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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.

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  1. David Whitehouse
    July 19, 2013 at 10:25 pm

    This makes some sense, except that so much of political action *is* speech. If your group decides to propose some kind of action to a broader coalition, then the action that *you* are bound to carry out is to argue for the proposal within the coalition. Maybe you have your doubts about the action, so you can’t make a persuasive case for it, but then you should probably pass off the task to members who can make the case. Otherwise, you’re not giving the majority decision of your own group a fair shot at being tested in the outside world. Such complications aside, I guess I agree to the general principle that political organizations shouldn’t be binding their members’ speech unless there’s a decent reason.

    But that’s not what I wanted to comment on. You’re right in saying that the typical one-line account of democratic centralism — “freedom of discussion, unity in action” — describes a process that’s pretty unremarkable, because it’s applied to decisions in all kinds of organizations, e.g., a strike vote in a trade union, or even just a decision about when to hold the next meeting. Organizations that claim a Bolshevik pedigree, however, don’t generally stop there. A more complete explanation of centralism includes attention to the guiding role played by the group’s organizational *center* (central committee, steering committee, etc.) between the times that full discussions among the members are possible. In practice, that means that, most of the time, the primary responsibility for achieving unity in action (i.e., centralism) rests with the organizational center. (It’s different, of course, in local branches, which can meet frequently to discuss action, so centralism on local level can often be a product of a vote of the whole membership.)

    Presumably, the central body at the national level is the product of a democratic vote of a party conference, so there is a democratic mandate for the center to lead, even in the absence of broader discussion among the members. In other words, the central committee’s day-to-day direction of the party’s work is one instance of democratic centralism alongside the paradigm case of a full discussion among members that culminates with a binding vote.

    So there are, in fact, two distinct ways for democratic centralism to operate (and many middle cases, e.g., where leadership bodies consult with members but don’t poll them for a binding vote). In fact, we expect a good leadership to actively seek out the input of those members who are actually rooted in the workplaces, neighborhoods or schools. This rules out another formulation that comes up sometimes — that centralism is “really” a question of leadership. That makes it sound too much like the leadership “takes care of” centralism, while discussion among the rank and file “takes care of” democracy. If the organization is to function at its best — to be most effective as a rooted, leadership *organization* — the leadership within the organization needs to practice and safeguard democracy as much as it ensures unity in action.

    • July 22, 2013 at 12:19 pm

      If your group decides to propose some kind of action to a broader coalition, then the action that *you* are bound to carry out is to argue for the proposal within the coalition.

      But this is precisely what I dispute: it assumes an internal/external or even private/public division which frequently enough exists in practice, but which Leninist organizations in principle reject and attempt to overcome. Again, imagine that some contacts from our notional coalition are aware of the debate inside the organization. Obviously they would take more seriously your real arguments over your “obligatory” ones–so what is the point of the obligation? It only works if the socialist organization is “over here” while the movement organization is “over there,” with minimal overlap or even awareness by the latter of the former.

      Alternately, if the socialist org’s meetings, press, etc is considered a public space, then the obligation to “defend the line” extends almost everywhere, save possibly the internal bulletins (which are, of course, leaked). Debate becomes increasingly a matter of the “private use of reason”–comrades complaining amongst friends, at the bar, etc–which means that it’s not democratic debate at all.

      I agree the question is not always straightforward, especially when one considers the problem of the “officialdom” (full-timers, parliamentarians, etc) who must, in the interests of democracy, be controlled by the organization far more extensively than the rank-and-file members. However, I am nowadays of the opinion that, while everyone in a democratic centralist organization is generally obliged to implement the line, they are only exceptionally obliged to promote views counter to their own.

      I basically agree with the rest of what you say about the role of the organizational center; but of course it assumes that you want a center in the first place. That is, it assumes we are centralists already, and merely want to determine the best kind of centralism. That’s true for me and you, of course, but I think writing on democratic centralism for broad audience takes the superiority of centralist organizing as read when that’s often enough not the case.

  2. David Whitehouse
    August 4, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    There is an internal/external distinction for a revolutionary organization — we can’t “reject” it — even if internal processes are carried out in public view. Nonmembers don’t get a vote in how the organization operates. With votes come accountability, and nonmembers aren’t accountable to the group. This seems like an internal/external distinction that’s fundamental.

    I think I was pretty clear in saying: When an internal discussion concludes that the group should propose action x in a coalition, it’s not the case that a member *must* argue in the coalition for x if s/he disagrees with it. I said that one shouldn’t get in the way of the proposal because one wouldn’t be “giving the majority decision of [one’s] own group a fair shot at being tested in the outside world.” That’s a motivation for soft-pedaling one’s doubts, in a limited context and for the time being. One needn’t deny such doubts to anybody. In fact, if nonmembers are interested, one could *explain* the motivation I just gave: The scientific way to find out the effect or value of an action is to run the experiment. Maybe I should have added that one *should* raise public objections when there’s a good reason to — say, when a matter of principle is at stake, or when acting on the majority decision would cause some significant harm.

    I deliberately chose this hypothetical because I don’t think it’s a question of “defending a line.” A tactic is not a line. It’s something we try. And there are times and places where the act of dissent can undermine the tactic — for no good reason. I don’t think this is a problem of “inside” and “outside” the organization. It’s a question of what happens before and after a decision. Often there’s no harm in continuing to voice dissent (aside from distracting people from focusing on the work to be done), but sometimes there is. It depends on the case.

    I share your concern that policing comrades’ speech can drive their “real ideas” into unfruitful private venues. The thoughts can also get suppressed inside the comrade’s own head, or stunted without a chance to develop, right or wrong. That’s a formula for making somebody into a bitter comrade, or a yes-man who operates as deputy-police, or some twisted combination of both. At the same time, political speech — what people say, and in what circumstances — does matter. Timing, nuance, knowing your audience, etc., and yes, knowing when to shut up, are all crucial in being an effective political operator. But it’s an art. So policing is no way to teach it. People can learn the art through their own experience (indispensable), by example (useful), or from criticism (useful as long as the criticism is motivated in light of the particular circumstance).

    And yes, I assumed for the sake of this conversation that we’re all centralists here. I’m pretty sure we haven’t yet drummed up that “broad audience” that we’d all like to address! If we’re going to get there, I suppose we’ll have to mind our speech-acts.

    • August 6, 2013 at 10:30 pm

      I think I was pretty clear in saying: When an internal discussion concludes that the group should propose action x in a coalition, it’s not the case that a member *must* argue in the coalition for x if s/he disagrees with it.

      But I thought you were saying precisely the opposite when you wrote: “If your group decides to propose some kind of action to a broader coalition, then the action that *you* are bound to carry out is to argue for the proposal within the coalition.” It’s true that you did qualify this by saying that you could “pass off” on the argument, which I think is a fair solution.

      I agree with everything in your comment, but I wonder if the answer “it depends on the case”–which is obviously true–doesn’t just re-ask the question. That is, if it depends on the case, what principles do we invoke in deciding the case? I suppose I’m trying to bend the stick (har har) towards a more “libertarian” default.

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