On "democratic" centralism: Stern’s illusion and democracy’s nightmare

This short piece on the internal battle at SEIU is a very healthy reminder of what union democracy really means from long time union democracy advocate Herman Benson.  The SEIU’s Stern, of course, is a big fan of Chinese stalinism. The key point made here by Herman Benson is that genuine democracy protects the right of a dissenting minority to live and breath inside a union even after losing a decision.  As Benson puts it: “The essence of democracy is to preserve an orderly means of opposing a majority.”

Lawyers and legal academics are very familiar with this critical dimension of democratic thinking: without it some of the most important developments in legal history would never have taken place. Appellate courts are made up usually of three, five or nine judges. Those judges are free to dissent from the majority opinion and draft, and publish together with the majority opinion, a minority dissenting opinion.  Some of the most important legal opinions in US history are dissenting opinions. Over time, those dissents often become the basis of a new majority.

In political theory, there are also long standing arguments in favor of what are known as “counter-majoritarian” institutions.  This refers to the need to protect against the potential tyranny of a majority with institutions, such as the right to publish minority opinions.  These concerns were at the heart of debates that gave birth to the American republic and we have spent the last two centuries trying to perfect democratic institutions.  And, of course, the “stain” at the heart of this effort was the problem caused by slavery – the clearest evidence that we had not solved the problem of protecting the rights of minority groups in American society.
The greatest threat to genuine democratic life emerged in the mid-2th century with the rise of fascism and stalinism. Both of these systems shared an antipathy to protection of the rights of minorities. That is why those regimes, first and foremost, attacked independent trade unions on the rise to power. Check the early stages of the Chinese revolution, the Cuban revolution, the Sandinista revolution or the rise of Hitler – you will find one common thread: there is no room for genuinely independent democratic trade unions.
Benson’s argument is that the SEIU’s Andy Stern – who has shown an affinity for the Chinese regime (for an alternative view see this brief video of Han Dongfang at an SEIU/UHW meeting in Los Angeles) and who grew to political maturity in the late 60s, a period in American life when Stalinist movements like that of the Weather Underground were active – has shown an affinity for a similar approach to suppression of the rights of minorities.  A leading dissident inside SEIU named Sal Rosselli is being subjected to a version of stalinist thinking called “democratic centralism,” in which SEIU contends that once the union makes a decision, in Benson’s words, “members and leaders, must swallow their opinions, keep quiet, and toe the line.”
Unfortunately, this approach to democratic decision making is not limited to SEIU. Dissident Chinese activists experience it on a daily basis, as do activists in the Venezuela of Chavez (a favorite haunt of Barack Obama’s friend and neighbor Bill Ayers), and, unfortunately, inside other unions in the United States, too. There is some hope, however, that like the dissenting opinions in judicial decisions that the brave voices of union dissenters can help point the way forward.

On “democratic” centralism: Stern’s illusion and democracy’s nightmare