Article by Amadeo Bordiga from Prometeo no. 5, May 15th 1924, on the structure and functioning of communist parties, and the International.
A Premise to the Question
The important discussion presently going on within the Russian Communist party throws into relief problems concerning the internal life of revolutionary parties. They also arise within the polemics of communists against other movements who seek to appeal to the proletariat and in the internal debates, and whenever disagreements or particular crises arise within our international communist organisation.
However, as is often the case, it is wrong to pose the question by setting one against the other two allegedly contrasting positions: mechanical dependence on the centre versus majoritarian democracy. The issue should instead be approached with a dialectical and historical method; a “principle”, either centralist or democratic, to be used as a fundamental reference point to start from compulsorily in order to solve the problem, would be a nonsense for us Marxists.
In one of “Rassegna Comunista” issues we published an article on the “Democratic Principle”, taking into consideration its application both in the State and in the political and union organisations, and demonstrating that for us such a principle has no subsistence whatsoever; we can only speak of a mechanism of numerical and majoritarian democracy, which can be convenient, for certain organisations, in given historical situations, to introduce or not.
The illusion of democracy is that the majority always knows the best way ahead, and that by voting each individual carries the same weight and influence. A criticism of this idea is implicit in Marxist thought, and this criticism not only rebuts the monumental swindle of bourgeois parliamentarianism, but also applies to the majority principle being utilised within the revolutionary state, the economic organisations of the working class and even to our party, with the exception of situations where alternative organisational choices do not exist. Nobody knows better than we Marxists the importance of organised minorities and the absolute necessity, for he proletarian class and the party that directs it, to act in a strictly disciplined manner and in strict accord with the party’s policy.
But if we are thus liberated from any egalitarian and democratic prejudice, that still should not lead us to base our action on a new or different prejudice which is the formal and metaphysical negation of the former. In this sense, we make reference to what written in the first part of the article on the national question (Prometeo no. 4) on how to face the great problems of communism.
The expression used in the texts of the International, “democratic centralism”, indicates sufficiently that the practice and rules of Communist parties are somehow at a half way house between absolute centralism and absolute democracy, and comrade Trotsky has drawn attention to this in a letter which has given rise to large debates amongst the Russian comrades.
Let us however say straightaway that if we are not able to seek a solution for revolutionary problems by appealing to the traditional abstract principles of Liberty or Authority, we do not find it any more expedient to look for a solution in a mixture of the two, as if they were fundamental ingredients to be combined.
For us, the communist position on the question of organisation and discipline should be more complete, satisfactory and original. To define it briefly, we have for a long time preferred the expression “organic centralism”, thus indicating that we are against any autonomist federalism, and that we accept the term centralism for its meaning of synthesis and unity, as opposed to the almost random and “liberal” association of forces arisen from the most varied independent initiatives. As concerns a more thorough development of the above conclusion, we believe it can be derived, far better than from the continuation of this study of which we are giving here a mere preliminary outline, from texts that are likely to be discussed in the fifth world Communist Congress. In part, the problem is also dealt with in the theses on tactics for the fourth Congress.
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Let us now pass to some historical experiences, which are to be borne in mind in order to avert any simplistic solution of the problem, either that requiring at all moments a poll to prove the rightness of the majority, or that agreeing at any rate and all the time with the central and supreme hierarchies. It’s a matter of showing how, by a real and dialectical process, we can actually overcome painful questions, often engendered in everyday party life by disciplinary issues. If we recall the history of the traditional socialist parties and of the IInd International we see that these parties, i.e., the opportunist groups that had their leaderships, used to shelter themselves with the bourgeois principles of democracy and autonomy of the party organs. That nevertheless did not prevent them from using largely the bugbear of discipline towards majorities and leaders, against the left elements that reacted to opportunist and revisionist tendencies.
This method eventually became the main expedient by which those parties were able to carry out, above all at the outbreak of the world war, the function of instruments for the ideological and political mobilisation of the working class by the bourgeoisie, a function that meant their final degeneration. In this way an out and out dictatorship of the right was built up in these parties; the revolutionaries had to fight it, not because intrinsic principles of internal party democracy were violated, or to oppose the idea of centralisation of the class party (which the Marxist left was in favour of), but because in the concrete situation it was necessary to fight actual anti-proletarian and anti-revolutionary forces. Thus, within those parties the method of creating fractions, opposed to the leaderships and devoted to pitilessly criticise them, was fully justified; this activity would eventually lead to separations and scissions that made the foundation of present day Communist Parties possible. It is therefore obvious that the principle of discipline for discipline is, in given situations, utilised by the counterrevolutionaries to hinder the development leading to the formation of the true class revolutionary party.
The best example of the way to deal with such demagoguery and sophistry was given by Lenin himself. He was a hundred times attacked as dissolver, disintegrator, violator of party rules, but he nevertheless unflinchingly kept his course and perfectly logically became the champion of the sound Marxist criteria of organic centralisation within both the State and the Party of the revolution. On the contrary, the most unfortunate example of a formalistic and bureaucratic enforcement of party discipline was given by the vote Karl Liebknecht felt bound to give on August 4, 1914, in favour of war credits.
