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.