background for discussion on democratic centralism

marquit at marquit at
Sun Jul 2 11:33:23 MDT 1995

A little while ago, I prepared some historical background
material on democratic centralism for a discussion
here in Minneapolis. It might be of some use for those
following the current discussion. Here it is.

Erwin Marquit

                       DEMOCRATIC CENTRALISM

In two works, What Is to Be Done? (1902) and One Step
Forward, Two Steps Back (1904), and his (1902) ``Letter to a
Comrade on Our Organizational Tasks'' (LCW 6: 229-50) Lenin
outlined the organizational basis of a party of ``a higher
type,'' where ``the Party, as the vanguard of the working
class, must not be confused with the entire class.'' Under
conditions of police repression, the organization had to be
a disciplined ``organization of people who were
professionally engaged in revolutionary activity.'' Lenin
insisted that ``the centralization of Party work requires,
in addition, unity of organization, which, in a party that
has grown to be anything more than a mere family circle, is
inconceivable without formal rules, without the
subordination of the minority to the majority, of the part
to the whole." "In its struggle for power," wrote Lenin, the
proletariat has no other weapon but organization.  Disunited
by the rule of anarchic competition in the bourgeois world,
ground down by forced labour for capital, constantly thrust
back to the `lower, depths' of utter destitution, savagery
and degeneration, the proletariat can become, and inevitably
will become, an invincible force only when its ideological
unification by the principles of Marxism is consolidated by
the material unity of an organization which will weld
millions of toilers into an army of the working class.''
``Since the strictest secrecy of organisation and
preservation of continuity of the movement is essential, our
Party can and should have two leading centres: a C.O.
(Central Organ) and a C.C. (Central Committee).  The former
should be responsible for ideological leadership. Unity of
action and the necessary solidarity between these groups
should be ensured, not only by a single Party programme, but
also by the composition of the two groups (both groups  . .
. should be made up of people who are in complete harmony
with one another), and by the institution of regular and
systematic joint conferences. Lenin stressed the dialectical
unity of centralization and decentralization of Party work.
``We must centralise the leadership of the movement. We must
also ...  decentralise responsibility to the Party on the
part of its individual members, of every participant in its
work, and of every circle belonging to or associated with
the Party. . . . This decentralisation is nothing but the
reverse side of the division of labor''  In Lenin's view,
the decentralisation was not equivalent to full local
autonomy. ``For the centre not only to advise, persuade, and
argue,  . . . but really conduct the orchestra, it is
necessary to know exactly who is playing which fiddle, and
where and how; what instruction has been or is being
received in playing each instrument; who is playing out of
tune . . . so the discord may be remedied'' (LCW 6:246-48).

      Lenin's ``Draft Rules of the RSDLP'' prepared for its
Second Congress (1903) expressed the relationship between
the central and local organizational structures as follows:
``Each committee, union, organisation, or group recognised
by the Party has charge of affairs relating specifically and
exclusively to its particular locality, district or national
movement, or to the special function assigned to it, being
bound, however, to obey the decisions of the Central
Committee and the Central Organ... '' (LCW 6:475).

   In One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Lenin characterized
the differences between left opportunists and
revolutionaries on organizational principles in the
following way. ``The former [`opportunist Social-Democracy']
``strives to proceed from the bottom upward, ...and,
therefore, wherever possible and as far as possible, upholds
autonomism and `democracy,' carried (by the overzealous) to
the point of anarchism. ...The latter [`revolutionary
Social-Democracy'] strives to proceed from the top downward,
and upholds an extension of the rights and powers of the
centre in relation to the parts'' (LCW 7: 394).

   In What is to Be Done, Lenin maintained that `` `broad
democracy' in Party organisation, amidst the gloom of the
autocracy and the domination of gendarmeries, is nothing
more than a useless and harmful toy. . . . It is a harmful
toy because any attempt to practise `the broad democratic
principle' will simply facilitate the work of the police in
carrying out large-scale raids'' (LCW 5:479). He contrasted
the situation in Russia with that in Germany at that time,
where the Social Democratic Party could function openly.
``Since the entire political arena is as open to the public
view as is a theatre stage to the audience, this acceptance
or nonacceptance, support or opposition, is known to all
from the press and from public meetings. Everyone knows that
a certain political figure began in such and such a way,
passed through such and such an evolution, behaved in a
trying moment in such and such a manner, and possesses such
and such qualities; consequently, all party members, knowing
all the facts, can elect or refuse to elect this person to a
particular party office'' (LCW 5:478)

    The bitter battle over organizational principles in 1903
split the Russian Social-Democratic Workers Party into two
groups, the Bolsheviks (the majority--but a slim one), and
the Mensheviks (the minority).

