Break with managerialism

Martin Thomas’s response to Neil Faulkner misuses history to defend the bankrupt model of confessional sects, argues Mike Macnair

We have followed Neil Faulkner at perhaps tedious length through the historical twists and turns of his series on ‘theories of the party’.1 To do so was necessary, because, as I said in my first article, Faulkner claims that he is “drawing on the Marxist tradition” (emphasis added) and that

I don’t want to be ‘new or original’: I want to draw upon the existing Marxist tradition and apply it to the present. Marxism can be thought of as the distilled experience of some 200 years of class struggle: the concentrated essence of working class history.

He also claims that he is “repeating lessons that seem to have been forgotten”. But what he means by “the Marxist tradition” here is actually merely the Cliffite tradition - that of the Socialist Review Group-International Socialists-Socialist Workers Party.

Faulkner’s underlying argument advocates the rejection of any party platform, in favour of a broad party which attempts to organise the “vanguards of the workers and the oppressed” (unexplained). He uses Lenin and 1902-03 to support the organisational separation of “revolutionaries” from “reformists”, But ‘revolutionary’ again remains radically unexplained. Indeed, his argument offers no explanation of what “party” means - as opposed to a trade union, a campaign, a left front in a trade union movement, a cooperative, a ‘social forum’ or whatever.

This party - whatever it is - is to be ‘democratic’ - which means something to do with majority decision-making, but without this decision-making being binding on anyone. It is not to be ‘democratic-centralist’. This last appears to mean, for Faulkner, from one angle - his rhetorical target - the full apparatus of anti-Pabloite, Trotskyist, bureaucratic centralism, more severely bureaucratic-centralist than western Stalinism, as constructed by James P Cannon, Gerry Healy and Pierre Lambert, and as borrowed by Tony Cliff and his co-thinkers at the time of the IS-SWP’s ‘Bolshevisation’ in the 1970s. From another angle - in terms of what comrade Faulkner actually argues against - it means merely the idea that the decisions taken by majority vote are binding on members. It may be (from what comrade Faulkner writes about Marx and Engels in his first article) that he actually positively advocates federalism; but, on the other hand, the idea does not explicitly appear in his conclusions.

In the first four articles of this series I have traced and criticised comrade Faulkner’s arguments for this approach. These work through ‘great men’ history: the heroes, Marx (and perhaps Engels) and Lenin, who get landed with responsibility for comrade Faulkner’s conception of the party; and the sinners, Trotsky and Zinoviev, who are taken to be responsible respectively for the idea of a party platform, aka programme, which is inherently sectarian (Trotsky) and democratic centralism, meaning bureaucratic centralism (Zinoviev).

I hope that I have shown in the first two articles that comrade Faulkner saddles Marx and Engels, and Lenin, with the political ideas of their opponents - who precisely criticised the ‘Marxists’ and the ‘Leninists’ as sectarians, on the grounds of arguments like comrade Faulkner’s. The mechanism by which this effect works is primarily suppressio veri - leaving out events which speak against comrade Faulkner’s narrative. In relation to Marx and Engels, the omitted events include their relations to the Chartist movement in 1846-48, the 1848 Demands of the Communist Party in Germany, the debates in the First International and its splits, Marx’s and Engels’ political relationships with the German socialists between the 1850s and 1890s, and the success of the German socialists, against Marx’s and Engels’ advice, in creating the Sozialdemocratische Partei Deutschlands, which was then a model for the parties of the Second International, including the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.

In relation to Lenin, missing are 1905 and the adoption of democratic centralism by both factions, the party reunification in 1906, the splits in the Bolshevik faction in 1908-10, and the political context of the Prague conference and ‘August bloc’ events. But there is also suggestio falsi - making events which comrade Faulkner does report mean something other than what they actually meant - by extracting quotations from their context, as in the cases of the Communist manifesto quotation, and those from Lenin’s What is to be done?

I hope to have shown in the third and fourth articles that suppressio veri is also at work in comrade Faulkner’s treatment of the ‘sinners’, Trotsky and Zinoviev. In relation to Trotsky on the programme question and the origins of the abortive Fourth International, Faulkner is significantly silent on Trotsky’s work of building the International Left Opposition in 1929-33; on the Comintern’s turn to the popular front, and the consequent breaking of the Fourth Internationalists’ 1933-34 relations with the ‘London Bureau’, the Poum (and a large part of their own co-thinkers); but also on the Fourth Internationalists’ explosive global growth in the later 1930s. That the Fourth International failed is true. Comrade Faulkner, however, offers radical theoretical-overkill arguments to account for this failure, which if taken seriously (they surely should not be) would imply, via Faulkner’s Humean, sceptic arguments, Burkean conservatism.

