Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 30, 2010

Once more on democratic centralism

Filed under: democratic centralism,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

Yesterday Nick Fredman of the Socialist Alliance in Australia, a very promising attempt to transcend sectarianism initiated by comrades of the Democratic Socialist Party who have quite correctly dissolved into this broader formation, raised a very important question about caucuses, drawing implicitly into consideration the whole question of democratic centralism. He wrote a comment under my post about the SWP/Laurie Penny dispute:

Which is why I don’t understand at all Louis’ absolute stricture against caucusing before movement meetings. There’s a big difference between on the one hand, say, a small student action group meeting with the majority there members of far left groups each repeating points already made about the absolute necessity of a rally being on this date rather than that, before voting on “party lines” (been there, wish I hadn’t), and on the other, say, a large meeting of union delegates with a small minority of socialists who had worked out some proposals beforehand that were better than the bureaucrats’ course, and some sensible (and different) things to say in support if they get the chance, which may well win people over (been there, glad I was). One also doesn’t have to scream at or expel people who don’t follow such discipline (when it’s decided it’s worthwhile to have such), as opposed to a sense of proportion and a bit of patient explanation when appropriate.

This is absolutely correct. Caucuses are absolutely necessary in the mass movement. Socialist groups must expect their members to vote based on majority rule in such circumstances. That in fact is what the centralism part of democratic centralism is all about. It is anti-democratic for a socialist parliamentarian to ignore his or her party’s wishes. When workers donate their time and money to elect a member to parliament, the least they can expect is to see their wishes expressed there. One of the great scandals of 1914 is that some socialist deputies voted for war credits despite the party’s antiwar declarations.

The problem, however, is that for small, self-declared “Leninist” formations, the discussions about policy take place behind their organizational firewall. I saw this all through the Vietnam antiwar movement when the SWP held what we called “fraction” meetings before a key national gathering. We were told that we were for a, b and c and that we should follow the lead of our “floor captains” when a crucial vote came up. This was what made so many people hate “Trots”. It was so obvious that someone like Fred Halstead or Gus Horowitz was calling the shots.

The way to resolve this problem, of course, is to go back to the real Bolshevik Party rather than the fictional version cooked up by James P. Cannon or any other men (and they were almost exclusively men) from that generation. Lenin did not believe in organizational firewalls. He believed in absolute transparency, except when it involved the security of the party.

In June 1905, Lenin wrote an article titled “The First Steps of Bourgeois Betrayal” that defined the relationship between the mass movement (back then, exclusively proletarian) and the working class party, drawing a sharp distinction with the bourgeois democrats of the Cadet Party:

We Social-Democrats resort to secrecy from the tsar and his blood hounds, while taking pains that the people should know every thing about our Party, about the shades of opinion within it, about the development of its programme and policy, that they should even know what this or that Party congress delegate said at the congress in question. The enlightened bourgeois of the Osvobozhdeniye fraternity surround themselves with secrecy… from the people, who know nothing definite about the much-talked-of “Constitutional-Democratic” Party; but they make up for this by taking the tsar and his sleuths into their confidence. Who can say they are not democrats?

Does that sound anything like the way that our latter-day “Leninist” parties operate? Methinks not.

Something else must be said. The Bolsheviks were not committed to democratic centalism as a method of functioning in opposition to the Mensheviks. When I was being indoctrinated into the Trotskyist movement, we always used to hear something that went like this. The Bolsheviks were “democratic centralists” who knew how to get things done, unlike the Mensheviks who hated democratic centralism like a cat hates water and who preferred “talk shops” of the kind that Irving Howe and Dwight McDonald hosted at Upper West Side salons.

In fact the term predates Lenin by many years and was first used in 1865 by J.B. Schweitzer, a Lassallean. (The discussion here owes much to Paul LeBlanc’s excellent “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party”.)

The Mensheviks first used it in Russia at a November 1905 conference. In a resolution “On the Organization of the Party” adopted there, they stated: “The RSDLP must be organized according to the principle of democratic centralism.” A month later the Bolsheviks embraced the term at their own conference. A resolution titled “On Party Organization” states: “Recognizing as indisputable the principle of democratic centralism, the Conference considers the broad implementation of the elective principle necessary; and, while granting elected centers full powers in matters of ideological and practical leadership, they are at the same time subject to recall, their actions are given broad publicity, and they are to be strictly accountable for these activities.”

There is virtually no difference between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks about the need for democratic centralism or its meaning. So claims that the two factions differed over this “Leninist” organizational breakthrough are simply mistaken. Moreover, the two groups had resolved many outstanding differences following the 1905 revolution. Menshevik leader Pavel Axelrod said, “on the whole, the Menshevik tactics have hardly differed from the Bolshevik. I am not even sure that they differed from them at all.” Lenin concurred: “The tactics adopted in the period of the ‘whirlwind’ did not further estrange the two wings of the Social Democratic Party, but brought them closer together…The upsurge of the revolutionary tide pushed aside disagreements, compelling the Social Democrats to adopt militant tactics.”

