(The Right to) Tendencies, or the Right to Set Up Organized Groups Within the Party (1982)

Leonardo Cremonini, Vegetazione invadente (1960-1961)

Editorial Introduction: One of Balibar’s numerous entries for the Dictionnaire critique du marxisme project, the following piece traces the historical definitions, practices, and debates that have marked the debate around the “right to tendencies,” or factions, within communist parties and organizations. In reviewing the major flashpoints where the significance of factional activity in communist politics solidified, and how banning internal tendencies in the party became integral to the overall conception of democratic centralism and party discipline in the international workers’ movement from the Left Opposition on, Balibar indicates how the role and operation of the party-form qua revolutionary political instrument should be reconsidered in light of the actual social terrain.

Despite the scrupulous intellectual-historical work on display here, there was a personal element for Balibar to this controversy. Until his expulsion from the French Communist Party in March 1981 for his critique of party policies towards immigrant struggles, Balibar had been involved in the remarkable flowering of quasi-factional activity in the PCF during and after the prolonged dissolution of the Union of the Left in 1977-78.1 A wide array of rank-and-file militants, alongside a substantial bloc of intellectuals, undertook a collective refusal of the strategic twists-and-turns of party leadership, which they saw as giving up any real chance for the PCF to exert effective hegemony among the broader left and reach new class layers and social subjects. Balibar played a role in setting the agenda and articulating the demands of dissenting forces.

In December 1978, Balibar gave an extraordinary intervention at the “Vitry meeting,” where over 400 “intellectuals” openly presented grievances and engaged in public debate with the political bureau of the PCF. He drew out the implications of the party’s impoverished notion of “ideological struggle” and made a strong case for the autonomy of theoretical work and research of party members. The unbalanced, even incompatible, relationship between internal practices of democratic centralism and the development of Marxist theory did not allow space for adjustment in light of unforeseen contradictions or an actual analysis of social classes and forms of class struggle. In the absence of an organic, productive relationship between the two sides, which he saw as a component to the crisis of the party-form and thus the crisis of Marxism, the imperative to avoid opportunism in justifying a political tactic with reference to theoretical constructions would be ignored. In Balibar’s eyes, this tendency had important stakes for the immediate strategic direction of the party: “Reflecting on this problem means not only arming ourselves with the means to correct the Stalinist deviation, but above all to go beyond this correction – since history does not begin again – towards forms of organization of the workers’ movement or the ‘revolutionary party’ which truly never existed hitherto.2

Balibar would come to associate with a leading group of contestaire intellectuals, “Union dans les luttes” [unity in struggles], which advocated tangible solidarity across different left political and syndical formations as was glimpsed in the Union of the Left years, and could thus counteract the prescribed sectarian policies which would divide constituent apparatuses. Performing their own concrete analysis of the social terrain, the group released a searing indictment of the PCF’s self-sabotaging political strategy following the 23rd Party Congress in 1979, titled Ouvrons la fenêtre, camarades! [Open the Window, Comrades!], and which touched upon questions of nationalism, transformations in French imperialism, and party slogans and militant practices. Through this experience leading up to his expulsion from the PCF in 1981, Balibar developed a strong critique of the merger between “theoretical” and “strategic” functions which had marked most far-left party formations. In this, a transitional period of his work, Balibar pushed for a decentered conception of the party as a constellation of diverse, even autonomous, practices, which can be glimpsed in the conclusion below: as the “collective analyzer of and experimenter with the social movement in which it is located.”


I. The question of the “right to tendencies” has ceased to appear as a conjunctural question and become a “question of principle,” around which the formalizations and controversies bearing on the historical function and organizational methods of the Marxist revolutionary party have crystallized, in a relatively belated manner. Several critical dates are important here.

In 1921, at the moment when the Soviet Union transitioned from “war communism” to the NEP – in the midst of the extreme tension generated by foreign intervention, civil war, peasant resistance, economic scarcity, and the aftermath of the Kronstadt rebellion – the 10th Party Congress adopted a resolution on “party unity” that specifically condemned the “Workers’ Opposition” ([Alexandra] Kollontai, [Alexander] Shlyapnikov) and banned the organization of autonomous “factions” within the party. The decision of the 10th Congress was explicitly introduced as an inevitable, provisional “repressive” measure in a conjuncture of crisis where the intensity of internal party conflicts threatened the very existence of the Soviet state. On the other hand, it was accompanied by precautions and correctives, seeking to develop the contradictory discussion and diverse political positions within the party, especially in the grassroots organs, and through the creation of an Internal Bulletin. Clearly, Lenin’s aim, and that of the majority, was not to suppress all disagreements but to allow for their resolution through an open dialectic. And it certainly was not a question of preventing the party congress from examining different platforms, or disbarring several currents from access to the leading organs, either. Lenin opposed [David] Riazanov’s maximalist proposal on this specific point.

