THE COMMUNIST PARTY FROM APRIL 1956 TO THE END OF 1959
It has often been said that the massive loss of members in the couple of years after 1956 was the root cause for the later disastrous collapse. But this argument flies in the face of the reality that the pre-1956 levels of membership were very quickly restored, suggesting that later decline arose from other factors than the negativity generated by the Khrushchev revelations and Hungary. Campaigning work by Party organisations close to the working class was continuing, even as some members of the Party were beginning to obsess over issues of socialist democracy in other states, others were pressing the case for the Party in these islands. 4,000 leaflets explaining the Party’s stance on the Chancellor’s budget of 1956 were distributed in pits in Yorkshire, 4,000 at the docks in Hull and 4,000 at 20 factories in Leeds and 5,000 at Sheffield factories. Midlands distributed 20,000 at over fifty factories. [World News 12th May 1956]
But, following the controversial international events the Communist Party formally lost some 26% of its membership, or 8,711 actual members, in the two years to February 1958. A couple of thousand members had left the Party following Khrushchev’s speech, which had been given in February 1956 but not published for some months. Another five thousand left after the events in Hungary. Yet another two thousand left following the Special Congress in April 1957. As we shall see, the reality is that what was thought of as a crisis (in the opinion of some, a terminal crisis) was a massive challenge to the British Party but not an insurmountable one. Most of the members were not in fact lost as a result of a sudden mass outrage of angry resignation letters to Party offices but, in fact, by the application of a discreet policy by branch officials of letting members with hang-ups and problems simply slide out of membership. The several thousand members who allowed their membership to end had in all probability been doubters for years and the Krushchev revelations followed by the intervention in Hungary simply gave them a reason to accept what had been in their minds for quite some time. Yet all previous commentators have relied entirely on the Party’s own published figures for membership in 1956 and 1957 to discern a major overnight crisis. The reality is that the slide in membership and support of the Communist Party in Britain clearly began and ended with the `cold war’. Clearly, the dichotomy between the stance taken by the mainstream of the labour movement in support of NATO in the cold war divided Communists from the wider mood of the working class at the same time as Labour suffered electorally by resorting to cost cutting of state social provisions as a means to pay for its part in the aggressive policies of the west. Thus, disillusionment and division, cutting left-centre-right, bore a terrible legacy on the popularity of both Labour and Communists and both suffered.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the arguments over Hungary, what is incontestable is that right-wing forces worked overtime to use the events to undermine the Communist Party. Radio Free Europe was beside itself with a frenzy of reporting problems within Communist Parties and hostility to them.
RFE reported that the Manchester area committee of the Fire Brigades Union demanded the immediate resignation of John Horner, the union’s Communist General Secretary. He resigned from the Communist Party on November 14th. Radio Free Europe also reported what it admitted was a “small incident, but just as significant” on November 14th, when about 200 Monmouthshire workers manhandled a Communist speaker who tried to justify Russia’s action in Hungary when he addressed them outside the Girling factory at Cwmbran. The British press wee having a field day, too. The Sunday Express of November 18th published an article in which it is said that “senior boys at King’s school, Canterbury, have drawn a petition to the Red Dean, Dr. Hewlett Johnson, criticising his defence of Russian brutality in Hungary”; he was chairman of school governors.
Radio Free Europe retailed a Daily Mail report of November 23rd that the day before the Penalta NUM lodge in Glamorgan had passed a resolution telling Communist members of the South Wales NUM executive to resign. Men at Broomfield Colliery Larkhall, Lanarkshire, and three or four other pits similarly pressed Abe Moffat to resign and began to seek no confidence in their executive for failing to condemn Soviet action in Hungary.
