Spotlight on communist policy: Democratic Centralism

14 May 2013

In the last year or two a major debate has been taking place over Lenin’s model of the revolutionary party. Given that over a century has elapsed since it was developed why has it returned with a vengeance? Quite simply because the Bolsheviks alone managed to lead a real workers’ revolution, based on the democracy of workers’ councils (soviets), something which the international workers’ movement has been unable to replicate since. However different the conditions of Russia a century ago were, the way the Bolshevik party functioned is still relevant today.

Nevertheless the experience of the 20th century has certainly sullied the image of the Leninist party. Under the pressure of the Russian Civil War and invasion by 14 foreign armies, then of the need to re-introduce large elements of market economy in the countryside, the Bolsheviks – temporarily as they thought – abolished the right to form factions. Some claim this as the decisive moment of Bolshevism’s degeneration. Certainly this was a serious mistake and helped the rise to power of a bureaucracy within the party and the Soviet state.

But this was not the moment of the crushing of internal democracy. Internal debates of all sorts continued, though after Lenin’s death his immediate successors, basing themselves on the party bureaucracy, began to clamp down on and violate internal democracy.

The years 1923-26 saw a fierce factional struggle between the Left Opposition and the forces leading a bureaucratisation of the party. Eventually Stalin established his absolute control over the party by expelling both his erstwhile allies, Zinoviev, Kamenev and later Bukharin, as well as the Left Opposition led by Trotsky.

Following the bureaucratisation of the Soviet Union, Stalin via the Communist International oversaw the total erosion of internal democracy and plurality within the world’s communist parties. The parties became rigid hyper-centralised bodies, unquestioning tools of Moscow, their militants forced to be uncritical and passive inside the party. The genuine communist tradition of critical thinking was stifled.

Don’t blame centralism

Why have Trotskyist organizations like the Workers Revolutionary Party under Gerry Healy or the Socialist Workers Party today crushed internal democracy, forbidden or expelled opponents of their leadership? We have to ask if this is something inherent in Leninism or if it’s a rejection of Leninism.

In fact this is bureaucratic not democratic centralism, its trampling on internal democracy is the exact opposite of Lenin’s theory and practice. In this there was freedom of debate and discussion before decisions on action were taken. Then everyone carried out the decisions in a disciplined fashion. Later when the struggle had been concluded, a democratic discussion as to its results took place. Discipline in action did not preclude democracy; the two complemented one another.

This allowed a leadership to make decisions, to develop ideas and to command the party’s full forces in the heat of the battle. But at the same time the leadership must and can be made to be accountable to the party as a whole. This is done both by regular sovereign conferences and by the right of critics of the leadership to combine their forces and fight for a change of policy and a change of leadership.

Leaders against members?

A vital element of the revolutionary party, even in its earliest stages, is the training of its members as cadres – people able to offer leadership in the workers’ movement and to critically assess their own leadership. Playing leadership roles in the workplace, in the party branch and at district and national levels, not relying on paid party functionaries, creates a culture of democracy in the party.

In addition an educated cadre membership can judge its leaderships actions, by measuring them against the party’s programme. This embodies an overall strategy for the conquest of power by the working class – and includes the method for applying its tactics (e.g. on the united front). Since this programme is itself developed through democratic debate and voting at conferences and congresses of the party it makes it more likely that the membership is not easily deceived.

This process itself trains up party members to understand the political method behind the programme – and to assess whether party leaders are breaking with this method and whether they need to explain their actions or be replaced.

In Britain – especially in the IS/SWP tradition – Tony Cliff engendered a profound suspicion of political programmes, believing that they stifle innovation, do not take account of developments in the real world and create wooden orthodoxies for which every change is heretical. But this has little or nothing to do with the tradition of classical Marxism, which recognizes that since reality is constantly changing and the ultimate test of a theory’s truth is practice, a programme has to be re-elaborated to account for important new developments.

The politics of bureaucratism

So why have parties that were fiercely anti-Stalinist undergone a bureaucratic degeneration? Critics of the WRP and SWP have pointed to the growth of a bureaucracy of fulltime workers who replaced the democratic structures and system of accountability explained above.

A material basis for bureaucracy is a necessary but not a sufficient explanation. The reason for bureaucratic degeneration must be sought in political degeneration. When a leadership veers away from a revolutionary Marxist policy, or makes gross mistakes it cannot account for, this creates an inner party crisis which if the leadership entrenches itself by suppressing its critics will start a spiral of bureaucratisation. Factional struggles and even splits may be necessary means of overcoming this.

Bolshevism between 1903 and 1923 saw plenty of such struggles, yet at the same time managed to grow into a powerful and democratic party that was able to lead the working class to power and to hold onto it in very adverse conditions.

Its later degeneration does not invalidate this experience and we can all learn a massive amount from this. So it’s very timely to discuss democratic centralism when the issue of a new party and revolutionary unity are once more taking centre stage.

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