Radical Democracy, Radical Socialism
by Ben Chatterton
This text was written as part of the LSC Pamphlet Program: as such, it is also available in a format for online reading and one for printing. The post reflects only the opinions of the author(s) and not the consensus of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus. Please print and share as far and wide as you can!
Author’s Note: This pamphlet is heavily inspired, in content and in timbre, by adrienne maree brown’s magnificent book Emergent Strategy. The author feels uncomfortable publishing this work without such an acknowledgement.
I. To Socialize Everything, Democratize Everything
Folks, we’re fucked. The capitalist world has decided to take a swan dive off the high board and it’s trying to take us with it. The international Left, somewhat strong in some places but absurdly weak in others, cannot even make a dent in global capitalism in its present state. And even if it could, there’s no telling what would come next. Capital strikes, reaction, sectarianism, cults of personality, and opportunism could defeat or distort a nascent socialist power structure. Rising fascism, the potential of climate change to upend absolutely everything, and the death toll of the neoliberal project are not waiting for us to get our footing. And so I must reiterate: we’re fucked. The left—especially the US left—has to grow by several orders of magnitude, and grow a radical program, before we can even think of history-changing big wins.
That doesn’t mean all is lost forever. Stories tell us of plucky heroes who were outmatched, outnumbered, and outgunned, but through sheer determination came out on top of innumerable horrifying enemies. This isn’t going to happen to us yet—we’re going to have to have more numbers, better organization, and a clear, positive program for change before we can even pretend to “plucky hero” status. But perhaps, for the first time in a little while, there’s a ray of hope.
The problem of how to grow in numbers and in power should be the foremost strategic item on every leftist’s mind.
The solution to this problem will define whether our movement succeeds or fails.
The implementation of this solution can liberate billions around the world in what could become the most important turn of events in modern history.
And we don’t have it yet. For all the good theory, for all the good tactics, for all the good strategy we have, we haven’t nailed it down just yet. We haven’t stumbled upon the secret formula while trying to drift off to sleep, and we haven’t mathematically derived it by poring over piles of texts. And we won’t. We will come up with it together. It will emerge from our collective attempts to liberate ourselves and each other. We save ourselves together. To build a world where workers have control of their workplaces and neighbors have control of their neighborhoods, we need an organization where activists have control of their activism.
For such a strategy to emerge, we need to build a structure. Like a well-tilled garden plot, a thoughtful beginning creates the conditions required for the emergence. It is much harder to change course after a process has begun, and getting a new beginning is a dangerous and unlikely prospect at best. Fortunately, we have this beginning, right now, driven by the 2010s’ hit parade of political crises, and we’re not going to waste it. The expectations we set now should be the expectations we have for the new world—if we spend our lives organizing along certain lines, we should imagine that the society we produce will be driven by those same organizing principles.
II. Radical Democracy As Socialist Praxis
Our current society is one where almost no one has any meaningful control over their own life, so we seek to replace it. “Power concedes nothing without a demand” is a principle that has been grasped not only by rebels against oppression, but also by oppressors themselves, who have spent tremendous energy on preventing people from gaining even the power to articulate a demand. The oppression will continue until morale improves. And that will be the order of the day until the people are given the power. Until the people are allowed to speak their demands. A way to give people the power in society at large is to give people the power in your organizing, and then to succeed in your organizing. This will be uncomfortable for your organization—it will sure as hell be uncomfortable for society.
We need to go beyond having a critique/counter analysis/alternate systemic plan for society—we have to actually do everything differently, aligned with a different set of core principles for existence.
Especially our movement building.
How do we live compassion, justice, love, accessibility, in alignment with this planet and with the people on it? How do we live our values?
As we are, so it (our work, our movement) will be.
-Emergent Strategy, 193
The principles we use to organize will be the principles by which we are organized. That feels tautological, but it’s relevant. The principles by which we organize ourselves will be the principles by which we organize others. And the principles by which they are organized...You get the idea. So, what could possibly be a more important principle than radical democracy? That is: radical—addressing the root of a problem, in this case the racist, ableist, patriarchal, cishet-normative, colonial, capitalist oppression problem, and democracy—empowerment of people to make the decisions that affect them.
In your organization, that will mean giving the same voice and the same vote to someone who disagrees with you as you do to yourself. When done right, it will also mean that this person, and most of the people you organize with, will be willing to continue organizing even when they have a disagreement with the group at large. Keeping that cohesion is essential to building power. Allowing new people to feel like they have a place and are allowed to speak is essential to building power. Again, this is literal: essential, meaning actually the essence of the thing. Not just “important”, not just “necessary”, but the essence of what we do when we do socialist organizing: we bring people to a position of actual democratic self-determination. If we do not start doing that inside the smallest grouping inside our org, we cannot be trusted to bring that freedom to the outside world. This is why “prefiguration” is not a strong enough word for it. All politics, like it or not, is prefigurative. That is to say: the politics we use to build our movement will be the politics reflected to us by the society built by that movement.
