How to organise against capitalism: networks or parties?

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A contribution to the debate on organisation by Dave Stockton

The great recession has tested working class parties to the limit. Almost every social democratic and labour party has repositioned itself in favour of cuts and austerity. For a new generation of fighters, the Occupy movement and last year’s student rebellion seem to offer a way to beat the system without parties. Dave Stockton looks at the arguments

TEN YEARS ago, the movement around the World Social Forum (WSF) and the European Social Forum (ESF) took up the slogan, “another world is possible”. Even at the time Marxists noted its uncertain, plaintive tone, which prompted the question: what is it then? It was clearly meant to avoid the confident answer: Socialism.

The movement’s organisers plainly believed that socialism had been fatally discredited by the collapse of Communism, by the triumph of ideas like Tony Blair’s New Labour and Gerhardt Schroeder’s New Centre. They even insisted on calling it the “alterglobalisation” rather than the anticapitalist movement, identifying the enemy as neoliberalism rather than capitalism. In a conscious negation of the working class movement’s traditional slogan of “unity is strength”, they claimed: “in our diversity is our strength.”

The NGOs and trade union bureaucrats who controlled the WSF appealed to horizontalist principles to ban political parties from participating, and to ban world and regional forums from voting on calls to action or from creating representative bodies, except for the already existing and self-appointed WSF International Council.

The WSF and ESF attracted huge numbers to their early gatherings. In 2002-03, thanks to the pressure of the Marxist left, “unofficial” assemblies of the social movements in Florence and Porto Alegre called for a worldwide day of action to halt the impending war against Iraq. In response, 20 million people demonstrated worldwide on 15 February 2003.

The potential of these gatherings was evident. Its self-limitation was that there was no elected body between meetings to repeat and extend the call for strikes and direct action to block the war. In the end, as the radical surge that marked the years 1999 -2003 abated due the failure to stop the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, the social forums –frustrated from taking any further initiatives – also faded away.
Horizontalism claims to allow everyone to become active and direct participants in the decisions and actions that affect the individual by decentralizing and fragmenting power. Top-down directives – or any obligations on the individual’s autonomy – can be avoided. Only mutual agreements and voluntary commitments that respect the diversity of individual capabilities and personal desires are permissible.

But the great horizontalist experiment of the anticapitalist movement does not bear this out. On the contrary, it highlights its shortcomings.

What is Horizontalism?

Marianne Maeckelbergh, author of The Will of Many, explains horizontalism as an alternative form of democracy to the “hierarchical, authoritarian democracy practiced or created by ‘vertical’ organisations”, like political parties. Its whole vision starts from its emphasis on a radically de-centred method of taking decisions:

“This is why one of the key values underlying decision-making in the alterglobalisation movement is ‘diversity’. Diversity is a rejection of unity as the guiding principle of cooperation… This multiple outcomes approach, however, requires that people realise that they have the option to act autonomously. This means that if they don’t agree with a decision taken, they don’t have to implement it and they can do something else…

“Autonomy between participants is essential to keep the ‘general assembly’ from becoming a source of centralised and hierarchical power. If equal outcomes are multiple outcomes then the best-suited political structure for horizontality is a structure that allows for multiple, separate groups of people to coordinate with only limited unity of purpose. Decentralised network structures are ideal for this.”

All those who participated in the Occupy movement will recognise these practices. Rigidly operated at first, these principles soon had to be loosened as the crippling effects of the paralysis they caused were felt. These included the initial impossibility of any detailed explanation of the movement’s objectives, of having spokespersons, etc. Initially too, as in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, not only was any participation by political parties banned, including those with a good record of fighting against capitalism, but also trade unions. This would have been a disaster.

The necessity of working class direct action –that is, strikes – seemed to escape the more doctrinaire horizontals, repulsed as they were by their “vertical” character and the lack of autonomy. Happily, in many of the occupations this tendency was overcome and strong links made with militant trade unionists. In New York it was the transport workers, in Oakland the dockworkers, in London electricians and public sector workers. Indeed the full potential of the movement could only have been realised if they did link up with workers, helping to build rank and file democracy in the unions and all out strikes against austerity and police repression.

In fact horizontalism – in its most dogmatic form – is clearly influenced by individualist anarchism, which is an expression of layers and classes whose position in capitalist society gives them no natural unity: the lower middle classes, students, long term unemployed, precarious workers, intellectuals and cultural workers, who seek to escape cut-throat capitalist competition but at the same time feel collectivity, especially discipline imposed by a majority, an intolerable violation of their freedom.

