Debates in the ISA on the internal regime – “Building a Bolshevik leadership” (Greek EC)

We publish in what follows 3 documents from the internal debates in the ISA that ultimately led to the split of June 2021. These documents address the issues around the building of the international leadership, democratic centralism and party culture. 

The first document, published below, “Building a Bolshevik leadership and cadre for the new organization” was written by the Greek EC and was probably the first document that ignited the multiple internal debates. In that way we think it is an important document for somebody to understand the context of the disagreements that led to the split.

Problems inside the leadership of the ISA emerged very soon after the split with the CWI. But they were significantly exacerbated by the refusal of the majority to have an open-minded (and serious in our opinion) approach in relation to the differences that would unavoidably emerge. 

In the case of the document “Building a Bolshevik leadership” the intention of the Greek EC to have this discussed as a contribution to the pre-congress discussion (of the founding congress that took place in January 2020) was essentially blocked by the fulltimers’ group (called “subcommission of the International Executive”). This was not done by a formal refusal, but through exerting huge pressure to not circulate the document – the Greek EC retreated in order to avoid polarization in the congress. This however, in itself was a shocking and revealing experience. It revealed the methods of the majority and the key leaders of the ISA in the handling of different opinions. 

The document, written in the beginning of January, was in the end circulated in April.

The document “Some points on building and leadership” was the answer of the Majority of the fulltimers’ subcommission to the Greek EC, written by Eric Byl (Belgium). 

The document “Democratic centralism and party culture for the 2020’s” was written around the same period by comrades Rob Mac Donald and Vladimir Bortum from the Spanish State and also represents a critical approach to the majority view on democratic centralism.

All 3 documents were published in the internal international members bulletin in April 2020.

This discussion around democratic centralism is also related to the documents produced 1 year later on “federalism” (see Majority positions here and Minority positions here).

Building a Bolshevik leadership and cadre for the new Organisation

Executive Committee (Greece)

The crisis and split of the old International came to a close with the majority of the forces of the CWI defending our approach and method and this represents a tremendous achievement. Despite this, the fact that nearly the whole of the historical leadership of the CWI degenerated and departed from the International, raises the duty and vast challenge of building a new international leadership.

Building the leadership of the revolutionary party on an international scale is not a simple task. Leaving aside the difficulties and complications in the objective situation, which are real, a key factor is the conscious way and approach with which our cadre is entering this battle. If we are not fully conscious of the difficulties, then there is a real danger that our efforts to build a mass new revolutionary international are side-tracked. The building of the International goes of course hand in hand with the building of a new international leadership. As has been mentioned again in our discussions, this task requires time – i.e. years, not months.

In order to be fully conscious of the difficulties entailed in the effort to build such a leadership we need only remind ourselves of some examples. E.g. the role that was played by close collaborators of Lenin and prominent Bolsheviks in the course of the 1917 revolution or after and where they finally ended up – like Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin to note only some of the best known leaders of the Bolshevik party.

The same lesson can be drawn from the recent split of the CWI. Able and talented individuals, like TS, BL, HS, etc, not to mention PT himself, despite having made a decisive contribution to the building of the CWI (some of them with self-sacrifice and even heroism, risking their lives in conditions of revolution and military dictatorships) were unable to carry this contribution to its end, and being incapable to recognize their failure to do so, degenerated.

The leadership of the 4th International after Trotsky’s death, despite his own personal efforts to contribute directly to its formation and development, entered crisis very soon once it was left on its own to provide leadership to the forces of Trotskyism. Since then, the current which describes itself as “Trotskyist” is characterised by repeated splits and an inability to offer inspiration and a perspective.

Neither the correctness of our ideas in general, nor a favourable objective situation (with its ups and downs) are in themselves sufficient conditions for the building of an international revolutionary leadership able to respond to the historical challenges of our epoch.

No guarantees

Is there something which can guarantee that the new leadership of our new International will be able to successfully bring about the historical task of building a mass revolutionary world party? The answer is negative. With so many failures (including those of Lenin and Trotsky to build competent successions) and so many degenerations of parties and individuals who spoke or speak in the name of revolution and Marxism, how could anybody defend the opposite? There are no guarantees of success for any leadership and there is no leadership which is immune to failure and bureaucratisation. The experience of the US section in relation to the role played by its ex-General Secretary and the IS member stationed in Seattle in the period before the international faction fight is also telling in this respect. From the moment that we set as our target the historical task of the overthrow of the capitalist system, the leadership of the new International must start from the understanding of this reality. And it must with care, caution and modesty, try to realize the task which it has undertaken.

