The fight for unity in action

Mark Fischer opened an important discussion on democratic centralism at this year's Communist University. This is an edited version of his speech

Given some of the debates on the Socialist Alliance's internal e-list as well as discussions that have arisen in the CPGB internally, we thought it useful to include a session on democratic centralism at this year's school. We see potential differences within our ranks on this question, so we need to explore it. Although these may still be embryonic, it is very much part of our tradition that such differences are openly addressed even at such an early stage. The controversy revolves around two concrete questions. First, Dave Parks of Exeter SA has floated the idea on the SA e-list of constituent organisations allowing their members a "free vote" at the forthcoming SA conference on the euro (see Weekly Worker August 1). He suggested that this would advance the struggle for what he termed "partyism" in the alliance. It would be a blow against the bureaucratic centralist regimes that characterise "the sects" - a catch-all phrase to cover all organised groups in the SA, including our own. Disappointingly, this idea has received some support from comrades in our own ranks. Manchester branch of the Party passed a resolution calling on the Provisional Central Committee to allow CPGB members a free vote at this event. Second, we have had a brief discussion internally around the attitude of various comrades to actions we have organised. Concretely, one comrade explained on a CPGB list why he personally did not participate in a Party intervention on a Palestinian demonstration on May 18. The comrade apparently felt it was unprincipled of the organisation to even be there, as the demonstration was tainted by one of the main organisers - the Muslim Association of Britain. He suggested that the CPGB would be associated with fundamentalism and thus he - individually - boycotted the action. In the course of that discussion, he appeared to have received support from a leading Manchester comrade, John Pearson, who seemed to suggest that democratic centralism entailed the duty of any minority not to "disrupt" concrete actions agreed by the Party majority. Comrade Pearson subsequently pointed out that the particular action had been "optional" for comrades outside London - a formulation used in the internal organising material for the day. It is useful that this question appears now. A frank debate on democratic centralism at this year's school will be extremely educational, particularly for newer comrades. Like other organisations on the left, our Party has undergone a modest growth over the past few years. It is vital that both newer comrades in and around our ranks as well as older cadre are absolutely clear on what our discipline entails. The vital nature of our fight for democratic centralism is something that all comrades must understand and actively embrace. So let us be clear. There are absolutely no Party actions that are politically optional for our members. Interventions are occasionally geographically specific - on the Palestinian march in question it was felt that London comrades could handle the work so members from other parts of the country were given the option of non-attendance for logistical reasons. There can be no provision in our understanding of democratic centralism for the option of politically boycotting party actions. What then is this democratic centralism that so many people seem to take exception to? First, it is vital to emphasise that it is not a 'finished', rigidly codified set of rules or a structural blueprint defining relations between higher and lower bodies in the Party, the rights and duties of individual members, and so on. We have always emphasised its living, dialectical relationship to the concrete reality of the Party and its work. Thus we have disagreed with those both within our ranks and outside who have suggested that at certain stages democratic centralism can be suspended - under conditions of police repression, for example. In fact, the two poles of democracy and centralism are in a constant state of change. Circumstances condition what form democratic centralism takes. But its essence is always present, whether internal Party elections have to be suspended, whether the organisation has been able to organise regular conferences and congresses, etc. Democratic centralism is the ongoing struggle to win and defend unity around a revolutionary programme. A formalistic approach guts this understanding and is positively dangerous to the healthy development of the organisation. It fails to see what democracy and centralism actually are in a revolutionary party. Thus, it is clearly the case that under conditions of, say, dictatorship or police repression the formal aspects of democracy can wither or be consciously suspended. However, that is not a suspension of democratic centralism. It is democratic centralism manifest in a particular form - where centralism predominates over the functioning of formal inner-party democracy. The essence of party democracy for us is freedom of discussion. As long as there is openness in the realm of debate, polemic and a continued struggle between contending ideas, then the essence of democracy remains. This transparency characterised the Bolsheviks at their best - even under the most severe conditions of tsarist repression. I will outline a textbook example of what I understand democratic centralism to be. If our organisation decided to organise a picket of, for instance, the Iranian embassy, we would openly discuss our slogans beforehand. If there were dissent in our ranks, it would have the right to be expressed in front of the informed political public and advanced layers of the class itself. Comrades would be able to publicly