A SUMMARY OF SOME KEY TEXTS BY LENIN
WHAT IS TO BE DONE? From 1902 to today
At first sight, the book by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, "What is to be Done?", seems to be very fixed in the time and place it was written. He wrote it in 1902 as an answer to what the next steps that the fragmented trends of progressive opinion in Tsarist Russia had to take. At the time, few realised just how powerful Lenin’s ideas were.
The kinds of civil liberties we take for granted in modern Britain (weak though they are!) were not open to radical groups in Russia then. Revolutionary forces were weak and had to operate underground. Trade unions were only just getting established and the revolutionary movement was grappling with how to relate to them. Lenin set out some clear principles, along the way sketching out how a successful strategy for achieving power could be developed. Within a couple of years, revolutionaries were in the thick of a revolution, partly brought about by Lenin’s approach. Though it was unsuccessful, there were many who thought that it could not have happened when they were reading what he had written. Only a dozen years later, broad councils of trades unionists and peasants’ leaders were actually able to take power. Lenin’s book was central to that process.
Like most of his Lenin’s works, it’s a difficult book to get a handle on, if you read it without understanding the context in which it was written. Especially as he gets to his point by showing how many on the Left were following blind alleys. It’s not really necessary to intimately know all the fine detail of the politics of the time to grasp his direction though. It’s perhaps enough to realise that Russian socialism is in a bit of mess!
He is against the idea that spontaneous strike waves can be a basis for revolution; you can’t rely on this as a means for making fundamental political change. Equally, those who supposedly follow Marxism, but who in practice fail to act in a revolutionary way (by saying that you have to follow every instinct of the workers) have it wrong.
Only by the creation of a revolutionary Party can this mess be sorted out. This is Lenin’s starting point: “there can be no revolutionary movement without a revolutionary theory.”(1) Such a theory must help the mass of the people move from spontaneity (or trade union consciousness) to class (or revolutionary) consciousness. A new way ahead is needed. Not to worship spontaneity, but to “reject subservience to and conciliation with what already exists”. (2) He proposes a revolutionary party that acts as a guiding force, to educate and organise for revolution not reform.
Complex political theories have always been developed by the intelligentsia, but this does not by any means exclude the working class from engagement in theory. For the Party can transform them into worker-intellectuals. Socialist theory explains to workers their position and therefore it is attractive to them but it cannot spontaneously emerge from their minds. Without theory, the workers inevitably slide into trying to improve their conditions within capitalism.
So, revolutionaries have an obligation to contract into the mass labour movement since struggle cannot become "class struggle" until it is led by “a strong organization of revolutionaries”. (3) Since Marxism seeks to abolish the wages system, it’s wrong to base strategy on bettering it – the essence of trade union action and the consciousness which flows from it. Lenin defines this approach as the conviction of the need for “fighting against the employers, and for trying to prevail upon the government to pass laws necessary for the workers”. (4)
More than this is needed, as this kind of consciousness comes out of the workers’ crude, rough-and-ready experience of the wages system. An altogether different source is the basis of socialism which “has grown out of the philosophical, historical, and economic theories” of the intelligentsia. (5) Spontaneous movements of workers are not revolutionary in character, moreover they minimise the possibilities by their form. In contrast, Lenin argues “no revolutionary movement can be durable without a stable organization of leaders which preserves continuity”. (6)
Let no-one tell you that Lenin was only writing from an Asiatic perspective. His understanding draws from the analysis of Marx’s co-writer, Friedrich Engels. Living until only a decade before Lenin was writing, Engels was a close observer of the British trade union scene and Lenin has this experience in mind when he talks of trade union consciousness.
