For democratic centralism

Harry Paterson, member of Peter Taaffe's Socialist Party in England and Wales, calls for real democracy and revolutionary centralism

"All the revolutionary parties that have perished so far perished because they became conceited, because they failed to see the source of their strength and feared to discuss their weaknesses. We, however, shall not perish, because we are not afraid to discuss our weaknesses and will learn to overcome them" (VI Lenin, 'Closing speech on the political report of the central committee of the RCP (B)' CW Vol 33, Moscow 1977, p311).

That our party has weaknesses cannot be disputed. In reality, we are in crisis. The collapse of the Scottish section into left nationalism and the total rejection by the Merseyside comrades of partyism in favour of liquidationism provide us with just two of its most extreme manifestations. Only the complacent and the wilfully blind can blithely carry on with 'business as usual'.

This critique suggests that the source of our crisis lies in a failure of the essentially opportunist programme and method of our party. In a substantial section in the second half of the document, I show that the positive resolution of the huge problems facing us hinge on the fight for genuine democratic centralism.

The phrase 'democratic centralism' seems to have a bad name with some in our ranks. Indeed, our general secretary blandly asserts in a substantial article entitled 'Democratic centralism' in Members Bulletin of March 1996 that it is not even possible "to put forward publicly . the term" (my emphasis, p3). In truth, if democratic centralism actually was the legalistic set of organisational and financial prescriptions and the inflexible party 'template' for relations between higher and lower bodies and the role of factions that Peter sketches in this very bad article, then frankly I would be at the head of a pack demanding we not simply let the term slide out of view, but we dump the whole sorry concept altogether.

In total opposition to comrade Taaffe's bureaucratic perspective, we need to reclaim democratic centralism as essentially a political process. Its essence is the struggle to win and maintain voluntary unity around a revolutionary programme. Thus, at the heart of democratic centralism is the question of politics, of our organisation being the form of mediation between theory (our ideas embodied in the programme) and practice. The struggle for democratic centralism means not only fighting for openness in our party as a precondition for establishing scientific truth; it also means fighting for revolutionary politics, not just any old set of perspectives. The two - a revolutionary programme and democratic centralism - are actually inseparable.

As I will show below, without politicising our understanding of how revolutionary organisations are meant to operate, we could have accused Lenin, Trotsky or any of the other political giants in whose tradition we claim to stand of "breaking democratic centralism", a crassly anti-Marxist charge that has been throw at myself over the recent period.

Thus, I have written this document as a loyal and concerned member of our party. It is an attempt to concretise the undoubted commitment in our ranks to socialism and to show what we need to do next as a revolutionary collective. All comrades agree (or should do) that we are committed to building a genuinely mass revolutionary party. But without concrete steps right here, right now, this laudable aim will remain, at best, pious wishful thinking.

Worse, it will become something totally divorced from our day-to-day practice. Such a dichotomy is the methodological basis for opportunism. It is the duty of all Socialist Party members who recognise this to fight against it.

A final introductory note - I have tried to provide as comprehensive references as I possibly can for all quotes to allow comrades to check for themselves the context and the accuracy of my examples. However, some have been taken from rough notes accumulated over years of political study and work and the precise locations of these quotes are lost. I hope comrades forgive some more vaguely referenced sources on occasion. In subsequent documents I will try to rectify this.

Revolutionary or reformist?

"It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today's conditions and from today's consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat" (L Trotsky The transitional programme p22).

To discuss democratic centralism, we must start with the party's politics. We claim to practise Trotsky's transitional method. In reality, the transitional method in our hands has become a fig leaf behind which we justify every retreat, every dilution of the revolutionary ethic. Below, I take some 'snapshots' of the opportunism that has resulted from our programmatic failure. I will develop these at length in subsequent articles.

Once, we boldly stated that, "The primary aim of this turn is to pose clearly in the minds of our members and potential recruits the independent revolutionary character of our organisation" (my emphasis, Congress 1993 document, 'The open turn', p2). Now we tell ourselves: "Under present conditions, as we have explained elsewhere, it would be a mistake to use the name 'revolutionary' or to advocate revolution in our programme as opposed to advocating socialist transformation of society." Shamefully, we are asked to believe that, "This is an issue of presentation, not of political substance." Incredibly, this is taken from an article entitled 'In defence of the revolutionary party' (my emphasis Members Bulletin May 29 1998).

I encounter comrades in the party who argue that 'the objective conditions' and 'the existing low level of consciousness' mean we cannot pose our revolutionary credentials in a bold way. Thus, instead of linking the fight for reforms to the ultimate aim of revolution, instead of raising consciousness, our 'transitional method' consists of tailing the current level of consciousness and making the programmatic compromises this inevitably demands.

The means become the end. Revolution is put off to the distant future and becomes not something we start to build today in preparation for tomorrow, but something to which we only pay lip service. Comrades who raise criticisms of this nature are patronised and diagnosed as suffering from an ultra-left "infantile disorder"; worse, of being 'untransitional'. As if hiding from the wider class our clear "revolutionary character" is applying the transitional method! Nowhere in our public material, particularly The Socialist, is it clear that the demands contained in our 'What we stand for' column are transitional demands and that we stand clearly for the revolutionary overthrow of the existing state. Instead the reader is inevitably drawn to the conclusion than we are a party that fights merely for the fulfilment of these demands: in short that we are a reformist party.

Consider, our final demand for "an end to the rule of profit, for a socialist society to meet the needs of all". What does this tell the reader about our method for bringing about such a society? Absolutely nothing! It could mean that we envisage armed insurrection. But it could also mean we see the election of a left reformist party as the conduit for socialism. If our uninformed reader is of a mind to investigate our party and programme a little further and procures a copy of our pamphlet What we stand for he/she will see that socialism will not arrive via revolutionary overthrow but "through an enabling bill in parliament" (p8).

