George Walford: Party Democracy

It is sometimes remarked of the communist movement (and if nobody else has made the remark we now make it) that it uses the word “democracy” in an unusual sense; people who expect this movement to behave in ways they think of as democratic are likely to get a shock. (One example is that the dictatorship of the proletariat is said to be a democratic dictatorship).

We have not heard of the same charge being levelled against the (anarcho-)Socialist Party of Great Britain, and have not ourselves previously questioned the claim of this organisation to be completely democratic. But prolonged concentration upon an object frequently reveals features not previously noticed, and after some forty-five years of thinking on and off about this party we now find ourselves obliged to question its claim to be fully democratic in any generally-understood sense of that term. We raised the question in a letter to the Editors of the party journal, the Socialist Standard, on 6 November 1984; since they have not yet replied (there is of course still time for them to do so) we now raise it here.

As we have noted in The Effect of Nothing, the party debates every substantial issue and many matters that might be considered trivial; it is not any lack of discussion that raises questions about its being fully democratic. Each party member has an equal vote on all issues, all meetings are open to all members (and to the public) and all officials and committees are under control by the party membership. It is not there, either, that the difficulty lies.

The trouble arises from the party’s claim to represent the interests of the working class. This means that it is claiming the working class as its constituency, and the usual meaning of democracy requires that each member of the constituency should have an equal vote.

The party allows only “socialists” to vote. This would be quite in order if it claimed to represent the interests only of “socialists.” But it claims to represent the interests of the working class; when it does that, and excludes almost the whole of the working class from voting rights, it is depriving most of its claimed constituents of the vote. By doing this it nullifies its claim to be fully democratic.

from Ideological Commentary 16, January 1985.