Democratic centralism

Historical notes on democratic centralism

Democratic Centralism is not so much as written about by Lenin as developed in practice. The approach he was engaged in was seen by Lenin as applying the traditional approach of the British labour movement of democracy in discussion combined with centralism in action to a specifically Russian strategy of building a vanguard party. He observed the past successes and failures of the working class movement in Russia and considered this against historical experience elsewhere. Trade unions, for example, put leadership proposals to the vote at mass meetings and then use picket lines to enforce a majority decision. It was more in how he and others worked in practice that informed the developing theory. But there are places where you can see his thinking in text.
In his “What is to be Done?”, Lenin first really put clearly the case for a disciplined party in Russia. Since this was a political tract, he did not elborate rules and procedures but it is clear from the subtext that the politics of his argument meant that these had to be located in some way within the norms of early working class democracy as well as the consiratorial conditions that Tsarist Russia dictated were needed if socialists were to be effect and not armchair politicians.
But would the workers’ party would follow the lines of a the Rules of the pre-1848 Communist League, which was conspiratorial, or the International Workingmen’s Association (First International), which was based on the same general principles that unions followed in Britain in the 19th century?
The First International was largely created by British trade unionists, who had won legal recognition for their right to organise, and it conducted its business according to the formal meeting procedures as used by British trades unions, and inherited from the late-medieval trade guilds and later companies. Membership was not individual; trades unions and small socialist of workers educational groups affiliated al their members including those who may well have not actually agreed with all the aims of the International. 
The Second International, founded in the 1880s, continued the formal approach to organisation as used in the trade unions, but succeeded in building stable national sections; in many countries, it achieved a mass membership amongst the unionised workers, but membership was contingent on agreement to the Party’s program and rules, rather than simply affiliating via their union — something that was never the case with the First International.
Conditions in Russia were very different from that in Western Europe and America, however. Unionism and Communism/Socilaism were illegal and it was impossible to operate openly within Russia. Whereas in Europe, Socialist delegates were being elected to Parliament, and in some countries actually participated in government, the social-democrats in Russia were either in exile or underground. During the last two decades of the 19th century, the Russian social-democrats had existed only as so many “circles” much like the “secret societies” of Europe decades earlier. They were frequently dispersed by the police and were amateurish and in a continual state of flux. It was this challenge that led Lenin to consider how democracy and centralism could interplay in the context of planning for power.
Features recognisable to us today as “democratic” were part of these Internationals’ behaviour and arose out of the British union tradition and, Lenin argued, needed to be part of a party’s life:
  • Periodic election of all party committees
  • Responsibility of party committees up and down.
  • The minority accepts the majority
  • Majority positions remain until policy is changed.
  • Lower bodies accept the decisions of higher ones.
  • Party organisations and members act with collective responsibility 
 In a sense, there wasn’t really a big difference about this heritage and the thing that split the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks was more how `armchair’ socialists should be viewed in the context of actual revolutionary practice. The key difference at the 1903 RSDLP congress was seemingly minor; Lenin proposed that a party member was someone who recognizes the Party’s programme and supports it by working within one of the Party’s organizations. [The CPB has just such a clause in its rules today. The Mensheviks were for the idea that supporting the Party’s position by directed assistance was enough. The subtle nuance was the difference between being vaguely associated and actually involved.
Only as the Bolsheviks began to effectively become a separate party – albeit that technically the two wings (and the `neutral’ centre ground) were all in one party – did the detail of what was now widely being called democratic centralism emerge. Actually agreeing with and not just recognising the Party’s programme and the obligation to work under the direction of one of a Party organisations was elaborated in Lenin’s One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.
Finally, Lenin describes, in “State and Revolution”, proletarian democracy as being in the context of democratic centralism working outside of the party in society at large. But he is clear that in both sets of cicrumstances the widest and most democratic of discussion should take place prior to any decision. He also suggests the right of people to determine their own activity, and opposes any division of labour between administration and action. Thus democratic centralism implies that an organisation ought to be so structured as to provide the capacity of any part of organisation to participate in determining policies relevant to their own responsibilities.
Unity isn’t achieved by orders from above but can only be based on agreement and commitment. When a policy has been determined by means of protracted and thoroughgoing discussion amongst those who must carry it out, then unity in action is easily achieved. However, unforeseen events require an instant response, so unity in action necessarily involves an acceptance of leadership.
A troop of soldiers under enemy fire would be ill-advised to subject their tactics to thoroughgoing discussion; someone has responsibility for giving instructions. On the other hand, a trade union deciding whether or not to accept the bosses’ offer or continue the strike can and must take as long as is necessary to ensure that everyone is in agreement on what to do: consensus is the order of the day, and ‘leaders’ should take a back seat. Thus, the balance between democracy and centralism must move according to circumstances.
Conditions in the course of building Soviet power conflated the democratic cnetralism of the Party and of the people; made the difference between Party and state indistinguishable and thus stunted the development of the democracy part of the democratic centralism aspect that is at the root of the concept of workers’ power.