However, the practice of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union increasingly tended to transform this provisional measure into a permanent [définitif] one, providing it with a theoretical justification and de facto suppressing debates between tendencies under the guise of the ban on factions. This procedure went hand-in-hand with the progressive statification [etatisation] of the party (against which Lenin desperately sought out remedies against in his last texts). But it was also indirectly determined by the evolution of the relationships between the Soviet party and communist parties in the rest of the world. On one side, the struggles between tendencies within the Bolshevik party had repercussions on the French, German, and Italian parties (in a 1926 letter sent to the Russian communist party in the name of the Italian party, but intercepted by Togliatti, Gramsci will try in vain to signal this danger). On the other hand, the need to establish the Bolshevik party as the “center” or “guide” of a multinational system imposed an institutional monolithism in practice when confronted with the complete unpredictability of history and the inevitable, ongoing thread of national “particularisms.”

All this was already contained in embryo in the “21 conditions” of admission to the Communist International. But the Third Comintern Congress, intervening soon after the 10th Party Congress, incorporates the expression democratic centralism in its theses on the “The Organisational Structure of the Communist Parties, the Methods and Content of Their Work,” which had been the initial watchword of the “Workers’ Opposition.” Distinguishing an authoritarian, “formal or mechanical” centralization from an “organic,” “flexible” centralization, the theses set out the task for communist parties to overcome the divide [coupure] between leaders and rank-and-file militants, which is called the “same division which existed in the organization of the bourgeois state: the division between the ‘bureaucracy’ and the ‘people.’”

But the power struggle between Stalin and Trotsky would mark an irreversible turning point. In The New Course, Trotsky had denounced the bureaucratization of the party and state as the chief danger of the revolution. He thus articulated the problem as a real contradiction:

If factions are not wanted, there must not be any permanent groupings; if permanent groupings are not wanted, temporary groupings must be avoided; finally, in order that there be no temporary groupings, there must be no differences of opinion, for wherever there are two opinions, people inevitably group together. But how, on the other hand, to avoid differences of opinion in a party of half a million men which is leading the country in exceptionally complicated and painful conditions? That is the essential contradiction residing in the very situation of the party of the proletarian dictatorship[.]

But the de facto solution still begged the question [à une pétition de principe]:

It is in contradictions and differences of opinion that the working out of the party’s public opinion inevitably takes place…It is incontestable that factions are a scourge in the present situation, and that groupings, even if temporary, may be transformed into factions. But as experience shows, it is not at all enough to declare that groupings and factions are an evil for their appearance to be prevented. What is needed to bring this about is a certain policy, a correct course adapted to the real situation.3

On his part, Stalin advanced a much more rigorous theory of the party, exploiting Lenin’s reflections on the historical conditions which had allowed Bolshevism to realize the “strictest discipline and iron discipline” by linking itself with the masses, who have proved “by their own experience” the correctness of its political leadership. In The Foundations of Leninism (1924), he defined the party as the “general staff” of the proletariat,” or the “organized detachment of the working class,” its “organizing core,” and thus the center around which other class organizations (trade unions, cooperatives) gravitate as “transmission belts.” If the auxiliary bodies can and must maintain a certain pluralism corresponding to the unequal development of class consciousness, the inverse is the case for the party. The latter constitutes “a single whole,” possessing “higher and lower leading bodies, with the subordination of the minority to the majority.” Above all, “iron discipline in the Party is inconceivable without unity of will, without complete and absolute unity of action on the part of all members of the Party.” But “the existence of factions leads to the existence of a number of centres, and the existence of a number of centers means the absence of one common centre in the Party, the breaking up of unity of will[.]” Taking one step further, Stalin identifies the source of “factionalism” not in the inevitable/unavoidable contradictions of revolutionary practice, but in the presence of “opportunist elements” in the party, coming from the “petty-bourgeois” margins of the proletariat (“The proletariat is not an isolated class”). Whence the necessity for an ongoing purging of the party, a fundamental task for its leadership:

Therefore, ruthless struggle against such elements, their expulsion from the Party, is a prerequisite for the successful struggle against imperialism. The theory of “defeating” opportunist elements by ideological struggle within the Party, the theory of “overcoming” these elements within the confines of a single party, is a rotten and dangerous theory, which threatens to condemn the Party to paralysis and chronic infirmity…

Stalin’s counterexample is liberalism, that is, the “freedom of factions,” as characteristic of the reformist/opportunist parties of the Second International (social-democracy).

