Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

S.C. Hammond

What Is the Way Forward? Opinions from the Ranks

We need a party structure

First Published: The Call, Vol. 10, No. 4, June 1981.
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.

Call Note: As most of our readers already know, the CPML is going through a period of debate and rectification. Wide-ranging democratic discussions are taking place around questions of strategy for making revolution in the U.S. We on The Call staff are trying to give our readers some idea of the currents of debate around certain important questions. The two opinions we are including below were chosen because they reflect some of the discussion within the CPML. In future issues we will include one or two opinion articles to reflect some of the continuing debate.

* * *

The setbacks caused by ultra-leftism have led many revolutionary activists to question the concept of a Leninist-type party. Is democratic centralism suited to the American political experience? Or does it naturally lead to the sectarianism and dogmatism the left has too often seen?

I think our problems stem not from Leninism, but rather from errors of petty-bourgeois leftism. We also failed to sum up some historic communist errors, specifically the one-sided tradition of monolithic unity. Since we upheld every CPML policy as the pinnacle of Leninism, the confusion of some people is easy to understand.

Much of our thinking was based on the idea that “revolution was maturing in the minds of the masses.” This led to an approach in almost every area of mass work which misread present realities.

In effect, we developed an array of tactics and strategy which skipped stages, a common problem associated with petty-bourgeois radicalism.

The error of skipping stages has its historic threads leading back to Trotskyism. Lenin and Trotsky fought over whether Russia would go from Czarism to socialism in one leap. Lenin criticized Trotsky for wanting to by-pass the bourgeois-democratic revolution as it developed in the Russian revolution.

In advanced capitalist countries ultra-left Trotskyism as well as other petty-bourgeois trends have always made general calls for revolution while ignoring the long fight for reforms under democratic conditions.

The CPML did a lot of good organizing. But often our main efforts were directed against reform groups in the unions and communities. In our way of thinking, the consciousness of the people was so quickly maturing, that not only did we often fail to struggle for reforms, but we also viewed those who did as standing in the way of the people. Rather than build a base founded on the present-day needs of the working class, we attempted to establish a mass base through revolutionary agitation and Call study groups. We became self-righteous toward other progressive forces, making a united front impossible. We eventually took an “all or nothing” approach, which is the hallmark of petty-bourgeois radicalism.


The CPML also had problems with internal democracy. Bureaucratic centralism often replaced full and open discussion on important decisions. But lack of democracy and other mistakes is’ no argument for abolishing centralism and adopting ultra-democracy.

Some comrades have put forth ideas such as forming “loose networks,” or merging into the social democratic trend. But such flip Hops are no solution. Social democracy has made no great inroads with the American people, and certainly has its own set of deep-rooted problems.

While social democracy has left and right currents, its recognized international leader is West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Is this really the international trend U.S. revolutionaries should join, even as a revolutionary wing?

Democratic centralism is the dialectical theory of knowledge applied to organization. It enables a communist organization to best develop leadership and a rational understanding of the world. What is common in the national experience and mass work needs to be summed up, centralized and made into a unified approach. What is not common in our experience needs to be particularized and dealt with by the branch of the organization involved in that area of work. This requires an organic unity between theory and practice, between leadership and cadre.

This ties democratic centralism to the overall health and political line of an organization. As Italian communist Antonio Gramsci put it, “When a party is progressive, it functions ’democratically’ (democratic centralism); when the party is regressive, it functions ’bureaucratically’. The party in this second case is the simple unthinking executor,” relying in effect, on a handful of leaders rather than on the strength of overall organizational experience.

Knowledge needs democracy so ideas and experience can be openly shared and debated. With a young and small organization whose political line is in formation, democracy needs to be primary. Under conditions of war, illegality, or revolutionary preparedness, centralism becomes primary.

Stalin spoke to these different states of party functioning in 1923, after the Bolsheviks had won the civil war. To combat “defects in internal party life,” he noted, “habits and survivals of the war period” needed to be replaced so “all questions of interest to the membership could be openly discussed ... and free criticism of all proposals made by different Party bodies ensured.”

Lenin’s view of how to arrive at policy decisions was to first fully air disagreements. All those well-studied Lenin polemics were written to counter other views by Lenin’s opponents in the party. All these views were in fact widely circulated and debated inside the Party and its press, not just Lenin’s views. The fact that today we read Lenin and not Martov is because his views won out in practice.


In sum, the Leninist concept of Party organization is that centralism can only be established on the broadest democracy. All views must be heard, discussed, and debated. Only in this manner can a majority decision be reached, and cadre be willing to follow centralism.

This too, was the method used in the Stalin-Trotsky debates (1921-1927). Trotsky and the opposition had access to press and for seven years argued openly for their line. In fact, Trotsky’s defeat was based on his wide exposure, not bureaucratic suppression.

But a counter-current developed which one-sidedly emphasized centralism. This tradition of monolithic unity developed in the USSR as it approached World War II. In order to ready the country for war, Stalin initiated widespread purges, where differences were seen as threats to state security. And indeed many real threats existed.

But many good and honest communists were also suppressed. Differences were defined as a two-line struggle, and top-down methods of leadership and organization were emphasized. The Comintern functioned in much the same manner. In fact communists of different countries who were labelled agents were brought to Russia for execution or imprisonment.

After World War II, this method continued with the purges of the late ’40s. The USSR found itself occupying Eastern Europe where, with a-few exceptions like Yugoslavia and Albania, communist forces were small and maintained only a small base. Most parties had been smashed by fascism.

Thus, Stalin was faced with either bringing these countries into the socialist camp or turning them over to the capitalists. But while making a correct and necessary historic choice, this brought some fundamental problems along with it.

As a result it was the Soviet Party which led and decided on many important internal matters of fraternal parties, even to the extent of purging and executing communists in those parties when they clashed over political questions – at times over questions of independence and nationalism. Once this method of interference and Soviet leadership had been established, it was a tradition seized upon by the revisionists to push their hegemonism, and used to rationalize the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan.

Under this method, to question a leader meant questioning party line or even jeopardizing state security. And it wasn’t just Stalin. This method was widely adopted in the international communist movement. In many countries, leaders’ words became law because they represented the embodiment of knowledge and correct line. Disagreement meant the struggle between a bourgeois and a proletarian line, a method we also saw in the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

In effect, this was the type of leadership we expected in our party, and the type that the standing committee expected of themselves and tried to give. Unfortunately, we built on this tradition of monolithic unity and commandism, rather than the dialectical process of democratic debate leading to a majority view, and then centralism flowing from that process.

The Leninist tradition even makes sure minority views are represented on the central committee. Lenin put Zinoviev and Kamenev back on the central committee after they were kicked off for opposing the insurrection and revealing the plans to the opposition’s press. Zinoviev was even made head of the Comintern. Likewise, Mao insisted that Li Li-san be put on the central committee even after his line was repudiated because he represented a certain section of the Party and the masses.

A leading body consisting of different opinions ensures a lively and challenging atmosphere. Centralism ensures united action once a decision is reached.

Our organization needs to reestablish a Leninist orientation towards democratic centralism. Members will no longer accept commandism or the deformed politics of ultra-leftism.

But a loose network of activists which cannot centralize its knowledge nor act in a unified manner is no solution. Small circles engender mountain stronghold generals and pet theories narrow in scope. It is our collective experience and knowledge which gives us strength.