Friday, September 19, 2014

On Democratic Centralism (Loyalty Oaths?) - From Trotsky to Shanker and Others

(Albert Shanker mentor) Max Shachtman (/ˈʃɑːktmən/; September 10, 1904 – November 4, 1972) was an American Marxist theorist. He evolved from being an associate of Leon Trotsky to a social democrat and mentor of senior assistants to AFL-CIO President George Meany.... Wikipedia
 
Democracy and centralism do not at all find themselves in an invariable ratio to one another.... Leon Trotsky
I wrote some commentary on Ed Notes (UFT Caucuses and Loyalty Oaths - How About a UFT Cut-the-Strings, Free-the-Puppets Caucus?) based on NYC Educator's piece on Unity Caucus and loyalty oaths, which I interpret as a form of democratic centralism.
 
From what I have always understood, democratic centralism means an organization has an open and democratic internal debate, votes, and the decision binds even the opponents to follow the party line publicly. I doubt such debates take place in Unity Caucus. And certainly not in the UFT. You will note that Unity hacks attack opposition people, definitely in the minority in the union, for being disloyal when they don't agree with UFT/Unity policy - (you lost on the contract vote, now shut the f_uck up), thus attempting to apply the rules of democratic centralism to the UFT as a whole. I never saw that rule when I joined the UFT 47 years ago.

Talking about Lenin and Trotsky may seem arcane to non-leftists but with so many socialists groups claiming to be Leninists today and operating under his ideas it is germane, especially since some of these groups are active in the UFT and in caucuses like MORE. 
 
Unity Caucus emerged, under the leadership of Al Shanker who had Trotskyist roots that morphed into Shachtmanism (Max - whose wife Yetta was Shanker's secretary/advisor.) Shanker used  the tactics he learned from his mentor to turn the UFT into his playpen. It really pays to read the Shachtman story on wiki if you want to see the ideology and tactics that drove Unity Caucus and the UFT up to the Weingarten takeover when ideology seemed to turn into personal politics devoid of ideology.
 
Observing vanguard party Trotskyists - and even party people opposed to Trotskyism on a day to day basis in UFT opposition caucuses over the past 43 years - and not always liking what I see - has always stimulated an interest in how they function and how they influence the mass organizations - caucuses - Unity, ICE, MORE, New Action, TJC - all had people from so-called vanguard parties. ICE was formed in part as a group that vowed to keep out parties whose members did not behave -- ie, pack meetings to gain ascendency of their ideology, use the efforts of the group to recruit people to their party, and other behaviors we viewed as unfriendly to the organic growth of a healthy organization - why we were the INDEPENDENT Community of Educators -- no party ideology controlled ICE.

On a personal note, my uncle - my mother's only brother - they were from around Pinsk in Belarus - was a Bolshevik and played a role in the Russian revolution and supposedly had a position of note under a pseudonym - there was no contact between him and the family after he left home but someone many years later someone my mother's sister who had also gone to Russia they saw him in Moscow in 1937 when he was supposedly running the Moscow library system and he said he was a scared and knew he was a dead man - most likely purged by Stalin in 1937. I had a great photo of him in my basement but it was lost during Sandy.
Now to the comment which I take as a friendly attempt to illuminate.
Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "UFT Caucuses and Loyalty Oaths - How About a UFT C...":

I'm sorry, and I love this blog, but there are quite a few misunderstandings about democratic centralism here. (This is not the fault of the author, but rather the source material: Encyclopedia Britannica, which contains hardly the most objective view of ideas, having referred to the Klan as the "protectors of the white race," as well as other, equally biased reports.) Neither the UFT nor the Unity caucus is run under such a system. First of all, under democratic centralism, delegates and members do not take any "loyalty oath," and vote as they please after a lengthy discussion (sometimes too long), and the length is more or less determined by the membership at large. (Keep in mind, I'm discussing this system as applied to a healthy organization, and I freely admit that it is quite often NOT.)

Leadership elections could not be conducted the way they are in the UFT, because under democratic centralism, there is a strict quorum. Can this system be abused if other structures are added to rig how voting works? Can intimidation and even threats be used? Absolutely. Just like any system, it can be corrupted if the membership become passive and allow it to. (Which probably sounds awfully familiar to members of the UFT...) In any case, even Stalinist groups would never claim the election of a single leader was valid with 18% of the vote!

But even the Democratic Party tends to stand united on controversial issues, for the most part. Every single one of them has sold the working class lock, stock, and barrel.

The misunderstanding about Lenin is common and originates from the circumstances surrounding the point at which he died. The year before his death, it seemed to him that the presence of counter-revolutionaries within the party necessitated tightening up and cutting down on political freedom. I haven't read enough history to be certain whether this was based on paranoia. In any case, Lenin put some stringent practices in place, which he insisted were temporary measures. Unfortunately, he died soon thereafter, and Stalin stepped in, so those with a true knowledge of history do not revere these, originally temporary, practices, such as the banning of factions, shortened political discussion, or the concentration of power in the hands of very few people who are largely homogeneous and are extremely indirectly elected by the members. Secrecy and lack of accountability is also counter to this structure, even as it pervades some left groups today.