How a leadership builds its authority

The bankruptcy and departure of the previous leadership automatically creates a vast vacuum which, in the initial stages, can only be covered by the cadre that is available irrespective of whether this has passed through serious tests and challenges or not. The previous leadership had, in the first decades of its historical existence and trajectory, the authority of having built the English (initially British, then E&W) organisation. An organisation with thousands of members which led mass struggles, like the struggle in Liverpool, which played a key role in the miners’ struggle, and in the end led the movement which toppled Thatcher. This established the British leadership as the acknowledged leadership of the whole International on a theoretical, political and organisational level. In the new International there is no leadership (or section of the international leadership) with such an authority. This is why the new leadership must be twice as careful and sensitive: it must start from the fact that it does not have an established, “given” authority, but that this authority must be won.

Building a leadership demands time

The process of building a new international leadership which has the authority, the unity, the homogeneity and the clarity that are required, demands, as has already been mentioned, time.

The authority of the leadership is not determined by any clause in any statutes or by any election to any leading positions. It is determined its ability to respond correctly to the theoretical, political and organisational challenges with which it will be faced.

It will have to pass through a number of serious tests before it is established. It must be tested on the level of political analysis and perspectives but also on the level of being able to offer substantial assistance to the building of the International, i.e. the building of its sections. To help the bigger of the sections make the leap from the hundreds to the thousands of members and to intervene successfully in the class struggles and the mass movements, to help the small groups we have in many countries take the necessary steps to grow into sizeable sections, and, finally, to expand our work to new countries.

An important element in addition to the above is also to show ability to manage relations with the leaderships of the national sections, with sensitivity and care and not in the way the old leadership used to. Arrogance and a top down approach have no position in the new International. Let us not forget that what triggered the crisis and the split of the CWI was the attempt of the old IS to bureaucratically change the leadership of the Irish section. However, this arrogant and top down approach of the old leadership did not fall from the sky – nor could it have done so if the elements for it did not exist from the previous period.

Democratic control of the leadership

The key issue in establishing a healthy internal functioning of the International, is to have a proper democratic control of the leadership by the organisation.

A key factor in the recent crisis was the fact that the IS was functioning essentially without control by the international organisation. The IS members (as a general characteristic) had learned to behave in an arrogant way – not to be checked by the rank and file, but only to check the work of the sections (to the extent that they did it). PT, of course, and the leadership group that had developed around him never had any problem talking in the name of “party democracy” and in favour of the control of the leadership by the rank and file; also explaining (correctly, in words) that what guaranteed internal party democracy in the CWI was a high political level on the part of the membership.

What reality proved, however, is that words are not enough, what matters is how internal democracy and control of the leadership are implemented in practice. It is better to have excesses in the direction of democratic control (even though this is not desirable) than to have deficits. This control must always be possible to be expressed in practical ways, otherwise it will remain wishful thinking.

Of course, there is nothing that can prevent serious damage to the organisation if a section, whether smaller or larger, of the leadership enters a course of degeneration. But the extent of the inherent dangers and the damage that can be caused, can be mitigated.

Based on the above and on the lessons from the international split, we propose to establish a number of measures/rules in our attempt to build a new international leadership.

Some basic rules

  • There is no organisational rule that can in itself guarantee a healthy internal democratic regime in the International. There are however certain rules which should be applied in the International, particularly after the experience of the recent split.
  • No individual, or combination of 2 – 3 individuals, should (be able to) dominate the International again.
  • No section, or combination of 2 – 3 sections, should (be able to) dominate the leading organs of the International.
  • No individual, or combination of 2 – 3 individuals, should (be able to) concentrate too many responsibilities and power inside the leading group.
  • In the composition of the leading bodies of the International we must strive for a balanced participation of cadres from different countries and regions so as to have a fusion/combination of all the different “angles”, experiences and traditions in the International.

