Friday, 2 December 2011

On democratic centralism

The question of the best format for the revolutionary party is something which isnt raised all that often but here i will outline how for a revolutionary party that democratic centralism is by far the best system for us at this time.

Of course this is not our vision of a socialist society and would not be the way socialism is ordered of ccourse this just enables us to get the best democracy and the best decisions for the way forward.

Recent surveys have shown that the majority of those under 25 are political, indeed highly political, but look with disdain on traditional 'politics' and the existing traditional 'parties'.

THEIR INVOLVEMENT in politics is directed, at this stage, more towards single issues organised through umbrella 'networks'. From these movements can come some of the new, fresh layers who can be a vital ingredient in the regeneration of the labour movement and of Marxism itself.

But the tendency towards 'spontaneity', the hostility to anything which is 'organised' and particularly if it has a 'top down' approach is also a feature of this movement. To some extent this is a favourable factor in this period because those who are involved tend to be open and prepared to discuss ideas, with many undoubtedly attracted to the perspective and programme of our organisation.

But the underlying assumption of all these movements is that a general, broad, loose movement is capable, by itself, of defeating the attacks of the capitalists as well as enhancing the position of the youth and the working class.

THE BOURGEOIS, from the dawn of its rule, has skilfully learned to play on these divisions to perpetuate its rule. A party, particularly a revolutionary party, is designed to overcome these divisions, to unite the working class for common objectives, the struggle against capitalism, its eventual overthrow and its replacement with a socialist society.

A party, including the most revolutionary party in history, the Bolshevik party, is not, however, an autonomous factor in history. It is dependent upon, and springs from, the working class. The relationship between the party, its leadership and the class has been a hotly disputed issue, right from the inception of scientific socialism, that is Marxism, formulated by Marx and Engels.

The dialectical interrelationship between the class, the party and its leadership was touched on by Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution. Writing about the party he states; "Without a guiding organisation toe energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But, nevertheless, what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam." there have been many Marxists who have completely misunderstood the connection between the leadership, the party and the working class.

Even without Marxism the working class through day-to-day brutal experience will (indeed is now doing so) begin to draw socialist conclusions. Does this mean that the intervention of a party, and a far-sighted leadership is thereby made redundant? Not at all! The role of a Marxist mass party and leadership can enormously speed up the proletariat's ability to draw all the necessary conclusions from its situation. The role of the 'subjective factor', which is a mass party with correct Marxist leadership, is absolutely vital, and of course is decisive in a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation.
GIVEN THAT the necessity of a party is clear then what should be the character of this party? Marxism has answered, particularly after the experience of the revolutionary movement in Russia and the successful Russian revolution, that it should be a party that should possess special features which no bourgeois or petit bourgeois organisation, trend or party could possess. It should be a 'democratic centralist' organisation.

Unfortunately this term has been partially discredited, the concept mangled and distorted by Stalinism in particular. It has come to mean, for uninformed people, something entirely opposite to its original meaning. Seeking to discredit genuine Marxism the reformists, both the left as well as the right, link this idea to the grotesque caricature of socialism manifested in Stalinism. Moreover, the right-wing Labour leadership who usually hurl insults against the Marxists on the alleged undemocratic character of 'democratic centralism' themselves actually practice an extreme form of 'bureaucratic centralism', as the experience of the witch-hunt against Militant and others on the left in the Labour Party demonstrated.

It is not possible to put forward publicly in a bald way the term 'democratic centralism', without a preamble and explanation as to what exactly this term means. However, the terminological difficulties that we have has raised another danger, that the real content of democratic centralism will not be understood, or even rejected within our ranks. This would be absolutely fatal for the development of our organisation in the next period but particularly in the process of becoming a major and a mass force at a later stage.

A REVOLUTIONARY party is not a debating club, let alone a debating circle, so beloved of the minuscule sects on the outskirts of the labour movement, it must, of course, be thoroughly democratic. Democracy is like oxygen for a genuine revolutionary party. Without the full freedom of discussion, genuine, comradely and fraternal debate, it would be incapable of correctly arming its members with an understanding of the current situation, and the demands and programme upon which it is necessary to intervene in the class struggle.

Contrary to what our opponents have attempted to argue Militant, over 30 years, allowed debate, including oppositional ideas, at every level of our organisation. Even then there was a disquieting tendency of some, mainly those who became the minority, not to want to discuss different points of view. But that we possessed a relatively homogenous, united organisation flowed not from any powerful apparatus in the possession of the leadership, but came from genuine agreement on the basis of broad perspectives, the programme, the tactics of work in the mass organisations, etc. This agreement was only gained through discussion and debate within the ranks of the organisation.

To listen to some of the sects who criticise the past record of our organisation and who light-mindedly delve into the history of the revolutionary movement in Russia it would be possible to draw a conclusion that the absence of organised tendencies, factions, etc. within the ranks of Militant over a protracted historical period was itself a symptom of an unhealthy internal regime. On the contrary, Trotsky commenting on the disarray in the ranks of his followers in France in the 1930s, who presented a spectacle very similar to organisations which claim to be Trotskyist' at this moment in time, comments: "An organisation that is smaller but unanimous can have enormous success with a correct policy, while an organisation which is torn by internal strife is condemned to rot."

