or, Why I Choose to Work in “Centrist” Organisations
A couple weeks ago, I sent an e-mail to a few socialist listservs I'm a member of as an attempt to explain my opinions on possibilities for regroupment. I got some positive responses from a couple people (which I should respond to), so at least my post got some people thinking, which is what I intended.
There was, however, one response I received from a resident orthodox Trotskyist on the e-mail list. In his response, the writer expressed concern over my apparent willingness to work with “centrist” organisations instead of working with any of the more explicitly revolutionary socialist groups that exist in the US. He also delivered some criticism of what I mentioned as some individual organisations' strengths, such as Solidarity's union work, the Socialist Party's running of candidates, and the Scottish Socialist Party's open platform policy (which, despite some re-working that will probably need to be done after the Tommy Sheridan fiasco, still is a great idea in my opinion.) Now, I thought the writer made some good points about how even if an organisation tends to focus more on a particular issue than others, that doesn't necessarily make its position on said issue a good one. I will concede that point. And I do understand the writer's argument of how nearly all of the groups I mentioned are in some way “centrist,” but I feel the need to defend and explain why I am in centrist organisations, and why I think working within such groups is, at the moment, actually better than joining a “r-r-revolutionary” (for lack of a better term) organisation.
Now, in the Marxist/Trotskyist parlance, calling a party or organisation “centrist” implies that they tend to waver between revolutionary and reformist positions. Historically, organisations that have been called centrist were groups like the Independent Labour Party in 1930s-1950s Great Britain, which, while did not put off the idea of socialist revolution merely for “holiday speeches,” nevertheless acted in a reformist manner in the meantime. The writer also mentioned that lack of democratic structure and discipline within organisations also made them centrist. Given this definition, it actually makes some sense to consider the organisations I mentioned centrist. Within the Socialist Party (the organisation I work with the most) there is a definite split between revolutionary socialists and reformists/social democrats. There are also problems with our internal structure; in my opinion there's a lack of accountability between the locals and the national office, going both up and down the line. Part of this problem is the SP's apparent phobia of anything having remotely to do with “Leninism” or “democratic centralism.” In some sense, this is definitely an understandable fear, given the track record of many organisations that have claimed to use “democratic centralist” principles, and, if my history is correct, the fact that the Spartacist League has tried to take over the Socialist Party at least once (definitely in the 1970s, and perhaps once in the 1990s as well.)
However, it is important to note that, for democracy to actually be an effective form of organisation, some degree of centralism is inherently necessary. It is absolutely essential to arrive at decisions through the most open and democratic means possible, but once those decisions are reached, there needs to be a commitment by members to do their best to carry out those decisions, even if they may not have agreed with the decision. In the realm of electoral politics, candidates running under the banner of a particular party should be held to upholding the platform and principles of that party, as they are a public representative for that party in the campaign, and in the halls of government, assuming they get elected (a rather small chance in the US, but you never know.) In any event, this combination of internal democracy and outward unity is essential for an organisation to build itself and become a power political force. As fellow blogger Korakious wrote: “democracy has no meaning without a degree of centralism; democracy - binding decisions = discussion. The minority should accept the sovereignty of the majority, without this meaning that the minority should be disrespected and/or marginalized.” In other words, it's best to operate on a system of “majority rule, minority rights,” so that the minority is not expelled or compelled to split from the organisation just because of its minority views. I would add on to this the idea that, after a period of action directed by the policy that's been voted on by the membership at whatever appropriate level, there should also be a time of reflection and analysis of how well the policies or tactics worked in that situation, so that if a similar situation comes around again, the party will be able to draw on experience to put forth a more effective policy.
But I've digressed a bit. The point is, I don't consider the Socialist Party to completely have the fully democratic structure that is should to optimally function. There's disconnect between the locals/members-at-large and the leadership, and far too many members-at-large that aren't represented by a local, regional, or state organisation. While the SP does a decently good job of not straying into the extreme centralism that some organisations can, I repeat that the lack of accountability both up and down the organisational ladder does harm to internal party democracy by failing to be adequately centralist and decentralist at the same time. Interesting trick that is, no?
