Tag Archives: democracy

What would a democratic party look like?



Marxists ought to have a great deal to say about democracy. After all, we are extreme democrats. We grasp that under this stage of capitalism, many of the superficial processes which are normally associated with democracy (electoral parties, decision-making by representatives and the secret ballot) have lost their appeal. In the protests and the revolutions of our time, in Turkey, Egypt and in the Occupy campaigns, people call for democracy but few protesters demand the constitutional separation of powers. Marxists have a developed theory that political democracy begins to breaks down as soon it loses its social content. Without reforms, people turn their anger on politicians and democracy becomes a debased idea. We are too shy in developing this argument and using it to explain what is happening to the world. We are too shy also in thinking about what democracy means for our party.

The Classical Marxists had a number of ideas about the process of democracy: if there must be representatives, you should keep their period of office short and make them subject to recall, and take steps (eg limiting their salary to a workers’ wage) to ensure that the roles are filled by workers.

These sorts of insights might usefully be applied to a Marxist party. In general, it should try not to rely on full-time employees, or, where necessary, their terms should be short and they should be subject to recall.

The model that a large proportion of the membership of a group will do no more for it than pay subs, which are then used to employ around 1 in 40 of the group’s members as full-time employees is one way to run a charity (although even there the formula is usually more like 1 in 400) but, as happens in charities, it reinforces the passivity of everyone who is not on the payroll.

A Marxist party which selects its leadership from a cohort of full-time employees is, in practice, going to be run by its staff not its activists.

The idea of a permanent leadership of people whose primary right to their position is that they have been there a long time might be appropriate in all sorts of other places in society (it seems to work well enough for the House of Lords), it is not an attractive proposition in a revolutionary party.

A slate system, where the leadership gets to nominate its replacements, gives the leadership a control over the organisation, and takes decision-making power away from the membership. It rewards loyalty and silence when the leadership errs. It looks offensive outside the ranks of those already persuaded by it. It is an obstacle towards any party ever holding in its ranks the generations of young members who join the left in hope and depart with their eyes wide as to the actual operation of power inside our groups.

Democracy is not just about electing a leadership, it is also about breaking down the gap within any organisation between those who take decisions at one moment, and those who need to come forward in the next.

You can have a undemocratic organisation and it will survive for a while, maybe even a few years, just as you could hold a revolutionary party together through a crisis of a few weeks on the basis of repeated threats of disciplinary action, but do it any longer than that and the group will die.

Democracy and activism need to be integrated otherwise the democracy has no purchase: it does not result in a group actually doing things differently.

Democracy is also about what happens in the smallest unit of a party. If its branches have no purpose other than to distribute a series of tasks, which have been drawn up centrally (build a meeting or a demonstration, or sell a publication), then the content of the discussion in that branch will wither.

Rather than working out what your local priorities are, rather than working out who the branch knows, rather than working out what your audience have told you and what you can learn from them, the branch will have purely instrumental discussions: how do we get three people together on Saturday for a stall? Who is going to the next meeting? If you don’t give people a chance to express their initiative and take control of planning their own activity, then fewer people will be involved in decisions, and the decisions you take will be worse for most members’ lack of involvement in them.

In a healthy group, people are accountable to one another; members who say they will do things, do them, and report back on them, and then the group takes decisions about what is working and what to do next.

In most healthy revolutionary parties there are defined tasks (without them how can anyone be accountable?) and some circulation of roles. A party in which anyone is in the leadership for more than decade is doomed.

Finally, there is a story about Rosa Luxemburg, that during one of the debates of the 1890s, she found herself arguing with a Polish reformist. As it happened, she was also the only person in the hall who spoke her opponent’s language, so before disagreeing with him, she first made a point of translating his words into the German of most delegates. She did so with scrupulous care and accuracy, and only then did she go on to explain her disagreements.

Democracy is also about a kind of process: a willingness to tolerate a range of dissenting views, the protection of the rights of minorities. It is about something as simple as being able to fairly represent the views of those you disagree with, rather than relying on selective quotation and insults.

