The granddaddy of these events are the Oberlin Conferences that takes place annually at the eponymous campus. I attended my first Oberlin Conference in 1970, and they'd been going on for awhile before that. Over the years I probably spent more than a month on that campus, attending talks, classes, and fund raising events. I was living in Portland in the early 70s, and we all drove out to Oberlin--it took four or five days. One comrade didn't ride with us--he drove his own VW Microbus (remember those?), which was always breaking down. Fortunately he was an ace mechanic and could fix it roadside himself.
Those were the days--I have fond memories of my time at Oberlin. Today's Active Workers Conference is scheduled for only two days, July 19-20--hardly worth the drive from the West Coast. Of course it's now cheaper to fly, and even my friend wouldn't be able to fix a modern car roadside even if he wanted to. But you're invited, or at least you are if you're thinking about joining the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).
The SWP always took democratic centralism seriously, and in this they differ from their Stalinist counterparts. The centralism part said that after the convention the Party should speak with one voice. Comrades were under discipline to reflect the Party line in public, even if they personally disagreed. There was also a rule against taking disagreements home with you. Outside of the convention discussion, factions were not permitted.
The democratic part insisted on a free flow of ideas during the convention and for several months prior. During this time ideological factions were allowed and given a forum to present their ideas. And thus arose the uniquely Trotskyist institution--the pre-convention discussion bulletins. The discussion was kicked off by a series of resolutions from the Political Committee, the central leadership of the Party. Any comrade could reply to these documents by submitting a contribution to the discussion bulletin. Indeed, comrades could write counter documents proposing a completely different policy. These documents were printed up and distributed to the membership as a whole. After continued discussion on the convention floor, the various resolutions would be voted on. Once the majority had decided on the Party program, centralism took hold, the factions were supposed to dissolve, and everybody was expected to fall into line. The winning resolutions would then be published in The Militant, or as a book or pamphlet.
I once owned a whole library of discussion bulletins. In some move or another I decided to toss them--a decision I deeply regret today. It's not that they were great literature or anything, but this is one aspect of my youth that I wouldn't mind reliving.
There were some very undemocratic aspects to this procedure. First, the convention was delegated. Branches elected delegates who got to vote for the resolutions. The vote was never open to the membership as a whole. The branch leadership usually decided who the delegates were, which inhibited a full airing of minority view points.
The Party's leadership was chosen in a similar way. The convention delegates chose the National Committee (the governing body between conventions), who in turn elected the Political Committee (the governing body between meetings of the National Committee), who in turn elected the Executive Committee (the governing body all the rest of the time). While formally democratic, at every step there was an informal thumb on the scale that pretty much allowed the leadership to select itself. That's how Jack Barnes gets to be National Secretary for forty years.
So good intentions notwithstanding, democracy in the Trotskyist movement is flawed. And centralism makes no sense at all. The idea is that by speaking with one voice the Party can multiply its influence. In today's media environment it has the opposite effect--it just makes them look silly. I've posted about that here and here.
So it is refreshing that a grouplet called Solidarity is revisiting the concept. They are holding their convention July 26-28 in Chicago. Unlike the SWP or Socialist Action, they have clearly given up on centralism--there appears to be a wide variety of viewpoints within their movement. And accordingly, democracy is alive and well. Unlike the SWP, the discussion bulletins are (partially) public and are posted online.
Openness has advantages. I recall SWP discussions as being turgid--often unreadable. The Solidarity documents are well-written and cogently argued, though you need to suspend disbelief in Marxism to make any sense of them. The political document cites a litany of unhappiness: workers are getting poorer, education and social security are being cut back, fewer people have jobs, and things are just terrible, awful, no-good all around. (My response to this kind of argument is posted here.)
It sounds like in the revolutionary future they want people to be better off than they are today. But wait--in Programmatic Challenges to Ecosocialism, the authors are very clear about their true ambition:
The fact is that ecosocialism simply does not need everyone to have her/his own private automobile (we do not, in fact, need for anyone to have a private automobile) nor a big screen TV in every room of the house, private swimming pools, meat three times a day, and much else. All or most socialists who begin to take an interest in questions of ecology today no doubt understand this truth, especially when it is stated in such an exaggerated way. But there is a need to do more than understand. We must actively inscribe this approach at the top of our banner as we attempt to revolutionize society. We should place it in the forefront of our consciousness, and of everyone’s consciousness if we can. Consumerism does not actually satisfy the emotional needs of those who possess so much stuff, and a genuinely fulfilling human life style will be more easily achieved without it. What we need instead is an expansion of collective educational, artistic, and recreational possibilities which can be fully developed even while we drastically reduce the production of material goods.So the truth is out of the bag--these people really are pro-poverty. I think all socialists (and most Democrats) meet that description, but Solidarity is at least up front and honest about it.
Elsewhere, they are explicitly Luddite, saying
The current forces of production (with the partial exception of energy sources which will have to be significantly developed during a transitional period) are more than sufficient to create a human society which takes from each according to her abilities and provides for each according to her needs. We no longer view a further expansion of the productive forces (taken as whole) as a necessary task, an essential part of the socialist transition.So Solidarity is less Marxist and more Malthusian. Their reason for limiting human ingenuity is a supposed "ecological crisis"--the sky is falling and the world is about to end. But there is no ecological crisis. There are ecological problems, to be sure, but nothing of the civilization-destroying magnitude that our friends at Solidarity suggest.
Here's their real proposal: instead of waiting for global warming or some other catastrophe to end civilization as we know it, Solidarity thinks we should preemptively end civilization as we know it right now.
What do we want? Poverty. When do we want it? Now.