Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 27, 2009

John Molyneux on party democracy

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 5:18 pm

John Molyneux

In the latest issue of International Socialism, a quarterly put out by the British SWP, John Molyneux has an 8600 word article “On Party Democracy”  that raises some interesting questions but fails to get to the heart of the real problem in self-declared Leninist vanguards like the SWP. The real threat to democracy in such formations is not ham-fisted bureaucratic interventions, such as the kind that typified the American SWP during its sad decline or the CPUSA throughout most of its life. It is instead self-censorship by the rank and file all the way up to key leaders who are very wary of challenging adopted party positions out of fear of being tarnished as “petty bourgeois”, not “understanding Marxism” and all the other insults that have found their way into this political subculture over ninety-plus years. As painful as it is to hear yourself addressed in such terms at a party meeting, it is even worse to become ostracized as is the fate of most dissidents who have the temerity to challenge the wisdom of whoever is at the very top of the party hierarchy. In the case of groups like the American SWP, this tends to be a single person who functions like a virtual pope. In healthier groups, such as the British SWP, it tends to be a core of people whose ranks change over the years.

For reasons that are not totally clear to me, Molyneux frames his discussion in terms of a response to a German sociologist of the early 20th century named Robert Michels who eventually became a fascist. Michels, who believed that the abuse of power is a function of “the cult of veneration among the masses”, wrote:

As the chiefs become detached from the mass they show themselves more and more inclined, when gaps in their own ranks appear, to effect this not by popular election, but by co-optation, and also to increase their own effectiveness wherever possible by creating new posts upon their own initiative. There arises in leaders a tendency to isolate themselves, to form a sort of cartel, and to surround themselves, as it were, with a wall, within which they will admit those only who are of their own way of thinking.

Hmmm, sort of rings a bell, doesn’t it?

Molyneux explains such tendencies as a response to external forces:

The pressures generated by bourgeois society are also a factor in the cult-like features exhibited by some small groups. In order to maintain the loyalty and discipline of a tiny number of adherents in more or less total opposition to wider society they develop the sort of characteristics typical of small religious sects such as the veneration of “the leader” and the establishment of shibboleths. A shibboleth was originally a code word or phrase whose use distinguished the member of a group from an enemy or spy. In our context a shibboleth is a belief or doctrine whose principal function is to separate the true believer from the common herd and reinforce their loyalty. This is, for example, the function of the ban on blood transfusions for Jehovah’s Witnesses or support for Israel for the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. With the Socialist Labour League it was the perennial call for a general strike. These sect practices are highly anti-democratic because they strongly inhibit free and rational debate of policies and perspectives.

While there is an element of truth to this, it does not exactly dig into the history of such formations. How exactly did Lenin’s party avoid such cult-like behavior, even as the groups operating in his name—especially those deriving from the Fourth International—kept veering in that direction? Why is this tendency so less pronounced in the Latin American left that attempted, for better or for worse, to learn from the Cuban experience rather than Soviet party-building “norms”. Does it have something to do with a misunderstanding of Leninism that Lenin himself sought to correct in the years before his death?

Initially, Molyneux and his comrades regarded a lack of democracy as a problem more associated with trade unions, Stalinism and social democratic parties, not self-declared Leninist vanguards such as the kind that Tony Cliff launched under Leon Trotsky’s tutelage. But since the 1960s, he (and the rest of the revolutionary left for that matter) has had to deal with unfavorable political conditions that might have encouraged a cult of leadership and anti-democratic tendencies:

In conditions of downturn, when party members’ typical experience at work is of defeat or isolation, their confidence to challenge the party’s leadership is undermined. Even if they remain active revolutionary socialists, the feeling may develop that in addition to fighting the bosses, the government, the system, the media and probably their own union leaders, all as a small minority, arguing in their own party is just too much.

In these conditions the counterpart to a passive rank and file, a leadership that becomes accustomed to leading unchallenged, is virtually certain to develop or at least begin to develop.

