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Democracy and the Socialist movement – in defence of Leninism

John McAnulty

11 September 2006

Recently Leftline, the magazine of the Irish Socialist Network (ISN) carried an article examining the problems of democratic organisation within the Irish Socialist movement.  Below John McAnulty looks at the arguments presented from a Leninist perspective.

In the latest issue of Leftline your correspondent, CB, explores problems of a democratic internal life within the Irish left. I want to respond to the article for two reasons. Firstly I think that the article sums up well the generally anti-Leninist sentiment of many left activists. Secondly I want to take the opportunity to point out that that sentiment is based on a number of misconceptions. The critics of Leninism are wide of the mark - nowhere more so than when they attack a straw man labelled 'democratic centralism'.

There is a central ambiguity in CB's argument. S/He argues that undemocratic and sexist practices on the left can perpetuate themselves in wider society, yet the next paragraph in the article indicates that pressure from surrounding society can lead to undemocratic, sexist and elitist pressures on socialist groups.

So which is it? Do the groups lead to undemocratic societies or do the undemocratic societies lead to a lack of democracy within the groups?  To a certain extent we can argue that there is a dialectical pressure in both directions, but Marxists would in the end argue that capitalist society is the determining factor and that the ideologies and social relationships of that society tend to be replicated even in the groups most opposed to capital.

If we accept this then a number of other elements that CB suggests cause undemocratic practices on the left can be seen to be effects of capitalist society.  Left groups are small and isolated, not primarily because of this or that practice but because, in the absence of a revolutionary upsurge, only a small minority will support a revolutionary programme.

There is one other thing that follows from the above.  If undemocratic practices are caused primarily by the political pressure of capitalism, then the defence is political and not organisational. There is no organisational form that condemns an organisation to be a sect, nor is there any organisational magic bullet that can protect us and ensure that we live insulated from the social Darwinism around us.

This means that the solutions that CB suggests are bound to be ineffective.  Eternal vigilance?  We can’t be vigilant forever and in any case this perspective suggests that some guardian can stand outside the social situation and make some objective judgement of the direction the organisation is moving in. A broader more vibrant movement made of many organisations?  That would help, but the current success of capitalist reaction that isolates individual groups is also the factor that means the broader movement is also small and weak.  Bottom up organisation?  Organisations whose members are simply cannon fodder can’t develop a socialist programme, but spontaneous and unstructured movements are no guarantee of anything.  My experience is that very often spontaneous structures simply disguise the fact that there is a hidden leadership that, under the guise of spontaneity, is able to avoid responsibility for decisions that they took in back rooms and never have to answer for.

The reason that the conclusion of the CB analysis is not convincing is that it is founded on two basic misconceptions.  The first is that democratic centralism is identical to centralism and absence of democracy.  The second, even more basic misconception, is that democratic centralism is a theory of organisation.

The equals sign between centralism and democratic centralism is reflected in the concept, taken from history, that Leninism inevitably gave rise to Stalinism.  It is a sign of the political retreat of socialism that this idea, once held only by anarchists and the far right, is now so popular. There is no evidence for it in anything that Lenin said or did.    The movement he constructed was a hive of internal democracy, discussion and debate. Lenin could be quite ruthless, and he did restrict both democracy generally and party democracy under conditions of war, but it is quite clear from his writings that he considered these steps to be temporary expedients and knew that he was also taking a terrible risk, as he recognised that the very existence of the Bolsheviks as a revolutionary party rested on the most throughgoing internal democracy.

Stalin was quick to wrap the mantle of Lenin around himself and to link Lenin’s name to the utter suppression of party democracy, but it is an historical fact that he found it necessary, in order to present himself as Lenin’s inheritor, to physically eliminate the entire leadership of the Bolsheviks.  It is true that Lenin came before Stalin, but simple-minded to believe that one caused the other and that the medium for transmission was a particular form of organisation.  Marxists do not look for organisational explanations in history, nor do they divorce events from their context.  The Bolsheviks were a product of a rising revolutionary wave, Stalin of revolutionary ebb and isolation.  It was possible to resist Stalin, but that resistance was around political programme, not organisational form.

Lenin understood the primacy of politics very well, and one would search his writings in vain for ‘democratic centralism’ as an organisational principle.  Indeed, Lenin was so eclectic about organisation that initially he argued that the worker could best organise around a workers paper rather than any particular party structure.  He did put forward ‘democratic centralism’ as a political principle with two main elements: 

1 All party members were bound by the majority vote of conference and should carry out its decisions even when they personally disagreed – that was the democratic thing to do and it was the only way that the revolutionaries could strike together and have some impact on society. 

2. There had to be freedom of opinion within the party. The decisions that the party came to should be based on the wide field of knowledge that the members represented.  Once decisions were implemented and the revolutionaries were able to see the results the outcome should be subjected to sharp debate and analysis from all sides.  Only is this way could the revolutionaries learn from experience and learn from the workers, incorporating the lessons of each struggle into the programme of the organisation.

From this perspective we can approach the possibilities of building an open and effective revolutionary movement. We have to understand that there are no guarantees.  History ebbs and flows and the revolutionary organisations are caught up in this ebb and flow.  The SWP has a pretty bad reputation at the moment, but the British movement in the past was a lot bigger, based on rank and file workers and put class analysis at the centre of its activity.  Many of the restrictions on democratic debate within the SWP are new and are the result of decline rather than the cause of that decline.

What does offer a partial guarantee is political education and political consciousness.  Militants who join a revolutionary organisation are entitled to expect a detailed political training.  That training must encourage independent thought. That initial training is added to by experience and by joint action with class-conscious workers.  Most of the shop stewards in the then International Socialists of the early ‘70s wouldn’t have stood still for the current wild swings in policy of today’s SWP.  The new members simply don’t know any better and appear not even to be educated to look at events from a working class perspective.

Political education and consciousness doesn’t last forever, but it does insulate militants from the harshest retreats and offers the opportunity of survival in periods of downturn.  That sort of consciousness is built on a knowledge of Marxist theory and on the experience of the workers in struggle.  In producing that sort of militant the Leninist model is invaluable.

My political involvement almost 40 years ago in the foundation of Peoples Democracy involved all that CB lauds.  The movement was open, puralist, operated a direct democracy and organised from the bottom up.  We worked for years afterwards to build a movement that had a real political programme, the structures of genuine democracy and an inkling of the Leninist tools that would allow us to operate effectively in the class struggle.  Our early mistakes should not be repeated.


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