The Internal lives of Revolutionary Organizations

The question has been raised about the internal lives of revolutionary organizations. Specifically by a Comrade in relation to the Socialist Alternative group which is part of the Committee for a Workers International. I was a full time organizer for the CWI for twenty years. I was on its international leading bodies for most of that time. In the mid 1990's I was expelled, fired from my organizing job, slandered and lied about and written out of the history of that organization. I was the first full timer of that organization in North American but any search for my name and role in that organization in North America will be in vain. 

I am sharing below some some conclusions I have drawn about my work in the CWI, its US section is now the SA. I hope they will be helpful. I would also like to suggest that those who are interested in this issue read the piece by former CWI full timer, Stephen Morgan, Why I Was Sacked from the CWI.
The reader can also “Like” the blog’s FB page at:

Tony Benn speaking at CWI Conference, mid 1980's
Democratic Centralism: 
Discredited as a term and in practice. The internal life, discussions and present needs of the Socialist Alternative/CWI. 

by John Throne

The debate and split in the CWI in the 1990's brought the method of internal organizing known as Democratic Centralism to the forefront. This was not the first time the method of internal life and organizing of the CWI had been tested. Partly because of my mistake and the mistake of the entire leadership and organization as a whole in not having this struggle debated openly among the entire membership at that time, this wrong method was still in existence and once again it was found wanting. This method, the method known as Democratic Centralism, in and of itself was and is incorrect, but things were made much worse because of the dishonest maneuvers and opportunist ambitions of the majority of leadership of the CWI which was organized in the corrupt secretive clique around Peter Taaffe and Lynn Walsh.      

The combined membership of the CWI before the split in the 1990's had been around 14,000,members. After the split and the departure of the International Marxist Tendency, as the Ted Grant/ Alan Woods group named itself, the total membership of both groups was reduced to the hundreds. The split was a catastrophe for all concerned. 

The reason for the original International splitting into two was first and foremost because it had developed a wrong view of the world. We were clinging on to 5 to 10 years to the revolution when such a prospect was long gone. Not only that, but it had been replaced with a new period of severe reaction with capitalism being re-established in the Stalinist world. This brought hundreds of millions of workers once again into the capitalist world market, providing both increased buying power and cheap labor. It also made available to capitalism huge amounts of raw materials, which had previously been nationalized in the Stalinist world. Capitalism got a new lease on life. As the Wall Street Journal boasted in an editorial at the time: "We Won."

And it was not only that the CWI was wrong on its worldview but it was also that it was so unconditional in general in how it saw things. It had been generally correct in its world view for the three to four decades after World War 2, it had become used to this and so it continued in this way. Reading the works of Trotsky and Lenin show how much more conditional they were in their worldview and perspectives. 

This period of reaction was of a historic scale. It would have caused problems for the original CWI no matter what. However what turned things into a catastrophe and caused the split and the collapse in membership of the original CWI were that world events and the International’s wrong analysis of world events came together with the incorrect internal life of the CWI. 

The internal life of revolutionary organizations from the time of the Bolsheviks was described as democratic centralism. This supposedly operated with full discussion, then after such a discussion a decision would be made and then the organization would act on the majority decision but with minority opinions having the right to continue to have their views heard. This sounded good, but life and the tasks of revolution were much more complicated than could be handled by such an oversimplified formula. 

And it was not only that, there can exist all the wonderful theories and guidelines that can be dreamt up, but if they are not implemented correctly then they will fail to achieve their ends. It is like being taught to be a bricklayer or a carpenter or a nurse. This knowledge can be taught. But this does not mean the person who is taught can necessarily implement this knowledge and do a good job. Then there is also the question of morale and confidence. Things can change. Other events in the life of a person or an organization can lead to a collapse or decline in morale and confidence. This can lead to a person who could have been able to implement their craft and skill for years losing their ability to do so at another stage.

Before the split, when the ideas of the CWI corresponded to the reality of the world, there was little stress on the internal workings of the International. However this did not mean the internal life was healthy. It was too top down, it had a leadership, which saw itself as teachers of the membership, and it did not encourage the full involvement of the entire membership in clarifying the ideas. However as long as the ideas were generally correct this did not express itself as a major problem. But by the 1980's and 1990's things had changed. The analysis was no longer generally correct. It no longer corresponded to reality. So in this new situation the false internal life erupted like a volcano and the crisis and split was on. 

As events unfolded I came to conclude that the method of democratic centralism as practiced was extremely damaging to the workers’ movement. It had been used to build the internal life of all sorts of organizations such as the murderous reactionary Stalinist organizations as well as the sectarian ultra left revolutionary grouplets. It was a method that led to organizations with degenerate undemocratic internal lives, ones such as the CWI had become. 

