Inside the Irish and indeed international left wing movement there is a difficult discussion that is beginning (or I should say re-beginning as this discussion has many predecessors). This is a discussion of organisational structure and democracy. This discussion should neither fall into an anti-leftist ‘socialism is invariably anti-democratic’ and even less so into a condescending ‘socialism from below’ which has no practical meaning; or even worse act as simply an attack from one group upon another. These issues seem to be systematic across the dominant Irish and British left. In fact even within the more recent Occupy movement an informal bureaucratic clique seemed to have arisen quite quickly. Some might argue that the existing types of structures have been necessary for survival at certain historical periods of severe oppression; or even in periods of downturn in class struggle and consciousness; however I can see no credible reasoning for keeping them now. Others might argue that these structures are necessary to create an effective force of class struggle; this I also disagree with, in the short term they may be effective for small groups but in the long term they lead to fragmentation, ‘group think’ and hamper both individual and collective political development. These structural issues I believe are acting as a block on the development of the Irish left, both politically and practically, and I believe add to a sectarian mentality between existing groups. I do not wish to fetish structure I am aware as much as the next person that the material ‘objective factors’ are of key importance. However there is also a ‘subjective factor’ where the superstructure affects the base. Our own subjective structures are also something we can do something about. I am not saying it is a magic formula that will build a mass movement or party overnight however I believe this difficult discussion is a necessary step. While not fetishising structure we should also not ignore it altogether which has been the case for the last number of years. This article does not claim to have all the answers on the problem of organisation in the current period; however it hopes to be an opening to a frank and serious discussion.
Democratic Centralism, the Slate System and the Role of the Party Apparatus
There are three key issues to this debate that I think need to be discussed, the first is the adherence to a deformed notion of democratic centralism, the second is the ‘winner takes all’ slate system (practised by both the SWP and SP) and the third is the role of party staff and apparatus. I will explain these notions briefly as they are widely used with an assumption that the meaning is understood or agreed upon when this is not often the case. I define democratic centralism as the key notion that a group or party will have a discussion on an issue and eventually make a decision whether by a vote, a delegate assembly or by the election of representatives. If the vote is contentious the losers should agree to commit to the majority line externally while being free to push for their own line internally. Moreover every effort should be made to hold such debates publically in front of both the party membership and class, this may not be possible in all situations, but it is in most. This conception of democratic centralism is sensible notion of how to organise any serious collective group who are bound to have disagreements.
However the key point to democratic centralism that is not acted on in the Irish left is one of timing. The discussion needs to happen before the decision is made and members should have the option to express their view democratically whether through direct voting, delegation or representation. This does not happen, what tends to happen is a leadership executive body makes a decision and then passes that decision onto the membership. Democratic centralism then resembles the Stalinist notion of just doing what you are told. In some organisations you are perfectly free to discuss the issue and it will be ‘patiently explained’ to you by an executive member. But the key fact is the decision is made and the only option for the member who disagrees is to withdraw their labour, whether in a conscious mode or by dropping out.
Now some may argue that the leadership is the representative of the membership outside of annual congress therefore they do represent the democratic wishes of the membership. However I contend this is not sufficient for three reasons: Firstly is because of the ‘winner takes all’ slate system (see below), secondly as the leaderships meetings are secret and the membership are not told of the individuals voting record on specific issues, and thirdly the relationship of party staff to executive bodies as well as the centralisation of party communications and decisions.
The slate system as practised by Irish and British Trotskyism and its off shoots is a system where there is one single vote for the entire leadership. You do not pick an area representative; you do not choose any individual members but the entire slate of the executive. In other words if there is a leadership body of 12 you see a slate of 12 people and vote on all of them at once.
You are usually free to put forward an alternative slate but this rarely, if ever, happens and by doing so you are inevitably opposing the entire leadership of your organisation. Most people resign or drop out rather than do so. Ironically the SWP even ban what they call political factions outside of conference. So while an existing leadership is free to organise themselves all year, any opposition is banned from doing so. More importantly it means that an individual cannot put him or herself forward as they need a slate. It also means new members of the leadership are co-opted onto it by the existing leadership. The new people are usually welcomed for purely functional rather than political reason. Loyalty to the existing leadership goes without saying. It also means that nobody ever stands in front of the membership with a political programme.
Moreover while you are free to organise an alternative slate you are not only going up against the entire existing leadership slate (including people you probably believe should be there) but also the entire apparatus of the party. In a large multi-tendency party a slate system might be useful as at least there are various tendencies to choose from. However as the winner takes all positions from one vote the issue of splits would be a serious issue, or behind the scene (away from the membership) apolitical horse trading. However the notion that a slate system is necessary in a small single-tendency party of one or two hundred (as is the case in Ireland) makes absolutely no sense at all.