  The weakening of the autocratic rule of the Tsarist
government in the face of the revolutionary upsurge of 1905
made it possible and necessary for the revolutionary
organizations to function more openly. In July 1905, Lenin
proposed ending the factional split between the Mensheviks
and the Bolsheviks on the basis of acceptance of fundamental
principles of organization which embodied the concept of
what came shortly thereafter to be known as democratic
centralism. These principles, published as the preface to
the pamphlet Workers on the Split in the Party, embraced the
following points.

       1) Submission of the minority to the majority . . .
    2) The congress, i.e., an assembly of elected delegates
    from all duly authorised organisations must be the
    Party's supreme organ; moreover, any decision by these
    elected delegates must be final (this is the principle
    of democratic representation, as opposed to the
    principle of consultative conferences whose decisions
    are submitted to the organisations for endorsement,
    i.e., a plebiscite).
    3) Elections to the Party's central body (or bodies)
    must be by direct vote and must be held at a congress.
    Elections outside a congress, two-stage elections, etc.,
    are impermissible.
    4) All Party publications, both local and central, must
    be completely subordinate to both the Party Congress and
    the relevant central or local organisation of the Party.
    Existence of Party publications organisationally
    unconnected with the Party is impermissible.
    5) There must be an absolutely clear definition of what
    membership of the Party implies.
    6) In like manner, the rights of any Party minority must
    also be clearly defined in the Party Rules.

   In an article entitled ``The Reorganization of the
Party,'' written in November 1905, Lenin stated:
    The conditions in which our Party is functioning are
    changing radically. . . . Freedom of assembly, of
    association and of the press has been captured. Of
    course, these rights are extremely precarious,and it
    would be folly, if not a crime, to pin our faith to the
    present liberties. . . . The secret apparatus of the
    Party must be maintained. But at the same time, it is
    absolutely necessary to make the widest possible use of
    the present relatively wider scope for our activity. In
    addition to the secret apparatus, it is absolutely
    necessary to create many new legal and semi-legal Party
    organisations (and organisations associated with the
    Party). . . . We . . .  have repeatedly said that
    complete democratisation of the Party was impossible in
    conditions of secret work, and that in such conditions
    the `elective principle' was a mere phrase. And
    experience has confirmed our words.  But we Bolsheviks
    have always recognised that in new conditions, when
    political liberties were acquired, it would be essential
    to adopt the elective principle.'' He then announced the
    plan to put this principle into practice at Fourth Party
    Congress. Lenin stressed the urgency of this
    reorganisation. `` Our Party has stagnated while working
    underground.''. . . The `underground' is breaking up.
    Forward, then more boldly; take up the new weapon,
    distribute it among hew people, extend your bases, rally
    all the worker Social Democrats round yourselves,
    incorporate them into the ranks of the Party
    organisations by hundreds and thousands. (LCW 10:29-32)

   In December 1905 the Bolsheviks held a conference in
Tammerfors, Finland, at which a resolution on democratic
centralism was adopted.

    Recognising that the principle of democratic
    centralism is beyond dispute, the conference regards it
    as essential to establish a broad electoral principle
    whilst allowing to the elected central bodies full power
    in ideological and practical leadership, together with
    their revocability and with the widest publicity and
    strictest accountability of their actions. (Waller 1981,

This principle of democratic centralism was also adopted by
the Mensheviks at about the same time and was included as
part of the basis for organizational unity at what has come
to be known as the Unity Congress of the RSDLP held in
Stockholm 23 April-8 May 1906. Lenin's tactical platform for
the Unity Congress included among the principles of Party

       The principle of democratic centralism in the Party
    is now universally recognised; . . .
       although made difficult, it can nevertheless be put
    into effect within certain limits in existing political
    conditions. . . .
       That the elective principle in the Party
    organisations should be applied from top to bottom; . .
       that departures from this principle, for example: a
    two-stage elections or co-optation to elected bodies,
    etc., may be permitted only when police obstacles are
    insurmountable, and in exceptional cases especially
    provided for; . . .
       that there must be one central body for the Party,
    i.e., the general congress of the Party must elect a
    single Central Committee, which shall appoint the
    editorial board of the Party's Central Organ etc.

