How Critical Should Revolutionaries Be of Each Other?
A couple years ago I wrote and posted on the web a critique of a paper by Jose Maria Sison, the founding Chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines, a critique which drew some pretty strong conclusions.1 I strongly criticized Sison’s adherence to the General Crisis of Capitalism thesis, and a number of his other views in political economy and politics. I then concluded the critique as follows:
When I first read Sison’s paper my initial reaction was that it was fairly good, despite the business about the General Crisis of Capitalism which I already knew was wrong, and some other immediately apparent weaknesses here and there. But as I really began to study his essay, and think about it more deeply, I gradually became much more critical. I found most of Sison’s general views remarkably "conventional" and "conservative"—that is, conventional and conservative in terms of being around for a very long time within the world communist movement over the past century. Really, they struck me as formulaic. I was surprised by this.
I don’t think the revolutionary communist movement can meet its responsibilities if the best we can do is just memorize and repeat old formulas. We need to develop our understanding and our revolutionary theory to a much deeper degree than that.
I don’t think Sison provides a very good model here. I was disappointed to discover this.
I have great respect for Jose Maria Sison and the role he has played in refounding the Communist Party of the Philippines as a genuinely revolutionary party. I also respect the role he apparently continues to play in helping to guide that party, and also the role he plays internationally. But based on this one essay, and the relatively small amount of additional reading I have done of Sison’s works, I don’t think his general views about Marxist political economy, the world economy and the world situation in general, have been demonstrated to be accurate enough, and profound enough, to constitute a reliable guide for either the international communist movement, or even our own small efforts to be part of that movement.
As the last sentence suggests, my critique was written for a small number of revolutionary friends of mine. A couple of these friends, though agreeing with me about the General Crisis of Capitalism thesis and on most of my other specific criticisms, nevertheless objected to this summation. I believe they considered it to be somewhat disrespectful of Sison, overly negative, and tending to drive a wedge between myself and the members and supporters of the CPP. One person said to me that my critique must be drastically toned down if it is to have any hope of influencing Sison and his followers in a positive way.
This reaction surprised me because I had not the slightest expectation of being able to influence Sison and his party in the first place! The critique was not written for them, but for my small number of revolutionary friends—i.e., for the small group of folks who I might possibly have some effect on. Of course, there is a small possibility that some CPP members might come across my critique—since the Internet is open to the world—and be offended by it. I am sorry if that happens, but not sorry enough to stop saying what I honestly believe to be the truth.
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A few months ago I set up a Peru page on the www.massline.info web site in which I raised some questions about the possible reasons for the failure of the first attempt at revolution in Peru (which more or less collapsed when Chairman Gonzalo, its leader, was captured by the government in 1992). One possible reason for this collapse, I suggested, was that the mass line method of leadership may not have been systematically used in Peru. And another suggested reason was the tremendous over-reliance the PCP placed on Gonzalo personally, as indicated by the cult of personality built up around him. In addition I more directly stated that the claim in one PCP document that all the mass work of the Party should be "done through the People’s Guerrilla Army" was quite erroneous.
In response to this, another friend of mine said that criticisms of this sort should be presented "more as contradictions in the PCP’s practice, rather than errors of the PCP." He went on to add:
Partially this is a question of what is judicious, since the PCP is still there and there is still a whole struggle for summation going on alongside the issue of continuing to support the struggle going on there. At this point, unqualified statements about PCP errors will not help tilt things toward the most balanced MLM [Marxist-Leninist-Maoist] summation, but will rather serve rightist summations of the PW [People’s War]. It is better to fudge things a little at this point and talk about the contradictory nature of things, even where we are pretty sure errors were made. Those errors should be discussed mainly within the context of overall support and as part of [the] discussion of the difficult contradictions involved in how the PCP came to make those errors.
I think there is an aspect of truth to this criticism of my original comments, and for that reason I did slightly revise what I wrote on the Peru web page. But on the other hand, I also think there are many great dangers in a perspective like this, and it is those dangers that I wish to address in this essay.
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And finally, more recently still, a correspondent who I hope will soon become another friend sent me an email message criticizing what he took to be the overly negative tone in my criticisms of the RCP and FRSO in postings on the Internet. He said it seems to him that I overstate and exaggerate the faults of those groups, and added:
I sort of feel like you play on the weakest aspects of the groups instead of building on strengths. You end up tearing the RCP down instead of really engaging it on the basis of its strengths.
An Implicit Point of View Opposing the Criticism of Comrades
I begin to detect a pattern here in these three incidents and in my general observation of the revolutionary movement. There are clearly strong and widespread misgivings out there about any forceful criticisms being leveled against fellow revolutionaries. And I think these misgivings pervade not just my own circle of friends and acquaintances, but the entire revolutionary movement in this country and even around the world.
