The Question of the Party

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A pamphlet written by Peter Taaffe in 1999.

This document is a valuable read today as we ask ourselves what sort of organisation is needed in order to take us forward to socialism.

Democratic centralism

Recent Discussions within the ranks of Militant Labour, particularly around controversial issues in the pre-conference period and at the conference itself, underlined the necessity for a discussion within our ranks on the issue of the party, the character of the party structures, party democracy, etc. We have pointed out many times in the past period that the collapse of Stalinism has changed the political terrain upon which Marxists must now operate.

Anything, which appears to be tainted with the mark of Stalinism, repels the new generation looking for a political alternative. But at the same time, in this period which demands a greater openness, tolerance to others’ points of view, bad democratic discussion and debate, it would nevertheless be fatal to jettison those very good methods which have served us so well in the past.

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’.

Networks

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 particularity 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 perspective and programmed of our organisation. But the underlying assumption of all these monuments is that a general, broad, loose movements is capable, by itself, of defeating the attacks so the capitalists as well as enhancing the position of the youth and the working class.

Some of these ideas can spill over into the ranks of our organisation. Indeed there is evidence that they have already done so. This was shown in the pre-conference discussion, which took place over the composition of the new National Committee. The idea of a national organisation and leadership, capable of drawing all the threads of the movement together, was implicitly challenged in some of the points that were raised in the discussion.

There is nothing wrong with discussion on this issue. But, the perception of our organisation as a clear, distinct, revolutionary organisation, in reality a party, albeit a small party, has become blurred in the minds of some comrades, particularly the new generation who moved into our ranks in the last couple years. Even with an older generation of comrades the profile our organization, its exact character, can be dimmed.

Paradoxically, the flexible approach which we have adopted towards the idea of a new mass socialist party can have a negative effect on the ranks of our organisation unless there is a clear perception of the difference between a federal, mass reformist, left reformist or centrist party and the Marxist revolutionary party.

Main Features

In this short article we wish to elaborate some of the main features involved in the discussion on this issue in order that we can begin to clarify these issues within the ranks of our organisation. It is necessary to begin with a basic summary on the need for a party.

This flows from the position of the working class as it develops in capitalist society. It is of course true that the working class is the most homogenous, united class through its role in production. In the transition from feudalism to capitalism the working class was dragooned, disciplined and organised in big industry. It is its objective positions in industry, which determines that, the working class develops a collective consciousness. The petit bourgeois on the other hand is heterogeneous, scattered, with its upper layers tending to merge with the bourgeois and its lower layers forced by monopolisation, etc. into the ranks of the proletariat. There is then, of course, the ruling class, divided into different sections: finance capital, industrial capital, heavy industry, light industry, etc.

These broad categorizations of the classes in society, first formulated by Marx 150 years ago, retain all their validity today. But while the working class is much more homogenous than the petit bourgeois or middle class, it is still divided into many different layers: men and women, racial divisions, skilled an unskilled, young and oldest.

Class, Party and the Leadership

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 overflow 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 Engel?s. Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution touched on the dialectical interrelationship between the class, the party and its leadership. Writing about the party he states: “Without a guiding organisation the 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.”

As we have commented in our book The rise of Militant, there have been many Marxists who have completely misunderstood the connection between the leadership, the party and the working class. Many of them still repeat to this day Lenin’s formulation in his pamphlet What is to Done that socialist consciousness can only be brought to the working class from outside by the revolutionary intelligentsia. This wrong formulation of Lenin, which he corrected later, has been used to justify the haughty approach of self-appointed ‘leaders’ of minuscule sects, proclaiming to be ‘the’ leadership of the working class. The absurdity of this approach was illustrated in the events in France in 1968 where one group reduced a leaflet with Lenin’s phrased included, thereby implying that they were the leadership of the working class.

Trotsky, both in History of the Russian Revolution and in his unfinished biography of Stalin, goes to some pains to correct this one-sided, therefore false, idea. The “piston box” is vital. But the dynamic factor is “the steam”, that is the working class. Even before Marx and Engel?s came on the scene the working class had put forward primitive schemes for socialism. Babeuf in the French revolution, the socialist sects and societies in the 1830s in France, the Chartist movement in Britain, etc.

The great historical merit of Marx and Engel?s was to sum up the experience of the working class in the form of a worked-out body of ideas, a programmed for action and the perspectives for working-class struggle. 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.