The notion of “counter-power” is a key concept of horizontalism. Counter-power does not seek to seize power or to smash the bourgeois state. Rather it seeks to create an alternative to it within bourgeois society. It is prefigurative in the sense of being a model of the future classless and stateless society: a form of utopian socialism, trying to build the new society and create a new human personality in the middle of the old society.
This shows horizontals are reformists not revolutionaries: but reformists who hardly ask themselves how the necessities of life will be produced or distributed except on the smallest scale and for incredibly short periods of time. For consistent horizontalists even these mini-utopias must not become “institutionalised” or they will lose their emancipating character, becoming instead a new oppressive power.

Working class principles of organisation

The principles of the workers’ movement run directly counter to those of horizontalism. The history of all countries since the development of capitalism shows workers have an objective predisposition towards collective action, to united and indeed centralised organisations – trade unions but also political parties. The working class is organised by the social production, exchange and service provision, which they are essential to. Workers have been holding mass meetings and assemblies and electing delegates from the earliest days of capitalism. Over a century ago the workers’ council or soviet emerged from this essential process and has reappeared countless times.

Trade unions – even anarcho-syndicalist ones – could not exist for five minutes under horizontalist principles. How could a strike ever be decided on if it had to wait until all the workers involved agreed? How could it be maintained if the minority decided to exercise their autonomy and not strike? In fact horizontalism is not democratic since it would allow a minority to block the majority.

Leadership and delegation are made necessary by the concentration of private property in the hands of a tiny minority and by the centralised state. Workers – propertyless except for limited means for reproducing their ability to work – have no strength except their numbers As Marx wrote in 1864, “One element of success they possess – numbers; but numbers weigh in the balance only if united by combination and led by knowledge.”

The class struggle in fact quite simply does not allow for horizontalist principles. The picket line is an institution of authority, a means to exercise it. It seeks to persuade the minority if possible but to force them if need be, not to break the strike – not to become a scab. At this moment it is the police and the bosses who proclaim “the right to work”, the “freedom of the individual.”

How too could any strike be effectively organized without the principle of delegation? To avoid this virtually all the strikers would have to be assembled in one place all the time. On strict horizontalist principles strike committees would be impossible – they represent vertical organisation, they are leaders.

But out of workers’ mass meetings must arise leadership – the democratic choice of the people best equipped to direct the struggle to victory. Of course these people must account for their actions, retain the support of those who elected them, be instantly recallable by them when their actions are not approved of. This is why the struggle for mass meetings with the power to vote on policy, delegate based councils of action to unite across workplaces and unions, and rank and file control of all negotiations and strikes are key demands in the workers’ movement.

The necessity and the danger of parties

The German Social Democrats from the 1860s to the 1890s perfected an organisation that could not only mobilise millions as voters, but win hundreds of thousands to actively fighting for an anticapitalist and socialist programme, It was able survive heavy state repression (thousands arrested and imprisoned, or dismissed from their jobs). It also transcended national limits, helping to form two international organisations in the space of three decades. In Russia, the Bolsheviks built an even more effective type of party that founded a Third International and enabled the working class to seize power.

Of course the history of workers’ parties and trade unions has a bleak side to it – the history of bureaucratisation. In the trade unions, the twentieth century saw the rise of a layer of full time officials, paid considerably more than their members, controlling the process of negotiating with the employers and thwarting democratic control over themselves by the rank and file. Anarchists claim this arises from the central purpose of a party – the struggle for power and from the creation of any sort of leadership. Marxists have a different explanation.

In Labour and Social Democratic parties, members of parliament, local councillors and full-time party officials – often with the help of the union bureaucracy – also lifted themselves above the control of the membership. The reason for this is that under capitalism the working class is not a spontaneously homogeneous class.

Skilled and better-paid workers gravitate to the view that capitalism only needs gradual reform, not the dangerous solution of revolution. This social layer – the aristocracy of labour as Marx called it – is a natural base for bureaucracy and reformism, if bureaucracy and reformism are not combated by revolutionaries and controlled by the more harshly exploited and oppressed majority of the working class. Where this has happened, revolutionary parties have arisen, and in the case of the Bolsheviks been able to seize power and establish a workers’ state.

In Russia, however, the isolation of the first workers’ state led to the rise of a caste of state and party officials, which then repressed all opposition, creating a monstrous totalitarian regime that ruled by terror.

After the Second World War these two bureaucratic forces – Social Democracy and Labourism on the one hand, Stalinism on the other – dominated the workers’ movements for decades. Once established, their leaderships restricted their parties to the horizon of reforms within capitalism.

