[Marxism] RE: "Democratic decentralism" (was: RE: Joaquin sets new highwater mark re "what kind of party":
jbustelo at bellsouth.net
Sun Aug 22 19:40:25 MDT 2004
Lou Paulsen writes: >>Let's suppose the whole left is now in the United
Party of Socialism using Dan's scheme. "The membership", by some means,
which I hope is better than the means that the Greens used this year,
decides that the policy of the party is "anybody but Bush." The
treasury of the party, its press, etc., are now in the service of the
Kerry campaign. Let's say I am on the party staff in Chicago, and I
think this is an absolutely horrible move. What happens then?<<
Actually, this has implicit in it an important question, where
to draw the lines of demarcation, who to *include* and who to *exclude*
in a regroupment/refoundation.
My inclination would be, at least for an initial step of some
sort of loose socialist alliance, to be inclusive of everyone who claims
to stand on the basic political approach outlined in the Communist
Manifesto, that is, that view themselves as being in the camp of
Fortunately or unfortunately, that is likely to include both the
CP and the Committees of Correspondence. Whether that can possibly work,
I do not know, but I am skeptical that in can progress from an alliance
to an actual united organization, for I believe the cadre of both of
those groups are irretrievably welded to a reformist orientation to the
Perhaps a more realistic line of demarcation would be to include
everyone who rejects a strategy of working within the Democratic Party.
Note that this would still include tons of people who are either ABB or
who are in effect abstentionist with arguments like that we don't want
to cut ourselves off from the anti-Bush sentiment or the ABB people.
ISO and Soli, at least, both have had fairly intense debates especially
on abstention versus a Greens for Nader-Camejo sort of approach.
As to "what happens then," I think this question actually raises
a very important issue on the internal norms and functioning of such a
united formation, and I believe there isn't a correct a-priori answer.
* * *
In our preconvention discussion in Solidarity, Steve Bloom --who
some people here will remember from the SWP or perhaps you have run into
more recently in places like UfPJ-- submitted a very thoughtful article
on "democratic centralism" prompted by a discussion that had started at
our summer school a year before on whether to be a more coherent
organization we needed to be a "democratic centralist" organization.
In it he argues that the traditional definition, which goes
something like complete democracy in arriving at decisions and complete
unity in carrying them out is a flawed formula.
First, he said, this "unity in action" stuff should be
demystified. Contrary to popular impression "centralism in action"-type
functioning goes on all over the place. For example, Democrat
legislators, if they expect to be "effective" are required to follow
their caucus leader on all sorts of questions. Many times, of course,
they are let off the hook, but at least sometimes they HAVE to do some
"heavy lifting" and vote in a way that is unpopular with their
constituents. And I would add that actually there are all sorts of
decisions groups make that by their very nature are "centralist." A high
school senior class that votes to have the prom on a given date at a
given venue then acts with exemplary Bolshevik "centralism in action" in
"carrying out" the decision.
"Immediately this begins to demystify the 'centralism in action'
side of our formula," Steve comments.
He suggests further that in terms of revolutionary democratic
centralism, and especially the imposition of discipline, "A more
complete understanding is 'centralism in action when it really matters,'
or, we might say, 'the greatest degree of centralism consistent with the
level of ideological unity that has been achieved' (which requires
assessing the level of ideological unity and, therefore, a greater role
for the discussion process in helping to shape the 'unity in action'
side of the formula than most would-be Leninists are ready to
And he stresses this isn't a question of rules but of things
like confidence, trust and bonds forged through common experience.
* * *
So to answer Lou's question on "what happens then" if the united
group adopts a decision he doesn't like, I would say, it depends very
much on what the group is like and how it decides to handle it. Of
course in his example, he hypothesizes a position which, if consistently
applied in all its ramifications (i.e., orienting strategically to the
Democrats) is almost certainly going to lead to a split.
And not, as Lou suggests, because people are going to want to
say nice things about Kerry in the paper and he won't want to sell it.
But because if supporting Democrats is your strategic axis, it affects
everything you do.
Look at the central national leadership of UfPJ, which was so
eager to avoid any sort of confrontation with the Republicans that might
hurt Kerry's chances that more than a month before the planned protest
for the Republican convention they simply capitulated and accepted
Bloomberg's diktat that they hold a rally on the West Side Highway. Or
their systematic attempt to turn this into simply an anti-Bush rally
rather than a protest against the war and repression.
