Monday, October 12, 2009

On Party Democracy


It really needs to be said that the first things to be forgotten are just the first points, the most elementary things…
The first point is that there do in fact exist rulers and ruled, leaders and led. The whole science and art of politics is based on this primordial, irreducible (in certain general conditions) fact…
In the formation of leaders the premise is fundamental: does one wish there always to be rulers and ruled, or does one wish to create the conditions where the necessity for the existence of this division disappears?…Nevertheless, it needs to be understood that the division of rulers and ruled, though in the last analysis it goes back to divisions between social groups, does in fact exist, given things as they are, even inside the bosom of each separate group, even a socially homogeneous one … and it is mainly on this question that the most serious “errors” come about… It is believed that when the principle of the group is laid down obedience ought to be automatic… or even that it is beyond discussion… So it is difficult to rid the leaders of dictatorial habits, that is, the conviction that something will be done because the leader thinks it is correct and rational that it should be done: if it is not done, the “blame” is put on those who “ought to have” etc.

Antonio Gramsci [ Gramsci, The Modern Prince and Other Writings, New
York, 1970, p.143-4].

This article examines the much disputed issue of internal party democracy in the light of the Marxist tradition and past and recent experience. It considers the challenge offered to the Marxist theory of the party by the German sociologist, Robert Michels, in the belief that facing and attempting to answer this challenge yields insights into the real nature of the problem. On this basis it seeks to reformulate the issue of party democracy in a way different from that in which it is usually posed on the left, namely as a goal continuously to be striven for rather than a norm simply to be observed.

The Tradition

When, in 1847, Marx and Engels joined the League of the Just, an international secret society composed mainly of German artisans, which duly became the Communist League and for which they composed the Communist Manifesto, it was on condition that, amongst other things, ‘ The organisation itself was thoroughly democratic, with elective and removable authorities’ [Frederick Engels, ‘On the History of the Communist League’, Marx/Engels, Selected Works, Vol.3, Moscow p.195].

This condition was neither accidental nor arbitrary, but central to the new world view and political practice which they had persuaded the League to adopt, namely the doctrine of class struggle outlined in the Manifesto, in which the transformation of society – the revolution- was to be accomplished by the working class itself. Prior to Marx and Engels, and prior to the emergence of the modern working class, the dominant form of revolutionary organisation was the secret club or conspiracy – a model inherited from the French Revolution of 1789 – which envisaged the transformation of society from above following a coup d’etat by a dedicated and enlightened few. Traces of this, essentially bourgeois, concept of revolution were every where in the European movement of the 1840s and Marx and Engels considered party democracy a crucial means for combating them. ‘This alone [a democratic party structure] barred all hankering after conspiracy, which requires dictatorship’. {Ibid. p.196].

Thus the commitment to inner party democracy was inscribed in our tradition from its very inception and it has been reinscribed many times since. ‘Criticism within the limits of the principles of the party must be quite free’, wrote Lenin [Vol.10 p.442], ‘…unity of action, freedom of discussion and criticism. Only such discipline is worthy of the democratic party of the advanced class …the proletariat does not recognise unity of action without freedom to discuss and criticise.’ [Vol. 11 p.230 – 31].

Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed in 1936 insisted:

The inner regime of the Bolshevik party was characterized by the method of democratic centralism. The combination of these two concepts, democracy and centralism, is not in the least contradictory. The party took watchful care not only that its boundaries should always be strictly defined, but also that all those who entered these boundaries should enjoy the actual right to define the direction of the party policy. Freedom of criticism and intellectual struggle was an irrevocable content of the party democracy. The present doctrine that Bolshevism does not tolerate factions is a myth of the epoch of decline. In reality the history of Bolshevism is a history of the struggle of factions. And, indeed, how could a genuinely revolutionary organization, setting itself the task of overthrowing the world and uniting under its banner the most audacious iconoclasts, fighters and insurgents, live and develop without intellectual conflicts, without groupings and temporary factional formations?

Similarly Duncan Hallas in 1971

Such a party [a revolutionary socialist party] cannot possibly be created except on a thoroughly democratic basis; unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work. [Duncan Hallas,‘Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party’ in Party And Class, 1971]

To this it should be added that this is not just a question of the Marxist or revolutionary party. The overwhelming majority of working class organisations of all types – trade unions, parties, campaigns, co-operatives, tenants associations etc. – are at least established with democratic constitutions and aspirations. The working class is the socialist class because, amongst other things, it is the democratic class. The economic role and position of the working class, making and operating the decisive means of production in modern society, producing the bulk of its wealth, concentrated in large workplaces and towns and integrated into a global division of labour gives it a) the power to defeat the capitalist class; b) the ability to inaugurate the transition to a fully classless society because it can be both the producing and the ruling class at the same time – in other words it can create structures (the Paris Commune, Soviets, factory councils etc.) which enable it to control production and govern society democratically.

The Experience

And yet… And yet everyone who knows something of the history of the socialist and Marxist movement and anyone who has had any experience of it over the last thirty or forty years knows also that the question of inner party democracy has been an ever recurring issue.

The most obvious and important example, of course, is supplied by the Stalinist parties. In the parent Stalinist party, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union every shred and semblance of democracy was extinguished by the Stalinist counter- revolution. The Communist Parties in Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, Vietnam etc. more or less followed suit and if the regimes in the Communist Parties of Western Europe bore a less draconian character, not having a secret police to hand, they nevertheless were not remotely democratic.