There are a number of implicit principles in connection with this general point of view, though of course not everyone agrees with every single one of these. And many people who sort of lean toward one or another of these principles would by no means put them so strongly and frankly as I do here. Anyway, here is the full bill of particulars:
- Criticisms of comrades and fellow revolutionaries are to be avoided if possible.
- Criticisms of other revolutionaries—even if they are valid (and even if they are sometimes necessary!)—tend to harm the ongoing struggle and aid the enemy.
- If they are made, criticisms of other revolutionaries should be very, very gentle.
- Criticisms of other revolutionaries should only be made in an overall context emphasizing praise, support and agreement with those being criticized.
- It is better to give implicit criticisms than open criticisms, such as by pointing out inconsistencies and contradictions in the work (so that those criticized will be able to use their own strengths to overcome their weaknesses).
- In many circumstances it is better to "fudge" things a bit and even deny the truth of valid criticisms that others make, rather than to openly and forcefully criticize genuine errors which might negatively affect the movement if they are exposed.
- Members or supporters of one group should not criticize any groups deemed to be "fraternal", or members of such fraternal groups.
- Revolutionaries in one country should not criticize the work or views of revolutionaries in a different country.
- Democratic centralism requires that no criticisms of your own or fraternal groups should be made publicly.
While there is some partial or limited validity to some of these points, I believe that as each of them stands they are all not only very wrong, but also very dangerous and harmful to the revolutionary movement. I’ll try to bring this out below.
It is very strange that such a climate of hostility towards and/or misgivings about criticism should arise among those attracted to Maoism, in particular. One of Mao’s most famous essays is entitled "Combat Liberalism" and is directed at this general anti-critical syndrome which is a current that arises within the revolutionary movement in every country. Let me quote the first two paragraphs of that little essay:
We stand for active ideological struggle because it is the weapon for ensuring unity within the Party and the revolutionary organizations in the interest of our fight. Every Communist and revolutionary should take up this weapon.
But liberalism rejects ideological struggle and stands for unprincipled peace, thus giving rise to a decadent, philistine attitude and bringing about political degeneration in certain units and individuals in the Party and the revolutionary organizations.2
The interesting thing here is that while "liberals" take the view that unity and working together requires avoiding, minimizing, or smoothing over disagreements and mutual criticisms, Mao takes exactly the opposite view. He says "ideological struggle … is the weapon for ensuring unity". This point seems to be very hard for most people to understand.
True unity, i.e., genuine and deep unity, comes when people share a full understanding of the situation and what must be done in that situation. But such a shared and profound unity almost never exists in the beginning. How then can it arise? Only through ideological struggle. Struggle seems to be the opposite of unity, but if handled correctly ideological struggle is the prelude to unity. Handling struggle and criticism correctly does require certain norms and respectful methods, but it definitely does not mean avoiding struggle and criticism, minimizing it, hiding it, "fudging" it, burying it in irrelevant areas of agreement, softening it into meaninglessness, nor obscuring it through indirect language. In general it is much better if the disagreement is made clearer and brought out more sharply. It is better if disagreements are gone into in depth and at length, and the ramifications of each side in the disagreement are brought out in full.
In other words, if there is not yet a deep unity, it is better if the ideological struggle and criticism (or mutual criticism) is intensified, rather than downplayed, minimized, hidden or ignored. That is the dialectical view of the matter, and the road toward genuine agreement and unity.
Thus, the first anti-criticism principle listed above, that criticism of comrades and fellow revolutionaries is to be avoided, is completely and totally mistaken from the point of view of scientific Marxism. And the second principle is just as mistaken; far from harming the ongoing political struggle against the enemy, the fostering of a climate of mutual criticism and self-criticism among revolutionaries is an indispensable means of helping to build that struggle on a firmer basis.
Revolutionaries Should Be Trained to Take and Even Welcome Criticism
The third anti-criticism principle, that criticisms—if they are made of other revolutionaries—should be "very gentle", is likewise quite mistaken, at least in its actual import. True, we are not talking about criticizing the enemy here, which, considering what murderous bastards they are, must necessarily be extremely harsh and unforgiving. Moreover, we are genuinely seeking to unite, if we can, with the comrades and other revolutionary-minded folks who we are criticizing, so we do have to criticize them properly and with a respectful attitude.
However, the first thing to remember here is that we live in a society that is extremely hostile to criticism and self-criticism. People are brought up to avoid and severely resent criticism of themselves, and to lash out angrily at anyone who sends even mild criticisms their way. They don’t even like it when other people who they are friendly to (or in substantial agreement with) are criticized. People who do criticize others are viewed as pariahs who flout the conventions and norms of this society. And all this, alas, tends to be true of us revolutionaries too. Recall Lenin’s remark that you can’t live in a society and be entirely free of that society. We can’t afford to forget that even we revolutionaries still have many wrong ideas, attitudes and habits impressed on us and in our characters, simply because we were raised and continue to live in such a rotten, despicable society. We have to change ourselves as we change others, and all of society.
