On the Question of Multiple Revolutionary Parties
These are some comments inspired by two recent documents written by my friend Ted: 1) his essay, Some Thoughts on the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976) and its Relevance to Revolutionaries in the 21st Century, and, 2) a letter he wrote on March 31, 2000.
As the title suggests, the first document is about both critiquing the Cultural Revolution in China, and also about some questions concerning revolution in this and other countries. There is one political question in particular that stands out in that essay: “Is it necessary to have one leading communist party under socialism?”
The second document, the March 31st letter, is almost entirely devoted to the same general topic, first the question “of whether one communist party is a universal requirement for the construction of socialism” (p. 1), and second, the closely related question “From the standpoint of the struggle of the international proletariat and oppressed to achieve communism, is it politically desirable for one communist party in particular countries to have a monopoly on power?” (p. 3).
Ted has been quite concerned about this issue of having multiple revolutionary parties, and he has gotten me and others thinking about it too. That’s good. But I think it is such an important topic in its own right that it is not quite right to discuss it just in the context of summing up the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China. The two topics may indeed be related, but I think that they should be addressed separately. A critique of the GPCR might well bring this matter up, but it should just be one of many topics discussed. (In Ted’s essay it takes up 20% to 25% of the space and still doesn’t have room to get into the question adequately.) Similarly, in discussing the separate issue of having multiple revolutionary parties, we might well wish to refer to the Cultural Revolution, but it would distort things to get off into a general summation of the GPCR in that context.
In these comments, at any rate, I’ll try to stick to the issue of having multiple revolutionary parties, and save any unrelated remarks on the Cultural Revolution (and on Ted’s excellent start towards a summary of the GPCR) for another occasion.
Three Stances on the Issue
As I see it there are not just two basic attitudes towards having multiple revolutionary parties, but at least three:
I don’t know what Ted’s views about factions are (I would like to hear them!), but I think that otherwise he seems to be leaning toward the 3rd position. I uphold the 2nd position. It is probably true that much of the actual practice of (genuine) Communist Parties in the past, including in Lenin’s USSR and Mao’s China, has been between the 1st and 2nd positions, and often more along the lines of the 1st position.
I think it is clear that Marxist-Leninist-Maoists have always favored a single revolutionary proletarian party. (This doesn’t prove that view is correct, but it is something important to note.) Engels, for example, said:
“A conscious class party…” That leads me to my next subtopic.
The Philosophical and Political Basis for Having a Single Proletarian Party
What are political parties? What are they for? Why do they exist? Lenin said:
Virtually all serious parties primarily represent class interests, the common, collective interests of specific classes. That is the first point to note. That is the main reason why they exist, and what they are basically for.
But how is such a thing possible? It is only possible because classes actually do have a core of central, common, collective interests in the first place, starting with their economic and material interests. Parties often pretend to represent the interests of more than one class, and quite commonly of “all the people”. But, as Marxists, we know this is completely impossible, because different social classes do not share their most basic interests, cannot possibly share them. That follows immediately from the very definition of ‘class’ (groups of people with a common relationship to the means of production, and hence a common set of basic socioeconomic interests arising from that relationship).
So far all I have shown is that it is possible for a single party to represent the interests of a single class, to really champion the basic common, collective interests of a class. But of course it is also possible for a single class to have more than one party which represents its interests, such as the Democrats and Republicans in this country which both represent the bourgeoisie.
But the question then is, if two different parties really do both represent the basic, common, collective interests of a single class, why don’t they merge into a single party, or at least work together as if they were a single party? And the answer is they usually do, whenever “necessary”. And it is “necessary” for them whenever these basic, common, collective interests come under serious attack by other class parties (or alien bourgeoisies in other countries). Sometimes this happens even when those other class parties are not really diametrically opposed to them. For example, for decades the Socialist Party political machine controlled the city of Milwaukee. Although this was a petty-bourgeois party and not a proletarian revolutionary party, it opposed some of the basic class interests of the bourgeoisie. Consequently the Democrats and Republicans regularly joined together to try to defeat the Socialists, even fielding joint candidates at times, and eventually they succeeded. A similar thing happened elsewhere in the country back in the heyday of the Socialist Party before World War I.