Lenin saw the socialist movement as having been corrupted by those who would restrict action to a “`realistic’ struggle for trivial, gradual reforms… in practice, it meant an attempt to transform the nascent (i.e. coming into being) labour movement into an appendage of the liberals.” (7) He is not concerned as such with how to maximise the role of trade unions, but how to revolutionise the working class. However, this does not mean he does not care about trade union struggle. The “more rapidly our employers join together in all sorts of societies and syndicates, the more urgent does the need for this organization by trades become”. (8)
But all groups amongst the people need to be mobilised by taking up all the issues that concern individuals and important groups in society. Even more vital is to identify a link between the varying issues and sections. Broad work is vital for Lenin, political agitation must be “unified throughout Russia, illuminating all sides of life and directed to the broadest masses”. (9) There is a need for political organisation to channel the grievances of the dissatisfied masses, “both the working class and ever more diverse strata of society produce every year increasingly large numbers of people who are dissatisfied”. (10)
Trade union consciousness can all too often be parochial, not only in a sectional sense, but also can lack a wider national perspective. As Lenin puts it “local activists are too immersed in local work”, for this reason he seeks to “shift slightly the centre of gravity to all-Russian work”(11), especially by launching a national revolutionary newspaper. For Lenin the need for a revolutionary Party is paramount, unlike supposed `socialists’ who do not understand “our first and most urgent practical task: to create an organisation of revolutionaries able to guarantee the energy, stability, and continuity of the political struggle”. (12)
There were those who thought there was no basis yet for a revolutionary socialist party in Russia and that Marxists should take part in the movements of the liberal bourgeoisie, whilst others believed that a revolutionary Party was important, but that it should be directed by the workers as to what it should do and say. Such groups, which were essentially revisionist in character and uninvolved in underground struggle, had seized upon the arguments of the, at times, militant activists on economic issues. But Lenin argued that militancy was not enough, developing the organisational base of the revolutionary party was the core of Lenin’s concern. For there will be no transformation of the capitalist system into a socialist one without a revolutionary party. Achieving a revolutionary transformation of society requires a conscious and clear body of revolutionaries. Inevitably, to understand the character of society they live in and seek to change, they will need to study, analyse and theorize upon it in order that they can guide isolated grievances into a coherent revolutionary struggle. Hence revolutionaries need to be always prepared: “We must always carry on our everyday work and always be prepared for everything, because very often it is almost impossible to foresee in advance the change from period of explosion to periods of calm.”(13)
In the final pages of the book, Lenin gives a short answer to the question `What is to be done?’ – that’s to say to “liquidate” (15) the period of Russian socialist history which began in 1897-8 and which Lenin characterises as a “period of disarray, disintegration, and vacillation”. (16) He compares it to the breaking of a boy’s voice in adolescence, a stage in growing-up.
Remarkably, the tactics argued for in `What Is To Be Done?’ formed the basis for transmitting Bolshevik strategy in 1917. The building of alliances with other anti-Tsarist forces (peasant and anarchist groups), the proposal of immediate and unifying broad policies (Bread, Peace, Land) and the construction of broad, responsive mass organisations (the soviets) are all pre-figured here. But the key was to gain understanding that there can be no revolutionary movement without a revolutionary theory and that trade union consciousness needs to be developed into a revolutionary consciousness in order to achieve socialism.
The relevance of Lenin’s thinking, both in the general body of his work, and in this text is ever more evident. The prevailing and ailing economic system in Britain will not be abolished in favour of a socialist system without revolutionary transformation. The building of a stronger Communist Party and Young Communist League is critical to such a process. From 1902 to 2004, an organic link between Lenin’s ideas and the British Road to Socialism is evident if only you are to look for it.
References: All page numbers are from V I Lenin, “What is to be Done?” (1902) Oxford University Press (1963), Panther Modern Society Edition (1963) (1) p75, (2) p78, (3) p182, (4) p80, (5) p80, (6) p169, (7) p67, (8) p198, (9) p216, (10) p174, (11) p191, (12) p150, (13) pp215-6, (14) p147, (15) p222, (16) p220
“Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism”
Writing this in 1916 in Switzerland, Lenin used a style in this work that would enable the Tsarist censor to permit it to be published in Russia. He would use, say, Japan as an example, hoping that the reader would simply substitute Russia and see that the critique held up. Of course he could not speak of his opposition to the First World War as being all about the pursuit of plunder. But, looking back in a later preface, it seems clear to him that this was so and to explain his view of the origins of that war is his underlying purpose.
Why is it that elements of the workers’ movement were sucked in to support the war and became super-aggressive towards Marxists? In a nutshell, the combatant countries only represented a tenth of the world’s population yet absorbed a hugely disproportionate share of resources and this allows for “bribery” of a compliant “labour aristocracy”, who do not take kindly to be told the truth.
Lenin had poured over the massive literature on this subject that had sought to understand the rapid carving up of the world into gigantic empires in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Why had this happened? The most obvious underlying fact was the massive drive to monopoly production that preceded it. In the US, this concentration saw half of all production carried out by a mere 1% of the total number of enterprises. This was a relatively new but irresistible phenomena, predicted by Marx but once thought `unnatural’ by others. Marx and Lenin knew that it was not only inevitable, some use could come from it. For: “Competition becomes transformed into monopoly. The result is immense progress in the socialization of production.” Which is a transitional stage of some interest to socialists, for “monopoly is the transition from capitalism to a higher system.”
