by John Riddell, 4 April 2013
How did Communist parties handle issues of internal discipline and democracy in
Lenin’s time? The recent intense discussion within the British Socialist
Workers’ Party (SWP) and beyond has heard claims that the SWP rests on the
traditions of democratic centralism inherited from the Bolsheviks. It is
thus useful to review the nature of internal democracy in the Communist
International (Comintern) during 1919–23, the period of its first four
Marxist groups today, the British SWP looks to the Bolshevik Party under Lenin
as a guiding example of revolutionary party-building, and much discussion rests
on this comparison. However, in seeking a model for a revolutionary party, it
is also worth looking at the Communist parties in Lenin’s time outside Russia, which functioned in circumstances much
closer to what we face today than those of tsarist Russia.
In the course
of editing and translating into English several books of documents on Communist
history in Lenin’s time, I have studied debates among Communist party delegates
at many international events. Here is my reading of what this record tells us
regarding Comintern organisational norms on four issues that have arisen in the
- Factions and
tendencies: There was no ban on factions in the Comintern. During its early
years, its major parties were factionally divided most of the time.
- Discussions: Disagreements
within Communist parties were routinely argued out before the working
class as a whole in the parties’ publications.
- Executive Unity: Members of the
Comintern Executive and its Small Bureau in Moscow frequently carried their
disagreements to world congresses, as did members of national leaderships.
- Leadership: Leaderships in the
Comintern and its parties were elected, and where slates were presented,
these were subject to amendment.
A comment is in
order on each of these points.
Bolshevik-Comintern tradition, factions were temporary formations, constituted
around immediate issues. When an issue was resolved, factions that had been
formed around it normally dispersed. For example, during the third Comintern
congress in 1921, two factions in the German party, which seemed on the point
of split, came together around a common political statement. Part of their
agreement was that the factions would dissolve. They did so, but new factions
quickly formed – around new issues and with new alignments.
: The Comintern
took for granted that internal discussion should be shared with workers outside
the party by conducting it in party newspapers. Sometimes, Communist
publications presented a minority point of view; a prominent example was Kommunismus
the ultra-left organ published 1920-21. Especially following the expulsion
of German Marxist Paul Levi in 1921, the Comintern frowned on factional
publications outside party control. However, each party had a great many
publications, each with its own editorial structure, and this encouraged a
diversity of opinions.
: In the Third
World Congress (1921), the conflict between ultra-leftist and united
front-oriented currents in Germany
and other Central European countries divided the Bolshevik leaders and the Comintern
Executive’s Small Bureau. In the end, the congress managed to adopt resolutions
by general agreement, but conflict continued, in muted form, to the end of the
congress and after.
members of the Comintern Executive were delegated by its national parties. In
1922, for the first time, members of the Executive were elected by the congress
as a whole. A nomination commission, made up of delegates chosen by the various
parties, recommended a slate of candidates. When it was presented to the
congress, amendments to change the slate’s composition were made and voted
on. Election procedures in the parties varied, and candidates were often
proposed collectively in slates. As far as I can see, such slates were always
subject to amendment and approval by vote by convention delegates.
movement, and working class
I have seen
little mention of these four issues in my reading of the early Comintern
debates. Attention to organizational norms had a different focus, which flowed
from the origin and character of the Comintern’s national sections.
Parties in the
imperialist countries had tens or hundreds of thousands of members. They also
had a broad periphery of sympathizers, many of whom worked with party members
on specific issues, such as aid to Soviet Russia, the emancipation of women, or
opposition to colonialism. The party functioned in close contact with a broad
layer of revolutionary-minded workers. The party and its periphery exerted
influence throughout the working class.
parties of Lenin’s time included a wide spectrum of revolutionary socialist
traditions. Party members were diverse in background, coming from Social
Democratic, syndicalist, or revolutionary-nationalist origins.
Translation at a Comintern congress (see
International’s internal debates focused on issues of tactics and strategy and
the significance of its policies for the broader mass of workers, on whom their
actions had a major impact. Debates in its parties typically reflected social
differentiation and contrasting opinions within the working class as a whole.
Two axes of dissension within the working class dominated the Comintern’s
internal life in the 1919–23 period.
steeped in the pre-war traditions of Social Democracy were challenged by a
young, revolutionary generation thrown forward by the war. Later, as the
post-war revolutionary wave began to decline, workers impatient to strike a
decisive blow against capitalist power came into disagreement with those who
had grown cautious and were concerned with the need for unity in action. Such
disharmony in the working class made it harder to grapple with the obstacle
posed by reformist Social Democratic parties and to achieve unity against the
along these axes dominated the Comintern’s inner life during its first years.
