The problem of ‘monopoly in the sphere of politics’


Forgotten legacies: the problem of ‘monopoly in the sphere of politics’

Simon Hardy continues his look at the problematic interpretations of Bolshevism found in the modern day Trotskyist movement by critically reflecting upon the post-war collapse of the left into warring sects. Part one is online here


Part one of this essay considered the forgotten pluralism of Russian social democracy and specifically Bolshevism, in this second installment, I want to reflect upon how this might apply to smaller groups of revolutionaries who don’t enjoy mass support in the working class. These are groups that cannot claim to be a party that represents the leadership of a broad cross section of the working class and are therefore generally more modest in their reach and goals. In the 21st century, the Trotskyist-Leninist left has been mostly reduced to such organisations, that invariably concentrate on disseminating communist ideas and playing a role in developing wider social struggle. This description is seemingly uncontroversial, but the problem lies in the actual practice of small communist organisations in the context of the disintegration of the Trotskyist movement before and after the war, and their pronounced tendency to collapse into confessional sects. With Stalinism hegemonic on the left wing of the workers’ movement in the last century, and with its parties that identified with the states of Russia, China and Eastern Europe, the tendency was to create small, highly homogenous organisations that each claimed a monopoly on truth with their theoretical output seeking to elaborate a doctrine that can then be organisationally embodied in the small organisation. Much of the Trotskyist movement also tended to mimic and adapt to Stalinism, either in their organisational ‘party building’ practices, or in their political accommodation to the Stalinist regimes perceived to be more radical, e.g. Yugoslavia, China, and Cuba. The result was the creation of a myriad of new orthodoxies defended by the organisational form of the sect. Trotskyism was one, perhaps the most enduring, but in the context of the 1930s and 1960s there was competition from various other trends, from Branderlerites to the Maoists and council communists. 1

This article is largely a critique of the “sect-form” and a plea for greater plurality, organisational unity, and flexibility on the radical left.

Monopolists in the sphere of politics

The need for the sect to define itself against the rest of the left, and in turn school its adherents in the codified ‘fundamentals’ of its tradition, fosters a binary, “right or wrong”, conception of Marxism. The resulting tendency for party adherents to try and “get it right” above all else undermines the encouragement of critical thinking, able to draw upon the plurality of viewpoints and theories, that is necessary for Marxism to develop as a living and scientific mode of thought. This outlook was sadly exemplified by US Trotskyist Morris Stein at the 1944 convention of the SWP(US) :

“We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretence of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery. We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.” 2

Even if the party in question could claim 80,000 members in a mass working class of millions it would be a hopelessly authoritarian approach to political discourse within the working class movement. Yet is down right ridiculous coming from a leader of a revolutionary organisation with around 1,000 members or less. You simply do not have the range of experiences, the intellectual resources, the organic relationship to broad cross section of the masses, that could justify a claim to have a monopoly on truth nor even a special claim to be the leadership in waiting of the working class.

Quite simply all you have is your “tradition” or “programme” which is the flag by which you define yourself.

Few on the Trotskyist left would look at Stein’s comments and remark, “yes, Stein has captured how small groups of revolutionaries should relate to the wider working class movement”. Yet, his remarks – in their crude and unmediated form – actually have the merit of articulating the underlying methodology that is accepted by numerous organisations on the modern revolutionary left. Its dangers lie the authoritarian desire of the monopolist in the sphere of truth to defeat those who are ‘wrong’, in order to lay the basis for the political hegemony of their sect in the wider movement.

The experiences of sect warfare on the activist left that we are all familiar with are rooted in this basic psychological assumption about the relationship between one’s sect and the wider left and working class movement. It is often expressed in putting organisational advantages for your party ahead of the interests of the wider movement, something that we have seen time and again in Britain in the repeated refusal of the radical left to work towards a united anti-cuts movement. Of course, confidence in one’s own politics is a necessary basis for any critical debate – to argue about anything one has to believe in one’s position -, but the truth is that the contemporary left often substitutes rhetoric for a real, living illustration of its ideas, i.e. an illustration subject to practical verification in struggle. For a debate to be worth having, and for an idea to have relevance to real politics, then you have to hold out the possibility that you might be wrong, even going so far as to define the circumstances that would disprove your core claim.

Democratic centralism or monolith-ism?

In the post-war left, radical organisations tended to be homogenous to the point of being monolithic in their ideas with a secretive conception of democratic centralism, that withheld their strategic discourse to party members, outside the view of the working class. In this sense, they embodied a practice closer to Stalinism in form if not in content. This model tends to deny personal initiative in theoretical questions by insisting the great majority of analytical or theoretical questions have to be agreed by the leadership of the organisation before being published. Likewise it insists upon absolute unanimity in public expressions of party line and outlaws any fraternal public criticism of the organisation as a breach of discipline.

Is this a good way to organise? Or, to be more specific, is this really the best way to organise? I want to make the point that the position “maximum debate internally, maximum unity in public” or “internal debate, unity in action”, are best seen as ideal aspirations for the political practice of the revolutionary left. Those who argue that smaller revolutionary cadre organisations need to keep all internal debate and party life secret from the public are only fostering a bad practice that exacerbates the tendency towards schisms. By giving minorities in small communist groups no rights of public expression at all a hothouse atmosphere is often created where disputes spin out of control and far out of proportion to the differences that they (usually) substantively involve. This in turn actually increases the likelihood of a split and compounds the tendency to sect isolation (i.e. small size).

So, communist organisations that are highly closed, i.e. do not open their discussions up to a degree of plurality and difference and insist their their group embodied the “true”  Marxist programme, are more likely to split, as minorities have no choice but to split, if they want to simply be able to express a divergence of line from a majority position. This is often seen as a classical model, one rooted in the orthodoxy of Leninism, but as I argued in part I, the debates within Russian social democracy and their interchange with the parties of the Second International and Marxists like Luxemburg and Kautsky, were entirely open. Arguments were had out in front of the working class, making possible the testing of positions against the real experiences of living struggle, and developing a collective, socialist political culture of free and open interchange. Even in conditions of illegality in Russia, the exile community of Marxists continued their lively debates and arguments in full view of the entire movement.

The so-called ‘classical’ model of democratic centralism – i.e. the view that the sect has to keep all its debates secret to itself, and only present its conclusions to the working class – actually developed in the period of the collapse of the movement into the conditions of the sect.

It has nothing in common with the best traditions of early 20th century Marxism.

Defenders of this so-called ‘orthodox’ position often cite the experience of the International Marxist Group in Britain (one time British section of the Fourth International, led by people such as Tariq Ali, Alan Thornett and Peter Gowan in the 1970s) that allowed ‘permanent factions’ (no one had to dissolve their factions after conference) and was apparently paralysed by internal debate. This example, so it is argued, is seen as proof that allowing a degree of plurality will always lead to disaster for a revolutionary group, i.e. permanent debates amongst cliques that can’t agree a common strategy.

History, however, tells a slightly different story. The IMG grew quite successfully in the 1970s, despite its permanent factions. Their internal debates did not qualitatively hinder their ability to intervene into the struggle. What tore them apart was politics, simply the fact that different wings of the leadership began to pull in different directions, some towards a Castroite orientation, others towards a strategic Labour party entryism (what became Socialist Action) and others wanted to orientate to the new social movements (what became the International Socialist Group/Socialist Resistance).

Would banning factions have prevented this? It may have delayed it, but it was the objective impact of world politics and shifting international alignments which tore through most of the radical left in any case. This did for the Fourth International section – reducing that complex process to the problem of ‘permanent factions’ is so shallow it does violence to any general analysis. Furthermore, banning factions or tendencies or insisting upon absolute agreement of programme and method in this instance would only have resulted in the necessity of creating a kind of witchhunt in the party, as cadre loyal to the leadership identified “bad elements” and targetted them for exclusion. Not quite the kind of culture we want to create, surely?


