Sources, streams and confluence

Ben Lewis offers some thoughts on the origins of democratic centralism

Democratic centralism is perhaps one of the most maligned, misunderstood and controversial terms in the contemporary Marxist vernacular. More often than not, enemies of Marxism and self-proclaimed defenders alike have deployed the term in a fashion that is completely at odds with the way this guiding idea was applied historically as a common sense modus operandi within the healthiest trends of the revolutionary movement. As with many other ideas and practices that abound on today’s radical left, the experience of Stalinism still casts its long, dark shadow. Whether it is peddled by those on the left who place the interests of their particular bureaucratically-run sect above the interests of democracy, or those who make it their duty to distort and undermine socialist ideas, there is a lazy and ahistorical equation of democratic centralism with despotic, bureaucratic rule, of Lenin with Stalin, of workers’ democracy with its negation.

For this reason alone, it is necessary to proceed with extreme caution when discussing the term democratic centralism. But discuss it we must. A cursory look at the programmes of the annual schools of the various bureaucratic sects on these shores shows just how fundamental their conception of the term is to the political practice of formally anti-Stalinist organisations such as the Socialist Party in England and Wales, the Socialist Workers’ Party and so on. But, as I will attempt to show, the utterly garbled understanding of these groups adds fuel to the fire of those who wish to equate democratic centralism with despotism, secrecy, expulsions, crass manoeuvres and splits - in the way that Tom Watson has, largely unsuccessfully, attempted with his dodgy dossier on so-called Trotskyist infiltration of the Labour Party.

In attempting to outline the concept, then, it is vital that we try and place the term in its proper historical context and follow its subsequent degeneration into a fig-leaf for the worst and most bureaucratic excrescences of the socialist movement, both in the 20th century and in this one.

Such a task is, of course, beyond the remit of a single article. In what follows, I wish to restrict myself to a brief overview of the possible sources of the term democratic centralism within two of the parties in the Marxist Second International (1889-1914). In order to do so, I will first provide a highly condensed outline of the current state of historiography on the first use and the original meaning of the term democratic centralism. On that basis, I will proceed to discuss three front-running contenders for the first use - the original deployment, as it were - of the term democratic centralism. Our three contestants are: Johann Baptist von Schweitzer (1833-75); Karl Kautsky (1854-1938) and August Bebel (1840-1913). What becomes immediately obvious here is that all three were pivotal figures in the German workers’ movement: in light of recent historiography, this should come as little surprise to comrades, but we will return to this matter later.

Finally, after drawing a balance sheet of the evidence in this historical Whodunnit? I will take a step back from the origins of the term and conclude by discussing the implications of this journey through the German sources of democratic centralism for both the left’s understanding of Bolshevism and also what these hitherto little-discussed episodes can teach us about the continuing struggles for democracy in our movement, not least in terms of the unfolding civil war within the Labour Party. It should be noted that this research is very much a work-in-progress and that, particularly when it comes to the nitty-gritty of certain historical details and facts, much of what I outline is of necessity quite provisional in nature.


The first stop on our search for the origins of democratic centralism is Petrograd in 1905. Here, at a meeting of the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, held at a time of a huge upswing in political mobilisation, those present adopted the following resolution (‘On the organisation of the party’):

The RSDLP must be organised according to the principle of democratic centralism. All party members take part in the election of party institutions.

All party institutions are selected for a [specified] period, are subject to recall and obligated to account for their actions both periodically and at any time upon demand of the organisation which elected them.

Decisions of the guiding collectives are binding on the members of those organisations of which the collective is the organ. Actions affecting the organisation as a whole (ie congresses, reorganisations) must be decided upon by all of the members of the organisation. Decisions of lower-level organisations are not to be implemented if they contradict decisions of higher organisations.1


As far as the historiography goes, this Menshevik use of the term is the first use in the Russian labour movement. This salient fact is worth remembering, not least because a whole host of sources - from Wikipedia through to the far left - seem to be convinced that the term originates with Lenin in his 1901 What is to be done?, despite the fact that the term does not surface at all in this publication.

