In Defense of Democratic Centralism
A speech by James Robertson
The speech below was given to a conference of the West German Spartacus (Bolschewiki-Leninisten) in February 1973.
Spartacus/BL had derived from a December 1972 split in the Internationale Kommunisten Deutschlands (IKD). It subsequently underwent some debilitation and fused again with the IKD in early 1974, to form the Spartakusbund. The originating core of the German section of the international Spartacist tendency was constituted by various left-oppositionist forces originating in the Spartacusbund.
The text is published in the German edition of Spartacist, No. 1 (Spring 1974), and (substantially) in English the Spartacist pamphlet Lenin and the Vanguard Party (1978, 1997). For this web posting we have taken the contemporaneous transcript of the taped speech, with typographical corrections.
I’d like to greet the comrades or the Spartacus/BL Bundeskonference. [Applause.] This is the third time it’s been my occasion to come to Europe: in London at the IC Conference in 1966, in Brussels in November 1970 at the United Secretariat Conference. On neither of those two occasions was I actually beaten up. [Laughter.] So now we try Essen.
A comrade the other day said in connection with a point regarding the Statement of Principles of the Spartacist League that you have nothing to learn from the Spartacist League. We believe that we have a good deal to learn from you. [Applause.]
The reason why we have made considerable effort in connection with Spartacus/BL is the following. As Trotsky said in 1929 and is still true today: Germany is the key to Europe. In the 1960’s there has been a considerable radicalization in Europe and for the first time since the Second World War there has emerged a layer of student originated youth that profess a revolutionary outlook. The condition of the German proletariat in 1945 was one of the central elements demoralizing the world Trotskyist movement and laying the basis for Pabloism. Thousands of German revolutionary minded youth represent a precious potential as we move into a period of new, sharpened inter-imperialist rivalries. If this layer of German radical youth cannot intersect the advanced sections of the Central European proletariat in the creation of a new Bolshevist party formation, the relationship of forces internationally between the proletariat and the various sectors of the bourgeoisie will be weighed very strongly against our victory in the class struggle.
Unless this layer of German youth, which is not only Spartacus/BL (and probably its main center of gravity is in the Maoist youth), can intersect advanced sections of the German working class to build a new Bolshevist combat party in central Europe, the balance of forces between the imperialist bourgeoisie and the proletariat in the sharpening class struggles of this period will be weighed against us.
As the last speaker before me testified, Spartacus/BL has no lack of energy and self-assurance. [Laughter and applause.]
We see two parallel problems internationally among those who profess to be Trotskyist. One is not yours. That is the formal Bolshevism with all of the formal lessons properly assimilated, represented by such formations as the Spanish POUM, the French OCI, the Bolivian POR. The problem, and it is not a definitively closed question, is that while these comrades have mastered quite fully in a way that you have not the forms of a Bolshevist organization, they have minimized the content. They do not see the united front and all of its related phenomena–that is, entrism into other reformist workers formations, regroupment processes and the like–as the way in which, to quote Trotsky, “the proletarian base should be set against the bourgeois top.” Rather, they came to separate the united front from the party, expecting, for example in France, that the Socialist and Communist parties would somehow, by coming together organizationally, achieve revolutionary proletarian pasts. They cancel out the role of the Bolsheviks.
We see a somewhat different problem with your organization in particular, and that is a tendency to go back in form and political outlook to the Russian Social Democracy as it was around about 1903. To the extent that some of you do this in ignorance, it can be overcome through struggle. But those of you who deliberately ignore the experience of the October Revolution, the founding of the Communist International and all that came after–the first four congresses of the Comintern, the struggle of the Trotskyist Left Opposition–those of you who would turn your backs on this are already, in the egg, opportunist little Kautskys.
