The Mobile Balance: Achieving Democratic Centralism

Ciaran Muholland

Comrades affiliated to the Internationalist Standpoint website are engaged in a process of discussions around how we build an international revolutionary party which will in time mobilise the many against the few. The world party of revolution requires an internal regime which is a genuine “mobile balance” of democracy and centralism: the application of the principles of democratic centralism not just in words but in practice. Unfortunately, the last decades are littered with countless examples of organisations which adopted the principles of democratic centralism in words, but which split asunder when internal political conflict, even of a relatively minor nature, arose.

As a contribution to this debate, we are reprinting an article written by comrade Ciaran Mulholland towards the end of the debates in the Socialist Party (SP) in Ireland and the international debates in the Committee for a Workers International which led to multiple splits in 2019 (originally published as The Party at the Crossroads Part Two: The Party Regime and Democratic Renewal in September 2019). 

The Committee for a Workers International had already split prior to the September 2019 conference of the Socialist Party in Ireland and a three-way split occurred in the SP in the period before and after the conference (resulting in three groups in Ireland: the SP, affiliated to International Socialist Alternative; Militant Left, affiliated to the CWI; and RISE, now part of People Before Profit). In addition, a number of comrades have remained active in the workers movement but do not belong to any organised group. 

The article contains some sections which are very specific to the context of the time, but the lines of argument employed with regards to the democratic traditions of the Bolsheviks, and the continuation of this approach as outlined by Leon Trotsky from the mid-1920s onwards, which take up most of the document’s space, are very relevant to today. It is, in our opinion, a valuable contribution in the efforts to build a mass revolutionary socialist international organisation, to every group and individual who strives for this aim. 

In the 1930s Leon Trotsky sought to outline the basic tenets which revolutionaries ought to observe in order to achieve the correct balance between democracy and centralised, disciplined action. In “What is party democracy” he argued for adherence not only to the letter of the party statutes but also to the spirit. The statutes of the SP in Ireland and of the CWI were not adhered to during the dispute in either letter or spirit. 

A new international must consider how we avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Our starting point must be to recognise the truth of Trotsky’s argument that “the solely formal object of the democratic rules are not sufficient….” (Writings, 1936-37, pp. 476-77).

The Party Regime and Democratic Renewal

it is not a great merit to be satisfied “with anybody who is satisfied with me.”

Trotsky, “What is Party Democracy?”, 1936


We are engaged in a titanic effort to build a revolutionary party which will bring behind it the best of the Irish working class and which is capable of leading the struggle for power. As Trotsky pointed out this is no easy task:

“It is indeed the general testimony of history . . . that up to now the weakest link in the chain of necessary conditions has been the party. The hardest thing of all is for the working class to create a revolutionary organization capable of rising to the height of this historic task.” 

We are seeking to create a vehicle through which to take our distinctive ideas to the mass of the working class, North and South, Protestant and Catholic [note: referring to Ireland]. Contacts come to us because of our ideas, expressed in our programme, and politically develop in the Party through the combined process of practical activity, education and consolidation which creates cadres.  

The Party must be imbued with optimism, openness and creativity, and be a genuine ferment of ideas, because anything less is ultimately un-attractive to the ordinary worker or young person. It is equally important that we are battle-sharp, with an effective command structure which allows for rapid decision making when necessary. Serious workers and young people expect no less-if they have drawn the conclusion, even tentatively, that a social revolution is the only way in which we will solve the problems before us then they expect a seriousness of purpose from our Party. This dynamic, between the fullest democracy and the need for incisive action, when necessary, is central to our collective effort. 

In a debate of this nature-around the basic programmatic tenets of the Party and the means by which we organise-it is important to clearly state that politics is always primary, and the question of the regime is secondary, but very important. 

We first determine our programme, which of course is not pickled in aspic but is ever evolving through our engagement with struggle, and then our ways of organising.  

As Trotsky explained Organizational questions are inseparable from questions of program and tactics (Third International After Lenin, p. 158). He described thedynamic process by which the regime is developed in a letter to the editors of US Socialist Appeal in 1937: The regime of a party does not fall ready made from the sky but is formed gradually in struggle. A political line predominates over the regime (On Democratic Centralism and the Regime, 1937).

To summarise, first our programme, most importantly our programme on the national question [note: referring to Ireland] as outlined in Troubled Times and supplemented by material we have written since. Second, our strategy, as outlined in Towards Division Not Peace, and supplemented by necessary tactical initiatives and turns in response to political, social and economic developments, specific events, changes of moods and consciousness. And third, the organisational regime. From our programme comes strategy and tactics. From strategy and tactics come organisational form. 

Unity of action, freedom of discussion and criticism

Our Party has always organised through democratic centralism, an approach described by Lenin as: 

Unity of action, freedom of discussion and criticism. In the same article he then continued: Only such discipline is worthy of the democratic party of the advanced class…the proletariat does not recognise unity of action without freedom to discuss and criticise (Party Discipline and the Fight Against the Pro-Cadet Social Democrats, 1906).

Democratic centralism is not an end in itself but is the organisational form which corresponds to the necessity for the revolutionary party to reach the mass of the working class and in time bring about the socialist revolution.  The revolutionary party chooses a method of organisation which meets its needs.  