So I discarded this method and this term. But doing so did not solve the problem. The task of history remained to build a mass revolutionary organization internationally. That is, to organize tens and hundreds of millions of working class people and fuse them together into a collective conscious democratic fighting force, which could end capitalism and build a new democratic socialist world. This demanded a structure and a way of working and a culture. It could not be done on an individual basis. 

My own evolution to becoming a revolutionary involved taking the step from acting as an individual to where I was prepared to become part of a collective democratic organization and process which based itself on general political principles, such as international revolutionary socialism, on general organizational principles, such as honest and open discussion and exchange of views and decision making based on democratic majority opinion combined with minority rights. I came to regard the highest achievement of humanity as such a collective democratic decision making organism. 

In dumping the term democratic centralist I have increasingly come to use the term and method of democratic collectivism.  And not only that the revolutionary organization had to be democratic collectivist in its internal life but that any such organization had to have a democratic collectivist leadership. This means a leadership that consciously stands against the development of any one person dominating. A leadership and an organization that takes measures such as democratically deciding who should give introductions, who should write documents, and that should do so with the aim of consciously developing a collective leadership. 

The issue of openness is central to this. For an organization to be able to genuinely act collectively and democratically its membership has to have full access to the developments within the organization. That is, there has to be no secretive internal life. There might be a detail here or there that would have to be kept secret for security reasons. But the overall and overwhelming approach of the organization has to be open. And not only open within its membership, but also open in relationship to its inter-action with the working class. 

This means the revolutionary organization had to continuously interact with, have a dialogue with, share its opinions and its differences with the working class periphery in which it works within which the organization works and struggles. When discussion and debate develops this has to be shared with the working class and the views and opinions of the working class integrated in to the whole.

I have come to the conclusion that developing a collective organization and especially a collective leadership cannot be left to chance. It cannot be left to “natural selection.”     It has to be done consciously. Actions have to be taken to make this so. Steps that have to be taken to achieve this include consciously democratically electing different members to carry out tasks such as leading written, verbal and active roles, not leaving the role of leadership to chance or to the biggest male ego. Diversity in terms of gender, ethnic background, class position in society all, have to be taken into account. 
Along with this there has to be the willingness to admit mistakes, in fact the determination to admit mistakes. This is the only way the organization can learn. If it does not admit its mistakes it cannot learn from them. On a regular basis the written material of the organization such as its paper and documents should be read and discussed specifically from the point of view of seeing where they were wrong not as tends to be the case where they were right. Regular meetings at all levels to discuss where our material and documents and predictions and program had been wrong should be a permanent feature of the life of any revolutionary organization. 

Such an approach of course would on occasion bring some of the potentially most capable members into conflict with their own egos and the revolutionary organization. But I have to absorb the statement from Trotsky. While a revolutionary has to have a strong ego it is essential that such an ego be harnessed to the needs of the revolution and the revolutionary organization. This inevitably means the ability to be honestly and openly self-critical.  

In terms of the most capable and leading people who would tend to gravitate into leading positions there is the so-called slate system. This is where an outgoing leadership body when up for re-election proposes a slate of new members to take over. This almost inevitably means the old leadership with one or two add ons is re-elected, means that the old leadership on just about every occasion replaces itself with itself. I have come to to reject this method also and replace it with open elections where no proposed slate is put forward by the outgoing leadership.  

While these general principles have come to be the foundation on which I increasingly build I also understand that the internal life of revolutionary organizations is like all things, not fixed. At different times different balances are necessary. At times the balance of the organization’s resources had to be overwhelming directed towards discussion and clarification of the ideas, the program, strategy and tactics. At other times the balance has to be in the direction of moving the resources into concrete action to either take the organization forward in an offensive or to defend it and possibly retreat if it is under serious attack. It is, as all life is, a dialectical living process.

The ability to identify what period the organization is in and what emphasis is necessary is essential to success. Again as Trotsky was to say, it was essential to understand the period through which we were passing. However while saying this, excepting a situation where a counterrevolutionary force has infiltrated an organization at no time should there be any justification for repressing discussion and debate and banning of factions.  

As the 1980’s proceeded into the 1990’s the worldview of the CWI became more and more incorrect. What was necessary at that time was an overwhelming balance towards opening up the organization and mobilizing the entire membership in discussion and debate in order to clarify the ideas and analysis. To this end the organization’s internal life needed to be opened up to the greatest possible degree. To set the right atmosphere there would have had to be full unconditional admission of the major mistakes we had all made, especially the mistakes of the leading bodies and members, the greatest possible encouragement to all of the membership to discuss these mistakes and the lessons of the past, to turn to the literature and experience of the movement, and develop a new world view. To this end also there should have been the conditional welcoming of and inevitability of the development of factions to clarify the ideas. 

