How did Communist parties handle issues of internal discipline and democracy in Lenin’s time? An intense discussion now under way within the British Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) raises issues related to the nature of internal democracy in the Communist International (Comintern) during 1919–23, the period of its first four congresses.
Like most Marxist groups today, the British SWP looks to the Bolshevik Party under Lenin as a guiding example of revolutionary party-building, and much of the discussion deals with this comparison. However, in seeking a model for a revolutionary party, it is also worth looking at the Communist parties in Lenin’s time outside Russia, which functioned in circumstances much closer to what we face today than those of tsarist Russia.
In the course of editing and translating into English several books of documents on Communist history in Lenin’s time, I have studied debates among Communist party delegates at many international events. Here is my reading of what this record tells us regarding Comintern organisational norms.
Four issues of internal democracy in the current British discussion suggest comparisons with the Comintern record.
- Factions and tendencies: There was no ban on factions in the Comintern. During its early years, its major parties were factionally divided most of the time.
- Discussions:Disagreements within Communist parties were routinely argued out before the working class in the parties’ publications.
- Executive unity: Members of the Comintern executive and its Small Bureau in Moscow frequently carried their disagreements to world congresses, as did members of national leaderships.
- Leadership: Leaderships in the Comintern and its parties were elected, and where slates were presented, these were subject to amendment.
A comment is in order on each of these points.
Factions: In the Bolshevik-Comintern tradition, factions were temporary formations, constituted around immediate issues. When an issue was resolved, factions that had been formed around it normally dispersed. For example, during the third Comintern congress in 1921, two factions in the German party, which seemed on the point of split, came together around a common political statement. Part of their agreement was that the factions would dissolve. They did so, but new factions quickly formed – around new issues and with new alignments.
Discussion: The Comintern took for granted that internal discussion should be shared with workers outside the party by conducting it in party newspapers. Sometimes, Communist publications presented a minority point of view; a prominent example was Kommunismus, the ultra-left organ published 1920- 21. Especially following the expulsion of German Marxist Paul Levi in 1921, the Comintern frowned on factional publications outside party control. However, each party had a great many publications, each with its own editorial structure, and this encouraged a diversity of opinions.
Executive unity: In the Third World Congress (1921), the conflict between ultra-leftist and united front-oriented currents in Germany and other central European countries divided the Bolshevik leaders and the Comintern executive’s Small Bureau. In the end, the congress managed to adopt resolutions by general agreement, but conflict continued to the end of the congress and after.
Leadership: Initially, members of the Comintern executive were delegated by its national parties. In 1922, for the first time, members of the executive were elected by the congress as a whole. A nomination commission, made up of delegates chosen by the various parties, recommended a slate of candidates. When it was presented to the congress, amendments to change the slate’s composition were made and voted on. Election procedures in the parties varied, and candidates were often proposed collectively in slates. As far as I can see, such slates were always subject to amendment and approval by vote by convention delegates.