We might also consider that at the Sixth Comintern Congress (1928), the monolithic conception of the party is fully theorized, the rejection of the right to tendencies being its centerpiece, and that the corresponding practice is solidified [passer dans les faits]. It meant the virtual siloing of rigorous discussion within the party, passive obedience to the leadership of an apparatus formally designated from below, but which is in fact selected and periodically purged from the top, the impossibility of presenting oppositional arguments in the party press and publications, the limiting of congresses to the discussion of a single platform proposed by the general secretariat (at most, being open to amendments) and before long, the institutionalization of unanimity in congress and central committee deliberations. In turn, the Party becomes the “besieged fortress.”

II. The question of knowing to what extent Stalinist monolithism is a logical outcome of Marx and Lenin’s theoretical outlooks concerning the organic relationship of “class” to “party,” or to the “vanguard party,” is still an open debate.

There is no doubt that among the Marxist classics, the definition of the revolutionary party is tied to the search for class unity at the level of strategy, tactics of struggle, and theory (even “worldview”). On the other hand, both Marx and Lenin continuously encountered, as an unavoidable question, the persistence of divisions within the working class, sustained at once by the plurality of its ideological traditions, differences in conditions of life and work, and the complexity of the relationship between the working class and bourgeois state. The Marxist conception of the party was formed in the struggle against competing socialist “sects,” against the “factional work” of the Bakuninists in the First International, and the dirigisme of the Lassalleans. In the same period, French anarcho-syndicalism opposed, at least verbally, the autonomy of workers’ struggles to the “intellectualism” of the different parliamentary socialist tendencies. For his part, Lenin only advanced a centralist conception of a party of “professional revolutionaries” in What is to Be Done? in order to “bend the stick in the opposite direction” from economistic spontaneism, and within the specific conditions of the clandestine struggle. He soon recognized the “summary” character of his formulations, and maintained in practice, until his the final reflections of his “last struggle,” a difficult equilibrium between the struggle of tendencies, mass democracy, and centralism necessary for political initiative.4

Rosa Luxemburg, in a 1904 text (Organizational Questions of Russian Social-Democracy), criticized the confusion of two antithetical notions of “discipline” in What is to Be Done?: the “barrack” discipline [discipline de caserne] inculcated in the workers through the factory and the bourgeois state, and the “self-discipline” which arises “spontaneously” through the historical development of class consciousness and the raising of the cultural level of the proletariat. Later on, she will affirm that the elimination of the political pluralism of parliamentary democracy can only bring about, within the proletariat itself, ideological ossification and the gradual decline of workers’ democracy. It must be noted that these criticisms are rooted in a pedagogical optimism, itself tied to her stagist conception of capitalism, and can only be seen today as begging the question.

In the history of communist parties, the question of the “right to tendencies” has come to crystallize, in an often scholastic fashion, the fundamental aspect of debates over organizational forms. This “right” has been demanded by various oppositions, sometimes internal, sometimes external, especially since it has been stubbornly refused and what reigned in practice was an amalgam of contradictory debate, conflicts of tendency or strategic lines, the organization of factions, and the threat of splits. Trotskyism in particular has made it a favorite topic [cheval de bataille] in its denunciation of Stalinism. But it has functioned to confine the question of “proletarian democracy” to exclusively juridical terms. On the other hand, communist leaderships have come to define “democratic centralism” first and foremost by this negation of tendencies, in which one sought the fundamental difference between the “revolutionary party” and “social democracy,” at the precise moment when the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat was abandoned for the “democratic roads to the transition to socialism” (deriving or not deriving from “Eurocommunism”). An interrogation of the historical link between the two concepts, and thus the link between the theory of the party and the theory of the state, has been avoided as a consequence. A good recent illustration of the confusions that subsequently arose is provided by the Spanish Communist Party’s Tenth Congress (1981) – even if it has the advantage of greater publicity over PCF debates: the majority tendency (that of the secretary general) ultimately rejected proposals demanding the “right to tendencies” put forth by the Eurocommunist “renovador” tendency, while offering it “fair representation” in the leading bodies” before expelling the same tendency several months later.

