Democratic Centralism

The question of the party & democratic centralism

Following the recent events that led to splits, resignations, expulsions and suspensions (including the Iranian section) in the International Marxist Tendency, a reassessment of the concept of ‘democratic centralism’ inside a revolutionary party has become necessary. This bitter experience can, at the same time, hold important lessons for our movement.

The Marxist concept of democratic centralism stems from an objective necessity within the labour movement. Many communist organisations and parties have a totally incorrect and non-Marxist understanding of this concept. This incorrect and non-scientific understanding is not exclusive to Stalinist organisations only, but can also be observed in Trotskyist organisations (such as the IMT). These organisations and parties have an administrative concept of democratic centralism. In fact, all these organisations have an organisational structure that is a caricature of a revolutionary party. They all appear to have congresses, members of a leadership, elections and (formal) ‘democracy’. The leadership of these organisations appears to be ‘elected’ on the basis of a majority vote and the leaders and the ‘leader’ are elected for the period between one congress and the next. These organisations all have their party organ and the pages of their papers are also adorned with articles by, and pictures of, Marx, Lenin or Trotsky (or other leaders). All these organisations claim to have a ‘democratic’ organisational structure. However, when the first signs of a disagreement with the leaders or the majority of members appear, a wave of accusations, slander and humiliation of opponents begins immediately; and if these psychological pressures are not effective, organisational manoeuvres, exclusion and slander quickly progress towards expulsion and suspension of membership. If such organisations were to have a state position, then these differences will surely result in arrests, trials and even the execution of opponents. According to these ‘leaders’, having a majority of the votes inside an organisation it is enough to nip in the bud the voice of any opposition. In fact, the method these so-called ‘communist’ organisations have for dealing with dissent can be compared with how military regimes in underdeveloped countries treat their opponents.

The common denominator of all these ‘communist’ parties lies in a fundamental issue: namely, the lack of recognition of ‘tendency rights’ for the views of minorities. In fact, this very obvious and simple issue separates all these organisations from a revolutionary Marxist organisation. Not recognising the rights of members who reach different views to those of the leadership or the majority of members, is the basis for distinguishing between a deviant organisation and a revolutionary Marxist organisation.

The reason for recognising a place and rights for different and opposing views within a revolutionary organisational structure is this: within a revolutionary organisation the members of this organisation, based on their revolutionary practice in different fields of struggle in society, reach different and sometimes conflicting types of consciousness from each other. Members can, as a result of their practical struggles, reach a consciousness that is different from some other members of the organisation who are active in other spheres of struggle. Hence members and cadres of a united party, in their daily interventions in between two party congresses, adopt dissimilar and different tactics. Their experiences are relative and even in many cases incomplete. For example, among the worker members of a revolutionary organisation differences may arise on the slogan of ‘independent labour organisations’ and how to intervene among workers to achieve it. Perhaps, on the issue of the independence of labour organisations from political parties, some party members come to the conclusion that perhaps this workers’ independence should also included their own party. Others may conclude that no: it should not include their own communist party! This type of difference of opinion may also be seen in other cases. Obviously one cannot be certain in advance as to which view will reach the desired results and is correct. It is only through practical action and experience that theories are eventually proved right. From a Marxist point of view theory is only concentrated action (practice).

Obviously, to reach agreement and a common position in order to put these tactics into practice, and to bring together the different opinions and implement them in unity, inside the revolutionary party there must be the conditions that facilitate the possibility of dialogue and the formation of tendencies that disagree with the majority’s view.

It is under these conditions that internal democracy within a revolutionary party becomes vitally important. A party that from its formation does not recognise the right to form tendencies for differing and opposition views, cannot be a revolutionary Marxist party that is supposed to prepare the workers’ revolution. A party that does not understand that only through the exchange of views among members with different types of consciousness and tactics inside the party can the party programme be refined and effective intervention be organised; without a doubt, will deviate in the whirlwinds of the class struggle and will not play a revolutionary role.

