Sunday 8 May 2011

Democratic centralism

This is part 3 in a series outlining the case for revolutionary organisation. See the foot of this post for more.

The principles of democratic centralism are simple. An organisation needs democratic structures such as an elected leadership, annual delegate conferences and regular opportunities for thorough discussion of policies, tactics and so on. Leadership at every level must be accountable to the broader membership.

Furthermore, what is agreed through democratic decision-making should then be implemented in practice. There should be an internal culture of free and open discussion, in which criticism and disagreement are respected. All voices are heard and valued.

Most of this is widely accepted - not just in revolutionary organisations - as important for a group to function democratically. Similarly, 'centralism' is far from being exclusively the preserve of the revolutionary socialist tradition. It means that an organisation needs to co-ordinate and prioritise its resources (time, money etc), which requires centralised mechanisms. If decisions which have been made democratically and collectively are to be implemented there has to some centralism.

For example, a trade union has democratic structures but in order to implement decisions it is necessary to appoint full-time officers, hire office space, produce resources which can then be distributed widely, and so on. These things can be regarded as 'centralism'.

What is the alternative? If we take the issue of resources, the alternative is that each branch has to produce materials themselves, which is wasteful and leads to huge duplicating of effort. It makes sense to pool our resources - the time and skills we can offer - to be as effective as possible.

Take a revolutionary organisation like Counterfire, the hub of which is our website. Our editorial board (EB), which oversees not only the site but all national organisational matters, is elected by members. A number of us are specifically responsible for running the site. We are accountable to the wider EB and in turn the organisation's membership. We have regular all-members meetings, so if people are unhappy with aspects of the website or want to make changes they will soon let us know!

The website - like all other aspects of our work at national level - is therefore an example of democratic centralism in action. In Lenin's time, selling socialist newspapers provided the infrastructure for building the Bolshevik Party - paper sellers created networks of activists and supporters, in factories and communities, through sales of their newspapers. It was a very dynamic kind of democratic centralism. It was only possible to organise yesterday's very successful Counterforum - an event attended by at least 150 people in London - because we have leadership bodies, centralised co-ordination and division of labour.

But there are three further points worth making to understand what we mean by democratic centralism in the revolutionary tradition, as distinct from reformist parties, unions and broad-based campaigns.

Firstly,  a revolutionary group lays huge stress on self-activity. In the Labour Party, and even more so in trade unions, the great majority of members are inactive or have a very low level of activity. In Labour it's a thin layer of activists who do almost everything, but in most revolutionary organisations a higher proportion of members will be active - and many of them will devote a great deal of their spare time to politics.

This means that local branches are likely to be run by serious, dedicated lay activists, and most of the members should be actively involved in some way. Routine discussion and democratic decision-making are essential for such an activist organisation and if it is to function effectively.

This is as true at local level as it is at national level. The initiative and dynamism of grassroots members is the driving force. Local members should not 'wait for instructions', but take a lead in their own locality, based on their local knowledge and expertise. This doesn't guarantee a democratic culture, but it certainly helps.

A second issue to consider is the relationship between local and national levels, which is different in the revolutionary and reformist traditions. In the Labour Party, leadership bodies will tend to have an ambivalent attitude to local initiative and democracy: they want activists to operate as a stage army for election canvassing and leafleting, but that's about it.

Labour leaders want to manage the system, not overthrow it, and operate within narrow parliamentary constraints.  They are politically to the right of many Labour members and are preoccupied with the 'centre ground' of politics.

This political tension between leading members and grassroots members does not exist inside a revolutionary organisation. On the contrary: national leadership bodies will want maximum democratic participation from the full membership. The structural reasons for why Labour and trade union leaders are vulnerable to compromise aren't present in a revolutionary group.

For example, union leaders typically earn far more than their members (which can distance them from members' experiences), but that won't be the case in a revolutionary organisation. Labour MPs are professional politicians, but in a revolutionary organisation it's likely that lay members, i.e. those with normal jobs (or students, unemployed etc), will have leading roles far more than in a reformist party.

Thirdly, it is necessary to consider the specific nature and tasks of a revolutionary organisation, as distinct from a broad-based party or campaign. They are far from identical - and this has important implications. A group like Counterfire has a high level of political agreement: there won't be total agreement on all issues among all members, but there's still a large degree of political homogeneity.

