Published in Militant Labour Members Bulletin No.16, ‘A discussion on Democratic centralism’, 18 March 1996.
This discussion took place in the UK section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), which at that time went by the name Militant Labour. This discussion on democratic centralism was followed immediately by the discussion on the name of the party, which dominated the following four members’ bulletins (17 – 20) during 1996. It led to the decision to change the name from Militant Labour to Socialist Party in early 1997.
1. The need for a party
RECENT DISCUSSIONS within the ranks of Militant Labour, particularly around controversial issues in the pre-conference period and at the conference itself, underlined the necessity for a discussion within our ranks on the issue of the party, the character of the party structures, party democracy, etc.
We have pointed out many times in the past period that the collapse of Stalinism has changed the political terrain upon which Marxists must now operate.
Anything which appears to be tainted with the mark of Stalinism repels the new generation looking for a political alternative. But at the same time, in this period which demands a greater openness, tolerance of others’ points of view, and democratic discussion and debate, it would nevertheless be fatal to jettison those very good methods which have served us so well in the past.
Recent surveys have shown that the majority of those under 25 are political, indeed highly political, but look with disdain on traditional ‘politics’ and the existing traditional ‘parties’.
THEIR INVOLVEMENT in politics is directed, at this stage, more towards single issues organised through umbrella ‘networks’. From these movements can come some of the new, fresh layers who can be a vital ingredient in the regeneration of the labour movement and of Marxism itself.
But the tendency towards ‘spontaneity’, the hostility to anything which is ‘organised’ and particularly if it has a ‘top down’ approach is also a feature of this movement. To some extent this is a favourable factor in this period because those who are involved tend to be open and prepared to discuss ideas, with many undoubtedly attracted to the perspective and programme of our organisation.
But the underlying assumption of all these movements is that a general, broad, loose movement is capable, by itself, of defeating the attacks of the capitalists as well as enhancing the position of the youth and the working class.
Some of these ideas can spill over into the ranks of our organisation. Indeed there is evidence that they have already done so. This was shown in the pre-conference discussion which took place over the composition of the new National Committee. The idea of a national organisation and leadership, capable of drawing all the threads of the movement together, was implicitly challenged in some of the points that were raised in the discussion.
There is nothing wrong with discussion on this issue. But, the perception of our organisation as a clear, distinct, revolutionary organisation, in reality a party, albeit a small party, has become blurred in the minds of some comrades, particularly the new generation who moved into our ranks in the last couple of years. Even with an older generation of comrades the profile of our organisation, its exact character, can be dimmed.
Paradoxically, the flexible approach which we have adopted towards the idea of a new mass socialist party can have a negative effect on the ranks of our organisation unless there is a clear perception of the difference between a federal, mass reformist, left reformist or centrist party and the Marxist revolutionary party.
IN THIS short document/article we wish to elaborate some of the main features involved in the discussion on this issue in order that we can begin to clarify these issues within the ranks of our organisation. It is necessary to begin with a basic summary on the need for a party.
This flows from the position of the working class as it develops in capitalist society. It is of course true that the working class is the most homogenous, united class through its role in production. In the transition from feudalism to capitalism the working class was dragooned, disciplined and organised in big industry, it is its objective position in industry which determines that the working class develops a collective consciousness.
The petit bourgeois on the other hand is heterogeneous, scattered, with its upper layers tending to merge with the bourgeois and its lower layers forced! by monopolisation, etc., into the ranks of the proletariat. There is then, of course, the ruling class, divided into different sections: finance capital, industrial capital, heavy industry, light industry, etc. These broad categorisations of the classes in society, first formulated by Marx 150 years ago, retain all their validity today. But while the working class is much more homogenous than the petit bourgeois or middle class, it is still divided into many different layers: men and women, racial divisions, skilled and unskilled, young and old, etc.
Class, Party and the Leadership
THE BOURGEOIS, from the dawn of its rule, has skilfully learned to play on these divisions to perpetuate its rule. A party, particularly a revolutionary party, is designed to overcome these divisions, to unite the working class for common objectives, the struggle against capitalism, its eventual overthrow and its replacement with a socialist society.
A party, including the most revolutionary party in history, the Bolshevik party, is not, however, an autonomous factor in history. It is dependent upon, and springs from, the working class. The relationship between the party, its leadership and the class has been a hotly disputed issue, right from the inception of scientific socialism, that is Marxism, formulated by Marx and Engels.
The dialectical interrelationship between the class, the party and its leadership was touched on by Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution. Writing about the party he states; “Without a guiding organisation toe energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But, nevertheless, what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.” As we have commented in our book The Rise of Militant, there have been many Marxists who have completely misunderstood the connection between the leadership, the party and the working class.