Let me explicate on what we believe to be the crucial and central role of party democracy, that is internal democracy, freedom of criticism among the erstwhile revolutionaries, what its function is. One often encounters, even within the Trotskyist movement, a sense that internal struggle and the role of minorities is a necessary luxury, whereas among the Stalinists and Maoists, an unnecessary or treacherous and dispensable luxury. Even with all the errors of the Bolsheviks they still managed to lead the Russian workers to power. There are several things wrong with the question. In the first place, it is stated from the standpoint that we have the perfect program, and do not contain such mistakes at this time. It is necessary to understand that at a given point in history, while the vanguard should have assimilated and generalized on the experiences of the past, that the future is not identical. Thus we must believe that just as Iskra from 1900-1903 contained the germs of the future Bolsheviks and the future Mensheviks, so it is that in the Spartacist League we contain the points of departure for many possibilities. And since we will also face new and crucial and unexpected turns with which to apply our accumulated theory and experience, we must expect that there will be sharp and not predetermined possibilities in the outcome of such struggles–inner-party struggles. And the possibility exists for comrades who make mistakes, departures, to overcome them through the process of struggle in the light of continuing experience. Thus it is that inner-party struggle is not something alien or imported or external or the product of police agents the way the Stalinists claim.
Thus inner-party struggle is a necessity. It is necessary for a party that is to be viable as a revolutionary proletarian party. That is one thing. It is another thing for those who will wilfully ignore the previously accumulated experiences of the revolutionary Marxist movement and who would refuse to operate within the framework of the already developed programmatic and theoretical outlook.
Any variant of the Kautskyist conception of the “party of the whole class” is a willfully non-revolutionary and ultimately counterrevolutionary position. The latest and fullest representative of this species of revisionists is Max Shachtman. The last major article that he ever wrote was entitled “American Communism: A Re-examination of the Past.” He finds the original sin of communism in the splits to the left from the Social Democracy that took place during and after World War I, creating a division in the political expression of the proletariat. He finds the cause of these splits in a change in the understanding of the role of reformism, of opportunism, on the part of revolutionary socialists within the working-class movement.
Shachtman quotes Lenin very favorably through the period of about 1908. In particular, he observes that if the revolutionaries had only followed the rule of “freedom of criticism, unity in action,” the unity of the proletarian party could have been preserved. He argues that at that time Lenin had an understanding of opportunism as a transient, ephemeral, secondary aspect of the workers movement. In particular, he praises Lenin for advocating that in those local areas where the Bolsheviks were in the minority they should subordinate themselves to the Mensheviks and vote for the Cadet [Constitutional Democrats] party. (Where the Bolsheviks had the majority, Lenin held, they should either vote for social-democratic candidates or, if given no other choice, abstain.) Shachtman, because he had become a social democrat, does not go into the reason for the evolution in the views of the Bolshevik faction. He merely describes the change in the Leninist position as a kind of original sin.
What we are dealing with in the period from the founding of Iskra to the founding of the Bolshevik Party in 1912 is the transformation of the Bolshevik faction from a revolutionary social-democratic into an embryonic communist organization. The model for the Russian revolutionary social democrats in the early period was the German Social Democracy. In the determination of the Bolshevik wing to pursue a revolution against tsarism, their political practice ran ahead of their theoretical model. And, of course, their organizational practice lagged even further behind and was highly empirical under the clandestine conditions.
It was possible for Lenin during the period of the reunification of the Russian Social Democracy, 1905-1907, to draw conclusions about the discipline of a party of reformists and revolutionaries which would be rejected out of hand by any Leninist today. That does not make us smarter than Marx or Lenin, it merely means that we are able to face current political questions in the light of their experience.
Parenthetically, one of our principal differences with Healy and Wohlforth lay in this point. That is, for Healy, words fail me to catch the quality of the arrogance of the assumption that every day and every way he gets better and better–including [better] than Lenin.
The truth is historically conditioned; that is, the outlook of the Communist movement of the first four congresses of the Communist International rested upon a historic and successful upheaval of the revolutionary proletariat.
A comparable theoretical breakthrough and generalization accompanied this massive revolutionary achievement….
It is as though the theoretical outlook of the proletarian vanguard in the period 1919-23 in the International stood atop a mountain. But since that time, from the period of the Trotskyist Left Opposition until his death and afterward, the proletariat has mainly witnessed defeats and the revolutionary vanguard has either been shrunken or its continuity in many countries broken. One cannot separate the ability to know the world from the ability to change it, and our capacity to change the world is on a very small scale compared to the heroic days of the Communist International.
