Democratic centralism needs to be rescued from such obscenities

Reclaiming democratic centralism

One of the major issues raised by the Renewal Faction of America’s now liquidated ISO was the managerial regime that underpins the Cliffite tradition internationally. But there is bureaucratic centralism and democratic centralism. Mike Macnair continues his investigation

Four weeks ago, writing in this paper on the role of ‘democratic centralism’ (SWP version) in the collapse of the US International Socialist Organization, I said that “‘democratic centralism’ is a phrase, like the words ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’, which needs to be rescued from both misuse and obloquy”.1

That article was directed to helping to rescue the phrase from ‘misuse’; but, as I indicated there, this ‘misuse’ goes all the way back to decisions taken in the Russian Communist Party and Comintern in 1919-22, which were understandable in the (very difficult) circumstances of the time, but turn out in hindsight to have been mistaken - and now serve merely as ideology for ‘left’ versions of managerialism. To reclaim ‘democratic centralism’ therefore requires us to go back to its earlier history, and also to think a little bit more generally about what it means.


Paul LeBlanc identified in 1990 that the phrase ‘democratic centralism’ was adopted by both Mensheviks (first) and Bolsheviks (later) in November-December 1905, and then by the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party’s unification conference in April 1906.2 The resolutions in question are available in translation in the collection edited by Ralph Carter Elwood,3 but we need them here for clarity as to what they actually say:

Mensheviks, November 20 1905:

The RSDRP 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 elected 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. The foundation of the organisation is the party union, whether unified for a given locality or subdivided into raion and sub-raion unions ...

Bolsheviks, December 12 1905:

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 …

Appeal of the unified central committee, January 1906:

… In the organisational area, the transition from the tight framework of conspiratorial institutions to more or less open elective organisations has unified the party on the principle of democratic centralism …

RSDRP Unification Congress, organisational rules, April 25 1906:

2. All party organisations are built on the principles of democratic centralism.

3. All party organisations are autonomous with respect to their internal activities. Every approved party organisation has the right to issue party literature in its own name.

4. New party organisations are approved by oblast conferences or by two neighbouring organisations. The central committee exercises supervisory power over such approvals …

7. The central committee and the editorial board of the central organ are elected at the [party] congress. The central committee represents the party in relations with other parties; it organises various party institutions and guides their activities; it organises and conducts undertakings of significance for the party as a whole; it allocates party personnel and funds, and has charge of the central party treasury; it settles conflicts between and within various party institutions and it generally coordinates all the activity of the party ...

8. The congress is the supreme organ of the party ...

A particular aspect of the organisational model is shown by this Unification Congress’s ‘Draft conditions for the unification of the Bund with the RSDRP’:

1. The Bund enters the RSDRP as the Social Democratic organisation of the Jewish proletariat; its activities are not limited to any particular region …

3. All decrees of party congresses are binding on the Bund.

4. Within the limits of the general decrees of RSDRP congresses and of the general decrees of the RSDRP, the Bund retains its independence in matters of agitation, organisation and propaganda …

6. All local organisations in the RSDRP form a single guiding city committee of the RSDRP on the basis of general elections, regardless of the nationality of the party members.

Note: This committee resolves all questions common to the proletariat of the particular city by simple majority vote …

Lars T Lih’s 2013 article, ‘Fortunes of a formula’, confirms the judgment of Carter Elwood and LeBlanc that the formula first appeared in the November 1905 Menshevik resolution, rather than having prior Russian antecedents. He adds that Lenin only used the tag in 1906-07 (with the accent on “democratic”) and in 1920-21 (with the accent on “centralism”); and he confirms both species of usage from Vladimir Nevsky’s 1925 History of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks).4

Lih recognises in his article two intermediate usages, one of which I had identified, and which he immediately discards as irrelevant.5 This is in Lenin’s 1913 polemic on the national question:

[W]hile, and insofar as, different nations constitute a single state, Marxists will never, under any circumstances, advocate either the federal principle or decentralisation. The great centralised state is a tremendous historical step forward from medieval disunity to the future socialist unity of the whole world, and only via such a state (inseparably connected with capitalism) can there be any road to socialism.

It would, however, be inexcusable to forget that in advocating centralism we advocate exclusively democratic centralism. On this point all the philistines in general, and the nationalist philistines in particular ..., have so confused the issue that we are obliged again and again to spend time clarifying it.