It seems obvious that monopolies would seek to dominate the origins of scarce resources. But they are not so strong as to be able to permanently fend of economic crises. New shifts in technological solutions may well generate new monopolists. Banks are central to all this, they have grown from “humble middlemen” to monopolies in themselves. Even in Lenin’s time, they are examples of a stunning concentration of capital. This `socialisation’, or “common bookkeeping” has seen the domination of stock exchanges by what we would call `institutional investors’.
Lenin runs through the range of dodgy ways that capitalism had begun to run its system that we are all too familiar with now. Spread shareholdings to control companies with minimum expenditure, internal transfer pricing to shift resources around tightly controlled but seemingly separate subsidiaries, monopoly pricing and so on. These minute details were more for the Russian censor than for our education. However, in describing the way finance capital works, Lenin was pointing to the importance of the export of capital in binding the system internationally.
No longer was imperialism necessarily about the export or import of goods. The uneven development of the world now resulted in the accumulation of enormous sums of capital in the developed world. This would never be used to raise the standards of life of their own people. Capitalists sought lands where “capital is scarce, the price of land is relatively low, wages are low, raw materials are cheap”. A table of the growth of the export of capital from Britain, France and Germany reveals the staggering growth of this practice in the half century up to 1914. But the dominance of particular national brands of finance capital also led to the “actual division of the world”.
Forget the fashionable cry of globalisation. “Capitalism long ago created a world market.” The “supermonopolies” (we would call them transnational corporations) divide the world up amongst themselves. Just replace the names of oil companies and countries mentioned by Lenin with modern equivalents and you could be talking about the early 21st not the early 20th century. The big change is to substitute the USA for Britain as the single most significant world power.
Relations grow up between monopolies and states for the “struggle for economic territory”. The export of capital extracted from domestic labour to other markets is one of the few outlets for capitalism to boost profits. (The others are to exploit labour more ruthlessly or more thoroughly.) This then took the form of carving up the globe and allocating colonies or territorial control. Possession of a country guarantees control over resources and raw materials.
Imperialism reaches out to all territories, seeking their re-allocation and division. Attempts by apologists to argue that this isn’t really the motive, because the normal course of trade would source the required products in any case, completely missed the point about monopoly. Anyhow, Imperialism not only annexes countries, it also so penetrated the economies of others that they were effectively a “semi-colony”. You even get the situation where a small imperialist power founds itself a junior partner in crime. As in Russia’s relationship to France in Lenin’s day, or Britain’s to the US in ours.
Imperialism is “the highest stage of capitalism” not merely its latest stage and its “characteristic feature imperialism is … finance capital.” It is not merely one form of capitalism it is capitalism.
You can’t explain the bloodiness of it away. The theory of “ultra-imperialism”, that all rival capitalisms would eventually subjugate their rivalries into one and peace would reign, is ludicrous. It arises from a misconception that finance capital lessens contradictions, when in fact it exacerbates them. Indeed, monopoly produces a tendency to economic stagnation, “parasitism and decay”. Whilst the piling up of wealth in developed areas of the world on the one hand, with the attractions of capital injection in areas starved of finance on the other is a perfect recipe for endless war.
As always, Lenin displays remarkable foresight. He tells us that we will see the development of ever more debtor states (now we call these the developing world) with a handful of creditor states (now the Group of 8 economically powerful nations) ruling the roost. Moreover, the far-off notion of a United States of Europe (a utopian alternative to war back then) would emphasis the parasitic role of finance capital and be aimed at reducing the role of what is now the developing world in world development.
“The State and Revolution” by V I Lenin
It is significant that Lenin’s introduction to this work is dated August 1917, only weeks before he led the successful Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. He was in hiding at the time and thinking hard about how the capitalist class uses force, in the form of the state, against change and how revolutionaries should handle that.
The world war then raging had changed everything. The opportunist trend in socialism, having supported the war, was now seeking to benefit from this politically. Of course when Lenin was writing, few of the world’s people had the right to a vote on what the government should be. Even in Britain, most working class men had only been voting for a single generation and no women yet had the vote.
Lenin reminds us that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had already done much to establish understanding that any particular form of state rule was “the product of society at a certain stage of development”. A state is the product of the “irreconcilability of class antagonisms” in that society. But it doesn’t reconcile these conflicts, standing above the fray, it’s an organ for the rule of a dominant group.