Trotsky summed this up with his usual precision: 

The function of democratic centralism is to make the revolutionary program a living reality: to develop fully (as activists, organizers and critical minded Marxists) increasing numbers of revolutionary cadres, to join them together as an effective political force, to enable them to determine collectively how the revolutionary program shall be applied in the ongoing struggles of the workers and the oppressed (On Democratic Centralism and the Regime, 1937). 

It should go without saying that the adoption of democratic centralism does not at one stroke solve the problems of our daily practice. It is not a fixed and rigid approach. As Trotsky explained: 

Neither do I think that I can give such a formula on democratic centralism that “once and for all” would eliminate misunderstandings and false interpretations. A party is an active organism. It develops in the struggle with outside obstacles and inner contradictions. 

First of all, it is necessary to define strategic problems and tactical methods correctly in order to solve them. The organizational forms should correspond to the strategy and the tactic. Only a correct policy can guarantee a healthy party regime. This, it is understood, does not mean that the development of the party does not raise organizational problems as such. But it means that the formula for democratic centralism must inevitably find a different expression in the parties of different countries and in different stages of development of one and the same party (On Democratic Centralism and the Regime, 1937). 

Despite the relative maturity of the Party [the Socialist Party in Ireland, until 2019 a section of the pre-split Committee for a Workers International or CWI], it is crystal clear that we have much to learn from Trotsky’s developed view. A moment of crisis represents an opportunity to review our structures and more importantly our approach from top to bottom. In order to do so honestly and thoroughly we must start with a sober analysis of what the last year has revealed.    

The Conduct of the Debate

An essentially healthy internal regime has been crucial to the development of the Party over the last five decades. In the main, a politically confident leadership, with real political authority, exercised an open, democratic and flexible approach. This does not mean that the internal regime was without weaknesses, or that we can stand over every past action of the leadership. However, there is evidence that for most of the history of the Party the leadership had the ability to self-correct, often through a genuine dialogue with the membership. Over most of our history the leadership acted as a team or a collective, with checks and balances built in. 

The recent crisis in the section and in the international have however exposed problems which we ignore at our peril. The national leadership have made serious errors over the last year. That we have done so is not just “unfortunate” or accidental but shines a light on the underlying problems in the Party in Ireland and in the CWI. There is evidence of an atrophied ability to reflect and of less flexibility than at times in the past. There is very clear evidence of a diminished capacity to deal with criticism. And there has been a weakening of the sense of a leadership team. 

When the Party comes under attack the first instinct of most comrades is to defend. This is understandable, and a degree of party patriotism is indeed essential if we are to weld together the organisation which is required in order to fulfil our historic mission. The instinct to defend helps to explain the robust role of many comrades over the first months of the crisis. Comrades should be careful however to differentiate between defence and defensiveness. And an unnecessarily offensive approach should be avoided, as should the mischaracterisation both of the motives and positions of others, and the drawing of premature conclusions. 

There is a general tendency in the Party to reduce all questions to a series of binary choices, to see the world in black and white, never grey. The ability to listen and reflect, and to soberly weigh up the claims of those who are critical voices, is not highly prized, and it ought to be.  

Many comrades set their political sat-nav last autumn and have not deviated off the road since. No wrong turns or cul-de-sacs for comrades guided by the certainty of conviction.  But the road to a successful socialist revolution is not straight. Arriving at our destination requires a willingness to make mistakes, even to risk taking the occasional wrong turn. And it requires the ability to recognise shades of grey, not just stark black and white. 

It is very important that we educate the new generation in the best traditions of the CWI. An overly defensive approach risks mis-educating the cadre, especially those who are newest to our ranks. If we do not get this right we risk, albeit inadvertently, setting up problems for the future. We cannot allow a defensive posture to become the “new normal”, and we must ensure all comrades are experts at reviewing their own work, and the work of the Party. If we do not do so there is a real danger that a lasting atmosphere of intolerance will be created. 

We need to examine a number of inter-linked questions: the need to work through democratic structures (in particular the Party Conference); the need for a collective leadership team which consciously builds and maintains its political authority; the need to involve all members in our inner democracy; the rights and responsibilities of members; and the role of trends, tendencies, groupings and factions in the revolutionary party. 

Trotsky on Party Democracy

But first it is useful to consider Trotsky’s developed views on the inner party regime. Trotsky was razor-sharp on the need to balance democracy and centralism:

“…democracy and centralism do not at all find themselves in an invariable ratio to one another. Everything depends on the concrete circumstances, on the political situation in the country, on the strength of the party and its experience, on the general level of its members, on the authority the leadership has succeeded in winning. Before a conference, when the problem is one of formulating a political line for the next period, democracy triumphs over centralism. When the problem is political action, centralism subordinates democracy to itself. Democracy again asserts its rights when the party feels the need to examine critically its own struggle, at moments it is violated and then again re-established” (On Democratic Centralism and the Regime, 1937). 

