Lenin Doctrine of Democratic Centralism

Democratic Centralism. No quality of Lenin’s political thought was more constant than his preference for centralized organization, or, put negatively, his distrust of any kind of federalism, coalition, or even alliance, if the last threatened his freedom of action. This was the outstanding characteristic of his party as he planned it in 1902, and though circumstances sometimes forced him to modify his practice, he never willingly departed from the principle.


He called the principle democratic centralism, the adjective democratic being added, perhaps, chiefly as a defense against the sharp criticism that his theory of the party aroused. The democratic part of the plan consisted in a member’s right to discuss policies on which the party had not pronounced a decision; thereafter dissent was to be silent.

Centralism meant that every party organ was strictly bound by decisions of any body with a higher position in the chain of command. The principle was entirely reasonable for a revolutionary party, or even for any organization whose cuties are executive alone; it provided no method for dealing with serious differences about the ends a policy should serve.

By and large the practice of pretty free discussion within the party prevailed during Lenin’s lifetime, though in a diminishing degree after the making of the revolution was displaced by the more complex problems of governing. The policy that Lenin advocated usually became the policy of the party, though often only after sharp controversy.

The decision to seize power, for example, was never accepted by an in transigent minority until after it succeeded, and some of the dissenters committed the incredible treachery of leaking the plan to the press. Lenin demanded their expulsion, but they were not expelled, and two continued to hold responsible positions and were finally picked off in the great purges of the 1930’s.

The decision to form a homogeneous Bolshevik government, mentioned in the preceding section, was sharply contested, and the treaty of Brest-Litovsk divided the party from top to bottom, yet freedom of discussion was not suppressed.

By 1921, however, this degree of freedom had become troublesome because many of the party’s rank and file, influenced perhaps by the syndicalist ideas in State and Revolution, bitterly opposed the regimentation of labor unions.

The disciplinary powers of the Central Committee were notably extended, thus greatly increasing the power oi the top leadership over the party. Fractionalism, or the formation within the party of groups having their own plans or platforms,was forbidden on pain of expulsion. This step was regarded as so drastic that the new rule was kept secret until 1924.

The death of Lenin hastened the process thus begun. It set off the long struggle for the succession, and Stalin was a different personality from Lenin. While the latter had controlled the party’s decisions mainly by superior acumen and force of personality, Stalin operated rather by secrecy, intrigue, and by pitting his competitors one against another and inciting them to eliminate each other.

Nevertheless, it can well be doubted whether in the long run the result would have been very different if Lenin had lived. The tasks that the party had to perform in making a government were enormously more complex than in making a revolution.

Moreover, they grew steadily more complex, first with the civil war, then with the reconstruction that followed, and most of all with the decision to embark on forced-draft industrialization in 1928, and with the reorganization of agriculture that industrialization required.

Under this sort of pressure the making of party decisions by deliberation evaporated. The party developed the organization characteristic of any bureaucracy with a fixed chain of command, which was the principle contained in Lenin’s concept of centralism.

Its structure became hierarchical, with the dictator or some inner clique controlling the Central Committee and the Central Committee controlling the party, which in turn as vanguard control government and all organizations outside the party. In short, the party became what Lenin had said it ought to be, a transmission belt carry orders from the top to their final destination as far down the ling as might be necessary.

In 1920 the formation of the Communist International produce, what purported to be a precise definition of democratic central, along with the requirement that it must be adopted by every Party seeking admission to the international organization. It was as follows

The communist party must be built on the basis of democrat, centralism. The basic principles of democratic centralism are that the higher party bodies shall be elected by the lower, that all instructions of the higher bodies are categorically and necessarily binding on the lower; and that there shall be a strong party center whose authority is universally and unquestioningly recognized for all leading party comrades in the period between congresses.

Later statements have varied somewhat but without any significant change of meaning. The party rules for 1956, for example, used the words subordination of the minority to the majority. However the rule is worded, its operative part is the authority of bodies higher in the chain of command over all bodies lower down. Words like majority and minority are obviously meaningless in communist practice.

As for the election of higher by lower bodies, it too is meaningless in practice, for as a rule elections do not take place. The normal way of selecting party leaders is by designation from above, and if a pro forma election takes place, it rubber-stamps a choice already made.

The requirement that party policies should be adopted after discussion or deliberation means in practice that discussion is turned on or turned off as the leadership decides. For though criticism may be permitted of the way a policy is being carried out, it can never be directed at the policy itself. Thus discussion may be extraordinarily free, or it may not exist at all; it may be directed at the lower echelons of the bureaucracy but never at the higher; and thus it can be used as a method of discipline to strengthen the control of the leaders over their own organization.

The crucial fact about democratic centralism is that it lacked even the outline of a plan for orderly discussion, for making a discussion a factor in decisions, and thus for allowing an informed public opinion to affect the making of policy. However imperfectly, parliamentary or representative government does more er less accomplish this, and any form of government that does not create a viable substitute has no claim to call itself democratic.

Democratic centralism fastens upon an obvious feature of any organization that has a policy to execute; it says nothing about the problem of concentrating knowledge and judgment In making a policy, or of enlisting voluntary cooperation behind a policy. And these, after all, are the hard problems.

With the passage of time the party changed greatly. It built up a tremendous bureaucracy in which the chief secretaries held key positions; it was by this road that both Stalin and Khrushchev reached top places in the hierarchy.

Its membership has almost completely changed, as the course of nature, supplemented by Stalin’s purges, made the old Bolshevik intelligentsia extinct and as industrialization created a new intelligentsia composed largely of officials, managers, technicians, and professional people. In time these changes may be reflected in the party’s mode of operation but they are not likely to change its theory or its control over all departments of Soviet society.

Khrushchev’s famous blast against the cult of personality was not meant to change either of these; it was not intended to get out to the press at all. It certainly was intended to lift the semi-paranoiac tyranny of Stalin’s last years off the backs of the top leadership and to do away with the disciplined lethargy that his systematic terrorism induced in the bureaucracy itself, in writers, artists, and scientists, and indeed in the whole population.

In its general form the speech was a eulogy of the golden age of the party, when Lenin permitted a good deal of discussion, used terror sparingly when it was necessary, and mostly not against party members. More specifically it apparently represented a policy of revivifying the bureaucracy of the party and of reestablishing its control over the bureaucracy of the government.

According to report the policy was successful. It was no exaggeration to say that in five years between Stalin’s death and the end of 1957 he had created the most solidly based form of bureaucratic party rule that had ever existed in the history of the country. Though the speech claimed to return to collegiality in the top leadership, it proposed no constitutional measures to guarantee this, or to provide an orderly succession of one leadership by another.

Read More Related Topics:

The Philosophy of Communism
Russian Marxism
Lenin’s Theory of The Party
Lenin on Dialectical Materialism
The Bourgeois and the Proletarian Revolutions
Imperialist Capitalism
Approach to March Revolution
Revolution in Prospect
The Problem of Success in Bolshevik Revolution
The Vanguard of the Proletariat
Socialism in One Country
Communism in China
The Temper of Communism

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