In relation to scapegoating Zinoviev for democratic centralism, comrade Faulkner is silent as to the 1919-21 Russian Communist Party and Comintern decisions (to which Lenin and Trotsky were direct parties) which adopted this approach - and on the ‘Democratic Centralist’ faction’s opposition to these decisions and their input into the 1920s Left Opposition. As a result, he also leaves out the actual context of these decisions in the Russian civil war and New Economic Policy, and in the failures of the ‘centrist’ trends, through their fear of civil war, in 1918-21 in central and western Europe.

We will return later to what positively might be learned about the concept of a revolutionary workers’ party and its organisational methods from the history comrade Faulkner so radically distorts. But first we need to address Martin Thomas’s response.2 This, through the weasel words characteristic of the Matgamnaite group for many years, actually defends the model of building confessional sects on the basis of theory rather than on the basis of a clear political platform.

Dem Cen

Comrade Thomas begins by agreeing with comrade Faulkner on the question of scapegoating Grigory Zinoviev for the bureaucratic-centralist form. Indeed, unlike Faulkner, who does little more than mention Zinoviev, Thomas goes so far as to write as if the 1919 militarisation of the RCP(B) and the 1921 ban on factions dated to 1924-25. I have already given the reasons for rejecting this view in my last article. Thomas proceeds, however, to qualify his Zinoviev-scapegoating in significant ways. He argues:

In the years after the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks and their co-thinkers outside Russia strove to weld effective revolutionary parties out of the disparate elements brought together by the inspiration of the Russian revolution.

They had large chunks of old social democratic parties, notably in France, where the new Communist Party was in fact the renamed majority of the old Socialist Party, including much of the old parliamentary-oriented SP leadership.

They had conglomerations of small radical socialist groups, notably in Britain.

The majority, in many countries, were young people radicalised around the end of World War 1 and with no political experience.

And there were miscellaneous older figures: the first communist MP in Britain was Cecil Malone, a former lieutenant-colonel, member of the British team at the Versailles peace talks and Liberal MP, who had been converted to communism by a visit to the USSR in 1919.

The communist parties were generally pieced together with much difficulty, and started off as ramshackle assemblies. Bit by bit, from 1918 onwards, the Bolsheviks strove to help them make themselves more coherent.

In 1924-25, after Lenin’s death, there was a new turn. Zinoviev, as president of the Comintern, launched a drive for forced-march ‘Bolshevisation’.

Thomas offers no explanation of how “the Bolsheviks” - meaning the leadership of Comintern - “strove to help them make themselves more coherent”. If he actually cited the 1920 Twenty-one conditions or the 1921 Theses on the organisational structure of the communist parties and the methods and content of their work,3 it would be obvious that ‘Bolshevisation’ after the 1924 Fifth Congress of Comintern was carrying into application positions adopted in 1919 in Russia, in 1920-21 in Comintern.

For Thomas, then, the early CPs were “ramshackle” in the sense that they could include figures won from the state, like Malone. But that is also like the Finnish Social Democrat police chief, Gustavio Rovio, who sheltered Lenin from the Russian Provisional Government’s efforts to arrest him after the July Days, or the senior army officer, Mikhail Bonch-Bruyevich, who jumped to the Soviet side in October 1917.4 What is counterposed to “ramshackle” is neither a clear political platform nor any very specific organisational ideas; rather, it is ‘coherent’. What is meant by this is, in fact, theoretical or ideological coherence; as will appear from what follows.

Similarly, Thomas rightly says that “the term ‘democratic centralism’ was first coined by the Mensheviks, in 1905-06. They used it to summarise what they had learned, or hoped to learn, from the Jena congress of the German SPD ...” But he goes on to explain Jena on the basis that “SPD organisation had previously been ramshackle and diffuse, partly because of the difficulties of organising anything tighter under the Anti-Socialist Law (banning the SPD), in force from 1878 to 1890”. We have “ramshackle” again - and no sense of what changed in 1904-05 (in particular, the legalisation of city-wide and regional organisations, or the context of left-right debates over centralism), as opposed to 1890.

As to Comintern, Thomas argues:

The general idea became important, as the communist parties were assembled after World War I because it was a concise way of saying that they must move away from the diffuse, low-activism, parliamentary-focused ways which the old social democratic parties had fallen into, and towards:

That movement was essential. Its perversion into ‘Bolshevisation’ came later and as a result of incipient Stalinism.