Party members, who during their activity in the struggle reach different views, present their views at the party congress (up to this point, the deviant parties may accept this right). However, the problem arises when some members (even one person) have differences with the majority’s or the leadership’s views. In such a situation it is obvious that the revolutionary party must accommodate this minority so that its position can be publicised among all the members through the internal bulletin and planned meetings. This minority must have the right to form a ‘tendency’. A tendency that, with the majority’s agreement and the setting up of internal promotion tools by the leadership, takes form and, in a reasonable and comradely environment, discusses and promotes its views for the next period. This is because a revolutionary party knows full well that any tactic that is presented by some members (even a majority), will not necessarily be the correct view in practice. Only action in the struggle can show which one of the views has been more consistent with reality. For example, if after one year experience shows that the minority view is wrong, it is obvious that this disagreement will be invalidated and the tendency will declare itself disbanded. But if the minority view has been correct and the majority view incorrect, then the minority view that has become familiar to all members will become the majority view. This way there will be an opportunity for all views to prove themselves.

However, even if in the future the majority’s views are shown to be wrong, the minority – while preserving its beliefs and its criticisms of the majority – must put into practice the majority position outside the party for a period (until the next congress). Despite its internal differences, this party must act in unity within society and experience the majority’s views in action, until their outcome is proved in practice (whether positive or negative). The next party congress can reach a new assessment and conclusion based on the practice of the previous period.

What happens if the disputes of a minority are not resolved after a period (between two congresses)? At this stage, there can be two causes for this. The first is that these differences still remain at the level of tactical issues and more time is needed to prove these views. In this case the opposition tendency, as in the previous period, remains in the party so that the issues can be reviewed in the next period. But in some cases the differences may go beyond just tactical differences. Deep political divisions can also appear in the party. In capitalist society the dominant ideology is the ideology of the ruling elite. There is always the possibility that even members or the leadership of a revolutionary party are influenced by ideas of the class enemy. Therefore some differences can go beyond tactical ones. For example, it is possible that some members reach a decision that the line of the party leadership suffers from class deviations and that it is necessary to have a deeper struggle to obstruct the deviant line. In that case, the party leadership must respect the right of that group of dissidents – according to their judgment – to declare a ‘faction’. These members must be allowed to remain inside a revolutionary party and even to participate in the party leadership, according to the number of their supporters. In this way sufficient opportunity will be given to them to publicise their views within the party and at the leadership level. In fact the formation of a ‘faction’ is a more serious step for combating the deviant line of the majority within a revolutionary party. Forming a ‘tendency’ is about tactical issues and may be short-lived.

But if after a period the faction reaches the conclusion that the leadership and the majority of the party are about to cross the class line, and that there is no possibility of convincing the majority of members, then, at this stage, it should have the right to form an ‘open faction’. In fact, the concept of forming an open faction means that preparations are being made for a split. The open faction can even address the labour movement and make public announcements and let the working class know about the deviation (in its opinion) of the majority. A revolutionary party must also give this minority the organisational opportunity to not only get its views across to all members but to also include them in the official party organ. Obviously, if there is no agreement and the labour movement did not change the positions of the majority, the next step will be a split. But this split can also be reasonable and comradely, without accusations and slander. History will show the correctness or the deviance of the two sides’ views in the future. Perhaps when the majority’s mistake has been proved in practice the conditions for this minority tendency to re-join the united party will come about. But if they end up clashing, fighting, making accusations and hating each other; these two tendencies, even if they come to have the same views in the future, can never be inside a party together.

