[SUT 15.3.16] On the rights of Democratic Communication and Self-Organization, and the Principle of Open Struggle

March 16, 2015

Recently I wrote a pamphlet called “The Way Forward,” which argued for an independent mass organization of the working class. It received a limited amount of feedback, but I did receive a thoughtful public response from Frank Arango. Frank’s response is in regards to the independent mass organization traditionally called a “Party,” and I have posted it below my response in italics.

Within the pamphlet I argued for basically two fundamental rights that must be fought for within the party in order to maintain its integrity. Those two rights are

  1. The right to Democratic Communication, which is the right to communicate to all members of the party based on the principle of political transparency, and
  2. The right to Self-Organize within the party. It is my position that both of these fundamental democratic rights are complementary and necessary.

In my conclusion, I used the somewhat loaded term “factions,” which is shorter than “internal organized political forces within the Party” that would inevitably spring up by both political forces that will defend the interest of the working class, and forces that would oppose those interests. I settled on using this term because these internal organizations which self-organized, are banned within most of the cargo-cults today, but the cargo cults usually don’t call them “internal organizations” but refer to them as “factions.” There are several cases that show, and I think the most recent case of the young Seattle activist who only made his criticisms public after resigning from the SA applies, that public, organized dissent is not permissible.

Our comrade Frank wrote a response that is unfortunately plagued by idealist, religious faith. It suggests that so long as the Party is a true “Marxist-Leninist” party, then it will avoid all of the problems that revolutionaries should be concerned with. This argument is also known as the No True Scotsman Argument, and it is common among religious worshipers.

On minority opinion, Frank does not declare the right for a minority make concerns public and to bring them to the entire membership. Instead he writes that they “may” (or may not) be shared more widely, “depending on the party.” He goes on to write that these members have the right to circumvent their local leadership by “writing directly to the central bodies.” In other words, “Talk to human resources, they’ll love to help you out.”

Frank elaborates that there will be “forms” by which minority voices can can be expressed. What kind of forms? Frank doesn’t say how to jump through these hoops, only that they will be there. I do not think its helpful to argue for hoops without being clear of their purpose and why they are absolutely necessary.

And instead of providing concrete protections to ensure that minority voices will be heard, he says that we can rely on a “culture of listening.” I’ve watched this culture of listening in a study group by one of Frank’s colleagues, Eric, and I was not impressed. When Eric wasn’t in the mood to listen, he would shout his political opponents down and interrupt them while they spoke. Does Frank really want to depend on a culture to protect minority voices that he cannot even build with his closest colleagues?

Frank concedes that revolutionaries within a party might have to form their own organization within the Party, when the Party is “in danger of being paralyzed or wrecked” by internal organizations risen previously, but Frank ignores the fact that so long as we live in a class divided society: the party will always be in danger of paralysis and liquidation! It is up to us today, to begin the difficult discussion on how best to build an immune system to prevent that paralysis and liquidation. I believe that the key lies within the democratic rights of democratic communication and self-organization.

Instead of recognizing that it is inevitable that like-minded individuals will connect with each other, and organize together, in order to promote and expand their political beliefs, Frank suggests that people organize because “the usual democratic methods of discussing and settling differences and furthering revolutionary theory have been set aside.” But what does Frank mean by “democratic methods?” Does Frank think that we should all believe that opportunists will refrain from building an internal organization to respect a procedure?

Frank goes on the complain that internal organizations will have magnified power within the party. This is true. This is because a group of people who are organized, will have more power and will be stronger, but I don’t think that this is something that we should cower in fear about. I don’t think self-organization within the party is preventable no matter how many rules are made that prohibit it. Our best hope is to maintain transparency to better expose opportunism, organize a revolutionary pole—and protect it by protecting the right to self-organize!

Moreover, Frank  attempts to argue that the right to self-organize provides no insurance that minority voices more generally are being heard, but I didn’t only argue for the right to self organize but also the right to communicate and be heard by everyone within the Party. Frank on the other hand provides no insurance that minority voices would be heard in a party without factions (assuming this is even possible, Frank provides no example of such a situation), and laments that they will not be provided with the “normal avenues of expression” that “all members of truly Marxist-Leninist party have.”

I should be clear, that Frank doesn’t dismiss the inevitability of self-organization as a phenomena, but instead of recognizing the need for open struggle within the Party, Frank believes that these internal organization must be pounded down like nails. He writes, “in the Marxist-Leninist proletarian-partisan way” all sides get “adequate time” to present their views with “adequate time for discussion” and get bound by a vote—but who decides whether the views have been presented adequately with an adequate amount of time? Frank doesn’t say, but I will. The largest, most cunning faction of course!