But after the “Socialist threat” was defeated, the Milwaukee Democrat-Republicans split back into two separate parties again. Why? Because within the bourgeoisie there are separate sections of the class with some secondary collective interests opposed to those of other sections of the same class. The bourgeoisie is a class which—though it does have definite overall collective class interests—is a collection of people with extremely strong individual and small-group interests which sometimes even overpower their common class interests. Remember Lenin’s remark about how a capitalist can always be found to sell you the rope to hang the other capitalists!
In addition, there are ideological differences of opinion within the bourgeoisie about how to advance the basic interests of their whole class. For instance, one section of the bourgeoisie, centered in the Democratic Party, favors more of a pretence of supporting the interests of working people, and making a few more concessions to them, than the other more hard-line section does.
Multiple parties representing the same class generally exist only when there are important secondary issues and interests that divide that class. Both the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie are notoriously prone to such internal divisions, and occasionally these divisions get quite severe. And, indeed, Lenin said that one of the three conditions of a revolutionary situation, one of the three requirements of a successful proletarian revolution, is that the bourgeoisie be qualitatively more divided than usual, more in disarray and at each other’s throats.
So what about the proletariat then? Do secondary interests divide the proletariat and make it desirable and even necessary to have multiple revolutionary proletarian parties? Ted seems to be suggesting that the issues of race and ethnic identity might require this. I’ll talk about that in more detail below.
The first point to emphasize, however, is that the primary core interests of the proletariat as a whole require it to organize as a class for itself, in Marx’s words. The enemy class, the bourgeoisie, has state power and it is very difficult to overthrow them. Our only real chance of doing so is if our class has a very high degree of revolutionary class consciousness, has a very high degree of unity, and acts in concert (in a very coordinated way) to a very high degree. And that is an extremely strong argument for having a single class party, a single proletarian revolutionary party. It is of course possible that we might be able to overthrow the bastards even if there are still some ideological and organizational divisions within our ranks, but obviously the more divisions and less unity we have in the proletarian revolutionary camp, the harder the job is going to be, and the less likely is our success.
This argument by itself is already enough to completely convince me that it is highly desirable that the proletariat have just a single revolutionary party—at least in the period before the seizure of power—, even if it may not be absolutely necessary in all situations. Frankly, I find it hard to even imagine that there can ever be a successful proletarian revolution where there is not one revolutionary party that at least dominates and provides overall leadership for the revolutionary movement.
The proletariat needs all the unity it can achieve in order to make revolution. That is the bottom line.
Race and Ethnic Divisions: Does Each Nationality Need its Own Party?
The main motivation for Ted’s leaning toward the desirability or even necessity of having multiple revolutionary parties in this country seems to be his focus on the present racial disunity, suspiciousness, hostility and even voluntary “apartheid” that now exists. (Blacks hang out with Blacks, Chicanos with Chicanos, whites with whites…) He says that “It is also quite likely that one or more parties (and armies) will be based mainly, or exclusively, in the more advanced struggles of the African-American nation or other oppressed nationalities.” [March 31st letter, p. 2.]
This country is indeed racist to the core, and obsessed with race and nationality. Things are unlikely to change any time soon. They can’t change fundamentally under this system. (Except conceivably over hundreds of years through the gradual further mixing of genes. But capitalism will very likely kill us all, one way or another, if it is not overthrown long before then.)
(As we should all recognize, there is no scientific validity to the biological concept of “race”, and certainly not “pure races”. Socially, it is almost entirely a matter of 1) a few nearly inconsequential, but obvious, external physical characteristics such as skin color, and 2) family and cultural associations and behavior (such as speech patterns). The obsession with race in the U.S. proves how backward this society is, both scientifically and politically.)