They were able to do so because capitalism in the West stabilised itself, and the reformist parties presided over serious gains for the working classes – health and education services, social housing, higher wages. At the same time the Communist Parties in Russia, Eastern Europe and China developed industry and social services in a way that backward capitalist economies could not.

The prestige of mass consumer Fordist capitalism (the long boom) and the proof positive, so it seemed, that reformist welfarism or Stalinist bureaucratic planning “worked”, combined to isolate and marginalise the remaining tiny revolutionary forces.

The serious crises for world capitalism in the 1970s and 1980s led to a revival of left forces that sought to build revolutionary parties. Unfortunately they turned out to have absorbed too many of the ideas and practices of Stalinism and reformism. Their internal life either mirrored the bureaucratic centralism of the Stalinists or the loose discussion clubs and permanent factions of social democracy.

Moreover these conflicting sects engaged in sectarian “party building” schemes that often broke up the unity of action needed to take the class struggle forward. Indeed this situation still exists in Britain today, with three or four rival anticuts “united fronts”, the secret of whose separation is their sponsorship by one or other of the “revolutionary” sects.

A revolutionary party today
However this unfortunate situation does not prove that we do not need a revolutionary party. The historic crisis of capitalism is threatening to destroy all the working class gains of the post-Second World War period. So we need a resistance that is revolutionary and dares to say clearly that the alternative we need is socialism.

The basis for such a party is not only a resolute fight against bureaucracy, but also a revolutionary strategy accepted and understood by all of their members and by wide layers of the working class. We will not do this simply by building up small propaganda societies of dozens, hundreds or even thousands but by winning the most resolute activists to the project of creating a real mass party on a revolutionary programme.

In addition we need to make sure that such a party does not succumb to bureaucracy, and that means establishing real democratic centralism. Apologists for capitalism, reformists and anarchists alike say this is a bureaucratic and undemocratic way of organising. This is not true. Democratic centralism – as the Bolsheviks practised it – means the maximum level of debate and discussion within the party over the correct strategy and tactics to adopt. But when a decision has been reached, it requires unity in its implementation.

Then, after the results can be seen, it allows for full and democratic discussion of them. Against this background a revolutionary party elects its leadership, trying to select the best organisers, theoreticians, speakers, those who act honestly and loyally to one another and to the membership. If leaders prove inadequate or if better individuals emerge, they can be replaced.

Such revolutionary leadership can break the hold of the reformists and win the support of the working class, as the Bolsheviks did in 1917, not by tricks or deception but by proving themselves the most consistent fighters for the interests of the working class and all the oppressed and exploited.
For without revolutionary leadership, the revolution cannot triumph. For example, in Egypt a powerful uprising by young people and rank and file workers overthrew a rotten regime. It mobilised millions for change.

But revolution lacked leaders who knew where they were going and who were able to organise the masses around such goals. So other “leaders” emerged, who did not fight on the streets or take risks, and who used their links with the masses through the mosques to steal the revolution from those who did.

Only a leadership – organised as a revolutionary party – can take these movements forward to a victory not only over the military regime, which still runs Egypt, but over capitalism that spells misery for millions.

This article first appeared at Workers Power

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22 Comments

  1. May 7, 2012 at 1:13 pm · Reply

    “The necessity of working class direct action –that is, strikes – seemed to escape the more doctrinaire horizontals, repulsed as they were by their ‘vertical’ character and the lack of autonomy. Happily, in many of the occupations this tendency was overcome and strong links made with militant trade unionists. In New York it was the transport workers, in Oakland the dockworkers, in London electricians and public sector workers. Indeed the full potential of the movement could only have been realised if they did link up with workers, helping to build rank and file democracy in the unions and all out strikes against austerity and police repression.”

    No one in Occupy is “repulsed” by unions, strikes, or their alleged verticalism. OWS has been supporting the locked out Teamsters at Sotheby’s from day 1 back in September 2011. This is sheer nonsense.

    “The notion of ‘counter-power’ is a key concept of horizontalism. Counter-power does not seek to seize power or to smash the bourgeois state. Rather it seeks to create an alternative to it within bourgeois society. It is prefigurative in the sense of being a model of the future classless and stateless society: a form of utopian socialism, trying to build the new society and create a new human personality in the middle of the old society.”

    Soviets were profoundly horizontal and were “trying to build the new society and create a new human personality in the middle of the old society.”

