Democracy is About People Having Power

How to build thriving, democratic, socialist organizations that empower members, train cadre, and support a mass membership.


When we talk about organizational democracy we talk about several overlapping questions. There are general discussions of democracy in organizations and society. There are the forms, procedures, and practices for DSA chapters organizing today. There’s the question of how to win people who are new to politics to genuine socialist ideas and strategy. And then there are historical debates in the socialist movement about democracy and organization.

These discussions are complicated by: 

  • The bullshit conceptions of democracy taught in high school civics classes and much of the official propaganda of the dominant U.S. capitalist culture.
  • Reaction to the fraud of the official version of democracy which manifests itself in confusions calling themselves “participatory democracy” (as though there is a  non-participatory version), “anarchism,” and “horizontal democracy.”
  • Small groups which see the new socialist movement as nothing more than a recruiting ground, whose interest is in keeping it in chaos, and will take no responsibility for building it.
  • The “pre-figurative” notion held by many that our organizations today should be models of our desired society of tomorrow writ small.
  • The contortions of Stalinism that labeled authoritarian regimes as “People’s Democracies” and authoritarian practices as “Democratic Centralism.”

Democracy is about people having power. That obviously requires the participation and involvement of people. But participation, for its own sake and that results in nothing, is not about exercising power. The focus on procedures and discussion of process often gets in the way of the real activities of the democratic exercise of power. These include:

  • Choosing and demanding leadership.
  • Challenging the leadership, holding it accountable, and replacing it when necessary.
  • Developing new leadership; increasing opportunities for members to take leadership of parts of the project. 
  • Meaningful participation in establishing the broad political framework within which that leadership functions. 
  • Involvement in carrying out the common program and learning from it. 

Organization and Context

Democracy is complicated, difficult and determined by context. No constitution, bylaws, rules of order, or set of principles are ready-made for every organization in every situation. To see what applies when, we need to start by sorting out some of the concepts. 

Pre-defined or Self-defined Membership 

There are two fundamental kinds of situations in talking about organizational democracy with both similarities and important differences.

Organizations where participants are pre-defined or structured by external circumstances include everyone. Examples include: cities, political jurisdictions, student governments, and unions. Since everyone must be included, minorities must have very clear rights and protections. 

Self-defined ideological organizations have a fundamental difference. There are no abstract or moral “rights” or “obligations” of a minority except those both majority and minority agree to. These agreements are very fragile. The minority and the majority can always go off and form their own organization(s). 

Democracy in both forms has important and common features: the focus on power to control things that matter, the role of leadership and the relationship between the membership and the leadership, and the importance of membership involvement. The book Democracy is Power that I coauthored with Martha Gruelle focuses on unions, where the membership is mostly pre-defined. But please note that union caucuses are of the self-defined type. 

Context is All-important 

Our book Democracy is Power was written for an audience of workers with broad agreement about building a stronger, more militant, more democratic union but not agreement on much else. Other texts on organization, like the collected thoughts of Leon Trotsky (Leon Trotsky and the Organizational Principles of the Revolutionary Party) were written for a cadre political organization whose members shared a common worldview and close agreement on a wide range of issues during a time that they believed was a revolutionary situation. Both have important lessons, but neither can be a recipe for the DSA of today or the future socialist organization we would like to build. 

What Type of Political Organization Do We Want to Build Now and in the Future 

Here are some examples that show the range of organizations that can be built. Each type has advantages and a place in building a mass socialist movement but also limitations. 

  • A broad organization that has common ground on a few questions and mainly serves as a networking body. Example: Labor Notes 
  • An organization that seeks to intervene in the world through acting as an organization with its own projects. Examples: U.S. Socialist Party of the 1930s which ran its own candidates, did its own educational work, but generally did not try to intervene in unions or other organizations. The Richmond Progressive Alliance is another example. 
  • An organization that consciously seeks to intervene in the world by attempting to build, influence, and lead other organizations. Examples: the revolutionary socialist and communist parties of the 1930s.