Perhaps. But my experience, and I hazard to guess that this is true for “Leninist” groups in general, is that the rank-and-file is all the more inclined to not rock the boat when there is wind in the sails. During the 1960s, when most groups on the far left were growing by leaps and bounds, it would be highly unlikely for the ranks to question the political trajectory of the party. After all, who wants to argue with success?

In his conclusion, Molyneux—to his credit—offers no panaceas. He says that even though people come to a revolutionary party full of piss and vinegar ready to challenge the status quo, they might not have the same attitude toward the people in positions of authority supposedly leading a revolution against capitalist authority:

The world of work is invariably hierarchical and undemocratic. Working class occupations consist overwhelmingly of following orders, ruling class ones of giving them and middle class ones of enforcing decisions from above on those below. What is completely lacking from most people’s lives is any experience of democracy other than the extremely limited business of voting every so often in parliamentary or local elections. By far the most important exception is trade unionism, which does provide some working people with the experience of saying “no” to those in authority over them, but, as we know only too well, this is a highly uneven and fluctuating process and offers an ongoing regular democratic engagement to only a minority.

The act of joining a revolutionary organisation constitutes a major rebellion against society’s conditioning but it does not eliminate it. The anti-democratic pressures continue to operate on and within the party. This is why party democracy is not something that can be guaranteed by any constitution or set of institutional arrangements (which is not to gainsay the necessity of democratic constitutions and institutional arrangements) but also requires the development and maintenance of a democratic culture based on frank and open debate in which party members are encouraged to speak their mind. Such a culture has to be embodied in institutions and practices, of course, the most important and permanent of which is the principle of the party conference or congress as the party’s sovereign body. But the precise nature of these institutions and practices must necessarily be adapted to specific circumstances and change over time.

Unfortunately, Molyneux shows no signs of having absorbed any of the critiques of the “Leninist” party-building methodology that have been inspired by both a hard look at the sorry record of its adherents, nor the scholarly research of people such as Neil Harding or Lars Lih. These critiques that I obviously agree with make the point that Lenin’s party simply did not function in a “Leninist” manner, as understood by people such as Tony Cliff, James P. Cannon, Gerry Healy, Ted Grant or anybody else who formed the leadership of the Fourth International or any of its spin-off’s. This, of course, is a problem as well in the Maoist movement that perfected cult behavior into an art form.

Although I have made these points numerous times, it can’t hurt to make them once again. If you really wanted to build a party in the spirit of Lenin’s Bolsheviks, you would have to make sure to follow these norms:

  1. Debates in the party are carried out in public. The newspaper is not just a vehicle for the party line. It is also a place where ongoing debate about that line is carried out.
  2. Expulsions are rarer than rainstorms in the Sahara. During the entire time that the Bolshevik party operated, there was just a single expulsion. Bogdanov, whose philosophical peregrinations challenged the core beliefs of Marxism, was shown the exit door. But even after Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin broke discipline to oppose the seizure of power in October 1917, they did not face disciplinary charges.
  3. Membership was not akin to an initiation rite. In various factories, the workers aligned considered themselves Bolsheviks without having been groomed in Lenin-thought. In fact there was no such thing. All in all, the Bolshevik Party was much more of a movement than any group operating in its name today. Indeed, if there is ever a revolutionary party that has the power to challenge British or any other highly advanced capitalist system, it will not come into existence through a massive expansion of existing small groups. Indeed, it will be a challenge for such small groups not to get in the way of this process.

But the most important step would be to abolish once and for all the practice of “democratic centralism” in the sphere of ideas. Lenin intended that democratic centralism be applied to actions such as participating in a strike or votes in a parliament. The notion that a Leninist party could expel people for defending an analysis of Cuba, for example, in public contrary to that of the majority is alien to everything that Lenin stood for. During WWI he and Bukharin had furious debates about imperialism and the national question in public. That was the norm.

