The Left, the Internationals, Democratic Centralism and the problems of Unity

The fourth International came into existence in 1938, five years after Leon Trotsky declared “An organization which was not roused by the thunder of fascism and which submits docilely to such outrageous acts of the bureaucracy demonstrates thereby that it is dead and that nothing can ever revive it…. In all our subsequent work it is necessary to take as our point of departure the historical collapse of the official Communist International”.

The purpose of this article is to introduce a discussion about vanguardism. There are some things that vanguard parties are good at: such as political education and the maintenance of a living link with great socialist thinkers. However there are other things that these parties are not so good at: such as building and unifying towards a single socialist party with mass support. Alternatively some suggest that to dispense with this organisational model can lead to insufficient political education, with a resulting gap between the party leadership and the membership and therefore poor internal democracy.

A brief history of the revolutionary left

For those unfamiliar with the history of attempts to unite socialist movements across the globe, the first International was founded in 1864 in a workmen’s meeting held in Saint Martin’s Hall, London. It was better known as the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA).  Its first congress was held in 1866 in Geneva. At its peak, the IWA had 5 million members according to police reports although the official journal reported 8 million members. The organisation was disbanded in 1872 .

The Second International (1889–1916) was an organization of socialist and labour parties formed in Paris on July 14, 1889. At the Paris meeting delegations from 20 countries participated.  It continued the work of the dissolved First International, though excluding the still-powerful anarcho-syndicalist movement and unions. Among the Second International’s famous actions were its (1889) declaration of May the first as International Workers’ Day and its (1910) declaration of March 8 as International Women’s Day. It initiated the international campaign for the 8-hour working day. The unity of that International was broken by the start of the First World War but it was not formally dissolved until 1916.

The Communist International, abbreviated as Comintern, also known as the Third International (1919–1943), was an international communist organization initiated in Moscow during March 1919. The International intended to fight “by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and for the creation of an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete abolition of the State.”

The third and fourth Internationals coexisted between 1938 and 1943 but the legacy of  the second, third and fourth Internationals remains in the separate strands of leftist parties that continue to exist all over the world: the social democratic or labour parties, the communist parties and the various revolutionary socialist parties.

In the immediate post-war period the Trotskyist parties in Britain were miniscule whilst at it’s peak the communist party won two seats in parliament and took over 100 thousand votes.  The CP continued to wield influence in the trade unions for another 3 or 4 decades but was in slow decline whilst from the sixties onwards the Trotskyist parties were growing.  Whilst the communist party started to split into various factions as its size shrank below (perhaps a critical level) the Trotskyist parties were undergoing splits as they grew. Many of these splinter groups have withered away leaving us today with the CWI (Socialist Party or Militant) and the SWP as the major survivors. Splits continue to occur when groups emerge with new tactics or a new theoretical approach and cannot win support for it at the congress.

In England various attempts at unity projects have been tried but most of these have been short-lived.  What is notable is that the names of organisations well known in the seventies can still be traced through a labyrinth of unity projects, which have risen and fallen, split and merged. The longest running saga is that of Respect but this is organised to a large extent around the personal charisma of George Galloway.  He recently tried to use Respect to break into Scottish politics but failed miserably.  North of the border in Scotland, unity projects had a significant period of success between 1996 and 2006.

The rise and fall of left unity in Scotland

The story starts with Scottish Militant Labour  (SML), which was the Scottish section of the Committee for a Workers’ International. It played a major role in the formation of the Scottish Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party. It was formed when the Militant tendency abandoned its entryist strategy (maintaining an organised structure) within the Labour Party. Its best-known member was Tommy Sheridan, although Alan McCombes played an important role behind the scenes. The party had six councillors in Glasgow during 1993-95.

In 1996 SML led the formation of the Scottish Socialist Alliance, the precursor of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), formed in 1998. Many of its leading members were leading members of the SSP. A split occurred after years of debate centred on questions such as what the SSP should be, what the nature of a revolutionary party is and the relationship of the Scottish comrades to the CWI. The majority (80%) broke with the CWI while a minority stayed part of the CWI.  The majority faction formed the International Socialists Movement (ISM) now dissolved.

The SSP at its high point had six members of the Scottish parliament and a number of councillors.  The SSP drew in members from the background perspectives of the second and third internationals as well as both the ISM, the CWI and ultimately the biggest fourth internationalist group, the SWP.  It also included environmentalists, which was an early expression of the green-left synthesis that has been gathering momentum. The only spoiler to left unity at the height of the SSP’s success was the regular electoral challenge from Arthur Sgargill’s Socialist Labour Party which had no substantial organisational base in Scotland but which resisted electoral pacts and diverted a substantial number of votes.

However the SSP suffered an acrimonious and catastrophic split in 2006, which was precipitated by Tommy Sheridan’s defamation action against the News of the World. The SWP and CWI platforms left the SSP to form a new party (Solidarity) with Tommy Sheridan as convenor (Rosemary Byrne was originally co-convenor but is no longer active). Some former ISM members and some unaligned members also left to join Solidarity. Steve Arnott set up his own organisation within Solidarity, the Democratic Green Socialist (DGS), which was aimed at those not aligned with either the SWP or CWI.

