Lenin's "Democratic Centralism" is Contrary to Marx


 "Democratic Centralism" is Contrary to Marx

Those who advocate for "Democratic Centralism" are forgetting their theory - and their history.

First, let me apologize if this article is a bit "inside baseball".   It contains terms which will be relevant and meaningful only to those who are already fairly familiar with Marxist theory, and indeed anyone who reads this without having digested that tradition is apt to misunderstand what I am asserting here.  For starters, there is that very phrase, "Democratic Centralism," which contains the words "Democratic" and "Centralism." For many people, especially Americans, these words will have meanings and associations that are totally unrelated to the topic of this essay, and which will only cause confusion.  When we think of the word "democratic," we tend to think of the Democratic Party, which at times functions almost as a bourgeois reformist party, and at other times as a reactionary, authoritarian conservative party; and "centralism" makes us think of the supposed "center" of the political spectrum.

That has nothing to do with that to which I'm referring here.  For those who have read their Marxist theory - and members of many of the (pseudo-)Marxist parties around today are always enjoining people to "read theory" - "Democratic Centralism" means something else: the theory of the structure of the political organizations to which many Marxists belong - many, if not all, of which derive from organizations either established or inspired by Lenin and his Bolsheviks.  But if these people would read more theory, they would understand "Democratic Centralism" quite differently.

Simply put, in so-called "Marxist" tradition, "Democratic Centralism" is the style of organization that can be summed up with the slogan "democracy in discussion, centralism in action," or as it is sometimes phrased, "freedom in discussion, unity in action."  Supposedly, this meant that people in a communist party could debate any issue as vociferously as they liked, taking any position, however far-flung in whatever direction - amongst themselves, within the party, secretly - but that once the party had voted on a decision in the matter, when it came time to act, the entire party had to act as one, with each member putting their individual or factional differences aside and following the party line in word and deed.  This mode of party organization is associated with Lenin's Bolshevik Party of more than a hundred years ago, and indeed the principles of Democratic Centralism were formalized at the Sixth Party Congress in August of 1917, during that crucial period between the February and October revolutions, as follows:

1. That all directing bodies of the Party, from top to bottom, shall be elected.

2. That Party bodies shall give periodical accounts of their activities to their respective Party organizations.

3. That there shall be strict Party discipline and the subordination of the minority to the majority. 

4. That all decisions of higher bodies shall be absolutely binding on lower bodies and on all Party members.

Thus these principles of "Democratic Centralism" became the organizational principles of the Bolshevik Party and the many parties worldwide that imitated it, from China to Albania to Algeria to Argentina and beyond.  And indeed there are many to this very day who think that "Democratic Centralism" should be the organizational principle of leftist organizations, even in the 21st century.  See, for instance, this article, "Democratic Centralism and Why It's So 🔥🔥🔥," in which "PortlandProlRev" argues in favor of implementing "Democratic Centralism" now.  But the author has a very limited understanding of their own subject matter.  Although they briefly discuss the concept's history from Lenin to Mao and up to the present, they don't seem to understand that Democratic Centralism has a long history before Lenin.  The closest we get to a discussion of history of Democratic Centralism before the 20th century is the following sentence:

"This process was first conceived during the time of Marx and Engels and has been modified, clarified, and improved upon by Lenin, Stalin, Mao and the Russian and Chinese communists behind them."

There's a real sleight of hand going on here, and one must read carefully to see it.  Note the weasel words: democratic centralism was first conceived "during the time" of Marx and Engels.  This almost makes it sound as though Marx and Engels were the ones who came up with democratic centralism.  Yes, democratic centralism was first conceived "during the time" of Marx and Engels, but not by them.  In reality, democratic centralism was first conceived by Marx's and Engels' opponents - by their avowed enemies.  And anyone who supports Democratic Centralism works contrary to Marx.

