Debates in the ISA on the internal regime – Democratic centralism and party culture for the 2020’s (RM and VB)

We publish today 3 documents from the internal debates in the ISA that led to the split of 2021. These documents address the issues around the building of the international leadership, democratic centralism and party culture. 
The first document, “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 (the founding congress took place in January 2020) was essentially blocked by the fulltimers’ group (called “subcommission of the International Executive”). This was not done by 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” (published below) 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).

Democratic centralism and party culture for the 2020’s


The dispute that divided our international last year started from allegations by the former leadership concerning democratic centralism. That same leadership accelerated the dispute towards a split through a series of serious breaches with democratic centralism. Their initial claim of different trends within CWI turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If today there are fundamental differences between the ISA and the CWI, much has to do with how we understand and apply democratic centralism.

This document aims to make a contribution towards what we hope will be a thorough and ongoing process of discussion on how to build a healthy internal culture for our revolutionary organisation in the decade lying ahead. To do that, we need to identify the shortcomings in the application of democratic centralism by our former leadership and how to prevent them in the future.

The value of the Democratic centralism

We adhere to the way democratic centralism has been defined within our tradition: maximum level of internal democracy possible combined with maximum of external cohesion possible. We thus believe a revolutionary organisation should allow the co-existence of different positions (within the limits of our fundamental principles), which sometimes may take the form of different tendencies or even factions.

At the same time, democracy also means that the position enjoying the support of the majority has to prevail and therefore be advanced publicly by all the members of the organisation. Without such unity in action, a revolutionary party cannot develop into the force capable to overthrow the ruling class and its institutions.

However, the party should not only allow but actively encourage the development of an internal exchange of different ideas and arguments. Dialectics applies not only to the wider society that we aim to transform but also to us: the best programme, strategy and tactics can only come from the constant interaction of various ideas and experiences.

The inherently collective character of this process means that the party cannot rely on its leadership alone to produce the programme and strategy but draw on the pool of experience, insight and talent of the membership. That’s what it means to say the party leadership is the crystallisation of the learnt experience of the party. To believe that the more experienced, trusted and skilled comrades are therefore skilled in all areas is a weak approach.

Indeed, there is useful experience outside the confines of our political tradition that the party can consider – if not to adopt then at least to discuss openly, without the fear of “heresy”.

Moreover, the question of democracy has become all the more important in general political developments. The advanced layers in this post-Stalinist information era demand more openness and transparency than previous generations. So how we apply democratic centralism is not a secondary question springing from political perspectives but is dialectically related to them.

How to apply Democratic centralism

On paper, our previous leadership would have agreed with all, or most, of the above. In practice, though, that leadership tended to substitute itself for the membership. More than that, they allowed one individual, Peter Taaffe, to substitute himself for the collective leadership. The role of the membership was mostly limited to follow the line decided at the top and of the wider class, to follow us. We are part of the vanguard of the class, but not yet THE vanguard, as the former leadership seemed to believe much of the time.

However, this kind of substitutionalism – which we rightly criticise in other currents of the left – is not unique in the history of Trotskyism. We need to acknowledge the unfortunate pattern of leaders, from Cannon to Grant to Taaffe, who did play an important role in the movement but whose stagnation eventually led to degeneration politically. While the difficult objective context in which they operated helps explain this degeneration, there were also subjective factors at play.

We believe substitutionalism is linked to a “great man” syndrome that has often characterised the socialist movement over the last century or so. This is also reflected in the portrayal of Trotsky himself as some kind of omniscient “prophet” who was virtually always right (with a few exceptions that he corrected anyway) and nearly single-handedly produced the ideas and methods that we are using today. Two significant, interrelated problems stem from this and both were visible in the recent dispute.

Firstly, the temptation to treat Trotsky’s – or Marx’s, or Lenin’s – word as gospel, as the undisputed truth that applies to all situations. This was illustrated by our former comrades’ obsessive appeal to quotes from the classics to justify their otherwise unsubstantiated allegations – a dangerous substitute for balanced and evidence-based judgement, which the former faction lacked from day one of the dispute. Obviously, the Marxist cannon remains paramount, but it should be used after the point at hand has been proved in the contemporary context. If one cannot prove it without quotes, then it’s likely that one cannot prove it at all.

