A few ideas about democratic centralism

Henrique Canary, from Resistência-PSOL

In recent years, in Brazil and around the world, several left-wing organizations have experienced significant crises: ruptures, expulsions, generational conflicts, allegations of harassment, persecution, bureaucratism, and more. It is worth noting that these currents have diverse origins, ranging from Trotskyist parties to Stalinist or pro-Stalinist groups. What do these organizations have in common? A lot, but one aspect stands out: they all claim democratic centralism as their method of internal organization. This leads some people to question whether the very democratic centralism might be the reason behind these crises. Is this internal regime capable of sustaining a healthy organization? Others go even further and question the very form of a party. Has this form been outdated by history? Some also try to individualize the problem: It’s about that organization. My organization, on the other hand, is perfect, and everything runs smoothly in it. The truth is that there is no easy answer to the problem. Like all complex issues, it must be confronted without evasions, taboos, and prejudices. But also without hasty conclusions.

The central hypothesis of this article is that the problem lies not in democratic centralism itself but in the fact that this open and flexible formula was mistakenly interpreted by the overwhelming majority of left-wing currents in the country and the world. The idea of a party with broad internal democracy and unity in action gradually got replaced – under the pressure and influence of Stalinism – by the idea of a merely disciplined party, where the democratic aspect of the regime was gradually set aside.

We will not address the opposite problem here: that of those organizations that abandoned democratic centralism in favor of a loose and inorganic regime, unable to guarantee practical action. This problem also affected many organizations and is as important as the first one. But that will be discussed on another occasion.

What is democratic centralism?

It seems that the term “democratic centralism” was first used by Lenin in 1906, in his “Tactical Platform for the Congress of the Unified Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP).” This seems to have been the moment when the concept definitively established itself as the dialectical synthesis between the centralist and democratic elements in the party. Until then, these elementary principles of the Bolshevik regime appeared in isolation from each other, in different materials, emphasizing in each specific case one aspect or the other of the regime, without yet forming a higher synthesis. Analyzing materials before 1906, we find terms such as “centralism,” “discipline,” “elective principle,” “democratic principle,” “bureaucratic centralism,” “rigid centralism,” “democratism,” etc. used by Lenin, but never “democratic centralism,” which seems to indicate an evolution not only in terminology but also in the very content of the concept. It was Lenin’s cerebral laboratory in full operation!

The definition that ended up being popularized, especially after the victory of the Russian Revolution, is as concise as possible. Democratic centralism would be the party regime in which there is “extensive freedom of discussion and complete unity in action.” Or, to put it another way, “issues are discussed, voted on, and everyone applies the majority’s decision.” As seen, this formula does not solve any problem in advance. At each stage of its development, the socialist organization must fill it with concrete and distinct content, depending on the issues at hand.

Democratic centralism, as an organizational principle, needs to be expressed through a series of rules (statutes) and conduct (methods), but the general formula does not specify what those rules and conduct should be. For example, let’s say that opinions within the party are divided in a proportion of 90% against 10%. In this case, it would be easy to exercise the majority and determine that the line to be applied is the one advocated by 90% of the organization. There would hardly be a crisis due to this decision. But what if the party is divided in a proportion of 55% to 45%? Would it be prudent to make a final decision stating that the line applied will be that of the majority, and that’s it? The statute allows it. But is it prudent? What would be the effects of this decision on the 45%? Does this important minority current not reflect something real (present in reality) that should be taken into consideration by the majority?

There are many other questions unanswered by the formula “extensive freedom of discussion, complete unity in action”: Can the national leadership intervene in local bodies in the name of the purity of the line? Can members of the leadership express their opinions in local branches? In what cases and with what mechanisms is a member expelled? Are theoretical discussions subject to centralism? Should internal national discussions only take place during pre-congresses? Is the creation of tendencies and factions allowed? Or can all political struggle only occur individually? At what point does the fight for a political position become “factionalism”? Who judges this “factionalism”? Should minority positions be proportionally represented in the leadership? Should articles by members published in the central organ of the organization undergo review or editing by some leadership body?

Beyond these purely regimental questions, there are others that must be taken into consideration: To what extent are the new party generations represented in the leadership? What about oppressed sectors? Lastly, some rather subjective questions: What is the culture of debate within the organization? Are those who organize tendencies and factions to fight for their positions excluded and marginalized internally? Or, on the contrary, are they integrated, listened to, and have their opinions valued?

James Cannon, the prominent American Trotskyist leader, once said that in the activity of party leadership, there is no substitute for intelligence. This means that democratic centralism needs to be constantly considered by the entire organization. At all times, one must ask: Do we have enough mechanisms for democratic participation in our organization? Do we have an internal culture that values debate in the search for the best political line? Or is internal dissent merely “tolerated” but demonized in the subtext of discussions?

What was the Bolshevik Party like?

