- Capitalism and Alternatives -

The Pros and Cons of Democratic-Centralism

Posted by: Barry Stoller on November 19, 1999 at 17:49:46:

'Second mistake: The Central Committee surrendered its power too soon, to make way for the Commune.'
---Marx, letter to Kugelmann 12 April 1871.

Before I acquire a reputation as an unalloyed Leninist, I would like to say that I share with most socialists a great degree of unalloyed skepticism regarding the practice of Democratic-Centralism.

Before I join the ranks of those who repudiate the practice of Democratic-Centralism, however, I would like to review (briefly) the concept of it and look into the Bolshevik's adoption of it as a necessary tool to lead the proletariat to victory in 1917. From that review I shall make some comments regarding Democratic-Centralism in the present.

The argument for Democratic-Centralism, I believe, is stated succinctly by the Spartacist League:

The idea that workers who follow priests, workers who are Stalinists, workers who belong to social-democratic parties [which repudiate class struggle in favor of parliamentary politics] should...determine the policy of the revolutionary Marxists is an idea that will maintain the power of the bourgeoisie until a thermonuclear bomb eliminates the question.(1)

Despite the overwrought prose, there's a kernel of common sense there.

After all, there ARE members of the proletariat class who readily support 'some' inequality and readily support 'some' private ownership of the means of production. There ARE plenty of proletarians who are racist, who retain national allegiances, and who may support WHATEVER may benefit them directly in the short-term. The Spartacist League insists---and not without reason---that not all members of the proletariat class are PREPARED for the rigors of Marxist theory as it would be applied in real life.

How far could any Marxist organization go toward success if it is filled to the brim with trade-union opportunists and petit-bourgeois socialists?

That was Lenin's reasoning in general.

There were other mitigating factors influencing his rigid conception of Democratic-Centralism, however. We all know that, during the formation of the Bolshevik party, revolutionary organizations were illegal. And, indeed, the Bolsheviks indulged in some blatantly illegal activities---such as financing themselves by robbing state banks!(2) Obviously, under such circumstances party membership couldn't be open to anyone off the street; the consequence would have been certain imprisonment.

Lenin defined the circumscriptions of the party thusly:

Everyone is free to write and say whatever he likes, without any restrictions. But every voluntary association (including a party) is also free to expel members who use the name of the party to advocate anti-party views.(3)

Indeed, even the highest ranking leader of the party was 'subject to recall at any time':

If...a general assembly of the most responsible leaders of the Party deems it necessary by a two-thirds majority to reduce a member of the Central Committee to the status of alternative member, or to expel him from the Party, this measure shall be put into effect immediately.(4)

Here it is evident that the 'Leninism = Stalinism' thesis is PATENTLY UNTRUE.

Although the removal of a Central Committee member, as stated in this clause, was effected by 'the most responsible leaders of the Party' and not by the rank and file, Lenin was apprehensive about bureaucratic centralism forming from the Bolshevik's practice of Democratic-Centralism.* Arguing against Trotsky's proposal to liquidate trade unions in lieu of Party apparatus, Lenin defended the preservation of trade unions because:

[Although] the trade unions no longer have to face the class economic struggle [they may have to face] the non-class 'economic struggle,' which means combating bureaucratic distortions of the Soviet apparatus, [and] safeguarding the working people's material and spiritual interests in ways inaccessible to this apparatus, etc.(5)

A socialist must make a distinction between Democratic-Centralism---a process of selection in which those who would destroy the work of party are barred from the party---and bureaucratic centralism---a process of selection in which a party elite can rule without the majority's consent.

Nonetheless, it is axiomatic to observe that for all of the Bolshevik's famous selectivity, Stalin had no difficulty entering the party. Indeed, the increasing centralism of the Bolshevik state---due in part to the historical difficulties faced by the Bolsheviks---lead to Stalin's usurpation of the state apparatus (although it must be stated that it took him FIVE YEARS of intriguing and altering party policy to do so).**

My conclusion is that centralism is necessary in party work---especially extra-legal party work---in order to insure that the party is not dominated by those who would collaborate with the bourgeoisie.

