Saturday, 2 November 2013

10 points on revolutionary organisation and democracy

Working class democracy: Chartist mass meeting, Kennington, 1848
As part of my recent blog post 'Revolutionaries, movements and class' I briefly restated the case for revolutionary socialist organisation. This included the following:
'The need for revolutionary organisation remains rooted in an understanding that real change has to be fought for through action from below. We cannot rely on either politicians or bureaucrats to change things for us, but must instead build broad, democratic coalitions of resistance. To make permanent gains and bring about radical social transformation, revolution will be necessary, in which the repressive state is replaced with a new order based on mass democratic assemblies. To this end we need an organisation of revolutionary socialists rooted in, and shaping, broader working class struggles.'
I also indicated the centrality of democracy to the project of building such organisation.
'Democracy is at the heart of the authentic Leninist tradition. It is essential for effective action. The centrality of democracy applies not only to our social and political struggles, but also to our own organisation. We need to recover authentic democratic centralism and recognise that the genuine Leninist commitment to internal democracy is radically different from the 'sect' form, in which an ossified dogmatic orthodoxy is seen as needing protection against challenge in democratic discussion.'
In this post I want to elaborate on the theme of democracy in revolutionary socialist organisations. The 10 points below involve a fair amount of generalisation while being, in my view, especially pertinent to the period we currently find ourselves in. 
The continuing crisis of the SWP is part of the context here, but I am ultimately far more interested in positive ideas for building democratic revolutionary organisation than in diagnosing my former organisation's malaise. To a large extent the points here involve reflecting on my positive experiences as an activist in Counterfire - and in broader movement activity such as the North East People's Assembly - fused with some more general observations.

1) Building broad movements. Internal democratic culture can't be separated from an organisation's external activity. Activity in the wider world is the lifeblood of any group that wishes to be something better than a propagandist sect. 
A constant connection with reality is an important corrective to any tendencies to sectarianism or self-importance. If a group is not only 'intervening' in broader social struggles, but working with others in a constructive manner and building on-going political relationships, then this is especially so. When a revolutionary group is operating in a non-sectarian way beyond its own ranks - building coalitions, working co-operatively - the habits of openness, discussion and respect that characterise successful coalitions are likely to also characterise its own internal culture.
A high level of activity, with vibrant local groups where issues are discussed face to face in meetings, is essential. The more members who are active, the better. The more members who report and reflect on their experiences as an activist, the better. The more discussion there is among members, the better. Democracy is an active and collective process - day in, day out. It should be a habit to promote maximum participation in discussions, e.g. Counterfire's last national members' meeting was attended by a high proportion of our members, most of whom contributed in discussions.
2) Open marxism. Practical engagement in coalitions and broad struggles has to be accompanied with an intellectual openness that recognises that Marxism is a living tradition not a dead doctrine, an open and on-going project not a closed set of prescriptions. This is not the same thing as opportunistically abandoning Marxist ideas in favour of academic eclecticism (a genuine problem that becomes a bigger problem when revolutionary organisations decline or become more marginalised).
Tony Cliff opened his book 'Trotskyism after Trotsky' with these words:
'In The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels argue that communists generalise from the historical and international experience of the working class. This experience is always changing and developing and therefore Marxism always changes; the moment Marxism stops changing, it is dead. Sometimes historical change happens slowly and almost imperceptibly, but sometimes the changes are radical. Consequently there are abrupt turning points in the history of Marxism.'
'Open marxism' means deploying the intellectual tools inherited from the Marxist tradition to analyse changing realities. The all-too-real abandonment of Marxist ideas by some encourages a dogmatic reaction by others. Both of these paths - eclecticism and dogmatism - should be rejected. In the current period a democratic, inclusive and open culture facilitates the kind of theoretical enquiry that is needed to wrestle with important changes: the impact of neoliberalism, changes in working class composition, the state of the trade unions, the causes, nature and effects of the present capitalist crisis, and so on.
3) Unity in action and freedom of discussion. This is a classic formulation in the revolutionary tradition, but is sometimes misunderstood (to put it generously). It doesn't mean that once a decision has been taken it is unacceptable for anyone to challenge that decision, attempt to overturn it at the next opportunity or express an alternative view. It simply means that decisions which affect an organisation's activity are binding on the members, e.g. if a group collectively and democratically decides - after discussion - to support a particular course of action in an industrial dispute then it's wrong for members in the relevant trade union to vote the opposite way to what has been agreed.
The vital thing about this formulation - unity in action, freedom in discussion - is that it enables coherent, unified and effective political action at the same time as enabling the fullest discussion about the issues. Indeed these two go together: they are not two completely different things which co-exist uneasily. It is necessary to reflect on the impact of agreed decisions through discussions. Sometimes it may be necessary to change course as a result. Unity in action relies upon freedom of discussion; freedom of discussion relies upon unity in action.  
4) Centralism means  there is democratic accountability. In 1978 Chris Harman wrote a piece demolishing the argument that centralism is somehow undemocratic. Quite the opposite, he argued: democracy and centralism are interdependent, and it is those who refute centralism who evade any democratic accountability. He wrote:
Ultra-left adventurers and self-seeking careerists alike often relish in the joys of ‘decentralisation’ – because it means a movement they can exploit to their own advantage without being bound by its discipline. Today in Britain, for example, lack of a common discipline is one of the hallmarks of the Tribune group of Labour MPs. Why? Because it allows the members to enjoy an aura of ‘leftness’ without impeding their pursuit of careerist and opportunist policies. In the same way it is precisely the lack of centralism of the Broad Left in a number of unions that gives it such an appeal to aspiring bureaucrats. It can elect them but not control them.'
Harman's examples here are especially targeted at those who can be considered 'leaders' but the same principle applies throughout an organisation. Allowing members to do their own thing, irrespective of collective decision-making, is not democratic. It undermines democracy. Accountability is essential.

