The Problem of the Democratic Opposition Organization

How to Keep the Membership in Control and the Leadership under Control

By Stewart Sinclair

This proposal attempts to address the classic dilemma of the broad democratic opposition. In summary, the problem is how to ensure that there is a competent professional cadre that will understand the problems of society and government in depth, and develop and implement the changes needed while maintaining a democratic and effective membership control of this “elite.”

Throughout most of history since the direct democracy of the Athenian city state in the 5th century BCE, the public administration of society has become captive to a narrow group of interests. The concentration of unsupervised power has always led to corruption and social decay, until the administration has to be replaced, wholesale a process usually known as a revolution and not much fun for the people that have to go through it.

An Alternative Administration

When any power elite becomes narrow and dysfunctional, society requires a new body of trained and competent professionals who can both win electoral office and intervene at various levels of the public administration (e.g., the central bank, the health department, immigration, police forces, armed forces) to correct deep-seated abuses and prevent sabotage of the new policies. The existing body of senior civil servants usually has deep and hidden connections to the corporate oligarchy while bureaucrats below that level exhibit a great deal of sheer bureaucratic inertia. Both layers can and frequently do effectively block the real changes needed.

In essence, such situations necessitate the construction of the core of an alternative administration. This is a huge undertaking but unless we can find some way to wake up the existing cadre of bureaucrats – corporate and public – there is no way to avoid this task. Winning an election is a tough job for a radical opposition party but it is nothing compared with the job that comes after that.

The Professionals in the Opposition Take Over

The problem starts when a core of professionals is brought into existence by opposition political parties and groups. They are first trained to run a party that can reach the people and win elections. But, often with the best of intentions, they start to believe that they know better than the broad membership.

More often than not, they are right, at the beginning. They are, after all, working at the problems constantly and are organized into small, coherent groups, while the broad membership is atomized and often inactive. The membership is also more likely to be influenced by the popular media, which is nearly always hostile to basic social and economic reform.

Before too long, the crew of full-time staff and parliamentarians takes effective control of the party and starts to steer its discussions and actions into channels they consider appropriate – channels that usually coincide with their career interests and/or their particular view of the world. Over time, unless these leaders happen to be very unusual, their personal interests will diverge from those of the broad membership as well as the people at large.

The next step in this process usually happens when this elite, which now has influence and even power in the public arena, is wooed and eventually bought out by powerful moneyed interests. If the leadership does not sell out, it may be punished. History is full of cases where a leadership that has resisted this process finds the movement infiltrated by security police agents and their stooges, who systematically organize a destructive opposition from within. There have been many cases, particularly in the third world, like this.

The Decline of a Good Idea

And closer to home, this process started to take place in the CCF/NDP very early on. As soon as there was a body of MPs or MLAs/MPPs, they and the party staff, along with the trade union brass, became a power unto themselves. This is not to denigrate the many good things they did, but that elitist, top-down structure, led them to where they are today – “the reluctant sailors,” always testing the wind and trying to fit in with the mainstream, no matter how stupid it gets.

Mistakes in perspective and understanding can normally be corrected among peers. But a hierarchical structure, with its entrenched attitudes of superiority and interests in power, place or fame, resists correction to the bitter end.

How Entrenched Leaderships Resist Correction

A key part of this problem stems from the fact that the organizations are nearly always entirely in the public eye and have designated spokespersons. An empowered leadership in a large organization with ready access to the media as well as control of the general membership list is virtually impossible to remove, no matter how much they screw up or how rotten it gets – if it decides to hang on. Usually, the only thing that fixes this situation is the collapse of the whole organization.

Bottom-up and Non-public

To prevent this process, a movement must have:

  • a clearly defined bottom-up structure, but
  • no name or public face – as such

  • These features would prevent the media from being able to pressure the leaders and separate them from the membership. On the other hand, members would be free to participate in any political activity they felt suited their abilities and opportunities, and other members would not be pressured to justify or denounce those members’ actions to an uncomprehending and often hostile public. Nor would the organization be under immediate pressure to discipline members who had simply made mistakes.

