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November 1971: On the Question of How the Left Can Function on the National Level Printer Friendly Version

[Prefatory Note, June 2007:   This essay was originally attached to my Letter to the Liberated  Guardian.  I have separated it out because of its general significance. How strange it is indeed that next month on July 27-30, 2007, the new Students for a Democratic Society will meet at Wayne State University in Detroit to try to decide on a national organizational structure.  As yet, only four weeks away from the conference, no structural proposals are listed on the new SDS website. There is a short essay which argues for the need for a national structure, not just local autonomous chapters, and claims that this structure must be based on participatory democracy, not representative democracy. But the authors don't explain how. Talk about deja vu (for me). This essay is located at: <>. As it happens, I have recently been involved in the founding of the Northeast Anarchist Network. I believe that we have solved the problem. My contributions are posted on this website. The founding documents will soon be posted also on the Northeast Anarchist Network's site.]

On the Question of How the Left Can Function
on the National Level

James Herod
November 1971

  There are at least three central questions included under the general topic of strategy or revolutionary organization. The first of these centers around the concept of a party: What role does a party play in the revolution? (Is there a role for a party at all? What should the party's structure be?) A second question asks: What social forces in the society are going to make the revolution? (Who is in the working class? What is the role of students and third world groups? What is the relationship between the active and militant rebel forces and other nonrevolutionary groups? Toward which groups should the energies of the left be directed in order to win allies?) A third question has to do with the role of an underground, or urban guerilla warfare, as a possible strategy in an advanced capitalist society. I have already talked about this third question above. The second question has been the source of enormous confusion on the left, with various doctrinaire claims holding sway at one time or another. Theoretical clarity is urgently needed here, and this could be the topic for another LG position paper or workshop.

  But it is the first question, on the role of the party, that has so soundly stumped the left in the United States, not only on the theoretical level, but more importantly in its political practice. This is strange indeed because on the face of it there has never been any debate here about parties or party structures, evidently because ostensibly we have never had any parties to speak of, except for small Old Left groups like CP and SWP. But this is a very deceptive thing. It seems to me that some of the most heated debates have centered on this question. We have merely debated the issue under a different rubric and within a different context, namely, within the context of our own political movement and its current problems. We have always debated the issue in terms of `How can the movement function on the national level?' The battles around this issue surely constitute one of the main dynamics of recent movement history, perhaps the main dynamic, especially since it centers on the ever present tension between elites and anti-elites, except here it is a tension between local and national as well as between ordinary movement people and movement superstars.

  Many of the problems of the old SDS grew out of its failure to solve these organizational questions, especially the question of the relationship between the relatively autonomous local chapters and the national coordinating committee (or the National Office). Where do policy decisions get taken? In the annual national conference? And if so, who can come to the conference since there is no formal membership to speak of in the local chapters. What is the relationship between the decisions of the national conference and the year round functioning of the national office? Reliance on the annual national conference for policy decisions raises the problem of its being packed by groups like PL who have a doctrine they seek to impose on the organization. How can you keep an open national conference from being taken over by tightly organized groups and rendered essentially meaningless? Everyone knows what happened. The SDS national office gradually got more and more removed from the local chapters (which were more conservative) and eventually split off entirely from them. In addition, the national conference simply disintegrated, as a policy making body, under the impact of groups trying to pack it, and because of the necessary resistance that this provoked from the national office. Finally, the national office itself split apart.

  The same dynamic also worked itself out in the Mobe and the New Mobe. The Mobe was supposedly a coalition of various groups on the left. It also functioned through an annual or biannual national conference and had a steering committee which functioned year round, presumably to execute the decisions of the annual conference, which was supposedly the governing body of the organization. But attendance at the national conference was limited to a list of people and organizations selected by the steering committee. The whole structure of the Mobe was shot through with elitist features. Most of the people who attended the national conferences didn't really represent functioning groups at all, but mainly themselves, and if there were groups behind them these groups had no chance to consider the issues and instruct their representatives how to vote. Power was in fact exercised by the steering committee, which frequently acted in direct violation of decisions taken at the national conference, a conference which was itself elitist. By the time of the New Mobe, which existed from the summer of 1969 to the spring of 1970, the movement people who were still trying to work within the framework of the Mobe felt strong enough to try to take over the Mobe, although there were heated debates about whether it was worth it. Nevertheless, a radical caucus managed to more or less capture the program and to some extent the national office, facilities, and budget of the executive committee and push the Mobe in a more radical direction, away from single issue lowest-common-denominator politics. At that point, SWP pulled out of the coalition and by the spring of 1970 the Mobe, and the radical caucus within it, had more or less disintegrated, having only enough steam left to thoroughly mess up the march on Washington during the Cambodia/Kent State uprising. That left only two outfits, which regrouped out of the wreckage, one the tool of SWP (the National Peace Action Coalition) and the other centered around Dave Dellenger and other independent national heavies. (It is painfully ironic in retrospect that the radical caucus of the New Mobe included such good friends of the LG as Irving Beinen, Dave Dellenger, and Art Waskow.)

