Food for thought

A while ago I was working on some controversial issues of democracy and centralism within the history of the socialist movement. This research, and my work more generally, is informed by the important yet largely obscured historical fact that the organisational debates within the German-speaking sections of the socialist movement at the beginning of the 20th century fed directly into controversies within Russian socialism - not least when it comes to terms such as ‘democratic centralism’.

Back then I did not have in my possession a book by Wilhelm Schroeder entitled The history of Social Democratic Party organisation in Germany (1912), which helpfully - albeit with a revisionist tint - outlines some of the key organisational debates within German socialism from 1863 to 1912. What is more, it reprints each and every party constitution agreed upon at the sovereign body of Social Democracy - the party congress - from that time.

Translating, contextualising and analysing a work of this scope is obviously a project in itself, but I want to highlight a not insignificant amendment to the first paragraph of the SPD’s party rules between 1890 and 1900. While this might seem a rather esoteric academic exercise, the comparison is significant, because it to some extent pre-empts one aspect of the controversy between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions at the 1903 Congress of Russian Social Democracy - namely over the precise definition of a party member in the very first paragraph of the party’s rules.

Julius Martov’s resolution read as follows: “A member of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party is one who, accepting its programme, works actively to accomplish its aims under the control and direction of the organs of the party.”

Lenin proposed the following: “A party member is one who accepts the party’s programme and supports the party both financially [my emphasis] and by personal participation in one of its organisations.”

The issues of programme, participation and dues in particular are therefore at the crux of this matter. On this score, it is worth contrasting the first paragraph of the SPD statutes from both 1890 and 1900, which I have translated.

Agreed upon at the party congress in Halle on October 19 1890 was: “Anyone who proclaims the principles of the party programme and who supports the party to the best of their ability is a party member.” Then at the congress in Mainz on September 21 1900 was this: “Anyone who proclaims the principles of the party programme and who continually supports the party by paying funds [my emphasis] is a party member.”

This shift in the definition of membership was clearly of significance to the debates in 1903. The aforementioned account by Wilhelm Schroeder recalls an organisational commission - set up by the parliamentary fraction - that presented the Mainz congress with a draft of changes to the party’s statutes. Some, he notes, rejected this draft as not going far enough to create what he calls a “strictly centralist organisation”.

When it came to the issue of party dues, Schroeder noted that it had now become necessary to include some kind of financial obligation in the party constitution. Previously this had not been legally possible, given the SPD’s fragile constitutional status and even in 1900 individuals paying dues to the SPD would likely be blacklisted or face threats from the police. As such, many opposed the new definition of party membership, and it is noteworthy that the rightwinger, Ignaz Auer, a member of the organisational commission, spoke out against it in the following terms:

“An old acquaintance … who has no money at all ... we are suddenly asking him to demonstrate his party membership through financial contributions. This objection is as old as organised social democracy in Germany itself. It was paraded against the 10-penny dues in the General German Workers Association and against the Eisenach organisation. The only strange thing is that this old and recurring demand … always [came] from party comrades from places where - as far as one can speak of such a thing among workers at all - a certain prosperity prevails.”

When time permits, I will return to these debates and elaborate more on the party-political context in which they occurred, because the discussion does not seem to boil down to the left demanding stricter, more centralist organisation and the right opposing it. Again, the context is decisive, as this was a time when the party was discussing whether to formalise its local structures or to stick with the system of elected “trusted representatives” that it had used in times of illegality and semi-illegality.

Writing in Die Gleichheit, for instance, Clara Zetkin defended a certain autonomy and freedom of party bodies: “In our view, the history of the Social Democratic movement proves that the loose form of organisation has not damaged the party’s firm, internal unity or its effectiveness, nor has it impaired its material capacity. The old saying that ‘the better is the enemy of the good’ applies here too. We do not believe, however, that transferring party business to self-contained associations would result in a significant strengthening of the party organisation and greatly increase its material capacity, as some have predicted” (No19, 1900).

Some food for thought!

Ben Lewis
Marxism Translated


Your article is accurate about Andrew Feinstein, but not about Organise Corbyn Inspired Socialist Alliance (‘Unseating the Right Hon Sir Keir’, February 22). The Weekly Worker could have contacted Ocisa through our website/Facebook groups/Twitter or widely circulated emails to get correct information.