5) Factionalising is a bogus concept. Some people who discuss democracy and revolutionary organisation make a big deal of the question of factions: are they permitted? when are they permitted? what rights do they have? I actually think that 'factionalising' has long been a non-issue in reality. In the internet age the whole notion of 'factionalising' as A Bad Thing is absurd. It is utterly anachronistic to attempt prohibitions on discussion among members in an organisation, when it's so easy to make contact with each other and have a dialogue, e.g. via facebook. What is labelled 'factionalising' would more accurately be called 'discussion'.
It's not so much a case of saying that faction rights are important and should be permitted. The important point is a deeper one: the whole notion of 'factionalising' is redundant and a group should, quite simply, allow complete freedom of discussion among its members. Mechanisms - conferences, meetings, bulletins - should be in place to allow for this discussion, while also adopting a laidback approach to discussion which takes place outside these mechanisms. There should be scope for the formation of factions, but this is only one aspect of a group's internal democracy.

6) Openness. This leads on to a more general observation about openness. The fact is that socialist groups have to be open about differences and 'internal' discussion because the growth of the internet means that everything gets out whether we want it to or not. We might as well embrace it. The age of the 'internal bulletin' is emphatically over.
I also think that political discussion, including and involving as many members as possible, is tremendously important and therefore a group should put the emphasis on opening discussion up rather than seeking to limit it. Using the internet is obviously essential to this and should be utilised, but the most important thing remains facilitating face-to-face discussion.

7) Permanent discussion not permanent factionalism. Some commentators on revolutionary organisation argue that permanent factions are a good thing. In fact they institutionalise differences. They make it extremely difficult for there to be healthy, genuine and open discussion of issues because members can instinctively rally to 'their side' instead of engaging properly with the issues. If discussion among members is typically mediated through factions that is in truth less democratic.
Permanent factions undermine unity because many members will tend to put loyalty to their own particular faction ahead of the needs of the whole organisation (and indeed the wider interests of the working class movement). They can encourage an excessive focus on internal differences - however minor - at the expense of looking and building outwards. Permanent discussion is far healthier than permanent factions.

8) Proposals not factions.
The above points lead on to another: it makes far more sense to discuss concrete proposals on their own merits than it does to form factions which bundle together a whole set of issues. The emergence of factions can be polarising and unhelpful. A better approach is to focus on offering and discussing proposals, whether to a conference/national meeting or more informally. This, indeed, should be actively encouraged at every level of an organisation.
One problem with the existence of factions, and the disputes between them, is that it is alienating to the many members who are in no faction at all. Focusing instead on discussion and debate around proposals is much more inclusive. It is less polarising and prevents the development of 'organisations within organisations' (which is, among other things, a recipe for future splits).
9) Initiative is vital. Within an agreed national framework, grassroots members should get on with it. Local initiative is much healthier than passively waiting for some sort of 'centre' to tell you what to do. Local groups and activists are also capable of generating new experiences, insights and ideas, which can be fed into - and potentially generalised for - the national organisation.
Mistakes might be made, but the same is true whether initiative is coming from the national leadership or local groups. Mistakes can be a source of learning; they can be corrected. Local activists need to combine national-level discussions and priorities with their own knowledge of local circumstances. They need ownership of what they are doing and the capacity to determine what is needed in their own particular area.

10) Democratic culture is crucial for growth. The health of any group's democratic culture is as much about how issues are discussed as anything more formal: an avoidance of hectoring, bullying and appeals to 'the tradition'; encouragement to express different opinions, because discussion of them enriches everyone's understanding; a willingness to acknowledge errors and correct tactics which may not be working.
Meetings should be friendly and welcoming, new members should be encouraged to contribute ideas and participate in discussions, and there should be genuine openness to ideas offered by allies or sympathisers outside the organisation. If a group wants to function democratically and effectively and - above all - if it wants to grow, rather than simply perpetuate itself at the same low level, this kind of attitude is indispensable.

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