However, for us now, the undemocratic nature of the Stalinist parties poses the least theoretical problems. It is clear that in the Stalinist states the Communist Parties had become instruments of rule, not of the working class, but of new bureaucratic ruling classes and therefore had to be undemocratic in the extreme, as the only way of containing the contradiction between their actual function and their declared aims, as did the other parties of the international communist movement once they had become agents of Soviet foreign policy rather than working class emancipation. *

Something similar applies to the traditional social democratic parties with their dual character as bourgeois workers’ parties (Lenin) i.e. parties with working class membership and bourgeois leadership and policy. In these cases their mass working

*Clearly I am here taking for granted the Trotskyist and state capitalist (Cliff) analysis of the Stalinist states and the evolution of the Comintern.

class base obliged these parties to retain some elements of democracy (conferences with some real debate, elected leaders etc.) but also to develop blocking mechanisms capable of preventing the worker majority from asserting itself or imposing its will. In the case of Old Labour (Blair’s New Labour became even less democratic) the two most important of these mechanisms were the block vote in the hands of the trade union bureaucrats and the ability of the parliamentary leadership (especially when in office) to ignore or go directly against the decisions of party conference. The best analysis of how such a party works was provided by Cliff and Gluckstein’s The Labour Party- a Marxist History.

More theoretically challenging is the recurrence of the democracy issue in avowedly non- Stalinist, non- social democratic or libertarian organisations. Let us take a few examples drawn from throughout the history of the socialist movement. First there was the conflict between Marx and the anarchist, Bakunin, in the First International. Bakunin denounced Marx’s authoritarianism and called him a ‘dictator over the proletariat’. Marx replied by accusing Bakunin of operating a secret society inside the International (the International Brotherhood a.ka the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy) in which there was no democracy of any kind but rather an unelected ‘collective and invisible dictatorship’ of Bakunin [see John Molyneux, Marxism and the Party, London, 1978, p28}. Famously in debates about the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks in 1903, Trotsky attacked Lenin, saying ‘In the internal politics of the Party these methods lead …to the Party organisation “substituting” itself for the Party, then the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation; and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee.’ (L. Trotsky, Our Political Tasks, 1904, New Park p.77). At the same time Luxemburg upbraided Lenin for his ‘ overanxious desire to establish the guardianship of an omniscient omnipotent Central Committee’ and his creation of a ‘bureaucratic straitjacket, which will immobilise the movement and turn it into an automaton manipulated by a Central Committee.’ (Rosa Luxemburg, Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy, 1904, cited in Marxism and the Party op.cit. p.98-99).

The international Trotskyist movement in the thirties was plagued with complaints, disputes, and splits over real or alleged violations of inner party democracy and Trotsky was frequently led wearily to lament petty bourgeois elements who wanted to debate and discuss for ever. In the most important of these splits, that in the American Socialist Workers Party in 1939-40, the question of the ‘party regime’ presided over by James P. Cannon, played a not inconsiderable role (along with the fundamental political and theoretical issues such as the Russian question, the position on the war, the social composition of the party, and dialectical materialism). *

· For Trotsky’s side of this dispute see L.Trotsky In Defence of Marxism: Against the Petty Bourgeois Opposition, New Park Publications, London 1975. For Cannon’s see James P. Cannon, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, Pathfinder 2001. Commentators on this dispute from this journal’s tradition have tended in general to side with Trotsky and Cannon, but to have some sympathy with the Burnham/Schachtman opposition on the ‘regime’ question. {See Cliff, Trotsky Vol. 4 and C.Bambery ‘The Politics of James P. Cannon’ International Socialism 36 p}.

After the Second World War the pattern on the Trotskyist left remained broadly the same. In virtually every faction fight or split, and they were far too numerous to document here, the issue of inner party democracy would raise its none too beautiful head.

At one end of this particular spectrum lay the Socialist Labour League/ Workers Revolutionary Party which, from reasonably promising beginnings in around 1956,
degenerated into the ever more erratic personal dictatorship of its ‘philosopher’ thug leader, Gerry Healy. Healy deployed a combination of an idealist version of the dialectic and highly materialist fists to terrorise intellectuals and worker militants alike until it all fell apart in 1986, amid accusations (apparently true) of the
systematic sexual abuse of female comrades. At the other end was the ‘ultra-democratic’ International Marxist Group, British section on the Unified Secretariat of the Fourth International, and followers of Ernest Mandel. The IMG went so far in the opposite direction that it arrived in the seventies at a situation of institutionalised permanent factions (at least three at any one time), none of which had a working or consistent majority. At this point ultra democracy seems to have turned into its opposite in that the majority of the members were made unable to assert any kind of stable strategy or line.

Between these extremes lay a multitude of small Trotskyist or semi- Trotskyist groups with a wide variety organisational practices and internal regimes. However, the general isolation of such groups from the mass of the working class meant that the tendency to become a sect, dominated in practice by a few individuals, was pretty strong.

In continental Europe, one consequence of the greater strength of Stalinism was the tendency for splits from the Communist parties to be Maoist rather than Trotskyist influenced. The result, in the sixties and seventies, was the proliferation in Italy, Spain, Germany, France etc of Maoist and ‘soft’ Maoist of ardent revolutionary intentions and some considerable size e.g Potere Operaia, Lotta Continua, and Moviment Communista. The legacy of Stalinism and the specific example of the Great Helmsman ensured that such parties had much less in the way of democratic traditions than the Trotskyists and a greater inclination to the adulation of their general secretaries.

The most promising development in these years (in my opinion, of course) in terms of its politics, growth and democratic openness was the IS/SWP in Britain. I had joined the SLL Young Socialists in January 1968 only to leave shortly thereafter, repelled by its terrifying authoritarianism. I joined the IS in about June of that year and at my first conference found the organisation divided into at least five (!) short-lived tendencies or factions.. Despite some serious splits in the leadership in 1975-6 and 1979 (basically over coming to terms with the downturn in industrial struggle) the overall tendency was for the Central Committee steadily to increase its hegemony within the organisation, but there were always concerns being raised, rightly or wrongly, about the issue of internal democracy – at one point there was actually a Faction for Revolutionary Democracy (aka FRED).

