Is Corbyn turning Labour into a ‘Democratic Centralist’ Party?

And what, exactly, is “democratic centralism” I hear you ask?

LeninIt is the form of organization pioneered by Lenin and the Bolsheviks and adopted by all communist and Trotskyist organizations ever since.

In this model the political party is not about elections or representation in parliament, although they do that, but about creating a vanguard elite ready to seize power on behalf of the “the masses” when “the time comes”.

Typically a ‘democratic centralist’ party selects its members, who have to go through some sort of probationary period during which they are indoctrinated with the party’s values, ideology and methods before becoming full members.

Once members, individuals get to vote either directly or through delegates on party policy and direction. Often communist and Trotskyist parties have been divided internally into ‘factions’ supporting a particular platform or direction which is presented to the membership. A supposedly free discussion follows before a decision is reached – usually at some sort of congress. That’s the ‘democratic’ bit.

Once a decision has been reached a leadership is also elected to implement the platform – usually in the form of some sort of ‘PolitBuro’ or Central Committee.

From then on – and this is where the ‘centralist’ part comes in – every member is bound by the decisions of the congress and the leadership it has elected.

This form of organization often degenerates rapidly in one of two directions. Either – most common – a permanent ‘leadership’ emerges which gradually constrains dissent and purges opponents or, and this also happens frequently, the minority faction or factions refuse to accept the decision of the congress and split to form a new, pure, group.

Rosa_LuxemburgTrotskyist groups are especially prone to this sort of splitting and were the inspiration of the famous jokes in Monty Pythons ‘Life of Brian’ about the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ vs the ‘Judean Popular Front’.

Early critics of this approach included (ironically) Trotsky himself and especially the German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg, who penned a scathing attack on Lenin’s organisationl precepts. She rather eerily predicted the sort of degeneration such centralism would eventually lead to.

Parliamentary Socialism?

Parliamentary socialist and social democratic parties – especially since World War I and even more so after WWII – adopted very different organizational forms. They drew their organizational precepts from representative democracy itself – so Party policy was most often shaped not by plebiscites of the whole membership but by various representative structures in which the representatives – rather like MPs in our Parliament – had some latitude and scope to exercise their own judgment. Moreover they were far less ‘disciplined’ than democratic centralist parties and dissenters given freedom to criticize, publicly, the direction of party policy.

MPs – Delegates or Representatives?

The difference comes out most clearly in the attitude to MPs. The early British Communist Party in the 1920s demanded that anyone standing as an MP sign, in advance, an undated resignation letter to be held by the CPGB central Committee. The idea was that if an elected MP strayed from the Party line they could be forced to resign as an MP.

This is of course the complete antithesis of how parliamentary democracy is supposed to work in Britain. MPs are elected to represent all their constituents, including those who didn’t actually vote for them, and to exercise their own judgment over issues. Of course as ‘Party’ MPs there is always a tension between Party policy and individual judgment, but the system and the political parties – on all sides – are supposed to live with that.

Labour has always been a ‘broad church’ embracing all sorts of social democratic, democratic socialist, guild socialist, and even revolutionary socialist elements – although in practice its leadership and MPs have always been predominantly social democratic.

So – is Labour becoming ‘Democratic Centralist’?

The answer is not yet – but there are ominous signs it is heading in that direction.

The notion that it is ‘the members who should decide’ on all party policy, through direct plebiscite, is certainly a huge tilt towards a democratic centralist party.

As is the notion that all MPs must now fall into line with “Jeremy’s Mandate” (ignoring all the other various forms of mandate Labour MPs have – see here). This also echoes the Bennite ‘mandatory reselection of MPs’ drive of the early 1980s.

Moves to purge the Shadow Cabinet and to deselect ‘disloyal’ MPs using the power of ‘one-member-one-vote’ is certainly reminiscent of a more ‘democratic centralist’ approach and does not sit comfortably in a representative democratic system.

The Labour membership is not – yet – like that of a classic democratic centralist party. It has not been selected and groomed into an elite cadre of ideologically pure ‘comrades’. It was noticeable in Corbyn’s election that only just half of actual fully-laid-up Labour members supported him – he won so decisively because of the “£3 socialists” and the Trade Union “affiliate” voters, who are far removed from any sort of revolutionary vanguard.

What has happened since is unclear – there has been a big influx of new Corbynista members and a smaller outflow of disgruntled ‘moderates’ – but how far this has fundamentally changed the character of Labour’s membership remains opaque.

