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Paul Le Blanc: Democratic centralism in the Communist International

June 3, 2018
Le Blanc

Paul Le Blanc

According to Paul Le Blanc, the Communist International in Lenin’s time strove to achieve a balanced synthesis of internal democracy and unity in action. Responding to the “dismissive characterizations” of Italian Marxist Antonio Negri, Le Blanc analyzes the Comintern’s 1922 “Theses on Organization,” which were drafted with input from Lenin. This text has often been misinterpreted as providing a foundation for the Comintern’s later bureaucratization.

The text reproduced here is the final section of Le Blanc’s “Lenin Studies: Method and Organisation,” (Historical Materialism 25:4, 2017, pp. 105-38), which takes up Negri’s Factory of Strategy: 33 Lessons on Lenin. The list of bibliographic references below relates to Le Blanc’s article as a whole. Excerpt reposted with permission.

I have appended to this text my own brief comment on how the Theses on Organization came to be written, reposted from the introduction to my edition of the Communist International’s Third Congress. John Riddell

By Paul Le Blanc:

[Antonio] Negri is at his weakest when he discusses the Communist International. In contrast to his close reading of Lenin’s writings, here we find sweeping generalisations with no documentation.

He smudges together the period of the Third International in the time of Lenin (ignoring the rich experience and hard-won lessons of these initial years) with the period of Stalinist domination, and in this latter period he conflates the phase of ultra-leftist and rigid ‘Bolshevisation’ with that of the reformist People’s Front.52 It is all a negative blur.

‘It was typical of the process of Bolshevization to try to impose a series of firm precepts on all parties that referred to themselves as part of the Bolshevik revolution’, he tells us. This ‘cut some vanguards off at the legs and made it impossible for them to make themselves adequate to the particular situations they were meant to intervene in.’ He cites the Communist Party of the United States as ‘the extreme example’, whose experienced class-struggle cadres were ‘castrated’ by ‘an incredibly slavish repetition of the model’ of Bolshevisation. He asserts that this resulted in ‘the exclusion of African-American members from the organization (in the name of a politics of nationality that repeated something that might have been valid in Russia, even though in the United States class unity was given and blacks and whites worked on the same assembly line).’53

The only source cited for this badly-garbled account is Theodore Draper’s 1960 study American Communism and Soviet Russia, with no details or even page numbers. Some of the leading participants who resisted the Stalinist variant of ‘Bolshevisation’ afflicting the US Communist Party in the period of 1924–9 (and were expelled for such resistance) tell a qualitatively different story. Although representing divergent oppositions, they are in basic agreement that the early years of relations with the Communist International were positive and helpful. This is also true in regard to dealing with the African-American struggle and the initial in-gathering of black cadres, a fact corroborated by a number of capable historians in a number of recent studies.54

Between 1987 and 2015, John Riddell and teams of collaborators produced a remarkable English-language resource – the proceedings of the first four congresses of the Communist International, held from 1919 to 1922, in the time of, and with the full participation of, Lenin. This invaluable contribution to Lenin Studies presents us with the excitement and powerful energy of a diverse and articulate accumulation of revolutionaries, some exuberantly young and fresh to the struggle and others having considerable political experience, seeking to learn from and apply to their own homelands the lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution, wrestling with striking similarities and differences, discussing and sometimes debating numerous matters of importance with Lenin and other prominent Bolshevik leaders.55

The organisation question and the Communist International

Lenin A

V.I. Lenin, 1920

In the more than 2000 pages of the recently-translated proceedings of the 1921 and 1922 world-congresses, we find speeches, reports, debates, resolutions, motions and counter-motions, on an incredible range of topics. Some of what is said is foolish, and some of what is said is profound. Significant and illuminating attention is given to the matters we have been considering here.

There is little in the proceedings from Comintern world-congresses of 1921 and 1922 that conform to dismissive characterisations advanced by all-too many scholars, including [Antonio] Negri. One can certainly point to the disastrous ‘March Action’ of 1921 in Germany, in which adventuristic Comintern representatives, in grand authoritarian style, played a decisive role in pushing some less-experienced German Communists into ultra-left and destructive efforts, riding roughshod over more responsible leaders such as Paul Levi and Clara Zetkin.