What are the Defining Political Boundaries of the Organization?

Every political organization is defined by certain political positions members are expected to agree on. Examples include:

  • Must support two-state (or one-state solution) to Israel/Palestine conflict. 
  • Must be explicitly socialist.
  • Must give priority to race and gender issues.
  • Must oppose supporting Democrats.
  • Must give priority to taking the struggle to the streets.

Boundary issues like these have big implications. They put a wall between the organization and others. It is good in that it allows the organization to focus, to define itself for its members and others, and to promote certain ideas. On the other hand, it pushes away those on the other side of the wall. 

A group needs to be clear what its boundary issues are first in theory and then as a matter of practice. For the most part an organization defines itself to the outside world much more by what it does, not the words in its resolutions and mission statement. For the most part, only issues that will significantly affect how the organization acts should be considered. So for example, the issue of the class nature of the Soviet Union was long a necessary boundary issue and had major implications about support for war efforts. Today, the class nature of Russia would be considered only by a tiny sect as a boundary issue. 

It is clear that boundary issues help determine how broad the organization is politically and may also determine the size of the organization. Smaller and harder has some obvious advantages: 

  • Time is not wasted on irrelevant discussions.
  • Easier to function as an organized force in a complicated or difficult situations.
  • People trust each other more, etc.

A larger organization requires more breadth. Numbers give a group and its ideas legitimacy. What is exciting about DSA is that it is growing, that self-identified socialists are winning elections, and that the ideas of socialism are at the very least a serious and respected part of public debate. This respect for the ideas comes from rapid growth and large numbers. To choose to be active with a group which declares its basic purpose is socialism is a big and important step for most people. 

Big Tent or Multi-tendency Organization 

In reality all political organizations except for cults are multi-tendency. So difficult questions are: 

  • What are the boundaries of the organization?
  • What is the common understanding of the rights and responsibilities of tendencies as such? 

When the tendency lines become rigid (very little crossover) and they cover the most important organizational and/or political questions, they become factions, an unstable situation, and the likelihood is separation. 

Membership Responsibilities (Discipline) 

Another important question for organizations is: what are the minimum organizational commitments necessary for members?

Is there a time/work requirement? Dues? What expectations are there for members to carry out the decisions of the organization? To what degree are members expected to be guided by the decisions of the organization? These three questions tend to go together. A high commitment to the group tends to make all three commitments/requirements much larger. 

As for discipline: The term mainly refers to carrying out decisions of the organization once they have decided, whether or not you supported the decision.

Why discipline? 

  • Every effort must be made to make an intervention a success in order to test it.
  • It makes the decision and the organization itself more important. (There is little point to putting effort into making a decision if everybody will just do what they want).
  • Advancing the overall collective decisions are more important in achieving the change we want than the individual decisions. 

Discipline is contextual. For example, it usually does not apply to a pre-defined membership organization like unions — but in the case of a strike, for example, members are expected to participate whether or not they agreed with the decision. Even in cadre organizations, it is recognized that there may be competing demands. For example, a member of a cadre organization who is an officer of a union may not be expected to go against the position of the union even if it is at odds with the position of the cadre organization.

Most disciplined cadre groups limit discipline to “political action” outside the group where differences would affect the ability of the group to be successful. This obviously changes greatly in a revolutionary or a repressive situation. 

While on the Left, the idea of organizational discipline is associated mainly with hardened cadre organizations, in fact it is the expected practice in all kinds of institutions. Bourgeois political parties demand disciplined behavior from their members in legislative bodies. Don’t vote for a party priority and you quickly lose committee assignments, support for your legislative program, and financial support for your re-election. Unions expect it of officers in dealing with the company and sometimes in the world external to the union as well (for example, in electoral politics). Some unions expect it of officers in dealing with the internal world of the union, too (see the UAW Reuther Caucus). And of course discipline is a standard practice of businesses. 