But the debate has held a much narrower significance for the communist parties in power in the socialist countries, where it interfered with shake-ups in the political régime itself. One can look to the Chinese Communist Party’s notion of “two-line struggle,” periodically repeated, as a compromise ideological formulation between the Stalinist conception of purging and the Maoist idea of a revolutionary process continued contradictorily within the party itself. These contradictions have taken an extreme form in the recent Polish crisis. Following the working class struggles and mass movement which took shape around the free trade union Solidarity, the (extraordinary) Ninth Congress of the Polish United Workers’ Party seemed to be an extension of the “secret” 14th Congress of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (held during the 1968 Soviet invasion). Political orientations came into open view, ultimately leading to opposing conceptions of socialism. Or better: the practice of “horizontal” discussions between militants was de facto imposed, to the point of locally inverting the relationship between the rank-and-file and the leadership in the designation of delegates. But this development was in the end blocked, which doubtless aided in destroying the possibilities for a democratic outcome to the political crisis, and thus laid the conditions for the military coup of December 1981.

III. The question thus raised calls for several supplemental remarks:

1. It’s not historically accurate to say that the acknowledgement or refusal of a “right to tendencies” constitutes, either in theory or practice, a distinguishing factor between communist parties and socialist parties or social democrats. The statutes of German social democracy in the time of Kautsky, Luxemburg, and Bernstein, which was typically (like Russian social democracy) a “party of tendencies,” certainly implied the contradictory discussion of multiple programs or strategic projects. But, in our time, some social democratic parties (like the Swedish SP) range among the most centralized within the workers’ movement. Moreover, significant historical variations can be observed. The French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO), in the period of Guy Mollet, a member of Guesdist tradition and who saw himself as an “orthodox’ Marxist, went forward with eliminating tendencies organized around a journal or internal bulletins, and expelled opponents. These tendencies, with their “historical leaders,” are now institutionalized in the current Socialist Party. The Italian Socialist Party has followed an analogous trajectory. But this does not impede certain socialist militants today from taking up analyses which show how the “right to tendencies” enables a break between a leading élite, among whom political deals are brokered [dans laquelle s’effectuent les arbitrages politiques] and a militant rank-and-file that is socially and intellectually dominated.

2. As the very formulation suggestions, the issue of the “right to tendencies” remains fundamentally juridical. It refers in the first instance to the drafting and applications of statutes. This usefully draws attention to the fact that a party apparatus, and more generally a militant organization, also represents an institutional reality inserted in a political and social space in which the law regulates the ensemble of collective behaviors. But there is an inevitable gap between law and practice. Excluded from the internal law of communist parties, which drove the fear of a “party within the party,” tendencies have not ceased to exist in their practice under hidden forms, as a cause or effect of the shifts in line which dot their history. They have led to spectacular “affairs” (Marty-Tillon, Servin-Casanova in the PCF) to condemnations or expulsions, which could then moreover be deployed to reinforce the formal unity of the organization. In Italy, since Togliatti has defined the PCI as a “new party: a national party, a party of government, a mass, popular party,” tendencies have increasingly become a semi-official fact, which confers onto militants an individual freedom of public expression not known elsewhere. But this did not prevent the expulsion of the “leftist” il Manifesto group in 1969. And the crisis of the “Historic Compromise” strategy threatens to break this fragile equilibrium. More often in the most recent period, tendencies have settled their conflicts through secret compromises within the “collective leadership.” They have also continued to arise – especially in moments of historical defeat – at an “infrapolitical” level, on corporatist bases (the “syndicalist” or “municipal” tendency in the PCF). Above all, it should be noted that the official contempt towards tendencies and factions has its direct counterpart in the increase in “factional practices” among leaderships, either in the control of their own apparatus, or in their relationship to “mass organizations” and “mass movements,” which gravitate around the party or encounter it on the political terrain.

