Democratic centralism is the application of Marxist method to the question of how best to organize to lead the working class in the revolutionary transformation of society. The principles of democratic centralism do not provide a standard blueprint for communist organization, but rather an approach to the process of collective decision making and collective action that can take a variety of forms, corresponding to the development of the organization and the changing demands of the class struggle.
Unfortunately, the development of democratic centralist theory and practice has been neglected by the communist movement. In our own country, for example, the New Communist Movement of the 1970s contented itself with imitating the organizational forms of the Comintern parties of the 1920s and 1930s, parties that were more highly developed and operating under vastly different circumstances. This mimicry eventually produced grotesque parodies of communist parties, complete with central committees that had nothing to centralize and mass lines that had no mass base. But not only the imitators were at fault–the models themselves were flawed.
The “anti-revisionist/anti-dogmatist” movement today is a response to two failures: the degeneration of most Comintern parties into revisionism, and the persistent ultra-leftism of most of the anti-revisionist movement. It is essential that we address the errors in theoretical practice and political line that marked these failures. But we must also examine the connection between these parties’ deviations on organizational line and their inability to maintain a revolutionary political line on other questions.
Our task today is to recover democratic centralist theory from dogmatist distortions, and to develop that theory further, based on a critical appraisal of the experience of the communist movement. This task is in turn an integral part of the struggle to develop a general line for the U.S. communist movement, a line that must inevitably address the issue of communist organization.
The Principles of Democratic Centralism
Democratic centralism is a method of organization that embodies two elements, democracy and centralism, in an ever-changing dialectical relationship of struggle and unity. Thus, there is no formula for the “correct” proportions of democracy and centralism. Instead, communists must determine the synthesis of the two that enables their organizations to provide coherent and decisive leadership to the working class.
The democratic aspect of democratic centralism ensures effective decision making. It includes thorough discussion of political questions, full airing of minority viewpoints, collective decision making or periodic review of delegated decisions, reports from the members on their work and analyses, provisions for initiatives from members, and criticism of all aspects of political, organizational, and theoretical practice. The democratic practice of the organization rests on the principle that collective decisions made by majority vote after a full, informed, and frank discussion are more likely to reflect the interests of the working class than decisions made without such a discussion.
Centralism is necessary to ensure unity of action in carrying out the organization’s decisions, to provide strategic and tactical flexibility in dealing with the highly centralized bourgeois state, and to create the basis in social practice for evaluating the organization’s line. Centralism includes leadership at all levels summing up the ideas and experience of the membership, drawing up proposals for the organization to consider, presenting political arguments for the positions it recommends, implementing policy, and responding decisively to guide the organization and the working class through the twists and turns of the struggle.
However, it is the unity of democracy and centralism that guides us, and it is essential to understand the interdependence of democracy and centralism. Without democracy, the leadership lacks accurate information about the actual unfolding of the class struggle, and especially about the needs and capabilities of the masses. Instead, it must develop strategy and tactics by applying Marxist theory to its own partial view of the political situation. But, as Lenin put it, “The actual unfolding of the class struggle is infinitely richer than the most advanced theory.” Democracy means tapping the creativity and experience of many people to make sure that the organization’s line corresponds to the real development of the class struggle in a scientific way.
On the other hand, without centralism the experiences of the party’s members and of the masses would remain scattered. The organization would be unable to translate its knowledge and experience into a material force. Thus, there can be no democracy without centralism, and no centralism without democracy.
But while democracy and centralism support each other, there is always a tension between them as well. Does everyone need to discuss every decision? When has discussion gone on long enough and become unproductive? How should leaders encourage and respond to criticism from members? How can minority views be respected? When is it appropriate to reevaluate a decision? When should the organization change its structure or practices in response to internal or external changes? These kinds of questions are faced constantly by revolutionary political groups at all stages of development.
From this basic analysis we can draw a number of conclusions about what a communist organization requires to/make democratic centralism work:
• Political Unity. Only overall political unity can stimulate individuals to make the commitment necessary to participate in a communist organization, or motivate a minority to subordinate itself to carry out the proposals of the majority. The degree of unity required for communist organization depends on the development of the communists and the nature of their political tasks: there is no one “correct” level of unity. As we argue further in our paper on party building, attempts to enforce organizational consolidation in the absence of political unity on basic tasks can only lead to splits and the proliferation of sterile sects.
• Cadre Development. Democratic centralism requires that members have a firm, critical, and individual grasp of Marxist theory and practice. If too many members lack these abilities, the party will lack that dialogue between members and leaders, base and center, party and masses, that is essential to democratic centralist decision making, practice, and evaluation.
