The organisational nature of a Marxist ”revolutionary party” has, obviously, to be shaped to what the Marxist party exists to do in the outside world. What, fundamentally, irreplaceably, does it do?
In the course of its life a Marxist party does many things, from organising strikes, to street-fighting with fascists and racists, to organising insurrections. But fundamentally, through all the phases and varieties of its activity, it works to educates and enlighten the working class so that it can see capitalist class society as a whole; the place of capitalism in history as one exploitative class society in a succession of them; the place of the working class in capitalist society; the possibility and urgent necessity for the working class to overthrow capitalism and begin to build a socialist society.
Plekhanov, the well-named “Father of Russian Marxism” and first teacher of Lenin, explained the idea of Marxist revolutionary activity which would guide the Bolsheviks in their work of preparing the working class to make the October Revolution in 1917:
"Standing resolutely on the side of the proletariat, the new Socialists do everything in their power to facilitate and hasten its victory. But what exactly can they do in this case?
"A necessary condition for the victory of the proletariat is its recognition of its own position, its relations with its exploiters, its historic role and its sociopolitical tasks.
"For this reason the new Socialists consider it their principal, perhaps even their only, duty to promote the growth of this consciousness among the proletariat, which for short they call its class consciousness.
"The whole success of the socialist movement is measured for them in terms of the growth in the class consciousness of the proletariat. Everything that helps this growth they see as useful to their cause: everything that slows it down as harmful.
"Anything that has no effect one way or the other is of no consequence for them, it is politically uninteresting…"
The Communist Manifesto explained: "The Communists... have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole...
"The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole".
Living in the depths of Stalinist corruption, Trotsky summed up the rules that must govern a serious Marxist party in its internal life and in its relation to the working class: "To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives..."
To play this role in the working class the members of the Marxist organisation must educate themselves. This is not only a matter of mastering key old texts. It is an ongoing process. The Marxists don't just teach the working class, we learn from it also – as, for instance, the Bolsheviks learned about soviets and their possibilities from the Russian working class.
That requires that the Marxist party is a democratic organisation in which the members can think, question, reason and learn from past and contemporaneous events. Which is made up of thinking people, not aspirant parrots.
Where the leaders have the authority of more experienced, more knowledgeable, more devoted comrades, not the authority of sect priests. Where Marxism is an honest tool of analysis, not the house-broken handmaid rationalising whatever the “party” apparatus decides to say and do.
Trotsky, with the stiflingly bureaucratic parties of Stalinism in mind, once compared the need for democracy within a revolutionary Marxist organisation to the need of a living being for oxygen. Without oxygen the living being stifles and dies. Without democracy so, over a longer period of time, does a would-be Marxist party.
The question of the organisational rules for a Marxist party -”Democratic centralism”- has been hopelessly muddied over by the experience of Stalinism – and of some notionally Trotskyist organisations, Lenin described what it is in a 1906 article:
“Criticism within the limits of the principles of the Party Programme must be quite free, not only at Party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism... cannot be prohibited. The Party’s political action must be united. No calls that violate the unity of definite actions can be tolerated either at public meetings, or at Party members, or in the Party press”.
What this meant is shown by the experience of the Bolshevik party in the October Revolution.
Two leading Bolsheviks, Zinoviev and Kamenev, publicly denounced the Party's plans for an insurrection. In the insurrection they placed themselves at the disposal of the party in the action decided upon by the majority of the party. The indignant Lenin later proposed that they should be expelled for strike-breaking, but on the leading Committee failed to win a single vote to add to his own.
An organisation in which the members do not have the right and the duty at all times to think about politics and the affairs of the organisation, and the right to express their opinions freely, is in reality the opposite of Bolshevism. For decades the SWP was organised more like the Catholic Church, with its own pope and College of Cardinals, than like Lenin's Bolsheviks!
Isn't such a way of organising ridiculous? It makes no sense. It has led to such nonsense as Respect and hobnobbing with the Muslim Brotherhood, which Tony Cliff once justly denounced as clerical fascists. It wasn't the Brotherhood that had changed in essence, but the leaders whom Cliff had educated to carry on his tradition.
The prolonged, reverberating crisis of the SWP places the need to reorganise the Marxist left into a democratic force at the centre of our political concerns. What are the preconditions for a healthy democratic organisation?
The first precondition is full rights of internal discussion. You get some discussion even in the most bureaucratic organisation, but usually as a concession from the leadership. But it needs to be a right of the members to have a discussion when they want it.
You have to have it written into the constitution, as it is written into AWL's constitution, that there is a right of access to the public press for minorities.
There may be exceptions - where you're going to organise an insurrection, you wouldn't allow a minority to denounce this plan in your paper - but everyday, normally, minorities should on demand get access to the press.
There must be a possibility of initiative in the organisation other than from the centre.
There are some Trotskyist organisations which have rules that say that discussion can't be started until the centre initiates it. But there has to be a right of initiative for every member.
You need a right for members to by-pass the leading committee and call a conference if necessary. Our AWL constitution gives the Disputes Committee the right to bypass the leading committees and call a conference if necessary. It wouldn't do that casually, but the right has to exist.
The organisation must have a politically self-respecting membership.
An organisation where members are taught to kowtow to a Pope, to an archbishop, to a prophet - that organisation is not breeding self-respecting individuals. It is not breeding educated political militants. It is not breeding militants who could lead a mass working-class struggle.
Imagine the SWP as it now is, and has been for a long time, leading a workers' revolution. It is not really imaginable. It wouldn't,couldn't, happen. But suspend disbelief and suppose that it did, then the SWP would disintegrate in response to the great swirling mass of activity. Or if it didn't disintegrate, and it took power, then how could it created anything other than a very deformed workers' state - if it was a workers' state at all - shaped by the structures of the SWP itself and by militants educated in the present-day functionings of that "Revolutionary Party".
You have to have self-respecting individuals with some idea of their own political value and of their rights.
You have to have an atmosphere in the organisation where discussion is free - where there is not a heavy disapproval from full-timers, central bodies, and so on, of discussion. Where there is no shouting down, no intellectual hooliganism.
You need an organisation where the "machine", the full-timers, have no privileges. They have rights - they have the rights of members - but there is no special prioritisation for the "machine".
The organisation has to be regulated above all by the rhythms and by the needs of the class struggle. It has to accept, and really mean, what the Communist Manifesto says - that the communists have no interests apart from those of the working class.
The organisation has to be a living part of the class struggle, not a spinning top on its own axis, as all sectarian groups are.
It has to be an honestly Marxist organisation. One of the baneful things on the left is that in most cases what the groups say is determined or heavily adulterated by calculations of advantage. That is best called "apparatus Marxism". It is a sort of twin of academic Marxism.
There should not be any pre-designated leaders. Quite plainly in any collection of people some will have more abilities in certain directions, but there should not be a pre-designated leadership. There should not be a closed leadership.
That is democratic centralism as the Bolsheviks had it, as Lenin had it, and as it can serve the working class. The sectarian stuff can't, and that is the reason for condemning it.
The fundamental trouble with the SWP's methods is that they cannot serve the working class or help the working class. They can only do harm.