Looking forward to the revolution's consummation, I would also suggest that any type of social relations that call for a planned economy logically presupposes some degree of centralization.

HOWEVER I hasten to add that the degree of centralization required to realize these two aims will demonstrate the historical preparedness of the proletariat---and capitalism as the proletariat finds it---when assuming power. The more centralization is needed---to fight numerous opportunists and enemies of socialism, for example---the less the historical timing for socialism would seem to be propitious for the socialization of the means of production. In short, when the OVERWHELMING MAJORITY of proletarian elements have the class consciousness required to ACHIEVE socialism, less centralism will be required to realize their aims.

So I defend Democratic-Centralism---and yet I distrust it.

To 'solve' this seeming contradiction, I close my argument with these sensible words from the Spartacist League:

There is no mechanical organizational solution to bureaucratism in the workers movement or even in its vanguard party. Combating bureaucratism and reformism involves continual political struggle against the many-sided influences and pressures bourgeois society brings to bear upon the workers movement, its various strata and its vanguard.(6)


* Lenin followed Marx and Engels in their qualified assessment of centralism. Marx, appraising the Paris Commune of 1871, wrote: 'The few but important functions which still would remain for a central government were not to be suppressed, as has been intentionally misstated, but were to be discharged by Communal and therefore strictly responsible agents' (The Civil War in France, International 1940, p. 58). Nevertheless, Marx also wrote (in the same context): 'On the other hand, nothing could be more foreign to the spirit of the Commune than to supersede universal suffrage by hierarchal investiture' (ibid., p. 59).

Is there a contradiction here?

Commenting on Engels' 'Criticism of the Draft of the Erfurt Programme,' Lenin noted that 'Engels, like Marx, upheld democratic centralism,' but 'Engels did not at all mean democratic centralism in the bureaucratic sense in which this term is used by bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideologists, the anarchists among the latter. His idea of centralism did not in the least preclude such broad local self-government as would combine the voluntary defense of the unity of the state by the "communes" and districts, and the complete elimination of all bureaucratic practices and all "ordering" from above' (‘The State and Revolution,’ Selected Works volume 2, International 1975, p. 290, emphasis added). Whether or not Engels would have interpreted his criticism of the Erfurt Programme in this way is, of course, subordinate to the fact that Lenin interpreted in that way.

** 'That the sudden [revolutionary] movements of February and March 1848 were not the work of single individuals, but spontaneous, irresistible manifestations of national wants and necessities, more or less clearly understood, but very distinctly felt by numerous classes in every country, is a fact recognized everywhere; but when you inquire into the causes of the counter-revolutionary successes, there you are met on every hand with the ready reply that it was Mr. This or Citizen That who "betrayed" the people. Which reply may be very true or not, according to circumstances, but under no circumstances does it explain anything---not even to show how it came to pass that the "people" allowed themselves to be thus betrayed. And what poor chance stands a political party whose entire stock-in-trade consists in a knowledge of the solitary fact that Citizen So-and-So is not to be trusted.' Engels Germany: Revolution and Counter-Revolution [1851], International 1933, p. 10.

1. Lenin and the Vanguard Party, Spartacist Pamphlet August 1997, p. 34.
2. 'When the revolutionary movement was at its height, and the fight against the autocracy was being waged on an extended front, the Bolsheviks admitted the expediency of making raids, or expropriations as they were called, on the State Treasury.' Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin volume 2, International 1930, p. 11.
3. Lenin, 'Party Organization and Party Literature' [1915], Selected Works, Progress 1968, p. 150.
4. Lenin, 'Preliminary Draft Resolution of the Tenth Congress of the R.C.P. on Party Unity' [1921], Selected Works volume 3, International 1975, p. 522.
5. Lenin, 'Once Again on the Trade Unions, the Current Situation and the Mistakes of Trotsky and Bukharin' [1921], Selected Works, volume 3, International 1975, p. 490, emphasis added.
6. Lenin and the Vanguard Party, Spartacist Pamphlet August 1997, p. 51.

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