Ideas for the struggle #4 - Should we reject bureaucratic centralism and simply use consensus?
By Marta Harnecker, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal 1. For a long time, left-wing parties operated along authoritarian lines. The usual practice was that of bureaucratic centralism, influenced by the practice of Soviet socialism. Most decisions regarding principles, tasks, initiatives, and the course of political action to take were restricted to the party elite, without the participation or debate of the membership who were limited to following orders that they never got to discuss and in many cases did not understand. For most people, these practices are every day becoming increasingly more intolerable. 2. But in challenging bureaucratic centralization, it is important to avoid falling into the excesses of ultra-democracy, which results in more time being used for discussion than action since everything, even the most minor points, are the subject of rigorous debates that frequently impede any concrete action. 3. In criticizing bureaucratic centralization, the recent tendency has been to reject all forms of centralized leadership. 4. There is a lot of talk about organizing groups at all levels of society, and that these groups must apply a strict internal democracy, ideas that we obviously share. What we do not agree with is the idea that no effort needs to put into organically linking them up. In defending democracy, flexibility and the desire to fight on many different fronts, what ends up being rejected is efforts to determine strategic priorities and attempts to unify actions. 5. For some, the one and only acceptable method is consensus. They argue that by utilizing consensus they are seeking to not impose decisions but instead interpret the will of all. But the consensus method, which seeks the agreement of all and appears to be a more democratic method, can in practice be something that is profoundly anti-democratic, because it grants the power of veto to a minority to such an extreme that a single person can block the implementation of an agreement that may be supported by an overwhelming majority. 6. Moreover, the complexity of problems, the size of the organizations, and the political timing that compels us to make quick decisions at specific conjunctures make it almost impossible to use the consensus method on many occasions. 7. I believe that there cannot be political efficacy without a unified leadership that determines the course of action to follow at different moments in the struggle. This also requires that a broad ranging discussion occur, where everyone can raise their opinions and where, in the end, positions are adopted and everyone respects them. 8. For the sake of a unified course of action, lower levels of the organization should respect the decisions made by the higher bodies, and those who have ended up in the minority should accept whatever course of action emerges triumphant, carrying out the task together with all the other members. 9. This combination of a) a democratic debate at different levels of the organization and b) a single centralized leadership based on whatever agreements are arrived at by consensus or by majority vote is called “democratic centralism.” 10. It is a dialectical combination: in complicated political periods, of revolutionary fervor or war, there is no other alternative than to lean towards centralization; in periods of calm, when the rhythm of events is slower, the democratic character should be emphasized. 11. Personally, I do not see how one can conceive of successful political action if unified action is not achieved around key issues. I do not see any other alternative to democratic centralism for achieving this, if consensus cannot been reached. 12. Only a correct combination of centralism and democracy can ensure that agreements are effective, because having engaged in the discussion and the decision-making process, one feels more committed to carry out the decisions. 13. And this commitment will then translate, in practice, into a growing sense of responsibility, dedication to work, aptitude for problem-solving, as well as courage to express opinions, to criticize defects and exercise control over the higher bodies of the organizations. 14. An insufficient democratic life impedes the unleashing of the creative initiative of all activists, with its subsequent negative impact on their participation. 15. When applying democratic centralism we must avoid attempts to use narrow majorities to try and crush the minority. The more mature social and political movements believe that it is pointless imposing a decision adopted by a narrow majority. They believe that if the large majority of activists are not convinced of the course of action to take, it is better to hold off until the activists are won over politically and become convinced themselves that such action is correct. This will help us avoid the disastrous internal divisions that have plagued movements and left parties, and avoid the possibility of making big mistakes. This is the fourth in a series of twelve articles that were first published in 2004 and have been updated and revised for publication in a second edition the pamphlet Ideas for the struggle.