Subjective Factor

Even today, the role of the ‘subjective factor’ (meant in a broad sense here) is vital when it comes to the question of the new mass socialist party. Even without the creation of such a party, the mass of the working class through bitter battles, defeats and some victories will draw socialist and revolutionary conclusions. But a mass socialist labour party, which would not immediately be a revolutionary party in the Marxist sense of the term, could play a vital role in rehabilitating the ideas of socialist change for hundreds of thousands and indeed millions of workers in Britain today.

This in turn would lay the seed bed upon which a clear revolutionary consciousness and mass party would grow at a later stage. This is why we have raised the idea of a new mass socialist party in such an unequivocal fashion.

Twentieth Century Revolutions

The vital role of a party is moreover attested to historically by the experience of the working class and particularly in the course of the 20th century. Positively, we have the living experience of the Russian revolution, which would not haven taken place without the existence of a revolutionary party, the Bolshevik party, and its leadership, primarily Lenin and Trotsky.

Negatively, there are the numerous failed revolutions: the German revolution of 1918, the Hungarian commune of 1919, the revolutionary upheavals in Italy in 1920, the 1926 general strike in Britain, and the Chinese revolution in 1925-27. In Spain between 1931-37 Trotsky commented that not one but ten revolutions would have been possible if a mass party and a clear revolutionary leadership had existed.

In July 1936, the Spanish working class initially took four fifths of the country. The bourgeois state machine lay in ruins. And yet, three years later, Franco was able to put the fascist jackboot on to the necks of the Spanish proletariat. There is no other explanation as to why this could have happened but for the absence of a mass, genuine Marxist revolutionary party and leadership, allied to the conscious counter-revolutionary role pursed by the Stalinists and their allies.

Even in the relatively recent era the vital role of the party, demonstrated unfortunately in a negative sense, has once more been underlined. In May/June 1968 power could have been taken by the working class in France but for the leaders of the CP and SP. In Portugal, between 1974-76, in the economic sphere it went even further. The Times, then the most authoritative organ of the British bourgeois, commented that,? Capitalism is Dead” in Portugal. They had, however, failed to reckon with the counter-revolutionary role of the Mario Soares leadership of the Socialist Party, which together with the false policies of their Communist Party derailed the revolution. At one stage 70 per cent of industry, the banks and finance houses were in the hands of the state.

Also in Chile, as the recent book demonstrates, the working class were prevented from carrying through a complete socialist overturn only because of the pemicious role of the Socialist and Communist Party leadership.

Movements like these, only on an incomparably higher plane, will unfold not just in the colonial and semi-colonial world but also in the advanced industrial countries in the period that we are going into.

Character of the Party

Given that the necessity of a party is clear then what should be the character of this party? Marxism has answered, particularly after experience of the revolutionary movement in Russia and the successful Russian revolution, that it should be a party that should posses special features which no bourgeois or petit bourgeois organisation, trend or party could posses. 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 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 have 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.

Democracy

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 programmed 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 programmed, the tactics of work in the mass organisations, etc. This agreement was only gained through discussion and debated 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 the 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 ‘Trotskyism’ 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 an organisation which is torn by internal strife is condemned to rot.”

Bolshevism and Factions

Does this statement of Trotsky contradict the experience of Bolshevism? It is true that the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) divided into two main factions, the Bolsheviks (majority) and the Mensheviks (minority) in 1903. They remained factions of the same party, however, contrary to what some of the sects have argued in the past, right up to 1912. Lenin only spilt to form a separate party at this stage when the Bolsheviks commanded the support of four fifths of the organsied workers in Russia.

At the same time the history of the Bolsheviks, even when they were a faction of the RSDLP shows the development within its ranks of different tendencies, and even factions at a certain stage. When the unification of Mensheviks and Bolsheviks took place at the Stockholm party congress in 1906 theta were already two factions inside the Bolshevik faction, involving an open struggle at the congress over a major question, the agrarian programmed. At the same time in 1907 a sharp factional struggle was fought over the question of boycotting the third state Dumas (parliament). As Trotsky comments: “The supporters of the boycott subsequently aligned themselves into two factions which over the next few years carried on a fierce struggle against Lenin’s faction, not only within the confines of the ‘united party but inside the Bolshevik faction as well.”

Subsequently, there were other factions formed, in 1914, with an oppositional faction to Lenin on the issue of national self-determination around Bukharing and Piatakov. At the time of the conquest of power a faction of ‘left communists’ (Bukharin, Yaroslavsky, and others) was formed with even a daily newspaper in opposition to the line of Lenin and of Trotsky on the issue of ‘revolutionary war’. In answer to the monolithic model of Stalin and the Stalinist parties Trotsky referred on many occasions to the real history of Bolshevism as a “mobile balance” between discussion, including the formation of trends, tendencies and even factions, and the need for a centralised, disciplined and organised party capable of confronting a ruthless enemy, the Russian landlord and capitalist class.

