Democratic centralism: Further fortunes of a formula

While the emphasis inevitably shifted according to circumstances, writes Lars T Lih, for the Bolsheviks democracy was just as vital as centralism

A couple of months ago, I wrote an essay entitled ‘Fortunes of a formula’,1 in which I presented some new documentary material that threw a surprising light on the famous formula of ‘democratic centralism’. Material from Lenin’s writings and from the Bolshevik activist and party historian Vladimir Nevsky made it clear that ‘democratic centralism’ was not a defining feature of Bolshevism. In fact, the formula was part of the party lexicon in only two, sharply distinct periods: in 1906-07, when political conditions were more free in tsarist Russia than ever before or since; and after 1920, when the Bolsheviks were faced with the unforeseen tasks of administering a large country.

Furthermore, the phrase ‘democratic centralism’ meant entirely different things in the two periods. In 1906-07, the emphasis was on ‘democratic’, and the concrete meaning of the term was genuine election of leadership bodies and wide, open discussion of party issues. From 1920 on, the emphasis was strongly on the ‘centralism’ deemed necessary in a party responsible for running the Soviet state.

Almost immediately after publishing this essay, I came across two further documents - one written in 1909 and the other in 1923 - that throw further eloquent light on the status of ‘democratic centralism’ as a Bolshevik value. Much to my relief, they corroborated the essential points made in my essay. They show even more strongly that ‘democratic centralism’ was tied to specific conditions rather than put forward as a general principle, and accordingly it meant very different things in the two periods.

The two documents presented also help us put ‘democratic centralism’ in the context of more basic Bolshevik organisational norms. The 1909 document uses the term partiinost, ‘partyness’, to sum up the basic Bolshevik approach. The 1923 document makes it clear that ‘worker democracy’ was a more fundamental goal, at least in aspiration, than ‘democratic centralism’.

The earlier document from 1909 is the platform of the dissident Bolshevik group, Vpered (Forward). The platform was penned by Alexander Bogdanov, the leader and ideological mentor of Vpered. Naturally enough, most writers are exclusively interested in the differences between Bogdanov and Lenin, a topic to which whole books have been devoted. But Bogdanov’s platform is also invaluable because of its description, contained in the earlier sections of the 40-page platform, of the essence of Bolshevism: that is, the consensus to which all Bolsheviks might subscribe. In his polemical response to this platform, Lenin did not deny the accuracy of Bogdanov’s rendition of the ABCs of Bolshevism.2 The excerpts translated below are taken from these meant-to-be-uncontroversial sections.

Recall that our aim is to find out what ‘democratic centralism’ was in the Bolshevik outlook. I believe that Lenin would endorse most of what Bogdanov says in the translated excerpts. But even if we decide that Lenin rejected the values put forth in these excerpts, we can be sure that one group of Bolsheviks - the Vpered group itself - believed in them. More, the group was confident that the Bolshevik faction as a whole would subscribe to them.

The second of my two documents comes from a Pravda article written by Grigorii Zinoviev on the occasion of the anniversary of the October revolution in November 1923. Zinoviev discussed various problems facing party life, one of which was insufficient democracy within the party, leading to alienation of the rank and file and lack of creative responses to new challenges. Zinoviev’s style is one we can often find in his speeches and writings: a frank admission that things are not satisfactory, a mitigating plea that objective conditions are responsible, and a pledge to do better, especially as objective constraints relaxed their grip.3

Only after translating these documents did I see another continuity between them. Both Bogdanov and Zinoviev talk about the dangers of a mutual alienation growing up between the top rungs of the party and the lower rungs. Both use the same vocabulary of the verkhi vs the nizy, which might be translated as the ‘higherarchy’ vs the ‘lowerarchy’.

In the fall of 1920, the problem of a split between the verkhi and the nizy became the subject of a widespread debate and discussion within the party. After the introduction of the New Economic Policy, a dissident group called Rabochaia Pravda (Workers’ Truth) put forth the same concerns. In his 1923 Pravda article, Zinoviev does not hide the fact that he is trying to steal the thunder of Rabochaia Pravda by showing that the official party leadership was sensitive to the mutual alienation separating the people at the top rungs and the people on the bottom rungs of the party.

These two documents show us Bolsheviks talking to other Bolsheviks. Of course, Bogdanov and Zinoviev want to make specific and potentially controversial points, but in each case their argument starts by making appeals to common, consensual Bolshevik values. As shown by the excerpts I have translated and appended to these remarks, their comments on ‘democratic centralism’ come from the non-controversial part of their statements. Their points on this topic are made in passing, with no expectation that anyone would or could disagree.

Possibly a new alertness to the topic of ‘democratic centralism’ was responsible for my running across these documents so soon. But perhaps these things are sent to us with a purpose. Perhaps providence is telling me that these documents should be published as soon as possible. In any event, I have translated the relevant sections and prefaced them with short explanations.