Far from precluding local self-government, with autonomy for regions having special economic and social conditions, a distinct national composition of the population, and so forth, democratic centralism necessarily demands both ...6

As will appear below, I am not persuaded that this argument about ‘democratic centralism’ in the state is, in fact, unrelated to ‘democratic centralism’ in the party.

The second intermediate usage Lih cites is in a 1915 or 1916 friendly critique in a letter, written in English, to the secretary of the Socialist Propaganda League of America:

We defend always in our press the democracy in the party. But we never speak against the centralisation of the party. We are for the 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, which should be excluded from the party especially now, after their treacherous conduct in the war. If in any given crisis the small group (for instance, our central committee is a small group) can act for directing the mighty mass in a revolutionary direction, it would be very good. And in all crises the masses cannot act immediately; the masses want to be helped by the small groups of the central institutions of the parties. Our central committee quite at the beginning of this war, in September 1914, has directed the masses not to accept the lie about ‘the war of defence’ and to break off with the opportunists and the ‘would-be-socialist jingoes’ (we call so the ‘socialists’ who are now in favour of the war of defence). We think that this centralistic measure of our central committee was useful and necessary.7

In the absence of the text of the leaflet Lenin responds to, it is not completely clear what this is directed against. The leader of the SPLA’s The Internationalist No1 (January 1917) asserts: “We want to reorganise [the Socialist Party of America] from the bottom up” (emphasis in original);8 this perhaps ‘tones down’ an earlier, more explicit anti-centralism?

The letter to the SPLA shows that the ‘centralism’ side of the formula is already doing operative work in Lenin’s writing before the traumas of 1918-21. It should also be clear from both texts, as well as from the 1905-06 resolutions, that the idea is concerned with relations between the centre and the localities. This will be equally visible in the German antecedents, to which Lenin refers in that letter.

Lih’s work, however, certainly confirms LeBlanc’s view that the ‘democratic centralism’ formula in the Russian party was an innovation of 1905 - and one shared by both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. Given that it was an innovation, its uncontroversial character (“recognising as indisputable the principle of democratic centralism”, say the Bolsheviks) means that it pretty much must have come from the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), which was the fount of orthodoxy and the model to which the Russian Marxists aspired.9


LeBlanc suggests that the formula is originally Lassallean. He cites Leonard Schapiro, who included the attribution in the 1970 second edition of his The Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Schapiro in turn cites to Leo Valiani.10 Valiani attributes the usage to Johann Baptist von Schweitzer, speaking in 1868 to the Berlin congress which refounded the Lassallean Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein (ADAV) as the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterschaftsverein, after the dissolution of the original organisation by the Prussian police.11

This is, I think, something of a leap too far. Valiani, an Atlanticist writing in 1968, had an axe to grind, and this axe was the idea that Marx and Engels would have repudiated the ‘democratic centralism’ formula as anti-democratic. This is perfectly possible as of 1868; but the argument asks us to leap from 1868 to 1905, presuming continuance of the ideas, across a series of events which are likely to have erased any positive memory of Schweitzer’s version.

First is the splits in the ADAV in the late 1860s/early 1870s - over issues of democracy - and the 1871 resignation of Schweitzer as ADAV president after he lost his Reichstag seat.12 Second is the 1875 Gotha unification, which, while making theoretical concessions to the Lassalleans, adopted the organisational model of the ‘Eisenachers’ (Wilhelm Liebknecht, August Bebel and their supporters).13 Third is the subsequent illegalisation of the unified organisation under the Anti-Socialist Laws (1878-90), which prohibited everything but constituency organisation and the parliamentary Fraktion, so that the party paper Sozialdemokrat had to operate from abroad and be smuggled in.14

Fourth - and this seems to have been most decisive in the claimed centralisation of the SPD Lenin referred to in 1915 - is the debates in the SPD about organisation in the early 1900s, in the context of ‘revisionism’, coalition governments, imperialism and whether to vote for naval budgets (considered further below).

Lassalle was remembered in the late 19th and early 20th century SPD as a dead hero of the workers’ movement.15 Schweitzer was not.16


The history of the German workers’ movement through the 1860s to 1890s, as well as the debates of the 1900s, were relevant to the origins of the organisational practices which were tagged as ‘democratic centralism’ in 1905 and after.

I have not so far found a ‘smoking gun’, in which the tag is used, either in the Neue Zeit theoretical magazine (which the Russians certainly read) in 1904-05, or in the discussions of party organisation in the Protokolle (stenographic publications) of the SPD Parteitage (party conferences) for 1904, 1905 or (looking further back to earlier ‘party organisation’ discussions) 1900 or 1890, when the party emerged from illegality.17 I have not (yet) found any use of the exact phrase, but there is a lot of closely relevant material.