Factions for Factions Sake?

Some organisations, some even claiming to be Trotskyist, have taken Trotsky’s words to mean that not just factional struggles, by a kind of permanent factional battle, is the hallmark of a genuine ‘revolutionary’ organisation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Trotsky himself was compelled to refer to the example of there French Socialist Party in the inter-war period which had legalized factions in its statues, even introducing the principles of proportional representation for all party elections. The leaders of this party, therefore, were able to pass themselves off as examples of the “purest expression of party democracy”. But this formal display of ‘democratic rights’ masked the rule of the right-wing apparatus which consistently dominated this party. Left-wing ‘factions’ were permitted to exist but as soon as a genuine Marxist faction opened up the possibility of winning the arguments and even capturing significant support in the party the ruling apparatus faction quickly resorted to expulsions.

We had a similar experience at the hands of the right-wing leaders of the Labour Party in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s. In a revolutionary party, that is a genuine one, things stand entirely differently. Of course, when there are serious issues under dispute sometimes it is necessary to resort to. Where it is a question of nuances and emphasis such differences should be pursued, in general, through oral and written discussions first. Only on a serious policy issue and after having exhausted some to the other possibilities for changing the views of the party should it be necessary to resort to measures such as the formation of factions.

In the case of the ex-minority they existed as an unofficial faction well before they came out against the majority of 1991. His was not a principled faction formed on the basis, at least in the beginning, of a clear political opposition to that of the majority but was in effect a crude attempt to grab power. This was shown by the fact that their first step was to propose the removal of certain individuals from their positions, rather than a discussion on ideas, methods, etc. This immediately embittered the conflict, which developed, originally on organisational issues but ultimately on a whole range of political questions. As comrades know, this resulted ultimately in a split, which was long in preparation, because the ex-minority were utterly incapable of facing u0p to the new changed situation developing in Britain and on a world scale.

A Healthy Regime

In opposition to those organisations who argue for the idea of permanent fractions, as an antidote to an unhealthy, or ‘undemocratic regime’ Trotsky pointed out: “The conversion of groupings into permanent fractions is in itself a disturbing symptom that signifies either that the struggling tendencies are totally irreconcilable although the party has a whole has reached a deadlock. It is impossible to reverse such a situation, of course, by simple banning factions. To wage a war against the symptom does not mean to cure the disease. Only correct policy and a healthy internal administrative structure and procedure can prevent the conversion of temporary groupings into ossified faction.” These lines are sufficient, in and of themselves, to raise doubts about the internal situation, which exists in even some of the organizations who we have friendly relations with and are discussing with at this moment in time.

It seemed to us that in our recent exchange with the comrades of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International they have something similar to the existence of ‘permanent factions’ in some of their national sections. One individual even commented to me in private discussion that he could live without factions for one of their world congresses, perhaps for two, but if a third world congresses, but if a third world congress took place in succession without factions this alone would signify that the regime was ‘healthy’! The scepticism displayed by this individual is symptomatic largely of intellectuals of petit bourgeois origin, who prefer a debating society rather than an organisation seriously challenging for mass influence and ultimately for power.

Revolutionary Centralism

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 sympathies 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.

Autonomy

The conception of a revolutionary organisation as a loose ‘network’ if false and has in fact led to the impotence and virtual disintegration of organisations which have taken to this road. If we were to adopt such an approach, even now when we are a small party, it could seriously undermine our efforts to intervene in the movements, which are taking place and would certainly shatter any possibility of becoming a decisive force within the ranks of the British working class. There is no danger that such an approach will be adopted by our organisation.

However, under the impact of day-to-day problems, particularly in a period when resources are so few and strained, it is possible for a mood of ‘localism’ and even parochialism to develop in regions, districts and branches of our organisation. The tendency towards emphasizing local factors to the detriment of our national profile is a real danger. We believe there has even been a manifestation of some of these trends in the discussion on the nature of the new National Committee and at our national congress on the issue of finance. Perhaps inadvertently, the decision of the NC, upon the proposal of the Executive Committee, to recommend a form of financial autonomy for Scotland has quite wrongly promoted the idea that a similar financial arrangement could exist for the rest of the organisation in Britain. If such an idea is accepted and implemented now it will lead to the dissipation and eventual breakup of what is at the moment a successful democratic centralist organisation into a loose federation.