Problems of theory and history



Contrary to what is often thought, democratic centralism concerns questions of elaboration of the party line and leadership more than questions of organisation. A centralised party is necessary to unify and co-ordinate all the people's struggles, to centralise and systematise them after studying the correct ideas of the masses, to mobilise the masses around slogans corresponding to the tasks of the moment, to assess constantly the experience gained in the struggles as a whole, and to educate the masses in the spirit of scientific socialism so that they can carry through the revolution to the end. None of these objectives can be achieved if this leadership is not carried out democratically.

    Trotsky's positions on this issue varied considerably during his life. We see him oscillate from one extreme to another because of his inability to grasp the dialectical link uniting these pairs of opposites: the distinction between the party and the class and its fusion with it; the authority of the centre and its monitoring by the militants; the need for statutory rules and the fact that they must be subordinated to 'revolutionary opportunity', as Lenin said.

    In an essay written in Siberia in 1901, Trotsky set out his views on the rigorous centralisation which had to be imposed on a revolutionary movement: 'If one of the local organisations . . . refuses to acknowledge the full powers of the Central Committee, (the latter) will cut off its relations with it and will thereby cut off that organisation from the entire world of revolution.'(

    At the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP, Trotsky's interventions against the Economists were so violent that he seemed to be 'Lenin's cudgel'. The Economists complained about the Iskraists' dictatorial and Jacobin attitudes. Trotsky declared that the party statutes should express 'the leadership's organised distrust of the members, a distrust manifesting itself in vigilant control from above over the party'.(2)

    Trotsky made a 180 degree turn during the Congress and sided with the Mensheviks. Later he violently attacked Lenin in a number of his writings.

    In the 'Report of the Siberian Delegation', he spoke of his 'disorganising centralism' (op. cit., p. 49), his 'egocentralism' (p. 81), his 'Wille zur Macht' (= will to power, pp. 72 and 82), the 'caricatural Robespierrade' in which he indulged (p. 84), the way in which he conceived the Central Committee as 'the Warder of Centralism' (p. 83). In the pamphlet 'Our Political Tasks', he heaped abuse on Lenin, describing him notably as 'the leader of the reactionary wing of our Party'. He also aimed other criticisms at him which Deutscher summarised as follows:(3)

By arguing that . . . socialist ideology was brought into the labour movement from outside, by the revolutionary intelligentsia, Lenin's theory was an 'orthodox theocracy'. His scheme of organisation was fit for a party which would substitute itself for the working classes, act as a proxy in their name and on their behalf, regardless of what the workers felt and thought.

Lenin is 'a hideous caricature of a malevolent and morally repugnant Robespierre'.

    In trying to combine Jacobinism and Marxism, 'Lenin was virtually abandoning socialism and setting himself up as the leader of a revolutionary wing of bourgeois democracy'.(4) Trotsky borrowed this characterisation of Lenin from Axelrod.

    Trotsky accused Lenin of wanting to substitute the party for the proletariat, the Central Committee for the party and finally the dictator for the Central Committee. The rejection of 'substitutionism' follows in Trotsky's case from his 'sociologism', namely the idea that social classes can directly lead a political struggle without their action being mediated by parties. In 'Results and Prospects', he wrote: 'Social Democracy envisages the conquest of power as the conscious action of the revolutionary class'. The dictatorship of the proletariat, he argued, at the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP, would only be possible on the day when the working class and the party 'became almost identical'. This idea comes closer to left-wing German social democracy, to the Luxemburgist current.(5)

    Trotsky fought Lenin's democratic centralism right 'to the end'; that is, up to the moment when 'volens nolens', he himself joined the Bolshevik Party built by Lenin. In it he made a reputation for himself as an inflexible champion of discipline except when, outvoted, he himself resorted to the factional methods so often denounced as such by Lenin. This is one of the paradoxes of Trotskyism, which attacks bureaucratism in words but does not get beyond it.