• Political Leadership. Communist leadership has the responsibility of guiding the organization’s work through the process of theory-plan-practice-summation. Important at all times, the role of leadership takes on particular importance in periods of revolutionary crisis or repression. Its work therefore requires a high degree of theoretical and practical experience and mature political judgment. It requires further an ability to lead, not simply command, the organization, and through it, the masses. Also important is the educational role of leadership in helping to develop new leaders from among the members, and increasing the theoretical and practical capabilities of the membership in general.
• Criticism and Self-Criticism. Changing conditions, incorrect political line, and mistakes in implementing line or in style of work are all inevitable and require regular summation and reevaluation of work. Mistakes will be more or less serious, more or less harmful to the movement–but the failure to examine and correct errors is even more serious and harmful. To make democratic centralism work, criticism and self-criticism must be practiced throughout the organization. Leaders and members must learn to assess honestly the strengths and weaknesses of both individuals and the organization as a whole. Equally important, this dialogue of criticism and self-criticism must be practiced not only within the organization, but between the organization and the masses. Attempts to place the party above the criticism of the masses have taken several forms. Some have claimed that “the party is always right because Marxism-Leninism is a science.” Others have tried to deny that their organization has changed its line, or have refused to explain its reasons for doing so. Such attempts to mystify communist work deceive no one, and have no place in serious Marxist practice. The party and the working class can only win by transforming themselves in the process of transforming society. Neither aspect of the revolution can succeed without the practice of serious criticism and self-criticism.
Problems of Democratic Centralism
In the decades since the founding of the Bolshevik Party and of the Comintern, the communist movement has gained enormous experience in applying democratic centralism. However, this practice has been little examined; errors have been persisted in, and even extolled, and problems have been ignored or explained away. This section examines some of the mistakes and problems that have appeared in the efforts of communists to practice democratic centralism.
We argued above that overall political unity was essential to the practice of democratic centralism. But “political unity” has often been interpreted in the communist movement to mean ’unanimity.’ The key error in communist organizations has been an insistence on monolithic unity of thought throughout the organization: many other errors either flow from this view, or are closely connected to it.
Both communist and bourgeois observers agree that the Bolshevik Party under Lenin’s leadership was a lively organization, marked by both sharp political struggle and by a disciplined commitment to united action. However, during the 1920s it became more and more the norm to insist that unity of action required unity of thought. This trend was a response by the CPSU to the dangers of civil war, foreign intervention, and sharp class struggle; it was generalized throughout the world communist movement through the CPSU’s leadership of the Communist International.
This emphasis on uniformity of thought is wrong for several reasons. It runs counter to the basic view of dialectical materialism on the universality of contradiction by suggesting that contradiction exists everywhere–except within communist parties. A more accurate summation is that of Mao Zedong: “Where there is no disagreement, there is no life.” Struggle over the formulation of theory and the evaluation of practice is essential to the development of any science, in particular Marxism-Leninism. Without this democratic debate–the clash of differing experiences and opinions–serious evaluation of political line or work on either the organizational or individual level becomes impossible. Few people would claim that a perfect communist party is possible–yet many have implicitly made this claim by arguing that communist parties can do without the powerful corrective practice of criticism and debate, or have paid only lip service to that need. “It will damage party unity,” they protest. But the unity of a party that is incapable of correcting its errors is worth very little to the working class; sooner or later its errors will overwhelm it, no matter how promising its beginning.
The insistence on unity of thought thus stifles the organization’s life. Who will admit to disagreements with leadership’s policies or make serious criticisms or self-criticisms when frankness might invite disciplinary action or expulsion? Those who suppress their objections or deny their own perceptions of political reality are forced to adopt a sort of dogmatism in order to be able to function at all. Many of the most capable people–those most able to find their political bearings independently–eventually leave the organization. The “revolving door” memberships of many anti-revisionist groups result at least in part from this sort of practice.
This emphasis on unity of thought seems to rest on two points. First, people fear that frank debate will inevitably turn into factionalism, thus destroying the organization’s unity. This question is a complicated one, which we discuss separately below. The second reason runs something like this: Unity of action is more important than being right; better that the organization is wrong than that the leadership representing that unity is questioned. This reasoning makes unity of action an end in itself, divorced from the idea of scientific mass practice; the organization itself, and not its political tasks and goals have become primary. This position represents bourgeois concepts of centralism, taken over from our experience within bourgeois society, for example in industry and the military. These bourgeois positions must not be confused with the proletarian concept of centralism.
