Origins of democratic centralism

Demands to bring parliamentarians into line; rightwing MPs complaining about the threat of deselection; pleas to put electability first - it all sounds very familiar

Karl Kautsky: wrote well when he was a Marxist

We print here Ben Lewis’s translation of Karl Kautsky’s 1904 article, ‘Wahlkreis und Partei’ - ‘Constituency and party’. As far as we know this is the first time it has appeared in English. And the subject is highly topical, since it is about the right wing of the Social Democratic Party of Germany complaining about their supporters being hounded out of parliamentary constituencies, and arguing that this led to electoral defeat.

To add to the parallel with today’s Labour Party, the fundamental issues dividing right and left in the SDP at this time were that the right advocated support for the German naval budget and a ‘realistic’ policy in relation to the overseas operations of German imperialism (that is, a policy which did not oppose these operations outright, as the official policy of the SDP did up to its political collapse in 1914). Compare the hue and cry over Trident and whether Britain should bomb Syria ...

There is another side to the coin of the modern relevance of this article: the question of ‘democratic centralism’. The phrase appeared abruptly in Russia in a Menshevik conference resolution in November 1905. Lars T Lih suggests it does not have direct Russian antecedents.1 Paul Le Blanc in Lenin and the revolutionary party (1989) suggested, without referencing the point, that it might have originated in the usage of the German ‘Lassallean’ Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein (General German Workers’ Association, 1863-75).

It seems more likely that its immediate roots are in the debates in the SDP in 1904-05, of which ‘Constituency and party’ is part. Along with the case discussed here, Max Schippel was forced to resign his parliamentary seat on account of his voting with the government in support of the naval budget. The claim discussed in Kautsky’s article - that the MP’s mandate from the constituency’s electors should take priority over party discipline - figured again in the arguments round the Schippel case.2 The SDP leadership reorganised the editorial board of the party daily Vorwärts, published in Berlin, which had been supporting the right. This produced cries of outrage from the right at this ‘dictatorial’ behaviour and allegations that the Berlin local organisations should control the paper.3 Further, between 1890 and 1904, though the ‘anti-socialist laws’ banning the SDP at Reich (all-empire) level had been lifted, political organisation at a scale above the constituency had been prohibited by Land (provincial) law in Prussia, and this law was now repealed. Hence in both its 1904 and 1905 conferences the SDP discussed the general principles of party organisation with a view to reorganisation.4

All these debates were addressed to the same issues - democratic functioning, majority rule and its relation to localism - which the tag ‘democratic centralism’ addressed. We know that at least the Kautsky article translated below had influence in the Russian party’s discussion of organisation: Lenin quoted it in his 1904 pamphlet One step forward, two steps back.5

The modern relevance of this issue is that we see that the underlying ideas of ‘democratic centralism’ emerge from the problems of the SDP as a mass workers’ party, dealing with undisciplined MPs and journos promoting rightwing agendas - and, as can be seen from Kautsky’s article, those of the French and Italian Socialist Parties during the same period. And, once we see this, we can begin to see the mistaken character of two fundamental alternative approaches to the issue of the modern left.

The first of these mistakes is the standard far-left one: to cling to a monolithic idea of ‘democratic centralism’ (in reality bureaucratic centralism), which grows out of the militarised Bolshevism of the 1918-21 civil war, ‘codified’ in the 1921 Comintern theses on ‘The organisational structure of the Communist Parties, the methods and content of their work’,6 to project back this model onto Bolshevism before 1918, and link it to What is to be done? and the 1903 split in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party; and to link it also to anti-parliamentarism. The result is the production of forms of organisation which are actually only usable on a mass scale in peasant-majority countries (and even there, if successful, will at the end of the day produce only Stalinoid nationalist dictatorships).

The second mistake is one which is widespread among former members of far-left organisations and has a larger and more diffuse constituency among the ‘reformist’ left and trade unionists. That is, seeing correctly that the ‘1921 model’ of ‘democratic centralism’ is useless, to reject ‘democratic-centralism’ as such,either as outdated or as addressed merely to Russian conditions.

Supporters of this approach are then driven to imagine that some alternative anarchist form (‘networks’, ‘consensus’ and so on), or perhaps the legalist and federalist organisational forms of the trade unions and British Labour, are preferable. But in reality the superficial democracy of these forms is self-paralysing: it produces an inability to actually reach decisions for common actions, leading to rapid failure. That is, unless, behind the forms of anarchy or legalism, there is an unaccountable decision-making group. In anarchist forms, this group is the informal initiators (descendants of Bakunin’s ‘invisible dictatorship’). In Labourist/legalist forms, it is the full-time officials and the elected representatives.

