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Democracy without centralism will fail

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Colin Barker continues his series on 'Where We Stand', the Socialist Workers Party's statement of principles
Issue 1902

The job we face shapes the form of socialist organisation. If all we had to do was make general propaganda in favour of socialism, then the loosest form of association would be enough. But that would mean sitting on the sidelines, only commentating on real struggles and actual movements.

The real problem for socialists is finding ways to connect today’s immediate struggles with the battle for a socialist world. To do that, we can’t abstain from involvement in strikes, demonstrations, protests and movements. Once we practically engage with real battles, questions about socialist organisation take on new life and meaning.

If movements all trundled along neat tracks, like trams, where nothing unpredictable happens, we could all sit back and enjoy the ride, making the odd helpful comment about the scenery and which route to take at clearly marked junctions.

Real struggles are more difficult-and exciting. They’re more like a journey on a switchback that suddenly becomes a mass parade and then a plunge in icy water. The world changes, new movements arise unexpectedly, there are great victories and defeats. Struggles reverse and alter, going through critical turning points. It’s often hard to keep our bearings in swiftly changing conditions, under different pressures and demands.

There’s no magic formula for socialist party organisation. What fits in one period can become an impediment in another. Moments of defeat and retreat demand one set of tasks, and an upturn in struggle another. What fits a quiet and conservative period will hardly do for a revolution!

Socialist organising involves both established routine and new initiatives and inventiveness. Even quiet and conservative periods are never completely without strikes and other battles, to which socialists must respond quickly. Even in the height of a revolution, we have to undertake some standard organisational tasks-newspaper production and circulation, raising funds and the like.

Even ‘routine’ tasks involve elements of centralisation. Producing a newspaper requires editors, who must take day to day responsibility for what appears. Editors, of course, should be elected, and held accountable, but no regular paper can be produced by the whole membership meeting in a conference.

However, a socialist paper reflecting only the views and experiences of a tiny minority of members will be both dull and useless for practical intervention in struggles. A good socialist paper expresses an ongoing dialogue both among socialists and between the party and the movements its members are active in.

Non-routine tasks also demand a degree of centralisation. We often need speedy decision making to respond quickly to changing conditions. A sudden turn-about during a national strike-for example, the familiar sight of union leaders attempting to sell the strike out-demands a rapid, coordinated reply. We might call for a national lobby, say, or produce a national leaflet within hours.

Of course, anyone organising such a lobby or leaflet needs to consult quickly with the best informed militants in the union. But there isn’t time to discuss with everyone. We would abdicate the struggle if we waited till the party assembled a national delegate conference to decide!

A wider change, like the rise of the anti-capitalist movement or the formation of Respect, demands that socialists shift their whole pattern of activity. A party can’t carry through such changes without the widest possible discussion and debate. Those proposing a new path have to argue quite hard, often against confusion and resistance, to swing the party round. The very process of debate is vital to clarifying a new direction, and convincing people.

One thing is certain-just issuing commands is quite useless! Contrary to our opponents’ fevered dreams, socialist parties aren’t armies whose members simply do as they are told. We rely on conviction and commitment, and they depend on developing shared understanding, often only achieved through sharp debates.

There’s a key principle involved in democracy. Once a plan of action has been debated and decided, we should stick to it. That doesn’t just apply to parties, but also to movements. An anarchistic ‘do your own thing’ mentality produces unnecessary defeats.

Workers vote before going on strike. If a majority votes for the strike, they rightly expect the minority to abide by the decision. That’s what picket lines, developed over two centuries of working class experience, are for.

At one anti-capitalist demonstration not long ago, in Washington DC, demonstrators agreed to blockade all the entrances to a World Bank conference. But in one area a group decided to follow their own decision, ignoring everyone else, and let the bank delegates through-dissolving the whole protest into pointlessness.

Centralism without democracy is completely alien to socialism. But refusal of all centralism, all coordination and direction, is self defeating.

A living mixture of centralism and democracy, with both requiring the other, only makes sense for those actually involved in real movements, where the ups and downs, and sudden shifts and turns of struggle, impose their own necessities.

None of this implies that one group of socialists are the leaders while the rest just follow along. For one thing, those who lead in one situation often prove hopeless in another. For another, a revolutionary socialist organisation has to work all the time to raise every member to the level of the most developed, so that they can lead too.

But isn’t leadership itself inherently undemocratic? Not at all-it’s no more than trying to persuade those around us of a point of view. Every time we try to convince someone else about anything, we’re trying to lead them. Democracy without leadership, in that sense, means nothing at all.

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