In any case, whatever differences would resurface in the period leading up to 1917, “democratic centralism” was not one of them. At a unity conference held in 1906, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks voted for a resolution that stated: “All party organizations are built on the principles of democratic centralism”.

A Menshevik, Zagorsky-Kokhmal, gave the report on the commission that adopted this resolution. It stated: “we accepted the formula for membership unanimously”. In other words, there was no objection to what some would characterize as “Leninist” norms. The reason for this is simple. Democratic centralism was never an issue.

Since Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin’s 1904 “One Step Forward, Two Steps Backwards” revolves around the charge that he was susceptible to “centralism”, you might get the impression that these differences revolved around the need for democratic centralism. In fact, this term does not appear in her critique that is online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1904/questions-rsd/index.htm

For example, Luxemburg writes, “Lenin’s thesis is that the party Central Committee should have the privilege of naming all the local committees of the party.” Whatever else might say about this, it is not what we think of ordinarily when we hear the term democratic centralism. It is instead a reference to a specific practice rooted in the exigencies of the Russian class struggle, forced to operate under repressive and clandestine conditions. For example, I don’t recall James P. Cannon ever favoring this practice, despite being committed to the sort of democratic centralism that evolved under Zinoviev’s authority.

Not that Luxemburg is opposed to centralism itself. She is not a Foucauldian. When it takes shape from the self-activity of the working class, it is a good thing. “Centralism in the socialist sense is not an absolute thing applicable to any phase whatsoever of the labor movement. It is a tendency, which becomes real in proportion to the development and political training acquired by the working masses in the course of their struggle.”

Of course, the democratic centralism that defines “Leninist” organizations today had little to do with Lenin’s call for “freedom to criticize, but unity in action”. Somewhere along the line it became a formula for ideological homogeneity. It states that the “freedom to criticize” is permissible during preconvention discussion, a period that tolerates atypical behavior every couple of years or so, more or less like Spock undergoing “Pon farr”, the Vulcan version of mating season.

Those who have experienced this version of “freedom to criticize” understand that it is no such thing. Instead it is mainly an opportunity for the secondary leadership of the party to salute the central leadership for the brilliance of the line resolutions presented to the convention. Those who reach the conclusion that the line resolutions are full of baloney are ultimately viewed as scratches that are in danger of turning into gangrene. In such organizations, however, the main danger from the standpoint of medical analogies is hardening of the arteries.

I will conclude with a point that must be made in relation to Nick Fredman’s comment. While I agree that discipline must be expected in hostile settings like a parliament or a trade union dominated by class-collaborationist bureaucrats, I think that a different attitude must prevail at movement gatherings like during the Vietnam War. Although the people gathered there might not be members of a socialist group, they deserve to be treated like comrades rather than raw material that can be shaped by the party’s iron will. Despite all its objections to Stalinism, the SWP’s characterization of itself as “the big red machine” smacked of the same kind of bureaucratic mentality that would be the undoing of the CPUSA and for that matter us after “the turn”.

6 Comments »

  1. “Those who reach the conclusion that the line resolutions are full of baloney are ultimately viewed as scratches that are in danger of turning into gangrene”

    There’s some truth in that, but isn’t it a result of the weakness of the organised ‘far’ left, specifically in terms of numbers?

    Comment by JN — January 1, 2011 @ 11:14 pm

  2. […] Louis Proyect blog. Once more on democratic centralism. 12/30/10. https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/12/30/once-more-on-democratic-centralism/. The author drew from Paul Leblanc’s book about Lenin and the Revolutionary […]

    Pingback by Democratic Centralism in Practice and Idea: A critical evaluation | MAS — March 17, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

  3. […] Louis Proyect blog. Once more on democratic centralism. 12/30/10. https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/12/30/once-more-on-democratic-centralism/. The author drew from Paul Leblanc’s book about Lenin and the Revolutionary […]

    Pingback by Democratic Centralism in Practice and Idea: A critical evaluation | Theory & Practice — March 25, 2013 @ 11:50 am

  4. […] Proyect blog. Once more on democratic centralism. 12/30/10. https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/12/30/once-more-on-democratic-centralism/. The author drew from Paul Leblanc’s book about Lenin and the Revolutionary […]

    Pingback by Democratic Centralism in Practice and Idea: A Critical Evaluation « Zabalaza Books — May 15, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

  5. […] make clear here that not all Marxists share these views or have adopted these tactics.  Some have criticized as inherently flawed the premise of democratic centralism implicating it in what is obvious to […]

    Pingback by Good Trot, Bad Trot | Outrages and Interludes — January 6, 2015 @ 10:57 pm

  6. […] Louis. “Once more on democratic centralism.”Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist. December 30, 2010. The author drew from Paul […]

    Pingback by Democratic Centralism in Practice and Idea: A Critical Evaluation - Black Rose Anarchist Federation — May 11, 2017 @ 10:23 pm


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