a couple of comments on democracy and centralism

a couple of comments on democracy and centralism  by Jay Leslie

I still believe that building a revolutionary socialist party is a necessity and that such a party can’t be improvised on the spot during a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary crisis.  That said, I think it’s a healthy impulse to want to have a discussion of what the role of democratic centralism is and what it means in this period. Too often, Trotskyist party-building formations operate in a top-down fashion with little of no input from the members.  (I’ll avoid comments on organizations I don’t belong to or have no past experience with.)

IMO, democratic centralism is about having the fullest democratic discussion possible followed by unity in action.  If a comrade disagrees with a decision, they should not actively undermine the action.  Unity in thought is impossible.

Democratic centralism also requires accountable leadership bodies – members accountable to each other, leaders accountable to the members. Leadership bodies should function in a  way that develops new leadership.  I can’t comment on the leadership dynamic at work in SA nowadays, since it’s almost 2 years since I quit. When I was in Socialist Action, the national committee (to which the PC is constitutionally responsible) barely functioned – 5 conference calls in a two year period.  The Political Committee, in reality, called the shots and the NC functioned as a body to ratify PC decisions and positions.

SA functions fairly well on some levels– not overly top-down when enforcing the line on branches, for instance.  Branches in a national organization should have the ability to  implement the political line of the organization in a way that makes sense for conditions on the ground. Not every branch has the ability to carry out all decisions of the organization in the same way. There is political and organizational unevenness in any organization.  The point of organization is to try to build up the skills and abilities of members on the ground as quickly as possible.  Federalism is something to be avoided like the plague.

As revolutionaries we strive for homogeneity – not monolithic thinking. Homogeneity is not something that can be decreed from above but is built through shared, collective, experience.  It means that through common struggle and the summing-up of experiences, comrades reach a level of agreement and cohesion necessary for revolutionary organization.

(Over the past period, I’ve stayed away from attacks and open criticism of SA, as much as possible, because I respect many of the comrades who remain members. I prefer not to wash the dirty linen in public.  I left of my own free will and wasn’t expelled. But it was abundantly clear to me that any ideas I had raised in the preconvention discussion were unwelcome and perceived –at least by the natsec– as a threat to the organization.)

“…if a party can live year after year without any factional disturbances, it may not be a sign of health — it may be a sign that the party’s asleep; that it’s not a real live party. In a live party you have differences, differences of appraisal, and so on. But that’s a sign of life.” JP Cannon

I believe that differences in a revolutionary organization are healthy and, if handled correctly, without condescension, distortions and sarcasm, for instance, can help an organization both advance the struggles of our class /and/  build a healthy, self-acting, and thoughtful membership. It also means that there is a time and place for discussion- public or private- and a time to get busy. I do not believe that permanent factions, or permanent discussion, are signs of health.  A revolutionary organization or party should strive to be an organization for class combat.

“We never tried to settle differences of opinion by suppression. Free discussion – not every day in the week but at stated regular times, with full guarantees for the minority – is a necessary condition for the health and strength of an organization such as ours.” JP Cannon

It seems to me that care should have been taken in SA to use the NC more to develop political ideas and activist projects.  In this way, you train and test a layer of younger, less experienced, comrades and prepare them for the later job of leadership– a dynamic body is preferable to a body of hand raisers. It is the obligation of all members and leaders to do what they can to raise the political level of all members as much as possible.

This raises a question for me.  Does a socialist organization of less than 100 people really need bifurcated political structures based on a model inherited from the Communist International?  Would a functioning unitary NC that met more frequently be more effective in both leading the day-to-day work of a group and developing the younger members politically?

I’m less enthusiastic these days about the “model” of organization handed down to us from the old SWP.  It seems to me that methods of leadership and organization inherited from the old party were flawed and carry with them the seeds of the later top-down methods of Barnes. The 1965 resolution on organization, for instance, changed the way the old party functioned and not for the better.

I remain a Leninist in my political thinking and orientation, though, at this point, without the necessary political anchor of an organization. Eventually, I hope to resolve that problem, because I see organization as critically necessary.

First, if we agree that we want the working class and its allies to take political and economic power away from the capitalist class and agree that the Marxist theory of the state tells us that we can’t use the bourgeois state- that this state must be smashed and replaced with a new type of state based on direct democracy.

If we agree that the ruling class will do everything in their power to save their money and their skins, then we have to have an organization that is BOTH effective and democratic. This is really what democratic centralism is about- the struggle for power and building the most effective organization/party with the broadest possible participation of the rank and file.

I agree with you that the way most “Leninist” organizations today has nothing to do with the way the Bolsheviks actually organized themselves. It’s the top-down caricature of centralism as practiced by too many revolutionary organizations that needs to be scrapped.

Of course, we are not in 1917 or 1934 or even 1968. We are in a very different period and the left is at a low ebb.  This situation can’t be overcome through sheer political will.  The only thing that will change this situation is the self-activity and self-organization of the working class and oppressed.

IMO, building effective revolutionary organization is a necessary part of this process.

a couple of links that I think are useful

Democracy and Debate in the Bolshevik Party Murray Smith

Paul Le Blanc: Marxism and organization

Ernest Mandel The Leninist Theory of Organization

Lars Lih Lenin and democratic centralism

One comment

  1. Hi John, all good points. However, as much as you and I and many others might reject the SWP’s 1965 Organizational Resolution, “It” didn’t do anything. It mearly codified the evolution of higher degrees of centralization that had been going on since 1940 or so. The ’65 report was merely the synthesis of this development. Even without it, the SWP was still overly centralized. This resolution, passed in the heat of the ’65 expulsion of the Sparts and Workers League folks, along with the splits from the Wiesites and FSP, was at best a literary sign post on the way to further problems

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