Even in socialist society it will take a long period of struggle among the people to fully eliminate racism, ethnic nationalism, and the like. But more than that, there is a real question in my mind if we will ever even be able to achieve a genuine socialist society capable of completely eliminating racism if we can’t build a good deal of unity of nationalities in the process of overthrowing this racist capitalist system. And among other things, that means building a multiracial proletarian revolutionary party, a party that all races and nationalities can look to for leadership, and with mutual respect.
In short, I don’t see how we can even get started on the road to eliminating racial and national oppression unless at least a great many of us, of all races and nationalities, can come together politically and organizationally within the revolutionary movement. If some members of oppressed nationalities feel they must organize along racial or national lines, that is their undoubted right. But those of us who have come together in a multinational party will try to work with them, and seek to have them eventually merge with us, because we need their strength and participation, and because our whole movement will be more unified and stronger as a result.
The main reason there is such an obsession with race and nationality among the masses, is that they are forced to respond this way by the racial and national oppression of the ruling class (which of course is overwhelmingly white). But an important secondary reason is that these non-white masses do not presently see much basis for unity with the white working class, which itself is very strongly infected with racist attitudes towards them, and overall shows little recognition of and concern about national oppression. A large part of the problem here (though not all of it) is that the white working class in this country has very little class consciousness. Partly as a consequence of this, neither do workers of the other nationalities.
Class consciousness has never been very strong in this country, but at present it is at or near its all-time low. (It is even pretty low in the tiny revolutionary movement itself!) This is one of several basic reasons why there cannot possibly be a successful proletarian revolution in the U.S. any time soon—no matter what kind of social disarray might suddenly develop. (A revolution is a change in class rule!) Ted’s supposition that there might develop a revolutionary situation in the U.S. “in the next 10-20 years” [March 31st letter, p. 2] seems completely far-fetched to me. There might well be rising social problems, anger, even some riots and chaos, of one sort or another, in that period. There might even be some growing class consciousness and a somewhat increased recognition on the part of some sections of the masses that a proletarian revolution may be necessary. But there cannot actually be a proletarian revolution in that time frame—certainly not within the next decade. We have a lot further to go than that.
The abysmally low level of proletarian class consciousness in this country also explains, in part, why so many revolutionary-minded people seek to organize themselves on ethnic or national lines instead of the more fundamental basis of class lines. A great many people among the oppressed nationalities see this as the only kind of organization that can defend their interests. At the present time, this may be close to the truth. But while nationalist organizations can indeed help these nationalities resist oppression, I don’t think that they will ever be the main force in a proletarian revolution. In other words, as long as we are in a period when most revolutionaries are revolutionary nationalists, in ethnic or nationalist organizations, we won’t be able to make a successful proletarian revolution. Why? First, because we don’t have a sufficient level of unity, even among revolutionaries—let alone the broad masses. Second, the very fact that there is not a powerful multinational proletarian party proves that class consciousness, and proletarian revolutionary consciousness, must be way too low among the masses to even consider the possibility of near-term revolution.
So I just can’t agree with Ted that there is any real possibility of the scenario he suggests actually happening: a powerful revolutionary movement growing and developing, based not on a proletariat with growing revolutionary class consciousness, but instead based as much (or more) on diverse groups of revolutionary nationalists.
Even many of the more enlightened revolutionary nationalists themselves have come to believe that a successful social revolution must be a class-based revolution. Malcolm X, for example, said:
Which is primary in capitalist society—class divisions or national divisions? Overall, it is class divisions. That’s what Marxists have always believed. And because of that, we need a class party, not multiple parties based on national divisions. And not only is that what we need, it is hard to imagine that there could ever be a successful proletarian revolution until such a party comes into existence and provides at least overall leadership to all the important sections of our class.
The Bourgeois Prejudice that Democracy Means Having Multiple Parties
We live in a society where the ruling class constantly insists that the whole essence of democracy lies in having multiple political parties. I don’t say that Ted agrees with this unfounded prejudice; I’m pretty sure he does not. But it is a fact that all of us are infected to one degree or another by the constant barrage of bourgeois ideology, and this simple-minded notion coming from the bourgeoisie does in fact have some currency even within the revolutionary movement.
