From the vaults: “Democracy in the International Socialists”, 1975

An old document from the IS Internal Bulletin, republished here for its historical interest, but also because it has some current relevance.

That full internal democracy is an absolute practical necessity for the effective functioning of IS is agreed, at least in theory, by everyone in the group. Without democracy the leadership cannot produce correct policies, or speedily rectify false ones, and without democracy the membership cannot develop politic ally. All this is ABC and is included in every statement IS has made on the nature of the revolutionary party.

And yet, despite this general agreement, democracy, or lack of it, has for some time been a nagging and unresolved problem in IS. Many members have come to resent, albeit often with resignation, what seems to be the high-handed and undemocratic way in which certain important decisions are taken. As our intervention in the class struggle becomes more serious, and as problems of security necessitate an increase in the element of trust in internal affairs, this is a state of affairs we can less and less afford. It is a recipe for disunity, bitterness and splits. This article is an attempt to examine the causes of this situation and suggest a possible remedy.

There are two opposite but equally misconceived views on this problem which are commonly put forward in IS. One is that the group is ruled by a malevolent bureaucracy intent on disregarding the membership. The other is that the only people worried about democracy are petty bourgeois malcontents. To make any progress it is necessary to dispense with these stereotypes and recognise that IS does not possess anything that can meaningfully be calIed a bureaucracy, but that there is legitimate cause for concern about the relationship between the membership and the centre. What, then, is the root of the problem?

Organisational forms, the size and mode of election of leading committees etc, may have something to do with it (in this respect I support the move to a directly elected central committee). But the crucial factor I believe is the lack of an established tradition of organised political debate at all levels of the organiation. The branches discuss politics and debate issues, of course, but not in a way that systematically relates to the central strategic concerns of the group and so can con­ tribute to the taking of important decisions. They cannot do this because they are not sufficiently informed on the strategic plans of the leadership or, more importantly, on the reasoning behind differences within the leadership.

It is worthwhile digressing somewhat to consider how this state of affairs has arisen. In the late sixties IS was a very loose and almost ultra-democratic organisation. Because of this and because we had established ourselves as the dominant force on the revolutionary left, IS became the object of ‘entry work’ by small groups of sectarians who in no way shared our politics but who thought we offered fertile ground for their operations. The first of these groups, Workers Fight, was tolerated as virtually a separate organisation within IS for three years, during which time they contributed little except permanent disruption. When we finally did part company with them it was in the most democratic manner possible through the holding of a special conference on the issue. The second group was the Right Faction (some of whom later formed the Revolutionary Communist Group) operated secretly, refusing even to constitute themselves as an open faction. The Right Faction were finally expelled after they had been overwhelmingly defeated on every point at the 1973 conference. In the meantime, however, they had succeeded in filling numerous issues of the Internal bulletin with unbelievably obscure articles on Marxist economics and in wrecking several branches.

At a time when IS was trying hard to turn itself into a working class organisation these episodes constituted a serious diversion and waste of time but they also had other con­ sequences for the way in which we conducted our internal affairs. Because any sign of disagreement among the leadership was immediately pounced on by the permanent oppositionists in the hopes of producing a split, the leadership developed the habit of keeping their differ­ences to themselves. Then after the 1973 conference it was decided that we had wasted enough time on internal debate and that now was the time to go out and build. For a while this worked well but gradually problems accumulated, and unfortunately the leadership’s habit of keeping their differences within a restricted circle persisted. The result was that issues (most notably the dispute about Socialist Worker) would fester in and around Cottons Gardens and then burst over the heads of an unsuspecting membership.

For some time we have ‘had a situation in which the membership learns of differences in strategy and approach among the NC only through vague rumour and in which open debate takes place only after crucial decisions have been taken. Branches are presented with a fait accompli and can only protest impotently. How can this state of affairs be remedied without turning the organisation into an academic talking shop?

Basically, I believe it is necessary to develop a tradition of organised political debate, not about everything under the sun or about long settled questions, but the central question of strategy, tactics and organisation which face the group. The initiative for this must come from the top. Where important differences of approach exist or come into being on whatever leading bodies we decide to have they must be articulated and presented to the membership. In this way, branches, districts, aggregates, etc will be able to participate in the crucial debates concerning the future of IS and the final decision by the NC, EC or Conference will mark the conclusion of a democratic discussion rather than the starting point of a bitter wrangle.

The implementation of this policy requires the regular production of the Internal Bulletin. In the past the IB was run on a laissez faire basis and became a forum for grousers and ardent factionalists. More recently it has been a one-sided information sheet from the Centre.  In the future it must be neither. It must be seriously edited and directed so that it focuses on important issues, and debates them in a constructive way. Leading comrades who are dissidents on some question or who wish to propose a new departure must discipline themselves to articulate their views to the group as a whole. This imposes added burdens on our already overworked leading cadre but would bring considerable benefits to the overall functioning of the organisation and the feeling of uncertainty and ignorance that pervades most of the membership about what is going on at the Centre.

A resolution to this effect will I hope be discussed and passed at the coming Conference.

John Molyneux, Portsmouth IS, 1975



Filed under Left Politics

4 responses to “From the vaults: “Democracy in the International Socialists”, 1975

  1. Nick

    How the seeds are sown. For sure, there are glaring contrasts with today, but even then, the nascent formalism and bureaucratism is evident. It was OK to expel the Workers’ Fight faction, as it was done “after a conference”. Sounds eerily familiar.

    • Geoff Collier

      Nick – 42 years later, it’s worth noting that Matganma has led his clique out of the Socialist Labour League and through the Militant, International Socialists, Workers Power, Workers Socialist League, Labour Briefing etc and fallen out with more people pro rata than anyone else, possibly. Compare yourself to that inveterate factionalist if you desire to. But remember, Workers Fight joined IS believing it to be centrist and left it believing the same

  2. David Ellis

    Basically the dominant faction in a Marxist party should never expel its opponents but drive them out with political argument and exemplary methodology. Even the anti-Marxist, pro-imperialist centrist Schachtman faction was indulged by Trostky in the US SWP for years before it buggered off without getting any change. Of course, if an anti-Marxist faction wins the day the Marxists must walk out and form a new outfit. Trouble is, post-War the anti-Marxist faction won the day across the board but due to weak opposition were able to hide their anti-Marxism with Marxist verbiage as in the official Stalinist parties leaving nowhere for genuine Marxists to go.