“Polly Parks, once associated with the magazine Theoretical Review, maintains, ‘I don’t think there is such a thing as the Leninist party.’ She argues that activists in the party-building movement were fixated only on ‘the nature of how the Bolsheviks operated in a revolutionary situation in Russia.’ Val Moghadam, a former leader in the Iranian Students Association, adds, ‘People did a selective, one-sided and superficial reading of Lenin’s work. Certain texts were picked up on. They were seized as absolute truth and not looked at in their historical development.’ She states that ‘What Is To Be Done?’–the bible of the party-building movement–’wasn’t seen as a specific conjectural work’ advocating a particular form of organization for a specific situation.”
— John Trinkl, Not the time for a Leninist party? (1985)
Organizationally, U.S. ML groups operate along “democratic centralist” lines. The shorthand definition of “demcen” is often given as “freedom of discussion, unity of action.” In other words, full discussion is permitted on an issue, but once it is voted on, the minority must submit to the majority in carrying out the voted-on plan.
Democratic centralism, as practiced today, implies more than this simple formulation. For U.S. MLs, it means mimicking the organizational structure of the Comintern1 groups. There are no factions allowed, “party line” cannot be disagreed with publicly, and lower bodies submit to higher bodies.
How does this practice of “democratic centralism” measure up with historical Leninism? The common mythology would suggest that these practices were integral to the Bolshevik tendency since its foundation in 1902. But as Albert Szymanski explained, the road to building a revolutionary working-class Party in Russia was quite arduous. The “Leninist Party” as commonly understood today did not exist in Russia until around 1921:
Until 1902 (well along in the history of revolutionary process) there were many separate revolutionary organizations in existence. In the 1902-1912 period the unified Social Democratic Party was in fact a loose coalition of factions, the two most important of which were the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. The considerable differences with the Mensheviks did not prevent the Bolshevik faction from staying in the same loose organization with them until five years before the final seizure of power. In the 1912-1920 period, the Bolshevik Party itself allowed organized factions to exist. It was notorious for breakdowns in discipline which included members of the central committee leaking the date of the October Revolution to the bourgeois press as a means of stopping it (they remained leaders). Lenin himself on a number of occasions bucked the majority. The modern Leninist form of democratic centralism which forbids organized factions within the Party was not implemented until three years after the revolution, i.e., the Bolsheviks were able in fact to lead the revolution without a classical Leninist Party… Contrary to a prior assumption of all party building efforts of the 1970s, the Bolsheviks did not start with a disciplined party, then build the revolutionary movement. Quite the opposite. The disciplined party gradually evolved during the revolutionary process and its formation was not in fact complete until after the revolution.2
If Szymanski is correct in arguing that the Leninist party as we understand it today was not a practical reality during the Russian Revolution or the preceding period, it remains possible that the idea of the Leninist party had already been formalized, if not yet made reality. Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? was written as early as 1901, and has for decades been seen as the canonical text on the topic of the cadre party, a new type of organization made up of professional revolutionaries. But according to Hal Draper, to understand WITBD? in this way is to absorb a popular anti-communist misreading of the text. His core argument in "The Myth of Lenin’s “Concept of The Party” is as follows:
The reader of Lenin’s WITBD must understand that if it embodied some specially Leninist “concept of the party” Lenin himself was entirely unaware of it at the time. He thought he was putting forward a view of party and movement that was the same as that of the best parties of the International, particularly the German party under the leadership of August Bebel – only allowing for the big difference that the Russian movement faced the special problems of illegality under an autocracy. [emphasis original]
Draper presents a compelling case that WITBD was in fact highly contingent upon the conditions of illegality at the time in Tsarist Russia, rather than being a universal statement on a “party of a new type.” His fairly straightforward exegesis of WITBD and Lenin’s later comments on the text provide helpful debunkings of anti-Leninist cliches: the myth of the leading role given to intellectuals by Lenin (actually taken from Kautsky and in practice much more true among the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries, and consistently criticized by Lenin), or that Lenin wanted a party of only full time, thus not working-class, professional revolutionaries (whereas Lenin meant by “professional” only that they would be dedicated, trained activists who spent a great deal of their free time doing revolutionary activity). On this point about professional revolutionaries, Draper also argues against the traditional Leninist understanding, saying that Lenin was aware that only the core of the party could be trained activists, and that furthermore his argument in support of this activist core was specific to the context of illegality. In that context, it was important that the party be kept alive by a consistent core of activists, so that the constant eradication of the party through arrest and exile could be evaded. Furthermore, the Russian Social-Democratic party at that point hardly existed, and it would take dedicated work to craft its organizations and bring a national party center into being. Once conditions of legality were achieved in 1905, however, Draper argues that Lenin changed his line:
All comrades, [Lenin] enjoined, must “devise new forms of organization” to take in an influx of workers, new forms that were “definitely much broader” than the old, “less rigid. more ‘free,’ more ‘loose.’” […] He seized on the new conditions especially to advocate that mass recruitment of workers (possible for the first time) should swamp over the influence of intellectuals in the party work.