    “Trade unions – even anarcho-syndicalist ones – could not exist for five minutes under horizontalist principles. How could a strike ever be decided on if it had to wait until all the workers involved agreed? How could it be maintained if the minority decided to exercise their autonomy and not strike? In fact horizontalism is not democratic since it would allow a minority to block the majority.”

    You are conflating consensus with horizontalism. The two are not at all the same thing!

  2. Paul Newton
    May 7, 2012 at 6:17 pm · Reply

    I’m with largely with Binh here. I found the lead article profoundly depressing. It just repeats everything the Trotskyist left has been saying since- well since Trotsky said it. With fine splitting about what he really meant..
    The reason (I think) assorted revolutionaries launched this initiative
    was at least that the revolutionary Left has massively screwed up. And repeatedly announcing the correctness of each sects’ line and the necessity of joining their Party and not anybody elses. Do I have to repeat the existence of three seperate Party-based national anti-cuts orgs has been suicidal for all of us?
    And the author is actually being undialectical. The old “the problem of revolution is the problem of leadership” riff is as at least unbalanced as it always was. The problem of revolution is the problem of mass class
    -for-itself consciousness. At times revolutionary organisations can move
    it forward. At times they trash it (3 anti-cuts orgs again). At times they lag behind the class (as yr man Lenin rightly pointed out)
    But hey, I’m just one of those precarious building workers so no suprise
    I’m anarchist as well,
    and my internet cafe money ran out

    eg In addition we need to make sure that such a party does not succumb to bureaucracy, and that means establishing real democratic centralism. Apologists for capitalism, reformists and anarchists alike say this is a bureaucratic and undemocratic way of organising. This is not true. Democratic centralism – as the Bolsheviks practised it – means the maximum level of debate and discussion within the party over the correct strategy and tactics to adopt. But when a decision has been reached, it requires unity in its implementation.
    This is historically simply not true. Factions were banned inside the Bolshevik Party in 1921 as it faced a massive revolt by the working class of Petrograd. Lenin and Trotsky were key to the banning- and the gunning down of dissident workers. The destruction of democracy long preceded the triumph of Stalin.

    • Simon Hardy
      May 8, 2012 at 10:58 am · Reply

      Hi Paul,

      The article by Dave Stockton is a contribution to an ongoing debate within this new initiative and – of course – outside of it. So it does not represent any kind of “line”. My thoughts are in the other article we published 10 reasons why we need a new anticapitalist left – generally speaking I think we need a looser network at the beginning and then take steps towards something more formal – whether this will look like a Bolshevik Party, as Leninist conceive of it, a broader pluralistic party, some other kind of organisation or remain as a loose network is all part of the debate.

      Certainly the lack of a unified anticuts movement is a real weakness for the left, and in my opinion just shows you that the left is basically unserious about stopping the cuts, it would rather play at front building and jockeying for position instead of sitting down and getting a genuine co-ordination together.

    • May 8, 2012 at 2:06 pm · Reply

      Paul Newton wrote (in reply to Dave Stockton on Democratic Centralism)

      “This is historically simply not true. Factions were banned inside the Bolshevik Party in 1921 as it faced a massive revolt by the working class of Petrograd. Lenin and Trotsky were key to the banning- and the gunning down of dissident workers. The destruction of democracy long preceded the triumph of Stalin.”

      This is partly true, but misleading. I don’t think anyone, or certainly no Trotskyist, would say that the regime of the 1921 ban on factions had anything to do with a healthy democratic centralism. On the contrary, it was a break from that, originally ‘justified’ as an exceptional measure because of the threat of the party disintegrating therefore opening the door to counterrevolution.

      In my view it was both a genuine error committed under enormous pressure by people who were understandably in fear of their lives if they lost power, and also one of the starting points of the degeneration of the revolution that later fully unfolded under Stalin, and indeed led to outright counterrevolution and the wiping out of virtually the entire cadre of the Communist Party in the great purges of the 1930s. Kronstadt was an even more grevious error, involving workers shooting other workers in the (mistaken) belief that they had gone over to the enemy, when in fact the uprising was a spontaneous response to the withering away of soviet democracy during the civil war.

      But neither of these things have anything to do with democratic centralism. They the product of the abandonment of democratic centralism as the revolution and the party began to decay and degenerate after it seized power in a country too backward to allow the maintenance of a regime of workers democracy without the pretty immediate state aid of revolution in at least one advanced country. Which of course never happened.

      On the other hand, where Dave Stockton writes:

      “Democratic centralism – as the Bolsheviks practised it – means the maximum level of debate and discussion within the party over the correct strategy and tactics to adopt. But when a decision has been reached, it requires unity in its implementation.”