In parties such as the British SWP, the application of discipline to ideas is necessary for what they regard as “preservation” of the program, which essentially turns out to be a kind of collection of analyses around the “Russian question” and newer “litmus tests”. For example, the American co-thinkers of the British SWP were effectively expelled from their international organization for having the nerve to differ on the “importance of Seattle”. This, I should add, was about how to assess the “anti-globalization” movement of those days, which for some revolutionaries was a harbinger of class battles that would topple capitalism once and for all. If only that were the case…

Once you have established the “program”, it is necessary to elect a high priesthood that has been initiated into its mysteries. Like the Vatican, it is in guard of its purity. In the case of the “Leninist” party, it is not about whether priests should get married but whether the Russian society became capitalist in 1930 or in 1990. In my opinion, these are important questions but not ones that should provide the basis for disciplining members. On priests marrying, that of course is a split question since it might lead to a reduction in pederasty.

The best discussion of democratic centralism I’ve ever seen, by the way, is in chapter seven of Paul LeBlanc’s “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party”. He explains that the term predates Lenin by many years and was first used in 1865 by J.B. Schweitzer, a Lassallean.

Furthermore, in Russia it was first used by the Mensheviks at a November 1905 conference. In a resolution “On the Organization of the Party” adopted there, they agree that “The RSDLP must be organized according to the principle of democratic centralism.” A month later the Bolsheviks embraced the term at their own conference. A resolution titled “On Party Organization” states: “Recognizing as indisputable the principle of democratic centralism, the Conference considers the broad implementation of the elective principle necessary; and, while granting elected centers full powers in matters of ideological and practical leadership, they are at the same time subject to recall, their actions are given broad publicity, and they are to be strictly accountable for these activities.”

There is virtually no difference between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks about the need for democratic centralism or its meaning. So claims that the two factions differed over this “Leninist” organizational breakthrough are simply mistaken. Moreover, the two groups had resolved many outstanding differences following the 1905 revolution. Menshevik leader Pavel Axelrod stated that “on the whole, the Menshevik tactics have hardly differed from the Bolshevik. I am not even sure that they differed from them at all.” Lenin concurred: “The tactics adopted in the period of the ‘whirlwind’ did not further estrange the two wings of the Social Democratic Party, but brought them closer together…The upsurge of the revolutionary tide pushed aside disagreements, compelling the Social Democrats to adopt militant tactics.”

In any case, whatever differences would resurface in the period leading up to 1917, “democratic centralism” was not one of them. At a unity conference held in 1906, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks voted for a resolution that stated: “All party organizations are built on the principles of democratic centralism”.

The report on the commission that adopted this resolution was given by a Menshevik, Zagorsky-Kokhmal, who stated that “we accepted the formula for membership unanimously”. In other words, there was no objection to what some would characterize as “Leninist” norms. The reason for this is simple. Democratic centralism was never an issue.

Since Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin’s 1904 “One Step Forward, Two Steps Backwards” revolves around the charge that he was susceptible to “centralism”, you might get the impression that these differences revolved around the need for democratic centralism. In fact, this term does not appear in her critique which is online at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1904/questions-rsd/index.htm

For example, Luxemburg writes, “Lenin’s thesis is that the party Central Committee should have the privilege of naming all the local committees of the party.” Whatever else might say about this, it is not what we think of ordinarily when we hear the term democratic centralism. It is instead a reference to a specific practice rooted in the exigencies of the Russian class struggle, forced to operate under repressive and clandestine conditions. For example, I don’t recall James P. Cannon ever favoring this practice, despite being committed to the sort of democratic centralism that evolved under Zinoviev’s authority.

Not that Luxemburg is opposed to centralism itself. She is not a Foucauldian. When it takes shape from the self-activity of the working class, it is a good thing. “Centralism in the socialist sense is not an absolute thing applicable to any phase whatsoever of the labor movement. It is a tendency, which becomes real in proportion to the development and political training acquired by the working masses in the course of their struggle.”