Many of them still repeat to this day Lenin’s formulation in his pamphlet What is to be Done that socialist consciousness can only be brought to the working class from the outside by the revolutionary intelligentsia. This wrong formulation of Lenin, which he corrected later, has been used to justify the haughty approach of self-appointed ‘leaders’ of minuscule sects, proclaiming to be ‘the’ leadership of the working class. The absurdity of this approach was illustrated in the events in France in 1968 where one group produced a leaflet with Lenin’s phrases included, thereby implying that they were the leadership of the working class (see The Rise of Militant pp31-32).
Trotsky, both in History of the Russian Revolution and in his unfinished biography of Stalin, goes to some pains to correct this one-sided, therefore false, idea. The “piston box” is vital. But the dynamic factor is “the steam”, that is the working class. Even before Marx and Engels came on the scene the working class had put forward primitive schemas for socialism: Babeuf in the French revolution, the socialist sects and societies in the 1830s in France, the Chartist movement in Britain, etc. The great historical merit of Marx and Engels was to sum up the experience of the working class in the form of a worked-out body of ideas, a programme for action and the perspectives for working-class struggle.
Even without Marxism the working class through day-to-day brutal experience will (indeed is now doing so) begin to draw socialist conclusions. Does this mean that the intervention of a party, and a far-sighted leadership is thereby made redundant? Not at all! The role of a Marxist mass party and leadership can enormously speed up the proletariat’s ability to draw all the necessary conclusions from its situation. The role of the ‘subjective factor’, which is a mass party with correct Marxist leadership, is absolutely vital, and of course is decisive in a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation.
EVEN TODAY, the role of the ‘subjective factor’ (meant in a broad sense here) is vital when it comes to the question of the new mass socialist party. Even without the creation of such a party, the mass of the working class through bitter battles, defeats and some victories, will draw socialist and revolutionary conclusions. But a mass socialist labour party, which would not immediately be a revolutionary party in the Marxist sense of the term, could play a vital role in rehabilitating the idea of socialist change for hundreds of thousands and indeed millions of workers in Britain today. This in turn would lay the seed bed upon which a clear revolutionary consciousness and mass party would grow at a later stage. This is why we have raised the idea of a new mass socialist party in such an unequivocal fashion.
Twentieth Century Revolutions
THE VITAL role of a party is moreover attested to historically by the experiences of the working class and particularly in the course of the 20th century. Positively, we have the living experience of the Russian revolution, which would not have taken place without the existence of a revolutionary party, the Bolshevik party, and its leadership, primarily Lenin and Trotsky. Negatively, there are the numerous failed revolutions: the German 210 revolution of 1918, the Hungarian commune of 1919, the revolutionary upheavals in Italy in 1920, the 1926 general strike in Britain, the Chinese revolution in 1925-27.
In Spain between 1931-37 Trotsky commented that not one but ten revolutions would have been possible if a mass party and a clear revolutionary leadership had existed. In July 1936, the Spanish working class initially took four fifths of the country. The bourgeois state machine lay in ruins. And yet, three years later, Franco was able to put the fascist jackboot on to the necks of the Spanish proletariat. There is no other explanation as to why this could have happened but for the absence of a mass, genuine Marxist revolutionary party and leadership, allied to the conscious counter-revolutionary role pursued by the Stalinists and their allies. Even in the relatively recent era the vital role of the party, demonstrated unfortunately in a negative sense, has once more been underlined.
In May/June 1968 power could have been taken by the working class in France but for the leaders of the CP and SP. In Portugal, between 1974-76, in the economic sphere it went even further. The Times, then the most authoritative organ of the British bourgeois, commented that, “Capitalism is Dead” in Portugal. They had, however, failed to reckon with the counter-revolutionary role of the Mario Soares leadership of the Socialist Party, which together with the false policies of the Communist Party, derailed the revolution. At one stage 70 per cent of industry, the banks and finance houses were in the hands of the state.
Also in Chile, as the recent book demonstrates, the working class were prevented from carrying through a complete socialist overturn only because of the pernicious role of the Socialist and Communist Party leadership. Movements like these, only on an incomparably higher plane, will unfold not just in the colonial and semi-colonial world but in the advanced industrial countries in the period that we are going into.
2. The character of the party, democracy and centralism
Character of the Party
GIVEN THAT the necessity of a party is clear then what should be the character of this party? Marxism has answered, particularly after the experience of the revolutionary movement in Russia and the successful Russian revolution, that it should be a party that should possess special features which no bourgeois or petit bourgeois organisation, trend or party could possess. It should be a ‘democratic centralist’ organisation.