Where did the ideology of Democratic Centralism originate?  Lenin was clear, here: the concept of Democratic Centralism did not originate with him, nor with Marx, but came from the political theory of Jean Baptista von Schweitzer.  Who was Jean Baptista von Schweitzer?  That is a long and fascinating story, worthy of much further discussion.  But for the purposes of this article, let's say this much:

In May of 1863, Ferdinand Lassalle and others formed the General German Workers' Association - in German, "Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiter-Verein" or ADAV as it's commonly known.  This was a somewhat smaller and more politically ambitious organization than Leopold Sonnemann's VDAV (Verband Deutscher Arbeiterverein, that is, the Assembly of German Worker Associations) a very large umbrella organization, mostly consisting of union activists, who merely sought better pay, benefits and working conditions.  Lassalle was a socialist, and a charismatic, complex figure.  But Marx hated him for various reasons that could be the subject of another article.  In any case, just over a year after forming his organization, Lassalle fought in a duel when a woman left him for another man, the Prince of Wallachia, who shot him in the groin - an injury from which he died three days later.  At that point ADAV had 4,610 members, and no clearly formed political program.  After a brief power struggle, Jean Baptista von Schweitzer rose up to take Lassalle's place.

From 1864 to 1865, Wilhelm Liebknecht wrote for the official organ of ADAV, "Der Social-Demokrat," published by Schweitzer.  But soon a conflict grew between Liebknecht and Schweitzer, with Liebknecht chafing at Schweitzer's controlling attitude toward his writers, and finally things came to a head and Schweitzer forced Liebknecht to resign.  In 1867 he left and began attacking Schweitzer and the rest of ADAV.  It was in response to Liebknecht's criticisms that Schweitzer in 1868 defended his authoritarian style of organization as "democratic centralization".  But these arguments failed to convince Liebknecht and by 1869, Liebknecht and his friend Bebel held a conference in Eisenach where, in defiance against Schweitzer and his democratic centralist organization, they formed a new organization, Der Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands, the Social-Democratic Workers Party of Germany, or SDAP, which was nicknamed the "Eisenachers."  

Although this party of only a few dozen was tiny compared to Schweitzer's which had steadily been growing into the thousands, it gained the comparative favor of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who had had a few articles published previously in Der Social-Demokrat but had come to despise Schweitzer and ADAV for what they saw as the lingering influence of Lassalle from beyond the grave, which, in their minds, was causing the organization to cozy up to nationalists and the Prussian government.  When Schweitzer proposed a Workingmen's Protection Bill into the Reichstag (which was later cut down into simply a bill for "universal" suffrage - excluding women, of course), Liebknecht and his allies saw this as a Schweitzer selling out to Otto Von Bismarck, and castigated ADAV with the epithet "state socialists".  Later, Liebknecht would declare "No one has combated State Socialism more than we German socialists, nobody has shown more distinctively than I, that State Socialism is really State Capitalism!"

The people that Marx called "Lassalleans," like Schweitzer, wanted unity - they wanted the various "socialist," "leftist" groups to put aside their supposedly petty differences and form a bloc that could become a political power within the governments of their time.  Even some of the SDAP were tired of this factionalism and by 1875, an attempt was made during a conference at Gotha to unite the two parties - the large ADAV with the tiny separatist Eisenacher faction. Even Liebknecht himself was willing to put his personal disagreements aside and work with Schweitzer.  But Marx was adamant that this was unacceptable, and he wrote what has become a famous and often-cited source of Marxian theory, The Critique of the Gotha Program.  Here he blasted the party that was attempting to form from the merger of the two groups, which would later become known as the SPD (which, it might be noted, still exists and is one of the most powerful parties in Germany, though it has gone through so many changes in the meantime that it may as well be considered a completely different party).  The Critique of the Gotha Program is a ruthlessly mocking compendium of all of the errors of the brief program that had been written at the Gotha conference, line by line, so that this critique is many times longer than the original document.  And he made it clear whom he blamed for these errors: the followers of Lassalle and Schweitzer, the "democratic centralist" organization of the former ADAV.  (It should be pointed out that Schweitzer himself had retired from politics before the Gotha conference, after a failed run for parliament - but his "democratic centralist" organizational structure lived on.)

This is enough to show that "Democratic Centralism" is the work of the enemies of Marx.  But there's much more.  

You may be wondering: is all of this merely abstract theory, or does it have any practical political consequences?  Yes, indeed it does.  In fact, it has been the form of organization for countless supposedly "Marxist" movements, to disastrous effect.  Marx was unsuccessful in persuading his followers of his structural critique of Lassalle, Schweitzer, and the rest of those democratic centralists upon whom Marx heaped so much scorn.  And thus these "democratic centralists" were able to structure the political parties associated with the Second International for decades to come - including its de facto leader Karl Kautsky, and, later, one of his then followers, a certain young man named Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov, aka Lenin.  Lenin was an unabashed fan of Lassalle, and wrote his famous tract on the organizational question, "What is to be done?" (1902) which elaborated his version of democratic centralism, very much in keeping with the Lassallean tradition.  Indeed, this treatise begins with a quote from Lassalle, signalling that in the political conflict between Marxists and Lassalleans that Marx spelled out in The Critique of the Gotha Program, Lenin was very much on Lassalle's side.