Plurality is a fact of human life – deal with it

Plurality must mean relaxing some of the constitutional rules concerning the one party line in public. The argument that a minority must be silenced in public to implement the political arguments of the majority and that through this joint work the veracity of one side of the other can be proven in practice, needs to be critically reconsidered. For the Bolsheviks maximum unity in action meant exactly that unity in action around commonly agreed policies. But within the RSDLP public criticism was allowed so long as it did not disrupt these actions, and did not constitute attacking the party in public. The Bolsheviks demanded a greater degree of homogeneity because they were a faction within a wider party, but as we saw in part I the idea that every member of the faction argued one line and was punished with expulsion if they deviated from this is not backed up by the historical record.

Either way, we can make a positive case for greater public displays of political debate. Allowing for freedom of criticism actually helps an organisation refine its arguments, clarify its points of agreement, differences, and better inform the actions it chooses to take in the future.

It is nonsense to think that ideas can be “tested” in a public argument in the way that concrete action can, because discussions over principles, theory, perspectives and analysis, will involve different interpretations of the practical activity the organisation has undertaken together.

This is because the argument that silencing the minority to “test the majority perspectives” has something of a flaw in it. Simply put, a small communist organisation can rarely prove its slogans or perspectives in practice. A slogan calling for a general strike cannot be “proven” through agitation by a propaganda group. It may be possible to win some hearing for it and therefore increase the influence or size of the organisation, but that does not ‘prove’ a policy correct, as any number of people can support all kinds of ideas. The truth is always contested, requires theoretical justification as well as empirical verification, and, in any case, we will be able to achieve the closest approximation of the truth if we have a common organisational framework for the argument, rather than it taking place in public between rival sects and in private behind the walls of the given sect.

Likewise, debates over perspectives and the ‘mood’ of the class always have to be mediated by fact of a lack of implantation and a tendency to substitute accurate impressions for schema, or mistake anecdotal episodes for general trends across a whole cross-section of the class. Socialists often read into their experiences through the prism of revolutionary optimism, which can lead to quite inaccurate assessments of where people are at more generally.

Furthermore, it can be hard to judge whether your slogans have had much impact on consciousness. In all these senses ‘testing’ your perspectives can be a difficult task. In the Trotskyist tradition arguments over these kinds of issues have often led to sharp internal struggles and splits. But this should not be the case. Rather the crucial thing should be whether there is a common method, for example, an agreement that you should not tail arguments to what reformists will accept but to argue, and take practical steps to seek to achieve, what is necessary to win. All of this points to a relaxing of the standard Leninist mindset of ‘all or nothing, my way or the highway’ and a certain modesty about where we are at now.


The unbeareable darkness of splits

The sect “as monopolists in the field of politics” is a definite factor in the multiple splits in the post-war Trotskyist tradition that is distinctive from the problems of opportunism and sectarianism. It is a general problem, a pervasive set of practices and way of thinking about how politics should be done.

In the 21st century this will have to change for Trotskyism to be able to reach out to wider layers. The choice is simple: remain closed and isolated or open yourselves up to criticism, greater plurality and difference, and allow your ideology to properly crystallize in the minds of the masses.

Small groups will tend to split insofar as they have to be monolithically homogeneous in public, because it closes down any possible space for a release valve for the disagreements or for a healthy engagement with the wider movement.

If the programme or strategy is conceived as all-encompassing and if perspectives are also thought of as fundamental to elaborating the programme, then any disagreements that emerge over any of those issues will be treated as “from a scratch to gangrene”.

That is, a break from the programme or tradition and an ineluctable collapse into “centrism”. The use of terms like centrist or liquidationism, ‘a collapse away from Leninism and Trotskyism’, etc, in a manner out of proportion to the real differences, will exacerbate this tendency, and, as categorical statements of revolutionary de-legitimation, substitute for genuinely rational discussion. A similar phenomenon that accompanies this is ad hominem accusations that people are police spies, agents of other groups, ‘degenerate’ or any other slur under the sun. Ironic really because historically speaking, Trotskyists in particular should to be aware of how Left Opposition activists were shut down in the Soviet Union by being labelled as “fascists”, “pro imperialists”, “saboteurs”, and so on. Consider how the abusive term “Trotskyist” is used by union leaders of managers to isolate and smoke out working place militants. It stems from a similar approach. Sadly the personalist attacks on party members during bitter faction fights are often only a reflection of the way they refer to other socialists most of the time anyway. An example of this is the number of times I have heard other socialists dismissed as “crazy” or “mad” for expressing a different political view.  3

Everything can be blown out of proportion by party cadre (“we are fighting to save the very essence of the revolutionary programme which only we have!”) and this means they cannot test the veracity of falsity of their ideas in the working class. The result is that the minority often simply to leave and set up their own group (“To hell with this, these people are crazy!”). Of course every time this happens there is a lot of self justificatory talk about how the new group will go forward and be better in every way than the last group which has degenerated, become petty bourgeois, and so on (the remaining majority declare that the splitters “will pass into the dustbin of history” and have “entered the swamp” etc). But in such circumstances each group faces loss of members, influence and even potential ruin as a result. Often the most important thing is they lose their credibility.

The problem with being monopolists is that everyone is educated to think they are the bearers of truth, and when two truths collide then the result is usually a break down, or break up. In this logic no plurality of opinion is possible because it is impossible for truth and falsehood to co-exist in the same space – one must drive out the other. Tactical differences can be containable, but the internal logic of the organisation tends to blend tactics in with perspectives and strategy, snowballing disagreements into unsolvable debates.

If the politics of the organisation is seen as one totalising line which is utterly interconnected and interwoven with history, theory, perspective and so on, there is a tendency to raise secondary tactics to matters of principle. Shall we vote Labour or not? Should we support a disaffiliation from the Labour party motion? These are often debated as if they are issues of principle, despite the fact that they plainly are not – they are questions of tactics.

Before people think this is a plea for relativism, I can assure you it is not. It is not to say there is no such thing as right and wrong – some things are just wrong and some things are just right. For instance capitalism is a system that exploits and oppresses billions, it must be replaced by something more democratic, egalitarian and just. Likewise, the capitalist state at its core is an apparatus of class rule, it is impossible to imagine how it could be completely captured and used by the working class to overthrow the bosses. The appeal for more plurality of views and acceptance of debate as part of a necessary recomposition of the left, is rather to appeal to the classical Greek notion of dialectics, “the art of conversation”.

This involved the revolutionary idea that a participant in a debate should seek to understand the other side’s position, try and develop the strongest possible argument in favour of it, either to incorporate them into one’s own argument or to develop a stronger rebuttal.

The monolithism of the Trotskyist movement and its organisational forms tend heavily towards ruling out just such a practice, whilst claiming to be the upholders of democractic practices in the workers movement.


Can we be more flexible?

Since all groups want to develop “party lines” or policy – and it is only correct that they do – it is important to sometimes have a wide tolerance for interpretation or even how it is used in any situation. Whilst having members meetings and voting on policies, slogans and campaigning priorities is essential in any democratic organisation and mobilising the organisation to fight for these is a necessary fact of political life, the essential point is that too much of “Leninist” thinking is unduly flexible and overly centralist in its attitude.

After all, often in politics a “line” operates only at a certain level of generality.It might refer to something quite specific (a vote in an election) or it might be a more general point about an analysis or theoretical argument (imperialism, the nature of reformism, etc). Let’s go back to the Russian example, since people are generally inclined to look their for answers.

