Democratic centralism and idiocy of the sects
Comrades need the space to develop and express their ideas, argues Jim Creegan. The wider the distance between a given question and the party's immediate objectives and tasks, the more latitude they should have to do so in public
Expected to swallow one line after another
Debates in the Weekly Worker over the relationship between Kautsky and Lenin involve more than purely historical questions. By criticising the received wisdom that Bolshevism represented a ‘party of a new type’, the CPGB, with the aid of Lars Lih’s extensive scholarship, appears to be taking indirect aim at the ‘democratic-centralist’ practice of the ‘confessional sects’ that invoke the so-called Leninist model to forbid public disagreement among their members.
The CPGB stresses the organisational continuity between Lenin and the Second International in order, among other things, to promote the broader party conception modelled in the pages of the Weekly Worker, which features letters and articles representing a wide range of (often conflicting) Marxist opinion. Such public debate is permissible, and even desirable, says the CPGB, so long as it does not stand in the way of ‘unity in action’. Without commenting on the historical disputes, I would like to offer a few reflections on the ‘party question’ based upon my personal experience.
On parting company with the International Bolshevik Tendency 14 years ago as a result of a faction fight I started and lost, I found myself confronted with a choice between two unsavoury alternatives. I could either have continued my membership by accommodating myself to leaders who argued their positions in ways I thought not only wrong, but a travesty of Marxism; or I could have gathered around me a handful of co-factionalists and tried to found yet another micro-vanguard, with a three-member national section, a seven-member cyber-international, and a list of ‘differences’ with the IBT that would seem far less important to anyone not involved with the group. Yet it seemed to me that by taking the second course I would be replicating a pattern for which Trotskyism is ridiculed, in my opinion with much justice: the proliferation of ever more minuscule sects. I thought the time had come to stand back and take a hard look at the causes of this seemingly endless mitosis.
My first conclusion was that leftwing groupuscules often cannot withstand the differences of opinion and personality that inevitably arise among members who tend to take theoretical and historical questions more seriously than those outside the Trotskyist tradition, and are not always distinguished by personal modesty. I further concluded that isolation was the main cause of this fragility. Although participation in mass struggle by no means inoculates parties against personal rivalries or splits, high political stakes and responsibility for the fate of many can sometimes act as a counterweight to the schismatic impulse.
Rank-and-file workers, who did not fully understand the reasons for the Bolshevik-Menshevik split, exerted pressure for unity on the two factions, compelling Lenin and Martov to make several attempts at reconciliation before the final parting of ways (whenever that was); Trotsky (at least according to Deutscher’s speculations) voted for the treaty of Brest-Litovsk against his own inclinations because he feared that a breach between himself and Lenin under life-and-death circumstances would be more harmful than bowing to the outrageous territorial demands of the central powers.
Tiny groups, on the other hand, are more defined by what they say than what they do. Political isolation inclines some revolutionaries to substitute arguing amongst themselves over abstract questions for mass struggle, and, in the absence of any serious consequences, to carry such arguments to the point of a complete break.
But it also seems to me that certain organisational practices are implicated in far-left fractiousness. When I joined the Spartacist League in 1981, I found that I was publicly responsible for upholding the party line on a ragbag of issues quite remote from the group’s political practice or the reasons for which I joined. The SL held that Israel should have been defended against the Arab Legion in the 1948 war (an idiosyncratic position that Spartacist leader Jim Robertson inherited during his Shachtmanite youth from Hal Draper); that the USSR should have extended its nuclear umbrella to North Vietnam during the 60s; that there had been no economic boom in the US and other western countries in the quarter century following World War II.
I was also expected to toe the line on a number of half-baked, idiotic ‘theoretical’ pronouncements on the part of the organisation’s megalomaniac cult chief. During a discussion with Gerry Healy’s American followers, Robertson had once declared that “programme generates theory”, and subsequently presented this dictum to his own members as the height of Marxist wisdom. He also decreed that there was no state in Nicaragua during the 1980s. In a masterful demonstration of dialectical logic, Robertson reasoned that, since the state is an organ of class power, and that the Sandinista regime was class-ambivalent, it could not constitute a “state in the Marxist sense” (as if Marxists, more than having their own theory of the state, used the word itself to denote something different from its object in ordinary usage).
When, several years later, my jagged political trajectory took me from the Spartacist League to the International Bolshevik Tendency, I questioned some of the above positions, all of which the IBT had taken over uncritically from its Spartacist progenitor. While the debates I initiated were certainly more thorough and democratic than those in the SL, these controversies over abstract questions were treated in the same way as differences about urgent political matters: ie, with a view to affirming a party line, binding in public on all members. I argued - to no avail - that broad scientific questions requiring background knowledge, such as the dialectics of nature or the transformation problem, might not be appropriate matters for up-or-down vote by the membership, like proposals for slogans at an upcoming demonstration.
In justification for having a line on everything under the sun, certain precedents are inevitably invoked. Did not Lenin expel Bogdanov and the ‘god-builders’ from his faction in 1908 for a philosophical ‘deviation’? Did not Trotsky, in In defence of Marxism, upbraid Shachtman and Burnham for mentioning their disagreement over dialectics in the pages of the US Socialist Workers Party’s magazine, The New International? I am a little fuzzy on the details of the 1908 expulsions; in the latter case I think Trotsky was simply wrong. But, for every example of narrow-mindedness one can cite, there are many more examples of public theoretical debate in socialist, and even in Bolshevik, history. Excavating these counter-precedents is one valuable result of the re-examination of Marxist history now being conducted in the Weekly Worker.
It is hard enough to get the stubborn, contentious types who typically inhabit the Marxist left to agree on the basics of principles and programme, let alone a host of ancillary questions they have never had occasion to think about, and concerning which they begin to discover differences once they do. Basic respect for the intellect of members requires a certain latitude in which they can develop and express their own ideas, inside and outside the party. That latitude should, moreover, be in direct proportion to the distance between a given question and the party’s immediate objectives and tasks. The wider it is, the better it can defuse the tensions that accumulate over various disagreements, sometimes culminating in splits.
Which is not to say that open public disagreement should be allowed on all things at all times. The freedom of public debate should no more be regarded as an absolute right than its suppression should be seen as an unvarying imperative of ‘democratic centralism’. The founding principles of a party provide certain parameters for debate. There are programmatic points that any organisation considers more fundamental than others. There are also situations of heightened conflict, either with the class enemy or political opponents, in which the line between thought and action tends to become indistinct. Open disputes can sometimes expose weak points, which adversaries can take advantage of to sow disunity. What questions a party has an official position on, and the degree to which those positions can be criticised by members in public, should not be treated as matters of principle, but be subject to situation-specific decisions, over which the membership as a whole - and the leadership in the absence of the assembled members - should exercise broad discretion.
It may be necessary at certain times to march in close formation. But in our own time, in which we lead no masses, and so many former certainties have been confounded and so many things must be rethought, the widest margin for debate seems to me the correct default setting.