This is much what Jo Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” addresses: that failing to acknowledge the existence of a thing that does exist gives that thing too much power. And even more when that thing is an informal hierarchy or a dominating clique. For her, that willful ignorance of structure in the name of structurelessness “[was] becoming a goddess in its own right,” outside of mere human power to criticize or change. Likewise, we have to see the results of the world we’re prefiguring in miniature, and not ignore them, or they’ll become our own destructive deities.
It is incredibly easy to come up with a positive program to implement socialism, with details and timelines, with all the right theory and the right names behind it—well, no, it’s incredibly easy to say you’ve done that. It’s a bit harder to actually do it. But even if you did, getting The People to stand up behind your positive program with details and timelines and the right theory and the right names—that’s so difficult it’s getting ridiculous. If you’ve built your org around one of these, let’s call them PPWDATATRTATRNs for kicks, and someone comes along with a slightly better one? Oh fuck, better go to the mattresses because if you admit they’re right your org is dead, so you've got to defend your suboptimal master plan to the very death.
This shit is bullshit. There is precisely zero reason that some of your people need to inhabit a holy pedestal, sanctified by the rarified air of Correct Theory, while others should languish on the dirty floor. Let the people make decisions. Louder for the ones who weren’t listening: Let the people make decisions. The theory-heads count as people! The praxis-heads too! If someone makes a suggestion that has been well-discounted in theory or in historical praxis, let the theory-readers and the history-scholars throw flags. This is good. If instead the suggestion excludes a marginalized identity or anyone else—let the people teach each other about their errors. It may be messy and you may (read: will) get into arguments, sometimes pointless ones, sometimes crucial ones, sometimes incredibly painful ones, but you will learn to do democracy. You will learn to implement the actual will of the actual people, which is also messy.
In the end, that’s what you want—it’s actually what you need. If you are out there seeking to overturn oppression and give power to the people, you will need to determine what the people want. What y’all want, as people. What we want, as people. The apocryphal slogan: “War is when your government tells you who your enemy is. Revolution is when you figure it out for yourself.” Well, are we holding a revolution or not? Are you going to tell people exactly how they need to build a better world, or are you going to listen to some people, maybe learn a thing or two, talk back, and be here while we all figure it out together? The people’s demands and the implementations of those demands can come from nowhere if not the people themselves.
Now we should take a short diversion to talk about the difference between radical democracies and less-radical democracies. Radical democracy is a goal. It is not a place, it is not a category. You can’t get Certified Radical Democracy stamped on your bylaws the way you get Certified Organic stamped on your box of bespoke grain snacks. I’ll just list some features of less-radical democracies: delegated representation, simple majority votes, first-past-the-post election. You may have some of these problems in your org, and I challenge you to organize to get them out. (Note: DSA has problems with a fair few of these and it will be a long time working them out.) A radical democracy attempts to represent everyone’s opinion in the final direction of the action taken by the group, and it seems clear that to do that, you at the bare minimum need a high voting threshold, a real quorum, active enfranchisement of your people, a politics that rejects “democratic” centralism, and an active organizing culture aimed toward engagement. It’s not enough, it’s just the start.
III. No Entry(ism)
The first and biggest argument against radicalizing your democracy is that there's an inverse correlation between how easy it is to participate and how radical your organization can be. Since most people aren't radical (and cool like us, am I right?), empowering them is counter to the program. If that's the case, though, why do you even want those nerds hanging around at all? Cut ‘em loose, and see how much power you can build with a smaller and smaller but purer and purer organization. You and a bunch of your comrades are going to incite socialist revolution to either die or prove a very important point.
Or if you think you can grow the movement and then control it, giving orders to fifty thousand people because you have the best and smartest ideas and believe that no one will mount a reasonable opposition, I'm afraid to say that's not the history of movements. You have just opened the door to massive sectarian infighting. You have ensured that either your faction will disappear or your organization will. Besides, how does that empower the working class? How does that seed the ground for popular control of society? How is that considerate of people's humanity? One of Left Twitter's favorite slogans (which is in turn the title of a liberal op-ed): I don't know how to tell you that you should care about other people.
The threat is real, though. If we are going to assign a will and wants to the headless system of neoliberal capitalism, we must assume that it has an interest in your movement. This is true no matter how pure and no matter how radical you think you are. Capitalist interests will break in through gaps in socialist theory and praxis, especially when you’re involved in organizing that requires substantial resources. If you are not careful, if you are not conscious, if you are not thoughtful, if you are not mindful, capitalist interests will weaken your movement’s politics. If they do, even your victories will not quite be enough to improve the position of the working class, or reduce ongoing harm, or grow your base in the way we all need.
And so you need to know who’s in and who’s out. Who means well, and who means harm. To do that, you need to be open about your radical politics, willing to share it, willing to receive others’ politics and examine it. You need to discuss and decide as a group what you can agree on, where you can agree to disagree, and what is unacceptable. If your first action in taking this posture is to limit member suffrage, you’re doing it wrong. If your first action is to start purging people based on good faith attempts to discuss (rather than bad faith attempts to game a system or exert control on members), you’re doing it double-wrong.
