‘Democracy in a small party’ reconsidered


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.

11 responses »

  1. “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.”

    While there is something quite admirable in your capacity to comment in confidence on something you are in total ignorance of, you are, unfortunately, still commenting in total ignorance.

    The PA process, so far, has been led by monthly meetings of the original signatories’ group, on an ad hoc basis with others (eg from UK Uncut) joining in as we went along. These meetings have been attended by some 40 or more people, some from trade unions, some from organisations like DPAC, and some (like Owen Jones) basically as individuals. It is not, by any stretch, perfect, buy the distance between this attempt at an inclusive process, and what you are purporting to describe is considerable.

    I said the group is ad hoc: there has been, as far as I can tell, a completely genuine desire on all sides to both keep the process open and to not have the same group steering whatever outcomes arise from the PA. So we’re looking at ways, for instance, of circulating a draft timetable for the day to people have signed up already, to get their comments and feedback. And I think people will be pleasantly surprised (given some mistaken ideas out there about what the PA is) about the limited time given to plenary sessions, and the maximal time devoted to the workshops – which, by the way, have been so far left to different campaigns and organisations to arrive.

    As I said, your confident assertions on these matters are, in their own way, impressive. But perhaps a little closer attention to detail would be more so – and I’m sure it wouldn’t have been beyond your capacity to establish some of those details. These flights of fantasy do you something of a disservice.

    • James,
      I am truly delighted that such meetings are taking place and I look forward to being told repeatedly that they constitute the democratic motor of the PA project. If they are however the “only” meetings at which the future of the PA is being planned, or indeed, to use my verb “negotiated”, then that would mean that a generation of activists who have spent many years resisting democracy, expelling people who disagreed with them, and committing to paper their authoritarian fantasies about revolutions without democracy, have, unlike the leopard, changed their spots. I’m not holding my breath …

      • They constitute the “democratic motor” of the PA only up until the event itself. I hope after that we can have a more properly democratic structure of some kind. The key to this will be the local and regional PAs – the pre-meetings that have already happened in places like Nottingham, Sheffield and Manchester have seen hundreds attend. We’ll see what sort of agreement we can get out of the day itself but I would hope the ad hoc meetings can be superseded – they’re not democratic or representative enough.

        I think a bunch of people will be pleasantly surprised by how much space is given in the draft timetable to workshops, and how squeezed the plenary sessions will be as a result. I don’t detect a strong desire to overburden the thing with platform speeches (as yet, anyway) and certainly if the PA is just a big event with a few TU leaders at it, it would be difficult to consider it a genuine success. What happens *afterwards* is absolutely critical.

        I realise you have your own particular take on people involved in the PA. It’s not one I agree with. But it’d be nice if you were able to look at what was actually happening, rather than what your prior beliefs lead you to think is happening.

      • Except James I am responding to something real, a piece on your group’s website which dismisses all criticisms of PA as “sloganeering” and “posturing”, and ends with the familiar appeal to the left to shut up, stop carping and respect John and Lindsey’s authoriteh: “No other strategy or initiative can come close to delivering all this. That is why the People’s Assembly is not merely a nice idea or a worthwhile event, but the main basis for co-ordinating resistance to cuts for some time to come.”

        Co-ordinating in this sentence seems to me to mean plainly “taking all the energy of the anti-cuts politics and placing it within a vertical structure controlled by a very small number of people”.

        I am delighted that Owen’s speaking tour is going well. You may say to me that I am being horribly cynical, but I prefer to view Alex’s publushed piece as more representative of your group’s strategy than your personal assurances.

        The test will come in six months’ time – will PA do better than COR, or will it be the same pattern – a conference, maybe this time a demonstration, and then exhaustion? And will CF break with its leaders’ 10 year history of taking rather more from the movement than they give? If I am proved wrong James, I will say so publicly. But if my predictions are right James, will you?

  2. I’m sorry you object to the tone of the article, although I don’t think sharp words on the left are anything greatly unusual – indeed, you’ve used a few yourself. (“Owen’s speaking tour,” was it? A touch patronising to those attending, perhaps…?)

    But I don’t disagree with the argument. I think the People’s Assembly is currently the only real game in town in terms of constructing a mass opposition in the UK to austerity. If there were other ways to do this I’d take note. But I don’t see any.

    In any case, your reading of the sentence is bizarre: it works only if you think that the PA is automatically a purely “vertical” organisation. As I have said above, and as CF have argued, this will only work if it has a direct and organic connection to the localities: no organisation can exist from the above only, and top-down only.

    I certainly think we *do* need a national and co-ordinated response to austerity. I think it needs the maximum possible democracy to be effective. I think it will require a wide steering group to be representative. You can disagree with that conception, if you want: there are perfectly reasonable anarchist objections to any degree of co-ordination or centralisation at all. Perhaps you now agree with them. But please don’t try and pretend that this is all some dastardly plot or conspiracy. It’s plainly ignorant.

    If you disagree with CF and others’ conception of what is needed to oppose a national offensive against austerity, you should by all means get out there and organise something better, more in keeping with your own politics – which seem to be moving in such a way as to make your continued SWP affiliation look even more peculiar.

    On current showing, given the serious numbers attending the meetings already, the number of registrations, and the breadth of organisations now involved, my guess is that the PA – whatever the outcomes – will get us a lot further than CoR has. The key to this, and I can’t stress this enough, will be in getting the relationship between local and national right: a purely “top-down” approach simply cannot deliver this (and nor would anyoner in CF claim otherwise). I’d also like to see well-supported actions – perhaps a day (or more) of action, ideally including strikes, backed with whatever authority the PA is able to deliver.

