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Ian Birchall

Fears for Tiersky

(September 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.79, September 1985, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Ordinary Stalinism
Ronald Tiersky
Allen & Unwin (no price given)

SINCE 1945 the United States government has spent vast sums of money paying academics to study communism. One of the problems they are concerned with is changes in communism, both in the East European states and in the mass CPs of Western Europe. Are they still the enemy they used to be?

Tiersky’s answer is to distinguish ‘high Stalinism’ (the period of the old butcher himself) from ‘ordinary Stalinism’ (destalinised Russia and Western Euro-communism). Now an interesting book could be written on change and continuity in Stalinist states and parties, but it would have to start with the global crisis, showing the constraints of the arms race and international banking on the Eastern ruling class. Tiersky can’t do this, as it would mean calling into question his own paymasters and their system.

Instead he opts for the study of an idea – ‘democratic centralism’ – which he sees as the unifying feature of all Stalinist organisations. This enables him to study texts instead of studying the real world – a far more comfortable alternative. He thus manages to get it wrong on both counts. He misunderstands both the real world and the texts.

For example, he gives an account of the Italian Communist Party, based entirely on its organisational shift from Stalinism and without any consideration of the economic and political crisis in Italy, and ends up prophesying a ‘serious political future’ for the PCI. In fact the PCI has spent the last twenty years trying to get into the government and is now further than ever from its goal.

Likewise on texts. Tiersky tells us that the ‘main point’ of Lenin’s What is to be Done? is that ‘the trade unions had to be subordinated to the revolutionary will of party leadership.’ Lenin in fact was concerned with a quite different question, the relation of socialist consciousness to trade unionism, and explicitly urged that trade unions should be ‘very broad organisations’. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to discover that though Tiersky makes many references to Lenin, no work by Lenin appears in his bibliography – all quotations are second hand from other academics.

In fact, ‘democratic centralism’ is nothing like the mystery Tiersky makes it out to be. The principle that a group of people discuss a course of action, agree on it, and unite to implement it, is fairly basic to human organisation. It is, for example, the basis of ‘cabinet responsibility’ in British government. Indeed, it would be impossible for two people to carry a table downstairs without some form of ‘democratic centralism’.

What makes ‘democratic centralism’ different for a revolutionary organisation is that all members are activists, and therefore involved in making and implementing decisions. When a party like the Labour Party is in government there is ‘democratic centralism’ at leadership level (left leaders like Benn must accept cabinet responsibility) but ‘freedom’ at rank and file level (ordinary members can say what they like, but the government will ignore conference decisions).

When Stalinist parties were still mass parties of activists, they needed a form of centralism, albeit highly undemocratic; how that their membership is largely passive (in the Italian CP only ten per cent of members attend section meetings) the myth of ‘democratic centralism’ can be dropped.

More generally, the question of revolutionary discipline cannot be understood simply in terms of organisation. Anyone who has done a Socialist Worker sale will know that the Bolshevik paper sellers may – occasionally – arrive late or oversleep altogether. But workers will actually run down the street to get into the factory on time. Revolutionary discipline is a response to, and a means of fighting against, the labour discipline imposed by capitalism. But someone who spends their life wandering into libraries at their own chosen time must find this hard to understand.

During the McCarthy period, all the American experts on Asia who knew anything about the subject were purged as being ‘soft on Communism’. So, when the Vietnam war began, the only ‘experts’ left were hacks and timeservers who gave rotten advice. As a result the US escalated the war and lost it. If it relies on slipshods and blinkered experts like Tiersky, the US government will also lose its war against the working class.

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Last updated: 28 March 2010