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I would like to propose a thought-experiment. Rather than the top-down, centralized library – either academic or public – in which decisions are made by a funding organization and implemented by library workers responsible, ultimately, to a chief librarian; what if rather than this organizational structure, libraries were organized instead on a federated model of self-organizing units, coming together in larger committees as appropriate in order to fulfill the mandate of the library and perform the work required of library workers in a state of full transparency and collegial, bottom-up, decision-making.

The term “democratic centralism” is a vexed one. On the one hand it refers to strict party discipline in which discussion among party members shall be free and unfettered before a decision has been taken, while all members are expected to abide by the party’s decision once the decision has been made.

Lenin’s vision… was of a Party built from below upwards with the higher organs deriving their powers from, and directly accountable to, the lower ones. There could, in this organisational framework, be no question of the Central Committee or Central Organ issuing irrefragable directions. Always and at all times democratic centralism, in Lenin’s conception at this time, entailed the right of dissent: it ‘implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action’. (Neil Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought, v. 1, 232).

On the other hand, Harding shows that Lenin’s focus changed during and after the first world war and the revolutions of 1917, moving from questions of party structure and discipline to a more European outlook and investigation into the structure of finance capitalism and the state

For good reason therefore Lenin, during this period, never applied his idea of democratic centralism to the Party – the Party was seldom mentioned in his writings at this time. The idea was, rather, applied to the relations between the multiform communes which the revolution had thrown up and the voluntary federation of different national groupings. Always it insisted upon the utmost local independence or autonomy and the widest possible variety of the forms of self-administration. (v. 2, 178)

Following Marx, Harding argues, Lenin’s view of the socialist state went from the massive centralization of Imperialism to a federation of small communes based on the Paris Commune and the Soviets, which arose in St Petersburg and Moscow in 1905 and 1917. Lenin’s view of democratic centralism at this time was based on the democratic Soviets coming together voluntarily in centralized organizations where necessary and appropriate.

In this guise the whole pattern of what was later to be called democratic centralism is quite inverted. Initiative clearly rests with the local communes, their agreement to pursue common goals is voluntary, the centre must never impose its will on the localities for, as we have seen, the vitality of the socialist project, indeed its whole viability, rests upon the widest variety, the broadest experimentation with differing forms of self-administration. The role of the central administration is merely to help clear the path of mass creativity of the obstacles it encounters. (v 2., 173).

What Lenin is proposing here is nothing short of the abolition of the centralized national state that (in Europe) developed out of the collapse of the Roman empire and the struggles of empires of the middle ages, and were made inviolable in the treaties backed by military power of the 18th and 19th centuries, and had reached what Lenin considered its highest form in the Imperialist states in the period leading up to the first world war. Instead of centralized administration and influence and power flowing down from the top, Lenin envisaged a voluntary federation of self-organizing communes coming together at higher and higher levels as necessary in order to accomplish the tasks that required that level of organization.

Library organizational structures, like most organizational structures, mirror the structure and power flows of the capitalist state, only they tend to do so without even the lip-service paid to democracy through the mechanism of elections. In some libraries, collegial governance provides a countervailing force resisting centralized, top-down, decision making, but as Revitt and Luyk have shown, collegial governance, even where it exists, tends to be variably and imperfectly applied.

A review of the nearly 40-year history of library councils in Canadian academic libraries suggests that the collegial governance model endorsed by CAUT is perhaps something for academic libraries to aspire to, rather than something that is currently experienced.

In public libraries, of course, anything like collegial governance is not even on the agenda.

While individual librarians in administrative or managerial positions may try to foster and support decision-making coming up from the rank-and-file, fundamentally the decisions of the university administration, provost, and chief librarian, tend to be made with little or no consultation or transparency. Chief librarians, whether in academic or public libraries, are responsible to their boards for implementing certain kinds of decisions and programmes.

To return to the thought-experiment, then: can we envisage an organizational structure among libraries which implements Lenin’s later vision of democratic centralism. What if library units (branches, departments) had no unit head, but organized themselves in order to accomplish the work that needs to be done. How, then, is the work to be done decided on? Imagine, then, that these self-organizing, autonomous units came together in order to decide precisely those questions. The library workers who attend these multi-unit committees would be elected and given the responsibility for representing the views of the units and committing the unit to accomplishing the work decided on at this central level. The important thing in this thought experiment is this: that the units themselves are self-organizing and democratic, and that such central committees that come into being arise out of the voluntary association of units with a shared understanding of the work they are there to do. In this form of organization, then, a library worker might be similarly elected to represent the library to the provost, or city council, or whichever larger organization funds the library. This library worker, like all committee delegates, could be democratically recalled.

The “human nature” argument will no doubt be raised here; that human beings are inherently lazy and hence some will work more than others in these self-governing communal units; that human beings “just aren’t like that”. I could respond to this criticism theoretically or through historical justification. But it is simpler to remind critics of something else Lenin said (quoting St Paul): “he who does not work, does not eat”, which sounds harsh, but simply removes the mystification of human labour under capitalism and openly reiterates an eternal truth of human life.

I am not proposing this democratic-centralist model as something we could feasibly implement in the short-term, or perhaps at all under the current mode of production, but I think that bearing alternative models of social organization in mind can be useful as we face up to problems, big or small, in our current organizational structures.


Sam Popowich

Discovery Systems Librarian, University of Alberta

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