Party notes:In defence of democratic centralism

Jack Conrad responds to the debate sparked by a previous 'Party notes' column

My remarks on democratic centralism have produced a flurry of letters (July 31, August 21, 28). That is good. Given the monstrous crimes of ‘official communism’, the general deterioration of the left’s theory and culture and the current plague of Trotskyite sects - all of which falsely claim to operate democratic centralism - knowledge concerning this fundamental principle of communist organisation is sorely lacking. Ignorance abounds.

Not surprisingly then, with one or two honourable exceptions, our correspondents trot out standard bourgeois and anarchistic prejudices - consciously or otherwise. Revealingly, though they light-mindedly dismiss democratic centralism, no coherent, let alone effective, alternative plan of organisation is offered.

Richard Griffin at least has the virtue of openly rejecting elections, democracy and centralism, along with all political parties of the working class. Citing Mikhail Bakunin, he suggests that what we “Marxists really want is power, not change”. Brev Kantanov is certainly of that opinion: Lenin was “committed to communist power, not communist ideals”.

Despite wanting to build a party - “a genuine alternative to Labour” - Janet Brett insists in her turn that a Bolshevik-type party “has no relevance” to the United Kingdom of 2003. Such a party heralds nothing but “rule by the opportunist bureaucracy” and the dictatorship of an elite. In similar vein Terry Liddle believes I suffer under the illusion that Britain 2003 is no different from tsarist Russia 1903. Even then, in Russia, Lenin’s What is to be done? “ended in the dictatorship of Stalin”. Tony Green likewise attacks the Bolshevik tradition and writes of the “inevitability” of “tyranny in power.”

Barry Biddulph claims kinship with Bolshevism. That does not prevent him from liberalistically recoiling from military metaphors when applied to party organisation and repeating half-baked nonsense about the Bolshevik’s failure to “emphasise democracy”. For good measure he too rounds on Lenin’s What is to be done? - apparently written under the baleful influence of Karl Kautsky. It denigrates workers: alone, they are unable to develop anything beyond trade union consciousness. A benign helping hand from the intelligentsia is needed. Lenin actually argued that trade union struggles could not by themselves generate Marxist consciousness. An evident truth.

Phil Pope admits that perhaps democratic centralism might have been required in autocratic Russia. However, it is “not necessarily applicable today”. His real agenda is, though, hardly difficult to discern. The formation of communist parties - in the period 1920-21 - is not celebrated, but mourned, as having had “disastrous” consequences. Grigory Zinoviev, president of the Communist International, is lambasted for ordering affiliates to “adopt the ‘21 points’ detailing correct party organisation”.

Obviously all the above is necessarily just a thumbnail sketch; and for similar reasons of space my reply must be brief.

Let us begin by dealing with the formation of communists parties and the 21 conditions for membership of the Communist International.

The Second International functioned as little more than “a letter box”. As a whole it disastrously failed the test of World War I. Outside Russia, however, the leftwingers who withstood the war hysteria and later rallied to the defence of the October Revolution were, typically, shambolically organised and often under the leadership of untrustworthy and unstable centrists.

The purpose of the 21 conditions was to forge the Communist International into a “fighting organ of the international proletariat”. Condition 13, for example, demands: “Parties belonging to the Communist International must be organised on the principle of democratic centralism. In this period of acute civil war, the communist parties can perform their duty only if they are organised in a most centralised manner, are marked by iron discipline bordering on military discipline” (VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, p210).

A prescription perfectly understandable, given the times; and certainly the goal of building parties capable of successfully leading a global revolution is one we earnestly aspire towards. It would certainly be grossly irresponsible to put democratic centralism off till a “revolutionary situation”, where, in the chilling words of comrade Brett, MI6 is “canning communist organisations and when our activists are being taken away in the night by the police”. Bolting horses and closing stable doors come to my mind.

And, of course, it was not Zinoviev - Lenin’s much maligned lieutenant - who was responsible for the 21 conditions. Rather Lenin himself. He originally drafted 19 conditions, which were subsequently added to in the course of debate at Comintern’s 2nd Congress before being adopted almost unanimously - there were two dissenting votes.

We shall now turn to the claim that a direct link exists between the programme of Marx and Lenin on the one hand and Stalin’s gulag system in the 1930s on the other. This is a notorious calumny advanced by, amongst others, Karl Popper - he ahistorically traced Stalinism back through Lenin and Marx to Hegel, Calvin, Plato and ancient Sparta. George Monbiot repeats similar rubbish in his recent book The age of consent: Marx “introduced the justification for numberless atrocities”.

Frankly, one might just as well blame Jesus the Nazarite for the catholic church, the horrors of the inquisition, South Africa’s apartheid system, the US christian neo-conservatives, Ian Paisley, Blairism, etc.

Stalin’s gulag system was the product of the world revolution’s defeat and suffocating isolation in backward Russia. Imperialist capitalism and its social democratic agents in the workers’ movement were primarily responsible for that - not the Bolsheviks and Lenin.

With the first five-year plan in 1928-29 Stalin and his faction launched a bureaucratic counterrevolution within the revolution. Millions - above all the old Bolsheviks - were killed. Communist names, trappings and symbols remained, but were given an entirely opposite content. To wilfully refuse to recognise such a cardinal fact is unpardonable.

What of democratic centralism itself? For Marxists it is an entirely unproblematic concept. Without centralism the hugely powerful capitalist state can never be vanquished; nor can the rule of the working class be exercised or maintained without democracy.

Before and after the revolution we favour uniting the efforts of the working class to the maximum effect. Democracy provides the best conditions for that. For example, we favour a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales. But this is a transitionary demand. Lenin too viewed the Soviet Union as “the surest step towards the most lasting union of the various nationalities of Russia into a single democratic centralised Soviet state” (VI Lenin CW Vol 27, Moscow 1977, p207).

Justifiably we lay great stress on the Bolshevik Party’s organisational methods and principles - they did after all lead the world’s first socialist revolution. Not to learn from them is to deliberately disarm oneself. Hence my forthright rejection of the complacent and thoroughly harmful notion that democratic centralism is only applicable to tsarist Russia and conditions of severe oppression.

Yes, the term was formally adopted first by the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party at its 3rd Congress in 1906 - it temporarily reunited Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Nevertheless, democratic centralism has much older antecedents.

At the London congress of the Communist League - November 30 to December 8 1847 - the Marx-Engels team oversaw its transformation into what their outstanding biographer, David Riazinov, describes as a “democratic centralist organisation” (D Riazinov Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels: an introduction to their lives and work New York 1973, p75). Leading committees were to be elected and every member was obliged to pay dues and be active. Minorities had to submit to majorities, but freedom of criticism was permitted - basically so long as it did not disrupt definite actions or run counter to agreed principles.

The informed reader will already have spotted that the RSDLP’s adoption of democratic centralism occurred not in the benighted depths of tsarist oppression. On the contrary there was unprecedented political liberty - won by a nationwide revolutionary upsurge which reached its zenith with the Moscow uprising of December 1905.

Against the anarchist dilettantes, parliamentary cretins and trade union routinists of her day, Rosa Luxemburg subsequently argued that the lessons of Russia were indeed “applicable to Germany” (R Luxemburg The mass strike London nd, p53). All I need to add to that assessment is that the lessons of Russia are also applicable to Britain 2003. Those who deny it actually turn their back on the historic experience of the real movement of the working class.