  3. James, you are wilfully misrepresenting the scorn embedded in my reference to Owen Jones. He has an audience; he is a brilliant speaker. What I see CF doing is claiming to have already won a mass movement behind a coherent strategy (those “serious numbers” you then alluded to, there is similar puffery in the Snowdon piece, and in other things your group has been publishing). So the disbelief is not directed at his audience but at you. The test, as I say, will come after the PA – whether your organisation is capable of giving up the habits of control which run through you like words through a stick of Brighton rock.

    Human beings admit doubts, consider alternative strategies. And we remember all the broken promises – COR, the Left List, Respect, the SA, StW… You haven’t even come up with a new name for PA but are playing the greatest hits from John and Lindsey’s back catalogue (http://www.cwu.org/stop-the-war-the-people-s-assembly.html).

    I have said already – if in six months time, you have produced something real, I will acknowledge it, and publicly. But when I asked whether you were capable of admitting failure, you declined to answer. That silence counts for more than anything you’ve written

  4. Well, for the record, I don’t think we’ve “won a mass movement behind a coherent strategy” and I don’t think CF has claimed this either – there is a very long way to go, of which the PA is the most important single step to be taken right now. The numbers are indeed “serious”, certainly relative to anything else happening at present.

    What “habits of control”? It really is very peculiar to be accused of believing things and doing things you neither believe nor do. And it is certainly very odd to find a whole organisation reduced to the alleged machinations of two – uniquely diabolical? – individuals. As I’ve said before, this reduction is extraordinarily patronising to activists in CF like Clare Solomon or Sam Fairbairn or (for that matter) myself, particularly given what you know of our collective political histories. And it displays what I can only describe as a real ignorance of the dynamic inside the organisation.

    Broken promises etc etc. The curious thing, on the English left, is that we have developed a mode of analysis in which all social forces outside of ourselves can be written down to objective factors, but all our own problems are entirely subjective. So the history of the last decade turns into a litany of “mistakes” and “errors”. Any conception of wider circumstances disappears: a truly curious thing, for so many alleged materialists.

    (An aside: if memory serves it was Fred Leplat who coined the name “People’s Assembly”, and who first suggested it some time before Xmas last year. He’s a member of SR. You can blame them in future, if you want.)

    You don’t need to wait six months. I think there’s something being created already. You should be a part of it. For the record I have no idea who this blog’s author is, but it captures “Owen’s speaking tour” nicely. (If that’s not your bag, Nottingham had an all-day series of workshops, attended by over 400, which I think is exactly the model to go for after 22 June). Link: http://hallowsofhumanity.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/manchester-united_22.html

    • “I don’t think we’ve “won a mass movement behind a coherent strategy” and I don’t think CF has claimed this either”. Here’s the piece I had in mind, maybe I’m mistaken but I took the fact that it was published on the CF website as a sign that it had your group’s approval: http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/articles/163-resisting-austerity/16469-a-movement-rises-hundreds-pack-peoples-assembly-rallies

      You accuse the left of objectivising our victories and subjectivising our defeats. I see much more commonly people doing what you were doing in your last post, ie the same logic, but the exact opposite way round. If one week group A is doing well, that’s down to its politics, if another week it’s doing badly, blame an external.

      Maybe I’m missing some enormous conjunctural factor, but it would have to be a pretty impressive explanation which could square an entire decade of political leadership (pre- and post-recession) with such a very long list of wrecked organisations.

      James, I keep on coming back to this, because I’m getting more and more worried that it’s not you that I’m speaking to but a twitter-bot that’s hacked your email account and is feeding me a series of pre-programmed responses. So, pass the Turing Test and prove me wrong.

      “IF” the PA takes its present energy, and drives the activists concerned into the ground, will you come here in six months and say “you were right”? If there is just no chance of CF spurning yet another opportunity, then what’s there to worry about? Why can’t you say to me: “I’m sure we’ll not muck it up, but if we get it wrong, I’ll be generous enough to admit our errors?”

  5. “in such a way as to make your continued SWP affiliation look even more peculiar.”
    what a piece of work.

      • What’s the problem? I think it’s odd you’re still in the SWP, given the way you’re arguing above. I would’ve thought you’ve got a good case for leaving, but it’s your call, I suppose.

        I also can’t quite see in the article you’ve linked to where we say that there we’ve *already* “won a mass movement behind a coherent strategy”. I don’t think we have, and we have a long way to go before we can say that – although I think the signs are promising that the PA will end up with some outline agreement on what we might all do next.

        I’d suggest the record of the last decade is not one of “wrecked organisations” – the example of Stop the War is outstanding here. I don’t shed many tears for the Socialist Alliance, and I hardly think anyone in CF can be blamed for the SWP’s current decline – exactly the opposite. The only remaining candidate is Respect: again, this is precisely where the critique usually falls into a litany of errors (some real, some imagined) with precious little reference to external events – Brown’s on-off autumn 2007 election, for example, which hothoused everything in Tower Hamlets disastrously.

        I’d love to be able to say that CF will “admit its errors” should the PA go pear-shaped. But that would be claiming an influence for us over events that we really do not have – as I’ve been at pains to point out, there is no diabolical conspiracy at work, and we are small organisation relative to (for instance) Unite.

        I think the PA is going to go well on the day, and I hope that we can win an argument for further action and local assemblies. The signs so far are at least reasonably promising that local initiatives will keep whatever bureaucratic tendencies are out there on their toes.

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