With Andrew Northall’s recent string of letters on factions, readers have on display the bankruptcy not only of ‘official communism’, but all the confessional sects which cling to the myth of the Bolsheviks as the very model of the ‘monolithic party’.
Of course, the Bolsheviks were not monolithic, they were a faction which unproblematically allowed factions (true till “temporary” 1921 ban, which, much to Lenin’s concern, provided the ideal conditions for Stalin to subsequently consolidate his grip over the apparatus).
Comrade Northall doggedly blames the collapse of the ‘official’ CPGB on factionalism. His simplistic conclusion being that the answer lies in banning factions. But, to state the obvious, factions were banned.
That, however, does not prevent them coming into existence and flourishing. There were at least two leadership factions in the ‘official’ CPGB: the legal faction around Gordon McLennan, Tony Chater and Bert Ramelson; and the legal Eurocommunist faction around Marxism Today. Against the headlong rush into the arms of the bourgeoisie under these leadership factions, there arose various illegal oppositions: the Frenchites, the Straight Leftists, while Photis Lysandrou and Robert Griffiths had their own factions too. Then there was The Leninist, which alone stood on solid Marxist principles, fought openly and had the honesty to publicly declare itself a faction.
Comrade Northall blithely talks of a “genuine Communist Party” and why factions are “antithetical to democracy in such a party”. The problem is that it is impossible to classify the ‘official’ CPGB as a “genuine Communist Party” - well, certainly with the late 1920s and the ‘class against class’ leftist posturing and then the mid-1930s turn to popular frontism (in effect a version of Menshevism). Certainly with the British road to socialism programme of the early 1950s, endorsed by none other than Stalin himself, it was right for comrades on the left to rebel. Whatever their many and various shortcomings, our sympathies lie with them, not the leadership factions.
Does he consider the permissibility and actuality of factions in the Bolshevik-led Russian Social Democratic Labour Party of 1903‑1921 as being “antithetical to democracy”, as inevitably resulting in failure? The very suggestion is just too stupid. No, the Bolsheviks succeeded because they constituted themselves a faction and allowed factions, including alternative platforms and publications within their own ranks. Minorities at a national level did become majorities in some local, regional and foreign-based committees and were expected, if they had real significance, to be represented on leading committees. A source of tremendous strength, not a fatal weakness.
Because comrade Northall can hardly deny that the Bolsheviks were a faction in the RSDLP, he resorts to historical falsification. He claims that the RSDLP was some kind of broad Labour Party within which the Bolsheviks operated as a faction. Nonsense on stilts.
The RSDLP was, as everyone knows, effectively founded in 1902-03 under the leadership of Iskra. The 2nd Congress agreed a programme based on the Erfurt model and committed itself to the revolutionary overthrow of tsarism and the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. From 1905 the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were the mass factions of this party and in 1912 the Bolsheviks, along with pro-party Mensheviks, voted to unite the party on a firm footing by disassociating themselves from both Bolshevik and Menshevik liquidators. Note, outside the big cities the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks often worked in joint committees up to and after the October 1917 revolution.
It is not that we want factions in a “genuine Communist Party”. But without that right to form factions, the right to seek out and organise with co-thinkers, not only is the danger of irresponsible splits increased, the internal life of the ‘party’ is impoverished.
Comrade Northall’s alternative to factional rights is the atomised individual member and their right to speak at branch meetings, contribute to the ‘party’ press, etc. The sorry results can be seen in the dull as ditchwater Morning Star, Communist Review, Socialist Worker, The Socialist and other such advertising sheets published by the bureaucratic-centralist left.
Comrade Northall seems to be under the impression that polemics around factional differences are a diversion from the real work of trade union demands, fighting the cuts and shouting ‘Tories, out, out, out’ on street demonstrations. If that is the case, he could not be more wrong. Polemics around factional differences are a high form of the class struggle - lower than making revolution, that is for sure - but higher, much higher, than so-called bread and butter issues.
Comrade Northall is happy with ‘official communism’ and its history. Socialism in one country, the 1928‑29 counterrevolution within the revolution, the great purges, the execution of Lenin’s closest lieutenants such as Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, the assassination of Leon Trotsky, the British road, etc.
‘Official communism’ in Britaian followed every Soviet general secretary like a slavish lapdog right up to and including Mikhail Gorbachev, the “Lenin of our time” (Tony Chater).
