On democratic centralism

Published: 13/04/2007

Written by: Mick Armstrong
Originally listed under: In depth

Originally published in Revolutionary Organisation Today, Socialist Alternative, Melbourne, 2000, pp. 25-35


One of the dangers facing a small socialist group is to puff up its own importance in the world. It is tempting for revolutionar­ies to try to compensate for their lack of genuine influence in the working class by pretending they are the latter day Lenins and Trotskys. By vastly overstating your importance you may be able to boost internal morale and attract a few more people in the short term. However in the long run it can only breed an air of unreality in the group and foster sectarian tendencies which help to wall you off from the mass of workers and students you need to recruit if you are to become a genuine revolutionary party.

The tendency to exaggerate a group's self-importance can take a variety of forms: from grandstanding gestures in political campaigns, to overblown rhetoric in papers and journals to attempting to run your organisation as though you were a mini-version of the Bolshevik party at the height of the Russian revolu­tion. Typically this is accompanied by grandiose rhetoric about the need for a Leninist party, the importance of strong leadership and discipline and the need for democratic centralism. It can lead to farcical attempts to replicate the internal structures of the Bolsheviks in a group a few hundred strong.

Democratic centralism is one of the most abused and mis­understood terms in the Marxist vocabulary. For decades the Stalinist Communist parties invoked "democratic centralism" to justify tight bureaucratic discipline. The democratic element totally disappeared from the Stalinist version of demo­cratic centralism, which was really bureaucratic centralism. Decisions were made at the top, usually under direction from Moscow, and handed down as orders for the membership to carry out.

Such an approach, while justified by an appeal to the authority of Lenin, was an absolute caricature of the practice of the Bolshevik party which was noted for its vigorous internal debate and controversy. Despite all the mythologised accounts of right wing commentators (unfortunately also retailed by some on the left) the Bolsheviks were anything but a monolithic party with an unchallengeable leadership. As Trotsky wrote in 1936 in The Revolution Betrayed:

Freedom of criticism and intellectual struggle was an irrevocable content of the party democracy. The present doctrine that Bolshevism does not tolerate factions is a myth of the epoch of decline. In reality the history of Bolshevism is a history of the struggle of factions. And, indeed how could a genuinely rev­olutionary organisation, setting itself the task of overthrowing the world and uniting under its banner the most audacious iconoclasts, fighters and insur­gents, live and develop without intellectual conflicts, without groupings and temporary factional forma­tions? The farsightedness of the Bolshevik leader­ship often made it possible to soften conflicts and shorten the duration of factional struggle, but no more than that. The Central Committee relied on this seething democratic support. From this it derived the audacity to make decisions and give orders.

While most socialists today would vigorously dissociate themselves from Stalinism, the long decades of Stalinist domina­tion of the left distorted the whole meaning of concepts like "dem­ocratic centralism". Even revolutionaries who were vigorous oppo­nents of Stalinism were impacted by Stalinist distortions of Leninism. This, combined with the sheer difficulty of building genuine revolutionary organisations in a period when mass Communist parties overwhelmingly dominated the left, led to a degeneration of many Trotskyist groups and to them aping some of the worst internal practices of their Stalinist rivals.

So what actually is democratic centralism or Leninism? Given that the authority of Lenin is so often invoked by supporters of "democratic centralism", it is important to look at what Lenin actually said on the question. While the term democratic central­ism is usually associated with the Bolsheviks, in reality there is nothing specifically Bolshevik about it. The Bolsheviks took the term from the reformist German Social Democratic Party and the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks' reformist rivals in Russia, also called themselves democratic centralist.