This caused Levi to break decisively with the Comintern. It is clear from Riddell’s volumes, however, that there were sharp differences in the Communist International around this, with Lenin and Trotsky relentlessly criticising the ‘March Action’, a putsch attempt that was, if anything, in stark contradiction to ‘the Russian model’. Far from seeking to ‘break’ the more responsible German leaders, Lenin consulted closely with Zetkin and sought to repair Levi’s status – thwarted not only by Levi’s own angry refusal, but also by the need to compromise with the angry younger leaders of the German Communist Party.

This deference to a majority in the German Communist leadership actually reflects democratic rather than bureaucratic tendencies in the early Comintern (even though Lenin agreed with Levi’s critique of what the hotheads had done).56

Nor does Negri’s notion of the Leninist party as uniquely Russia-specific find corroboration in what Lenin had to say. Embedded in the early Comintern proceedings is a rich array of materials, directly from Lenin and his comrades, on the creation of revolutionary parties outside of the Russian context, culminating in the 1921 theses, ‘The Organisational Structure of the Communist Parties, the Methods and Content of Their Work’.57

From background materials presented in one of many useful appendices, we can see that the theses were shaped, in part, with Lenin’s very active input and were put forward in the Comintern’s Third Congress at Lenin’s insistence.58

Far from being a dogmatic effort to impose ‘the Russian model’ on all Communist parties, there is an insistence on relative national autonomy:

There is no immutable, absolutely correct structure for Communist parties. The conditions of proletarian class struggle are variable and subject to a process of constant change. In line with these changes, the organization of the proletarian vanguard must also constantly seek appropriate forms. Similarly, the organization of each party must conform to the historically determined features of its country.59

And then there is this insistence on leadership authority being rooted in flexibility and in close contact with the actual working class and its struggles:

To lead the revolutionary class struggle, the Communist Party and its leading bodies must combine great striking power with great capacity to adjust to the changing conditions of struggle. Successful leadership also requires close ties with the proletarian masses. Without such ties, the leaders will not lead them but at best only follow along after.60

This insistence on engagement with the real, everyday struggles of the working class is a major point stressed in the document:

Communists make a grave mistake if they stand back passively, are scornful of or oppose the day-to-day struggle of the workers for small improvements in the conditions of their life on the grounds that they have a Communist programme and that their final goal is armed revolutionary struggle. However limited and modest the demands for which the workers are willing to fight, this must never be a justification for the Communists to stand aside from the struggle. Our agitational activity should not give the impression that we Communists stir up strikes just for the sake of it and approve of any kind of rash action. On the contrary, we must earn the reputation among the militant workers of being their most valuable comrades-in-arms.61

One of the most important aspects of the document is its warning against the very type of centralism that has all-too-often been put forward as ‘Leninism’:

Democratic centralism in a Communist Party should be a true synthesis and fusion of centralism and proletarian democracy. This fusion can be achieved only on the foundation of constant and common activity and struggle by the entire party.

In a Communist Party, centralization should not be formal or mechanical. It should relate to Communist activity, that is, to the formation of a strong, agile, and also flexible leadership.

A formal or mechanical centralization would concentrate ‘power’ in the hands of the Party bureaucracy, lording it over the other members and the revolutionary proletarian masses which are outside the party….62

The resolution criticises the lack of genuine (as opposed to ‘formal’) democracy, a deficiency common in the parties of the Second International. It tells us:

In the organizations of the old, non-revolutionary workers’ movement, a pervasive dualism developed, similar to that of the bourgeois state, between the ‘bureaucracy’ and the ‘people’. Under the paralyzing influence of the bourgeois environment, functionaries became estranged from members, a vibrant collaboration was replaced by the mere forms of democracy, and the organizations became split between active functionaries and passive masses. Even the revolutionary workers’ movement cannot avoid being influenced to some degree by the formalism and dualism of the bourgeois environment.63

Warnings against the wrong kind of centralism are repeated more than once: ‘Optimal centralization of party activity is not aided by dividing up the party leadership schematically into a hierarchy with many different levels arrayed one above the other.’ Instead, democratically-elected committees in working-class districts and regions should guide the work of the organisation in those localities, suggesting a high degree of relative autonomy within the organisation. This is projected as a way of providing political leadership in a manner which ensures that close contact is maintained between it and the broad masses of Party members in the various locales.64