States have what seems like `natural’ territory. There’s generally no citizen army but a “special body of armed men” and a distinct “public power” that grows as it conflicts with “self-acting” groups of the population. Sometimes, struggle between specific class groups can cause a sort of stand off. But normally, the great wealth of a dominant class can cause it to exercise power over state officials. This works best in a `democratic’ society, since self-interest is the motor. Voting is a “gauge of the maturity of the working class” at any one moment but in itself it doesn’t change much.
Contrary to many misconceptions, Communism doesn’t seek a ruthlessly powerful state but actually wants it to “wither away”. But this can only happen if there are no longer any irreconcilable class interests. The first step is to take control of the means of production, the last step will be to end the historic role of the state. Eventually, the “government of persons” will be replaced by “the administration of things”, the state will effectively be abolished.
This doesn’t mean some sort of reformist evolution, not now at any rate. The capitalist type state has to be abolished by working people taking power. An election alone doesn’t do this, since the state is not ours to merely `capture’, no one is going to merely hand it over. We need our own form of “political rule” in a state to “abolish all exploitation … in the interests of the vast majority of the people”. Previous to socialist revolutions, transformations have only “perfected the state machine whereas it must be broken”. A new state machine is required, one that is the working class “organised as the ruling class”, or in the phrase current at the time “dictatorship of the proletariat”, perhaps better now rendered as `absolute rule of working people’, or even popular sovereignty.
So far, Lenin has been grappling with these questions as they actually affect the struggle going on in Russia at the time. He ridicules the antics of phoney socialists, for the coming struggle will be intense. There will be a need for a state that is democratic “in a new way”. Capitalist states vary in form but their essence is the same – exploitation of wage labour and production for commodity sale not for the needs of the people.
Looking back on the takeover of Paris by workers in 1871, Lenin hails this as the first attempt at real democracy. But the rebellion was ruthlessly crushed by armed force with great loss of life, even though a new state power had been erected locally with officials from the people. The lesson is clear, don’t imagine that you can simply use the existing state machine for your own purposes. Lenin reminds us that Marx estimated that, exceptionally, in Britain there was a time when this might even have been possible due to the size and power of its working class. But things have moved on, states have now become massive repressive instruments.
The question of precisely what form the replacement state will take will be answered by “the experience of the mass movement”. As we `workerise’ business, the question of who has the power can be solved. Such an action has to take place nationally, their needs to be central authority; there can be no utopian islands of socialism. Unlike anarchists, Marxists understand the need for state authority until the final victory.
Creating a truly democratic state requires a new approach. Putting state officials on workers’ wages is one way of `flattening the pyramid’. Socialist ministers change nothing if the old bureaucratic machine carries on. Civil servants really run the show, so converting state assemblies from talking shops into “working bodies” is a key step.
Even Engels once `conceived’ of a peaceful transition in Germany, if there had been the development of full democracy; but where real power lies away from a parliament this presents problems. Nonetheless, democratic republics are getting nearer to what we are looking for. Even if capital has not been abolished, it opens up possibilities for struggle.
The use of the federal form can be positive or negative. Britain would benefit from what we now call devolution, Lenin tells us. But some states need more unifying not less. The important question is: does it aid the future transition to a workers’ state? Of course, recognising the needs of national minorities is important. But states need a unifying `democratic centralism’ in the final analysis, however much local democracy there is.
But the abolition of the state, by gradually diminishing aspects of authority, also means the abolition of democracy – in itself a form of state rule. This withering away will be a lengthy process and will constitute a special stage of transition from capitalism. There’s no point speculating about the nature of society as this happens. Developed states across the world are diverse. The only thing that is clear is that the state “develops historically from capitalism”, so hangovers are certain. But capitalist democracy trends towards excluding especially the poor from involvement. This will change but, as realists, Communists also understand the “inevitability of excesses of the part of individual persons”.
In the first stage of communism or socialism, equality is not possible between individuals who are all very different. But exploitation has come to an end and capitalist property rights have been converted into common property. The principle of “he (or she!) who does not work, neither shall he eat” will generally apply. There’s still strong control over the distribution of goods.
The higher phase of communist society applies a different principle, of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. The development of productive forces will need to reach a very high level. The nature of labour itself is transformed. A culture of such sophistication can be attained, so that society no longer needs to “regulate the quantity of products to be received by each” (the market mechanism). This isn’t utopianism; it just naturally follows from a change to social ownership and the marginalisation of the class that currently controls the commodity production system.
The difference between these two stages is tremendous. It is the process of refining socialism into communism that should provide the great strength of the new system – until it no longer needs a state. Real democracy is achieved through actual participation, similar to the workplace group discipline and atmosphere found amongst close-knit groups of workers,. This will replace the need for armed bodies of control.
