- Category: Theory
- Created on Tuesday, 24 January 2012 11:05
- Written by Mike Ely
by Mike Ely
How should communists and revolutionaries be organized? Even asking that ruffles some feathers -- since some communist currents have considered this a "settled question."
Well, we should un-settle it -- problematize it -- for the simple reason that the idea of a single "universalized" model of revolutionary organization has been a bad idea.
Its flaws and illusions have been revealed over the last decades -- including in the grandiosity and self-delusion of various small self-declared "parties" within the U.S.
There are a number of issues involved -- which we are only starting to touch on. But for now, we are exploring the communist organizational concept of "democratic centralism" (DC) -- both what it means and whether it should be embraced as a common approach.
We have discussed how it got "settled" in the discussions of the new-born Third Communist International (between 1921 and 1924) and how the form of democratic centralism was further modified -- especially in the "Bolshevization" campaigns of the late 1920s.
Now, Let's go beyond the historical question of how specific organizational structures and processes got codified ("settled") -- let's explore some of the concepts that pass as "settled," their justifications and lessons.
RW Harvey writes:
Let me back up talk for a moment about what is correct about the "epistemology and security" argument:
Often, when people discuss "democratic centralism" they do so in a simplistic, texual and literal way: "first we have democratic discussion that reaches a decision, then we have a collective responsibility to carry it out."
I find that kind of formulation naive at best, and disengenuous at worst -- since it doesn't really engage any of the real life issues.
WHAT does "democratic discussion and decision-making" look like? What are its various forms and contradictions? Where is the locus of discussion and where is the locus of decision-making (since they need not be the same thing)? Are all decisions handled the same (don't some decisions need broad approval of the rank-and-file, while other decisions require deep secrecy and simple centralism?)
The short story is that there are matters of epistemology, security, discipline and unified action to solve in any serious political movement.
First, you can't have complex political decisions that are only made by some "direct democracy" process at the base. Local mass movements can function that way for a while (wildcat strikes, rent strikes, OWS, antiwar sit-ins and building takeovers, etc.) but not a mature and complex political movement over a large territory.
The classic and obvious examples of this problem involve discussions of military decisions: Military doctrine, larger strategic war plans and the tactical decisions of battles can't be decided by some quick up-or-down vote by the rank and file soldiers. They should be known and understood by all soldiers (especially in a revolutionary army) -- as well as the political goals of the war. But decision-making in sharp conflict can't rest mainly on immediate, localized mass democracy (especially once there are complex unknown factors and major sacrifices required).
And the soldiers themselves (going into battle) naturally want a) highly skilled, experienced and creative leaders making decisions, b) they want those decisions actually carried out (they don't want people deserting or carrying out some hairbrained individual counter-plan), and c) they want real secrecy (preserving surprise) around military moves so the enemy can't prepare.
There may be room in some armies and militias, for the rank-and-file electing non-commissioned leaders (sergeants) and low level commanders (captains etc.) -- but even then, they want to obey those commanders, not have the unit's every move subject to vote (or "blocking") for obvious reasons. A militia that actually tried operated through direct democracy would always be on the defensive, and have great difficulty with creative offensive (where some forces needed to be sacrificed for victory) -- as was evidenced (in controversial ways) during the Spanish Civil War.)
A communist movement needs security. It needs some level of a "need to know" policy (meaning that some information is only given to those specific people who "need to know" it, and is kept secret from everyone else). And this inherent need for levels of secrecy does affect many aspects of democracy:.
Every detail of the organization (every problem, controversy, person, action, etc.) can't be known by everyone -- since anything known by everyone is inevitably known by the movement's enemies and persecutors.
A movement that doesn't have secrets can't be effective opposition to a vicious system. Some top leaders should be known to the membership. But there are good reason to keep part of any leadership core shrouded in some secrecy (to enable the organization to better survive potential decapitation strikes and roundups).