While we were in the Labour Party, we offered the dubious justification of this to left critics that this formulation was merely the necessary defence against expulsion. As an open party we have no excuse. Either we really believe this - in which case we are reformists - or we are lying to our class. Which is it?

Ironically, none other than Ted Grant wrote some pertinent remarks on this in his criticism of Gerry Healy's 'deep entryist' project in the Labour Party after 1949, when he pointed out that at no time did the post-war Trotskyists "maintain the clear programme of Marxism, but on the contrary adopted the programme of adaptation to reformist individuals who represented no-one but themselves. The attempt (partially successful) to paint themselves as left reformists (in adaptation to the milieu) did result in their becoming to a large extent 'left reformists'" (International Bureau for the Fourth International The programme of the International 1970). Now it will be clear to comrades that I have fundamental differences with Grant about what constitutes a "clear programme of Marxism", but nevertheless the old man clearly had a point.

Comrades, this type of parliamentary cretinism (particularly ludicrous under a Blair government, I would suggest) is nothing short of criminal. It will lead our class straight to disaster and defeat. As the tempo of the class struggle quickens, at some point the need for armed insurrection will be starkly and clearly posed. We have the responsibility of preparing our class for this moment, for imbuing workers with the understanding that violent revolution is the only way forward. These are not the ravings of an ultra-left lunatic - unless comrades wish to describe Lenin as such. This is what we read in State and revolution: "This view of violent revolution lies at the root of the whole of Marx's and Engels' doctrine" (VI Lenin SW Vol 7, Moscow 1946, p21).

Now we can discuss the relative merits and demerits of the transitional method elsewhere, but clearly in the hands of our leadership over the years it has become a means to liquidate the revolutionary programme. This was hardly the intention of Trotsky, no matter how transitional politics have subsequently been used by his epigones. In stark contrast, writing about the low level of political consciousness prevailing amongst American workers, he gave us this interesting insight: "What can a revolutionary party do in this situation? In the first place give a clear, honest picture of the objective position, of the historical tasks which flow from this situation, irrespective of whether or not the workers are today ready for this" (L Trotsky The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International New York 1977).

And again: "That is why all the arguments that we cannot present such a programme because the programme doesn't correspond to the mentality of the workers are false . The class consciousness of the proletariat is backward, but consciousness is not such a substance as the factories, the mines, the railroads; it is more mobile . it can change rapidly" (ibid).

What I am trying to show here is that there is a necessary organic and unbreakable link between the type of politics we espouse today - even if they appear to be 'abstract', 'impractical' or even 'ultra-left' to masses of workers - and what we are aiming to achieve in the future. Break the link, and you start to drift towards another type of politics, despite your best intentions. This lesson of Marxism was brilliantly drawn out by the woman characterised by Lenin as a theoretical and political "eagle", Rosa Luxemburg, in her seminal polemics against the revisionists in the German Social Democratic Party at the beginning of this century.

She summarised one of her penetrating insights thus - that 'reformist' and 'revolutionary' approaches to political questions are definitely not different 'roads' to the same place, but different roads to different conclusions. In her Junius pamphlet, she polemicised ruthlessly against the supposed dichotomy between day-to-day 'practical' measures of the movement and the final aim of socialism. This opportunist division was expressed most starkly by the arch-revisionist Bernstein with his stark disavowal of real socialism in the neat aphorism - "The movement is everything; the final goal is nothing."

In the German party of the time, the 'centre' around Kautsky also 'opposed' Bernstein's out-and-out reconciliation with capitalism - but in such a way that actually provided a fig leaf for his opportunism. Luk cs perceptively comments on the poisonous and perfidious role played by centrism when he writes that it "included a polemic both against an open revisionism and against the demand for revolutionary action; the theoretical rejection of the former without making any serious efforts to eliminate it from praxis of the party; the theoretical affirmation of the latter while denying its immediate application to the situation. With all this is was still possible - eg, for Kautsky and Hilferding - to insist on the generally revolutionary nature of the age and on the idea that the time was ripe for revolution without feeling the compulsion to apply this insight to decisions of the moment" (G Luk cs History and class consciousness London 1983, p302).

More astute comrades will guess that I have quite a degree of affinity with this quote. I believe that it almost perfectly characterises the political essence of the current leadership of the Socialist Party - it is a right centrist formation in other words. It is happy (with some qualifications - like for example democratic centralism) to use the rhetoric of socialism, revolution and the history of the communist workers' movement in the 20th century. Day to day, its politics are practically indistinguishable from left reformism.

Given what I write of such a political leadership, I suppose that it is inevitable that my political criticisms will be branded as 'ultra-left' and that I will be caricatured as a 'wacko' who advocates 'revolution tomorrow'. Far from it. I believe that - in contrast to our leadership and much the left - every problem of contemporary society should be soberly, but concretely evaluated from the standpoint of the approaching proletarian revolution. This is not to say that I regard the solution to each and every struggle of the working class to be the issue of a leaflet saying - 'Launch the insurrection!'

The alternative methodology of our leadership - whether it is glorified with the title of 'transitional politics' or not - actually posits a split between the type of reformist politics we advocate today (because of the 'low consciousness' of the workers, or because we will 'confuse' them by appearing before them honestly as revolutionaries) and our 'real' aim of revolutionary socialism.

Comrades, this is Bernsteinism - with the qualification that it has not even been as well theorised. Again, I am with Lenin and Trotsky on this one. In a flawed, but nevertheless wonderfully insightfully essay on the contribution of Lenin, Luk cs hits the mark in this passage:

"The actuality of the revolution: this is the core of Lenin's thought and his decisive link with Marx. For historical materialism as the conceptual expression of the proletariat's struggle for liberation could only be conceived and formulated theoretically when revolution was already on the historical agenda as a practical reality; when, in the misery of the proletariat, in Marx's words, was to be seen not only the misery itself, but also the revolutionary element 'which will bring down the old order'. Even at that time it was necessary to have the undaunted insight of a genius to be able to see the actuality of the proletarian revolution ...