In the very relevant article What is party democracy?Trotsky sought to outlinethe basic tenets which revolutionaries ought to observe in order to achieve this balance: 

a. The strictest observance of the party statutes by the leading bodies (regular conventions, necessary period of discussion, right of the minority to express its opinions in the party meetings and in the press).

b. A patient, friendly, to a certain point pedagogical attitude on the part of the central committee and its members toward the rank and file, including the objectors and the discontented, because it is not a great merit to be satisfied “with anybody who is satisfied with me.” When Lenin asked for the expulsion of Ordzhonikidze from the party (1923), he said very correctly that the discontented party member has the right to be turbulent, but not a member of the central committee. Methods of psychological “terrorism,” including a haughty or sarcastic manner of answering or treating every objection, criticism, or doubt – it is, namely, this journalistic or “intellectualistic” manner which is insufferable to workers and condemns them to silence.

c. The solely formal object of the democratic rules as indicated under (a) and the solely negative measures—not to terrorize, not to ridicule—under (b) are not sufficient. The central committee as well as every local committee must be in permanent, active, and informal contact with the rank and file, especially when a new slogan or a new campaign is in preparation or when it is necessary to verify the results of an accomplished campaign. Not every member of the central committee is capable of such an informal contact, and not every member has the time for this or the occasion, which depends not only upon goodwill and a particular psychology but also upon the profession and the corresponding milieu. In the composition of the central committee, it is necessary to have not only good organizers and good speakers, writers, administrators, but also people closely connected with the rank and file, organically representative of them (Writings, 1936-37, pp. 476-77).

It is worth considering Trotsky’s three points. How do we measure up?

The party seeks to create an ultra-democratic internal life-more democratic than any bourgeois or indeed social-democratic party. Revolutionaries have also long recognised the need for resolute action when it necessary. Rapier like interventions, based on our understanding and analysis are often decisive, and cannot wait for the playing out of democratic discussions ad infinitum.

This is in contrast to periods in which we engage in prolonged discussion throughout the ranks of the Party in order to agree a major re-orientation, such as the move away from entrism to open work, or a significant re-drawing of our programme, as when we re-examined our position on the national in the mid-1990s question [a reference to a period of internal discussion in the Irish section of the CWI which lasted for several years]. In the latter case discussions began on the NEC [National Executive Committee], a first draft document was produced and discussed on the NC, and then a second entirely new draft was written. This was discussed at the NC [National Committee], at Regional Committees, and in the branches. The final document was debated at the national conference, voted upon, and agreed. It was then published in public form and became the underpinning of our work from that time until today.

Such resolute action depends on the party leadership, acting through the NEC in the first instance, and if time allows through the NC, taking decisions as necessary, sometimes in a matter of hours. Even when a decision is not required absolutely immediately, speed is often of the essence. It goes without saying that we are seldom in a position to wait for the convening of a delegate-based national conference to make decisions for the party. This is precisely why the party conference elects a NC to act as the highest democratic body in the party between conferences. In turn the NC elects the NEC to act with its authority between NC meetings. In all cases authority is in effect delegated. The NEC is answerable to the NC and the NC to the conference.

In Ireland we supplement our structures in a way which doesn’t map on to the structures of most sections. The fact that we work in two states, in different contexts, means we need strong regional structures. The RECs [Regional Executive Committees, one covering work in Northern Ireland and one covering work in the Republic of Ireland] in effect operate a devolved model of democratic centralism: whilst each REC is answerable to the NEC, in practice the regional structures operate pragmatically without referring all decisions upwards. 

The Importance of the Party Conference

All comrades should ask themselves whether the Party has abided by Trotsky’s advice with regards to “party statutes”. We adopted a new written constitution at the party conference in 1995 and we have not moved away from this in spirit or important detail (though a number of clauses are not followed to the letter, and often have never been, for sound, practical reasons).

There are significant deficits in how we have conducted the debates, however. Firstly, the conflation of the debates. Militant Group comrades have argued for the separation of the issues in contention internationally from those posed nationally, so far as this is possible to achieve. No-one is arguing that complete separation of the issues is possible but the conflation of what is in effect a series of inter-related debates is not the best way forward.  

Secondly, there has been disagreement on the method by which we inform the membership of the issues at stake in written material. Precisely because the crisis has presented new and unexpected problems, we have taken special measures to allow for a democratic debate, and to simultaneously protect the Party, agreed by the NC and NEC. The need to protect the Party has meant that the circulation of material has been restricted, and whilst all agree that we need to take care with security, there is disagreement as to how far this needs to go. In the recent period the question of the circulation of most material regularly in electronic form (with appropriate redactions) has been a point of contention.  

A third and more important point of contention is the view of the Militant Group that the process of decision-making at leadership level has been rushed and has been far in advance of the democratic decisions of the membership. This is the reason why many comrades feel a profound sense of dis-enfranchisement. And it is hardly heretical to suggest that the conference, the highest democratic body in the Party, should decide the direction of the Party at this time, and no decisions should be taken which pre-empt the decision of the conference. 