Originally published in IB2

Our goal is democracy


I had seen her photographed, standing with friends in Gezi Park. I knew that she subscribed to the programme of the Taksim Solidarity Platform (“We do not accept the construction of Taksim Military Barracks, and we will not allow anyone to loot our parks and our living spaces…”). Once, a long time ago, we had stood together on picket lines outside drab, Victorian council offices in east London. So I felt entitled to ask; what, now are you marching for?

Her one word answer was unsurprising but still instructive: “democracy”.

This very week an NGO in Cairo reported that during May the country had seen 1,300 protests, or an average of two an hour, 42 a day, and 325 a week. Ask in Tahrir Square, and I don’t doubt the same question would deliver nine times out of ten exactly the same reply. We say the word democracy so many times, it threatens to become meaningless, and yet the desire it expresses is so basic and still dramatically unfulfilled.

The last three decades have seen the most dramatic increase in the rates of exploitation in every country, with all of us working harder and longer and for less. Common spaces such as Gezi Park have been enclosed, typically not for governments but for the benefit of private companies. In these circumstance the old collective fear of the inevitable rise of the machines (in which an army of robots stood for million of men and women standing besides lathes), gives rise to new, digital fantasies. The number of business in Britain has grown from 3 million at the start of the millennium to 4.5 million now.

The average daily turnover in shares at the London Stock Exchange was already £1 billion in 2000, today it is a staggering £5 billion. While we sleep, armies of intangible interests are bought into being, wage virtual wars on behalf of their corporate creators, are destroyed and constantly re-made

The running down of the old, inefficient bureaucratic welfare systems, has brought all of us into much more direct, even intimate, relationships with the market . “The bourgeoisie”, Marx and Engels wrote, “wherever it has got the upper hand … has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’.” Those words describe the world of today so much better than even than the societies of 30 or 25 years ago.

Even while neo-liberalism refuses us any meaningful decisions at all in our lives, at the same time it prospers on a false narrative of choice. In the bad old days, there were just four television stations, now there are 400. (So many programmes to choose from, but why won’t any channel commission a Solomon Hughes, or a Brendan Montague, to give the politicians and their paymasters hell?).

In the same way that a supermarket customer can choose between two dozen different brands of detergent (all of which are produced by subsidiaries of Proctor and Gamble); so the people planning a new GP surgery can contract under PFI terms with Carillion or Balfour or Kier or any one of around 40 major construction companies. But what they are not allowed to do is to build without multinational involvement, and without signing up to complex financial arrangements under which the companies (as a group) will profit to the tune of ten or more times their actual spend.

The anger of the voters becomes the theme of elections. In almost every country, the primary motivation of the electorate is to punish the incumbent party. This mood of anti-politics reproduces itself in the small just as much as the big: in council elections, in union elections, at meetings in bitter interactions between former friends.

Socialists should be uniquely well-placed to relate to this general desire for a greater say. At the very core of our politics is the idea that we want to complete the democratic project left incomplete under capitalism. We want workers’ control of their workplaces, tenants’ control of their homes, women’s control of their bodies…

This was why Tony Cliff published his pamphlet about Rosa Luxemburg, all those years ago, to agree with her criticisms of the Bolsheviks, and to side with her in championing the class over a minority purporting to act in its name: “The heart of Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet on the Russian Revolution, as of all she wrote and said, was a belief in the workers, the conviction that they, and they alone, are capable of overcoming the crisis facing humanity. She fervently believed that workers’ democracy is inseparable from proletarian revolution and socialism…” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1959/rosalux/7-bolpower.htm).

By quoting Cliff, I do not mean to separate his ideas from the general mood of the best of the post-1956 left. CLR James’ writing on direct democracy (http://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/1956/06/every-cook.htm), the ideas of a Dunayveskaya, or a Castoriadis, were all cut from the same cloth.

For a reader with a sense of the left’s history, it is a salutory experience to go from those writers, brimful with enthusiasm for the mission of winning direct democracy, to the present-day left, cautious as it is so often in its support of revolutionaries who might upset a regional balance of power, and near-mute in articulating a democratic assault on capitalism.

The left is, it seems, more defensive than the right in the face of the new anti-politics. Precisely because we say that we are better, people have higher expectations of us. People are watching us. And every time a socialist behaves in a way which is intended to make other people feel powerless, their pettiness and spite turns someone, somewhere off politics for ever. We know the risks; obsessed by them, we fear to say anything at all.