[Change of tape]
At the same time one of the great achievements of the Bolsheviks was to recognize that a political split in the working class is the precondition for proletarian revolution. The Bolsheviks had achieved this by 4 August 1914, but they had not generalized it either theoretically or internationally. The German revolutionary left of the time paid with the loss of its leaders, Luxemburg and Liebknecht, and a lost revolution for its failure to have assimilated this lesson.
Workerism and “Freedom of Criticism”
We presented to you, comrades, in our written greetings to your conference, a certain definition of our understanding of the Leninist form of organization: “We state that the fundamental principle for communists is that one struggles among one’s comrades to gain a majority for one’s program, and that anyone who seeks to mobilize backward forces and alien class elements from outside a revolutionary Marxist organization in order to struggle for ascendancy inside that organization is no communist.” To depart from this conception would immediately lead to the organization of the backward sections of the class against the party, especially its majority. I’m speaking in connection with the slogan “freedom of criticism, unity of action” employed in the united Menshevik-Bolshevik party of 1906. In the long run it necessarily leads to dissolving the party back into the class as a whole.
In the United States, I am acquainted with a particular species of workerism, the semi-syndicalists such as the Ellens group (related to Lutte Ouvrière) and the Leninist Faction (LF) majority, who have a conception that the working class in its natural condition has a pure proletarian essence. Now there’s a very good book called The Making of the British Working Class by E.P. Thompson, and in the opening paragraphs he makes the observation that the working class cannot be described as a class detached from capitalist society. It can only be seen in the context, not only of the economics, but of the social relations of society as a whole. There are backward sections of the working class. The workers who support the Social Democracy in most countries are relatively advanced, as is the case with the workers who support the Stalinist parties where they are mass parties.
In a working class such as that in the United States, large sections of the workers are very backward indeed. But they are backward from the standpoint of the historic interests represented by the proletarian vanguard. They are forward in terms of bourgeois ideas. Religion, alcoholism, male chauvinism and the most virulent forms of racism are predominant manifestations in the absence of class struggle and without the presence of a proletarian vanguard. The workerists refuse to see all this and instead see a pure, uncontaminated, isolated proletariat. At the same time they see the vanguard party as a mixture of radical workers and radical intellectuals who may not be so declassed.
The principal party internationally of the International Socialists (IS), the British organization of Tony Cliff, has lately become workerist. The IS, as a collection of the world’s most perfect centrists, avidly follow political fads. Until a few years ago they were very pro-Labour Party and called their newspaper the Labour Worker. Today they are very much opposed to the British Labour Party, denying that it has any working-class character, and now call their paper the Socialist Worker. (The Pabloists have made a somewhat similar turn in Europe in the last three or four years.)
This by way of a preliminary to a current view of Tony Cliff.
Wanting to unite with the soul of the workers (as against the ugly Labour Party, which he once worshipped), he has written an essay called “Trotsky on Substitutionism” [in the IS pamphlet Party and Class], from which I’d like to read you a quote:
“Since the revolutionary party cannot have interests apart from the class, all the party’s issues of policy are those of the class and they should therefore be thrashed out in the open in its presence. The freedom of discussion which exists in a factory meeting, which aims at unity of action after decisions are taken, should apply to the revolutionary party. This means that all discussions on basic issues of policy should be discussed in the light of day, in the open press. Let the mass of the workers take part in the discussion. Put pressure on the party, its apparatus, its leadership.”
It’s a little awkward to know what to say about that. The idea that the whole class, in all its sectional, racial, national backwardness, is to be the jury to decide questions of revolutionary strategy is appalling. In a trade union, which is a kind of economic united front, or in a political united front it is of course necessary for all of the participants who act to offer freely their criticism. But the idea that workers who follow priests, workers who are Stalinists, workers who belong to social-democratic parties should put pressure on in order to determine the policy of the revolutionary Marxists is an idea that will maintain the power of the bourgeoisie until a thermo-nuclear bomb eliminates the question.
“Exceptions” to Democratic Centralism
In our greetings to your conference, we spoke of certain exceptional circumstances in connection with the application of democratic centralism among revolutionaries….
Among the exceptional circumstances are when the party form does not centrally correspond with the revolutionary Marxist program. In the period at the end of and just after World War I, several large parties of the Socialist International broke apart, with big sections, often majorities, going over to the Third International. France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Italy and the United States come to mind. We also grabbed the left wing of the Polish PPS. In the period of this transition, there was just such a separation of party and program.