"The theory of historical materialism therefore supposes the universal actuality of the proletarian revolution. In this sense, as both the objective basis of the whole epoch and the key to an understanding of it, the proletarian revolution constitutes the living core of Marxism . This means that the actuality of the proletarian revolution is no longer a world historical horizon arching above the self-liberating working class, but that revolution is actually on the agenda . neither Marx nor Lenin ever thought of the actuality of the proletarian revolution and its aims as being readily realisable at any given moment. On the other hand, however, it was through this actuality that both gained a sure touchstone for evaluating all questions of the day.

"The actuality of the revolution provides the key-note of the whole epoch. Individual actions can only be considered revolutionary or counterrevolutionary when related to the central issue of revolution . The actuality of the revolution therefore implies study of each individual daily problem in concrete association with the socio-historical whole . every question of the day - precisely as a question of the day - [is] at the same time ... a fundamental problem of the revolution" (G Luk cs Lenin: a study in the unity of his thought London 1977, pp12-13).

After my political critics read this passage, I trust I will not have to defend myself against any tedious accusations that I advocate launching the insurrection today - starting from my house. Actually what I am saying is that that we adopt a revolutionary programme - not tomorrow when it is too late and the revolution is knocking on our door, but yes, today.

I am happy to hear that the edition of What we stand for from which the above 'peaceful revolution' quote was taken predated the open turn and, as I write, I am informed that a revised version is being drafted. This is to be welcomed. (Although one is bound to ask: who is drafting it? Surely the formulating of our programme will involve the widest possible consultation, with resolutions and the like submitted from the branches, possibly even necessitating a special conference to agree the finished article?) We have then, the opportunity of reaffirming our commitment to the revolution. We have the chance to decisively reject the theoretical 'innovation' (in reality, a brand of opportunism as old as the hills) that "an entirely peaceful transformation of society is possible in Britain . on condition that the full power of the labour movement is boldly used to effect this change" (from the 1985 edition of What we stand for).

However, readers will forgive my scepticism. For in a publication that was produced after the open turn - Militant Labour - why you should join (June 1993) - we see the reader is invited to join "a movement which is fighting for revolutionary socialist change". No complaints here, but see what follows: "Not one that calls for violent overthrow, but one which believes in mobilising the power of millions of working people to take back what is ours."

These are not issues of presentation; these are important matters of political substance. Alternatively, we must accept that it is simply a coincidence that the aforementioned words were penned by one Dave Cotterill? I submit that it is not an accident and here we see an early example of the craven, opportunist method that today sees comrade Cotterill rejecting the revolutionary party for the rotten swamps of anti-Marxist liquidationism.

Again, there is a glaring example of how we have distorted the transitional method can be found by turning to Members Bulletin No21, February 1997. From an article entitled 'Party building' on page four we read: "As a rule our transitional demands do not in general pose that much of a problem on the doorstep. The question which creates the most angst is posed usually at the end of a conversation: 'What does socialism mean?' The reply could be answered on these lines: 'At the very least it would mean quality affordable housing with all the mod cons, a secure, well paid job, ensuring a couple of holidays abroad every year, a new car. A fully funded health service freely available to all, proper education for our kids. This would ensure the welfare of our communities'.

"This is a generalised answer which would need to be adapted to the area you are campaigning in."

This is truly incredible nonsense! I refer comrades to Trotsky's remarks above on the then low consciousness of American workers for a crushing rebuttal of this type of miserable political and theoretical cowardice. Here we have a comrade defining socialism as a list of demands that we should be fighting for now under the present system as an absolute minimum for our class. A list of transitional demands, in fact! Thus, as was observed earlier, the means become the end.

Again, it is no coincidence that the comrade responsible for this reformist rubbish is Roy Davies, a comrade, I am informed, who has also rejected the revolutionary party. Given the above, the comrade's attendance at the October 16 [1999] liquidationist celebrations organised by the Merseyside Socialists will come as no surprise to the reader. Lest comrades are tempted to disown the aforementioned Cotterill and Davies, consider, if you will, the following: in addition to these two, other resignations/defections/expulsions from our party include Margaret Crear, Nick Wrack, Lesley Mahmood, Margaret Manning, John Killen, Mike Morris, Morag Allen and Anne Bannister, amongst many others.

A large number of these former comrades played leading roles in the building of our organisation and were, you might say, amongst those most 'trained in our methods' and 'steeled in our ideas' and, with the possible exception of comrade Nick Wrack, all have abandoned Marxism.

What does this say about our programme and our method? Or are we to believe that "it is inevitable that we have been affected by the period. A layer of long-standing members have left. A small section of them have tried to blame the organisation for their own inability to come to terms with the political period" (Members Bulletin No36, February 1999). Of course, the truth of the matter is probably a combination of the two. However, the absence of a correct, revolutionary programme is undoubtedly the key factor.

With this in mind, we will turn our attention to the "red 90s". Before we do though, it would be helpful if we lend our former comrade, Roy Davies, some assistance and ask, what indeed is socialism?

The answer quite simply is the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is a society which contains features of both the old and the new; it is in fact a society in transition and as such it can go forward towards the fully conscious planning of all human affairs - ie, communism, to use the scientifically precise definition of Marx - or it can go back; it can degenerate into capitalism.

All this of course is pretty basic stuff. Is it not incredible then that we asserted with such assurance, "In Russia and in eastern Europe a pro-capitalist wing of the bureaucracy exists. It is a minority and there is no possibility of a return to capitalism" (my emphasis Stalinism in crisis 1988, p15)? I really do not wish to rub it in, but it has to be said that a more obvious example of our flawed politics would be hard to find. Not content with this mistaken analysis though, we went on to celebrate the arrival of Trotsky's political revolution and the dawning of the "red 90s".

