Open struggle for the future

Last weekend a special meeting organised by the Communist Party discussed the lessons of Bolshevik organisation for communists today

Opening the discussion on communist organisation, a CPGB speaker made it clear that this celebration of the October Revolution - the event of the twentieth century - was not a sentimental get together.

Genuine communists seek to learn the lessons of October. We pay tribute to the greatness of the Russian revolution, while at the same time subjecting it to “ruthless criticism”. The comrade refered to the famous adage in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, where Marx says that communists must expose the “paltriness” and “inadequacies” of past revolutions in order for the contemporary revolutionary movement to grow stronger. This in no way, of course, implies any ‘dismissal’ of past achievements.  

Communists and revolutionaries need to focus on the universal significance of the Russian revolution. This is in sharp contrast to ‘official communists’, who could only see the ‘unique’ features. For them, dual power, violent revolution, soviet power, etc was all very well and good for Russia (a ‘backward’ country) but not for Britain - which, after all, is an advanced parliamentary democracy. In other words, ‘it can’t happen here’ ...

Of all these universal features the most important one to grasp is democratic centralism - “Get that right; everything else follows”. The most indispensable weapon is openness in politics; unity in action.

The old leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain operated a monstrous bureaucratic centralism, which repressed all open political dissent and made factionalism ‘illegal’. The ‘pluralistic’ Eurocommunists were no better than the so-called ‘Tankies’ or ‘pro-Soviet’ wing of the CPGB - indeed, the Euros were worse, being supreme masters at suppressing oppositionalist viewpoints.

Some might not find this surprising, given the CPGB’s ‘Stalinist’ history. But at this point, as the speaker said, Hegel’s “revenge of history” intervenes. When you examine the ‘anti-Stalinist’/Trotskyist revolutionary left you see a replication of this bureaucratic centralism: “The same sort of internal regime, but at a lower level.”

This brought out the main theme of the comrade’s speech - “open struggle” raises theory, and raises it to the level of a “genuine universal”. This was the source of the Bolsheviks’ strength. Everything should be out in the open and in full view of the world’s working class, not discussed in private - “Overcome factionalism through factionalism” was the comrade’s formulation.

In this light, the comrade highlighted the negative case of Militant Labour. A recent issue of Militant ‘discretely’ mentioned in its ‘fund’ column that Scottish Militant Labour had contributed exactly £0.00 to its fighting fund over the last two months - no other comment, of course. The comrades in ML do not feel it necessary to inform its supporters, and the working class in general, that SML demands for autonomy may threaten the organisation with rupture. Instead, they are treating this information as their own “private property”, a phrase used regularly throughout the discussion.

The contrast with the Bolsheviks could not be greater. They fought out every issue openly and in front of the working class - through endless books, pamphlets, articles, etc.

The speaker concluded by discussing the rapprochement process. Rapprochement was about “overcoming the divisions of the left” through open ideological struggle, not by forgetting our differences.

Comrade John Stone of the Liaison Committee of Militants for a Revolutionary Communist International said he had experienced the Workers Power group’s version of ‘democratic centralism’ and would not be in such a party again. He also referred to the “democratic centralism” of the ‘old’ CPGB and the Socialist Workers Party.

This was later refuted by a number of CPGB comrades, who maintained that the old leadership of the CPGB and the SWP never practised democratic centralism - only bureaucratic centralism. The two should never be confused.

Comrade Stone also talked about the role of the SLP in facilitating rapprochement and helping to overcome left divisions. Specifically, he talked about how he could engage in ‘united front’-type work in the SLP with comrades from the Revolutionary Democratic Group (faction of the SWP) despite the fact that he has enormous “programmatic differences” - ie, over the RDG’s call for a federal republic.

However, he appeared to contradict himself later by saying he could never be in the Party with RDG members. Comrade Stone seems to believe that you not only have to agree with every dot and comma of the Party programme - not just agree to accept it - but also all must have the same view of history, particularly the Soviet Union. This is to completely misunderstand the Party - which must be part of the class, which of course will have many different views. Comrade Stone could work with other communists in the SLP because it did not imply programmatic agreement and yet would not organise with other communists to strengthen our Marxist theory and practice.