Because even we revolutionaries ourselves still have so many failings in this area, we have a situation where no matter how gentle you are in your criticisms, many fellow revolutionaries will still resent and reject the valid criticisms you make of them. The call to be "gentle" in your criticisms of others is most often taken to mean criticize them in a way that they won’t resent and will be able to accept. But the trouble with this is that we live in a society that is so hostile to criticism that much of the time there is no such way!
The basic problem here is that even within the American revolutionary movement we have a culture that mostly avoids, resents and rejects criticism, and we really need to change this culture. That means we have to start criticizing people whether they (or others) like it or not. And it also means that even what should be considered very gentle criticism will frequently be taken as unduly harsh criticism. Although that is unfortunate, it is not sufficient reason to refrain from making those valid and appropriate criticisms.
As far as criticism and self-criticism goes, a major motto of the revolutionary movement should simply be: Get used to it! After all, by and large, it’s for our own individual good, and is certainly for the good of the movement as a whole if we all do get used to it.
Marxism is a Wrangling Ism!
Mao once remarked that "Marxism is a wrangling ism, dealing as it does with contradictions and struggles."3 In reality, many Marxists—even many of those who like to repeat this quotation!—do not like to "wrangle" very much, and avoid serious struggle with one another. Too many Marxists simply ignore criticisms directed their way, and also avoid putting forward their own independent ideas. In reality they refuse to wrangle. So let’s improve on Mao a bit here: To the extent that Marxism is not already a wrangling ism, it must be made into one!
But why? Because the truth, and a line capable of moving the people’s struggle forward, emerges only through ideological struggle, only through a great deal of wrangling. A couple pages after making his comment about "wrangling", Mao wrote that "Truth stands in contrast to falsehood and develops in struggle with it."4 If we don’t wrangle, not only will we not achieve a truly solid unity, but even much of the rather superficial unity we do build will not be based on the real truth of the situation and the real truth about how to change that situation.
Those who find wrangling unpleasant or distasteful need to be seriously wrangled with about this liberal aversion! As is the case with criticism and self-criticism, we must increase the level of ideological wrangling to the point where comrades and fellow revolutionaries get used to it! This is the only way to apply everyone’s mind to solving the people’s problems. It is the only way to be fully scientific in our approach to revolution.
Modern American revolutionaries need to study more history in this regard, and a good place to start is with Lenin’s Bolsheviks. If ever there was a wrangling political party—even internally, let alone in relation to other parties—this was it! People should read some of the powerfully expressed criticisms that Lenin made of his comrades, and some of the criticisms that they made of him.5 And they should learn about the various different ideas that contended with each other within the Bolshevik party. (And Lenin wasn’t always right in these disputes, either.6) These were not people who pussy-footed around. If they thought something was wrong they said so and in no uncertain terms.
When you compare our tiny American revolutionary movement of today (or even just the nominally Marxist part of it) with the Bolsheviks, we come off looking pretty bad in most respects. (Not in all respects! We have learned a few things over the past century that even the Bolsheviks didn’t understand.) With regard to the importance and seriousness of internal ideological struggle we really look bad indeed. The Bolsheviks were a battle-hardened group who took revolutionary theory very seriously, and fought ferociously about it—even among themselves. But our modern American Marxist revolutionary movement is split between two types of sinners in this regard: First, those in political sects struggle only with outsiders. They accept almost in toto whatever their top leaders and gurus tell them to believe. Second, those outside the sects avoid such struggle, especially among themselves, because they think it is a sign of sectarianism! The liberal petty-bourgeois origins of most of our revolutionary movement really show through when it comes to this issue.
Real sectarianism, by the way, is chiefly a matter of isolating yourself from the masses and their struggles. It is also true, however, that revolutionaries and their organizations must be willing and able to work cooperatively with other individuals and groups around "united front" issues (i.e. practical struggles that are in the interests of the people). To fail to do so is a secondary type of sectarianism. But while it is wrong to be yelling and screaming at folks who you should be uniting with in practical struggle, and wrong to be insulting them and pushing them away, it is not wrong to engage in principled ideological struggle with them, or even to wrangle with them about political issues. We must break with the tendency of liberalism to consider ideological struggle as itself a form of sectarianism. It isn’t, at least not in the true Marxist idiom.
The Context of Criticism and Ideological Struggle
The fourth in our list of anti-criticism principles that seem to characterize our movement today is that criticisms should only be made in an overall context emphasizing praise, support and agreement with those being criticized. It is not that there is no validity at all to this view, it is just that people tend to get tremendously carried away with this argument.
Do we really need to remind others about all the long list of things we agree on before we dare mention something we disagree on? Do we really need to carefully immerse every criticism in a big bouquet of complements?
Criticisms inherently focus on the "negative aspects" of a group or individual. That is what criticisms are, and what they are for. This is why it is wrong to oppose criticism on the grounds that it is "focusing on the negative". Of course it is focusing on the negative! That is the whole point of it!