In the early years of the Russian socialist movement revo­lutionaries organised in small autonomous local groups which were not co-ordinated nationally and consequently had no cen­tralised leadership. The small socialist groups that exist today are, of course, not exactly parallel to the groups of socialists that exist­ed in Russia in the 1880s and 1890s. However it makes much more sense for socialists today to compare themselves to these early groups of revolutionaries than to the subsequent mass Bolshevik party. There is no evidence in Lenin's Collected Works that he ever called for these small groups to be organised on a democratic centralist basis or that he thought it was wrong for the early Russian socialist movement to organise on a loose basis. He considered it a necessary and positive phase that the move­ment had to go through. So those who want to apply democratic centralism to socialist groups today cannot appeal to the authori­ty of Lenin for support - it was not the way the Russian revolu­tionaries organised when they were few in number.

It was only when Lenin thought the revolutionary move­ment had matured enough to form a Russia-wide revolutionary party that he began to talk about centralism. Even then Lenin was at pains to emphasise in Our Immediate Task written in 1899 "the need for the complete liberty of local Socialist-Democratic activity to be combined with the need for establishing a single - and con­sequently, a centralist - party". (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 4, p. 218).

For Lenin the way the movement would be centralised and united was by producing a national newspaper, not by having an all powerful central leadership which gave detailed orders on how to run local groups.

Even after the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) was established Lenin never gave democratic central­ism some timelessly exact meaning. He was extremely flexible on organisational questions and was never hidebound by rules and regulations. For Lenin the specific way socialists organised was a concrete question. It depended on what advanced the class strug­gle at any particular point of time. Because of this, it comes as no great surprise that the statement that is usually quoted as sum­marising Lenin's views on democratic centralism is extremely general: "unity in action, freedom of discussion and criticism". (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 11, p. 320).

Lenin tended to use the term democratic centralism very loosely and with very different emphases. So in opposing the demand of the Jewish Socialist group, the Bund, and of the Latvian Social Democrats to have their own independent organi­sations within the RSDLP, Lenin used the term democratic cen­tralist to simply mean a unified party as distinct from a federation of independent national groups. (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 43, p. 429) At other times in the early years of the RSDLP Lenin equat­ed democratic centralism with the "elective principle" i.e. the elec­tion of party leaders at local and national level by local and nation­al conferences of members. It was these conferences at both a local and national level which were to be the highest decision making bodies of the party. However, because of the need for an underground party in repressive Tsarist Russia it was impossible to apply the "elective principle". So in Lenin's view the RSDLP, as long as it was underground, could not be genuinely democratic centralist as it would be in a country like Germany where social­ists could carry on legal political activity and elect their leadership bodies.

Later, as the opportunity opened up for legal activity in Russia and the application of the "elective principle" within the RSDLP, Lenin argued for a version of democratic centralism that would shock most of its advocates today. Lenin supported the decision of the 1905 RSDLP Congress to give the Minority in the party "the unconditional right, guaranteed by the Party Rules, to advocate its views and to carry on an ideological struggle" after the Congress. All local party committees had the right to publish their own literature totally independently of the Central Committee. (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 8, pp. 434-437) So much for the commonly propagated view that "democratic cen­tralism" means that minorities cannot continue to argue for their positions after a conference has voted.

In 1907 Lenin went further, arguing that "there be a can­vass of the opinion of all members of the Party or what is called a "referendum" to settle the most important questions, and especial­ly those which are directly connected with some definite action by the masses themselves". (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 11, pp. 434-435) Lenin went on to argue in the same article: "The Rules of our Party very definitely establish the democratic organisation of the Party. The whole organisation is built from below upward, on an elective basis. The Party Rules declare that the local organisa­tions are independent (autonomous) in their local activities...[the Central Committee] has no right to interfere in determining the composition of local organisations. Since the organisation is built from below upwards, interference in its composition from above would be a flagrant breach of democracy and of the Party Rules." (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 11, pp. 441-442). Again Lenin's position is widely divergent from the position of those advocates of "dem­ocratic centralism" today, who argue that it means that the nation­al leadership must appoint all local organisers and that the nation­al leadership has the right to dismiss elected members of local branch committees.