Of course, the democratic centralism that defines “Leninist” organizations today had little to do with Lenin’s call for “freedom to criticize, but unity in action”. Somewhere along the line it became a formula for ideological homogeneity. It states that the “freedom to criticize” is permissible during preconvention discussion, a period that tolerates atypical behavior every couple of years or so, more or less like Spock undergoing “Pon farr”, the Vulcan version of mating season.

Those who have experienced this version of “freedom to criticize” understand that it is no such thing. Instead it is mainly an opportunity for the secondary leadership of the party to salute the central leadership for the brilliance of the line resolutions presented to the convention. Those who reach the conclusion that the line resolutions are full of baloney are ultimately viewed as scratches that are in danger of turning into gangrene. In such organizations, however, the main danger from the standpoint of medical analogies is hardening of the arteries.


  1. An interesting discussion but I think that you’re misrepresenting Molyneux’s article somewhat here. His exploration of Michel’s theory is, in reality a look at perhaps the most sophisticated view of the inherent tendency towards bureaucracy, which is invoked as a critique of revolutionary organizations and of leadership more generally. But of greater import is his analysis of the challenges to democratic practice.
    I think he specifically answers claims such as you provide above, that there are any specific recipes or organizational forms that transcend historical and political contexts. Those who say “well, Lenin did this” or “Lenin’s party didn’t do that” are missing the point that the specific organization forms and political practices arose in the particular context of the time. Just one example is Molyneux’s point viz. the contradictory effect of working under conditions of dictatorship. On the one hand, this limits the ability to hold open elections to party positions. On the other hand, the risk and the stakes are so high that any party member is going to be an engaged, active militant – and not simply a passive dues-paying member. In conditions of modern, British capitalism, there will be a layer of passive members, even in a revolutionary organization and that poses special challenges both in terms of substitutionalism but also in allow the least active members to determine the direction of the organization.
    As for your further claim that “application of discipline to ideas is necessary for what they regard as “preservation” of the program…” in relation to the SWP and the IST is, in fact, simply an overstatement. I was on the “cc” of an IST group during the debate with the Americans and it is simply not true that they were expelled for disagreeing over Seattle’s significance. Firstly, I think it was right to have a debate over Seattle – as it is right to have debates about any number of things about which there is disagreement. Whether that debate was handled in the best way is certainly open to discussion. But the expulsion had to do with events in Greece. But I find it interesting to read in relation to the IST any conception about “preservation of the program” since over the years what I’ve generally heard is quite the opposite – that the IST doesn’t have a program (ie. a transitional program – what Molyneux refers to as shibboleths). It is one of the strengths of IS tradition, in my mind, that our focus is on an orientation to Marx’s principle of self-emancipation and as a corollary that we don’t focus on the organized left – who too often turn their isolation from the broader working class into a point of honour. Rather, we try (more or less successfully) to orient to the class struggles many expressions using that Marxist principle of self-emancipation. And I think Molyneux is here continuing in that tradition – the best tonic for any revolutionary organization’s ongoing struggle to be democratic is to constantly try to find ways to connect with whatever struggles of workers and the oppressed that break out. It is in finding ways to connect with that – which necessarily has an organizational component – that revolutionaries will best be able to maintain the democracy of their organizations.

    Comment by redbedhead — October 27, 2009 @ 8:43 pm

  2. Glad to see that a member of the British SWP has found it to be faultless. This helps drive my point home.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 27, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

  3. Um, a) I’m not a member of the British SWP and don’t think it or any other organization is faultless, nor have I argued such. b) your argument would be stronger if it rose above the level of schoolyard ad hominem. Or perhaps the problem is that you see yourself to be faultless.