The underlying problem here, once again, is that so many people react so negatively to criticism, even when it is complete valid. So the notion has arisen that in order to get away with it you should only raise a criticism after you preface it with a bunch of compliments, blarney, soft-soap and buttering up!
It seems to me that people who emphasize this sort of approach so much have really acquiesced in and accepted our present culture of hostility to criticism and ideological wrangling. They don’t really want to change it, but only to find a way to occasionally get around it with regard to some small matter or other. I would rather work toward a revolutionary culture where one can make a criticism without it being automatically assumed that by doing so you have become the total enemy of the person you criticize.
There is usually no point wrangling with the bitter enemies of the people, and even criticisms of the enemy are not actually made for the benefit of the enemy, but rather to enlighten those listening who we hope to influence and win more firmly to the people’s side. It is only rational to wrangle with those who you think you can win over on some question, and it is almost always impossible to win over those who are already firmly in the camp of the enemy. Thus, in actuality, you are showing some considerable respect for a person you wrangle with or criticize. You are implicitly saying to them that "you and I have considerable grounds for unity, and I want there to be more unity between us". Unfortunately, many people today do not understand this because of our present culture of hostility toward mutual criticism and wrangling. But this is all the more reason why we have to drastically change this abhorrent bourgeois culture.
Contradictions and Errors
The fifth point to examine is the notion that it is better to give implicit criticisms rather than open criticisms, through such techniques as pointing out inconsistencies and contradictions in the work of those being criticized. This is supposed to allow people to be able to use their own strengths to overcome their weaknesses.
To point out contradictions in some political work is in itself one method of criticizing errors in that work. To say, for example, that a party sometimes uses the mass line and sometimes doesn’t, is at least to implicitly criticize them for sometimes not using it. Thus the injunction to "talk about the contradictory nature of things" rather than criticizing errors directly is in effect only advice as to how one should go about making criticisms. In other words it is a matter of the art of rhetoric, and advice about how to be effective in making criticisms, rather than a real opposition to making criticisms.
But all this is a complicated business. What extremes it is necessary to go to in order to make effective criticisms depends upon who you are criticizing, and also on who you hope to convince in making those criticisms. Your actual audience is not always the same as those you are criticizing. And of course oftentimes criticisms will fall on deaf ears no matter how well they are expressed—which does not necessarily mean that there is no point in making such criticisms anyway.
Another problem here is that sometimes the person or group being criticized is very consistent in always committing a certain type of error. If a party sometimes uses the mass line and sometimes doesn’t, then I can well imagine that it would be useful to praise the occasions it does use the mass line as part of criticizing the other times when it doesn’t do so. But if it rarely or never does so, then what? We are reduced to praising them for something more or less unrelated in order to get them to listen to the actual criticism, I guess.
I suppose that in practice I have actually tried to follow a procedure similar to this, but I haven’t had much success with it. For many years I have criticized the RCP for failing to properly understand—and actually use—the mass line, while simultaneously praising them for remaining staunchly revolutionary in their outlook, and for continuing to distribute revolutionary material, etc. My RCP contacts have in turn viewed me in a similar positive/negative way: they see me as politically advanced and friendly when it comes to appreciating the importance of maintaining a revolutionary stance, but as someone who is unaccountably hung-up on what they view as my strange "distorted" interpretation of the mass line. But I have never actually found that they are more willing to seriously consider my criticisms with regard to the mass line just because they know I agree with them about many other things. And, in fact, I’ve found that if I don’t put an overwhelming emphasis on making my criticisms (rather than expressing my agreements), they tend to hardly even "notice" my criticisms, let alone think about them and respond to them! A criticism given in the midst of praise tends to get politely ignored, the same way a friend’s fart is. Thus, over the years, I’ve felt that I’ve had to get much more vociferous in my criticisms just to try to get their attention and get some wrangling started.
It is true, however, that there is a strong tendency for all criticisms to be misunderstood, or for those hearing them to assume the scope of the criticism is broader than it really is, and so forth. In other words, there is a strong tendency for people to take criticisms too absolutely. One more or less subconscious reason for this is just that it is much easier to reject a criticism if you can first absurdly exaggerate it. Suppose Tom has been talking for a long time and Dick says to him, "Be quiet for a while and let others speak." And then Tom replies: "So! I’m not allowed to express my opinion around here!" What Tom has done is unreasonably exaggerate the actual criticism so that it can be entirely rejected. Unfortunately, we all tend to do this sort of thing, though usually we only notice when others do it.
Because of human tendencies like this it is important to make clear precisely what our criticisms actually are, and to try to forestall any likely misinterpretations or exaggerations. In criticizing the RCP for being "primarily a propaganda organization", as I have done recently for example, it is important to note that there are exceptions to this, and that they have provided some actual leadership of the masses in struggle in a few areas (such as around police brutality issues and, more recently, against the U.S. imperialist war in Iraq). Or, we could put this way: criticisms should be judicious.
