'If the leaders seek only to preserve themselves, that is what they become; preserves – dried preserves. If they enter the movement, they give the impulse to five, ten, twenty others. It is more important to multiply our cadres than to preserve them, and they can be multiplied by the hundreds. Our cadres need education and experience in mass movements, and how can they get this outside the life of the masses?'
Leon Trotsky, 'Some Questions on American Problems' (1940)
These words were amongst the last ever written by the great revolutionary, before Stalin's icepick fell. While we 21st century revolutionaries are thankfully untroubled by the monstrous authoritarianism of Stalinism, it's still worth considering the sentiments here.
Trotsky is saying something about those who at least claim the status of revolutionary leadership. When they turn inwards and seek self-preservation, lashing out at opponents and stamping on dissent - rather than engaging with others and pushing outwards - they ultimately forefeit any authority as leadership. They become useless and sterile. But this is not, Trotsky seems to be suggesting, a quirk of personality or a mere temporary defect. It has a material basis.
It is, in other words, when leaders fail to absorb themselves in the real struggles in the outside world - and, in particular, when they fail to offer leadership to those in struggle - that the process of rot and decay becomes pronounced. Impotent sectarianism is what follows. The most vital corrective is an assured grasp of the united front, which Trotsky wrote about HERE.
This is, as I'm sure is obvious, intimately connected with the challenge of ensuring a healthy, vibrant democratic culture inside socialist organisations. It's John Molyneux's article on this subject - which I linked to a few days ago, but HERE it is again - that prompted me to muse on the topic. I'm not going to enter into a sustained response here, but while I appreciate Molyneux opening up the subject (and his comments on the legitimacy of factions towards the end certainly resonate) I broadly disagree with him.
While the author doesn't explicitly reject the tenets of Leninism, he introduces so many caveats that democratic centralism starts to look very dubious. But this is to get it the wrong way around. When ostensibly revolutionary parties degenerate it is not in any sense democratic centralism that is at fault - it is, instead, precisely the case that they've moved away from genuine democratic centralism.
I think Molyneux also gets things back to front in another important way too. He repeatedly implies that problems of internal democracy have been at the root of political problems in socialist organisations. But, generally, it's the other way around: political errors and wrong strategies lead to a corruption of democracy.
The reason is fairly obvious. A correct and principled politcal strategy can be articulated clearly, without evasion or ambiguity. But when the course being followed is the wrong one, it is a different matter. It then becomes necessary for leaders to lie to the members, for senior bodies to be secretive instead of open, for dissidents to be disciplined, suspended or expelled, and for a culture of denunciation and personalisation to develop.
So it is not the democratic principles associated with the Leninist model of party building that are at fault. Quite the opposite. When things go badly it is for profoundly political reasons - and the rest will inevitably follow. Lenin wrote somewhere that organisational questions are always bound up with political questions. This is something Molyneux seems in danger of neglecting.
What can appear as an internal crisis is in reality an external problem. Or, to put it another way, the real source of difficulty is how the party envisages its relationship with wider movements and with the class. Are revolutionaries just incorrigible sectarians, leeching on the movements, or are they determined to shape and lead resistance?
Are they dried preserves, or are they throwing themselves into the life of the masses?