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Listen to the worm of doubt, for it speaks truth. - Leftist Discussion

Whips & Chains; the Meaning of "Democratic" Centralism September 13, 2003 by RedStar2000

This "core process" of Leninism is, curiously enough, rarely spoken of in any detail. We can speculate about the reasons for this odd phenomenon; they regard it as "self-evident" perhaps, or "too obvious" to dwell upon at any length. Or perhaps they find it a bit embarrassing.

In any event, when it is spoken of, I attempt to respond appropriately. Here a a few posts on this oxymoronic subject.



Even then there should be criticism and debate. I'm not talking about forming a 'group' and factions on a particular issue, not only is it pathetic but in many cases it can be counter-revolutionary. Rather criticism of party officials should not only be allowed it should be encouraged, if the particular party official/member is right then he or she will be proved to be, if vice versa then so be it.

The purpose of criticism of the party line, of the leadership, etc. is to effect a change. How does this take place?

Consider the "good" Leninist-Stalinist who observes that the party's current line--supporting the Labour Party, for example--is an act of monumental stupidity as well as counter-revolutionary capitulation to the capitalist class.

She writes a thoughtful and well-reasoned critique of this policy. What does she do with it?

She can mail it to the leadership, of course...the people who are actually responsible for this gross blunder. Are they likely to be receptive? You think so? *Laughs*

But if she circulates her document to the membership--assuming that such an act is even practical--what happens?

She will be accused of "forming a faction" and find herself summarily expelled faster than she can say "democratic centralism".

Or worse: the leadership could decide to "make an example" of her. A special conference could be called consisting of delegates hand-picked by the leadership...which would then proceed to discuss and adopt a report "convicting" her of not only factionalism, indiscipline, petty bourgeois individualism and ultra-leftism but also sexual depravity, moral turpitude, and being a paid agent of the police.

This "report" would be circulated throughout the party and to all its allies, published in the party press and on its website, etc.

And most people would probably take all that at "face value"--very few would have sufficient political sophistication to realize what had actually happened.

As a result of this experience, it's possible that she might become a real "ultra-leftist"...that's Leninspeak for real communist. But the historical record suggests a gloomier outcome: most of the people who encounter "democratic centralist" practice either quit politics altogether or, from a sense of outrage, become conservatives or even reactionaries.

Sad, but true. I've seen it with my own eyes.
First posted at Che-Lives on August 23, 2003


Never mind that I've talked to the National treasurer of the party regarding this and am still referred to as 'comrade'

That's because you were just bitching. Bitching is ok. Soldiers always bitch about something.

If you really want to be a part of the excitement of "democratic centralism", you have to do what my example did: write up a really thoughtful critique of the party's line and circulate it to the membership (or as many as you can reach). Do this a couple of months before the party congress. Include a draft resolution to change the party's line.

And then enjoy the fireworks.
First posted at Che-Lives on August 27, 2003

The "appeal" of "democratic centralism" is in its alleged "efficiency".

Like an army, the "revolutionary" party attacks, retreats, maneuvers "as a single unit".

This is supposed to be "necessary" for a victorious proletarian revolution.

But what if the "commander-in-chief" blunders? Or worse, what if he's a fuck-up?

Think, for a moment, "what it takes" to advance a career in the military. Courage? No. Intelligence? No. Initiative? No.

Unquestioning obedience to orders? YES!

The individual who makes it all the way to the top of an army has shown his ability to obey his superiors without regard to his own thoughts or even the objective conditions of battle. Now that he is "commander-in-chief", what sort of orders will he give? What kind of campaign will he wage? How likely is it, really, that he will think for himself now, exercise intelligence and initiative, etc.?

Like almost all of history's generals, he will be a time-serving, overly-conservative bumbler and a far greater danger to his own soldiers than the enemy.

So it is in the "democratic centralist" party.

If you could spend a couple of years compiling the records of all the "general secretaries" of all the Leninist parties of the 20th'd have an enormous collection of mediocrities, blunderers, and at least a few crooks.

The ones who got anything right are like needles in haystacks--Lenin, Stalin, Tito, Mao, Ho, and who else???

And, the most "successful" socialist country of the 20th century--Cuba--did not need a "democratic centralist" party to make its revolution. The "party" was set up after the revolution according to Russian instructions. What will happen there when Fidel Castro is no longer around has been a subject of much worry on this board...and for good reason. His successor is most likely to be another "democratic centralist" mediocrity...that Washington will eat for breakfast.

If you are a real communist and genuinely want to help make a proletarian revolution and a communist society, just about the worst thing you can do is become involved in a "democratic centralist" party.

It stands for everything you hate.
First posted at Che-Lives on September 1, 2003

Very well, let's have a look at the Progressive Labor Party's version of "democratic centralism"...they seem to be clearer than some about exactly what they have in mind.


We want a system where every worker is actively pushed to become involved in running society, where everyone is trained to act for the common good, where putting individual self-interest above the social good is punished.