As already indicated, Lenin and Kautsky were both democratic centralists.  But eventually Lenin would break with Kautsky over the their positions vis-a-vis World War I.  And this was where democratic centralism had its largest, most disastrous political consequences.  Lenin's political position, which was the foundation for the establishment of the Third International, was incoherent, self-contradictory, and nonsensical.  He wanted to simultaneously uphold democratic centralism and denounce it.  On the one hand, he claimed to uphold democratic centralism, and saw it as the basis of the Third International.  On the other, the entire reason for the existence of the Third International - that is to say, for Lenin's split from the Second International -was what Lenin called Kautsky's "treachery": that is, the SPD's vote in favor of war credits at the outbreak of World War I.  

Now, in point of fact, Kautsky had not voted for war credits.  Indeed, privately, within the party, Kautsky lobbied hard, recommending in the strongest terms to the SPD delegation that they abstain from the vote.  But when he lost this debate internally, he (at first) held his tongue and failed to denounce the SPD delegates for their vote for war credits.  Why?  Because Kautsky was obeying the principle of democratic centralism.  "Freedom in discussion, unity in action."  Kautsky had internally argued against the war within the party.  But when he lost this debate, he maintained unity with the rest of his party, and followed the party line.  This costly error helped usher in World War I, the great imperialist war that was the cause of some of the most and worst death and suffering of any event of the 20th century.  Obedience to democratic centralism meant betrayal of everything that socialists stood for.

Lenin was right to denounce Kautsky for his obedience to democratic centralism.  But if Lenin had any theoretical rigor, he would have applied this principle consistently, once and for all ending and abolishing democratic centralism as an organizational relic of a bourgeois institution.  For there can be no mistake about it: democratic centralism was the problem.  Democratic centralism was the reason that the socialist parties of Europe betrayed their principles as stated in the Basel Manifesto, in which the members of the Second International promised to do everything they could to oppose war.  But Lenin wanted to have his cake and eat it too.  What Lenin in effect said to Kautsky was: democratic centralism for me, but not for thee.

And indeed, democratic centralism turned out to be just as much of a disaster for the Bolsheviks as it had been for Kautsky and his SPD.  Under the auspices of democratic centralism, exactly the same thing happened in the Russian SSR and then the USSR as had happened in Germany in 1914, but in an even more flagrant contradiction: first, war (the resumption of fighting, after all the sloganeering about "land, peace, and bread," and the so-called theory of defeatism, which Lenin unceremoniously dumped as soon as it was convenient, declaring "We were defeatists at the time of the tsar, but at the time of Tsereteli and Chernov we were not defeatists.") and then, acquiescence to the imperialists (the Brest-Litovsk treaty).  And after all this, of course, the Stalinists were able to use the concept of "democratic centralism" to justify purging the party in all of their show-trials which one by one eliminated virtually all of the Old Bolsheviks, thus achieving what Lenin had always feared: the liquidation of his party.  It was all quite predictable, and indeed it was predicted by the perspicacious political thinkers of the time, because it all follows quite inevitably from democratic centralism.

Democratic centralism is a fundamentally anti-Marxist strategy.  It is opposed to the core of what Marx pursued: the "relentless critique of all that exists," as Marx put it.  Critique is what Karl Marx did, and what anyone following in his footsteps must do.  And, as Marx made it clear, this means, especially, the critique of actually existing communism.  "I am therefore not in favor of our hoisting a dogmatic banner. Quite the reverse. We must try to help the dogmatists to clarify their ideas. In particular, communism is a dogmatic abstraction and by communism I do not refer to some imagined, possible communism, but to communism as it actually exists...."  (both these quotes from his letter to Ruge, 1844)  Those who wish to follow in his footsteps must be truly relentless about this - never relenting, always critiquing, even at the cost of the supposed "unity" that Lassalleans and their ilk always demand.


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