Doing it right means building structures and expectations. Contrary to authoritarian views of the left, a radically democratic system that leads to a radical organizational politics is possible. Without building toward consensus, in a membership of massive scale, no radical politics will ever be created in the world at large. And you can build it now. You start with the small, with an eye toward that seed growing to the necessary scale through organizing, through invitation, recruitment and propaganda that entice and include.
Some possible features of your radical democracy:
- No testing for “correct politics” for new members. You can weed out the obvious reactionaries, but anyone acting in good faith can be radicalized or at least tolerated until they depart. On the other side of this coin, an absolute end to using accusations of “bad faith” as a cudgel when you simply don’t like someone’s politics.
- The opportunity for online / mail-in voting, with a structure that allows for a robust debate before a decision is made, with a high threshold and a real quorum.
- An engagement committee helping people get heard, no matter their politics—learning what concerns and desires organization members have, and communicating them.
- A no-roadblocks path to getting motions in front of the membership.
- Easier rules of order, and more education around how to use them.
- A communications structure that has reach. You can’t do this just by going with new and shiny—you may have to use old, tried-and-true methods (even if they’re annoying) or a mix of multiple channels. For example, you may find that some people just need a listserv and not everyone’s going to join your Discord server (or Slack workspace, or Mattermost, on and on forever).
- A system that allows and even encourages dissent. Let dissenting voices be heard—even amplified.
- Regular reanalysis of the built structures and how they affect voting and engagement. Poll yourselves or perish.
This levels the field between members and factions, so long as they’re willing to do good organizing. Unfortunately, this leveling works whether their intentions are good or ill, but it allows members with radical ideas to organize around those ideas, build them, move them, and pass them as motions. It also allows your radicals to instruct those who are still learning the ways of radicalism, especially when facing less-radical proposals. So the door is open to radicalize at every turn, and to model a praxis of good faith at every juncture. Any discussion period can become a crash course in the whys and hows of radical socialism. Openness is not to be feared—it is a driver for our revolt.
IV. Organize, Damn It
The question remains: how do you keep people from joining and steering your radical organization into reactionary or less-radical territory? You can’t rely on structures and bylaws alone—they’re just words, and human history tells us that when the people don’t want to obey the laws, the laws will not be obeyed, unless enforced (and sometimes not even then). But violent enforcement of rules is not freedom; it is the present condition, and all of the horrifying conditions that preceded it. If you think you’re going to write the Perfect Rules that hurt only the Bad Guys and help only the Good Guys, good luck to you. The history of the enforcement of overly optimistic laws is full of gulags and atrocities. The structures should be respected, the bylaws should be followed in good faith. How do you make that happen?
You fucking organize. You created these structures and these bylaws and set the tone of this movement in good faith, now you have got to organize with your comrades to keep those structures operational (and to continuously make them more democratic and able to support more radical efforts). “Organizing” here we’re going to take to mean “helping people find purpose in the organization.” It’s not slotting people into job vacancies like some kind of Red Temp Agency. It’s not some quest to find every member’s True Calling In Life either, though you might stumble upon that occasionally. You should have a realistic expectation that your organizer and your member can work together to find that member more purpose, even if it’s done in small steps.
This has two big results (and a lot of little ones): that every organizing action results in increased connection and decreased atomization; and that every organizing action results in more capacity for your organization. It’s that order, too. Not the other way around. Your organizing should bring people together. You’re going to get tested, and hard; you need to build some trust first, so that when those incidents come, they are unifying. If you’re still atomized, those incidents will destroy you.
This de-atomization in your organization paves the way for de-atomization in society just as the pattern of leaves on a branch is reiterated in the pattern of branches on a tree. This is what adrienne marie brown calls “fractal strategy”:
Existence is fractal—the health of the cell is the health of the species and the planet.
-Emergent Strategy, 27
And fractal strategy suggests wholeness in our organizers yields wholeness in our future.
-Emergent Strategy, 311
But with that de-atomization comes the shoot of something green and magical: a culture being born. You can’t build a culture, you can’t sculpt a culture, you can only grow a culture. It is the most fractal thing of fractal organizing, and it is powerful as fuck. Your culture will drive recruitment, will keep your people motivated, will inspire initiative, will keep people coming back, and (hopefully!) will keep people seeking restorative justice after they have wronged or been wronged. It can begin the process of building something even bolder: trust.
When you have built real trust, you will build community, and then you will be prepared to actually do your work. Not that you can reasonably wait till then to start your work. But when that community has been carefully grown out of radical democracy, you can keep your radical socialism. You can radicalize with respect, rather than talking down to people who don’t know “the right theory” (or, gasp, any goddamn theory at all). You can believe in the place you’re bringing newbies. You know that harms will occur, still. We’re all human beings. But you can trust that you and your comrades have the courage and the desire to do right. And you can trust that you will all work on yourselves to make the best place possible for all who want a better world.
So do it. Build Radical Democracy, then use that to grow Radical Socialism. What’s the plan? Build your organizations, build the movement. What’s the program? Whatever brilliant plan that community—you, me, everyone else who sees the need for system change—chooses, together.
In another world, this is a genetic code which creates a bacterial strain that causes its host to split. ↩︎