criticise the views of other Party trends in public meetings (of our own and others groups), on non-Party discussion lists, in their own factional publications and so on. Such criticism should be sharp, but loyal - although that is a cultural question rather than one of Party statute. At a certain point, a vote will be taken and the majority will decide. In the case of the example I am laying out here, it would not be a problem if the discussion continued after the vote was taken, right up to the morning of the picket itself. On the action, all Party members - minority as well as majority - have the duty to participate, to hold the banners emblazoned with the democratically agreed slogans, to give out the leaflets and lustily shout the slogans (miming is not good enough). Of course, the human culture of the Party should preclude torturing such a minority. In general, it would not be healthy thing to go out of our way to compel members of this minority to take a lead in the action, to be forced to mouth the words of majority against their own sincerely held opinions in, for example, an interview with the press. However, the minority is present on the action and takes a full part alongside the comrades of the majority on the basis of the democratically agreed slogans of the Party. Five minutes after the action is complete, the dissenters have the right to raise their differences once more in whatever format they see fit - around a pub table, on the internet, in leaflet form or whatever. I think it is important to draw a very sharp distinction between that understanding of unity in action and 'not disrupting' a Party initiative. To understand this properly, we have to first grasp the concept of a 'Party action'. Let us look at the Palestinian demonstration that caused some of our comrades such grief. This clearly does not fit the model application of democratic centralism I have just conjured up. We did not decide at some Party aggregate or conference that we would go on this march. We did not collectively discuss and agree the slogans of the paper or the text of our leaflet for the day. The leadership did. Therefore, was it an action of the PCC rather than the Party as a whole? It is part of our tradition as communists that between authoritative gatherings of the membership, the PCC - as an elected leadership of the collective - represents the whole. This leading committee hardly floats above the Party, separate from it and the ideas and controversies that animate its ranks. The general 'line' that the PCC as a working leadership team pursues has been debated, collectively modified and fought for over a period of years. Generally in the Party, it is a trusted leadership. Trusted not simply to embody some dull aggregate of the views of the organisation as a whole, but also to be in the vanguard of the group in terms of ideas and initiatives. Thus it can sometimes be in advance of the views of the Party. But in general, the politics it and its individual members defend and fight for reflects the majority that it as a leadership has fought for and won. Therefore, it has the right and the duty to speak and act on behalf of the Party as a whole between authoritative meetings of the Party membership. The alternative would be anarcho-impotence. That PCC 'line' must be open to challenge, of course. But the question is how? It is perfectly principled for communists to organise a disciplined rebellion against an opportunist leadership - that, after all, was the origins of this group. Comrades around The Leninist did just that in the CPGB in the 1980s. But even then - under that rotten leadership - we acted as disciplined communists. We were sharply critical of other left oppositionalist forces in the CPGB who boycotted Party work or withheld Party funds. In effect, we accused them of boycotting the Party itself. Such 'boycottism' is a species of anarchism. It puts the part before the whole. In the case of the Party's oppositionists of yesteryear, it put their own particular factional interests before the interests of the CPGB. In the case of comrades who stay away from Party actions to avoid 'disrupting' it, it is actually anarchism on a lower level. It puts the concerns of the sovereign individual before that of the collective. It does this in two ways. First, it denies the authority of the PCC to act on behalf of the whole. Second, it is rebels not in a disciplined, communist manner. It seems to me more about protecting the individual revolutionary propriety of some comrades, less about the collective fight to develop our organisation on the basis of correct politics. It is a fundamentally anti-democratic approach - it effectively denies the right of the majority to act on behalf of the organisation as a whole. Take this example. Say we had a parliamentary fraction, a section of the party that history tells us almost invariably stands to the right of the organisation. How would we exercise control over this section of the Party? If we agreed on an action, would it be enough for our MPs not to actively disrupt the Party's work, not to stand up in parliament and make a speech against supporting the Party's initiative? Hardly. If we allowed that, we would not be talking about a Communist Party any more. We would not be talking about a combat organisation of our class. We would be a debating club. We could have jolly interesting discussions, but essentially we have a platonic attitude to them. Any votes we might take in aggregates or conferences would be purely indicative: they would have no binding authority on an individual in the Party. Zinoviev and Kamenev obviously had some rather important differences with the majority of the leadership of the Party over the insurrection in 1917. They disagreed with it. They took the culture of openness of the Party beyond acceptable limits