The formulation is again slippery. “Low-activism” is a false description of the “demonstration culture” of the Second International and SPD.5 This misleading expression comes partly from the myth of 1903 (again), though also (secondarily) from the German lefts, in the form of Hugo Eberlein’s organisation report to the December 30 1918 - January 1 1919 founding congress of the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (Spartakusbund). Here Eberlein’s suggestion was that electoral campaigning does not really count as ‘activism’ - reflecting the systematic ultra-leftism of the early KPD(S).6 That the membership must be “educated in revolutionary politics” is again phraseology suggesting a requirement of ‘coherence’ or agreement to theoretical positions. On the other hand, the effort to control the rightwing parliamentarians, and so on, was already part of the context of the SPD decisions of 1905.7

“Of course”, comrade Thomas says, “real democratic-centralist organisations don’t purge members who are slow and dilatory in activities they’ve voted against, rather than positively disruptive ....” But

What ‘democratic centralism’ means in the SWP and [Socialist Party in England and Wales] is that the inactive (but compliant) stay ‘on the books’, and those who dissent forcefully get purged. Their caricature of democratic centralism is bad for that reason.

This second point is true enough. But, hand on heart, comrade Thomas, can you really say that the Matgamna tendency (Workers Fight-International Communist League-fused Workers Socialist League-Socialist Organiser-Alliance for Workers’ Liberty) is free from factitious allegations of indiscipline, provocations and so on, as devices to get rid of dissenters?

Thomas goes on to argue that leading SWPers and SPEWers have adapted to the trade union bureaucratic milieu in which they have been working through winning positions; and that the Matgamnaites themselves “had trouble enough with members who won not-very-exalted positions as Labour councillors (on left councils) in the early 1980s, and ended up having to expel some and seeing others fall away”.

This is again a mealy-mouthed account of what were in part clear political splits; and of difficulties with councillors which had in their background, in my personal opinion, the inability of the Matgamnaites and of those who split from them to distinguish clearly between the case for local government defiance of the Tory government alongside the 1984-85 miners’ strike, when the action might really have made a difference, and mere ‘defiance’ in abstraction from the existence of a mass movement, in the hope of recreating the (successful) movement round Poplar Council in 1921 or the (defeated) one round Clay Cross in and after 1972.8

Nonetheless, the story should also be understood as telling us that the AWL’s ‘good democratic centralism’ could no more hold onto councillors than the “ramshackle” early CPGB could hold onto the MP, Cecil Malone. Indeed, more than one of these councillors - and more than one of the SWP’s and SPEW’s trade union elected officials - were not, like Malone, recent recruits: they were or are long-standing activists with high-level learning in Cliffite, Grantite-Taaffeite or Matgamnaite “revolutionary theory” and substantial “training” to “value the instructions of their revolutionary organisation”. The problem is that a group built on theory and personality cults, which will inevitably be one among competing similar groups, as opposed to a party built on a clear political platform, cannot develop the weight to counterbalance the pressures of elected office.

Thomas’s Trotsky

Thomas rightly identifies Faulkner’s Lenin as a variant version of the SWP’s image of Lenin as a precursor to its own practice. He also congratulates Faulkner for rejecting the idea of growth through linear mass recruitment. On the other hand, he wrongly attributes the SWP’s anti-democratic regime simply to this approach. He counterposes to it what he says is Trotsky’s alternative:

Trotsky, in many writings, outlined an alternative: a perspective of building revolutionary parties in and through a fight to transform the existing mass labour movements, with a process of splits and fusions along the way. Workers’ Liberty works for that alternative today.

As an account of Trotsky’s policy, this is very violently ‘spun’. Between 1917 and 1926, Trotsky was a leader of the RCP(B) and Comintern, and committed to building these organisations. Between 1926 and 1933 he was attempting to build an opposition faction in the Communist Parties and Comintern, although this had to be partly external, as he and many other supporters were at different stages expelled. In 1933-34 he attempted - as I wrote two weeks ago - to launch a movement for a Fourth International together with left elements of the London Bureau; in 1934-36, the ‘French Turn’ took the Fourth Internationalists into the Socialist Parties to work with their left wings. But from 1936-40 the Fourth Internationalists were mainly engaged in open work and linear recruitment.

The claims about linear recruitment as producing bureaucratic centralism are also false. On the one hand, the IS began the mass-recruitment practice before the splits of the mid-1970s and their contemporaneous adoption of the ban on ‘permanent factions’ and Cannonite bureaucratic centralism.