We must, in fact, begin with the Lassalleans and the Eisenachers - but not with the Lassalleans as ‘democratic centralists’. Lassalle himself was certainly an advocate of centralism, but not of democratic centralism. He argued for the radical unification of the wills of the members of the Verein - in the single will of its president, himself. He polemicised against Julius Vahlteich (1839-1915), who left the ADAV for the First International and later the ‘Eisenacher’ Social Democratic Workers Party (SDAP), on the ground that Vahlteich (in objecting to Lassalle’s absolute power) was a ‘decentraliser’.18

Nonetheless, the Lassalleans introduced an element of workers’ organisation, which the Eisenachers copied from them. This was the creation of a national, individual-membership political party. The earlier efforts of Wilhelm Liebknecht, before the 1869 formation of the SDAP, involved entry in a left-liberal formation in Saxony, which had the usual characteristic of most political parties at the time - inherited from the English Whigs and Tories, and continuing in the modern US Democrats and Republicans - that it was a loose coalition of political clubs. Both the success of the ADAV, which at first far outstripped Liebknecht’s projects, and the participation of ex-Lassalleans in the formation of the SDAP meant the adoption of an individual-membership model.

But the SDAP unambiguously rejected the model of being run by a directly elected president with unlimited powers. Instead, it was run by an elected committee. It was also an organisation composed of local branches, and so on, with their own extensive powers, especially the power to publish their own press - a noteworthy feature, also found in the Russian documents (quoted above).

In 1875 the SDAP and the ADAV fused at Gotha to form the Socialist Workers Party of Germany (SAP). As I have already indicated, though there were considerable substantive concessions to the ADAV in the Gotha programme, which Marx famously (and Engels less famously) sharply criticised, on the organisational front the Eisenachers’ conceptions were largely accepted. The snowball effect - unification of small groups can allow them to have a massively increased impact - meant that the SAP grew very rapidly after 1875.

In 1878, the German government responded to this growth with the Anti-Socialist Law, intended to suppress the SAP. The laws did not, however, prevent SAP supporters standing for election to the Reichstag; and the party was able to operate sub rosa through a combination of the use of the Reichstag Fraktion as a leadership and of their interventions as privileged speech and hence publishable, with publishing abroad, with ‘vertrauensmänner’ (trusted agents) linking local groups to the exile publishing network. The law therefore after the first few years did not prevent continued growth of the party’s electoral support.

In 1890, the government gave up and the Anti-Socialist Laws were allowed to lapse. The party was now reorganised as the SPD. Ignaz Auer (1846-1907) gave the leadership’s introduction to the Halle Parteitag’s discussion on organisation. The model recommended was basically that of the SAP - though the vertrauensmänner were retained from the period of illegality. The leading committee, the Vorstand, of the mass SDP was a small committee: it rose from five members in 1890 to eight after 1905. The small size reflected the fact that fundamental decisions went to the annual Parteitag, and many tactical decisions were left to the local or sectoral organisations.

Auer insisted (against the old Lassalle-Schweitzer idea) that a socialist party must necessarily be democratic. He emphasised strongly the rights of freedom of criticism. Though it was proposed to adopt the Berlin Vorwärts as the party’s paper, he emphasised (against suspicions that this is unduly centralising) the rights of the localities to publish papers, and the fact that they did so in practice, so that, even if the Vorstand wanted to create a centralist tyranny, it could not.


The SPD debated organisation in 1904 (electing a commission to consider various issues) and again in 1905. There were three aspects to the context. The first was that legislation which had prohibited city or province organisation, allowing only constituency organisation, had been lifted. The party thus needed to think about city committees, and so on.

In this context, Georg von Vollmar (1850-1922) gave the report of the organisation commission in 1905. He stressed centralisation (that is, increased organisation beyond the constituency level), but also the accountability of the elected committees, and that what was being proposed was not ‘mechanical’ centralisation.19

The other two were more contentious. 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 that the MP’s mandate from the constituency’s electors should take priority over party discipline figured from the right in the arguments round the Schippel case.20 It is the identical issue argued repeatedly by the Labour right in this country. When the claim came up again in 1903-04, in relation to the ‘Göhre case’, Karl Kautsky wrote an article for the Neue Zeit - ‘Wahlkreis und Partei’ (‘Constituency and party’) - which we published in this paper in November 2015.21 The arguments are again for centralisation - this time for the claims of the party as a whole against the alleged mandate of the individual MP.

