Thursday, October 26, 2017

On Democratic Centralism and Loyalty Oaths - Unity Caucus and Marxist-Leninist Orgs

Democratic centralism is a method of leadership in which political decisions reached by the party (through its democratically elected bodies) are binding upon all members of the party....
The text of Lenin's What Is to Be Done? from 1902 is popularly seen as the founding text of democratic centralism.... Lenin described Democratic Centralism as consisting of "freedom of discussion, unity of action".... The doctrine of democratic centralism served as one of the sources of the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. The Mensheviks supported a looser party discipline within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903,
As we reach the 100th anniversary of the earth shaking Russian Revolution, I've been thinking about the impact of democratic centralism on the various organization that operate under its influence - from the Bolsheviks to the current China to the UFT's Unity Caucus to the various Marxist-Leninist organizations, some of which have members in the UFT and in the MORE Caucus.

On the surface DC may make sense as the graphic shows. Unity in action -- maybe Al Shanker's Trotskyist/Shachtmanite views led him to name the caucus. And to establish an ironclad DC blanket.

I was recently criticized by someone on the MORE listserve for raising skepticism about what I saw as attempts to impose elements of democratic centralism within MORE, which many people join because it is supposedly the un-Unity Caucus which does operate under democratic centralism and thus drags the UFT, which Unity controls, along with it.

The objector accused me of
"latent anti-communism which is found in the comments about democratic centralism, the organizing principle of Marxist-Leninist (M-L) parties. I'm a member of a party governed by democratic centralism. Does that mean I don't think for myself? No. Does that mean that I expect anyone in an organization like MORE to operate along democratic centralist principles? No. Democratic centralism just means agreeing internally with a position and political line and agreeing to carry it out. MORE is a politically diverse group. Good for us. But, stop the red-baiting around democratic centralism."
Except when a block of people from one of these organizations that has decided on the policy or framework for the group their people belong to and then execute their vision in what some deem an unprincipled and undemocratic manner. The M-L organization this person criticizing me belongs to is one that caucuses I belonged to as far back as the 70s had some bad experiences with due to unprincipled actions. But more on that some other time other than to say those experiences with these groups has made me very leery.

I'm not so sure that MORE is a politically diverse group anymore -  increasingly I see a narrowing of political diversity where minority views make people uncomfortable and those expressing those views are criticized for their tone, while the content of what they say is ignored. But I'll deal with this aspect another time.

I'm sure that some of these M-L parties internally have rigorous internal debates and once decided upon, everyone goes along. Or they leave. Or they are expelled for disagreeing. But we also know of parties where there are dominant voices at the top -- most often male and most of the rest go along. Don't forget that the Communist Party of China is supposedly a M-L party run on the principles of DC - as were the parties of Castro and Stalin.

I have no problems with people who join parties that operate under DC - unless their actions negatively affect organizations to which I belong. Like the UFT and MORE.

Here is another dictum about DC --- 
there shall be strict Party discipline and the subordination of the minority to the majority;
That all decisions of higher bodies shall be absolutely binding on lower bodies and on all Party members.
This is Unity Caucus in operation. Except there is a hell of a lot of centralism and not a lot of democracy. Do we believe there are serious debates over issues in Unity Caucus? Other than a top-level few people making decisions, the rest are foot soldiers.

The problem is that the mass organization (diverse politically, not bound by DC) - the UFT - controlled by the Unity Caucus party -- is dragged along where the party discipline operates at all levels and minority views are subordinated. In fact, due to Unity control even potential majority views of the members are subordinated. Take Arthur's post yesterday about the AFT - our parent union run by Randi Weingarten - loving that Bill Gates is spending more of his money to control education. Do we think the majority of UFT members agree? Or even Unity Caucus rank and file?

Now let's take the UFT, which where Unity Caucus operates under democratic centralism (nix the democratic) -- which means that once their party - the leadership - decides on an issue everyone in Unity must go along with that decision. But they treat those who are not in Unity and thus not bound to go along - as traitors to the union -- a repression of the minority opinion. And often charge those who disagree as being anti-union when they are in fact anti-Unity -- the idea that Unity melds itself with the UFT itself is fundamentally undemocratic.