But "being judicious" means being fair and accurate, avoiding exaggeration, avoiding putting the criticism in terms which can be misunderstood or distorted, and trying to forestall exaggerations that others may read into the criticism. It does not mean refraining from making valid criticisms.
To the extent that what people are getting at here is that a critic must strive to bring out the true complexity of the real situation, such as the aspects where the criticism is valid and the other aspects where it is not valid or applicable, then I am in agreement. Of course, we are all surprised, from time to time, to find that our criticisms of others have been misunderstood, and in that case we have to try to further clarify things.
However, I still want to claim that a climate where open and direct criticisms can be and are being made is best. Far from being desirable, Aesopian and indirect criticism is actually something to avoid. Sometimes it is useful and appropriate to make a criticism by pointing out an inconsistency or contradiction in the work being criticized. And sometimes this isn’t feasible. But at all times criticisms should be clear.
I favor the principle of being open and above board in expressing our real and full views—including in the criticisms we make of others. (Maoists will recall the extra emphasis the Communist Party of China put on being "open and above board" in the aftermath of the Lin Biao affair in which Lin and his co-conspirators were anything but!)
"Fudging" the Truth
If we are honest and above board, we will not try to "fudge" the truth, either to our comrades or to the masses. I take it that "fudging" the truth about some matter means denying, dodging, downplaying or obscuring some valid criticism that has been made. This is virtually always the wrong approach.
It is the wrong approach not because lying or "fudging" are absolutes and always wrong due to some categorical imperative or edict from God. It is not wrong to lie or "fudge" things to the enemy or their agents, for example. Once many years ago I had a job with the state and my boss overheard me talking with my coworkers about the need for a political revolution. He called me aside and asked me point blank: "Are you advocating the revolutionary overthrow of the U.S. government?!" With a slight smile I said, "No." I was lying. He knew I was lying. I knew he knew. But I kept my job because of that lie, and as soon as he was out of the room I went right back to talking about the need for revolution again. It is not wrong to lie to the enemy in order to be able to tell the truth to the people.
But it is wrong to lie to the masses or to comrades and fellow revolutionaries.7 It is wrong to reject, distort or downplay valid criticisms of oneself or our movement. It is wrong for the same reason that anything is wrong—because it is not in the people’s interests that we should do these things.
The world revolutionary movement has suffered tremendously because we revolutionaries ourselves have not always kept to the moral high ground. Short term lies and distortions almost always come back to haunt you, and hurt the movement in the long run. The crimes of Stalin, in particular, and the gullibility of CP members about all that went on there—as well as their own complicity in denying or attempting to cover up those crimes—have led to severe and lasting damage to the world revolution.
Of course we should refute the actual lies and distortions that the enemy makes about us and about revolutionary history (and the many gross exaggerations about Stalin too, for that matter). But we must investigate these issues with a reasonably open mind ourselves, and try not to fool either ourselves or other people about the real facts of history. If we are open about our own mistakes, and those of our movement, people will come to understand that we are really trying to avoid making such mistakes again. We will gain respect and credibility if we openly admit, and genuinely renounce, the actual errors of our movement.
And this goes not only for moral lapses, but for every other kind of error too, be it one of momentary tactics or overall revolutionary strategy. The very best way to prevent such errors from happening again is to face up to them, to openly examine and firmly criticize them. And this is also the very best way to convince others that we are being serious and scientific in our approach to revolution.
We should not fear the exposure of our own errors; instead, whenever we can, we should take the lead by exposing them ourselves and by demonstrating that we are determined to prevent them from happening again. And when we see other revolutionaries, at home or abroad, making serious errors we should not shrink from criticizing those errors either. Our comrades too are wrong to try to cover up their errors, and we can only aid them with our valid criticisms and suggestions and by bringing the issues out into the open for everyone to think about.
The very worse thing we can do for our revolutionary movement is to get in the habit of "fudging" things, and denying the truth of valid criticisms that are being made. If invalid or erroneous criticisms are put forward, then sure, we should refute those false charges. As the 19th century Russian literary critic Belinsky once remarked, "Criticism would, of course, be a terrible weapon if, fortunately, it were not itself subject to criticism."8
But we should never respond to valid criticism by "fudging" the truth. While it may seem at the time that this is a "necessary" thing to do, it actually promotes the perpetuation of the errors that should be criticized and also leads to an eventual loss in our own credibility. Those who fudge the truth will never acquire wide respect and a reputation for honesty.
Who Should We Criticize?
Is it right and proper for a revolutionary in one group to criticize other groups and their members when they make errors? Even if they are fraternal groups? Is it right for revolutionaries in one country to criticize the errors of revolutionary parties and their members in other countries? Yes, it is right, and it is necessary. In fact it is our revolutionary duty to do so.
The general principle in criticism is that if you see an error you should criticize it, no matter where that error is, and no matter who is committing it. Remember that we criticize our fellow revolutionaries in order to try to help them correct their errors, and/or to help keep others from falling into those same errors. To refrain from such criticism is to act as if you don’t care whether those errors are made or not.
