Whose Democratic Centralism?

demo2Jane Kelly sets the record straight on how democracy is guaranteed and minorities’ rights are protected in the Fourth International.

In Alex Callinicos’ article, ‘France: anti-capitalist politics in crisis[i]’, he tries to analyse the reasons for the crisis in the French Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA). The third reason he proposes is to blame the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire’s (LCR former French section of the Fourth International which dissolved to help form the NPA) version of democratic centralism comparing it unfavourably with that practised by the British SWP.

He argues this as follows:

“This situation has, then, been exacerbated by a third weakness carried over into the NPA from the LCR, namely an internal regime of institutionalised factionalism. There are, of course, longstanding differences over how best to organise democratic centralism. The SWP has, for more than 40 years, insisted that political disagreements should be allowed to crystallise into formally organised factions only in the period of internal debate before a party conference. The LCR and its sister sections of the FI have, by contrast, long maintained the right to organise permanent tendencies. In the Ligue this meant that internal discussion was for a long period of structured by a permanent debate between a “majority” that was itself a coalition and the grouping around Picquet.”

International Socialism, Issue 134, March 2012

Whether he is now having second thoughts in the light of the events surrounding the recent SWP conference we will have to wait and see. But his description of the internal practices of most sections of the FI as ‘institutionalised factionalism’ requires some examination. Not least because from the outside the internal workings of many small and medium sized left groups (mostly adhering to a form of Leninism or Trotskyism) seem strange and alienating.

The issue at the centre of all this is the relative balance between open and broad discussion – democracy and centralising activity. Although this seems simple, it is not for there is no point in having a long and elaborate debate on a tactic without the agreement to carry out the majority decision – centralism. At different times in different political situations the relative balance between the two may change.

While bourgeois democracy in Britain uses first past the post where the winner takes all, this is not as democratic as the various forms of proportional representation, one of the Chartists’ main demands in 1848! Similarly in the broader workers’ movement and the Labour Party democracy has always been partial and in the latter was disgracefully undermined after the rise of New Labour.

Compared to these versions the internal functioning in left groups is, on paper, more democratic. ‘Democratic Centralism’ (DC) is the term used to describe it. This argues that after a period of open debate in the group a vote is taken and all members are then expected to carry out the majority decision. But of course this covers a multitude of different practices – some openly bureaucratic, others allowing a certain flexibility, others again more libertarian.

Of course the Bolshevik Party, whose leader Lenin developed these ideas, was operating in a police state and this determined how such a policy was carried out. However, even in that situation and before the rise to power of Stalin there was always a multitude of differences and debates going on. But we cannot compare the present period to that of the Russian revolutionaries leading up to 1917. At different times the balance between democracy and centralism will change but at all times, if the revolutionary left is to grow it needs to organise itself in a way that is an improvement on bourgeois democracy.

There is much discussion at present about the events in the British SWP and several current and ex members are citing a lack of democracy as a main reason for the disaster. But this criticism of the interpretation of DC practised by the SWP is not new. Ian Land, an ex member of that group wrote in 1994:

It is the contention of this article that the political culture of the SWP is a bureaucratic distortion of Leninism. It should also be clear that the anti-democratic norms of the SWP are no historical accident, but the logical progression of a theory of organisation held by the leadership and unchallenged by the membership. In recent years the shrillness of the SWP leadership’s attacks on any criticism of its methods – from both inside and outside the organisation – has increased, and the cadre of the party has consequently been almost entirely extinguished or demoralised. This is not to suggest that the SWP is on the verge of collapse – it is still a large organisation, capable of interventions in the class struggle that have genuine short-term success. It is, however, to suggest that the SWP is incapable of building or maintaining a cadre; and that, therefore, it is incapable of leading the revolution its members are fighting for.

Land argues that Chris Harman and Tony Cliff both misunderstood Lenin’s arguments on the relation of the revolutionary party and the working class. Lenin is quoted as saying:

…The proletariat does not recognise unity of action without freedom to discuss and criticise…There can be no mass party, no party of a class, without full clarity of essential shadings, without an open struggle between various tendencies, without informing the masses as to which leaders and which organisations of the party are pursuing this or that line. Without this, a party worthy of the name cannot be built[ii].

