[Marxism] Exchange on how the Bolsheviks elected their leadership

John Riddell johnriddell at sympatico.ca
Tue Aug 9 20:05:09 MDT 2011

The following exchange with a young Marxist named Binh took place on my
blog, www.johnriddell.wordpress.com.  


Binh refers to an article he wrote on Louis Proyect's website, to which I
respond in my second post.


- - - - -


Do these proceedings include vote counts and the minutes of various
sessions? I am looking for information as to how the ECCI was elected (by
slate, secret ballot [as the Bolsheviks did])? Any information would be
greatly appreciated.

John Riddell 

The proceedings contain minutes regarding decisions on all motions. Votes
are recorded, although sometimes in cursory fashion. ("Anyone opposed? No.
The motion is adopted.")
As for the election of the ECCI (Executive Committee): A slate was worked up
through discussions of a congress sub-commission in consultation with the
national delegations. The slate was presented to the congress, and
amendments were proposed. There was a discussion, followed by a vote on each
amendment and, finally, a vote on the slate as a whole. The Comintern had a
procedure for roll-call vote by delegations, in which the voting strength of
delegations was weighted - the small U.S. party had as many votes as the
party of Soviet Russia. That was intended for cases of major disagreements.
The election of the ECCI in the Fourth Congress was not marked by major
differences and was held by simple delegate-card vote.


Thanks for the reply. I've been trying to research how the Bolsheviks and
the RSDLP elected their leadership. The slate system is what most "Leninist"
groups use today but from what I understand they used a secret ballot with
the top vote-getters being elected. (The question for me now is: how did
they determine how many slots were open?) I've written something in reply to
Paul LeBlanc about the issue, I would appreciate your opinion on it:
Thanks again.

John Riddell 

Dear Binh,
I read your interesting and thoughtful comments on the Proyect blog. On a
few topics you raise.
1. Slates for leadership bodies: Sometimes the argument for a slate is very
strong, as in the Comintern, for example, where it was important to have
balanced representation from different parts of the world. If this method is
chosen, two questions arise. (a) Who compiles the slate? (b) How is it

(a) In the Fourth Comintern Congress, the slate was compiled by a
sub-commission, in negotiations with the party delegations. That seems a
fair method, under the circumstances. In a national party, the slate can be
compiled by a panel of rank-and-file delegates (non-members of the previous
leadership) chosen by the local delegations. That method was employed in the
old U.S. SWP, as both Paul Le Blanc and Louis Proyect will recall. This
works well, provided that the leadership does not try to influence the
commission behind the scenes.
(b) In the Fourth Congress, the slate was submitted to discussion,
amendments, a vote on amendments, and then a hand vote on the list as a
whole. In the Bolshevik party's slate procedure, the vote was secret, a much
better procedure (but not so necessary in the Comintern). The U.S. SWP
followed that procedure. The secret vote can be used to register a protest
against an untrustworthy leader. There is a spectacular example: the nearly
300 votes against Stalin in the CPSU's 17th congress in 1934. See Roy
Medvedev, Let History Judge, p. 331ff.
I once witnessed a convention of an organization attempting to follow the
Bolshevik model in which election of the leadership took the form of an
unmotivated motion to reelect the previous leadership without change
followed by an immediate hand vote. I agree with your criticisms of such a
procedure, which arises not from the Bolshevik tradition but from the
pressures of small-group politics.
Briefly on a few other points:
2. In describing the Bolsheviks' pre-1917 strategy, you should include the
fact that they proposed a worker-peasant alliance, representing the vast
majority of the population. That seems to me to be the key point.
Furthermore, they proposed that this alliance establish a worker-peasant
government - the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat
and the peasantry - to carry through the democratic revolution to the limit,
in other words, very far indeed. This is not a proposal to win power and
then surrender it to the capitalists. Lars Lih writes powerfully on this;
you might start with his Lenin Rediscovered.
3. With regard to the early Comintern, you lean toward the notion that the
Moscow leadership was running the affairs of the German party. That is
certainly the concept of the Cliff tendency, but Broue's account does not
sustain it, and neither do the facts of KPD history. My article on the
origins of united front policy, first printed in the SWP-UK's International
Socialism, will give you a feel for the story. See
Both the united-front and ultra-left currents arose organically out of the
experiences of revolutionary workers in Germany and neighbouring countries.
Recent German historians of the KPD, from their many points of view, are
mostly agreed on this point. The ouster of Levi and the 1921 March Action
flowed from a coming together of ultra-left forces inside and outside
Germany (the Hungarian emigres were prominent in this). Zinoviev was more an
enabler than an originator. As Francois Fayet, the brilliant recent
biographer of Radek, writes, the Comintern Executive Committee at this time
was notable for its irresoluteness and ambiguity.
4. You raise important questions regarding the problem of conservatism in
the policy of today's revolutionary groups. I will write on that shortly at
http://www.johnriddell.wordpress.com, responding to a question by Barry
Regards, John Riddell

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