Moreover, this overreliance on the classics has acted as a brake on the kind of theoretical innovation that should drive a revolutionary organisation responsive to shifting objective and subjective conditions. To name but one example, see our relative lack of international analysis and perspectives on the contemporary populist and far right, which we tend to approach solely through the lens of Trotsky’s writings on fascism – still necessary, of course, but hardly sufficient.

Secondly, we often forget that what we call Trotskyism was not the work of Trotsky alone but of the collectives he was part of, whether in the party’s leadership or opposition. Generally, political ideas and methods are never the fruits of individual endeavour but always of a dialectical, collective process. The role of the individual in history, while important, has been somewhat bastardised in the history of the CWI.

A failure to grasp that often translates into an organisation where an overarching “high priest” knows best how to interpret and apply the word of the “prophet”. Throughout the dispute, this was clearly seen in the uncritical loyalty to the leader from a majority of members in England & Wales and the Spanish state. Each comrade is only as good as their last game and we should avoid having bosses in the party, which was the case for a long time in the old CWI.

Our former Spanish state section is in many ways a textbook case of how NOT to apply democratic centralism. In Izquierda Revolucionaria (IR), the leadership is always right and comrades with a different point of view are shut down and marginalised. When this occurs, there are virtually no effective ways to complain about it. In the context of the dispute, this ensured that the gross distortions of the leadership in relation to the CWI majority were adopted mechanically by the vast majority of the membership.

The slate system

With the refounding of our international as ISA and of sections in several countries, comrades are rightly concerned that in trying to avoid the mistakes of the past we might throw the baby with the dirty water. While acknowledging that risk, we don’t think it should be used as an excuse for not reassessing some of the organisational methods that have been taken for granted so far.

One method that we wish to raise some question marks about is the slate system, which has been used to elect the leading bodies of several sections and the international. Historically, the Bolsheviks did not use the slate system at all up until the 1921 Congress, when it was introduced as an exceptional and temporary measure in the midst of deep internal divisions and several external threats. Up until then, the party used the same method of individual elections as traditionally used in workers’ organisations.

While we think there is an inherent weakness to all systems, the slate system has been used in our history as a rubber stamp for the leadership democratic process, not just recently but as a rule and as a feature of our internal culture. The fact that the outgoing leadership proposes the new one is a major hindrance to the process of correcting the leadership and holding it to account. This enables an unhealthy culture of “self-selecting” leadership, which in the case of our international hampered the development of a new leadership.

Another danger with the slate system is the emergence of both lobbyism with and favouritism from the leadership. This lobbyism reduces democracy to appealing to the “high priests” to make the correct choices. Yes, an alternative can in principle be proposed, but in practice this doesn’t happen unless there is conflict, often of a personal character. That should not be the case in a revolutionary organisation, which should aim to foster dialectical debate rather than obsess about securing constant unanimity.

Having said that, different sections may use the slate system differently. This can be due to size of organisation, the national culture of the left, the evolution of the section and, above all, different interpretations. Indeed, in some sections there has been some improvement on how things had been done in the past, with branches in SA England, Wales & Scotland being allowed to nominate comrades for the slate before the NC proposes one.

Thus, it would be helpful for each section to explain how their democratic structures work: how they use the slate system, how their membership takes part in the decision making process, how reporting back works, what rights do comrades who raise differences have, how the EC and the full timers are elected, what procedure to recall the leadership is there, how may groups and tendencies be formed, how do you declare a faction etc.

Our formal rules on most of these questions seem rather clouded at the moment. Relying on the leading comrades’ interpretation is one of the weaknesses of the internal culture in the old CWI. We need an open and thorough debate on how we understand and apply these rules across the international.

‘Right to know’ not ‘Need to know’

On the other hand, formal rules are not enough to keep the leadership in check. As comrades have pointed out repeatedly, and rightly so, what is also needed is a high political level of the membership (although we want to emphasise that the two do not exclude but reinforce each other).

Ensuring a high political level across the organisation requires, first of all, more theoretical education and discussion than perhaps we had become used to in recent years. Almost as important, though, is to openly discuss political and organisational differences that arise within our ranks, not just in the respective section but across the international.

