Communists and the Party Question in the 21st Century: A Corrective

By Ian Donovan.

First published on on 22/12/2018

If serious programmatic and theoretical differences arise within a Marxist organisation, it is fatal to treat them as a secret for years on end. Fatal to the interests of the protagonists and fatal to the interests of the wider working class movement.

The recent split in the already very small splinter group from the Spartacists, the International Bolshevik Tendency, has brought these groupings to a very difficult pass where their very existence is threatened.  After more than 35 years of existence, they are really no bigger than when they started. This extended period of neo-liberal reaction has been extraordinarily difficult for the left, and many organisations have fallen apart or fragmented. There is nothing comforting to be said about this, as so many left-wing organisations have been built on either opportunist, or sometimes sectarian foundations that tend to be exposed by the sharpening class polarisations in the world today.

The only solution to this is to build and educate new revolutionary cadre. This can only be done in a two-fold manner – to push questions of theory and programme for discussion on the entire left, and to create an organisational form where questions of theory and programme can be debated democratically, in a way that drives the revolutionary left forward, not backward. This is counterposed to the ridiculous situation in the IBT, where strategic questions were disputed for 10 years and yet debated in private, in an organisation that managed to put out one magazine a year, with the organisation paralysed for the whole of this period by a private debate out of sight of the wider left and labour movement.

It is reductio ad absurdum and an incredible waste of political energy to debate world historic issues of the international class struggle in a political bubble, out of sight of the wider left let alone the workers movement and indeed the wider movements of the classes that fight each other in the real world.

Those debating have an incredibly narrow, elitist conception of themselves and their supposed relationship with the rest of the world. They believe that their cadre simply by being members of their supposedly uniquely correct political tradition, the tradition of the Spartacist League of the 1960s and 1970s, have a higher consciousness than all other elements of the workers’ movement, including left-wing activists and theorists with a similar level of political commitment and experience to their cadre. This is an absurd sectarian conceit in our view.

If serious programmatic and theoretical differences arise within a Marxist organisation, it is fatal to treat them as a secret for years on end. Fatal to the interests of the protagonists and fatal to the interests of the wider working class movement. Why? Because the working class movement needs education above all. And serious political debates about key questions of the day are a key means of doing that. Why should a Marxist organisation where these questions are being aired refrain from sharing these debates with non-members?  At this stage, only a relatively small vanguard layer will be interested, but the principle is just the same as if the masses themselves were involved.

The Revolutionary Comintern: An Error of  Understanding

It is in that spirit that we in Socialist Fight publicly debate questions such as the nature of China with individuals among our own tendency who dispute the majority position, that China, as a country where capitalism was restored after 1989 and is now a significant capitalist power, is nevertheless a powerful semi-colonial state, not an imperialist rival to the US. This has programmatic consequences ultimately as imperialism will seek regime change, from within or without, to enforce subservience on recalcitrant semi-colonies and we as Marxists must defend these countries.

But as well, we seek to engage and work together with others who accept key parts of our perspectives and are prepared to work with us as disciplined members despite differences. We seek to use the discussion of those differences both to educate ourselves and our critics, and to educate wider layers who are interested in the questions in dispute and draw them towards us as a movement that is serious about addressing these questions. We think in the long term this will have a unifying effect on the Trotskyist movement, overcoming the morbid tendency of Trotskyist sects to produce splinter-sect after splinter-sect with apparently no end to the process.

This can be traced back to an error of the Third International (Comintern), not the Trotskyist movement itself. It apparently insisted on a party model based on public political unanimity. In fact, the Organisational Resolution from the Third Congress of the Communist International got it almost correct on this, only to spoil it in practice by a crucial ambiguity:

“Party members are to conduct themselves in their public activity at all times as disciplined members of a combat organization. When differences of opinion arise as to the correct course of action, these should as far as possible be decided beforehand within the party organization and then action must be in accordance with this decision. In order, however, that every party decision be carried out with the greatest energy by all party organizations and members, the broadest mass of the party must whenever possible be involved in examining and deciding every question. Party organizations and party authorities also have the duty of deciding whether questions should be discussed publicly (press, lectures, pamphlets) by individual comrades, and if so, in what form and scope. But even if the decisions of the organization or of the party leadership are regarded as wrong by other members, these comrades must in their public activity never forget that it is the worst breach of discipline and the worst error in combat to disrupt or, worse, to break the unity of the common front.” [1]

This was widely interpreted as an encouragement of party authorities to regard public discussion of political, ideological and programmatic differences in a communist party as something to be greatly regretted, a ‘breach of the common front’. At the time this resolution was written, the main problem facing the Communist International was assimilating large number of new members, and whole new Communist parties, that were in the process of breaking from anarcho-syndicalism, Social Democratic politics or ultra-leftism, or left-wing nationalism or even guerillaism in some backward countries, and basically promoting the assimilation of what a communist party is actually supposed to do: act as a professional revolutionary political leadership within the workers’ movement.

