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