by MC17 & MC11
Published MIM Notes 51, April 1991
"It is, I think, almost universally realized at present that the Bolsheviks could not have retained power for two and a half months, let alone two and a half years, without the most rigorous and truly iron discipline in our Party..." - V.I. Lenin(1)
Democratic centralism is a principle of organization that can be used (or abused) by any functioning group. The democratic part of the term defines the equal participation and voice expected from all members of the organization. The centralism refers to the mandate that all members uphold all decisions made by the democratic processes of the organization.
In practical terms this translates into real participatory democracy within, but with strict discipline expected from all members. Even if one member disagrees with a decision, s/he is expected to uphold the decision externally while working from within to convince other members that they are wrong. This method of organization is based on the assumption that eventually the majority of the members of a group, presented with conflicting views, will be able to arrive at the best possible decision. This may be a prolonged process, and mistakes may be made, but the democratic element ensures that debate can go on until all members are satisfied.
First, the question of why people organizing for a socialist revolution should adopt structures at all needs to be addressed. To answer this we need to look at groups that exist without structure, in relative anarchy. These organizations can never be truly democratic because they inevitably lead to the formation of informal cliques that translate into power for those more experienced or more connected people - and powerlessness for other members. This is seen in single-issue organizations which almost always have a regular practice of informal decision making that only involves some of the members - usually the more experienced ones. Ironically it is people in these groups who most often oppose democratic centralism, deeming it undemocratic by comparing it to their own practice.
This is not to say that cliques will not exist in a party. The difference between groups that don't follow democratic centralist principles and a party is that the party has the structure and therefore the potential to enact policies that keep individuals or groups from usurping power, allowing true democratic participation from all members. Structurally, democratic centralism disperses power to all the members. This possibility does not exist in supposedly unstructured organizations.
If you accept the need for some kind of organized structure, the next question that inevitably arises (for those who support democracy) is why the discipline of centralism. This can be answered in part by looking at the history of the Black Panther Party (BPP). As an organization that only loosely enforced anything resembling centralism, particularly in the early years, the BPP suffered much infiltration and destruction at the hands of the FBI, CIA and police. It is much easier for these agents of the state to split and wreck a group which is not under centralist discipline. State spies had no problem discovering which BPP members disagreed with which others. They used this knowledge to play one off the other, by sending forged messages to people, and by agitating with those not entirely satisfied with a policy or rule. Rather than fostering healthy debate, the lack of centralism served to stifle it, allowing dishonest elements into destructively powerful and knowledgeable roles within their party. If all members of a party uphold the party line to the general public it will be much more difficult for agents of the state to create false conflict from the outside. This reduces one potentially destructive force on the party. They may still pursue this destruction from within, and this is where the structure of centralism becomes necessary to fight against the formation of cliques that are aimed at undermining democratic processes.
Of course, party members are not immune from the pressures the dominant capitalist ideology and culture exert on everyone's analysis and behavior. Even without state agents consciously trying to subvert the party, cadres are susceptible to spontaneous actions and incorrect ideas. Democratic centralism protects the party from being discredited by individual cadres following their spontaneous whims - which cannot help but be influenced by bourgeois forces and ideology. Recognizing individualism as a danger, centralism mandates that political lines and the practice that they dictate be discussed and voted on by the membership before the party authorizes an action or statement in its name. Either way, from within or without, centralism provides a structure that enables the party to exist in the face of the powerful and destructive forces of the state.
In any group, a lack of discipline on the part of members of an organization can be destructive to that organization. People need to be counted on in order for work to run as smoothly and efficiently as possible. In an organization whose goal is to seize power from the bourgeoisie, discipline and unity are essential if it is to have any chance of success. The bourgeoisie is itself very organized and disciplined.
Although Marx's material analysis of history proved that socialism is inevitable, bourgeois ownership of the means of production and control over the production of culture clearly puts the ruling class at a huge tactical advantage over those attempting to overthrow the capitalist system. The capitalists can succeed in putting off revolution indefinitely if no organized group arises to overthrow this system. Undisciplined groups have no chance of wresting state power from the current ruling class.
The truly successful revolutions of history were led by revolutionary parties operating under the principle of democratic centralism. There are no examples of success to point to that did not use such a structure. People are dying daily at the hands of capitalism, and to refuse a structure that has been proven to advance the revolutionary cause is to accept more deaths by postponing revolution.
Recognizing that everyone's personal lives have repercussions for the organization as a whole, the discipline of centralism allows the party to make rules to minimize the potential damage to the party. Members regulate their personal activities for the sake of the organization, but working from the assumption of the importance of the organization. This is merely one facet of their devotion to their work. All rules controlling behavior are made by the members and are always up for debate and change internally. If one presumes that the majority of the members will arrive at policies effective in achieving the greatest good for the organization, working for the people of the world, they should be willing to carry out these rules in the interest of the party's success.
People sometimes complain about the freedoms they are giving up for the sake of the party. But these people fail to question what freedom is under capitalism. Certainly MIM does not have the freedom to oppose exploitation and oppression. Black, Latino and First Nation peoples in this country are not free to pursue "the Amerikan dream." People in Amerika's Third World colonies are not free to eat, have medical care or go to school. The freedoms that people in this country are afraid of giving up are privileges. If people really believe they deserve these "freedoms" they should not be fighting for a revolution and do not belong in a revolutionary party in the first place.
Democratic centralism is the only structure of organization proven to advance the revolutionary cause. It is a structure of discipline that enables a revolutionary party to wage the most effective fight against the capitalist system.
Note: "Left-Wing" Communism, An Infantile Disorder, Selected Works. New York: International Publishers, 1971, p.516.