Tom Kerry: “If Ever You Surrender Your Right To Criticize, You’re Dead!” (1979)


Comrades, I take the floor despite my vows not to do so. I’ve had it. I’ve had it up to here. The decision I would have to make would be either to stay home, to stay away from the branch meetings, or to begin to speak and express an opinion. I’ve had some experience in the party, for forty-five years. I’ve even been an industrial worker. Would you believe it! And a nonindustrial worker.

Let me divert. I don’t get this about the industrial worker. What is it about being an industrial worker that endows the individual with qualities which require other individuals years of study? I don’t know. You mean you take some zombie off the street and stick him on a machine and he becomes a teacher? I never heard such nonsense in my life, but let that go. I want to speak of more serious things.

The comrade said there’s a class division in the San Francisco branch. And I questioned him on it and he reaffirmed his view, there’s a class division in the San Francisco branch. Well, the comrade knows that I’m in opposition. I voted against the political resolution, and I tried to motivate my motion at the time. And I was prepared to let it go at that.

But when you stand up on the floor of this branch and say, well, there are class divisions in this branch, then that’s a declaration of war, whether you know it or not. Because a class division in this branch means that there’s a petty-bourgeois grouping or tendency in this branch and they’ve got to be driven out! You’re not going to drive me out, brother, without a fight! I can tell you I’ve got at least one more good fight in me, I think. I think so.

We had a petty-bourgeois opposition. We had the Shachtmanite petty-bourgeois opposition and we characterized them as such. Because there was a difference on program. A programmatic difference. And we raised the question then: Is it possible that these two tendencies would be compatible, could they coexist in the same party, having such deep-going differences as was present? Answer that question in your mind please.

Is this petty-bourgeois opposition compatible with coexistence in the party with you Marxists? That is the question you’re going to have to answer. I’m going to ask this question of the plenipotentiary from West Street who is here in San Francisco. And I’m going to demand that he answer it before this branch. And if his answer is the same as yours then comrades we’ve got trouble. Oh boy, have we got trouble. Because I for one have had experience enough to know that in a case of this kind you’ve got to begin to organize in order to protect your right to speak! And I’m already beginning to hear objections, objections! to the comrades making criticism. They consider criticism as a sort of personal assault upon the leadership of the party. It’s not so. It’s not a scandal when comrades criticize the executive committee. What they’re saying is we think you’re wrong. What is scandalous about that? Or don’t you think it is possible for them to be wrong? Or is it intended to intimidate the opposition to the leadership? Is that what you intend by your remark about the class division? That anybody who has a difference with the leadership, by virtue of that fact, is in the enemy class. You see, you better keep your goddamn mouth shut.

No! That is not the way we build the party. And you’ll not find that in any of the statutes of the party. You’ll not find that in the organizational principles of the party. You’ll not find it anywhere!

Our party was based upon the Leninist concept that the only possible party that can successfully lead a revolution is a self-thinking, self-acting membership! We don’t have any popes! And the way you talk about Barnes, he is some kind of pope. Every time there is some question he refers to Barnes as though that settles it. Do you even consider that Barnes may be wrong? I mean does it ever cross your mind that Barnes may be wrong? I think so. Oh boy, has he been wrong. But I still think he is a qualified leader of the party, carries out the program of the party, and I support him critically! Critically!

If ever you surrender your right to criticize, you’re dead! This party couldn’t make a revolution on Mission Avenue, let alone in San Francisco, with that kind of a membership. A membership must be self-thinking and self-acting! That means a critical membership. And critical of every official, from Barnes on down, if you please. If you’ve got a criticism of Barnes — voice it! Don’t let anybody stop you! Don’t let anybody intimidate you! I never heard of such a thing. You look back. Look back at our internal bulletins, if you please. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Full of criticism, some of them very violent criticism of the leadership, from Jim Cannon on down. We never attempted to crucify them because they criticized. We said that they were wrong. We argued with them. We discussed with them. We tried to convince them. Some were convinced, some we didn’t succeed in convincing. But I think our method was the best one. Those who were capable of being assimilated were convinced. And we convinced them. Those who weren’t left the party. Some of them went into business for themselves. You see them in front of your forums occasionally here, part of them. OK, but they had their chance to speak. They weren’t suppressed. They weren’t threatened. And they weren’t intimidated. We had free and open discussion.