For example, for a membership to pick all top leaders (in a general presidential style election) would require that membership to be familiar with all current leaders at various levels and all promising people in the rank-and-file), their past, their responsibilities, their shades of views in detail and their differences -- so that the membership can pick an appropriate core of leaders from among that field.
If you have a very small communist group that seems possible for a while -- but soon, it may prove be impossible (or unwise) to continue such a policy.
This suggests a policy where, for example, a trusted, legitimized leadership is selected by representative bodies of leaders (so that a leading committee can be picked by an organizational convention, or a leading person is selected by the body they lead, or a standing committee is selected by the leading committee they "stand in for" day-to-day).
In communist history, bodies have historically been chosen that way. But the process is often fake. In practice, leadership is often "by cooptation" -- where the current leadership picks who joins what bodies, and the voting is pro forma (unanimous, unvetted, uncontested etc.)
Second: It is true that the rank-and-file can't pre-discuss every decision -- both because there isn't time for every decision to be studied, explored, debated organizationally. But also because there are questions of competence and investigation. Many decisions require a great deal of knowledge and investigation -- which is possible for a smaller core of leadership, but which a whole organizational membership can't do on every matter. This also argues against the rank-and-file simply and directly making every decision. (It is now possible, given online means, to essentially have votes on everything. If such methods were deployed, the flaws and naivite of 'direct democracy" would become evident -- within days, not months.)
The need for centralism and democracy is not the controversy
So where does that leave us.... well I think that SKS (and others) are right in saying that many forms of social organization have both centralism and democracy (so that there is mass consultation and involvement in decision-making and leadership accountability, but also a degree of initiative taken by leaders as needed by the organization's tasks).
That is not controversial or unusual.
Communists add that additional point: Discipline. There is a responsibility to act in common. And of course, discipline is precisely an issue when people have disagreements, and carry out the majority view. And conscious self-sacrifice is an important feature of discipline (including, obviously, in military affairs).
And a degree of conscious (and even enforced) discipline also makes sense: We are not an academic arena that just plays with ideas without nodal points of resolution and ongoing action based on current understandings. Our point is to change the world. And really, it is hard to have an organization where the carrying out of difficult decisions is optional or completely uneven.
Discipline has often been extended -- so that in communist organizations there was an assumed unanimity in speech and micro-actions -- where every word out of everyone's mouth is subject to discipline, oversight, and even zombie-like scripting. That comes across bizarre and alienating in many ways. And it is something quite unnecessary. It is wrong to allow a political culture that gives lip service to critical thinking but ends up stressing the rote memorization of approved phrases and ideas.
I think we should explicitly examine and discuss the previous communist understandings of discipline. Mao writes for example: leadership accountability -- once we choose to form an actual organization (which may be after a period of much looser exploration in network form).
Not every communist network is a "pre-party" formation. We can perhaps conceive of organizations today as "post-party" formations -- i.e. their task is to wrap up a previous movement (through summation, self-critcism, retraining, new idea creation etc.), while starting on a protracted new organizational course of regroupment. That may prove to have its own distinctive forms (as Lenin's Bolshevik experience shows for its first ten years).
My own inclination has been to advocate "a communist pole within a broader revolutionary movement" -- which is an Iskraist approach rather different from forming some compact mini-party with premature demarcations and immature programs.
We need a culture where there is room for dissent and debate -- and where the quasi-religious anti-creative dynamics of group think and heretic-hunts has been understood and contained. We need to develop (currently unspecified) ways of having horizontal discussion without destroying necessary security (suggesting the need for discussion forums, both public and private, involving measured degrees of anonymity, specific agreed constraints, and vigilance toward suspicious activity.)
Finally, a lot of these organizational matters are not solved on the level of principle or 'model." Some may be very particular because of very particular conditions (including, for example, ongoing disagrements, or the degree of mutual trust among members, or the level of common language and assumption.)
Much lies ahead of us -- in the realm of summation, debate and emerging practice.