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John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

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Revolutionary organisation in the "age of neoliberal austerity": a response to Neil Faulkner

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Neil Faulkner’s recent article, The Age of Neoliberal Austerity (Part 4), is a welcome addition to the debate taking place almost everywhere on the far left at the moment about revolutionary organisation. Neil has recently left a small revolutionary group known as Counterfire, and his article acknowledges that his recent experiences in that organisation have shaped his ideas on this issue. Neil, like many of us who have emerged out of the fractured and diminishing far left in Britain, has begun to seriously question the model of organisation which many sects and groups adopt, namely, what they generally refer to as “Leninism” or “democratic centralism”:

For 35 years now, I have subscribed to something called “democratic-centralism”. I now consider “democratic-centralism” (I will retain the inverted commas to indicate that I consider this term/concept to be a shibboleth of the post-war Far Left) little more than a justification for undemocratic, exclusionary, and sometimes abusive top-down practice by largely self-perpetuating and self-selecting leaderships. The effect has been to turn Far Left groups into revolving doors, their alienating internal regime repelling people as quickly as new ones are recruited.

Neil correctly points out that the model of “democratic centralism” adopted by Trotskyist organisations after the Second World War was not the same model of organisation used by Lenin and the Bolshevik party. He argues that it is instead a poor parody of it, born out of the far left’s marginalisation due to the dominance of reformist ideas in the post-war boom. While I might argue he underestimates the impact of the degeneration of the international communist movement before the Second World War, and the influence of this on the Trotskyist movement afterwards, his general point still stands – the model of “democratic centralism” rigidly applied by far-left sects is not the organisational model which produced the mass revolutionary parties of 1917-23, and has in fact never produced such a party.

It is heartening to see how a number of different people, emerging out of different organisations and therefore coming from different directions, are arriving at very similar conclusions on the question of democracy in the revolutionary movement. However, I would argue that while Neil is correct on a number of important points, there are some problems with the analysis he outlines in this article, and it is worthwhile exploring these differences.


There is arguably a strain of “catastrophism” which runs through Neil’s article, and I believe this skews his analysis. Catastrophism has been a feature of various revolutionary organisations and theorists for some time. Broadly speaking, it is the idea, or attitude, that a revolutionary upheaval is just around the corner. This is often coupled with the idea that if such an upheaval does not occur, the crisis in capitalism is so profound that the alternative will be some form of cataclysm. The problem with this analysis is that it can often lead to a desperate search for short-cuts, as the “objective” situation requires an immediate and profound solution to all our problems. An example of this strain can be found in Neil’s opening remarks:

We face the greatest crisis in human history and a stark choice between barbarism (war, poverty, and ecological catastrophe) and revolution (by which I mean the overthrow of the rich, the banks, and the corporations, and the transfer of power to participatory democracy representing the 99%). To be able to exercise this choice, we have to create mass revolutionary organisation; if we do not, the 1% will continue to rule, and they will drive humanity and the planet into the abyss.

The catastrophist approach goes hand in hand with what I consider to be a wildly over-optimistic outlook when it comes to the potential for the movement at this moment in time. Neil argues that “record numbers of people appear to think that revolution is needed”. This is, in my opinion, completely incorrect. The overall weakness of the working class movement has led to revolutionary and socialist ideas being less prevalent in society than they have been for a very long time. It is this marginalisation, as a result of over three decades of attacks on the working class movement, and record low levels of struggle, which has been the primary contributor to the crisis of the revolutionary left. Neil may be right to argue that it is not impossible for revolutionary organisations to grow in a period of low levels of struggle, but none can deny that it is harder for them to do so. When there are few examples of mass workers’ organisation, and very little self-activity, it is very difficult indeed.

Neil argues that while industrial struggle is still low, there has been an emergence of other forms of activity, primarily in the form of mass street protests, which have taken its place and become the expression of widespread discontent. This is true up to a point, but I would say that while these forms of protest are much more commonplace, this has come about as a result of the weaknesses of working class organisation as a whole. In some senses, this is an expression of powerlessness rather than an assertion of power. Neil makes a similar point towards the end of his article:

The result has been, on the one hand, high levels of alienation, disaffection, and resistance, but, on the other, an erosion of the political and industrial organisation necessary to structure and sustain resistance. One consequence of this is that street protest predominates over industrial action. Another is that protest tends to be spontaneous, explosive, and short-lived.

However, while Neil identifies the shortfalls of these movements, his analysis seems to suggest that they are ultimately a sign of the potential for mass revolutionary organisation.