We believe that Lenin’s Bolshevik Party was much more democratic than the legends that have reached us. The myth of an ultra-centralized, ultra-disciplined party with monolithic thinking is, in Trotsky’s words, a “myth of decline,” a product, first of the Civil War, and later of the party and state bureaucratization. In his classic work “The Bolshevik Party,” the French Trotskyist historian Pierre Broué tells us:

“Indeed, no argument is more effective in openly refuting the legend of the monolithic and bureaucratized Bolshevik Party than the account of these political struggles, ideological conflicts, and public indisciplines that, definitively, are never punished. (…) Lenin, who, in the heat of the discussion, was the first to call Kamenev and Zinoviev “cowards” and “deserters,” once this stage was overcome, is equally the first to vehemently express his desire to keep them in the party, where they are needed because they play a role that is extremely hard to replace. By the end of 1917, the party tolerates disagreements and even indiscipline more than ever, to the extent that the passion and tension of the revolutionary days justify them, and as long as the agreement on the goal of the socialist revolution remains as the foundation, the agreement on the means to achieve it can only arise from discussion and persuasion.”

The atmosphere of controversy and debate within the Bolshevik fraction or party can be confirmed by numerous and diverse sources, starting from the early construction of the party. As early as 1894, in his polemics with the populist Mikhailovsky, Lenin stated:

“It is strictly correct that there is no complete unanimity among the Marxists. This lack of unanimity does not demonstrate weakness but rather the strength of the Russian social democrats. The consensus of those who are satisfied with the unanimous acceptance of ‘comforting truths,’ that tender and touching unity, has been replaced by disagreements among people who need an explanation about the real economic organization, about the current economic organization of Russia, an analysis of its true economic evolution, its political evolution, and the rest of its superstructures.”

Even in the initial stage of building the party and fighting against the Tsarist autocracy, Lenin always made efforts to ensure the maximum possible internal democracy and initiative in action at the grassroots level. Pierre Broué describes this:

“Since Stalin’s time, the majority of historians and commentators insist on the authoritarian and highly centralized regime of the Bolshevik Party, finding in it the key to Russia’s evolution for over 30 years. Regarding the strong centralization of the party, there are certainly facts that can support their theses. However, references to the opposite sense are equally abundant.

And further:

“Clandestinity is obviously favorable to authoritarian centralism, as there is no longer any sense of election among people who do not know each other and, therefore, cannot mutually control themselves. However, its effects are softened by a lower tension in the relations between the different levels of party hierarchy, leaving the local committees with a significant margin of initiative.”

The year 1906 coincided with the RSDLP coming out into legality as a unified party, competing in the elections for the Third Duma. Therefore, democratic issues and the expansion of the party’s working-class contingent took precedence, much more than the issues of clandestinity and discipline from the previous period. Pierre Broué writes:

Indeed, according to the Bolsheviks, the “internal regime” of the party is a reflection, within the party, of the general conditions of the class struggle; however, it also has a certain autonomy. Lenin elaborated on this issue within his own faction when confronting the “komitétchiki” who, as testified by Krupskaya, did not admit any kind of internal democracy and rejected any innovation due to their inability to adapt to new conditions: they were hostile to the entry of workers into the committees, believing that they would not be able to work within them; they aimed to control every activity minutely and maintain rigid centralization and hierarchy. Lenin reminded them that “it is not the party that exists for the sake of the leadership, but the leadership exists for the sake of the party.” “Often I think that ninety percent of the Bolsheviks are deeply formalists. We must recruit, without fear, young people with the broadest possible criteria and forget all embarrassing practices regarding degrees of hierarchy, etc. (…) We must give each grassroots committee, without putting too many obstacles, the right to write pamphlets and distribute them. If they make mistakes, it won’t matter much; we will correct them ‘nicely’ in Vperyod. The course of events itself will teach them in our own spirit.” Krupskaya affirms that Lenin was not too concerned about not being listened to by the komitétchiki: “He knew that the revolution was underway and that it would force the party to admit more workers into its committees.”

Lenin himself confirms Broué’s words when he writes:

“The Social-Democratic Party, despite the rupture, and ahead of the other parties, took advantage of the brief interval of freedom to create a legal organization with an ideal democratic structure, with the election of positions and representation in congresses according to the number of organized party members.” (Preface to the pamphlet “In Twelve Years”)

Thus, what we see is Lenin’s concern in maintaining the fundamental idea of an organization of professional revolutionaries while adapting the concrete structure of the party and its regime to each specific stage, with its tasks, difficulties, etc. At each stage of the class struggle, Lenin ensured that the party had all the democratic mechanisms that were possible.

Unfortunately, Lenin and Trotsky also made mistakes. One hundred and two years later, we must admit that the prohibition of factions in 1921, during the Tenth Congress, was a mistake. There were not sufficient reasons for such a measure. The Civil War was coming to an end, and Russia was entering a stage of stabilization. In “The Revolution Betrayed,” written in 1936, Trotsky justifies his support for the measure with the argument that it was necessary for the preservation of the party and that, moreover, everyone knew that under Lenin’s leadership, it would be an exceptional and temporary decision, to be revoked as soon as conditions allowed. However, that was not what happened. The prohibition of factions was later widely used by Stalinism to persecute the Left Opposition and definitively exterminate party democracy and, later, opposition leaders through fabricated trials and secret executions.