Admittedly we corrected our perspectives at a later stage, but to then foolishly state: "We are the only organisation that has been able to correctly analyse the events of the last decade. We have successfully analysed the causes and the impact of the collapse of Stalinism" (Members Bulletin No36, February 1999). I'm afraid this is somewhat less than honest, to say the very least. Worse, possibly, we clearly demonstrated to our members and to our class our inability to tell a period of revolution from one of reaction.

Probably though, the most serious manifestation of our programmatic failure can be found by examining the nationalist collapse of our Scottish comrades. It is in this area that our opportunist and tailist method most clearly reveals itself.

Instead of fighting the poison of nationalism both the Scots and we laid down before it. The lure of nationalism, so attractive for its short-term gains, was embraced lovingly, and the cause of working class unity was to all intents and purpose jettisoned. Now comrades McCombes, Sheridan et al are in favour of Scottish independence and the break-up of the state along national lines. It is no use comrades protesting, 'We opposed this!' Yes, we did. But too late.

In fact we are responsible for laying the foundations. Thus in a unprincipled fashion we justified SML forming its own separate national section on the basis that, "The decision to go for autonomy in Scotland on financial matters, but also on organisational issues, arose from the objective situation in Scotland itself. The growth of a distinct national consciousness requires a change in the form of organisation adopted" (Members Bulletin No16, March 1996). Two years on we read that, "SML is an autonomous part of the Socialist Party", and, "The Socialist Party and SML are based upon a clear, revolutionary programme, perspectives, strategy and tactics, and a separate revolutionary organisation" (P Taaffe, 'Short thesis on the revolutionary party' Members Bulletin No28, April 1998).

Whatever happened to the principle of 'one state, one party'? Frankly, comrades, if we had a genuinely revolutionary programme in the first place then this mess would never have arisen. It was an opportunist capitulation to nationalism and we all stand condemned for not killing it stone dead in the first instance. For us (SP in England/Wales) therefore, to oppose the Scottish comrades liquidating themselves into the Scottish Socialist Party (a party, you will note, that is composed of "socialists who do not necessarily regard themselves as revolutionaries, Trotskyist or even Marxists (Members Bulletin No29, May 1998) was a tad difficult. After all, we had already conceded that the issue at stake was not one of political principle: rather it was merely a question of ". a change in the form of organisation adopted ..." (ibid).

Contrast our approach with Lenin's: "In questions specifically concerning the proletariat of a given race, nation or district . [it] is left to the discretion of the organisation concerned to determine the specific demands to be advanced in pursuance of the common programme, and the methods of agitation to be employed. The party as a whole, its central institutions, lay down the common fundamental principles of programme and tactics; as to the different methods of carrying out these principles in practice and agitating for them, they are laid down by the various party organisations subordinate to centre" (my emphasis CW Vol 17, Moscow 1977, p95).

This requires no elaboration other than to say that the difference between our approach and a genuinely Marxist one is rather marked, wouldn't you say?

The inconsistency is highlighted when contrasting our attitude towards Scotland with the following statement: "If the following arrangements adopted between the national committee/executive committee and the Scottish organisation were applied now to the rest of Britain it would mean the collapse of the national centre" ('A discussion on democratic centralism' Members Bulletin No16). This suggests that what motivates our actions are not wider political principles, but rather our own, narrower, parochial interests. The other word for this of course is sectarianism.

OK, so I have established the idea that I think that there are some serious political problems with our party. I now want to turn to the question of democratic centralism and explain why I consider it the key to the solution of the problems of our party, why we can arrive at a correct, revolutionary programme only through its consistent application.

Democratic centralism

I am aware that many members of the SP may find what I will have to write about democratic centralism equalling openness as alien, even a recipe for breaches of 'discipline'. In fact, what I am arguing is that what prevails at the moment in the SP is indiscipline, a form of bureaucratic centralism. In this atmosphere, opportunism thrives.

It is clear what genuine revolutionary discipline entails. Put a little schematically, it is this: 1) Open discussion in front of the militants and the working class; 2) Open criticism in front of the militants and the masses; 3) Absolute unity in action; 4) The complete fulfilment of tasks assigned by the party; 5) Not to withhold financial resources from the party.

The crude notion that it is undisciplined to have criticisms and - horror of horrors - actually make those criticisms known is a vulgar caricature of the Marxist understanding, something that has far more in common with Stalinism.

Before I begin properly, it worthwhile asking why we should attempt to organise according to democratic centralist norms at all. Are we simply making a fetish out of something that was once a 'useful' principle of our movement, but has now been superseded? Certainly there are plenty of wiseacres - including renegades from our own party now clotted in nasty little sects like the Socialist Democracy Group - who would assure us that this is true.

Democratic centralism comprises the dialectical unity of democracy and centralism. Centralism is required to form an organisation that can take united, effective action together. Democracy is required to ensure that the action we take is organised on the basis of correct principles.

Democratic centralism is a vital mechanism that enables the majority to adopt correct positions, ensures unity of will on the correct principles and subsequently imposes unity in action through the submission of the minority to the majority. It allows us to get it right in theory and in practice, in other words.

It is worthwhile looking at the two aspects of democratic centralism and evaluating the practice of our organisation in the light of a genuinely Marxist understanding.

Democracy - formal and real

Formally, democracy entails the right to elect and be elected, the public functioning of the party and the holding of public conferences and meetings. Outside conditions of illegality, there are few problems with almost any organisation on the left - even the most bureaucratic - meeting all or at least some of these formally democratic criteria. That is why a purely formal understanding of democratic centralism guts it of its true meaning.