In our previous organisation(s), such information was often spread on the basis of “a need to know” not “a right to know”. The underlying assumption there was that the rank-and-file was not politically developed enough to deal with internal issues. But this is a vicious circle: depriving the rank-and-file from such discussions hampers the development of their political level, which then is used as a justification for keeping internal issues away from them.

Deciding who “needs to know” was often down to the discretions of a leadership, but it must not be so. All comrades, at least those classed as cadres, must have full access to all discussion documents of all sections. At times, sensitive information cannot be spread and that is understood. But that is mostly not the case, so we must have firm formal guidelines for the flow of information.

For example, in the unification process with IR, the leading Barcelona comrades were very critical from an early stage (which will be elaborated on in another document). However, when those comrades tried to express their concerns, they were silenced on the basis that they were factionalising. This was repeated after the unification, when two Barcelona comrades resigned from the CC, which was followed by the IR leadership writing a letter ridden with false allegations against them. However, the IS at the time kept the letter away from the respective comrades and instead used it to back up the narrative that these comrades were playing a very bad role. Worse still, they advised the comrades not to go into formal writing themselves which they were seriously considering. When the letter was finally seen by comrade RM through informal channels it was one year later.

Had the IS acted differently, comrades across the international would have been informed on the nature of IR prior to the international debate, as this letter would have launched a rigorous written defence of the comrades’ roles, their criticism of IR and the defence of the previous 10 years work of SR. We must, therefore, get rid of the corridor clandestine culture that the former leadership fostered.

That is not to say we do not talk to and about each other, quite the opposite; but when we do that, there needs to be a formal methodology in place and a spirit of comradely openness, without the fear that any criticism will be taken personally and aggravate relations between us.

Some proposals

  • In order to decide on best organisational practices, reports from every section as to how their democracy operates would be useful. We also need to revisit how democracy worked within the workers movement, especially the Bolshevik Party, which we take as a model. We should openly compare and contrast the slate system with other election systems that we come across.
  • Whether we retain the slate system or not, we believe that nominations for leadership elections should be done in a bottom-up manner: from the branches to the top, rather than the other way around. Of course, the nominations should be filtered through regional, national and, where the case, international structures. Also, this doesn’t mean the outgoing leadership shouldn’t have a say any longer in the composition of the slate, but just the process in that respect should start from the membership.
  • The same processes should apply to major perspective and building documents and to organisational work in general. This requires a dialectical, two-way process where the inputs of the rank-and-file and the leadership feed upon each other. A good illustration of that is the ongoing process of choosing the new ISA logo. We believe that a similar approach should have been applied to building the new website, which might have benefitted from involving more comrades with the relevant skills.
  • We need to ensure the flow of information across the international about the activity and internal life of all sections, including – or even more so – when internal problems arise, whether within or between sections, or between national and international leaderships. The new international bulletin is a much necessary development in this regard, but other channels and forums of long-distance discussion might also be possible.
  • Full timers should be elected and openly reviewed on a regular basis. Authority is not a given because the leadership gives you a job. There should also be a standard wage set for each country that allows them a decent living, without having to rely too heavily on state benefits. Materialism applies to all of us, and a certain material security helps ensuring independent and critical political thinking.
  • Tendencies and groups always exist. Comrades should not feel like they are disloyal should they wish to form one. Most of them will be fluid, temporary, and we should avoid them developing into factions. But there needs to be space for more than one narrative to develop, as blocking creative diversity will ultimately lead us to failure.
  • Increasing cross-communication and democracy at the international level is also necessary for strengthening the centralism of the international. One can’t be done without the other. We must try and see all the branches not just as national but as international branches. Modern communication allows for this and, in fact, demands it.

To conclude, the authors see this document and others as part of the necessary tradition to hammer out what we need to do and we look forward to comrades that disagree with us putting forward their arguments. We hope that the debate will carry on beyond this issue of the international bulletin and perhaps an online hub could be specifically created to facilitate that as well as future exchanges of information and debates. Also, we think there should be a discussion on the subject at the summer school.

Having said that, we welcome the fact that the new international bulletin has already dedicated an issue to this extremely important topic. This by itself shows that, generally, we have been moving in the correct direction since the split. We are confident that there is a willingness at all levels of the organisation to keep doing that and build a truly democratic and internationalist revolutionary organisation as we enter the new decade.

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