Monday, June 9, 2014

Democracy and elections in socialist organizations.

by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

When I first joined a revolutionary socialist organization (I was subsequently expelled from it after 12 years or so) I was introduced to a way of electing leaders I was unaccustomed to.  This was the slate system. I was a delegate to the National Committee (NC) and above the National Committee there was a five-member executive, we called it the EB I think or IB. When elections for the NC came around for example, the sitting NC would put forward a slate of candidates to the yearly conference of the members.  The members, or any individual member could put forward a slate of their own if they chose to do so.

The outgoing NC would normally put forward pretty much the same slate minus or plus an agreed upon individual change here or there. I should add, that the five members of the body above the NC were also on the NC.

I wasn’t comfortable with this set up initially as it just didn’t seem democratic. But it was explained to me that this is more democratic in the sense that the national leadership or any body should be composed of a well rounded out and most informed group of comrades.  A member of this body with a national outlook and the connections a national body exposed them to would be able to guide the organization or make the important decisions an individual member from an outlying branch would not; they had the "big picture".  Who would be better to decide the best choices for the incoming slate than the present leadership?  Plus, any member could offer an alternative slate or put forward the removal of one or two individuals and offer others.

Despite my misgivings, this made some sense and perhaps the fact I was on the NC, made me feel a little more secure. After all, I was a believer in democratic rights and I would keep an eye on things, maybe this encouraged me to go along willingly.

I remember at one national conference when two newcomers, both women, asked me about the election of a new NC that was son the agenda. They both had the misgivings I had when I first joined and they grilled me about it.  Despite all their arguments making sense to me, I defended the present set up. But the more I thought about it, it is fantasy to expect  two new and fairly uninformed members, to challenge a sitting leadership and offer either a total change or the removal of certain individuals and their replacement with others.  Not only is it an absurd idea as these two comrades had little idea of who was who being new to the group, but it means standing up and openly challenging the present leadership.  It is completely undemocratic. 

Saying that one has a choice is meaningless if a democratic atmosphere is not present, if the dynamic is antidemocratic.  I remember being in a union meeting where a huge debate between myself and another individual was taking place. I had called upon my co-workers and supporters to attend the meeting and they far outnumbered my opponent.  At one point a supporter of mine whispered to me that he was going to “Call the question.”. In the labor movement this is a motion that demands a vote on the issue at hand and is not debatable. The trade union bureaucracy uses this to stifle debate. I said to my friend that we don‘t need to use organizational means to win this issue, we obviously have the votes and in this situation we must ensure the minority has every opportunity to sway us and that the atmosphere is such that a minority feels comfortable being a minority and arguing for their ideas.

Anyway, I came after time to oppose the slate system and readers of this blog are aware that we have also raised the poisonous, sexist and undemocratic internal life of left groups and the need for serious discussions on the need to change things. To repeat something we have said many times before, there are thousands more people outside of left groups than there are in them; thousands more who have been driven out through internecine warfare and splits.  There are thousands of decent honest working class fighters who have led strikes or fought the class struggle on the job every day of their lives, where the “rubber meets the road”  who have no attraction to socialist groups whatever. One simple point should tell us something. Any organization that has the same leader, normally a male, for half a century is not a healthy organization.

I am going on too long.  What spurred me to comment on this aspect of political life is the piece below about the origins of the slate system in the revolutionary socialist movement written by Pat Byrne.  Pat Byrne is not affiliated to this blog but has made us think seriously about the internal life of revolutionary organizations and the history of our movement. We may not agree on everything which is a healthy thing, but we are grateful to him for forcing us to “learn from our past”. “The only constant is change” as Marx said. Marxist’s should heed those words.

Pat Byrne reviews the Stalinist origins of the slate system
March 12, 2014 in Critique

The leadership-recommended slate system for internal elections to the national leadership is used in most Leninist groups. It is not a natural system arising from the workers own experiences and democratic instincts but something artificially imported into the workers movement.

In theory, the leadership-recommended slate system can be used to recommend a list that consciously includes a good balance of talents and personalities. In practice, it gives the existing leadership a tremendous advantage in elections and experience has shown that it has allowed leaders to secure their continuous re-election along with a body of like-minded and loyal followers. The leadership slate system is a confrontational system. By recommending a slate, the leadership is imposing a loyalty test upon the delegates. And it makes it extremely difficult to change individual members of the national leadership without overturning the leadership as a whole. By electing a group en bloc it makes it hard to express discontent with particular members of the leadership. Thus individual leaders avoid accountability and hide behind the slate as a whole. The bottom line is that the leadership-recommended slate system has become an important way in the ‘Leninist movement’ for the leadership to maintain itself in power and prevent any challenge to its authority. Combined with other rules this has created the basis for the stultifying, monotone, autocratic regime that operates in almost all the various wings of the Leninist movement. This regime may vary in intensity from one group to another but it forms a common feature of the movement.

