One of the debates running through the Irish left in recent years has been on the question of “democratic centralism”, which is alleged to be a system of organisation derived from the writings of VI Lenin. Actually I think Lenin’s approach to the matter is very poorly understood, but let’s run with this a while.There are on the Irish far left several organisations claiming to be Leninist and adhering to democratic centralism. Most leftists who aren’t in these groups are deeply anti-Leninist, not usually because they have a worked-out critique of Lenin’s political thought but rather because they don’t think much of the organisations that claim to adhere to it. A good example is the vociferously “anti-Leninist” Irish Socialist Network. Most of the ISN’s members have a background in the Workers Party, and they have a few younger activists who come from the SWP. Well might one protest that those groups are not democratic centralist but simply centralist – the experience of ISN members leads them, quite understandably, to react against loud proclamations on the virtues of “democratic centralism”.
I have my doubts about the ISN – especially about their great claims to having no leadership – but there’s something to their position. Groups like the SWP and the Socialist Party do have a tendency to treat “democratic centralism” as a magical fetish, and anyone who has been on the rough end of those groups’ regimes will know how much democracy is involved. My view is that if you strip down democratic centralism to its essential elements – you take a decision democratically, the majority rules, you carry out the decision in a unified way and minorities are given room to loyally collaborate – it has a lot going for it. Certainly there is nothing intrinsically evil about it. And you’ll notice that the form of organisation doesn’t necessarily correspond to a revolutionary Marxist party – you could just as easily run a cricket club on the basis of democratic centralism.
Nor, and this is important, does the idea contain any intrinsic political virtue. This may come as a shock to, say, SWP members who are immensely proud of their “Leninist” regime and believe that it guards them against political sin. But Fianna Fáil is organised on the basis of democratic centralism, and it has no fixed political principles at all. What’s more, despite a pronounced cult of the Infallible Leader, FF is a good deal more democratic than the SWP.
Consider this. If you want to be on the FF National Executive, all you need to do is get some party body to nominate you, and then do the rounds of the cumainn and comhairlí ceanntaire trying to drum up some votes. It isn’t easy to get elected, but it’s easy enough to get nominated, and once nominated, you have as fair a crack of the whip as anyone.
By way of contrast, how does the SWP elect its Political Committee? What happens is that at the annual conference – usually right at the end of proceedings – the outgoing PC will nominate a “slate” of 10 or 12 names to be the new PC. Most of those names don’t change from year to year, but there are normally a couple of new faces to give the impression of fresh blood.
It’s important to realise that the slate, once proposed, can’t be amended. If you, the conference delegate, would like to remove Kevin Wingfield and substitute Paul O’Brien, you can’t propose that. You have to vote for or against the slate as a whole. Or else you can put forward an alternative slate, meaning you have to twist people’s arms to see if they’ll put themselves forward against the existing leadership. Given the SWP’s absurdly draconian restrictions on members associating with each other, which make it impossible to organise opposition outside the conference, actually getting an opposition together over the 48 hours of the conference itself is beyond any but the most energetic factionalist, and almost certainly more trouble than it’s worth. Not to mention that any member suspected of being an oppositionist will quickly find herself an ex-member.
This anti-democratic procedure explains how a group of “leaders” with scarce any experience in leading anything but their own small sect get to hold seats on the PC on a more or less permanent basis, sometimes for decades on end. There is no fresh blood except for a select few promoted by the permanent leadership, who invariably become clones. There is no fresh thinking except that coming from the papal curia in London, which itself is “elected” on the same basis, and with the same results. I know most of the Irish SWP leadership reasonably well, and while there is undoubtedly talent there, there is nothing that justifies anyone holding a leadership position for 25 or 30 years unbroken. In a proper political party, many if not most of these people would have been out on their ear years ago.
SWP members who are interested in the health of their organisation – and they do exist – might be well advised to ponder whether the slate system, which is also used for such purposes as electing conference and NC delegates, is really all it’s cracked up to be. They might also consider the question of term limits or compulsory rotation for leading members. A spell at the grassroots might do some people good, especially Kieran.