The discouragement of independent thinking and discussion in the party leads to an overdependence on leadership. We have noted the crucial role of organizational leadership. Yet if only officially sanctioned ideas have a place in the party, it can quickly develop a bureaucratic spirit: leaders command, members become “employees.” (“Don’t ask me to take any responsibility; I just work here.”) Commandist parties quickly tend toward dogmatism because the cadres will not or cannot take responsibility to apply the organization’s line in an intelligent way to the specific circumstances they face. Even though the members of the organization may discuss how to apply the line, their discussions cannot get very far–because applying a political line in a concrete situation requires dynamic understanding rather than dogmatic memorization. In this atmosphere members avoid reporting problems or failures for fear of being thought disloyal or defeatist. Ironically, then, commandism subverts the very effectiveness that it verbally exalts, for if the membership is passive the leadership can neither correctly apply the line nor evaluate it.
In our movement, commandism has often reflected the leadership’s mistrust of the members (not to mention their mistrust of the masses) because of the members’ low level of political development. Yet commandism is not a cure for uneven political development; it is a prescription for continuing it. Commandism can never result in members gaining that critical grasp of Marxism-Leninism necessary to develop communist leaders and cadre.
Is Idol Worship the Answer?
In its extreme form, this error can lead to the development of personality cults. Marxists have always criticized the “great man” theory of history–but have sometimes acted as if they thought it were true. Readers may remember seeing articles or works of art attributing all successes to Stalin or Mao, comparing them with the sun rising in the east, and so forth. Such cults are a long way from the Marxist position that “the masses make history.”
Typically, cults have been promoted to gain mass support for policies–correct or not–that might not be forthcoming due to lack of political development or disagreements. As such, personality cults are a sign of political weakness, not strength.
Lack of Leadership Accountability
From ultra-centralism flow a number of errors based on the lack of leadership accountability. For example, substantive political discussion in many parties takes place only at the party’s highest levels. While disagreements may exist in top leadership bodies, they remain unknown to the membership since the minority is forbidden to take its case to the members. As a corollary to this, party congresses, which should be forums for consideration of minority reports, become instead dull, rubber-stamp affairs without political significance. The party congress becomes effectively subordinated to the leadership, even though in democratic centralist theory it should be the highest party authority, the means through which leaders can be held accountable by the members. This lack of accountability may also explain, in part, why many communist leaders have retained their posts long after they have lost their effectiveness, often becoming isolated from the membership and from the masses.
The tendency to correct the problems of over-centralism through ultra-democracy is a secondary one in our movement, but worth mentioning. Ultra-democracy responds to uneven development by negating the role of leadership, and tries to prevent arbitrary decision making by attempting to arrive at consensus on every issue. (In its insistence on unanimity, ultra-democracy shares a basic assumption with the proponents of monolithic unity.) Ultra-democracy fails on several counts. Democracy is not primarily a forum for free speech, but a decisionmaking process. Ultra-democratic organizations often find it difficult to make any decisions at all, thus actually frustrating the majority rule they are supposed to uphold. In other cases, they move so slowly that they are unable to test their decisions in practice. Finally, when leadership is not openly acknowledged, it operates unofficially and informally, so that the members have no effective way to hold it responsible. For the most part, ultra-democratic organizations turn out to be neither effective nor democratic.
The Question of Tendencies and Factions
The principles of democratic centralism imply the right of minorities to raise their views in a constructive manner. This means that members with minority views should have the chance to meet together or communicate with each other in developing those views to present to the organization. Without this foundation of organizational democracy, leadership would have a monopoly on presenting information, proposals, and evaluations to the organization. The absence of serious alternatives would cripple the organization’s ability to evaluate political line, rectify errors, or hold leadership accountable. There can, of course, be no permanent special interest of a tendency separate from the purpose of the Marxist-Leninist organization itself, because the party reflects the interests of the class as a whole. But contradictions within the working class are necessarily reflected in the party–and this is both legitimate and inevitable.
We apply the term tendency to those formations that seek to struggle within the organization for a change in political line, practice, or leadership. Although tendencies must be able to organize to be able to carry on their side of the debate within the party, their members continue to work under the discipline of the organization and have overall unity with it.
Similarly, there may at times be a need for separate caucuses of racial and national minority members, women, and gay people. These formations may be needed for two reasons. They allow the specially oppressed members to struggle more effectively against pressures from bourgeois society that might lead the organization to drop or soft pedal their special demands, demands that are crucial to the long-term project of uniting the working class. Second, these caucuses can further the fight against the persistent reassertion of racist, sexist, or heterosexist ideology within the organization.