Factions sprang up in member parties reflecting the moods of more impatient or
more cautious layers of the working class. On the whole, the Comintern had
reasonable success in coping with such disputes, but they would arise again,
driven by events in the struggle and pressure from the working class. As a
result, internal debates were marked by shifting alliances and frequent changes
of leadership. The German Communist Party, for example, reorganized its
leadership four times in 1921 and 1922.
The debates on
tactics and strategy also served to define the breadth of the Comintern – that
is, the line dividing the range of currents included in its ranks from
reformists on one side and incurable ultra-leftists on the other. Where to draw
that line was the main organizational issue in Comintern life.
In 1920–21, as
the postwar revolutionary wave began to flag, a surge of impatience among
revolutionary-minded workers led to forces attracted to ultra-leftism gaining
dominance in some central European parties and even – during a crucial period –
in the Comintern Executive. But this urge for a showdown was out of step with
the class relationship of forces. As a result, in 1921, the Comintern suffered
a grievous setback in Germany,
which led to damaging splits. During that year, however, the Comintern moved to
rectify its course through adoption of the united front policy, which engaged
parties in a campaign for working class unity in action.
and its parties sought to function according to the norms of “democratic
centralism.” This term was understood to mean proletarian democracy in taking
decisions and choosing leaders, combined with unity in carrying out a decided
course of action. Marxists have much the same concept today. But in the early
Comintern, the focus was different: its chief concern was grappling with
bureaucratism and electoralism.
constituent units of Comintern parties outside Russia came out of the old Social
Democratic movement. These component parties had shed their reformist wings but
still preserved much of the old parties’ structures and habits. The parties
from which they came had devoted their energy mainly to electoral campaigning
and associated educational work. They were led by a bureaucratic layer of
functionaries rooted above all in the parliamentary fraction, the journalistic
apparatus, and allied trade union leaderships. The Comintern’s democratic
centralism sought to break the grip of bureaucratism. It aimed to bring parliamentary,
journalistic, and trade union work under party control; to unify leadership and
ranks into a homogenous movement; and to equip the party to intervene in mass
The need to
make this transition is the overriding theme of the Comintern’s 1921 resolution on
. The resolution’s section on democratic centralism
denounces parties where “functionaries became estranged from members, a vibrant
collaboration was replaced by the mere forms of democracy, and the
organisations became split between active functionaries and passive masses.”
The resolution stresses members’ obligation to be active and to organize along
lines that would enable them to carry out party policy in mass workers’
organisations. It called for “living ties and interrelationships both within
the party, between its leading bodies and the rest of the membership, and also
between the party and the masses of proletarians outside its ranks.”
balance evident in this passage was not always present in Comintern congress
discussions. Calls for iron discipline and centralization were frequent, and
they were not always balanced by acknowledgement of the strength that flows
from diversity and delegation of authority. Different approaches were evident.
In the Fourth Congress, for example, the respected Bulgarian delegate Vasil
Kolarov called for “a common conception regarding all great questions,”
insisting that “deviating viewpoints will necessarily lead to indiscipline.”
However, in another context, Leon Trotsky told the congress that the formation
of factions in France
had been a “necessary and healthy response” under the circumstances, while
Gregory Zinoviev, in his closing summary, noted that “minorities exist on this
or that question (that is always the case).”
need for discipline was posed above all – just as it is today – in
clashes between the working class and its capitalist opponents. When workers’
occupied their factories in September 1920, the Italian section of the
Comintern did not carry its recommendations for the struggle into the unions,
leaving the top union officials – members of the Comintern – unchallenged in
their betrayal of the struggle. Meanwhile, in Germany, advanced revolutionary
contingents repeatedly launched armed resistance to capitalist oppression in
isolation from broader working-class forces. Such episodes led to defeats in
January 1919, March 1920, and March 1921, and – each time – the Communist
forces were divided.
Comintern Congress, in 1921, took up these dangers, both of which had been
expressed in France.
The French Communist Youth were chastised for having advocated that French
workers individually refuse to report for duty during a crisis in French-German
government relations. At the same time, a Communist Party leader, Marcel
Cachin, was rebuked for having suggested in parliament that there was something
positive in France’s
imperialist alliance with Britain.
discipline were not a sufficient response to these strains. Lenin’s Comintern
sought to counter such divisive tendencies by development of strategy and of
united front policy, one aspect of which was the need for diverse working class
forces to maintain discipline in united actions.
are not all that different from those we face today when, for example, a mass
anti-cutbacks demonstration comes under threat from Black Bloc disruption on
one side and the hesitations of trade-union officials on the other. The need
for discipline in action is imposed not by party statutes but by the
universally understood requirements of working-class struggle in every sphere.
imperialist countries, today’s Marxist groups are orders of magnitude smaller
than those of Lenin’s time. They function in a context where bourgeois
democracy is more deeply rooted, revolution appears more distant, and the
working class is more heterogeneous and diversified in its concerns. For all
these reasons, one might expect Marxist groups today to be more open, flexible,
and inclusive than in the years following the Russian revolution. In fact, the
opposite is the case.