and actually revealed concrete details of the plan for revolution - an act of "strike-breaking" that prompted Lenin to demand their expulsion from the party (the party disagreed). However, despite their profound disagreement with the course the party was set on, they decided to place themselves "at the disposal" of the organisation. They did not sit at home on the day twiddling their thumbs while not 'disrupting' the revolution. They united for action with the majority. Of course, the CPGB has used the formulation of 'not disrupting' an agreed action as a criterion for membership of an organisation. But not our organisation: it was the Socialist Alliance. We proposed this to strengthen the whole and counter the active sabotage of actions by the Socialist Party. This sect was undermining the work of the alliance by standing against our candidates and so on. That halfway house formulation was a perfectly principled thing to put forward within the SA. But to degrade our discipline as a communist collective to that would be a monumental error. One last point before moving on. Our unity in agreed actions of the Party is actually part of the process of the clarification of our politics. As communists, we do not conceive of our ideas and our activities being in two separate boxes. Uniting our forces for action performs an essential educative process. It provides direct living experience to substantiate the arguments of the majority or the minority. It moves the debate from the realms of the abstract to the concrete and allows more profound lessons to be drawn, more precise polemical points to be made. Here is a fairly simple example. I argued at a London SA level against the slogan of 'Asylum-seekers are welcome here' - comrades are familiar with my views on this question. I lost. I subsequently worked with SWPers and others to canvass in local elections and observed the antagonistic response the slogan actually met on the doorstep and the way SWPers quickly dropped it in practice. This verified and reinforced my original objections to the slogan and has provided more polemical ammunition to attack it. It helped in the struggle for political clarity. The same holds true - on a much higher level, of course - for the united activity of a communist organisation such as our own. If there was a culture of open debate and polemic in the SA, this slogan should now be returned to and debated through once more in an honest manner. There is no such culture in the SA because there is no such culture in the SWP, of course. Thus this lack of democracy actually undermines the SWP's ability to centralise its activities. As I have made clear, rank and file SWP canvassers quietly boycotted their own slogan when practice made clear to them that it was useless. This means that the organisation as a whole cannot learn lessons, cannot correct false perspectives, cannot genuinely centralise its activities. Like many groups on the British left, the SWP therefore is less that the sum of its individual parts - an extraordinary achievement for a revolutionary organisation. Genuine democratic centralism makes us more than the sum of our individual parts. Other comrades in the SA have commented on the fact that the CPGB has been able to 'punch above its weight' within the alliance. Our influence and standing have been disproportionately large compared to our numerical strength. In fact, our ability to centralise our activities accounts for this. And our ability to centralise has been a function of our open and democratic political culture - the two are organically inseparable. It is in that context we should look at the idea of a 'free vote' at the forthcoming SA conference on the euro. There are four key reasons why I find it objectionable. Firstly, what motivates the call from the point of view of even the better independents in the alliance is an impatience born of impotence. The independents have no political coherence, no chance of affecting the course of events without the patronage of one or another of the groups. In response to this situation, Dave Parks' slogan is essentially 'Abolish the sects!' Dishonestly, the approach of the CPGB to political work is lumped in with "the sects". In contrast, far from demanding in a semi-anarchist way the abolition of the existing groups, communists have the view that there is a necessary process of struggle between the organised groups in the alliance that will culminate in the withering away of the groups as presently constituted. They are part of the problem, but also important parts of the solution. They must be overcome through political struggle between organised groups because they represent parts of a fractured vanguard on the contemporary left political scene. In contrast to comrade Parks's suggestion that 'partyism' would be best served by the groups agreeing to liquidate themselves for the euro conference, the form that struggle actually takes is the struggle for political hegemony between the organised groups. Individual independents - by definition they can only be individuals - are irrelevant to that process when they are not actually obstructing it. Our real task is to develop our capacity to intervene as a democratically centralised group in this process. It is not to reduce us to the level of the floundering independents. Second, the call smacks of moralism. We want the constituent organisations of SA to take on our democracy, our understanding of centralism, our party culture and in the process to take these elements to a higher level. Our culture needs to be generalised. At a vital moment for the future political development of the alliance, how would liquidating our discipline help that? The implication seems to be that we would gain some moral superiority or moral kudos. It would be exemplary, in that we would be acting as if the