Saturday, September 25, 2010

On party discipline

Discipline is important to gaining power, but fatal to making good policy.

On the current political scene, party discipline plays an interesting role. Republican are famous for having more discipline, and playing correspondingly more rough (and shameless) politics, than Democrats. What does this mean, both for the character of the party, and for the sorts of policy that result?

I've been reading an excellent biography of Stalin by Russian playwright and historian Edvard Radzinsky, whose high point is the show trials of the late 1930's. The remaining luminaries of the Bolshevik party, foremost among them Nikolai Bukharin, were each put on trial on false charges, confessed to everything, and then shot. One, (Kamenev), went so far as to say: "I stand before a proletarian court for the third time. My life has been spared twice, but there is a limit to the magnanimity of the proletariat." The author adds: "The accused unanimously asked to be shot. Once again, the trial could not have been running more smoothly".

Later on, as the purges reached the lower levels of the party, confessions were rapidly extracted by torture as a matter of course. But these men were not tortured. Early on, loyalty to the party was enough. The Bolshevik party had enormous discipline, forged through revolution and then civil war. Coming to power as a small minority party, with only localized popular support among the Petersburg workers (and most important, the disgruntled Petersburg sailors), it had to band together ruthlessly to survive and work its will on the country.

Over time, this discipline took the form of the Party being correct in everything it decided collectively. Any dissention or factionalization was tantamount to treason. Without broad popular support, internal consistency was essential, and rather rapidly led to internal, as well as external, despotism. Some actual discussion was allowed among the heros of the revolution- Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and a few others. But time and again, deviant "lines" were quashed and unanimity restored. Lenin called the shots, including leaving Stalin in charge at his death. And the "collective" became more concentrated.

Burkharin and colleagues were schooled in the Party ideology, which included complete devotion to its collective wisdom, much as it claimed to guide the country at large based on a sort of collective wisdom based on the "workers", the "proletariat", the Soviets, and on its scientific ideology. Thus when the collective wisdom asked them to give up their personal lives for the greater good, they were, well, not happy to do so, but willing. The fact that this wisdom was not collective at all, but the personal despotism of Stalin alone, was only too obvious, but at the same time impossible to fully acknowledge.

The Bolsheviks would never have gained power without their internal party discipline. They had spent the  decade before 1917 in exile, publishing popular leaflets and party newspapers in Russia, establishing a network of secret party cells in Russia, and developing the leadership and ideology that they would deploy against the Kerensky government. Where the Kerensky government was weak through lack of unity and purpose, the tiny Bolshevik party was strong with idealism and operational discipline.

One can make a similar case with regard to the Catholic church, which the recent scandals show possesses a remarkable degree of discipline, or perhaps unanimity of purpose and method, or at least deference to authority. The approach of church authorities to abuse scandals was uniform over decades- forgiveness of the perpetrator, reassignment, repetition, and silence. This church has been far faster to excommunicate based on threats to its hierarchy than for immorality of any kind. For example, no Nazi was ever excommunicated for being a Nazi or for killing Jews. Doctrinal disputes are resolved, not by a democratic procedure or public process, but by the infallible pope. While the succession procedures of the Church have been more successful than those of Bolshevism, their answer to factionalism has been the same- concentration of power at the top, creating a unitary power served by a disciplined hierarchy.

Armies likewise require close discipline to leverage small numbers into great power- that is the nature of power, perhaps formally expressed as the product of numbers of people times their cohesion, even fanaticism. (Which could be called the inverse of their political entropy!).

But cohesion is philosophically opposed to liberal, humanist tendencies. Each person is unique, free and independent, and our most cherished institutions allow maximum individual expression and action. If the ideal social system fosters scope for individual freedom, yet power accrues to those who submerge their differences into a common discipline, how can liberal ideals survive politically?

They can only survive by being baked into the system and into the culture. By dividing power by design and forcing discussion, negotiation, and compromise. By enculturing the population to not capitulate to the most powerful grouping of its fellows, but to insist foremost on the principles of the (liberal) system before resuming the political fight. That is what Western political history has bequeathed to us, and obviously has served quite well.

This leads to a moderation of power struggles, as it also leads to better policy, by which I mean policy that reflects the broad consensus of society rather than the whims of a powerful cadre. We are currently in some danger of retreating from the liberal system because a lust for power is overtaking reason in one of our political parties.

As Paul Krugman points out, the current Republican platform doesn't even try to make arithmetic sense, promising endless tax cuts and balanced federal budgets at the same time. Many other forms of base demagoguery infect its discourse, indicating either cult-like delusion or contempt for the electorate, a contempt especially cruel at a time when its proposed policies would be so economically damaging to those suffering through the current crisis. The harsh discipline of the Republican party is most evident in the Senate, where good or bad policy be damned, they stand as one to thwart any Democratic success. It is also evident at FOX news, which presses the "party line" of the moment, no matter how absurd.

While the republic is not yet in dire straights, the development of legitimate public policy depends on the opposite of discipline. It depends on each party, (indeed, each individual), differing as they might, mounting a reasoned argument for its position in the court of (educated) public opinion and before their colleagues. In a world of incomplete information, many reasoned positions can lead to reasonable (if not wise, or optimal) policy choices. But to base one's positions on deceit and vitriolic (even Orwellian) propaganda, and to stick to them with party discipline, as the right of our political spectrum makes an increasing habit of, is fundamentally destabilizing and deeply worrisome.

  • Krugman on the rich.
  • David Packard talks about work.
  • And Lyons talks about talent.
  • The pope, on atheists.
  • Skidelsky analyzes Europe.
  • A Modern Monetary Theory primer. "... you knock down 5 pins at the bowling alley and your score goes from 10 to 15. Do you worry about where the bowling alley got those points? Do you think all bowling alleys and football stadiums should have a ‘reserve of points’ in a “lock box” to make sure you can get the points you have scored? Of course not!"
  • At the same time, Greenspan loses his mind on the debt. But will the old oracular magic work?
  • Bill Mitchell quote of the week:
"Further, the capacity to cope with a rising dependency ratio comes from productivity growth and technological change. We typically get that from increased skill levels of the workforce and extensive research and development. In turn, strong higher education and public research institutions are crucial for the development of these advantages. Again, fiscal austerity undermines the capacity of an economy to generate these long-term benefits.
Fiscal austerity is about the “race-to-the-bottom” – where low-wages, insecure employment and low productivity are the salient characteristics. It is a mindless and totally unnecessary strategy."


  1. Burk, well said. In a liberal society, there can't be an "us vs them," because there is no "us" or "them" to start, only individuals.
    Oh, fair warning, Google Chrome tries to redirect away from your site because the blogrolling script has been known to "host malware and software that can take over your computer or operate without your knowledge" or something odd like that.

  2. Thanks, Kelly-

    That roller is a cpu hog as well, I will take it down. Thanks for telling me.

  3. On a similar note, I've just been reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna, which centers around Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico (and Trotsky in exile). The timing of your post and the plotline of the book is quite amusing. Have you read it?

  4. I've not read it- it sounds very good. It is intriguing that those times and issues are somewhat resurgent today. At least I hope they are. The economic crisis reminds us that for all the triumphalism of capitalism after the cold war, it has hardly solved all it own problems, let alone those of the human condition.