I had not been to a Democratic Socialist Perspective Congress for more years than I can work out.My interstate journeys have been in the recent past to Socialist Alliance events.
But I attended the DSP congress just past in Sydney as a delegate.
That I was elected as delegate from my branch -- given that I had only been back in the DSP for just over two years -- indicates the very open nature of the democratic process in the DSP. Among the congress delegates were those who have been members for 35 years to those who had been members only for a matter of months.
So the representation on the congress floor was a pretty good reflection of the DSP rank and file membership which was elected after months of debate and discussion in the party.
And the DSP knows how to have a discussion. Aside from all the written material -- and the oral pre conference discussion(my branch had weekly pre conference oral discussion for the several weeks leading up to delegate elections) -- the coming together is gelled on the congress floor where the denouement kicks in after another round of reports, debate and voting.
Delegates aren't delegated to vote a particular way. They may be elected on the basis of particular platforms -- and this year there were three competing platforms -- but they can vote anyway they desire. Otherwise why bother with a congress?
So this was a very thorough debate -- especially in a context of a factional dispute that had lasted for more than two years in the DSP.
The main tasks of a gathering like this are to 'get the politics right' according to the perspectives of the DSP membership and elect a party national leadership which that membership can have the confidence in to lead the party over the next period.So the congress is a mix of reports, resolutions, personal political analysis, shared experiences,and polemic over three days of concentrated discussion which of course is none stop -- given that you eat and sleep politics intensely outside the congress sessions.
Having a discussion
In earlier times -- in my earlier membership in the DSP -- I learnt to appreciate discussion and debate -- not for its own sake, but in order to come to a resolution.
In cyberspace you can discuss until the cows come home because you aren't going anywhere special, especially off line. No one votes at the end of it and no one has to put any decisions into practice. In the DSP -- while there is this strong and rigorous culture of debate -- stronger than anywhere else I've touched base politically -- there is also a massive dedication to resolution and 'moving on.' In effect, in the doing of what you decide to do.
This is of course very relevant to the dispute the party had experienced over the past two years.
Unless the membership can have confidence that the party exhausted all avenues of democracy the 'resolutions' will be cheapened as a consequence and have less value. If you like, the weight of majority when it finally coalesces relies so very much on how that majority was arrived at.
The same is true in regard to the question of electing a leadership. I always consider that so much that is written in an attempt to bogefy 'democratic centralism' is a load of crock filled obscurantism. Both the "democracy" and the 'centralism' is taken absolutely seriously in the DSP and no more so than on the question of leadership.
James P. Cannon once said that the problem of the party is the problem of the leadership of the party and I think that comes down to a simple ask: is this leadership we elect going to have the confidence of those who elect it? Given that this leadership elected has to lead for the next period -- in place of the congress gathering -- then that's a tall order.
So you better get it as 'right' as you can.It has to represent 'us'.
But there's an adjunct of this that warrants stressing. Among anything you may choose to say in regard to leadership, the core feature of that leadership has to be to fulfil the democratic wishes of the majority of that congress to carry out the decisions of that congress --adjusting that perspective as it sees fit in the light of circumstance and experience over the time ahead.
And that's 'democratic centralism' too: majority rule once the votes have be taken.
Whats' wrong with that?
I suppose the thing that some commentators get caught on is the question of ongoing disputation.I think there's a lot of confusion about this and a lot of crude caricaturing.
If I voted for a perspective at congress I want that to be the perspective that is tested in practice. I did not vote for two points of view to be applied but one. I expect that the party will carry out that line both nationally and locally.
If some other line is pursued then my democratic right to proceed by majority rule is being denied and denigrated.
This, of course, is why in the congress voting I want to make it perfectly clear what my intentions are.
I don't want to have all this debate and polemic so that after the voting the debate and polemic can continue as though it was all a wasted exercise in, what would be, pseudo democracy. I want to see if the tasks and perspectives I embraced with my vote -- what turned out to be my majority vote --actually do work in practice.
As these 'awful' Leninists say, we want to "test the line". And these same 'awful' Leninists' also insist that we should be allowed to 'test the line' without obstruction.
I don't have one iota of a problem with that.
Of course, those who have a minority point of view lose out. That's true. They lost the vote.That's why they are a minority.
But no one is asking them to change their point of view. No one is demanding that they do anything except allow the party to put into practice the 'line' that was decided upon without obstruction and, inasmuch as they can, contribute to the party testing that line.
While that may seem like a sentence there's a key rider: that line is practiced until it is reviewed and then it's open slather with the polemics and such...and a new round of voting.
If the minority members don't also go though the experience of testing the same line in practice how will they know if they are still 'right' and the majority is still 'wrong'?
A party can also decide to continue with a membership discussion on elements of its perspectives... But unless the perspective decided upon is rigorously deployed who's to know if its the right one before we come back to re-assessing it. Generally, as my mum always told me, you can't have your cake and eat it too.
And the cake I'm interested in is the one we decided upon.
Therein hangs the tale of 'democratic centralism' which can be variously more or less democratic or centralist depending on what's happening in the real world.
So I'm keen on 'democratic centralism' because I accept what happens as good value in and of itself. It's logical. Makes darn good political sense...and in the light of my recent congress experience I've learnt to respect the wherewithal so much more.
Politics can be invigorating and embittering depending on a lot of things.But if you want to commit to collectivising your experiences and aggregating your strength with the utmost dedication to being as effective as possible...Then there is no question in my mind as to the form I prefer.(And obviously the party I prefer to do it in.)
Of course, that's only part of the story. When I say that among these delegates were comrades who have been DSP members for 35 years and others who can trace their membership back only a couple of months I'm referring to a particular type of political animal that is schooled and trained within such a party. I'm talking about a party with a particular political culture which is --despite it theoretical pretensions in regard to Marxism and such -- is dedicated to political practice. A group of people who are very serious about doing things to change the world.
It isn't just about 'socialism' and it isn't just about propaganda. Without the doing, democratic centralism is an exercise in dogma management.It has no context, no application, and becomes something of an academic exercise.
As one of the conference themes explained, writ large on the podium screen (from Karl Marx's Theses on Feuerbach:
"Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it".I think that's says a lot about my DSP congress experience.