As Lars T Lih has explained in his articles on democratic centralism for the Weekly Worker,2 the Menshevik deployment of this notion was something of a bolt out of the blue in terms of Russian social democratic political discourse. As far as Lars knows - and his knowledge of the Russian movement far surpasses my own - the term has no Russian precursors. Less than a month later, in December 1905, the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP - keen to catch up with the lead taken by the competing Menshevik grouping - also adopted the idea of democratic centralism, in a motion entitled ‘On party reorganisation’:

“Recognising as indisputable the principle of democratic centralism, the conference considers the broad implementation of the elective principle necessary; and, while granting elected centres 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.”3


The guiding principles of democratic centralism contained in these resolutions, within the framework of which open and democratic debate was the utter norm - were then subsequently adopted at the RSDLP Unity Congress of both factions on April 25 1906. But how are we to explain this sudden emergence of the term in Russia? Paul le Blanc’s 1993 study Lenin and the revolutionary party, which has recently been reprinted by Haymarket Books, quotes the bourgeois Cold War historian of Russia, Leonard Schapiro, who wrote: “It will be recalled that, in the Russian context, the phrase [democratic centralism - BL] was of Menshevik origin. Historically, the phrase originated in the German Social Democratic Movement, and was first used in 1865 by JB Schweitzer”.4 This brings us to the first of our three contenders for the first use of the term democratic centralism.

Schweitzer’s centralism

Alongside Schapiro’s account, there are a number of other claims I have found online which assert that Johann Baptiste von Schweitzer was the first to coin the term ‘demokratische Zentralisation’ (‘democratic centralisation’). Von Schweitzer took over as the leader of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein (the ADAV - General German Workers’ Association), in 1867, following the death of its founder leader, Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864), who was killed in a duel. The ADAV was one component of the united social democracy, which agreed on a single programme in Gotha in 1875.

A strong argument in favour of von Schweitzer as the originator of the term democratic centralism can clearly be found in current historical research regarding the multifarious political and intellectual ties between the German workers’ movement and the young Russian RSDLP. As Lars Lih has shown, Lenin’s dream was, in short, to do what the Germans were doing, namely forming a mass social-democratic party on the basis of the SPD’s Erfurt minimum-maximum programme of 1891: Lenin was a “Russian Erfurtian”.5 Indeed, while both Cold War and Stalinist historiography drove a wedge between the German and Russian experience (in line with Stalin’s 1939 assertion that Bolshevism was “a party of a new type fundamentally different from the social democratic parties of the Second International”),6 the intimate links between Russian and German Marxism have become increasingly apparent in recent scholarship.

So perhaps the Russian Mensheviks, in the early days of their faction and the upswing in politics following the Russian revolution of 1905, were looking back to the origins of the German party movement for organisational guidance? There are two main arguments against this. First, Schweitzer was effectively a labour dictator who ran his organisation with an iron hand. His pro-Prussianism led him into all sort of dodgy discussions with Otto von Bismarck and the pro-Prussian junker class behind the backs of the members and the movement at large. On a number of occasions, he was also accused of being in the pay of the German police - including in parliament by a certain August Bebel. Indeed, to cut a long story short, Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht (leaders of the Eisenacher/Marxist wing of social democracy) were clear that unification with the ADAV presupposed knocking Schweitzer off his throne. As such, while I am increasingly convinced that Schweitzer did use a phrase along the lines of democratic centralisation to summarise his organisational methods, what he had in mind was clearly worlds apart from the Russians in 1905 who were, after all, basing themselves on the openly Marxist/Erfurtian current of the German movement, not the continuation of the Lassallean, pro-Prussian movement as represented by Schweitzer. Gustav Mayer’s biography of Schweitzer also provides numerous insights into Schweitzer’s conception of a centralised organisation. In 1869, for instance, Schweitzer wrote glowingly about how a small handful of people can become a force for major historical change - for good or bad. His examples were the Catholic church, the Jacobins of 1789 or - revealingly - the Prussian general staff of 1866.7

Such an outlook is more akin to Blanquism than Marxism, and this would not have been lost on the Mensheviks of 1905, who were well-versed in their German labour history. Indeed, if we think about the Cold War agenda of historians such as Schapiro, it is perhaps rather useful for them to trace the Russian revolutionaries back to a figure such as Schweitzer, to portray them as a small elite cog attempting to drive the larger wheel of history in a manner that supposedly heralded the later Stalinist norms. Moreover, we have to explain the obvious time gap: if von Schweitzer of the 1860s was the source of the term, why did it not emerge in Russia before November 1905?

