections of the revolutionary left have attempted to provide an alternative - not so much to capitalism, but to neoliberal capitalism, by promoting ‘broad parties’. Without exception these ‘broad parties’ are programmatically determined by the largely phantom right wing; eg, trade union bureaucrats, old Labourites and even liberal Islamists. Therefore, the programmatic alternative to neoliberal capitalism amounts to little more than a nostalgic looking back to welfare capitalism, Keynesianism and the post-World War II social democratic settlement.
Not surprisingly such ‘broad parties’ discourage serious political debate and are therefore prone to shatter, once faced with any kind of political test. In Britain we have seen the Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party, Respect and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition … and now Left Unity. Suffice to say, none have gained social weight. None of these halfway houses can legitimately be called a party - a part of the working class.
Under these conditions it has been the sprouting of ephemeral protest movements that has excited the former members of this and the former members of that. The ‘teamsters to turtles’ demonstration in Seattle coinciding with the November 1999 World Trade Organisation talks is often cited as the starting point. That was followed by the anti-globalisation movement, the Social Forums, Occupy, Spain’s Indignados and the Arab spring. Much idle chatter about texting, emailing and twittering being the new form of making revolution has followed. For a typical example, see Paul Mason’s Why it’s kicking off everywhere (2012). He is, it ought to be pointed out, a former member of Workers Power and before that the International Socialists. However, there is nothing new about the ideology of spontaneity. It is anarchistic, libertarian … and ineffective.
Because of the dehumanising bureaucracy of mainstream bourgeois society and its reproduction by ‘official communism’, the labour movement and the revolutionary sects, there is an understandable prejudice against establishing any kind of hierarchical organisation, enrolling dues-paying members, electing office-holders, building an apparatus, etc. This type of politics is seen as part of the problem. Not the solution. So “there is no desire to take over the state or to create a new party”.26 Instead the emphasis is on keeping everyone on board through establishing a snug consensus. So, while protest movements have been good at mobilising large numbers over a limited set of grievances, when they are asked what they positively favour there is vagueness or an embarrassing silence.
And, of course, behind the backs of rank-and-file participants decisions are made. They have to be. Small groups of individuals therefore negotiate with each other, try to provide direction, agree speakers, talk to the media, etc. So there is, in fact, a covert verticalism in operation.
In 1970 the feminist, Jo Freeman, famously wrote The tyranny of structurelessness. Though originally reflecting on her experience of the women’s liberation movement, she skilfully locates the essential problem with all such organisations. The real structures are hidden and informal leaders are unaccountable. Hence, though there is much “motion”, there are few “results”.27
As for consensus, it is a form of tyranny. The tyranny of the individual. In theory any crank, blackleg or paid agent can assert their will over an entire group by blocking decision-making. Consensus is therefore a recipe for paralysis, lowest-common-denominator politics and people angrily stomping off to do their own thing. Bad when it comes to a single-issue campaign, a strike or a workplace occupation. Impossible when it comes to organising anything complex.
And make no mistake: overthrowing capitalism is a highly complex task that will require the formation of millions of workers into a political party that is both sufficiently centralised and sufficiently democratic so as to allow coordinated and decisive action.
1. See, for example, ‘Comrades in the SWP, rebel!’ Weekly Worker October 1 2013.
2. A Callinicos, ‘Is Leninism finished?’ Socialist Review February 2013; and ‘What sort of party do we need?’ Socialist Review July 2013.
3. Socialist Review February 2013.
4. SWP constitution 10(c).
5. SWP constitution 5(c).
7. SWP constitution 1(c).
8. LT Lih Lenin rediscovered Chicago 2008.
9. Ibid p6.
10. Ibid p532.
11. Ibid p533.
12. M Waters (ed) Rosa Luxemburg speaks New York 1997, p125.
13. J Molyneux Marxism and the party London 1978, p60.
14. P Broué The German revolution Chicago 2006, p21.
15. Quoted by LT Lih in ‘Democratic centralism: fortunes of a formula’ Weekly Worker April 11 2013.
16. A Alder (ed) Theses, resolution and manifestos of the first four congress of the Third International London 1980, p259.
17. Ibid p257.
18. Ibid p234.
20. Socialist Review February 2013.
21. M Liebman Leninism under Lenin London 1980, p47.
22. See VI Lenin, ‘Report of the CC of the RSDLP to the Brussels conference and instructions to the CC delegation’ CW Vol 20, Moscow 1977, pp495-535.
23. CPGB The British road to socialism London 1978, p12.
24. JV Stalin Foundations of Leninism New York 1939, p120.
25. DA Bell The China model Princeton NJ 2015.