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How to deal with minority party factions?

Henrique Canary

In December 2022, Esquerda Online published an article by Paulo Aguena “Catatau” about ruptures and fragmentations within socialist left. The text analyzed cases in which political minorities within a revolutionary organization grow and threaten the established majority. Catatau stated that this often leads to ruptures and explosions within the organizational regime, even when claiming an anti-Stalinist tradition. It’s an important theme reflecting the reality of many recent schisms.

But there is another situation: what about cases where party minorities don’t threaten the majority of the leadership at all? They represent, let’s say, 10%, 20% of a group, or even just a few individuals? The problem seems simple (“if they don’t threaten the majority, nothing changes!”), but it isn’t. Often, important figures within an organization sustain – sometimes for years – positions significantly divergent from the majority. They constitute a sort of permanent current of opinion within an organization that claims democratic centralism. It’s not that they act as a clandestine faction or in an unfair manner (that would be another problem), but simply express their divergent opinions individually on each occasion. In other situations, episodic yet acute divergences arise, generating strong crises that also threaten the stability of the party fabric, breaking trust relations, reciprocal grievances, etc. How should a leadership based on Leninist principles of organization act in such cases? There are many dangers involved in this situation.

The role of leadership

The first danger concerns the discussion process itself. Unless there are cases of police infiltration or other abnormalities, every leadership must start from the principle that the discussions it faces are not arbitrary inventions of the individuals verbalizing them, but legitimate expressions of certain aspects of reality. Reality is complex and contradictory, and indeed provides material for many positions, shades, nuances, etc. Is the situation ripe for a strike? Well, the category is large, heterogeneous, and there are certainly elements for one response or another, and perhaps a third. Thus, the first thing is to treat divergent positions with respect. Do not ridicule, do not belittle, do not treat as absurd without rhyme or reason, do not leave unanswered.

The second danger is what we could call the massacre of divergent positions. In a plenary where one or two comrades are advocating a dissenting position, it is not necessary for the other 95% of the audience to “destroy the minority position until there is not a stone left standing.” We are not Rosa Luxemburg polemicizing against Bernstein on reform or revolution. It’s not now or never. It’s not all or nothing. Balance is necessary. A wise leadership can never rule out the possibility of being wrong on a tactical question, on an analysis of the balance of forces. A door must be left open. If a majority leadership massacres a dissenting minority position, it inhibits future disagreements and creates a climate within the organization where every divergence will be treated as “the final divergence,” “strategic,” “principled,” and other exaggerations. People feel stigmatized, become disillusioned, and drift away. We may be facing a decisive controversy. But in most cases, it will not be so. It’s not just about the form of the controversy, which obviously should be respectful, but also about the content. Seeking syntheses, mediations, agreements, even when it is possible to win by vote. It’s not a mandatory rule (sometimes a vote is necessary!), but it can be useful in overcoming present and future crises.

The third danger is an excess of formalism. We have a statute that regulates the rules of debate, and this is essential. A tendency has such rights, a fraction has such prerogatives. But a prudent leadership knows to be flexible and sometimes provide a minority with more rights than it would have statutorily. Why leave the organization in doubt as to whether there was space for debate or not? This would only undermine trust relations. Why not allow the minority to develop its arguments and political struggle extensively, always within reasonable and healthy limits? Counter-reports, secret ballots, incorporation of minorities into the leadership during pre-congresses, etc. – these and other mechanisms can be useful for developing a climate of political freedom, encouraging debate, and valuing dissent within the organization.

The fourth danger is disloyalty in debate. In plenaries and open meetings, we recognize the value of those who diverge and the legitimacy of the issues they raise, but in the corridors of the organization, a secret campaign is waged against the minority: they are opportunists, they are sectarian, their positions will lead us to the abyss, they are reformists, etc. This is acting unfairly. It may be that a minority develops deleterious positions within an organization. If this happens, the problem needs to be addressed openly, not in the corridors and behind the backs of those who precisely present such positions. Even more serious is when disloyalty in debate is accompanied by equally unfair organizational measures: moral or disciplinary punishments on the eve of the congress to demoralize opponents, changes in the location of militancy to isolate dissenters, task changes to confuse evaluation, etc. Every organizational measure, even when necessary and just, needs to be carefully considered in light of the ongoing debate and subordinate to the health of the party regime.

The fifth danger is the isolation of defeated positions. The congress has been held. The minority has been defeated. What to do now? It is true that the leadership of the organization is the prerogative of the majority, but this fundamentally concerns the political line, not the individuals themselves. A healthy organization should include members of the defeated minority in its leadership. It is necessary to reach out to the defeated comrades and incorporate them into positions of responsibility. Dissenters should be valued for the battle they fought, not punished with exclusion from working teams. The minority should have the same opportunity as the majority to implement the victorious line as leadership and then evaluate afterward. Whether the incorporation of the minority will be through proportionality or special representation is secondary. It depends on the statute and political tradition of the organization. The key point is that the leadership does not relinquish the presence of minority cadres. It is necessary to trust that reality will resolve differences in one way or another. The goal should not be to be right, but rather to get the line right. For this, everyone is needed.

The responsibility of the minority

To one day become a majority, one must know how to be a minority. Being a minority entails responsibilities. Being a cadre with enough weight to rally other militants behind you is a condition that also requires wisdom. Differences are important during pre-congress periods. But once the decision is made, party dialectics demand that joint work predominate more than internal polemics. This does not mean that there is no political struggle between congresses. There is, but it is subordinate to the implementation of the voted line.