Anyway, another revolutionary socialist may then ask me, “since the Socialist Party isn't the revolutionary socialist organisation you want it to be, then why have you remained there? Why don't you join an organisation that upholds the the same principles as you do?” I indeed have gotten this question before, once from a member of the ISO, and at least once from a member of the Spartacist League (for some reason, I run into Sparts more than I run into ISO folks... not sure why.) It's a good question, and unfortunately I never really thought through my reasoning until relatively recently, leaving me somewhat defenceless when it came to this question in the past. Hopefully this will help me answer that question with better certainty in the future. The primary reason why I haven't switched my membership to a “more revolutionary” organisation that the SP-USA (or Solidarity, which I am also a member of) is simply because not many of those organisations have good track records when it comes to upholding true democratic centralist principles either.
For example, let's look at the history of the Spartacist League. Now, despite the reputation they've earned in the 40 years since their formation, the minority tendency in the SWP that they were formed from had some interesting criticisms of the SWP, especially regarding the Civil Rights movement. Early on, the Spartacist League also did some decent union work, and were able to recruit gay activists and former students. However, somewhere along the line, it looks like something went horribly wrong. It might have been the first split that the SL suffered, when in 1971 a number of founding Spartacists left to form Spark, and affiliated themselves with Lutte Ouvrière in France. Because of this split, only one leader of the tendency which founded SL remained central in the organisation: James Robertson. It might have just been the pressure that was placed on all socialist groups during the 1970s, and the Spartacist League just wasn't able to cope. Whatever the reason, the SL now has the dubious honour of being one of the most sectarian, obnoxious, sometimes violent, and overall just annoying organisations on the socialist Left.
At least, that's how the organisation appears to people on the outside. On the inside, however, things could be quite different. For all we know, the Spartacist League may have one of the most rigorously democratic internal regimes of all the socialist organisations that exist in the US. That's one of the problems with organisations that operate on a very strict cadre manner (as if Lenin suddenly stopped writing about party organisation after 1902), people on the outside have almost no way of looking into the organisation first, to see if it actually meets their structural as well as political expectations. Even if the internal regime of the Spartacist League is this paragon of true democratic centralism, we on the outside cannot become aware of it.
Still, despite this possibility that the Spartacist League could have a highly democratic and open internal regime, I have severe doubts as to whether or not this is actually the case. My scepticism draws from the fact that, in the 40+ year existence of the Spartacist League, they managed to have practically one split a decade. Aside from the already-mentioned split that formed Spark in 1971, the Revolutionary Workers League was formed out of SL in 1976, and the Bolshevik Tendency split from the Sparts in 1982. Most recently, the Internationalist Group was spawned from the Spartacist League in 1996. Each of these groups split/were expelled/whatever from the Spartacist League for different reasons, but the fact that so many groups were ejected from the Sparts seems to indicate a lack of internal democracy resulting in insufficient political expression for the minority faction. At the same time, the situation could also be explained by the minority wanting special concessions from the majority, also something which is anti-democratic. My guess is some combination of both. Either way, this indicates a lack of respect for democracy on at least one side of the split.
Another, less blatant example might be the International Socialist Organization. The ISO, for better or for worse, is probably the largest organisation in the US that upholds some variant of Trotskyism, and indeed one of the larger socialist organisations in the US. It's probably one of the most represented organisation among the student Left, along with SDS and YDS. Now, as far as I know there has never been a major split in the ISO, except when they were expelled from the International Socialist Tendency, and a small group called Left Turn kept the IST franchise (they've since left the IST as well.) However, the ISO is considered to have a relatively high rate of "member turnover," meaning that people join up for a year or two or three, then leave the organisation. Many organisations use this as an example of the ISO's undemocratic internal practises driving away members. I don't fully buy this argument, as it could be since the ISO is fairly prominent on college campuses, this high membership turnover could be due to college students becoming radicalised for a couple years, then dropping out after they graduate. Still, there is most likely some element of truth in the claim that high membership turnover is a result of an undemocratic internal regime, especially if the ISO has kept much of its organisational norms that it inherited from the British Socialist Workers Party.
So, there are a couple of examples of how revolutionary organisations probably don't live up to the standards of revolutionary democracy either. And, given the choice between an "inconsistently revolutionary" organisation with an open democratic structure such as the Socialist Party, or a more explicitly revolutionary organisation with an unclear democratic/un-democratic structure like the Spartacist League or, to a lesser degree, the ISO, I'd readily choose the former, on the argument that it will be an easier and more productive struggle to change the former groups towards revolutionary politics than change the latter to a more open, democratic structure.