    Trotsky in power was considered to be 'the patriarch of the bureaucrats'.(6) A severe censor of every breach of internal party discipline, he acted as prosecutor along with Stalin at the 11th Congress (1922), calling for the expulsion of the leaders of 'the Workers' Opposition'. Two years before he had campaigned for the militarisation of the trade unions. In November 1920, he suggested that state officials should be substituted for the unions' elected representatives. That is why Lenin criticised Trotsky's tendency to adopt 'the administrative point of view'. He denounced his dogmatic formalism, describing it as 'bureaucratic project-hatching'. (7) He declared that 'his policy is a policy of bureaucratic shake-up of the trade unions'.(8)
Trotsky's argument on the question of the trade unions amounted to this: the workers do not need a relatively autonomous organisation to defend themselves from the Soviet state since it belongs to them. Lenin replied that they required such an organisation because they were dealing not with a worker's state but with a 'worker-peasant' state which was in addition 'bureaucratically deformed'. That is why he said of Trotsky's 'pamphlet programme' 'The Role and Tasks of the Trade Unions': 'From beginning to end . . . it is thoroughly permeated with the spirit of the "shaking-up-from-above" policy',(9) that is, of administratively 'removing, transferring, appointing, dismissing etc' the union's elected leaders. Lenin made repeated reference to 'the useless and harmful bureaucratic excesses of Tsektran'(10) which was headed by Trotsky. In his 'Testament', Lenin criticised Trotsky for 'the sin of excessive confidence and an exaggerated infatuation with the purely administrative side of things'.

    Thus the future enemy of the bureaucracy became that enemy since he could not be the leading bureaucrat.(
11) His concern for 'democracy' dates from the precise moment when he realised that he was without any power or influence. He remained in the Political Bureau for several years but in complete isolation. He was defeated politically(12) by Stalin despite (or because of) his final unprincipled manoeuvres. An example will illustrate his style of operation.

    Lenin, who was ill and about to suffer another stroke, had asked Trotsky to denounce Stalin on the problem of Great-Russian chauvinism and to defend the small nations, particularly the Georgians: he had warned him against a 'rotten compromise' with Stalin. Isaac Deutscher explains his hero's behaviour at the 12th Congress in terms of his 'magnanimity', 'selflessness', and 'forgiveness',(13) but what did magnanimity and forgiveness have to do with it when Marxist principles and the fate of communism were at stake? It may be concluded that Trotsky considered his relations with the Triumvirate (Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev) to be private relations and his conflict with them to be a personal conflict. So true is this that Trotsky later explained to his followers his procrastinations and conciliationist attitude just before and immediately after Lenin's death as due to the absence of any serious political differences and to the fact that the attitude of the leading 'troika' appeared to him as an 'unprincipled conspiracy' against himself personally. He had to find political pretexts before launching his great offensive.

    He meant to choose his own ground and so his bargaining with Stalin was a misconceived, cunning manoeuvre. Trotsky was a poor tactician because he had understood nothing of Lenin's political science, the science of 'the conjuncture', and 'the current situation' which is not empiricism or disregard of principles but the application of the latter to the concrete analysis of the concrete situation. As Trotsky did not have a theory of contradiction he could not have a theory of strategy and tactics.(14) His sociologism prevented him from conceiving correctly the nature and role of the party. Lastly, his intellectualism and his vanity prevented him from judging Stalin at his true worth.(15) Moreover, he could not reconcile himself to occupying anything less than first place after Lenin's death.

    For a while, Trotsky and his supporters claimed freedom for tendencies within the party while formally recognising the prohibition of factions proclaimed by the 10th Congress of the CPSU with Trotsky's acceptance. In fact, their idea of what a tendency is (a group with its own leaders and platform) was such that it was impossible to distinguish it from a faction.(16) This is the reason why a division into contending factions is a tradition in Trotskyist organisations. It is one of the causes of their congenital weakness.

    Party unity can survive factional struggle but it cannot be reconciled to it. The two cannot be conciliated. Lenin thought that in certain precise circumstances (not always), it was preferable to reabsorb the malignant tumour constituted by a faction through principled struggle and on the basis of experience rather than cut it out, but this never led him to recognise factions and explicitly accord them rights. In 'Once Again on the Trade Unions', in which he denounced Trotsky's factionalism, Lenin declared:

The Party is learning and is becoming steeled in the struggle against the new disease (new in the sense that we forgot about it after the October Revolution), i.e. factionalism. In essence it is an old disease, relapses of which are probably inevitable for several years to come, but the cure of which can and should now proceed much more quickly and easily.

Trotskyists believe that democratic centralism is the set of rules which must govern the internal functioning of a Marxist organisation. They do not see that this can only be a particular case of the mass line;(17) that politics, not considerations of an organisational nature, must be put in command. They tend to consider democracy as an end in itself. Trotsky even came to consider authority as an end in itself. Hence his oscillations from militarism to liberalism and vice versa. The source of his liberalism was a deep, unprincipled desire for conciliation and unity alternating with an equally unprincipled polemical violence.