On the other, organisations which pursue a ‘splits and fusions’ perspective can also be affected by the idea that open discussion and debate are “unaffordable luxuries”. Thus the Lambertiste current in France, which has played with a variety of splits-and-fusions projects. Thus also the Mandelites, since fully open discussion is inconsistent with their endlessly repeated tactic of cuddling up to the bureaucratic lefts through ‘non-sectarianism’.

Indeed, the Matgamnaites’ belief that ‘splits and fusions’ meant a route to pure Matgamnaite theory, so that they were engaged in their fusions in getting rid of ‘centrist obstacles’ in the style of Cannon and co in the Workers’ Party and in the Socialist Party in America in the 1930s, may have contributed in a small way (by way of reactions to their conduct) to the IS-SWP move into bureaucratic centralism in the 1970s.

Thomas has more to say against Faulkner’s objections to the 1938 Transitional programme and decision to launch the Fourth International. He asserts - perhaps rightly - that SWP leadership hostility to drafting a party programme was less about negative judgment of 1938, more about freeing Cliff’s hands “to do and say whatever ‘fits the mood’ and helps to ‘build’, without being fettered by statements of principles or documented points of reference”. Nonetheless, he does defend 1938:

Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky were not at all fetishists of formal ‘programme’ documents, but Faulkner can’t really get around the fact that they were frequently concerned to summarise and codify ideas in manifestos, platforms, and so on. The Transitional programme of 1938 was an extended summary - written by Trotsky at a time when he feared (rightly) that he himself might not have much more time to live - of a whole series of such manifestos and platforms, from the good years of the Communist International through the various documents of the Left Opposition and the Movement for a Fourth International.

Thomas offers no evidence in support of the first sentence of this passage. It happens that there is one item of evidence which can support it: Marx’s 1875 letter to Wilhelm Bracke, which is repeatedly quoted by modern Trotskyists out of context:

Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes. If, therefore, it was not possible - and the conditions of the item did not permit it - to go beyond the Eisenach programme, one should simply have concluded an agreement for action against the common enemy.9

As the second sentence makes clear, this was the covering letter for the enclosure of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha programme. And, as I argued in the first article in this series, it turns out that Marx’s and Engels’ judgments in 1875 about Gotha were wrong. It turned out that the Gotha unification was, in spite of the bad theory in the Gotha programme, a large “step of real movement”, allowing the take-off of the German Social Democracy to mass scale.

Outside this immediate context, Marx and Engels were concerned with programmes - as I have argued in my first article (October 1). As to Lenin, there is simply no support for the point. Not only did the RSDLP devote around a third of the time of its 1903 congress to its draft programme: Lenin’s Collected works show that he paid close attention to the programme and proposals to change it (for example, on the agrarian question in the 1900s; on various issues in 1917-19, including defence of the minimum programme against arguments that it was superseded by the seizure of power10). Of Trotsky, on the other hand, there is more support available for “not a fetishist of programme” - in Trotsky’s polemics against Lenin, beginning with the 1904 Our political tasks.11 I have addressed the utility of these judgments in the third article in this series (October 15): Trotsky retracted them in 1917 and after.


In the second part of the passage, Thomas judges - I think correctly - that the 1938 Transitional programme was in reality an “extended summary” of the documents of the first four congresses (“good years”) of Comintern, and of the ILO and MFI in the 1930s. But, as I argued in the third article in this series, this is not and cannot be a party programme as the basis of membership in and identification with a party. The summary is not a general statement of aims and tasks, but presupposes an ulterior principle of identification - which then has to be the history of the movement in general, either as a personal identification with its leaders (the cult of the personality; ‘Trotskyism’ and so on), or as a body of theory, which has the effect of making the group a confessional sect.

Thomas works within Faulkner’s frame of the Fourth Internationalists being as marginal in 1938 as they had been in 1932, which I criticised in the third article. But he reverses Faulkner’s value-judgment of the initiative:

Trotsky and his comrades made mistakes. But if we wait to organise, and to codify ideas, until we are sure not to make mistakes, then we will never move. And that they organised, and tried to codify their ideas: those were not mistakes.

Trotsky argued for formalising the ‘Movement for the Fourth International’ into ‘the Fourth International’ in 1938, because he knew world war was coming soon. He expected (rightly) that the Trotskyist groups would be dispersed, unable to communicate, many of them shattered by repression. He wanted to organise the maximum of cohesion while he could.

He thought that the Fourth International would at least have more cohesion than the Zimmerwald Left in World War I, and it would have potential to rally mass support towards the end of the war, as the revolutionary internationalists had in World War I.