After scathing attacks on opportunists and revisionists who distort the essence of the Marxist understanding about the role of the state, Lenin `ends’ the book with a chapter heading but no words; in fact, he never managed to finish `State and Revolution’, being “interrupted by a political crisis – the eve of the October Revolution of 1917”. As he says, it was more useful to experience revolution than to write about it!
LENIN’S “`LEFT-WING’ COMMUNISM: AN INFANTILE DISORDER”
This was written by Lenin in 1920 and he himself called it “an attempt at a popular discussion on Marxist strategy and tactics”. Like so much of his writing, it is very much up to date for 1920 but, nowadays, it can be puzzling just to come across the names of the long forgotten adversaries he bandies about. At times, it seems that all he can say is `this person is wrong on this or that’. But what makes it fascinating reading today is just how relevant his core thinking is now
Both the title and the description say it all really. Communists have to understand what is a short-term tactic and how these aid our longer-term strategies. It’s a distinctive feature of Communist politics.
Lenin is concerned to show how both right wing and ultra-leftist positions sap the confidence of the revolutionary movement. The “left-wing” Communist is suffering from something akin to revolutionary chicken pox; even if it’s not exactly the plague, it’s still a childish aberration.
Writing so soon after the Russian Revolution, Lenin draws attention to its international significance and yet insists its experience should not be seen as rigid model. Revolutionaries need not only internal discipline; they should also seek mass support. This does not mean falling prey to the “old refrain” of the right wing in the movement, who are slaves to doing everything through parliament and do not see how extra-parliamentary movements can be linked up with `legal’ struggle.
But the movement also suffers from those addicted to fads, often the type that fashionably recoils at the “horrors of capitalism”. Twice, Lenin recalls, the Bolsheviks had to combat left deviations in the Party. Once on whether to participate in the Tsarist parliament; and again when the Bolsheviks compromised to accept an unfavourable peace treaty with the Kaiser’s Germany.
Compromise is “admissible” when the adversary is an “armed bandit”! It is quite another thing to compromise with the class enemy as an accomplice. But the leftist cult of opposition to leaders is the supreme “infantile disorder”, even if in itself it is not a “dangerous illness”.
This leads neatly on to the question of whether revolutionaries should work in reactionary trade unions. For Lenin, it is “absurd” not to do so. Even in conditions of state power, there is a need to keep contact with non-Party mass organisations, so as to “watch the mood of the masses”. Anyway, trade unions are “schools of Communism”.
It’s the same argument as whether to participate in capitalist dominated parliaments. Of course we do, says Lenin. But at that time many British Communists were so angry at the role of Parliament and the Labour leadership in pursuing the bloody war of 1914-18, they lost their cool over the whole question and Lenin had to put them right.
Lenin devotes a lot of space to this and it is, as they say, `deja vu all over again’. He’s especially welcoming of what he calls “the temper” of young British revolutionaries. But temper “alone” is not enough. Hatred for the system doesn’t dismantle it. True, the Labour leadership – including its leader, Arthur Henderson, is hopelessly reactionary. Sure, they’re all bloody war criminals. But anti-socialists seek accommodation with them, to strengthen the capitalist system. A section of Liberal opinion has even linked up with Labour’s leadership. So, we need to tile the balance our way a bit.
A revolution in Britain is impossible “without a national crisis affecting both the exploiters and the exploited”. A crisis so intense that it draws in even the most politically backward of people. We must help Labour beat the Liberals and Tories precisely because Labour is “afraid to win” such a struggle. Communists should propose unity and, if it is rejected and the people clearly see that Henderson is useless and prefers capitalists, they are more likely to turn to the left. (This is where the oft-quoted phrase about supporting Henderson, the Labour leader note – not the party, like a rope supports a hanging man comes in!)
Communists shouldn’t contest elections where they split the vote and prevent Labour from being elected. Voting for Labour is not a “betrayal of Communism”, not if it brings us closer to its voters. To do anything else just “scatters our forces”. Not much point in getting a few hundred votes here and there when you need millions to win.
Britain is Britain, and elsewhere is elsewhere, concludes Lenin. He’s a practical politician as well as a revolutionary, with his feet firmly on the ground. You’ve got to think about how to work in such a way that you take the struggle to a point where “the inevitable conflicts” mature.
No one, he ends, can say what turn events will take. But it’s our duty to carry on preparatory work until an “immediate cause” rouses the people. Revolutionary politics is indeed a “difficult” business; but this is nothing compared to the task of revolution itself!
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 centralism 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.