Lenin is revered by many on the left because of his importance in the revolutionary and immediate post-revolutionary period, and is reviled by others because of really, really bad timing that allowed Stalin to insist he was carrying out the work of Lenin.

I suggest reading some of what Trotsky wrote about democratic centralism. It is quite a democratic system, actually.

Democratic centralism has definitely been abused and misused, just like every single governmental structure in history. But unless you're an anarchist, you have to pick one.

I'm with Arthur Goldstein on this. The Unity loyalty oath is WAY scarier than "unity in action" because it goes farther, all the way to "unity in voting."

However, I absolutely agree that caucus members should not be so tightly controlled by certain other groups with which they are affiliated when it comes to making decisions within a caucus. Some groups place a lot more trust in their members than others; some members are comfortable with a lot more freedom than others. And some groups have completely different interests / reasons for having representation in a caucus than others. 
Here is a letter from Trotsky explaining his views of democratic centralism.



http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1937/xx/democent.htm

Leon Trotsky

On Democratic Centralism
and the Regime

(1937)


From a US Internal Bulletin in December 1937, prior to the formation the the SWP (US).

To the Editors
of Socialist Appeal (USA)
During the past months I have received letters in regard to the inner regime of a revolutionary party from several apparently young comrades, unknown to me. Some of these letters complain about the “lack of democracy” in your organisation, about the domineering of the “leaders” and the like.
Individual comrades ask me to give a “clear and exact formula on democratic centralism” which would preclude false interpretations. It is not easy to answer these letters. Not one of my correspondents even attempts to demonstrate clearly and concretely with actual examples exactly wherein lies the violation of democracy.
On the other hand, insofar as I, a bystander, can judge on the basis of your newspaper and your bulletins, the discussion in your organisation is being conducted with full freedom. The bulletins are filled chiefly by representatives of a tiny minority. I have been told the same holds true of your discussion meetings. The decisions are not yet carried out. Evidently they will be carried through at a freely elected conference. In what then could the violations of democracy have been manifested? This is hard to understand.
Sometimes, to judge by the tones of the letters, ie., in the main instance by the formlessness of the grievances, it seems to be that the complainers are simply dissatisfied with the fact that in spite of the existing democracy, they prove to be in a tiny minority. Through my own experience I know that this is unpleasant. But wherein is there any violation of democracy?
Neither do I think that I can give such a formula on democratic centralism that “once and for all” would eliminate misunderstandings and false interpretations. A party is an active organism. It develops in the struggle with outside obstacles and inner contradictions.
The malignant decomposition of the Second and Third Internationals, under severe conditions of the imperialist epoch, creates for the Fourth International difficulties unprecedented in history. One cannot overcome them with some sort of magic formula. The regime of a party does not fall ready made from the sky but is formed gradually in struggle. A political line predominates over the regime. First of all, it is necessary to define strategic problems and tactical methods correctly in order to solve them. The organisational forms should correspond to the strategy and the tactic.
Only a correct policy can guarantee a healthy party regime. This, it is understood, does not mean that the development of the party does not realise organisational problems as such. But it means that the formula for democratic centralism must inevitably find a different expression in the parties of different countries and in different stages of development of one and the same party.
Democracy and centralism do not at all find themselves in an invariable ratio to one another. Everything depends on the concrete circumstances, on the political situation in the country, on the strength of the party and its experience, on the general level of its members, on the authority the leadership has succeeded in winning. Before a conference, when the problem is one of formulating a political line for the next period, democracy triumphs over centralism.
When the problem is political action, centralism subordinates democracy to itself. Democracy again asserts its rights when the party feels the need to examine critically its own actions. The equilibrium between democracy and centralism establishes itself in the actual struggle, at moments it is violated and then again re-established. The maturity of each member of the party expresses itself particularly in the fact that he does not demand from the party regime more than it can give. The person who defines his attitude to the party by the individual fillips that he gets on the nose is a poor revolutionist.
It is necessary, of course, to fight against every individual mistake of the leadership, every injustice, and the like. But it is necessary to assess these “injustices” and “mistakes” not in themselves but in connection with the general development of the party both on a national and international scale.
A correct judgement and a feeling for proportion in politics is an extremely important thing. The person who has propensities for making a mountain out of a mole hill can do much harm to himself and to the party. The misfortune of such people as Oehler, Field, Weisbord, and others consists in their lack of feeling for proportion.
At the moment there are not a few half-revolutionists, tired out by defeats, fearing difficulties, aged young men who have more doubts and pretensions than will to struggle. Instead of seriously analysing political questions in essence, such individuals seek panaceas, on every occasion complain about the “regime”, demand wonders from the leadership, or try to muffle their inner scepticism by ultra-left prattling.
I fear that revolutionists will not be made out of such elements, unless they take themselves in hand. I do not doubt, on the other hand, that the young generation of workers will be capable of evaluating the programmatic and strategical content of the Fourth International according to merit and will rally to its banner in ever greater numbers.
Each real revolutionist who notes down the blunders of the party regime should first of all say to himself: “We must bring into the party a dozen new workers!” The young workers will call the gentlemen-sceptics, grievance-mongers, and pessimists to order. Only along such a road will a strong healthy party regime be established in the sections of the Fourth International.

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