The long, withdrawing roar of 1917 also leaves an immense legacy of harm. You may recall the fatal quip which did for Gordon Brown: “from Stalin to Mr Bean in just a few weeks”. The first half of the joke was just as effective as its end. Nobody wants to be ordered around anymore; the method of the command just doesn’t work.

Meanwhile those of us still in the party would be wise to admit that there is also a close connection between what one friend described to me recently as “your leadership’s lack of any capacity for mere human empathy” during our recent crisis, and the way in which the most interesting of this year’s new left alliances (i.e. ACU, LU) have some of the character of survivor’s groups. Our mistakes were so awful that anyone trying to rebuild the left is going to have to say, “we are not at all like them. We have a different culture of openness and free discussion”. If they fail to make that clear, and if they fail to keep strictly to their promise, they simply will not survive.

“I am off to resist, I will be back”

There could be resources to reorient the left, if we chose to use them. Brian Roper’s Marxist History of Democracy finds a recurring tension between two kinds of democratic practice: the class struggle democracy of ancient Athens, and the top-down passive Republicanism of ancient Rome; 1649 versus 1688; October 1917 as against February. History, in this model, is but a series of approximations, some better worked out than others, towards a future of active participation.

Paul Foot’s last book The Vote describes the “undermining” of the allure of universal suffrage, and in particular of social democracy, which he portrays as the principal carrier of the original vision of the Chartists. He is right, but more is at stake even than that. The whole idea of revolutionary socialism is that in a different society people might control every aspect of their lives, even those economic relationships which capitalism removes from democratic scrutiny. If we can’t win the battle for the meaning of people’s scepticism about the parliamentary road, then we will simply go further along the Weimar path towards a proliferation of competing right-popular parties, each more radical than the last, and each with a greater base than our own.

The most energetic traditions in five years’ time will be those which can relearn habits of humility and co-operation and fruitful internal and external debate; those which can instil in their members a cumulative sense of their increasing involvement, their own essential powerfulness.

We won’t retake society unless we begin with our own groups. It’s no good having Tahrir square without toppling Mubarak. The dictator, it seems, is not located anywhere else but in our own hearts. In the caution of an opposition that dares not come out openly and confront the leadership. In a leadership which will do nothing to acknowledge or confront the draining away of people, time, ambition. Mubarak is our seemingly-shared willingness to delay making the changes which must come.

We have to break the habit that new ideas are initiated by a centre, and the majority of the organisation (if it has any role at all) is at best a sounding board for others’ ideas, or a mechanism for their transmission to that great, unloved general public. That top-down model is the opposite of what socialism was ever supposed to be about.

Democracy begins with the way in which we  speak to ourselves; in that moment of self-realisation that no-one is better than you, and you are not better than anyone else. Democracy begins with teaching others to address each other and you with respect. Democracy begins with regime change.

Tony Cliff on Party Democracy


Prompted by Brian Roper, I repost below Tony Cliff’s considered thoughts on Party and Democracy; a concise section which itself summarises the first volume of his biography of Lenin. There are some among my comrades who would take the last two sentences and skip over everything else which Cliff says. But I prefer to read this passage as a totality, including his emphases on self-criticism within an organisation, on the correction of mistakes, on open debate without resource to administrative (i.e. bureaucratic) measures to silence party critics, and above all on taking party debates to the widest circles of people, far beyond the boundaries of the party itself. For Cliff, moreover, there was no limit on the times when open debate were necessary. Whether conditions were good and the party was in open warfare with the state (“a period of direct revolutionary struggle”) or whether conditions were hostile and ideas were moving rapidly to the right, for a party to survive, its discussions must be open.

The Party as a School of Strategy and Tactics

Questions of revolutionary strategy and tactics held a meaning for Lenin only if the possibility of implementing them, through the revolutionary party, was a real one. He saw the party as a school for strategy and tactics, a combat organisation for the conquest of power by the working class.

How can the revolutionary leadership learn from the masses and know what they think and feel, unless it forms an integral part of these masses, listening to them at their workplaces, in the streets, in their homes, in their eating places? To teach the masses, the leadership must learn from them. This Lenin believed and practised all his life.