Not only did Lenin help to shape the theses, he also defended them after they were adopted. This comes through clearly in his comments at the Fourth World Congress of the Communist International in 1922. He took some time to speak critically of the organisational resolution he had helped to draft and have adopted at the 1921 Congress. His complaint was that it was ‘too Russian’ – in part because ‘it is so long that nobody but a Russian would read it’. As Max Eastman reported, Lenin ‘continued to laugh a little at the memory of that remark after he had begun to say something else’ (according to a footnote by Riddell).65 While it has become a commonplace to interpret that comment as a rejection of an alleged dogmatism in the organisational theses, the ‘something else’ that Lenin went on to express is the opposite of rejection.

Having already insisted that ‘the resolution is an excellent one’, he emphasised: ‘the resolution is excellently drafted; I am prepared to subscribe to every one of its fifty or more points.’ The problem was not with the content, but with the inability of the non-Russian comrades to absorb the points being made, because ‘we have not learnt how to present our Russian experience to foreigners’. And so ‘foreign comrades have endorsed it without reading and understanding it’. Far from denouncing and repudiating the resolution, Lenin said: ‘That resolution must be carried out. It cannot be carried out overnight, that is absolutely impossible.’ He repeated that ‘the resolution is too Russian, it reflects the Russian experience. That is why it is quite unintelligible to foreigners, and they cannot be content with hanging it in a corner like an icon and praying to it.’ Far from urging that the resolution therefore be overturned, he concluded that it must be studied and explained carefully, because the foreign comrades ‘must assimilate part of the Russian experience’. He stressed that ‘the most important thing we must do in the period we are entering is to study’, and that the foreign comrades ‘must study in a special sense, in order that they may really understand the organization, structure, method, and content of revolutionary work. If they do that, I am sure the prospects of the world revolution will be not only good, but excellent.’66

What Lenin sought to convey regarding the organisation, structure, method and content of revolutionary work is captured, in various ways, in the volumes under review, regardless of differences one might have with one or another interpretive detail. Well worth considering, for example, is Tamás Krausz’s discussion of the oft-distorted notion of the revolutionary vanguard party:

The party as vanguard meant simply that the organization must find roots as part of the social class and incorporate all progressive and revolutionary elements (that is, ‘those who are first to mount the barricades’) as mentioned in the Communist Manifesto. This description of vanguard, of course, has no real kinship with the structure that came about in a later period, the bureaucratic embodiment of the ‘Stalinist state party,’ in spite of the fact that the latter kept referring to Lenin and its so-called origins in 1903.

In discussing what is often seen as a hallmark of Leninism, he provides a rich characterisation of genuinely revolutionary politics, worth quoting at length:

The concept of democratic centralism as the ‘law’ of party bureaucracy was a product of a later historical period – the combination of power, pragmatism, and a messianic ‘future expectation.’ It is easy enough to define the basic concept of democratic centralism: democracy in reaching decisions and unity in implementing them. The difficulty resides only in how to apply this basic principle to small propaganda groups that do not have an organic relationship with the working class. That is, groups whose constituencies are not created from among the most class-conscious members of this class through a hard-fought process of selection. The Russian Social Democratic Party, and later the Bolshevik Party, benefited from real feedback thanks to its close relations with its social base. The Social Democratic Party, at least potentially, was a real mass party from the beginning. It had an ideology and an organization chart [organisational structure?], for example, that were recognized by politically conscious members of the working class in 1905 and 1917 as valid expressions of their politics.67

This corresponds to the Communist International’s organisational theses of 1921 and to what Lenin defended in 1922. Essential qualities of the revolutionary party that Lenin and his comrades developed in Tsarist Russia were seen to be generally applicable (and adaptable) on a global scale.

Longing and commitment

Anyone sifting through such historical artefacts – the political thought and practice of Lenin and his contemporary comrades – in what were for Lenin our own far-future realities (on what Negri suggests is a different planet from Lenin’s) may be struck by their seeming applicability in the present day.