In his ``Report on the Unity Congress of the RSDLP,'' Lenin
indicated that the Mensheviks (who were in the majority at
this congress) did not accept the principle that the
editorial board of the central organ be appointed by the
Central Committee and carried the point that it be elected
the Congress, and not be responsible to the Central
Committee. He stressed that

    there remains an important, serious and extremely
    responsible task: really to apply the principles of
    democratic centralism in Party organisation, to work
    tirelessly to make the local organisations the principal
    organisational units of the Party in fact, and not
    merely in name, and to see to it that all the higher-
    standing bodies are elected, accountable, and subject to
    recall. . . . The autonomy of every Party organisation,
    which hitherto has been largely a dead letter, must
    become a reality. (LCW 10: 376)
      Shortly after the congress, Lenin criticized a resolution

by the Central Committee which stated that ``in the Party
press and at Party meetings, everybody must be allowed full
freedom to express his personal opinions and to advocate his
individual views,'' but that at public political meetings no
Party member should . . .  call for action that runs counter
to congress decisions.'' Lenin made the point that this was
a wrong relationship between freedom to criticize within the
Party and the Party's unity of action. He argued that

    ``criticism within the limits of the principles of the
    Party Programme must be quite free . . . not only at
    Party meetings, but also at public meetings. . . . No
    calls that violate the unity of definite actions can be
    tolerated either at public meetings, or at Party
    meetings, or in the Party press.''

He gave the following example: A Party member has the right
to criticize a decision to take part in elections before the
elections are announced, but such criticism after the
elections are announced would disturb the unity of an action
in which the Party was engaged thereby jeopardizing the
success of the election campaign.

    ``The principle of democratic centralism and of the
    autonomy of local Party organizations implies universal
    and full freedom to criticize, 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.'' (LCW 10:

   In 1907 Lenin further extends the concept of democratic
organization by stressing that

     ``in order that the settlement of a question may be
    really democratic, it is not enough to call together the
    elected representatives of the organisation. It is
    necessary that all the members of the organisation, in
    electing their representatives, should at the same time
    independently and each for himself, express their
    opinion on the point at issue before the whole
    organisation. . . . A strike cannot be conducted with
    the necessary solidarity , voting at elections will not
    be conducted intelligently, unless every worker
    consciously and voluntarily decides for himself the
    question: to strike or not to strike? (LCW 11: 435)

Lenin then cited the example of the St. Petersburg Party
Committee electing delegates to a conference only after
there had been a discussion of the principle issues of the

The Party Program of 1919 contains the following statement:
    The party finds itself in a position where the strictest
    centralism and the most rigourous discipline are
    absolute necessities. All decisions of a higher
    jurisdiction are absolutely binding for lower ones. Each
    decision must above all be fulfilled, and only after
       this is an appeal to the respective party organ
    permissible.  In this sense outright military discipline
    is essential for the party at the present time. (Daniels
    1960, 1:173)


Lenin defined a faction in his article ``The New Faction of
Conciliators, or the Virtuous (1911):
    A faction is an organisation within a party, united, not
    by its place of work, language or other objective
    conditions, but by a particular platform of views on
    party questions ...bound by internal discipline
       ...What is the reason for the existence of
    factions in the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party?
    The exist as the continuation of the split of 1903-05.
    ...How can the abolition of factions really be
    guaranteed? Only by completely healing the split, which
    dates from the time of the revolution  ...and by
    creating a proletarian organisation strong enough to
    force the minority to submit the majority.
The present Constitution of the Communist Party of Canada
contains the following section on factionalism:
    No member may form or participate in a faction--that is
    a group which advocates a political line different from
    or opposed to that decided by the Convention or the
    respective responsible Party committee, and which agrees
    formally or othrwise to an internal discipline standing
    above that of the Party.


The Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920
put forward the following conditions of adherence to the
Communist International:

     ...12. Parties belonging to the Communist
    International must be based on the principle of
    democratic centralism. In the present epoch of acute
    civil war the communist party will be able to fulfil its
    duty only if its organization is as centralized as
    possible, if iron discipline prevails, and if the party
    centre, upheld by the confidence of party membership,
    has strength and authority and is equipped with the most
    comprehensive powers (Daniels 1960, 98).

Lenin's original proposed text of this condition was

    13. Parties belonging to the Communist International
    must be organised on the principle of democratic
    centralism. In this period of acute civil war, the
    Communist parties can perform their duty only if they
       are organized in a most centralised manner, are marked
    by an iron discipline bordering on military discipline,
    and have strong and authoritative party centres invested
    with wide powers and enjoying the unanimous confidence
    of the membership. (LCW 31:210)

In the same way, the attidude toward factions in the
Communist movement has not been one of absolute prohibition,
but based on the history of the particular parties. While no
party would very likely view factions as a good thing,
prohibition is another matter. In the U.S. factionalism has
had a devasting effect on the CPUSA over various periods of
its history and its prohibition has, over the years, been
generally accepted by the members. The German Communist
Party, on the other hand, at its last convention discussed
factionalism and decided to continue its policy of not
prohibiting the formation of factions, while continuing its
adherence to Marxism-Leninism.

Reference list
Daniels, Robert V. 1960. A documentary history of communism.
   New York: Random House
Lenin, Vladimir I. 1962-. V.I. Lenin: Collected Works. Moscow
   Progress Publishers.
Waller, Michael. 1981. Democratic centralism: A historical
   commentary. New York: St. Martin's Press.

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