Majority rights and minority duties
It is irresponsible to threaten to walk out simply because one finds oneself in a minority, says Eddie Ford
Following the Campaign for a Marxist Party's often confused and badly organised June 23 national conference in London, some comrades have pointed an accusing finger at the Communist Party of Great Britain. Apparently, the CPGB had the effrontery to make an indecently organised intervention. This just will not do, comrades tell us.
In the letters pages of the Weekly Worker we have had various CMP comrades complain about "thoughtless", "heavy-handed" and "sect-like" behaviour. But what did the CPGB actually do that so rattled them? Well, according to more than one comrade the problem with the CPGB was that it was in a "majority at the conference". Or, to put it in a more pejorative fashion, the meeting had been "packed by the CPGB factionalists" in order to ensure the success of its motions.
So what do we make of these charges directed against us? Of course, on one level all this amounts to is just a big whinge about the fact that the CPGB mobilised and organised members and a few supporters and hence constituted the effective majority on June 23. But on another, much broader, level, intended or not, our critics do raise serious questions that need to be seriously answered.
Frankly, we have no problem with majorities acting as such when it comes to voting at meetings and for committees. We call it democratic politics. Indeed we strongly and consistently advocate democracy. There is no other way to form the working class into a party in our considered opinion.
Following Marx and Engels, the communists of the CPGB fight not to 'abolish' authority - as the anarchists hypocritically and childishly claim to be doing - but instead to democratise authority and decision-making, which by definition includes both the political and the economic realms. We struggle to politicise economics and economise politics - as opposed to the alienating and farcically apolitical view of politics proffered by the Socialist Workers Party and other sects. This forms the core of our programme for universal human liberation.
Inevitably, this fight will involve a process of factional deals and negotiations - and, of course, splits and disagreements - between organised groups. Yes, partyism, especially in its early phases, goes hand in hand with factional struggles. There is nothing undemocratic about this. Our tactics and strategy are debated at party meetings, in email discussions and openly in our press. We also have an elected and accountable leadership.
Of course, majorities are not fixed, but in the normal run of things there are bound to be a range of minority viewpoints. Some will be right and some will be wrong. But at the end of the day the whole must come before the parts. In a word we advocate democratic centralism.
Does democratic centralism mean that majorities have the right to do as they please? No. Far from it. Majorities have responsibilities. They have to provide a viable and acceptable way forward for the whole. Internally too, they need to learn when to press their advantage and when to tread softly. Crucially, however, minorities have to have the right under democratic centralism to openly argue their case and fight to become a majority.
Without that right - a right that has to be real and not restricted to a couple of special weeks before congresses and conferences - then split after split will tend to occur. That or internal life withers and dies. The majority will then rule over what can never amount to more than a confessional sect. However, if that right to become a majority is real - eg, if there is the right to organise and openly criticise - minorities have the responsibility not to splitt, have a responsibility to accept with good grace when they lose votes at meetings or for committees "¦ and then to unite in agreed actions in an honest and disciplined fashion.
Trade unions, even of the most primitive kind, have stood and fought around this principle. The slogans of old tell the story. An injury to one is an injury to all! Unity is strength! One out, all out! Don't cross the picket line! Workers of the world, unite!
Of course, it is always nicer, more pleasant, to be in majority. Being in a minority is often frustrating, especially when it is fervently believed that the majority is taking an incorrect course. That is understandable. But it is irresponsible to threaten to walk out simply because one finds oneself in a minority. To do so clearly smacks of anarchism. The part is elevated above the whole, democracy goes out of the window and in comes the morality of individualism and the scab.
There are those, however, who openly object to democracy on 'principle' - because democracy automatically and inevitably represents a form of tyranny. There is also a deep-seated anti-leadership, anti-organisation cult in some parts of society. The most obvious example being the anarchists. This exact refrain could, though, be heard from Whigs, Tories, Church of England hierarchs and virtually the whole of the polite society in the 18th century. They feared faction, the revolt of the many-headed Hydra and a regime of the Levelling kind. Aristocracy, not democracy, was god's natural order.
We certainly object to the pseudo-democracy of the British monarchical constitution and the Walter Citrine shenanigans of the trade union bureaucracy. Eg, famously, notoriously, horribly, in the Socialist Labour Party its founder-leader, Arthur Scargill, could wield a 3,000 block vote in the name of the North West, Cheshire and Cumbria Miners' Association, if he so chose. Needless to say, hardly any of these 3,000 retired miners knew anything of the SLP.
But to replace the aristocratic rule of capital obviously requires organisation. There is no way of getting round this. The only way to get things done is to organise - it is as simple as that. Regardless of whether it is doing the shopping, running a business or organising a revolution. So everyone organises (and anarchist organisations do so no more or no less than non-anarchist ones). And all organisations tend to produce internal groupings of people who share the same particular or general outlook.
Logically, this poses the question of how we organise. For a valuable insight have a read of The tyranny of structurelessness (1970) by Jo Freeman - first printed in the US women's liberation movement. In her words, there is "no such thing as a 'structureless' group". 'Structurelessness' actually "becomes a way of masking power" and is "usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not)". In practice, she continues, "the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is curtailed by those who know the rules, as long as the structure of the group is informal".
Inevitably, argues Freeman, this means that those unfortunate souls who "who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware". And in turn, she continues, since "informal elites are combined with a myth of 'structurelessness', there can be no attempt to put limits on the use of power" - it becomes, she concludes, "capricious" (for the full text see http://struggle.ws/hist_texts/structurelessness.html).