In the view of the Militant Group nothing should be assumed regarding the view of conference, arrived at after a democratically conducted debate, and no unnecessary steps should be taken on the basis of such assumptions before the conference. When we asked for a certain pause in decision-making at the NC on August 10th [2019] the conference was only five weeks away. We did not consider this an undue delay, nor did we consider a short delay posed any risk to the Party. That the idea of awaiting the outcome of the highest democratic body in the Party has caused consternation and even outrage is puzzling and of great concern.

It appears to be the case that many comrades are of the opposite view and are content that they have been given their say. If this is their view, genuinely held, we would ask, do you not wish to be consulted by the traditional method of the revolutionary party –a properly convened, delegate conference– or is another method of determining the future direction of the Party sufficient for you?  

There have been two national events which allowed all comrades to come together and hear an outline of the major points of contention in the debates. These events were open, and democratic, but insufficient. Only a partial airing of the views of the rank and file were possible. This is not just because there was not enough time for every comrade to have their say but also comrades came to the debates with only an outline understanding of what was under debate. No votes were taken. 

Similarly, the branch debates have been useful and illuminating, up to a point. But also similarly, no votes were taken. This is an absolutely fundamentally important point to make. We do not decide our programme or major strategic or tactical innovations by acclaim. The loudest voices are not the winners. We take a formal vote.

Trotsky was absolutely clear on this point: 

What is a discussion? It is the formal consideration by the party of the questions which stand before it on which there are differences. Can the party decide these matters without discussing them? It cannot. And if the party is not to decide these questions, who is to decide them for it? This is essentially what it all comes down to—whether someone can decide disputed questions for the party, in place of the party, and behind the back of the party (Challenge, 1926-27, p. 120) 

He argued for the involvement of all party members in important decisions not simply as an exercise in formal democracy, but as a method which raises the level of all comrades.

The level of a revolutionary organization rises all the faster, the more immediately it is brought into the discussion of all questions, the less the leaders try to think, act, and behave as guardians for the organization (Writings, 1932-33, p. 26).

What is the means by which the NEC majority have concluded that the will of the Party is decided on the international question? Presumably it is by a process of feedback resulting from many, many individual discussions, dozens of branch meetings, and the two national events. The discussions and meetings are certainly indicators of the final outcome, but only that because a) no votes were taken and b) one to one discussions and branch meetings are always of less importance then the careful and rounded-out consideration a conference brings to any major decision. Votes have been taken at dozens of NEC meetings and ten or more NC meetings in the last year, but this is not a means of determining the position of the membership as a whole. Unless the NEC majority consider this to be a form of Party referendum to decide the future direction of the Party? 

Trotsky had something to say on the question of a referendum to decide on crucial issues facing the revolutionary party. In October 1939 he responded to a call for a referendum to determine points under contention in the 1939-1940 faction fight in the US SWP in a short letter entitled “The Referendum and Democratic Centralism”:

…can we recognize the referendum as a normal method for deciding issues in our own party? It is not possible to answer this question except in the negative… Whoever is in favor of a referendum recognizes by this that a party decision is simply an arithmetical total of local decisions, every one of the locals being inevitably restricted by its own forces and by its limited experience (In Defence of Marxism).

The Question of the International: Continuity or Discontinuity

Concretely there was a difference of opinion over the question of international affiliation at the August 10th NC.  The NEC majority comrades, and their supporters were in favour of proceeding as if there was no issue as such and for the Irish IEC [International Executive Committee] members to attend the IEC the following week and fully participate. The Militant Group was not opposed to attendance at the IEC but asked for no participation in any rushed decision-making in advance of the September conference. The NEC majority were puzzled as to the reasons why the Militant Group asked for a pause now that the CWI split had actually occurred (as the IEC minority had “re-founded” the CWI at its July conference). 

Essentially, they posed three lines of argument to demonstrate the legitimacy of the August meeting and the idea that there was no need to pause and await the outcome of the conference. We summarise them as follows: the poor behaviour of the International Faction means it has surrendered all legitimacy; the organisational continuity of the CWI resides with the majority because it is the majority; the political charges put forward by the former International Faction are false and unproven and hence the IEC majority was the political continuation of the CWI. Each of these arguments has its merits and each has its weaknesses. 

Many comrades are outraged by certain actions of the former International Faction. In the eyes of a majority of sections they acted to draw the debates to a premature conclusion, and they did so in an undemocratic manner. There was no attempt to discuss the possibility of an amicable parting of the ways. If there had been a division of resources could have been agreed. Presumably the argument of the former International Faction is that all of its steps are defensible in the sense of revolutionary morality. Even if this line of argument is accepted it doesn’t sit well with most comrades that they have gone down this road. The accusations of bad behaviour go both ways. Ultimately however, the question of behaviour is secondary.

The question of who has the majority is of course important. In most organisations in society the majority in any split or division can with some legitimacy claim the inheritance of the organisation as a whole. Sometimes however the cleavage is such that neither side can realistically claim to be the one and only inheritor of the traditions of the past. There has now been a three-way split in the CWI. Four sections (Spain, Portugal, Mexico and Venezuela) departed in April. The former International Faction declared the “re-founding” of the CWI in July. And the largest grouping, the sections of the IEC majority met in August and claim the mantle of continuity. The former International Faction does not agree that it is in a minority, given that it has won the majority of the members in England and Wales. Whilst the question of who has the majority is important but is not the final determining factor.