What kind of cadre we need in the central leadership

One lesson stemming from the experience with the previous leadership of the International should be crystal clear: any leadership that is not able to respond to its political and organisational tasks, and is not able to recognise this deficiency, will face the prospect/danger of degeneration and bureaucratisation and will lead the international organisation into crisis.

Therefore, one of the most important elements in the building of the International (repeating, again, that there are no guarantees) is a meticulous attention to the quality of the cadre which undertake responsibilities in the top leadership level. On this level we need some of the most able cadre that exists in the lines of the international organisation, comrades who have passed through serious tests, such as:

  • Having experienced and intervened in mass social and class struggles
  • Having shown leadership abilities and been able to play a leading role in such movements, of the youth, the working class and the poor
  • Having managed to combine their intervention in the movements with the building of our organisation, to a significant size – at least on a district level (i.e. have built branches in the context of a district organisation) and preferably on a national level.
  • It goes without saying, that all the cadres that work in the international centre must have a lively, essential and continuous involvement in the internal life of the section in their country of residence or in some other country, and to fight for the building of the relative section in a concrete way. Otherwise, they are in danger of been cut off from the reality of class struggle and class consciousness and this will in the end have an impact on their ability to respond to their leading responsibilities.

Multi-talented cadre

The perception that had sometimes been voiced in the old CWI that what is needed in the international centre is a leadership that is made up of different talents, some being good “organisers” others being “theoreticians” etc, is potentially a dangerous perception; it contains risks – under some conditions, serious ones. We should not aim to have on the one hand theoreticians/intellectuals and on the other comrades in the first line of class struggles and the building of the party. Such a situation will inevitably lead to a clash between the part of the leadership that deals with “ideas”, i.e. the “intellectuals” and those who deal with the intervention in the movements and the building of the party, i.e. the “organisers”. Under conditions of a rise in the level of class struggles, when, correspondingly the pressure of the classes on the party will be heightened, depending of course on the size and influence of our party, this contradiction can take the dimensions of a catastrophic internal clash.

This is the reason why the kind of cadre that we need on the top leadership level (both on a national and an international level) is comrades who are able to combine to the greatest possible degree, all the above talents and abilities – i.e. to have a good grasp of theory and ideas, to be able to provide political direction and to be able to intervene and lead movements and build the party; and of course under all conditions maintain organic links to the working class, the movements and the class struggle. In this broad context, of course, there will be different emphases, abilities and talents for different cadres.

Democratic centralism and control of the leadership

Democratic centralism is not just an idea about how to make the party and the party apparatus more efficient. It is a means to develop the party into the tool that will bring about the overthrow of the capitalist system and the building of the socialist society. It is a necessary means to build able, fully- fledged leading cadre. Revolutionary centralism and revolutionary democracy do not exist independent and separate of each other – they are dialectically intertwined. The democratic side of democratic centralism and its centralist side can acquire different emphases in different periods but under all circumstances they represent a unified, indivisible whole. Thus, democratic dialogue and discussion is a necessary condition in our ranks at all levels, even under conditions in which centralism has to be the dominant characteristic.

Democratic control of the leadership is one of the most important factors in the process of the development of the cadre and of a truly revolutionary leadership. The role of leadership is the most decisive factor in the building of the party, but the leadership must be controlled and checked from below, by the rank and file. There is no contradiction between the two.

The control of the leadership ought not to be just a general idea, it must have a practical content (i.e. the means to be applied practically) at any moment in time. The meaning of control and of the right of recall must have a practical application both in the national sections and in the International organisation.

Elections of leading organs and cadre

The danger of individuals accruing excessive powers in the International is something that we should guard against, particularly after the experience of the split. This phenomenon is something that we have seen many times in the past, in the history of the movement and not only in our movement. We should not forget that the previous major split in the International, in 1992, had also intense personal characteristics. It started from T. Grant’s (and A. Wood’s) allegations against PT of having established a clique and his (TG’s) statement at the beginning of the then faction fight that it represented a fight over power in the British section and the International.

Thus, in the next years, without haste and without “artificial” measures (applied without relevance to the real situation on the ground) we should move in the direction of a number of steps.