Many political groups that have discipline have rules to define internal discussion:  Once decided people will not organize against a decision for a specified period or until the next pre-convention period; or only in special internal discussion bulletins. Others place no formal restriction.

Rules about discipline are actually very weak in any voluntary organizations where people can always quit or split. What makes discipline work is: 

  • Belief that a decision was made fairly and represents the views of majority.
  • A high degree of general political agreement.
  • A sense that collectively the group is advancing in part because of the united struggle.
  • A sense that the minority point of view can become the majority.

In reality, a disciplined group comes more from political agreement, experience working together where everybody feels advancement, trust in each other, and a sense that working together accomplishes something. These are far more important than rules which are only valuable in marginal situations. Or, to put it another way, the main value of organizational rules are in explicitly codifying and reminding members of the common expectations that have developed through common struggle. 

Democratic Centralism 

Just as Stalinism gave “socialism” a popular meaning that was essentially the opposite of its original meaning it also inverted the popular understanding of “democratic centralism.” For many, democratic centralism has come to mean top-down organizational dictatorship where the top leaders control the organization and direct all members to follow specific orders in everything they do. 

The words themselves mean something else. Centralism means that decisions that significantly affect everybody should be made together — centrally in some form. And democratic means that these decisions should be made democratically, either directly or through democratically-determined and controlled leadership. Abstractly who can be against that? 

Of course the abstraction leads to the more difficult questions. What issues — and at what level (eg national, local) and at what degree of detail — actually need to be decided collectively? This depends on the groups’ understanding of itself and its context. Which current political issues need to be decided collectively? Positions on war? A position on the current political leadership of Venezuela? Should a national struggle be organized around Medicare-for-All or socialized medicine? Extreme examples from the history of the Left include personal issues (should monogamy be required of members? should drug use be restricted?) and where people work, what kind of political work they’re assigned, etc.

Clearly the answers to these questions depend on context. Consider the campaign for Medicare for All. Which decisions need to be made nationally and which decisions can be local? In a revolutionary situation or a period of strong repression, critical decisions tend to be central while the limitations on democratic procedures are huge. 

There is also the question of whether decisions should be made locally or centrally.

Advantages of local or decentralized decision making include:

  • More flexible, easier to do.
  • More membership involvement.
  • More opportunity for new leadership development.
  • Tests out variants of central ideas and the program.

Advantages of centralized decision making include:

  • More powerful against a central foe.
  • More effective intervention and leadership.
  • More sense of a common movement, more unifying.

Forms of democratic centralized decision making include:

  1. Referenda of individuals. 
    • Involves most people but only on a superficial level.
    • Making decisions as individuals.
    • Little opportunity to amend, refine, synthesize and compromise.
    • Only has value when issue is simple and clear.
    • Typically used by authoritarian regimes for purposes of manipulating legitimacy.
  2. Local collective discussions and actions summed up. 
    • Involves more people.
    • Tends to reflect local influences and differences.
    • Democratic value depends on ability of minorities to be heard. 
    • Favors those who control the organizational apparatus.
  3. Representative convention.
    • Expensive.
    • Can only deal with limited number of issues. 
    • Favors people who can travel (e.g. more difficult for working people).
    • Allows for good discussion, compromise, synthesis on limited issues.
    • Unifies organization.
    • Develops leadership.
  4. Ongoing central leadership bodies. 
    • Favors staff and non-working leaders. 
    • Not in direct contact with as much of the organization. 
    • Can go into issues in depth.
    • Can make more timely decisions.

When a central decision is not required, the default should be for local or decentralized decision making. This is because:

  • Whether by central (or national or international) convention or by elected leaders, the time and other resources for making central decisions are limited. Decentralized decision making expands the resources and the people to make  decisions thoughtfully and in depth and allows better attention to the limited number of issues which require central attention. 
  • Decentralized decision making allows for the opportunities to test different approaches or strategies.
  • Decentralized decision making allows the development of more leaders.

