Kasama Project: “Democracy and centralism? Yes, sure, but…”

The ideas of the rank-and-file are more than just raw material for leadership decision-making. Democracy involves elements of real power and ongoing accountability.

by Mike Ely

How should communists and revolutionaries be organized?

Even asking that, ruffles some feathers — since historically, 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 “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:

“What is the bumper-sticker version of Democratic Centralism (DC)? A line arrived at via democratic discussion amongst the ranks, this discussion synthesized by the leadership, the crystallized line “sent down” and carried out unswervingly into practice. That practice initiates another spiral up and another spiral down.”

This is one version. One bumper-sticker. And many people have their own bumper sticker version (based on theirread and their experiences). It stands out (to me) how different those are.

Chain of knowledge, Chain of command?

Here’s the form of democratic centralism I’m most familiar with. It has its own peculiarities (as you will see), but it also representative in someways ways of how democratic centralism has been practiced among communists.

Note: The following argument is not mine.

It says:

There are two reasons for democratic centralism that form two defining constraints — security under hostile conditions and Marxist epistemology.

Of the two, security is the one revolutionary activists most easily understand (once they realize someone is out to get them).

But epistemology shapes the main and defining logic for a more specific practice.  Because it is the argument that justified a highly stratified and hardened centralism — even under long-term conditions of relative legality. (Epistemology refers to that philosophical realm that explores “where do correct ideas come from?” — i.e. how do we reach decisions that are the best.)

The epistemological argument runs as follows:

Communist decisions require oversight (oversight of our experience, oversight of the conditions nationally, oversight of the organization, etc.) So decisions cannot be made by the rank and file who by virtue of their position cannot have that oversight. Gaining oversight requires a specialized work — a lifetime spent watching and evaluating the overall form the point of view of Marxism Leninism.

The argument continues: a communist organization needs to operate by “need to know” — and so the rank and file can’t simply be privy to all the details. A great deal is kept secret. The organization should be essentially transparent (when you look down from its top positions), but it should be essentially opaque (when you look up from its base). This is where the security argument buttresses the epistemological one.

Note: this is (in part) an argument for trusted leadership making day to day decisions (which would be fine). But it is also an argument against many kinds of democratic oversight (as we will see).

Based on this view of communist epistemology, the simple nature of human learning requires us to deploy “a chain of knowledge and a chain of command.”

The chain of knowledge is the raw material of decision-making — it is goes up from the rank-and-file members and local bodies — toward the higher leadership. This is (ideally)  a rich, steady, even comprehensive flow of reports, “questions,” experiences, details of the “pulse of the masses,” research by specialized teams, and summations by lower level bodies etc. That raw material is then appropriated and “synthesized” at the leading levels, and turned into plans and decisions.

Those plans and decisions are then “bought down” — with discipline — in what is known as a “chain of command.”

In short: it is an explicit argument that views and opinions at the bottom are inherently inferior (fragmented, partial, subjective, uninformed) compared to the summations and views emerging at the top of these “chains.” It is really an argument against democracy. (And it seems to deny that arguments arising from the bottom could be, at times, superior to all the summations at the top…. and it denies that such emerging criticism from below can be the engine for correction of errors and the necessary removal of poor leaders.)

Plans and decisions are then discussed “on their way down” (i.e. after plans have become decisions, after embracing them is required of all members). In other words, They are discussed only to implement in a disciplined way (not to vet).

At that point the discussion (the only one that actually happens) is to “understand” better the decision, and to excavate “wrong lines” that disagree. I.e. at that point, questioning the policy is after the fact and after the decision has become centralized policy…. So naturally, there is a powerful dynamic here that suppressed questions and disagreements — since they are only allowed to surface in the context of already decided policies that are already organizational line.