As a result, what the global left inherited was a mythologized, teleological narrative of the Bolshevik Party, where the final fate was already contained in the beginning “in embryo,” which is entirely incompatible with the very spirit of history.

The influence and pressure of Stalinism over Trotskyism.

Our hypothesis is that Trotskyism, a current defeated in the struggle against the bureaucratization of the Soviet state, nonetheless ended up absorbing part of the mythology, conception, and methods of Stalinism in party organization, leading to significant distortions in the process of building these organizations.

With few exceptions, Trotskyist currents have always been quite marginal, and this in a dual sense. On the one hand, they were on the margins of society, without real political influence over the working class they claimed to represent. On the other hand, they lived on the fringes (periphery) of Stalinist organizations, operating on the basis of these parties.

This resulted in Trotskyist organizations acquiring certain vices from their Stalinist adversaries. Marginality, the romanticization of defeat, a certain messianism, and the idea of being a “besieged fortress” led these organizations to build currents that, in many cases, were quite authoritarian, sectarian, and marked by distrust of any dissent. Within these organizations, there often occurred a cult of personality, a “leadership cult” reminiscent of that found in Stalinist organizations.

Additionally, the model of the Bolshevik Party they emulated was the model of the party that emerged victorious from the Civil War – the ultra-centralized and highly disciplined party-army – rather than the party characterized by debate and indiscipline during the pre-revolutionary period.

In this sense, we must admit that the Trotskyists did not live up to Lenin’s standards. Once again, the Trotskyist leader James Cannon once said that Lenin managed to build a faction with the characteristics of a party (democratic, pluralistic, and critical), while some Trotskyists built parties with the characteristics of a faction (closed, monolithic, and averse to dissent). Today, we should add that it was not just some Trotskyists, but nearly all of them. This is the reality of our movement, and the sooner we acknowledge it, the better equipped we will be to combat this problem.

What kind of regime do we need in the 21st century?

The idea that socialists wrongly applied democratic centralism cannot imply the rejection of this regime. What does democratic centralism mean in the 21st century? Let us venture into a brief description.

First and foremost, the need for an organic party. The solution is not found in a loose movement without bodies, program, or defined functioning. On the contrary, the organic nature of the party is one of the guarantees of its democracy. This aspect is crucial as it was precisely what divided the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks in 1903. Lenin and Martov did not argue about the need for the Russian Revolution, discipline, or clandestinity. There was agreement on these points. The controversy was whether the party should be organic (“all members personally participate in a party body” – Lenin) or function as a broad and dispersed movement without the obligation of members’ participation in bodies (“all members subject themselves to party discipline and declare agreement with its program” – Martov). This seemingly petty difference was the distinction between a party where people actively participate in the organization and a party where people receive ready-made instructions from some distant center.

Secondly, the need for a democratic party. Merely declaring oneself democratic is not enough. The party must continuously create, think, and improve mechanisms for democratic participation of its members: functioning base bodies, frequent congresses and conferences, a rich internal life, theoretical education for engaging in discussions, democratic election of leadership, proportional representation in the leadership, the possibility of engaging in internal political struggles, internal discussion bulletins, the capacity for self-criticism, a dose of humility, a culture that values debate and dissent, and integrating rebellious members, those in the minority, and polemicists into leadership tasks. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each organization must find its mechanisms and subject them to scrutiny through practice at all times.

Thirdly, a disciplined party, not in the sense of blind obedience to orders, but in the sense of the ability to carry out unified practical action. The major problem with a loose and disorganized party is the inability to act effectively. But why do we form a party if not to act? Discipline, meaning practical action based on the voted line, is not contradictory to democracy. On the contrary, it is the guarantee of democracy, as it ensures that the decisions of the majority are respected (we have already analyzed the relationship between discipline and democracy in this article). Methods like “progressive consensus” paralyze the organization and, precisely for that reason, they spell the death of both discipline and internal democracy.

Thus, as Lenin used to say, we must abandon all the embarrassing practices of the past, look humbly at our history, and admit that we have not done as well as we could have. Left-wing parties are not socializing platforms. They are organizations of struggle. But it is not necessary for them to be unhealthy, oppressive environments that make their members sick and depressed. Capitalism is harsh and cruel, and it will have its effects on the party’s internal life. But we must strive to create organizations that are, as much as possible, inclusive, where members find a healthy environment and can develop their specifically human potential: speech, writing, critical thinking, fraternal polemics, and organized collective action. This is, after all, the essence of communism. The best environment for the development of these skills remains democratic centralism. The key lies in building it day by day.