For comrade Dave Craig of the RDG the Russian revolution saw the final destruction of the Menshevik theory of bourgeois democratic revolution. This was the chief lesson. The working class ledthe revolution and exercised itsdictatorship. But this was not socialism, for comrade Craig;that would be an impossibility, as socialism is by definition international. It was a democratic revolution, which only laid the basis for socialism (ironically, comrade Stone on a number of occasions accused comrade Craig of advocating bourgeois democratic revolution).

He went on to state that programme and democratic centralism are inseparable, arguing that the Bolsheviks had a programme before they had democratic centralism. What was needed was “unity of factions around a common programme”. A CPGB comrade made a similar declaration: “Democratic centralism is about uniting communists for action. That is its essence”.

Comrade Bob Smith from Open Polemic stated that this was the “only” October celebration he would be attending this year, contrasting it favourably to the “Third Internationalists” (ie, ‘official communists’/Stalinites) jamborees which frowned upon any real discussion, debate and controversy.

He made the claim that “We all agree on the fundamentals” - ie, proletarian internationalism, dictatorship of the proletariat, dialectical and historical materialism, the leading role of the Party, and democratic centralism. Comrade Smith also maintained that “everyone” on the left was calling for a “pre-Party formation” except the CPGB, which in practice believes it is the Party. This was the “key line of demarcation” for comrade Smith.

Controversially, the comrade argued strongly that the revolutionary left - particularly the CPGB - should “relinquish the notion that democratic centralism is appropriate” at this “pre-Party stage”. The comrade even went so far as to claim that there was no democratic centralism inside the Russian revolutionary movement pre-1917, only centralism. He raised some eyebrows by issuing the bold ‘revisionist’ statement that democratic centralism only came into being after 1923.

The views of comrade Smith were firmly rebutted. A comrade from the CPGB said that democratic central-ism must begin now - “If you don’t begin with democratic centralism you’ll never get it.” Many CPGB comrades emphasised that democratic centralism, the Party and its programme are a process of growth.

If you do not begin to organise as communists around unity in action - the programme - and openness in ideas, including the ability to criticise and change the programme, democratic centralism will never be forged. Democratic central-ism cannot be grafted onto an organisation once it is mass, as the OP comrade seemed to think.

A comrade from the Committee for Revolutionary Regroupment weighed in at this juncture. He made the obvious point that democratic centralism ended in the period 1923-24 and started to turn into its opposite, bureaucratic centralism. However, he attracted considerable criticism by his comments on ML. With regards to SML, the comrade thought it would be “foolish to announce their difficulties openly” - they should first try and sort it out privately. If these private discussions prove unfruitful, then perhaps the ML comrades should go public.

Most comrades found this view profoundly un-Bolshevik. It was ML’s duty to openly state the differences within their organisation, not cover them up. What ML and SML does will affect the working class movement. This ‘let’s not tell the world about it’ attitude was a sect view, failing to understand the developing living and essential relationship between party and class.

There were other avenues of interesting debate. One of these concerned Lenin’s April theses. The CRR and John Stone unbendingly maintained that the April theses were a total rejection of the very idea of “democratic revolution”, which was now superseded by the “socialist revolution”. Others disagreed, maintaining the April theses was a concretisation of the theory of democratic revolution led by the working class, against the Bolshevik support at that time for the Kerensky government.

In this context Lenin was concerned to solidify the slogan of ‘all power to the Soviets’ in practice. A CPGB comrade reminded the meeting that up until 1918 the Bolsheviks referred to the October Revolution as the “democratic revolution” - only later was it officially designated the “socialist revolution”. Socialist tasks and democratic tasks should not be separated, as comrade Stone seemed to want to do, as the winning of democratic rights can only ever be made permanent with the victory of international revolution - the beginning of socialism.

Another CPGB comrade made the useful remark that “ideological unity is an illusion”; there could only be “degrees of agreement” on the Party’s programme. What mattered was “practical unity” and “united practice despite the ideological differences”. This is the essence of the proposed ‘non-ideological’ Party outlined by the CPGB.

This was a very lively and fascinating celebration of October, which could have continued for many more hours. Once again, it showed the possibility of wildly divergent views coexisting in the same party, if comrades can eventually agree to fight out their differences and act in unison. The needs and interests of the working class must come before ideological differences, whether they be petty, obscure or profound.

Eddie Ford