The essence of genuine, substantive democracy in the party can only be open criticism and discussion. Even under the conditions of the harshest repression, of illegality and exile, the Bolsheviks adhered to this fundamental principle. Thus, it can be said that - whatever the centralising rigidities imposed on them at various stages by the fight against tsarist autocracy - the Bolsheviks were a thoroughly democratic working class trend. How many months of the 15 years prior to the revolution did the Bolsheviks spend under conditions that can be considered legal? Yet didn't they discuss all questions openly, but without exposing the organisation, under even the most oppressive yoke of tsarism? (What are virtually the entire works of Lenin if not open criticism and discussion? - I ask the comrades who have accused me of "indiscipline" for my open attitude, should Lenin not have been expelled from the party for these writings?)

A party member must freely discuss questions related to party policy and practical work in branch meetings, conferences and congresses, and in party publications. S/he must freely express views on all subjects. Whatever his or her position in the party, every comrade has the right to criticise, make proposals and express his/her views.

There are some additional points that must be given extra stress when talking about democracy. Democracy must be a mechanism that ensures that a majority is formed on the correct principles. This demands that the party's channels of information function regularly and correctly. The majority should not evolve as a result of manipulations on the part of those at the centre of the organisation. (Only open discussion can prevent those at the source from establishing a majority suited to themselves. All members should be aware of inner-party information and developments without exception. It is a duty to investigate and establish the correctness of information. Otherwise, the minds of comrades will be filled with distorted information. The recent fiasco over a discussion document produced by comrade Bill Mullins is an excellent negative example of what I am talking about - I discuss this below.)

Most important is the form taken by discussion and criticism. Criticism is the indispensable rule of party life. Principled criticism and self-criticism enable the timely detection and elimination of mistakes and shortcomings. For this too, open discussion is required. Openness is the vital condition for criticism and discussion, the guarantee of honesty in all respects. Discussions and criticism behind closed doors are useless. Discussions and criticisms are carried out in front of party members, in front of the working class and the masses. This process in itself constitutes a source of consciousness and an example for both the members and the working class. This will probably be the most controversial section of this critique. What I am saying needs to be quite clear.

The party press - both The Socialist, Socialism Today and other publications - must be open to frank, sharp and open polemic between comrades. I have heard comrades object to this idea because it would "confuse" the working class. In actual fact, the exact opposite is true. There is nothing more calculated to introduce confusion and demoralisation in the ranks of the party and the advanced workers who look to us for a lead than the concealment of differences. The mass party, the party of the class, is responsible to that class. It must be open and above board with it.

Lenin gave this warning to his Swiss comrades: "Nor can we avoid hard struggle within the party. It would be sheer make-believe, hypocrisy, philistine 'head-in-the-sand' policy to imagine that 'internal peace' can rule within the Swiss Social-Democratic Party.

The choice is not between 'internal peace' and 'inner party struggle'. The real choice is this: either the present concealed forms of inner-party struggle, with their demoralising effect on the masses, or open principled struggle between the internationalist revolutionary trend and the Grutli trend inside and outside the party. Such a struggle is both necessary and useful, for it trains in the masses independence and ability to carry out their epoch-making revolutionary mission" (my emphasis, 'Principles involved in the war issue' CW Vol 23, Moscow 1977, pp159-160).

Comrades may object, but be quite clear that you are objecting not to my personal quirky views. These are the views of Lenin. Of course, that per se does not make them right or wrong, but they do mean that they have a certain pedigree and weight in the tradition we claim to inherit. Lenin could hardly be more explicit in the words I have cited above. Without such an approach, he says elsewhere "there can be no mass party, no part of the class" ('But who are the judges?' CW Vol 13, Moscow 1977, p159).

This would not - repeat, not - be a recipe for splits and the organisational fragmentation of our organisation. Again, the opposite is true. After the open disclosure in excruciating detail of all his theoretical and organisational differences with the Mensheviks, Lenin has this to say: "We consider these differences important, but, given the opportunity to defend our views, the views of the old Iskra, we would not consider these differences of themselves to be a bar to working together in one party" ('A brief outlines of the split in the RSDLP' CW Vol 8, Moscow, 1977, p131).

This open, democratic and fundamentally pro-working class orientation is a million miles away from the totally distorted vision of 'democratic centralism' that has been bequeathed to us by the degenerative trends that have dominated the workers' movement for the bulk of the 20th century. I believe that it is this - true democratic centralism as practised by the revolutionary Bolsheviks - that has far more of a chance of intersecting with the "new generation" we highlight in the 'Short thesis on the revolutionary party' that appears in our Members Bulletin of April 1998.

We see that these young people evidence a certain "hostility" to traditional forms of working class organisation. True enough, and hardly surprising, given the top-down, bureaucratic monstrosities that have passed themselves off as 'workers' organisations' in the 20th century. We also identify these layers' "preparedness to discuss ideas" - a very positive attribute as far as revolutionaries are concerned, of course. However, our unprincipled and frankly spineless response to all of this is to dump the term 'democratic centralism' - my proposal is that we should retain the term, and start implementing the practice of democratic centralism.

The reason given for this terminological sleight of hand is that, "Today the capitalists and reformists, both left as well as right, have linked the idea of 'democratic centralism' to the experience of Stalinism. It is, therefore, better now to use the term 'democratic unity' to explain the character of the CWI and its different national sections or parties."

Frankly, using the same criterion, why don't we dump the following words because of their unfortunate historical associations - socialism, working class, revolutionary or International?

Ominously, we read that, "The democratic rights of the members must be safeguarded at all times, but whether the democratic or centralist aspect of 'democratic centralism' predominates depends upon the concrete situation. In this period the pace of events and our ability to openly organise allows even more democratic freedom of discussion and debate" ('Short thesis on the revolutionary party' Members Bulletin No28, April 1998, p23).

While this comment ostensibly gives wide-ranging rights and freedoms to party members, it is clear that it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of democratic centralism: it illustrates that our method is actually one animated by a totally bureaucratic understanding. It is suggested that we should allow ourselves more 'openness' in a period such as this one because of the "pace of events" (slow, presumably) and the "concrete circumstances": that is, our ability to "openly organise".