The Daily Telegraph on November 15 had said that “the number of demands grows for the dissolution of the Party”. They come, the paper said, from Communists who are reluctant to resign but might prefer to continue their activities through other organisations. In contrast, the Daily Worker on November 26 noted that “the most intense discussion and conflict of opinion in the history of the Communist Party is developing in Britain … All Communists and the many friends of Communists in the wider Labour Movement who are participating in the present controversy – and every member and sympathizer should participate – do so in order to strengthen the Party so that it may more speedily achieve its aims.” Certainly, a glance at the formal Party membership figures for the latter part of the decade looks very sobering; most commentators leave the story there and rush to the events of 1968 and the 1980s to make their judgements.
Communist Party membership
1955 March 32,681
1956 February 33,381
1956 June 34,117
1957 Feb 26,742
1957 March 26,742
1958 Feb 24,670
1959 Feb 25,313
In contrast to the usual spin on these figures, the conclusion one can actually reach here, given a genuine understanding of the mood at the time in the Party, is seemingly amazing. But loyal participants of the Communist Party who were contemporary to these times were and have never been amazed. If we allowed ourselves to believe the interpretation of British Communism peddled by hitherto published mainstream right-wing, ultra-leftist and revisionist commentators, a significant and upward turn in membership was already evident by the beginning of 1959, a mere eighteen months after difficulties had set in. Indeed membership seemingly soared during February and March as cadres put their efforts into that year’s card issue, and there were not a few who had refused, or been tactfully denied, a 1957 membership card who now changed their minds and returned to the fold. Shortly before the 26th Congress in March 1959, a membership total of 26,560, plus 189 applicants who had not yet received their cards, was announced. For the new Party’s General Secretary, John Gollan, this was convincing proof that what he termed a revisionist internal assault had been beaten. [Communist Party 26th National Congress; report of the Executive Committee covering the period January 1956-December 1958 p12]
Many of those leaving had difficulty in distinguishing the negative actions of the Hungarian leaders and the actions of the USSR. The Party view focused on concerns that a counter-revolution in Hungary, by shifting the balance of power in Europe, would greatly increase the danger of imperialist action against the socialist countries. A real danger existed of war, since the peace movement in the west at this juncture did not seem anywhere near like strong enough to prevent war on its own. Even the comparison of Hungary with the western invasion of Egypt was suspect, for it was the Soviet proposal for joint action against the aggressors that finally ended the fighting in Egypt. For many Communists, such as David Grove, “peaceful coexistence still rested on the military strength of the Soviet Union”. [D & L Grove World News & Views and Views, January 1957]
Others dissented from such an analysis. In July 1956 two Yorkshire intellectuals who were members of the Party, E.P. Thompson and John Saville, launched an opposition journal, the Reasoner, in cyclo-styled form. Despite the intervention of the Yorkshire District Committee, then the national Political Committee, they refused to close this down. They had borrowed the title from an early 19th century publication that had sought to re-invigorate a flagging Jacobin Radicalism. The first copy of the rebel journal came out at the end of July 1956 and lasted five months. The core of the journal’s critique was what was seen as a mechanical adaptation of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Communist theory and a trend to regard disagreement as inevitably leading to counter-revolutionary action. For them, the Party had a wrong-headed notion of democratic centralism and relied on an `outmoded’ theory of consciousness. This led to the encouragement of anti-intellectual trends and a “belittling of the conscious process of intellectual and spiritual conflict”. Because of their refusal to end publication, Thompson and Saville were suspended from the Communist Party.
But for the Communist Party this was not merely a matter of debate and discussion; it was more about the character of the kind of revolutionary party that it aspired to. Despite their insistence that the Reasoner did not constitute a faction, these two substantial intellectuals could not seem to see that the considerable personal effort and financial commitment that they as individuals could personally give to the production. Saville talks in his writing on these events of Thompson spending days upon days cutting cyclostyle stencils, typing up to 8,000 words a day (much of his work was carried out far from campus and often at home).