The advantages of decentralization can also be the excuse for weakening a central program. Most political action by a national or international organization require substantial elements of both central and local decision-making. 

The determining factors shift greatly with political context. Decentralization is more difficult in a society characterized by repression and government provocateurs. In a revolutionary period, more must be centralized. 

Method for Discussion 

Sharp debates tend to focus issues but also intimidate people from participating. Some (but not all) of this can be alleviated with norms of style (e.g. applause for all participants, polite behavior, avoiding personal attacks, repeating what is said to show understanding etc.). East Bay DSA I think is a model for this. 

Written debates tend to harden positions but make positions more precise and reduce bullshit. Written debates tend to favor intellectuals. Combining written and verbal is important.

Longer presentations favor those with debating skills.

Obviously the fuller discussion involving more people, more points of view, and greater depth tend to make the decision better. But even with fuller discussions there are downsides: 

  • When long discussion negates democracy.
  • Domination by the intellectuals. 
  • Domination by people who are not otherwise engaged. 
  • Skews toward those who have special interest in an issue.  
  • Prevents taking action.

The Importance of Cadre 

A socialist organization relies on cadres. It is unlikely that such an organization can have enough money to rely on paid staff for its efforts. Nor would this be desirable since the purpose of the organization is to train and expand the numbers and abilities of leaders. 

By cadre I refer to the members who have made a serious long-time commitment to building the organization and the movement that it represents. The serious commitment will be expressed in time, money, and in thinking about what needs to be done. The commitment usually comes from a vision of remaking society and the understanding that this is a long-term struggle. People fighting for the long term are essential in keeping the struggle going through the immediate experiences of devastating defeats that come along with the exhilarating victories. 

Because they are paying more attention, have more experiences to learn from, and are more involved in the organization, cadres will generally be regarded as the leaders by those less involved. Non-cadre may also be regarded as leaders through personal style, reputation, and self-promotion. The differences come clear only through repeated experiences.

There is no fine line that separates cadre from others but rather shaded concentric circles. A primary task is to promote, draw, and provide assistance to people  moving from the outer circles to the inner circles. The continued development of new leaders is the life-blood of democratic organization and essential for its  growth. 

As the struggle deepens and becomes sharper cadre become still more important. The contradictions of capitalism provide fertile ground for the development of mass working-class socialist consciousness. But spontaneous responses to current conditions are not sufficient. Knowing that the old system is corrupt can be affirmed by experience. But the creation of a replacement society requires broader knowledge and thought from history, and study. The people who can synthesize this learning with the lessons of immediate struggle will be an important part of leadership, along with people who are propelled into leadership by immediate circumstances. This role is vital because there will always be competing alternative explanations and programs to deal with a crisis. And the capitalist class is well equipped to promote these alternatives to class struggle through their control of the media and ability to buy leadership. 

It is not easy to maintain an organization that is supportive of both broad membership circles and a developing cadre. As the leaders of the organization, the cadre needs to build an organization based not on their own personal comfort and needs but on those which can draw in and maintain the outer circles of the organization. It is a common trap that cadre who have no organization of their own tend to make the organization more to fit themselves than what is best for the organization. It is common, for example, for conventions (where usually the delegates are more cadre than the membership) to pass more Left resolutions that appeal most to the most committed. 

Cadre Organization Within Broader Organizations 

One solution to answer the drive of cadre to train themselves and other cadre and get support for their sacrifices and dedication is to create explicit cadre organizations which in turn can function within broader organizations. While this solves many problems, it creates others. A lot of people are distrusting of an organized group operating within their broader group and for many good reasons based on historical experiences. Cadre groups have run broader groups as fronts preventing any leadership direction or development except that which fed into the cadre group. In some broader groups, competing cadre organizations have battled and driven out the base. 