The Comintern barely had time to assimilate these lessons before it began to seriously degenerate as the embryonic Stalinist bureaucracy began a war within the Russian Party and then the international itself against party democracy in general and Trotsky’s Left Opposition in particular. This buried the question of the precise meaning of democracy and centralism forever in the Third International, as it ceased to be a revolutionary organisation and therefore the question of the form of revolutionary organisation became a dead letter for it.

Gregory Zinoviev in his last days before Stalin just executed him, already a political corpse before he fell in the Great Purges of 1936-38.

From 1924 Zinoviev set out to ‘Bolshevise’ the Comintern, i.e. impose the will of his triumvirate with Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin to oppose Leon Trotsky. In 1925 Stalin secured the dismissal of  Trotsky as commissar of war, in 1926 he had him ousted from  the Politburo. Now Stalin allied with the rightists Nikolay Bukharin, Mikhail Tomsky and Alexei Rykov. Zinoviev and Kamenev were forced to ally with Trotsky on the question of China in the Joint Opposition in the Summer of 1926. But as late as 1925 Zinoviev was still ‘bolshevising’ the Comintern affiliated parties, i.e. imposing the bureaucratic centralist form of party organisation Stalinism favours today as do so many self-declared Trotskyist organisation which takes the Zinoviev/Stalin version of internal party democracy as against the Bolshevik norms.Here is Zinoviev in 1925 setting out his bureaucratic views against Trotsky:

“It is necessary that the Party secure itself against a repetition of the “attacks” upon Leninism. Serious Party guarantees are necessary that the decisions of the Party shall be binding for Comrade Trotsky. The Party is not a debating society, but a Party, which, moreover, is in a very complicated situation. The slogan of the present day is: Bolshevising of all strata of the Party! Ideological struggle against Trotskyism!” [2]

What the Third Congress did not address

What the Third Congress resolution in 1921 did not address, was the possible arising of situations where groups of Marxists, who had assimilated the lessons of the Russian Revolution and the need for a Communist Party as an alternative political leadership of the working class, could themselves become divided by complex programmatic questions, involving different interpretations of the degeneration of a workers’ state such as the USSR; the emergence of apparent clone states of the USSR throughout wide sections of the world after the Second World War; different interpretations of the relations of the degenerated Stalinist states with other forces, such as nationalist regimes and movements in semi-colonial countries; the disintegration of the old colonial empires which rendered the question of the oppression of the semi-colonial world and how imperialism controls it more complex; and then later the whole complex series of problems posed by the collapse of the Stalinist regimes and the restoration of various kinds of capitalism in those countries.

To say that these kinds of problems were not anticipated by the authors of the Comintern Organisational Resolution would be the understatement of the 20th Century, if not the 21st as well! They had the character of ‘unknown unknowns’, to steal a useful idea from a thoughtful class enemy (former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld). The perspectives of the authors of this document were that of tempered revolutionary optimism.

That although the immediate post-WWI revolutionary wave had receded,  the retrenchment and proper organisation of Communist Parties, along with the proper application of the tactic of the United Front, in the imperialist countries with large Social Democratic parties, or the Anti-Imperialist United Front, in the colonial and semi-colonial countries, would see in a relatively brief period a revival of mass struggles, giving Communists the opportunity to lead; and thus the revival of the world revolution. They did not anticipate that all this would be fatally undermined from within, by Stalinism, and the world Marxists would have to deal with would become qualitatively more complex and problematic.