In its most extreme - and often darkly comical - form this can be seen in the plans and method of operation chosen by Mikhail Bakunin. He wrote glowingly about unbounded freedom and the initiative of the masses, but was constantly dreaming up ways to impose his will through manipulation and control by an unaccountable and self-appointed revolutionary elite, with himself always placed at the pinnacle of power.
So the anarchist myth of 'structurelessness' is in actual fact minority rule. Organisation cannot be done away with, but organisation without democracy inevitably turns out to be just a hidden form of aristocracy.
Another form of anti-democracy, one which finds expression in the CMP, is anarcho-bureaucracy (an impossible paradox for those not properly trained in Marxism). This combines the anarchistic worship of the individual with a whole raft of bureaucratic rules, regulations and other such measures designed to protect the part, the factional minority, from the 'tyranny' of the majority.
In the run-up to the June 23 conference the CMP's committee suddenly decided to impose an elaborate and deeply flawed membership application process. Without doubt it was directed squarely at the CPGB. The motive? Fear that the CPGB was moving into a position where it could win any vote that it chose to fight. Now there are proposals on the table for an all-powerful CMP chair and a heavily policed email discussion list. There is the worrying whiff of censorship and bureaucratic removal in the air.
But by far the worst, the most thoroughly anarcho-bureaucratic, proposals have come Steve Freeman of the Revolutionary Democratic Group (he has been supported by Richard Harris). Comrade Freeman wants to ensure that the CMP is not dominated by one of the groups. In truth he wants to ensure that the CMP is not dominated by the CPGB. Neither the Critique supporters group nor the Democratic Socialist Alliance come into his calculation. Let alone his own barely existing organisation.
Citing the "same problem" in the old Socialist Alliance and the "fear about SWP domination", he ominously argues on the London CMP e-list that there should be "a rule that no group can have more than X% of the membership". X% always being equal to less than 50%.
"This," he says, "should be monitored by the groups themselves and by the membership secretary." Obviously a dictator in the making. Members of groups would be obliged to "declare their affiliations and notify any changes" - doubtless on a special form and in triplicate.
Henceforth the CPGB would be debarred by rule from having a majority in the CMP. Any 'over the quota' members would have their applications to join automatically rejected. That way the CPGB's Provisional Central Committee would be forced to "win allies and win its majorities by getting support from CMP members outside its own ranks". Comrade Freeman obviously wishes to be courted as one of the CMP's kingmakers. "Winning majorities is not simply down to PCC imposing a block vote" - instead matters will be decided by the 'non-aligned'. So he claims "¦ and might even seriously imagine.
As we know, the cult of the 'non-aligned' individual was actively promoted by the Socialist Workers Party in the old Socialist Alliance and is today, albeit to a lesser extent, in Respect. So in the SA the SWP assiduously, and quite cynically, sponsored numerous 'independent socialists'.
Not because the SWP had suddenly fallen in love with the idea of freedom of criticism and the non-confessional party (which can contain within itself all manner of competing and contending trends, tendencies and opinions). Oh no, quite the opposite. Rather, the SWP leadership had judged - accurately, if truth be sorrowfully told - that 'independents' spouting SWP-backed politics would provide an ideal cover for its own power and influence. So bring on the flotsam and jetsam.
Shamefully, the likes of Mike Marqusee, John Nicholson, Liz Davies, etc were quite prepared to act as loyal, house-trained, creatures of the SWP - until, inevitably, they fell out with their former masters and then became official 'non-people'. Later the SWP used Alan Thornett and other comrades of the International Socialist Group, to front the discarding of the SA and switch to Respect. The SWP used them to hide behind.
Richard Harris has an anarcho-bureaucratic agenda that almost exactly mirrors Steve Freeman's. If a significant grouping of CMP members - ie, members of the CPGB - caucus and vote as a bloc, this is a negation of democracy, comrade Harris argues.
Apparently Marxists have no right to organise in a Marxist organisation. Where that would leave Russia's Bolsheviks, Germany's Spartacus Bund and Britain's supporters of The Call is not hard to imagine. Any modern equivalent would be outlawed. Perversely, that in the name of promoting the Campaign for a Marxist Party.
The innocent ideal is 'one member, one vote' and the magic of consensus. Everyone gets together at the same time, at the same place, on a sunny Saturday afternoon and harmoniously they usher forth a totally new political organisation, the likes of which the world has never seen before. There is no need for like-minded comrades within the new entity to caucus, no need for them to struggle around issues of programme and organise against backward or harmful elements. God forbid that we resort to traditional political-organisational methods. Utopia has arrived. But clearly under any system of bureaucratic bans and proscriptions some members have more rights than others. Utopia is in fact dystopian. First and foremost the majority have no right to openly organise and voluntarily agree to vote as one. Who then rules, who controls?
Presumably some dictatorial, especially powerful, official or committee will have to be put in place. Otherwise how can things be made to work against the majority? The ranks of the CMP will have to be policed and monitored to ensure that the majority does not get together secretly to pursue its own factional aims.
Yet what if the majority refuses to accept this outrageous imposition? What if the comrades insist upon organising in spite of the rules? Would the majority have its votes pared down or taken away as a punishment? Would the majority be expected to pay their dues, commit themselves to actions, but have no proportional representation on leading committees? Would the majority be hounded out?
Meanwhile, someone, or some informal group, will exercise control. Have no doubts about that. As both Freemans tell us, it will not be the majority. Nor, however, will it be the "confused" and atomised 'non-aligned' socialists. The undemocratically structured organisation is just as tyrannical as the 'structureless' organisation. If not more so. "Inevitably" there will be the " few" - the lawyers, the insiders, the well-connected, the devious - who know the CMP's intricate rule book inside out, along with the draconian system of putting down aligned socialists.
All this will surely be used for "capricious" purposes.