Kautsky and MPs

A more obvious candidate, given that he embodies the Marxist tradition in the German movement, would be Karl Kautsky, the ‘pope of Marxism’ and the theoretician behind the so-called ‘radical’, ‘centre’ or ‘orthodox’ tendency within social democracy on which Lenin based his political strategy.

In early 1904, Kautsky penned an article for his weekly theoretical journal, Die Neue Zeit, entitled ‘Constituency and party’.8 The immediate catalyst to this intervention was a controversy within an electoral constituency in Saxony, where the district party and the party leadership had to intervene in order to prevent the possible candidacy of an ex-priest turned social democrat revisionist, Paul Goehre. The more general backdrop to this was an offensive of the revisionist right in arguing for a more ‘sensible’ and ‘electable’ approach to the military and naval policy of the German empire. Indeed, around this time one SPD parliamentary deputy, Max Schippel, was forced to resign his seat after breaking party discipline and voting with the government on its naval bill. Kautsky spoke for the ‘radicals’ against the revisionists, and as such with the party majority, which at congress after congress had voted to defeat the policies of revisionism.

Not that this stopped the right from kicking up (an all-too familiar) fuss regarding the “persecution” of free speech and democracy within the party. Goehre was defended in an article by the SPD legal expert, Wolfgang Heine, who - writing in the revisionist SPD factional journal, Sozialistische Monatshefte - contended that the “will of the local party should have been respected”.9

Kautsky’s polemic against Heine bears many of the hallmarks of the principles of democracy and centralism found in the resolutions on party organisation passed by both RSDLP factions in 1905 in Russia. For example, regarding majorities and minorities in the organisation, Kautsky even refers to the accusations of ‘centralism’ bandied about by the right:

“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’ [‘zentralistisch’] may propose that candidates be determined by a referendum of all party comrades …”


Kautsky’s thought on this matter are in keeping with his outlook on parliamentary democracy more generally. He argues that the social democratic party is the lever with which the cycle of faux bourgeois parliamentary democracy can be broken, where elections can become not a means of the deception of the masses, but of their liberation.10 In this regard, so Kautsky argues, the hypocritical hue and cry from the right about the ‘individual freedom’ of elected MPs is reflective of a bourgeois conception of democracy:

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. Long periods between elections [ie putting up and shutting up for four years before casting a vote again - BL] are part of the essence of modern parliamentarism. So that the ‘rights’ of the individual are not infringed upon.


In the Goehre case, Kautsky contends: “We are not dealing with the freedom of opinion of the masses, but the freedom of action of the leaders. Democracydoes not mean the absence of rule[Herrschaftslosigkeit], it does notmean anarchy: it means the rule ofthe masses over their representatives,in distinction to other forms of rule,where the supposed servants of thepeople are in reality their masters.”

And finally, in words that could (and perhaps should) have been written this summer, Kautsky concluded:“the elected representative remains a simple party comrade and as such subject to party discipline.”

There are clear arguments in favour of Kautsky as a possible source of the term democratic centralism. While he does not use the concept in this piece, he certainly comes close, and also provides a solid defence of the way in which democratic centralism was understood and applied in the Russian movement in 1905: democracy from below, the elective principle, and the accountability and recallability of party representatives and leaders. Moreover, the article made a direct impression on Lenin (and, by association, on many of the Russian leaders). In One step forward, two steps back, written in the spring of 1904, Lenin stressed that “the undoubted tendency to defend autonomism against centralism ... is a fundamental characteristic of opportunism in matters of organisation”.11

This is almost paraphrasing Kautsky’s 1904 article (or, rather, in this particular instance, translating it directly into Russian).

Nonetheless, it would be expected that, if Kautsky had used the term around this time, then the term would appear in the Russian movement before November 1905. This is where the last of our contenders, August Bebel, comes into consideration, for he was involved in a dispute within German social democracy almost concurrently with the deployment of the term in Russia, namely in the autumn of 1905.

Bebel and Vowärts

August Bebel would be a fitting candidate for the originator of the term ‘democratic centralism’ insofar as he played a pivotal role in the German workers’ movement and earned the praise of many revolutionaries in Russia. As Lenin put it in his obituary of Bebel in 1913: “The period of preparation and the mustering of working class forces is in all countries a necessary stage in the development of the world emancipation struggle of the proletariat, and nobody can compare with August Bebel as a brilliant personification of the peculiarities and tasks of that period”.12 From working class origins, Bebel eventually became the political leader of the radical tendency within the SPD and was renowned for his fiery speeches in the Reichstag as an SPD parliamentarian and his condemnations of the SPD right at party congresses.