Additionally, Frank argues for the need to purge “disruptive” internal organizations that aren’t so easily pounded down with their “original ideas.” He writes, “A revolutionary working-class party has both the right and responsibility to purge itself of the latter kind of factional elements, elements corrupted by opportunist and bourgeois ideas.” These arguments for purges of opportunists may sound good on paper, but history shows that they don’t always work out so well for revolutionaries.

The right to purge is the kind of “democratic method” we would expect from a religion. The dominant political force within the party would have the most control over the kind of internalized policing efforts that Frank supports. The decision on which internal organizations to suppress and which ones to leave alone and ignore would essentially be carried out by the strongest political force.

In all of this mess, Frank raises a good point in that “resolution of internal differences of opinion (or contradictions is the basis upon which a revolutionary party deepens its theory and practice and advances,” but we cannot depend on a faith or bureaucratic procedure to achieve that resolution. Open, transparent struggle between naked and exposed political differences will be the best method to achieve that resolution. We can only have that kind of naked exposure of politics with the basic rights of democratic communication and the right to self-organize. Political rivalry is indeed frustrating, and often unproductive, but what makes it frustrating is the failure to meet the idealist expectation that we can have perfect harmony. I would argue that it such rivalry is most unproductive, when it is concealed, and it is most productive to the movement and to the class when it is exposed.

Frank’s original response to Art Francisco:

Dear Art,

Early on you wrote that I think that the paragraph describing factions within the party will be important in that it describes the Party’s democratic character concretely.”

But I think this is wrong for a number of reasons which I would like to discuss a little more.

I previously pointed out that while the Trotskyist movement is famous for having factions and factionalism, this in no way means its groups or parties are not bureaucratic. The same goes for Maoism. You might brush that off by saying, well, that’s because their politics are no good, and it’s very true that their politics are no good. But that leaves you with the problem that you and Ben propose a road to the party, a “pre-party,” which starts with few politics, and which you both write as if you expect to be for a long time dominated by opportunist politics, no-good politics. So, as long as that situation lasted, the grouping might have fierce factional fights and endless debates like Trotsky’s Fourth International did, but it wouldn’t have the kind of democratic and spirited internal life which comes when a group is united around implementing an agreed upon theory and program.

A faction is not two or more people sharing an opinion that differs from the party’s line at any given time. In fact, resolution of internal differences of opinion (or contradictions) is the basis upon which a revolutionary party deepens its theory and practice and advances. Sometimes a differing minority opinion is not rooted in a materialist analysis and clearly wrong, but its expression can still be helpful. Sometimes it may have larger or smaller grains of truth in it that benefit the entire party. And sometimes the minority view is very materialist and becomes the basis for not just sharpening, but also radically changing the party’s line, tactics or policy. So that’s why a proletarian party cherishes minority opinion and creates forms through which it can be expressed: regular meetings and special meetings; internal party publications (which today can be on the internet) that any member can write in, and, depending on the party, which may be shared more widely. That’s also why it gives members the right to circumvent their local leadership and write directly to the central bodies.

Along with the party’s creation of forms through which minority views can be expressed goes its development of a revolutionary style of work. This includes encouragement of the expression of doubts or disagreement; encouragement of a culture of listening; insistence that criticism and self-criticism be done on the basis of political issues and not something else; opposition to the idea that the party has some great leaders who know everything; opposition to demagoguery and spreading the spirit that we must seek truth from facts…while pointing out that sometimes a disagreement cannot be resolved without accumulating more practical experience coupled with further study; and more.

But leaving aside that the revolutionaries in a party might have to form their own faction when a party is in danger of being paralyzed or wrecked by factions that have risen previously, the very organization of a faction means that these usual democratic methods of discussing and settling differences and furthering revolutionary theory have been set aside. Factions have their own discipline, formally or not. They play by their own rules. And they make their own group decisions which they pursue within the party. So this magnifies their power in the party and they can therefore push through decisions at meetings which everyone else is bound by, etc.