Let’s examine how this peculiar ‘slate system’ arose. As the Leninist movement supposedly bases itself on the example of the Bolshevik Party, we need to start our process of discovery here. The following information comes mainly from a study made on how Communist Party internal elections were carried out in Revolutionary Russia. The study, ‘The Evolution of Leadership Selection In The Central Committee 1917-1927’, was written by the well-known sovietologist and academic Robert V. Daniels who drew most of his information from the official records of Bolshevik and CPSU party congresses. His essay was published in a fairly obscure academic study of Russian Officialdom which covered Russian society from the 17th to the 20th centuries.

The first thing that may be surprising to state is that the Bolshevik Party did not operate slates. By Bolshevik Party we mean the party that led the Socialist Revolution in October 1917. This party, the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (majority), used the normal system of electing its leadership that has naturally emerged in every workers movement across the world – voting for individual candidates in a competitive election. Thus those successfully elected to the Central Committee (the leading body of the Party) had to receive higher votes than the unsuccessful candidates. Of course, unofficial slates did exist based on political questions and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But there was no official list of candidates recommended by the outgoing leadership with all the advantage and status that would have conferred on any candidate included in such a list.

This normal election procedure continued after the revolution and the Bolshevik Party changed its name to the Communist Party: “Until well after the Revolution the makeup of the Communist Central Committee was governed by genuine elections at the party congresses, however they may have been influenced by factional controversies and pressure by the leadership (i.e. Lenin). Congress delegates voted for as many individuals as there were seats on the Central Committee, and the appropriate number with the highest votes were declared elected. Candidate members were originally the runners-up, but by 1920 they were being voted on separately after the roster of full members was announced. Under these conditions the membership of the Central Committee was naturally drawn from well-known revolutionary activists and key figures in the central party leadership.” (pp.357-358)

Thus the relatively small Central Committee was made up of well-known individuals: “Through 1920, at least, the numbers were small enough so that most aspirants were being voted on by the Congress delegates on the basis of personal or direct knowledge. However, or perhaps for this reason, election to the Central Committee was sensitive to personal popularity and the interplay of the factional controversies that freely animated the life of the party during the War Communism period. Some individuals (A.S. Bubnov, for instance) reached, fell, and returned to the Central Committee as many as three times.” (p.358)

1921 – Turning Point:
A significant change in the Soviet Communist Party’s leadership election system occurred in 1921. 1921 was a key year in the development of the Soviet Union. In many respects it was the turning point from which we can trace the degeneration of the Communist Party and the Soviet state it ruled. This was the year which saw mass hunger in the countryside and strikes in the cities. Reflecting this a major factional battle over how to solve the economic crisis ensued that came to be referred to as the Trade Union Debate. The old Central Committee was almost evenly divided in the debate with Lenin and Stalin pushing for the partial reintroduction of the market and small-scale capitalism, while Trotsky’s faction argued for the extension of war communism into the factories. In the elections for the delegates to the Tenth Party Congress Lenin’s more flexible and positive position won a large majority. But the delegate election campaign also reflected the growing ability of the official party bureaucracy to manipulate the party machine with many examples of the packing of meetings etc.

The Tenth Party Congress met in a crisis atmosphere with the serious revolt of the sailors at Kronstadt seen as threatening the whole future of the revolution. This brought the divisions inside the Party to a head. Quite apart from the dispute within the party leadership caused by the Trade Union Debate, discontent was rife at all levels of the Party. There were two rank and file opposition factions: the Democratic Centralists who protested that the democratic aspect of the party and state life was being lost; and the Workers Opposition who were pushing for direct trade union control of industry. It was in this situation that Lenin introduced his disastrous proposal to ban factions. Although this was only thought to be a temporary measure to prevent the party being torn apart in the crisis, it became a permanent rule within the Soviet Party and was used by Stalin again and again to silence dissent. The same was true with the proposal to purge the party of non-communist elements who had joined for opportunist reasons. This had originally been put forward by the Workers Opposition and was taken up and pushed forward by Lenin. But its implementation was carried out by Stalin and his loyal party apparatus which used it to remove political dissidents and recruit more ‘reliable’ elements.

Introducing the Leadership Slate:
The third organisational measure that was to soon make it much easier for Stalin to assert and maintain control was the introduction by Lenin and his faction of a block slate system in the elections for the Central Committee: “In 1921, at the Tenth Party Congress, the first signs appeared of a basic change in the actual manner of selecting Central Committee members. This was the practice of making up a semi-official slate of aspirants, to be voted on de facto as a group by the Congress delegates. The occasion happened to be the most acute crisis ever experienced by the Soviet leadership, when it came under attack both externally from peasant rebels and the naval mutineers at Kronstadt, and internally from the left and ultraleft factions represented by Trotsky and the Workers’ Opposition. Having decisively defeated his critics within the Communist Party in the pre-Congress delegate selection, Lenin evidently decided to use his influence not only to oust several key oppositionists from the Central Committee but to expand the body from nineteen to twenty-five, thereby creating in all nearly a dozen openings for new people. The fact that a slate of recommended official candidates was prepared for the Congress delegates to vote on is made clear by the totals of individual votes announced after the ballot. Lenin was everyone’s choice, with 479 votes. But nearly unanimous votes were received by numerous other people, tapering down to 351 for the twenty-fourth member, the newcomer I. Ia. Tuntul, … far ahead of the next contender, the deposed Trotskyist party secretary Krestinsky with 161.” (p.357-358)