SA were an open, democratic and principled party already. In fact, the exemplary role the CPGB must play in the alliance is what we do now, in the concrete political circumstances that face us. That is - open discussion and debate, then disciplined unity in action. That is the future we are fighting for, that is what we are able to show people in the here and now. Despite the openly expressed differences in the ranks of this communist collective, we are able to unite for action and be highly effective in the political battle for the heart and soul of the alliance. Third, and as I have mentioned, it is dishonest. No differences are delineated between "the sects". The CPGB is in with the SWP, Workers Power and others who operate bureaucratic regimes to one extent or another. I ask these comrades - can they imagine a debate like this one being openly staged in an SWP public forum? Can they imagine it being openly reported with the chance for comrades criticised to then reply in the pages of Socialist Worker? The dishonest amalgam of the internal regimes of all the "sects" into one bureaucratic lump may serve the narrow, individualistic concerns of the so-called 'independents' - it tells us nothing about the reality of today's SA, however. Thus the call for a 'free vote' is actually a demand to liquidate genuine democratic centralism, even in its current embryonic form as embodied in the CPGB - in the face of bureaucratic centralism, that is to disarm us. This would be to degrade the conscious element of the fight in the SA for a party and genuine democratic centralism to the atomised, ineffectual level of the independents. Why should we declare a form of pious solidarity with their impotence? In effect, it would pander to the petty individualism of this layer in the same way the SWP has. Just a small aside on this question of the independents. I see a process of differentiation in this small group. One group have clearly become creatures of the SWP. Comrades like Nick Wrack, Liz Davies or Will McMahon are to all intents and purposes fellow travellers. They have gravitated towards something that appears powerful. By the same token, a small group of independents have moved into the orbit of our own organisation - another strong pole of attraction in the SA. There is a certain process of polarisation. I do not want to over-emphasise this, as we are dealing with very small numbers here and for the most part it is a layer characterised by lack of seriousness. But it is true. And - unlike the SWP - we have not attracted the independents by flattering them and their weaknesses. Far from it. We have not done so by acting like them via 'free votes' on important issues: we have started to win the argument with some of them to over the need to for them to act like us. The fourth reason for my opposition to the call for a 'free vote' is its formalism. Comrade Parks correctly argues for an SA party. From this, he foolishly implies that for the SA to become such an organisation, important sections of it must start acting like a party now. We faced similar arguments almost a decade ago from a small clot of comrades who expressed an impatient haughtiness with our level of development. Comrade Jack Conrad dissected their arguments and used an interesting analogy: "[For these comrades] democratic centralism is "¦ a chicken and egg situation, but the paradox entirely passes [them] by. Instead of understand things in their real movement they want to define them as being one category or another. Only chickens lay eggs, they say to themselves. So for the egg to become a chicken it must behave like a fully grown chicken now "¦ We have to recognise what we are and what our material constraints are "¦ For the moment the shell is not a hindrance: it is a necessity without which we could not exist" (J Conrad Problems of communist organisation London 1993, p27). Similarly today, if we broke out of the "shell" of the CPGB and acted as if the SA party we are fighting for already exists, we simply would not survive. Yes, at a certain point that 'shell' becomes a hindrance. But to crack it prematurely means the death of the organism. What a gift that would be to the genuine sectarians in the alliance! In conclusion, I want to make some general points on democratic centralism, anarchism and our organisation as it exists today. It is a general characteristic of opportunism that it proceeds from the bottom up. It upholds the rights of parts against the whole - either in the form of branches, regions, trends, factions or even sovereign individuals against the majority. Carried through to a logical conclusion, it denies authority altogether. In results in anarchism, in other words. We can see this more clearly if we widen the discussion a little and look at the organising principle of socialist society itself, not simply that of a Communist Party. In contrast to what some comrades have written on the SA list - including members of SWP who have joined in on the 'free vote' debate - we want democratic centralism in society and the economy after the victory of the working class. Discussions in a workers' state will produce minorities and majorities. Do the majorities not have a right to decide? Even an intelligent anarchist such as Murray Bookchin concedes this principle in a useful polemic against "life-style anarchists" who suggest that "the majority has no more right to dictate to the minority, even a minority of one, than the minority to the majority" (cited in Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: an unbridgeable chasm Edinburgh 1995, p17 - emphasis added). In this, Bookchin sides with Marx - which is probably intensely uncomfortable for him. In preparatory notes for the third volume of Capital, Marx writes: "The labour of supervision and management is naturally required wherever the