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Newsletter (in English)


The very term “Democratic Centralism” calls forth images of the Politburo of the CPSU and the slavish obedience of the Stalinist parties. Despite this association, we from REVOLUTION defend the term of the principle behind it, because we see in it the exact opposite of Stalinism*.

What is democratic centralism?

The statutes of REVOLUTION Germany say: “Democratic centralism is the organisational basis of the entire workers’ movement. For example, if after a democratic discussion a factory assembly decides to go on strike, everyone must implement this decision. If someone doesn’t do this, they are a strikebreaker. Only after the action can it be discussed again.”

Democratic centralism means, according to a widespread definition, “Freedom in discussion and unity in action”. That means: before an action there should be the broadest possible discussion – but once a decision has been taken, everyone should support the action.

But how did this concept develop? The term was popularized by the Communist International, but the concept existed long before – the general idea is presented in the statutes of the League of Communists (1848) or the First International (1864).

An illusion amongst Wannabe-Leninists is that the split in Russian Social Democracy between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in 1903 was based on the question of democratic centralism. But the Iskra group, from which both factions emerged, was united in its suport democratic centralism. This concept was also a basis for the reunification of both factions in 1906.

At that time democratic centralism meant, above all else, the idea of a unified party in the entire Russian Empire, instead of special parties for different nationalities or regions. The principle “one state – one party” had to be implemented because a revolutionary organization in Czarist Russia had a centralised state apparatus as an opponent.

But also the Bolsheviks recognized the need for a certain autonomy of local party organizations or language-based or national structures within the party, and explicitly wanted no central committee which would mess with petty questions of the local organizations (1).

There were big differences between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, principally about the character of the coming ussian Revolution and the kind of party demanded by this characterization. But this shows that democratic centralism can be understood very differently.

What is democratic centralism not?

If we look at English-language Wikipedia, in the article on democratic centralism we find the following quote: “If all members of a party uphold the party line to the general public it will be much more difficult for agents of the state to create false conflict from the outside” (2). Who said this? Lenin? Trotsky? No, the – even by Maoist standards – wacky “MIM” (3).

This “monolithism”, i.e. the idea that a communist party can speak with only one voice, developed not 1903, but 1925, with the “Bolshevization” of the Communist International under its President Zinoviev. The Austrian Zinovievist Ruth Fischer expressed this concept well: “This world congress should not allow the International to be transformed into an agglomeration of all sorts of trends” (4).

This was the beginning of the Stalinization of the Comintern: before there were different currents, which debated at the world congresses – in view of the international proletariat – to work out the strategy of the world party. But after the “Bolshevization” there was only the infallible line of the leadership.

This “bureaucratic centralism” was introduced into the workers’ movement by the Stalinists. This tradition was taken up anew by the Maoist sects of the 70s, and under their influence was also adopted by different branches of Trotskyism. Typical for many Trotskyist tendencies of today is a concept of “democent” in which every member may only express the official positions of the group. If the classic definition of democratic centralism is “freedom in discussion, unity in action”, here we are dealing with the addition “unity in action – and in speaking”.

The disastrous results of this method are obvious: a closed “line” might help to transport, as on a conveyor belt, certain positions into the class. But it hinders the development of these very positions in dispute with and in the workers’ movement.

This is based on the arrogant idea that the working class cannot understand the debates within a revolutionary organization anyway, and must be provided with ready formulas. Lenin, in contrast, demanded “Light, Light, and more light!” about the political conflicts within the revolutionary party, even when it had to work in conditions of illegality.

But to justify Marxism’s claim to be a scientific, it must be based on a scientific method, i.e. making possible a critical inspection of evidence and conclusions by other scientists. Woe to the physics teacher who has his students memorize the formula “e=mc2” without ever explaining what “e”, “m” or “c” means. Woe to the Marxist who wants to tell the working class that a crisis of capitalism is approaching without presenting the political debate that led to this conclusion!

Engels also polemicized against the idea of the anarchist Bakunin that a revolutionary organization should be based on the “unity of thought and action”: “Unity of thought and action means nothing but orthodoxy and blind obedience. Perinde ac cadaver [obedience of a corpse]. We are indeed confronted with a veritable Society of Jesus.” (5)

What does democratic centralism look like?

Democratic centralism must be understood as a living process. A “democent” in which an all-powerful party leadership regularly lets the party members applaud it at congresses and is otherwise uncontrollable, is an invention of the Stalinists. Real democratic centralism demands a constant process of exchange within the whole organization.