In addition to successfully supporting the ‘old Bolshevik’ leaders against Trotsky’s group and other candidates, Lenin used this unofficial slate system to promote less well-known figures who he thought would be more supportive of his position: “Basically Lenin’s slate making to curb the opposition factions that so plagued him in 1921 relied on the award of Central Committee status to loyal but not widely known provincial functionaries who would have stood little chance in the earlier style contest for a smaller body of stellar personalities.” (p.359-360)

1922 – Stalin Consolidates His Power:
At the Eleventh Party Congress in 1922, in which Lenin was unable to play a major role due to illness, the individual results for the elections to the Central Committee were for the first time in the Party’s history not announced. Presumably this was because it would have appeared strange and embarrassing to see the unofficial leadership slate all gaining similar votes, way ahead of the rest of the candidates.

1922 was also the year in which Stalin was able to decisively take over the party machine. As with other measures introduced by Lenin that were intended to temporarily minimise dissent, the tactic of increasing the size of the Central Committee was seized upon by Stalin who combined it with a leadership-organised slate as a means of securing the election of new more loyal members. This culminated at the Twelfth Party Congress in 1923 (with Lenin absent): “Nineteen twenty-three was the year of Joseph Stalin’s signal breakthrough in setting up a personal political organization in the Party, following his designation as general secretary the year before. Turning Lenin’s proposal for an expanded Central Committee to his own advantage, Stalin persuaded the Twelfth Congress to increase the body from twenty-seven to forty. (7) This substantial expansion, together with three vacancies, gave him sixteen slots to fill. Slate making was in evidence once again when the Twelfth Congress came to the election of the Central Committee, though the mathematics of it were covered up by a motion at the Congress to withhold announcement of individual vote totals.”

Trotsky led the opposition to the proposed expansion, holding out for a small body that could continue to exercise quick day-to-day decision-making authority. (p.360)
At each succeeding Party Congresses up to and including the Fifteenth in 1927 Stalin used the behind-the-scenes leadership slate system and increases in the size of the Central Committee, to promote yet more grateful party and state functionaries and thereby increase his domination of the leadership: “The Thirteenth Party Congress of May 1924, was the first to come after Lenin’s demise and the open break between Trotsky and the party leadership. It was the occasion for another substantial expansion in the ranks of the Central Committee, this time from forty to fifty-two. While practically all incumbents were confirmed in office. (9)

. One—Lenin—had died; one was transferred to the Central Control Commission, which ruled out Central Committee membership, and one—Karl Radek—was dropped for his activities on behalf of Trotsky.” (p.361)
“At the Fourteenth Party Congress, in December 1925, when Zinoviev broke with Stalin and went down to defeat, the Central Committee was once again substantially enlarged—this time by eleven men, from fifty-two to sixty-three. In this manner Stalin continued to build his power base while minimizing the head-on confrontations that would be implied in removing his leading opponents.” (p.362)

“The Fifteenth Party Conference, held in December 1927, a year later than the rules called for, saw the dramatic expulsion of the Left Opposition headed by Trotsky and Zinoviev. The unprecedented number of eight Central Committee members were dropped for oppositionist activity… With the seventy-one members of 1927, the Central Committee had reached a level that was to hold constant through the post-purge Eighteenth Congress of 1939… 121 members and candidate members in total.”
Daniels concludes his assessment thus: “Within the short span of five years under Stalin’s organizational domination the central leadership body (Central Committee members and candidates) was expanded more than two and a half times and almost totally realigned from an elected group of the articulate and politically popular to a body de facto appointed on the basis of bureaucratic constituencies.” (p.366)

The Trotskyist Movement and the Slate System
How and why the slate system was adopted by the Trotskyist movement would be a very useful subject for detailed study. Interestingly, there was a reference to its introduction into the British Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) at its conference in 1950: “At this conference Healy introduced another novelty – a slate for election to the National Committee. The EC had drawn up this slate and if any delegate wanted to nominate someone who was not on the slate they also had to nominate someone else to be taken off!” (‘The Methods of Gerry Healy’ by Ken Tarbuck, published in Workers News No.30, April 1991, under the pseudonym of “John Walters” and with the title “Origins of the SWP”)

Bear in mind that the 1950 conference of the RCP was the one where Healy was able to overcome all his opposition. The slate allowed him to get a Central Committee entirely to his liking. In previous years the RCP had operated a system where the factions in the organisations automatically had a number of seats on the CC according to the level of support they had among the membership. And the faction’s representatives on the CC were democratically decided by the faction themselves.

Pat Byrne, originally written May 2010 (2nd version)

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