With the rejection of ‘democratic centralism’ in the name of Labourite organisational forms, we thus come back full circle to the case for the whole package of the ‘revisionist’ right wing of the SDP - and of the Blairites. Tristram Hunt MP is reported as telling Cambridge University Labour Club last week: “You are the top one percent. The Labour Party is in the shit. It is your job and your responsibility to take leadership going forward” - a remarkably unself-conscious piece of Cambridge-historian elitism.7 This “one percent” elite is required by the legalist approach and the defence of the ‘liberty of MPs’. The rest of us are expected to be what 18th century politicians called the menu peuple, the ‘led people’ (or even better, the ‘people led by their noses’).

Lenin commented in 1920: “How well Kautsky wrote 18 years ago!”8 Kautsky’s 1904 arguments against the ‘freedom’ of the elected representatives, and their claim to have a mandate from their constituents which can be set up against the party (but, in reality, not for their constituents, but for the secret state or for bribe-payers) are a good example of ‘how well Kautsky wrote when he was a Marxist’. Hopefully, printing an English translation of this article will make its arguments more widely available.

Mike Macnair

Constituency and party

The defeat in the 20th Saxon constituency has once again unleashed the antagonism between revisionists and anti-revisionists in our party. While the latter blame this mishap - insofar as the blame can be sought within our own ranks - on the lack of organisation in the constituency and on the lack of discipline on the part of a few comrades, the revisionists are striking up the same old song about the suppression of freedom of opinion; in a sense even about terrorism in the party, which is ‘crippling their activity’.

W Heine9 speaks particularly firmly along these lines in ‘Democratic marginal notes on the Göhre case’, which he published in the last edition of the Sozialistische Monatshefte.10 He notes that the “persecution” goes hand in hand with efforts at discipline and centralisation in the organisation and most sharply turns on the tendency that wants “a large organisation which encompasses everything, as centralised as possible - a tactic, a theory”; for such a “centralisation and simplification would doubtless increase the energy of action momentarily, but it would run contrary to the principles of democracy and intellectual freedom and in the long run damage the party itself”.

Until now, in the party the unity of theory - ie, the basic points of view - was desirable but, by contrast, such unity of organisation and tactics was indispensable. We now find out that for the revisionists this unity is a horror and that they already see a threat to ‘intellectual independence’, ‘intellectual freedom and diversity’ and ‘individuality’ - in short, everything ‘that is the soul of a democratic movement’ - in cohesive organisation and tactics.

Perhaps this suggests a response on a personal level, investigating the ‘democratic individuality’ and the ‘democratic methods’ of the author of the ‘Democratic marginal notes’. Yet this does not strike me as the right place to respond in that way. I am loathe all the more to do so, in that Heine is not putting forward his own hobby horse, but expresses the line of thought of the whole revisionist trend. Indeed, one can almost say that revisionism in all countries, for all its ‘diversity’ and colour, is more united on the question of organisation than any other.

However, the antagonism on the question of organisation which arises here does not revolve around the matter of freedom of ‘personality’, of the ‘individual’ in the party, but around the freedom of the representatives of the party: in the first instance the parliamentary deputies. Can and should the deputies arrange their political activity as they see fit, according to their own discretion, or are they representatives [Beauftragte], who are to carry out the orders of those who have issued them? And, if they are representatives, then do they represent their voters or the party as a whole? These are the questions with which we are concerned and it is in this certainty that we must keep them in mind and beware of allowing them to become blurred in the fog of general phrases about ‘freedom of opinion’, ‘democratic principle’ and ‘free personality’, in which the revisionists so gladly attempt to enshroud them. We are not dealing with the freedom of opinion of the masses, but the freedom of action of the leaders. Democracy does not mean the absence of rule [Herrschaftslosigkeit], it does not mean anarchy: it means the rule of the masses over their representatives, in distinction to other forms of rule, where the supposed servants of the people are in reality their masters.

When the organisation has grown beyond a certain size, the masses cannot conduct its administrative business themselves; they must entrust individuals to do so. The power of the organised masses thereby indirectly becomes a power of their trusted representatives or leaders. Yet if, whether for economic reasons or others, such as a lack of knowledge or time, the masses lack the possibility of overseeing and controlling [Kontrolle] the leaders, then sooner or later the moment will arrive when the power possessed by these representatives will not only be used against the enemies of the masses, but also against sections of these masses which the leaders find uncomfortable, with the result that eventually the leaders will change from their servants into their masters.