3. The question cannot be analyzed or treated within the closed space of the party (precisely where Stalinist practices have tended to confine political debate). The question also arises, in a slightly different way, in the trade unions – some of which have institutionalized the right to tendencies (in France, the FEN), while others have banned it (the CGT, CFDT). It is raised especially, however, in the relation between these different types of organizations that make up the workers’ movement. Thus, the contradictory situation of French communism today is well illustrated by the fact the PCF supports [entretenir] (with others) the formation of tendencies in the FEN (where it is in the minority), whereas it rejects the very same principle in the CGT (which it controls). At the same time, following the failure of the strategy it pursued from 1974-1978 within the “Union of the Left,” one might recall, without paradox, that the PCF tended to operate in practice as a “fifth tendency,” external and unexpected, to the PS in power, constantly caught in the dilemma of alignment or rupture. This effectively shows that the core of the issue is not situated at the level of organizational methods, but at the level of the social and political conditions of working-class unity, or more broadly the potentially anti-capitalist “popular forces.” Whence the interest of experiences – even those strained by obstacles and regressions – like that of trade union unity in Italy between 1970 and 1980, which organically linked the different unions (of communist, socialist, or Christian “tendencies”) in a coherent strategy [stratégie unique] on the basis of their participation the most advanced forms of class struggle (factory committees). The 40th Congress of the French CGT (1978) seemed to be a moment to engage a similar path. We might cautiously suggest that the transformation of practices of “democratic centralism” within the communist parties, or of the “right to tendencies” in the socialist parties, is more likely to come about [provenir] from such a development of mass practices than from the statutory decisions of their leaderships.

4. It is striking that, when viewed from the lens of the “right to tendencies,” the problem of revolutionary organization appears not only negatively, but as a problem of the negation or reaction to a negative process: it is either a matter of limiting harmful effects, or of staving off the risk of methods running counter to the pursued end in advance. But the underlying [sous-jacent] positive problem is definitely real. From Marx to Lenin, Luxemburg, Gramsci, and contemporary “critical communists,” a similar exigency persists, which emerges from class struggles themselves: to find [trouver] an original practice of politics that is not less but more effectively “democratic” than that embodied by the pluralism of the representative institutions of the bourgeois state itself; to make the revolutionary party at the same time the means to take power and to exercise it in a new fashion; therefore to progressively overcome the “division of intellectual and manual labor,” the opposition between “those who govern and those who are governed,” within the party’s ranks; to base on this other practice of politics the possibility of unifying different forms of struggle against exploitation and social oppressions; to define a “mass line” capable of both adapting to the reversals [retournements] of the conjuncture and correcting opportunist “deviations”…Squaring of the circle? No, unless one considers the forms of “governability” and “sociability” tied to class domination to be unchangeable.

The conundrum [casse-tete] of “tendencies” appears to be historically linked to a mechanistic understanding of strategic line and theoretical orthodoxy. Once we manage to avoid identifying a “political center” and “theoretical” center in advance, from identifying the elaboration of a strategy with the application of a pre-established vision to the course of history; in short, as soon as an organization can begin to function not only as a “general staff” but as a collective analyzer of and experimenter with the social movement in which it is located – presupposing favorable historical conditions, of course – it might be possible to overcome the dilemmas of “democratic centralism” and the “right to tendencies.” Due to the intensity of the crisis the party-form is facing in the workers’ movement today, this might be one of the stakes of the coming period.

– Translated by Patrick King

This text first appeared as the entry for “(Droit de) Tendances,” in the Dictionnaire critique du marxisme, ed. Gérard Bensussan and Georges Labica (Paris: PUF, 1982), 1133-40. The bibliography below was included in the original text. English-language versions have been substituted where available

Bibliography

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This article is part of a dossier entitled “The Crisis of Marxism.”

References   [ + ]

1. For a fascinating, on-the-ground account of the conflicting currents in the PCF at this time, see Jane Jenson and George Ross, The View from Within: A French Communist Cell in Crisis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
2. See Etienne Balibar, “Sur la lutte idéologique et le travail théorique,” in Ouverture d’une discussion? Dix interventions à la rencontre des 400 intellectuels à Vitry (Paris: Maspero, 1979), 97-111.
3. Leon Trotsky, The New Course (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966), chapter 3, “Groups and Factional Formations.”
4. See V.I.Lenin, “Preface to the Collection Twelve Years,” in Collected Works, Volume 13 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), 94-113.

Author of the article

is a French philosopher and currently Anniversary Chair of Contemporary European Philosophy at Kingston University London and Visiting Professor at Columbia University.