A first/last word on democratic centralism
Virtually all writing on democratic centralism is boring. This is true. So why write about it? Well, one must do the done thing. More ominously, you may consider this a kind of apologia ex ante for what I plan to get up to on this blog.
The recent discussion on democratic centralism, at least in the International Socialist (IS) niche of the Trotskyist corner of the cubbyhole of the revolutionary left, has been sparked off by the accelerated degeneration of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Here, I think, we have mostly grabbed the stick by the wrong end. The organizational problems of the SWP–which are assuredly legion–are, in my view, derivative of a major crisis of strategy (or “perspectives” in the IS argot) that extend back at least to the election of Blair, if not the fall of the USSR. The similitude with the decline of the American SWP (no relation) is striking: when the perspective is wrong, yet somehow cannot be corrected, its “implementation” can only be directed by people who do not directly encounter its consequences, be they disconnected leaders or passive hand-raisers.
The demand to rehearse the timeless verities of democratic centralism in such a situation is manifestly self-serving on the part of the leadership faction; rather than discuss the obligation of comrades to follow the line, one should discuss the obligation of the line to follow reality. In any event, is it not after all typical that the quantity of discussion of democratic centralism is inversely proportional to the quality of understanding?
Take, for example, the following ubiquitous explanation of democratic centralism: we discuss an issue thoroughly, vote on how to deal with it, and everyone is expected to carry out the decision. Now isn’t that common sense? Assuredly it is. But ask yourself: when do people vote on something that isn’t binding on everyone? The whole point of voting is to bind the voters to a decision, even and essentially given a lack of consensus. Otherwise why bother? Hence when we explain democratic centralism in this way, what we are really saying is: “When we, the democratic centralists, have a vote, we are indeed having a vote.” Wooooow.
Note, by the way, the question that is elided in the “explanation” above: which issues should be subject to a vote? That is, not coincidentally, the really interesting question. We’ll come back to it.
In politics, an idea is meaningful to the extent that someone might credibly disagree with it. Democratic centralism is therefore interesting to discuss only in distinction or “dialogue” with other organizational strategies, such as federalism. What’s more, even a basically centralist organization can have a “dash” of federalism, and this “dash” may be quite essential. So even by saying, “We are democratic centralists,” one by no means decides all the organizational questions.
But to return to the vexed question–or rather, the question that ought to be vexed: what is properly subject to a vote in a democratic centralist organization? Or to put the thing more sharply: should democratic centralism bind what you do or what you say? Most of us Leninists think, basically, both; so for instance, we usually believe that once a “political line” has been determined by the majority of the organization, its members are obligated to defend it. The more hippy-dippy comrades will restrict this obligation to public discussion only. But does this make sense?
The decision-making process of an organization can be either open to public view or not. (Here we are, of course, restricting our attention to decisions that can be made in public without undue risk from the state or other class enemies.) If the process is open, presumably anyone can see what the members really think; so if a comrade says X in a branch meeting, and subsequently propounds not-X in a movement meeting…well, it’s going to look a little weird, innit?
It’s one thing to explain, “I don’t agree with this, but I am doing it because this is what my group decided.” That is quite normal, since doing the same thing at the same time is more or less the whole reason to join any type of group whatsoever. But it’s quite another thing to say, “I don’t agree with this, but I am saying it because this is what my group decided.” That is self-contradiction: “I am saying this, but I am not really saying it.” This is, obviously, not likely to convince anyone of anything–which was presumably the point of requiring comrades to “defend the line” in the first place.
Alternately, the decision-making process can be closed, but the Leninist tradition has never accepted this principle (save for security-sensitive matters). In practice we are much more closed than we need be–at least 90% of any group’s internal discussion bulletins could, for example, be harmlessly posted online–but theoretically we default to openness; the burden of proof is always on those who want to close it. Hence our commitment to public (or at least publicly-accessible) debate contradicts our common understanding of democratic centralism. Of course this is usually resolved by the fact that not much of the public wants to attend branch meetings, so they have no idea if you’re saying different stuff internally versus externally. Well that’s a nice solution, but hopefully it won’t work forever, will it?
I’d suggest a rethinking of democratic centralism–or more simply and accurately, organizational democracy–that accepts majoritarian control over what members do, but not what they say, up to and including public criticism of decisions. Now I’m enough of a Hegelian to know that any normative statement, when applied to an “extreme” situation, can be made to negate itself. Some criticism can seriously disrupt action–the classic example being Zinoviev and Kamenev spilling the beans on the Bolshevik Central Committee’s intent to make an insurrection (although notably, the worst discipline they faced was a blast from Lenin). Conversely, if members’ activity is too tied down, criticism becomes functionally impossible. But as a general guideline, “bind actions, not speech” is the right way to think about the boundaries of democratic centralism.