We have here “cohesion”, whereas, when he discussed Comintern, Thomas spoke of “coherence”. But the substance is the same. What is sought is theoretical or ideological unity. That is also reflected in Thomas’s judgment that Trotsky was wrong and Schachtman right in the 1939-40 split in the US SWP over Soviet-defencism: Trotsky “threw his weight on the ideologically weaker side”. This emphasis on ideology appears later in the article, too:

We’ve chronicled in our book The left in disarray how ideological malaises incubated in the 1940s and 50s have exploded into a deadly epidemic since the mid-1980s - for example with ‘absolute anti-Zionism’. (Beginnings for it can be found back in the 1940s, but nothing like what has developed since the mid-1980s). With that epidemic of ideological disarray has come an epidemic of splits.

This is, of course, a fantasy, which reflects the Matgamnaites’ evolution since the 1980s into deeper and deeper commitments to anti-anti-imperialism generally, as a result of which the majority of the far left, which continues to adhere to the political commitments of the first four congresses of Comintern on opposition to imperialism and colonialism, appears increasingly alien to the Matgamnaites. The reality is that ‘third camp’ groups and ‘anti-anti-imperialists’ have been just as fissile as ‘orthodox Trotskyist’, Maoist and ‘left communist’ groups.

The commitment to ideological unity, and the ambiguities that this produces in relation to democratic functioning, are reflected in Thomas’s failure to distinguish between faction and party in relation to Trotsky’s activity in 1929-33:

In fact, Trotsky had been pushing the rearguard-Bolsheviks to organise into aspirant parties (groups, leagues, etc), ever since he was exiled from the USSR in 1929 and became able to communicate with them. He put great effort, for example, into helping the rearguard-Bolsheviks in France, previously scattered in different little circles, to come together round a weekly paper and an activist orientation.

Missing here - and fundamentally - is Trotsky’s insistence, down to 1933, and against various co-thinkers, on the necessity of fighting to organise factions of the communist parties and Comintern - external if this was necessary due to expulsions, and so on - not a new party. Trotsky’s radical turn of 1933 in response to the Hitler coup and the failure of the KPD and Comintern to respond, and all its consequences, is then erased from history.

Hence every open faction becomes an “aspirant party”. This in its turn actually supports the splittism of the far left: both because factions are led to split on insufficient grounds, in the hope of finding fresh fields and pastures new; and because majorities are led to believe that an open faction is ‘really’ a split, or is an ‘impending’ split, and hence to adopt anti-democratic measures against the public expression of dissent.

And in spite of comrade Thomas’s (ostensibly) sharing comrade Faulkner’s rejection of ‘Zinovievism’, Thomas quotes two passages from Trotsky, writing in 1939 and 1936, of which the first in substance repeats the argument of the Theses of the Second Congress of Comintern (drafter and presenter: G Zinoviev) that the party is needed to represent the class because of the uneven development of that class.

One more historical point falls to be noted in the exchange between Thomas and Faulkner. Thomas states:

When Lenin wrote that about ‘seizing the link’, what he meant was: get an all-Russian weekly newspaper and organise around it, as a way of going from the (large number of) scattered Marxist circles to the beginnings of a (not yet mass) Marxist party.

In the ‘years of reaction’, the link that he ‘seized’ was holding together a Bolshevik faction which, so Trotsky tells us, had in the low years no more than 30 or 40 reliable activists across Russia.

The first of these paragraphs does not grasp the situation in the tsarist empire (which Lars Lih has discussed): an actual mass radical upsurge of unorganised workers’ movements, as well as of local socialist groups, with no existing mass workers’ party, into which Iskra entered as a proponent of the mass German SPD’s way of organising on a national scale under illegality.

The second paragraph trusts Trotsky for his judgment of the scale of Bolshevik support in the Russian underground at a time when Trotsky was not a part of the Bolshevik faction and had an interest to understate Bolshevik support. Though by the time he wrote this (I think from the biography of Stalin12) he had come to self-criticise his former opposition to Bolshevism, he also still had an interest to understate Bolshevik support in the pre-revolutionary period - as doing so gave hope of an equivalent breakthrough for the Fourth Internationalists. As applied to modern times, the image of the micro-Bolshevik faction (especially if it is seen as an ‘aspirant party’) licenses unwillingness of small groups to unite now on the basis of common principles expressed in a programme, in the hope of being carried to a mass scale and marginalising ‘opponent groups’ by a future wave of radicalisation.