Thirdly, the SDP leadership reorganised the editorial board of the party daily Vorwärts, published in Berlin, which had been supporting the ‘revisionist’ right wing of the party. This produced cries of outrage from the right at this ‘dictatorial’ behaviour, and allegations that the Berlin local organisations should control the paper.22

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 we published in 2015 had influence in the Russian party’s discussion of organisation: Lenin quoted it in his 1904 pamphlet One step forward, two steps back.23

Democratic centralisation

Several of the speakers at the SPD Parteitage spoke about the need for centralisation. Several of them also spoke, in various ways, about the need for the party to be, or to remain, democratic, open to criticism, preserving local initiative, and so on. As I have said, I have not found an actual use of the tag ‘democratic centralism’. But it seems clear enough that what the Russians mean by this tag is precisely: the adoption of the values which are reflected in this tension in the SPD’s organisation discussions between ‘centralisation’ to create a more effective striking force and the ability to act together as a party, and ‘democracy’, or ‘criticism’, or local initiatives.

We can then formulate from this history roughly what is meant by ‘democratic centralism’. It is an individual-membership party, as opposed to the loose, federative formations which came before the ADAV. Hence the fact that in the 1906 proposals for the Bund, the latter is given the right to organise the work among Jewish workers - but no veto power. This is not an ‘intersectional’ approach.

On the other hand, it rejects the leader-worship (“labour monarchism”, Marx and Engels and their co-thinkers called it) of Lassalle and Schweitzer - which has been resurrected by the left since the cult of the personality of the dead Lenin fed into personality cults of Stalin and his successors (and, since then, so many petty Trotskyist and Maoist lider maximo types).

Thirdly, it is an organisation which has a central organising body, a leadership which can at need speak for the party as a whole - and can also break with, for example, party MPs who decide to support the capitalist parties’ arms budgets. This leadership is obliged to report and be accountable to the membership. The SPD Parteitage Protokolle show, among other things, the sheer level of detail required in the reports of the Vorstand and of the Reichstag Fraktion.

The leadership has broad powers - but the local, regional and sectoral organisations can also publish in their own names. This is democratic centralism, as opposed to federalism: the centre can, at need, overthrow the localities - but there are strong ‘constitutional conventions’ (to use an English constitutional phrase) preventing it from doing so except in really serious cases. In reality, of course, the Schippel case - discussed above - went to the Parteitag.

This model can be adapted to the city, district, region; the principles of means of common decision-making, while keeping local initiative, are the same at all levels. It is a model for political action. The underlying principles are not just applicable to parties, but can be used, with appropriate variations, for all sorts of political activity. It is a model which can apply to states - Lenin uses it in 1913 in connection with the national question: a democratic centralist state will involve extensive liberty to the localities, which can be used to deal with ‘nationality questions’ without either splits (self-determination) or the ‘Austrian model’ of nationality-corporations.

What it is not, is a model for an army command structure, or for a clandestine party.

In the first article in this series I suggested that the ‘1921 model’ had become merely an ideology for managerialism. In this article I have looked at the history and - I would argue - original meaning of the ‘democratic centralism’ tag. In the third article, yet to come, I will suggest that the supposed alternatives to this basic ‘democratic centralism’ idea are no better - and often worse.


  1. ‘Full-timers and “cadre”’ Weekly Worker April 25 2019.

  2. P LeBlanc Lenin and the revolutionary party New Jersey 1990, pp128-29.

  3. R Carter Elwood Resolutions and decisions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union 1898-1917 Toronto 1974; also quoted by LeBlanc (note 2).

  4. LT Lih, ‘Fortunes of a formula’ Weekly Worker April 11 2013. LeBlanc adds more quotations on the ‘democratic side’ in 1906 (pp130-32).

  5. “‘Democratic centralism’ can also be applied to the state, but this is an entirely different topic” (ibid).

  6. VI Lenin, ‘Critical remarks on the national question’, section 6: ‘Centralisation and autonomy’: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/crnq/6.htm#v20pp72-045.

  7. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/nov/09.htm, incompletely quoted in Lih (above). The dating issue is identified as a problem by Tim Davenport in an annotation on Marxists Internet Archive.

  8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialist_Propaganda_League_of_America#/media/File:Internationalist-1917.jpg.