Given the instability of the idea of “cadre party” as an idea in Lenin, it becomes necessary to trace the history of the term “democratic centralism” within the RSDLP. According to Lars T. Lih, the term “democratic centralism” was actually introduced by the Mensheviks in 19053 . The political freedom won during the 1905 revolution allowed the RSDLP to increase their internal democracy, in particular the selection of party leaders through elections. Bolsheviks and Mensheviks alike agreed upon increasing party democracy given the newly won freedoms. But with few exceptions, Lenin only used the term “democratic centralism” during 1906-07 and 1920-21. ”In each of these two periods, Lenin’s use of the term was triggered by groups to which he was opposed: by the Mensheviks in 1906-07 and the Democratic Centralist group headed by N Osinsky and others in 1920. In neither period do we find any systematic exposition of the meaning of the term.”4
Let us explore one instance of Lenin’s use of “democratic centralism” and see how it compares to the modern ML conception. In May 1906, the Central Committee (CC) of the RSDLP sent out a communication that stated that in the Party press and meetings, “everybody must be allowed full freedom to express his personal opinions and to advocate his individual views”. However, in public meetings, Party members “should refrain from conducting agitation that runs counter to congress decisions” and should not “call for action that runs counter to congress decisions, or propose resolutions that are out of harmony with congress decisions.” This more or less maps onto the modern ML understanding of “demcen”, that disagreements should be reserved for internal meetings. Let us see Lenin’s response. We find it necessary to quote him at length:
Those who drafted the resolution have a totally wrong conception of the relationship between freedom to criticise within the Party and the Party’s unity of action. Criticism within the limits of the principles of the Party Programme must be quite free…, not only at Party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism, or such “agitation” (for criticism is inseparable from agitation) cannot be prohibited. The Party’s political action must be united. No “calls” that violate the unity of definite actions can be tolerated either at public meetings, or at Party meetings, or in the Party press.
Obviously, the Central Committee has defined freedom to criticise inaccurately and too narrowly, and unity of action inaccurately and too broadly.
Let us take an example. The Congress decided that the Party should take part in the Duma elections. Taking part in elections is a very definite action. During the elections (as in Baku today, for example), no member of the Party anywhere has any right whatever to call upon the people to abstain from voting; nor can “criticism” of the decision to take part in the elections be tolerated during this period, for it would in fact jeopardise success in the election campaign. Before elections have been announced, however, Party members everywhere have a perfect right to criticise the decision to take part in elections. Of course, the application of this principle in practice will sometimes give rise to disputes and misunderstandings; but only on the basis of this principle can all disputes and all misunderstandings be settled honourably for the Party. The resolution of the Central Committee, however, creates an impossible situation.
The Central Committee’s resolution is essentially wrong and runs counter to the Party Rules. The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticism which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided on by the Party.5 [emphasis original]
A few observations must be made here. First, Lenin is advocating that public criticism of party line should be allowed, as long as it does not impede carrying out actions. According to Lenin, a party member should be free to publicly disagree with the decision to take part in the Duma elections before or after the elections. This makes sense to us; if a party member is going around telling people to boycott the election, this undermines the party efforts, which in turn makes it more difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of participating in the Duma.
Second, the example Lenin gives is tied to immediately relevant practical work. Today’s ML groups take “unity of action” to be public agreement on not just organizing work, but also, for example, whether or not the USSR was socialist, or if the Syrian government deserves support. Imagine if the RSDLP had a united public party line on the French Revolution! And further, this CC declaration, which lines up with the modern ML understanding of “demcen”, was actually passed by a Menshevik-majority CC6 ! In short, this passage demonstrates that a reading of today’s ML “democratic centralist” practices onto Lenin has a weak textual basis.
Lenin picks up this term again during 1920-21, when the RSFSR was facing civil war against the White Army and the CPSU was riddled with heavy internal conflict. This is when the practice of “democratic centralism” as understood today was fully utilized for the first time. Lenin uses the term to emphasize centralism as a necessary strategy in the context of civil war. Lih concludes:
[T]he common supposition that Lenin had a particular organisational philosophy called ‘democratic centralism’ that was distinct or essential to Bolshevism is something of a myth. In the pre-revolutionary years, the term was certainly never associated with the vision of a monolithic, non-factional ‘party of a new type’ that (in Zinoviev’s words) was “cast from one mould”. In the post-revolutionary years, the Bolsheviks did indeed become a party of a new type, since they were faced with a new and completely unprecedented challenge of running the Russian state.7
Lih’s argument is thus that the “democratic centralist vanguard” as an organizational form did not come into being until 1921, four years after the revolution and as a product of the period of civil war. This raises the question: is the “democratic centralist” cadre Party an appropriate form in a different contexts? Let us see what some of the canonical texts on this organizational form have to say on this question.