This has happened often enough in history and is also proved by modern parliamentarism. Where there is universal suffrage, a modern parliament readily appears as a representation of the mass of the people. In spite of this, wherever an independent political class organisation of the proletariat is absent, bourgeois parliamentarism, even where there is democratic suffrage, is one of the bourgeoisie’s means of rule.

Parliamentary delusion

In order to illustrate this, we will allow ourselves a small diversion that may appear to be purely academic, but will explain several of the phenomena occupying us today.

Where there is universal, equal suffrage, every adult can vote and be voted for. Yet time and skills - and where there is no remuneration for representatives, money - are required in order to carry out the parliamentary mandate effectively. The working classes lack all of this. It is a privilege of the bourgeoisie: ie, the capitalists and the intellectuals, the professors, lawyers, etc, who, apart from a few exceptions, socially and politically fight for the bourgeoisie. But what is even more difficult than effectively carrying out a mandate is winning one. Doing so involves not only knowledge and time, but money - if need be, a lot of money.

For in modern parliamentarism the voters are a disjointed, scattered mass that must first be brought together, made interested, enlightened or developed. In all of this, the person who has time and knowledge (or at least experience in the ways of the world) possesses a huge advantage over the isolated man in the street. The latter cannot compete with the bourgeois in the realm of parliament either. When a strong party organisation, which we shall discuss below, is absent, the contest for a parliamentary seat is a privilege of the rich and of those intellectuals who have a wealthy patron or a rich and powerful clique - the church, the state administration - at their service. Still today, this fact shapes the nature of the electoral struggles in England.11 In spite of the expanded franchise there, these struggles continue to be ruling class internal quarrels, which they fight out amongst themselves.

The voters, however, are only sovereign during the election. Following the election, all the power at the masses’ disposal is handed to the person elected, who does with it what he likes. He can sell out and betray his voters as he sees fit; nothing stands in the way of the ‘free’ development of his ‘personality’. He is ‘free’ until the next election and can carry the ‘democratic principle’ to the height of absurdity; his voters have no power to restrict his ‘intellectual freedom’. He cannot, of course, take things too far, otherwise he will not be re-elected. But his successor probably will not do a better job and, after all, the electorate has such a short memory! If he behaves himself in a way that is to some extent friendly towards the people, then this can cover up quite a lot.

In order that the representatives feel that their ‘intellectual freedom’ has not been unduly restricted, it is necessary for them that the elections do not occur too often. Long periods between elections are part of the essence of modern parliamentarism. We only find short periods between elections in the period of the bourgeois democracy’s illusions.12

All these circumstances make modern parliamentarism the best tool for the class rule of the bourgeoisie, even where there are extensive democratic institutions granting the mass of the people unrestricted participation in elections. The fact that the exploited and ruled classes are involved in this does not transform such class rule into its opposite. In order to blossom, each and every form of class rule beyond primitive forced slavery requires the ruled and exploited to be under the illusion that current conditions - even if they are not the most comfortable - are the only ones possible. This, for instance, principally forms the basis of the rule of the church. In many cases, modern parliamentarism has the same effect: it awakens in the masses the delusion that, merely because they possess universal suffrage, they have become masters of the state. And if, in spite of this, the bourgeoisie continues to rule, then that is due to the fact that this is indispensable because the masses are not ready to rule. Even amongst our ranks it is possible to find people who fight with veritable fanaticism against those who are of the view that the bourgeoisie has become expendable as a ruling class. In this way, parliamentarism strengthens the class rule of the bourgeoisie far more than the most brutally repressive policies would be able to.

The anarchists see this aspect of parliamentarism very clearly. But, like everything, parliamentarism has two sides, and those who only see this one side so clearly, but only this side, can misunderstand a phenomenon just as badly as somebody who has understood neither side properly.

Class independence

Above we have already highlighted how the character of parliamentarism can be changed by the development of aproletarian party organisation.

Its organisation is the weapon that will emancipate the proletariat; it is the weapon of class struggle that is particular to the proletariat, just as that of the feudal lord was the sword and armour and that of capital is money. Organisation is also the means of making parliamentarianism subservient to the proletariat.