If there are political differences between the SSP and Solidarity then these have evolved around the promotion of feminism.  The SSP had departed from the orthodox position of fourth international groups by accepting the principle of 50:50 gender balance in representation and although Sheridan had supported this, his ‘open letter’ of 2006 made the claim that gender-feminists in the SSP had undermined the SSP’s position on class politics. Both Alan McCombes and Gregor Gall in their biographies dismiss this claim as a mere expedient. The 50:50 policy may have been an anathema to the CWI and perhaps the SWP but surely not in itself grounds for a split. Sheridan in fact supported it at the time.  But the experience of the two court cases have given those in the SSP grounds for developing a firmer line on feminist issues.

In general terms however the split was between the remnants of the ISM on the one hand (who largely remained in the SSP) and the orthodox Trotskyists on the other.

The divisions among orthodox Trotskyists

The CWI and SWP have coexisted in one form or other for over 60 years during which time there have been no attempts to fuse the two organisations. They have sometimes cooperated but have often been mutually hostile.  One of the major theoretical differences was the way in which they understood the nature of the Soviet block with the SWP adhering to Tony Cliff’’s concept of state capitalism and the CWI adhering to Ted Grant’s concept of proletarian Bonapartism.

Despite the fact that the Soviet Union no longer exists, there has been no attempt to resolve their other differences. The SWP had it’s greatest success in the Right to Work campaign of the seventies whilst the CWI (as the Militant tendency) was recruiting via its work as an entrist organisation in the labour party. However both organisations suffered from high turnover of members because of the commitment demanded, both suffered from the demoralisation that set in after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the CWI suffered as a result of the expulsions and purges from the labour party which began under Neill Kinnock’s leadership.

At the height of their success the CWI managed to get three MP’s elected: Terry Fields, Pat Wall and Dave Nellist. The slogan “a worker’s MP on a worker’s wage” was particularly effective. However these men being recognized as heavily committed and hardworking labour party activists, contributed to this success. To gain the support of the class it’s essential to have deep roots within the official organs. It’s not sufficient to have a brilliantly worked out program to transform society unless you are able to gain the ear of the masses.

In more than seventy years since the founding of the fourth international there has been little sign anywhere in the world of the development of a mass revolutionary party emerging out of it. In terms of influence on the world stage the internationals line up in reverse order which is why entrism became such an appealing tactic. In the diaspora of the left which has taken place over the last few years, some seem to be moving back towards the labour party. I suspect this is the direction taken on mass by the SLP in Scotland and there are moves afoot to rehabilitate labour. Without the complete removal of bans and prescriptions (which is where militant came unstuck) the revolutionary left cannot be part of such a process, which to many on the left looks very much like a lost cause.

 What is to be done

This was the title of Lenin’s seminal work in 1902 where he outlines the concept of the vanguard revolutionary party run according to the principles of democratic centralism. But what if ‘what is to be done’ in 2012, differs from the problems with which Lenin was confronted 110 years ago? The conditions faced by Lenin were actually very different but the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 is too often cited as the model through which a modern revolution might proceed.

It was possible up to a point to explain away the downside of life under the Soviet system using the standard narrative of heroes and villains, Lenin and Trotsky as the good guys and Stalin as the evil usurper of workers’ power. But a deeper analysis suggests that the centralisation of power was an inevitable consequence of an historic process that Lenin helped to set in motion. Such a conclusion would be much more consistent with Marx’s ideas about historic materialism. “Men make their own histories”, he tells us, “but they do not do so as they so please”.

There was an alternative outlook to that of Lenin, elaborated by Rosa Luxemburg in a reply to Lenin’s 1902 polemic. In “Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy” (1904) she warned: “the ultra-centralism asked by Lenin is full of the sterile spirit of the overseer. It is not a positive and creative spirit. Lenin’s concern is not so much to make the activity of the party more fruitful as to control the party – to narrow the movement rather than to develop it, to bind rather than to unify it.”

 Rosa Luxemburg

The Canadian Marxist Ulli Diemer sees Rosa Luxemburg as the Marxist who did the most to carry on Karl Marx’s

own theoretical-revolutionary praxis in the period after the death of Marx and Engels. It was Marx who scoffed “I am not a Marxist” and who said that “Since it is not for us to create a plan for the future that will hold for all time, all the more surely what we contemporaries have to do is the uncompromising critical evaluation of all that exists, uncompromising in the sense that our criticism fears neither its own results nor the conflict with the powers that be.” Luxemburg’s Marxism was critical and ‘Marxist’ in that thoroughgoing sense.

In 1917, after the Russian Revolution, she warned of the danger of dictatorship. Writing in 1918 about the dissolution of the constituent assembly, Leon Trotsky said:  “As Marxists we have never been idol worshipers of formal democracy”.