In terms of political representation and decision making you do not get to vote for a candidate because they put forward a particular program or on their voting record. Therefore the argument that the centre represents the view of the membership doesn’t hold. Moreover the idea that all decisions are made by representatives without the direct involvement of the membership, either directly or by delegate is an entirely bourgeois notion of democracy and should be resisted.
The relationship of the party apparatus (offices, contact information, full time staff, funding etc), is also paramount. Even if you did manage to bring together an alternative slate you must go up against the leadership controlled apparatus. While the parties may not be particularly big or materially wealthy this is also an issue. The existing leadership have access to all contact information, they have (and often are) full time staffers with time to canvass opinion and access to the entire membership. This ‘iron law of oligarchy’ as the German sociologist Robert Michels put it is especially the case when all information and discussion passes through a centralised apparatus without any horizontal delegate structures. Of course an organisation needs to have full time staff, but full time staff should be entirely independent of a leadership and hired by a committee of rank and file members or better still elected. Where a full time staff and leadership are excessively overlapped we are in the realm of a bureaucracy plain and simple.
Political Education, Programme and Strategy
Invariably these issues mean that political discussion is something that is taught by an existing leadership to new membership. While there is nothing wrong with this in some sense there is the problem if the leadership is deaf to the membership. And more importantly the membership have little experience in developing policy or strategy. It also means that dialectical political discussion is removed from the party. It in some cases can lead to a situation of ‘group think’ where loyalty to the party and the existing line blinds the membership from challenging and developing the political ideology and strategy of the group. Finally and related to ‘group think’ I think it adds to the sense of sectarianism. As there is no decision making discussion (there is obviously political discussion and excellent political discussion within the parties) it doesn’t prepare their memberships for discussion outside the parties. Moreover we are left with various leaderships who are not used to losing votes and an inevitable competition where faction members are more concerned with political point scoring than the issue at hand.
There is also the problem of programme and strategy, or I should say the epistemology of programme and strategy. We need to ask ourselves to we believe in working class self emancipation which effectively means a programme developed from debate and discussion within a party derived from the class, and that we are prepared to make mistakes and hopefully correct them. Or on the other hand do we believe programme is something to be derived by a few wise men (and it is usually men) and to be enacted by a loyal membership without question.
Structures in the ULA
The ULA has proved an area of structural experimentation. Initially the alliance was organised by a steering committee made up of representatives of the organising parts. This steering committee was organised by a consensus system which included a de-facto veto. While this was an attempt to avoid splits it has recently proved ineffective, much like the veto system in the occupy movement it has meant that progress for the alliance has been effectively stalled. To the bizarre extent where the Socialist Party while refusing to take part in ULA branches, activities and even steering committee meetings, (and seem to believe the alliance is finished) still claim a veto preventing anybody else moving forward or even registering the alliance for basic electoral purposes. The veto has also failed in the prevention of splits as the constitute parts continue to follow their own narrow and short term interests irrespectively. Moreover even with the veto system the Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Group did split last year citing the vetoing of a call for Mick Wallace’s resignation (ironically enough by the Socialist Party) alongside what they termed the factional activity of the SWP in prioritising own self recruitment over the development of the ULA.
On a more positive side when independent members of the ULA won two positions on the steering committee it led to a transparency that heretofore was not present. Independent members received details of every steering committee meeting and which way the various parts voted. Independent members also had the ability through their representatives to push motions directly to the steering committee at any time. A privilege not enjoyed by rank and file members of the SP or SWP.
The ULA has never had a voting national conference; this was bitterly opposed by the SP leadership and their opposition was supported by many independents who feared an annual headcount and either the SP or SWP taking total control which would lead to an inevitable split. What the ULA did succeed in establishing is a model which I believe is a model far superior to the annual conference and especially the slate system of electing leaderships. The ULA established (unfortunately only as an advisory body to the steering committee) a quarterly delegate council where delegates are directly elected from branches. This delegate structure gives ordinary delegates permanent and direct access to decision making process and alliance representatives. Recent councils have begun to produce policy entirely independently from existing leaderships. Of course the delegate council is at an early stage and branches have only been able to develop (against all the odds) where there have been independents driving the process. Moreover the future of the ULA itself is uncertain; if the ULA is to survive we will have to move beyond the model of the steering committee, the permanent veto, and at least some power will have to rest with the delegate council. This is effectively a move towards a multi-tendency party. Even an enlarged steering committee with representatives from the SP and SWP (if they remain in the alliance), the TDs and at least half directly selected from the delegate council must be a minimum demand.
The heretofore dominant existing structural and leadership models of the Irish (mainly Trotskist) left are in my opinion not fit for purpose. I am convinced political and trade union activists will not join any party they have no say in, whether led by distant TDs or a secretive executive body. The time to have an open an honest discussion on the structures and method of the Irish left is long overdue.
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