    The pamphlets in which he inveighed against Lenin fell flat. As for his manoeuvres as a philistine conciliator, they were destined to fail. He was never so isolated as when he was at his most conciliatory.
    During the 1930s, Trotsky once more altered his purely administrative idea of democratic centralism. Henceforth, he acknowledged the legitimacy of factions and factional struggle in the party.

    During the struggles which rent the American Trotskyist organisation, he proposed the application of the following guarantees: '1. No prohibition of factions; 2. No other restrictions on factional activity than those dictated by the necessity for common action.'(18)

    Given that agreements can be concluded between different parties to achieve united action it is clear that, according to Trotsky, factions can act as close but different parties. As a result, democratic centralism is entirely sacrificed to a bourgeois idea of democracy. In other words, democratic centralism is reduced to nothing. The Trotskyists' claim to follow Lenin on this point proves only that their Leninism is an imposture. In fact, they still hold to the authorisation of factions which Trotsky finally accepted. In his pamphlet 'De la bureaucratie', for example, E. Germain states, 'From the moment factions were forbidden in the Bolshevik Party, internal democracy could no longer be maintained.'(19)

    It is significant that this principle, intended to avoid splits, has never prevented them. We can count dozens of splits in Trotskyist organisations. The latter, usually sects of intellectuals cut off from the masses, have no notion of the 'mass line', the developed form of democratic centralism. It follows that their 'centralism' is not based on a correct line and that their 'democracy' is only liberalism. Trotsky's attitude to Burnham and Schachtman shows what aberrations this can lead to. When his two American disciples stated that the USSR could no longer be considered a 'Workers' State', Trotsky asked that they be allowed to act as an organised faction within the SWP (Socialist Workers' Party): 'If somebody should propose . . . to expel comrade Burnham, I would oppose it energetically.'(20)

    When the minority organised its 'National Convention', Trotsky advised the majority not to use it as a pretext for pronouncing expulsions. Shortly after, Burnham said:(

Of the most important beliefs which have been associated with the Marxist movement, whether in its reformist, Leninist, Stalinist or Trotskyist variants, there is virtually none which I would accept in its traditional form. I regard these beliefs as either false or obsolete or meaningless.

And he adds, 'For several years I have had no real place in a Marxist Party'.
    Has not liberalism reached its lowest stage of putrefacation when a self-confessed counter-revolutionary is allowed to exert an undermining influence in an organisation which styles itself 'revolutionary' and Marxist? If the rejection of such liberalism is 'Stalinist bureaucratism', we can understand the generosity with which the Trotskyists hand out these epithets, unintentionally flattering for those on whom they are conferred.
    We have just alluded to the mass line, the developed form of democratic centralism. Here is how Mao Tse-tung defines it:(

In all the practical work of our Party, all correct leadership is necessarily 'from the masses to the masses'. This means: take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas), then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action, and test the correctness of these ideas in such action . . . And so on, and over and over again in an endless spiral, with the ideas becoming more correct, more vital and richer each time. Such is the Marxist theory of knowledge.

It follows from this text and from all the others in which Mao formulates his idea of the mass line that democratic centralism presents a dialectical contradictory unity: 'Within the ranks of the people, democracy is correlative with centralism and freedom with discipline. They are the two opposites of a single entity.'(23)
    The distinction between leaders and led, between those who elaborate the line and launch the slogans on the one hand, and those who must assimilate them and apply them on the other, like the discipline of militants in relation to higher instances, constitutes one of the poles of the contradiction; democracy and freedom are its other pole.