In its organisations, the proletariat acquires capabilities which make it most suited to parliamentary activity. The leaders of these organisations do not merely become schooled parliamentarians, however: they also gain time and the possibility of developing a political effectiveness in parliament. In this way, the proletariat produces its own parliamentarians.

In its mass organisations, the proletariat also gains the strength to conduct - independently and without bourgeois support - its electoral battles successfully. As small as the financial contribution of the individual may be, the total number of contributions leads to handsome sums. But far more effective than financial contributions is comrades’ voluntary work, which can never be effectively replaced by that of hirelings.

But the elected representative remains a simple party comrade and as such subject to party discipline. Unlike bourgeois representatives, he is not responsible to an unorganised mass of voters, who have no power over him for the whole legislative period and who often are too easily beguiled by nice words, but is in constant dependence on a large organisation of politically trained party people. Social democrats are thus the only voters who not only decide on their representatives on the day of the election. They are the only voters who can rightly claim that these people genuinely represent the working people and are not representatives of the propertied and ruling classes elected by the working people.

Thanks to the organisation of the proletariat, wherever universal suffrage makes it possible for the working class to participate actively in the parliamentary process, parliamentarism completely changes its character. As the programme of the French Parti Ouvrier states, universal suffrage changes from a means of deceiving the proletariat to a means of liberating it.13

The organisation of the proletariat has a similar effect on the press. Wherever such an organisation is lacking, the press is also a means of the bourgeoisie’s class rule and is becoming more and more so. Only the organisation of the proletariat into an independent party is capable of countering the capitalist press with an independent press that genuinely serves the interests of the people. Only those journalists appointed by the proletarian organisations may justifiably call themselves representatives of public opinion - if not that of the society as a whole, then certainly of a large and important layer of the population - whereas bourgeois journalists have at best appointed themselves as the representatives of public opinion, but in most cases are nothing but the mouthpieces of this or that capitalist entrepreneur.

However, despite the importance of proletarian organisation and its holding to account of journalists and parliamentarians who stand up for the proletariat, at times this organisation encounters opposition even from those within socialist circles. Formerly it was the anarchists in particular who resisted the party organisation’s control in the name of ‘freedom of opinion’ and the right of the ‘free individual’. They criticised bourgeois parliamentarism very well, but sought to destroy precisely the means which could render parliamentarism harmless, or even transform it into an effective weapon of the proletariat: namely the political organisation of the proletarians.

For some years, there have been attempts within social democracy which may not have sought to destroy the political organisation of the proletariat, but were aimed at making parliamentarians and party journalists independent of it. The parliamentarians should only be accountable to their voters.

Italy and France

These phenomena have manifested themselves most clearly in Italy and France. Party organisation in these countries is weak and journalists and parliamentarians have a power that is greater than those in Germany, for example. In addition, in these countries the parliamentary fraction and the party’s journalism have expanded rapidly in the past few years, with the result that many bourgeois elements have come over to us - previously they had mainly worked as lone wolves in the press and carried out politics in parliament on their own initiative. An old party comrade considers it self-evident that he is subjected to party discipline; a newcomer finds it difficult to come to terms with this, especially if he gains a seat before he has adopted the habits of a party comrade, as was the case with Jaurès, for instance.14

Such elements earned an exceptional position in the party from the outset. As soon as their tendency deviated from that of the party, party discipline could not appear to them as anything other than an unseemly restriction on their free personality. On the other hand, it was precisely these elements that arrived at a path which deviated from the party’s previous course.

The French election of May 1898 strengthened our number of parliamentary seats from 32 to 38 and increased our vote from 400,000 to 800,000. But in 1894 the ‘independent socialists’ received only 87,000 of these votes, whereas in 1898 they received 350,000.15 In Italy, the election of 1900 increased the socialist fraction from 16 to 32. But there were only two workers in this group.

These two elections were the turning point, after which the ‘autonomy’ tendency - autonomy of the electoral constituencies, the parliamentary fraction and the press - was strengthened. The effect of this in Italy has already been clearly shown by comrade Oda Olberg in her article in Die Neue Zeit No26, which was as lucid as it was informative.16

But the effect of the new ‘freedom of opinion’ tendency in France has been no better, as proved by the Congress of the French Socialist Party (Jaurèsists) and the events since. The ‘autonomy’ of the press has led to a situation where the leadership of that organisation does not have a publication at its disposal. La Petite République, the socialist daily paper which is published in Paris, belongs to the leadership’s tendency, but is in private hands. And since its editor-in-chief, Jaurès, has fallen into differences with the publisher, Gérault Richard, the former is setting up his own daily - likewise a private enterprise - which is in competition with Richard’s publication, even though both represent the same tendency!17 There could be no better example of the disorganising effects of the autonomy of the press.