In the recent split in RESPECT two very different concepts of democracy were counterposed. The SWP and its supporters took their stand on the ground that they had the support of the large majority of Respect members and would win a majority at the Party’s annual conference. George Galloway and his side relied on the fact that they included the party’s most prominent publicly elected representatives (Galloway himself, as the only MP, Salma Yaqoob and a majority of the Tower Hamlets councillors) plus the key national official, Linda Smith (who, as nominating officer, legally “owned” the name). In this conflict the Gallowayites felt entitled simply to dismiss and ignore the conference, and indeed attack the SWP for the ‘undemocratic’ practice of ‘packing’ the conference i.e. getting its supporters elected as delegates.

The purpose of this brief and very superficial survey is not to engage in retrospective ‘democratic’ judgment (for Marx against Bakunin, with Lenin against Trotsky and Luxemburg, or 0/10 for Healy, 6/10 for Mandel or whatever) but simply to demonstrate that the problem of internal party democracy is a recurring one and that therefore it is necessary to consider its objective i.e. its social basis.

The Problem

For Marxists, as historical materialists, this ought to be the obvious starting point but in fact this aspect of the problem has received relatively little attention. On the one hand it has been frequently asserted that the leadership of small revolutionary group X do not constitute a materially privileged bureaucratic stratum, in the sense that the trade union and Labour leaders, or the Communist Party leaders in Stalinist states, clearly do, and that therefore it is unmaterialist to think there can be a serious problem over democracy in such a group. On the other Trotsky provided a sociological explanation as to why ‘petty bourgeois elements’ would be prone to make unreasonable demands for excessive democracy

A worker spends his day at the factory. He has comparatively few hours left for the party. At the meetings he is interested in learning the most important things: the correct evaluation of the situation and the political conclusions. He values those leaders who do this in the clearest and the most precise form and who keep in step with events. Petty-bourgeois, and especially declassed elements, divorced from the proletariat, vegetate in an artificial and shut-in environment. They have ample time to dabble in politics or its substitute. They pick out faults, exchange all sorts of tidbits and gossip concerning happenings among the party “tops.” They always locate a leader who initiates them into all the “secrets.” Discussion is their native element. No amount of democracy is ever enough for them.
(L.Trotsky An Open Letter to Comrade Burnham, In Defence of Marxism, 1940)

In contrast Duncan Hallas provided an illuminating account of how the degeneration of inner party democracy can result from a false perspective. In his 1969 article ‘Building the Leadership,’ Hallas showed how the aforementioned Socialist Labour League, after promising beginnings, ruined itself through its continued adherence to a perspective of imminent economic catastrophe (drawn directly from Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional Programme) throughout the prolonged boom of the fifties and sixties .

The effect on the work of the SLL in Britain was even more striking. Discussion, which is dangerous to the leadership, can be checked by hyperactivity; and this, in turn, is justified by the nearness of crash. The membership, driven at a frenzied pace, has a high casualty rate. A large proportion is always new – and therefore does not remember the non-fulfilment of past prophecies. A vicious circle is set up which makes the correction of the line more and more difficult. “Building the leadership” – which is, of course, identified with the organisation – becomes a substitute for serious political and industrial work. Serious militants are repelled and the “revolutionary youth” come to make up an ever larger proportion of the activists. The leadership, which alone has much continuity, becomes unchallengeable and finds it less and less necessary to check its policies and practice. (

Hallas’ contribution here is an important one and capable of wider application. The tendency that manifested itself in extreme, indeed grotesque, form in the SLL/WRP could also manifest itself in more moderate forms in much saner organisations.*

· * I know little about the internal life of the Militant Tendency (now Socialist Party) but it seems likely they experienced similar problems during the mid-to-late eighties when their perspective of a mass left wing emerging in the Labour Party was being systematically falsified.

The Hallas argument, however, can be reversed and used to defend complacency. Since the perspective is ‘correct’, it can be said, there is no need to worry about democracy. If the function of party democracy is to achieve a correct perspective, the claimed existence of a correct perspective, could either render democracy superfluous or constitute proof of its healthy existence. But this line of argument is flawed in its own terms: the coincidence at one point in time of broadly correct perspective and defective democracy does not guarantee their persistence. The causal relation may flow, not from false perspective to lack of democracy, but from lack of democracy to false perspective. Also it is mistaken to base the case for party democracy solely on its providing the necessary inputs and checks to control the perspective. Democracy is also necessary to educate and train the members to argue for socialism in the class ** and to retain ‘ownership’

** A point powerfully made by Isaac Deutscher. ““When the European communist went out to argue his case before a working class audience, he usually met there a Social Democratic opponent whose arguments he had to refute and whose slogans he had to counter. Most frequently he was unable to do this, because he lacked the habits of political debate, which were not cultivated within the party, and because his schooling deprived him of the ability to preach to the unconverted. He could not probe adequately into his opponent’s case when he had to think all the time about his own orthodoxy”. (cited in Duncan Hallas, ‘Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party’, in Party and Class, 1971 p.21 )

of the party by its members and, ultimately, the working class.

A different but interesting light is thrown on this whole question by Robert Michels in his book Political Parties, first published in 1911. Michels was a pupil of Max Weber and a member of German Social Democracy prior to the First World War who, after the war, became a supporter of fascism and Mussolini. In Political Parties Michels propounded his so-called ‘iron law of oligarchy’ according to which any large scale political party or organisation will inevitably be ruled by a small self perpetuating elite at its centre.