Unfortunately this term has been partially discredited, the concept mangled and distorted by Stalinism in particular. It has come to mean, for uninformed people, something entirely opposite to its original meaning. Seeking to discredit genuine Marxism the reformists, both the left as well as the right, link this idea to the grotesque caricature of socialism manifested in Stalinism. Moreover, the right-wing Labour leadership who usually hurl insults against the Marxists on the alleged undemocratic character of ‘democratic centralism’ themselves actually practice an extreme form of ‘bureaucratic centralism’, as the experience of the witch-hunt against Militant and others on the left in the Labour Party demonstrated.
It is not possible to put forward publicly in a bald way the term ‘democratic centralism’, without a preamble and explanation as to what exactly this term means. However, the terminological difficulties that we have has raised another danger, that the real content of democratic centralism will not be understood, or even rejected within our ranks. This would be absolutely fatal for the development of our organisation in the next period but particularly in the process of becoming a major and a mass force at a later stage.
A REVOLUTIONARY party is not a debating club, let alone a debating circle, so beloved of the minuscule sects on the outskirts of the labour movement, it must, of course, be thoroughly democratic. Democracy is like oxygen for a genuine revolutionary party. Without the full freedom of discussion, genuine, comradely and fraternal debate, it would be incapable of correctly arming its members with an understanding of the current situation, and the demands and programme upon which it is necessary to intervene in the class struggle.
Contrary to what our opponents have attempted to argue Militant, over 30 years, allowed debate, including oppositional ideas, at every level of our organisation. Even then there was a disquieting tendency of some, mainly those who became the minority, not to want to discuss different points of view. But that we possessed a relatively homogenous, united organisation flowed not from any powerful apparatus in the possession of the leadership, but came from genuine agreement on the basis of broad perspectives, the programme, the tactics of work in the mass organisations, etc. This agreement was only gained through discussion and debate within the ranks of the organisation.
To listen to some of the sects who criticise the past record of our organisation and who light-mindedly delve into the history of the revolutionary movement in Russia it would be possible to draw a conclusion that the absence of organised tendencies, factions, etc. within the ranks of Militant over a protracted historical period was itself a symptom of an unhealthy internal regime. On the contrary, Trotsky commenting on the disarray in the ranks of his followers in France in the 1930s, who presented a spectacle very similar to organisations which claim to be Trotskyist’ at this moment in time, comments: “An organisation that is smaller but unanimous can have enormous success with a correct policy, while an organisation which is torn by internal strife is condemned to rot.”
Bolshevism and Factions
DOES THIS statement of Trotsky contradict the experience of Bolshevism? It is true that the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) divided into two main factions, the Bolsheviks (majority) and the Mensheviks (minority) in 1903. They remained factions of the same party, however, contrary to what some of the sects have argued in the past, right up to 1912. Lenin only split to form a separate party at this stage when the Bolsheviks commanded the support of four fifths of the organised workers in Russia. At the same time the history of the Bolsheviks, even when they were a faction of the RSDLP shows the development within its ranks of different tendencies, and even factions at a certain stage. When the unification of Mensheviks and Bolsheviks took place at the Stockholm party congress in 1906 there were already two factions inside the Bolshevik faction, involving an open struggle at the congress over a major question, the agrarian programme. At the same time in 1907 a sharp factional struggle was fought over the question of boycotting the third state Duma (parliament). As Trotsky comments: “The supporters of the boycott subsequently aligned themselves into two factions which over the next few years carried on a fierce struggle against Lenin’s faction, not only within the confines of the ‘united’ party but inside the Bolshevik faction as well.”
Subsequently, there were other factions formed, in 1914, with an oppositional faction to Lenin on the issue of national self-determination around Bukharin and Piatakov. At the time of the conquest of power a faction of ‘left communists’ (Bukharin, Yaroslavsky, and others) was formed with even a daily newspaper in opposition to the line of Lenin and of Trotsky on the issue of ‘revolutionary war’. In answer to the monolithic model of Stalin and the Stalinist parties Trotsky referred on many occasions to the real history of Bolshevism as a “mobile balance” between discussion, including the formation of trends, tendencies and even factions, and the need for a centralised, disciplined and organised party capable of confronting a ruthless enemy, the Russian landlord and capitalist class.
Factions for Factions Sake?
SOME ORGANISATIONS, some even claiming to be Trotskyist, have taken Trotsky’s words to mean that not just factional struggles, but a kind of permanent factional battle, is the hallmark of a genuine ‘revolutionary’ organisation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Trotsky himself was compelled to refer to the example of the French Socialist Party in the inter-war period which had legalised factions in its statutes, even introducing the principles of proportional representation for all party elections. The leaders of this party, therefore, were able to pass themselves off as examples of the “purest expression of party democracy”. But this formal display of ‘democratic rights’ masked the rule of the right-wing apparatus which consistently dominated this party. Left-wing ‘factions’ were permitted to exist but as soon as a genuine Marxist faction opened up the possibility of winning the arguments and even capturing significant support in the party the ruling apparatus faction quickly resorted to expulsions.