And the parliamentary representatives? They have no notion of party discipline: each representative votes as he sees fit, with the result that - since ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes cancel each other out - in many cases the fraction nullifies itself as an effective factor. Until now, the deputies were also independent of the party leadership. The latter could say what it wanted: the deputies did what they wanted. They considered themselves responsible only to ‘the voters’, or at best the party congress - but not to the party’s executive, which, after all, in the first instance has to implement the decisions of the party congress. During the entire legislative period they thus did not recognise any arbitrators above them, but during the election they felt justified in fishing for votes using all possible means - even by denying the socialist character of their politics. Thus before the last elections in 1902 it had been decided that the socialist candidates had to openly proclaim the party programme as their own if they wanted to be selected as socialist candidates. Many did not do this, however, which has not prevented them from appearing as party deputies and holding forth at each and every congress.

Eventually, this lack of discipline became unbearable to the majority of comrades in the ‘French Socialist Party’; at the St Etienne Congress they demanded that the deputies be subordinated to the party leadership, the Comité Interfédéral. In turn, they demanded that this committee become something more than a mere post box, into which letters demanded by speakers at assemblies were stuffed. The trend towards strengthening party discipline was so strong that the deputies had to submit to it. But Jaurès, ever the inventive one, was not lacking in resources to deal with it. In future party delegates will indeed be subjected to the leadership on the general direction of their tactics. However, the party leadership was changed. While until now it consisted of the Comité Interfédéral (the delegates of the individual federations which make up the party), the new party leadership - the Comité National - is to be jointly composed of the Comité Interfédéral and the parliamentary fraction. This means that the parliamentary fraction retains the right to create a majority on the party leadership. Until now, the latter had the right to protest against the actions of the fraction or individual members within it; from now on this right will also be abolished. The political organisation of the proletariat in France - insofar as it is represented by the ministerial socialists - no longer stands above the deputies, but below them. The deputies have gone from the servants of the party to its masters.

Jaurès justifiably expects the new institution to increase the independence - or, as he puts it, “the moral strength” - of “the deputies … since they are no longer exposed to the danger of being disavowed by their own friends. By acquainting the Comité Interfédéral with the difficulties and imbroglio, with the parliamentary intrigues and tricks on the part of reaction, they will become accustomed to voting for things that occasionally arouse the anger of a section of the proletariat because these votes are the necessary consequences of the struggle” (dont parfois une portion du prolétariat se scandalise).18

In future, then, the Comité Interfédéral will also view the backstairs politics of parliament as the culmination of the class struggle and defend votes that in the eyes of the proletariat are a scandal with reference to the needs of the struggle! The dissolution of the party will probably not be held up by that. Since the Bordeaux Congress, which was held a year ago, its membership has fallen from 11,000 to 8,500. It is also characteristic that Millerand, who is so adored, has cold-bloodedly cut ties with his friends through his most recent insidious attack on the socialist ministry.19 He would not have done so if he thought that the organisation of socialist ministerialism was going to experience an upswing.

Individuality of deputies

Things are far better with us here in Germany than they are in France and Italy. Until now, in Germany the disorganising effects of the striving for the ‘liberation of the personality’ have been next to nothing.

This is thanks to the strength of the party organisation and the fact that the old party comrades are quite dominant in the fraction - even amongst the newly elected comrades. For these old comrades, party discipline has become part of their flesh and blood. People who come to the world of socialism as candidates and who do not come to terms with the party, viewing its discipline as an external restriction on their being, not as a part of it, are still the exception. The autonomist tendencies in our ranks have not been able to do anything more than the following:

  • make more or less pathetic declamations about dictators and grand inquisitors, anathema and heresies;
  • whinge endlessly, which would lead to ceaseless quarrels if this whinging were ever addressed by the opposite side;
  • glorify a press that is independent of party discipline, in which a supposedly free intellectual life can alone occur.