direct process of production assumes the form of a combined social process, and not of the isolated labour of independent producers "¦ all labour in which many individuals cooperate necessarily requires a commanding will to coordinate and unify the process "¦ much as that of an orchestra conductor. This is a productive job, which must be performed in every combined mode of production" (K Marx Capital Vol 3, p376). So, according to Marx, authority - a "commanding will" - is a prerequisite of any society characterised by a "combined mode of production". This applies to socialism just as much as to capitalism: "In a cooperative factory the antagonistic nature of supervision disappears, because the manager is paid by the labourers instead of representing capital counterposed to them" (ibid p380). As Hal Draper comments, a productive unit under socialism, where the workers directly employ their supervisor, is only one form of democratic arrangement that can be envisaged. However, the key point is that Marxism understands that a socialist society must have the authority to centralise the decisions it takes about key questions such as the direction of the economy and so on. However, under socialism there has been a "qualitative change in the social relations behind the form in which that authority is being wielded" in contrast to how authority is deployed under capitalism (Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Vol 4, New York 1990, p135). Authority has been democratised, brought under the conscious control of the majority of society. In other words, it is democratic centralism. Thus a minority would have the opportunity at every stage to argue against the opinions and decisions of the majority. What it would never have the right to do is the actively disrupt those decisions, to deploy the resources of society to ends that had been democratically rejected by the majority. In that sense, the minority consciously subordinates itself to the authority of the majority. Tanks can never achieve this: it requires a thoroughgoing democracy, the fullest opportunities for that minority to argue its way into becoming a majority. Nevertheless, at the end of the day the authority of that fluid majority must be the organising principle of socialism. The mainstream anarchist alternative is pretty bleak. In a world where the societal authority of the majority over the minority ceases, not only is democracy impossible; any form of organisation at all is impossible - at least, any form of democratic organisation. The consequences of this for a post-revolution society would be barbaric. As Hal Draper ironically comments, "Perhaps the most rational anarchist response [to the question of how a society will be run without 'authority' or the democratic rule of the majority] is to advocate the break-up of modern society into atomised fragments on the land, with no interrelations between them "¦" (p137). In truth, those comrades in organisations such as the SWP who reject the concept of democratic centralism for a workers' society illustrate only their own degenerate, deeply flawed understanding of the concept. In their own way, they are the flipside of the independents such as Dave Parks and Dave Osler, who ostentatiously reject democratic centralism in the here and now as an organising principle for revolutionary organisations. Essentially, they are telling such independents, 'Yes, we agree with you. Democratic centralism is horrible and bureaucratic and vile - after all, look at the way we run things in our own organisation. But we have to drive out barbarism tomorrow by being a little bit barbaric today. Still, don't worry. The socialist utopia won't be like that - there'll be no horrid democratic centralism then! Just happy, smiling people and lots of terribly interesting debates.' In truth, neither side have any conception of what genuine democratic centralism actually is. In the case of those comrades organised into one or other of the SA sects who reject democratic centralism as the organising principle of a workers' society, they divorce the end of socialism from methods we employ today to get to it. Socialism thus becomes an abstraction - literally a utopia in the sense of being a 'nowhere' - instead of something whose contours we fashion in the contemporary struggle. Democratic centralism in our own organisation is at a primitive level because that is where we are as a group. The debates and controversies that will animate a genuine party with real roots in the class will be that much more complex, that much more rich. Consequently, the lessons such a weighty organisation will be able to draw are that much more profound. Yes, we have a culture of openness in the CPGB - which is good. However, our general standards of debate and polemical exchange are still appallingly low at all levels of the Party. We see a generalised passivity in the struggle to develop the ideas of the collective. Our centralism, our ability to put our ideas into action, suffers as a result of that sad fact. Just look at the unrealised potential we saw in this year's Summer Offensive, to cite just one example. So the task that actually confronts us as a communist trend is to develop our democratic centralism to a higher level, not to go into a key battle in the Socialist Alliance and abandon it in the face of the much larger forces of bureaucratic centralism arrayed against us at the euro conference in October. We are the most conscious element of the fight for a genuine, principled SA party. The form that fight takes at present is the struggle between organised groups. To voluntarily liquidate this group above all others would be a gift to the sectarians. A profound mistake that we might never recover from and one which would ensure that the SA project could never develop into a revolutionary party.