Democratic centralism and internal and external practice

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Nov 4 07:32:50 MST 2002

Nick Fredman wrote:

> However the idea that in all circumstances members of an organisations
> should feel open to voting in public forums however their "conscience"
> decides is surely very problematic, and as dogmatic as the assertion
> that revolutionary group should in all circumstances vote exactly the
> same way. What is so controversial about the *expectation* (rather
> than bureaucratic decree) that majority decision should guide the
> politcal practice, in *action* particularly, of all members?

Well, I don't have any serious expectation that "Leninist" organizations
can ever modify their ways since the damage has already been done.
Frankly, it is a moot point whether a member of such organization could
ever find themselves in a position where they publicly challenge the
party leadership on a serious political question. Time after time on
this list, I have heard such comrades express in the most emphatic terms
that they *really* believe that Milosevic was evil incarnate or that the
USSR was state capitalist or fill in the blanks. Not only that, you
would probably not be surprised to discover that the party newspaper was
just the greatest thing they ever read and that they rarely felt the
urge to critique it in public, even if that were permissible under
"democratic centralist" rules.

But these are moot points in and of themselves. So-called Leninist
parties tend to recruit fairly raw people and put them through an
indoctrination that lasts up to two years or so. From new members
classes to national conferences, you get a never-ending series of
lectures that all lead up to one conclusion, namely that the party is
the living continuity with Lenin, Marx and Engels. For the average
recruit, a combination of peer pressure and genuine gains in the mass
movement (always greatly exaggerated) are sufficient to keep faith in
the party's mission alive. It is only when some serious disjunction
between the party's analysis and real life take place (like the American
SWP's "turn" and the British SWP's "creeping depression"--more or less
the same thing), that you find rumblings of discontent and eventually
minority resolutions flying through the air. Guess what happens then.
The malcontents are shown to the door since they are inevitably
transmitting alien class pressures.

But with genuine revolutionary parties, none of this takes place.
Genuine revolutionary parties, like the Russian social democracy, arise
out of the pre-existing leadership of the mass movement. In other words,
people like Kamenev, Zinoviev, Riazanov, Trotsky, etc. were all Marxist
leaders of the working-class whose stature owed more to their actual
role in the mass movement than whether or not they got elected to the
national committee at the last convention. As a rule of thumb, those who
get elected to formal leadership bodies of "Leninist" parties today are
characterized by their outstanding ability to defend the party line and
inspire the ranks of the party to carry out that line.

So I would encourage comrades who think that the early Comintern model
is appropriate to continue with that approach. I am simply trying to
present an alternative to the many young people committed to Marxism on
this list or who read the archives. I believe that every group that
propagandizes for socialism or that does work in the mass movement is an
asset. I myself first learned about the abc's of socialism from letters
written to a local newspaper by a DeLeonite in the mid 1950s.

> A whole range of parties, caucuses etc see this principle as
> important, not just "Leninists". Australian Greens senator Bob Brown
> briefly contemplated supporting the full privatisation of the telcom
> utility Telstra - it was very soon obvious that any such blatant
> overturning of Greens policy would provoke a lynching of Brown by the
> ranks - as it should, even though I understand that the Greens
> formally allow representatives to vote as they wish.

Let's be crystal clear about this. Bolshevik deputies were required to
vote for what the party had decided, in the same manner as other members
were required to march in a demonstration or build a strike that the
party had authorized. This is a far cry from the kind of ideological
strait-jacket that is maintained by today's Leninist parties, which by
the way is enforced by a combination of peer pressure and the absorption
of "motivating" articles and speeches rather than any kind of obvious
disciplinary threat. In fact, you can say that today's sects simply
replace the kind of blind faith most of us had in bourgeois values with
a new all-encompassing mindset. Although this kind of zeal can produce
prodigious activity, it ultimately is self-defeating since the broader
leadership that exists in the mass movement would never give up its
independence in order to be part of a sect.

> Exactly the same applies in *important* mass movement questions. If
> 70% of an organisation thinks it's important that the slogans "no US
> or UN invasion of Iraq, stop the sanctions now" be advanced in the
> movement, and got this position adopted at a national meeting, they
> might feel a bit miffed if 30% of the organisation instead argued in
> public meetings for the slogan "peace now, sanctions not war". The
> majority could reasonably argue that their democratic rights aren't
> being respected, and that the efficacy or otherwise of their proposed
> slogans within the movement aren't really being tested properly.
> Having a big disciplined intervention about the date or the exact
> tactics of an action or whatever might be a different thing.

Again, a moot point. In a genuine mass revolutionary movement, you will
always find differences of opinion expressed openly. If you get your
hands on Stephen Cohen's study of Bukharin, you will learn that Bukharin
published stinging critiques of Lenin on the national question in an
official Bolshevik newspaper during WWI. Seen from the prism of today's
Zinovievists, I can imagine one saying that the majority of Lenin's
party might have gotten really "miffed" by Bukharin's articles. Well,
that's the whole point. The Bolshevik party (and social democracy in
general) was characterizied by strong and open debate, just like the
kind that goes on in Marxmail in fact. But such strong and open debate
was necessary to steel the party for leadership in the mass movement.

>   procedures. A small example: several years ago 2 experienced DSP
> members in Sydney didn't campaign for the organisation in an election,
> but (in a seat in which the DSP was running) for a single issue group
> that campaigned around a local issue that concerned those comrades
> particularly. No one was very happy but no made made a big fuss either
> (the obvious thing was to solve the problem positively, by
> strengthening links with the local campaign, rather than negatively,
> by "disciplining" wayward members).

This is called peer pressure.

> My experience of serious internal differences in the DSP has been the
> organisation going out of its way in facilatating debates when they
> arose by encouraging counter reports at national meetings, special
> discussion bulletins, at one time a special conference etc. No doubt
> Bob Gould or others could contradict this but that would be for me
> anyway further evidence that discussion of the internal life of other
> organisations is very problematic and of limited utilty when so much
> can be hearsay or easily distorted (much better and more useful to
> debate the public pronouncements and practice of organisations).
> Having a more "public" debate may make outside polemicists happier but
> would not necessarily be more democratic overall - e.g. the ALP has
> public debates but I would seriously question its claims to internal
> democracy.

I have no idea what the internal life of the DSP is like. All I know is
that any group that places such importance on the party-building ideas
of James P. Cannon does not understand the true spirit of Lenin's party.
Cannon meant well, but "Struggle for a Proletarian Party", etc. are
guidelines for sect-building.


Louis Proyect

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