Bogdanov 1909

Bogdanov wrote the Vpered platform in 1909 as a manifesto of the newly formed Bolshevik group. The controversies between this group and the more established Lenin group are not the issue here. The important fact for us is Bogdanov’s effort in the early parts of the platform, prior to making specific suggestions for the reform of party life, to make a statement of general Bolshevik principles to which all Bolsheviks might subscribe.

Bogdanov’s statement of principles has three sections. The first section, translated here, is about organisational principles. The second section presents what I have elsewhere called “the old Bolshevik scenario”4: that is, the revolutionary strategy that called for class leadership by the socialist proletariat of the democratic peasantry. This section is a terse and telling statement of basic Bolshevik principles. The third section goes into territory more particular to the Vpered faction: namely, proletarian values vs bourgeois values.

Bogdanov starts off by stating that Bolshevism has no principles peculiar to itself - it is simply scientific socialism as applied to Russian conditions. This was undoubtedly Lenin’s opinion as well. Bogdanov’s further discussion is therefore closely tied to Russian developments.

This feature poses a problem for the translator. Bogdanov sets up a crucial opposition between partiinost and kruzhkovshchina. I have chosen to keep these terms in Russian, since English translations such as, say, ‘circle-ism’ is hardly more informative for the unprepared reader. Partiinost can be rendered as ‘the party principle’, or ‘thinking in terms of the party’, or ‘concern for the party as a functioning institution’. During the Soviet period, the term acquired quite different overtones.

Kruzhkovshchina derives from the word kruzhok, which can be rendered literally as ‘little circle’. The very first underground social democratic organisations that arose in the 1890s consisted of these ‘little circles’. The crucial fact about these kruzhki was that they were not part of any larger organisation - because, of course, there as yet existed no larger organisation for them to be part of. Thus kruzhkovshchina can be defined as ‘the unfortunate and destructive habits of kruzhki life that manifest themselves after a national party organisation has been created’.

Bogdanov then goes on to narrate in allusive fashion the conflict in the party in 1903-04, after the Second Party Congress came up with a party programme and established what were meant to be generally recognised party authorities. His account confirms my own analysis in Lenin rediscovered, which is not too surprising, given that I relied heavily on Bogdanov’s own writings from 1903-04.5

One very important point about this episode in party life should be stressed. When we think of debates about ‘centralism’, we usually picture an insistence that local committees blindly follow orders handed down from above. We also assume that centralisers are leery of too much free discussion.

In the episode described by Bogdanov from 1903-04, the opposite is the case. What upset the Bolsheviks during this period was not that the party committee in Podunsk was not toeing the party line. In his account, Bogdanov does not fill in the blanks with the proper names of the carriers of kruzhkovshchina, but if he did they would be Martov, Axelrod, Trotsky and Plekhanov, who joined them (for a while). It is these stellar luminaries of the party who are the rebels: the intellectual émigrés who refuse to work within the institutions set up by the Second Congress, who think they have an inherent right to leadership positions. They are the ones who try to prohibit free discussion: for example, by banning agitation for a Third Congress.

Bogdanov ends this episode by claiming that the Bolshevik concept of partiinost was finally accepted by the party as a whole as a binding organisational norm (I came to the same conclusion in Lenin rediscovered).

He then goes on to make other claims for basic Bolshevik principles that certainly sound curious to modern ears: moving toward an elective leadership as soon as possible (What? Not a self-perpetuating elite?), working for larger party unity (What? Not hard-boiled splitting tactics?), encouraging a variety of ideological tendencies (What? Not striving for a monolithic party line?). Bogdanov sets forth the familiar opposition between spontaneity and consciousness (or stikhiinost vs purposiveness), but he seems to be unaware that this opposition entails domination of party life by intellectuals, as we are so often assured by modern writers. In fact, he evidently feels it entails the opposite!

I have translated a few revealing paragraphs from later sections of the platform in which Bogdanov describes generally acknowledged party problems. I have not translated any of Bogdanov’s positive suggestions, since these are not germane to our present investigation. Note that the discussion of ‘democratic centralism’ is not in the section outlining basic Bolshevik principles.

Bogdanov’s remarks give a strong confirmation to the account in Nevsky’s party history that ‘democratic centralism’ was a set of practices that are possible only given a certain relaxation of police repression. ‘Democratic centralism’ in the period 1906-07 means democratic centralism, with open and frequent worker assemblies clothed with real powers being the norm. As police pressure tightened after 1908, this kind of democratic centralism perforce shrivelled up.

Zinoviev 1923

Zinoviev’s article, ‘New tasks of the party’, appeared in Pravda in late 1923, a time when it was becoming increasingly clear that the Lenin era was drawing to a close and that the Bolsheviks had to reaffirm and/or modify basic principles for the future. His remarks can be paraphrased as follows:

We all want to increase “worker democracy” [rabochaia demokratiia] within the party. Of course, there are objective obstacles to a full implementation of this principle. We now live according to the principle of democratic centralism (Zinoviev’s emphasis). A party that administers a country such as Soviet Russia has to be centralised. Furthermore, within the party, there is a large gap in the cultural level between the leaders and the mass membership - that is, in basic literacy, basic grounding in Marxism, specialised competence. The best party workers are engulfed, on party orders, in affairs of state and economic administration. The comrades left behind to attend exclusively to party work are not exactly top drawer.