This is nonsense. By implication, it introduces the legitimacy of 'centralism' in the ideas of the party. Are we saying that, were we unable to organise openly, we should accept less democracy in the party?

Yes, the formal aspect of democracy would be absent under illegal conditions (open elections, regularly functioning conferences, etc), but its real substance - open discussion and criticism - would not be suspended. This mechanical distinction between 'democracy' and 'centralism' is a recipe for the introduction of methods of conspiracy not simply into aspects of the organisational work of the revolutionary party, but into the theory and ideology of the organisation. Clearly, the implication of this passage is to justify the introduction of centralism into the ideology of the revolutionary party, that the open expression of dissenting views is illegitimate.

So, let us now look at what centralism actually does mean in a workers' party.


'Centralism' has a very specific and limited meaning in the lexicon of Marxism. It means that the party has one programme and one set of rules. It implies leadership from a single centre which has been formed by open discussion and which represents the majority.

Of course, there is no argument that the degree of centralisation of the party organisation varies according to the period and specific conditions. Under illegal conditions, a harsh and imperious centralism predominates. Under legal conditions, the formal channels of inner-party democracy function more easily in all respects. However, the party is and must be centralised at all times. In a party of the proletariat, there will be comrades who think differently and defend other ideas, but there can be no disorder or lack of coordination in the activity of the party. Centralism is the centralisation of socialist activities.

The absence of substantive democracy in the party - that is, open criticism and debate - makes centralism arbitrary and despotic. Similarly, in a party where centralism is weak, it is not democracy, but liberalism that has free rein.

Thus we see that democratic centralism is an integral whole. Open discussion and criticism prevent centralism from degenerating and becoming unprincipled. Centralism based on revolutionary principle prevents discussion from becoming just mouthing off.

Democratic centralism and discipline

"In regard to principle, we have outlined our views on the importance and the meaning of discipline in the workers' party many times. Unity of action, freedom of discussion and criticism - this is our definition. It is only such discipline that suits the democratic party of the advanced class. The strength of the working class is in its organisation. Without organisation, the proletarian mass is nothing. If it is organised, it is everything. Organisation means unity of action, to act together in practice" (Lenin).

What is being said here by Lenin? First that discipline in the party is not only a function of centralism. It is also a function of party democracy.

It is the product of the political process of democratic centralism. In other words, discipline demands open criticism of opportunist errors as much as conformity with decisions in regard to activity. It is actually an act of indiscipline to have political and theoretical criticisms and not to openly express them. Clearly, if comrades accept this, as they must, we have to say that in today's Socialist Party, indiscipline at every level of the party is rife.

Lenin wrote the following: "... the iron discipline needed for the victory of the proletariat ... how is it tested? How is it reinforced? First, by the class consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism. Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact, and - if you wish - merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people - primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian masses of working people. Third, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, that they are correct.

"Without these conditions, discipline in a revolutionary party really capable of being the party of the advanced class, whose mission it is to overthrow the bourgeoisie and transform the whole of society, cannot be achieved. Without these conditions, all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end up in phrase-mongering and clowning. On the other hand, these conditions cannot emerge at once. They are created only by prolonged effort and hard-won experience. Their creation is facilitated by a correct revolutionary theory ..." ('Leftwing communism: an infantile disorder' CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, pp24-25).

We can see that Lenin always considers the question of discipline in connection with the correct consciousness, ties with the masses and correct politics.

A genuinely revolutionary understanding of discipline in no way excludes the mass of 'ordinary' workers from the discussions in the party. We will win the right to lead the working class first and foremost by the correctness of our politics. The political stand of the party - and of the various leaders, trends and groups within our party - must be open on all matters.

Real party discipline is a means of putting into practice the correct revolutionary principles and theory. Lenin defines indiscipline as follows:

"In the view of the central committee, it is essential to give all party members the widest possible freedom to criticise the central bodies and to attack them; the central committee sees nothing terrible in such attacks, provided they are not accompanied by a boycott, by standing aloof from positive work or by cutting off financial resources" ('To the Iskra editorial board' CW, Vol 34, Moscow 1977, p223).

It other words, it is not open criticism of the leadership that is an act of indiscipline. It is the boycotting of the party because of these criticisms that is wrong. Only opportunists identify discipline exclusively with centralism, reducing it to a vulgar centralism and robbing it of its democratic and political essence.

Leninist discipline

On the question of discipline, there is a clear line of demarcation between Bolshevism and Menshevism.

By 1906 in Russia, the democratic revolution has lost its initial fire and a retreat towards the years of reaction is underway. The RSDLP held its 4th Congress and the Mensheviks took the leadership. A life-and-death struggle raged inside the party.

Under these conditions the RSDLP central committee - dominated by the Mensheviks - issued the following declaration:

"In view of that fact that several party organisations have raised the question of the limits within which the decisions of party congresses may be criticised, the Central Committee, bearing in mind that the interests of the Russian proletariat have always demanded the greatest possible unity in the tactics of the RSDLP, and that this unity in the political activities of the various sections of our party is now more necessary than ever, is of the opinion:

  1. That in the party press and at party meetings, everybody must be allowed full freedom to express his personal opinions and to advocate his individual views;
  2. That at public political meetings members of the party should refrain from conducting agitation that runs counter to congress decisions;
  3. That no party member should at such meetings call for action that runs counter to congress decisions, or propose resolutions that are out of harmony with congress decisions" ('Freedom to criticise and unity of action' CW Vol 10, Moscow 1977, p442).