The former International Faction justify their actions on the basis of politics. In their view the IEC majority have “ideologically collapsed”. This is a dramatic claim, and a dramatic claim is indeed necessary to justify the extraordinary measures they have taken. The answer to the assertions of the former International Faction must also be political. IEC majority comrades, including in Ireland, have sought to answer the charge sheet repeatedly both in writing and in verbal contributions. The IEC majority have counter-charged with its own criticisms of the former International Faction. The politics of the dispute are central to our final determination as to the way forward and will be at the centre of the conference debates. 

The conference will hear all of these points explained at more length, and many comrades will probably consider this a matter of listening to what are in effect closing arguments. This is not unreasonable. But it is possible that comrades may not be convinced that all relevant matters are settled, or simply wish to continue the process of clarification. The point is this: conference will decide. 

The Rights of Minorities

Unfortunately the conference itself will be marred by a major stepping away from our democratic traditions. The August 31st NC decided to deny the group of comrades in Ireland who support the political position of the former International Faction the right to equal time with the TTPF [Transform the Party Faction: this grouping split from the Socialist Party in Ireland just before the conference and is now known as RISE]  and the Militant Group [the group which published this document, and which no longer exists] in lead-offs at conference. The International Faction-connected group are awarded the right to attend conference as delegates, and to speak with extended time from the floor, but this is presented as some sort of a magnanimous gesture as opposed to what it is-a partial withdrawal of rights which is unprecedented in our section. 

Clearly at some point this group lost full faction rights but it is not clear when and why. Perhaps a line was crossed when two comrades from the group attended the July conference? If attendance in itself was not the problem, it isn’t clear what exactly it is. The question of the resources of the CWI has become very prominent in recent weeks. Is it the view of some comrades that the Irish group which is politically connected to the former International Faction are in some way complicit in indefensible acts and thereby forfeit certain rights?  

It isn’t clear just what the reason is. As comrades weigh up these arguments regarding the primary role of the Party conference in our democratic processes and the partial withdrawal of rights from one minority group, they should look to the lessons of the 1939-1940 faction fight in the US SWP. Trotsky argued at all points for maximum democracy and any steps which would act to create a premature split: 

Importantly, and not accidentally, Trotsky emphasised the responsibility of the majority for the intensity of the factional struggle: 

The fact that the conflict has flared up so prematurely and with such intensity, and that no one knows how to cool it down – that seems to me to be a negative symptom for the leadership” (Writings Supplement, 1929-33, p. 201).

On the other hand, in letters to the minority leader Shachtman, Trotsky emphasised the minority’s responsibility:

I would really like to implore you, as well as your friends, not to be so nervous, so impatient, to adopt a longer-range perspective and not for a moment to forget that we have an international organization that is not at all inclined to adopt a one-sided view and in whose eyes the ‘aggressor,’ the instigator, has much more to lose than to win” (Writings Supplement, 1929-33, p. 214).

To make a split more difficult, Trotsky suggested that the majority adopt a conciliatory attitude toward the minority at all times, by reaffirming the rights of minority factions. When the situation deteriorated, he went further and argued for extraordinary measures to prolong the discussion and even allow it to become public:

But I wish to speak here about another more important question. Some of the leaders of the opposition are preparing a split; whereby they represent the opposition in the future as a persecuted minority. It is very characteristic of their state of mind. I believe we must answer them approximately as follows:

“You are already afraid of our future repressions? We propose to you, mutual guarantees for the future minority, independently of who might be this minority, you or we. These guarantees could be formulated in four points: (1) No prohibition of factions; (2) No other restrictions on factional activity than those dictated by the necessity for common action; (3) The official publications must represent, of course, the line established by the new convention; (4) The future minority can have, if it wishes, an internal bulletin destined for party members, or a common discussion bulletin with the majority.”

…we are not bureaucrats at all. We don’t have immutable rules. We are dialecticians also in the organizational field. If we have in the party an important minority which is dissatisfied with the decisions of the convention, it is incomparably more preferable to legalize the discussion after the convention than to have a split.

We can go, if necessary, even further and propose to them to publish, under the supervision of the new National Committee, special discussion symposiums, not only for party members, but for the public in general. We should go as far as possible in this respect in order to disarm their at least prematurecomplaints and handicap them in provoking a split” (In Defence of Marxism, p. 101).

Even after the minority held its own national conference in February 1940, Trotsky continued to advise conciliation on the part of the majority: We must do everything in order to convince also the other sections that the Majority exhausted all the possibilities in favour of unity (In Defence of Marxism, p. 158).

This approach stands in sharp contrast to the approach of the NEC majority.   Comrades should also consider an example from our own history. Over many years we made the case that we were proud of the absence of factions in the international, explaining that it was a sign of a healthy internal life. We would point to the experience of dealing with what was a secret faction-in fact a secret International Marxist Group (IMG-affiliated to the Mandelite United Secretariat of the Fourth International) grouping-inside the British section of the CWI in 1973, to reinforce this point. The leader of this group was Ted Coxhead, a teacher who had gone full-time and was on the Central Committee and acted as the national treasurer. He and 20 co-thinkers had written a 100-page document which challenged the fundamental ideas of the party and were circulating it in secret. This became apparent to the leadership, but the national conference was about to take place and there was no time for a written reply. 