The tragedy for Labour is that the process of increased tendency towards more ‘democratic centralist’ forms seems almost inevitable after it elected a leader who has the support of only about 1 in 10 of ‘his’ MPs and, crucially, seems utterly incapable of building serious working relationships with a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).

Jeremy Corbyn has spent his entire three decades in Parliament distancing himself from the rest of the PLP and voting almost relentlessly against his own Party. He has absolutely no experience of building coalitions of support and of the many compromises needed to do so. His whole political persona has been built on intransigence and “principle”.

Given this he and his small band of actual supporters have no choice but either give up and compromise with the rest of the PLP or to implement more and more ‘democratic centralist’ style ‘reforms’ to Party structures and processes. Given many of his advisers come from backgrounds in a variety of ‘democratic centralist’ groups this will likely be their default position anyway.

It is not really clear Corbyn actually is a hard-line socialist of some sort – his pronouncements are often vague, couched as broad generalities and piece-meal in nature. A volume of Comrade Corbyn’s Collected Works would be slim. But he is close enough to radical socialism that there is a clear fit between his ideology and the classic party organizational form – democratic centralism – that usually goes with it.

18 thoughts on “Is Corbyn turning Labour into a ‘Democratic Centralist’ Party?

  1. Nice bit of straw man. Meantime, in the real world, the NEC is turning it into a Stalinist one bit by bit.

    1. Not sure what you mean by “straw man” or the “real world”. Look at the date – it was written on 3 January 2016 long before more recent developments.

  2. The aim would seem to be what – once upon a time – was called developing a “class struggle wing” – a movement encompassing the party, the unions, and social movements that would act as a bridge over which the young and naive might cross, shedding their illusions through the crucible of struggle, until they were sufficiently radicalised to become “cadres of the true vanguard party” (that at the moment one must deny exists). Looking at the youngsters on Twitter and the phone lines and the various seasoned and wily operators the Corbyn camp has accumulated out of the assorted (albeit cross-generational) refugees from the various incarnations of British Trotskyism, Stalinism, and radicalism, Momentum would seem to be the fluid front organisation envisaged as long ago as the mid-70s by self-styled Leninists in a range of sects. It is for this reason that they cling on like grim death. Electoral success is irrelevant to this messianic vision – the combination of Tory governments, the impact of Brexit and crisis in the eurozone will ultimately propel the masses to seek an alternative through extra parliamentary mobilization and thus holding on to the apparatus of Labour and the unions matters above all else.

    Obviously, to a sane observer it’s the messianic fantasising of a sect with neither solutions nor policy seeking solace in incantations of “socialism” and oblivious to the fact that under the weight of tradition in such circumstances -as now – the electorate is far more likely to lurch right than left – nonetheless, that’s the ball game and precious little changed from 1976 and all that jazz

  3. Hi what is the evidence that the cp required letters of resignation signed in advance, it sounds a bit like a daily mail anecdote but I’d be interested to know if it’s true!

      1. Undated resignation letters. I have heard a similar story about Sinn Fein, but have never seen any proof. Do you think they fit the profile?

      2. Sorry Colin but where is it? I asked you if you could cite your source a month ago. If you can’t cite a source perhaps it’s better to remove the claim. It does sound like a bit of black propaganda to me and that’s strengthened by Michaels comment about the same story being told about Sinn Fein isn’t it? Thanks

      3. There’s no need to be insulting to me or anyone else Colin. I had asked you if you could cite a source for what seemed to me a prima facie unlikely claim that you made that is now being broadcast on other social media. You said there were many sources but are unable to reference even one. Given that the same unevidenced story has also been promulgated to blacken other politically unacceptable groups, as referenced in Michaels comment about Sinn Fien are you really so sure that it is a fact? How can it be a “fact” without evidence to substantiate it. Claiming that it is a fact and then telling the questioner to go and substantiate it does not sound like the application of the scientific method to me. I do not have the knowledge or resources that you have to even begin such a search.

        If your comment above is your final answer to a simple, if awkward, question I am sure others will draw their own conclusions. I certainly have.

      4. Draw all the conclusions you want. Its not an “awkward” question, I simply can’t be arsed to go and look up what is a well known fact on the left about the early CPGB. There are plenty of detailed histories which will attest to this. You are simply displaying your own ignorance, wilful or otherwise.

        As for your associating it with other issues (e.g. Sinn Fien) I said nothing about that and it is nothing to do with me.

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