    Let us now consider the unity of these opposites. The legitimacy and authority of a leadership is not based on its election according to rules but on the correctness of its policy. The latter in turn depends on its ability to establish links with the masses, to learn from them and to systematise their ideas. In order to do this, it must submit to the supervision of the masses, encourage criticism and self-criticism and apply the maxim: 'Hide nothing you know, keep nothing to yourself of what you have to say.' 'No-one is at fault for having spoken, it is for the listener to take advantage.' Thus democracy is at the heart of centralism and vice versa, since it is necessary to centralise the ideas of the masses and to help the latter 'to carry out all their correct ideas in the light of the circumstances'.(24) In other respects, an individual or a group wanting to make a revolution can only attain their end in the framework of a disciplined activity. This discipline is therefore the concrete form of their freedom. Conversely, if they are not free to formulate criticisms and to give their point of view, this discipline becomes servile and blind submission, it ceases to be revolutionary and is transformed into its opposite. This is why, even in the People's Army, discipline is inseparable from the three democracies (political, economic and military).(25)

    Mao Tse-tung's speech to the expanded Central Committee on 30 January 1962 is essentially given over to the question of democratic centralism. We shall quote from it at length because of its interest. 'What is centralism? First of all it is centralising the correct opinions . . . (Now) without democracy, opinions will not come from the masses and it will be impossible to decide on the good line.' In this respect:

When our leading organs decide on a line, guiding principle, policy or method, they are, so to speak, just a processing plant. Everybody knows that if a plant does not have raw materials in the full amount or proper quality, it cannot manufacture a good finished product. If there is no democracy, you don't understand what's going on at the lower levels, the situation is unclear, you don't collect opinions from all sides, you don't let ideas circulate, and you decide questions only on the one-sided or insincere materials of the upper level leading organs, then it will be difficult to avoid subjectivism, impossible to attain unified knowledge and unified action, and impossible to put centralism into effect.

In fact, 'Without democracy there can be no genuine centralism and since everybody's opinion is different, without unified knowledge, centralism cannot be established.'

Now there are some comrades who are afraid the masses will open up discussions and will offer opinions that do not agree with the leaders of the leading organs. As soon as a problem comes up for discussion they put a damper on the masses' activism and don't let anybody speak. This is a very poor attitude . . . Comrades, we are revolutionaries. If we truly make a mistake . . . we should seek the opinions of the masses of the people and of the comrades and do our own soul-searching. This soul-searching sometimes requires a number of times. Once won't do. Nobody is satisfied. Twice, still no satisfaction. Do it three times or until nobody has any more opinions.

In his speech to the Central Committee on 24 September 1962, Mao declared:

Don't be afraid to make mistakes. We permit mistakes. Haven't you already made some' We also allow you to correct mistakes. If we did not allow mistakes, we could not allow correction of mistakes . . . Last year I said you must also allow me to make my mistakes and allow me to correct my mistakes, and after I have corrected them, you will accept me!

In fact, on 30 January, Mao had said:

On 12th June last year . . . I talked about my own shortcomings and mistakes . . . The whole Central Committee makes mistakes and it is my responsibility both directly and indirectly because I am the Chairman of the Central Committee.

The press has recently said that after Mao's death, China will have collective leadership. This is presented as a new departure. In fact, it concerns a principle applicable at all levels and one which Mao recalled in the speech which we have just quoted:(26)

The Party Committee's leadership is collective leadership and not the individual say-so of the first secretary . . . Take the Standing Committee or Political Bureau of the Central Committee. It often happens that not everybody approves of what I say and regardless of whether I'm right or not, I obey them since they're the majority.

Democracy on the one hand and centralised leadership on the other, are the means to an end, which is the elaboration and application of a correct political line. Mao tells us that 'Democracy sometimes seems to be an end, but it is in fact only a means'.(27)

    Why is it necessary to guarantee to the minority the right to express itself, to reserve an opinion and to bring questions out into the open? Because, Mao tells us, 'Throughout history, new and correct things have often failed at the outset to win recognition from the majority of people and have had to develop by twists and turns in struggle.'(28)

    Centralism too is a means which must be used because it is indispensable for all the reasons which we pointed out at the beginning of the chapter, but also so that the party of the proletariat can operate like an army in combat facing an enemy which also has a centralised leadership. Infringements of party discipline, for example, can only be judged in the last instance in terms of considerations linked to the concrete situation. Mao Tse-tung was right not to carry out certain instructions of the Central Committee of his party when he was struggling in the Chingkang Mountains. As far as respect for democracy as well as that for centralism is concerned, it is politics which, as everywhere, must be put in command. Lenin expressed this idea by saying that 'formal democracy must be subordinated to revolutionary opportunity!'(29)

    In the same text, 'Once Again on the Trade Unions', he declared that, 'factional pronouncements' and 'even a split' were justified 'if the disagreements are . . . extremely profound and if a wrong trend in the policy of the party . . . cannot be rectified in any other way'.(30)