The problem is that, if the revolutionary mass is already there, any failure of the far left to grow is purely subjective, a failure of the left to “get its act together”. Neil in many ways falls into the same traps that orthodox “Trotskyists” have done previously, despite his intention to move away from them. In the 1930s, with the onset of the Great Depression, Trotsky and his followers argued that capitalism was facing its final crisis. This crisis was so profound that there were only two possibilities: socialist revolution, or the collapse of capitalism into barbarism. In such a period, the working class was “objectively revolutionary”, and therefore the primary role of revolutionaries was to build the revolutionary leadership. This in many ways led to the abstract party building and ultra-centralising tendencies we have witnessed in the Trotskyist movement since.


The main problem with catastrophism when it comes to the question of revolutionary organisation is that it can lead to what has been described as an analysis of the “crisis of leadership”. The orthodox Trotskyist organisations, in believing that the working class was “objectively revolutionary”, needed to have an explanation as to why a mass revolutionary movement did not occur. They argued that this was down to the opportunism and duplicity of the existing leadership of the working class – the social democrats, the Stalinist Communist parties and the trade union bureaucracy. The main task of revolutionaries was to build a revolutionary vanguard party to challenge these for the leadership of the class. While Neil is absolutely correct in his criticisms of the form of “Leninism” which orthodox Trotskyist groups adopted, he stops short of explaining how these organisational forms came about as a result of how these groups related to the class as a whole. The top-down structures adopted internally by sects are the natural result of their top-down approach to the movement as a whole.

Traditionally, when Marxists such as VI Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg referred to the “vanguard” of the class, they meant the leading, most advanced elements of a much larger, mass working class movement. A working class movement which has already achieved a high level of organisation, and where socialist ideas are much more common, may produce a layer which is the most combative in terms of challenging capitalism, and imbued with revolutionary ideas. In this sense, the vanguard of the class is that layer which is both consciously against capitalism as a whole (rather than certain aspects of it), and makes up the leadership of the class when it is engaged in confrontation with capitalism. The “revolutionary vanguard party” would be an organisation which unites this layer of workers. If we use this definition, then there is no such thing in the British working class at this time. In fact, even in the 1970s, at a high point of working class organisation and socialist ideas in Britain, Duncan Hallas (a leading member of the International Socialists), argued that to talk of a vanguard was premature:

Today the circumstances are quite different. There is no train. A new generation of capable and energetic workers exists but they are no longer part of a cohesive movement and they no longer work in a milieu where basic Marxist ideas are widespread. We are back at our starting point. Not only has the vanguard, in the real sense of a considerable layer of organised revolutionary workers and intellectuals, been destroyed. So too has the environment, the tradition, that gave it influence. In Britain that tradition was never so extensive and influential as in Germany or France but it was real enough in the early years of the Communist Party.

The crux of the matter is how to develop the process, now begun, of recreating it. It may be true, as Gramsci said, that it is harder to create generals than to create an army. It is certainly true that generals without an army are entirely useless, even if it is supposed that they can be created in a vacuum. In fact, “vanguardism”, in its extreme forms, is an idealist perversion of Marxism, which leads to a moralistic view of the class struggle. Workers are seen as straining at the leash, always ready and eager to fight but always betrayed by corrupt and reactionary leaders. Especially pernicious are the “left” leaders whose radical phraseology conceals a fixed determination to sell the pass at the first opportunity.

The insistence on the importance of the “vanguard” in a period where none exists can lead to two serious mistakes. One is that the small revolutionary organisation, isolated from the working class as a whole, can come to consider itself the vanguard by virtue of its correct revolutionary politics. The second is that revolutionaries can, in desperation to find a vanguard where one does not yet exist, mistakenly project the qualities of the vanguard onto sections of the movement or the working class. It is the latter mistake, I believe, that Neil makes. He argues towards the end of his article:

The revolutionary vanguard has been reconfigured by these economic, social, political, and cultural changes. It still includes (in Britain) some tens of thousands of ‘traditional’ left activists rooted in unions, parties, and campaigns. But it also includes a more amorphous, shifting group of ‘new’ activists, mainly young, typically students and/or precarious workers, usually ‘non-aligned’, often suspicious of formal organisation. Indeed, in terms of numbers, this group is potentially much larger than the first. The revolutionary vanguard today is largely formed of radicalised urban youth prepared to come onto the streets.