However, I suspect that the biggest issue here is not whether we should criticize other fraternal groups and their members, or foreign parties and their members, but rather about if this should be done privately or openly. No doubt sometimes the best and most effective thing to do is to privately communicate criticisms to others. But there are tremendous constraints on this possibility, and there are plenty of times when it is neither feasible nor correct.
If we are in a position to do so, then we should—at least at first—direct our ideas, suggestions and criticisms directly to the person who we think needs to hear them. And often this should be done privately, if this is possible. But if those private suggestions and criticisms go unheeded, then it is often necessary to open things up or even make a public issue of them. The purpose of doing this is to make the issue into one of concern to more people, and to more democratically come to a decision. Opening things up like this also allows the appropriate social pressure to be put on recalcitrant individuals.
While it is not possible or even desirable to make every issue a matter of general concern to wider groups of people, it seems to me that there is an excessive reluctance to do this in many particular cases. And this reluctance often demonstrates a fear of democracy, a fear of the rank and file, or even a fear of the masses. Where it is possible, and when it is necessary, we should not fear the prospect of opening things up to wider numbers of people. There is strength in numbers, frequently including ideological strength.
Often, however, we have no direct contact with an individual or group who we see as making a serious error. Direct and private suggestions and criticisms are not really possible in most such cases, even at the beginning.
And even more often, in fact, the main point of making the criticism is not really to influence the person being criticized, but rather to help keep others from falling into the same or related errors. In such a case it is not only proper to openly and publicly criticize the error—that is pretty much the whole point of making the criticism in the first place.
We all have to learn from the experience of others, both what they do right and what they do wrong. The public criticism of error is one of the main means by which all of us come to understand the truth and the best path forward. To oppose such open and public criticism is thus, to a considerable degree, to oppose the proper education of revolutionaries and the masses.
Because of this indispensable educational role of public criticism of individuals and groups, it is important to recognize that such criticism is justified even when there is no hope or expectation whatsoever that the criticism will be taken to heart by the direct target of that criticism. In fact, it is even frequently appropriate to criticize people who are long dead if that criticism will serve to enlighten others who are now living. There are plenty of good reasons to still criticize Stalin, for example, not to mention class traitors like Khrushchev.
However, it is not only the dead who we may deign to criticize. There are still plenty of errors being made today in our movement, not only by individuals and groups in other countries, not only by people in fraternal organizations, but even by ourselves and the other members of groups we may be part of. This is why Lenin’s comment remains true even in these spheres: "Criticism is a revolutionary’s duty."9
Lenin, of course, had no reservations in criticizing comrades in other countries, nor did Rosa Luxemburg and many other revolutionaries of that era. (Marx and Engels, too, criticized mistakes anywhere they saw them.) Of course not all of these criticisms were actually correct, but there was a much healthier open climate for criticism in those days. We need to move back toward that more healthy situation of free and open mutual criticism.
Democratic Centralism vs. Open Criticism
The last anti-criticism principle I will examine here is the notion that democratic centralism requires that no public criticisms should be made of your own or fraternal groups, or of their leaders or members. Although this interpretation of democratic centralism is widespread, it is—to a considerable degree—wrong. To really thoroughly go into this question of democratic centralism vs. open criticism would take a good deal of space. I will just try to summarize my position here.
The basic idea of democratic centralism is to have democracy—including freedom of individual thought and expression—within the party (or group), while at the same time putting forward a unified line and policy to the masses, so that the entire party can act as if it were in agreement about precisely what it believes and about exactly what should be done. Following such a method allows the party to be vastly more effective than it otherwise could be.
Traditionally, democratic centralism was usually interpreted to mean that open discussion and debate, even within the party, was only to be allowed until the leadership came to a decision about what view or policy to adopt. From that time on, and especially as the party was trying to win over the masses to that line or policy, no more disagreement was to be expressed—even internally among party members—though individuals could (at least in theory) continue to hold different opinions if they kept them entirely to themselves.
There is already a conceptual flaw here, to some degree. If no disagreement with or criticism of a line or policy that has been decided upon is allowed, then how can it ever be corrected if it is actually mistaken? The answer to this is supposed to be that "after a period of time" there will come a summation period when criticisms and discussion will again be allowed. But these open summation periods have rarely actually occurred, and even when they do it is usually only the summation by the leadership that reaches the members’ ears.
Historically—especially since the time of Stalin—the way democratic centralism has mostly been applied (or misapplied), has been very strong on the centralism and very, very weak on the democracy aspect. Any democracy in the selection of the leadership has often been very weak; the democratic input from members into line and policy has been very weak; the right of members to hear differing views during this policy formation period has often been very restricted or even non-existent; the restriction on any internal disagreement has usually been very tight; and the right of members to raise questions about past work has been very limited.
Thus what has been called "democratic centralism" has, much of the time, actually been a very undemocratic centralism.