There is a good deal more which could be criticised in comrade Thomas’s response to Faulkner. But, at this point, we have returned to where I set out: that is, that comrade Thomas’s response also spins the history, just as much as comrade Faulkner does. But Thomas’s spin on the history is to support confessional sects based on ideologies and the ‘whole history’ of their organisations; which are, in consequence, inherently anti-democratic, since it is only the old-timers who can really claim to ‘know’ the whole history.


I began this article by summarising Faulkner’s argument, and my objections to his use of history. I said that I would end by summarising what I think is positively to be learned from the history.

I should start by saying that both Faulkner and Thomas revolve within the concentric circles of the post-1945 left, and more specifically of the post-1956 ‘New Left’, and of the ‘children of 68’. Both in different ways propose to us forms of this left: groups of which have revolved, like gerbils on their exercise-wheels, without actually getting anywhere, for the last 40 years. Faulkner’s version is to abandon the substantive political commitments which lurk behind the SWP’s ‘moderate demands but militant action’ and ‘strike, strike, street, street’ politics - and instead seek merely a broad front of the ‘vanguards’ (meaning the activists of whatever political stripe), with no aims other than whatever is currently fashionable. Thomas’s version is merely to cling to what the Matgamna tendency has been doing since it was expelled from the IS, and more acutely since the early 1980s: a smaller version of the SWP’s ‘activism’ and ‘broad fronts’ bureaucratically controlled by the AWL on the basis of first-mover advantage, with a ‘party brand’, distinguished by (currently) anti-anti-imperialism.

The short point is that there is no reason to suppose that either project can ever work. Faulkner’s version is the far left’s underlying Bakuninism, stripped of its ‘Leninist’ and ‘Trotskyist’ trappings. Over more than a century, this sort of political project has produced, on the one hand, episodic spectaculars, which wither away rapidly once the first excitement has passed (from the ‘abolition of the state’ at Lyon town hall in 1870, to ‘Occupy’; and, on the other hand, small groups, with hard-to-identify and certainly unaccountable leaders, even more fissile than the Trotskyists and Maoists. Thomas’s version is the Monty Python version - that the right answer is “our own group’s theory” so that there can be no honest unity on any lesser basis.

The starting point for an alternative has to be that the working class needs collective action to defend its interests; and this collective action needs to involve the cooperation of people who have divergent particular political, religious, and so on, views. This is essential to strikes, and to trade unions and cooperatives, and relatively easy to achieve in these limited-aims contexts (though it is certainly true that religious and political organisations set up their own sectarian trade unions, cooperatives, etc, and may have considerable success, especially where there is state intervention in support of such things).

Secondly, the working class needs to take political action - action at the level of the state and legislation. This was the basic lesson of Chartism, and it is radically reconfirmed by subsequent history, including the last 40 years. Trade unions and strikes are essential, but they are not enough because of the ‘runaway shop’ (capitalists routinely move production to escape trade unions). Cooperatives and mutuals are highly valuable; but they are not enough - among other reasons because the capitalist rule-of-law state order is inherently corrupt - bribable MPs, bribable advertising-funded media, and a bribable judicial system through the sale of justice by the ‘free market in legal services’. And capitalists routinely use it to steal things (‘accumulation by dispossession’ or ‘new enclosure’), including the assets of cooperatives and mutuals.

It is this fact, in turn, which means that a workers’ party needs to be ‘revolutionary’ - not in the Bakuninist sense of advocacy of direct action, but in the sense of standing for the overthrow of the current constitution.

The point is not to call for an immediate insurrection, coup or whatever. It is that to commit to supporting the existing constitution, as ‘Fabians’, ‘possibilists’, post-1918 social democrats, ‘democratic socialists’ or ‘Eurocommunists’ is to commit to the regime of corruption, which takes back workers’ gains through trade unions, mutuals, law reforms, and so on - and has since the mid-1970s done so on a truly massive scale.

In contrast, as long as a workers’ party aspires to get beyond the capitalist constitutional order, it can pose a threat to capitalist control, which will actually support the independence of trade unions and cooperatives, set limits to capitalist reaction, etc.

The tendency of the present (the near future, as interpreted from the recent past) is in fact towards posing the necessity of the actual overthrow of the rule-of-law state.13 But this is not a matter of a “spark that lights the prairie fire” (Mao). There has to be a widespread sense that something better is possible. Hence Marx’s support for cooperatives in spite of recognition of their limits:

We acknowledge the cooperative movement as one of the transforming forces of the present society based upon class antagonism. Its great merit is to practically show that the present pauperising and despotic system of the subordination of labour to capital can be superseded by the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers.14

The sense that something better was possible was very powerful in the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century. A large part of that sense was not the work of Marx and Engels, but of the German socialists of the Lassallean ADAV and the ‘Eisenacher’ SDAP and the unified party, the SAP, they created after 1875 - later the SPD.

