Ahmed Shawki: 35 years

Full-timers and ‘cadre’

Mike Macnair discusses the managerialist version of ‘democratic centralism’ revealed by the collapse of yet another sect

On April 4 I wrote about the ‘rape cover-up’ aspect of the collapse of the US International Socialist Organisation,1 while a week later Peter Moody wrote more generally about its politics.2 This article is concerned with another specific aspect of the collapse: the claim of several participants and online commentators that it is due to ‘democratic centralism’ or the ‘small party model’.

This sort of line has been sharply argued (among others, no doubt) by blogger Louis Proyect, by Brian Chidester from the 2013-14 ISO opposition, by David McNally, the former Canadian co-thinker of the ISO, by the pseudonymous blogger, ‘Failed Harvest’; and no doubt by others.3 Meanwhile, other authors have tried to save at least part of the Cliffite inheritance: notably, Paul Le Blanc, Steve Leigh, Helen Scott and Brian Bean.4

I think that ‘democratic centralism’ is a phrase, like the words ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’, which needs to be rescued from both misuse and obloquy. And the usual alternatives actually produce more top-down control and ‘them-ocracy’.

Peter Moody correctly made the point that sex abuse scandals, and attempts to cover them up, are not unique to ‘Leninist’ organisations. We can take this further: ‘#MeToo’ started with powerful Hollywood figures, who may be individual entrepreneurs or corporate executives; the power to abuse can inhere directly as market power over potential contractors (as opposed to present employees); ‘Pestminster’ was about the conduct of individual MPs - here the power came from political seniority.

What underlies all of this is primarily institutionalised inequality, which is secondarily protected by rights of privacy and ‘non-disclosure agreements’, and behind these, the sale and denial of justice by the legal profession through the ‘free market in legal services’.

This is a crisis for the left groups affected by it, not because they do worse than official society, but because they have imagined that they can do better - and finding that they too have exploitative management is then more sharply a betrayal.

I have very limited time to write at the moment, so this already delayed second piece in a series will be followed by two more. This week I look briefly at the organisational forms of the ISO and their origins, and how these forms give ideological cover to unaccountable management. In the next article I will look at the pre-1914 and western origins of democratic centralism as an organisational form, to detach it from the ‘Russian’ facts and fantasies. A third article will examine the defects of the federalist ‘labour movement tradition’, network alternatives and ‘anti-small-partyism’.


Part of the ISO story is that Ahmed Shawki and his collaborators remained in charge for 35 years; that full-time regional organisers were (as in the British Socialist Workers Party) appointed from above, not elected from below; and, further, that behind the official structure was an independent financial apparatus with a very substantial turnover. This was not financially misappropriated as such, but it did provide an unaccountable leadership core with job and other patronage possibilities.5

Conversely, ‘permanent factions’ (existing outside the formal pre-conference period) were banned; with the effect that horizontal communication beyond the single local branch, though not formally banned, was liable to be treated as ‘factionalism’. And a sharp line was drawn between what could be published (the leadership’s line) and dissent, which had to remain internal only.

This is the basic frame of the organisational model of the British SWP. Although the forms vary, it was the common inheritance of the ‘International Committee of the Fourth International’, created in 1953; and so was also found in the Workers Revolutionary Party in Britain, and the Organisation Communiste Internationaliste/Parti Communiste Internationaliste in France. The idea that the full-time apparatus is the ‘cadre’ - the indispensable core of the party - was central to James P Cannon of the US SWP, and his British and French co-thinkers, when they organised a split in 1953. They claimed that the (alleged) support of the ‘Pabloites’ for opposition groupings in the US SWP, the French PCI and British ‘Club’ amounted to an attack on the ‘cadre’ and hence to ‘liquidationism’.

General bans on factions were common to the ‘official’ communists and the Maoists. They were the inheritance of the 1921 ban in the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) and its congeners in the decisions of the Communist International. In practice, however, ‘official’ communist parties in the ‘west’ tolerated a great deal of informal factional activity.

The particular grotesqueries of the ban on ‘permanent factions’ and ‘factionalism’ were not shared by the International Committee’s great rivals in the ‘Pabloite’ International Secretariat of the Fourth International and its descendants in the European wing of the Unified Secretariat of the Fourth International (now the official Fourth International). But the control of information flows by the party centre remains present in these organisations, and the factions function as in bourgeois political parties: that is, the full-time apparat usually remains undislodged.