      This is very problematic. It all depends what a ‘decision’ is. If it is about something practical, like the course of action in a strike that the party is leading, or the practice of running an election campaign, then fine. But if a ‘decision’ is simply the declaration of the view of the majority on a matter it is powerless to do anything practical about, such as what position to take on some overseas event whose only consequence will be an article in a party magazine, then why should be views of minorities be hidden from public view?

      That conception is precisely the method of organisation that leads to split after split, and the proliferation of tiny sects that each enforce their own mini-‘democratic centralism’ against each other and thereby stop honest discussions about ideological questions from taking place between comrades in different tiny groups.

    • May 8, 2012 at 3:34 pm · Reply

      I’m a Marxist but have found myself in practice agreeing more with anarchists such as yourself as of late because the Marxist left is too hidebound, dogmatic, controlling, and ideologically rigid to adapt to the revolutionary wave that’s sweeping the globe now. Three anti-cuts groups is really terrible, although in America we have yet to produce one(!); our left is even more fractured and ineffectual than yours. At least you can elect a Galloway, for all his flaws; we aren’t even at that stage yet.

      Something you may find of interest (skip the Lenin/historical parts to the end): http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2012/05/08/liquidating-lies/

      What really irked me about this article was that it was 1) written by a Marxist and 2) did not honestly represent the views of opponents, intentionally or unintentionally. This is a very bad habit the Marxist left needs to get over if wants to become relevant again.

  3. Simon Hardy
    May 8, 2012 at 6:30 pm · Reply

    Red Scribe said: “It all depends what a ‘decision’ is. If it is about something practical, like the course of action in a strike that the party is leading, or the practice of running an election campaign, then fine. But if a ‘decision’ is simply the declaration of the view of the majority on a matter it is powerless to do anything practical about, such as what position to take on some overseas event whose only consequence will be an article in a party magazine, then why should be views of minorities be hidden from public view?”

    I agree with this very much!

  4. Luke Cooper
    May 8, 2012 at 8:26 pm · Reply

    I think this is a poor article and the reason that Binh raises – the use of straw man arguments – reveals a deeper problem with the black and white way in which the article conceives the entire debate.

    If you are going to learn something from writing a polemic, then you need to identify what the strongest arguments of your opponents are, critically appraise your own assumptions in light of them, and actually attempt to approach the issue in an open-minded way.

    There is no real feeling here for the positive sides of network organisation – no appreciation for how network activism has proven effective, no appreciation for how a greater recognition of the importance of plurality and use of modified consensus might help left wing sects overcome their disunity and find unified forms of organisation that could magnify their influence and credibility.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think consensus is an absolute principle and of course, having been in some dire European Social Forum organising meetings over the years, I know that it can be used to bureaucratise a movement just as easily as a left wing groups that packs a meeting to win its “line”, only to then split the movement. But there is nothing wrong with trying to work on the principle consensus where possible, votes where necessary, and, as Binh says in another article on this site, a bit more pragmatism, and a bit less dogmatic self-assertion would go along way to improve the lot of the Marxist left today.

    In any case, as Red Scribe says, any “Leninist” who thinks they will be able to build effective revolutionary organisations that ban their members from expressing ideological differences in public, is barking up totally the wrong tree. Even if this was ever desirable – and don’t think it was at all -, the idea that this could ever strike a chord with wide numbers of people, given the backlash against all forms of authoritarianism in popular consciousness, is frankly crackers. And I for one don’t want to see the Anticapitalist Initiative – which is succeeding in drawing in a plurality of activists – go down the road of such monolithism (I’m also absolutely confident that it will not!).

    Best wishes,

    Luke

  5. Rick
    May 8, 2012 at 8:37 pm · Reply

    There may be a “revolutionary wave…sweeping the globe” but it ain’t swept through the US yet. And that has nothing to do with “Hidebound Marxists” somehow standing in the way of a unity re-groupment on the left. It has everything to do with the present conditions and the fact that there is no mass movement because the most necessary element is missing -the working class. Events will test where groups stand on the left. At least in the US we won’t have to worry about some big class collaborationist CP – just a few of, as Cannon called them, Capitalism’s labor lieutenants.

    • Pham Binh
      May 9, 2012 at 5:32 pm · Reply

      You must’ve missed Occupy and May 1. Wake up, comrade.