To me it has to be a fluid process with a constant flow of ideas from the national committee to the branch's to the members and back again. It cannot be a talking shop where ideas are discussed but no decision is ever reached.
THE OTHER and vital aspect of the question, absolutely requisite for a revolutionary party, is that of centralism. It is that part of the formula of 'democratic centralism' which is most misunderstood, wilfully by the enemies of Marxism, and unconsciously even by those who sympathise with the Marxist and Trotskyist movement. It seems to smack, particularly in the light of Stalinism and of various Trotskyist organisations which imitate Stalinism, of a top-down, bureaucratic, 'leadership-dominated' organisation.

But the need for a centralised party flows from the tasks which confront the working class in our epoch. The ruling class has concentrated in its hands not just the means of production - less than 300 firms on the planet dominate most of production, distribution and exchange of the world's goods - but enormous means of repression, both legally and physically, against any organised protest. This is particularly the case in Britain with the anti-trade union laws, the CJA, etc.

The centralisation and concentration of capital, which has been taken to unprecedented lengths in the modern era, means that the overthrow of the ruling class is inconceivable without a centralised party capable of unifying the working class and acting decisively against the inevitable attempts of counter-revolution when the working class attempts to change society.

IT IS not possible in a revolutionary organisation to have an attitude towards forms of organisation which are 'once and for all'. It is necessary, at some stages, to emphasise the need for democracy, discussion, debate, etc. Following a debate it is therefore necessary, without precluding further discussion, to proceed to action, to a degree of centralism, to a period of implementing decisions. Which predominates at each stage, the democratic or the centralist aspect, depends upon the concrete situation.

"Truth is concrete"; this is the most important law of the dialectic. The 'mobile balance' between democracy and centralism is something which cannot be established a priori, but only on the basis of discussion and estimation of the concrete situation , .

HOWEVER, THE emphasis on the national needs of the organisation, and with it the centralist aspect of democratic centralism, undoubtedly raises some doubts in the minds of particularly the newer, inexperienced comrades. These involve the "dangers", allegedly 'inherent', in an organisation in which the leadership plays such a vital role. What guarantees are there against a bureaucratic degeneration of the leadership? First of all there is the requirement to convene regular meetings of the NC, which controls the EC. There is the responsibility of the national leadership to convene these meetings, as well as regular congresses, etc. There is even a provision for branches to requisition an emergency congress.

However, even with these democratic aspects of our organisation, what 'guarantee' is there that a strictly democratic regime would exist. Nobody has raised these issues in our ranks, but perhaps they are unspoken in the minds of comrades who do not fully comprehend the nature of the revolutionary party in this epoch. This is not a new question. Leon Trotsky was asked to give a "clear and exact formula on democratic centralism" which would preclude false interpretations or bureaucratic degeneration. He replied that he could not give, "such a formula on democratic centralism that 'once and for all' would eliminate misunderstandings and false interpretations. A party is an active organism. It develops in the struggle with outside obstacles and inner contradictions... The regime of a party does not fall ready made from the sky but is formed gradually in the struggle. A political line predominates over the regime. First of all is necessary to define strategic problems and tactical methods correctly in order to solve them. The organisational form should correspond to the strategy and tactic." Trotsky then makes a fundamental point: "Only a correct policy can guarantee a healthy party regime."

Of course this does not automatically mean that if a party has a correct programme that its organisational methods will be correct. That is an issue for debate and discussion as to what emphasis should be given, to democracy or centralism, depending upon the different situations. A formula for democratic centralism must inevitably find a different expression in the parties of different countries and in different stages of development of one and the same party.

TROTSKY MAKES the pertinent comment:

"Democracy and centralism do not at all find themselves in an invariable ratio to one another. All depends on the concrete circumstances, on the political situation in the country, on the strength of the party and its experience, on the general level of its members, on the authority which the leadership has succeeded in winning.

"Before a conference when the problem was one of formulating a political line for the next period, democracy triumphs over centralism, when the problem concerns itself with political action, centralism subordinates democracy to itself. Democracy again asserts its rights when the party feels the need to examine critically its own actions.

"The equilibrium between democracy and centralism establishes itself in the actual struggle, at moments it is violated and then again re-established. The maturity of each member of the party expresses itself particularly in the fact that he does not demand from the party regime more than it can give.

"He is a poor revolutionist who defines his attitude to the party by the individual fillips that he gets on the nose. It is necessary, of course, to fight against every individual mistake of the leadership, every injustice and the like. But it is necessary to estimate these 'injustices' and 'mistakes' not by themselves but in connection with the general development of the party both on a national and international scale. A correct judgement and a feeling for proportion in politics is an extremely important thing." [Leon Trotsky: On Democratic Centralism and the Regime (1937)]

extracts taken from democratic centralism by Peter Taaffe, General secretary of the socialist party of England and Wales

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