Another comparable circumstance would be where the revolutionists have entered in a reformist or centrist political formation. There, too, we would struggle for the maximum freedom of public discussion and the minimum unity in action. Still another exceptional circumstance would be when the division between the internal and external has become diffuse, as in truly mass parties, especially those in power. The third case comes under a document that I was just handed entitled “On the Principle of Democratic Centralism: Freedom of Criticism, Unity of Action.” Trotsky is quoted as writing, “The entire history of Bolshevism is one of the free struggle of tendencies and factions.” This is a perfectly true quotation, but it is misleading because everywhere in that period (as even Barbara Gregorich of the LF, who did research on it, admits) Trotsky spoke of internal freedom of discussion.
Here’s a quotation which makes that clear. In the Trotsky Writings 1932-1933, speaking of the Russian Oppositionalists, he says: “They were subjected to persecution only for having criticised the policy of the leading faction within the limits of internal criticism that had constituted the vital element of Bolshevik Party democracy.” Also in the paper that I was handed there’s another quotation taken from the Transitional Program. It says, “Ohne innere Demokratie gibt es keine revolutionäre Erziehung.” Now “ohne innere Demokratie” sounds to me like “without inner democracy.”
But the list of exceptional circumstances has not been exhausted. There was the projected split of Shachtman and Burnham from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1940. It cut the SWP in half on the eve of World War II. Many of the youth that followed Shachtman and Burnham believed that they were involved in no revisionism, but were only going to build a bigger, better, faster revolutionary party. Trotsky and Cannon, in an effort to secure a little time in the framework of formal unification, made very substantial concessions in an attempt to retain the minority. There was, of course, no stopping of the minority, but Trotsky’s majority made it very clear that these were episodic, special concessions in an attempt to give some of those in the minority a chance under easy organizational conditions to reconsider. Just as you might have wanted to make special concessions to the IKD when they walked out as a large minority. But even a special internal bulletin, much less the public presentation of differences, is not a stable or healthy condition of inner-party life.
I was in an organization which had such organizational guarantees as a permanent fixture. It was the Young Socialist League, the Shachtmanite youth group in 1954-57. The Shachtmanites had put many very democratic statements about “freedom of criticism” in their organizational rules in order to appeal to liberals who were afraid of totalitarian Bolshevism. Nobody ever used these rules until a left wing formed three years later. We then began to publish the leftwing bulletin–not only internal, but a public bulletin of our own. It could have had no other meaning, and was intended as a split bulletin. When the fight came to a showdown, they had to pass 22 amendments to their constitution. But of course these new restrictions were only for the troublesome Trotskyists. The right-wing social-democratic elements could continue to practice freedom of criticism.
This gets to the core of the question. Why, why, why do you want to take your differences outside your organization, to rally its enemies against your organization? Shachtman wanted to. The American radical liberals had turned very sharply against Russia after the Hitler-Stalin pact. That section of the SWP that was sensitive to this petty-bourgeois public opinion wanted to prove that they weren’t as bad as the other Trotskyists. And in ordinary times that is always the way it is with those who want to take their troubles outside a revolutionary party.
In times of great revolutionary turmoil the mass of the working class may run ahead of a somewhat sluggish revolutionary party. Lenin faced this situation a couple of times between the February and the October revolutions. When he was faced with conservative obstruction on the Central Committee, he threatened to take his case to the workers. This was not freedom of criticism within the party: it meant split and the creation of a second party, and Lenin knew it. To split is no crime, providing that there is sufficient political clarity and necessity to make a split. It is part of the living political process.
I would like to go now very briefly to the subject of international relations. We had a cliquist explosion in the Spartacist League last year. Comrade Hum I believe stated our democratic centralism was revealed in practice in the last year’s discussion concretely as bureaucratic Healyism or something. I would like to discuss this a little bit concretely. [Applause] Actually of course someone else cautioned us to keep away from all of this crumby organizational material which did not have politics in it, so I thought I’d turn the tables and call it concrete. However there is political significance when someone jumps up and says: “Paul Levi was persecuted and so am I.” We tried at three points to make successive political analyses of this power struggle which broke out around us.