Behind this phenomenon is both a practical problem and an ideology. The practical problem is the equivalent of two prongs of a fork. The first prong is that capital generally offers workers the choice between overwork, on the one hand, and serious poverty, on the other. The result is that it is hard to do the work required to publish papers, run campaigns, organise meetings, and so on, without full-timers. To the extent that we do do without full-timers, we are generally forced to rely on people who have other advantages under capitalism - with the same risk of inequality as when employing full-timers. The second prong is that capitalists are generally unenthusiastic about employing people whose CVs include periods of full-time work for left organisations (or even trade unions).

Between these two prongs, there is, therefore, a natural pressure of capitalist society on workers’ organisations to employ long-service full-timers. The larger the organisation, the more these long-service full-timers are needed, and also the more they are drawn into the common political culture of capitalist-bureaucratic managerialism. This is not a particular problem of far-left groups: the Webbs already noticed it in the British trade unions in their 1894 History of trade unionism, and Robert Michels overargued it (as ‘natural elites’) from observation of the massive Social Democratic Party of Germany, in his 1911 book Political parties.


The ideology has two threads to it. The first - and fundamental to the later tradition - is Comintern’s 1920 Theses on the role of the Communist Party in the proletarian revolution (Second Congress), with the claim that the party as the advanced part has to represent the class, and its 1921 The organisational structure of the Communist Parties, the methods and content of their work (Third Congress), which concretised the idea of the leadership as the most advanced part of the party, which ‘represents’ the whole against the backward ‘parts’.6 There are many good things in these sets of theses, but they both make a fundamental error. The party may be wrong - as against the working class masses, or even as against a particular group. The leadership may be wrong - as against the party ranks, or even as against a particular branch or fraction.

This error is characterised by several authors in the discussion of the ISO collapse as ‘Zinovievism’, from Grigory Zinoviev’s role in introducing the Second Congress theses and his role in the Fifth Congress and after in ‘Bolshevisation’. Indeed, in 2014 Joel Geier of the old ISO leadership devoted a piece in the ISO’s International Socialist Review to ‘Zinovievism and the degeneration of world communism’.7

This concept is badly misleading. In the first place, it is personality-cult reasoning: scapegoating Zinoviev for what were in fact 1920-21 decisions, to which Lenin and Trotsky were unequivocally parties, in the hope of finding a ‘pure form’ of Leninism and preserving ‘T is for Trotsky the hero’. Secondly, the ‘scapegoat Zinoviev’ approach leaves out the reasons for the decisions taken (even if those decisions can be seen in retrospect to have been mistaken).

The original idea that the class has to be ‘represented’ by its advanced part, the party, flowed from the Bolsheviks’ loss of majority support in spring 1918 as a result of the peace of Brest-Litovsk - and as a result, their rigging of soviet elections at the same period, and then the turn of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries to terrorism against the Bolshevik regime, and the Bolshevik response of Red Terror.8 They now had to justify what had become a dictatorship over the proletariat.

The drive for ‘military’ discipline in the party, most clearly expressed in the 1921 theses, flowed from the problem of military insubordination by local leaderships, notably in the Tsaritsyn affair in autumn 1918, and the political struggle round the ‘military opposition’ at the Eighth Congress of the party in March 1919.9

The decision to ban factions, as is well-known, was part of the turn to the New Economic Policy in 1921: the expectation was that economic liberalisation would strengthen the hand of small capital, which would naturally find political expression; in the circumstances, if the proletariat - a small minority in Russia - was to hang on to power until the expected revolution in the west caught up, opposition parties had to be more systematically banned, as did factions within the Communist Party.

With the benefit of hindsight, all of these decisions were mistakes. They were mistakes made under conditions of war, counterrevolutionary foreign intervention and civil war - and in an overwhelmingly peasant-majority country. But it needs to be clear that the Bolsheviks would not have had these problems if they had adapted their party to the needs of civil war in a peasant-majority country before they obtained political power: in that case they would not have built a serious workers’ party in the first place, or obtained political power in October 1917.