Lenin’s Misgivings

Indeed Lenin expressed his misgivings about this resolution in a famous speech at the subsequent, 4th Congress of the Comintern (1922), which has the quality of “I know there is something wrong with this but I cannot quite put my finger on exactly what is wrong”:

“At the Third Congress, in 1921, we adopted a resolution on the organisational structure of the Communist Parties and on the methods and content of their activities. The resolution is an excellent one, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is based on Russian conditions. This is its good point, but it is also its failing. It is its failing because I am sure that no foreigner can read it. I have read it again before saying this. In the first place, it is too long, containing fifty or more points. Foreigners are not usually able to read such things. Secondly, even if they read it, they will not understand it because it is too Russian. Not because it is written in Russian—it has been excellently translated into all languages—but because it is thoroughly imbued with the Russian spirit. And thirdly, if by way of exception some foreigner does understand it, he cannot carry it out. This is its third defect. I have talked with a few of the foreign delegates and hope to discuss matters in detail with a large number of delegates from different countries during the Congress, although I shall not take part in its proceedings, for unfortunately, it is impossible for me to do that. I have the impression that we made a big mistake with this resolution, namely, that we blocked our own road to further success. As I have said already, the resolution is excellently drafted; I am prepared to subscribe to every one of its fifty or more points. But we have not learned how to present our Russian experience to foreigners. All that was said in the resolution has remained a dead letter. If we do not realise this, we shall be unable to move ahead. I think that after five years of the Russian revolution the most important thing for all of us, Russian and foreign comrades alike, is to sit down and study. We have only now obtained the opportunity to do so. I do not know how long this opportunity will last. I do not know for how long the capitalist powers will give us the opportunity to study in peace. But we must take advantage of every moment of respite from fighting, from war, to study, and to study from scratch….

That resolution must be carried out. It cannot be carried out overnight; that is absolutely impossible. The resolution is too Russian, it reflects Russian experience. That is why it is quite unintelligible to foreigners, and they cannot be content with hanging it in a corner like an icon and praying to it. Nothing will be achieved that way. They must assimilate part of the Russian experience. Just how that will be done, I do not know. The fascists in Italy may, for example, render us a great service by showing the Italians that they are not yet sufficiently enlightened and that their country is not yet ensured against the Black Hundreds. Perhaps this will be very useful. We Russians must also find ways and means of explaining the principles of this resolution to the foreigners. Unless we do that, it will be absolutely impossible for them to carry it out. I am sure that in this connection we must tell not only the Russians, but the foreign comrades as well, that the most important thing in the period we are now entering is to study. We are studying in the general sense. They, however, must study in the special sense, in order that they may really understand the organisation, structure, method and content of revolutionary work. If they do that, I am sure the prospects of the world revolution will be not only good, but excellent.” [3]

So what was the ‘big mistake’ Lenin was musing about, but not sure how to concretely express? In my view it is not that the resolution reflected too much of Bolshevik experience, but rather that it was suited for the immediate perspectives of the revolutionary Comintern in 1921, in what was considered a ‘breathing space’ for imperialism within a situation when the Comintern was consolidating itself and preparing through the ‘conquest of the masses’ for a further offensive on power.

What it did not prepare the Communists for was how to politically handle complex reactionary developments that would necessitate a prolonged swimming against the stream of reaction, which the Trotskyists subsequently had to do. When that happened, in the face of serious reactionary developments such as the final defeat of the 1905 revolution after 1907, or in the face of the destruction of the Second International by social-imperialism, the Bolsheviks had to fight out major programmatic and theoretical differences in order to go further. And they inevitably were fought out in the public domain.


Bolshevik Practice: Theory and Action

The fight with Bogdanov and Lunacharsky, the so-called ‘god builders’, was a fight to preserve the Marxist world-outlook of the Bolsheviks in a period of considerable retreat and political demoralisation of the revolutionary movement, both in Russia and in exile. The expression of this was the publication of Lenin’s well-known theoretical work Materialism and Emprio-Criticism, which was about as far as you can get from some obscure polemic in a secret internal bulletin.

Then there was the fight over ‘Imperialist Economism’ during the first world war, differences that arose with Bukharin and Pyatakov, Bolsheviks who were somewhat influenced by the political rigidity about democratic questions associated with Rosa Luxemburg, which was again fought out in public, in the pages of the Bolsheviks Pravda, and in Lenin’s pamphlet A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism.


And most strikingly there is the debate/confrontation between Lenin, and the Old Bolsheviks, led by Kamenev and Stalin, in April 1917, when he presented his ‘April Theses’, to the Party, and in effect to the public. Preceded by four ‘Letters from Afar’ only one of which was published by Kamenev and Stalin in Pravda, despite being written by Lenin for the express purpose of publication, they put forward a major corrective to the historical position of the party on the nature of the revolution.