    To develop at all, people need to be able to make mistakes. It’s difficult to have such freedom if every member is held responsible for what every other member does or says. Of course, the organization as a whole would have coherent policies and a more or less coherent outlook. Members and Branches would be advised, sometimes strongly advised, that certain actions run counter to that perspective.

    Need for Limited and Managed Public Exposure

    The organization would need avenues of public expression, a think tank or information service, to make sure that policies are put out in a clear and unalloyed manner and/or an independent political party. This structure can attract support for those policies without opening up the whole organization. In a conflict-ridden society, complete public exposure for a small organization is simply an exposure of its weaknesses.

    Rapid Growth is the Greatest Danger

    A phase of rapid growth, a “break through” can bring danger:

  • the organization becomes the target of opportunists and self-satisfied “know nothings” looking for a home
  • a small centralized structure is unable to cope with this influx, and
  • the most knowledgeable and dedicated members often suddenly find themselves a minority in their own movement.

  • In my experience, all organizational structures that have become mass movements have been vulnerable to and have succumbed to this process.

    A new structure is needed that will help to keep the membership in direct control of the organization throughout the processes of expanding numbers and changing leadership that are always a part of a group’s growth and development. We need an organization that:

    • does not depend on any one specific individual
    • can be depended on by all members
    • retains its independent structure and culture regardless of whether its members hold public office, and
    • retains its independence and scope of action even when some members hold the most powerful offices in the land.

    Leadership and Authority

    What bearing does this have on any group in the democratic opposition? The role of "leader" is now a specific authoritative functionary position imposed on federal parties by the Elections Act, and the whole parliamentary tradition is tied up in "leaderism." The cult of leadership that pervades our society is inimical to democracy.

    Therefore, how should a genuinely democratic party choose its leader?

    • if a delegated, recallable, federal council chooses the leader, as well as all the other central functionaries and officers, the leader most likely remains the servant of the membership or, if not, may be easily disposed of. This is the proposed solution to the top-down problem and, though it is less common, it does exist. The organization of Alcoholics Anonymous, a large world-wide organization, has functioned effectively on this basis for nearly 80 years. It is probably the only million member multinational organization that has carried out it’s mandate without a factional fight, without a split and without even a major scandal for such a length of time.
    • on the other hand, when the leader’s office is filled through an appeal to the whole membership by individuals and their followers, the organization eventually becomes the instrument of the leader or leaders – as has happened to so many parties and opposition movements that started with a semblance of democracy; in such a campaign, personal loyalties to individuals are built and the peer-to-peer relationship is subordinated or destroyed.

    Strict Member Equality

    All members in any organization that aspires to being a democracy must be legally equal in every respect and subject to the same range of authorities and rules, and they must be differentiated only by function. For example, inequality occurs when a small and restricted body (an executive) has direct access to the general membership through the control of the membership list or has the right to speak publicly for the organization. But when a central membership list does not exist, there is no problem with restricted or general access to it (only the Branches know who their members are). And when the movement has no public face as such, the problem of official spokespersons does not arise.

    Choosing Policies vs. Choosing Personnel

    Policies can be debated and judged by every member no matter where they are. But only those involved in the day-to-day running of the central movement can effectively judge the character and competence of the officers and staff. This necessitates peer review. Of course, the Federal Council can canvass the local councils for suggestions about who they think could best fill the offices, and Branch members and District Council (DC) delegates can make suggestions. But it is very difficult for the rank and file member to render these kinds of fine judgements, often 100s or 1000s of kilometres from the scene.

    In a bottom-up, non-public system, the delegates that make up the authoritative councils can be replaced by their constituent bodies at any time. This ensures that the delegates represent the membership far more effectively than any fixed-term executive chosen by delegates to a biennial or even an annual convention.