In Lenin’s understanding of slogans and tactics there was often a necessary degree of mediation between them and the strategic goal. For instance, whilst writing from abroad during World War One he made the case for revolutionary defeatism as a strategic goal in Russia (turn imperialist war into a civil war ending in a revolution). He was not advocating “defeat for Russia” as an agitational slogan on the ground. Jean-Paul Joubert describes his position thus:

“The position of Lenin cannot, therefore, be summed up in the one word ‘defeatism’. He regarded revolutionary defeatism as the result of a strategic line – which he was not alone in recommending – the transformation of the imperialist war into civil war. When we study his writings closely, we find that he refers to ‘defeatism’ less frequently than the subsequent use of the word by commentators might lead us to expect. In the final analysis, Lenin did not make acceptance of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ a precondition, or even a preliminary, to joint activity: the formula is found neither in the unity proposals which he addressed to the Nashe Slovogroup in 1915, nor in the draft resolution and manifesto of the ‘Zimmerwald Left’.” 4

Leaders like Bukharin preferred more general anti-war slogans which could reach out to a wider anti war mood amongst the working class. Lenin had his reasons for why revolutionary defeatism was correct – and the revolution of 1917, which was of course a ‘civil war’ in the broad sense of the term validated his core perspective – but it is impossible to imagine that the Bolshevik members in the regiments carried much propaganda advocating the defeat for Russian soldiers (them and their comrades) at the hands of the Germans. That literary output was orientated more towards the terrible conditions of the army, the heartless and callous attitude of the generals and government ministers, the expansionist nature of the war, and so on. As long as the strategic concept of opposing both German and Russian imperialism was there, then there was flexibility about slogans on the ground. But on the surface this (falsely) looks like a “compromise” with Menshevik Internationalism (simply being antiwar and not anti-imperialist). Giving the members and local leaders some leeway to explore the practical implications of a strategy is a necessary part of building an organisation. Lenin wrote about it long before 1914 when he talked about the branches having “autonomy” from the centre to produce their own materials and so on. 5

The reality is that although many left groups refer to themselves as pre-party formations or factions-without-a-party, they generally act as if they were much larger parties. By this I mean they have all the trappings of a mass party, membership structure, branches, national committees, political committees, editorial boards, an auxiliary youth organisation and so forth. They produce a paper and have a definite programme which encompasses pretty much everything. They organise like a party and behave like a party – just a very small one. In fact, the only trapping of a mass party that is lost in the pre-party formation is the right to expression of external differences. Why is this singled out as the one variable that is essential to cut in the pre-party stage?

Indeed, why is there such a fetish about a united line on nearly all political issues in public? Supposedly because the ‘pre-party formation’ is a faction without a party and factions must agree on everything? But what if some of the faction begin to disagree and the disagreements become quite fundamental? Then the faction will split and there will be two smaller factions-without-a-party. This is the logic of post-war monolithism in the left.  Despite this, it is still insisted that unity in public is necessary for effective intervention, yet it is difficult to imagine a greater hinderance to public ‘intervention’, than a split.

We must be able to afford a little more flexibility and common sense around this issue if we are to build a more healthy revolutionary left.


What does all this point to?

Simply this: that any revolutionary organisation will inevitably have contending tendencies and platforms within it and we have to become better at building more elastic organisations that can manage and even come to take advantage of these differences.

The fact that organisations have historically dealt with this reality badly is part of the problem that we face today. Any organisation that considers itself to be the revolutionary party or the revolutionary party in embryo will have to deal with the nature of plurality and openness.

Denying any public expressions of these differences, closing down debate, demagogically emphasising “centralism” over democratic participation is simply not going to work any more.

As such our goal in the coming years should be to lay the basis for a united, revolutionary organisation in Britain, one that will inevitably combine different already existing tendencies and individuals, whilst broadening itself out to people who have never been in an organisation before. It may form part of a new radical left coalition (similar to Syriza) or it may not, but a stronger revolutionary challenge to capitalist is an absolute must in the current crisis.

This means we have to incorporate important lessons from what came before without being prisoners of the past.

A new, sizeable revolutionary organisation would forge its own tradition, it could not simply rest content with the traditions of the 1920s and 30s (or the 60s and 70s). The problem is that many socialists take their model from a fixed interpretation of Bolshevism after 1917 – without thinking about how that revolutionary party in Russia was built up over time in constant debate and evolution of its ideas. As we have seen, the reading of the Bolshevik party also mistakenly sees it as excessively homogenous and this underpins the monolithism of the post-war Trotskyist and Leninist organisations (sadly a result of Stalinist influence on the revolutionary left). If we start from the end point (ie 1917-21) and use that as our beginning, without taking into account the actual evolutionary process that rendered Bolshevism successful as a living oppositional force within the workers movement, then we will be unable to replicate the kind of organic development of a working class party which was so essential to what became known as Leninism.

I will finish with two quotes, the first an argument made by Alan Wald, a US socialist writing for Against the Current in 1995 who examined the failure of US Trotskyism and concluded the following:

“The goal of socialist political cadres must be the development of a broad and democratically functioning team leadership, based on an organisation institutionalising multiple tendencies and pluralism, that balances out strengths and weaknesses in order to sustain a movement diachronically as well as synchronically.” 6

This, in my opinion, is the way forward.

In this sense I think that Murray Smith of the Fourth International was right when he argued (against John Rees and Alex Callinicos of the SWP) in 2002:

“The idea that at any given moment living revolutionary parties contain all sorts of currents, tendencies and trends, not all of them revolutionary, some ultra-left, is hardly new. It was true for the Bolshevik Party and for the parties of the early Communist International. We have to approach the building of new parties with a willingness to work with diverse forces and the patience to let clarification come about through debate on common experience. It is quite sterile to approach the tasks of the present period armed with a norm of what a revolutionary party should be, which is in fact just a bigger version of the existing far left organisations. The mass revolutionary parties of the future will not be the SWP or the LCR or Lutte Ouvrière or the Socialist Party writ large. They will be open, pluralist and non-hierarchical.” 7


One might debate the exact meaning of the term ‘non-hierarchical’ but Leninists should remain open minded. I would like the left to be as non-hierarchical as possible, reflecting the principle of human self emancipation and foreshadowing communist liberation, a kind of start as you mean to carry on ethos – whilst not ignoring the importance of effective action against capitalism in the here and now.

But, we must also debate such things out with the avowedly non-hierarchal left, who are a key constituency for any radical new project. Any new organisation will need some kind of democratic hierarchy to function, but what that looks like in practice is open to debate and common elaboration.

In this sense, we have to renew revolutionary traditions and politics afresh, taking the best of the revolutionaries that have gone before us, but striking out again, forging a new path in which the factional struggles of the old communist movement can act as a guide, but not a road map.

The final point in Smith’s quote is worth tattooing onto the backs of our hands as a constant reminder or the reality of the radical left today; the fact is that none of the ideological sectlets and ‘Bolshevik’ groups will form the basis for the future revolutionary party.

However, they might very well form the backbone of a new party, but only if they can put the new party/organisation ahead of their own narrowly conceived organisational interests. If they can’t – as they couldn’t do in the Socialist Alliance – then the organisations will be quickly torn apart, merely repeating the same old cycle and confirming the accusations of the Labour left that the revolutionary left can’t build anything credible or sustainable.

The bottom line is simple – either the revolutionary in Britain regroups to grow stronger or we won’t win. We have to prove to the wider working class and radical forces that we can build a credible organisation and so far we have utterly failed to do that – none of us has succeeded. As long as we continue to build these small groups in isolation and not as part of a wider, more united, and credible revolutionary organisation – we are only indulging in the wretched state into which we have fallen whilst delaying the necessary work to free ourselves from our own self-inflicted purgatory.
Simon Hardy explores in greater depth many of the points developed here in his new book, Beyond Capitalism? The Future of Radical Politics (Zero 2013), co-authored with Luke Cooper. 


  1. This statament is not referring to those situations where an ideological trend like Maoism was embodied in a million strong party – we are referring to the left of CP organisations mainly in the western world.
  2. Trotskyism in the USA – Alan Wald
  3. This might seem like a joke or silly jibe, but don’t forget that most Soviet era oppositionists after the war were declared insane by the Stalinist government and sent to asylums which were little better than torture facilities. The logic was simple, we have this beautiful workers paradise, you must be mentally deranged to oppose it or criticise it – so we will not treat you like a criminal but instead as someone with mental health problems. Consider that logic today on the left “we have this wonderful revolutionary organisation, it has generally been proven right at every turn in the class struggle, we have led this dispute and this campaign… you must be MAD to criticise us…”
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  1. Ross Speer
    January 1, 2013 at 4:12 pm · Reply

    I think you make a fair point about the IMG/Permanent Factions, but this seems rather telling:

    “The IMG grew quite successfully in the 1970s, despite its permanent factions. Their internal debates did not qualitatively hinder their ability to intervene into the struggle. ”

    It grew *Despite* factions, internal debates “did not… hinder”: You don’t seem to be making much of a positive case here for permanent factions, just that they didn’t hold the IMG back i.e. were not counter-productive, but you don’t seem to make any case for them actually being productive and useful to the organisation.