  9. LT Lih Lenin rediscovered Leiden 2006, part 1, has the fullest treatment of Russian ‘Erfurtianism’.

  10. As I have observed before, Peter Nettl, the biographer of Luxemburg (and polemicist against the SPD’s and colonial nationalist parties’ ‘attentism’ and refusal to join coalition governments) served in British intelligence at the end of World War II (‘The study of history and the left’s decline’ Weekly Worker June 1 2011). In a letter last week I remarked that Carl Schorske, another of the cold war historians of the SPD, served in the US OSS (predecessor of the CIA). It is now necessary to add that Schapiro, having practised at the bar before 1939, during the war joined British intelligence, moving into Soviet studies post-war; and that Valiani - an ex-communist who broke with the party after the Hitler-Stalin pact - was put into the Italian resistance by the British Special Operations Executive in 1943 and, after this involvement, worked in the 1950s-60s and 1980s with the liberal Atlanticist Radical and Republican parties. This common intelligence service background of several cold war-period historians of the workers’ movement is not, of course, proof of the falsity of their arguments. It merely points to common biases which mean that these authors cannot be taken, as witnesses, to be uncomplicatedly authoritative.

  11. L Valiani, ‘La storia della socialdemocrazia tedesca (1863-1914)’ (1968) Rivista storica italiana Vol 80, section 1, p38. He gives an Italian translation - “abbiamo una rigida centralizzazione democratica” - and cites Hermann Peter (‘Der Allgemeine Deutsche Arbeiter Congress zu Berlin’, Berlin 1868), without a direct German quotation or page reference. Googling and the use of online library catalogues does not produce the work cited; it seems likely, if genuine, to be an erroneous citation for a report of the congress in the ADAV’s Sozialdemocrat.

  12. Splits: GP Steenson, Not one man! Not one penny! German social democracy, 1863-1914 Pittsburgh 1981, pp19-21; Schweitzer resignation: ibid p28.

  13. Ibid pp31-32.

  14. Steenson summarises in ibid pp32-40.

  15. LT Lih Lenin rediscovered Leiden 2006, pp53-55.

  16. H Kennedy, ‘Johann Baptist von Schweitzer: the queer Marx loved to hate’ Journal of Homosexuality Vol 29, pp69-96 (1995) attempts to explain the marginalisation of Schweitzer by homophobia. But, though Kennedy has strong evidence of Marx’s and Engels’ prejudice against homosexuality and of their willingness to exploit this prejudice for political advantage, to make this the dominant factor in the marginalisation of Schweitzer, Kennedy is forced in his narrative to discard Marx’s initial willingness to work with Schweitzer, and to sideline instead the obvious political differences about German nationalism, relations with Bismarck, trade unions, party organisation, and so on.

  17. The Neue Zeit is available at http://library.fes.de/nz. There is an intervention by H Schulz (‘Die Organisationsfrage und der Parteitag’, Vol 23,1904-05, pp765-70) and a report of the discussions by Kautsky (Zum Parteitag Vol 23, 1904-05, pp748-58), but neither addresses the issues discussed here directly. The Protokolle are at http://library.fes.de/parteitage.

  18. Quoted in CW Fölke Zweck, Mittel und Organisation des Allgemeinen Deutschen Arbeiter-Vereins Berlin 1873, pp21-22, 29-30.

  19. Discussion in Protokoll über die Verhandlungen des Parteitages der Sozialdemokratischen Partei Deutschlands abgehalten zu Jena vom 17 bis 23 September 1905 - available at http://library.fes.de/parteitage. Vollmar had been a radical leftist in the 1880s, but went over around 1890 to the project of a socialist-liberal coalition. He stresses in his speech that he is speaking on behalf of the commission; so clearly this is the consensus view rather than oddball rightism or leftism.

  20. Discussion in Protokoll über die Verhandlungen des Parteitages der Sozialdemokratischen Partei Deutschlands abgehalten zu Bremen vom 18 bis 24 September 1905 (http://library.fes.de/parteitage).

  21. ‘Origins of democratic centralism’ Weekly Worker November 5 2015.

  22. Discussion in Protokoll über die Verhandlungen des Parteitages der Sozialdemokratischen Partei Deutschlands abgehalten zu Jena vom 17 bis 23 September 1905 (http://library.fes.de/parteitage), and, from the right, Der Vorwärts-Konflikt Munich 1905.

  23. VI Lenin, ‘The new Iskra: opportunism in questions of organisation’ (www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1904/onestep/q.htm).