We all know where that led. The lesson to learn is not that factions were the problem: rather that the ban on factions disarms the anti-bureaucratic, anti-capitalist restoration, opposition.
Andrew Northall starts his last letter by stating: “Of course, there are always different tendencies and trends within any Communist Party” and “it is important for these to be expressed and resolved openly and democratically” (January 18).
But, he goes on, “factions are something quite different”. That is because they “have their own memberships, policy platforms, aims and objectives, organisational disciplines, etc, which are separate to, different from and most often opposed to the main party itself. Otherwise why organise into a faction?” After all, members are obliged to “accept and carry out decisions made by the party”, yet the “existence of (by definition, opposition - or at the very least ‘dissident’) factions carries a very strong implication that members of [factions] will not carry out those decisions”.
Comrade Northall’s definition of a faction is, in my opinion, far removed from what is generally understood. For example, according to Wikipedia, it is a “group of people, especially within a political organisation, which expresses a shared belief or opinion different from people who are not part of the group”. Absolutely correct. So why does he insist that members of factions are usually “opposed to the main party itself”?
For example, we in the CPGB insist that all members must accept the party programme, abide by its rules and agree to implement all agreed decisions and actions. But, at the same time, they are free to argue against individual tactics and strategies, as well as particular aspects of our programme - so long as such opposition does not prevent an agreed action being fully implemented and acted upon by all members, including themselves.
And, of course, they are also free to unite with other CPGB comrades in not only opposing a particular course of action or practice, but fighting to implement a different one. That means they and their co-thinkers can come together to agree how their alternative will be phrased, how opposition motions will be drawn up and who will propose them.
While comrade Northall pays lip service to party democracy, in reality he opposes its implementation by ruling out all of the above. If you come together with other members to argue and organise for a change, surely you are not only forming a faction, but must be refusing to “accept and carry out decisions made by the party”. What nonsense.
Democracy means the full acceptance of the right to come together with others in order to fight for change. And that in turn, in the case of a disagreement that is not quickly resolved, implies that those who do so must be able to organise to achieve their aims. It is completely false to claim that those who do this must therefore be “opposed to the main party itself”.
Few communists would criticise comrade Andrew Northall’s desire for a Communist Party free of factionalism based on his own experience in the old CPGB (Letters, January 18). In an ideal world, this would be desirable, but in the real world things are different. So the questions are, how do we get to that, and do factions in the Communist Party represent a danger to the struggle for socialism and the maintenance of communist rule after a socialist revolution? What is the cause of factions and how do we relate to them?
The first thing to point out, when debating the question of factions and how they came to be banned in the Soviet Communist Party, is that the whole issue is presented in an abstract, ahistorical manner, divorced from the concrete political background leading up to Lenin’s banning of factions.
This political background was the fact that Lenin, with the support of Trotsky, started a socialist revolution in a country which had not reached the level of industrial, cultural or political development which would facilitate an easy, smooth transition to socialism. They started the socialist revolution primarily in the hope that it would trigger revolutions in Europe and, via Europe, the world revolution. This attempt to trigger world revolution failed and the Russian socialist revolution was left isolated in a mostly backward society.
A cruel, barbarous civil war followed with inhuman atrocities committed by both sides, but eventually the counterrevolution was defeated. The Leninist leadership was faced with a problem they had not prepared for, which was how to hold on to power and move toward socialism, while waiting for revolution in Europe.
It was the problems arising from this situation, especially following the Tambov and Kronstadt rebellions against the Leninist regime, which led to Lenin proposing the banning of factions in the Communist Party. The militarisation of Bolshevik political culture during the civil war also exposed communists to being taken over by a totalitarian tendency.
But the Bolsheviks had seized power and defeated the counterrevolution in a civil war without any need to ban factions. This undermines the argument that communists will put factional interest above the party as a whole. The opposite was the case: when faced with a threat, communists will put factional differences aside and unite to defeat the enemy. This was shown clearly in the differences between Lenin, Trotsky and Bukharin over whether to make peace with the Germans on the eastern front and in the civil war.
The problems associated with making a socialist revolution in a backward country without a conscious understanding, at the start, of the dialectical nature of the transition from capitalism to communism, which was forced on Lenin and Trotsky (hence the New Economic Policy), led Lenin away from democratic socialism toward the totalitarian banning of factions in the Communist Party, when faced with opposition from those giving expression to the difficulties the working class and peasants were facing before, during and after the civil war. The problem with banning factions is that they don’t cease to exist, but go underground. If this was not the case, there would have been no purges of the Communist Party by Stalin and his team in later years.