I like to point out the absurdity of this theory by talking about Al Capone’s Chicago of the 1920s and ’30s. Suppose the mob itself also had elections, where all Chicagoans got to vote for either Al Capone’s “party” or Frank Nitti’s “party”. (I can hear the phony campaign promises now: “If elected Mob Boss, I promise to cut extortion rates by 10%!”) Would this have been democracy? Of course not—the same mob would still run things, and live off the people, no matter who was “elected”. This is exactly the way things actually are with the two main bourgeois parties in this country, the Democrats and the Republicans. At most the people get to say which of two bourgeois mobsters will lead the class that exploits them over the next four years. (And actually even that is largely determined by the bourgeoisie through its control of the media and public opinion.)
When you live in a class society, all parties which genuinely represent the same class are in effect a single party, as far as members of other classes are concerned. For other classes, as far as their basic concerns go, choosing between alien class parties is almost always meaningless—even if they have that “right”.
Real democracy is something entirely different than having multiple political parties. “Democracy means allowing the masses to manage their own affairs,” says Mao.5 This means many things, such as setting up a system where the desires of the masses are actually put into effect. For this in turn to be possible, there must be political organizations that can really transform the desires of the masses into action. And first of all this means the masses must have a party to lead them, which in modern society can only be the proletarian revolutionary party, which represents both the class interests of the proletariat and also the ultimate class interests of all the masses. The masses should control society through such a party, though of course it will take a social revolution to make that possible.
The Importance of Democracy in the Proletarian Class Party Under Socialism
But if this party itself is serious about democracy, about allowing the masses to manage their own affairs, it will not make further changes unless the masses themselves really desire them and demand them. A genuine proletarian party functions by trying to educate the proletariat and the broad masses in their own interests, and only when the proletariat really understands that its own interests require a certain change, will the proletarian party attempt to lead the masses in implementing it.
The revolutionary proletariat and its allies rule through the proletarian party, but there is always the possibility that that party might get away from them, that they might lose control of it. There is always the possibility that instead of being their tool for social transformation, this party might change its nature and become their master, the organizational center of a new bourgeois class.
The proletarian party makes a big step in that awful direction as soon as it places itself above the masses, as soon as it starts thinking of itself not as a tool of the masses, but as their director, as an authority over the masses qualified to issue orders and directions to the masses because it understands the interests of the masses better than the masses do themselves. In other words, the proletarian party makes a huge step towards the bourgeois abyss the moment it abandons genuine democracy, and starts issuing orders to the masses—even if those orders are actually in the masses’ own interests to begin with. This was Stalin’s worst crime. The problem is that the masses themselves have lost control of their fate. If a new bourgeois class arises in the party, and starts ruling in their own interests instead of those of the masses—as happened in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death—then the masses are lost.
In short, a real proletarian revolutionary party must be democratic, that is, must continue to allow the masses to actually control their own lives and their own fate, if it is to be successful in transforming society over the long run, and achieving communism. It can’t give up its education efforts (agitation and propaganda), or its leadership when the masses are ready to act, but it can’t give up real democracy either, if it expects to keep on the revolutionary road over the long term.
Multiple Revolutionary Parties Under Socialism
But couldn’t this be better done with multiple revolutionary proletarian parties under socialism? Wouldn’t it be nice to have some revolutionary organizational alternatives waiting in the wings if the first party stumbles?
Of course that sounds like a good thing, especially in the historical context where we have seen two ruling proletarian parties turn into bourgeois parties, and overturn the revolutions in the USSR and China. But to what extent is it all merely wishful thinking? To what extent does it really amount to a prayer that some savior organization will suddenly appear and save a situation that is going to hell for entirely different reasons?
