Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Democratic centralism in practice

Anyone cognizant with the workings of oligarchies should not be surprised Corbin has been returned as leader

Posted By Stabroek staff On August 24, 2009 @ 5:06 am In Letters | 7 Comments

Dear Editor,
“It is organization which gives birth to the domination of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization says oligarchy.” These famous words of Roberto Michels, derived from his study of political parties, still hold good today and pervade all our political parties, trade unions, co-operative societies and similar organisations. Evidence of this is the simple fact that there is rarely any radical change of leadership in these organisations, and when there is, it is usually by way of co-option, i.e., the leadership itself promoting one of their ilk.

Michels’ “Political Parties” (1911) showed that oligarchy develops naturally from our desire to be organisationally effective. Of necessity, organisations have leaders who because of their very location and organisational specialisation have tremendous power. Members and supporters tend to leave everything to the officials: the former rarely attending meetings and the latter often not even bothering to join. They sometimes develop feelings of gratitude and loyalty to the leaders, especially those who have suffered for the cause. The leaders develop megalomania and “This overwhelming self-esteem on the part of the leaders diffuses a powerful suggestive influence, whereby the masses are confirmed in their admiration for their leaders, and it thus proves a source of enhanced power.”

When the organisation is large and has an income and funds, it appoints full-time officials, establishes newspapers, training schools, etc. The party leaders now have patronage, i.e. the power to appoint people to paid jobs, and these appointees are their heirs apparent. According to Michels, the possibility of a career within the party and perhaps within the government the party is likely to form if it wins office, attracts a less idealistic kind of person. These people control the agenda, the minutes and membership records (members’ names, contact information, positions, activities, etc). Thus, for Michels, democracy and large-scale social organisation are incompatible. When this “iron law of oligarchy” is hoisted atop that Bolshevik folly know as “democratic centralism” the result is even more horrendous for internal organisational democracy.

So widespread is this practice in the trade union movement generally that there have even been some ingenious justifications. Thus Steve Fraser (Dissent; 1998) was pilloried for claiming that union democracy can cause harm and well as good. Since democracy is acceptably suspended when nations are at war and since labor is at war with capital, union democracy could conceivably be an unaffordable luxury! Here again, the history of our own trade union movement is testimony to the pervasiveness of the “iron law.” Therefore, anyone cognizant with the workings of oligarchies should not be surprised that Mr. Robert Corbin has been returned as the leader of the PNCR.

It has been suggested that one radical method of dealing with oligarchies is to allow the development of electoral factions within organisations. Almost every political leader – Burnham and Jagan included – has railed against factionalism in their parties. My favorite anti-factionalist is Joseph Stalin, who in a speech ‘On the American Question’ to the Executive Committee of the Communist International in May 1929, not only alerted his audience to the dangers of factionalism in the Communist Party of America but also provided a good idea of a leadership perspective of the depth of oligarchic behaviour. One admiring comrade, in his preface to that printed speech, told us that in dealing with the claim that the faction’s position had the support of 99% of the American Communist Party, Comrade Stalin, with historical accuracy, pointed out that “[the leader of the faction] is indisputably an adroit and talented factional wirepuller” who only had a majority because the membership regarded the faction “as the determined supporters of the Communist International!” No doubt with a similar historical certainty, by the time Stalin had finished dealing with factionalism in the Soviet Union, well over three-quarters of a million party members, including some of the top leadership, had left the party or been exiled or killed!

The American party arrangements (primaries, etc.) have had some success in mitigating the effects of the “iron law.” Do you think for one moment that Barack Obama would have been president today if it had been up to the Democratic Party’s bureaucracy? A proper understanding of the nature of these types of organisations is a sine qua non for those who join and or wish to make challenges from within them.

It should also be noted that in all of these organisations there are periodic challenges to the oligarchic leadership, and history teaches that this is particularly true when a political party is out of office; there is a greater degree of disenchantment with the leadership and less patronage and spoils. What has occurred in the PNCR is little different from what has happened in that party historically and what has occurred and is happening elsewhere.

That said, in our times more than ever, leadership must be collective or it will most likely fail. Indeed, even bereft of oligarchies, democracy does not always give us what we want and at times gives us what the majority does not want! The PNCR leadership election is now over and polities such as ours need strong, astute and modern leaders. The internal struggle for democracy and participation in the PNCR should not cease or be postponed, but it needs to be proceeded with responsibly, bearing in mind that the task of an opposition party is, inter alia, to adopt a course that promises a better life and then convince the populace that it is united and steadfast in its chosen direction.

Yours faithfully,
Henry B Jeffrey
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