Democracy and Social Change

Two of the most significant, national political developments of this first year of the new century are the Ralph Nader/Green Party independent Presidential campaign and the “non-violent army” which disrupted both the WTO meeting in Seattle at the end of last year and the IMF/World Bank meeting in Washington, D.C. this April. What do these two efforts have in common that might be an object lesson for the entire progressive movement?

Based upon my own, direct, personal experience with both the Greens and the Direct Action Network, it seems to me that, despite differences in other areas, what both hold in common is a deep-seated commitment to a maximum of democracy, the involvement in decision-making of Green Party and DAN members at the local base as much as is humanly possible.

For the Greens, over their 15 or so years of development in the United States, this has sometimes led to the alienation of members who have a difficult time sitting through long meetings, hearing everybody out, attempting to achieve consensus. Indeed, over the course of those 15 years, the Greens have evolved to the point at which, today, most Green Party organizations use forms of majority/minority voting on issues over which there are significant differences. Yet there remains a widespread opposition to top-down, command-style, organizational processes and a continuous struggle to maximize democratic input from local and state Green organizations when it comes to national decision-making.

I am less familiar with the Direct Action Network, but from personal observation in Washington, D.C. in April and what I have learned since, it is clear that a major reason for DAN’s success, for the willingness of thousands of people, mostly young people, to risk arrest, beatings, pepper spray and serious injury, is a highly democratic internal process of decision-making. This is manifested through “spokes council” meetings which allow for the participation of many hundreds of people in shaping decisions about what the body as a whole is going to do in its confrontations with the repressive agents of government. “Direct democracy” is the way it is described in DAN’s materials and is the objective toward which they strive.

Samir Amin has written of the importance of democracy within popular movements for social change in the global South. In “Social Movements in the Periphery,” an essay in the Monthly Review book, Transforming the Revolution, he says, “The demand for democracy has indeed assumed proportions never before seen in the countries of the third world: in many countries it has already won the first place in the conscience of the middle classes and is penetrating into the popular, especially urban, strata. . . The key feature of the dominant tendencies of the popular and radical movements for national liberation (in the past) was more its progressive social content than the democratic convictions of their militants. . . I do not think I am caricaturing reality in saying that the old peasant-soldier of the Chinese Liberation Army was thinking, as he entered Beijing in 1949, of the agrarian reform, but was ignorant of the meaning of democracy. Today, on this level, his son, worker or student, has new aspirations. . . This is an important and definite advance, which I believe to be irreversible.”

This reality in the global South is certainly the case within the industrialized, somewhat democratic countries of Europe and North America. Within the United States large numbers of progressive-minded people have stayed away in droves from groups that have a minimal commitment to democracy. Our history on the Left is a history littered with the remains of failed efforts at building organization, failures in many cases because democracy was given lip-service and not genuine commitment on the part of the leadership.

This set of apparent realities on a world scale that Amin writes about is an extremely positive development. It means that it is possible, it is on the agenda of history, to build qualitatively different forms of organization that reject top-down methods of functioning by leadership at all levels of organization.

The new, broadly-based, popular movement for fundamental change that is coming together before our eyes today has tremendous potential to continue growing and developing in the coming months and years. It will do so if a number of things happen, one of which is the continued use of actively-involving democracy to the fullest extent possible. It’s happening; let’s remember our past and make sure that any other way of functioning within our various progressive, labor, community-based and other organizations increasingly becomes a relic of the past.