Let me tell you something. There is a comrade from the Political Committee out here to submit the information that the Political Committee had reversed the decision of the District Committee and of the branch — on what? on two propositions that are appearing on the San Francisco ballot. Big deal. I’m against it. I’m opposed to it. I think it’s wrong. I think it is absolutely wrong. Even if they are right about their criticism. I haven’t even heard their criticism. I don’t give a damn. Even if they are right about their criticism I think it is an incorrect way of developing a leadership in this party! You don’t come down with a goddamn broadaxe on a section of the leadership and the membership of the party when they’ve made some little error or when you think they’ve made some little error. This is an error on, what do you call it, a proposition. The whole goddamn San Francisco electoral machinery is going to be upset if the Socialist Workers Party of San Francisco votes yes or no on proposition Q and Z.

All right. I’ll conclude. I’m against it because it undermines the confidence of the leadership. It destroys their feeling that they are confident of making a little decision like this, you see. It makes them more dependent upon the center. So that after this they won’t make decisions like this, or decisions of any kind, for that matter, without getting on the telephone first and clearing it with Barnes, or whoever happens to be pope at the time.

So it is not the way to build a critical, self-thinking, self-acting membership! It is not the way to build a leadership. Leaders in this party are not selected. They earn their spurs by their activity, by their thinking, by the development of their views and ideas in the course of their activity.

Too much. There’s been too much of this business of sending in organizers from the outside of the branches. In our branches, for example, like the San Francisco branch, we have very qualified people, we have the most qualified people of any organization in this country, in my opinion. And if we can’t select an organizer out of a branch of this size and this character then we’re in a pretty sad state. What is the use? How do you develop leadership? How do you develop leaders? Beginning with taking industrial workers and making teachers out of them. OK, you’ve got one section of the leaders there. Does that exhaust our capacity?

No, comrades, don’t intimidate me. Don’t try to intimidate me and don’t try to hush me up. You’ll be making the worst mistake in your life if you do. I’m going to find out whether there’s a division in this branch, whether there is a class division in this branch, which means a political, programmatic division in this branch, whether there’s a petty-bourgeois tendency in this branch, whether this tendency is compatible with the coexistence in the same party with the “proletarians,” the teachers from the industrial unions.

There’s going to be a fight so you had better gird yourself.

From the archives: The Panel System of Election and Bolshevik Tradition (1945)


Note: The following document was first published the Revolutionary Communist Party’s Internal Bulletin No. 4 (October 1945). It does have some obvious historical interest but also – and we note this document was recently circulated by Alex Callinicos on Facebook – may serve to clarify certain questions of current interest.

At our recent (1945) National Congress the new Central Committee was elected by a method which has apparently puzzled some comrades. After discussions had taken place between the majority of the old CC and delegates to the Congress holding the minority position, an agreed panel was arrived at for the new CC. This panel – consisting of 13 members of the majority and 2 of the minority – was then introduced to the Congress, and after some discussion, accepted by it, with only one vote in opposition.

A similar method of election had been adopted at the 1944 Fusion Congress and was also used, after the 1945 Congress, for the election of the London District Committee.

Since it would appear that this procedure and the reasons for it are not clear, to a number of comrades, the present statement aims at clarifying the position before our membership.

It must first be made plain that there is no fixed method for electing the leadership of a Bolshevik party. The CC must be elected, of course, at a Congress of the Party and by the delegates of that Congress, but the way the election is carried out depends entirely on circumstances. The history of the Bolshevik Party shows that a number of different methods were used, depending upon both the legal position of the Party, and the political situation inside it.