  6. tyler_smiles
    May 9, 2012 at 12:49 pm · Reply

    [quote]In fact horizontalism – in its most dogmatic form – is clearly influenced by individualist anarchism, which is an expression of layers and classes whose position in capitalist society gives them no natural unity: the lower middle classes, students, long term unemployed, precarious workers, intellectuals and cultural workers, who seek to escape cut-throat capitalist competition but at the same time feel collectivity, especially discipline imposed by a majority, an intolerable violation of their freedom.[/quote]

    Bog standard orthodox dogma this, the notion that we’re all inherently ‘lumpen’ or ‘petit bourgeois’ if we disagree with a very specific notion of democratic centralism.
    Putting the narrow, potentially snobby and reductionist notion of the working class presented here aside; I would have to ask how are we supposed to take this stuff about some sort of ‘natural unity’ remotely seriously? Especially given the specific context of this website/group and the state of say the pensions struggle atm.

    [quote]Trade unions – even anarcho-syndicalist ones – could not exist for five minutes under horizontalist principles. How could a strike ever be decided on if it had to wait until all the workers involved agreed? How could it be maintained if the minority decided to exercise their autonomy and not strike? In fact horizontalism is not democratic since it would allow a minority to block the majority.[/quote]

    This, like most of the vague criticisms on offer here, is a strawman i’m afraid. No-one who has ever worked would argue that you’ll ever get 100% of people on board. The strike committee (formal or informal) is one model of doing thigs, and sometimes it works, a lot of time at work the mass assembly is used instead.
    In my experience often, when short term stuff comes up at work, you get as many of your co-workers togther to talk about it as possible, you try and get a rough consensus that stuff needs to be done so people are on the same page, then you have a vote (show of hands) on peoples suggestions. Now I’m not sure if the author regards this as being too ‘horizontal’ or not, but its generally how a lot of stuff gets done.

    [quote]The potential of these gatherings was evident. Its self-limitation was that there was no elected body between meetings to repeat and extend the call for strikes and direct action to block the war.[/quote]

    Stop the war coalition may have been a mess and dominated by certain groupings, but whatever else it was it was definitely a very centralised body. Also I’m not really sure why the author is conflating summit hopping gatherings and the anti-war movement since they’re obviously different things.

    As for occupy well I’d have numerous criticisms of it, but in this case generally their various working groups and committees are decided on at assemblies and are given a brief/mandate to perform certain tasks. Its a social movement in itself, again the author is conflating it with ‘movement of movement’ social forums and the like from over a decade ago when in reality these are very different things.
    Personaly i feel this article is little more than ahatchet job, one all too familiar to us aaarcho’s reading the trot press.

  7. Luke Cooper
    May 9, 2012 at 3:37 pm · Reply

    Hi Tyler, you should submit an article to the debate, not necessarily to reply to this narrowly conceived piece but to put a positive case about how you think radical political organisation should be. Cheers, Luke

  8. billj
    May 10, 2012 at 4:00 pm · Reply

    The article is much too long but in spite of the great length, doesn’t really engage with where we are today. It repeats the standard bureaucratic cliches of the left – designed to defend the hierarchical position of the leadership. Worse its not even historically accurate, Dave says;

    “Democratic centralism – as the Bolsheviks practised it – means the maximum level of debate and discussion within the party over the correct strategy and tactics to adopt. But when a decision has been reached, it requires unity in its implementation.”

    That’s basically untrue.
    I’ll give you just one example.
    After the Bolshevik Central Committe voted to support the provisional government in March 1917 Lenin agitated publicly against the decision, even after it was reaffirmed in a vote of 13:2 in April 1917.
    Far from uniting behind this grevious error, Lenin threated to resign from the CC and use his rights as an ordinary member to campaign against the leadership.
    And the rest is history.

  9. billj
    May 11, 2012 at 9:13 am · Reply

    I also have to say that I don’t think its acceptable for the authors of these articles not to participate in the debate around them.
    If Dave wants to post here then he should at least be prepared to debate the issues.
    I think it should be an informal rule – in the sense that the authors of articles on here should be told it is a condition for posting on the site – that they respond to any discussion that ensues.
    Otherwise we’re just repeating the age old left tradition where the sages stand above the discussion and merely issue the line from above. That’s just no good.

  10. May 13, 2012 at 8:14 am · Reply

    I’ve been following this and letting the argument develop before coming in. But so far don’t think any of the critical responses, despite their dismissive tone, really lay a finger on Dave’s article.