We had a similar experience at the hands of the right-wing leaders of the Labour Party in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s. In a revolutionary party, that is a genuine one, things stand entirely differently. Of course, when there are serious issues under dispute sometimes it is necessary to resort to the formation of trends, groupings, even tendencies and ultimately perhaps a faction. But such steps should not be easily resorted to. Where it is a question of nuances and emphasis such differences should be pursued, in general, through oral and written discussions first.
Only on a serious policy issue and after having exhausted some of the other possibilities for changing the views of the party should it be necessary to resort to measures such as the formation of factions. In the case of the ex-minority they existed as an unofficial faction well before they came out against the majority in 1991. This was not a principled faction formed on the basis, at least in the beginning, of a clear political opposition to that of the majority but was in effect a crude attempt to grab power. This was shown by the fact that their first step was to propose the removal of certain individuals from their positions, rather than a discussion on ideas, methods, etc. This immediately embittered the conflict which developed, originally on organisational issues but ultimately on a whole range of political questions. As comrades know, this resulted ultimately in a split, which was long in preparation, because the ex-minority were utterly incapable of facing up to the new changed situation developing in Britain and on a world scale.
A Healthy Regime
IN OPPOSITION to those organisations who argue for the idea of permanent fractions, as an antidote to an unhealthy, or ‘undemocratic regime’ Trotsky pointed out: “The conversion of groupings into permanent fractions is in itself a disturbing symptom that signifies either that the struggling tendencies are totally irreconcilable although the party as a whole has reached a deadlock. It is impossible to reverse such a situation, of course, by simply banning factions. To wage a war against the symptom does not mean to cure the disease. Only a correct policy and a healthy internal administrative structure and procedure can prevent the conversion of temporary groupings into ossified faction.” These lines are sufficient, in and of themselves, to raise doubts about the internal situation which exists in even some of the organisations who we have friendly relations with and are discussing with at this moment in time.
It seemed to us (see Report of USFI IEC in MB 15 [United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI) International Executive Committee(IEC) to which Peter Taaffe was invited]) that in our recent exchange with the comrades of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International they have something similar to the existence of ‘permanent factions’ in some of their national sections. One individual even commented to me in private discussion that he could live without factions for one of their world congresses, perhaps for two, but if a third world congress took place in succession without factions this alone would signify that the regime was “unhealthy”! The scepticism displayed by this individual is symptomatic largely of intellectuals of petit bourgeois origin, who prefer a debating society rather than an organisation seriously challenging for mass influence and ultimately for power.
THE OTHER and vital aspect of the question, absolutely requisite for a revolutionary party, is that of centralism. It is that part of the formula of ‘democratic centralism’ which is most misunderstood, wilfully by the enemies of Marxism, and unconsciously even by those who sympathise with the Marxist and Trotskyist movement. It seems to smack, particularly in the light of Stalinism and of various Trotskyist organisations which imitate Stalinism, of a top-down, bureaucratic, ‘leadership-dominated’ organisation.
But the need for a centralised party flows from the tasks which confront the working class in our epoch. The ruling class has concentrated in its hands not just the means of production – less than 300 firms on the planet dominate most of production, distribution and exchange of the world’s goods – but enormous means of repression, both legally and physically, against any organised protest. This is particularly the case in Britain with the anti-trade union laws, the CJA, etc.
The centralisation and concentration of capital, which has been taken to unprecedented lengths in the modern era, means that the overthrow of the ruling class is inconceivable without a centralised party capable of unifying the working class and acting decisively against the inevitable attempts of counter-revolution when the working class attempts to change society.
THE CONCEPTION of a revolutionary organisation as a loose ‘network’ is false and has in fact led to the impotence and virtual disintegration of organisations which have taken to this road. If we were to adopt such an approach, even now when we are a small party, it could seriously undermine our efforts to intervene in the movements which are taking place and would certainly shatter any possibility of becoming a decisive force within the ranks of the British working class. There is no danger that such an approach will be adopted by our organisation.
However, under the impact of day-to-day problems, particularly in a period when resources are so few and strained, it is possible for a mood of ‘localism’ and even parochialism to develop in regions, districts and branches of our organisation. The tendency towards
540 emphasising local factors to the detriment of our national profile is a real danger. We believe there has even been a manifestation of some of these trends in the discussions on the nature of the new National Committee and at our national congress on the issue of finance. Perhaps inadvertently, the decision of the NC, upon the proposal of the Executive Committee, to recommend a form of financial autonomy for Scotland has quite wrongly promoted the idea that a similar financial arrangement could exist for the rest of the organisation in Britain. If such an idea is accepted and implemented now it will lead to the dissipation and eventual break-up of what is at the moment a successful democratic centralist organisation into a loose federation (Judy Beishon deals with this issue fully below).