For instance, at the Second (1903) Congress, for reasons of Party security, there were no open nominations and no open elections for the members of the CC, and the name of only one of those elected was announced to the Congress. Actually voting took place on the basis of rival panels which had been discussed during the Congress at meetings of the two fractions (Bolsheviks and Mensheviks), the Bolshevik panel being the one elected.

At the Fourth ‘Unifiying’ Congress (1905) there was a sharp political cleavage between the Menshevik majority and the Bolshevik minority. When it came to the election of the Central Committee, “a vote was taken”, (so the minutes state, “as to whether the election should take place upon the basis of individual nominations, or upon that of panels. It was unanimously decided to vote upon the basis of panels”. Someone then raised the question of whether there should be a secret vote and the chairman replied “Secret voting is incorrect when an election is taking place upon the basis of panels and not of individual delegates (Sharov and Voinov) and accepted by the Congress – 60 votes being cast for it, with 10 against and 24 abstentions. Lenin, in his report of the Congress, afterwards explained what had actually taken place. “The elections took place at the Congress in a few minutes. In actual fact everything had been arranged before the session of the Congress. The Mensheviks filled the five seats on the Editorial board of the central organ with Mensheviks alone. We agreed to put three of our people as against seven Mensheviks on to the Central Committee.” At the Ninth Congress (1920) election of the CC took place in the following manner; “ candidatures proposed for membership of the Central Committee were discussed. Panels of candidates were announced and only those candidatures were discussed against which objections were raised; upon the discussion of candidatures being terminated, voting papers were distributed to the delegates. These voting papers, when completed, were handed over to the commission of 15 which had been elected by the Congress to count the votes.” (From the Report of the Ninth Congress.) It will be observed that people were put forward to the delegates though in the actual vote it would appear that those proposed were voted upon as individuals.

At the Tenth Congress (1921), there were differences between Trotsky and the majority of the old Central Committee on the Trade Union question. There were also more serious differences between both Trotsky and the CC majority on the one hand, and the so-called Workers’ Opposition on the other. The CC majority included Lenin and nine other members of the old CC. As a result the Congress had before it “a panel of candidates proposed to the tenth congress of the RCP by those former members of the CC who signed the platform of the ten, Lenin, Zinoviev, Stalin, Kamenev, Tomsky, Rudzutak, Kalinin, Artem, Petrovski, and also by the private meeting of those delegates to Congress who support the same platform.” (Congress report).

This panel contained 23 names (including Trotsky’s). Two places were left open (the CC had 25 members) so that the Workers’ Opposition might nominate two of its members. When it came to the vote those nominated were voted on individually, the number of votes different individuals on the panel received, varying considerably.

It will be seen from the above that nomination for the CC by means of panel, was a general practice in the Bolshevik Party, though the way in which the panel (or panels) was voted on, differed on different occasions. There is a general reason for this method of nomination which holds good even in the event of a politically united party without fractions. At the end of its term of office an out-going Central Committee (or at least its majority) knows exactly how its individual members have fulfilled their functions since election. If any CC members have failed to attend CC meetings regularly or have failed to make any significant contributions to the work or discussions of the CC such facts are obviously far better known to the other CC members than to the Party as a whole, or any other section of it. Likewise if any alternate members of the CC have either failed to fulfil their role adequately or else fulfilled it well enough to justify their being made full members of the CC, – this will be better known to the members of the CC than to the rest of the Party. The CC is also in a good position to judge which Party members, not previously members of the CC, now merit inclusion, either as alternates or full members.

It is therefore good Bolshevik practice, and fully in accordance with the principles of democratic centralism, for the out-going CC to present to the national Congress a panel for the new CC. In the absence of sharp fractional divisions within the Party, such a panel would first be generally discussed at the Congress. It would be introduced by a member of the retiring CC who would give grounds for the dropping of former CC members and the inclusion of new ones. Delegates might then query or challenge the presence of certain comrades on the CC panel; suggestions might be made for the inclusion of comrades omitted by the CC. Possibly some delegates, or even the Congress as a whole, might have some basic disagreement with the proposed panel. Another panel, or other panels would then be moved by delegates.