Which is harder: overthrowing the bourgeoisie to begin with, or transforming society to communism after we overthrow them? We don’t know for sure yet, but it seems like the second task might be a lot harder—partly because it must happen over such a long period, and probably more or less simultaneously world-wide. The first task has been accomplished at least twice (three times if you count the Paris Commune; four times if you count the GPCR), but the second task hasn’t been accomplished at all yet. We do know that both tasks are very difficult indeed. By no means does the proletariat and its party (or parties?) have smooth sailing just because the bourgeoisie has been initially vanquished. It appears that because of the negative lessons of the Paris Commune we at least know enough to keep the old bourgeoisie from returning to power after their initial overthrow. (However, this still might happen again in some countries due to foreign intervention.) But we have not yet proven that we can prevent a new bourgeoisie from emerging within the ruling proletarian party itself and eventually seizing power.
Could having multiple revolutionary proletarian parties help prevent this? Presumably the idea is that if you have multiple parties, any new ruling class will develop in just one of them, or gravitate more strongly to one of them. This would allow the genuine proletarian revolutionaries to use the other party (or parties) to oppose the one leaning in the bourgeois direction, force them to change course, or perhaps suppress them if they go too far along the capitalist road. But there are a lot of problems with such an idea.
First, suppose we start with two proletarian revolutionary parties, one of which then leans in a bourgeois direction. Might not this be the stronger of the two parties in the first place? Or, in any case, couldn’t the new bourgeois-leaning party become so strong (if left to develop on its own) that it overpowers the proletarian party, rather than the other way around? You might say, “well this just means each party has to keep an eye on the others and at the first sign of a bourgeois trend must pounce on it”. But that in turn would probably mean that this multi-party scheme would fall apart whenever there was any major disagreement between parties (i.e., immediately). Each party would attack the other(s) for opposing the “genuine” proletarian revolutionary path, and each would try to suppress the other(s). If you are really going to allow multiple parties, each must be willing to allow the others to develop quite different ideas, plans, and programs, and develop networks of support in various parts of the country and among various sections of the people (which means that no single party will be able to unite the whole class). By the time it becomes completely clear that a particular party is hopelessly set on the bourgeois road it may require a civil war to suppress it—if it can be done at all.
Second, couldn’t the new bourgeoisie grow in more than one party simultaneously? As I mentioned above, both the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie are particularly prone to divisions within their own classes (due to rampant individual, small-group, and sectional interests).
In China the Liu/Deng forces seized control of the Communist Party after Mao’s death. But they are not the only bourgeois forces in China. There are the “democracy advocates”, a powerful undercurrent of a more Western-style, individualist bourgeois democracy, who are in bitter conflict with the Dengists. suppose there had been two proletarian parties in China in Mao’s day. In such a situation Western-style bourgeois democracy might have been even more attractive to the new bourgeoisie than it is today. It is quite conceivable that the Dengists could have captured one of the two parties, and the bourgeois democrats the other. We can’t just assume that the existence of multiple parties will somehow prevent a bourgeois restoration!
Or suppose that in 1952, before he died, Stalin had suddenly decided that the Soviet Union needed to present an image of formal Western-style democracy, and split the existing CPSU into two parties. Would that have made any positive difference? None at all as far as I can see. The proletariat had already lost direct control of its party; the proto-new-bourgeoisie (Khrushchev and the rest) was already in place, divorced from the masses, enjoying special privileges, acting in the name of the masses (and perhaps really so, much of the time—as long as Stalin was alive). But, I think that in retrospect it is a foregone conclusion that once given a free hand they would act in their own new-class interests. One party, or two, makes no difference—you cannot divide a totally rotten apple and come up with even one good half.
Third, perhaps the idea is that a multi-party setup allows the genuine proletarian revolutionaries to split off from a party they see as irretrievably taking the capitalist road—and not be immediately suppressed by that party because of the tradition of allowing other parties to exist. This assumes the new bourgeoisie in the old party taking the capitalist road will continue to honor such traditions. But why should they if it is in their class interests to suppress “a few trouble makers”? It is always possible to trump up a few charges of illegal actions, putschism, or whatever, in order to justify the suppression of revolutionaries.