But not necessarily everyone with an ABB position on the
elections has that strategic orientation of subordinating the mass
movements to the perceived tactical electoralist convenience of the
Democrats. Lou himself gives what appears to be one example -- the
"Fight Back" splitoff from Freedom Road. And of course we should
remember that there are people who hold that any support to any Democrat
under any circumstances places one beyond the pale.
That presumably would include Bill Massey who, if I'm not
mistaken, is a well-known member of Lou's party in his own town. Massey
was down here in Georgia last month working on Cynthia McKinney's
primary campaign for the Democratic nomination for Congress in the
Fourth District, as he did also two years before. I don't have a big
problem with people doing that, I'm not objecting, I'm just pointing out
that these are issues on which revolutionaries can have differences that
some consider extremely important, or matters of "principle."
Lou cites a supposed phrase by Lenin that "a good split is
better than a bad block."
I was unable to locate by means of Internet searches the origin
of this exact wording, but I did locate articles dealing with an "honest
split" and a "bad bloc."
However, what Lenin says and did at the time runs entirely
against Lou's argument.
It was in 1907, when the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were in a
united organization although increasingly at loggerheads politically.
Two electoral tactics had been debated, one of running essentially
socialist campaigns in a bloc with the social revolutionaries, a peasant
party, the other of running a joint slate with the Constitutional
Democrats or Cadets, a bourgeois party. The Menshevik argument was that
to prevent a victory by the Black Hundreds, it was necessary to bloc
with the bourgeoisie. If I understand the Bolshevik position correctly,
they did not *necessarily* rule out that such an argument might be valid
in some specific place, but rejected it as a general line.
A compromise agreement was reached at a November, 1906, RSDLP
conference and as Lenin explained "it was unanimously decided that
everybody would submit to the decisions of local Social-Democratic
organisations in election matters." The Leninist organ Proletary "called
on Bolsheviks sharply to criticise blocs with the
Constitutional-Democrats, but to remain *subordinated* to the local
Despite that, the Mensheviks walked out of the St. Petersburg
conference of the RSDLP with the pretext that the party decision had to
be made by members within a given electoral district rather than
citywide, even though the local party was organized on a citywide basis
and not on the basis of electoral districts.
The Mensheviks entered into negotiations with the Cadets
negotiating their support in exchange for places in the Duma. Lenin
denounced them in the harshest terms, saying they were selling the
workers votes and so on. Lenin was brought up on charges of referring to
party members in an impermissible way that ridiculed and tried to
discredit them. Lenin not only freely admitted that he had done so, he
insisted it was his *party duty* to deal with splitters who disrupted an
important party action (the election campaign) is such a fashion.
In the course of his defense, Lenin castigated the Mensheviks
for having carried out a dishonest split; dishonest because there was no
claim the split was politically justified, and it was simply a Menshevik
refusal to abide by the decision of the party conference. He said if big
new events had arisen, and the Mensheviks deepened their line of
collaborating with the bourgeoisie to such a degree compromise and
collaboration was impossible in a common party, then that would at least
be an honest split (which is, in effect, what eventually happened years
later). But for now the Mensheviks were engaged in a dishonest split for
the sake of a bad bloc (with the Cadets in the elections).
What is striking about this is Lenin's defense of party unity.
It wasn't enough for there to be huge tactical and practical differences
over some election that could potentially become even bigger
differences, or would logically lead to bigger differences, differences
large enough to make impossible continuing in the same party had to show
up in real life to justify a split politically.
His default position was that there should be only one party; to
accomplish that he was willing to reach practical compromises like that
of the party conference on the elections, and he even supported
Bolsheviks subordinating themselves to local party units that were
carrying out the Russian equivalent of something akin to an ABB line for
the sake of that unity. For him what had to be proven wasn't that unity
was *possible,* but rather that it was impossible. The burden of proof
was on those who wanted to maintain a division.
I think Lou recognizes this instinctively; that's why he gives
supporting Kerry as an example. The core group of people who describe
themselves as being part of the revolutionary left that support Kerry
are the CP'ers and ex-CP'ers in the Committees, who as far as I can tell
abandoned tons of stuff from their CP past but not this. The strategic
outlook of these people is not the independent organization of the
working class but reform of the Democratic Party.