In the event of no basic disagreements being found with the panel proposed by the out-going CC the Congress then proceeds to vote. The CC panel proposed can be voted upon as a panel – any delegate desiring slight changes being of course at liberty to move an amendment, to remove one or more names from the panel and to replace them by others. Voting then takes place openly. On the other hand voting may take place on the basis of every delegate voting for 15 (if the CC is composed of 15 members) comrades for the CC. This is done as a rule by writing down 15 names on a voting form; the voting forms then being collected and the number of votes for each candidate being counted – the 15 receiving the highest votes being of course those elected. In this case the panel proposed by the former CC and any other panels which have been proposed merely serve as a guide to delegates in their voting but are not voted on as such.

The method to be adopted at any given Congress depends upon practical considerations, and should be decided by the Congress itself after discussion of the panel or panels has taken place. In the event of general agreement being reached the first method – that of voting on the panel as a whole is obviously best as saving unnecessary waste of time. But should there exist considerable differences of opinion as to the composition of the CC without clear-cut political differences being present, then the second method might be considered most satisfactory. In either case, the method of nomination by means of a panel or panels has the important advantage  that the Congress is able to before voting, discuss the future CC as a whole, as the future leadership of the Party. Individual nomination, without panels, render this impossible.

One further point here; the inclusion or otherwise of any comrade on a panel obviously depends to a great extent upon the part he or she has played at the Congress itself. It is therefore necessary that panels put forward should be drawn up in their final form at the Congress itself. Unlike the case of resolutions, therefore, it is not possible or desirable to circulate panels for the CC prior to the Congress amongst the membership.

When sharp fractional divisions exist inside the Party, the necessity for the panel voting system of voting becomes still more obvious. The relative strengths of the opposing fractions will have become obvious during the course of the Congress. Fraction meetings will then take place between the Congress sessions (these latter being suspended if necessary for this purpose) and each fraction will then work out its panel for the CC. Discussions inside a fraction on its nominations for the CC will normally take place on the basis of panels proposed by members of the Fraction, in much the same way as such discussions would take place at Congress without fractions.

When the fractions have each worked out their panels for the CC, meetings normally take place between representatives of the different fractions with the purpose of arriving at an agreed panel if this is possible. If such a joint panel is agreed upon, then it will be proposed to the Congress by the representatives of the fractions concerned. The way in which the Congress then votes will of course depend upon the circumstances, but if the fractions which have presented the joint panel have behind them the overwhelming majority of the Congress it will obviously be best for the agreed panel to be voted upon as a whole. This both saves the time of the Congress and provides a guarantee that the agreement regarding the joint panel will be honoured by those who have concluded it. Delegates who belonged to no fraction would of course retain the right to either move another panel or else to move amendments to the panel proposed by the fractions.

In the event of no agreement being reached between the fractions or if no agreement is reached in which one or more fractions do not participate, that is, if there are more than two fractions at the Congress, which will then vote either upon the panels as a whole (with amendments if such are put forward) or may use these as a guide for voting for individuals. Once again the method adopted will depend upon the circumstances.

It would of course be possible for a fraction which had behind it a majority of the delegates to secure that its panel would be accepted by the Congress, even if such a panel included no representatives of the other fractions, such a course of action would in general be an unwise one, since it would mean that only one viewpoint would get representation on the Party leadership. This in its turn would tend to prevent the fractional differences within the Party being eliminated by joint work, and joint experiences on the Party leadership. For this reason it has been the practice in the Bolshevik movement for a majority fraction to give representation on the CC to any minority, (or minorities) having serious political differences with it. Such representation is in no way a proportional one – ie, it need in no way be in exact relation to the relative strengths of the opposing fractions, but it should be aimed at securing the presence on the CC of the best representatives of the minority (or minorities) a certain number of seats on the CC and leaving it to the minority fraction (or fractions) to nominate its representatives for those seats once their number has been agreed upon.