And in fact, in the RCP, there was virtually never any discussions of policies that hadn’t already been decided. (Without going into specifics: The rare exception was the “going up” process before changes in party program, which virtually never happened. I was involved in creating the public 2changetheworld discussion about the RCP’s changing program — but there is no other public example of such discussion, and no party practice of ongoing internal theoretical journals open to the membership.)

If (at a lower level) you held a discussion that had not yet been approved and prepared by a higher level decision — you were guilty of factionalism (and violating Marxist materialist epistemology itself.)

And if you (as an individual) expressed a view on something (“I think conditions are right for us to form some student group, because of the increase in political activity and interests on campuses.”) — you were immediately challenged on epistemological grounds: “How can you claim to know that? Based on what? Are you reading the reports from the party nationally?”

This is a bit different from RW Harvey’s bumper sticker version which implies “lower levels discuss first, then upper levels decide.” In fact in the RCP, that view was explicitly rejected as ultra-democratic. The lower levels were explicitly not to discuss policies or even major issues of analysis  first (without the guidance of upper level decisions), since (rather obviously) such lively internal culture of discussion would have radically increased the amount of debate, questioning, diversity and stress within the organization.

There was also zero “representative” qualities to this view of DC — higher levels were not viewed as ‘gatherings of representatives of lower levels.” On the contrary, the leadership of each body and unit was seen as the representative of higher bodies to the lower bodies, and never as the representative of the lower bodies to the higher bodies.

That second notion: representing the lower on the higher was a quintessential example of what was forbidden as “factionalism” or “federationism” in the earlier RU days.)

More: The organization as a whole was explicitly not seen as the property of its membership… and the membership itself was never seen as any final arbiter of disputes or controversies.

The only function of “lower” levels and bodies was (supposedly) to shovel a steady stream of raw material upwards. Even  their opinions were themselves considers that kind of raw material (i.e. there was no power relation operational when lower levels expressed opinion, i.e. no democracy in evidence). I.e. it was simply supposed to be a “chain of knowledge.”

Problems with the “two chains” theory

Further, communist organizations don’t actually have a painstaking and respectful summation of the “raw material coming up from below.” The center of the RCP (to use one example) was universally called “the black hole.” Reports were very often not read, or not passed on (i.e. not passed up), especially if they potentially contradicted current conventional wisdom. The whole structure denigrated the views of those below (whose very structure and assumptions caused most divergence from the official line to be seen as backwardness or heresy).

In short, “democracy” within this structure was simply the right to give one-way “input” (i.e. “write it up and submit it.”) — without a right to be heard, or a right to circulate views within your unit/body, or a right to have a response. Democracy also involved an atrophied “right to elect” leadership — which in practice was ignored or ritualized into self-mockery.

And the assumption (taken from the Comintern) is that the party’s work is like some huge laboratory (literally like a chemistry lab) where we “take things out and test them” — and that a summation is only possible on the basis of a unified practice that is then subject to critical summation.

This is pseudo-science at best — since (in fact) the changes and repudiation of most communist party policies don’t come as the result of some grand, mechanical, laboratory-like testing process — but from quite different processes. And the argument for common, disciplined action isn’t epistemological in this way — it is that we can’t have a powerful impact if we don’t act together.

Flaws of non-democratic centralism

The problems of this kind of structure are massive:

Exaggerated secrecy and lack of real collective discussion leads to a massive lack of accountability. Inevitable failures are covered up — in a way that accumulates and becomes routine. And even corruption happens (in minor and occasionally major ways). In repeated cases, bodies were simply powerless to question or remove leaders who had developed serious problems — like escalating alcoholism, mental illness or paralyzing demoralization — until someone “at higher levels” noticed and took action.