The Labour Party, trade unions and campaigns like Stop the War and Coalition of Resistance are rather different. While they may have agreed national policies, they are far more politically heterogeneous. A consequence is that they're likely to adopt looser, more 'federal', structures. Take the Green Party, which is a fairly broad church. It allows a fair amount of local autonomy, with local branches given more scope than you will find in most socialist organisations.

This is a consequence of being a different kind of organisation. Counterfire, for example, has distinctive politics and stands in a particular left-wing tradition. For it to be politically effective, local groups need to carry positions which have been agreed via the national organisation's democratic structures. It would be politically weaker if local groups could simply make up their own positions on issues. There's an important degree of centralism involved here, though it is centralism rooted in a highly democratic culture throughout the organisation.

A vital part of revolutionary strategy and tactics is the setting of priorities. If every local group pursues the agreed priorities, the whole organisation is stronger than if some do and some don't.

An example: Counterfire's top political priority, in the current period, is building the anti-cuts movement. We are agreed that greater national co-ordination and unity are especially vital, and that Coalition of Resistance is the main means of developing this. Consequently, the COR national conference on 9 July is of pressing importance for all our activists and local groups.

Finally, let's return to the starting point: the necessity of democracy. Lenin referred to the combination of 'freedom to criticise and unity of action'. Freedom of criticism is essential. No member should feel inhibited from expressing their views in meetings, conferences and discussions. Open, tolerant discussion and debate are the lifeblood of an organisation.

There may be instances of public criticism being inappropriate - if this undermines the organisation's 'unity in action' - but limiting that on occasions doesn't inhibit an organisation's internal democratic culture. The bottom line is that a revolutionary socialist organisation must be effective in action, which requires some version of the kind of democratic centralism I have outlined here.

Part 1: Class consciousness and revolutionary organisation
Part 2: Revolutionaries, movements and class
Part 3: Democratic centralism
Part 4: Seizing the key link



  1. I weep for you. Democratic centralism is a system in which the Executive imposes its will on the membership. the pretence is that there is a two way flow of ideas, and that the executive is accesible to the membership. The reality is that the Execitive arrogantly assumes the role of arbiter of Marxist ideology and the members are expected to comply. Inevitably, as the recent history of the SWP shows, the self appointed theoriticians get it wrong far more often than they get it right. Are we not entilted to hope that the people who have overcome the straitjacket the the SWP mindset will learn that their own judgement is at least as important as that of the arseholes who see themselves as the a guardians of the revolutionary party, but who in reality incapable of building the party by dint of their sectarian mindset and their bogus claim to theoretical insights unavailable to us mere mortals. Please dont lets go round the mulberry bush again, there isn't time for it. We have to build a party to which we all contribute. Democratic centralism provides cover for authoritarianism. Democratic centralism? Stalinism by another name

  2. Anon's comment (use a name, even if invented, please) at least offers a concise version of a typical dismissal of democratic centralism. Unfortunately it has nothing to do with what I've actually written, or indeed what other marxists have previously written on this topic, or with practical examples of democratic centralism.

    Instead it involves inventing a caricature of democratic centralism, which is then attacked. It would be more fruitful to engage with the actual ideas, rather than lazily indulging in such dishonest polemic.

    There are no specific examples linked to the criticisms, no evidence to support the assertions. It is therefore very difficult to take seriously, especially given the overwrought comparisons with Stalinism (I always think, when people resort to that label as a criticism, that they might gain from looking up what Stalinism actually was).

    There is also, again typically, no attempt at outlining an alternative. Why doesn't that surprise me?

  3. The problem is very complex. In the science and engineering no place for discussions with respect to basic laws and interactions on which projects are based. Therefore, the implementation of each particular idea is predictable at very high level of probability.
    At the same time underdevelopment of social sciences gives room for everybody to launch his project for present and future of the party, organization, country and the world.
    Of course, vital organization's structure is hierarchal with its top. For organizations dealing with political and social issues vitality is based on scientifically based ideology. Unfortunately, for the future effective system for organization and conduct of production and distribution of goods and services, i.e. new socio-economic system such an ideology is only to be developed.