Edward Thompson was an extra-mural lecturer at the University of Leeds-although he lived at Halifax and that was the area where most of his classes were; Saville was a lecturer in Hull. Such conditions of work as they were subject to in the then much more lenient atmosphere of universities than it today the case enabled the men to engage in the speculative thinking that in particular Thompson excelled in. But the criticism of the fact that this style of work was quite beyond the vast majority of Party members and, in effect, set them up as privileged caste of members unequal to all others, was sometimes conveyed as being crude sort of `workerism’. But most members of the Party could readily see the argument, especially since the two did not possess a formal role within the Party that enabled their thinking to be seen as part of the Party’s work. Moreover, his was not the days of extensive access to word processors and computers. A Gestetner-style duplicator that printed the kind of bulletin that many Party organisations heavily relied upon was by no means at all only available to the limited funds of ordinary working people.
Admittedly, not all those who sympathised with the arguments of the Reasoner were intellectuals but the beginnings of an argument that culture rather than politics was a driving force in society can be readily discerned in the pages of the Reasoner. But most members of the Party were concerned primarily with domestic matters, especially those that had a material bearing on the well-being of working people; for many, the arguments seemed esoteric.
The 24th National Congress took place at the end of March. The Political Resolution and the Discussion Statement for the Congress was published in World News & Views & Views on 28th January 1956 and from this time until the end of March the correspondence columns were entirely devoted to comments from Party members; throughout April, instead of the usual correspondence there were selected contributions relating to the congress itself. None of these reports related to the important questions raised by the 20th Congress. It took an article by Harry Pollitt (World News & Views & Views, 21st April 1956) to jolt the British Party into considering Khrushchev’s speech. A second Pollitt article followed in World News & Views & Views, 5th May. John Saville wrote to World News & Views & Views on the 20th Congress, which appeared in May.
Rajani Palme Dutt’s ‘Notes of the Month’ in the May issue of Labour Monthly was headed ‘The Great Debate’. In this oft-misquoted article he asked: “What are the essential themes of the Great Debate? Not about Stalin. That there should be spots on any sun would only startle an inveterate Mithra-worshipper. Not about the now recognised abuses of the security organs in a period of heroic ordeal and achievement of the Soviet Union. To imagine that a great revolution can develop without a million cross-currents, hardships, injustices and excesses would be a delusion fit only for ivory-tower dwellers in fairyland who have still to learn that the thorny path of human advance moves forward, not only with unexampled heroism, but also with accompanying baseness, with tears and blood …”
World News & Views on 30th June printed the statement of the Political Bureau of the French Communist Party published on 19th June. But the British Party had just launched a campaign for working-class unity, essentially a campaign against anti-communist bans in the labour movement. This had been a major theme at the 24th Congress in March, and on 9th June Emile Burns opened with a specially commissioned article for World News & Views. A few days later John Gollan published a pamphlet, `End the Bans’, and the discussion on this now became central to the Party’s aims.
Saville himself thought that it was very significant that, of all the intellectual groups in the Communist Party, the historians had dominated the discussions. Creative writers had been less able, he felt, to avoid `confusion’! The Communist Party’s Historians Group had been running for some years by this period. Whilst in retrospect it is highly regarded for the number and quality of influential professional historians who were associated with it, there were many others – non-academics – who also made important contributions. Many of the better known were ulitmately to leave the Party but most did broadly continue to work in the Marxist tradition. Such eminent historians Christopher Hill and E P Thompson left, whilst Eric Hobsbawn and A L Morton stayed in the Party. The Group aimed for revealing a popular radical approach that would provide inspiration. The originality with which historical insights were explored and the emphasis on enabling marginalised voices in history to be uncovered was a model that many more mainstream historians learned from.
In 1956 the Group launched a quarterly series “Our History”. In the next few years the subjects covered by these indicated this approach in practice, as these titles suggest: The Class Struggle in Local Affairs; Luddism; Labour – Communist Relations 1920 – 1939; The Tradition of Civil Liberties in Britain; Enclosure and Population Change; Land Nationalisation in Britain; Cromwell; Tudor and Stuart England; The Working Week; The Historical Novel; Africa in World History; Party Politics in the 19th Century; Chartist Literature; Sheffield Shop Stewards 1916-1918; An SDF Branch 1903-1906; The Common People 1688-1800; Ernest Jones the Chartist; The General Strike In The North-East; The Lancashire Cotton Famine 1861 – 65; Thomas Bewick 1753-1828; Tom Mann; The Lesser Fabians; Transition From Feudalism to Capitalism; Songs of the Labour Movement; Chartism and unions; Homer.