The tradition of lifelong General Secretaries must gradually come to an end. It is perfectly understood that in small sections and groups it is not possible to expect to find a sufficient number of cadres who can play a leading political and organisational role so as to make the rotation of the main leading tasks feasible. But in the big sections and in the new international centre there ought to be, or rather, we must aim at a situation in which there will be a sufficient number of able cadre to allow for rotation, initially with the more important positions, like the general secretary and the chairperson (where there is one) but also with other important responsibilities (like organising secretary, editor, finance organiser, etc). We should also consider the possibility to have at some of the key posts more than one comrades responsible, e.g. not one secretary but a three member secretariat – this could be combined with a process of rotation as mentioned above. Finally we should have a target of not having many responsibilities concentrated in the hands of one individual comrade, but to spread them out to as many as possible.

As mentioned before, the above do not represent proposals for immediate application, but directions in which we should move in the next period.

The election of the leading bodies, the IC (International Committee) and the IE (International Executive) as well as the elections of comrades to specific posts and responsibilities should always be proposed in time, giving advance warning, and not by fast track procedures as used to be the case with the old IS.

Training of cadres at the International Centre

The idea/concept of the old IS that some comrades should work for some months in the International Center, so that they could be trained, is not the way to build cadres for the International. These comrades did not have the time to learn anything substantial – by the time they began to understand the conditions in which they found themselves, they had to go. That’s why they essentially dealt with the practical work. Of course, every experience is useful, but we could never build cadres for the International this way.

We have to ask the sections to work in the direction of providing cadres to work for the International on a long-term basis. In addition they have to be tested cadres. The cadres sent by the sections to work for the International have to be able to stay in the center for at least one year, so their ability to adapt and to play the necessary role can be tested.

The assignment of central leading tasks on an international level to those cadres has to be connected with their ability to bring practical results in the building of the International.

Relationships between the International leadership and the sections

The relationships between the national and the international leaderships are of crucial importance. Sections should be able to make decisions concerning their work, with quick/timely and effective procedures, without having to wait for the international center to send directions first. This is about the autonomy of the sections in the framework of one uniform international organization. The old leadership often behaved, when differences arose, as if the center in London knew the situation better than the cadres of the national leaderships did, it came with fixed schemes on their minds and closed their ears to the arguments of the local cadres. The cadres of the International have to treat the cadres of the national sections as equals and not have a top down approach. The cadres of the International have a lot to learn from the cadres of the national sections, in the same way that the cadres of the sections need the lessons and the experience of the rest of the International.

The cadres of the International center must not intervene in the sections bypassing the elected bodies or work behind their backs – this was practiced (as was revealed) by the old leadership, when differences arose, although they condemned it in words. When and where there are differences, they should be aired in an open and comradely way in the leading bodies of both the national sections and the International.

In some aspects of our work, there are different “schools” in the International, in the framework of course of the same general method. These “schools” often reflect the history, the traditions and the level of development of different countries, the class struggle and its character in each country or area, and also the independent way of thinking of our cadres. These differences can sometimes lead to different approaches, or differences in emphasis, and even to some frictions. This is inevitable, but it is also not a bad thing, it is an indication of a healthy International. There should not be any attempts to impose organizational or other approaches, notions or traditions of one section on others, insofar as there are no violations of our principles. All these of course do not mean that the international leadership should not intervene decisively – in a political and not in an administrative way – when it sees that serious mistakes are being made in sections.

Democratic control procedures should run through every level of the International. The International Executive must be controlled and checked (in an essential and not in a formal manner) by the International Committee. At the same time, the leaderships of the national sections (EC’s and NC’s) should follow and check the International Committee’s work.

Communication between the national sections and the International Committee has to be free and unobstructed. The same should be the case between the International Executive, the International Committee and the national EC’s and NC’s – making sure that control and checks are constant in the relations between all the leading bodies.

Basing ourselves on such procedures should be part of the fight to build a new international leadership that can stand up to the challenges of the period ahead of us.

The “cost” of democracy

Democracy of course comes with a cost. It may lead, at first, to some delays in decision making, in losing perhaps some opportunities, in doing less things than we possibly can, ect. But we believe that it’s worth it. If we don’t pay this “cost” now, we will pay it at a later stage, with a much heavier price.

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