Democratic centralism and internal and external practice

Nick Fredman nfredman at scu.edu.au
Sun Nov 3 22:16:56 MST 2002


It seems to me that some of the discussion on this list regarding
democratic centralism and the practice of revolutionary groups is a
bit demagogic, in that "Leninst" practice per se is denounced.
Exactly how such groups conduct their discussions and differences is
clearly a matter of debate, and an area in which there is no fixed
principles, but should vary with the circumstances. In a period of
regroupment and the formation of new organisations, maximum openess
and debate between those trying to clarify differences and move ahead
would seem to be the order of the day.

However the idea that in all circumstances members of an
organisations should feel open to voting in public forums however
their "conscience" decides is surely very problematic, and as
dogmatic as the assertion that revolutionary group should in all
circumstances vote exactly the same way. What is so controversial
about the *expectation* (rather than bureaucratic decree) that
majority decision should guide the politcal practice, in *action*
particularly, of all members? A whole range of parties, caucuses etc
see this principle as important, not just "Leninists". Australian
Greens senator Bob Brown briefly contemplated supporting the full
privatisation of the telcom utility Telstra - it was very soon
obvious that any such blatant overturning of Greens policy would
provoke a lynching of Brown by the ranks - as it should, even though
I understand that the Greens formally allow representatives to vote
as they wish. Also many of the radical left in Australia have often
denounced the fact that some of the Australian Laborite liberal
feminists hide behind the "conscience vote" of all parties on
abortion rights, as the reason why they can't advance the struggle
for this right in the parliaments. Down with all conscience votes we
say, let all political organisations openly state what they stand for
on all questions, and let those who disagree fight within the
organisation to change the policy.

Exactly the same applies in *important* mass movement questions. If
70% of an organisation thinks it's important that the slogans "no US
or UN invasion of Iraq, stop the sanctions now" be advanced in the
movement, and got this position adopted at a national meeting, they
might feel a bit miffed if 30% of the organisation instead argued in
public meetings for the slogan "peace now, sanctions not war". The
majority could reasonably argue that their democratic rights aren't
being respected, and that the efficacy or otherwise of their proposed
slogans within the movement aren't really being tested properly.
Having a big disciplined intervention about the date or the exact
tactics of an action or whatever might be a different thing.

The Australian DSP tends to be a fairly "disciplined" unit in
interventions and also have a "mind your own business" approach to
internal debate. Does this lead necessarily to dogmatism,
sectarianism, bureaucratism, or "harmful baggage" in Louis Proyect's
words? I think this much more depends on the general perpectives and
practice of a group, than its organisational procedures. A small
example: several years ago 2 experienced DSP members in Sydney didn't
campaign for the organisation in an election, but (in a seat in which
the DSP was running) for a single issue group that campaigned around
a local issue that concerned those comrades particularly. No one was
very happy but no made made a big fuss either (the obvious thing was
to solve the problem positively, by strengthening links with the
local campaign, rather than negatively, by "disciplining" wayward
members). My experience of serious internal differences in the DSP
has been the organisation going out of its way in facilatating
debates when they arose by encouraging counter reports at national
meetings, special discussion bulletins, at one time a special
conference etc. No doubt Bob Gould or others could contradict this
but that would be for me anyway further evidence that discussion of
the internal life of other organisations is very problematic and of
limited utilty when so much can be hearsay or easily distorted (much
better and more useful to debate the public pronouncements and
practice of organisations). Having a more "public" debate may make
outside polemicists happier but would not necessarily be more
democratic overall - e.g. the ALP has public debates but I would
seriously question its claims to internal democracy.

I think a group can have "Leninist discipline" (to be interpreted in
the appropriate way in different contexts and periods), a democratic
culture and a non-sectarian approach, if it has a basically, and
consistently, revolutionary approach to politics. Where groups go off
the rails organisationally there usually seem to be a reason in the
need to bureaucratically defend otherwise indefensible major politcal
errors, delusions and/or entrenched interests, eg Stalinists
defending socialism in one country and popular frontism, the US SWP
defending a workerist turn to industry, or the ALP's usually forlorn
attempts to humanise capitalism (and sometimes more suceesful
attempts to defend its union and parliamentary bureaucracies), rather
than being the fault of "Leninist" practice (or the ALP rule book or
whatever) per se.
--

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