At every UFT event - especially the DA -- no one gets up and identifies themselves as Unity Caucus - meaning they are pre-bound before the meeting even took place -- or else they look to verbal or visual clues from the leadership if something unexpected comes up. That is why the new motion period is often viewed as a threat - the potential for 10 minutes of time the leadership cannot totally control. (I used to use this time effectively by disguising which reso I was going to bring up and putting them in a position to have to think on their feet.) One thing we know, when someone calls the question is it almost always Unity cutting off debate.

Mulgrew calls on people to speak and those of us who have been around know full well they are Unity - in fact most people called on are in Unity - they are expected to attend in enough numbers to assure nothing happens out of their control. Some people not attuned to UFT politics in the audience may assume these are just regular folks like them instead of people who are functioning like robots. This to me is not democratic - Unity is a large block -- they should get a speaker clearly identified as representing the caucus -- and them let a diverse set of voices be heard.

Now let's look how democratic centralism can have an impact on a much smaller caucus like MORE which doesn't operate under democratic centralism. Imagine there is a fair sized group of people from a party - like a M-L party --  in a caucus like MORE and there are some hot issues on the table. These people have a perfect right to meet beforehand and discuss where they stand and once decided they all will support the position - no matter what is said in the debate at a MORE meeting -- they are pre-bound to support their position. I mean a Clarence Darrow could be in the room with dazzling arguments -- this block will stay as a block and be loyal to the party position - which to those trying to engage in an honest debate where the power of facts or argument might have an effect can feel mighty frustrated.

The problem arises when they, like Unity, don't identify themselves as sharing a pre-determined position and each speak individually at a meeting instead of an identified block. Some people at the meeting do not understand this is a block. I and others do not consider this undemocratic, though others do. Some believe that if there are organized factions in a mass organization like MORE or the UFT, then the members of those factions should identify themselves. Some consider this red-baiting due to the historic attacks and witch hunts on communists - identification used to be dangerous and can be in the future if Trumpism. If one wants to hide their affiliations, I get it. So this can be tricky ground.

The reality is that over time and with experience, the actions of people aligned with democratic centralism orgs begin to be viewed as manipulative and that causes tensions and even splits. So many M-L groups have split time and again -- due to a minority feeling oppressed to the point they leave their org and form another group. Thus DC in its essence is viewed by some as a basic cause of splitting the left into sectarian parties and tendencies.

While people have hoped over the years, Unity has never split -- though there were some splitoffs during the support for the Vietnam War. Unity rank and file get enough perks out of being in Unity to keep them on board the mother ship.

On the other hand, the mass organizations that these D-C orgs embed themselves in can suffer splits. I was in a caucus in the 70s that was split by people coming from one of these D-C orgs and that experience left me very suspicious.

The UFT is a mass organization under the control of a tightly run DC Unity Caucus. The one party system of control, facing Janus and a loss of membership and dues - which will reduce the perks Unity can offer its members - may cause internal tensions in Unity and also internal tensions in the UFT - note some of the proposals to get the high school teachers - who have voted anti-Unity for almost 30 years.

So in the next few years we may see some upheavals in the UFT and in the various caucuses. As I am increasingly more an observer and chronicler of events it may be a show worth watching.

Here are some articles I did on democratic centralism a few years ago dug up by Mike Schirtzer.

Unity, Cadre, Democratic Centralism/Loyalty Oaths, UFT, Mass Organizations and Democracy
Ed Notes reprint: July 24, 2015

How Unity Caucus Uses the District Reps to Control the Membership and Narrow the Growth of the Opposition
July 24, 2015

Is Unity a Democratic Organization: Unity Caucus and Democratic Centralism

July 25, 2015


  1. First, I haven't been to a MORE meeting in more than two years though I'm still a dues-paying member. Nothing you describe is any different than what was happening in the 2013-2015 period when I was an active attender.

    Second, I share you sense that Janus/2--whatever it is called--will fundamentally disrupt the longstanding assumptions, patterns of decision-making and enforcement mechanisms available to UFT-UNITY. Many monolithic organizations and centers of power seem invincible until the day the walls come crashing down and the once-powerful leaders are sprawled on the ground amid the rocks that used to make up the protecting walls. Might happen, might not but something is going to change.

  2. Great explanation Norm. Thank you for writing it.


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