The attempt of the Menshevik central committee was clearly to emasculate and stifle the ability to criticise of the revolutionaries in the party. It was trying to accuse those who made criticisms of indiscipline, of disrupting unity of action and of selling out the party. Clearly, comrades can see that our attitude towards and practice of democratic centralism has far more in common with Menshevism than Bolshevism. Personally, I have been verbally abused and explicitly threatened with expulsion because of the pretty mildly critical comments I made about the party's organisational regime at the Merseyside Socialists' liquidationist rally-cum-day school on October 16 of this year [1999]. There I made some moderate criticisms of how democratic centralism is conceived of in our party, but overwhelmingly concentrated the bulk of my remarks on a harsh condemnation of the overt liquidationism of the majority of the conference's participants. Ludicrously, I am being told that this is a "breach of discipline"! Clearly, the people making such childish allegations know nothing of the real history of our movement.

Lenin vigorously opposed this Menshevik gagging order and stressed that, before issuing a statement of such importance, a wide-ranging discussion ought to have taken place both in the party press and within the party itself, that everyone should have had the opportunity to express their views on the matter. Providing a thorough exposure of the opportunists' understanding of organisation, Lenin criticises them as follows:

"In examining the substance of this resolution, we see a number of queer points. The resolution says that 'at party meetings' 'full freedom' is to be allowed for the expression of personal opinions and for criticism (article 1), but at 'public meetings' (article 2) 'no party member should call for action that runs counter to congress decisions'. But see what comes of this: at party meetings, members of the party have the right to call for action that runs counter to congress decisions; but at public meetings they are not 'allowed' full freedom to 'express personal opinions'!

"Those who drafted the resolution have a totally wrong conception of the relationship between freedom to criticise within the party, and the party's unity of action. Criticism within the limits of the principles of the party programme must be quite free ..., not only at party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism, or such agitation (for criticism is inseparable from agitation) cannot be prohibited. The party's political action must be united. No calls that violate the unity of definite actions can be tolerated either - at public meetings, or at party meetings, or in the party press. Obviously, the central committee has defined freedom to criticise inaccurately and too narrowly, and unity of action inaccurately and too broadly.

"Let us take an example. The congress decided that the party should take part in the duma elections. Taking part in elections is a very definite action. During the elections (as in Baku today, for example), no member of the party anywhere has any right whatever to call upon the people to abstain from voting; nor can 'criticism' of the decision to take part in the elections be tolerated during this period, for it would in fact jeopardise success in the election campaign. Before elections have been announced, however, party members everywhere have a perfect right to criticise the decision to take part in elections.

"Of course, the application of this principle in practice will sometimes give rise to disputes and misunderstandings; but only on the basis of this principle can all disputes and misunderstandings be settled honourably for the party. The resolution of the central committee, however, creates an impossible situation. The central committee's resolution is essentially wrong and runs counter to the party rules. The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticism which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided on by the party" (ibid CW Vol 10, Moscow 1977, pp442-443).

This example from Lenin is clear enough to preclude any confusion - it is quite clear what the man means.

'Unity of action'

Before entering into an activity, the leadership of the party should listen to the views of the rank and file to determine its policy. Until a decision is made, every militant has the right to enter into discussion, contribute to the decision making and bring any criticism s/he may have. Once a decision is taken, everyone is duty-bound to work for its full implementation until the action is completed.

It is both a right and a duty for a member to repeat her/his criticism once the action is over, if s/he is still not persuaded as to the correctness of the decision.

Those comrades who argued against the decision at the beginning cannot be accused of indiscipline if they once again criticise and stress the error of the decision. Open criticism before the taking of a decision and after the completion of a certain activity cannot be muffled by sophistry in regard to unity of action. Those comrades cannot be accused of indiscipline. Such an attitude hinders the development of the party.

Party unity

Party unity can only be achieved and preserved in the long term with the principle of open political and ideological struggle. This may seem like a paradox to formalists and bureaucrats; it nevertheless is one of the basic lessons that the history of Bolshevism teaches us. Applying this lesson to the actual state of the Socialist Party today, we can see that our organisation is fraught with disunity and division to the extent that its catastrophic fragmentation is threatened:

"Without struggle there cannot be a sorting out, and without a sorting out there cannot be any lasting advance, nor can there be any lasting unity. An open, frank struggle is one of the essential conditions for restoring unity. Yes, restoring! The kind of 'unity' that makes us conceal 'economic' documents from our comrades like a secret disease, that makes us resent the publication of statements revealing what views are being propagated under a [revolutionary socialist] cover - such 'unity' is not worth a brass farthing; such unity is sheer cant: it only aggravates the disease and makes it assume a chronic, malignant form. That an open, frank and honest struggle will cure this disease and create a really united, vigorous and strong socialist movement - I do not for a moment doubt" (VI Lenin, 'To Apollinaria Yakubova' CW Vol 34, Moscow, 1977, p53).

Genuine unity cannot be achieved without clearly and openly disclosing differences in the party. Without this clean, democratic approach, differences fester in the dark, become "malignant" in Lenin's words, and will wreck the party. To place artificial limits on the open discussion of ideas in the name of "party unity" or "discipline" is to separate the organisation from the politics. It is not the open discussion of ideas that undermines the effectiveness of the party, but leaving it to drown in its own mistakes, blocking the channels to correct them. In these circumstances, conspiracy is introduced into the party as the form that political struggle takes.

Again, here is Lenin: "What is it that needs to be done for a rapid and certain cure? All members of the party must make a calm and painstaking study of 1) the essence of the disagreements and 2) the development of the party struggle. A study must be made of both, because the essence of the disagreements is revealed, clarified and specified (and very often transformed as well) . A study must be made of both, and a demand made for the most exact, printed documents that can be thoroughly verified. Only a hopeless idiot will believe oral statements. If no documents are available, there must be an examination of witnesses on both or several sides and the grilling must take place in the presence of witnesses" ('The party crisis' CW Vol 32, Moscow 1977, pp43-44).