First, let’s consider Chapter VIII: The Party from Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism. In the very first sentence of the chapter, Stalin expresses that “under [non-revolutionary] conditions the Party neither had nor could have had that great and decisive importance which it acquired afterwards, under conditions of open revolutionary clashes.” We are decidedly not in a period of “open revolutionary clashes” in the U.S. in 2018.
Stalin argues for “the necessity for a new party, a militant party, a revolutionary party, one bold enough to lead the proletarians in the struggle for power, sufficiently experienced to find its bearings amidst the complex conditions of a revolutionary situation, and sufficiently flexible to steer clear of all submerged rocks in the path to its goal.” His rationale for this new organizational form is that the struggle had entered a new period “of open class collisions, of revolutionary action by the proletariat, of proletarian revolution, a period when forces are being directly mustered for the overthrow of imperialism and the seizure of power by the proletariat.”
Again, these are not the conditions that we face. Further on in the chapter, Stalin characterizes “the Party as the embodiment of unity of will, unity incompatible with the existence of factions.” This is one of the more controversial features of “democratic centralism” as practiced by groups like PSL and FRSO. Stalin justifies his point with the following quote from Lenin:
In the present epoch of acute civil war, the Communist Party will be able to perform its duty only if it is organised in the most centralised manner, if iron discipline bordering on military discipline prevails in it… [emphasis added]
Whether or not this organizational form can extend beyond these conditions of “acute civil war” is up for debate, but was not being asserted as such by either Lenin or Stalin.
Moreover, let us consider what the official terms of admission (known as the “21 Conditions”) into the Comintern had to say about organizational structure:
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 an iron discipline bordering on military discipline, and have strong and authoritative party centres invested with wide powers and enjoying the unanimous confidence of the membership. [emphasis added]
Again, “acute civil war” is listed as the justification of highly centralized bodies of authority and a ban on factions. Whether or not the ban on factions in 1921 was justified is outside the scope of this paper. But it has been sufficiently argued that the arguments put forth by the Comintern were based on their own historical circumstances of the Russian Civil War and anticipated revolutionary upheavals in Western Europe. We cannot underestimate the impact the context of those revolutionary years had on the Comintern parties. They needed highly centralized organizations that could lead insurrection and military struggle, and they needed them to come into being very quickly. During the Second World Congress of the Comintern, held from July-August of 1920 and at which the above terms of admission were adopted, “acute civil war” was a reality, not lofty or theoretical phrasing:
The decisions of the congress were of fundamental importance. In an important sense, this was the real founding congress. It took place at the height of the war between revolutionary Russia and Poland, when the Red Army was nearing Warsaw. In Germany, the right-wing attempt to establish a military dictatorship, the Kapp Putsch, had just been defeated by mass working-class action. In Italy, the factory occupations were about to begin. The mood of revolutionary optimism was stronger than ever.8
Furthermore, these practices were put into place by very large organizations even outside of Russia, not small groups with a few hundred people like the U.S. ML organizations. Right after the Second Congress of the Comintern, the German Communist Party grew to 350,000 members after merging with the left wing of the Independent Social Democratic Party. The newly formed French Communist Party started with 150,000 members. The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia claimed 170,000 members. By contrast, no U.S. ML organization today comes close to passing a thousand members, by our estimation9 .
In summary, we believe the practice of “democratic centralism” within modern ML groups in the U.S. to be disconnected with real conditions. We do not face a revolutionary period of acute civil war as described by the Second Congress of the Comintern or by Stalin, who both emphasize that context as the justification for the pseudo-military organization of the party. Furthermore, historical example demonstrates that a tightly disciplined democratic centralist party is not necessary to carry out revolution, as there was not one present during, for example, the Russian Revolution, or the Cuban Revolution. Finally, we believe the textual foundations for contemporary democratic centralism in Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, which became a bible of the party building movement of the 70s and remains so today, to be based on a misreading of the text that ignores the context of the debates raging within Social Democracy during the early 20th century.
- 1The Third (Communist) International (or “Comintern”) was the international organization of communist parties that arose out of the collapse of the Second International. It existed from 1919 until 1943, and consisted of communist parties across the world with hundreds of thousands to millions of members.
- 2Albert Szymanski, “The New Communist Movement: An Obituary” (1981)
- 3Lars T. Lih, “Democratic centralism: Fortunes of a formula”, The Weekly Worker
- 5Vladimir Lenin, “Freedom to Criticise and Unity of Action” (1906)
- 6At the 4th Congress of the RSDLP in April 1906, a new Central Committee was elected which consisted of three Bolsheviks and seven Mensheviks.
- 7Lars T. Lih, “Democratic centralism: Fortunes of a formula”, The Weekly Worker
- 8Duncan Hallas, The Comintern (1985)
- 9Interestingly, r/communism’s membership exceeds 40,000, and that of Karl Marx’s Red Reading Room exceeds 10,000. While many of these members are not in the U.S., and not all of them would necessarily identify with Marxism-Leninism, it demonstrates that the U.S. ML trend extends far beyond the three core organizations, whose total membership certainly does not exceed 2,000.