- Category: Communist Organization
- Created on Saturday, 21 January 2012 05:32
- Written by Louis Proyect
The following post combines includes a few excerpts from an essay by Louis Proyect called "The Comintern and the German Communist Party" with a few explanatory [notes] in brackets. Louis' much longer piece can be read by clicking on this link.
This quick outline is not intended as in-depth examination or summation of communist organizational history -- but merely gives readers a sketch, a starting point, for understanding how it came to be assumed (in several distinct stages and leaps over the 1920s) that a particular and very specific organizational form was (down to minor details) universal for all countries and all times. It also describes, briefly, how it the Comintern center in Moscow came to have final say over the decisions of communists (and their parties) in each country (a decision and practice which was to have disastrous effects in one favorable or complex situation after another, starting with the great debacles of Germany's 1923 revolutionary attempts.)
* * * * * *
How did we end up with the organizational model called Marxism-Leninism, or alternately, democratic centralism?
The tendency has been to assume that there is an unbroken line between the small, sectarian groups of today and the Bolshevik Party of the turn of the century. When organizational changes have been made, the assumption is that these are refinements to Lenin's party.
For example, if Bukharin published ruthless criticisms of Lenin's position on the national question in the newspaper "The Star", an émigré Bolshevik paper, we have tended to assume that this was an anomaly. The essence of Leninism is to defend a unitary political line in the official party newspaper and Bukharin's "indiscipline" was a sign of immature Bolshevism rather than a confirmation of its true spirit.
Tracing the evolution of Lenin's organizational approach to the rigid, monolithic models of today requires an examination of official Comintern documents of the early 1920s since these became the guidelines for organizing Communist Parties. Most "Marxist-Leninist" parties of today regard this period as a link in the chain between the historic Bolshevik Party and what passes for Leninism today. Rather than seeing these Comintern documents as a distortion of historic Bolshevism, we have tended to regard them as hagiography.
Part of the problem is that Lenin gave his official blessing to these documents and this somehow gives them a hallowed status. It is time to examine them on their own merits.
[Note: Lenin proposed 19 "Terms for admission" to the communist internationalin July 1920, in order to exclude reformist social democratic elements, and those who insisted on remaining in a common party with them. A month later, the Comintern adopted an expanded version, the famous "21 Conditions." This contains one of the first discussions of democratic centralism as a necessary foundation of communist organization, while connecting a declared need for militarized centralism with "the present epoch of acute civil war." Condition 17 says that all parties must adopt the same name "Communist Party of xxxx." The last article says: "Party members who reject in principle the obligations and theses laid down by the Communist International shall be expelled from the Party. ]
1921 decision to enforce one model
The first clear statement on organizational guidelines were contained in the July 12, 1921 Theses on the Structure of Communist Parties, submitted to the Third Congress of the Comintern. W. Koenen, a German delegate, confessed that they were hastily drafted and were referred without further discussion to a commission. Two days later, they were passed unanimously without discussion. The purpose of the theses was to impose a uniform model on Communist Parties worldwide.
For example, they state that
"to carry out daily party work every member should as a rule belong to a small working group, a committee, a commission, a fraction, or a cell. Only in this way can party work be distributed, conducted, and carried out in an orderly fashion."
Of course, what this led to everywhere is the immediate creation of fractions or cells. Anybody who has been a member of a "Marxist-Leninist" group will be familiar with this approach to political work.
Nobody has ever thought critically about what it means to have a "cell" or a "fraction" in a union or mass movement that speaks with the same voice on behalf of a single tactical orientation, but nevertheless the rule--hardly discussed at the Congress--became law.
Poor Lenin was trying to sort out all sorts of problems that year and probably didn't have the minutiae of organizational resolutions upper-most in his mind, but there is some evidence that these sorts of rigid guidelines did not sit well with him.
A year later, at the Fourth Congress, Lenin offered some critical comments on them:
"At the third congress in 1921 we adopted a resolution on the structure of communist parties and the methods and content of their activities. It is an excellent resolution, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is taken from Russian conditions. That is its good side, but it is also its bad side, bad because scarcely a single foreigner--I am convinced of this, and I have just re-read it-can read it.
"Firstly, it is too long, fifty paragraphs or more. Foreigners cannot usually read items of that length.
"Secondly, if they do read it, they cannot understand it, precisely because it is too Russian...it is permeated and imbued with a Russian spirit.
"Thirdly, if there is by chance a foreigner who can understand it, he cannot apply it...
"My impression is that we have committed a gross error in passing that resolution, blocking our own road to further progress. As I said, the resolution is excellent, and I subscribe to every one of the fifty paragraphs. But I must say that we have not yet discovered the form in which to present our Russian experience to foreigners, and for that reason the resolution has remained a dead letter. If we do not discover it, we shall not go forward."
