Democratic Practice and Form on the Left

24627_10151704877829928_1060061025_nI have been thinking a lot about how the left can organize to actually win long-term victories and truly abolish capitalism. What follows is a brief and incomplete reflection on democracy in practice.

If our goal is to get rid of capitalism root and branch and replace it with a social and economic system based on human need and creativity than it is incumbent upon lefties to take seriously the questions of organization.

The presumption I am working with here is that capitalism cannot be overthrown by spontaneous movements. Capitalism as an economic system and as a social logic is too flexible and too violent to simply crumble from within or be overcome by unorganized resistance. Only strategic, disciplined and democratic organizations can hope to build the type of movements that can turn the tide against capitalism and its state repression.

This formulation is clearly rigid and in actual fact requires much more nuance. However, for now, it will have to do because I really want to focus on what flows from that statement. If a spontaneous mass movement is incapable of overthrowing capitalism or even really challenging it than we are compelled to understand exactly what it takes to create, sustain, and grow anti-capitalist organizations.

These organizations in Canada will inevitably start out small. Presently the idea of creating a mass anti-capitalist organization from scratch from the threads of smaller far-left groups is not in the cards. Even if it were possible it is also not clear that it would be desirable at this stage.  The reason I say this is that there is little to suggest a new party or organization would add analytical clarity or organizational fortitude.

A new broad based anti-capitalist organization would not necessarily be a bad thing, however, to jump right into building a new party or broad anti-capitalist formation in Canada is to skip over actual problems facing the far-left. Unless we confront some key problems, such as democratic practice within the currently existing left, it is easy to imagine any attempt at this in Anglo Canada devolving into either irrelevancy or opportunism.

Democracy on the left is a problem not just of form, but also of practice. Much of the current zeitgeist of horizontal democracy, brought forth by Occupy, was framed about how decisions were made in our movements. What was missing was a more nuanced view of both its form and practice.

It is not simply enough to have a consensus-based model where everyone gets a voice. There has to be a recognition that individuals have different levels of experience, confidence and analysis. In a sense there will be an uneven level of political consciousness and political skill within every group. This is not to say this is a bad thing, rather it simply acknowledges the difficulty of maintaining a healthy internal democracy.

This is why I have difficulty believing that simply instituting horizontal democratic structures for groups on the left would lead to growth, empowerment or effectiveness. Horizontalism refuses to acknowledge the unevenness of groups and the resulting organic informal leadership roles that develop. This type of leadership is problematic because it is unaccountable and often unclear.

Instead we should look at building a culture of democratic practice within accountable structures. Simply having the correct form of democracy is not a guarantee of anything. It misses the wider political and social context of organizing. For example, in the wake of the Quebec student strike elements of the far-left in Anglo Canada thought that they could replicate the Quebec student movement in English Canada through adopting the democratic forms used by ASSE. The idea was if we could only have departmental student assemblies and a broader general assembly, students would feel empowered and we could organize student strikes.

The very problem here was that this line of thinking assumed it was the model of the general assembly that brought forth the strike. There was no historical, cultural, or political context attached to this type of analysis. This reading in sense sidelined the huge amount of actual on the ground organizing done by activists in ASSE that won the mass of students over to launching and sustaining the strike. The strike didn’t just happen out of thin air, it was strategized, planned and organized in a democratic way.

Readjusting the form of democratic decisions does not actually address the problems and tensions of democratic practice. Our movements and organizations need to be democratic to be empowering and vice versa. This cannot happen if we simply have a colour by numbers approach to the concept of democracy. There is no perfect form that can solve these tensions rather it is about creating a political culture that constantly reflects on its own practices.

I would just like to close on a simple point about the tension of growth that all far-left groups face. People come to radical politics from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. As organizations grow their internal dynamic will inevitably change. There will be people who are seasoned working class or student militants and others who are newly radicalized. The former are more likely to possess a familiarity with radical language, practice and social networks that far exceeds the latter. We should also grant that those who are newly radicalized are less likely to have the same level or depth of analysis as those who have been engaged in struggle for sometime.

If radical groups are to avoid becoming cloistered social clubs they must grow and do so in a way that empowers new members, gives them proper skills and fosters a clear and open democratic practice. Likewise if radical groups are to avoid becoming diluted all encompassing left formations that neither have clear politics nor a strategic vision they must actively challenge themselves through internal education, be thoughtful about their own capacities and have a reasonable assessment of a pace of growth.

If we are serious about transforming our society we will have to build much larger organizations on the left, to do this effectively and strategically we must ensure democratic practices are maintained through the inevitable structural changes that all growing groups will adopt.

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One response to “Democratic Practice and Form on the Left

  1. Pingback: Blowing Up The CFS? | Hammerhearts·

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