They steered away from the Bolsheviks’ earlier halfway-house demand for the ‘Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry’ in which the aim of the revolution was to create the conditions for a rapid American-style development of capitalism, to the immediate perspective of the proletarian dictatorship and an attack on capitalism itself, in the context of an expected Europe-wide working-class revolution.

This was fought out in public and was always intended by Lenin to be public; the ‘Letters from Afar’ and his demand for their publication signify that. The return of Lenin was big news; as soon as he returned via the Finland Station the party met in the full glare of publicity and Lenin not only proclaimed his Theses openly, but also soon made clear that if he did not get his way on this he would take his case to the working class itself. The revolution itself was at stake!

An outrage from the point of view of the passage quoted earlier from the Comintern Organisational Revolution, but Lenin understood that the likes of Kamenev and Stalin represented backwardness in that context, that the newly revolutionised workers had leapt far ahead of them politically. He openly threatened to use the non-party revolutionary workers to get his way in the party – which proved not to be necessary as he was able to win a clear majority of the party to his perspective in a matter of a few weeks.

Minorities Can Be Right!

The point being that on questions of revolutionary strategy there is no law that says that the leadership, or the membership, of a aspiring revolutionary organisation must have a higher political consciousness that those outside, or that the majority at a given time must be right.  Minorities can be right against the majority; even on occasion minorities of one can be right against the whole organisation.

In all these cases, the minority should have the right to appeal to, recruit to itself externally and put social and political pressure on the majority to conform to its views. If the views of the majority and minority are fundamentally incompatible in some decisive class sense, this will result in a split, and nothing in terms of democratic innovations will be able to prevent that. Such splits are in fact healthy.

However if the views of the majority and the minority are not fundamentally incompatible in class terms, but nevertheless the views of the minority are a significant improvement on the politics of the majority within an overall common political framework, then it is imperative that the minority be given every opportunity to become a majority as soon as possible for the political health of the organisation as a whole. That means that it is in the interest of the revolutionary organisation as a whole to allow the minority to direct its propaganda not merely at the members of the majority, which could quite conceivably on the question in dispute be deluded and incapable of being won over by force of internal argument alone.

The minority must be free to issue propaganda aimed at others outside the organisation who are able to see matters more clearly,  not only to recruit them directly to join the minority, but also to exert social and political pressure on the majority to abandon what may be irrational or flawed positions that are damaging the movement as a whole. But conversely, if it were the positions of the minority that were flawed and damaging to the interests of the organisation, then the same social and political pressure would act on them and tend to bring them into line with reality.

Democratic Centralism: Its Real Meaning

So what then is the real meaning of democratic centralism? The clue is to be found at the highest level of the class struggle so far in the entire history of the Communist movement, the organisation of the workers insurrection in Petrograd, then the capital of the Russian empire, planned for November 7, 1917. It is well known that Grigory Zinoviev and Leon Kamenev, two longtime Bolshevik leaders who were very close to Lenin prior to the February Revolution in 1917, objected not only to the change in the party perspective on the revolution that Lenin won with the April Theses but to the insurrection itself which they considered to be madness. So they went public, condemning the plans for the insurrection and even naming the day that had been planned. Lenin was furious and called for their expulsion from the party as strike-breakers against the revolution itself.

In fact, he did not get his way on this; they were not expelled. This actually shows the nature of the party regime at that point. In principle, they should have been expelled. This is the correct side of the Comintern Organisation Resolution’s condemnation of those who ‘break the unity of the common front’.

This is not about a disagreement about some theoretical or programmatic question that may impact on future actions down the road, or change their nature. This is going public about an action that had already been decided, that is underway. This is about disrupting and sabotaging an action, which since the party’s whole purpose is to lead actions at the highest level of the class struggle, is an attack on the party itself. If an action of the party is aborted due to such sabotage, even if the action is mistaken, if the disruption succeeds it will most likely result in a severe defeat of the whole party.

As I noted earlier, the destruction of the Comintern as a revolutionary organisation, which right from the beginning of the degeneration resulted in severe attacks on the democracy of the Communist movement, meant that this question became a dead letter. The Comintern’s revolutionary successor, however, was the Fourth International, and though not entirely uncritical of its predecessor, on this question it adhered largely to an interpretation of democratic centralism that regarded questions of political agreement and disagreement as coming within the sphere of the ‘common front’ as the Comintern Organisational Resolution put it.

