Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Irwin Silber

Anticommunism takes many forms

First Published: The Guardian, December 15, 1976.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Third of a series

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One of the more unsavory legacies of the 1960s is the ideology of “ultra-democracy.”

While there are few Marxist-Leninists who would continue to extol anarchist and new left structural forms as a theory of organization, these infantile ideas are periodically expressed anew even among those who are otherwise serious about the task of building a new revolutionary party.

How many are there in our ranks who still view the exertion of political leadership as commandism or authoritarianism or “power trips”? How many are still trapped in that realm of petty bourgeois ideology which views “hierarchical structure” as primarily a reflection of the capitalist relations oi production and therefore totally unsuitable to the requirements of a “socialist” organization? How many are there who aspire to be communists but who still view ideas as a form of private property, their own to be defended at all costs and their passport to political “careers” on the left?

Actually, these views reflect that distrust of theory and anti-intellectualism which are among the most dubious legacies of our movement. Haven’t we all been in political meetings in which suspicion is directed at those who presume to articulate elaborated political views? Hasn’t a certain self-abasing style been all too frequently held up as a model of humility when what is really at play is either artful manipulation of the “participatory” process or else the idealization of amateurishness?

Anticommunist ideology is such (and I include here all forms of social-democracy that repeat the “antidemocratic” slanders the bourgeoisie always has directed against the communists) that a pernicious myth has developed. The left, according to this myth (sometimes qualified as the “white left”), is characterized by dogmatism, elitism, white chauvinism, sexism and a contempt for democratic processes.

That different organizations of the left, at different times and in varying degrees, have made serious errors in this regard cannot be denied. And if all that was intended by the criticism was to correct those errors, to improve the level of work of communists, one would not argue the case–even if it were somewhat overstated.


But the real target of this broadside attack is something else again. Dogmatism, for instance, is a serious error in the ranks of the communists, the expression of a metaphysical rather than historical materialist outlook. But many of the antiparty forces proceed as though the very concept of a body of revolutionary theory which affords Marxist-Leninists a common set of guiding principles is an expression of dogmatism.

White chauvinism and sexism are indeed major problems in the ranks of the communists. But many of those who criticize the communists for past errors are doing so in an attempt to downplay the leading role of the working class in making revolution. Out of amateurishness and mindless copying of organizational forms of other parties, U.S. communists have often distorted the essence of democratic centralism–although by and large the problem has not been so much one of form as of the content of political line and its expression in practice. But most of those who criticize Leninist party forms for a “lack of democracy” are really about the business of promoting liberal and vaguely socialist forms of organization and are opposed to’ the concept of a party that aims at becoming the revolutionary vanguard of the working class.

Actually, even in the very terms that these indomitable “defenders” of democracy would themselves use, the democratic-centralist structure of the Leninist party is based upon democratic procedures. Lower bodies elect higher bodies. Inner party debate takes place over all important questions of political line. Decisions within each appropriate body are reached by majority vote. Regular party congresses to which delegates are elected from all bodies are held periodically.

At the same time, the revolutionary party is neither a mass organization, a trade union nor the radical caucus of some learned society. Its purpose is political and it is a fighting force. The basic assumption on joining the party is that one has the world outlook of Marxism-Leninism and the class stand of the proletariat. Whether or not individuals in the party indeed have this outlook is not to be determined by self-proclamation alone but is to be judged by practice (including following the rules of the party) and the application of ideological principles to the formulation of concrete political line.


These must be the only criteria for party membership and it can make no difference to the party if a candidate for membership is a worker, a student, an intellectual, Black or white, male or female, heterosexual or homosexual. By the same token, there can be no factions or caucuses within the party. The party’s stand on the struggle for women’s emancipation, for instance, is based upon Marxism-Leninism and the class outlook of the proletariat and it is the responsibility of both male and female communists to formulate the party’s line and program for the women’s movement and the general struggle for women’s democratic rights and against male supremacy.

There are some who say that democratic centralism is okay in theory and maybe in the conditions of prerevolutionary Russia it worked suitably. But U.S. Leninists, it is argued, have always erred in the direction of too much centralism and too little democracy and the weaknesses of the various political lines can be traced to these organizational distortions. And it is amazing to realize how many otherwise sensible people agree with such nonsense.