It is important
here to avoid caricature and abusive generalization. Some Marxist groups show
promise and have played significant roles in building mass movements and in
innovative party building experiments – as the SWP has done in its best moments.
Yet there is a model around which the majority of these groups, including the
SWP, cluster, a pattern that we will call “small-group Marxism.” It contrasts
sharply with that of the Lenin-era Comintern.
membership of each group is limited to a single strand of Marxist political
continuity. Groups tend to splinter over time. The competing groups increase in
number, while engaging in a war of each against all. The links of such groups
with the working class are not strong. Divisions in these groups typically flow
from their inner dynamic rather than from class-struggle challenges. Internal
democracy is typically less developed than in the early Comintern.
differences between the groups are not great. Each rival current is defined
chiefly by its political culture and traditions. This allegiance gives such
groups a conservative cast, making it hard for them to learn from the changing
struggle, correct their course, and unite with other currents.
little capacity to resolve differences harmoniously through experience.
Leaderships are often isolated from effective membership control and tend to be
self-perpetuating, unless the key players have a falling out. Discipline aims
less at unity against the class enemy and more at keeping members in line and
regulating what they say and do. Success is defined not so much by victories of
the class as by the group’s ability to grow, accumulate resources, and get the
better of its Marxist competitors.
characteristics can best be explained as an evolutionary adaptation to
conditions of small-group existence in difficult political conditions. Many
groups resist this model with some success, but its pressure bears down on them
conditions have changed vastly since Lenin’s time, and the early Comintern’s
record in building revolutionary parties was uneven and flawed. Yet although
Lenin’s Comintern does not provide a textbook, it should serve to stimulate our
imagination. The SWP and other contemporary Marxist organisations need to surmount
the limits of small-group existence and begin to acquire virtues of Communist
parties of Lenin’s time. Otherwise, they cannot contribute significantly to building
an effective revolutionary movement.
Explanation of photo: Translation was the lifeblood of discussion
in the Communist International. Here, Angelica Balabanoff is translating
for a group of English-speaking delegates at the Second Congress (1920). Behind
her with arms folded is Louis Fraina (U.S.);
behind her, writing, is John Murphy (UK);
to his left is Abani Mukherji (India);
left of Mukherji is John Quelch (UK);
underneath them, writing, is William McLaine (UK).
John Riddell is
the author of seven documentary volumes on revolutionary
history in Lenin’s time. For information on these books and his other writings,
go to http://johnriddell.wordpress.com.
from the International Socialists (Canada) on March 20, 2013.
 For the position of the SWP
leadership majority, see “Is Leninism Finished
,” by Alex Callinicos. For
the SWP opposition’s response, see “Is Zinovievism finished? A reply to Alex Callinicos
and other documents at International Socialism
See also, among
the many comments from outside the SWP, “The Crisis in the SWP-Britain
,” Paul Le Blanc’s
“Leninism Is Unfinished
,” and Louis Proyect’s “Leninism is finished: a reply to Alex Callinicos
For a response from Canada,
see Paul Kellogg, “Reflections on the Crisis in the SWP
compares SWP organizational norms unfavourably to those of the Bolsheviks in “Slates,
Factions, and the British SWP
 Lenin expressed his
appraisal of Kommunismus
tactfully but firmly: “This excellent journal,
which is published in Vienna under the above title, contains a great deal of
highly interesting material on the growth of the communist movement in Austria,
Poland and other countries, together with a chronicle of the international
movement, and articles on Hungary and Germany, on general tasks and tactics,
etc. A shortcoming that strikes the eye even at a cursory examination cannot,
however, be disregarded—the indubitable symptoms of the ‘infantile disorder of
Left-wing Communism’ that has affected the journal, a subject on which I have
written a short pamphlet that has just appeared in Petrograd.”
See V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Moscow:
Progress Publishers, 1960–71, vol. 31, pp. 165–7
 John Riddell, Toward the
United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist
Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012,
 In dealing with these
issues, most historians of the Comintern stress the effect of shifts in Soviet
Russian foreign policy, intervention by the Bolshevik leadership, and the
personal role of Zinoviev, the Comintern’s president. These factors –
especially Soviet foreign policy – were also cited at the time by the
Comintern’s opponents, both left and right. In my opinion, their influence has
 The translation is from the
manuscript of my forthcoming edition of the Third Congress. The resolution’s
full text is available at Marxists.org
. For Lenin’s subsequent
reservations on this resolution, see Toward the United Front,
 Toward the United Front,
 The Comintern Executive’s
discussion of these issues, available in the Russian archive RGASPI under
reference number 495/1/37, will be included in the forthcoming edition of the
Third Congress proceedings.