THE DECISION to go for autonomy in Scotland, on financial questions but also on other organisational issues, arose from the objective situation in Scotland itself. The growth of a distinct national consciousness requires a change in the form of organisation adopted by Militant with regard to Scotland. Scotland is not in the position of a separate section of the CWI. The workers of Scotland still confront, not a Scottish but the British state. This requires that the revolutionary organisation in Scotland should be part of an all-British organisation as also should the Welsh organisation. But the development of national consciousness means that the form of organisation appropriate to the rest of Britain is no longer appropriate to Scotland. This was recognised early on with the development of SML, and the high degree of autonomy for the Scottish organisation within the framework of the all-British Militant Labour. Scotland is in a kind of halfway house position at the present time. It has not reached the stage where the overwhelming majority are for independence but the growth of a clear and distinct national consciousness must be recognised, above all by the revolutionary organisation.
This has required us, in the field of policy, to alter our demands where we now advocate a socialist federation of Britain with full autonomy for Scotland. This change is determined for us by the change in the objective conditions, to repeat, above all because of the change in the national consciousness of the Scottish people. Recognising this we have therefore undertaken the change in the relationship between the Scottish organisation and the British organisation.
Unity on class issues and in action between the workers throughout the whole of Britain does not contradict the need for measures of organisational autonomy, including on finance, in Scotland where clearly there is a different situation to the rest of Britain. It is in this light that the EC initiated the proposals for Scottish autonomy on finance. In view of the widespread confusion existing in our ranks still, despite the discussions at the conference, on this issue, it is necessary to restate below the basis of the present financial arrangement with Scotland.
One thing is absolutely clear from this; if the arrangements adopted between the NC/EC and the Scottish organisation were applied now to the rest of Britain it would mean the collapse of the national centre. And yet, despite this, in discussions on a local level we have heard voices stating that “Scotland is the way in which the rest of England and Wales will be heading” in the not too distant future. Such an approach will be fatal for us, and would mean the diminishing of our national profile, or even of a coherent national presence of Militant Labour. We would not be able to produce a newspaper or deploy full-timers in the industrial, youth, women and all the other fields of activity. Does this preclude an element of autonomy for the regions, the districts, the branches, etc? On the contrary, the history of our organisation demonstrates that at different stages the NC and EC have suggested greater autonomous powers to the regions when, it has been agreed nationally that, the situation both of our organisation and the objective situation has required it. The argument that autonomy in and of itself is a guarantee of growth, recruitment, or that we will have a greater effect on the working class is not true. Between 1982-87 our organisation went from roughly 2,000 members to 8,000 members. At that stage 75 per cent of the subs came to the national organisation, alongside all of the fighting fund.
The step towards a retention of a greater percentage of the subs in the regions, again initiated by the EC, was a recognition of the growth of the organisation and of the impossibility because of size, etc., for the previous high degree of centralisation of financial matters to be concentrated at the centre. But the essence of the matter, particularly as far as finance is concerned, is that the change in the objective situation changed the position of our organisation as well.
3. Flexible Organisation
IT IS not possible in a revolutionary organisation to have an attitude towards forms of organisation which are ‘once and for all’. It is necessary, at some stages, to emphasise the need for democracy, discussion, debate, etc. Following a debate it is therefore necessary, without precluding further discussion, to proceed to action, to a degree of centralism, to a period of implementing decisions. Which predominates at each stage, the democratic or the centralist aspect, depends upon the concrete situation.
“Truth is concrete”; this is the most important law of the dialectic. The ‘mobile balance’ between democracy and centralism is something which cannot be established a priori, but only on the basis of discussion and estimation of the concrete situation, etc. This is the dilemma that has confronted our organisation in the past few years. We face a contradictory situation. In terms of our specific weight, particularly our influence within the working class and labour movement, we occupy a position as important, if not more important than in the past. This is shown by our intervention in and around the debate on the SLP, in the dockers’ struggle, in the struggle against racism, etc.
The labour movement in general has declined, in the past few years. Our organisation has not declined dramatically, but nevertheless has lost numerically, while gaining in authority, influence, etc. The bottom line is that we are having to manage our organisation, particularly our apparatus, on the basis of depleted resources. This required a very painful but necessary contraction of our full-time staff. This has reduced the number of full-timers that we have at the centre to a skeleton, the very bare minimum required to carry on the basic national tasks of our organisation at this stage.