This practical turn of study, with an eye to establishing an over-arching cultural analysis of history seemed to the two historians who had placed themselves at the centre of controversy to offer an approach as regards what they saw as intellectual dishonesty in the British Party. They now `reasoned’ that the most obvious way to force an open debate was publish independently of the Party press. For some reason they had believed that avoiding publishing in the non-Party press but producing their own independent journal would not be regarded as disruptive. Nonetheless, the Reasoner in its third issue openly dissociated itself from the British Party’s support for intervention in Hungary. It was this, as much as the publication itself, which prompted the Party to suspend the membership of Thompson and Saville. It was considered that the men had the same rights as other Party members to put views on Party policy in their branch and in the Party press. But that the Party could not – and would not – give them the right to go outside the Party and make public attacks upon it. But both resigned and, in 1960, the New Reasoner became New Left Review, after a merger with the Universities and Left Review.
As Arnold Kettle was to say at the 26th Congress in 1959, the recruitment and acceptance of professional people is often a difficult matter: It is difficult not only because there are always certain obvious problems in winning over middle-class people to the side of the working class, but also because, as everyone knows, in the difficult days our Party went through in 1956-57, it was a section of the intellectuals in the Party who were the most influenced by revisionist ideas … It would be very foolish for us to believe that most of the ex-Party revisionists, are wicked or insincere people. Their principal trouble is a persistent desire to have the best of both worlds, to have their cake and eat it – to retain the privileges of their position in bourgeois society while at the same time attacking bourgeois society and associating themselves with the socialist movement. Our job is to convince them – through experience and argument-that Socialism is indeed the answer to their problems, their frustrations and their hopes. . .” [John Saville `The twentieth congress and the British Communist Party, see
An arena that would prove notoriously troublesome for the Party – and one that was extensively fanned by hostile media – was allied to this problem of maintaining the loyalty of intellectuals but was further complicated by the changes to the political perceptions of many Jewish people now that the state of Israel had become a firm part of imperialist nations in the Middle East.
Leading theoretical mathematician, Hyman Levy had maintained a deep commitment and loyalty to the Communist Party for 25 years. (His work was mainly focused on the fields of probability, numerical methods, differential equations, finite difference equations and statistics.) But, after he visited the Soviet Union in 1956 as a member of a British Communist Party Delegation with the remit of investigating reports of repression from 1949, under Stalin’s direction, of Jewish writers, artists and intellectuals. Suspicion of Jews as a potent source for sympathetic spying had arisen following the foundation of Israel, as US and Soviet foreign policy each began a parallel shift on the on hand away and on the other towards Arab nationalism.
Despite the fact that the Party delegation had been seeking to understand the steps being taken by the Soviet Union to correct a remarkably regrettably error, the circumstances he found there so appalled Levy that he wrote an article on the issue for the Party weekly `World News & Views and Views’ in January 1957. Later that year he published a book, `Jews and the National Question’. Rajani Palme Dutt promptly condemned this as a departure from Marxism. The essence of the argument very much related to questions that remain contemporary, that is to say, should there be a two state solution to the problem of Israel and Palestine and how secular rather than religious states should feature in this. Dutt’s powerful critique of the romantic attachment to the state of Israel displayed by Levy and the misleading parallels for policy in the Soviet Union rather goaded Levy to then launch a strong attack on the leaders of the British Party at the 1957 Party Congress, where he demanded to know if it leadership had been aware at the time of the poor post-war treatment of the Jews. As a direct result of this controversy, given his subsequent recourse to public controversy, Levy was expelled from the Communist Party in 1958.