The pettiness and ultimate impotence of such behaviour makes it all the more unpleasant. But it is nonetheless to be preferred to the splits and disorganisation which the autonomy of individuals and local organisations has brought about in France and Italy. In any event, these phenomena will not tempt us in Germany to emulate their example. This clearly shows us that the ‘freedom of opinion’ of the parliamentary deputies, their independence from the political organisation of the proletariat - even when we are dealing with socialist-minded deputies - gives parliamentarism its original character again, as a means of the rule of the bourgeoisie and its intellectuals over the mass of the people. If social democracy were to accept this behaviour then general suffrage would be transformed from a means of emancipation into a means of deception again.

But is it not correct to point out that party discipline has a crippling effect on the deputy whenever his opinions differ from those who commission him: that is to say, the party? That his personality is thereby stunted and he is prevented from doing the best job he can?

There can be no doubt that a deputy will only do a half-hearted job if he represents politics which he inwardly condemns. His personality is not only crippled: it is directly degraded and in the long run is corrupted, reduced to untruthfulness and duplicity.

But how is it possible to get out of this fix? How to combine the necessity of party discipline with the necessity of freely defending one’s convictions?

That is the problem. At first sight it appears to be a very difficult one, but it is only insoluble if we consider it self-evident that any Tom, Dick or Harry can be made into a deputy. In reality, the problem solves itself if, when choosing candidates, the kind of care is taken that corresponds to the importance of a deputy’s functions - if we only make those people candidates who are tried and tested as party comrades and whose record provides the guarantee that their convictions correspond to those of the party.

Of course, this does not rule out conflicts between one’s own convictions and party discipline, and these conflicts will be all the more painful, the more deeply held the conviction and the more devoted the voluntary discipline. It is impossible to do away with such conflicts: they are the price we pay for the greater power that the individual and the class acquires from the party organisation. Not one of us - not even the most talented comrade - would signify a hundredth of what we represent if he spoke merely as an individual and not as a representative of the largest party in the German empire.

Incidentally, what the party organisation brings with it in terms of restrictions on ‘free personality’ is more than offset by the support which is provided to many a ‘free personality’, who without the moral backing guaranteed by the party would get lost in the strangest of dead-ends. Who knows whether the socialist model minister, Millerand, would have fallen so far if a strong party organisation had prevented him a bit more from living out his ‘free personality’.

Accountable candidates

Be that as it may, it is definitely of great advantage to all involved if, for our deputies, the conflicts between conviction and discipline are reduced to a minimum. This can occur most successfully if the candidates are carefully chosen.

But on occasion we are lacking in candidates. The number of constituencies promising electoral success is growing at a greater speed than the number of tested, oratorically gifted, knowledgeable comrades who possess the necessary free time and economic independence. Especially in areas outside the industrial centres, the party cannot find the candidates it needs within the local organisation; it has to get them from outside and thereby, given the local party’s lack of familiarity with the party as a whole, can easily go for a candidate who, although he has made a name for himself in the party’s literature or even has an academic title, is still lacking in much that is required if he is to comply with behaviour in the fraction that is satisfactory to all.

The more our vote grows, the greater our need for candidates, the further away constituencies with a social democratic majority are from the large centres of economic, political and social life, the more necessary it becomes that the individual constituency organisations do not enjoy absolute sovereignty when choosing candidates and that this matter becomes one for the party as a whole. The easiest way for this to happen is if the party in the constituencies has to agree on their candidates to the state parliaments with the state leadership or state assembly, and with the state party leadership and the national party leadership on their candidates to the Reichstag. In 1876, party conference itself determined its candidates in the Reichstag elections, insofar as it had enough time to do so. Due to the conference being brought forward, the handling of a number of candidacies became impossible and had to be passed on to a central election committee appointed by the party conference.

We can see that there are different forms of influence which the party as a whole can exert on the selection of the candidates. Which form is the most practical is a question in itself and will not be discussed any further here. For the time being, we are concerned with recognising the principle that the nomination of a candidate for the Reichstag is an affair that concerns the party as a whole just as much as it does the constituency party.

This principle should not, of course, imply the most despicable violation of the democratic principle which states that all political affairs should be run from below, through the independence of the masses, not from above in a bureaucratic fashion. Indeed, in several party publications the recent affair of the 20th Saxony election district has unleashed a veritable storm tide of indignation at the violation of voters’ democracy on the part of a party authority.