  After Kent/Cambodia the movement more or less deserted national coalition politics and left the field to SWP and Dellenger, who continued to call spring and fall offensives and to try to organize mass anti-war rallies. By May of 1971 however a new development had emerged. A self-appointed group, the Mayday Tribe, decided to counter the legal peace rallies of the Old Left and sent out a call, on their own initiative, for everyone to come to Washington to disrupt traffic on Mayday. There was not even the pretension of a fake national coalition behind their decisions. The plan was simply issued by the Mayday Tribe, and was therefore at least somewhat more honest than the old Mobe offensives. The interesting twist this time though was that it was a do-your-own-thing affair, with people being encouraged to come in small groups and act somewhat autonomously. Even so, the real Mayday movement surpassed the official Mayday both in its definition of what was going on and in the tactics used. As a further strengthening of the collective, egalitarian tendencies of the left, Mayday was a rather encouraging victory while simultaneously highlighting however the continuing failure of the left to solve the riddle of how to function on the national level in a democratic fashion. (After all, people had gone to Washington according to plan, a plan they had had no voice formulating.) Nevertheless, it has always seemed to me that the real significance of the Mayday events, as far as the problem of organization or structure is concerned, is that the decentralized, egalitarian, collective, bottom-up tendencies finally caught up with and overpowered even the self-proclaimed do-your-own-thing movement group (the Mayday Tribe) which had tried after all to define, organize, and coordinate the action from the top.

  It is important to review this history because these problems have constituted and still constitute perhaps the central problem of the New Left, being one of the main dynamics, tensions, debates, struggles, failures. On Thanksgiving Weekend, in only two weeks, we will begin another round because NAM is attempting to set up a new national organization essentially duplicating the old SDS structure. They want to have autonomous chapters which will nevertheless come to an annual national conference to select a program (and pick three priority items which will be binding on each chapter) and elect a national coordinating committee. Apparently they hope to avoid the contradictions that emerged in SDS by publishing their program ahead of time, and asking people who don't agree with it to stay away from the conference! If there is a large response to the NAM proposal, and there are signs that there will be, then in no time at all we will find ourselves confronted with yet another top-heavy organization controlled by people whose politics, style of working, and insensitivities to the anti-elitist struggles of the past lead directly to a vanguard party type of revolutionary effort, with real socialism being precluded from the outset, with the shots being called for us, and with no chance for anyone to participate in decision-making except for the select few.

  This vicious syndrome simply must be broken. I consider it one of the main tasks of the LG in coming months, as a national publication committed to a grass-roots revolutionary struggle, to discover, articulate, and initiate an alternative, a solution, to these elitist patterns. It seems to me that radicals in this country would respond massively to a genuinely egalitarian strategy. This is obviously not a question of the LG organizing the movement. This is excluded by definition. This is what we are against (that other groups keep trying to organize everyone into their own hierarchical structures). What we can do however is put forward an alternative strategy. What follows after that I'm not quite sure, probably because I don't quite have a totally clear picture yet of what the alternative strategy is. If I did it would probably be obvious what had to be done to carry it out.

