Simon Hardy of the Anti-Capitalist Initiative offers a reassessment of democratic centralism.
Many revolutionaries look to the Bolshevik tradition within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party as their ideal historical model of what they want to build today. The problem for many socialists is that whilst they take the lessons about “iron discipline”, centralism and the top down direction because they assume this is the surest route to success in the class struggle, they seem to downplay the importance of democracy in a revolutionary organisation. Some even see the democracy merely as a subordinate adjunct to the “centralism”, a brief period for reflection and debate before plunging back into the class struggle.
I want to take a different approach – that if we want to escape the sect model of far left politics that we have collapsed into since the second world war, then we will have to rediscover a commitment to revolutionary democratic organisations, perhaps even elaborate new approaches or dust off old ones that we thought had were no longer necessary.
This approach is lodged in two overlapping realities. The first, as I mentioned above, is what we can call the standard model sect nature of the left. We huddle together around our programmes and traditions and continually reassure ourselves that everyone else is simply dead wrong, occasionally we cast people out of our groups because they have deviated too far. Usually people just leave, exhausted from the labour of Sisyphus that goes into sect building. We have to move beyond this approach if we are to build a more credible revolutionary organisation to fight the battles of the 21st century. And it is no surprise that all the most successful left organisations internationally have not been the result of this or that sect growing but of a renewed drive towards unity which launches organisations that have been termed “New Left Parties”.
Secondly is the fact that today people look to democracy as the goal for how to live their lives. People want more control over what they do and how their societies work, they want to be able to explore what living is really like free from domination and control by elites. The Occupy movement, the Indignados and the Arab Spring is all related to this desire – though naturally it expresses itself in different ways between western liberal-democracies and middle eastern dictatorships. Interestingly, despite the capitalist crisis socialism has not yet made a big return to the political scene in the way that many of us expected; people seem more intent on pushing for democratic reforms – which can nevertheless seem quite radical – than the overthrow of capitalism. What this points to is not only the need to radicalise the struggles around democratic issues but to build an organisation which is reflective of people’s desire for democratic debate and openness. Put simply, top down Leninist sects might seem appealing to some but to the great majority of people they are simply antiquated.
This is not to say that I think Leninism is finished or useless. I just think we need to grasp that no one can rebuild a Bolshevik party à la 1917. Today plurality is a natural fact of human life and we need to build organisations that can deal with that. This does not mean that we just build a “talking shop” of endless argument and debate that can’t do anything. It does mean that if we are serious about building a larger revolutionary organisation than our current sects we are going to have to focus on what we do agree on, build something around that, and allow for wider debate on other issues, including not demanding centralism over every single issue of policy.
Some might baulk in horror at this – but the real horror is the reality of the left today – divided, weak, unable to mount a serious challenge to the cuts, unable to present a credible alternative to Labour. After all, at the moment we can barely get any one elected to council seats (with a few exceptions) let alone parliament.
And there is a lot that unites us – we are all opposed to austerity, privatisation and social oppression. We all support more strikes against the cuts (though there is a debate about the general strike slogan) and many of us agree with a more rank and file approach in the unions (even if some are generally still inclined to support left leaning trade union leaders).
Despite many good positions the Leninist-Trotskyist tradition is dogged by the concept of “monopoly politics” – best expressed by SWP(US) leader Morris Stein in 1941;
“We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretence of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery. We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.”
Whilst a certain faith in your politics is a precondition of any action, the reality today is that we are faced with several “monopolies”, each competing for next years Freshers at the university, many of them building their own fronts against the cuts, each one assured that they hold the gospel truth of Marxism. This monopoly attitude has to be relatavised, we have to accept that none of us have a monopoly, certainly none of our attempted monopolies have made the much vaunted “break through” despite the countless money spent on various initiatives and campaigns and the legacy of the burnt out cadre that got left behind.
If we want to build any sort of monopoly it has to be over general principles concerning anticapitalism, socialism and human emancipation. The process of building a new revolutionary organsiation in Britain which is both democratic, doesn’t split under the slightest provocation and has a principled stand on the issues in front of us. Those of us active in the Anticapitalist Initiative certainly want to play a role in reforging a credible revolutionary organisation in Britain which is not dogged by divisions which emerged in the 50s or 70s, and can relate to people coming into struggle in a more healthy way. This is not to say that people need to leave their politics at the door, but that we all need to think more creatively about how to make this work.
And we need to get away from this absurd notion that our organisation could ever be “too democratic” or that debate as and when it is needed is a bad thing. In a living party which people are loyal to, members do not disrupt the work of the organisation when they disagree with things, they remain committed to the overall project even if they feel that particular decisions are wrong. It is imperative that we avoid any demagogy about “talking shops” and “interventionist parties”. We all want to intervene into the class struggle (what a horrible phrase, as if the class struggle is happening elsewhere away from us) but we also have to be serious about democratic participation and inclusion of people from potentially quite different tendencies.
And those on the left who argue – “why change? We all know more open organisations won’t work and anyway the crisis demands we keep to our tight cadre party” – all I can say is history is against you. The models we held to so dearly in the post war period have failed to produce the revolutionary organisations that the working class needs – as such more of the same is not the solution. The tired demands of socialist cadre to “do it better” isn’t going to make the cut anymore because the crisis has exposed that in fact it is actually our disunity that is hindering our ability to fight the cuts. Our disunity is driving people away from the left. And sadly our disunity is dismissed as inevitable by those too lazy to think of how it could be different. Let’s work to build a better left as our necessary contribution to building a better world. The time is now, and I hope we can work together to achieve this essential goal.
“The Anticapitalist Initiative is a network that enables anti-capitalist activists to debate current political issues. Where possible it aims to unite these activists to fight against capitalism, for the interests of working people, the unemployed and the oppressed.
We were established to work towards a realignment on the radical left. We want to help develop a revolutionary organisation capable of rising to the challenges of the 21st century, one that can help popularise anticapitalism again after the defeats of the last century. This is all the more important at a time of capitalist crisis, when working class communities are suffering the effects of austerity, but the left wing ideas are still on the fringes. We want to overcome divisions between the socialist left and the new left movements by working together in a spirit of common activity and dialogue.”