    • Simon Hardy
      January 1, 2013 at 6:48 pm · Reply

      Well on the IMG the problem as I said isn’t permanent factions it is the political quality of them. Politics always takes primacy in such questions – but I would rather have an honest organisation with recognised differences than an artificial hiding of differences for 9 months out of the year. I mean people are fighting and dying in some countries for the right to freedom and expression and assembly but it seems in some Leninist groups comrades having informal “oppositional” chats are treated like pariahs. Doesn’t make much sense to me.

      As for a case for plurality being productive

      1. If done right it can avoid unnecessary splits
      2. It is an explicit recognition that Marxism tends towards plurality of views and there is no benefit from denying this.
      3. It means different points of view can be expressed which can create a positive dynamic of discussion and debate without comrades being afraid of speaking out.
      4. Nearly all political organsiations have a degree of plurality within them. The fact is that bourgeois parties are better at managing plurality than so called Leninist organisations.
      5. The logic of “better fewer but better” as a positive result of purging “dissidents” is the logic of growing isolation and defeat.
      6. No Leninist-Trotskyist organisation has grown to any meaningful size since the 1930s. One of the reasons is that the movement is riven with splits and unnecessary division over “principles”.
      7. Leninist groups can either come to terms with the reality of how people think and act politically at the moment (which is generally away from centralism – and that goes for workers as well) or they can be like King Cnut, raging at the sea and demanding that the tide stop for him but he was impotent to turn back the waves.
      8. Finally, but there are other points, I think the whole point of centralism stemmed from two concerns, one was police repression the other was a need to control those party members immersed in bourgeois institutions (parliament, trade unions, etc) so that the dog wagged the tail and not the other way around (like it is with the Labour party). The issue of police repression is a real one but nowhere near as bad in Britain today as it was in Russia in 1903. The issue of centralism as a way of ‘controlling’ revolutionary MPs and trade union activists is more pertinent but once again we should relax the criteria that we apply in these situations interms of how the party directs its members or not. Ultimately socialists have to ensure red lines (don’t vote for war, don’t support a sell out in an industrial dispute) but short of those principles there is much wider scope for differences of opinion on tactical and even strategic issues. Forcing members to vote or argue for a line from the leadership if they fundamentally don’t agree with it might be seen as the paragon of Leninist virtue where you are praised to the heavens for “following the line” but it is just not realistic in this day and age that you can enforce that across an organisation of more than a few hundred or occasionally over a thousand. The reality that the Trotskyist left in Britain today can’t recruit and sustain more than that number is really the proof of the pudding, such practices are basically alienating to people. We have to find a way to build a party which doesn’t just impose lines on members, drive people out through demotivation and feeling disempowered and actually harnesses peoples individuals skills, talents and ideas for the better. We can do this, we just have to find the will.

      • Ross Speer
        January 2, 2013 at 5:37 pm · Reply

        I feel like that, whilst making some valuable points, you profoundly misconstrue the role of centralism. Now, whether you are correct on it’s original rationale or not I could not say; but the centralist part of democratic centralist is not derived from a need to resist state repression nor keep the bureaucrats in line.

        I would say centralism stems from a) a need to resist the pressures of capitalist society, which will inevitably pull us away from anything resembling revolutionary socialism and towards some form of capitulation to the system. I mean these in all the relevant senses: The pressures of capitalist ideology, the at time conscious efforts to disorganize militant working class movements etc. b) the implementation of the ‘democratic’ part of the formulation; for far from being two opposites that we must balance the central components of democratic centralism is that after democratically deciding a position we action it in a unified manner. It is all very well saying things like “Forcing members to vote or argue for a line from the leadership if they fundamentally don’t agree with it,” which sounds like ominous authoritarianism, but this is exactly the democratic component actioned. What democracy is there within an organisation where after decisions are made everyone is then free to head off and do whatever they so wish, regardless of what the majority has decided? I agree insofar you have argued (in part i) that expelling people left right and center for breaking the agreed line is a good is a terrible idea, but to replace this with the open flouting of democracy seems to me quite ridiculous. I mean, why bother to have the debating/voting component at all when, at the end of the day, no one can be held to that decision?

        • Dan
          January 2, 2013 at 6:18 pm · Reply

          Hi Ross,

          I think it’s a fairly depressing outlook if you think that members of a revolutionary socialist organisation will be pulled towards the pressures of capitalist ideology and need a handful of people on a central committee to keep that in check. If anything I would say that the relationship is necessary in the opposite direction and that the leadership are the most likely to “sell out” and the members have to keep them in check. Don’t get me wrong I’m not against centralisation but think it needs to have many democratic safeguards. I used to be an SWP member and both as a member and now I found it crazy that organised opposition was banned for 9 months of the year, which in my view is deeply unhealthy and undemocratic, as are the slate systems of elections.

          The point isn’t that action shouldn’t be done collectively but the debate should be open, including the right to air your views in public if you are a minority. Many organisations that claim they are in the Bolshevik tradition seem to forget that both as a small and large organisation they allowed differences to be aired in public.

          The right to have permanent factions by no means that there will always be one, it is a right, not a necessity! Firstly you can have tendancies formed, which don’t want to challenge the leadership, but want to debate out differences and be allowed to organise collectively to do that. Secondly if a faction is formed which wants to challenge the leadership in a fundamental way then I’m not sure how banning the right to do that for most of the year will solve that problem. The Bolsheviks allowed permanent factions (and in fact were one themselves!!) if members wanted them and led a revolution, so how can it be argued that the right to such factions will mean an organisation tearing itself apart?

          The problem with banning organised opposition is that it leads, almost inevitably, to a bureaucratic culture from the top down, where as any socialist organisation worth its salt should be built from the bottom up. How can it be right that a revolutionary organisation has less rights for its members than bourgeois parties?

    • January 1, 2013 at 10:19 pm · Reply

      The RSDLP (which renamed itself the RCP[b]) had permanent factions until 1921 when factions were banned. Factions and tendencies are very necessary for healthy party life, but as Hardy indicates, when all sides in factional disputes have a “rule or ruin” approach or a hyperbolic sense that “the fate of the revolution hangs in the balance” if the “wrong” side wins a debate, then factionalism spins out of control to the detriment of all.

      But the alternative to the sometimes-ugly multi-tendency/pluralist model — the single-tendency model — has produced nothing but failures historically.

      • Ross Speer
        January 2, 2013 at 5:27 pm · Reply

        If permanent factionalism can lead to a ‘rule or ruin’ approach – and potentially tear apart organisations – and a single-tendency model is undesirable and limiting surely we could find a middle ground between these two polar opposites?

        Might that middle ground be temporary factions, organised for a period before a debate is had out by the whole organisation which then either win their position or are dissolved after remaining a minority once debate is had? And should they so wish to continue to fight, they could simply do the same once the next temporary faction period comes round. Does that not overcome the difficulties put above between ‘no factions’ and ‘permanent factions’?

        • January 2, 2013 at 7:50 pm · Reply

          The problem with putting a time limit on factions is that debates get compressed and end unsatisfactorily. Which usually means people will become fed up and frustrated and walk away. This creates a pressure cooker environment where differences get blown out of proportion. There is no need to have permanent factions, just as Dan said, there should be a right to form one if a group of members find it useful to clarify issues in whatever debate. This can only strengthen revolutionary organisations as it is easier for the membership to correct mistakes and learn from wider experiences. If faction rights come with a widening of debate and democratic participation at all levels of a revolutionary organisation then it helps comrades feel they have ownership of the project and more likely to stick around and build the organisation.

        • PhilW
          January 2, 2013 at 8:18 pm · Reply

          …..”dissolved after remaining a minority once debate is had”….

          This begs the question of how you define “once debate is had” and who defines it (and also the question of whether the faction will always be a minority: what happens if the debate leads to a NEW minority – the previous majority?)

          In the SWP, this decision is defined in the constitution – debate is “had” after a vote at the Party Conference, which can then proceed to elect a new CC with no minority representation, as there now is no minority!

          This reflects a mechanistic concept of “the Leninist Party”, argued against here: that “the Party” is a mechanism for using the consciousness of the working class for accurately assessing the “truth” and once that has been determined, the party moves forward unhindered by debate.