In every organization or movement, different views and perspectives will exist. First one must attempt to synthesize the positions, i.e. to bring them together via debate. If this is not possible (for lack of time, or because the positions are in direct contradiction to each other), a majority decision must be made. A fighting organization cannot wait indefinitely long for every decision, until all differences are completely eliminated – not just in order to intervene in the class struggle, but also to test the majority positions in practice.

“Unity in action” means acting as one at demonstrations, handing out flyers, posting posters, speaking in public etc. But is the same true for propaganda, i.e. in the press and at the meetings of the organization? Lenin explained:

“The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action: it rules out all criticism which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided on by the party . . . criticism within the limits of the principles of the party programme must be quite free . . . not only at a party meetings but also at public meetings” (6).

Furthermore, it must be possible for a minority in an organization to become the majority. This is excluded a priori if such a minority is prohibited from expressing its views in public, since in this case only people who agree with the group (majority) positions would join.

A revolutionary organization, even a tiny one, does not just make propaganda. It must intervene in day-to-day struggles of the class, to push them forward and connect them with a revolutionary perspective. For this, a structure – a leadership – is necessary which can make decisions from one minute to the next. The members should follow these decisions. But a leadership that wants to be followed must be first elected by the members and recallable at any time; it must be as broad as possible, as open as security considerations allow, as check-able as the membership demands. Because leadership that tries to act with more authority than it has truly earned can quickly destroy the organization. As Leon Trotsky explained:

“Iron discipline, steel discipline, is absolutely necessary, but if the apparatus of the young party begins by demanding such iron discipline on the first day it can lose the party. It is necessary to educate confidence in the party in general because the leadership is only an expression of the party …” (7).

Some conclusions

Democracy and centralism are two sides of a coin: a centralist model can only be implemented with a high level of political unity, which itself can only be attained by democratic decision-making.

Different situations require a different ratio between democracy and centralism. At a conference, pure democracy reigns; At a demonstration, strict centralism is the rule. But even a conference becomes centralist when decisions are made and carried out; Even a demonstration becomes democratic when it is appraised afterwards and the next demonstration is planned.

This flexible ratio can also be applied to historical periods: a revolutionary organization working under a fascist regime would need an almost military centralism. But in a period of bourgeois democracy, a high level of democracy is possible. Democratic centralism is not a system of eternal rules; rather, it is a general method which must be adapted to the situation of the organization and society as a whole.

There are special problems with democratic centralism in youth organizations – members without too much political experience, a wide range in the political level of the membership etc. – but these very problems can be dealt with using freedom in discussion and unity in action.

We from REVOLUTION have established a simple model for this situation: members do not necessarily have to participate in all group actions, but they commit themselves to not disrupt actions agreed by the group majority. More important is that all members take part in all political and strategic discussions, because democratic centralism is above all a common understanding of the tasks of revolutionaries.

Therefore democratic centralism remains the only organizational form for communists, despite the best attempts of the Stalinists and some Trotskyists to drag it through the mud.

REVOLUTION International Coordination, December 20, 2007


* This article was written in December 2006 for discussion within REVOLUTION, just after the break with our former mother organization – the LFI -, who accused us among other things of rejecting democratic centralism. In reality, we support democratic centralism, but firmly reject their bureaucratic caricature of it. The article was published one year later in slightly edited form by the international coordination of REVOLUTION.
(1) Lenin wrote to the Jewish Bund: “the Rules adopted in 1898 provides the Jewish working-class movement with all it needs: propaganda and agitation in Yiddish, its own literature and congresses, the right to advance separate demands to supplement a single general Social-Democratic programme and to satisfy local needs and requirements arising out of the special features of Jewish life.” in; Lenin: Does the Jewish Proletariat Need an “Independent Political Party”?
(3) Maoist Internationalist Movement: Democratic Centralism. MIM Notes 51. April 1991.
(4) protocols of the Fifth World Congress of the Communist International; quoted in: Isaac Deutscher: The Prophet Unarmed. Trotsky 1921-1929. Oxford 1987. p. 146-147
(5) Friedrich Engels and Paul Lafargue, The Alliance of the Socialist Democracy and the International Working Men’s Association. 1873; quoted in: Hal Draper: Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution. Vol 3. New York 1986. p. 147. (The Society of Jesus refers to the Jesuit order of monks.)
(6) quoted in: Paul Leblanc: Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. New Jersey 1990. p. 128
(7) L.D.Trotsky: Toward a Revolutionary Youth Organization. In: Writings. 1938-9. New York 1974. pp.121-2.

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