Party notes: Democracy and centralism

Democratic centralism is on the agenda following the meeting of the Socialist Alliance national council

In his renowned pamphlet What is to be done?, written in 1902, Vladimir Lenin argued for a highly centralised proletarian party. In the process he savaged the do-what-you-please organisational nostrums of the old type still being peddled today by backsliding opportunists of one stripe or another.

Though a number of his proposals were specific to tsarist Russia, the Communist Party, the Bolshevik party of a new type, proved universally applicable. Following the epoch-making October 1917 revolution communist parties were formed across the globe, including in July 1920, in the “most bourgeois of nations”, Great Britain. On the basis of the Bolshevik model, the rules of the Communist Party of Great Britain stated that not only are members required to accept its programme, but regularly pay dues and work actively in one of its organisations under a single leadership (which between congresses represents - not constitutes - the whole).

Our draft rules - by which our organisation of Communist Party members seeks to operate - contains a similar formulation. Of course, the CPGB was finally liquidated by the Marxism Today faction in 1991. However, that did not end our responsibilities and duties as Party members. On the contrary it dramatically increased them and we have spared no effort to re-establish the CPGB on a healthy organisational and programmatic basis.

Nowadays many on the left - not least those Socialist Alliance independents who have been burnt by one or another of the more ghastly sects - reject with horror the very idea of a Communist Party and the Leninist principle of unity in action. It has to be said, though, that by so doing they effectively abandon or at the very least blunt the struggle for socialism.

Communist parties and their discipline exist not as an end in themselves, but for a historically specific purpose - namely coordinating, enhancing and successfully carrying through the class struggle. The capitalist state is immensely big, powerful and centralised. Taking it on is no parlour game. It is a matter of life and death, which in the last analysis will be decided on the streets. Workers must meet force with force and the Communist Party is undoubtedly the most powerful, most effective weapon our class can equip itself with.

Members of the Communist Party act as one under a leadership which can change tactical direction at a moment’s notice. Achieving that flexibility and solidarity requires developing the theory and culture of the whole Party. That cannot be arrived at by mechanical means, such as packing meetings or issuing leadership dictats. It requires the realisation of democratic centralism.

Democratic centralism is a fundamental political and organisational principle which comprises the dialectical (ie, the moving, developing, changing and interconnected) unity of democracy and centralism. To employ a well known phrase - centralism ensures that the Communist Party strikes as one, while democracy ensures that the blow is targeted in the right direction. That necessitates ongoing debate on theory, strategy, tactics and organisation.

Few debates result in instant clarity. Lengthy polemics are therefore an inevitable and healthy feature of Party life. And in the CPGB - unlike the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party in England and Wales - minorities are not denied a public voice (eg, when John Rees and Lindsey German announced that women’s rights and gay equality should not be treated as “shibboleths” and could be traded away in a rotten deal with Birmingham’s central mosque, there was no debate in Socialist Worker - not even a single letter of protest). Here one sees what distinguishes democratic centralism from bureaucratic centralism - open ideological struggle.

In this context it is germane to refer to our correspondent, Geoff Smith. He rightly takes me to task for my sloppy formulation in reference to the 1939-40 split in the US Socialist Workers Party (Letters, July 24). The comrade points out that James P Cannon did not in fact “boot out” the minority who disagreed with Trotsky’s outmoded formulations on the Soviet Union. Rather Max Shachtman and his comrades “split”.

But why? After all, comrade Smith says they were offered what he calls “proper minority rights” - namely, they would be allowed to argue their difference “internally”. And here is the rub. The minority had no right to produce an open publication. Not surprisingly, rather than confining themselves to the task of winning the increasingly jaundiced minds of the SWP majority, they chose instead to engage with a much broader and more receptive audience - not least that section of the population upon whom the whole socialist project rests, the working class.

Needless to say, at all times democratic centralism must be intransigently defended against those who would undermine, sabotage or abolish unity in action. Indeed at this very moment there is something of a dispute brewing within the CPGB over democratic centralism. Naturally this is not something we regard as a private matter. It has general significance.

Things kicked off after one of our comrades broke ranks and voted for an Alliance for Workers’ Liberty amendment at the Socialist Alliance’s national council. It sought to delete a reference to George Galloway. As readers well know, we have consciously distanced ourselves from the AWL, along with its completely unbalanced, not to say pathological, hostility towards Galloway - a leading figure in the anti-war movement and on the receiving end of a vicious witch-hunt by the rightwing press and the New Labour establishment. Our position is critical support.

In and of itself the AWL amendment is neither here nor there. What matters is our unity in action. A fundamental principle, over which there can be no compromise.

Those who disagree with a particular course can express their criticisms before and after, but not during an action. Then we act as one. Refusal to do that is no light matter. In the words of Comintern’s 1921 resolution, it should never be forgotten that to “wreck or break” the unity of the communists is the “worst breach of discipline” and the “worst mistake that can be made in the revolutionary struggle” (A Alder [ed] Theses, resolution and manifestos of the first four congresses of the Third International London 1980, p257).

Our comrade, John Pearson, says he was “mandated” by Stockport SA. In e-caucus exchanges others have echoed his position, citing trade unions and how on occasions they too mandate delegates. In order to avoid embarrassment and so as not to upset those who “mandated” them communists are supposedly obliged to follow SA branch or trade union discipline. Not the CPGB’s. In our lexicon this deviation is called anarcho-bureaucratism.

In general communists oppose bottom-up mandating. Take the 2nd Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party. It abolished “binding instructions”; delegates were expected to decide upon matters according to the worth of the opposing arguments and factional alignments and realignments (VI Lenin CW Vol 7, Moscow 1977, p74).

Certainly the Communist Party, even as presently constituted, is regarded by us as a higher body - in terms of programme, expectations and discipline - than SA branches, trade unions, parliamentary constituencies, tenants’ associations, etc. Members must put its democracy and corresponding chain of command first. This must be patiently and fearlessly explained. When, for example, standing for parliament communists are perfectly frank. They would, if elected, primarily take their instructions from the Communist Party rather than the atomised electorate. The top-down “mandate” from the central committee would be binding. The same applies to CPGB delegates to trade union conferences. If that means breaking a bad “mandate” from below, so be it. If we cannot convincingly explain ourselves and retain the trust of fellow workers, so be it. Better not to be elected next time than to “wreck” or “break” communist unity.

It has been suggested that we would have comrades voting blindly like automatons. Utter nonsense. Regular seminars, cell meetings, constant reports and report-backs in the Weekly Worker, e-caucus exchanges and an annual, seven-day Communist University educate and re-educate. The idea that CPGB members are uninformed is absurd. Our organisation also ensures that the largest possible number participate in decision-making. Aggregates are held monthly. They have the right to call conferences, recall the leadership and decide on all matters of strategy and tactics.

Our democracy is not platonic. It maintains and strengthens our centralism.