It is organisation that leads to the domination of the elected over the electors … Who says organisation says oligarchy. (Robert Michels, Political Parties, Free Press, New York 1968, p.15)

Duncan Hallas comments
The equation “centralised organisation equals bureaucracy equals degeneration” …leads to profoundly reactionary conclusions. For what is really being implied is that working people are incapable of collective democratic control of their own organisations. Granted that in many cases this has proved to be true; to argue that it is necessarily, inevitably true is to argue that socialism is impossible because democracy, in the literal sense, is impossible.
This is precisely the conclusion that was drawn by the “neo-Machiavellian” social theorists of the early 20th century [e.g. Michels –JM] and which is deeply embedded in modern academic sociology. (ibid.)

Hallas is absolutely right here (and in becoming a fascist Michels was, in a sense, following the logic of his own argument) but unfortunately pointing out the reactionary conclusions of an argument is not the same as refuting it, and the fact is Michels makes a powerful case, based precisely on his experience and knowledge of the socialist movement, particularly in Germany.
Political Parties is a large and dense book. In it Michels argues ‘the mechanical and technical impossibility of direct government by the masses’ (Michels p.63) and observes
It is easier to dominate a large crowd than a small audience…It is a fact of everyday experience that enormous public meetings commonly carry resolutions by acclamation or by general assent, whilst these same assemblies, if divided into small sections, say, of fifty persons each, would be much more guarded in their assent. Great party congresses, in which are present the elite of the membership, usually act in this way…The impotence of direct democracy, like the power of indirect democracy, is a direct outcome of the influence of number…in the great industrial centres where the labour party sometimes numbers its adherents by tens of thousands,it is impossible to carry on the affairs of this gigantic body without a system of representation. The great socialist organisation of Berlin…has a member roll of more than ninety thousand. (Ibid p.64-5)
He then describes the tendency of the representatives to establish their independence from and hegemony over the represented. He notes ‘the establishment of a customary right to the office of delegate’ (p.81) and the need for leadership felt by the masses including ‘ the cult of veneration among the masses’ (p.93) – Michels cites especially Lasalle, but also Garibaldi, Guesde and Marx; today, of course the list could be much longer and more grotesque.
Michels notes the general superiority of the professional leaders over the rank-and-file in respect to culture and education (p.107) and comments on the stability of leadership in socialist parties.
No one who studies the history of the socialist movement in Germany can fail to be greatly struck by the stability of the group of persons leading the party.(p.117)
Moreover, he argues, the leaders strive actively to maintain their position.
In proportion as the chiefs become detached from the mass they show themselves more and more inclined, when gaps in their own ranks appear, to effect this not by popular election, but by cooptation, and also to increase their own effectives wherever possible by creating new posts upon their own initiative. There arises in leaders a tendency to isolate themselves, to form a sort of cartel, and to surround themselves, as it were, with a wall, within which they will admit those only who are of their own way of thinking. Instead of allowing their successors to be appointed by the choice of the rank and file, the leaders do all in their power to choose successors for themselves, and to fill up the gaps in their own ranks directly or indirectly by the exercise of their own volition. (p.126)
When there is a struggle between the leaders and the masses, the former are always victorious if only they remain united. At least it rarely happens that the masses succeed in disembarrassing themselves of one of their leaders. (p.168)
Michels analyses the role of ‘bourgeois elements in the socialist leadership’ (p.238 ) and ‘labour leaders of proletarian origin’ (p.277) while noting the ‘psychological metamorphosis of the leaders’.
The average leader of the working class parties is morally not lower, but on the whole higher, in quality than the average leaders of the other parties… Yet it cannot be denied that the permanent exercise of leadership exerts upon the moral character of the leaders an influence which is essentially pernicious. (p.205)
Michels also explains why neither syndicalism nor anarchism, for all their rhetoric, are able to overcome these oligarchical tendencies, citing, amongst others, the familiar example of Bakunin and his secret unelected dictatorship inside the First International ( p.327). However, underpinning all Michels observations, acute as many of them are, and running like a thread throughout Political Parties is what he calls ‘the formal and real incompetence of the mass’ (p.107) The ‘iron law of oligarchy’ is an iron law because the masses are inherently incapable of running their own organisations or democratically controlling their leaders.
The incompetence of the masses is almost universal throughout the domains of political life, and this constitutes the most solid foundation of the power of leaders. The incompetence furnishes the leaders with a practical and to some extent a moral justification. (p.111)
And we should be clear, for Michels this incompetence is innate and general, as is the drive of leaders to dominate. It is a question of human nature. Almost certainly, we see here the influence of Nietzsche’s “will to power’.
The apathy of the masses and their need for guidance has as its counterpart in the leaders a natural greed for power. Thus the development of the democratic oligarchy is accelerated by the general characteristics of human nature…The desire to dominate for good or evil, is universal…every human power seeks to enlarge its prerogatives. (p.205-6)
The Marxist Response
This, of course, is where a Marxist response to, and critique of, Michels must begin. The various facts, tendencies, and patterns of behaviour observed by Michels are not universal or general characteristics of human nature but products of class society in general and capitalist society in particular. (Notice how for Michels human nature conveniently furnishes ‘leaders’ with the urge to dominate and ‘the masses’ with the urge to submit). And it is precisely on this point that Bukharin in his 1921 study Historical Materialism takes issue with him (as far as I know Bukharin is the only major Marxist to have attempted a rebuttal of Michels, though there is also a brief response by Sidney Hook in Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx, New York 1933 p.312.)
…what constitutes an eternal category in Michels presentation, namely, the "incompetence of the masses" will disappear, for this incompetence is by no means a necessary attribute of every system; it likewise is a product of the economic and technical conditions, expressing themselves in the general cultural being and in the educational conditions. We may state that in the society of the future there will be a colossal overproduction of organizers, which will nullify the stability of the ruling groups. (
But here Bukharin is treating Michels’ book, which he describes as ‘very interesting’ primarily as an objection to the possibility of a future classless society (and accordingly deals with it in the very last section of Historical Materialism). However, in relation to the transition to full socialism Bukharin accepts that Michels points to real problems, though he remains confident they can be overcome.
