A Tale of Two Democracies – Part Two

Read part one here.

Understanding power

“Power flows from the barrel of a gun” said Mao, and whilst in a time of warfare and insurrection this is certainly true, for socialist organisations functioning within western democracies our understanding needs to be a little more nuanced.  At its most simple, power, the ability to direct or influence the course of events, flows from several key interrelated resources: time, money, relationships and legitimacy.  Time and money are often interchangeable, an individual who is wealthy or has at their command the wealth of an organisation can hire underlings who’s time can be used to their own ends.

This time can be used to have a word in the right ears, to phone round everyone before that crucial vote to argue your case, or to build longer lasting relationships which can be called on at a later date when needed.  In this way full time officers in an organisation, even if they have little financial resources, can become very powerful.  Their job will often take them across the country, allowing them to make arguments and build up relationships which can then be utilised when the time comes.  As employees of an organisation full timers also have a greater vested interest in the direction of the organisation, as certain courses of action could result in them losing their job.  This means the full timers not only have the potential to build a lot of power for themselves, but they also have the impetus to use it.

So how can we ensure the power implicit in being a full timer is used to further the collectively agreed interests of the organisation?  Working within the rules and staying within the accepted culture conveys legitimacy to an officer’s actions.  No matter how much time and money an officer has, they are going to find it difficult to get away with blatantly violating the constitution of an organisation, because by default this move is seen as illegitimate.  The same can be said of going outside the established norms of the officer’s position.  An organisation might not have a rule that its general secretary cant employ family members in their office, but this would none the less be frowned upon and difficult to justify as such a move violates the expectations and democratic culture of the organisation.

Clearly however legitimacy is not the be-all and end-all.  Most military coups utterly violate the existing constitutions and accepted democratic process of the countries in which they occur, yet with enough guns (ultimately acquired through time, money and relationships) legitimacy becomes unnecessary.  Equally in our own organisations, where an individual has enough raw power they can typically override democratic process, however this will always be a risky move.

There’s no simple answer to the problem of containing and directing the power of full-timers, but basic oversight such as access to their work diaries, monthly reporting etcetera should be enough to at least keep most of their energies directed at achieving the organisation’s goals rather than their own.

The power of factions

Another potential coup-making force within larger organisations are factions.  Within democratic organisations factions are often loathed.  They have the power to turn routine debates into quagmire and can be hugely destructive to the organisation as a whole.  In spite of this, once an organisation gets beyond a certain size, factions are both inevitable and necessary.

Without factions, be they formal or informal, it is down to unorganised individuals to uphold the democratic structures and culture of the organisation.  If an officer violates the rules its up to individuals to ensure a blind eye is not turned, that rules violations do not become the norm, rendering the constitution redundant.  Whilst unorganised individuals may be sufficient to keep an eye on those in power in small organisations, when organisations get beyond a certain size their voice becomes too weak be be effective.  This is where factions come in.  Those factions that are opposed to those in power have it in their interest to hold those in power rigidly to account.  It will not be in their interest to turn a blind eye.

In using the power of factions to help maintain our democracy, we need to also have a means of ensuring that these factions do not behave in a destructive manner, placing short term factional interest above the longer term interests of the broader organisation.  Again this seems to be a question of creating both structures and culture that can facilitate this.   If a branches number of delegates to the decision making bodies of the organisation is determined by the number of people in a branch, it suddenly becomes in the interest of all factions to be the best builders of the organisation, after all, the more people within the branches where they hold sway, the more votes they will get.

The two democracies

It is for reasons such as accommodating and using the power of factions to maintain democracy that the structure of a democracy can be hugely important.  Additionally we have seen how seemingly democratic methods, such as ballots, may in fact be far less democratic than alternative approaches because they fail to foster a culture of discussion and engagement.  Both of these components are necessary for a genuine democracy to take root, to successfully control and direct the power contained within an organisation.

With a greater understanding of power an democracy we can create better socialist organisations. Traps that previous socialist groups have fallen into can be avoided and confident in our democracy we can focus on the real task in hand, building power for our class.