Thus while in periods of repression it might be necessary to stress centralism over democracy, it is important never to ditch democracy altogether. More particularly, in current circumstances (even in Greece where the class struggle is at its highest in Europe), the fullest democracy possible is essential.

Alongside the issue of democracy goes the relation between the elected leadership and other members of the group. Any left group that puts the leadership above criticism from the members will be doomed, for accountability in revolutionary groups must also be an improvement on that of other labour movement bodies. With today’s availability of the internet and social media it is impossible to contain differences inside the group – as the SWP have discovered.

Guaranteeing the minority a voice

Far from ‘institutionalised factionalism’ most sections of the Fourth International have practised a very democratic form of DC. This promotes as much discussion as possible – at all times, not just in a pre-conference period – in the belief that, while testing out a series of tactics or activities, it is also possible to maintain an ongoing discussion about the continuing relevance or not of such activities. In addition if a tendency or various members  do not really agree with any particular tactic they are not expected to lead the organisation’s work on it or speak publicly to promote it. Further, although members are expected not  to campaign in public against something the group has decided to do, they are not excluded from discussing it with non-members, etc. Furthermore the leadership, the Central or National Committee as well as the Political or Executive Committee includes members of any minority from conference. This is not to institutionalise factionalism, but to learn from those with political differences.

The centralism part of the equation, the decision at a conference or a national committee to support a particular campaign or initiative, has in this process to be tested out to gauge its usefulness or otherwise. All members agree to do this before making a balance sheet of its success or otherwise. But even during this testing out process it is possible for comrades to write critically of what the group is doing, argue their position in branch meetings or at the national committee, for it is in the process of debate and discussion that politics get clarified and developed. At the same time it is educational for all to listen and contribute to such discussions.

While no system is perfect Callinicos’ contention of the FI as ‘institutionalising factionalism’ has not been my experience in over 30 years in the FI. On the contrary my own political education developed very rapidly within the Socialist League (SL) during a period of big differences. During the 1984-5 Miners’ strike the tendency I was in, which had been arguing for doing work in the LP during the Bennite revolt, was also pushing for a critique of the way Scargill, under the influence of the CPB, was pursuing the strike at the TUC conference in the Autumn of 1984. Instead of arguing for strike action in solidarity with the Miners, the NUM accepted a promise (never properly carried out) that solidarity levies would be collected from trade union members. Whatever we now think about this particular event, there is no doubt in my mind that my growing understanding of revolutionary politics would have taken years longer if it had not been for the debates and arguments in the Socialist League (previously the IMG) at that time.

It is true, as Callinicos would no doubt argue, that the FI section in Britain at that time was very divided.  Three tendencies existed for several years and debates were very fractious, but these represented real political differences. To insist that after conference we should just shut up would have led to an implosion. In the event the SL did implode, but not because of too much democracy – rather the opposite, for in order to maintain the leadership two tendencies blocked together at the conference to deny the third taking over. Each of these three tendencies continuing to exist and the International Group (later the International Socialist Group and now Socialist Resistance) became the FI section.

To summarise:

  • The      balance between democracy and centralism can change depending on the      political situation, but the former is always a necessary part of DC;
  • Discussion      and debate, including criticism of the group’s decisions, is both healthy      and educative;
  • A      leadership should always include minorities which means the debate      continues albeit at the same time as the whole group tests out the validity of the majority’s position


  1. An interesting article, but it should be pointed out that Scargill could not have been backed or influenced by the CPB in 1984, because it did not yet exist at that time. The Communist Party of Britain establish itself (as a continuation of the old CPGB) four years later, in 1988. Most of those then involved in setting up the CPB, many of them organised around the Morning Star, would have fully supported solidarity industrial action with the miners. That was certainly the line of the paper back in 1984 and throughout the miners strike.