But the question of the transition period from capitalism to socialism, i.e., the period of the proletarian dictatorship, is far more difficult. The working class achieves victory, although it is not and cannot be a unified mass. It attains victory while the productive forces are going down and the great masses are materially insecure. There will inevitably result a tendency to "degeneration", i.e., the excretion of a leading stratum in the form of a class-germ. This tendency will be retarded by two opposing tendencies; first, by the growth of the productive forces; second, by the abolition of the educational monopoly. The increasing production of technologists and of organizers in general, out of the working class itself, will undermine this possible new class alignment. The outcome of the struggle will depend on which tendencies turn out to be the stronger. (ibid.)
Clearly, writing in 1921, the question of the transition to socialism was uppermost in Bukharin’s mind, but for our purposes he is not addressing the key point. To argue that the oligarchical pressures derive from capitalism not human nature and will therefore be overcome post-capitalism, in the transition to socialism, is all well and good, but the revolutionary socialist party has to be built under capitalism, with people who are products of capitalism, when the oligarchical pressures are intense.
When I first considered the challenge posed by Robert Michels (when I was researching for Marxism and the Party in the early seventies) I concluded that while the iron law of oligarchy was generally valid for social democratic type parties, trade unions and similar organisations, it did not apply to Bolshevik type parties. This was because central to the Bolshevik model was the restriction of party membership to a) those who placed the overall interests of the working class above any sectional interest (i.e. were internationalist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, and non-sectionalist) b) militant activists working under the discipline of party organisations. Such a membership, though necessarily a minority of the class, would not be ‘incompetent’ and would be able to democratically control its leadership. This seemed to me sound in theory and confirmed in practice by the example of the Bolshevik Party which was highly democratic, especially in 1917.
In making this judgement I was much influenced by an observation Tony Cliff regularly used to make about the trade unions to the effect that the trade union bureaucracy, with its conservative and undemocratic practices, rested on the passive majority of the union membership as opposed to the active minority. And also by the argument made by Chris Harman in his 1969 article ‘Party and Class’ on the fundamental difference between the Leninist and Social Democratic models of organisation.
It will be an organisation that combines with a constant attempt to involve in its work ever wider circles of workers, a limitation on its membership to those willing to seriously and scientifically appraise their own activity and that of the party generally. This necessarily means that the definition of what constitutes a party member is important. The party is not to be made up of just anybody who wishes to identify himself as belonging to it, but only those willing to accept the discipline of its organisations. In normal times the numbers of these will be only a relatively small percentage of the working class; but in periods of upsurge they will grow immeasurably.
There is an important contrast here with the practice in Social-Democratic parties. Lenin himself realises this only insofar as Russia is concerned prior to 1914, but his position is clear. He contrasts his aim – a really iron strong organisation”, a “small but strong party” of “all those who are out to fight” – with the “sprawling monster, the new Iskra motley elements of the Mensheviks”. (50) This explains his insistence on making a principle out of the question of the conditions for membership of the party when the split with the Mensheviks occurred.
Within Lenin’s conception those elements that he himself is careful to regard as historically limited and those of general application must be distinguished. The former concern the stress on closed conspiratorial organisations and the need for careful direction from the top down of party officials, etc.
Under conditions of political freedom our party will be built entirely on the elective principle. Under the autocracy this is impracticable for the collective thousands of workers that make up the party. (51)
Of much more general application is the stress on the need to limit the. party to those who are going to accept its discipline. It is important to stress that for Lenin (as opposed to many of his would-be followers) this is not a blind acceptance of authoritarianism. The revolutionary party exists so as to make it possible for the most conscious and militant workers and intellectuals to engage in scientific discussion as a prelude to concerted and cohesive action. This is not possible without general participation in party activities. This requires clarity and precision in argument combined with organisational decisiveness. The alternative is the “marsh” – where elements motivated by scientific precision are so mixed up with those who are irremediably confused as to prevent any decisive action, effectively allowing the most backward to lead. The discipline necessary for such a debate is the discipline of those “who have “combined by a freely adopted decision”. (52) Unless the party has clear boundaries and unless it is coherent enough to implement decisions, discussion over its decisions, far from being “free” is pointless.
Centralism for Lenin is far from being the opposite of developing the initiative and independence of party members; it is the precondition of this.By being part of such an organisation worker and intellectual alike are trained to assess their own concrete situation in accordance with the scientific socialist activity of thousands of others. “Discipline” means acceptance of the need to relate individual experience to the total theory and practice of the party. As such it is not opposed to, but a necessary prerequisite of the ability to make independent evaluations of concrete situations. That is also why “discipline” for Lenin does not mean hiding differences that exist within the party, but rather exposing them to the full light of day so as to argue them out. Only in this way can the mass of members make scientific evaluations.
(Chris Harman, ‘Party and Class’ in Cliff, Hallas, Harman, Trotsky, Party and Class, London 1971 p.59-61).(
At that time Harman’s perspective, and mine, was to build Leninist parties of this kind in Britain and internationally, in the belief that the objective conditions had developed which made this possible. “For Western capitalism is once again creating conditions for the convergence of working-class protest and revolutionary politics that could change the world.” (Michael Kidron, Western Capitalism Since the War, Penguin, London 1970, p.174).
Unfortunately experience, nearly forty years of it, has shown this to be a rather complicated business, and this in turn has implications for the question of party democracy. Between its birth as a faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903 and its conquest of power as a mass party in October 1917, lay only 14 years. Those fourteen years included a full scale revolution in 1905, a catastrophic world war and the revolutionary overthrow of Tsarism in February 1917. In contrast the Socialist Review/ Internationalist Socialist/ SWP tradition has endured almost sixty years, forty since our emergence as a mini- party in 1968, without any comparable experiences. In Russia the period of reaction (which was intense and nearly destroyed the Bolsheviks) began in 1907 and lasted five years before it was swept aside in 1912 by mass strikes following the massacre of workers at the Lena gold field. In Britain the downturn in class struggle set in in the mid to late seventies, and, with some fluctuations and partial recovery, has remained at a low level to this day. Moreover, while the level of struggle has generally been low, there has not been any sustained or generalised repression. And, of course, basically the same conditions have applied for all left organisations in Western Europe and North America over this period.