    Comment by redbedhead — October 27, 2009 @ 10:25 pm

  4. Sorry, redbedhead. I assumed that as a regular commenter at Lenin’s Tomb and guest poster, you were a member. Just out of curiosity, have you ever belonged to a Leninist group? First-hand experience in such matters gives you a perspective that a non-member would not have.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 27, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

  5. I am a member of the IS in Canada. And I was on the national steering committee for about 8 years, a fulltimer for about 6 of those years.
    Anyway, my point is just as I wrote – not that any of the IST organizations are faultless, they most obviously are not. Just that Molyneux’s argument is an interesting and engaging one – to me. I think it has the strength of locating the democracy (or not) of small groups in the historical dynamics in which they find themselves.

    Comment by redbedhead — October 27, 2009 @ 10:38 pm

  6. I am a member of the IS in Canada.

    Now weren’t we the coquette.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 27, 2009 @ 10:46 pm

  7. Luxemburg and Jogiches, of course, may have rebelled against the bureaucratism of the German movement, but the party regime they ran in Poland was very far from being libertarian. And as for the Vatican, the CDF is a bit more easygoing than some Trotskyist groups.

    John’s article is useful, though I do find it disingenuous in points and he does have this annoying habit of approaching an important question only to veer away from it.

    I think one of the most important points is what you began with, which is self-censorship. Chris Harman, who’s not what I’d consider a flaming libertarian, complained a while ago that he would write provocative articles intended to kickstart debates, which would then go unanswered. Now the leadership of the British SWP is not the regime of Stalin and Mao – it’s a voluntary organisation, and the worst they can do to you is tell you that you can’t attend boring meetings any more, or stand in the rain with bundles of soggy papers. While I think there’s an obvious problem with schematic readings of Lenin, at least as important is something that LeBlanc was quite good on, how small and isolated groups can develop this stifling culture of conformism.

    Comment by splinteredsunrise — October 27, 2009 @ 10:48 pm

  8. “Now weren’t we the coquette.” – not at all. You were making assumptions as the basis for making an ad hominem reply that didn’t address the substance of my point. And misrepresenting what I was saying, to boot. I’m hardly hiding anything about my background.

    Comment by redbedhead — October 27, 2009 @ 11:21 pm

  9. “this stifling culture of conformism”

    I think you’re over-egging the pudding here. Certainly that can happen in organizations both large and small (which is generally relative in any case) given the right combination of isolation and, perhaps, political mistakes. But getting people to take the time to engage in a high level debate – especially where people are overstretched, have jobs, have coalition and/or union meetings. Hell, we couldn’t even get people on the steering committee to write stuff – people simply didn’t have the time. So, generally, if the membership things are heading basically in the right direction, they’ve probably got bigger fish to fry than a fellow comrade on the national leadership – like their boss, the cops, racist co-workers, etc etc etc. This is especially so, I think, where a group is small because the stakes are lower.

    Comment by redbedhead — October 27, 2009 @ 11:28 pm

  10. If you’re a fan of Lars Lih’s work I would really recommend that Macnair work “Revolutionary Strategy” that I sent to you a while ago. Perfect companion to Lih.

    Comment by Bhaskar — October 27, 2009 @ 11:50 pm

  11. All else aside, your “pon farr” bit was fucking hilarious, i.e. too true. I laughed and laughed.

    I’ll send you my own critique of the essay once I get to a proper computer and off my cell phone.

    Also, others might check my blog tomorrow as I’ll be publishing it there as well.

    Comment by max clark — October 28, 2009 @ 2:13 am

  12. Can we stop pretending there are real Left parties in North America… The scene is dead, and the average age of most ‘parties’ is the same as a bridge club. The older Marxist intellectuals with tenure are being waited out; their positions will be cut upon retirement to lecturer status.

    Comment by purple — October 28, 2009 @ 9:33 am

  13. Molyneux is the marxist equivalent of the average (UK) Guardian columnist: tip-toe-ing around one of the issues of the day, posing a few abstract, general questions in a manner which seems like there is no answer and can never be one, “food for thought”, and moving on: job done; and all is executed in the spirit of bourgeois “polite discourse”, just like your average hack daily rag columnist. I first came across his writings when i read his piece about how revolutionary the …Beatles were, I laughed out loud, and never went back. I much prefer Louis’s writing.