The second thread of the ideology is from 1960s-70s radicals’ naive readings of Lenin’s 1902 What is to be done? Lars T Lih has written at great length, attempting to dispel the standard readings of this book and its relationship to the 1903 split in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.10 But what we are concerned with here is later radicals’ reading of the book out of context. And here the core was the idea of ‘professional revolutionaries’ - understood not as meaning ‘revolutionaries who are skilled at the work’ (as Lih reads Lenin’s argument), but as “full-timers”.

There is a link here to the idea of ‘cadre’ - originally a military term. The cadre of an army or particular military unit consists of the officers, specialists and instructors, who train up the incoming short-service conscripts. The expression was in communist use by 1930 at the latest - presumably having spread from the Red Army, to the cadres (specifically trained and specialist industrial workers, villager leaders, and so on).11 Still not full-timers, though, and way below the ‘top leadership’ level.

It is James P Cannon who seems to have been responsible for the idea that the ‘cadre’ of the organisation meant its full-timers. Already in 1931 Cannon wrote that the Communist League of America’s conference should

Begin the actual formation of a cadre of professional revolutionists, who put themselves entirely at the disposal of the organisation. Select a group out of the younger and foot-loose elements, and train them deliberately for full-time professional work.12

I guess that this peculiarity reflects Cannon’s pre-Communist Party background as an itinerant organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World - which he himself later saw as a proto-party formation, but which operated through itinerant organisers, with a very low stability of the rank-and-file membership.13

Cannon was not himself fully consistent in using this concept in this way. He did, however, use it to justify the split of 1953, which reverberated down the subsequent history of Trotskyism. It also fitted in with the enthusiasm of late 1960s-early 1970s radicals for What is to be done?14

Under clandestinity, going full-time was not merely sacrificing earning potential (as it is to this day for most leftwing full-timers), but also taking on a high risk of arrest, and so on. The same was true for the itinerant IWW organisers of the early 20th century. That does not mean that the clandestine full-timers should control the party - the idea that an actually functioning party could consist only of itinerant organisers, without the local activists who supplied the funds, the safe houses and so on, was illusory. But it did give Cannon’s idea a sort of plausibility. The application of an analogy of this sort to the full-timers of a legal leftwing group in the late 20th century was and remains misleading.

Under legality, using ‘cadre’ to mean the full-timers is merely an ideology of managerialism. And the same is true of the 1920-21 ideology of the party question.



  1. Transparency and solidarity’ Weekly Worker April 4.

  2. Learn the lessons’ Weekly Worker April 11.

  3. Proyect: www.counterpunch.org/2019/04/04/notes-on-the-dissolution-of-the-iso; Chidester: https://externalbulletin.org/2014/07/01/le-cadre-du-militant-socialiste/#more-404; McNally: https://socialistworker.org/2019/03/22/the-period-the-party-and-the-next-left; https://failedharvest.com/blog/socialism1org.

  4. LeBlanc: https://socialistworker.org/2019/03/27/reflections-on-coherence-and-comradeship; Leigh: https://socialistworker.org/2019/03/28/what-models-of-organization-can-guide-us-now; Scott: https://socialistworker.org/2019/03/21/separating-whats-good-from-whats-rotten; Bean: https://socialistworker.org/2019/03/29/critical-thoughts-about-drapers-micro-sect.

  5. https://newmilitant.com/the-crisis-and-collapse-of-the-international-socialist-organization.

  6. Both available on Marxists Internet Archive: www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/index.htm, under the pages for the relevant congresses.

  7. https://isreview.org/issue/93/zinovievism-and-degeneration-world-communism.

  8. All this at various points in A Rabinowitch The Bolsheviks in power Indiana 2008.

  9. Convenient discussion in G Lonergan, ‘Where was the conscience of the revolution? The military opposition at the Eighth Party Congress (March 1919)’ Slavic Review No74, pp832-49 (2015).

  10. Lenin rediscovered Brill 2005.

  11. Oxford English Dictionary ‘cadre (n)’, numbers 2 and 3.

  12. www.marxistsfr.org/archive/cannon/works/1931/sep/discussion02.htm.

  13. www.marxists.org/archive/cannon/works/1955/iww.htm.

  14. Compare also M Elbaum Revolution in the air for the US Maoists of the same period.