At other times Lenin argued for a more centralised version of democratic centralism, calling for "iron discipline" in the course of the Civil War in Russia in the early 1920s. Yet even at these times Lenin never embraced the anti-democratic views often put forward by supporters of "democratic centralism" today. For Lenin argument, debate and democratic decision-making were vital in the party. It was the only way that a revolutionary party, which at most times was only a small minority of the working class, could hope to influence and win over the mass of workers. Moreover expulsions were extremely rare in the Bolshevik party (prior to its Stalinisation in the 1920s).

Supporters of "democratic centralism" today often argue against the representation of minority views on leadership bodies. This was not Lenin's or the Bolsheviks' approach. On the eve of the 1917 revolution two leading members of the Bolshevik Central Committee, Zinoviev and Kamenev, attempted to defy the demo­cratic decision of the party to go ahead with the rising. Yet despite being bitterly denounced by Lenin, Zinoviev and Kamenev were both subsequently re-elected to the Central Committee. Similarly in 1918 during the heated debate over whether to sign a peace treaty with Germany there were three different positions repre­sented on the Central Committee which were publicly debated in the press. During the 1920-21 debate on the role of trade unions the Central Committee was so divided that eight separate platforms were advanced. Trotsky and Bukharin were in a distinct minority yet they were re-elected to the Central Committee. At the Tenth Party Congress in 1921 despite the bitter faction fight with the Workers Opposition, two of its representatives were still elected (with Lenin's support) to the Central Committee. It was at this Congress, in the extreme circumstances of civil war, that for the first time ever in the history of the Bolsheviks factions were banned. This was very much seen as a regrettable and excep­tional, emergency measure. Yet even in these desperate circum­stances it was still decided that special symposiums were to be held and journals published to continue to discuss the theoretical questions raised by the Workers Opposition. Moreover Lenin made it clear that the Central Committee did not have the right to expel the two representatives of the Workers Opposition: "No democracy or centralism would ever tolerate a Central Committee elected at a Congress having the right to expel its members" (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 32 p. 258).

There were very good reasons for the Bolsheviks adopting this approach. They recognised that representation of a range of viewpoints helped unite the party and prevent permanent faction­alism. If you adopt a winner take all approach to leadership bod­ies and allow no representation of even quite substantial minority view points then you turn the leadership into a factional body which just represents one view. The minority and members who are not committed to either side will feel disenfranchised with no stake in the leadership and in turn are likely to be less enthusias­tic about carrying out decisions.

So what can we learn from Lenin?

The great breakthrough that Lenin made in Marxist theory and party organisation was not democratic centralism but rather an understanding of the need for revolutionaries to form their own distinct party separate from the reformist elements of the working class movement. However, if this revolutionary party was not to degenerate into a sect then it had to attempt to lead workers out­side its own ranks who were still influenced by reformist ideas. Leninism is essentially about how a revolutionary party relates to the most advanced sections of the working class and via them to the mass of workers. It is not primarily about how the party is organised internally but how to lead workers in struggle.

Inside the Bolshevik party internal debate was vital for assessing the policies, strategies and tactics being argued to the mass of workers. Feed back by rank and file members was vital for modifying and refining Bolshevik policies. Indeed it was the strong traditions of internal party debate that made Bolshevik activists much more capable of arguing their politics in public than their reformist rivals.

The circumstances confronting socialist groups today are vastly different from those confronting Lenin's mass party. Precisely because a small group is incapable of leading any sub­stantial group of workers in struggle it can't seriously test out its ideas and strategies in practice. There is no feedback from the working class. So while a small group may adopt the form of dem­ocratic centralism it can't develop the living vital reality of demo­cratic centralism as a means of trying to lead the working class in action.

Robbed of this vital element of political intervention in the class struggle "democratic centralism" can become little more than a timeless organisational formula that could just as easily be applied to your local cricket team or social club as a revolutionary organisation. It becomes a lifeless recipe that tells you nothing about how a small revolutionary organisation should operate in practice. The danger is that "democratic centralism" becomes a substitute for a concrete assessment of how socialist groups should operate in the actual circumstances of today.