          Interestingly, the minorities in the SWP tend not to wait around until the next conference for a second crack at the whip.

  2. Rob M
    January 1, 2013 at 7:41 pm · Reply

    Good article and I agree with the points made about the IMG. Just a point of clarification: Alan Thornett was not an historical leader of the IMG. In the 1970’s Alan led the Workers Socialist League, a healthy and sane split from the WRP. Only later (1986 or 7) did the Thornett group fuse with one of the components of the former IMG.

  3. January 2, 2013 at 8:56 am · Reply

    This is a very good contribution to the discussion. Just to briefly develop a point on the IMG I’d add that the co-thinkers of the US SWP were actively hostile both to the idea of the Fourth International and some important elements of its theory, in particular permanent revolution. Their project, and this is borne out by their subsequent development, was to become uncritical cheerleaders of anything vaguely radical from Castro to Sinn Fein. They combined this with a bizarre moralism and hyper activity. However the appeal of the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions was such that a lot of good comrades felt this was the right thing to do.

    The other big adaptation was that of Socialist Action to the Labour bureaucracy. This enabled that current to find a niche as anti-democratic bag carriers and apologists for everyone from Gerry Adams to Ken Livingstone. The point, as Simon observes, is that this was the material world affecting a current that was willing to respond to it and such splits are inevitable in anything other than a bureaucratically micro-managed organisation.

  4. Dave K
    January 2, 2013 at 3:47 pm · Reply

    A very useful and relevant article Simon. Before he died Ernest Mandel also publicly expounded on the errors made by Trotsky and Lenin regarding the banning of factions. His article on Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Socialist Democracy from 1985 makes some similar points to your article regarding how the party should allow public debates and full tendency rights. It also goes through the relationship between any revolutionary party(ies) and a new socialist state. Unlike Ernest you have looking more closely at what Leninist Trotskyist small parties have done. Anyone looking at the radical or revolutionary left from the outside would find it difficult to detect many strategic differences between say the websites of Counterfire, ACN, Socialist Resistance or indeed the big two – socialist party or Socialist Workers. However one crucial difference that you can’t see from websites is the two latter parties conception of party building. Unfortunately the one strategic thing that makes it hard to consider the immediate possibility of a broader radical left party is precisely what you correctly point out is the monolithic pretentions of such parties. Although you correctly point out that there are not examples of mass left of reformist (leninist or otherwise) parties since the 1930s we do have some more positive experiences from places like Portugal or Denmark where Leninists and Trotskyists (and ex Maoists) have come together to develop parties which have serious mass influence. The discussions in the book on the New Parties of the Left published by Socialist Resistance are very pertinent to the issues you raise.( Perhaps it will be through groups and forces outside the big two radical parties coming together within the framework you suggest that will help move things forward and indeed have a positive impact among the ranks of the thousands of good activists who make up those parties. One further issue similar to the party building conception that does inhibit unifying radical forces is the Labour party. Although a broad new party could accommodate people inside and outside the LP history has shown it is very difficult to do in practice, particularly if you are organising an electoral intervention.

    • PhilW
      January 2, 2013 at 8:25 pm · Reply

      Just to clarify: the “article” by Ernest Mandel referred to by DaveK is a resolution of the Fourth International, passed at its 12th World Congress in 1985.

  5. Jane Kelly
    January 2, 2013 at 6:17 pm · Reply

    Very interesting article and the point about politics intervening (into the IMG) and leading to splits is a good one. One element somewhat missing relates to the way Syriza has been able to grow out of the extreme political conditions in Greece whereas in Britain, with a much lower level of class struggle despite the capitalist crisis and climate change, this has not happened. Syriza’s ability to unite previously separate organisations was facilitated by these conditions and meant it also attracted many non-aligned activists.

    But I’m sure your comments are right – no organisation without internal democracy, the right to disagree openly and in public – has any attraction to most people.

  6. PhilW
    January 2, 2013 at 8:54 pm · Reply

    One thing that the IMG never got rid of, even though it had “permanent” tendencies and some factions, was the idea discussed in the article, that the various tendencies never had any doubts that they were correct. The position that even a small organisation was somehow able to test the truth in practice was, I think, fairly current in the organisation, and tendencies were seen a “reflecting different currents of opinion in the working class” (mainly mediated through graduates of Oxford University). But it is also the case that the tendencies and factions were periodically and voluntarily dissolved and that the political debate in the group was necessary and educative.

    After the IMG had evolved into the Socialist League, this uncritical attitude to one’s own politics came home to roost. Although there were differences of political perspective in the SL when it split – and very deep differences with those who became the Communist League – the manner of the split was due to an insistence by John Ross and co-thinkers that they be part of the majority by forming a bloc with the CL-to-be. This was presumably because they were convinced they were right and the stakes so high as to justify unprincipled manoeuvres.

    In building a revolutionary party, you also need to take into account personalities and “charisma”, particularly if they hold positions in the unions, parliament etc. Public profile can be used very destructively in the “internal” politics of a revolutionary or broad left organisation. It would be interesting to know about the discussion in the NPA over Olivier Besancenot, who, I believe, didn’t stand as their presidential candidate because he thought he was getting too much power (?)

    I think that, given experience in “broad parties”, this power needs to be discussed at greater length. One part of it, not mentioned in the post, is how they use their income from such positions and control over private incomes that may result from public prominence.

  7. January 2, 2013 at 9:26 pm · Reply

    Simon, you clearly have the determination to change the world, or at least britain, & hopefully this has come about without an elder brother being executed by the state, as happened to Lenin.

    We all desperately want to see revolutionary progress & your contribution is much welcomed.

    There’s little doubt that the material conditions for a large part of the world’s population make an alternative appealing. Most expect their children to be be worse off. The labour aristocracy of the imperialist countries is almost over. But how to get the message across that there is an alternative?

    Revolutionaries use to rely upon newspapers sold face to face. Today we have the internet. This is a powerful vehicle, & of course doesn’t replace face to face communication, rather helps facilitate it. But what is the message?

    The Bolshevik slogan of ‘Peace, Land & Bread’ wasn’t a communist slogan, but clearly struck a cord. Today we have alienation, gross inequality & ecological destruction. But we also have enormous distrust & cyncism. Anything that smacks of another group of political wanna-be’s is a dead-duck. And let’s be honest, that’s just what today’s left is. The SWP is stuck in the past with it’s paper-selling model to support a group of ‘professional wanna-be Lenin’s’ & is seemingly about to split. Counterfire has a much more modern approach, but still has that SWP air of wanting to control others. There’s not really anyone else in Britain worth mentioning. But shouldn’t we be looking a bit wider?

    Occupy was truly international & connected with a wider audience not so obsessed with the Russian Revolution. IOPS has a communist-like vision, but without Marxist roots, & has structured it’s website in an international & open way, trying to build upon the desire to create another world that came out of the World Social Forum initiative. Despite the theoretical shortcomings of these endeavours, they have been far more successful that the Leninists. Why? Simply because the Leninists are seen, quite rightly, as hierarchical & controlling. A ‘coordinator-class’ as many label them.

    In my opinion it’s time to come out of the Bolshevik shadow, build a non-hierarchical & participatory organisation that puts equality of decision-making into practice. Afterall, that’s what communism is suppose to deliver, equality in decision-making. Why join an organisation that fights for communism, but doesn’t organise in a communistic way? The organisation must reflect, as much as is practically possible, the kind of society it wants to achieve.

    The Commune has, more than any other organisation I’ve come across, actually implemented equality in decision-making. Many of the articles on its website are of significance, such as those on the riots of 2011. The problem the Commune faced was personality conflicts & many coming up with ideas but few prepared to actually do the work. After a big reduction in members we are now moving ahead in a more focused way, but still with participation & equality of decision-making at heart. Perhaps because of this The Commune is libertarian/council communist in outlook, sceptical of Bolsheviks. The focus is building councils (communes) that are the decision-making institutions of a future society, not taking over the existing state ones as Syriza plan to. Does this mean we can’t work with Bolsheviks? Not necessarily, we may be wrong, standing in elections, & even taking seats in parliament may be the prelude to full-scale revolution. We can at least have this debate together.