The party must not lag behind the advanced section of the class. But it must not be so far ahead as to be out of reach. It must stand at its head and be rooted in it:

To be successful, all serious revolutionary work requires that the idea that revolutionaries are capable of playing the part only of the vanguard of the truly virile and advanced class must be understood and translated into action. A vanguard performs its task as vanguard only when it is able to avoid being isolated from the mass of the people it leads and is able really to lead the whole mass forward. [32]

The need for a revolutionary party, as we have already pointed out, is a reflection of the unevenness of consciousness in the working class. At the same time, however, the party exists in order to hasten the overcoming of this unevenness, by raising consciousness to the highest possible level. Adaptation to the average, or even to the lowest level of consciousness of the class is in the nature of opportunism. Organisational independence and isolation from the most advanced section of the proletariat, on the other hand, is the road to sectarianism. Raising the advanced section to the highest possible level under the prevailing circumstances – this is the role of the really revolutionary party.

To learn from the masses, the party must also be able to learn from its own mistakes, to be very self-critical.

A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfils in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification – that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class, and then the masses. [33]

The fighting party of the advanced class need not fear mistakes. What it should fear is persistence in a mistake, refusal to admit and correct a mistake out of a false sense of shame. [34]

The masses must be involved in correcting party mistakes. Thus on 21 January 1905, Lenin wrote:

We Social Democrats resort to secrecy from the Tsar and his bloodhounds while taking pains that the people should know everything about our party, about the shades of opinion within it, about the development of its program and policy, that they should even know what this or that Party Congress delegate said at the Congress in question. [35]

Open debate is even more vital and essential during a period of direct revolutionary struggle, as Lenin wrote in a leaflet on 25-26 April 1906.

In a revolutionary epoch like the present, all theoretical errors and tactical deviations of the party are most ruthlessly criticised by experience itself, which enlightens and educates the working class with unprecedented rapidity. At such a time, the duty of every Social Democrat is to strive to ensure that the ideological struggle within the party on questions of theory and tactics is conducted as openly, widely and freely as possible, but that on no account does it disturb or hamper the unity of revolutionary action of the Social Democratic proletariat. [36]

He urged repeatedly that debate should not be limited to inner party circles, but should be carried on publicly so that non-party people could follow it.

Our party’s serious illness is the growing pains of a mass party. For there can be no mass party, no party of a class, without full clarity of essential shadings, without open struggle between various tendencies, without informing the masses as to which leaders and which organisations of the party are pursuing this or that line. Without this, a party worthy of the name cannot be built. [37]


Criticism within the limits of the principles of the party programme must be quite free (we remind the reader of what Plekhanov said on this subject at the second Congress of the RSDLP) not only at party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism or such “agitation” (for criticism is inseparable from agitation) cannot be prohibited. [38]

There is a dialectical relationship between democracy within the party and the party’s roots in the class. Without a correct class policy and a party composed of proletarians, there is no possibility of healthy party democracy. Without a firm working-class base, all talk of democracy and discipline in the party is meaningless verbiage. At the same time, without party democracy, without constant self-criticism, development of a correct class policy is impossible.

We have more than once already enunciated our theoretical views on the importance of discipline and on how this concept is to be understood in the party of the working class. We defined it as: unity of action, freedom of discussion and criticism. Only such discipline is worthy of the democratic party of the advanced class. [39]

… the proletariat does not recognise unity of action without freedom to discuss and criticise.” [40]

If democracy is essential in order to assimilate the experience of the struggle, centralism and discipline are necessary to lead the struggle. Firm organisational cohesion makes it possible for the party to act, to take initiatives, to direct the action of the masses. A party that is not confident in itself cannot win the confidence of the masses. Without a strong party leadership, having the power to act promptly and direct the activities of the members, a revolutionary party cannot exist. The party is a centralist organisation that leads a determined struggle for power. As such it needs iron discipline in action.

Cliff article here: http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1975/lenin1/chap14.htm#s5

first published by me here: https://www.facebook.com/davidkrenton/posts/10151388371236269


‘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.