All party members have the right to learn about the struggle within the party. A party member is obliged to learn the smallest details, to acquire a thorough knowledge of the differences of opinion and to express her/his views on the matter. Without this basic right, the comrade is effectively being disenfranchised as a party member, her/his relationship to the party becomes an undemocratic, bureaucratised and unhealthy one.

Comrades hardly have to strain their memories to turn up examples of this unhealthy approach in our own organisation.

Bill Mullins

It is rumoured in our party and beyond that the Socialist Party leadership have had differences on relations with the Socialist Workers Party. This news has 'leaked out' via informal channels, in the form of rumour and whispered aside. We have discovered through the same sources that comrade Mullins has penned a document, although the majority of the party membership has not been allowed to read it. It has only been distributed to SP members in Unison, apparently. I have even been told by a leading comrade in the East Midlands region that the Mullins document is "not the concern" of party members outside Unison! Apparently, we do not "need to know" what Bill thinks.

So a leader of our organisation distributes a written document, supposedly outlining a counterposed political position to other members of the leadership, concerning our relationship with the largest revolutionary organisation in Britain today. And this is "not the concern" of the majority of the members of the Socialist Party? Unreal!

Ted Grant

The split with the Grant, Sewel and Woods minority in 1991-92 did not come out of nowhere. It had a long gestation period. Yet was the membership of the organisation prepared for this damaging schism? Were we fully engaged as conscious participants in our own organisation? By the explicit admission of Peter Taaffe, the majority leaders of the time consciously kept the membership in the dark:

"The real history of the last 10 years has been characterised by the increasingly dogmatic and intolerant approach of EG [Grant], usually toned down, amended, and sometimes opposed within the NEB and International by other comrades. EG and AW in the complex new world and national situation, demonstrated an atrophy of thought process. Old formulas were trotted out which flew in the face of current developments. A kind of veiled political struggle took place in the higher bodies of the tendency.

"Comrades could object: why didn't the present majority leaders bring this out earlier? There is a very simple reason. We had drawn the conclusion long ago that EG, and increasingly AW, on many issues took a one-sided, undialectical approach to events. However, any attempt to differ publicly fundamentally from EG would have resulted in precisely the situation that we have faced over the last 10 months. A split, because of the intolerance of EG, would have taken place at an earlier stage when the tendency was less capable of recovering from such a damaging development.

"We had earlier been given advance warning of the crude generalisations of EG and AW. The latter advanced the position that the Peronists would sweep the board in the first elections (in October 1983) following the overthrown of the military dictatorship in Argentina. PT had raised doubts in private discussions about this scenario, given the brutal repressions of the Isabel Peron regime which had immediately preceded the installation of the military dictatorship in March 1976. This meant that large layers of the population would initially be repelled by the Peronists. This at least opened up the possibility, particularly as it was backed by opinion polls just prior to the election, that the Radicals would win.

"Again this was dismissed as impossible. Having raised doubts in private, PT publicly accepted the common position that the Peronists were likely to win. When the present dispute broke out this was subsequently used by the Spanish leadership to argue that PT had also made mistakes in the sphere of perspectives!

"EG (for instance), at one meeting after another, intoned that if war was to break out it would last for a minimum of six months and probably for two years. The leaders of the Spanish tendency merely repeated this statement parrot fashion . The British paper, however, never once carried this statement. Apart from EG, the EB were totally opposed to the attempt to impose EG's calendar of events . Because of the approach of the British paper, we did not pay such a heavy price. In Spain, where the ranks were fed a different diet, this was not the case. The speedy ending of the war produced disappointment and consternation in the ranks of the Spanish tendency. EG, in particular, kept on repeating that a long war would probably necessitate the reintroduction of conscription.

"However, he then went on the say, again, in a completely dogmatic fashion, that in this situation, we must advocate that the youth go into the army! Intense discussion took place at the level of the EB on this issue. The clear majority of the EB disagreed with EG's proposals and attempted to dissuade him from making these ideas public.

"There are many other examples, which could fill whole volumes, revealing the political divergence which existed long before the factional struggle itself broke out. Moreover, it was not just on general theoretical and political questions, but in the field of strategy and tactics that political differences manifested themselves. In the last eight months, we have been compelled to turn inwards, to devote an excessive proportion of our efforts to answering the arguments of the minority and too little to the necessary involvement in the labour movement, the penetration of the new layers of the proletariat. This must now come to an end . The vast majority of the time of the tendency will now be devoted to politically clarifying and sharpening the understanding of the marvellous cadres we have assembled under our banner" (Peter Taaffe Two trends: the political roots of the breakaway January 1992, pp4-13).

I hope comrades will forgive me for having quoted from comrade Taaffe's document at such length. I simply find it the most succinct and explicit example of what is not democratic centralism, of the practice of bureaucratic centralism, that it was just too good not to extract at length. A number of the points I have made at length above are illustrated negatively by Peter's words:

  1. He admits that "a kind of veiled political struggle took place" with the leader of our party for over 10 years! This struggle encompassed not esoteric theoretical nuances, but fundamental political questions such as prospects for the meltdown of the world economy, the remaking of South Africa capitalism and the dumping of apartheid, the Gulf war and the nature of the period.
  2. Debates were not brought into the open and resolved democratically for fear of a "split". Instead, these differences festered, dragged on and were allowed to become "malignant", in Lenin's prophetic words. When - finally - the pressure of events forced them into the open despite the efforts of the party leadership to pretend they did not exist, they resulted - predictably - in a split. In contrast, open discussion could have safeguarded party unity - or, as Lenin puts it, "an open, frank struggle is one of the essential conditions for restoring unity" (see above).
  3. Far from the "masses knowing which leaders and which organisations of the party are pursuing this or that line" ('But who are the judges?' CW Vol 13, Moscow 1977, p159), leaders of the different sections of the CWI were not aware of the real political positions of our leaders! For example, Peter Taaffe casually admits that, despite his disagreements, he "publicly accepted the common position that the Peronists were likely to win" the 1983.<