    Keep up the good work!

  8. January 3, 2013 at 1:16 am · Reply

    On centralism: Karl Liebknicht voted for the Kaiser’s war budget in 1914 because the majority of the SPD’s parliamentary fraction supported that course of action. The point here being that centralism and party discipline are no guarantee that the action being taken is actually in line with proletarian interests. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that centralism is the antidote to opportunism; the Comintern was created based on that line of thinking and within a decade it was overcome by opportunism spread across all of its national sections thanks to Moscow’s centralism.

    On the middle ground: splitting the difference I don’t think is going to help here. Putting a time limit on factions means it’s okay to expel people for “factionalism” if they do it before/after the allotted time period. In the SWP, for example, it would be perfectly legal for the CC to remove someone who discussed forming a faction if they did so three months and a day prior to their annual conference since their permitted faction time is three months.

    I don’t particularly like the idea of permanent factions, especially in tiny and obscure groups, but I think a truly mass party with a big working-class following would end up developing them in some form or another because the working class is not homogeneous nor does it exist in isolation from other classes/strata. The RSDLP/RCP(b) example I cited shows that some factions (like the Bolsheviks) persisted throughout the existence of the party while others came and went (liquidators, interdistrict-ites, recallists, economists, Left Communists) with circumstances. There’s no constitutional or perfect legal wording/arrangement that is going to be a sure-fire vaccination against idiocy, unfairness, dogmatism, abuse of power, opportunism, or ultra-leftism. What allowed the RSDLP to avoid those pitfalls was its steadfast commitment to plurality, clearly defined rules for members and powers of the CC (with real checks and balances, transparency to prevent expulsions and manipulation), and an overriding sense of what I would call “the class line,” meaning they didn’t accuse or treat each other as enemies or unconscious agents of the 1% every time a dispute or difference of opinion arose. Lenin accused the Mensheviks of slipping into opportunism on organizational questions in his 1904 One Step Forward, Two Steps Back but he didn’t claim they were reformists, counter-revolutionaries, or good-for-nothing centrist scum itching to betray the proletariat at the first chance they got; even in 1917, Lenin held out the hope that his old friend Martov would come back to the revolutionary fold and break with Tseretelli and other right Mensheviks. There’s very little of Lenin’s patient, comradely spirit and open-minded attitude among “Leninists” today towards fellow “Leninists” in other organizations much less towards anarchists, Maoists, council communists, and other revolutionary elements. As long as that’s the case “Leninists” will remain stuck on the fast track to nowhere.

    • Luke Cooper
      January 3, 2013 at 12:30 pm · Reply

      I think Pham’s comments are largely made in reply to Ross above, and I want to add a few more remarks on these questions of centralism, ‘majoritarianism’, and so-called permanent factionalism, so it seems to make sense to put them here. It is an odd reading of Simon’s article to see it as an appeal for ‘permanent factionalism’. Ross appears to equate the call for plurality on the left with this, particularly in relation to the discussion of the IMG.

      This really is not what we are arguing. Rather, we want to see a united revolutionary organisation in which differences of strategy and tactics are allowed a degree of leeway such that they can co-exist without ipso facto leading to a split. This would not work if each and every ‘faction’ (formal or otherwise) within the party engaged in a Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’ from day one, but could only work if there was a spirit of mutual dialogue, constructive debate, and a commitment to not let theoretical and strategic differences obstruct common unity in action.

      It is true that a degree of centralism is bound up with the question of majoritarianism in politics. In the RSDLP, democratic centralism was largely used as a term to indicate the sovereignty of national congresses in relation to the party leadership and its small executive. Decisions of the party congress were indeed intended to be implemented by the party as a whole and majority and minority positions at conferences would then be reflected proportionally on the leading bodies of the party.

      In this sense, there is a positive case to be made for the idea of majoritarianism in relation to the collectively agreed actions of the political party, but this always exists in a negotiated relationship to the autonomy of base bodies of the party to take their own initiatives and a wide degree of flexibility in how the national conferences’ collective decisions are translated into the life of the organisation at a branch level.

      If we see this relationship between autonomy and majoritarian democracy as existing in a ‘dynamic tension’ to one another (to use Paul le Blanc’s phrase), then they have to be concretely mediated in practice. The assumption amongst most modern Leninist sects is that the principle of majoritarianism trumps that of autonomy on every conceivable question. During the last major SWP crisis, for example, if I remember rightly, Clare Solomon was expelled for organising a cultural and political event called Mutiny that was not sanctioned by the SWP and for prioritising Stop the War work at Soas over a meeting with Alex Callinicos on revolution. Expelling people for such practices destroys individual initiative and the autonomy of bases units of an organisation to develop their own life and dynamic, it leads to the drain of activists away from an organisation and undermines the wider credibility of the left. Moreover, they show the dangers of an absolutist notion of majoritarianism, which can easily lead to bureaucratism and a top-down approach to party building.

      A bit of revolutionary common sense tells us it is possible to uphold majoritarianism as well as individual and local autonomy in relation to other structures of the party. Arguably, questions of practical organisation and immediate, broadly conceived campaigning goals, are going to need a ‘majoritarian’ set of decisions, but then there should be wide latitude for theoretical and strategic differences, which do not have an immediate bearing on the activity of the organisation, to be openly debated. Clearly, any conception of majoritarian decision making, also has to recognise that the party cannot ‘force’ individuals to undertake a given action, as the only sanction that it has is ultimately expulsion, i.e. the fact that in the future it would not give out such ‘orders’. In the end, a party will need to persuade its base groupings to adopt a certain course, and encourage them to observe collectively agreed national decisions.

      There is a section of Beyond Capitalism? where we discusses the NPA in France that is pertinent to these questions. Apologies for just posing it in, but I would be interested in hearing your thoughts:

      “Activists who were involved in the NPA often cite the way in which it was organised as a factor in its decline. To its credit the NPA embraced plurality, but it did so in a form that internalised aspects of sect politics – a la the highly homogenous propaganda current –into its party life. To have a stake and political influence within the NPA it is necessary to be a member of one of other of its numerous factional platforms. Attendance at its congresses could therefore be a peculiar experience, because the outcome was often known in advanced, based on the relative numbers mobilised by its various tendencies. The result was debates could become polarised, but there was also little attempt to arrive at some kind of common methodological principle – as if no such common position were possible and that its internal
      divisions were somehow inevitable.

      “A similar problem – in the sense that it illustrates some of the dangers involved in trying to overcome the top-down and bureaucratic logic of traditional left wing organisation – existed when it came to the extent of the autonomy granted to local branches and regions. Undoubtedly this was a good thing, it made the NPA a democratic and participatory organisation, but activists ended up complaining that there was little in the way of nationally-focused political campaigning. In periods of upsurge in the French class struggle, such as the pensions’ dispute in 2010, the NPA had nothing like the profile or impact it should have done, had it formed structures that were consciously coordinating its attempts to develop the movement from below.

      “It is not necessarily a question of striking a “balance” between leadership and democracy, but recognising that for democracy to be real it has to involve the formation of authoritative national bodies mandated to carry out the will of the collective organisation. The autonomy of base organisations and, indeed, of individuals, then needs to be mediated so that a balance is struck between granting a healthy amount of freedom and recognising “majoritarianism” in the daily practice of the political organisation. If there is a lesson here it is that overcoming bureaucratic and top down models of party organisation and trying to pioneer a new way of doing things is a noble endeavour but nonetheless also carries with it dangers too.”