This notion also fails to recognize that whenever you have a powerful, well-established party, the leadership will tend to control the means of communication within that party, and most likely have the allegiance of most of its members. If a small number of genuine proletarian revolutionaries do split off from such a (once revolutionary) establishment party, the capitalist-roaders might actually view it as a welcome thing. It might even make their task easier, if there was actually still some hope for the party (or part of it), and the splitters act prematurely.
Fourth, we can’t forget Mao’s dictum that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”6 Who will control the army? This is William Hinton’s objection to the idea of having multiple political parties, according to Ted, and I think it is a quite valid objection. [See Ted’s March 31st letter, p. 4.] Ted says he agrees that this is a problem, but adds: “There can be no definitive answers to this question at this point, but we can conceive of a government—including political/economic structures, a standing army and popular militias—that would be led by more than one political party.” We can indeed conceive of this—as long as those parties all represent the same class! The real difficulty comes when one (or more) parties switches its allegiance to a new bourgeois class. At that point, the different class parties cannot possibly continue to share state power and control of the armed forces. On the contrary it is certain that the opposing class forces will turn against each other, and use whatever means they have at their disposal to remove all power from the enemy class. And there is no reason whatsoever to assume that the proletariat will automatically have the upper hand when this falling out occurs.
Fifth, and most important of all in my opinion, the notion that we could have multiple proletarian revolutionary parties under socialism fails to appreciate the role of the proletarian party, its proper relationship to the masses, and how it goes about leading the masses. The very first quotation in the Red Book states that “The force at the core leading our cause forward is the Chinese Communist Party.” 7 According to long-standing Marxist theory, a leading party arises out of the masses, is only the advanced detachment of the masses, and exists for the sole purpose of providing educational and political leadership to the rest of the masses. To say that it is ok, or even desirable to have multiple centers of leadership, each trying to lead the masses in a different direction, is alien to this whole conception. It is almost the same as saying that the masses do not need a leading core, or an advanced detachment.
How can a vanguard section of the masses expect to unite the masses and lead them in performing the tasks of the revolution, if it cannot even unite itself? How can a vanguard act as a vanguard, leading forward the rest of the proletariat and the masses, if it has no unity itself? To say that the vanguard section of the proletariat and the masses does not need to be organized into a single party—and a very disciplined party at that—is to dismiss the whole leading role of the party right from the get-go.
I really do not see the big difference in the situation that is supposed to exist under socialism as compared to the situation during the revolution itself. In both cases the revolutionary proletariat needs to act as a class for itself, and needs a reliable class party to lead it. In both cases the proletariat faces a very difficult situation and a very powerful and dangerous enemy. In both cases the proletariat and the masses need all the unity they can achieve. In both cases multiple centers of leadership can only mean much more disunity, and much more difficulty in leading the masses forward.
Sure, if one party goes bad, another will have to be created. There’s no doubt about that. But at any one time it is certainly both desirable and also probably necessary that there be a single party leading the proletariat and the masses, or at the very least, one dominant, leading party. If there are other secondary parties also involved they must be willing to follow the lead of the dominant proletarian party as long as it truly sticks to the revolutionary road. If they are unwilling, then objectively they have gone over to the side of the enemy, no matter what they themselves may believe.
There is no institutional guarantee for the revolution. It seems to me that those who are hoping that multiple proletarian parties might “save socialism” from being overthrown from within (from within the Party itself) are looking for a simple organizational solution to a fundamental political problem. (Ted explicitly denies he is doing this—see his essay, p. 3—but I am not so sure that he isn’t doing this in spite of himself.) There may, indeed, sometimes be organizational changes which help resolve political contradictions in a positive way. But the place to start is in the careful analysis of those political contradictions themselves, and to focus on the basic political tasks.