Trotsky-Cannon vs Shachtman-Burnham

This was decisively clarified in the fight with James Burnham, Max Shachtman and Martin Abern in the American Trotskyist movement, the Socialist Workers Party in 1939-40. The latter two with James P. Cannon made up the three founding cadres of the US Trotskyists. Trotsky, then in his final exile in Mexico, worked extensively with James P Cannon and other leaders of the SWP in the fight against the petit-bourgeois opposition. They wanted to abandon the defence of the USSR in the context of the Stalin-Hitler pact, capitulating wholesale to the bourgeois outcry against the USSR.

We consider Trotsky and Cannon to be right on all the disputed questions with the Shachtman-Burnham opposition. But one thing that set a precedent was the arguments used by both Trotsky and Cannon against conducting the factional dispute publicly, which have long been quoted by post-war Trotskyists in defence of keeping serious political differences internal. The Shachtmanites wanted to publish their own materials and appeal to the general public with their criticisms of the terrible Trotskyists for their alleged apologias for Stalin (i.e. their defence of the social foundations of the USSR against imperialism despite Stalin).

It would actually have benefitted the Trotskyist movement to conduct the dispute with Shachtman and Burnham publicly. It would have educated wider layers at the time about what the Trotskyist movement really stood for, drawing these new layers into the dispute. By forcing both sides to face the full force of the social and political pressures that resulted, it would likely have both accelerated the evolution of the opposition into the imperialist camp and hardened up the SWP’s cadre by forcing them to face such pressure during the fight itself.

As it was it is now widely seen as a somewhat obscure and esoteric dispute, the first major one of many that splintered the Trotskyist movement into a large number of fragments, still increasing in number. Trotsky, who had the heritage of a great revolution behind him, was able to fight the actual issues out in a highly political and clarifying manner, which tended to minimise the negative effects of the hidden, secretive nature of this fight.

Trotsky And His Flawed Successors: Correcting The Error

But his successors did not have the same advantages and its arguable that a process was set in train that resulted in an organic tendency of groupings that follow the tradition of the Fourth International to become sects, to produce fragment after fragment, to give birth to horrendous bureaucratic regimes and cults based on the logic of conducting principled political disputes on matters that affect the entire working class movement in strict secrecy, behind closed doors.

The attempt to neutralise the effects of social pressure on the cadre of revolutionary groups by conducting disputes in secret does not, in fact, neutralise these effects at all. What it does is give expression to the same social pressures in a deformed, claustrophobic political environment. In sects that are built on this model, the majority has a built-in advantage over minorities as it has the right to gag them and prevent them from recruiting.

If the majority then decisively loses its real revolutionary bearings, therefore, it has the power not only to gag minorities but to suppress and abuse them. The minority then has two choices: to capitulate, or leave. Either is possible: the former gives rise to cults and odious sects, the latter leads to fragmentation. Or it could equally be said that the former only delays the latter until the minority can bear it no more.

Conversely, it could be hypothesised that in a party model where the right to public programmatic and theoretical criticism was guaranteed, the exercise of this right by a sharp and politically revolutionary minority could, through political and social pressure again, save for revolutionary politics the cadre of the erring majority, or at least part of it, and thus allow an erring revolutionary organisation to be salvaged.  Conversely, if the closed party paradigm were in place the majority’s degeneration would be unstoppable.

There you have the genesis of every cultist and sectarian outfit and regime that has ever blighted the Trotskyist movement. We in Socialist Fight seek to correct this organisational error, which as explained has its origins in the early Comintern, not the Fourth International.

We owe a certain debt in this regard to the critical ex-Stalinist CPGB/Weekly Worker group who brought to light the contradictions between contemporary Trotskyist practice and that of the Bolsheviks. But the CPGB, despite this positive contribution, is a centrist group that does not have the revolutionary programme to make full use of this insight. We do, and we seek to engage with them as well as today’s subjectively revolutionary would-be Trotskyists to correct this also.


[1]  Third Congress of the Comintern, Guidelines on the Organizational Structure of Communist Parties, on the Methods and Content of their Work, 12 July 1921,

[2] Gregory Zinoviev, Bolshevism or Trotskyism, Where the Line of Trotskyism is Leading, The Errors of Trotskyism, May 1925,

[3] Op Cit, Guidelines ▲