But there are quite a *few* groups to the left of these forces,
with whom workers world shares what Lou calls "core values." He says he
really likes the fight back comrades, for example, but unfortunately
they have an ABB position arrived at through this "mass line" idea. But
does Lou *really* believe he is more likely to influence them away from
those sorts of positions as a member of a rival organization? If Lenin
could put up with the 1907 Menshevik's jag towards ABB-type politics in
a common party, why can't we?
I believe the organization borders of Workers World are defined
by *qualitatively more* than "core values" around national liberation,
anti-imperialism, socialism, equal rights for women, defense of
immigrants, etc., that Lou alludes to as the basis for people joining
and staying in the group. They are defined by a body of accumulated
positions and practices going back half a century or so. And most of all
by the conviction that, at least in this country, they, and they ALONE,
are the true bearers of the correct Marxist doctrine, which is what that
half-century legacy represents.
* * *
Something that Lou raises is the role of "the party press" --
and actually, on that, there is a more interesting issue than the
rulebook. It is whether there should be a party press at all in the form
that this press now takes.
I tend to think "party" or "revolutionary organization"
publications need to be rethought completely from scratch for this epoch
of globalization, instant worldwide communication, and the
deadline-every-minute 24 hour news cycle. I do not believe the
traditional weekly or daily dead-tree publication should be assigned the
same role or importance today as in decades past.
I think in terms of news and topical commentary on news, the
Internet is our only possible vehicle until the revolutionary movement
is strong enough to have its own CNN, or at least its own "all things
considered." A continuously updated news and commentary web site is what
is needed. This would not be a weekly "dump" online of a dead tree
publication. And this removes a lot of the argument for not allowing
minority positions to be expressed publicly, which I believe IS an
essential component of Workers World practice of its "democratic
centralism," for no one can reasonably claim that space on a web site is
"scarce" in the sense that space is limited in a dead-tree publication.
I think it is also clear there is also a need for printed,
dead-tree materials, but what form and frequency those should have needs
to be rethought and experimented with. Among the options are something
like a newsletter, much less comprehensive than today's weeklies, and a
monthly magazine-type publication.
One thing I'm pretty sure of is that the weekly newspaper is an
outdated concept. And another thing that I know is true -- just about no
one in groups without a "central organ"-type "weekly newspaper"
publication believe that sort of "central organ" or the accompanying and
inevitable street corner and plant gate sales are worthwhile.
Yet among Soli folks, at least a good number of them, there is a
great deal of enthusiasm for distributing material at meetings, rallies
and demonstrations, and at the initiative of an all-volunteer
"collective" of younger members, we're publishing what I at least would
call something more akin to a newsletter called "Solidarity News."
It is a 16 page letter-size newsprint publication that comes out
about a half dozen times a year. Since Solidarity doesn't actually
*have* positions on things like the class character of China and where
the POUM went wrong in the Spanish Civil War, we save a tremendous
amount of space (as well as trees).
Also, it seems the comrades who put it together assume the sort
of activist milieus we're likely to reach probably already heard about
the big march on Washington or whatever other news event a weekly
newspaper "central organ" would cover, saving even more space. And, of
course, if people want a review of Farenheit 911, or two, three ... many
reviews of F911, they can go to Marxmail. Mostly Soli News seems to
print things similar to some of the better news analysis and
commentaries you see on this list, the kind that Louis might pick for
his "highlights of the list" section on Marxmail's home page because
they still say something significant weeks after the immediate event
that prompted the post.
Also, although technically the current "collective" was elected
by our recent convention, in reality it is a self-perpetuating,
self-oranized group that goes out and recruits volunteers, mostly in
their 20's from what I could see, to keep going.
I guess in the last analysis it is subordinate to the PC, but in
practice it functions with a high degree of autonomy. And actually there
is a similarly constituted group rethinking and redesigning the
organization's web site.
Now, some comrades will be horrified, I'm sure, that there's all
this stuff going on without direct, on-the-spot guidance and advice from
dear great respected and beloved leader Comrade X, the Lenin of our
Times, but since we haven't been lucky enough to actually have someone
who can channel Lenin in our organization, we're pretty much stuck doing
But also, this is actually quite a different --and healthier--
model, I think, than the traditional weekly organ that functions under
the PC's thumb and which branches and members are then obligated to
distribute, with all sorts of "quotas" and "norms," and so on.
I'm not saying a group or alliance that comes out of a
regroupment will necessarily function like Soli does, but I am saying we
should think outside the box of the traditional hierarchical top-down
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