Socialism, Democracy and Movement-Building

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Editor’s note: Beyond discussing the causes and implications of ecological destruction, ecosocialists need to consider what kind of movement is needed to transform society. This article, by a leading member of the British group Socialist Resistance, offers some trenchant criticisms of the “really existing left” in capitalist countries today.

by Liam Mac Uaid

Napkins are hardly indispensable to a meal but they are one of those luxurious fripperies that you might indulge yourself with on special, more formal occasions. That gives them something in common with the left’s attitude to democracy and it’s a subject that’s been bugging me for a while.

Quotes from Trotsky are a rarity on this site since you can prove more or less anything by a bit of selective quotation but this one expresses a pretty timeless truth:

“Classes are heterogeneous; they are torn by inner antagonisms, and arrive at the solution of common problems no otherwise than through an inner struggle of tendencies, groups and parties…. An example of only one party corresponding to one class is not to be found in the whole course of political history.” (The Revolution Betrayed p. 267.)

To which we can add that parties and organizations are heterogeneous and torn by inner antagonisms simply by virtue of the fact that they are comprised of individuals and sub groups with a variety of partial experiences and insights. The paradox is that in Britain it’s precisely those currents and individuals which locate their origins, no matter how indirectly, in Trotsky’s critique of Stalinism, which most regularly ignore or chose not to understand this essential part of what he had to say.

Ernest Mandel who was able to draw on the experience of a bureaucratised workers’ movement and the Stalinist states enriched the Marxist appreciation of democracy as a non-negotiable principle. If there is a single text which underlies the ethos of this site it is probably his Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Socialist Democracy. Writing of a political culture in the European workers’ movement which put a premium on “unity” and the absolute authority of actually existing leaderships he asserted that:

“There are no infallible party leaderships, or individual party leaders, party majorities, ‘Leninist central committees.'”

Lots of people disagree with this hypothesis in deed, if not in word. A repeated behavior in the various attempts at pooling the forces of the British left has been exactly this assumption that one small group of people is, for all practical purposes, as near infallible as makes no difference and they have the right to make decisions for everyone else. This is the path to leadership by clique or secret groups. Even on occasions where the formal appearance of democracy is preserved, there is simply a test of the strength of voting blocs rather than a choice between alternative political lines.

The only way to avoid this is for free and open conflict between structured and coherent option. You can call these things programs, factions, tendencies parties but as soon a restriction is put on them two things happen. The first is that a limit is willfully set on dissent and the other is that de facto cliques emerge. Another avenue is that chosen by the team around Ken Livingstone, which having got the formality of elections out of the way, made a virtue out of not being accountable to anyone.

If you had to pick the single most important reason for rejecting this way of working it’s because it offers a paternalistic, substitutionist and elitist corruption of Marxism’s emancipatory message, replacing a small group’s ideas for those that emerge in the conflict of opposing tendencies. This idea is largely kept locked away to stop it getting a bit scruffy through daily use and is dusted down for occasional propaganda and educational purposes when it’s not so important to win a vote.

Now let’s make the imaginative leap that we are in a post revolutionary society. At the best of times these are societies under great external pressure and, as Cuba demonstrates, one response to this is the restriction of the freedom to organize alternative parties or unions even if they are in favour of the revolution. Is it possible to conceive of an organization in power which has a history of not allowing open dissent internally permitting freedom of criticism of the government or the right for opposition parties and media to exist? That’s an imaginative leap too far.

Marxism is still paying a price for its association with the lack of socialist democracy in Eastern Europe. It gave social democracy an advantage for decades and today the emphasis on public unanimity, winning every vote or packing meetings to make sure they produce the right result makes Anglophone Marxism unattractive to either many people with experience of rudimentary trade union democracy or social movements like the more imaginative climate change campaigners. They should be lining up to join organizations which offer a coherent global critique of the world but prefer more fluid ways of acting and an imperfect consensus based decision making process.

Mandel was inflexible on the utter necessity for thoroughgoing democracy in organizations with pretensions to provide leadership to the working class.

“Any restriction of free political and theoretical debate spilling over to a restriction of free political mass activity of the proletariat, i.e., any restriction of socialist democracy, will constitute an obstacle to the revolutionary party itself arriving at correct policies. It is therefore not only theoretically wrong but practically ineffective and harmful from the point of view of successfully advancing on the road of building socialism.”

Self evidently we are far from a position in which any organization is able to restrict mass political activity but we do repeatedly see a contempt for democracy and the right to dissent prevent the sort of real unity in action that makes political convergences possible. You could even says that even as a shortcut it’s “ineffective and harmful.”


  • Although the probability that we can stave off an eventual 6 degrees celsius is very low, I recommend people spend their time figuring out a way to shut down every coal-fired electrical plant in the world in short order. If this can be accomplished by “democratic” means, more the better. But democracy should not be the most important item on the agenda, if you understand my meaning.

    Sociologists in the United States spend all of their time worrying about political correctness–race, gender, inequality. None are concerned about the extinction of all life on the planet, including people of color, women, gays and the poor. There is no logic in this.

  • From my vantage point, the assumption of infallibility is the least of the marxist left’s faults. To be sure there are tiny groups who from a well-worked doctrinal base carp ceaselessly on the sins (real or imagined) of those who actually do work in movements or broad parties. But the newfound modesty of much of the erstwhile revolutionary left worries me. Socialist pluralism absolutely. But how does this relate to the revolutionary left’s participation now in broader formations where an assumption of if not infallibility at least greater coherence and clarity on the way forward seems to me indispensable (and often not forthcoming). Political leadership is not something pre-ordained but rather earned in practice(or not). A critical element in this dialectic is the organization of the pretenders to leadership themselves and of their conscious intervention in the life of the broader formation, as perilous an undertaking as this sometimes proves to be.

  • These old names have left writings which are still relevant, though no more infallible than those who will follow them!
    In terms of socialist democracy, how can thorough-going democracy be stopped from turning into fissiparity, especially so long as class rule dominates the world (as with, say, a hypothetical Cuba v. The Rest)? The very notion of ‘democratic centralism’ is probably enough to generate ‘splittism’. And what is ‘fluid’ action?
    To me, there is no point in ‘gaining the world and losing your soul’, nor vice-versa. So what is all the idealised free debate ultimately about?

  • Democracy is a central component in a Marxist party, no question about it. My question is Why as Marxists can we all the time be worry about Lenin, Trotsky, even Mandel, etc.? We can’t have anything new and better to create? All of them have failed in different ways. The only one who succeed so far is Marx in some of his intellectual achievements. We are like religious sects going back to the Bible.
    Can we use our brains and our knowledge and already social knowledge to write something more important to the contemporary capitalism?. Those are old death people;please,live them alone. Take from them their failed experiences to avoid for us in this time. Wake up! Just to hear names like Stalin, Engels, Trotsky, Lenin it is unhealthy for Marxism and Marxists who are paying their failures.