On the other hand, factions are groupings that have fundamental differences with an organization’s political line, and which have their own organizational discipline apart from and above that of the organization as a whole. Clearly, the continued existence of such a parallel leading center undermines the organization’s unity of action and degrades its decision-making process. In such a case, the organization’s leadership must take the initiative to address the issues dividing the organization, striving to resolve the differences and preserve the unity of the organization, or to split the organization in as principled a manner as is possible.
It will be difficult in practice to judge when a tendency is strengthening the organization and when it is becoming a permanent, competing center or special interest group. Since these formations will often be critical of leadership, leaders may react defensively and see them as annoying and destructive. The key to the correct conclusion of these struggles will be a leadership able to act on behalf of the whole organization and informed and independent cadre who are not afraid to listen to criticism of leadership and who are able to judge whether criticisms are right or wrong.
Debates between tendencies must be based on a desire to build the entire organization and with a commitment to united action once a decision has been made. It is this attitude that distinguishes a healthy struggle that helps the organization develop from a destructive one that descends into factional intrigue, whether on the part of a minority or on the part of leadership operating as a faction. A sectarian attitude of “smashing the opposition” through distortion or bureaucratic manipulation prevents objective examination of different political lines and makes united action more difficult to achieve.
Democratic Centralism in Today’s Movement
In any period, the synthesis of democracy and centralism depends on several factors: the level of development of the communists, the nature of their tasks and their relationship to the masses, set in the context of the state of the class struggle, the development of the mass movements, their level of class consciousness, etc. Since all these elements can change rapidly, communists must be able to quickly alter not only their organization’s strategy and tactics, but organizational forms and practices.
The communist movement has usually endorsed this concept, but in practice, communist organizations have often been structurally static, as though there were some abstract model of communist organization that was always appropriate. For ultra-left groups, this organizational model has often been a highly centralized, semi-military one, based on their fantasy that revolution is always “just around the corner.” A highly bureaucratic, centralized form also suits revisionist organizations, because it gives the leadership ample means to stifle militant pressures from the base. Part of our own movement has attempted to imitate its favorite periods of Bolshevik or CPUSA history. Others have made What Is To Be Done? their organizational bible, isolating it in time and space to universalize it–thus making a dogma of Lenin’s thought at one moment in its development.
How different this is from Lenin’s practice! In 1902, in What Is To Be Done? Lenin argued that only a tightly knit party of professional revolutionaries led by a semi-secret leadership could evade the Tsarist police and organize among the working class. Yet a few years later, during the Revolution of 1905, Lenin argued for opening up the party to the influence of the masses: the party machinery, created for survival and for the slow task of bringing revolutionary consciousness and organization to the workers from “outside” was too conservative and slow to react in times of mass revolutionary upsurge. Different circumstances called for a different practice of democratic centralism.
How should we apply democratic centralism today? We think these factors are central: The communist movement/lacks political unity; it instead consists of scattered organizations, study groups, and individuals. The main task of the movement is therefore to develop a general line that can unite it and guide it toward greater political effectiveness among the masses. This general line will be the result of political struggle based on serious theoretical and mass work. We face many problems in accomplishing this task, however. Both members and leaders of our movement are at a relatively low level of political development. The movement itself is quite small, even within a relatively small revolutionary Left. The movement is thus isolated from the vast majority of working people, and lacks influence on what workers say, do, and think. The political situation in the United States today is relatively stable; bourgeois political democracy is the dominant political form.
In light of these factors, we think that for the forseeable future our primary emphasis should be on the democratic aspects of democratic centralism. Unity of action and organizational efficiency should be developed within the context of the primacy of democracy – freedom of discussion, frequent reevaluation, and full circulation of information. This method of organizational practice will give our movement the maximum opportunity to develop its politics further. Substantially increasing the degree of centralization and the authority of leadership can only stunt our political growth unless it is based on a solid foundation in unity around a scientific general line.
Instead of rushing to centralize the movement, we must work to build the basis for a healthy centralism. Our movement must consciously develop its leadership and cadre; we must recognize that leadership abilities do not come from playing roles or from assuming organizational titles. The theoretical and practical leadership that we need must grow through struggle as men and women develop their political abilities and become respected for their work. Further, leaders must play an active educational role. To do this, they must lead by example, by fostering criticism and self-criticism at all levels, and by instituting organization-wide programs for political development and for learning practical skills. In addition, since young and inexperienced organizations are bound to make many mistakes, the ability of leaders to take responsibility for them openly and learn from them is particularly important in this period.