    • I probably have got the acronym wrong. I meant the party of which Mick McGahey was a member.He was also on the NUM executive from Scotland. As I understand it he negotiated with Scargill on the eve of the TUC conference to persuade him to drop the demand for solidarity action in favour of the levy. I suppose what goes into the paper and what happens between trade union leaders is not always the same.

      • Jane’s referring to the current around the ‘Morning Star’ which at that time was in the CPGB and then later founded the CPB. It’s the same people, with the same politics.

        • That’s the whole point Duncan – they were not the same people with the same politics. McGahey was aligned (with misgivings) with the leadership of the CPGB at the time, not with the current around the Morning Star. He was the NUM VP back then. The Scottish NUM President George Bolton was much more pro-Eurocommunists, and probably would have argued more strongly for the levy option than McGahey. Neither McGahey nor Bolton went with the CPB. McGahey remained broadly supportive of the Morning Star, however, whereas Bolton continued to be very hostile.
          I’m sorry the facts don’t support Duncan’s determination to see the CPB portrayed in a poor light, but there you are.
          I don’t think it’s at all certain that the 1984 TUC would have voted for solidarity strike action, unfortunately. I doubt very much that Scargill would have been persuaded by anybody to drop that approach, had he thought it had any real chance of being passed.

  2. What you need to build is the class struggle left-wing. The problem is when you join a dem cent org your loyalty is to that group. And what typifies this is that there’s an Heinz 57 style of competing dem cents, which one leads up us to the stairway to the revolution! I think revolutionary organisations need to transform to become more open and this loyalty to the party needs to cease. You need currents that open up debates but not to control, if you don’t have open currents or they are banned it all becomes subterranean… You can’t test ideas against each other as they are hidden. Democratic centralism becomes bureaucratic and becomes a closed intellectual system (see the SWP). You need a system that has access to ideas and debates, that essentially leads to growth. Not stymie debate, factions and tendencies. In non-revolutionary periods, politics is about broadening debate and exchanging ideas… there is NO LINE! You need organisations that are open, pluralist, transparent and that respect and encourage debate. Democratic centralism is abstract, what were the dynamics of the orgs that sprang up in the 60s/70s? Trotskyist orgs before that were smaller. You had an upsurge in the class struggle, Stalinism was essentially discredited from mid-1950s onwards, Trotskyism was an alternative, a coherent account. But the downfall for Trotskyist groups in the UK was/is democratic centralism. If democratic centralism worked then why isn’t there the mass revolutionary party with a couple of hundred thousand revolutionaries, this would be transforming the class struggle? How is the revolutionary left perceived? In a similar way to religious sects. In a pre-revolutionary situation democratic centralism would have a legitimate purpose this was shown when the Bolsheviks were successful in carrying out a coup d’état ….. Lenin was right, “all power to the Soviets” …The Soviets were a functioning democracy. Trotsky organised the Red Army in defending the revolution. Lenin didn’t say, “All power to the Party”… but to the Soviets!

    But in this period, there is no mass movement that needs to assert itself rather you have a fragmented Left and bureaucratised TU movement, completely ossified. And the LP…which doesn’t even want to be a left reformist party. What is a Leftie to do? This is why you need debate, and discussion, bottom up process as opposed to top down. If your interpretation to Marxism is fantastic then it should be open up for debate. Not a bureaucratised close intellectual system that stifle debate … a fundamental flaw and weakness that shows with the latest implosion in the SWP (dismissing feminism along with clinging on to workerism).

    I would still define myself as a Trotskyist and would encourage comrades to read anything, absorb ideas, debate and so on. That’s a way for ideas to grow, along with development and to change ideas, make people think and so on. But when it’s all line based, ideas don’t growth, org becomes ossified and inflexible… If the revolutionary Left is to learn anything then comrades have to take a more flexible and open approach. Leaderships do not have a great monopoly on truth. If this doesn’t happen then the revo left will whither and die if it carries on with these practices. Because what do these practices look like from the outside … certainly with this latest implosion… repulsive.

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  1. Whose Democratic Centralism? « Grumpy Old Trot
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