This article represents the views of its author, V.V.G., not necessarily those of the C.C.S.
Published: January 2013

Random Democracy

The scene is a familiar one. There are thirteen of us in a room which could hold fifty, from a number of different Left groups and a few from none, participating in a meeting of some "united front" or other. The discussion is about a demonstration to support a local strike, and we've reached the bit of the agenda where we are going to discuss speakers. Most of the speaking is being done by a couple of comrades—we all know their party affiliation from before, but if we didn't we wouldn't find it out here. The arguments are being made in the pretense of a discussion, when in fact neither will, or could, budge. They are being made entirely in bad faith. Those who happen to be unaffiliated mostly stay silent in the hope that it will all end soon. It doesn't. A brave soul interjects an attempt at a compromise which is ignored by both. Finally we reach a vote, and get to find out exactly how many party members each side has in our local area. We depart, having taken part in what passes for proletarian democracy these days.

Pretty much everyone involved in Left politics in Britain has participated in this kind of behavior at one time or another, whether actively or passively, and most of us will have done both frequently. Seen from a distance it can appear as a very peculiar kind of historical reenactment, with people who are genuinely convinced that they are playing the role of whichever side they thought was the "correct" one after the Russian Revolution passionately trying to get one over the opposition in the battle to have this demonstration go down that road, or be addressed by this speaker, or be leafleted in just such a way, or whatever the current point on the agenda happens to be. It is almost impossible to believe that the whole thing is for real. Seen from the inside, however, the sincerity of everyone involved is actually the most striking element; sincerity, that is, in the belief that if they don't engage in this kind of ritual then the result will be something very bad indeed. The elephant in the room, which is that these kinds of political activities have failed to advance progressive causes one millimetre in the last decades, and that therefore doing nothing would likely just result in some more of nothing—and indeed in a net positive outcome in terms of the energy conserved through inaction—is only visible from the outside.

In fact, the bad faith goes much further than any one packed meeting or derailed agenda: it is central to the Left's view of its own history. The arguments over how to describe the social system that existed in the Soviet Union, or over whether the Anarchists or Stalinists betrayed the republic or the revolution in Spain, or over Mao, or whichever other example you choose, are all characterized by the total absence of the possibility that the actors engaged in these struggles were acting in good faith and made honest mistakes, or were undone by material considerations outside their control. It is comforting to think that the Russian revolution was betrayed by Stalin, or to hold that Stalin got it right but then Khruschev betrayed him, or Gorbachev, or whatever. Comforting, because the alternative is to admit to ourselves that the Bolsheviks tried their hardest to actually make a socialist model work, in one of the most natural-resource rich countries in the world, and that despite enormous temporary successes they ultimately failed in catastrophic fashion. Reducing political problems to black-and-white morality plays prevents us from understanding the actual processes at work, an understanding which we both lack, as evidenced by the actual failure of pretty much every socialist and communist project across the globe, and desperately need.

How is it that so many of us on the Left are locked into this pattern of unproductive behaviour?

Part of the diagnosis is doubtless that action—any action—has become an accepted means of palliative relief from the symptoms of powerlessness which pervade Left politics. It is not just powerlessness in the sense that no Left group in Britain is anywhere close to achieving state power. It is a broader sense of seeing a world which is just not there for other people, and not understanding why you can't make them see it too: "He thrusts his fists against the posts/And still insists he sees the ghosts", as Stephen King wrote in IT. The constant merry-go-round of demonstrations, leafleting, meetings, recruitment, single-issue front groups, etc., is the Left's way of thrusting its fists against the posts. The comforting aspect of such work is that we can tell ourselves that at least we are doing something, we are not apathetic, we are trying. But by expending all this energy, we not only give meaning to things which don't have any—we also force ourselves to take positions and subsequently fight oppositions on issues of total irrelevance, passionately disagreeing about problems of detail which have an almost limitless supply of distinct acceptable solutions, while ignoring the fundamental problems to which none of us at present has any solutions.

Another malignancy closely related to that of too much action is the fact that so many Left groups claim to be "parties", with all the attendant trappings of hierarchical discipline and party-line adherence in the face of other such groups. The fragmentation of the Left in Britain is, as the C.C.S. argued in its Outline Manifesto, a symptom of the Left's failure and not a cause; when nothing concrete is at stake, there is little reason to compromise in order to stay within an organization whose politics you don't entirely agree with, instead of going off and starting your own. Nevertheless, this fragmentation, coupled with the outward seriousness with which every single fragment takes itself, amplifies the problem of bad faith politics in two ways: firstly, because it means that meetings between representatives of the different Left groups always feature a substantial number of people who are mandated to argue a certain point irrespective of the merits of the actual discussion, and secondly because every group needs to prove its credentials by organizing, or leading, something. The net result is that we turn up to meetings in order to engage in democratic progressive politics, and all too frequently spend these meetings acting like caricatures of Yes Minister characters. Indeed this manner of organizing forces the party members to, consciously or not, buy into the bourgeois view of politics as a game which is primarily played for the sake of winning, with the odd red line of principle thrown in for good measure.