Nevertheless, the leadership printed the document and circulated it to all comrades (at a time when this required a lot more work and expense than today). The conference timetable was changed to allow a session for a debate and the grouping was given the same time as the EC [Executive Committee] to speak. Defeated in the debate the Coxhead group departed soon afterwards and printed their resignation letter in the IMG paper Red Mole, proving in effect that it had been operating as a secret IMG group all along. The comrades were aware of the Coxhead group’s IMG link throughout, but decided, correctly, to address the group’s political ideas, rather than to diminish its rights because of a formal break with the rules (See Alan Woods. Ted Grant The Permanent Revolutionary, 2013).     

To summarise, the issues facing the Party now should be decided on the political issues at hand, not on the basis of behaviour, nor on the basis of who has the majority. And the only place for major decisions is the Party conference, though it will not be possible to resolve all of the issues in dispute in two days in September. The conference ought to be conducted in the best traditions of the CWI by giving the International Faction-linked group equal rights with all other minority groups.       

Valuing Every Member

The diminution of the rights of the group linked to the International Faction is one side of a general tendency to disregard the views of some comrades (as already pointed to in an earlier document from the Militant Group). It is vitally important to see any problem in the revolutionary party from a range of perspectives-from the perspective of all comrades and all layers of the Party. Every member of the revolutionary party matters and we must value all of our members. As Trotsky explained we must 

“retain firmness on the political line, [while] exercising the greatest caution and mildness, the greatest possible tolerance and tactfulness in all personal conflicts and misunderstandings” (Writings, 1930-1931, p143). 

Trotsky was alert to the need to preserve the cadre assembled painstakingly in difficult times: 

Building the revolutionary party requires patience and hard work. At any price, the best should not be discouraged, and you should show yourselves capable of working with everyone. Each person is a lever to be fully utilized to strengthen the party. Lenin knew the art of doing that. After the liveliest, most polemical discussions, he knew how to find the words and the gestures that would soften unfortunate or offensive remarks. 

It is necessary to preserve, encourage, and watch over those bonds. An experienced worker member represents an inestimable capital for the organization. It takes years to educate a leader (Crisis of the French Section, p. 70).

He counselled “patience” in the party leadership:

It is absolutely necessary to have the confidence of the rank and file. I mentioned the most important condition of this confidence – a good policy. The policy must be prepared with the understanding of the rank and file. It occurs often that the leadership, which sees a situation very well and has a very correct decision, imposes on the organization some imperative action, pushed by impatience, because the leadership feels that if we now begin a discussion of one or two months, we will lose precious time. It may be a correct idea, but by gaining here a month I may lose a year, because the rank and file regards this change and speed with astonishment; and if success of the policy should be lacking, then the rank and file says, “The leadership was wrong; it bears the responsibility.” And thus, I lose a year to repair the results of my impatience.

For Trotsky, leadership in the party must reflect the collective experience of the party itself. The leadership is elected to carry out the administrative work of the party-it is “nothing but the executive mechanism of the collective will” (Challenge, 1923-25, p. 126) 

Trotsky points to the importance of building a leadership team. Thus, the responsibility of the leadership is to help the ranks by setting a tone in which decisions can be collectively made. A healthy leadership will

“…heed the voices of the broad party masses and must not consider every criticism a manifestation of factionalism and thereby cause conscientious and disciplined party members to withdraw into closed circles and fall into factionalism” (Challenge, 1923-25, p. 80).

Without a genuinely open leadership, the dynamic processes by which the party is welded together are transformed. In their place is the 

“…fragmentation of the party cadres, the removal from the party leadership of valuable elements representing a significant portion of its accumulated experience, and the systematic narrowing down and ideological impoverishment of the leadership core” (Challenge, 1926-27, p. 69).

It is vitally important that the leadership builds authority in order that it can lead when necessary. In the case of the Bolsheviks:

 “…the Bolshevik Central Committee could give orders. But subordination to the Committee was made possible thanks to its well-known absolute loyalty to the party’s rank and file, as well as the permanent disposition of the leadership to submit all relevant polemics to the consideration of the party. Finally, and most importantly, the Central Committee enjoyed a colossal theoretical and political authority, gradually won over the years, not by means of orders, not shouting, not through repression, but due to a correct political line, demonstrated in practice in great events and struggles” (The Crisis of the German Section, 1931).

The crisis has tested the authority of all comrades on all the leadership bodies in a way we have never seen before. The NC, NEC and RECs can only act decisively if they have built political authority over a period of time. Political authority isn’t a coat to be donned when membership of the relevant body is awarded. Once elected political authority must be renewed, and developed and built, for each individual comrade. Moreover, leadership bodies must accrue, and build, and re-build political authority. 