    Structure and Money

    The design outlined here is based on small groups with geographically based small delegated councils at ascending levels. As well as guaranteeing the democracy of the organization, this structure keeps the organizational overhead low.

    The small-group structure allows members and delegates to meet regularly in private homes and other free or inexpensive facilities. Of course, the most important reason for the small groups is that they allow the kind of intimacy and support that is necessary to support individuals who are in a small minority in society at large and, at some times, may be subject to persecution.

    Everything takes money, of course, but in this system most of the funds can be used to run websites, produce educational materials, hire and train staff, etc. The overhead of such an organization is low. And the purse strings always remain with the local groups. They take collections at every meeting and, after the group’s expenses are covered, send donations to their local District Council and directly to the Federal Council.

    No Central Membership List

    Another aspect of this type of organization is that that there would be no central membership list. Thus, for an opposition political group, the burdens of maintaining the central membership list and internal communications with the members would be removed from the central office and Federal Council.

    Maintaining the lists at the District Council and Branch level removes a very large long-range security problem (it’s hard to steal a membership list that doesn’t exist). The delegates to the Federal Council or their alternates are responsible for transmitting internal information to the Regional Councils or District Councils that elected them. The DCs, in turn, move it out to the Branches through the Branch delegates.

    The critical part of this entire system is that nearly everybody always deals directly with people they know. They are not trying to render critical judgements on people they may not have met, let alone worked with.

    Social and Emotional Needs

    Of course, while a pleasant social ambiance is essential to group cohesion, the needs of a serious opposition go much deeper. At bottom, the willingness to question, to oppose and to struggle, necessitates a new home, a new family and actually a new identity. Thus, people need to identify themselves as responsible and autonomous political citizens, not just supporters or members of something.

    Among other things, an effective opposition organization has to be able to support that "re-identification." It needs to be active in local and national affairs as well as maintain an internal study program of history and science. An understanding of scientific practice and scientific method is essential in order to correct mistakes and counter the endless stream of propaganda that surrounds us.

    A Long-Term Advantage

    We are now confronted with increasing police-state measures in many parts of the western world associated with the "War on Terror." If this process goes much deeper, it will be too late to take steps to "go underground" to maintain a coherent opposition. Only movements that can maintain coherence even under extreme pressure can survive the generations-long struggle to end the dictatorship of hierarchical bureaucracy – private and public.

    Breaking the Habit of Hierarchy

    The four basic principles of this type of organization are:

    1. Bottom-up lines of authority
    2. No central membership list
    3. Small functional groups at all levels where each person can know each other person, and
    4. Anonymity for all members.

    There has been very little experience with this kind of bottom-up structure. People have been conditioned to hierarchical authoritarian structures of one sort or another for almost all of the 6,000 or 7,000 years of human civilized existence. Breaking the habit of hierarchy is critical.

    Below is an example of a constitution that could achieve these goals.

    In this organization:

    1. all members are organized, wherever physically possible, into functional Branches in the general areas where they live, and these Branches are distinct from and not formally linked to any other groups or parties
    2. Branches are the primary place where membership resides and is recorded (members who live in areas too distant to participate in a Branch are attached, as members-at-large, to a delegated District Council [DC] – see 10. below; however, no DC has more than 21 members-at-large)
    3. the membership of these Branches is of a practical size – a minimum of 6 for basic functionality and a maximum of 15, so that each can know each
    4. the Branches meet at least 12 times a year and elect a convenor, a treasurer, a recording secretary, a membership secretary and a DC delegate and alternate at least once per year
    5. the Branches retain substantial internal autonomy
    6. all minutes and records include only the pseudonyms of the members with only the membership secretary keeping the full record of the names (to safeguard the ability of members to speak freely on all subjects in movement-wide discussions without fear of being victimized if the minutes are ever made public)
    7. the Branches are organized into DCs with each constituent Branch represented by a delegate and an alternate; alternates have a voice but no vote unless the delegate is absent
    8. the DCs are organized into Area Councils and then Regional Councils in a hierarchical manner along the same lines outlined in 7 above; these “higher” bodies and organizational levels are instituted as membership numbers require for full functionality and representation (the basic rule is that each council at any level may have no more than 12 to 14 constituent groups and delegates, depending on regional and geographic constraints)
    9. at the top of this structure (whatever its state of expansion) there is a Federal Council that chooses the federal staff including research co-ordinators, website and publications managers, etc.:
    10. a) for practical purposes, at an early stage of development, the Federal Council would be made up of delegates from the DCs

      b) delegates at all levels may always be recalled by majority vote of their councils and Branches