A Tale of Two Democracies – Part One

In my half-decade on the far left I’ve been involved in a fair few faction fights (always on the right side of course).  As a result I’ve studied a fair few constitutions so as to unearth the technicalities that will lead my chosen side to victory.  These various experiences of different “democracies” within socialist organisations has prompted me to think about what truly constitutes a democracy, and why some organisations that at first appear democratic turn out in fact to be the opposite.

Democracy is of course essential.  Without it, even with the best of intentions, corruption will gradually set in as individuals become more and more socialised into the bureaucracy of an organisation, allowing their vested interests to take precedence over that of the organisation as a whole.  If we want to create a genuine socialism then this has to be based on a genuine democracy, any substitution of such democracy and we risk those individuals who assume power in the name of socialism abusing that power and selling us out.

Democracy then is a means of exerting pressure on a bureaucracy to ensure its interests are in line with those of the electorate.  But what does genuine democracy look like?  Without going in to historical arguments over whether this or that revolution created a genuine, democratic socialism, it seems worthwhile to try to dig beneath the surface and gain a better understanding of this sometimes elusive concept.

A show of hands?

One of the most common tools in the faction-fighters handbook is to claim democratic legitimacy for a given decision because it was taken on the basis of a vote.  Clearly, on a fundamental level this is correct, a vote is a democratic means of making a decision, but just because a decision was reached democratically does not mean that the content of that decision is democratic.  If an organisation was to vote to suspend all its democracy, instilling a single individual as dictator with ultimate power, that organisation would cease to be a democratic one, despite the decision to do so having been taken democratically.

So what are the facets of genuine democracy?  The election of those in power is an obvious key component, and different variables around this will determine how democratic the process is.  For example an officer who is elected annually, who has a strict mandate beyond which they may not stray, and is subject to recall by the electorate at any time, is going to weigh the opinions of the electorate far heavier in his mind than your average member of parliament, elected every five years and unrecallable.

The above procedure is what we might call “structural” democracy, the idealised legalistic form of an organisation’s democracy that is typically encoded in a constitution.   However this alone is not sufficient.


During 2006/7, Scottish Socialist Party conferences were uncontentious affairs.  We had just seen the large factions which had made previous conferences lively events split from the organisation, this left the existing leadership of the SSP utterly uncontested.  Motion after motion was voted through with little debate.  This did not feel like democracy, and indeed it wasn’t.  Though the SSP was hugely structurally democratic (at least relative to other far left political parties) the culture of democracy had disappeared from the organisation1.

Culture of discussion

A culture of democracy is just as important as having formally democratic structures, indeed the latter without the former is no real democracy at all.  If discussions only take place between a handful of officers and are rarely conducted amongst the wider membership then the wider membership will disengage and habitually rely on others to make decisions for them.  A culture of discussion can be difficult to create, in order to make it work a large piece of the puzzle is often having structures that serve to prompt discussion.

On the surface, taking decisions through a ballot of the entire membership  of an organisation is as democratic as it gets.  Every member has an equal say and through the secrecy of the ballot is protected from peer pressure or intimidation.  The underlying assumption of such a ballot is the autonomy of the individual, free to make up his or her own mind as they please.  The problem with this is that the individual is atomised, expected to make up their mind on the basis of their impressions of a situation with which they may not be involved in.  They may have access to the motion and some formalised written debate around it, but few are likely to read it, and fewer still to discuss it at length with their comrades.

The alternative to the ballot is a delegative democracy.  Here each branch of the organisation gets together and discusses the issue in question.  It then takes a vote and mandates its delegate on that basis.  This means that individuals who have not participated in the debate, who are less involved in the organisation, must get themselves more involved in order to have a say.  Whilst for some individuals this may pose problems, branch meetings may be inaccessible to them for some reason, the solution lies in tackling this problem head on, after all, if they cant participate in the basic organs of the organisation then there is a far more fundamental problem.

Clever structures such as delegative democracy don’t make a democratic culture on their own however, after all, there seems little point in turning up to a branch meeting to vote if you are only allowed to vote on minor issues, or if your votes will be worked around and rendered ineffectual by those who wield power within the organisation.  In order to engage people in our democracy we need to ensure that our democratic bodies have a power of their own, and to do this we need an understanding of power.

Read part two here.

[1] Though I left the SSP shortly after this I should point out that it has seemingly become a lot more democratic in terms of organisation-wide discussions of late.