Lenin devotes the early chapters of Left Wing Communism – An Infantile Disorder to expounding the relationship between Russian conditions and experience and Bolshevik organisational principles. (Lenin focuses on ‘discipline’ but as we have seen discipline and democracy are intimately connected).
As a current of political thought and as a political party, Bolshevism has existed since 1903. Only the history of Bolshevism during the entire period of its existence can satisfactorily explain why it has been able to build up and maintain, under most difficult conditions, the iron discipline needed for the victory of the proletariat…
The first questions to arise are: how is the discipline of the proletariat’s revolutionary party maintained? 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…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…
Russia achieved Marxism—the only correct revolutionary theory—through the agony she experienced in the course of half a century of unparalleled torment and sacrifice, of unparalleled revolutionary heroism, incredible energy, devoted searching, study, practical trial, disappointment. verification, and comparison with European experience.
On the other hand, Bolshevism, which had arisen on this granite foundation of theory, went through fifteen years of practical history (1903-17) unequalled anywhere in the world in its wealth of experience. During those fifteen years, no other country knew anything even approximating to that revolutionary experience, that rapid and varied succession of different forms of the movement—legal and illegal, peaceful and stormy, underground and open, local circles and mass movements, and parliamentary and terrorist forms.
(Lenin, Left Wing Communism – An Infantile Disorder
And Lukacs comments
The Bolshevik concept of party organization involved the selection of a group of single-minded revolutionaries, prepared to make any sacrifice, from the more or less chaotic mass of the class as a whole…Lenin’s concept of party organization presupposes the fact – the actuality – of the revolution... Had the historical predictions of the Mensheviks been correct, had a relatively quiet period of prosperity and of the slow spread of democracy ensued, in which – at least in backward countries – the feudal vestiges of ‘the people’ had been swept aside by the ‘progressive’ classes, the professional revolutionaries would have necessarily remained stranded in sectarianism or become mere propaganda clubs. The party, as the strictly centralized organization of the proletariat’s most conscious elements – and only as such – is conceived as an instrument of class struggle in a revolutionary period. ‘Political questions cannot be mechanically separated from organization questions,’ said Lenin, ‘and anybody who accepts or rejects the Bolshevik party organization independently of whether or not we live at a time of proletarian revolution has completely misunderstood it.’
(G. Lukacs, Lenin -A Study on the Unity of his Thought ) (
Unfortunately the times we have lived through have not, a few exceptional moments apart, been a revolutionary period and the revolution has only been ‘actual’ in the most abstract sense. It has therefore not been possible to restrict party membership to ‘a group of single - minded revolutionaries, prepared to make any sacrifice’, or even to people prepared to be consistently active in party organisations. There has not been much choice about this. When Harman wrote ‘The party is not to be made up of just anybody who wishes to identify himself as belonging to it, but only those willing to accept the discipline of its organisations. In normal times the numbers of these will be only a relatively small percentage of the working class; but in periods of upsurge they will grow immeasurably,’ he, and the rest of us envisaged a party of many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, growing in time of revolution to hundreds of thousands (the Bolsheviks were about 26,000 in February 1917 and between 200,000 and 400.000 by October) not a group of tens or a few hundred. To have restricted the membership of the SWP to the criteria of commitment required by the Bolsheviks would, in our non- Bolshevik conditions, have reduced the party to the low hundreds at best, and would anyway have been false, ‘toy’ bolshevism, since such fanatical ‘revolutionaries’ would have lost the other key pillar of Leninism, the ability to ‘ maintain the closest contact, and—if you wish—merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people’, and degenerated into an isolated sect. Consequently circumstances obliged us to operate with a membership, a substantial proportion of which were not sufficiently engaged to exercise democratic control over the party.
The question of repression and illegality plays an interesting and contradictory role here. On the one hand conditions of illegality create huge obstacles to the proper formal functioning of party democracy, to the convening of regular meetings and conferences, to the holding of regular elections, to the provision of accurate party statistics and so on (‘Under conditions of political freedom our party will be built entirely on the elective principle. Under the autocracy this is impracticable ‘ Lenin). Moreover, illegality may strengthen the claims of discipline over democracy, insofar as sometimes they can conflict. On the other hand repression resolves the problem of an engaged membership: if the penalty for party membership is possible exile to Siberia, or imprisonment, torture and death, the passive armchair member is taken care of and members have a massive, perhaps life or death, stake in the determination of party policy. Of course, this is in itself offers no guarantee of democracy, as the example of many Stalinist parties show, but it does help with one aspect of the problem.
Another factor that has to be considered her is the long time scale involved. Gramsci says somewhere in the Prison Notebooks that a prolonged siege is always debilitating, and many people capable of intense resistance and extreme sacrifice for a short time are unable to sustain the same commitment over a long period. To this must be added the crucial role played by the level of the class struggle. A major element in Michels’ ‘incompetence of the masses’ is not lack of technical competence but lack of confidence, which the capitalist socialization process breeds in working class children as surely as it breeds confidence in the children of the bourgeoisie. The principal antidote to this lack of confidence, and therefore vital for internal party democracy, is the experience of collective resistance and struggle, of organizing and leading strikes, picket lines, occupations, demonstrations, workplace branches and the like ( in the case of students – speaking at mass union meetings, leading college occupations etc). Not only does participation in such activity raise members’ confidence as individuals it also means that when they take up an issue inside the party they often do as a representative of a collective in their workplace or college. In conditions of downturn, where party members’ typical experience at work is defeat or isolation their confidence to take on the party leadership is undermined. Even if they remain active revolutionary socialists the feeling may develop that in addition to fighting the bosses, the government, the system, the media and probably their own union leaders, all as a small minority, arguing with their own party is just too much.
In these conditions the other side of the coin of a passive rank-and-file, namely a leadership that becomes accustomed to leading unchallenged is virtually certain to develop or at least begin to develop.