I want to say something about the relation between Vanguard Newsletter, the Leninist Faction, the departed cliquists, and, we will argue, your organization…. The subject is unprincipled combinationism, sometimes called more familiarly “rotten blocs.” Somewhere in these many pages of notes, I had a list of all of the points that so far as we know the various comrades of this bloc do not share in common. The cliquists evidently believe that Shachtman had the better of it in the 1940 fight against Trotsky. I believe the other people named do not. Then we have the Fifth International of the Leninist Faction, which seems to be argued for in essentially the terms of the Workers Opposition of Russia of 1921 who called then for a Fourth International.
I wish that there were time to discuss the implications of this call at one end and the position of the IKD at the other to build the Fourth International. Each in their own way shares something in common: a denial of the experience or the revolutionary movement at least, let’s say, from 1938 to the present. For each in their own way it is irrelevant.
Another contradiction in the bloc is that Turner’s Vanguard Newsletter, if you look at it, has been devoted almost exclusively to regroupment–that is to say, appeals to the members of and criticisms of the Workers League, the SWP, the Spartacist League, etc. Comrade Hum described the Spartacist League as irrevelant because it appeals to organizations whose members are irrevelant to the working class. What does that make Turner, who appeals to us? The Leninist Faction, of course, has a very different perspective. It may well follow in the direction of Ellens and bury itself as she has genuinely at the point of production in the working class.
Some of the cliquists, at least, have already gone outside the field of communism. Yet your organization has a record of favoritism for these people. Two of Your comrades worked politically and intimately with Moore this summer behind the back of the SL. You comrades I believe look positively toward a fusion of this heterogenous group of VNL, Leninist Faction, the cliquists and then possibly purging the Spartacist League of its leadership and bringing what is left into this fusion. The point is not that this schema does not but warm our hearts, it is that we would like to know–in fact we will tell you–what such a program can be. That is, what you would have created would only be an IS of the second mobilization.
I have indicated that it is possible for organizations to make errors, even very profound errors and to recover from them. Trotsky was in the August bloc. It was a very bad bloc. It was conceived originally on the basis of an apparently good idea. That is to say, ignoring all the experience of the first Russian Revolution, to convene all the social democratic factions and see if the party could not be reunited. A conference was called to which all factions were invited. The main part of the Bolsheviks refused to attend. Therefore, those who met, even against their will perhaps, acquired as a whole a decisively anti-Bolshevik character. Some ultra-left Bolsheviks were there, elements of the Menshevik faction were there, and prominent independent members of the party such as Trotsky were there. I believe that Trotsky later described that as the greatest political mistake in his life. But there is one condition at the beginning for having the possibility to overcome political mistakes. And that is a ruthless willingness to recognize the truth of the situation no matter what embarrassment to one’s allies. You may believe that the bloc in the United States is better than us. That’s a matter for argument. But should you continue to insist in order to justify this belief that certain elements of factual untruth noted to you are true, then this is not an error but an act of willful opportunism. I believe that you comrades have published in your international bulletin an account of events inside of the Spartacist League which is, in documents known to you and vouched for by the cliquists, demonstratively false. I have a page of quotes here which I would like to take up with your central committee.
There is really not enough time to read and translate them now. But I want to make the point that this material is at least now, and it should have been at the time it was published, known to you, not simply to be false, like an error, but willfully false and furthermore materials which are not an accusation of some mistake or stupidity on our parts but rather are an accusation of dishonor on the part of the Spartacist League. If we were to permit to be published in one of our bulletins an accusation by our members that the Spartacus/BL had taken money from the DKP in order to embarrass the SPD in its campaign, you would understand how we feel. But there are many things in the world that we don’t like and that doesn’t matter very much. The point really is, in terms of your political future, because if you cannot face the reality (it is not for nothing by the way that numerous of the revolutionary publications use words like Pravda and La Vérité)–if you cannot face that reality, then there is a willfulness, an opportunism, a craving after right-wing soul sisters that lay behind your action, or the actions of some of you.
In conclusion, comrades, we take your future very seriously because you should bear the responsibility for a major part in the world revolution. Whether you do or not is largely a matter for you.