Marta Harnecker: Ideas for the struggle #4 -- Should we reject bureaucratic centralism and simply use consensus?

Marta Harnecker.

[This is the fourth in a series of regular articles. Click HERE for other articles in the series. Please return to Links regularly read the next articles in the series.]

By Marta Harnecker, translated by Federico Fuentes for 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 experiences of Soviet socialism. All decisions regarding criterion, 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, such practices are increasing intolerable.

2. But in challenging bureaucratic centralisation, 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 criticising bureaucratic centralisation, the recent tendency has been to reject all forms of centralised leadership.

4. There is a lot of talk about organising groups at all levels of society, and that these groups must apply a strict internal democracy, ideas that we obviously share. What we don’t agree with is the idea that no effort needs to put in the direction of giving them a common organic link. In defending democracy, flexibility and the desire to fight on many different fronts, what is rejected is efforts to determine strategic priorities and attempt to unify actions.

5. For some, the one and only acceptable method is consensus. They argue that by utilising consensus they are aiming not to 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 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 organisations and political timing that compels us to make quick decisions at specific junctures make it almost impossible to use the consensus method on many occasions, even if we leave aside the manipulating uses of the consensus method.

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 and to achieve this definition it is vital that a broad ranging discussion occurs, 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 organisation 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. A political movement that seriously aspires to transform society cannot afford the luxury of allowing undisciplined members to disrupt its unity, without which it is impossible to succeed.

10. This combination of single centralised leadership and democratic debate at different levels of the organisation is called democratic centralism. It is a dialectic combination: in complicated political periods, of revolutionary fervour or war, there is no other alternative than to lean towards centralisation; in periods of calm, when the rhythm of events is slower, the democratic character should be emphasised.

11. Personally, I do not see how one can conceive of successful political action if unified action is not achieved, and for that reason I do not think that another method exists other than democratic centralism, if consensus has not been reached.

12. A correct combination of centralism and democracy motivates the leaders and, above all, the members. Only creative action at every level of the political or social organisation will ensure the triumph of our struggle. An insufficient democratic life impedes the unleashing of the creative initiative of all the militants, with its subsequent negative impact on their participation. In practice, this motivation manifests itself in the sense of responsibility, dedication to work, courage and aptitude for problem‑solving, as well as in the capacity to express opinions, to criticise defects and exercise control over the higher up bodies in the organisations.

13. Only a correct combination of centralism and democracy can ensure that agreements are efficient, because having engaged in the discussion and the decision-making process, one feels more committed to carry out the decisions.

14. 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 militants are not convinced of the course of action to take, it is better to hold off until the militants are won over politically and become convince 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.

Marta Harnecker’s bibliography on the topic

La izquierda después de Seattle, Siglo XXI España, 2002.

La izquierda en el umbral del Siglo XXI. Haciendo posible lo imposible, Publicado en: México, Siglo XXI Editores, 1999; España, Siglo XXI Editores, 1ª ed., 1999, 2ª ed., 2000 y 3ª ed., 2000; Cuba, Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2000; Portugal, Campo das Letras Editores, 2000; Brasil, Paz e Terra, 2000; Italia, Sperling and Küpfer Editori, 2001; Canadá (francés), Lantôt Éditeur, 2001; El Salvador, Instituto de Ciencias Políticas y Administrativas Farabundo Martí, 2001.

Vanguardia y crisis actual o Izquierda y crisis actual, Siglo XXI España, 1990. Publicado en: Argentina, Ediciones de Gente Sur, 1990; Uruguay, TAE Editorial, 1990; Chile, Brecha, 1990; Nicaragua, Barricada, 1990. Con el título Izquierda y crisis actual: México, Siglo XXI Editores, 1990; Perú, Ediciones Amauta, 1990; Venezuela, Abre Brecha, 1990; Dinamarca, Solidaritet, 1992.

[Marta Harnecker is originally from Chile where she participated in the revolutionary process of 1970-1973. She has written extensively on the Cuba Revolution, and on the nature of socialist democracy. She now lives in Caracas and is a participant in the Venezuelan revolution.]