Daphne Lawless captured a lot of this perfectly (while describing a very different organization) when she talks about:

“Backroom dealings, manipulations, telling ‘acceptable fictions’ to keep people enthusiastic, winning arguments by force of personality, using psychological arguments to discredit dissenters or simply not inviting them to the meetings any more, making excuses for or outright denying the mistakes or even crimes of “leading cadre”, declaring defeats to be victories or declaring them to be all the fault of unreliable allies…”

Politically, the assumptions of elitism have room to grow — in the RCP there was the growth of “one-person management” (and “positions-for-life”) at many levels, a withering of even the frayed pretense of democracy, increasingly open disdain for the lower ranks, and the maddening imposition of  arbitrary and even bizarre opinions from above couldn’t be challenged.

And over time, the emergence of “positions-for-life” has a terrible generational impact — where every leading post is held by a founding member, and younger promising people with disruptive new insights are instructed to”act according to the principles laid down.” If the RCP had allowed younger members into leadership bodies and if they had held regular congresses (with major pre-congress discussions) every few years, who doesn’t believe that the notorious anti-gay policies would have been challenged and defeated in the 1980s?

Cults of personality negate pretense of democracy

This whole process (within the RCP) received a further massive jolt when it was declared that a “special” leader had emerged — and that this affected the very way a party worked. Because now, it was supposedly necessary to (literally) transform the party into “the party of Bob Avakian” — i.e.  an “instrument” of that special, rare, previous, beloved leader. And sothe previous norms of democratic centralism were now seen as corresponded to a previous period (where his specialness had not been fully recognized — either out of ignorance or revisionist opposition).

Suddenly one person arose above the collectivity of the previous leadership core — and the basis of hislegitimacy was not the “epistemology” of synthesis (since other leaders, and the leading body as a whole were privy to that) — but precisely his unique and special abilities. A bogus epistemology was replaced by a theory of special genius and (need I point out) the role of rank and file communists was even further demoted in that leap.

Bizarre as this is, lets not ignore two things:

First, this is not particular to the RCP, unfortunately.

And second, (more important perhaps), the previous assumptions of the “special position of leadership,” and the organizational habits built on that prepared the ground for this cult of personality (with its different assumptions and justifications). The victory of the present extreme cultish practices was made possible by the previous overly-commandist and undemocratic norms.

In addition: The current justification for cults of personality further underscored how the preceding “two chains” theory was philosophically bullshit.

Just to point out one obvious contradiction: The “chain of knowledge, chain of command” model assumes that plans, policies, decisions, analyses must be rooted in a synthesis of this organization’s practice (and the whole laboratory paradigm). If you are not in a position (within the hierarchy) to sum up that diverse-but-unified immediate practice (or aggregate the thinking and experience of others), then you are simply not in any position to come up with correct ideas. This is mechanical and highly empirical.

And yet then, the RCP’s leader Avakian  increasingly insisted that he had developed world-historic insights into many processes that his own organization has had zero connection with (i.e. building socialism, making revolution, leading mass movements, making alliances, electoral openings, military affairs of peoples wars, etc. etc.) So clearly his insights had come (far far far)  outside of the framework of  any organizational “chain of knowledge, chain of command.”

And so (logically) if Avakian could claim important contributions outside that framework, why couldn’t other parts of his communist organization potentially come up with correct insights, plans, criticism, overviews etc. without having some formal oversight of  a whole organization’s reporting system? Why would the pronouncements of the top leadership somehow be epistemologically superior to the theories of the lower levels?

And (need we say) it is actually true that people (sitting in all kinds of places within social hierarchies) are able to make all kinds of summations (including correct ones) based on indirect knowledge (of history, political economy, personal experiences, etc.) that don’t require their presences within any communist organization at all.

In other words, the epistemological argument for democratic centralism has been largely self-serving bullshit.

The need for structure, leadership and discipline

"Bombarding the headquarters" during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76) represented a huge break with the previous communist assumptions and practices of democratic centralism.

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. Maowrites for example:

“We must affirm anew the discipline of the Party, namely:

(1) the individual is subordinate to the organization;
(2) the minority is subordinate to the majority;
(3) the lower level is subordinate to the higher level; and
(4) the entire membership is subordinate to the Central Committee.