Won’t all these preconditions weaken the party and its leadership? Aren’t these ‘liberal’ and ‘bourgeois democratic’ attitudes towards internal democracy? Shouldn’t the party be ‘iron’-like so that it carries out its decisions in unity? Isn’t making a concession to a ‘minority’ liquidationist? The answer to all these questions is in the negative. Recognition of minority rights not only does not weaken the party but it will lead to strengthening it. Making provisions for setting up a ‘tendency’, a ‘faction’ and even an ‘open faction’ will give the party more credibility and make it stronger in the eyes of the mass of workers. It is enough to just look at the state of the various international organisations and parties to see the severity and depth of their organisational crises – which is largely the result of organisational deviations. For example, it is enough to point to the current organisational crisis of the IMT: it is neither caused by deep strategic differences, nor based on crossing the class line, nor even due to normal tactical differences. It is, however, the result of the bureaucratic methods of the organisation’s leadership for maintaining its position and privileges. Not recognising the oppositionists’ right to form a tendency has dragged this organisation to the point where its best sections and members have been lost during a few months. The sections in Spain (450 people), Venezuela and Mexico, have split away. The Swedish section has disaffiliated and the Polish section will soon follow suit. The Iranian section has been suspended. Before that, half the Pakistani section (900 people) was expelled. Many members in various countries including Britain, Belgium, America and Canada have resigned. This is just the beginning of the collapse. The same crisis-ridden situation applies to other parties and organisations at an international level. All these splits, which have no objective basis, could have been avoided; provided that the rights of minority views inside the organisation were officially recognised. Obviously the basis for organisational separation and collapse are rooted in the deviant and non-democratic approach of the parties, and not vice versa. If the conditions for expressing opinions had been created, perhaps today not only would be there no split in the IMT but that it would have attracted many forces.

What these deviant organisations do not understand is this: that splits, suspensions and expulsions must only be the last stage in a long process of discussion and joint activity. Expulsions and splits are justified only when a tendency has crossed the class line and that this has also been shown in the labour movement. In other words, the results of the destructive and counter-revolutionary policies of a current (or trend) must not only be clear and transparent for all members of the party but that they have been clearly expressed in society. In the Bolshevik party such rights, including the right to set up a tendency and a faction, were recognised for members. One of the reasons for the Bolshevik Party being successful in the development of a revolutionary programme that was connected to the labour movement, and therefore gaining credibility among the workers’ councils which led to the victory of the first socialist revolution in the world, was precisely the respect for internal democracy. Only in 1921, during the Civil War, were factions inside the Bolshevik Party banned. Before that, in many cases party leaders and members publicly expressed their positions and differences with the leadership without being expelled or punished. However, the ‘necessity’ of limiting internal factions at the time of the Civil War in 1920-1921, became a virtue during the Stalin period and was followed by years of Stalinist repression. During the last years of his life Trotsky made a clear ‘self-criticism’ about this period. Trotsky wrote: “The prohibition of oppositional parties brought after it the prohibition of factions. The prohibition of factions ended in a prohibition to think otherwise than the infallible leaders. The police-manufactured monolithism of the party resulted in a bureaucratic impunity which has become the source of all kinds of wantonness and corruption.” (The Revolution Betrayed, 1936)

The Trotskyist movement has also learned many lessons from the 1917 October revolution and therefore cannot repeat the same mistakes. Leon Trotsky’s assessment of internal party issues, to which he remained loyal until the end of his life, was as follows:
“It is entirely insufficient for our youth to repeat our formulas. They must conquer the revolutionary formulas, assimilate them, work out their own opinions, their own character; they must be capable of fighting for their views with the courage which arises out of the depths of conviction and independence of character. Out of the party with passive obedience, with mechanical leveling by the authorities, with suppression of personality, with servility, with careerism! A Bolshevik is not merely a disciplined person; he is a person who in each case and on each question forges a firm opinion of his own and defends it courageously and independently, not only against his enemies, but inside his own party. Today, perhaps, he will be in the minority in his organization. He will submit, because it is his party. But this does not always signify that he is in the wrong. Perhaps he saw or understood before the others did a new task or the necessity of a turn. He will persistently raise the question a second, a third, a tenth time, if need be. Thereby he will render his party a service, helping it to meet the new task fully armed or to carry out the necessary turn without organic upheavals, without fractional convulsions.” (Leon Trotsky, The New Course, 1923)

In order to organise a revolutionary international, the recognition of the democratic rights of tendencies and factions within the party is crucial. Revolutionary Marxists must remain loyal to this method.

Maziar Razi

15 April 2010

[First published in Militaant No 30.]

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