Thus, a minority dissolves as a tendency or fraction after the congress, but the individuals who compose it do not relinquish their opinions. It’s good that it is so. This makes the organization alive, with permanent debates and always with some degree of political struggle over various issues. But here, too, balance is needed. An organization can have permanent debates, but it cannot live in a continuous state of deliberation. These are different things. The state of deliberation means the relative paralysis of the organization until a decision is made. This is acceptable from time to time, especially during the pre-congress period. But once the decision is made, it is necessary to move forward.

Therefore, a minority must watch over the majority and fight for its positions individually. But it cannot turn the internal life of an organization into an endless pre-congress. Certain issues need to be overcome, and the organization must move forward and implement the voted line. There is no exact formula. Intelligence is required. It would be mistaken, with each issue raised, to try to “push the organization a little” towards defeated positions. The best thing a minority can do when defeated is to offer its loyal collaboration in implementing the victorious line. This will make the assessment less confusing, errors will become more evident, and the next congress can truly advance in its conclusions.

The organization we aspire to

Why is all of this important? Because the socialist organization we need to build in the 21st century must necessarily be heterogeneous, yet at the same time strongly centralized for political struggle. This combination, so simple in theory, is one of the most difficult things to achieve in practice. So far, the anti-Stalinist left has failed in this regard. Even while claiming the best democratic traditions of the Bolshevik faction, it has mostly built organizations whose leadership was extremely homogeneous, averse to polemical debate, and more resembled a faction opposed to any other faction that emerged. This has led to the explosion or simple disintegration of dozens of valuable currents and is part of the explanation for the lamentable situation of the contemporary socialist movement.

In a way, the anti-Stalinist left has absorbed the Stalinist myth of the infallibility of the leadership and created very unhealthy party regimes, where self-proclamation, self-indulgence, and self-satisfaction with mere survival or, at best, with small achievements and gains prevail.

It is likely that complete overcoming of the fragmentation of the socialist left is no longer possible, but perhaps it is possible to reduce its dramatic nature. At least in the medium term. We may not be able to have a single unified organization, but perhaps we do not need to have hundreds of microgroups “so marginal that they don’t even know they are marginal.” The responsibility lies with the leadership, but also with the minorities. The complexity of the political situation in this 21st century tends to increase our differences, not decrease them. If we do not stop yielding to the impulse of rupture, it will be our end. Seeking synthesis, unifications, working together, breaking with ultimatums, catastrophism, and impressionism, understanding that our struggle is long-term and requires firmness, but also historical patience. These may be some mechanisms to be used to advance in the construction of our organizations.

An Instructive Example

A century has passed since the death of Lenin, but the best reference we have in building radically democratic socialist organizations continues to be the Bolshevik Party. Not because it was perfect or because it should be copied exactly in this 21st century, but simply because it was apparently the richest experience. It still provides material for reflection, and almost everything important done thereafter has been inspired by this internal faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.

Stalinism offers us the myth of the monolithic Bolshevik Party, directed with an iron hand by a homogeneous secretariat. We accuse Stalin of having ordered the killing of Zinoviev and Kamenev, and hear in response: “Those factionalists?” It’s incredible what one sees on the internet…

But the true Bolshevik Party is not the one born from the Thermidorian reaction to October in the second half of the 1920s and 1930s, but rather the non-dogmatic faction that emerged throughout the entire Russian revolutionary struggle, from the late 19th century to the early 1920s, with its flexible regime, its permanent polemics, its frequent congresses, and its climate of freedom, criticism, and collective elaboration.

This faction emerged, on the one hand, from the conditions of the struggle, but on the other hand, from the mind of the man who built it and led it to victory. Lenin was particularly concerned with building the leadership. His ability to gather extremely diverse people around him, making them work as a team and collaborate productively, is well-known. In particular, he knew how to deal with the minorities (and in some cases even majorities!) that arose along the way. In “The Bolshevik Party,” the French historian Pierre Broué highlights Lenin’s ability to deal with contradictions:

“However, he never loses sight of the need to maintain collaboration and teamwork with those with whom he is engaged in dialectical duels. During the war, Bukharin and him fail to reach an agreement on the issue of the State; Lenin then asks him not to publish any work on this issue to avoid accentuating disagreements on some points that, in his opinion, neither of them had studied sufficiently.” (Pierre Broué, “The Bolshevik Party,” 2014, p. 67)

In another work, Lenin himself emphasizes the need to fully integrate into the leadership even comrades who have made significant political mistakes.

“I will not continue characterizing the other members of the CC by their personal traits. I will only recall that the episode of Zinoviev and Kamenev in October is, of course, not a coincidence, but that they cannot be blamed personally for this, just as Trotsky cannot be blamed for his non-Bolshevism.” (Lenin, “Last Writings and Secretaries’ Diary,” 2012, p. 75)

Lenin refers here to the fact that Zinoviev and Kamenev opposed the seizure of power by the Soviets in October 1917 and even leaked the internal debate to the bourgeois press as a way to pressure the Bolshevik Central Committee. What was Lenin’s stance? He was indeed furious. However, after the victory of the insurrection, Zinoviev became president of the Third International, while Kamenev took over the leadership of the Moscow organization of the Bolshevik Party. There was no resentment, no personal revenge. Just moving forward and working together for the cause.

In building our modest organizations, we face the enormous challenge of replicating at least part of the broad internal democracy that characterized the true Bolshevik faction. In this effort, one of the most important issues is working with minorities, valuing their members, overcoming differences, and integrating them into leadership tasks.

LÊNIN, Vladimir. Últimos escritos e Diário das secretárias. São Paulo: Editora Sundermann, 2012. 160 p.
BROUÉ, Pierre. O partido bolchevique. São Paulo: Editora Sundermann, 2014. 536 p