However, if there is one democratic principle, then it is this: the majority must be preponderant over the minority and not the other way round. In our case, the majority is the party as a whole and the minority is the constituency party. Let us not forget that we have gone beyond the feudal representative system, where the individual delegate acted as the representative of a particular locality. The Reichstag deputy is the representative of the German people, not of a constituency. And, as a party man, he is the representative of the party as a whole, of three million people, not of the 10,000 or so who have voted for him. He is given a platform from which he not only speaks to his constituency, but to Germany as a whole. And what he does and does not do in the Reichstag reflects not merely on his constituency but on the party as a whole. Whatever he does well has a positive impact on the entire organisation; whatever he does badly embarrasses or compromises it. The selection of each and every candidate to the Reichstag is thus an important matter for the party as a whole.

But, since the party cannot deal with this very well itself, its representatives must do so. Those who consider this too ‘bureaucratic’ or ‘centralist’ may propose that candidates be determined by a referendum of all party comrades. But those who consider this latter suggestion to be unfeasible must not complain about the lack of democracy when this task, like many others that fall to the party, is taken care of by it or by one or several party entities.

Of course, this will not happen on the say-so of a top authority, such as the party leadership or the central committee, alone. The party comrades in the constituency must bear the main brunt of the election campaign - the success of the candidates depends above all on them. It is just that they should not have the right to impose on the party a candidate about whom the majority of the party have strong reservations.20 They should select their own candidates, but this candidate should only be confirmed after the representatives chosen by the party as a whole have approved their choice. As a rule, this is what will happen and in old constituencies with trained comrades it will be a mere formality. Where, however, a protest against the candidate becomes necessary, it is better for all involved that it is resolved tacitly amongst the groups [Faktoren] named above. If the state leadership and party leadership had first been asked about the election in the 20th constituency before Göhre was asked to be the candidate, then the embarrassing scenes would not have occurred, which certainly damaged our eventual candidate, but with equal certainty did not do much for Göhre’s reputation.

In fact we are not dealing with something new or unheard of here. It is a matter of established practice. It was always customary in the party that individual constituencies came to a friendly understanding with the party or state leadership regarding a new candidate. But the party has become too large for this established practice to be sufficient. Established practice stops being respected when it ceases to be regarded as self-evident and when its provisions, even its existence, become controversial. At this point, the practice must be explicitly determined and codified, because otherwise its implementation in particular cases would represent too much of a waste of energy and cause too much unnecessary conflict.

Close the ranks!

Since it has become so large, our party machinery creaks and squeaks so much that it risks losing all its power. It has become necessary to determine more precisely what has been customary up until now - as well as to seek several organisational improvements, if friction is to be reduced to a minimum and the party machinery is to run smoothly again. It would, however, be a highly involuntary service on the part of Heine if his attempt to dissolve the established practice of the party organisation led to its precise statutory implementation and thereby to a greater tightness in the organisation.

In the first instance, this involves determining the competency of the constituency party vis-à-vis the party as a whole. That is not only true when it comes to selecting candidates. We have seen how deputies who feel that party discipline is too burdensome often seek to remove themselves from it by claiming that they are accountable not to the party, but to the electorate. This is widespread practice amongst the ministerial socialists in France, but has also been practised in our own ranks. It sounds very ‘democratic’, but in fact is merely playing off feudal, particular tendencies against the uniformity [Einheitlichkeit] that must be inherent within a modern political party. If a social democrat from the party appeals to his voters, then this is just as much of a reactionary trick as when Bülow21 looks to the Prussian state parliament for a vote of confidence - a vote he is denied in the Reichstag.

Let us not therefore be led astray by “democratic marginal notes” and platitudes regarding what is necessary for genuine democracy - that is to say, the rule of the masses over their delegates - when it comes to strengthening and tightening our organisation.

In politics, as in war, the same tactics are not always called for. In modern battles, it is necessary to find new combat operations and to spread out our forces. In politics, however, the war tactics of the 17th and 18th centuries still apply - the closed column acting in a coordinated and united fashion emerges victorious.

When we stand before a battle, we must not disperse so as to ‘develop freely’ our ‘individuality’. Our slogan must be: ‘Close the ranks!’.


1. ‘Fortunes of a formula: ‘From “Democratic centralism” to “democratic centralism”’ Weekly Worker April 11 2013.

2. Discussion in Protokoll über die Verhandlungen des Parteitages der Sozialdemokratischen Partei Deutschlands abgehalten zu Bremen vom 18. bis 24. September 1904, available at

3. Discussion in Protokoll über die Verhandlungen des Parteitages der Sozialdemokratischen Partei Deutschlands abgehalten zu Jena vom 17. bis 23. September 1905 (online as above), and, from the right, Der Vorwärts-Konflikt, Munich 1905.