    Redbeddead, is your typical internet crank, who will immediately take offence and change the subject to himself, about how HE is the one “attacked”, “ad hominem”, “slurred” etc, so as to avoid discussing the issue at hand, which is the lack of democracy within the SWP and similar cults…

    Comment by Antonis — October 28, 2009 @ 10:57 am

  14. >Redbeddead

    Oh god, i spelt his internet nickname wrong, expect a 3-page exposition full of cheap sarcasm.

    Comment by Antonis — October 28, 2009 @ 11:01 am

  15. Antonis – Are you 12 yrs old?

    Comment by redbedhead — October 28, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

  16. …or lame put-downs…

    Comment by Antonis — October 28, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

  17. I think it’s early, and it will be interesting to see what actually does emerge as the splitting and atomization that is so standard a feature of U.S. life plays its role in the formation of independent working class leadership. What will we actually have to work with, I wonder?

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — October 28, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

  18. “In healthier groups, such as the British SWP” – seriously? I’ve seen corpses that are healthier than the British SWP, a poisonous cult with an internal party culture nothing short of Stalinist.

    Comment by SWP watcher — October 28, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

  19. I’ve seen corpses that are healthier than the British SWP,

    Evidently you have not been acquainted with the American SWP.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 28, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

  20. redbedhead writes:
    “I was on the “cc” of an IST group during the debate with the Americans and it is simply not true that they were expelled for disagreeing over Seattle’s significance. Firstly, I think it was right to have a debate over Seattle – as it is right to have debates about any number of things about which there is disagreement. Whether that debate was handled in the best way is certainly open to discussion. But the expulsion had to do with events in Greece.”

    You’re telling tall tales. The IST expelled the American ISO over perspectives. This is summed up in Alex Callinicos’ document attacking the ISO for not adhering to the SWP’s position on the “anti-capitalism” of Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign for president, the 1990’s representing “the 1930s in slow motion,” and other IST ideas. It concludes with a clear justification for expulsion. (“To have continued co-existing with ISO would have reduced the IS Tendency to an organized hypocrisy,” etc.)

    Greece is never mentioned.


    Comment by Andy — October 29, 2009 @ 2:23 am

  21. That’s interesting Andy. You ought to try using the search function on your web browser. you would have found this paragraph:

    “The ISO’s role in engineering this split [in Greece] became open on 3 March 2001, when Shawki spoke in Athens at a public session of the founding conference of the breakaway group set up by the faction, the International Workers Left. The leaderships of SEK [the Greek IST affiliate – me] and the SWP have responded by breaking with the ISO and calling on the rest of the IS Tendency to follow suit. The sectarianism of the ISO – which cut them off from the living movement that has been developing around – has now led them to seek to destroy the Tendency of which they were once among the proudest members.”

    So much for tall tales. Nice try though.

    Comment by redbedhead — October 29, 2009 @ 2:39 am

  22. re: The above: (yawn).

    Comment by John B. — October 29, 2009 @ 10:42 am

  23. Surely a key issue is the amount of leeway members are given in their own areas to develop their activities the way they see fit – while still holding true to a party’s core beliefs. Also, having regular educational and discussion meetings is also important – one way of having healthy debate, guiding new members into Marxism and encouraging people to think for themselves without being put down for not robotically repeating the party line. This happens in my organisation – the Socialist Party of England and Wales. I wonder how many open discussions or debates go on regularly at local branch level in the British SWP?

    Comment by Doug — October 30, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

  24. […] is Zombie Lenin and rustling through the eaves the wind whispers debates of democratic centralism, Louis Proyect muses about John Molyneux on party democracy, previously Harpymarx had thoughts and discussion. While […]

    Pingback by Carnival of Socialism- Halloween Special! « Ten Percent — October 31, 2009 @ 9:47 pm

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