The first of the three doesn't sound too all depends on exactly what is meant by "actively pushed". Are people to be endlessly nagged to attend meetings that serve no purpose?

The second is more dubious: how is this "training" to be accomplished? What would it consist of? Who decides what is "the common good"?

And the third is downright frightening: who decides what is "self-interest" and what is "the social good"?


The Party is organized on the basis of democratic centralism. The Party is divided into cells, or clubs, which meet regularly to evaluate members' work and to make suggestions about how to improve it, and to evaluate the Party's positions and make suggestions for change. These suggestions are taken by the club leader to section meetings (made up of the club leaders and other leading comrades in an area, and by section leaders to the Central Committee. Based on the collective experience of the Party, the leadership decides on new positions (a new line) which all Party members are then bound to put into practice. Only if all of us put the same line into practice can we find out if the line works; if each of us goes our own way, we will never have the common strength of a united Party. --emphasis added.

And there's your answer..."the leadership decides"!


Democratic centralism is communist democracy. After the revolution we will run all of society along democratic centralist lines.

The leadership decides for everyone!


The Party's goal must be to recruit every worker into the Party, to involve every worker in the democratic centralist process. The correct way to resolve the problem of the Party's relation to non-Party workers is to recruit all workers to the Party.

If every worker is "involved in the democratic centralist process", that means the leadership decides for every worker who is consequently "bound to put into practice" the leadership's decision.


Democratic centralism forces everyone to speak up. At club meetings, each person must express their opinions, including openly voicing their disagreements.

But to what purpose? You "voice your disagreement" and the local leader then explains to the group why you are a "self-serving" piece of bourgeois shit. You must agree with this--it's called "self-criticism"--or you will be "punished" for putting "individual self-interest" above the "common good".


Our goal is to replace this dictatorship of the bourgeoisie with a dictatorship of the proletariat. The dictatorship of the proletariat will be based on communist democracy among the workers and ruthless dictatorship by the workers over the capitalist.

A noble aim indeed...but what kind of "communist democracy" is it where everything is decided by the leadership and nothing is decided by the working class?

It was, as I understand it, common practice in the Soviet Union in the 1920s to call the workers in a given workplace to a meeting (on their own time, of course). The party boss would read out a statement of the "new line" on some question. Several of his lackeys would speak in support of the "new line". Then they'd take a "vote"--"all in favor?" It was not thought necessary to even ask if any were opposed.

Does it matter how correct your criticisms of bourgeois democracy are if this kind of shit is all you have to offer as an "alternative"???

How does it improve matters to replace a disguised despotism with an open despotism?

Make no mistake about it; "democratic centralism" is nothing but the reactionary myth of the "good king" outfitted with scraps and tatters of Marxist terminology! It is actually pre-capitalist in origin, which may explain its limited appeal in the modern world...most workers don't believe in the myth of the "good king" any longer.

But as a cult, "democratic centralism" competes effectively with nutball religious sects, flying saucer wackos, "great leader" lunatics, etc. These kinds of crap always proliferate in an era of social decay...some people tend to seek "certainty" in an increasingly uncertain world.

That's all the more reason for real communists to insist that the fundamental criterion for a revolutionary movement is ALL POWER TO THE WORKING CLASS!

The only "certainty" that makes sense is real decision-making power directly and exclusively in the hands of the entire working class.

Anything less is worthless!
First posted at Che-Lives on September 4, 2003

Turn over a rock and you never know what will crawl out...


Revealingly, though they light-mindedly dismiss democratic centralism, no coherent, let alone effective, alternative plan of organisation is offered.

The operative word here is effective,

The pretense is that "democratic centralism" "has" been effective whereas other alternatives, real or hypothetical, have not.

Wretched horseshit, of course. The Leninist parties never even attempted to establish a communist society.

Furthermore, of the many hundreds of "democratic centralist" parties (Stalinist, Trotskyist, Maoist), how many of them have ever amounted to a puddle of warm spit?

Lenin, Tito, Mao and Ho actually "led" their parties to power. Three of those four countries are capitalist now, and the fourth is "on its way".

Effective? *Laughs*


That does not prevent him from liberalistically recoiling from military metaphors when applied to party organisation...

Why shouldn't one "recoil" from military metaphors if they make no sense?

Class struggle and proletarian revolution may involve violence, but they are not "military" in the sense of clashing armies.

The workers of Petrograd in February 1917 did not defeat a Czarist army in the field; in fact, most of the soldiers went over to the side of the revolution. Nor did those workers have a "general staff" or "officers" giving them orders, moving them around like pawns on a chessboard.

They didn't need that crap to overthrow three centuries of tyranny.

Neither will we.


Lenin actually argued that trade union struggles could not by themselves generate Marxist consciousness. An evident truth.

Evident? I don't think so. Certainly there have been some trade-union struggles which appeared to sharply radicalize workers in a Marxist direction.

Few of the workers in the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist unions in the 1930s would have been exposed to the writings of Marx and Engels; but many acted as if they had.