“Whoever violates these articles of discipline disrupts Party unity.”

This structure of subordinations is considerably more elaborate than “discipline means we act together.” I believe such structures are necessary at some points in a sharp political conflict. But what does that mean about how we operate at every previous point? Can we operate in such close order (when it is needed) without long habits and preparation in strict discipline? Can we build large national movements contesting for power without a  high degree of unanimity and discipline at its core (the kind that  so marked previous communist organizations).

Party as Proto-state leading to Party-State

This opens the door to an argument I will point to but not engage: It is that a political party of revolutionaries needs to be a kind of proto-state. If we are not planning to “lay hands” on the existing state machinery, then we need to be building (in parallel and at a distance) a replacement state machinery… and this will inevitably be some mix of energetic mass democratic forms (emerging from the people) and highly trained structured forms (emerging from “the party).

In a separate discussion, we need to engage these previous assumptions for a “party as proto-state” and  “state as party/state” — because the assumptions, arguments, and controversies are far from resolved.

Can we avoid this logic? Can we destroy the old state (and its machinery of law, policy and armed force) and erect a radically different state structure, without relying on the revolutionary party (and its army) to be both core and training ground for the new state? Where else do the institutions, training, policies, careers for the post-revolutionary days come from?

And (either way) what are the implications of this?

Particularity, contingency and context

For now:  I suspect that radically different forms of democracy and centralism are appropriate for different purposes. And that includes different points in the work and development of specific communist and revolutionary movement.

Only the highly naive or indoctrinated can believe that the Communist Party of China had the same kind of “democratic centralism” in the rural guerrilla zones that it had underground in the urban resistance cells, or that it had the same DC before the revolution, compared to after coming to power. Or that it was the same at the 8th Party Congress compared to Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Clearly, that history and practice can’t simply be captured by treating the various pithy commentaries of Mao as if they were “settled questions” or universally applicable.

Similarly, the Bolshevik experience is (as we have said here often) widely misunderstood — so that the famous organizational rules articulated by Lenin (in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, the ones over which the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks split!) are assumed to have been applied (from then on) by those Bolsheviks. Or as if the “democratic centralism” articulated by the Comintern (after 1921) can be assumed to be a crystallization of the actual experience and practice of the Bolsheviks. Or as if the famous (and strict) ban on factions within communist parties (part of the “monolithic party” theory, and part of the idea that virtually all political proposals are either correct or dangerously reactionary) was actually Bolshevik practice (and universally applicable). The Bolsheviks had a riotous factional and intellectual life internally, and more, they were themselves a faction within a much larger movement — with a permeable and indistinct membrane separating them and other factions. The communist ban on organized factions came later (in the middle of the civil war) when the severely tested and rapidly mushrooming party was starting to shake itself apart. And Mao’s later views on “two line struggle” within the party (and his criticism of “monolithic party”) would seem to have implications for our future approach to organized disagreements within our ranks. (I’m not a fan of formallizing “multi-tendency” organizations — which seem to codify permanent (and liberal) disunity and allow an eclectic unclarity over key matters — but this is a matter that needs discussion.)

A movement just starting to gather forces and identifying its ideas needs a far different initial organizational form, than a mature movement with a highly developed unity and division of labor that is acting (and maneuvering) on a complex real-life political terrain.

We are determined to carry though some deep changes in communist assumptions, based on a century of experience with the Comintern models. Meaning, first off, we should reject the idea that any specific form of democratic centralism is “universal” — this has never been true (and even when communists said they were carrying out a common model, they weren’t — and they should have more actively sought specific forms for their specific conditions.)

Clearly, we intend to break with the highly commandist practices (and justifications) of “chain of knowledge, chain of command” of some previous experiences. And (in contrast to theories of direct democracy and extreme looseness) we develop a concept where there is both discipline and 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.

[Source – Ed.]

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