Ocisa was formed just over a year ago to choose and support a candidate against Keir Starmer in Holborn St Pancras. Our campaign strategist wrote to 70 Holborn St Pancras community groups and we advertised throughout the last year to inform people that we were prepared to financially support a candidate. Andrew Feinstein agreed to put himself forward after many of our members suggested him.

Ocisa is run by a steering group of 10 people - far from being “tightly controlled by one Jim Breese”. We do not have a set number of members. We are not a political party and no-one pays to join. The private Facebook group has 7,100 members at the time of writing, and we also have Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Threads and 20 regional messenger groups. 1,600 of our Facebook group signed up to our website to vote for the three candidates - 900 voted and Feinstein had 95% of the vote.

It is indeed true that Andrew also has wide support within community groups in Holborn St Pancras, including Female to Male, the local PCS union and many others. While I cannot speak about these other groups, what I can say is that Ocisa has worked on making good alliances with all of the other socialist parties and as a result of that they have all agreed not to stand an alternative left candidate in Holborn St Pancras.

While we expect criticism, particularly from the right wing, it is disappointing to see such a negative and inaccurate article from ‘our’ side. Please feel free to contact ocisacampaignshsp@gmail.com if there is anything else that you would like to know.

Angie Ray
Ocisa steering group

Vote Galloway

Ian Birchall’s letter on the Rochdale by-election calls for a vote for Mark Coleman, the Just Stop Oil activist standing as an independent (February 22).

Birchall takes exception to the call for a vote for George Galloway, claiming that, “as a former Galloway supporter”, he has become “saddened to see his political degeneration”. Galloway - once an “articulate and courageous spokesperson against imperialism and Labour betrayals” - has now apparently become “openly reactionary”. Unfortunately, Birchall doesn’t elaborate on this, so we can only guess that he’s referring to his support for immigration controls, scepticism at the corporate green-washing agenda, or lack of support for the currently fashionable notion that biological sex is a social construct, which individuals can opt in and out of as they wish.

Actually, Galloway’s politics have not significantly changed since the days when the Socialist Workers Party was virtually hailing him as the second coming - entering into an electoral alliance, in which Birchall and his comrades were apparently quite happy to largely keep schtum over their political differences with him, so long as they believed it was useful for their latest forlorn attempt to ‘build the party’ that never gets built.

Now Birchall suggests that a vote for Coleman would be “a warning shot to Starmer” and a spur to the building of a left alternative to Labour. This really is la-la land. The key political weakness for Starmer currently is clearly his unconditional support for Israel’s assault upon the Palestinians. Whatever his many faults, it is obviously Galloway who articulates this and is focusing the anger around it in this particular election. His is the only credible challenge to Starmer.

Birchall is clearly somewhat befuddled, contrasting Coleman’s “moral principles” to what he calls “an atheist willing to back Starmer and Islamophobia”. Who this is referring to is unclear, as Galloway is a Catholic who opposes both Starmer and Islamophobia.

What is clear is that the SWP’s opportunism, which, having wallowed in it for so long, Birchall obviously finds difficult to shake off, is now embarrassing to witness. For their own sake as much as anyone else’s, you just want them to stop.

Ben Rust

Unworthy victims

When doctors are telling of dead Gazan children having sniper head wounds, when mosques are being blown up, when Israeli Defence Forces soldiers are uploading war crime videos onto TikTok, it’s time to realise that Israel is not just going after Hamas: it’s going after all Gazan Palestinians.

It must be noted that people suggesting that Israel has killed too many Palestinians should consider what they are actually saying. How many murders of Palestinians would be enough? If the tables were turned and Hamas were in their fifth month of a military incursion into Israel, would we be soberly claiming that too many Israelis had been killed and maybe it’s time to stop the killing? Would Britain be dilly-dallying over organising a debate in parliament on the war in Israel and deliberating over the wording of a motion like a troop of contract lawyers? No, there would be a very different response. There are ‘worthy and unworthy’ victims, as Herman and Chomsky explained.

It’s not about racism in my opinion: it’s about functionality for the west. Israel functions as a Middle Eastern strong arm and does the west’s bidding - it can bomb and attack neighbouring countries at will without sanction.

The security of the Palestinians is never the issue. Israel is always responding to aggression - it’s never the reverse.

Louis Shawcross
County Down