Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Against Democratic Centralism: Léon Blum 1920.

with 21 comments

A True Hero of the Labour Movement. 

Léon Blum 1920

Relevant citations to present debates,


Thus, the following question is posed: Do you or do you not accept this body of doctrine formulated by the Congress of the Communist International? And to accept – I hope there will be no divergence of opinion on this point – to accept means to accept with mind, heart, and will and with the intention of strictly conforming, in thought and action, to the new doctrine.

Any other kind of adherence would be a comedy, unworthy of the Communist International and unworthy of the French party. You are in the presence of a totality. “There is not even room to quibble over this or that detail. It is a question of looking at the unifying theme, the central idea. It doesn’t much matter if your acceptance entails this or that reservation about a detail. There is no trickery or deception in that. But if you contest the doctrine in its essentials, you really have no right to accept with second thoughts or mental reservations, to say “I agree, but I only pay lip-service, with the conviction that this is nothing but a joke, and that tomorrow the party will continue to live and to act as it did yesterday.” We are all agreed in rejecting such an interpretation. (Applause)

The Congress may believe this of us. With an effort at intellectual impartiality and honesty that no one here will deny, we faced the problem squarely and said to ourselves: “Studying the texts of the Communist International, its theses, its statutes” – and I will not dwell on the difficulties and really excessive slowness with which we were given each of the materials under discussion – “can we or can we not accept them?” For us to accept would really mean to accept in the strongest possible sense of the word.

We had the duty of making that textual examination. … What is the result? It is twofold. First of all (and I believe there will be no disagreement about this), we are in the presence of something new. Some have tried to prove the contrary, and perhaps will try again. I remember the meeting of the Federation of the Seine when I was responding to Frossard, who had made the most ingenious and clever effort to combine the communist theses with the traditional principles of the Socialist Party. I tried to show him that those theses reflected a force, a will to construct something new, differing entirely from the essential tenets of the traditional socialism we had until then known and practiced. I remember that the most qualified delegates of the Third International supported me.

“It’s true,” they said. “That is what we think; that is what we want. It is a new socialism that we want to create in our country and in the whole proletarian world.” That is what Lenin and Trotsky have said. It is what you yourselves said when returning from Russia. For example, Cachin, in the last letter that he sent from Moscow, spoke of a break with the past. Trotsky, in the most recent document that the Communist Bulletin has published, said that it was a new party.”

In our opinion, it is based on ideas erroneous in themselves, and contrary to the basic and invariable principles of Marxist socialism.

Furthermore, it is based on a sort of vast error of fact, which consists of generalizing to all international socialism certain ideas drawn from a local and particular experience, that of the Russian Revolution. It gives as a necessary and universal rule of action, for all international socialism, the experience of those who carried out and kept alive the Russian Revolution. T

his is what we think: novelty on the one hand, and error on the other; error of fact, error of doctrine. I will go over the points I have indicated and, for each one, I will show you how the statements made in our motion against joining the communist Third International can be justified.

First, party organisation. That organization born of the unity pact of 1905 and of the practice and experience of a decade (I don’t count the war years) – you know the essential principles on which it is based. A constitution having, above all, a popular character, in which, following the excellent formula of our statutes, the direction of our Party belongs to the Party itself. It is in the base of the Party itself, in the mass of militants and dues payers, that the Party’s collective will and thought are formed. That will and thought are transmitted from one level to another, from the Section to the Federation, from the Federation to the National Council, from the Council to the Congress.


Written by Andrew Coates

May 15, 2014 at 10:27 am

21 Responses

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  1. Leon Trotsky wasn’t much of a fan:

    “The entire counter-revolution bides its time behind the backs of Blum and Jouhaux.”

