Party/non-party contradiction

Chris Burford cburford at
Sun Jul 2 08:02:19 MDT 1995

To Scott M

I was glad to hear from you on Friday, and rather chuffed to find
you reading some of my posts so carefully, and a bit, to find you
reading my posts at all!

The things you say from your own point of view about being a member
of a communist party and the resulting relationships with others outside
the party make sense to me. That is to say I think they describe some
of the problems quietly and accurately from your point of view.

I did not intend to moan about non-open communists in the anti-apartheid
movement. I have felt frustrated at times by negative sides of the
political atmosphere but it comes about through various factors.

The way you describe your practice now does not sound exactly like
democratic centralism to me as it used to be thought of. You make no
reference to a hierarchy of levels and one level being subordinate to
another. You make no reference to caucassing (sp?) as party members, and
producing a line for the wider organisation. You do not go on from there
to describe any assumption that the better members of the wider
organisation will tend to respect and support the line from the party,
perhaps after some discussion.

We are talking here about how
explicitly and consciously there is a concept of leadership by the party.
Of whether it has a vanguard role. Because if people refer to such an
idea, and if the wider organisation increasingly is in harmony with the
strategic goals of the communist party, then the wider organisation may
come to be seen as a front for the party, or part of a party-led

I think we are agreeing that the Leninist democratic centralist
structure has been shown to have some strengths in fighting against a
fascist and autocratic enemy. However it has weaknesses in a multi-
factorial and diffuse bourgeois democracy, where the power of capital
is exercised in pervasive but complex ways.

I have a very specific point that without being provocative for the sake
of it, marxists ought to be able to find ways of revealing to non-marxists
they are working with in practical activity where they are coming from.
I note, Scott, you have replied on this question a few months ago that
you think the tide is turning and it is easier in the States to say you
are a communist now and be respected. I don't disbelieve you, but I tend
to think that the confusions are so great, even on this list (!!) that
to invite people to join a communist party, is to set them a hurdle
to surmount in their talking with other people, which means they will in
practice keep it *secret* from those they ought to trust.

I accept you play an honourable role, Scott, on this list in holding up
a flag as a member of the USA and getting some flack for it which you
say other members of the CPUSA do not get. I am not saying they are
dishonourable, because it might seem unnecessary to refer to membership
and all the flack you have to take is distracting as well as uncomfortable.
Also one of the nice things about this list is we hardly know each other
at all and have the opportunity of responding to points on their merits as
we see them. [And sometimes do so!]

Another issue is whether party members speak with a united voice in the
wider organistions. It makes a big difference. My understanding is that
the South African Communist Party does not now. It is very debatable
whether it performs a vanguard role in the old sense. What this means is
that Communist Party members may disagree with one another within and
in front of ANC members. I think paradoxically this is a price which the
SACP has paid and the reward is that it has remained with widespread but
diffuse influence, and the bourgeoisie has not been able to force it out
of the Government of National Unity.

My conclusions is that Marx and Engels had very little concept of
party structure. In the Manifesto they talk about how they do not
set up any sectarian principles to impose on and shape the movement.
I think this is different from the Leninist model. It is not that one is
right and one is wrong. Such a posing of the question will ensure endless
squabbles. It is that the two models have different strengths and
weaknesses in different situations.

My own feeling is that with improved mechanisms of communication a
diffuse marxist network may now have more advantages over a more
closely structured Leninist party. But there are weaknesses too -
like who is going to do the work!

[Please understand that I am posing the question in terms of two
contrasting models - I have noticed that reality is more complex than
that, and for example, Scott, you are not only a member of the CPUSA
but also of "Rednet"]

Chris B.

Acutally we haven't really ever discussed democratic centralism much except
with throw-away lines. One of your objections to CP's was a little more
interesting on the subject. You bemoaned what you see as a ridgidity of
position among those you suspect of being CPers in the anti-aparthied movement.

In my opinion dem-cen is primarily an organizational method for maximizing
strength against a very centralized and powerful adversary. Capitalism *not*
trotskyites....<grin> (The main source of irritation from trotskyites that I
see is that most cpers don't care to spend too much time debating with them
the finer points of ancient history nor taking them seriously -it should be
mutual, so where's the beef. I'm certainly not irritated when they don't
respond to me, thankful actually.)

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