The specific form of "democratic centralism" adopted by any socialist group may be more or less democratic depending on its history and traditions. But the idea that small groups of social­ists dispersed in different cities across Australia should attempt to operate on the basis of having a centralised leadership that makes day-to-day decisions on the detailed work of the group is nonsense. It can only distort the organisation by leading to the for­mation of a pretentious series of internal structures and leader­ship bodies or lead to bureaucratisation. This approach is taken to the most ludicrous extreme when tiny groups of socialists operat­ing in half a dozen different countries declare themselves to be a new "international" (indeed the leadership of the international working class) operating on a disciplined "democratic centralist" basis.

This is not to say that elements of Lenin's ideas on organ­isation don't apply to small socialist groups today. The key one is that leadership is fundamentally about convincing members of theoretical and political positions and to do things, not about organisational rules. The Bolsheviks operated as a disciplined party not because of rules and regulations but because they were politically convinced. Unfortunately, today "democratic centralism" is too often invoked by the leadership of socialist groups to stifle criticism and discussion.

Any socialist group needs to have some process for dem­ocratic decision-making and any form of democratic decision mak­ing necessarily entails a degree of centralism - after debate and discussion a vote is taken and the majority decision is implement­ed, while the minority maintains the right to argue for its position on a subsequent occasion. However, the way that many groups who claim to be democratic centralist operate is that they have a conference every year or so in the lead up to which internal debate is allowed for a brief period. At the conference a perspec­tive is adopted, policy decisions made and a national leadership elected. In between conferences internal debates are effectively prohibited or heavily frowned upon. The leadership makes all the major decisions and members have little say in running the organ­isation.

This is a caricature of Leninism. Lenin emphasised the right, indeed the necessity, of minorities being allowed to carry on a continuing "ideological struggle" even after their positions had been defeated at a conference.

The reality is that any perspective adopted at a conference can only be provisional, not something set in stone, because the real world changes. A perspective necessarily has to be refined and updated between conferences and that is not a task for the leadership alone. It would be crass stupidity to say that if six months after a conference a perspective is not working then noth­ing can be done to change it or that a minority in the organisation can't raise criticisms, publish documents and so on or that dis­cussion can only take place if the leadership invites it.

This undemocratic approach is often justified on the basis of an appeal to Leninism but in reality it has nothing in common with the real history of the Bolsheviks. Major debates in the Bolsheviks occurred in response to political developments in the real world - not simply at conferences or when the leadership decreed that debate was allowed. For example during the course of the 1917 Russian Revolution there were a series of sharp debates as the party attempted to respond to the different phases of the revolution. These could not be timed nicely to fit in with annual conferences.

But what does this all mean for how socialist groups should organise today? The first thing that needs to be emphasised is that there is no set formula. Socialist organisations need to be extremely flexible. There is no substitute for a concrete assess­ment of actual developments in the real world and how a revolu­tionary group can best relate to them to win people to a socialist perspective. The exact organisational structure will depend on the size of the group and the level of struggle and politicisation in soci­ety. The smaller the group the greater the stress needs to be on democracy and on the initiative of the membership.

While socialist groups remain small and scattered, the con­cept of democratic centralism cannot be meaningfully applied to them. The emphasis should be placed on clarifying political ques­tions. Central to this is a publication (or publications) which both propagates the group's positions and encourages debate and dis­cussion of political and theoretical questions. Out of this process the group can develop a leadership and a membership capable of taking initiatives and carrying arguments outside their own ranks. This can lay a solid basis for rapid growth in periods of radicalisation. When a group becomes larger with thousands of members and some genuine base in the working class and begins to move from propagandising ideas to agitating for action, then the empha­sis will need to change - democratic centralism will start to become meaningful.