4. Sources quoted in notes 3 and 4.

5. Section Q, ‘The new Iskra. Opportunism in questions of organisation’:


7. The Independent November 2 2015.

8. VI Lenin Leftwing communism chapter 1: Compare more generally Lars T Lih, ‘Lenin and Kautsky: the final chapter’

9. Wolfgang Heine (1861-1944): a legal expert and SDP parliamentarian who belonged to the right wing of the SDP and contributed regularly to that wing’s publication, Sozialistische Monatshefte.

10. Paul Göhre (1864-1928): originally active in the Christian social movement, he worked alongside Max Weber in studying the living conditions of rural workers in East Germany. Between 1894 and 1897 he worked as a priest. In 1900 he joined the SDP and one year later renounced his clerical rights and duties. A supporter of the revisionist wing of social democracy, in 1903 he was elected to the Reichstag, but resigned from office after coming into conflict with the party leadership (‘the Göhre case’). He returned to the Reichstag in 1910. He volunteered for the army aged 50 in 1914, and became a junior minister in the Prussian war ministry in 1918.

11. For an overview of Kautsky’s arguments on the ‘English’ (ie, British) parliamentary system, see B Lewis, ‘Referenda and direct democracy’ Weekly Worker September 18 2014.

12. ‘The bourgeois democracy’ in Marxist writings of this period means the party or trend of leftwing liberals and radicals. Kautsky’s reference is probably to the demands of the Chartists and to the French revolution of 1848-50.

13. A programme drafted in Friedrich Engels’s front room in north London by Engels, Marx and Paul Lafargue. The draft was agreed upon at the Parti Ouvrier’s congress in November 1880. The full text of the programme is available at

14. Jean Jaurès (1859-1914): French socialist, founder of the socialist daily L’Humanité and leader of the French section of the Second International. He was a gradualist, who felt that Marxism gave undue weight to the role of material interests in history. He was assassinated by the extreme nationalist, Raoul Villain, in 1914.

15. The French Independent Socialists (Socialistes indépendants) were a political grouping and parliamentary fraction in the Third Republic, which refused to join any of the various organised political parties of French socialism. Their name came to be used - as is apparent in Kautsky’s use of the term too - to refer to politicians who claimed to draw legitimacy from their voters and thus refused to submit to parliamentary discipline.

16. Oda Olberg (1872-1955): correspondent for Die Neue Zeit - the Marxist weekly edited by Karl Kautsky - on developments in the Italian and French workers’ movements in particular. She was a champion of abortion rights and assisted suicide, and worked together with Benito Mussolini on the Italian publication Avanti!

17. Alfred Léon Gérault-Richard (1860-1911): socialist publisher and Socialist Party parliamentarian.

18. Kautsky’s original footnote: Dépêche de Toulouse February 22 1904. Cited from E Lafont in his article on the St Etienne congress, ‘Mouvement socialiste’, March 15 1904.

19. Alexandre Millerand (1859-1943): French socialist whose decision to become a cabinet minister in the Waldeck-Rousseau government in 1899 led to his expulsion from the Second International and gave the rise to the word, ‘Millerandism’, as a derogatory term for reformist socialism. Kautsky led the charge against Millerand and his supporters in the Second International.

20. Kautsky’s original footnote: If need be, it could also become desirable for the party as a whole, or its representatives, to nominate the candidates themselves. This will be called for in states where the number of safe seats is tremendously small. Here we must not entirely leave the selection of the candidates to the contingency of local influences; the party has a right to demand that in safe seats the most suitable representatives that it needs in parliament are put forward at all costs. In Austria it is thanks to the unrestricted autonomy of the constituencies that a man such as Victor Adler [1852-1918, a founding member of Austrian social democracy - BL] was kept away from the House of Representatives for two consecutive legislative periods and it is questionable whether the next elections will send him there. But this question does not come into consideration for the German empire, where there is a plethora of safe seats.

21. Bernhard Heinrich Martin Karl von Bülow (1849-1929): a German politician and statesmen. A favourite of kaiser Wilhelm II, in 1900 von Bülow became chancellor of Germany and the minister president of Prussia (the tension between these posts and the differing political compositions of the two state entities is alluded to by Kautsky above). Wilhelm II hoped that, with von Bülow’s support, parliamentary democracy and party politics could be done away with. In the Reichstag, Bülow once referred to Kautsky’s The social revolution, published in 1902, as the “travel guide for the state of the future”.