A small note on proletarian democracy and iron discipline

posted 2 Mar 2010, 01:57 by M MacDonald
By Erik Andersson, Sweden

As any worker knows, for a strike to be succesful there needs to be an
iron discipline. This is due to the enormous pressure from the bosses
and potentially also media, family, personal economy and so on.
Breaking against a decision that has been arrived at is rightly seen
as treacherous, and the response against these persons from the
struggling workers often have a mix of contempt and hatred.

Does this demand for iron discipline mean that heavy limits should be
put on discussion? No, in fact an free discussion serves to strengthen
the unity, discipline and resolve. Through such a process where
everybody gets to have their say, the collective decision is
"internalized" - you feel a personal responsibility and the bond
between the people fighting is strengthened.

To be very concrete, I was present during a wild-cat strike at a
warehouse last year. The workers put their cars outside of the
warehouse exit to block the route out. For obvious reasons I won´t go
into details, but the decision to go on strike was developed through a
dialectial process of completely free discussion. The objective
circumstances were a series of attacks that served to make the workers
aware that they had no other option but to fight back.

In the shorter perspective the decision "grew forth" during a couple
of weeks, when the workers were getting on the move by way of
manifestations and media attention. During this time I have the
impression that free discussion was absolutely necessary for unity in
action - well for decisive action in general. Had there been - which
there obviously wasn´t - a bureaucratic leadership trying to at any
cost push through things from above, the result would have been
complete anarchy, which is not to seldom a result when some
adventurist sects try to "agitate the workers" for a strike. That in
fact is in opposition both to proletarian democracy and maybe even
more important - in contradiction with the need to form a genuine
collective discipline.

But when the decision to go on strike was taken – was that the end of
discussion and the time for 100% only “unity in action”? Not in any
way – in fact during the four days of strike a large number of
meetings were held. The changing attitude of the bosses, the police
and the workers themselves necessitated new discussions. Concretely
the issues that warranted meetings could be threats of moving in on
the part of the police, reports from the negotiations with the bosses
or simply the demand of some group of workers for the necessity to
speak about what to do.

When the situation in some way changed, the grounds for the former
decisions were not there any more, and the discussion was in a natural
way wide open again. At some point the strike would end – when and
with what result was of course not obvious though. No-one can know the
exact development beforehand – of the moves of the bosses, the police
and the changing mood of the workers. This is of course also true of
the changing reality of society and the world as a whole – and
therefore there are no golden rules that can determine once and for
all the balance between discussion and action.

At least once a day a formal vote was held on whether to continue the
strike. The workers shared their experiences of the changing
situation, thoughts on offers/threats from the bosses and so on. It
was really obvious that anything less than a 100% free discussion
would have wrecked the very strong discipline in action – and brought
with it splits within the ranks of the workers. Of course any
reference to formal positions or use of bullying to make people submit
would have been completely counter-productive. Luckily the struggle
was carried out with complete freedom in discussion and from that was
built a truly impressive collective unity and discipline.

This is a concrete example of a dialectical view of democratic
centralism – discussion and discipline are not isolated from each
other or mechanically following each other – but stand in a
dialectical relationship to each other, relating to the constantly
changing reality. It is in my opinion a lesson for anyone who strives
to win and preserve iron discipline in action within the class
struggle and workers movement.

Erik Andersson