Luxemburg retorted: “All that really means is: We have always distinguished the social kernel from the political form of bourgeois democracy; we have always revealed the hard kernel of social inequality and lack of freedom hidden under the sweet shell of formal equality and freedom – not in order to reject the latter but to spur the working class into not being satisfied with the shell, but rather, by conquering political power, to create socialist democracy to replace bourgeois democracy – not to eliminate democracy altogether. But socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism.”

Clearly this was at odds with the way in which the Bolsheviks proceeded but in relation to the civil war she says: “it would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy… The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced on them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics.”

However to qualify her appreciation of the conditions she added: “Freedom only for supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of ‘justice’ but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when ‘freedom’ becomes a special privilege.”

Rosa Luxemburg was murdered in 1919 and may therefore have had much to add, had she survived. The Dialectic of Spontaneity and Organisation was the central feature of Luxemburg’s political philosophy, wherein “spontaneity” is a grass roots approach to organising a party-oriented class struggle. Spontaneity and organisation, she argued, are not separable or separate activities, but different moments of one political process; one does not exist without the other. These beliefs arose from her view that class struggle evolves from an elementary, spontaneous state to a higher level. In this sense her approach was much more in keeping with Marxism than a prescriptive approach arising from formal logic which is always contingent upon specific conditions.

The problem with former Leninists

There are very few Marxists alive in today’s socialist movement that haven’t learned their Marxism in tandem with the ideas of either the third or fourth Internationals. To put this another way, almost all Marxists in the movement that are not still so aligned,  learned their Marxism alongside the party organisational methods of Lenin.

The basic principles of democratic centralism are that you debate hard on the issues at a national congress or sometimes at more local levels where appropriate and then when a policy is agreed, everybody sticks to the agreed party line.  Political education is given high priority, the aim being to develop cadres (groups of comrades that can act in a very organised and disciplined manner not just because they are following a party line but because they are able to articulate it and defend it.

There are merits in this approach under certain circumstances and the clearest example of where this seems to happen almost spontaneously is during large-scale industrial action.  Tactics are decided upon in the local cadres (union meetings), usually with national direction and the agreed position is then enforced on the picket line. Here is an illustration of a time to talk as free agents and a time to act as one. However the extent to which comrades need to discuss tactics and the extent to which they need to act as one movement, is highly contingent on the circumstances.  The Leninist model may be ideal for operating in a police state, where meetings are necessarily secret and discipline paramount. Operating ‘illegally’ in the labour party as entrists perhaps created a similar atmosphere but those Marxists that now question these methods argue that we need greater flexibility.

One recent observation is that when the cadre building stops, does this create a deficit in the democratic side of the bargain? In other words does democratic centralism turn into mere centralism? Gregor Gall has suggested as much in relation to the SSP in his biography of Sheridan, “Hero to Zero” and I’ve heard the same argument from CWI comrades. The ISM preoccupied with the task of building a mass party, it is suggested, failed to build cadres of highly trained grass root activists and left the way open to manipulation by charismatic individuals. Certainly my own experience with the DGS is that the organisation was centralist but not democratic in its own abandonment of Lenin.

A suspicion on the part of the mass of working people is the stigma of duplicity that has its roots in the decay of the Russian revolution and that suspicion sits comfortably with the establishment’s propaganda against the far left. This is why I think the CWI and SWP support for the breakaway Solidarity in Scotland was ill conceived.  Sheridan had built his public reputation on integrity and on the more Luxemburgist ISM approach to a socialist transformation rather than on the orthodox Trotskyist one.  That image of honesty and integrity was seriously damaged before the perjury trial and no amount of spin or myth could have reversed that.


To transform society from a capitalist mode of production and to set the world on course for a sustainable future where people are put before profit, we need a global vision, which includes mass parties committed to such ideas. Small revolutionary parties are just the seeds of that possibility but those seeds need to be able to adapt and work in harmony. We should accept that the second third and fourth internationals have failed and rather than go forwards to the fifth (which apparently awaits the signature of Hugo Chavez) we need to return to an earlier trajectory before the era of second International reformists and before Lenin.

We can however justify a return to first International Marxism because it remains abundantly clear that “the history of hitherto existing society is a history of class struggle”. We have a new concern, which is the environment because this is threatened by a growing prospect of catastrophe unless the rule of profit and the concentration of wealth is stopped. But we also need a strong and deep connection with the feminist agenda if our mass parties are going to be strong and democratic and we need attention to the building of cadres as informed and flexible units at grass roots level, not as agents of any great leader, because we need to have pluralism and freedom of thought built into the scheme of our common goals.


  1. “Downfall- The Tommy Sheridan story” – Alan McCombes  2011.
  2. “Tommy Sheridan – From Hero to zero” – Professor Gregor Gall 2012.
  3. Book Review (references 1&2) – Joanne Telfer
  4. Rosa Luxemburg
  5. Leon Trotsky – “The principles of Democracy and Proletarian Dictatorship” – 1918.
  6. “Cooperation, the basis of sociability” – Michael Argyle 1991


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