The political problem under socialism is just that classes continue to exist, and continue to come into existence, even within the ruling party itself. (In fact, especially within the ruling party itself!) Having more than one ruling proletarian party doesn’t change this basic situation one iota. The new bourgeoisie will still continue to exist and/or come into existence within all the available parties, and especially those with the most influence and power. The key political tasks of the revolutionary proletariat under socialism are finding ways to fight this, to prevent it as much as possible, and to push out the new bourgeoisie from the positions of power which they manage to seize for a time. Those are the things to focus on. Focusing instead on institutional changes, or organizational structures—especially organizational structures based on bourgeois ruling-class experience—seems likely to only lead to further disasters.
As I said above, I do agree that if some of the masses choose to join or create other political parties besides the dominant proletarian revolutionary party, that is their right—unless and until those parties turn against socialism and the revolution. But this is something we should discourage through our educational efforts, not encourage. If other parties exist they will at the very least have differences of opinion over important issues with the main Communist Party, and it will be important for the CP to strongly criticize such parties to the extent it believes they are making mistakes.
This is only one special case of resolving contradictions among the people. Mao put it this way:
But this criticism can and should go both ways, including against the Party itself when it makes errors. Presumably the formation of additional parties by the masses might—if they are temporary!—be part of the criticism phase by the masses of the Communist Party. But if a true new unity arises, those parties must then disappear again.
I do grant that if there are multiple mass parties under socialism, this might be a good thing in some ways. It might force the main Communist Party to work in a more democratic, educational way, with fewer resorts to commandism and so forth. But I don’t think these positive things outweigh the negative ones, especially the increased disunity of the class and masses. That’s why we should discourage the development of other parties.
Factions in the Party
One of the things that I think is bothering Ted (and many of us!), is how we can have a single unified revolutionary party, a party which represents the real interests of a single class, the proletariat, and, at the same time, how we can allow for real thinking, differences of opinion, different lines, and real democracy in the revolutionary movement and in the party itself. And one of the best answers to this puzzle, I suggest, is to allow factions within the party.
However, the question of factions is itself a tough one. On the one hand we want unity, and especially unity of action. That seems to argue against allowing factions. On the other hand, we want democracy, and true democracy does seem to require that separate sections of the people be allowed to work together and in unison, for what they believe in and what they are trying to achieve. So which way do we go on this?
It seems the ideal answer would be that factions must be allowed provided they do not disrupt the unity of will and the unity of action of the party. This would seem to say that factions should be allowed, but must also be subject to some restraint if and when they get out of hand and begin to hurt the party’s work. This is similar to saying that individual party members are entitled to their own viewpoints regarding the line of the party, but they must nevertheless sincerely strive to carry out the party line. If members of a minority faction were to likewise still work to carry out the line of the party, it seems the majority (or leadership) does not have any grounds for complaint.
But can this ideal situation really work? It requires a very sophisticated party, perhaps, for it to work, i.e., one whose members are very clear about democratic centralism, and very conscientious in sticking to its rules and requirements. And probably such a party can only be created if it has these attitudes right from the very beginning, if all party members are thoroughly educated in such a political culture.
Factions, however, can develop to the point where they amount to almost the same thing as independent political parties. And when they do, all the arguments against multiple parties (many of which I discussed above) then come to apply to that sort of faction.
In her book, The Russian Revolution, the liberal bourgeois historian Sheila Fitzpatrick has an interesting (though biased) discussion on factions in the Bolshevik Party. Here are some excerpts:
Fitzpatrick puts it all in personal terms, a struggle between Lenin and other contenders for personal leadership of the Bolshevik Party. In Marxist terms the problem was that factions were getting out of hand, were destroying the unity of the Party, and in particular, its unity of action. Even so, Lenin only proposed a temporary ban on factions, and that ban was not entirely effective.
I don’t think the ban on factions was correct, however, even given the circumstances. It was overkill. The Party should have insisted that all members follow and apply the Party line, and would have been right to discipline those who would not—including expelling them if necessary. In short, it is correct to ban the sort of factions which refuse to follow democratic centralism, but it is not correct to ban factions which do follow the rules.