    Binh: I don’t think the article is referring to the US Occupy movements when it talks of the occupations that initially refused involvement of the unions. Dave is clearly talking about the initial reaction of the Madrid occupation in the Playa del Sol and the first days of Syntagma. So to dismiss Dave’s point here as “sheer nonsense” is simply a misunderstanding.

    As for ‘conflation’ of horizontalism and consensus, surely this is simply an observation that many horizontalists use consensus decision making, not necessarily that these are identical concepts?

    Similarly, Binh says: “Soviets were profoundly horizontal and were ‘trying to build the new society and create a new human personality in the middle of the old society.'” That is misleading. Soviets were not only horizontal; they created a ‘vertical’ – ie national – structure too based on delegates from local bodies assembling in an all-Russian Congress. Only in this way could they have taken power – ed by a party that had fought within them to take the power. And it is only in that way that they could create not just higher class consciousness in the struggle, but ‘a new society’, ie a transition towards a new mode of production. Dave’s basic point here is against the utopian thinking common in the anticapitalist movement in the early 2000s and today, and reminding us that the working class class cannot create islands of socialism or post-capitalism within the system but needs to overthrow it.

    On democratic centralism, the issue boils down to whether arguing for something is ever ‘doing something practical’ – and within a mass labour movement with democratic structures, meetings, conferences and a bureaucracy, it often is. Bill’s point about Lenin in 1917 reveals very clearly that Lenin’s approach was governed by his fight for a revolutionary programme. As a central committee member of the RSDLP(B) he took the fight against Kamenev, Stalin and Muranov’s critical support for the provisional government to the party because it threatened the success of the revolution.

    Luke Cooper says, with some condescension, that Dave’s piece is ‘poor’ and ‘narrowly conceived’, but then immediately shoots himself in the foot. He says “If you are going to learn something from writing a polemic, then you need to identify what the strongest arguments of your opponents are, critically appraise your own assumptions in light of them, and actually attempt to approach the issue in an open-minded way.”

    But Luke does not follow his own advice and examine Dave’s strongest point. At all. Instead he just asserts that the article should contain more positives about horizontalism.

    Finally, what are we to make of Bill’s demand above? He basically wants the Editorial Collective to ban Dave Stockton’s pieces from this site unless he responds to comments beneath his articles? Leaving aside the untruth that Dave is ‘issuing a line’ – when we all know very well this is a contribution to a debate, not a ‘line’ of the Anticapitalist Initiative, how can we start making rules and requirements about what authors are obliged to do after their pieces are submitted? Dave didn’t post here: I submitted his article. And how can we legislate what level of reply, and how frequent, an author should make?

    I also don’t see how Bill can say such a rule would be ‘informal’ if the consequence of not following it would be ‘a condition for posting on the site’? It seems despite his libertarianism – or maybe because of it? -Bill is a little too impatient to start banning opinions he doesn’t like from the ACI site.

    I’m afraid notwithstanding Luke’s advice to address the strongest point in an argument, all the comments ignore Dave’s key question…the question of power – how to drive from power those who are imposing austerity and defending the exploiters, those who will at the critical moment disperse the occupations. To do this we need to mobilise a class that is fundamental to society in a permanent organisation with a whole range of tactics and policies that can focus these resistance on the question of political power. The crisis of Occupy and the failure in the US to create an alternative party means a great deal of the energy of US labor and youth will again be drawn into the Democrats’ reelection campaign. In Egypt Tahrir and the general strike forced Mubarak from power but cannot, without a party, take power itself. And in Greece the question of the political party and its policies is again central today.

    No one is disparaging networks but their limits should now be clear and the need for a party is something we should be campaigning for energetically in my opinion.

    • May 13, 2012 at 8:39 am · Reply

      Ooops…that’s Puerta del Sol, not Playa, of course.

  11. May 13, 2012 at 9:42 am · Reply

    You might be interested in how Glagow Coalition of Resistance operates. I wrote a short article on it, comparing it with UKuncut and Occupy. There is no dem centralism in Glasgow CoR – its all done through groupwork and people effectively allocating their own resources to tasks that they themselves find to be productive.

