Democratic Centralism


posted to on October 30, 2003


The best discussion of democratic centralism I've ever seen is in chapter seven of Paul LeBlanc's "Lenin and the Revolutionary Party". He explains that the term predates Lenin by many years and was first used in 1865 by J.B. Schweitzer, a Lassallean.


Furthermore, in Russia it was first used by the Mensheviks at a November 1905 conference. In a resolution "On the Organization of the Party" adopted there, they agree that "The RSDLP must be organized according to the principle of democratic centralism." A month later the Bolsheviks embraced the term at their own conference. A resolution titled "On Party Organization" states: "Recognizing as indisputable the principle of democratic centralism, the Conference considers the broad implementation of the elective principle necessary; and, while granting elected centers full powers in matters of ideological and practical leadership, they are at the same time subject to recall, their actions are given broad publicity, and they are to be strictly accountable for these activities."


There is virtually no difference between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks about the need for democratic centralism or its meaning. So claims that the two factions differed over this "Leninist" organizational breakthrough are simply mistaken. Moreover, the two groups had resolved many outstanding differences following the 1905 revolution. Menshevik leader Pavel Axelrod stated that "on the whole, the Menshevik tactics have hardly differed from the Bolshevik. I am not even sure that they differed from them at all." Lenin concurred: "The tactics adopted in the period of the 'whirlwind' did not further estrange the two wings of the Social Democratic Party, but brought them closer together…The upsurge of the revolutionary tide pushed aside disagreements, compelling the Social Democrats to adopt militant tactics."


In any case, whatever differences would resurface in the period leading up to 1917, "democratic centralism" was not one of them. At a unity conference held in 1906, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks voted for a resolution that stated: "All party organizations are built on the principles of democratic centralism".


The report on the commission that adopted this resolution was given by a Menshevik, Zagorsky-Kokhmal, who stated that "we accepted the formula for membership unanimously". In other words, there was no objection to what some would characterize as "Leninist" norms. The reason for this is simple. Democratic centralism was never an issue.


Since Rosa Luxemburg's critique of Lenin's 1904 "One Step Forward, Two Steps Backwards" revolves around the charge that he was susceptible to "centralism", you might get the impression that these differences revolved around the need for democratic centralism. In fact, this term does not appear in her critique which is online at:


For example, Luxemburg writes, "Lenin’s thesis is that the party Central Committee should have the privilege of naming all the local committees of the party." Whatever else might say about this, it is not what we think of ordinarily when we hear the term democratic centralism. It is instead a reference to a specific practice rooted in the exigencies of the Russian class struggle, forced to operate under repressive and clandestine conditions. For example, I don't recall James P. Cannon ever favoring this practice, despite being committed to the sort of democratic centralism that evolved under Zinoviev's authority.


Not that Luxemburg is opposed to centralism itself. She is not a Foucauldian. When it takes shape from the self-activity of the working class, it is a good thing. "Centralism in the socialist sense is not an absolute thing applicable to any phase whatsoever of the labor movement. It is a tendency, which becomes real in proportion to the development and political training acquired by the working masses in the course of their struggle."


Of course, the democratic centralism that defines "Leninist" organizations today had little to do with Lenin's call for "freedom to criticize, but unity in action". Somewhere along the line it became a formula for ideological homogeneity. It states that the "freedom to criticize" is permissible during preconvention discussion, a period that tolerates atypical behavior every couple of years or so, more or less like Spock undergoing "Pon farr", the Vulcan version of mating season.


Those who have experienced this version of "freedom to criticize" understand that it is no such thing. Instead it is mainly an opportunity for the secondary leadership of the party to salute the central leadership for the brilliance of the line resolutions presented to the convention. Those who reach the conclusion that the line resolutions are full of baloney are ultimately viewed as scratches that are in danger of turning into gangrene. In such organizations, however, the main danger from the standpoint of medical analogies is hardening of the arteries.