A few weeks ago, I set out, in a list form, some minimum conditions which make a party worth calling “democratic”. Events in recent weeks have encouraged me to expand on the list.
1) The determined obsolescence of leadership roles
When I first wrote this, I had in mind two things: leadership as a concept and the possession of leadership roles. On the first of them, something that stymies politics in our age is the sense that all the parties are led by people from the same class, the same universities, with interchangeable politics. It feels like “they” as a class are the only ones allowed to speak and they make all the decisions. Left-wing organisations should not fall into the same trap, and should not adapt to the long-term aspects of neo-liberalism that are causing all sorts of associations (not just parties but trade unions, churches, charities etc) to decline. Politics in any healthy group has to be done by as many of the members as possible. Unless a group’s “activity” is done by its members (and not by full-timers) its democracy will wither.
The other dynamic I had in mind was that healthy groups encourage turnover in leadership roles. We can all think of left-wing parties dominated by single individuals who have been in (sometimes the same) leadership roles for more than 30 years. It is the political equivalent of what people in the unions used to called Convenor’s Disease, i.e. the assumption that only you as an individual can play X role, causes you to actually do everything in your power to stop anyone else playing that role. We don’t have Convenor’s Disease any more because the unions which used to practise it were smashed, the brittleness of their collective leaderships being a (small) part of the reason for their defeat.
This is something which most healthy organisations on the left have grasped intuitively. If you looked at old copies of the International Socialism journal, it is striking how quickly comrades were brought on to the editorial board, and (usually without rancour) eased out, and (often) brought back again. Leadership turnover is usually a sign of health.
Since then, I’ve been struck by the capacity of at least some groups on the left to grasp this point in practice. For example, I’ve been impressed by the way in which Left Unity, a campaign which had been going only for a few weeks, recently ran an election process for its National Co-ordinating Committee which resulted in the removal of an absolute majority of the members of its previous, interim steering committee (compare the lists at http://leftunity.org/our-day-to-day-organising-group/ and http://leftunity.org/left-unity-election-results/). If you make elections meaningful, if you keep roles turning over, people notice, and think better of your group.
2) Having the politics to comprehend which decisions are suitable for majority decisions and which are not
During the recent crisis in the SWP, some comrades showed a tendency to say that democracy means doing whatever the majority calls for, even if that majority, on inspection, turns out to be less than half of the people in the room when the decision was taken. It is sheer, activist good sense that such a position works, or doesn’t work, according to the decision that is being taken. If you have a group which has a very strong tradition of discussion and debate, with majorities regularly overturned, leaderships pulled in and out, and despite these shifts of opinion, a group strong enough to survive – then yes, of course, vote on everything and whoever gets 51% will win. It really is that simple. But there are other sorts of organisations (most unions have become like this in recent years) where almost every conference vote is uncontroversial, and almost everything is passed by a 90%+ majority.
You have to ask if the leadership of such a union, or a party, has a minimum sense of its own need for survival. If it does, then it will treat even a 20% vote against the leadership for what it is – a serious break from that party’s history, tantamount to a vote of censure. And if an organisation goes from a voting history of 100-0, 100-0, 100-0, to suddenly (on the most important decision of its life) a 52-48 split; no leadership worthy of survival would consider that mandate sufficient. It is too narrow; it reflects such a deep unease that the group’s very survival is jeopardised.
3) Avoiding front-ism
Beneath the original version of the piece, I said that I was baffled by the idea, once pervasive on parts of the left and still maintained by certain enthusiasts, that a party’s activity should take place primarily outside itself, in “united fronts” (typically just party fronts), inside which socialist are supposed to be having a battle of ideas with others to the right. This might be an appropriate strategic focus for an organisation with tens of thousands of active members in active contest with the Labour Party for leadership of the unions, the co-operatives, the tenants associations … but nothing on the present left is of that size. Instead we get what George Galloway once called a “Russian doll” style of organisation, with two or three individuals setting out to win first “their” party (CF) then “their” united front (COR) then the other mass movements to build large public meetings (PA) at which the original two or three instigators of the idea will have, no doubt, plum speaking roles. The greater the gap between the apparent size of the front and the actual narrowness of the decision-making group, the less space there will be for anyone else to make any decisions.
Those very same champions of top-down leadership have since published an article defending their method: “The essence of the People’s Assembly is the notion that broad working class unity is of fundamental importance if we are to defeat the government. We have the numbers on our side, but we need organisation to turn that into a social force to be reckoned with. There will always be differences of opinion – and it is necessary to air and debate those differences – but they should not be a barrier to united action. Above all, we need to combine the size and organisational capacities of the trade unions with the numerous disparate campaigns involving single-issue activists, disabled people, students, pensioners and more.”
“Doing this effectively requires the support and active participation of national organisations, especially but not exclusively the unions, to create an inclusive framework which can involve the diverse range of people in our movement. If this is what some activists mean when they refer to doing things ‘from above’ then so be it: organisation ‘from above’ i.e. involving national organisations, is exactly what we need as a means for involving the maximum social forces and delivering the largest-scale action imaginable. There is no juxtaposition between ‘above’ and ‘below’, between the support of national leaders and organisations and, on the other hand, grassroots participation.” (http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/articles/opinion/16465)
Yes, of course, there is no juxtaposition only so long as you have a theory which steadfastly refuses to admit what everyone else can see plainly for themselves.
The negotiations in the PA do not take place between heroically democratic but ill-organised single-issue activists and the trade union movement; they take place rather between one or two full-time appointees of one union in particular (standing in, as the bureaucratic model allows, for the union’s members, and for the unions generally) and the full-time personnel of one very small Marxist group (employed ostensibly by other, movement campaigns), standing (only in their imagination) for all the social forces of grassroots democracy in society.
It is important to understand the direction of my critique. I am not repeating the standard near-anarchist argument that wonderful democrats and class-fighters become contaminated by their relationship with the horribly undemocratic institutions of the trade union movement. I am suggesting rather that the partial but bureaucratic democracy of the right-wing of the trade union movement is in every ways preferable to the arrogant figures, with barely any organic connection to the movement at all, who pretend to stand for its “Marxist wing”.
4) Full exchange of information / 5) Maximising opportunities to contribute
If, to take but one example, a group keeps financial records but does not publish them, then by definition the majority of its members are excluded from involvement in decisions about funding. They simply have to take it for granted that the leadership is making the right decisions about meetings, publications, and everything else. Groups which exclude the majority from decision-making will inevitably make mistakes. Good ideas won’t be passed upwards. The organisation will feel as if it has a cynical attitude: in its public life, it champions socialism, democracy and the wisdom of crowds. If, privately, it does none of those things – people will see its members as frauds.
It is interesting to see how other groups have started to grasp this basic principle. The International Socialism Network, for example, now publishes detailed minutes describing the group’s tactics, its finances, its internal conflicts. I don’t doubt that a particular line in its last minutes won the IS N another a further generation of recruits.
Those in parties whose Steering Committee’s minutes are collected, word-processed and photocopied for the participants, but never published or shared among the membership, can but lament for this degree of openness.