It is a serious mistake, in my opinion, to argue that the combination of the current activist left (and I would dispute the figure of “tens of thousands”), and the activists who make up the core of the protest movements could be reasonably described as a “revolutionary vanguard”. The former is largely isolated, and increasingly cut off from the day-to-day concerns and interests of the working class; the latter is largely amorphous, and by no means is it explicitly revolutionary. While people influenced by autonomist, anarchist and socialist ideas are active in these movements, there are many, probably the majority, who are largely reformist in outlook. That aside, while these movements have been in many respects large and radical, they have not necessarily been directly connected to the working class as a whole, and therefore to describe them as somehow constituting the “leadership” of the class is misleading. This is not to denigrate the importance of these campaigns, but it is important to recognise the danger of projecting onto them a “vanguard” status incorrectly.

Similar mistakes in this regard have been made by the left before. As Neil refers to in his article, in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was an upsurge in radical activity, first on the university campuses, and later in the working class. There were a number of revolutionaries, most notably Maoist groups, and the International Marxist Group (a Trotskyist organisation), that believed that the student movement, by virtue of being more radical than the working class and having been the first to engage in struggle in 1968, now constituted the new “revolutionary vanguard”. The dominance of reformist ideas among the working class, and the relative conservatism of the trade union movement, was held up in stark contrast to the revolutionary ideas of many involved in the student movement, and the volatile nature of much of their activity. The International Socialists, in whose tradition both Neil and I consider ourselves to stand, rejected this analysis. While they acknowledged the importance of working within the student movement, and in fact grew massively as a result of doing so, they continued to argue that the growth of a truly mass revolutionary movement capable of overthrowing capitalism was dependent on the growth of revolutionary ideas and militancy within the working class. It was only from here that a truly “revolutionary vanguard” could emerge, as a result of the increasing militancy and self-activity of the working class as a whole. The groups that projected vanguard status onto the student movement were engaging in a form of voluntarism, looking for short-cuts whereby a revolutionary movement could be built off the back of the hard work of a small minority of revolutionaries. There are some parallels between this and Neil’s belief that the activists involved protest movements constitute the revolutionary vanguard today. While many of these campaigns are influenced by radical and revolutionary ideas, they have come about as a result of the relative passivity and conservatism of the working class as a whole. They are largely disconnected from the vast majority of working class people rather than representative of them.


While Neil accurately identifies the problems of lack of democracy in existing revolutionary socialist organisations, he fails to link this to the weaknesses in the way that the far left relates to the class as a whole. He starts from the position that the crisis in capitalism we are experiencing has led to widespread radicalisation, and that this in turn has expressed itself in new forms of protest which the far left has failed to relate to. There is an element of truth in this, in that there are a minority of people who have been radicalised as a result of the crisis, and they have formed the core of protest movements such as Occupy, UK Uncut, the student movement, and various other street protests which we have witnessed since 2008. There have also been much wider layers of people who have begun to question the system, and millions who have been directly affected by the economic crisis. However, the trend in recent years has not been an “upturn” in the numbers of people confronting capitalism. The capitalists’ austerity agenda has, so far, largely faced only sporadic and relatively weak opposition. This is not down to any subjective failure on the part of the left, but rather it is a result of these attacks occurring after over three decades of defeats for the working class in Britain. The onset of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s led to the destruction of many of the working class organisations on which much of the class’s previous militancy had depended. This, unsurprisingly, went hand in hand with the collapse of much of the traditional left, both inside and outside of the Labour Party. While these attacks slowed (but did not cease) in the 1990s following the stabilisation of capitalism, the far left remained isolated and failed to grow. In these conditions there has been a tendency towards substitutionism on the revolutionary left. In the absence of a radical mass working class movement, the far left has tended to substitute its own activity for that of the working class as a whole, and this has often been sustained by a false belief that the “upturn” was just around the corner, and that it was the role of revolutionaries to position themselves for when this occurred.

In order to properly solve the problems of the far left, including those of democracy, or lack thereof, we first need to acknowledge that we as revolutionaries are more isolated now than we have been for some time. The crisis in capitalism, while deep, does not necessarily mean that a radicalisation of the working class is inevitable. The movements we have seen emerge in opposition to austerity have largely been mobilisations of a radical, and in many ways disconnected, minority of people, who at this point cannot be described as a “revolutionary vanguard” in any meaningful sense. Such a vanguard does not yet exist, and if it does in the future, it will most likely emerge out of the self-activity and militancy of a mass working class movement, rather than from the heroic activity of a minority.