    Danny O'Dare

    May 15, 2014 at 10:38 am

  2. “When the Germans occupied France in June 1940, Blum made no effort to leave the country, despite the extreme danger he was in as a Jew and a socialist leader; instead of fleeing the country, he escaped to southern France, but the French ordered his arrest. Blum was imprisoned in Fort du Portalet in the Pyrenees.[9]

    Blum was among the “The Vichy 80”, a minority of parliamentarians that refused to grant full powers to Marshal Philippe Pétain. He was arrested by the authorities in September and held until 1942, when he was put on trial in the Riom Trial on charges of treason, for having “weakened France’s defenses” by ordering her arsenal shipped to Spain, leaving France’s infantry unsupported by heavy artillery on the eastern front against Nazi Germany. He used the courtroom to make a brilliant indictment[citation needed] of the French military and pro-German politicians like Pierre Laval. The trial was such an embarrassment to the Vichy regime that the Germans ordered it called off. He was transferred to German custody and imprisoned in Germany until 1945.

    In April 1943, the occupying Government had Blum imprisoned in Buchenwald in the section reserved for high-ranking prisoners. His future wife, Jeanne Blum, chose to come to the camp voluntarily to live with him inside the camp. As the Allied armies approached Buchenwald, he was transferred to Dachau, near Munich, and in late April 1945, together with other notable inmates, to Tyrol. In the last weeks of the war the Nazi regime gave orders that he was to be executed[citation needed], but the local authorities decided not to obey them. Blum was rescued by Allied troops in May 1945. While in prison he wrote his best known work, the essay À l’échelle Humaine (“On a human scale”).

    Andrew Coates

    May 15, 2014 at 11:37 am

  3. What usually goes unmentioned in discussions of “democratic centralism” is that the Mensheviks—the apparent democratic alternative to the authoritarian Bolsheviks—were the first Russian socialists to use the phrase, which they borrowed for their 1905 constitution from the German socialist movement, where it originated in 1865. Lenin simply adopted the idea for the Bolsheviks. And for both factions of the RSDLP, all “democratic centralism” meant was, as Charles Post puts it in the 2013 Socialist Register, “the authority of democratically elected party congresses alone to make decisions binding on all party committees and members.”

    Yes, the idea of what “democratic centralism” meant started changing with the 21 Conditions of 1920. But even then, it was made clear that this was because of the “present epoch of acute civil war.” It was really only in 1923 when — quoting Post again — “the Comintern leadership imposed what the twentieth-century left has come to know as ‘Leninist norms of organization’ – cells at a local level operating under the direction of an unaccountable ‘democratic centralist’ leadership, bans on internal tendencies and factions, defining ‘cadre’ in terms of political and organizational loyalty to the party leadership, an extremely narrow political and organizational ‘homogeneity’, and the like.”

    Jason Schulman

    May 16, 2014 at 10:50 pm

  4. The flaw in this Jason is ” the authority of Democratically elected party congresses”. Tell us more on this one.


    May 17, 2014 at 5:47 am

  5. What is there to explain? A course of action is decided upon at the party congress. Everyone in the party is required to carry out that course of action. If a majority of party members come to the conclusion that this course was the wrong course, they can (presumably through elected delegates) decide to change strategies/tactics at the next congress.

    I fail to see the authoritarianism.

    Jason Schulman

    May 17, 2014 at 5:58 am

  6. Quite right, Jason – about the role of party congresses and democratic centralism.

    Danny O'Dare

    May 17, 2014 at 9:05 am

  7. The rub is in the “presumably”. The central committees were a self perpetuating elite who killed their opponents within and without the party. Outside of the Soviet block they were merely expelled. Fortunately all of that is past now because communism failed.


    May 18, 2014 at 8:19 am

  8. Users of this blog should be aware that the commentator ‘madmullahofbricklane’ is almost certainly a guy called Terry Fitzpatrick.

    The comments in the below discussion, including from Fitzpatrick, near enough confirm this; as does subsequent conversations on that blog. http://trialbyjeory.wordpress.com/2014/05/05/my-sylheti-father-would-have-been-appalled-by-lutfurs-divisive-politics-of-fear-a-guest-post-by-tony-uddin/#comment-18724

    Fitzpatrick was convicted of ‘aggravated racial harrassment’ against people connected with Operation Black Vote a few years ago. I will have nothing to do with him.