Alec Waterman was another heavily involved in the crisis of confidence that many Jewish Communists, and even its national Jewish committee, felt. Whilst Waterman’s wife, Ray, and his close Jewish Communist friends, Professor Hyman Levy, Chimen Abramsky (previously a bookseller, later a professor of Jewish history) and others left the Party, and whilst yet others “simply towed the party line, Alec spent the following period atoning for his previous acceptance of Soviet propaganda about the Jewish question. In this he was prepared to collaborate with people he would previously have dismissed as anti-Communists. Whilst Jews moved into the middle class and out of the East End, and the Jewish presence in the CPGB declined, Alec became a leading figure in both the Workers’ Circle and the national Jewish committee of the Party.”
In 1956, a Commission was established to prepare a new draft of the Party’s programme, `The British Road to Socialism’, and a revised text was submitted to the Party Congress in 1957, together with 1,500 amendments from Party organisations. The broad principles were agreed by the Congress, the draft was remitted to the EC. A new text was prepared and circulated to Party organisations. After a long and widespread discussion throughout the Party, suggestions for textual changes were submitted by Party organisations; out of 257 suggestions, 159 were incorporated in the final published version adopted by the EC in January 1958.
The new BRS did seem to dilute parts of the 1951 that warned of the dangers presented by the resistance of the big capitalists to measures depriving them of their property and profits. New clauses were inserted which argued that “a transition to socialism without armed conflict is possible today in many countries”. The new programme dropped the references to People’s Democracy as being the Path to Socialism in Britain. People’s democracy was “based on an alliance between the industrial working class and the peasantry”. In such countries, the peasantry formed a large proportion of the population but a great difference existed compared with the position of Britain.
Winning `middle strata’ was important but not as important as recognising how vast the actual working class of Britain was – and is! Whilst the Party repudiated Herbert Morrison’s `new definition’ of Socialism that “Socialism is the assertion of a social responsibility for matters which are properly of social concern”, and which spawned a whole new cottage industry in revisionist thought in the labour movement. Indeed, a George Matthews put it in his report to the 25th Congress on the British Road to Socialism: “`new thinking’ is as old as the hills—it is capitalist thinking”. [George Matthews, `Report on The British Road to Socialism’ Communist Party 25th Congress Report (1957)] The debate also had to grapple with how to challenge slogans such as `A Property-Owning Democracy’ and `The Opportunity State’, the Tories had adopted in their new endeavour to get across the idea that capitalism will develop in a progressive direction.
The programme saw the increasing strength of working class and progressive movement throughout the world as enabling a transition to socialism without armed conflict in many countries. This was particularly true of Britain, with its powerful Labour Movement. Should a time of mounting class struggle see a general election fought on the issue of a socialist solution to Britain’s problems, the return to parliament of a socialist Labour and Communist majority might be envisaged. But this change could only be brought about through struggle. The BRS recognised that the British ruling class is experienced and ruthless in defence of its selfish interests. Counter to this, if the Labour Movement understood the real strength that the working class has, when united in a struggle for socialism, to overcome all resistance.
In response to suggestions that the British Party could learn lessons from the flaws in socialist democracy where Communists held state power, a widespread discussion on inner-Party democracy was held prior to a Special Congress of the Party, held in May 1957. Some viewed the issue as a matter of abstract principle. The EC saw inner-Party democracy in the context that the “main political requirement for the development of the united action of the working class and the advance of the struggle to Socialism in Britain is that the Communist Party shall steadily grow in numbers and influence”. John Mahon, `Report on Inner-Party Democracy’, Communist Party 25th Congress Report, 1957] First and foremost, all matters relating to Party democracy had to flow from this aspect.