Outside Russia, however, the leftwingers who withstood the war hysteria and later rallied to the defence of the October Revolution were, typically, shambolically organised and often under the leadership of untrustworthy and unstable centrists.

Shambolically? Now that's a word to chew on. "Untrustworthy" and "unstable" are more routine descriptions of those who can't be counted on to obey orders.

But the calculated vagueness of this "description" can only lead the reader to "conclude" that it was perfectly legitimate for the Bolsheviks to run the 3rd International any way they saw fit...they were, after all, the ones who were "unshambolic", "trustworthy", and "stable".

Sure they were. That's why "a change in the party line" became a worldwide joke!

Song from the late 1940s:

They call it that good old party line
And for them that adheres to it, it's fine;
It's not very static,
It's extremely acrobatic,
Read the Worker and get the party line.

Lefties were still singing it in the early 1960s, when I first heard it.


The purpose of the 21 conditions was to forge the Communist International into a "fighting organ of the international proletariat".

No, actually it was mostly to "forge" a parallel and unofficial diplomatic corps for the USSR. Every change in Soviet policy or attitude was quickly reflected in a change in the Comintern "line"...regardless of objective material or political conditions.

That is common knowledge.


Parties belonging to the Communist International must be organised on the principle of democratic centralism. In this period of acute civil war, the communist parties can perform their duty only if they are organised in a most centralised manner, are marked by iron discipline bordering on military discipline.

The reason they phrased it as "bordering on military discipline" is that they didn't have the power (yet) to actually "hang deserters" or "court-martial" the disobedient.

"Iron discipline" sounds like a sex ad in a sleazy tabloid.


Stalin’s gulag system was the product of the world revolution’s defeat and suffocating isolation in backward Russia. Imperialist capitalism and its social democratic agents in the workers’ movement were primarily responsible for that - not the Bolsheviks and Lenin.

If I'm not mistaken, the first gulags were set up under Lenin's authority and included socialist revolutionaries and anarchists among their inmate population.

But, really, can you imagine Stalin himself whimpering that "the devil made me do it"?

He made no apologies; only those who seek to prop up his rotting corpse in pursuit of their own ghoulish prestige resort to this kind of iconic justification.


What of democratic centralism itself? For Marxists it is an entirely unproblematic concept. Without centralism the hugely powerful capitalist state can never be vanquished; nor can the rule of the working class be exercised or maintained without democracy. -- emphasis added.

Well, which is it? You can't evade the choice just by slipping in a "nor can" to link contradictory propositions.

Without mammals, there could be no monkeys, nor can monkeys be maintained without reptiles.


Note further that the "powerful" Czarist state was effectively abolished by the workers, soldiers, and peasants in 1917 without any centralism to speak of at all.

In periods of real revolution, the old state apparatus crumbles at the first blows.


Justifiably we lay great stress on the Bolshevik Party’s organisational methods and principles - they did after all lead the world’s first socialist revolution.

And promptly turned around and pissed it all away.


Not to learn from them is to deliberately disarm oneself.

Yes, learn what not to do.


At the London congress of the Communist League - November 30 to December 8 1847 - the Marx-Engels team oversaw its transformation into what their outstanding biographer, David Riazanov, describes as a "democratic centralist organisation" (D Riazanov, Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels: an introduction to their lives and work, New York, 1973, p75).

David Riazanov was an employee of the USSR in the mid-1920s when this book was written.

Do you really think he would do anything but attribute "democratic centralism" to Marx and Engels?

It was, in fact, a phrase and a concept that they never used. And, as I understand it, the "Communist League" never had more than ten or twenty members and never really did anything at all. It was moribund almost from the beginning.


Against the anarchist dilettantes, parliamentary cretins and trade union routinists of her day, Rosa Luxemburg subsequently argued that the lessons of Russia were indeed "applicable to Germany" (R. Luxemburg, The mass strike London, nd, p53).

Without even looking up the quote, I know that she was not talking about "democratic centralism". She thought it was an absolutely lousy idea that would inevitably lead to the dictatorship of the party's main leader.

She was right.
First posted at Che-Lives on September 10, 2003


You don’t believe in leadership? You don’t believe human nature is determined by the material conditions of the time? It is not constant, obviously.

No, by and large, I don't "believe" in "leadership".

I think people can come up with good ideas on occasion; and some people do that better than others.

But no one always has good ideas and never has bad ideas. Therefore, not even the person who is most consistent in coming up with good ideas can be "followed"...because his/her next idea could very well be complete horseshit.

To "follow" a "leader", to give up your autonomy and "let the leader decide" is a recipe for catastrophe. It is the single biggest fuck-up in politics that a person can make.

The rest of your statement is a tautology...of course "human nature" derives from material conditions.

The real question is: what is the "human nature" of people who make proletarian revolution?

Are they "passive followers" who "need" to be "herded" in the "right" direction? Or are they conscious of what they really want and how to shape social reality to achieve their goals?

The first choice leads to reformism or Leninism (two sides of the same coin); the second choice leads to communism.
First posted at Che-Lives on September 11, 2003
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