These are not problems of the individual party members, or for that matter of the party leaderships, both of whom are basically convinced that they are doing the best that can be done under the circumstances. Almost every person who would self-identify as being on the Left in Britain has participated in such "parties" at one time or another in their political life; we have all argued passionately over demonstrations where 50 people turned up in the end; we have all sat around a pub making endless tactical calculations over the agenda of the next meeting of whatever group. The problem is clearly far too systemic to be ascribed to individual failures, and consequently far harder to resolve. An extensive bureaucratic apparatus may be necessary to run a country in a given direction, although history gives us plenty of reasons to be cautious even in that application. However we are not there. Indeed if any Left group were to be handed state power tomorrow, the truth is that we wouldn't really know what to do with it. At such a moment a bureaucratic apparatus is not only useless, it is actively counterproductive: the only possible thing it can achieve is to stymie the kind of fundamental discussions which are needed in order to move forward. To give one example, a political party is hardly the obvious organizational form if we are organizing in order to answer the question "What does proletarian democracy mean?"—but this is exactly the sort of sine qua non answer which we don't at present have. This is another reason, incidentally, why calls for "Left Unity" or umbrella organizations modeled on continental European countries with historically vastly stronger proletarian movements (France or Germany, for example) miss the point: a single party of the British Left would still be a square peg in a very round historical hole. Yet we are in fact stuck with not only one bureaucratic apparatus, which would be bad enough, but rather with a whole array of different, competing, apparatuses. It is a recipe for exhausting failure.

None of this is to say that those of us on the Left should stop helping to organize demonstrations, stop going leafleting, stop holding meetings etc. We cannot very well sit around waiting for the revolution to happen to us, nor can we hope to develop a progamme which resonates with the current experiences of the working class without engaging in its ongoing struggles. What we absolutely must do, however, is stop seeing the detailed outcomes of these activities as critical in the here and now. We should stop engaging in endless arguments and discussions whose purpose is, in large part, to establish the credentials of one group or another as leading a largely non-existent proletarian movement. These are neither appropriate nor productive reactions to the systemic failure of socialist and communist politics over the last century; indeed one of their main side-effects is to prevent us from seeing the full reality of this failure. At present we—all of us on the Left in Britain today—have very little concretely useful to say to the proletariat. Instead of interpreting this as an excuse to say anything just so we can say that we did something, we would do much better to listen and observe. As Dr. Liam Fox quite correctly noted, if you want people to listen to you when you tell them what is actually wrong with them, you have to first listen when they tell you what they think is wrong with them. It is a point which we all desperately need to take heed of, but the way in which we organize makes it far harder to do so.

One structural way forward could be to abandon the pervasive belief that democracy requires everyone to have a chance to say their piece on every topic, a belief which goes hand-in-hand with the culturally hegemonic bourgeois dogma about how everyone should get a chance to tell their "story" to the world. Even leaving aside the cognitive dissonance between the importance placed on the formal appearance of internal democracy and the quantity of arguments deployed in bad faith in the service of said democracy, political meetings are neither confessionals nor social gatherings: on many occasions the point is to identify jobs which need doing and decide how to do them. And the fact is the most of the jobs which come up, whether leafleting for a demo or researching the experience of part-time labourers in the hotel industry, could be done equally well by almost every person present who was willing to do them. It is a peculiarity of Leftist politics that we are capable of giving lectures about how everyone is largely of equal aptitude one minute and hailing the leadership as messiahs the next—but the former insight is very much the correct one. Most people, with some time, willingness, and effort, can achieve competence in most tasks. Would decisions reached by consensus be better than picking a random comrade to go and take care of some task? Maybe up to a point they would. But does this really matter, especially at this moment in time? No, it really does not. Would this approach help to educate and broaden the skill set of the comrades involved. Undoubtedly. And would such a process be democratic? Statistically it certainly would, especially when applied on the scale of the Left in Britain.

Using random selection or the "jury principle" could be extended to decide who does other important jobs—whether one could run a country in this way is a different, although not uninteresting, question. This is an argument for trusting that a comrade selected to perform a certain task would consult with other comrades if they need help or input, because they are trying to make things better. It is an argument for extending the assumption of good faith to each other. It is not, of course, a remedy for all that which ills the Left, nor is it appropriate in all situations, but it is unlikely that any single organizational model would be. Certainly there have been struggles in the recent past which very much mattered in the here and now, the movement against the Iraq war being a particularly clear example. In those cases it may well be appropriate to organize in a more traditional and structured manner, not least because of a need to present a clear message in order to win popular support. But in fact such issues are very much the exception. For the most part there is no clear message to convey in the first place, and what we need is to come up with alternatives to parties (in any traditionally understood sense of the word), leadership, agreed positions, procedural tricks, front groups, and all the other pathologies which infect our dealings with each other. Random selection could be one such alternative. If we actually believe that we are traveling towards a better Communist future, it is about time that we ditched our 20th century means of transport. The party, at least for now, must end.


V.V.G.

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