      • Andrew
        January 4, 2013 at 1:43 pm · Reply

        Interesting points about the NPA, Luke. They tie in with PhilW’s observation – ie even in a democratic revolutionary organisation each tendency or faction may be 100% convinced that only they have the answers to the burning questions confronting the class (etc), which leads to a bad atmosphere and a greater likelihood of splits. But I would also echo other comrades that sometimes the problem is to do with the political content of the faction/tendency struggle. In the case of the NPA, I was never sure how even a democratic organisation of 9000 members (initially) could hegemonise the space to the left of the Socialist Party (PS), given that millions of French workers might identify as left but not as revolutionary. The NPA was caught out by the split of the Left Party/Melenchon from the PS and by its formation of the Left Front with the Communist Party/PCF. In my view the NPA failed to address this development in an intelligent and nuanced way. Gauche Anticapitaliste, the most recent split from the NPA, has perhaps begun to do this. It has joined the Left Front and is building it, but also wants to build an anticapitalist pole with other far left organisations in the Left Front, as well as developing a dialogue with the Left Party. Of course, I’m not involved in French politics and may be wrong about all this 🙂

        • January 4, 2013 at 5:16 pm · Reply

          I agree with this assessment of the NPA. I got the sense reading their founding documents that they made a good-faith effort to break with the worst elements of Trotskyist practice but didn’t go nearly far enough. This error was compounded by the fact that NPA wrote off the Socialist Party as a stinking, neoliberal corpse, so when Melenchon and co. split from the Socialist Party they reacted as if the corpse lost a lifeless limb and not a living, radicalicalizing trend.

        • January 4, 2013 at 5:18 pm · Reply

          The LCR already had formal factions and with the creation of the NPA, some other small groups entered the NPA as organised factions.

          For non aligned members this was a very alienating experience as they were effectively excluded from decision making at a national, though not local level. After the initial wave of positive feeling created by the Olivier Presidential campaign, and the wide coverage the policies of the NPA received the reality of internal party left slowly but surely lead to a draining of first individual comrades leaving, and then with the formation of the Left Front the departure of some of the factions- there are now three ex NPA groups in the FdG, as well as two break offs from the PCF, and of course the Left Party break from the PS.

          One of the major problems of the NPA was it seemed incapable of actually doing anything anything as an organisation aparyt from elections and lurched from Congress to Congress without any clear direction.

          That is not to say in any way that its members were not effective, as anti-fascist and as trade unionists they have outstanding cadre who work well with the autogestion/ radical green left, and with the more militants sections of the trade union movement through SUD and the CGT.

          But the democratic structure the NPA inherited from the LCR essentially froze the organisation. It would be an interesting lesson for those in the know to look at why that happened. From an outside perspective my take on it would be three fold, firstly that within the LCR there was strong inner party culture that meant there was a tacit understanding that while factions and position were important there were the mechanism to ensure that decision making did happen and the party machine did function, however once in a wider party that tacit understanding broken down and the comrades did not have time to re-establish a new modus operandum before crisis hit.

          Once in crisis the NPA did not have the glue to hold itself together that the LCR had had.

          Secondly there was no mechanism for dealing with new individual members, if you were a pre-existing organisation you already had a ‘line’ and a degree of structure, individual members did not and were quickly excluded.

          Thirdly the actual leadership, in the form of Krivine and Olivier failed the organisation by not giving a clear direction- they were the only two that could have done so and Olivier character and high media profile were the NPA’s biggest asset. It may have been very principled for Olivier to stand down but for the NPA it was a disaster.

          In hindsight the biggest failure if the NPA was its failure to attract the young militants of the PCF. There were many, like myself in the PCF who were open to the idea of the NPA but found that the comrades may have talked the talk of unity but were unable to break from their sectarian background.

          The initially high level alliance of the FdG which in essence brought the candidature of Melenchon, a highly skilled media performer, with the vast machine of the PCF, 90,000 members, over 10,000 elected positions, an Assembly Group, a Senate Group, national and regional press and an annual budget of 35 million euros. Melenchon provided the public face, the Communists the smooth electoral machine- and the cash. The NPA were out manuovered in every stage of the elections and looked clumsy, their candidate lacklustre and at times they just looked ridiculous- their decision to stand against Melenchon in Henin make a complete mockery of their comrades hard anti-fasist work.

          Now the NPA is left at a membership level below that of the LCR when it was formed, isolated and politically bemused, confused and directionless.

          The FdG is also in a rather strange place, the smaller organisations who are mainly Paris nbased with little influence outside of the Ille de France, want a membership organisation, this has no appeal for Melenchon who’s Left Party maybe, and its a big maybe has 4,000 members, nor the PCF which is struggling to keep its membership together, and is also sick of the, as we see it, the lose of key elected positions in the regions and National Assembly due to the dilution of our electoral work into the general FdG strategy which pulled resources away from target seats.

          • Luke Cooper
            January 6, 2013 at 12:32 pm ·

            These are a very useful set of comments from all of you.

            There is certainly common ground to some of the conclusions we draw in the book, we cite for example some of Olivier’s problematic statements in interviews, where he implied there was no middle way possible between an anticapitalist left and the social liberalism of the SP. This was naturally refuted by the rise of the Left Front, which underlines the allure of left reformism despite (or perhaps ‘because of’) the long march rightwards by social democracy and the depth of the capitalist crisis.

            Nonetheless, personally, I am ultimately closer to the NPA position with regard to the Left Front, because I see a merit in building an explicitly anticapitalist left unity project. From what I can infer from reports, involvement in the Left Front is also problematic insofar as it doesn’t have base organisations outside of electoral campaigns, and does not appear to be taking any steps to build a united party. There is also the question of the strategic attachment of the CP to the SP, and the likely involvement in a social liberal government, should the SP require that kind of prop on a national level in the future.

            In that sense, I think the biggest failure of the NPA has been its inability to create a framework for political activity for party members outside of elections – something that is doubly important if one realistically accepts the likelihood of Left Front success on the electoral terrain. The form this might have taken could have been developing new grassroots structures in the trade unions – something that Olivier suggested on occasion when he attacked the Charter of Amiens (1906), which excludes political parties from any role in influencing the unions, i.e. establishes purely syndicalist basis for industrial struggle.

            But perhaps there is also the question of community organisation. There is no shortage of activity that the NPA might be undertaking in working class communities, putting down roots, setting up social centres, running anti-racist campaigns and so on. There are numerous organisations doing this work in France, but the question is how the political parties relate to these social movements, without on the one hand not giving them any political edge, with activists in the party involving themselves as individuals only, and on the other hand being seen to homogenise these social movements for its own ends.

  9. Andrew
    January 3, 2013 at 12:39 pm · Reply

    I too agree with Simon’s main points. But I also found the contribution of the comrade from the Commune interesting, because it takes up the question again of what we mean by ‘non-hierarchical’. Here’s an anecdote that doesn’t prove anything either way but may be of interest. For some years, Fourth International comrades in the Spanish state were federally organised in city/regional/national (eg Basque/Catalan) collectives. I was told that the impetus to move to the current more centralised structure of Izquierda Anticapitalista a few years ago came from younger activists in the oppressed nations/regions ie outside Madrid, whereas older comrades in Madrid were fairly happy with the federal structure. Seemingly the newer members wanted to have greater unity in action, without sacrificing democratic discussion.

    Internationally, btw, the Fourth International does not implement democratic centralism (even in the more positive sense of the term). There are majority positions expressed in statements by leadership bodies and by conference resolutions, but the national sections are not bound to follow them. Thus there has been a lot of unevenness across the FI re, for example, taking on board ecosocialist ideas and practice, but the fact that these ideas are now much more widespread across the national sections shows the pedagogical/practical advantage sometimes in horizontal discussions rather than vertical communiques.

  10. January 4, 2013 at 8:04 pm · Reply

    The late Daniel Bensaid addressed some of these issues in an interview I did with him 11 years ago, especially cf his comments on the term ‘leninist’

    I think that Simon isn’t completely right about the 1985 split in the IMG/SL. It was also about contending leadership teams. Permanent factions are often a sign of this, and in turn this often turns out to be because the central leadership is unwilling/unable to properly integrate minorities into the leadership. Permanent factions are a sign that something is not working properly in the internal life of an organisation. In the dogmatic-sectarian tradition of much of British Trotskyism (the IMG was not immune BTW) the monpolisation of politics by leadership cliques and a desire to ‘crush’ oppositions operates just as much inside the organisation as it does to external rivals. As Isaac Deutscher says in vol 2 of the Trotsky biography, once you ban factions internally then – if you have power – you are on the way to banning rival parties, because every faction (not tendency btw) is a potential party. This is a very important debate and well done Simon for posing these questions; the British far left needs ideological and organisational refoundation. See also:

    • Luke Cooper
      January 6, 2013 at 12:34 pm · Reply

      Thanks for the link to Bensaid piece, fully agree with his remarks here:

      “The invention of ‘Leninism’ as a religiously mummified orthodoxy, was part of the process of bureaucratisation of the Comintern and the Soviet Union. That’s why, as far as possible, I personally avoid utilising this ‘ism’.”

