democratic centralism: is speech an action?

So the typical line among groups which employ democratic centralism is: freely debate, follow the majority decision in action.

First, I agree with this method only some of the time.  Groups need to pick essential issues over which there is unity in action, and others around which disparate or even opposing action is permitted.  For example, the US group Solidarity apparently had two different positions on the Syrian civil war.  I’m totally okay with that.  Variation of opinion is normal, natural, healthy.  Not every difference in opinion has to be followed by a split in organization; otherwise you get this.

However, sometimes there are critical issues around which united action is necessary.  What are they?  How do we pick which is which?  As a rule of thumb, I tend to favor issues directly related to class warfare and spreading radical ideas.  But people may have different ideas of what is critical, and that can be democratically debated and decided.

I’ve been in a group that uses democratic centralism and let me tell you, sometimes there are so many unwritten rules over what stance you are obligated to take on every issue that the range of debate is pretty microscopic and meaningless.  Maybe that’s a separate issue?

But anyway, if democratic centralism means “free debate, unity in action,” there’s a big issue.  So much of politics is itself speech!  We, the working majority, do not own and control the means of production.  For now we have nothing to govern, neither businesses nor governments.  So when we are debating what to do, often it is simply a matter of figuring out what criticism of the system we are raising for maximum resonance with the general population or whatever subset demographic we may be honing in on.

There becomes an issue: what, precisely, does democratic centralism govern?  Does it govern the coordinated speech of a group — its publications, websites, printing presses, its sponsored books?  I suppose it does govern demonstrations, which while speech, are the closest thing to an “action” that left activists can really perform to alter society’s ideas.  (I tend to be dismiss low-numbers “direct action” because we’re not exactly at the stage where “attacking the state” makes any economic sense, and the best way to develop strength and credibility with the overall population is large events which are inclusive by not focusing on illegal activities.  This is a numbers game.)

But what about when a democratic-centralist decision creates a situation where you are not even allowed to bring things up in discussion?

Something like this recently happened with the British SWP, where the leadership pretty much issued a gag order on discussions of the sexual assault scandal.  But then to be fair, I’m not sure the gag order specifically was truly a “democratic centralist” decision, or just a centralist-only command sent down from the bureaucracy.

This would be a clear example of democratic centralism governing even the individual speech of its members.

To be fair I think some speech should be discouraged, you know, like the n-word.  I don’t really know what kind of leftist you are if you’re cool with that; that’s just obvious baseline shit.

But I don’t know how an organization is ever supposed to be democratic if members are discouraged from campaigning for a certain position within the organization, both within their localities and across the inter/national network.  Again this may be where the law of unstated rules comes into play: if you are formally allowed to do something, but there is such a strong organizational culture against doing it, then it’s not actually allowed.

Sometimes it may even go to the point of publicly, not “internally,” disagreeing with your group.  After all, these are the tactics that leninist groups tend to use on everyone else: air their dirty laundry, create mass pressure from both within and outside the group.  It seems most “leninist” groups (though I think they misinterpret leninism) will tolerate this approach against anyone but themselves.  This article gives a very good idea of the way “internal” speech was actually handled by the bolsheviks (by granting it full freedom and making everything public) and serves as a good guideline for organizing today.

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