Tony Cliff on Party Democracy


Prompted by Brian Roper, I repost below Tony Cliff’s considered thoughts on Party and Democracy; a concise section which itself summarises the first volume of his biography of Lenin. There are some among my comrades who would take the last two sentences and skip over everything else which Cliff says. But I prefer to read this passage as a totality, including his emphases on self-criticism within an organisation, on the correction of mistakes, on open debate without resource to administrative (i.e. bureaucratic) measures to silence party critics, and above all on taking party debates to the widest circles of people, far beyond the boundaries of the party itself. For Cliff, moreover, there was no limit on the times when open debate were necessary. Whether conditions were good and the party was in open warfare with the state (“a period of direct revolutionary struggle”) or whether conditions were hostile and ideas were moving rapidly to the right, for a party to survive, its discussions must be open.

The Party as a School of Strategy and Tactics

Questions of revolutionary strategy and tactics held a meaning for Lenin only if the possibility of implementing them, through the revolutionary party, was a real one. He saw the party as a school for strategy and tactics, a combat organisation for the conquest of power by the working class.

How can the revolutionary leadership learn from the masses and know what they think and feel, unless it forms an integral part of these masses, listening to them at their workplaces, in the streets, in their homes, in their eating places? To teach the masses, the leadership must learn from them. This Lenin believed and practised all his life.

The party must not lag behind the advanced section of the class. But it must not be so far ahead as to be out of reach. It must stand at its head and be rooted in it:

To be successful, all serious revolutionary work requires that the idea that revolutionaries are capable of playing the part only of the vanguard of the truly virile and advanced class must be understood and translated into action. A vanguard performs its task as vanguard only when it is able to avoid being isolated from the mass of the people it leads and is able really to lead the whole mass forward. [32]

The need for a revolutionary party, as we have already pointed out, is a reflection of the unevenness of consciousness in the working class. At the same time, however, the party exists in order to hasten the overcoming of this unevenness, by raising consciousness to the highest possible level. Adaptation to the average, or even to the lowest level of consciousness of the class is in the nature of opportunism. Organisational independence and isolation from the most advanced section of the proletariat, on the other hand, is the road to sectarianism. Raising the advanced section to the highest possible level under the prevailing circumstances – this is the role of the really revolutionary party.

To learn from the masses, the party must also be able to learn from its own mistakes, to be very self-critical.

A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfils in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification – that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class, and then the masses. [33]

The fighting party of the advanced class need not fear mistakes. What it should fear is persistence in a mistake, refusal to admit and correct a mistake out of a false sense of shame. [34]

The masses must be involved in correcting party mistakes. Thus on 21 January 1905, Lenin wrote:

We Social Democrats resort to secrecy from the Tsar and his bloodhounds while taking pains that the people should know everything about our party, about the shades of opinion within it, about the development of its program and policy, that they should even know what this or that Party Congress delegate said at the Congress in question. [35]

Open debate is even more vital and essential during a period of direct revolutionary struggle, as Lenin wrote in a leaflet on 25-26 April 1906.

In a revolutionary epoch like the present, all theoretical errors and tactical deviations of the party are most ruthlessly criticised by experience itself, which enlightens and educates the working class with unprecedented rapidity. At such a time, the duty of every Social Democrat is to strive to ensure that the ideological struggle within the party on questions of theory and tactics is conducted as openly, widely and freely as possible, but that on no account does it disturb or hamper the unity of revolutionary action of the Social Democratic proletariat. [36]

He urged repeatedly that debate should not be limited to inner party circles, but should be carried on publicly so that non-party people could follow it.

Our party’s serious illness is the growing pains of a mass party. For there can be no mass party, no party of a class, without full clarity of essential shadings, without open struggle between various tendencies, without informing the masses as to which leaders and which organisations of the party are pursuing this or that line. Without this, a party worthy of the name cannot be built. [37]


Criticism within the limits of the principles of the party programme must be quite free (we remind the reader of what Plekhanov said on this subject at the second Congress of the RSDLP) not only at party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism or such “agitation” (for criticism is inseparable from agitation) cannot be prohibited. [38]

There is a dialectical relationship between democracy within the party and the party’s roots in the class. Without a correct class policy and a party composed of proletarians, there is no possibility of healthy party democracy. Without a firm working-class base, all talk of democracy and discipline in the party is meaningless verbiage. At the same time, without party democracy, without constant self-criticism, development of a correct class policy is impossible.

We have more than once already enunciated our theoretical views on the importance of discipline and on how this concept is to be understood in the party of the working class. We defined it as: unity of action, freedom of discussion and criticism. Only such discipline is worthy of the democratic party of the advanced class. [39]

… the proletariat does not recognise unity of action without freedom to discuss and criticise.” [40]

If democracy is essential in order to assimilate the experience of the struggle, centralism and discipline are necessary to lead the struggle. Firm organisational cohesion makes it possible for the party to act, to take initiatives, to direct the action of the masses. A party that is not confident in itself cannot win the confidence of the masses. Without a strong party leadership, having the power to act promptly and direct the activities of the members, a revolutionary party cannot exist. The party is a centralist organisation that leads a determined struggle for power. As such it needs iron discipline in action.

Cliff article here:

first published by me here:


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