It therefore appears certain that in certain moments and in given situations (the likelihood of occurrence and reproduction of which we will have to better examine in due time) the revolutionary direction is marked by a break of discipline and by the hierarchical centralisation of a pre-existent organisation. The situation is no different within trade unions, many of which are still led by counterrevolutionary groups. Again in this case, the leaders are touched by democracy and bourgeois freedom, and side with those who reject with repugnance the communist theses on violence and revolutionary dictatorship. Nevertheless, the communists who fight within such organisms must continually denounce the dictatorial procedures of these bureaucratic mandarins; and the best way to dethrone them is to require in assemblies and ballots the respect of democratic procedures. This does not mean however that we must develop a dogmatic worship for statutory democracy, as we do not rule out at all the possibility, in certain circumstances, of taking the leadership of these organisms by means of a surprise attack. A guidance able to connect us to our revolutionary end cannot therefore be given by the formal and constant homage paid to officially invested leaders, and not even by the impeccable accomplishment of all formalities of an electoral consultation. We repeat that our solution is to be constructed in a quite different and superior way.
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The matter appears to be more difficult and delicate when we pass to consider the internal life of the Parties and of the Communist International. A whole historical process separates us from the situation which, within the old International, determined the constitution of fractions, which were parties within the party, as well as the systematical breaches of discipline and the ensuing scissions, fraught with revolutionary consequences.
Our opinion on this is that the problem of organisation and discipline within the communist movement cannot be resolved without connecting it strictly to the questions of theory, programme and tactics. We could set ourselves the task of designing an ideal model of a revolutionary party, as the final goal we expect to achieve, and try to work out the internal structure and rules of such a party. We would easily arrive at the conclusion that in such a party both fractional struggles and disagreements of peripheral organisms with the directions of the central organ shall not be allowed. We would however have solved nothing if we applied these conclusions, as they are, to our party and the International not certainly because such integral application would not be highly desirable for us all, but because in real life we are not even close to such a picture. Real facts lead us to recognise that the divisions of Communist parties into fractions, and the differences that sometimes turn into conflicts between these parties and the International are not isolated exceptions, but the rule.
Unfortunately the solution is not so simple. We must understand that the International does not yet function as a single world communist party. It is undoubtedly on the way to achieving this result, and has made immense steps forward if compared with the old International. But to be sure that it is actually advancing in the best possible way in the desired direction, and to adapt to such a goal our activity as communists, we must tie our faith in the revolutionary nature and capacity of our glorious world organisation to a continuous work, based on the control and on the rational evaluation of our political choices and of what goes on within our ranks.
To consider a total and perfect discipline, as would derive from a universal consensus as regards also the critical evaluation of all the problems of the movement, not just as a result, but as an infallible means of resolving problems by simply saying: the International is the world Communist Party, and whatever its central organs issue is to be faithfully followed; all this is to sophistically turn the problem upside down.
We must remember, to start our analysis of the question, that communist parties are organisations which one joins “voluntarily”. This fact is inherent in the historical nature of parties, rather than the recognition of whatsoever “principle” or “model”. As a matter of fact, we cannot force anyone to take out a party card, we cannot conscript communists, we cannot set sanctions against those who do not conform to internal discipline: every member is free to leave us when he wishes. We don’t want to say now whether this situation is desirable or not: this is the way it is, and there’s no means to change it. It follows therefore that we cannot adopt the formula, undoubtedly full of advantages, of absolute obedience to orders from on high.
The orders coming from central hierarchies are not the starting point, but rather the result of the functioning of the movement, considered as a community. This is not to be understood in a foolishly democratic or legalistic way, but in its realistic and historical sense. By saying this, we are not advocating a “right” for the mass of communists to elaborate the policy which the leaders should follow: we just recognise that it is in these terms that the formation of a class party takes place, and on this basis we will have to approach the study of the question. The schematic conclusions we are getting to are thus outlined.
There is no automatic discipline which can assure enforcement of orders and provisions from on high, “whatever they are”; there is a series of orders and provisions, coming up to the real origins of the movement, able to guarantee the maximum of discipline, i. e., unitary action of the whole organism; and there is a set of other provisions which, though coming from the centre, may compromise both discipline and organisational solidity. It is therefore a question of outlining the task of the steering organs. Who is to do it? The whole party, the whole organisation will do it; not in the trite and parliamentary sense of a right to be consulted on the “mandate” to give to the elected leaders and on the limits it must have; but in the dialectical sense that consists of tradition, preparation, real continuity of the movement as concerns thought and action. Precisely because we are antidemocratic, we believe that in the matter a minority may have views that correspond better to the interest of the revolutionary process than those of the majority. For sure this only happens exceptionally, and the occurrence of such disciplinary upsets, as happened in the old International and we hope will not take place in our ranks, indicates an extremely serious situation. But even without going to this extreme, there may be other less sharp and critical situations, when it is useful and even essential that groups demand the leading centre to give clarifications on its policies.
This is, in short, the basis for the study of the question, which must be faced by taking into account the true historical nature of the class party: an organism with the tendency to express the unification of all the individual proletarian struggles that arise on the social ground towards a central and common goal; an organism characterised by voluntary adhesions. We thus summarise our thesis, and we believe in this way to be faithful to Marxist dialectics: the action the party carries out, and the tactics it adopts, i.e., the way the party behaves towards the “outside”, have in turn consequences on its organisation and “internal” structure. To claim, in the name of an invariable discipline, to keep the party available for “whatever” action, tactics or strategic manoeuvre, that is without limits or boundaries determined beforehand and known to all militants of the organisation, is to fatally compromise it. The maximum desirable unity and disciplinary solidity can be effectively achieved only by facing the problem on this platform, and not by claiming that it is prejudicially solved by a simple rule of mechanical obedience.