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This article was originally published in Socialist Review, July-August 1978, as part of a debate on democratic centralism

In 1968 the International Socialism group transformed itself, after a five-month long debate and two conferences, from a federalist into a democratic centralist organisation. As the 1930 Theses on the Role of the Communist Party in Proletarian Revolution had described it, ‘The chief principle of democratic centralism is the election of the higher party cells by the lower, the unconditional and indispensable binding authority of all of the instructions of the higher bodies for the lower and the existence of a strong party centre whose authority is generally recognised as binding for all leading party comrades in the period from one party conference to another.’

IS thus joined those groups, both Communist and Trotskyist who, whatever their differences, shared one belief in common – that a democratic centralist form of organisation was essential for the construction of a revolutionary party and that without such a party no socialist revolution was possible.

The Case for Democratic Centralism

The arguments for a democratic centralist party structure are powerful ones. At the most general level they may reduce to the following considerations:
• capital is centralised, on a world scale, so we too must be centralised in order to combat it;
• no ruling class in history has voluntarily abdicated power, so even if the revolution is non-violent we must envisage a violent and bloody counter-revolution and prepare accordingly;
• levels of consciousness in the proletariat are uneven; and
• the most advanced, conscious and far-seeing sections of the class must be grouped together and their experience generalised.

The party is not to be confused with the class: in all but revolutionary situations and the immediate prelude the party will be a small fraction of the class. While this realisation helps protect the party from dissolving into the class, representing the immediate interests of this or that section rather than the long-term historical interest of the working class as a whole in overthrowing capitalism, it also opens the party to the dangers of ‘substitutionism’ and sectarianism – mistaking its own interests and goals for those of the class. The party has to tread a tightrope between opportunism/liquidationism on the one hand and ultra-left sectarianism on the other. The democratic centralist form of organisation as pioneered by the Bolshevik party seemed to present the most favourable organisational form given the tasks and dangers it faced.

Basing itself on the Russian experience and that of the immediate post-war period, the Second Congress of the Communist International enshrined democratic centralism as the form of organisation applicable to the proletarian vanguard throughout the world. But the experience that followed was not encouraging. The construction of ‘parties of a new type’, the process of Bolshevisation of the new communist parties, which took place internationally in the early 1920s, did so when the revolutionary wave was ebbing throughout Europe. In these circumstances the democratic centralist model provided an organisational structure which concentrated authoritarian control in monolithic form never before experienced in the workers’ movement and, needless to say, savagely detrimental to the interests of proletarian revolution.

The response of the only consistent revolutionary current – the International Left Opposition and subsequently the Fourth International – was not to question the form of organisation but only the political line. Indeed Trotsky never seems to have recovered from his late conversion to recognising the need for the Bolshevik Party; his response afterwards was an over-estimation of what the party could accomplish on its own, a counterpart to his interpretation of the crisis as a crisis of leadership. And the sensitivity in Trotsky’s own analysis, the pinning of it to a forecast of events which failed to materialise, was rarely followed among his followers who in one way or another have fetishised the Leninist (i.e. democratic centralist) form of organisation.

The construction of ‘democratic centralist’ organisation was nowhere able to spearhead the conquest of power even before Stalinism had triumphed. The Russian revolution remained isolated; the form of organisation it had given rise to was nowhere near as successful.

For this reason if for no other it would be necessary to look afresh at the concept of democratic centralism. The task is doubly important today. Ten years after the events of 1968 placed the creation of revolutionary parties of the working class firmly on the agenda, progress has been extremely limited. Perhaps the forms of organisation adopted have played their part in undermining the credibility of the revolutionary project as a whole.

Efficiency versus Democracy?

Underlying general justifications for the democratic centralist form is an assumption that the two aspects (democracy; centralism) are more or less separable. Lip service is paid to their ‘indissoluble, dialectical unity’ but the image which prevails is that of the Bolshevik Party in conditions of illegality in Tsarist Russia where all democratic aspects were more or less rendered inoperable. There is somehow a view that the party must above all else be efficient and that democracy is an optional extra: desirable but not necessary.

But the separation of efficiency and democracy means the reduction of criteria for success to purely managerial ones – to what degree has the plan been fulfilled by the loyal (and pliant) membership? Max Weber, perhaps the greatest of bourgeois social scientists this century, saw bureaucracy in a parallel way, as the most technically efficient way of organising capitalist production and administration. Capitalist managers, however, have long since abandoned the strictly hierarchical approach. Schemes for incorporation through creating the illusion of popular participation abound in factories, on housing estates, in colleges, in local authorities generally.

So even in purely technical terms efficiency is not maximised by opting for discipline at the expense of democracy. Yet, on the revolutionary left, there is a widespread readiness to play down democratic processes in the interests of ‘getting something done’. But the party isn’t concerned in any simple sense with getting something done.

It is ludicrous to believe that we can reduce the goal of the party to a simple formulation about a decisive act – the conquest of state power. A crucial and decisive aspect of the party’s work is to help prepare the class for self-rule. Otherwise the anarcho-syndicalist fear that all the revolution will be is the party taking power will prove justified, if such a party could ever get it together to organise what would be a coup and not a revolution.

Most of the activity of party members for most of their political lives will not be concerned with the military preparations for a seizure of power (In Russia, incidentally, the Red Guards were built up essentially in the brief period between July and October.) They will be concerned with working among their colleagues in struggles against all forms of oppression and exploitation, fostering and encouraging the self-confidence, self-reliance and self-activity of those among whom they work. Sustaining such work is quite simply incompatible with the conception of unbridled discipline, of jumping to at a word, of lurching from rank-and-file work, to mass campaigning, now on unemployment, now on anti-fascist activity, now on the ideological front… no matter how important all of these interventions may be. Otherwise, instead of having members in all these movements, arguing for coherent direction and politics which can root these concerns and campaigns in a broader working class politics, the emphasis shifts to pulling individuals out of such movements into the revolutionary organisation. The building of the party becomes experienced as a raid on the class – and the number of comrades who go through the organisations of the revolutionary left exceeds many times the number who remain in it.

On the contrary, the essence of building the party is serious and sustained activity, taking responsibility for one’s own interventions (or lack of them), and publicly accounting for them – especially for the mistakes. That is to say, the complexity of party activity is not reducible to the simple question of numbers, or funds raised, or votes collected; it is, in essence, a question of rooting in the class and in the struggles of all oppressed sectors.

The Dangers of Democratic Centralism

Many would agree with the substance of the preceding analysis but feel in reality that the mistakes made in the past can be reduced to the errors of this or that individual or group rather than to a theoretical problem with the conception of democratic centralism. On this question two points must be made, on sociological, one political.

Democratic centralism may appear to be politically neutral, usable both by revolutionaries (who will respect the democratic component) and by Stalinists (who won’t). In reality it isn’t, for it provides an organisational structure uniquely vulnerable to a certain kind of degeneration and one extraordinarily difficult to regenerate.

The formal reasons for this are simple: the structure provides for a massive concentration of authority for the very best of reasons. Any existing leadership vested with this authority and worth its salt, not only believes itself better able to lead than the average party member, but, to some extent, has won its position because there is, or has been, some truth in this belief. This leadership, for the same reasons, believes itself better able to interpret new possibilities and developments. There is, furthermore, a real pressure on the leadership to appear to be united (i.e. to be offering a ‘decisive’ lead) even where there are internal disagreements. So politics tends to be concentrated in the hands of a small oligarchy who maintain that concentration, and only take to the membership issues which are of secondary importance, or ones which cannot be compromised internally.

Debate appears to hinder action – unless the outcome is guaranteed in advance, when it is more of a rallying call than a genuine dialogue. Above all, the leadership becomes protected against the rise of new groupings with new insights or emphases on party work. Perhaps some of the new forces will be recognised and co-opted into the leadership, but it tends to be a slow process – and a painful one – and the party which is supposed to be able to respond like greased lightning to every change in the mood of the class is often the last to notice… Trotsky at the end of his life understood this only too well, when he said that Lenin in 1917 ‘represented not so much the party machine as the vanguard of the proletariat … (he) exerted influence … because he embodied the influence of the class on the party and of the party on its machine’.

In the absence of a Lenin, however, there is a greater likelihood of a self-destructive spiralling: the more individuals and groups try to question the direction the party is taking, the more the pressures to restrict such activities. If some section of the existing leadership is involved in this refusal to compromise it is likely to find itself ritualistically demoted and hounded out of any position of authority, if not actually expelled. And the follow-up to such a battle tends to be the further stunting of political debate of any sort for some time to come.

There is nothing inevitable in this organisational development, though there are factors predisposing towards it in the absence of countervailing political pressures. And it is here that the real danger of the concept of democratic centralism lies – in its encouragement of a monolithic and undifferentiated politics. The need for single-minded and decisive action in October 1917 is generalised into a principle of everyday life so that on every tactical question an immediate and wholehearted response is expected, whatever one’s private disagreements or doubts. This is of course a parody, and only the wildest sectarians make such demands. But there is a wider tendency to accept that this is what democratic centralism ought to mean, and purely moral pressures play a disproportionate part in encouraging and sustaining political activity in small groups. Indeed, the more the crisis is felt to be upon us, the more important it seems to move quickly, crushing anything which might cause delay.

But what if the political analysis is wrong . . . ?

Party and Class

To begin to evaluate the concept of democratic centralism, we should return first of all to the greatest single problem (or rather, constellation of problems) surrounding it – the relationship of party to class. For the whole notion of the party is predicated on the belief that while the party spearheads the seizure of power it is the class which actually takes power – through the soviets or whatever autonomous institutions the class generates. And herein lies the nub. While the revolution is being consolidated (which may be a matter of years rather than days) a strong workers’ state is undoubtedly called for; the party, which has spearheaded the revolution sees itself, not unnaturally, as the guardian of the long-term interests of the working class, and concentrates executive action decisively in its hands.