    11. each DC:
    12. a) is responsible for the unorganized areas and members-at-large in its district

      b) elects a membership secretary who receives applications for membership from the websites, central office and any other external sources and refers them to the membership secretaries of the appropriate Branches or maintains them as members-at large if they live in areas too remote to regularly participate in any Branch

      c) may “de-list” a Branch that has become non-functional and suggest that the remaining members join adjacent Branches (normally, this action would only be taken with agreement of the majority of the remaining members of the Branch; where such agreement is not possible, a hearing is conducted by a member or members designated by the Federal Council, or the appropriate Area Council [where one exists], and this hearing is open to the DC delegates and remaining members in good standing of the Branch in question). Within 10 days after the close of the hearing those designated to conduct the hearing will issue their decision to those directly affected.

    13. members-at-large:
    14. a) have the right to audit DC meetings where major security or personnel issues are not involved

      b) who feel that they have been unreasonably denied their rights may appeal to the Area, Regional or Federal Council, as appropriate.

    15. any member has the right to have the DC transfer him or her to an adjacent Branch or to membership-at-large status where numbers and location permit
    16. in any Branch that has reached 14 members, any 6 members may petition the DC for recognition as a separate Branch; the DC may, after consultation with any Branch members who want to speak, recognize the new Branch
    17. all significant policy and all constitutional changes are decided by secret member vote at Branch meetings after an organization-wide discussion carried through an internal bulletin available to all members and lasting 6 to 12 weeks:
    18. a) any topic may be revisited only after a minimum interval of 9 months

      b) the Branch vote counts are forwarded by the delegates up through the council structure to the Federal Council for action where required, and each Branch is assigned one vote divided by percentages based on the individual votes in the Branch

      c) mail-in ballots from members-at-large attached directly to the DC's are forwarded by the DCs based on one vote per 12 members or major fraction there of, as though they were members of a Branch, and

      d) all issues are decided by majority vote and tabulated at the council level with the results forwarded to the higher level councils.

    19. national and regional conferences may be held to allow members to meet each other and have wide-ranging discussions without taking binding votes, and
    20. funds are raised by passing the hat at Branch meetings and taking monthly pledges; after immediate local expenses are paid:
      • 40% of Branch income is forwarded to the DCs
      • 40% is earmarked for the Federal Council, and
      • the remaining 20% is held by the Branch for special expenses.

      • (These are guides only; the Branch always controls its own funds):

      a) substantial funding from external sources is handled either by the DC treasurer or Federal Council treasurer, depending on the level at which the funds are acquired.


      This kind of structure has a better chance of maintaining its original aims and avoiding being hijacked or derailed by personal or political cliques and petty tyrants than any system that has been used by a political organization so far. As mentioned before, this is not usually a problem at the beginning or while a group remains small but it arises as the organization gets larger.

      The focus here is on representation and control. All of the other special purpose committees and working bodies are "tactical matters" and best left to the people on the spot – not written into the constitution. Of course, this type of system will be unfamiliar to many and difficult to implement in small organizations, but the old system of a largely autonomous leadership with a central membership list has delivered a nearly unbroken history of disasters, great and small.

      Related Topics & Resources: Organizing for ChangeCommunity OrganizingDemocratizationGrassroots OrganizingGroup MeetingsLabour OrganizingManuals & HandbooksOrganizing ResourcesProcess/ConsensusStrategies for Social ChangeWorkplace Organizing

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