Workers’ democracy and the politics of wrath

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I am glad that Socialist Worker has just published an article on socialism and democracy. After the disaster of our own making which the party has just been through, this would clearly be a good time to send a message to the movement that we are very serious indeed about democracy in the workers’ movement. That said, it is disappointing that Dave Hayes’ piece ‘Can we win real power?’ (http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=30931) is the best we could manage.

Nine paragraphs are devoted to the lessons of the Paris Commune without any acknowledgment of Karl Marx’s great pamphlet ‘The Civil War in France’ (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/index.htm), in which he announced his conversion, under the influence of the Commune, to the idea that a workers’ state would be possible without workers having to make any use of the old, capitalist machinery of repression.

No-one else’s summary could improve on the clarity of Marx himself: “Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workman’s wage. The vested interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the state was laid into the hands of the Commune…” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/ch05.htm.

This is hardly an “unknown” socialist text. Lenin drew on it heavily for another famous text strangely unacknowledged by Hayes: The State and Revolution (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/ch03.htm).

Normally Marx’s reading of the Commune is something in which socialists take pride; missing something this obvious inevitably causes any sceptical reader (of which there are more now, let us be honest, than there were three months ago) to wonder: what is the point of Hayes’ article? Is it, really, about socialism and democracy at all?

Hayes writes that the Russian Soviets of 1905 and 1917 “brought democracy into all areas of life. Special pay and statuses of all representatives, from judges to militia officers, was removed.” I appreciate the enthusiasm, but this paints a little too glorious the achievements of the St Petersburg Soviet of 1905, which was originally very little more than an enlarged strike committee, with no coherent system of election save that any sympathiser was welcome to attend its meetings. If the Soviet took on more of a representative character, it was because of the action it called – workers voluntarily sent representatives to its gatherings (see eg Trotsky’s description of how the Soviet grew during the strikes of October 1905 here: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1907/1905/ch15.htm).

The Soviet of 1905 did take decisions, but it lacked the power to control anyone’s pay or status, still less depose judges or army officers.

“The Russian revolutionaries led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks”, Hayes writes, “won a majority in the soviets in early October 1917. By then, they made up 51 percent of delegates elected to the workers’ council, reflecting the changing mood within the class.” This figure of 51% is implausibly solid; while the single form of “workers’ council” (not councils) tells another story too.

Most Soviets were local to a workplace or an army division; a few Soviets had a regional character. Only one, the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, could pretend to play a national role, and its meetings were very few. There was no pre-historic Vincent Hannah totalling up the votes at the local Soviets especially not when Bolshevik party barely existed in many regions independently of its parent (the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party) and when by far the largest and most popular party in the country the Socialist Revolutionaries was in an advanced condition of decay. Autumn 1917 was a revolutionary situation where allegiances moved fast; obtaining a majority was about winning insurgent workers to a series of temporary, local consensuses. There was nothing solid from which the magic “51%”, or any other numerical estimate of support, could credibly have been constructed.

After the October revolution, it is true that for several months Lenin and Trotsky relied on the moral authority that they gained from the initial backing of the Second Congress of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, held on the morning after the uprising succeeded; the revolution was indeed timed to coincide with its sitting. But Lenin did not wait for the Congress to take place to confirm his majority before launching his bid for power. The October Revolution was planned in advance, and based on the guess (which is all it was) that the Bolsheviks, plus the Left SRs, plus anarchists and other “floating” supporters of further uprisings would win a majority there. It was the act of a minority hoping to become a majority.

The policy of “Soviet legality” (i.e. governing in the name of the Soviet) lasted at most until March 1918, i.e. until the Civil War. The seven sittings of the All-Russian Soviet lasted three days at a time and none were organised after 1919. I wonder how many readers could name even a single delegate who was elected by workers or soldiers to its crucial, Second Congress, which gave the October revolution its backing?

So far the mistakes are those you would expect of a piece written in haste with little sympathy in the topic which it is supposedly investigating. Far worse are the passages in which Hayes sets out how workers’ democracy (i.e. democracy in the trade unions – it never occurs to him that there might be democracy in the tenants’ associations or in the co-operatives, or in the women’s movement or anti-racist campaigns, etc) operates in Britain today.

“Most workers representatives are subject to election and re-election annually”, Hayes writes. That would be fantastic, it is sadly untrue. Tell it to the Union General Secretaries (most of whom are indeed elected, but on five year terms), the regional officials (almost none of whom are elected, save with some rare exceptions such as the RMT), the branch secretaries and chairs (all of whom are elected at the start of their appointment; but only a minority of whom then face any election, contested or otherwise, during the entirety of their tenure).

This is not how it has always been; there are reasons why our present workers’ democracy has become weakened, and more organisations suffer from an absence of workers’ democracy than just the trade unions alone.

This subtlety is lost on Hayes. “They”, meaning workers representatives, “are also subject to the democratic will of the majority”, he continues. “If they break a majority decision they face the wrath of other workers.”