There is hardly an ideological deviation in the book that has not manifested itself among U.S. Marxist-Leninists. But it would be a gross misreading of our own history to conclude that the chief error of U.S. communists over the course of time has been “centralism.”

Recognition of the need for a disciplined, highly centralized organization unified on the basis of Marxist-Leninist principles and political line has been a strength of the left– not a shortcoming. The “errors” have been in the content of that political line and in the lack of attention to the theoretical development of the cadre. It is this, the underestimation of the importance of theory, that creates the climate in which a party functions bureaucratically rather than democratically. And by “democratically,” I mean not simply an eclectic airing of different lines, but the fullest and richest participation of the party’s cadre in developing the party’s political line and summing up its experience.

The chief and recurring error that has characterized the U.S. communist movement almost since its inception in the early 1920s has been revisionism and its particular U.S. expression–“American exceptionalism.” Historically, American exceptionalism has taken the form of glorifying “bourgeois democracy,” leading to the conclusion that in one way or another the path to socialism in the U.S. may be “electoral” or through a series of successive “reforms” that will gradually transform the underlying property relations.

Another form of “American exceptionalism” is the view that, unlike other advanced capitalist countries, the majority of the U.S. working class has been so thoroughly “bribed” by imperialism that it does not stand in direct, objective contradiction to the rule of monopoly capital. This is frequently expressed in various theories about “male” or “white skin” privilege–although it takes other forms as well.

All of these concepts inexorably lead to an abandonment of the Leninist form of organization for the party. The deifiers of bourgeois democracy do not see the need for a “secret” organization; and since they envision a relatively “peaceful” path for the unfolding of a socialist transformation, they cannot comprehend the necessity for a party infrastructure designed to function out of the reach of–and in opposition to–the political police. Those who have no confidence in the working class as a revolutionary class try to build into the revolutionary party various caucuses or checks aimed at insuring the “leading” role of women or national minorities. Some organizations establish quotas (based on sex) for membership in leadership bodies. Some argue for the institutionalization of caucuses with all that implies about bloc-voting in the resolution of political questions.

All of these are attempts to resolve via narrow administrative measures questions which are, in the first place, ones of political line and practice. These “solutions” become, in practice, a denial of Mao’s concept that in the party “the correctness or otherwise of the ideological and political line decides everything.” Instead, a fundamentally fatalistic view of party organization is offered, one which reflects the most vulgar kind of mechanical Marxism in which the political line of individuals is predetermined by their class position, their nationality or their sex.


Democratic centralism cuts through all this. The party is not a federation of constituencies–it is the single, unified revolutionary organization of one working class. A healthy party will be tightly knit and highly centralized so that its strategic plans can be put into practice with the maximum effect. At the same time, a healthy party will encourage a high degree of self-reliance and local autonomy among the lower organizations because every good revolutionary must be able to apply the party’s political line to the concrete circumstances to be encountered in life and this is bound to have its own particularities in each situation.

Aside from the obvious democratic procedures within the organization, the party’s health–which includes not only its democratic functioning but the soundness of its political line and the effectiveness of its political practice–is bound up with two things: criticism and self-criticism practiced within party ranks and a high theoretical level of the members. A “democratic” party is one that makes theoretical study obligatory and helps equip the cadre with the tools for ideological struggle.

In the final analysis, that “discipline” and “unity” characteristic of the revolutionary party which so many petty-bourgeois radicals seem to mortally fear cannot grow out of the arbitrary imposition of authority. Rather, it is an outgrowth of the party’s political line and practice.

In one of his most trenchant comments on this matter, Lenin writes: “How is the discipline of the revolutionary party to be maintained? How is it tested? How is it reinforced? First, by the class consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its perseverance, self-sacrifice and heroism. Secondly, by its ability to link itself with, to keep in close touch with, and to a certain extent, if you like, to merge with the broadest masses of the toilers–primarily with the proletariat, but also with the nonproletarian toiling masses. Thirdly, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided that the broadest masses have been convinced by their own experience that they are correct.

“Without these conditions, all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end in phrase-mongering and grimacing. On the other hand, these conditions cannot arise all at once. They are created only by prolonged effort and hard-won experience. Their creation is facilitated by correct revolutionary theory which, in its turn, is not a dogma, but assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement.”