However, I am sure that a genuine, and truly democratic centralism, can be created and applied. The main thing necessary to do this is the placing of a whole lot more emphasis on democracy at every step in the process. The leaders of party committees and delegates to party congresses really should be chosen through secret democratic balloting. There really must be a whole lot more thinking and debate among ordinary party members about the line and policies the party should follow. There should also be forums created to foster such thinking and debate (such as a regular and ongoing discussion journal—either internal or more broadly distributed), forums which allow every member to know what the various points of view and arguments are. And even when the party has decided on a line or policy (as of course it still needs to do), and during the political campaign to implement it, there should at least be some forum for raising doubts and disagreements about how things are going. (Feedback, both positive and negative, is necessary to the success of any project.) Finally, summations of work should truly be open, with all the major viewpoints available to the membership—not just the view of the top leadership.
One possible fear about such a plan is that some of this ongoing internal discussion and disagreement is bound to "leak out" of the party. Sure it will, but so what?! In fact, to some degree the party should actually purposely allow this to happen. For example, I think a really serious, scientific, and democratic revolutionary party would have a theoretical discussion journal that is available to not only party members, but to the revolutionary movement more broadly. (And it should also actively seek out and print articles from that broader movement—even ones the editors and top party leadership don’t completely agree with.) The fact that a few non-party revolutionary intellectuals learn that there are various conflicting ideas in the party will in no way prevent the party from nevertheless implementing a unified line and policy among the masses! That is exactly what we have the centralist aspect of democratic centralism for.
Personally I have respect for a party that allows its members to think and discuss things, and is not just a bunch of cultists regurgitating the words of their guru. And I see no reason why such a party could not be much more effective in leading the masses than the programmed cultists are.
So far I have been talking about the freedom of discussion and criticism within the party about its own line and policies. But when there is no single dominant revolutionary party providing overall leadership for the movement, then we must of necessity talk about the lines and policies of other groups within our own country too. And that means we must sometimes criticize those lines and policies. And we must remember that especially in today’s world, the revolutionary movement in one country is connected with those of other countries. Ours has always been a world revolutionary movement, and today that is just as true—perhaps even more true than before. To be free to discuss our own revolution, its strategy, tactics, line, policies, and so forth, we must also be free to at least reference and comment on the views, struggles and developments in other countries. For example, if we feel our party is following the incorrect line of another party (foreign or otherwise), I think we must be free to say so, at least in some forum or other.
As for those of us who are not in such a democratic centralist organization—not because we oppose this organizational form, but only because we can’t find a party we have sufficient agreement with—well, we just have to use our best individual judgment on these matters of domestic and foreign criticism. Yes, we must be judicious in our criticism of revolutionary groups and their members, both those in our own country and those abroad. But since we view ourselves as part of the world revolutionary movement, we have a right to actively participate in that movement.
"But What If You Are Wrong in Your Criticism?!"
Every one of us will be wrong, sometimes, in our ideas and in our criticisms of others. It is OK if we are wrong sometimes! (Really, it is!) And the world won’t come to an end if we are wrong sometimes, either individually or even as a party or an entire political movement. We can still work together and be friends.
If we generate a movement which promotes widespread thinking, and widespread criticism and self-criticism, then we will be collectively coming up with all kinds of ideas and also all sorts of criticisms of the ideas and actions of other folks. Many of these will definitely be wrong and off base. But others will prove to be correct, and important, and even indispensable to our eventual success.
The famous scientist Linus Pauling once remarked that "the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas". But the best way to have a lot of ideas is to get a lot of people thinking about a problem. In the realm of ideas democracy really does work, not in the simplistic sense that the majority is always right about something, but in the sense that if everybody is enlisted to work on a problem, and think about it, we are much more likely to come up with the correct answer (especially if we use the appropriate tool—the mass line).
Our path to the truth is through the ferment of conflicting ideas and mutual criticisms.
When we say "trust the masses", we do not mean that the masses are always right, and we are certainly not denying that there are many erroneous ideas among the masses. The same thing is true of the proletarian party and all our comrades, though hopefully the general tenor of thought is on a more sophisticated level there. Still, both we ourselves, and also all our comrades, also have our share of erroneous ideas, and make our share of mistakes. To have faith in the masses, and to have faith in the party, does not mean denying that any error exists in either sphere. But it does mean that we have faith that through widespread thought and discussion, as well as through our joint experience in struggle, we will be able to arrive at the truth.
If an idea, or suggestion, or criticism is itself wrong, then it will in turn be criticized. (This is a good place to again recall Belinsky’s remark about how criticism is itself subject to criticism.) If you think a criticism directed at you, or someone else, is wrong or off base, then you have an obligation to put your view forward. And then both sides in the dispute have an obligation to hash things out as best they can, and try to at least come to a common course of action which will test one of the views.
Don’t unduly fear error, but rather be determined to seek it out—even in yourself—and to defeat it when you find it.