It is worth pausing for one, two … a full three seconds to savour that key word “wrath”. The message it expresses – that workers’ democracy is characterised by its violent hostility to minority opinion – has never previously appeared in any publication of the Socialist Workers Party or either of our predecessors (the Socialist Review Group, the International Socialists).

There are many good reasons why the several thousand people who have written for our publications have never once before claimed this idea for our tradition.

Revolutionaries in the unions are a minority; always, in the past, we have admitted this fact. Admitting you are a minority enables you to plan how to become a majority. Imagine if you were the SWP members of the national executive of the teachers NUT union. In January 2013, these comrades argued within the NUT that there should be strike action by the union. There was a majority decision, which they lost, and the union voted not to take action.

Far from accept a majority decision, the comrades then produced a petition to overturn that decision, and are hoping to have enough delegates elected to the NUT’s conference, to ensure that the vote will, in effect, be reversed. Well done them! As a result of their refusal to accept majority decisions, the possibilities of struggle by that union over the next few months are very much increased.

If union majorities regularly disposed of minorities with “wrath”, the NUT’s General Secretary would be entitled to force the SWP members who “broke” a majority decision out of her union. Why hasn’t she turned her anger on us? Because in the lived world of union democracy, everyone is aware that even the most robust vote is binding only until next year’s conference. All of us know too that the number of trade unionists (like the number of socialists) is pitifully few, and therefore that socialist “democracy” consists very often of trying to ensure that at least enough people remain in the room, at the end of any internal controversy, so that the organisations exist to fight again on another occasion. An organisation whose leadership, on winning a narrow majority vote for an unpopular position, pushed on regardless, is an organisation which will lose a large part of its membership. Some leaders of some political parties may consider this expedient; few unions are stupid enough to agree.

The idea behind Hayes’ piece is to make it seem that the Bolsheviks (with their permanent factions, their leadership elected by individual election, and their fragile majorities dependent not on force but on political argument) were a monolith, and our present unions equally monolithic too, in order to buttress a further claim, that by threatening the pre-conference SWP minority with the anger of the leadership, any disciplinary action the leadership takes against the remaining supporters of the faction will have anything in common with democracy, socialist or otherwise.

If our leadership CC maintains its present strategy, it will reduce the membership, activity and profile of our party. This year’s Marxism remains to be built; will it be easier or harder to sign people up if members of the organisation who have been invisible for several years are authorised wed to visit those who have been active with threats of aggression? Last year, 6000 people attended the event, with comrades speaking in around 150 separate sessions; where will the 150 speakers be found this year? On the next public demonstration, they will want 100 comrades to sell the paper; how will they do so if they have forced out of the party every student and every independently-minded comrade with them?

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One response »

  1. I’ve not read Dave Hayes’s piece, but the bit you quote here is ‘break a majority decision’, which is different from ‘minority opinion’ as a ‘break’ surely refers to a breach of constitutional procedure but the latter does not necessarily. Presumably, in the example of the NUT you cite, the minority of NEC members worked to overthrow the national leadership’s decision by constitutional means while obviously accepting the constitutionality of the NEC vote in the interperiod. They did not ‘break’ a majority decision (of the NEC) but sought to reverse it using the constitutional means available to them.

    As one of the self-confessed skeptics you refer to above, I suspect also that Haye’s piece is a swipe at the opposition within the party using the only argument it ever had, that the DC is elected by national conference delegates and the DC Report is ratified by them also, so face the wrath of the majority (i.e., the leadership and its supporters) if you are not happy with that. Dave Haye’s wants gullible readers to believe this is how it is also inside workers organisations, but to do that he has to distort the reality. Let me says bit about unions.

    Firstly, and thank God, I never see members treat other members angrily – that is always directed at management, or the Government. There are always very divergent opinions both on the committee and among the rank an file members, especially when it comes to meetings where we have to vote on whether to take some form of industrial action, but an atmosphere of comradely respect and tolerance is always maintained. This is very important as we know that democracy and democratic discussion dies if people feel intimidated. Even though this is the case,t there are still members who tell us they are too scared to speak at meetings.

    As a branch committee we are always trying to find ways to get people to branch meetings and when they are there, we are really keen to find ways to get the quiet ones – the majority – to put their hands up and speak, and are always looking for ways to increase union involvement. We know there are a lot of members who are less militant and less keen to take strike action and we want them to come to meetings and voice their opinions and concerns – that strengthens – not weakens a union. Yes, there is a vote, but we know that the vote in a way is a kind of formality and not that important, that the real business is winning the argument with people and that means patience, hard work, a good newsletter, visiting staff rooms, getting people to trust us, etc.

    The idea that the elected reps sit around worrying about the wrath of the members is absolutely unrecognisable to me. We struggle to get enough people to stand for election and nominations are never contested nor are people angrily deselected at AGMs. But you would never hear me or any elected rep going round the staff rooms shouting ‘you have to go on strike because it was voted by a majority and I am your democratically elected rep’.

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