IT WAS these factors that led the EC and eventually the NC to agree to a redistribution of our resources, particularly income from subs to the national centre. This was seen again not as a ‘once and for all’ measure but as a necessary means, at this stage, to retain a national profile and a coherent organisational position. This was necessary because of the unequal and unfair balance between full-timers in some regions and a virtual absence of full-timers in others. It is only the NC, and the EC in between national meetings, who are in the position of having the required overall national view of the situation which could allow a certain reallocation of resources. The national centre has not gained by an increase from 70 to 80 per cent coming to the centre but the resources taken have allowed a necessary redistribution of resources which now means that some full-timers are in areas where otherwise they would not have been.
These general arguments in relation to finance, autonomy, etc. are undoubtedly linked to the hard struggle of the branches to acquire the means, with leaflets, pamphlets, etc., to intervene in the movement in the localities. This is nothing new for our organisation. From its inception difficult choices had to be made between resources for the centre and resources for the regions, districts and branches. It became an axiom in the first, formative period that a revolutionary organisation starts with a central leadership.
Building the Organisation
OUR ORGANISATION did not represent the linking together of formally disunited groups in the localities. Even from the beginning the building of an authoritative leadership and organisation on a national level was the key priority. On this basis comrades were moved from areas like Liverpool, for instance, to London, by myself for instance, as is well known, becoming the first full timer, at least at the rebirth of our organisation in the 1960s. There was nothing bureaucratic, or top down in this approach. It was a recognition that only a national leadership was capable of seeing the overall political and organisational tasks and acting on them. A revolutionary organisation starts at the top, but if it remains there, without seeking vibrant local roots, it will be still born. Therefore, after the first initial assembling of a full-time staff at the centre, first in Kings Cross Road and then in Cambridge Heath Road, regional organisers were then appointed. This again was decided on the basis of a national discussion at the NC as it was then.
What proportion of the resources would go towards the centre, and the proportion in the regions have been constantly discussed over the last 30 years, as has the question of how the branches could finance their activity and at the same time maintaining a national as well as an international organisation. Through heroic self-sacrifice the members in the branches both financed the national centre and managed to require the resources to intervene in the localities. This was in effect a period of extraordinary effort and tremendous sacrifices by a small layer of cadres in order to build up the necessary apparatus.
Ideally, a certain percentage of the subs should be retained not just by the regions, as it is at this moment, but also by the branches. And undoubtedly in the future, when we acquire more forces and grow to the level that we were at in the 1980s and beyond, we will have to move in this direction. But to repeat the most important rule of the dialectic is “truth is concrete”. The situation of the organisation at this precise moment in time does not allow us to move in this direction. Indeed it would be fatal for our organisation and for its national profile. Without this approach we would not be able to devote resources, including full-timers, to the paper, which would put in jeopardy the issuing of a weekly, of comrades devoted to the vital trade union work, to the youth work, to the women’s work, to those who work in the print, lay-out, etc.
IT IS not as if the national organisation is proposing to merely swallow up greater and greater resources without seeking to economise and fit our apparatus to our financial base. Indeed, in the last 12 months, the greatest cutbacks have come at the national centre. This was not an easy or painless process, but was absolutely necessary if the financial crippling of our organisation was not to become a fact. This has now allowed us an apparatus which we believe we can sustain on the basis of still big sacrifices by our members, sympathisers, etc.
The issue of finance has always been a key task for the revolutionary movement. A serious approach towards finance is what distinguished the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks. The latter, although much more loosely organised than the Bolsheviks, could ultimately rely on bourgeois public opinion, with donations from the petit-bourgeois layers who supported them (lawyers, doctors, professors, etc.) to swell their coffers. The Bolsheviks meticulously collected the kopecks from the workers. Trotsky in History of the Russian Revolution quotes from a secret policeman’s report about the main attributes of the Bolsheviks: “They have an idea, they have a crowd, and they have money.”
They had too little of the latter even during the course of revolutionary upheavals but this feature of the Bolsheviks, as our opponents have commented many times, has also been the hallmark of Militant and now of Militant Labour. The idea that we were ‘too hard’ on the issue of finance in the past is absolutely false. There are bound to be ‘excesses’ in the application of any policy. Sometimes comrades carried away with zeal can actually give more than they could reasonably afford. In those cases the leadership has actually intervened in order to reduce the prospect of our members being reduced to absolute penury because of too great a sacrifice for the cause. But nevertheless, it is not possible to create a serious organisation without sacrifices.