It is important to address this directly by the cadre organization functioning openly and transparently. Its aims should be clear and its members need to function as productive members of the broad organization.

The advantages of cadre organization are many. Cadre can better learn from each other, better coordinate work over larger geographic and political areas. A disciplined cadre can better intervene and provide leadership in broader groups. As the struggle becomes more intense with more repression and serious consequences to  individual actions, hardened cadre groups will be essential. 

The Overall Approach 

The overall approach to organizational democracy proposed here is to focus on the basic principles. 

Democracy is about people having power over things that matter. We are about changing the world let’s get to those questions. 

In a complex world democracy is about the relationship between leaders and members. Pay attention to developing new leaders and encouraging leadership while reviewing and if necessary challenging its actions.

Don’t sweat the other stuff. There may be very important organizational principles at stake, but people bring all kinds of conceptions to organizations. Better to try out ideas and then let them go. Organizations with vitality have an amazing ability to write terrible bylaws and then recognize that they are bad and find ways to work around them and then change them. 

Finally, always remembers that organizational rules must be bent to fit changing and special circumstances. Here is how Trotsky proposed dealing with one situation even though he believed that it was a pre-revolutionary period and the issues involved approaches to the beginning war:

“The future minority can have, if it wishes, an internal bulletin destined for party members, or a common discussion bulletin with the majority. The continuation of discussion bulletins immediately after a long discussion and a convention is, of course, not a rule but an exception, a rather deplorable one. But we are not bureaucrats at all. We don’t have immutable rules. We are dialecticians also in the organizational field. If we have in the party an important minority which is dissatisfied with the decisions of the convention, it is incomparably more preferable to legalize the discussion after the convention than to have a split. We can go, if necessary, even further and  propose to them to publish, under the supervision of the new National Committee, special discussion symposiums, not only for party members, but for the public in general. We should go as far as possible in this respect in order to disarm their at least premature complaints.”

How Do We Get People to Understand These Issues? 

How do we get people to understand that democracy is about power and not about discussion for its own sake? 

There are no easy answers. Some suggestions: 

First, focus the discussions on politics and an action program. Make them the priorities on agendas. 

Second, a few mantras repeated over and over till they become internalized in the culture may be useful. For example: 

“The task is to change the world.” 

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”  

“Not making a decision is a decision.” 

Third, remember that behind the demand for what seems to be interminable discussion about everything is people looking to take ownership of the organization — to make it their own. That is great and not to be discouraged even if there are some people who consciously use it to disrupt. It is often the first step to becoming cadre. 

Remember also that people have some experience with organization and feel more comfortable addressing organizational questions than they do with the important new issues. One way to deal with it is to set up committees and give the people with special concerns or ideas about organization the authority to work things out. People with amendments can go to the committee but only have an up/down vote (on majority and minority reports) at the full membership meeting. Experienced cadre should attend these committee meetings and use them as an  educational opportunity but not try to dominate them or be alarmed if some unworkable proposals come out. People need to learn from experience also.

Finally, have patience. To quote Trotsky again: 

“It is absolutely necessary to have the confidence of the rank and file. I mentioned the most important condition of this confidence — a good policy. The policy must be prepared with the understanding of the rank and file. It occurs often that the leadership, which sees a situation  very well and has a very correct decision, imposes on the organization some imperative action, pushed by impatience, because the leadership feels that if we now begin a discussion of one or two months, we will lose precious time. It may be a correct idea, but by gaining here a month I  may lose a year, because the rank and file regards this change and speed with astonishment; and if  success of the policy should be lacking, then the rank and file says, ‘The leadership was wrong; it bears the responsibility.’ And thus I lose a year to repair the results of my impatience. That’s why it is important, especially for a young organization, not to be impatient and to prepare for every new decision.”

Mike Parker was a leader in the Richmond Progressive Alliance and a member of East Bay DSA and DSA's Bread & Roses caucus. He was the co-author of Democracy is Power (1999). He passed away in January 2022.