But activists who are so inclined face immense challenges. ‘Obviously establishing the party is quite different from longing for it!’, Negri tells us.68 We face dramatically evolved realities of capitalism, the fading of the organised mass socialist workers’ movement on a global scale, the absence of the kind of revolutionary party Lenin had to work with. Self-satisfied sects can afford to spout Lenin-quotes while denouncing all others on their end of the spectrum for not measuring up (which often amounts to denouncing reality for being inadequate).

For activists who are truly committed to changing the world for the better, not some imaginary rhetorical world but the actual world in which we live, immense challenges remain. The studies explored here, and the Leninist tradition to which they pertain, will certainly be a resource for those who remain true to that commitment.

Why the theses on organization were written

Postscript by John Riddell

The agenda point on party organisation sought above all to grapple with bureaucratic deformations member parties had inherited from the prewar Second International. Parties in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany (ex-USPD majority), Italy, and Norway had joined the Comintern largely intact. They included influential parliamentary, trade-union, and journalistic staffs that were often open to bourgeois influence and unresponsive to party direction.

Otto Kuusinen

Otto Kuusinen

The congress resolution, drafted by Otto Kuusinen, aimed to counter this weakness by involving all members in organised party work (‘the duty to be active’) and by integrating all in the party’s cells, fractions, and working groups into a disciplined, unified structure.

Lenin provided extensive input, encouraging Kuusinen to include more detail and insisting that a German comrade (Koenen) replace Béla Kun as reporter. (The following year, at the Fourth Congress, Lenin would term the resolution ‘excellent’ but ‘too long’ and ‘too Russian’ in spirit.)

Koenen’s lengthy report was squeezed into the congress’s third-last session, and there was time to hear only three brief comments, each of them critical, before referring the resolution back to the commission for editing. It was adopted in the final session. – reposted from John Riddell, ed., To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, Leiden: Brill, 2015, pp. 42–43.


Notes are numbered as in Paul Le Blanc’s original article, only part of which is reproduced here.

52 Negri 2014, p. 91. There are a number of studies corroborating Negri’s charges of bureaucratisation and reformism in the Comintern – James 1996, Carr 1982, Claudin 1975 and Spriano 1985 – but these show the development taking place from the late 1920s into the 1940s, in contrast to the earlier period of 1919–22.

53 Negri 2014, p. 97.

54 Draper 1960. Among reminiscences giving a positive sense of the Comintern’s early years (1919–23) are those offered in Cannon 1962, Wolfe 1981, p. 229, and the testimony of Jay Lovestone in Le Blanc and Davenport (eds.) 2015, pp. 612–13, 640–1. These find full corroboration in the recent, careful scholarship of Zumoff 2014 and Palmer 2007. Among studies conclusively disproving the ‘exclusion of African Americans’ comment are those of Solomon 1998, Naison 2005, and Kelley 1990.

55 See Riddell (ed.) 1987, Riddell (ed.) 1991, Riddell (ed.) 2012, Riddell (ed.) 2015. Also part of this series are valuable works dealing with developments leading up to the Communist International – Riddell (ed.) 1984, Riddell (ed.) 1986, Riddell (ed.) 1993, 105–138.

56 Fernbach (ed.) 2011, and Riddell (ed.) 2015, pp. 14–44, 403–561, 1036–8, 1090–6, 1097, 1099, 1104–5, 1108–52, 1174, 1177, 1178, 1179; also see Riddell (ed.) 2012, pp. 1157–9, 1164–73.

57 Riddell (ed.) 2015, pp. 978–1006. An excellent summary of the matter is provided in Riddell 2013.

58 Riddell (ed.) 2015, pp. 1101–4.

59 Riddell (ed.) 2015, p. 978.

60 Riddell (ed.) 2015, p. 979.

61 Riddell (ed.) 2015, p. 986. 130.

62 Riddell (ed.) 2015, p. 979.

63 Ibid.

64 Riddell (ed.) 2015, p. 999.

65 Riddell (ed.) 2012, p. 293.

66 Riddell (ed.) 2012, pp. 304–5. 132.

67 Krausz 2015, pp. 118–19.

68 Negri 2014, p. 9.

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