The party struggle in which Bebel was involved, as we shall see, was similar in nature to that conducted by Kautsky in 1904 and broached similar themes related to the practice of the party and the relationship between the revisionist minority and the radical majority. But it did not revolve around electoral work, but rather the party’s main daily paper, Vorwärts.

Due to the peculiarities of the legal and political status of Prussia within the German Kaiserreich, Vorwärts had a dual function: it was both the main national paper and that of the local Berlin party organisation. Its editorial board consisted of a 6:4 majority in favour of the revisionists, despite this grouping being in the minority in the party as a whole. Naturally, this particular balance of forces became the source of much friction both within the editorial board itself and between the board and the party leadership. Complaints about the publication’s lack of clarity were forthcoming both in other local party newspapers, including from a certain Rosa Luxemburg writing in Leipzig: she and others felt that the publication vacillated too much and was unduly soft on the revisionist wing. After much toing and froing, the party leadership and the press commission intervened to remove the gang of six from their positions in order to bring the hybrid national/regional publication into line with the party majority. But this did not occur until the end of a huge dispute, lasting for months, in which the six sacked editors went out of their way to place their individual positions above the will of the party as a whole: waiting until the radical minority had left editorial board meetings in order to override agreed editorial changes, leaking material about the dispute to the bourgeois press, chiding the party leadership and the press commission for being in thrall to the ‘dictatorial’ Bebel and … listening in on meetings between the leadership and the press commission. To their credit, however, the six former editors published their entire correspondence with the party in a pamphlet that includes their own contributions to the debate alongside those of Anton Pannekoek, Bebel and others.13

Quite clearly, the issues involved here relate to the question of democratic centralism and bringing the daily paper - while it enjoyed majority support for the revisionists locally - into line with the majority of the party (Bebel says so explicitly in explaining the party’s actions: a majority that corresponded with the party needed to be “made”). Interestingly enough, the uproar about the dictatorial Bebel using the party leadership and the press commission as puppets in his drive to oust the six editors is rather reminiscent of the way in which Lenin was presented in the heat of the early factional battles in the RSDLP. Much of the language and the insinuations overlap: the bugaboo of Blanqui and Blanquism appears here too.

Our third candidate thus seems the most likely to have been the guiding light behind the term democratic centralism.14 However, as of yet I have been unable to find a ‘smoking gun’, an explicit use of the term, either in his speeches, which are reprinted in the fascinating protocols of the SPD congresses (where all contributions, heckles and interjections are recorded in astonishing detail) or in the party’s theoretical journals. However, one source which may prove more fruitful is the daily newspaper Vorwärts itself, which is currently in the process of being digitised and published online. In this sense, our three candidates should perhaps not be seen as contenders for the prize but rather as the fonts of a stream of ideas which ebbed and flowed, developed and deepened, within the political and intellectual environment of European social democracy as a whole. And the confluence of these ideas between the German and Russian movements in 1904-05 was an enduring one. Coming to terms with the treachery of German social democracy in voting for war credits in August 1914, Lenin is adamant:

We defend always in our press the democracy in the party. But we never speak against the centralisation of the party. We are for democratic centralism. We say that the centralisation of the German labour movement is not a feeble, but a strong and good feature of it. The vice of the present Social Democratic Party of Germany consists not in the centralisation, but in the preponderance of the opportunists, after their treacherous conduct in the war.15

Concrete applications

So, while I am confident that I will be able to discover the origins of democratic centralism and translate, annotate and introduce the appropriate documents as part of a future project, there is a sense in which focussing solely on tracking down the origins misses something important about democratic centralism, namely that it should be a guiding principle of our movement, not some kind of ready-made catch-all panacea that will immediately transform the fortune of socialist ideas in society for the good. Finding the source, or sources, of the idea, certainly is not akin to locating some kind of Marxist holy grail that will solve all of the left’s problems. Indeed, it is hardly the case that - having discovered the true origins of their dogma - left leaders like Alex Callinicos or Hannah Sell will let the scales fall from their eyes and embrace a genuinely democratic-centralist culture.16

But, as I have tried to outline, whichever particular words we use to summarise these fundamental democratic practices, centralised democracy, majority rule with minority rights within the framework of the organisation’s programme, etc, it is clearly utter nonsense to declare that democratic centralism, and the ideas which it embodies are passé, only deserving the dustbin of early 20th century history.