This resolution, which was composed in haste and which Lenin described as "too Russian", was never subjected to the sort of critical evaluation that he proposed.
The opposite process occurred. The rigid, schematic organizational forms were not only accepted, but turned even more rigid and schematic. Part of the explanation for this is that Lenin himself died and nobody in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had the sort of subtle understanding that he did about such questions.
The party hack Zinoviev became the supreme arbiter of organizational questions and took the communist movement in exactly the opposite direction. The Comintern ended up proposing organizational guidelines that were even "more Russian" than the ones that were adopted in 1921.
The explanation for this is twofold.
The party leadership--including all factions left and right--understood only the outward forms of the Bolshevik Party rather than its inner spirit. Also, the reversals in the class struggle in the early 1920s--especially in Germany--tended to create a crisis atmosphere in the Russian party and the Comintern. Under such conditions, the tendency is to circle the wagons and enforce ideological uniformity on the basis of the orientation of the current leadership. Criticism is considered "anti-party" and ultimately an expression of alien class forces.
[Note: the Fifth Congress of the Comintern was its "Bolshevization" congress (June-July 1924 six months after lenins death). This is where leaps were made in adopting a specific monolithic model universally -- with the argument that this organizational form applied generally, and had been key to Bolshevik success, and that it alone conformed to communist views on discipline, decision-making, secrecy and combative unity It also envisioned the Communist International itself increasingly as a single world party, with disciplined decision-making on a world scale.]
The Statutes of the Communist International adopted at the fifth congress were a rigid, mechanical set of rules for building Communist Parties. All of the Communist Parties were subordinate to the Comintern and members of the parties had to obey all decisions of the Comintern. The world congress of the Comintern would decide the most important programmatic, tactical and organizational questions of the Comintern as a whole and its individual sections....
The Statutes also included the sort of ridiculous measures that mark most of the sect-cults of today. For example, statute 35 declares that:
"Members of the CI may move from one country to another only with the consent of the central committee of the section concerned. Communists who have changed their domicile are obliged to join the section of the country in which they reside. Communists who move to another country without the consent of the CC of their section may not be accepted as members of another section of the CI."...
Compare these unbending strictures with the norms of the Bolshevik Party. In the Bolshevik Party, there was no such thing as formal membership. A Bolshevik was simply somebody who agreed with the general orientation of Iskra. Nobody had to get permission to transfer from one Bolshevik branch to another because such a concept was alien to the way the free-wheeling Bolsheviks functioned.
Even more insidious than the Statutes were the Theses of the Fifth Congress on the Propaganda Activities of the CI and its sections. This document sets in concrete the methodology of dividing every serious political disagreement into a battle between the two major classes in society. It states:
"Struggles within the CI are at the same time ideological crises within the individual parties. Right and left political deviations, deviations from Marxism-Leninism, are connected with the class ideology of the proletariat.
"Manifestations of crisis at the second world congress and after were precipitated by 'left infantile sicknesses', which were ideologically a deviation from Marxism-Leninism towards syndicalism....The present internal struggles in some communist parties, the beginning of which coincided with the October defeat in Germany, are ideological repercussions of the survivals of traditional social-democratic ideas in the communist party. The way to overcome them is by the BOLSHEVIZATION OF THE COMMUNIST PARTIES. Bolshevization in this context means the final ideological victory of Marxism-Leninism (or in other words Marxism in the period of imperialism and the epoch of the proletarian revolution) over the 'Marxism' of the Second International and the syndicalist remnants."
So the legacy of the Fifth World Congress of the Comintern was organizational rigidity and ideological conformity. This has been the unexamined heritage of the Marxist-Leninist movement since the 1920s....
[Note: The campaign of Bolshevization elevated a particular form of factory cell organization to universal status, and condemned cell organization along community lines. This was justified as a critque of electoralism -- since community cells also functioned as ward structure during electoral mobilizations. But it also reinforced a growing assumption that communist work was wedded to trade union organizing and economic struggle -- so that a shift to factory only organization was connect to assumptions about the role and importance of strikes and unionization. And this too was assumed to be universal -- even if the Comintern would soon become more rooted in many different kinds of countries, including colonial ones where workplace communist structures were far from centerstage.]
The [American] party was re-organized on the basis of factory cells and a rigid set of organizational principles were adopted. For example, it stipulated that
"Wherever three or more members, regardless of their nationality or present federation membership, are found to be working in the same shop, they shall be organized into a shop nucleus. The nucleus collects the Party dues and takes over all the functions of a Party unit."
What strikes one immediately is that there is absolutely no consideration in the resolution about whether or not a factory-based party unit makes political sense. It is simply a mechanical transposition of Comintern rules, which in themselves are based on an undialectical understanding of Lenin's party.