This party was, in the first place, like the Chartists, founded on a short general programme - as opposed to the ADAV, which was committed to the theoretical ideas of its founder, Ferdinand Lassalle, and thus similar to the Spenceans, Owenites and Fourieristes of the early 19th century, and the Healyites, Cliffites, Grantites and Mandelites of the late 20th. The short general programme gives the ultimate power in the party to the members who accept it as a basis for action.

Secondly, the 1875 SAP unified two groups which, while neither was technically ‘Marxist’, were both committed to working class political action and radical change to the state order to transfer political power to the working class. This unification had a snowball effect - as unifications have done over and over again since then (albeit recently with unsuccessful end results).

Thirdly, it was characterised - as against the ‘localism’ of the early Eisenachers and the hyper-centralism of the single-man leadership of the ADAV - by attempting to centralise the political struggle: but doing so while maintaining as a principle that the localities and sectoral organisations (women’s organisation, youth, and so on, and so on) - also had the right to publish. It was this framework which enabled the party to apply to the limited field of political action “the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers”.


Russian Bolshevism did not stand in opposition to these conceptions. 1903 was largely about adopting a programme and organisational rules as the basis of the party. It was in this ‘imitate the Germans’ context that both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks in 1905 adopted democratic centralism as a basic organisational principle - specifically flagging in the RSDLP rules from 1906 to 1917 the right of the local and sectoral organisations to publish. At the same time, however, formal federalism and the claims of the Jewish Bund to be the sole legitimate voice of this oppressed group were rejected. These principles of the relations of the centre and the localities had limited practical significance in the conditions of clandestinity and reaction after the defeat of the revolution of 1905, but developed slightly in the combination of illegal and legal work in 1912-14, and blossomed into full force in 1917 and through the 1917-21 civil war.15

The civil war itself, however, threw up problems of the combination of the party with the Red Army, so that local political opposition could turn into military insubordination. In this context, in 1919 the party adopted a principle of military discipline for itself and the abolition of local and sectoral rights to publish. Then in 1921, when executing the retreat to the New Economic Policy, the Bolshevik leadership decided to ban factions.

The same organisational principles were adopted for Comintern at the 1921 Third Congress. Democratic centralism became, in this period, a tag for military-bureaucratic centralism. But they were not immediately practically implemented.

‘Bolshevisation’, which our authors blame on Zinoviev, was an attempt to implement these principles - not by any means wholly successfully. The consequences turn out to be important. Far from - as the Bolshevik leadership hoped - controlling the tendency of the petty bourgeoisie and its ideas to infiltrate the workers’ party, they actually reduced the connection of the party to the working class (unavailing efforts were made to restore it through ‘levies’ and ‘purges’ then and for decades after) and increased the ascendancy of the petty bourgeoisie, through the full-time officials, who are a sub-section of the petty bourgeoisie, being given the right to use the police against workers’ collective action against them, which might possibly have controlled them.

The subsequent history is largely one of the gradual and stop-start managerialisation of the rest of the workers’ movement, as these managerialist norms of central control came to be accepted beyond the communist parties and Comintern. During the cold war period, there was some preservation of elements of formal democracy - without any binding effect on MPs and leaderships - in the social democratic parties and unions in Britain and Europe, since it was in the interests of the US-led state system that these ‘front-line states’ should appear as a more attractive alternative to the Soviet bloc and social democracy as a more attractive alternative to Stalinist parties. But these regimes remained managerialist: the federalism and legalism of the structures gave effective autonomy to the elected representatives and party officials, through which social democracy could become a vehicle of capitalist corrupt government.

And with the turn in the mid-1970s to ‘roll-back’, ‘human rights’ and ‘neoliberalism’, the state system pressed for more managerialist control, and bureaucratic-centralist norms were if anything encouraged. The Eurocommunists played a significant role in carrying Stalinist norms of the internal regime into wider layers.

The result is the withering away of the workers’ organisations at the base. The ability to mobilise activists depends, in reality, on their ability to engage their creativity in their political, trade union, etc, work; which depends on demolishing the structures of managerialist-bureaucratic centralism. It is delusive to suppose that ‘rejecting democratic centralism’ avoids the problem, since it is merely a negation and points, if anywhere, towards either anarchist or bureaucratic-legalist unaccountable leadership.