Later on Fitzpatrick comments:
I recall that last comment being repeated over and over in the RCP too. What it means in effect is that no one is allowed to do any thinking except the top leadership of the Party. And that means the eventual ruin of the Party no matter how good those top leaders might seem to be at first.
Mao supported the right of Party members to form factions. At the “Seven Thousand Cadres Conference” of the CPC in early 1962, Deng Xiaoping said in his speech that it is impermissible to form factions in the Party. But Mao interrupted him to say that only secret factions were unacceptable.11 A few days earlier in his own speech to the same conference, Mao went into the matter much more thoroughly:
It is interesting to see how Mao views things here. Instead of placing democracy (including factions) in opposition to party unity, he says that it is necessary for party unity. Those who lack dialectics, such as Deng and Liu Shaoqi, can never understand how such a thing might be true. But unity without democracy is a superficial unity, a temporary unity only, even if for a time it appears on the surface to be much more solid and complete.
Even if factions are banned, there will still be diverse opinions, there will always really be factionalism of one sort or another beneath the surface. The unbreakable dialectical law is that one divides into two. So I once summed up my view on the matter this way:
A real, living, breathing, Communist Party itself goes through cycles of unity and disunity. We start with unity. But when we confront problems different ideas arise in the minds of different Party members as to how to resolve them. At that point we need some mutual criticism, some internal debate. Finally a line is chosen by the leadership. The Party still cannot have complete unity around this line, because it has not yet been put into practice and proven itself to be correct. But because of democratic centralism, the party can already act as if it had total unity. If the line fails and the problem is not resolved, then the ideas of another faction might well be tried out. Only after the problem is completely resolved, however, will there be genuine total unity on that question. And by then, or perhaps even before, it will be time to go on to the next problem.
Thus, ideally factions will only come into existence for a time, and then fade away after the issue that gave rise to them is resolved. Then new factions will arise around new issues. Unity, criticism, unity is to be expected, and welcomed, within the Party as well as among the people in general. That is the democratic, dialectical perspective on things.
(Translated into HTML with minor revisions on 10/30/00)
2 Engels, Letter to Gerson Trier, Dec. 18, 1889; in Marx-Engels: Selected Correspondence, 3rd revised ed., (Moscow: Progress, 1975), p. 386. Engels goes on to say:
“But that does not mean that this party cannot at certain moments use other parties for its purposes. Nor does this mean that it cannot temporarily support the measures of other parties if these measures either are directly advantageous to the proletariat or progressive as regards economic development or political freedom.”(Engels emphasized this point because Trier rejected every collaboration, even short term, with other political parties.)
3 Lenin, “‘Left-Wing’ Communism—An Infantile Disorder” (May 1920), LCW 31:41.
4 Malcolm X quote: source unknown to me. (I would like to find it out!)
5 Mao, “Notes on the Report of the Investigation of the Peking Teachers’ Training College” (July 3, 1965), in Jerome Ch’en, Mao Papers, (Oxford University Press, Indian Branch, 1971), p. 102.
6 Mao, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, 1st edition, (Peking: 1966), p. 61. Taken from “Problems of War and Strategy” (Nov. 6, 1938), Selected Works, vol. II, p. 224.
7 Mao, Quotations..., p. 1. The quote is taken from his Opening address at the First Session of the First National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China (Sept. 15, 1954).
8 Mao, Quotations..., p. 252. From his essay, On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People, (Feb. 27, 1957).
9 Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution: 1917-1932, (Oxford University Press: 1982), pp. 91-93.
10 Ibid., p. 138.
11 Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution—3: The Coming of the Cataclysm 1961-1966, (Oxford University Press and Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 174.
12 Mao, “On Democratic Centralism”, excerpt from his “Talk at an Enlarged Central Work Conference” (Jan. 30, 1962); in Stuart Schram, ed., Chairman Mao Talks to the People: Talks and Letters: 1956-1971, (NY: Pantheon/Random House, 1974), pp. 182-3.
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