Friday, 9 October 2009

Are revolutionary parties undemocratic?

I've just read John Molyneux's article 'On party democracy' in the new International Socialism. I disagree with the general direction of his argument - which is away from the Leninist tradition of party organisation, as normally understood. I don't share his conclusions. He has, essentially, become highly distrustful and sceptical of any prospects for genuine democracy in revolutionary parties.

This leads him very close to suggesting the project of building a democratic revolutionary socialist party isn't a viable one. In this key respect I think he is seriously mistaken.

However, in the earlier sections - which seem fairly conventional for those of us in the Leninist tradition - he provides useful reminders of how utterly fundamental democracy has always been to the revolutionary tradition. He offers a number of quotes which debunk myths presenting socialist organisations as monolithic or autocratic. Quite the opposite: any organisation based on prinicples of socialism from below must, necessarily, be thoroughly democratic.

Here's Trotsky reflecting on the Bolshevik Party's history:

'Freedom of criticism and intellectual struggle was an irrevocable content of the party democracy. The present doctrine that Bolshevism does not tolerate factions is a myth of the epoch of decline. In reality the history of Bolshevism is a history of the struggle of factions. And, indeed, how could a genuinely revolutionary organisation, setting itself the task of overthrowing the world and uniting under its banner the most audacious iconoclasts, fighters and insurgents, live and develop without intellectual conflicts, without groupings and temporary factional formations?

And here's Duncan Hallas, for many years a leading member of the British SWP, in 1971:

'[A revolutionary socialist party] cannot possibly be created except on a thoroughly democratic basis; unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.'

These remarks represent the true Leninist tradition of party democracy. Molyneux goes on to exhibit some confused and contradictory thinking, but these quotes from Trotsky and Hallas speak to us with clarity and force.

Picture: Tony Cliff, Socialist Workers Party founder.


  1. Hi Luna17,
    I read the article the other day. I'm unsure how it can be read as an argument against a Leninist party.

    I read it as an attempt to explain (materially) why revolutionary parties can fail to be democratic (partially or totally) and what can be done about this. Quite important stuff.

    What particular bits did you find contradictory/confused/overly skeptical/pessimistic ?

  2. Contradictory/confused becaise it's difficult to know what Molyneux's opinion is as there seems little coherence in the piece & then just 'some' conclusions, therefore leaving the reader with no definite idea of the purpose of the article. Isn't it usual for author's to finish with 'A' conclusion. If not, why bother...?