The possibility exists of reclaiming hope. But to do so involves thinking about the tasks of party organisation in terms of political action, not of Bakunin’s ‘invisible dictatorship’ guiding direct-action movements. It involves the idea of a formal party programme and rules, and taking these seriously (as Lenin, contrary to common interpretations, did) as opposed to the mysteries of Lassallean, Cliffite, Matgamnaite ‘revolutionary theory’ or ‘the whole record of the group’. It involves open recognition that the decisions of 1919-21 were actually mistakes, and ones to which Lenin and Trotsky were parties. And it involves aspiring to the Second International in its strongest aspects, which is also the Bolsheviks of 1917 and the early Third International, not to repeating the same mistakes and thereby copying bureaucratic managerialism.


  1. Time to Mutiny, August 1: timetomutiny.org/post/the-marxist-theory-of-the-revolutionary-party; August 7: timetomutiny.org/post/lenin-and-the-bolsheviks; and August 11: timetomutiny.org/post/3-trotsky-s-theory-of-the-party.↩︎

  2. workersliberty.org/comment/34561#comment-34561.↩︎

  3. Twenty-one conditions: marxists.org/history/international/comintern/2nd-congress/ch07.htm#v1-p303; Theses on organisation: marxists.org/history/international/comintern/3rd-congress/riddell-translations/Communist-Party-organization.htm.↩︎

  4. Rovio: NE Saul, ‘Lenin’s decision to seize power: the influence of events in Finland’ Soviet Studies Vol 24, pp491-505 (1973). Bonch-Bruyevich’s brother was a long-standing Bolshevik, and he joined the Soviet armed forces promptly on the morrow of the October revolution, for which he was targeted by the Whites as a traitor. Malone, though ‘converted’ from anti-Bolshevism in 1919, was prepared to do time for sedition in 1920 and, though the CPGB was too weak to hold him, he went in 1922 to the Independent Labour Party and continued in Labour until he lost his parliamentary seat in 1931.↩︎

  5. KJ Callahan Demonstration culture: European socialism and the Second International, 1889-1914 Leicester 2010.↩︎

  6. libcom.org/library/report-our-organisation-founding-congress-kpd-spartakus-%E2%80%94-hugo-eberlein. The general ultra-leftism of this congress is reflected more generally in its rejection by a large majority of standing in the national assembly elections, and the adoption of the slogan, ‘Get out of the trade unions!’ See GP Bassler, ‘The communist movement in the German Revolution, 1918-1919: a problem of historical typology?’ Central European History Vol 6 (1973), pp233-77.↩︎

  7. References in B Lewis, ‘Sources, streams and confluence’ Weekly Worker August 25 2016; M Macnair, ‘Reclaiming democratic centralism’ Weekly Worker May 23 2019.↩︎

  8. Poplar: Noreen Branson Poplarism 1919-1925 London 1979; Clay Cross: dronfieldblather.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-clay-cross-rent-rebellion.html. On the underlying issue, which the Matgamnaite defiance argument did not address, compare Trotsky’s ‘Nationalised industry and workers’ management’ (1938): “… in the municipal governments ... the socialists sometimes win a majority and are compelled to direct an important municipal economy, while the bourgeoisie still has domination in the state and bourgeois property laws continue. Reformists in the municipality adapt themselves passively to the bourgeois regime. Revolutionists in this field do all they can in the interests of the workers and at the same time teach the workers at every step that municipality policy is powerless without conquest of state power” (marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/xx/mexico03.htm).↩︎

  9. marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/letters/75_05_05.htm.↩︎

  10. On 1903, see my second article in this series (October 8). For references on Lenin see J Conrad, ‘The importance of being programmed (part 2)’ Weekly Worker May 15 2020 (and in his previous articles on this topic).↩︎

  11. marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1904/tasks/index.htm.↩︎

  12. marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1940/xx/stalin/ch04.htm.↩︎

  13. Including rightwing populist versions of it like Hindutva, Orbanism, Trumpism, etc. These are still ‘rule of law’ for the capitalists, though they are, or would aspire to be, without liberties for the subject population (as was true of the Tory ‘rule of law’ here in the 1780s-1820s).↩︎

  14. marxists.org/history/international/iwma/documents/1866/instructions.htm#05.↩︎

  15. I emphasise the 1917 start to the civil war, in the form of Krasnov’s November 1917 attempt to overthrow the Bolsheviks and the December formation of the Volunteer Army, because it is a commonplace of the anti-communist left to blame the civil war on the January 1918 dissolution of the Constituent Assembly; it is perfectly clear that civil war had already started before that time.↩︎