Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Revolutionary leadership and democracy

'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?


  1. Honie, I love you because I am a witness to 'dried preserves' and they just do my head in. I was trained in healthcare to be who I am in the UK and am proud of being a British woman. Hence I was proud at being called 'a mover and shaker' in healthcare. However, being a preservative just does my head in because I don't preserve the British status quo as health care needs that I deal with have no Britishness in them. Trot was surely a mover and shaker - hence Stalin silenced him. The moment someone tells me that I am a good woman, a mover and shaker of British values I freak out, because I hate being a preservative. Thanks to Trot some of us are alive. Stalin failed to control Trot until death; as a follower of Trot noone will control me, not even the British values.

  2. "While the author doesn't explicitly reject the tenets of Leninism, he introduces so many caveats that democratic centralism starts to look very dubious."

    I don't see this anywhere in his article. In fact, it seems to me that it is a reiteration of the (I would think) fairly orthodox point that Leninism is about a method and a process, rather than any fixed organizational forms, none of which can guarantee democracy. Democratic practice is an ongoing concern, every bit as much (and related to) maintaining a connection with the masses. As Molyneux notes, for instance: "Rather we need to understand that the social origin of real democracy in the socialist movement is the struggle of the working class. Party democracy is likely to suffer in so far as the party is cut off from that source—whether because it has set itself above the class (labour and trade union bureaucrats), because it has been driven to the margins of the class (Trotskyism in the 1930s), because it has cut itself off from the class or because the level of class struggle is low."

    But what Molyneux does and what you seem to disagree with, is that he argues that relation is a complex one, not reducible to immediate tactical perspectives but also flowing out of long term relations of forces (the downturn, for instance and the prolonged period of recover). And a "proper perspective" can't wish away the objective limitations of a period, that exert a pressure on party practices. James P. Cannon notes this complex, multi-sided process in the degeneration of the US Communist Party, when he writes: "At that conjuncture [the mid-20s] the deadening conservatism of American life, induced by the unprecedented boom of post-war American capitalism, coinciding with the reactionary swing in Russia, caught the infant movement of American communism from two sides, as in a vise from which it could not escape."
    It would be silly and reductionist to see democracy as a one-sided question, reducible to immediate tactical considerations as much as it would to reduce it to specific organizational forms. If only it were so, party democratic practice would be much simpler. If anything, I think Molyneux's article marks a hardening of his past arguments on party democracy. And I think it lays out a good set of general principles and method.

  3. One cannot drive a car if the steering wheel and pedals are disconnected from the rest of the vehicle.

    It is not enough to turn the wheel and press the pedals. Such movements in themselves trigger nothing but a false sense of momentum. Only in the imagination will one be going anywhere.

    The linkage between steering wheel, pedals and the greater components of the car must exist and be mechanically sound or nothing will happen.

    Now can we PLEASE get out of the scrap yard and onto the road to socialism!

  4. Thanks Gary Duncan and thanks redbedhead for the summing up of what I also believe to be what John Moleneux tried to articulate. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his article.

  5. I became a revolutionary only after I became a reformist. My progression to revolutionary consciousness required a transitional stage.

    Before I was able to relate fully to Marxism I needed a less extreme, less intense and more orthodox set of political ideas.

    I would never have joined the Socialist Workers Party before I joined Respect. The latter was an essential stepping stone for me.

    I've spent the last few years striving to build a branch of the SWP in Sunderland. Today we have a solid group of activists who are dedicated Marxists.

    Not one of our number joined the party without first experiencing activity in a united front.

    Moreover, our small but very active branch connects with and leads a periphery in the locality; and we are only able to do so because we ourselves evolved through and are active within united fronts.

    I have no doubt that we shall continue to grow. But only because we concentrate heavily on united front work while engaging in comradely two-way dialogue with those therein who we wish to influence.

    We would be fools to think we could build the party without building united fronts.

  6. Molyneuxs article is very good and an orthodox defence of Democratic centralism. His book Marxism and The Party from many years ago is also a shrewd defence of democratic centralism. Alex is of course not able to give any backing to these pieces because John Rees et el have a theory that Molyneux is ditching DC. This of course is compelte rubbish. The practice of Rees over the years is however to claim something and keep saying it and then claim it is therefore fact. John Rees has a view that there was no problem with the internal culture inside the SWP when he was one of the leading lights with German. It of course was a period when we lost large numbers to the party, hoodwinked ourselves about the size of membership and talked everything up and lambasted anybody in the party who disagreed. When a democratic decision was taken to change the CC personel he became of the view that internally there was a problem. The reality is the complete opposite, the party is startign at long alst to find its feet agian and there has been much more open debate than for many years. I for one will not miss Lindsey's lead offs at party conferences re the anti war movement which frankly did not address any of the problems for the movement or the party. They were speeches that could have been a stwc public meeting. Alex , please accept the democratic view of the party conference, it did not want Rees on the CC.