  9. If true, I am not in the slightest surprised – his comments on ‘democratic centralism’ ,etc obviously revealed a deeply anti-communist outlook.

    Danny O'Dare

    May 18, 2014 at 7:10 pm

  10. His comments on Ian Bone’s blog are often worse than the stuff he posts here.


    May 18, 2014 at 11:23 pm

  11. More on Fitzpatrick and his convictions here: http://socialistunity.com/harrys-place-contributor-guilty-of-racist-crime/

    NB: I don’t presume having convictions is wrong and I also appreciate that some can be falsely convicted, or convicted for things socialists don’t consider crimes but I see none of that here – although I do also acknowledge some of the possible reasons given in this article for the descent of a former Left..

    My view on racists, especially workers who are racists, is that it is unfortunate, attempts can be made argue with them for a while and recognition is due that racism is not innate – their bigotry is a product of their lives, circumstances, etc. But it is a poison, none the less, and whilst it remains, I think they are beyond the pale.

  12. I know who I am southpaw and you are wrong. Just because someone agrees with someone else doesn’t mean they are that person, something that you haven’t quite worked out. I see tat Ted Jeory doesn’t think very much of you and he is a very shrewd journalist.

    I always refer the uneducated about Tower Hamlets to http://www.swadhinata.org.uk. Put is name into the search facility and see what Bangladeshis think of him.


    May 19, 2014 at 5:12 am

  13. I have no time for witch-hunting and I considered the matter carefully before posting but beyond reasonable doubt, you are Terry Fitzpatrick.

    You are named as him; you admit to a long and detailed history (back to the 70s) which fits with what is known about him; you offer to put people in touch with him by contacting you; you relate a level of detail about matters (such as the minutiae of the court case) that would be known by Fitzpatrick and very few others; you have the same detailed interests (e.g. a particular critical view of Livingstone and Jasper) that you often relate and you have not clearly before denied being Fitzpatrick, indeed some of your answers on that thread can be taken as a acknowledgement you are him.

  14. I had guessed this.

    Not a happy tale.

    Andrew Coates

    May 19, 2014 at 11:25 am

  15. 07931 783670


    May 20, 2014 at 6:34 pm

  16. I’ve read comments on Ted Jeory’s blog, as well as on Ian Bone’s blog from “themadmullah” which have clearly confirmed that the person commenting there under that name is T. Fitzpatrick, possibly through some confusion while posting and the wrong name being given as comment author. So nothing more to discuss about there, I reckon..


    May 20, 2014 at 11:39 pm

  17. Also: “On 12 June 1936 the Blum government, with CP backing, seized a Trotskyist paper, La Lutte Ouvrière, which called for workers’ power.” http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1968/france/6-revsit.htm


    May 21, 2014 at 12:26 am

  18. Compared what Stalin was doing at the same this suppression of an issue of a paper seems trivial, to say the least.

    Andrew Coates

    May 21, 2014 at 12:37 pm

  19. A non sequitur, Andrew. The point is that there’s little reason for Marxists to be a fan of Blum. Particularly since his SFIO cohabited in government with the bourgeois Radicals. Cross-class governmental coalitions are a Marxist no-no.


    May 22, 2014 at 12:42 am

  20. I think Andrew is revealing his rightist tendencies.

    Danny O'Dare

    May 22, 2014 at 12:05 pm

  21. The issue is not his record in the 1930s but the arguments of the famous speech, Pour la vieille maison » as it’s normally known.

    Certainly the record of working with the French radicals (from the Cartel des gauches in the 1920s to the FP itself and specifically collaborating with with Herriot is not a happy one.

    Personally had I been there in the 1930s I would have backed Blum’s socialist critic Marceau Pivert (English link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marceau_Pivert)

    But I am impressed by the fact that Blum stood up to the Collaboration.

    Andrew Coates

    May 22, 2014 at 12:22 pm

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