  Nevertheless, it is possible to eliminate one apparent alternative right now. The solution to the problem raised above does not lie merely in the more careful construction of the national organization to ensure greater representation and to check officers against violation of policy decisions. Most of my experience within the movement during the period from 1968 to 1971 was within the framework of the Committee of Returned Volunteers, one of the smaller movement groups that nevertheless had a national organization. CRV had a national structure and its constitution was considerably more sophisticated than anything else on the scene at that time. Thus our experience in that organization was rather unique and very instructive. There were carefully worked out membership criteria, voting rules, representative systems, and checks and balances of all sorts. We had local chapters, an annual General Assembly, a national board which met two or three times a year, an executive committee which could meet as often as it wanted to during the year, and a staff for a national office. By the time of our second annual General Assembly the contradictions and tensions within this structure were literally ripping it apart. (The demise of CRV was not only or even primarily due to structural problems however but to political conflicts.) The question of structure in the national organization was aired at this second General Assembly just about as thoroughly as one could ever hope. There were at least three major problems of accountability. One was how to hold the national officers, who worked in the national office on a day to day basis, accountable to the executive committee. Another was how to hold the executive committee accountable to the Board. The third was how to hold the Board accountable to the policies set by the General Assembly. Everyone of course was suppose to abide by the decisions of the General Assembly. In addition, there was the tension between the local chapters and the decisions of the General Assembly even though each chapter was fairly represented in the Assembly and had a voice in its decisions.

  The problem here, in retrospect, was not that we didn't have enough checks and balances, nor that some factions (all in the name of strengthening the democratic structure of the organization) tried to increase the power of the executive committee and the national office vis a vis the local chapters, nor even that rampant confusion confounded many members about the functioning of the whole structure. The real problem was that the whole thing was cast within the framework of representative democracy rather than direct democracy. (In addition of course to the far more serious and ultimately fatal problem that many people simply could not function in a democratic, collective fashion, but were constantly going off on their own individualistic trips, both passive and aggressive trips, and doing all sorts of things to undermine and destroy the group processes.) Just as the solution to the question of democracy in the larger society is solved by replacing the representative democracy of the business class (bourgeois democracy) with the direct democracy of the socialist society, so also with the revolutionary organization of the left.

  What is meant by direct democracy? In direct democracy, the people make the decisions on all matters of basic policy rather than electing representatives to make decisions. Thus in a system of workers councils based on direct democracy the people themselves (workers), in their own local caucuses, would consider, debate, and vote upon all basic policy matters. Representatives from the councils could then be sent to local, regional, and national assemblies to deal with matters of secondary importance, and here all the checks that could be devised would be needed. This image, of direct democracy, is the only one I have discovered that in theory at least would allow a large number of people over a wide geographical area to relate to each other in a nonhierarchical, democratic way. But its practicality of course depends on a highly developed communications system and high speed computers to tally the votes. This historical option therefore is of very recent origin.

  It is very had to see, however, in light of these technological requirements, how any system of direct democracy, with the necessary communication links between the geographically separated radical caucuses to enable members to make collective decisions on a regular and ongoing basis, could be instituted within any organization on the left at the present time. We simply do not have and will not have, until after the revolution, the necessary resources to do it.

  We are confronted then with a serious impasse. If a carefully constructed system of representatives built into a national organization is not a democratic structure at all, but an elitist one, and if it is impossible to construct a national organization at this time on the basis of direct democracy, how then can the movement ever function on the national level in a non-elitist way?

  This is really the heart of the matter and brings us I think to the solution of the dilemma and also to a better awareness of what has been wrong all along with these many attempts to set up a national organization on the left. Why do people want a national organization anyway? Primarily because they are trying to influence Washington. They want to influence and change policy, which is decided in Washington, symbolically at least. In other words, they are trying to vie for power with the present rulers, get into the arena, jockey for influence. And this is why again and again these national actions have gone back without fail to Washington, D.C. This is surely merely a variation of the old vanguard party objective of capturing the state machinery. The national organization does not aim at transforming the consciousness of the people and changing the structure of society (at least not now, perhaps later, after the revolution). Instead, it aims at becoming a force in the arena of national politics, along with liberals and conservatives, democrats and republicans (albeit a so-called left-wing force). But the aims of the left should not be merely to influence policy or to change the minds of the ruling class. That leads nowhere. The objective of the revolution is for people to destroy the hierarchy, to take power away from the ruling class and to appropriate it to themselves, by organizing themselves collectively and by asserting their domination over their former rulers. To fall into the trap of trying to break into the game of national politics is a fundamental error and in fact represents a fatal derailment of the revolution.