Having so strongly stressed the anti-democratic pressures at work on and in any would be revolutionary party it necessary also to note that there is a major counterveiling tendency. In opposition to Michels’ ‘iron law of oligarchy’ there exists, in any party or organization whose leadership does not wield the combined sticks and carrots of state power, an almost as universal ‘law of democracy’. In any voluntary organization, where membership does not itself confer material privilege, even the British Tory Party or the Nazi BNP, there is an element of democracy in that the leadership requires the consent of the rank-and-file in the form of its continuing membership and support. We are familiar with this phenomenon in relation even to heavily bureaucratized trade union leaderships. Even right wing union leaders, like Joe Gormley of the NUM in 1972-4 or Derek Simpson today, are obliged to defend their members interests and respond to their demands to some degree, on pain of losing their membership (and with them the dues that pay the leaders’ salaries) entirely.*
* This point has been made previously by the radical (though non- Marxist) sociologist, Alvin Gouldner. ‘ According to Alvin Gouldner, in all organisations there is “a need that consent be of the governed be given – at least in some measure – to the governors… And if all organisations must adjust to such a need for consent, is there not built into the very marrow of organisation an element of what we mean by democracy?” Gouldner cited by S.M.Lipset in the Introduction to Robert Michels op.cit. p.29.

This democratic pressure from below is all the stronger in a small far left socialist party, even if it remains overtly passive, because a) the leaders are plainly not motivated by desire for material privilege, there being none on offer (though sometimes the desire to maintain material security may be a factor); b) the rank- and –file are motivated overwhelmingly by conviction and c) it is not difficult for them to vote with their feet and leave. To give an example from the organization I know best, namely the British SWP, it is well known that the SWP leadership remained pretty stable through the nineties and early noughts and was seldom subject to serious challenge. But this was on condition that it ran the party within the narrowly prescribed limits of Trotskyist revolutionary socialism. If the SWP leadership had, as opposed to making strategic or tactical errors, ever clearly crossed class lines or contravened basic socialist principles or made moves to renounce Marxism, there would undoubtedly have been an outcry and, if the outcry was not rapidly successful, a mass exodus. This is not to suggest that the SWP leadership ever wanted to do any of these things . I know of no evidence of this whatsoever. Nevertheless the objective pressure was there and it was a democratic pressure – a pressure to lead the organization in conformity with the wishes of its members. Moreover, it is clear that in general this inherent democratic pressure will, given favourable conditions, be capable of considerable expansion.
Some conclusions
What conclusions follow from this analysis? First and foremost that the case made for the importance of party democracy made by all the classical Marxists and cited at the start of this article retains all its validity, but it must be understood that the achievement of this democracy in practice under capitalism is far from easy.
From a Marxist perspective it is possible not only to integrate the anti-democratic pressures cited by Michels but also to elaborate on them. Capitalist socialization, through the family and school, instills obedience and subservience in working class children, practically from birth. A ‘good’ baby is one who sleeps and feeds to order, a ‘good’ child is ‘no trouble’ and does what its parents tell it. A successful pupil is one who accepts the agenda of the school and its teachers. .(See Paul Willis, Learning to Labour, Farnborough. 1977 and S.Bowles and H.Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America, RKP, London 1976) A ‘deviant’ teenager has ‘a problem with authority’. Ruling class children are likewise trained to obey the rules but, especially via the Public Schools, their education also contains a significant stress on developing leadership qualites.
The world of work is invariably hierarchical and undemocratic. Working class occupations consist overwhelmingly of following orders, ruling class ones of giving them, and middle class ones of enforcing decisions from above on those below. What is completely lacking from most peoples lives is any experience of democracy other than the extremely limited business of voting once every so often in a parliamentary or local elections. By far the most important exception to this is trade unionism, which does provide some working people with the experience of saying no to those in authority over them, but as we know only too well, this is a highly uneven and fluctuating process and offers an ongoing regular democratic engagement to only a small minority.
The act of joining a revolutionary organization constitutes a major rebellion against this conditioning but it does not in itself eliminate it. The anti- democratic pressures continue to operate on and within the party. This is why party democracy is not something that can be guaranteed by any constitution or fixed set of institutional arrangements (which is not to gainsay the necessity of democratic constitutions and institutional arrangements) but also requires the development and maintenance of a democratic culture i.e. a culture of frank and open debate in which party members are encouraged to speak their mind. Such a culture has to be embodied in institutions and practices, of course, the most important and permanent of which is the principle of the Party Conference or Congress as the party’s sovereign body, but the precise nature of these institutions and practices must necessarily be adapted to specific circumstances and change over time.
Nor is party democracy a political or moral norm which can be established simply by the will or good behaviour of leaders (or members). For every would-be revolutionary party internal democracy is a goal, a relationship between members and leaders, that has to be continually worked and striven for in the same sense that the correct relationship of party to class has to be continually striven for – indeed the two relationships are intimately connected. Deficiencies in democracy, like errors in perspective and tactics, are inevitable, but not reasons for despair. The point is to correct them.
In this ongoing struggle there are no grounds whatsoever for renouncing either the Leninist concept of the vanguard party or democratic centralism. On the contrary the Leninist democratic centralist party is both necessary for the success of the revolution and the most democratic form of political organisation. The case for the Leninist party rests on arguments in no way limited in their validity to Russia or to the historical period of the Russian Revolution. Rather these arguments refer to features of capitalist society and the working class struggle which are pretty much universal and permanent: a) the centralised nature of the capitalist class and its state which demands centralisation on the part of its adversary; b) the bourgeoisie’s ideological hegemony – ‘the ruling ideas are ideas of the ruling class’ – which requires the waging of an ideological struggle in society and within the working class, a struggle that can only be conducted by a party based on ideological and political clarity; c) the unevenness in the levels of working class consciousness, confidence, organisation and struggle which require the welding together of the most advanced elements in the class to defeat the reactionary, scab elements and increase their influence over the vacillating majority; d) the existence, on the basis of this unevenness, of mass reformist (or Stalinist or nationalist) parties which will hold back or betray the revolution, and which must be combated by a revolutionary party which retains its political and organisational independence. Moreover, these theoretical arguments, powerful in themselves, have been confirmed in practice positively, by the role of the Bolshevik Party in the victory of the Russian Revolution, and negatively, by the defeats in Italy, Germany, Spain etc precisely for the want of such a party.
As far as democracy is concerned all other forms of political organisation - the Social Democratic party, the trade union, the ‘loose’ anarchist or autonomist federation or clique, the single issue campaign etc. – are subject to exactly the same anti- democratic ‘oligarchic’ pressures from capitalist society without the same resources to resist them. No other form of organisation compares with the Leninist Party in terms of its ability to equip its members with the political education that enables them to assess the overall political situation and their own party’s work. No other form of organisation practices a comparable level of intervention in such a variety of issues, campaigns and struggles,(a matter particularly emphasised by Lenin in What is To Be Done?) thus potentially training its members as political generalists able to hold its leaders to account. I do not doubt that SWP branches have many defects but one would only have to compare the topics discussed at a typical SWP weekly branch meeting with those at an average Labour Party ward (do they still meet?) to get the point. At the former you might get the economic crisis one week, Palestine the next, followed by fascism and the BNP the week after; at the latter it would be more likely to be the jumble sale, the local pavements and who fights which seat in the local elections, if that.
Furthermore the element of party discipline inherent in democratic centralism – the notion of unity in action in implementing party policy – far from undermining or infringing democracy is an essential democratic provision. Without it the party could engage in the most democratic process of debate and decision making only to see those decisions come to nothing when they were ignored or flouted by the party leadership, as was routinely the case with Old Labour, and as would be most likely to afflict a would-be revolutionary organisation at decisive moments in the class struggle, especially the moment of revolutionary insurrection, when the political and psychological pressures on party leaders would be most intense.*
* See L. Trotsky, Lessons of October (1924) for Trotsky’s analysis of how such pressures affected even the Bolshevik leadership in October 1917, which was also an oblique commentary on the failure of the German CP to seize the revolutionary opportunity in autumn 1923.
If the case for the Leninist party remains compelling it would, however, be wrong to identify Leninism with one narrowly defined organisational model or set of practices. Lenin himself, in his last speech to the Comintern in 1922, while insisting on the international importance of the Bolshevik experience warned against the mechanical imitation of Russian organisational methods. (See Lenin, Collected Works Vol.33, p.430) For example on the question of factions there are at least two views currently taken by avowed Leninist Parties, namely the British SWP and the French LCR. Both would accept Trotsky’s statement, quoted earlier, that
... The present doctrine that Bolshevism does not tolerate factions is a myth of the epoch of decline. In reality the history of Bolshevism is a history of the struggle of factions. And, indeed, how could a genuinely revolutionary organization, setting itself the task of overthrowing the world and uniting under its banner the most audacious iconoclasts, fighters and insurgents, live and develop without intellectual conflicts, without groupings and temporary factional formations?