Indeed, while we have to be careful about drawing historical parallels all too quickly - the SPD of 1905 and the Labour Party of 2016 are, after all, rather different beasts - nevertheless the issues which seem to have sparked the emergence of democratic centralism at the beginning of the 20th century are unmistakeably present in the current Labour coup attempts. It’s not that the #chickencoup plotters have gone back and read the writings of the revisionist right, of course; merely that the logic of these endeavours is embedded within capitalist society itself, in the tensions within the fight for the political representation of our class, the bourgeois media and so on.

What we see now is similar to what we saw in 1903-05 on the part of the revisionists: the placing of one part (the Parliamentary Labour Party, or rather the careers of the PLPers) above the party as a whole - with all the attendant nonsense about ‘the abuse of democracy’ that is re- or deselection (or even sacking), the leaks to the press, the intrigue, the talk about ‘saving the party’ and so on. In this obvious respect, therefore, democratic centralism - far from being the creation of a conniving, manoeuvring Asiatic mind, as it is all too often portrayed by both opponents and purported champions of Lenin, is actually of the foremost contemporary relevance. Understanding its origins and the context of its appearance on the political scene can hopefully be of some assistance to those of us engaged in the struggle for democracy in our movement today.


1. Cited in P Le Blanc Lenin and the revolutionary party New York 1993, p116.

2. L T Lih ‘Democratic centralism: fortunes of a formula’ Weekly Worker April 11 2013 and ‘Democratic centralism: Further fortunes of a formula’ Weekly Worker July 25 2013.

3. Cited in P Le Blanc Lenin and the revolutionary party New York 1993, p116.

4. Cited in ibid.

5. See in particular L T Lih Lenin rediscovered: ‘What is to be done?’ in context Chicago 2008, pp111-159.

6. Cf. J V Stalin Foundations of Leninism Moscow 1939, p142.

7. Cited in Gustav Mayer Johann Baptist von Schweitzerund die Sozialdemokratie. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung Jena 1909, p284.

8. My translation of this article was published in Weekly Worker, November 5 2015.

9. Heine is not particularly well-known today. However, his article (‘Democratic marginal notes on the Goehre case’) was widely read and discussed. It is cited - with different intentions and for contrasting conclusions - by Robert Michels in his 1915 Political parties; a sociological study of the oligarchical tendencies of modern democracy and by Grigory Zinoviev in his 1916 The social roots of opportunism.

10. For more on this, see my article ‘Referenda and direct democracy’, Weekly Worker September18 2014.

11. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1904/onestep/q.htm.

12. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/aug/08.htm.

13. Kurt Eisner et al.(eds) Der Vorwärtskonflikt: gesammelte Aktenstücke Munich 1905.

14. A fourth possible source, albeit a rather strange one given his revisionist outlook, is Georg von Vollmar. He was tasked with reporting to the Jena Congress of 1905 on the reorganisation of the party following the repeal of the ban on the SPD in Prussia in 1904. The repeal created the prospect of increased national cooperation and uniform party practice across the country. Vollmar summarised the debate on the way forward as one between those who favoured “strict centralisation” and those who placed more emphasis on federalism and localism. Ultimately, he argues, the party agreed on a compromise between the two views. Thanks to Mike Macnair for pointing this out to me in the discussion following my Communist University presentation. The potential overlap between the reorganisation of the party and the party paper is quite clear and something I need to study more closely in the future.

15. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/nov/09.htm.

16. By way of an example, listen to the following speech by comrade Sell, in which she makes a ‘democratic-centralist’ case (bureaucratic centralist, actually) for not allowing oppositionists in SPEW space to publish their views on the importance of the tendency of the rate of the profit to fall (!) in the party’s press. Her argument, which is an affront to the lived experience of Bolshevism, runs something like this: ‘Lenin did champion open debate and says this openly. But this was in 1906, when the Bolsheviks were a minority within a reformist ‘broad’ party, the RSDLP (which she compares to Tusc), but Lenin would never advocate such a thing in a revolutionary party, like the Socialist Party’. The mind truly boggles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qm3afIYVrG8.