Democratic Centralism in Practice and Idea: A critical evaluation

This is a repost, originally posted to Miami Autonomy & Solidarity’s blog linked to below.

The terrain is changing beneath our feet. Since the collapse of the majority of the “official Communist” regimes, the world has witnessed both events and ideas that have undermined the former dominant thinking within the left. The Zapatistas, Argentina in 2001, South Korean workers movements, Oaxaca in 2006, the struggles around anti-globalization, and Greece’s series of insurrectionary moments have increasingly presented challenges to traditional left answers to movements and organization. In previous eras Marxist-Leninism was the nexus which all currents by default had to respond to either in agreement or critique. Today, increasingly anarchist practices and theory have come to play this role.

As a member of an anarchist political organization, a friend once told me I in fact was practicing democratic centralism. This was perplexing, because the group had no resembling structures, practices, or the associated behaviors of democratic centralism. However, I was told that since we debated, came to common decisions, and acted on that collective democracy, we were in fact democratic centralist. This kind of productive confusion led to questions about the concept, and why the target of democratic centralism has shifted. This move, the shifting conceptual territory of core concepts of a certain orthodoxy, comes up repeatedly not only with democratic centralism, but also surrounding ideas like crisis, dialectics, the State, and class. The resulting cognitive dissonance caused me to investigate attempts at reinvigorating the concept of democratic centralism (democratic centralist revisionism), and understand truly what it is, where it came from, and how it has been practiced. Continue reading

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Discussing democratic centralism

I have a new piece on the Miami Autonomy & Solidarity blog discussing democratic centralism. Written over a few years, it tries to look at the ways in which different projects to revise and rejuvenate democratic centralism play out, and look at our position in history from the perspective of organization. Originally it was part of the the 3 part theory for political organization in our time. It became too long and was separated out and put on the back burner. I’m not entirely content with it, since I feel that there could be better treatment of the history and ideas, but limitations of time largely made others press me to finally put it out lest it otherwise never see the light. Hoping it spurs on some good debate.

Thrown Off Balance: workers struggles against equilibrium.

Recently a debate has arisen around the nature of workers, workers’ struggles, and unions amongst the broad libertarian or autonomist left[1]. The aftermath of Occupy in the United States has corresponded to a number of happenings that have pushed unions to the center of debate. Unions, particularly SEIU, used a series of community front organizations in Occupy to attempt to mobilize sections of the radical left, and ultimately to build up a network behind their electoral agenda. Armed with those relationships, campaigns like Our Walmart, the Fight for 15, and other low wage service organizing attempts utilized the connections and energy from occupy towards experimentations with organizing.

Labor is less in a free-fall than a steady decline which has been aggravated recently by the austerity cuts to government (disproportionately union). Faced with an ever weakening position, the unions have turned to more militant methods to gaining footholds which are derived from a militant past or only recently utilized by the radical left of labor like the IWW. Traditional unions are under renewed attacks to reduce labor costs in a coordinated move against the standard of living in the US. There’s an apparent attack to meet the crisis by increasing profit, jobs, etc., through raw reductions in people’s overall access to social goods and the work environment that reigned for many (but not all) over the past decades.  In this environment unions and/or their members have been turning to radicals to help settle their scores, save their contracts, and often do the leg work. The struggles in the NW ILWU is the most obvious example, but countless others are unfolding.

There’s a couple features worth noting here. First there’s the defensive and sometimes offensive struggles of workers organized in unions happening in response to the changes in the economy. Second there’s the growth of militant experiments within the institutionalized unions. Last there’s the shift in work itself as the economy attempts to gain new footholds and foundations. All these features motivate and form the poles around which new debates are getting worked out.

Traditionally the libertarian left has carved out positions based on arguments around union forms. The range of opinion goes from support for unions as popular sites of struggle where capitalism is challenged, to proposals for constructing or reforming union forms in line with class struggle and/or libertarian principles, to rejections of unions because of their form within capitalism as mediating sites of bargaining. Without going into this in any depth, it’s worth noting that all such positions abstract away historical context, and attempt to create political positions for action based on the structure and form of unions more or less alone.[2]

This contrasts with the present debate taking place that puts the concrete situation in the United States at the forefront of the controversy. At its clearest, the pieces by Advance the Struggle[3] and the response by Unity & Struggle[4] show how the terrain has moved in constructing a position on labor and the workers movement. In their initial piece, Advance the Struggle makes the point that recent attacks against union workers such as healthcare workers, ILWU, etc., provide the basis for furthering the changing conditions in austerity. On the other hand militant responses provide the opportunity, they argue for broader offensives against capital.

Continue reading