In relation to factions: Engels said that it was a law that revolutionary organizations develop through struggle. Trotsky said that the healthiest period of the Bolsheviks was a time of factions and not only factions but factions within factions. In relation to this it is also necessary to see that when an organization goes through a period of change, either in the objective situation or internally that it has to readjust and reorient.

How does it do this? By internal discussion and by increased interaction and dialogue with the working class. So when an organization goes through change such as the SA and CWI are now experiencing there has to be recognition that increased internal discussion and debate are inevitable. But much more than that; not only inevitable, but necessary, and even more than that, internal discussion and debate must be welcomed and encouraged otherwise the resources of the revolutionary organization and its working class periphery will not be able to be mobilized to clarify its new situation and the tasks it will have to take up.

Unfortunately organizations such as the SA/CWI leadership when faced with changes and especially new members, takes the opposite approach. The leadership clamps down to keep control. Look at its British section, its large bases in Liverpool, Scotland, it’s leadership of the Poll Tax that helped to bring down Thatcher. What came out of these? Its leadership was terrified of losing control and would not allow the organization’s internal life develop. I was part of this process. By demanding that the organization discuss its major mistakes in relation to world events myself and the other members of the Minority faction had to be expelled and denied our right to appeal and suffer a torrent of lies and slanders. The corrupt clique around Peter Taaffe and Lynn Walsh could not countenance any significant voices drawing attention to the mistakes we had all made. 

Instead of the internal life of the CWI opening up in this new situation where the world was changing and where it itself had made major mistakes, the opposite occurred. Driven by their own ambition, by their reactionary determination to hold on to their positions, the Taaffe/Walsh leadership and their followers combined to insist they had never made any mistakes and from this went on to clamp down on internal debate and discussion. The internal life became even less democratic than before. They insisted they had never made mistakes. It was all the fault of the Ted Grant/Alan Woods faction and vice versa. This unprincipled factional and personally ambitious response and activity combined with the wrong worldview went on to shatter and demoralize the majority of the membership of the international. Instead of thousands of views flourishing and healthy democratic debate erupting and the organization being built anew on a much more healthy basis where the ideas would be clarified and the internal life of the International made better than ever before, thousands of members walked away in demoralization and disgust, and the International shattered into pieces. 

I was to come to understand the mistaken method of what was known as democratic centralism through a number of painful experiences and mistakes myself and others made. I did not always take issues for discussion to the full membership. I came to learn this was a mistake and when the faction fight developed in the 1990's I took the initiative to form the Minority faction and attempted to take the issues to the full membership. Unfortunately I did not know that the CWI/SA majority leadership had been working as a secret faction for some time before and been preparing its campaign of lies and slanders and expulsions. I came up against this when I did attempt to take my struggle it to the entire membership in open debate but was closed out of attending conferences and international and national meetings and denied my right t to appeal against my expulsion. .  

As I learned these lessons I discarded as totally useless, in fact worse than useless, in fact harmful, the term democratic centralism. I came to describe the internal life of the revolutionary organization I wanted to build as democratic collectivist. This did not mean this organization had no leadership, it did not mean its members were forced to assume positions of artificial equality in terms of ability and understanding, it meant that the weight of all members opinions had to be treated democratically and as equals. And that this had to be defended and promoted by all with ferocity. And along with this that loyalty to the organization included members putting forward their views openly and honestly at all times.

As my experiences unfolded I learnt that the Stalinist organizations and also the so-called revolutionary left sects while claiming adherence to Lenin were in fact taking his name in vain. All these groups, whatever they claimed, sought in one way or another to suppress alternative views within their ranks, Lenin would get enraged when members would have alternative views and not write these down and circulate them within the Party and fight for them. He saw failure to do this as members not doing their duty to educate the Party through debate. This is the approach I have come to adopt. I believe it is the correct one and while there are no guarantees for anything it is the best way to build a revolutionary International. 

There is a directly related and central factor in this crisis in the CWI and SA and its false method of internal life. And this is no small detail. In fact it was and is so strong that it has been able to stand against the democratic tendencies and instincts of the members. This is the corruption and ambition of the majority of the leadership of the organization, represented by and organized in the clique around Taaffe and Walsh.  This is a viciously corrupt clique. It stops at nothing short of violence to get its way. It came close to that on one occasion when Taaffe took a young woman Comrade into a room and smashed his fists on the desk and told her he would “crush”  (his word) her if she did not capitulate to his views. 

Lies, slanders, secret meetings and secret organizing, saying behind their backs that Comrades who had given their whole adult lives to the CWI were passed it, useless and on and on. They said that I had stolen money from the CWI. Something that had never been said about me by the forces such as social democracy, Stalinism, Republicanism, other left groups with whom I had struggles. No it was left to the CWI to stoop to this low.  The leadership of the CWI has developed into a corrupt degenerate clique. And it has done so while still practicing so-called democratic centralism.  

Also read: Socialist Alternative members: Questions and Answers

No comments: