A Note on Democratic Centralism

Commentators, both Marxist and anti-Marxist, often mischaracterize democratic centralism as a necessary evil, an expedient that contradicts the liberatory thrust of socialist struggle. James P. Cannon, the remarkably gifted pioneer of American Trotskyism, said of it: “Democratic-centralism has no special virtue per se. It is the specific principle of a combat party, united by a single program, which aims to lead a revolution. Social Democrats have no need of such a system of organization for the simple reason that they have no intention of organizing a revolution. Their democracy and centralism are not united by a hyphen but kept in separate compartments for separate purposes. The democracy is for the social patriots and the centralism is for the revolutionists” (Letter to Duncan Ferguson, Speeches to the Party, p. 316). From this perspective, democratic centralism is little more than a means to a revolutionary end.

James P. Cannon, a close collaborator with Trotsky and an early leader of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States.

Cannon’s description was as fine as far it went and was rooted in a perspective that was contextually informed by issues different than those that informed the broader vision that Lenin ascribed to the term. For Lenin democratic centralism went beyond the strategic or tactical principles of a party struggling to build an party capable of leading the seizure of state power and, in his State and Revolution, asserted that it was to serve as the principled basis of how the proletarian state following a socialist revolution could govern and progressively lead the transition to socialism on a programmatically Marxist democratic-centralist basis:

Now if the proletariat and the poor peasants take state power into their own hands, organize themselves quite freely in communes, and unite the action of all the communes in striking at capital, in crushing the resistance of the capitalists, and in transferring the privately-owned railways, factories, land and so on to the entire nation, to the whole of society, won’t that be centralism? Won’t that be the most consistent democratic centralism and, moreover, proletarian centralism?

Lest readers think that Lenin’s use of democratic centralism is a one-off turn of phrase not to be granted theoretical import, Lenin later reiterates the principle of democratic centralism as the basis of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Drawing from Engels in a back-handed swipe against the fetishism of localism or “workers’ management” of individual factories against the interests of the whole of unified society: “Approaching the matter from the standpoint of the proletariat and the proletarian revolution, Engels, like Marx, upheld democratic centralism, the republic—one and indivisible…. But Engels did not at all mean democratic centralism in the bureaucratic sense in which the term is used by bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideologists, the anarchists among the latter. His idea of centralism did not in the least preclude such broad local self-government as would combine the voluntary defense of the unity of the state by the ‘communes’ and districts, and the complete elimination of all bureaucratic practices and all ‘ordering’ from above.” And in a completely separate work from a year later, his 1918 article “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government,” Lenin elaborates the need to implement democratic centralism in configuring the transitional economy:

There is nothing more mistaken than confusing democratic centralism with bureaucracy and routinism. Our task now is to carry out democratic centralism in the economic sphere, to ensure absolute harmony and unity in the functioning of such economic under-takings as the railway, the postal service and the telegraph services, means of transport, and so forth. At the same time, centralism, understood in a truly democratic sense, presupposes the possibility, created for the first time in history, of a full and unhampered development not only of specific local features, but also of local inventiveness, local initiative, of diverse ways, methods, and means of progress to the common goal.[1]

Clearly, for Lenin, democratic centralism far transcended the horizons of the organizational principles of a vanguard party and spoke also to the ideal organizational principles of the society established following the revolution, a society in which the governing party — in contrast to the degenerated and deformed Stalinists castes – still governed according to a revolutionary program. As might be gleaned from the above quotes, the difference of emphasis between how Lenin understood democratic centralism and the hard-nosed pragmatic image painted by his successors lies in the meaning attributed to centralism. In one sense, the narrow reading of Lenin is correct. Centralism does indeed encompass disciplined unity in a way that allows political organizations to punch far above their weight, and to impose discipline from above on dissident members refusing to accept organizational-demcoratic discipline. But to suggest that this unity is a necessary evil, or regrettable compromise, on the way to a brighter socialist future is to miss the link between political unity within a Leninist party (or pre-party formation) and the political unity that is to characterize a communist society. And indeed, Lenin’s quotes speak directly to this link, interchanging “centralism” with “harmony and unity.”

Proceedings from the 14th Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks)

The unity here is not the unity borne of tongue-biting and seething consternation among a bitterly divided population, but a harmony and unity resulting from the fact that the elimination of the root of permanent political antagonisms – class exploitation – has rendered political disputes episodic in frequency, less pointed in nature (i.e., not being conducted under the threat of not having one’s basic social needs met), and diverse in terms of the alliances and antagonisms such disagreements create between specific people and social groups. Under these conditions, as Lenin makes clear, unity is not a synonym for bureaucratic monolithism. Much to the contrary, it represents different individuals and groups, with contrasting backgrounds and perspectives, seizing initiative, creating, debating, experimenting, and of course also reconsidering so as to arrive at decisions. These decisions represent a unity in the sense of being issued on publicly recognized authority and binding on that public. In some cases, however, the agreed-upon decision might very well reflect a consensus to allow considerable autonomy in relation to how an individual might choose to conduct herself (e.g., Lenin’s “diverse ways, methods”) – or in other cases, might stipulate that certain aspects of people’s lives are, with possible case-by-case exceptions as circumstances dictate, should generally be outside of the purview of public scrutiny altogether. In other words, Lenin’s “unity” is very much a unity of differences that, like all dialectical formations, yields continuous change and development, albeit socialist change no longer dictated by forces operating behind the backs of the producers themselves.

Once understood in this way, unity also assumes a new meaning in the context of a revolutionary party organization before a socialist revolution. Instead of representing a cultish devotion to authority or bland uniformity, “democratic centralism” is nothing more and nothing less than a prefiguration of the socialist transcendence of bourgeois individualism, along with the recognition of the context of collective solidarity necessary for individualism fully to flourish. Italian journalist and activist Lucio Magri, in his discussion of the importance of hegemony in shaping both Gramscian theory and Leninist party practice, recognized the prefigurative aspect of democratic centralism:

For if revolutionary consciousness is the constantly renewed product of the relationship between the proletariat and [revolutionary theory and] culture, if this relationship is conceived and established on a dialectical basis, then at every moment the party cannot but become an expression, a part, of the reality of the class with which its evolution is linked. It is nourished by this relationship with the class; it expresses its real potentialities and it is permanently subject to its criticism. If, at the same time, the party is the prefiguration in progressively clearer form of the future society, its link with the masses becomes above all a relationship of transformation and education, a continuous effort within existing society to build up tensions and aspirations for its radical re-ordering…. This vision of the party as an organic body, as the transcendence of individuality, as the first step in the surpassal [sic] of the opposition between individual and society, dominated the life of the Bolshevik party in every sphere.[2]

As in so many others aspects of his thinking about the revolutionary party, Lenin believed that the party was the bridge to revolution. It was to represent what the working class was to become – its leading vanguard pursuing a revolutionary Marxist program – by actually being, through its praxis, the nucleus of what the class was to become rather than, as Karl Kautsky had it, to be what the class already was, or to reflect back to the class its existing and highly variegated levels of political consciousness and practice.[3] Just as democracy within the organization served as a check by which to test in practice the predominantly held revolutionary-programmatic principles by cadre schooled in the methods of Marxism, so as to learn collectively as an organization in the hopes of resolving internal and comradely antagonisms, so too was democratic centralism i society was a method by which a Marxist-governed society could test out democratically arrived at decisions by revolutionary citizens in the hopes of resolving internal and comradely political antagonisms regarding how that society could be optimally run in a unified, proletarian-deocratic and scientific way.

When translated to the level of state power, democratic centralism wielded by a revolutionary-socialist proletarian-popular community yields a dual logic.[4] Its first tendential law of motion is the suppression of members of the (former) ruling capitalist class along with the market forces upon which said class depended for its political predominance. Neither of these entities will disappear the day after proletarians seize power, as if a socialist revolution entailed a tranquil growing-over process through educating workers into a bourgeois-parliamentary majority. They will continue to exist until the transition to socialism is complete. And in the meantime, workers can and must use the machinery of their new type of state, unprecedentedly democratic and participatory in nature, to combat the remnants of capitalist rule. The need to cope with the continued existence of value within the economy – perhaps even harnessing it momentarily for the purpose of engaging in some accumulation – not to mention the need for taking on-the-fly decisions at key strategic junctures, potentially in opposition to some backwards-looking and defiant elements of the working class, suggest that some amount of bureaucratic distortion will inevitably exist in the workers’ state. But these distortions, episodes in which the state might momentarily have to act without or even against the expressed political consent of the majority of workers so as to secure the workers’ underlying social hegemony, will wither in frequency and acuity as the transition proceeds, much as the state itself with wither away altogether under communism.

Thus, through its logic of “expropriating the expropriators,” the workers’ state simultaneously realizes its second tendential law of motion: its own withering away, until it becomes “superfluous” because there is “nobody to be suppressed.” With the achievement of full communism, public authority will have fully devolved to each individual, living cooperatively enough with one another that any specialized institutions of violence or coercion will be obsolete. At that point, democratic centralism will have achieved its full flowering, altogether shedding the shell of state power that had for so long germinated in the pre-revolution vanguard political organization. The thwarting of this law of motion by growing bureaucratic distortion – the gradual sliding back to capitalism, perhaps until the state itself is recaptured by the very sources of these bureaucratic distortions (i.e., the remnants of capitalism against which the state is struggling) – would represent in the first place the degeneration of the workers’ state, and in the second, a social counter-revolution. The question of substitutionism of the vanguard for the masses, the question of how to weight the curtailment of democratic decision-making by non-revolutonary masses against a unity bureaucratically imposed from above by a leadership still striving for a revolutionary program, is one that requires a case-by-case analysis.

When a revolution begins to degenerate and slide back to capitalism is when bureaucratization on one level, either the political or the social, begins to outpace the actual gains in the other. This is where workers’ agency, and democratic procedure, begins to slip away from emancipatory anti-capitalist substance. Too much slipping and you have a counter-revolutionary break, followed by the re-establishment of a capitalist state. Conversely, if the revolution was a product of adventurist fantasies by a schooled revolutionary cadre without enough popular support among the working masses, the chasm between the two will be too great to bridge from the start, as most workers will not be on board with the emancipatory anti-capitalist substance. To ignore the balancing act altogether, and pretend there might not be bureaucratic tension between the two, is to treat the socialist revolution as a unanimous and peaceful affair, a fait accompli implanted in the minds of all workers on the day of revolution, and with no opposition the day after to try to change their minds.

[1] Lenin Collected Works 27, p. 208.

[2] Lucio Magri, “Problems of the Marxist Theory of the Revolutionary Party” New Left Review 60 (March-April 1970): 115, 122.

[3] The relationship between Lenin’s understanding of hegemony and his understanding of the nature of the revolutionary party is the subject of a forthcoming book, much anticipated by the present author, by Alan Shandro. It is provisionally titled Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony and is slated to be published by Brill Publishers in 2013. Much of the book draws from Shandro’s rich vein of already published work on Lenin. See his “‘Consciousness from Without’: Marxism, Lenin, and the Proletariat” Science & Society 59.3 (Fall 1995): 268-297; “Political Action, Context, and Conjuncture” Historical Materialism 3 (1998): 73-84; “Lenin and Hegemony: The Soviets, the Working Class, and the Party in the Revolution of 1905,” in Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth, ed. Sebastian Budgen, Sathis Kouvelakis, and Slavoj Zizek (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 308-331; “Lenin and Marxism: Class Struggle, the Theory of Politics, and the Politics of Theory,” in Twentieth-Century Marxism: A Global Introduction ed. Daryl Glaser and David M. Walker (New York: Routledge, 2007), 15-29; and, perhaps most important of all in light of the recent misguided attempts by Lars Lih to rehabilitate Karl Kautsky’s political reputation, “Text and Context in the Argument of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?” Historical Materialism 18 (2010): 75-89.

[4] The term “proletarian-popular community” was coined by Alan Shandro in his “Lenin and Marxism” article to refer to the set of working-class cultural, social, and political institutions that develop in the course of a revolutionary socialist struggle for proletarian hegemony.


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