What has distinguished our organisation is that the leadership has never asked its membership to make greater sacrifices than they themselves were prepared to undertake. Trotsky once pointed out that the task of evoking sacrifices from a revolutionary organisation, both financial and personal, starts with the leadership. He said of the leadership: that you start, you set an example, you make sacrifices, and you call on others to do the same. Allied to a correct policy this is one reason why Militant was successful, why it was loathed and feared, particularly by the ‘drawing-room socialists’ and Trotskyist phrase�mongers’ who did not have the slightest intention of making sacrifices for a great cause. Without a serious attitude towards finance, above all building a national apparatus, it would not be possible to build a serious organisation, let alone a mass party at a later stage.
WHEN TROTSKY spoke, echoing James Cannon’s sentiments, that it was necessary to create a spirit of “party patriotism” he meant this both in relation to the local organisation, which all comrades should be proud of, the region of course, but also and above ail the national organisation, its coherence and profile as a revolutionary organisation. In regards to the national position of an organisation Trotsky in dealing with the French section in the inter-war period denounced methods which led almost to an “anarchist federation” rather than a ‘democratic centralist organisation’. There is of course no danger of this with our organisation, nor is it implied here that any comrade in our organisation holds such views. But is it not possible that comrades in the localities, particularly newer comrades without the benefits of seeing the position of the national organisation, can slip into a certain tendency to emphasise the needs of the ‘branch’ over that of the national centre? Not only is there a danger but we believe that such indications of these dangers were demonstrated in the discussion both before and after congress on the issue of how to finance the national centre as well as maintaining a local presence.
We have received reports that some comrades were threatening “not to pay subs” if most resources were swallowed by the national centre. Such an attitude is totally unacceptable, for the reasons explained above, and must be combated not just by the national centre but by all comrades. This can only be done on the basis of an open and honest explanation of the problems which confront our organisation, including finance, at this stage.
But we have also some comrades reject the idea of ‘exhortation’ in order to acquire the necessary resources for the organisation at this stage. If what is meant by this is a hectoring approach, and a constant demand for greater and greater sacrifices without political explanation, then we would all agree to oppose this attitude. But if, as I suspect, a layer of comrades have become a bit tired and afraid of the response they will get from the members by calling for necessary financial sacrifices, this would be entirely wrong. ‘Exhortation’, not in the sense of a bald appeal for finance, but through explaining the political necessity, has been required from the organisation from its inception. It is required now, and will be even more so in the future.
We cannot take refuge in the alleged ‘objective situation’. On that basis we would never have set out in the period of the 1960s when reformism and capitalism appeared to be unassailable, to begin to construct the basis of a revolutionary organisation. Of course there were more resources within the working class then, although less sympathy for our ideas. Now, of course, many workers suffer unbelievable poverty, but the general sympathy for our ideas is much greater than it was in the earlier, formative period.
4. What Has Been Our Experience?
THE EXPERIENCE of the organisation, particularly in those areas who consistently raise the subs and the fighting fund, is that if the necessary political approach is adopted, with the leadership setting the tone, resources can be acquired which both meet the needs of the national organisation and also benefit the branches.
Take the question of the fighting fund. The EC is not opposed to a certain ‘experimentation’ to see whether or not by different methods we could acquire greater resources all round. But it must be stressed here that the fighting fund plays an entirely different role than in earlier, more favourable periods for the organisation. In the past, the subs generated the resources to maintain our apparatus. The fighting fund was used, in the 1970s, to acquire the resources to buy premises, the press, nationally, as well as financing local centres, etc. But in the changed situation of the 1980s and 1990s that position no longer applies. The fighting fund, the minimum amount that is required by the national centre out of the total collected from the fighting fund, is absolutely essential to maintain the running of the national centre. Therefore, while we are in favour of any
scheme which can generate more resources for the national centre at the same time we reject any financial adventures which could actually deplete our resources nationally.
IT HAS been suggested, for instance, that a small percentage of the fighting fund should be retained by the branches. We do not believe that, at present, such a system would guarantee the resources required by the national centre for the reasons explained below. Does this mean that we reject any incentive for the branches to generate fighting fund? No! Moreover, there is a scheme already in operation which if it is implemented properly can give a big incentive to the branches. Wales have used their rebates to buy printing equipment which directly benefits the branches. The rebate which is allowed to the regions on the basis of reaching 70 per cent of the fighting fund target has allowed areas such as London to return some of their regional rebate back to the branches. There is no pressure in these regions, who consistently reach the fighting fund target such as the South West and Wales, for any additional ‘incentives’. Is the social situation different in these regions compared to others who consistently fail to reach the fighting fund target? We don’t believe so. It is a question of seriously setting about to reach the finance targets, which means political preparation, as well as the necessary organisational drive from the regions, the branch leadership, etc.