We (i.e., those of us in my intended audience for this essay) feel the need to be part of the world revolutionary movement that already exists. But we should also feel the need to criticize the aspects and characteristics of that movement that we see as wrong or on the wrong track. Dialectically, each individual and component group of the revolutionary movement stands both within it, and to a degree, must stand outside it, looking at the whole with a critical eye.
Our movement desperately needs to promote a new culture of genuinely wrangling over ideas, and of widespread mutual and self-criticism. The current tendencies to find criticisms as "one sided", "negative", leading to "disunity", and so forth, are all quite wrong and harmful. We must all vow to criticize and wrangle with this anti-critical philosophy.
Working in a collective means taking criticism in the right spirit and not hesitating to criticize the mistakes of others. (N.D. Zelinsky)10
—Scott H. (10/21/04)
1 Scott H., "Comments on Sison's 'Contradictions in the World Capitalist System and the Necessity of Socialist Revolution'", Jan. 23, 2002, at: http://www.massline.org/PolitEcon/ScottH/SisonCr.htm
2 Mao Zedong, "Combat Liberalism" (Sept. 7, 1937), Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, vol. II, (Peking: FLP, 1965), p. 31.
3 Mao Zedong, "Talks at a Conference of Secretaries of Provincial, Municipal and Autonomous Region Party Committees" (Jan. 1957), Selected Works of Mao Tsetung, Vol. V, (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1977), p. 364.
4 Ibid., p.366.
5 Most of Lenin's comments along these lines can be found in letters and articles which are included in his Collected Works. It is much harder to find the criticisms his comrades sometimes made of him, because no one has collected them in one place. (Too bad!) But you can often find isolated examples in books about the Russian Revolution which are written by anti-Leninists. There is a lot to be said for reading a certain amount of this crap! It won't do to only read approved books which support your existing point of view.
6 One example where Lenin was wrong for a while was in his unwillingness to compromise a bit with what came to be called the "conscientious defensists" among the masses who wanted to resist the German attack on Russia in World War I. While he was in exile in Switzerland he took an unyielding stance against this position, which was appropriate initially, but became somewhat less appropriate later on. When he returned to Russia after the February Revolution, and found how widespread this feeling was among the masses, he soon modified his views and moved more toward agreement with some of the Bolsheviks already on the scene. He wrote: "At the outbreak of the war we Bolsheviks only had one slogan—a civil war and a relentless war at that. We branded as a traitor anyone who spoke against a civil war. But in March 1917, when we returned to Russia, we changed our position completely. When we returned to Russia and spoke with the peasants and workers, we saw that all of them stood for the defense of the Motherland, naturally, in a quite different way than the Mensheviks, and we could not call all these ordinary workers and peasants rascals and traitors. We characterized them as 'conscientious defensists'…. The stand that we adopted at the beginning of the war was correct, for at that time it was important to set up a certain, determined nucleus. Our subsequent stand was likewise correct. It stemmed from the need to win over the masses." (Lenin, "Speeches at a Conference of Members of the German, Polish, Czechoslovakian, Hungarian and Italian Delegations to the Third Congress of the Comintern: July 11, 1921", Against Dogmatism and Sectarianism in the Working-Class Movement, Moscow: 1968, pp. 185-186.) Lenin's initial position was correct, and the changed position in the changed circumstances was also correct. But what Lenin does not admit here is that he and the other exiled leaders of the Party were slow to recognize the need to change this position, and that some of the Bolsheviks on the scene in Russia recognized this before the leaders in exile did.
Another example where Lenin was wrong and many of his comrades were right was in his proposal to suppress internal Party factions that he got approved at the 10th Party Congress in 1921. I think Mao's position in favor of allowing factions, provided they are open and above board and follow the rules of democratic centralism, is the correct stance on this issue. It is more democratic, more scientific (since it recognizes that truth is often with the minority), and also more practical (since if open factions are suppressed they will still develop as secret networks). For more on this issue see my essay "On the Question of Multiple Revolutionary Parties" at: http://www.massline.org/Politics/ScottH/MultPart.htm
7 I am talking about political issues here, of course, not the occasional little white lies that social discourse requires of everyone. Furthermore, if for some good reason you are not being open about being a member of a revolutionary group, and a co-worker asks if you are a member, you may need to fudge the truth. E.g., "No, but I'm very sympathetic." This is an example of justified political expediency that is forced on us because of police spying, etc. But when it comes to political issues, and with regard to the real interests of the masses, and with respect to the actual historical truth about past political events (insofar as we know it), it is virtually always wrong to lie to the people.
8 Vissarion Belinsky, Words of the Wise: A Book of Russian Quotations, compiled by V. V. Vorontsov, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1979), p. 215.
9 V. I. Lenin, quoted in , Words of the Wise: A Book of Russian Quotations, op. cit., p. 208.
10 N. D. Zelinsky, in Words of the Wise, op. cit., p. 209. Zelinsky was a Soviet scientist.
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