The extensive internal discussion that ensued raised the question of what kind of Party was required by the working class. One trend in the debate questioned the conception of a revolutionary working class Party of a new type, based on Marxism-Leninism. Proposals in the form of a Minority Report, opposed by the EC, were seen by the majority as meaning “a retreat from this conception”. Yet much of the retrospective comment of participants who backed the minority position has actually focused almost exclusively on events in eatern Europe and not on the British Party itself, apart from its attitude to these matters. As a member of the Commission who backed the minority line has written, the debate in his mind “was confined to an abstract debate about democratic centralism in the British Party, the thoughts of the minority were dominated by the irrefutable facts of the degeneration of democratic centralism in the Parties of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe”. [Malcolm MacEwan, `The day the party had to stop’, Socialist Register, (1976) p34; see:
But the actual debate, and work of the Commission, was intended to be exclusively about the workings of the British Party for very good reasons – that was something the British Party could realistically manage. Admitted, the Minority Report formally kept to this agenda but it was heavily focused on democracy and not on centralism, as if events abroad had proved that the two were mutually exclusive. The EC and the majority of the Commission saw the very purpose of Party organisation being “to ensure that the collective effort of all our members is directed in the most effective way to the achievement of the Party’s aims” and democratic centralism was key to this.
This objective required a mobilisation of the working class in struggle and the nature of this necessarily imposed certain requirements upon the organisation of the Party. The Communist Party had to be a unified political force, able to give leadership in all circumstances of the class struggle. This required a single leading centre, with an Executive Committee able to lead the whole Party and to influence the wider progressive movement. In two words, what this implied was adherence to what Communists call Democratic Centralism. Contrary to many commentators from without the Communist Party, this was never about blind loyalty, or dictatorial decision-making but a complex and nuanced question, which ultimately was about whether members of a Communist Party were united in action, or divided in debate.
This concept was seen as applying the traditional approach of the British labour movement of democracy in discussion combined with centralism in action in the building of a revolutionary party. Trade unions, for example, put leadership proposals to the vote at mass meetings and then use picket lines to enforce a majority decision. Features recognisable to us today that arose out of the British union tradition needed to be part of a party’s life:
• Periodic election of all party committees
• Responsibility of party committees up and down.
• The minority accepts the majority
• Majority positions remain until policy is changed.
• Lower bodies accept the decisions of higher ones.
• Party organisations and members act with collective responsibility
In a sense, this was an issue that had arisen as far back as the split between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. The key difference at the 1903 RSDLP congress was seemingly minor; Lenin proposed that a party member was someone who recognizes the Party’s programme and supports it by working within one of the Party’s organisations. Actually agreeing with and not just recognising the Party’s programme and the obligation to work under the direction of one of a Party organisations was also a feature later elaborated. The widest and most democratic of discussion should take place prior to any decision. Democratic centralism implies that an organisation ought to be so structured as to provide the capacity of any part of organisation to participate in determining policies relevant to their own responsibilities.
Unity can never be achieved by orders from above but can only be based on agreement and commitment. When a policy has been determined by means of protracted and thoroughgoing discussion amongst those who must carry it out, then unity in action is easily achieved. However, unforeseen events require an instant response, so unity in action necessarily involves an acceptance of leadership. A troop of soldiers under enemy fire would be ill-advised to subject their tactics to thoroughgoing discussion; someone has responsibility for giving instructions. On the other hand, a trade union deciding whether or not to accept the bosses’ offer or continue the strike can and must take as long as is necessary to ensure that everyone is in agreement on what to do: consensus is the order of the day, and ‘leaders’ should take a back seat. Thus, the balance between democracy and centralism must move according to circumstances.
The majority report argued the following:
(i) That all members have the right to take part in the formation of policy and the duty to fight for the policy on which the Party decides.
(ii) That all members have the right to elect and be elected to the leading committees of the Party, and to be represented at the National Party Congress, the sovereign authority of the Party. It decides policy, determines the Rules, and elects the Executive Committee, which between Congresses leads the Party.
(iii) That all members have the right to contribute to the democratic life of the Party, and the duty to safeguard the unity of the Party.
(iv) That the elected leading committees have the right to make decisions which are binding on the lower organisations. The duty of higher organisations is to consult to the maximum possible before making such decisions, and fully to explain the reasons for them. The duty of the lower organisations is to express their views before the decision is made by the higher body and to carry it out when it is made.
(v) That all organisations and members abide by the Rules of the Party. That the obligations of membership and the discipline of the Party, voluntarily accepted on joining, apply to all members whatever their position.