The danger of substitutionism is inherent in this – that is to say it is inherent in the revolutionary process itself. The problem is how to guard against it, to build the party in such a way that after the seizure of power it will be reabsorbed into and subordinated to the autonomous institutions of the class where effective power must be located. To put it baldly, it is not just the state but the revolutionary party itself which must wither away.

The Communist International was wrong on this question – decisively wrong – when it affirmed at the Second Congress that ‘the importance of the Communist Party does not diminish after the conquest of power by the working class, but on the contrary grows extraordinarily’. Why a party monopoly of power may have held the only possibility of saving that revolution by spreading it, is not the issue here. Suffice it to say that it was a desperate gamble – and a gamble that failed. That very failure laid the foundation for the development of the quite unprecedented monolithism of the Stalinist party.

This is prefigured not just in the ‘extraordinary’ growth in importance of the Russian party after the revolution but also in the development which culminated in the April 1921 decision to ban factions. Of course the triumph of Stalinism represented a massive political defeat, but that political defeat had to be both won and consolidated organisationally and ideologically. The notion of the democratic centralist party as it had evolved by 1921 played no small part in that defeat.

In other words, the way the concept of democratic centralism is interpreted and applied is extremely dangerous. It might be argued (as IS did implicitly in 1968) that it needs refurbishing and rescuing from the distortions of the Stalinist era but the analysis here suggests that the problem goes deeper. We must pose afresh the question of what kind of organisation is appropriate to the class struggle in contemporary capitalism.

Under ‘normal’ i.e. non-revolutionary circumstances, the disciplinary, machine-like aspect of group organisation is not of supreme importance: what binds people together is not ‘complete centralism’ but a shared politics, and any attempt to impose a greater unity than is politically feasible leads rapidly to splits and divisions, as the history of the Trotskyist movement testifies. IS’s great strength in the late 60s and early 70s lay precisely in its willingness not to force political disagreements into hard organisational divisions i.e. in its receptivity to and tolerance of a diversity of political ideas, around a framework of shared assumptions about socialism as the self-liberation of the working class.

Under conditions of an ebbing revolutionary wave, democratic centralism has proved to be extremely harmful, since it predisposes to a monolithic organisational response, just to stem the tide as it were. The experience of the 1920s and 1930s suggests that once a monolithic party monopolises the loyalties of militants in non-revolutionary situations, the construction of global alternatives (i.e. of revolutionary parties) is a non-starter. (That is not to say there is nothing to be done – keeping the revolutionary tradition alive was a vital contribution made by the Left Opposition in this period).

It is only in revolutionary periods that the unified intervention which democratic centralism makes possible might be fully justified, but even then organisation is subordinate to politics. No organisational structure was capable of compensating for the political inadequacy of the German left from 1919 to 1923. And, in arguing that the Bolshevik Party was not monolithic in 1917, the examples brought out always show that when party leaders were divided on issues they felt strongly about they had no hesitation in taking matters outside the party, both to the soviets and other working class institutions and to the non-party press. One might well ask in what sense it was the democratic centralism of the Bolshevik Party that brought about October.

Conclusion

All this is not to suggest that we can possibly do without organisation – and indeed centralisation. But the idea that there is a simple answer as to how we can achieve this must be categorically rejected.

The problem must be reposed. It is essentially a political one. Given our broad agreement on socialism as the self-activity of the working class and the necessity of smashing the bourgeois state to achieve it, the question at every stage is the following. What kind of centralisation will enhance and develop the struggles, self-organisation, self-confidence and self-activity of those groupings who share this view of socialism? What kind of centralisation (i.e. organisation) will win others over to this conception?

A pre-condition for real success in building over time lies in the fostering of the tendencies towards self-organisation inherent in the struggles of any oppressed and exploited groups and in the rejection of elitist solutions which may be suggested. In other words, the centralisation required must be defined as a centralism which starts from the real democracy of the struggle and which enhances it.

All too often revolutionary groups have become impatient with the difficulties inherent in the struggle. Short cuts are sought after, organisational solutions imposed: ‘toughness’, ‘discipline’ or whatever substitute for the painful work of winning a genuine position of leadership in the class struggle. And indeed there might be short-term gains in numbers of votes; but what is never taken into account is what is lost – in terms of the effective participation of party members in their own organisations as part and parcel of their effective participation in wider struggle.

The experience of manipulation by leaders of left groups leaves no less bitter a legacy than manipulation by trade union officials and no amount of ranting against the latter makes the former any more bearable, or justifiable. Worse, it discredits the belief in the very possibility of achieving socialism amongst those who have been won over to a conviction of its necessity.

At a time when whole new social layers are being mobilised (for instance, around Grunwicks, Lewisham, Windscale, the Anti-Nazi League, the socialist feminist movement and the electoral interventions of the SWP and Socialist Unity) the willingness to fight is not being matched by an adequate response from the left. New organisational forms are urgently required, before yet another generation is alienated from the organisations of the revolutionary left.