But whereas the SWP has put the emphasis on the temporary and not permitted permanent factional organisation, partly to try to avoid the ingrained tendency of Trotskyist groups to split, the LCR has taken the opposite view and sought to maintain unity by allowing permanent tendencies. I have alluded above to the fact that this policy did not work well for the LCR’s co-thinkers in Britain, the IMG, but the LCR,with their recent electoral success and launch of the New Anticapitalist Party, have fared much better with it. However, a substantial objection to this model is that might lead to paralysis of the party leadership in crucial situations where speedy and decisive action is required. Nevertheless this is a debate which can be had between Leninists, and which depends on very concrete circumstances.

This last proviso applies to much of this debate. The principle of the need to struggle to realise and improve democracy in the revolutionary party is permanent, the precise means of achieving this are likely to vary over time. But in general what is needed is, in Gramsci’s words, organic centralism not bureaucratic centralism, ‘democratic centralism that is “centralism” in movement, so to speak, that is, a continuous adjustment of the organisation to the real movement’ (A. Gramsci, The Modern Prince and other writings, New York 1970 p.178). This means working, at each stage in the class struggle, to establish a political culture and set of political practices that facilitate democratic debate and decision making and develop the political knowledge and confidence of the rank-and-file.
This is a problem that has to be solved and re- solved not on paper but in practice (and it will never be fully resolved this side of the overthrow of capitalism). Nevertheless a clear statement of the problem, an awareness of the challenge involved, may help. That has been the aim of this article.

John Molyneux
15 May 2009