What is more, even though a faction expands the power of some minority voice in the party, that is no insurance that minority voices more generally are being heard. Indeed, when warring factions are dominating the life of the party (e.g., mobilizing their members to fill up party meetings, party journals, etc., with their faction’s voice) this leaves other minority voices without the normal avenues of expression which all members of a truly Marxist-Leninist party have. In other words, they’re effectively silenced

Well, you say, those voices too can form a faction, and, over time the truth will out through the battles of factions, etc., etc. But meanwhile the whole proletarian partisan concept of building a unified communist party around democratic principles is being corroded as the factions organize their own meetings in order to plot how to win their battles with other factions.

So in contrast to your focus on the existence of factions somehow concretely describing the democratic character of a party, I think what really concretely describes the democratic character of a party is how it handles factions when they come up. (And a revolutionary party may actually go through periods of years without any factions.) But the answer to how to handle factions is really a no-brainer for a party being built up in the Marxist-Leninist proletarian-partisan way: after all sides (not just the faction’s) have had adequate time to present their views before the party, and there’s been adequate time for discussion, there is a vote that all are bound by.

Scientific analysis and persuasive argument may result in several outcomes when a faction is defeated:

the faction members sincerely agree that the ideas they were fighting for were erroneous and they continue to be good party fighters and go back to upholding its norms;

the faction members continue to maintain their views but agree not to factionalize with them but instead raise them in the proper party ways, while they too continue to be good party fighters;

the faction members quit;

the faction members go on with their original ideas and factional activity, become disruptive, and follow their own line in the work among the masses.

A revolutionary working-class party has both the right and responsibility to purge itself of the latter kind of factional elements, elements corrupted by opportunist and bourgeois ideas.

Moreover, whether the comrades remain in the party or not, a Marxist-Leninist party also sums up factional episodes by deeper examination of the political line the faction was fighting for and so on. This can be complicated by the fact that another thing about factions is that they often hide their full views or program from the party. (For many long years in the 20’s, i.e., while it was still a revolutionary party, the CPUSA was seriously debilitated by a complex factional struggle in which this was being done.) Additionally, while a faction often justifies its activity with claims that it had to organize because its views were going to be suppressed rather than because they wouldn’t stand up in democratic discussion and debate, part of the summation should be examination of whether there were any grounds for them making this claim. If there were, then the task is to make changes to further ensure internal democracy.

Lastly, both presently and in the past, a popular idea has been that if you give every differing political grouping a faction you can not only rapidly build a party, but also prevent splits. But no, the Trotskyist trend in particular is notorious for splitting and splitting. Why is that? Bound up with his opportunist politics, Trotsky (and today, Trotskyism) disregarded party-building as an issue in itself. This left Trotsky vainly trying to establish rules for how the factions in the Fourth International were supposed to act, and then resorting to crude administrative measures when they did not act the way he wanted when the class struggle was demanding action. And more generally, “freedom of factions” has never been able to solve the problem of having democracy, of reconciling unity with a vigorous internal life and differences of opinion.

My thoughts for consideration tonight,


One comment

  1. Andrew

    ” Political rivalry is indeed frustrating, and often unproductive, but what makes it frustrating is the failure to meet the idealist expectation that we can have perfect harmony. I would argue that it such rivalry is most unproductive, when it is concealed, and it is most productive to the movement and to the class when it is exposed.”

    Communication and expression of ideas is something that I have been thinking about a lot lately. I became an activist though getting involved with the Zeitgeist Movement, I am sure some of you have heard it. Though I have always expressed my dislike for capitalism, and as an ideology felt more aligned with the socialist ideals. Certainly not with the majority of people of people on the ‘left’ who think socialism means raising the minimum wage or other social safety net features (though I am not necessarily against them) Anyways I feel I have a lot in common with the ideas put forward by Art and Ben – and likewise many in TZM. Though, there seems to be a rift developing within TZM and as so often happens on the left. It seems no one can agree on what exactly is that we should all be focusing on. In Canada there are 3 parties (that actually have MPs representatives) but only one right of center….the only ruling Canada right now. Why can they align and not us?

    One reason I think is that sometimes people are not able to communicate their ideas in an effective and clear manner. I think we all want the same thing, it’s just that many of the times we’re just so eager to get our ideas out there we end up not listening to what others have to say ( As per the above focus group story)…But I think we need to start striking a balance here and decide what is the most important focus. While many think we all know what the most important focus should be, I think many of us have differing ideas on that. Democratic communication is important but I think backing up a step would help foster future communication.

    I think the pamphlet, “The Way Forward” is a much needed step in the right direction. I would like to see some more communication on these issues..but as per usual I think Art & Ben zero in on important core issues.

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