(vi) That decisions are reached by the majority vote, and the minority accepts the decision of the majority.
(vii) That during discussion there is freedom of criticism and self-criticism, and that when a decision is taken it is the duty of all to carry it out. That higher organisations pay attention to the views and experiences of lower organisations and of the members, and give prompt help to solving their problems.
(ix) That lower organisations report on their work to the higher organisations, present their problems and ask for guidance on matters requiring decision by the higher organisations.
(x) That all Party organisations combine collective leadership and individual responsibility.
(xi) That factional activity of any kind is not permitted because it destroys the unity of the Party.
The notion was projected by some that, since Britain is different, with things being done in a peaceful and democratic way, the working class does not require an ideologically united revolutionary party organised on the principle of democratic centralism. In arguing at the congress for the majority report, John Mahon proposed that: “To examine realities in Britain is to leave no doubt that the British capitalists have done more than any others to establish their centralised state power for use in defence of their profits and privileges and for aggressive action against their enemies, at home and abroad … Under the guise of security a secret and powerful machine is in action today against those who oppose capitalism. It spies, threatens and bribes. Opening people’s post and tapping their telephones are included in its everyday routine. It stores up many thousands of dossiers for the day when it can use them in a big way. Meanwhile, it perfects its technique of blacklisting and witch-hunting. In the field of propaganda the British capitalist class excels all others.”
The clinching argument was that unity guaranteed success, the British Party had avoided splits and factions and “during 34 years of struggle our Party has maintained its unity and grown in strength”. Detailed proposals had been put to give more time and space in the Party for pre-Congress discussion, to consult more, to improve the method of election of the EC. The EC had even declared as “correct the criticism that at the root of many shortcomings and errors in inner-Party life lies a serious error – the tendency to over-emphasise centralism and under-emphasise democracy”. Congress was even asked to endorse this criticism.
Proposals which claimed to be based on an acceptance of the principle of democratic centralism but would make it more democratic in practice were rejected by the congress. These would have given individual members the right to contract out from decisions they do not agree with and to campaign for a minority viewpoint, keeping to majority decisions “to the best of their ability”. [Malcolm MacEwan, `The day the party had to stop’, Socialist Register, (1976) p33; see:
Individuals would have the right to publish their own material outside Party control, branches to mandate a delegate to Congress to vote a certain way, irrespective of what was heard in debate. The right of a branch to veto the nomination of one of its member to higher committees would have brought in a federal structure, undermining the strength of a sovereign congress and a democratically elected central leadership. Such an approach, for Communists, elevate the individual above the collective and the minority above the majority.
The strength of a Communist Party, which will often be observed by outsiders to `punch well above its weight in numbers’, arises precisely from its ability to act as a united organisation. The individual member voluntarily associates with the collective, and should contributes everything possible to it, accepting its decisions. Individual members do not have discretion to decide for themselves whether or not they will accept the Party decisions. But those who hold a minority opinion have every right to reserve their views and to express them to higher bodies, asking for the matter to be reopened. Yet those who disagree have the obligation common to all members – to fight for the decision once it is made. Learning from experience, correcting mistakes, changing policy is a matter for the whole membership of the Party.
Accepting the minority report would have conceded the notion of a permanent minority, needing its own organisation. This is indeed what takes place in `normal’ parties, where a permanent right and left represent different interests. Mahon argued that the Minority Report was “dominated by the idea that the main thing is to elevate minority opinion, and that if this were done the Party would in some way gain public support.” How would creating an “endless debate” develop Communists and branches capable of leading the struggle of the working class?
The overwhelmingly accepted Congress Resolution on Inner-Party Democracy endorsed the principles of the Majority Report of the Commission on Inner-Party Democracy as amended and instructed the new EC to publish the finalised text. It also instructed the EC to draft of new Party Rules and a statement on Congress procedure for submission to the 26th Congress, and to prepare a statement on Party discussion procedure. [Communist Party 25th Congress Report, 1957]