    The meetings are energetic, quite moving and we get loads of things decided without straight white men droning on for hours about what Trotsky did in 1928. Those straight white men dont come any more, they dont like that they cant dominate it, and that leaves the rest of us to get on and do shit.

    http://www.2ndcouncilhouse.co.uk/blog/2012/03/15/resistance-is-fertile/

  12. billj
    May 13, 2012 at 10:56 am · Reply

    Basically Dave’s article raises an organisational principle above politics. This is the method of the bureaucratically degenerate left groups – like Richard’s WP – where a central apparatus controls the very thought of its members from above.
    Members in WP are not allowed to publicly disagreed with the “line” of the leadership.
    Lenin’s advocacy of the socialist seizure of power in 1917, violated the Bolshevik’s programme which was limited to the bourgeois democratic stage. So Lenin would have been expelled from bureaucratic groups like WP. Bureaucratic groups like WP prove their degenrate organisational nature, by regularly expelling people who publicly disagree with the leadership, for some trival disagreement.
    No I wouldn’t ban Dave’s piece, but it is common politeness that people who want to tell us what to think have the decency to participate in the debate. If they’re not prepared to do that, not prepared to argue the point, not prepared to try and convince people they are right, then why should they be allowed to post articles with such prominence.
    Its haughty, arrogant and rude.

  13. billj
    May 13, 2012 at 11:11 am · Reply

    This also goes alongside the standard left bureaucratic re-write of Bolshevik history, that the bureaucratically degenerate and monolithic party of 1921 was the one to follow, not the democratic organisation of rebels that took power in 1917.
    That’s a terrible mistake, but understandable once you realise that the leaders of the rival left groups have a vested interest in promoting the bureaucratic model over the democratic one.
    That’s why, although these rival left groups seem to disagree about everything, the one thing they agree on is that the “leadership” are in charge.

  14. tyler_smiles
    May 14, 2012 at 8:58 am · Reply

    @richard bremner

    No, the way the article is worded implies that in occupy, ‘as in madrid’, participation was banned which as others have noted is false.
    Its also about the usual politics of generalised guilt by association in which one small aspect or event is used to damn a whole tendency or set of ideas. This style of arguement is unfortuately all too prevalent in the left and ultra left etc because its often about differentiating your group/party from another group/party that is often in many respects fairly similar.

    The relevant section quoted here:
    [quote]All those who participated in the Occupy movement will recognise these practices. Rigidly operated at first, these principles soon had to be loosened as the crippling effects of the paralysis they caused were felt. These included the initial impossibility of any detailed explanation of the movement’s objectives, of having spokespersons, etc. Initially too, as in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, not only was any participation by political parties banned, including those with a good record of fighting against capitalism, but also trade unions. This would have been a disaster.[/quote]

    In any case tbh the fact that one or two of the square roccupations were initially not mssively pro-union involvement is neither here or there. 6 million people are unemployed in spain, and youth unemployment is heading towards 50%. In spain unions are much more radical, militant and often engaged in wider social struggles in the community but their outreach is still often minimised. In the same fashion in the UK much of the workforce, let alone young unemployed people, have little or no engagement with ‘the unions’.
    Its hardly surprisig that square occupations started by a large number of in part previously unpoliticised people took a while to find common ground and genuine practical links with union rank and file groupings, class struggle is an organic developing process not a box ticking exercise.

    None of this is discussed in the article though, because its not a real look at decision making in social movements and the myriad of complexities involved. Its someone using generalisaations and simplifications to roll out a familiar and decidedly dogmatic line.

  15. May 19, 2012 at 11:20 pm · Reply

    Tyler: I don’t think Dave is unaware of the background: http://www.fifthinternational.org/content/15-october-occupy-wall-street-goes-global

    Nor can you make out he’s trying to tar Occupy with the same brush as the first days of Madrid when he says in the article above:

    “Rigidly operated at first, these principles soon had to be loosened as the crippling effects of the paralysis they caused were felt. These included the initial impossibility of any detailed explanation of the movement’s objectives, of having spokespersons, etc. Initially too, as in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, not only was any participation by political parties banned, including those with a good record of fighting against capitalism, but also trade unions. This would have been a disaster.

    The necessity of working class direct action –that is, strikes – seemed to escape the more doctrinaire horizontals, repulsed as they were by their “vertical” character and the lack of autonomy. Happily, in many of the occupations this tendency was overcome and strong links made with militant trade unionists. In New York it was the transport workers, in Oakland the dockworkers, in London electricians and public sector workers. Indeed the full potential of the movement could only have been realised if they did link up with workers, helping to build rank and file democracy in the unions and all out strikes against austerity and police repression.”

    Finally, Bill, how do you know I’m not ‘controlling your very thoughts’ right now? Behave…

  16. billj
    May 20, 2012 at 2:33 pm · Reply

    But Dave says the basis for a revolutionary party is a resolute fight against bureaucracy? That’s a bit rich given that he wants a bureaucratic party, the expels people for airing differences in public.
    No point acting like the thing you claim to be against. Basic.

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