Reimagining Revolutionary Left Organising
A twenty first century revolutionary left organisation established to facilitate the building of a popular movement should do all it can to learn lessons from its own history.
Lesson 1: Reject Democratic Centralism
One of the most important of these lessons is that the elimination of capitalism does not, by itself, lead to a classless society. We can be anti-capitalist and still be opposed to classlessness. This is possible because, despite what the Marxists teach us, there are more than two classes – the working class and the capitalist class. Due to the hierarchical division of labour an elite can monopolise empowering tasks within society. The monopolisation of empowering tasks and decision-making authority distinguishes this minority from the general public – thus creating a new class sometimes referred to as the “professional managerial class” or “coordinator class”.
Because Marxists are blind to this third class they tend to structure their anti-capitalist organisations along democratic centralist lines. But because democratic centralism institutionalises a hierarchical division of labour Marxist organisations elevate the coordinator class to positions of authority – thus duplicating existing class relations.
Lesson 2: Reject Monist and Pluralist Approaches to Organising
Another important lesson (relating to the first) is that none of the major social spheres (community, politics, economics, kinship) should be seen as of more importance than the others. To prioritise one sphere over all others should be understood as saying that one form of oppression is more important than other forms. So for example, Marxists tend to elevate class exploitation within the economic sphere as of primary concern. From this outlook it follows that oppression within other spheres (for example sexism in the kinship sphere) are of secondary importance – at best.
This “monist” approach to organising has typified much of the revolutionary left throughout the twentieth century even though such an approach can only weaken the movement. However some sectors of the revolutionary left recognised this problem and tried to overcome it by synthesising their different theories. One example of this is Marxism-feminism. However, this “pluralist” approach still tends to prioritise the struggles taking place within the economic and kinship spheres over those taking place in the community and political spheres. Another example of pluralist organising is anarcho-syndicalism which seems to prioritise the struggles within the economic and political spheres over those taking place within the kinship and community spheres.
From the first lesson we learn that it is necessary to reject democratic centralism as an internal structure and decision-making process because it elevates the coordinator class to positions of authority within the movement. From the second lesson we learn that we must reject monist and pluralist approaches to organising because they wrongly prioritise some forms of oppression over others.
Rejecting democratic centralism and monist / pluralist approaches to organising is a good start because, as we have seen, these features divide and weaken the movement leading to stagnation. But of course we need to replace these features with alternative ones that promote unity, growth and strength whilst also avoiding the dangers of sectarianism.
As an alternative to democratic centralism I would like to suggest participatory democracy. Unlike democratic centralism participatory democracy has no hierarchical division of labour. Instead, to ensure an anti-elitist culture, a participatory democracy strives to distribute empowering and desirable tasks out evenly amongst its members. Also, in contrast to democratic centralism, a participatory democratic organisation runs by the principle that members have a say in decisions in proportion to how much they are affected by the outcome of that decision. So for example, if a decision only affects members of the organisation in a particular “chapter” or “branch” then they make that decision without interference from members in other chapters / branches.
As an alternative to monist or pluralist approaches to organising I suggest a “complimentary holistic” approach. Such an approach means understanding that struggles for liberation within the kinship, community, political and economic spheres are all equally important. Moreover, the complimentary holistic approach to movement building also highlights the need for the organising within each sphere to re-enforce that of the other spheres.
I have suggested participatory democracy as a suitable decision-making process because it avoids duplicating class relations inside our organisation. I have also suggested adopting a complimentary and holistic approach as a remedy to overcoming narrower and less respectful outlooks to organising. These are suggested as basic features for a new international revolutionary left organisation. But what might be some of the basic functions of such an organisation?
Developing Shared Vision
One of the arguments used to justify the authoritarianism of democratic centralism is that it is necessary to organise that way in order to produce unity of action. Without centralism and hierarchy there is no effective action and therefore no hope for successful revolution.
A libertarian alternative means of creating unity of action that avoids the dangers of centralism and hierarchy is developing shared vision. By developing shared vision I mean the collective identification of the long-term objectives of the organisation.
The development of shared vision would take place in accordance with the principles of participatory democracy and in line with the complimentary holistic outlook as sketched out above.
Because the shared vision of the organisation affects all members equally this means that all members have an equal say in formulating the long-term objectives of the organisation. Such activities could primarily taken place in local chapters filtering up to deliberative groups at the regional, National and international levels. The object of this process would be to identify shared vision that all members can work with and towards. However, the vision identified should not be seen as written in stone. An on going process of refinement and further development should remain a primary function of this organisation.
Developing Diverse Strategy
One of the main reasons that developing shared long-term vision is so important is because it helps to guide our strategy. But our strategy should also be informed by the realities on the ground today. And because the realities on the ground vary from time and place this means our strategies must also vary. So diverse strategy is unavoidable. However, because our strategies are guided by our shared vision any danger of contradiction within the diversity should be minimised.
Like the development of our vision the development of our strategies will take place within a participatory democratic and complimentary holistic framework. This, for example, means that National strategies could vary considerably from one Nation to another. It also means that whilst criticism of specific strategy is welcome such diversity must be respected.
In addition to developing diverse strategies the popularisation of the shared vision will be one of the primary activities of the organisation. Advocating the shared vision will create opportunities for existing members to engage with the general public. Members of the general public who are sufficiently convinced by what they hear may join the organisation. On joining these new members are then able to participate with other members in the development and advocacy of shared vision. This process creates a health and open relationship between the organisation and the general public. The objective is to try to generate a non-elitist and non-sectarian dynamic between the organisation and the public whilst also taking into account the inevitability of unevenness in the development of social consciousness and awareness of alternative ideas.
Another primary activity that members may want to get involved in is working in solidarity with other organisations on joint campaigns. Again, such activities create opportunities for members to meet others to discuss vision and strategy in ways that create a healthy and non-sectarian dynamic.
As with all other strategic considerations working in solidarity with other organisations will be subjected to the participatory democratic process. So if a member of a local chapter of the organisation wants his or her chapter to work with other local groups in their area then all members of that chapter has a say in whether or not they support that action. The same goes with proposals to work in solidarity at the National and International levels.
Fortunately for people interested in establishing a new international organisation as described above there is no need to start from scratch. A small number of thinker-activists have, over the past decades, been focusing their efforts on the development of participatory vision in the various social spheres. For example we have Cynthia Peters and Lydian Sargent work on participatory kinship; Stephen Shalom and Julio Chavez on participatory politics; Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel on participatory economics and Justin Podur and Mandisi Majavu on participatory community. I think it therefore makes sense that initial members use this work as a starting point for advocacy, debate and further development.
We should assume that few, if any, individual members will agree 100% with the vision and strategy developed and advocated by the organisation as a whole. But we should also remember that all members have the same opportunity to influence the development of the organisations vision and strategy. From this we can expect that there will be a lively intellectual culture inside this new organisation.
The organisational features described above are designed to encourage and celebrate free-thinking and dissent whilst also recognising the need for serious organising and united action. It is hoped that such an organisation will avoid (or at least minimise) the dangers of elitism, dogmatism and sectarianism. By avoiding these dangers that have plagued so much of the revolutionary left in the past I believe we can establish a new and vibrant international organisation with a growth dynamic capable of generating a popular movement.