In my view comrade Andrew should take a more relaxed attitude to factions. They are not a threat to communist rule, as Leninism makes them out to be. If they were, the Communist Party would have lost power in the Russian civil war and during the ‘cultural revolution’ in China. Like many of us, comrade Andrew wants to see communists united in a single party, but starting out with the proposal to ban factions in a future communist party is surely the wrong place to begin. Factions result from contradictions in the party relating to tactics and problems associated with the building of socialism. As these contradictions are resolved, then factions naturally wither away.
I don’t agree with the argument that the question of factions is about Menshevism versus Bolshevism, or communism versus Trotskyism. The Mensheviks weren’t wrong in holding the view that a socialist revolution in Russia at the time was premature, and Trotskyists believe in communism, although often making ultra-left mistakes. The biggest ultra-left mistake, shared by Lenin and Trotsky, was making a socialist revolution prematurely in a mostly backward country, but this didn’t stop Lenin from lecturing communists about leftwing communism being an “infantile disorder”.
The Labour and Conservative parties have factions within them, but, come election time, their members always unite to win. When and if we get to the stage of a single communist party, it will be up to communists to decide whether to take a relaxed attitude to factions or to ban them in Orwellian fashion. Communists will have to choose between democratic socialism or totalitarianism.
For Democratic Socialism
We note the criminal, racist arrests of members of the Revolutionary Communist Group on various fake accusations, of a leading member of the CPGB Marxist-Leninist, comrade Ranjit Brar on absurd accusations that selling a book explicitly indicting Zionism for racism and anti-Semitism is a “hate-crime”, and the outrageous arrest of Tony Greenstein (and Mick Napier in Glasgow) on fantastic lies that he is in some way a ‘supporter’ of Hamas.
These are the tip of an iceberg of police attacks on Palestine solidarity activists and ordinary demonstrators, orchestrated by Tory politicians with Braverman’s ravings as the starting point, whose anti-democratic essence continues to this day. None of these attacks will be opposed by the Labour Party under Starmer. They clearly support this genocide, and the attacks against Yemen, whose purpose is to protect Israel’s mass murder.
We propose that a united front should be created to confront this policy publicly and point out its purpose - police-state methods to repress opposition to the genocide of the Palestinian people. Such fraudulent arrests and harassment, and punitive bail conditions in some cases to forbid political activism, as well as the draconian ‘conditions’ imposed on completely peaceful mass demonstrations in support of the Palestinians, amount to political support for Israel’s genocide by the Metropolitan police, the Glasgow police, and no doubt police forces around the country.
We think it would be worthwhile to take an initiative to confront the police politically over this, by initiating a protest at Scotland Yard and seeking broader labour movement support, against the political persecution of leftwing activists, which amounts to political support by the cops for Zionist genocide. It fits in with the admission by the head of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, Gavin Stephens, that the UK police are “institutionally racist” based on too many terrible cases to list, and other appalling actions of the cops, like their arrests of women demonstrators protesting the murder and rape of Sarah Everard by a serving cop.
We should note that the large-scale murder of unarmed civilians in Gaza, including women, children and even premature babies, and the brazen support for it by ruling class politicians here, indicates what these politicians are quite prepared to do to ordinary people here if they feel threatened by resistance to their own crimes. The labour movement therefore has an overwhelming class interest in defeating these attacks on democratic rights and defending free speech against ruling class, Zionist genocidaires. This needs to be confronted head-on.
So-called social democratic Labourism is defunct - overtaken, now simply dust on the grindstones of historical development. In parallel, old-style trades unionism has now become an unapologetic co-conspirator for consumer capitalism and indeed its essential neo-colonialism. As Lazare and many others around the Weekly Worker/CPGB point out, the (eventually demonstrated) complete impotence of all such flimflam politics creates the seedbeds for this newly reactionary era, with its then horrible fecundity.
So surely what’s clear as sunshine on a beautiful summer’s day (plain as anybody’s own nose on their face!) is how without ‘grasping’ revolutionism’s inherently transcendent nature - without a duly ‘evolved’ consolidation of both mentality and messaging from a resultant Communist Party worthy of the name - well, as that expression goes, we’re all ‘royally’ fucked!