Trotsky was clear that authority must be earned:

If the leadership wants to gain authority (and it is duty-bound to want this) it must not proceed as if it already possesses unshatterable authority and must at first base itself as little as possible on its purely formal rights. The Executive must retain a quiet, friendly tone and show its utmost patience, especially towards its opponents. The Executive cannot gain any authority if it does not show in actuality to the entire organization its complete objectivity and conscientiousness in all sorts of conflicts and its concern about the organization as such. Only on this kind of authority, which cannot be achieved in one day, can organizational steps, disciplinary measures, etc., be based (Writings, 1930-31, p. 143).

Sometimes the political authority of a body wanes, goes into retreat. Obviously, the same applies to individual comrades in the leadership. It is thus worth considering by which means political authority is built, but also in what circumstances it dwindles. 

Authority derives first and foremost from politics. When a comrade demonstrates political understanding through individual discussions, contributions at meetings, the writing of material (leaflets, articles in the paper and the journal, on-line material) they may emerge as a potential candidate for a leading body. Understanding our ideas in isolation is insufficient in itself: a comrade must also demonstrate the ability to interpret our ideas, to translate the general method of Marxism into concrete slogans and meaningful interventions. 

Whilst it is imperative that we focus on the rights of the membership at this time, we are in no way ignoring the responsibilities of membership. The ability to accept criticism, and to self-criticise is essential for a revolutionary cadre. 

Trotsky argued that a cadre has a responsibility to check and to criticise the leadership:

A supporter of the theory of scientific communism does not take anything on word. He judges everything by reason and experience…. Bureaucratic and artificial discipline has crumbled to dust at the moment of danger. Revolutionary discipline does not exclude but demands the right of checking and criticism. Only in this way can an indestructible revolutionary army be created (Writings, 1932-33, p. 199).

However, the membership of a revolutionary party must also recognise the necessity of leadership, and whilst seeking to hold the leadership to account, do so in a responsible manner. Comrades have both the right and the duty to raise criticisms but should do so with a sense of proportion, and with a sense of discipline.

Trotsky believed that “it is necessary, of course, to fight against every individual mistake of the leadership, every injustice, and the like.” But he also cautioned: 

“The maturity of each member of the party expresses itself particularly in the fact that he does not demand from the party regime more than it can give…. It is necessary to assess these ‘injustices’ and ‘mistakes’ not by themselves but in connection with the general development of the party both on a national and international scale” (Writings, 1937-38, p. 90). 

On Trends, Tendencies and Factions

Does the existence of trends, tendencies and factions strengthen or weaken our democracy? The answer of course, is that it depends on the concrete circumstances. Historically we have made much of the lack of sharp differences and factional groups in the CWI but in retrospect would a more open approach in the late 1980s have helped to avoid the split of 1991-1992? Would a more open approach have helped to avoid the current crisis? We will never know now but we know for the certain that the opposite holds: the avoidance of factions did not prevent splits.    

Writing in an entirely different context Trotsky made the point that: 

If one does not want factions, there must be no permanent groups, if one does not want permanent groups, temporary groups must be avoided; naturally in order that there be no temporary groups, there must be no differences of opinion, for where there are two opinions, persons inevitably group themselves together” (Bureaucratism and Factional Groups, 1923).

This is not to mean that we should move to a situation of permanent or semi-permanent factions in a light-minded fashion. And it is also of course important to acknowledge that there are differences that cannot be contained in a revolutionary party united on a principled basis. 

What can we learn from the history of the Bolsheviks? Bolshevism has been described as a “mobile balance” between discussion, including the formation of trends, tendencies and factions, and a centralised, disciplined and organised party. A rigid and monolithic model is never appropriate for the revolutionary party. Even under conditions of illegality and severe repression the RSDLP always had room for competing trends, tendencies, factions and groups. It is remarkable how many forceful and independent thinkers existed within the RSDLP. Even after 1903, as the Bolsheviks crystallised their politics, largely in opposition to and district from the Mensheviks, the RSDLP continued as a single party. 

The aim of all comrades should be the preservation of the unity of the Party if this is possible.  It should not be assumed that debate ends in a split. Differences may be of a relative minor character and not justify a split or the continuing existence of factions. In these circumstances debate ends in principled agreement. If more serious differences are clarified it should be recognised that this does not necessarily mean that a split follows. 

The existence of trends of thought, or distinct tendencies, or factions, within a unified party is entirely within the traditions of Marxism and differences which emerge on analysis, on programme and on method can be tested over a period of time in action.  

Trotsky certainly saw the strength of such an approach: 

“Without temporary ideological groupings, the ideological life of the party is unthinkable. Nobody has yet discovered any other procedure. And those who have sought to discover it have only shown that their remedy was tantamount to strangling the ideological life of the party” (Third International After Lenin, p. 149).

And again: 

And, indeed how could a genuinely revolutionary organization, setting itself the task of overthrowing the world and uniting under its banner the most audacious iconoclasts, fighters and insurgents, live and develop without intellectual conflicts, without groupings and temporary factional formations? The farsightedness of the Bolshevik leadership often made it possible to soften conflicts and shorten the duration of the factional struggle, but no more than that. The Central Committee relied upon this seething democratic support. From this it derived the audacity to make decisions and give orders. The obvious correctness of the leadership at all critical stages gave it that high authority which is the priceless moral capital of centralism (The Revolution Betrayed).