      And here –

      “The democratic aspect [of democratic centralism] is fundamental. If, after free discussion, there doesn’t exist a collective effort and a mutual involvement in putting all the decisions to the test of practice, the democracy of an organisation remains purely formal and ‘parliamentary’. It becomes reduced to an exchange of opinions without real consequences, everyone can participate in the debate with their own convictions, without a common practice to test the validity of a political orientation.”

  11. January 7, 2013 at 1:33 pm · Reply

    A couple of points, firstly the PS is in alliance not with the PCF but EELV. The PS/PCF alliance is long gone, with the PS in the last 10 years or so making overtures to the centre not to its left. Yes there are still PS/PCF working relationships at a Regional and Departmental level as well as in a number of town halls but they are based on local issues, and of course keeping the Right out of power. The old NPA view of the PS/PCF relationship is essentially out of date and is not reflected in the politics and outlook of either party.
    Secondly on the FdG, it depends where you are I imagine but here in the Aude (Languedoc Roussillon) we have regular FdG meetings and co-ordinate campaigns around key industrial action, anti-racist activity,housing, transport and environmental campaigns et al. However the main work is still done by the PCF and our militants, and there in lies the problem.

    From a PCF perspective why should we do all the work, provide the funding, organise the meetings, do all the hard slog while the other parts of the FdG have an equal say in decision making and do nothing?

    The numbers on a national level are what? Left Party 3-6,000, Anti-capitalist left, maybe 500, Piquet’s crew 200, FASE 3-400, others maybe 800 combined PCF 80-90,000. (All my estimates).

    Why should the PCF dissolve itself into a not much wider body? What’s the upside of building a new party when we have one already that is both strong in the community and in the unions. The FdG is proving a useful electoral and co-ordinating structure, so why do we need a new party?

    The other major issue is also related, at the moment we, the PCF, have been very careful not to dominate the FdG meetings, we send the same number of militants to each meeting as the other smaller organisations. If we move to a membership organisation in my department for example that would mean 932 PCF votes, 6 FASE, 12 ex-NPA in three organisations, 27 ex-PCF hardliners, and 19 radical greens, and a handful of mao-ists. If people think the present structure is undemocratic then they would have a rude shock in a one member one vote organisation.

  12. Dave K
    January 7, 2013 at 5:15 pm · Reply

    The crisis of the NPA project, although not reducing the current organisation (yet!) to a smaller size than the old LCR, has been an important setback to what was the healthiest revolutionary group in France – a group that was able to ride out the difficult 90s after the fall of the wall and through Olivier Besancenot’s electoral campaigns and the NPA project give a new boost to the radical left(with even a positive international impact). As Pete says the way the tendencies or factions operated did not help when trying to develop a new leadership or integrate new members. If anything this was also to do with an overcautious concern for the NPA not to be an LCR clone so the new leadership retired an number of LCR leaders. Similarly the organisational needs of the new party were underestimated – the number of full timers was quite small compared to equivalent sized groups. A rapidly growing new party with people coming in from new and different directions requires more resources not less. Pierre Rousset on the ESSF site has written very perceptively about this issue. Apart from this the fundamental political problem was there was still ambiguity about whether the NPA was a genuinely broad anti-captalist stuggle party which could include activists who were not consistent revolutionaries/,marxists meant that when confronted with the challenge of the Front de Gauche the NPA tended towards a sectarian position. It also meant that on the affair regarding the NPA candidate who wore a headscarf the party tore itself apart. Indeed the affair was handled badly partly because there was weak day to day leadership where the central leadership were interacting spasmodically with the regions and local sections. As for the comrades who have left the NPA to join the Front de Gauche this tactic is also quite problematic since as Pete says Melenchon has no interest in a membership party and without this the project remains very much electorally based and also at the mercy of PCF resources. People forget that the PCF continues to govern in alliance with PS led administrations throughout France. The unfortunate reality is that both the NPA and the revolutionary forces inside the Fdg are or will experience difficulties since neither currently has a viable project for building a new left party that can really challenge the PS. The general point we can draw in relation to building new revolutionary parties to day is that the sort of internal democracy both Simon and Luke are proposing is an absolute necessity but in itself is not sufficient to avoid political mistakes or disastors. Of course conversely even with a vaguely correct political line for a given period you will never build anything if you do not have a internally democratic organisation. The SWP is living testimony to the latter.

  13. January 7, 2013 at 7:47 pm · Reply

    We seemed to have high jacked a good debate and Done a ‘French Turn’.
    To return to the point, is putting the idea of a new party a question of putting the cart in front of the horse?

    First there needs to be a re-building of trust and mutual respect amongst the left. Is the CoR a potential basis for that, or does the existence of UTR and the NSSN mean that the present revolutionary brands are stuck to fighting for the small market of this years first years?

  14. Stuart King
    January 9, 2013 at 11:58 pm · Reply

    The NPA debacle is important because it shows that “pluralism” of itself does not solve all problems, a suggestion I think in Simon’s articles. In fact normally the development of factions, platforms, tendencies is a reflection of things going wrong in an organisation eg a political perspective or set of tactics not working or not reflecting reality. This was certainly the case in IS in the 1970s, and probably in the case of the IMG in the 1990s.

    A healthy organisation, and leadership, should be able to take on board the criticisms, make compromises and take minorities into the leadership where possible. This as Pete says requires trust and mutual respect, often developed over some years of working together. This was something the NPA did not have before two crises – attitude to republicanism/religion, followed by the development of a major force to the electoral left of the SP – hit them.

    Factions, tendencies and platforms and the inner party struggles that go with them are a “necessary evil” as Trotsky’s said. In the best of organisations they come together around an issue and dissolve after it is solved or a decision is taken. Permanent factions or permanent “pluralism” in small groups as someone said above are really difficult to handle.

    Somehow we need to strike a balance – every difference should not become a split but some differences are quite difficult to contain within a single organisation. But as long as we are not involved in the immediate struggle for revolution (when you need the iron discipline of a combat party) we should be much more relaxed about democratic centralism – emphasising the democratic over the centralism and openess over secrecy.

    • PhilW
      January 12, 2013 at 10:18 am · Reply

      1) The IMG did not exist in the 1990s. If you mean the 1970s and early ’80s, then I partially agree with you. The factionalism was debilitating to the organisation, but I think that was more to do with an over-exaggerated sense of the crucial importance of the need for the group to be right about everything, rather than the existence of factions per se. There was also a lively, educative and informative internal discussion, which was more than can be said for some other groups.

      2) I would like to hear more about the !”lack of trust” in the NPA prior to its current problems.

      3) The “iron discipline” of publicly opposing the insurrection?

  15. Pete Shield
    January 11, 2013 at 2:31 pm · Reply

    The first bit of this is a good read on the LCR/NPA, for me the second half disappears up itself

  16. January 12, 2013 at 11:41 am · Reply

    Simon, your article has given a much needed, further insight into the history and the future development of revolutionary social democracy and also, of course, the development of democratic centralism within the revolutionary party during the transitional, lower phase of communism.

    There is much that I agree with in your article but, for me, your point of departure gives the impression that this was the beginning whereas, the concept of social democracy, which came replete with its reformist and revolutionary tendencies, was around for a quite a time before the Bolsheviks came on the scene.

    Neither revolutionary social democracy for the working class or democratic centralism for the communist party should be advanced from the top down or from the bottom up. they should involve a dialectical interrelationship between the two.

    At one stage, Lenin actually decided to seek the vantage point of the central committee which enabled a top down presentation of a particular line at congress, a procedure which was adopted by innumerable communist parties.

    It is this top down procedure that encourages the eventual development of two rival factions, both of which could be wrong, battling it out for the vantage point of the central committee, in the process of which other theoretical tendencies are squeezed out.

    One last point, it is unfortunate that, in an article intended for the 21st Century, you should choose to use the term ‘Stalinism’. I think that term really should be relegated to the history of the 20th Century.

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