HOWEVER, THE emphasis on the national needs of the organisation, and with it the centralist aspect of democratic centralism, undoubtedly raises some doubts in the minds of particularly the newer, inexperienced comrades. These involve the “dangers”, allegedly ‘inherent’, in an organisation in which the leadership plays such a vital role. What guarantees are there against a bureaucratic degeneration of the leadership? First of all there is the requirement to convene regular meetings of the NC, which controls the EC. There is the responsibility of the national leadership to convene these meetings, as well as regular congresses, etc. There is even a provision for branches to requisition an emergency congress.
However, even with these democratic aspects of our organisation, what ‘guarantee’ is there that a strictly democratic regime would exist. Nobody has raised these issues in our ranks, but perhaps they are unspoken in the minds of comrades who do not fully comprehend the nature of the revolutionary party in this epoch. This is not a new question. Leon Trotsky was asked to give a “clear and exact formula on democratic centralism” which would preclude false interpretations or bureaucratic degeneration. He replied that he could not give, “such a formula on democratic centralism that ‘once and for all’ would eliminate misunderstandings and false interpretations. A party is an active organism. It develops in the struggle with outside obstacles and inner contradictions… The regime of a party does not fall ready made from the sky but is formed gradually in the struggle. A political line predominates over the regime. First of all is necessary to define strategic problems and tactical methods correctly in order to solve them. The organisational form should correspond to the strategy and tactic.” Trotsky then makes a fundamental point: “Only a correct policy can guarantee a healthy party regime.”
Of course this does not automatically mean that if a party has a correct programme that its organisational methods will be correct. That is an issue for debate and discussion as to what emphasis should be given, to democracy or centralism, depending upon the different situations. A formula for democratic centralism must inevitably find a different expression in the parties of different countries and in different stages of development of one and the same party.
TROTSKY MAKES the pertinent comment:
“Democracy and centralism do not at all find themselves in an invariable ratio to one another. All depends on the concrete circumstances, on the political situation in the country, on the strength of the party and its experience, on the general level of its members, on the authority which the leadership has succeeded in winning.
“Before a conference when the problem was one of formulating a political line for the next period, democracy triumphs over centralism, when the problem concerns itself with political action, centralism subordinates democracy to itself. Democracy again asserts its rights when the party feels the need to examine critically its own actions.
“The equilibrium between democracy and centralism establishes itself in the actual struggle, at moments it is violated and then again re-established. The maturity of each member of the party expresses itself particularly in the fact that he does not demand from the party regime more than it can give.
“He is a poor revolutionist who defines his attitude to the party by the individual fillips that he gets on the nose. It is necessary, of course, to fight against every individual mistake of the leadership, every injustice and the like. But it is necessary to estimate these ‘injustices’ and ‘mistakes’ not by themselves but in connection with the general development of the party both on a national and international scale. A correct judgement and a feeling for proportion in politics is an extremely important thing.” [Leon Trotsky: On Democratic Centralism and the Regime (1937)]
These invaluable remarks, we believe, should be absorbed by every comrade. The argument put forward that a decision to alter the proportions between the centre and the regions should always await the outcome of a decision of the national congress we believe is wrong. The NC is elected precisely to manage the organisation in between congresses. Sometimes, in exceptional circumstances, it even will be compelled in the light of changed circumstances to change the decision of the congress.
Some will squeal that this as an infringement of ‘democracy’. It is nothing of the kind. An authoritative leadership must be prepared to act in what it considers is in the best overall interests of the national organisation, taking into account all the other needs, local, district and regional of the organisation. It is possible that the national leadership, even the best leadership, can make mistakes on issues like this. It must justify its decisions to the subsequent congress, which has the right to either endorse or reprimand the leadership and make the necessary changes.
A Discussion on Principles
WE HAVE touched on here only some of the most important general issues of the party, democratic centralism, and particularly how this relates to the problems that we confront at this stage. It may be necessary, in the future, to deal more fully with the historical experience of the revolutionary movement and of the working class and the forms of organisation which existed at different stages. While we have to examine carefully our terminology, in order that we do not raise unnecessary barriers in the minds particularly of the new generation that we hope to win, at the same time we must tenaciously cling to the concepts of the organisation which has served us and the working class so well in the past. This should not debar us from undertaking the necessary experimentation in forms of organisation which, without violating fundamental principles, allows us to involve comrades more in the organisation as well as reaching out to fresh layers who can join us in this period.
We hope the general points touched on here will be the subject of some discussion in the organisation, both those of a general character and also the detailed issues we have raised. Only in such an open discussion, without fear of confronting real problems and difficulties which face the revolutionary organisation at this stage, will we be able to face up to the very favourable situation that will develop for us in the period that we are going into.