We will best move forward on the basis of a “mobile balance” which, because of the present juncture bends towards democracy, and away from centralism.  This may be an unavoidable and necessary phase in the development of the Party in Ireland, and of the International.

Conclusions: The Need for Democratic Renewal

In summary, we believe that there significant, problems with the manner in which we have conducted the debate including: 

  • The membership has not been kept fully informed and fully involved.
  • The leadership has pre-empted the decisions of the national conference.
  • The rights of one minority group of comrades in particular have been denied (those who support the previous International Faction’s arguments).    

This matters in itself because a revolutionary party must be democratic to its core. It also matters (as we outlined in our earlier document) because if we do not fully involve the membership in the formulation of programme, decisions on strategy, and the setting of tactics, then we are departing from the traditions of the Party.    

The Party must facilitate the debates that continue to be necessary. We must clarify whether there are differences of either a programmatic character, or method, which would justify a split, or splits. 

It is important to re-state that this is in reality a series of debates, not one debate. It may be convenient for some in the NEC majority or IEC majority on the one side, or the IF majority on the other, to reduce this to a simple choice but this is in fact an undemocratic approach in itself. The membership has the right to hear all the issues aired and considered, and to take as long as is necessary to achieve this, and the conflation of issues does not assist in this.

In debates all comrades must be prepared to listen, to be open to comradely critical points, and to alter their positions when they are convinced it is correct to do so.

It remains the responsibility of not just the leadership but of all comrades to ensure an on-going series of debates conducted in a patient, measured and political tone. It is essential that we build on the firmest of foundations. A well-conducted democratic debate will assist in renewing our traditions. A rushed, pre-emptory process risks creating a precedent for bad methods. 

It is vitally important that debate continues in an atmosphere which is free of hostility, acrimony and misrepresentation of the motives and positions of others. It is an unfortunate fact that the debate has not been conducted in this manner up to this point. We must avoid an atmosphere of fault-finding, intolerance and heresy-hunting. 

There is no place in a revolutionary party for personal denigration. In particular, it is an unfortunate fact that the advent of social media has acted to coarsen the debate in the CWI. This criticism applies to many comrades, from all sides. That this is the case is not just a reflection of modern means of social interaction but is an insight into the internal life of the CWI. It suggests a breaking down of the discipline and sense of responsibility that previously was deeply embedded in the psychology of comrades.  This cannot solely be accounted for by the mushrooming of modern technology but must reflect an underlying political problem.

The debates will not be over by the evening of September 22nd. A continued debate means a debate that lasts as long as is necessary. Allowing for the possibility of the debate not ending at the September conference or in November, frees the debate. It will act to defuse and to calm. 

There are significant challenges ahead for the Party, not least contesting an imminent election in the South. If an election is called, or even when this seems to be close, we may need to again pause the debate. But this does not mean that we should rush now or call a halt rather than a pause. Trotsky pointed out the dangers of rushing a debate for “practical” reasons:  

The frequent practical objections, based on the “loss of time” in abiding by democratic methods, amount to short-sighted opportunism. The education and consolidation of the organization is a most important task. Neither time nor effort should be spared for its fulfilment. Moreover, party democracy, as the only conceivable guarantee against unprincipled conflicts and unmotivated splits, in the last analysis does not increase the overhead costs of development but reduces them. Only through the constant and conscientious adherence to the methods of democracy can the leadership undertake important steps on its own responsibility in truly emergency cases without provoking disorganization or dissatisfaction (Writings, 1932-33, pp. 57-8).

At last year’s conference we agreed to re-examine our democratic structures. The crisis has exposed the problems in the inner life of the Party like never before. We must use this opportunity to renew our democracy in order to renew the Party as a whole. The Party is at a crossroads, and the Militant Group believes that we can collectively overcome our problems and rebuild on the firmest foundations.  


Hadden, Peter. Troubled Times, Herald Book, 1995. 

Hadden, Peter. Towards Division Not Peace, Herald Books, 2002.

Lenin, Vladimir. Party Discipline and the Fight Against the Pro-Cadet Social Democrats, Collected Works, volume 11, 1965 [1906], pp230-231, Progress.

Trotsky, Leon. The Challenge of the Left Opposition, 1923-25. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975.

Trotsky, Leon. The Challenge of the Left Opposition, 1926-27. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1980.

Trotsky, Leon. The Challenge of the Left Opposition, 1928-29. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1981.

Trotsky, Leon. The Crisis of the French Section, 1935-36. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977.

Trotsky, Leon. In Defence of Marxism. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970.

Trotsky, Leon. 1905. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.

Trotsky, Leon. The Revolution Betrayed. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970.

Trotsky, Leon. The Spanish Revolution, 1931-39. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973.

Trotsky, Leon. The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971.

Trotsky, Leon. The Third International After Lenin. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970.

Trotsky, Leon. Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1929-40, 14 volumes, including supplements. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973-79.

Trotsky, Leon. On Democratic Centralism and the Regime, 1937. Writings, 1937-38, p. 90)

Woods, Alan. Ted Grant The Permanent Revolutionary. The Man, His Life and Ideas. Well Red Books, 2013. 

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