As a result, ‘centralism’ in practice means today that decisions about all current issues are taken at the top and come to the mass of members in ready-made and unalterable form. Naturally this is an unsatisfactory state of affairs. We may have to live with it for the present, but we need to leave it behind as quickly as possible. Our ultimate goal is free and open discussion by all party members in a way that will allow us to apply the collective experience of the party to the pressing problems of the day.

So argues Zinoviev. There is a current of opinion today that likes to put the blame for overcentralised party organisations on something called ‘Zinovievism’. Zinoviev’s own presentation of his take on proper party organisational norms shows that the story - as usual - is more complicated.

Translated documents

1. Bogdanov’s Vpered platform

Source: NS Antonova and NVD Dozdova (eds) Neizvestnyi Bogdanov (three volumes) Moscow 1995, ITs ‘Airo-XX’, 2:52-8

We understand Bolshevism as the strictest and most consistent application of the ideas of scientific socialism to Russian realities.

Bolshevism first appeared on the scene in the period when the organisational construction of our party was going through its first and most difficult stages. This construction was a very challenging affair not only because it was carried out in the underground, but for other, internal reasons. The party was created by uniting previously scattered and isolated kruzhki [‘circles’] that carried out artisan-level [kustarnaia] work in the localities. But the habits of the kruzhok stubbornly refused to die and continued to interfere with the consolidation of the party - all the more because at that time there was a predominance of intelligentsia elements over proletarian ones in the personnel of these organisations.

By their very nature, these intelligentsia elements experience difficulties in submitting to organisational discipline and were less capable of close party unity. And when the party programme was worked out [in 1903] and when by this means a strong basis for general party life was laid, the same kruzhki that had led the task of organisational unity - especially the émigré kruzhki - revealed, on the one hand, a disinclination to dissolve into the overall life of the newly established whole, and, on the other hand, a striving to retain for themselves the same leadership status in the future. In this way, the party was threatened by the domination of kruzhkovshchina in a new guise, with the most authoritative voices in the party energetically supporting it.

It was then that Bolshevism stepped forward with its organisational slogans. It demanded that the interests of the cause should be put higher than any authorities, that partiinost should be placed higher than kruzhki relations, and also that the Russian section of the party should receive a predominating influence over the sections outside the borders. Bolshevism had to fight a long struggle for these organisational ideas. Nevertheless, even if they had not been fully incorporated in the actual life of the party still today, they are, formally at least, recognised now by everybody.

When the Bolsheviks insisted on partiinost as against kruzhkovshchina, they certainly did not understand partiinost simply as discipline and subordination to duly constituted party centres, but mainly as making broad and organisation-wide decisions about all issues of party life. Naturally, just as soon as the possibility opened up of moving the establishment of party organisations themselves away from the previous closed forms of the underground to more democratic forms, Bolshevism immediately made the move: in 1905 the Bolsheviks were the first to call an all-Russian conference, in which a significant majority of delegates was elected directly by the organised workers.

Inasmuch as they were defenders of partiinost, Bolshevism at all times also took the lead in the gathering-in of the party: the Bolsheviks carried out unification with various national organisations, and they have always supported the unity of party work.

Another very important aspect of the organisational question was an object of internal struggle within our party: should the basis of the party be the purposive [or ‘conscious’], advanced elements of the fighting proletariat, or, for the sake of a broader development, should we construct the party directly out of the stikhiinyi [or ‘spontaneous’] mass worker movement? The supporters of this second possibility believe that we should adapt the organisation as a whole to the aspirations and the understanding of the proletarian mass [nizy], that even the party programme should be worked out at a general worker congress, etc.

Bolshevism opposes such views: it believes that subordinating social democracy to the moods of the proletarian mass [nizy] that is just entering the struggle is incorrect and unreasonable. Bolsheviks claim that social democracy is first of all the party of the purposive revolutionary proletariat, one that relies on the whole experience of international socialism. Social democracy should raise the worker masses up from the stikhiinnyi movement to the level of higher socialist purposiveness - not lower its own organisation and tasks to this stikhiinyi movement. This and no other is what strict scientific socialism means for us, since it aspires to organise the worker movement in its higher forms, and to lead the movement with the highest possible level of planned forethought attainable under the circumstances […]

Organisational question

Since 1906 our party has been built up on the principle of democratic centralism: that is, the leading collectives - starting with factory committees and ending with the central committee - are elected by assemblies of the organised workers. Since we find this principle to be completely correct, we think it should be carried out in future as widely as possible. Since 1907, however, when the reaction became dominant in the country, the implementation of democratic centralism has lost momentum. Police repression and the use of provocateurs has created enormous difficulties in setting up assemblies of organised workers of any size at all, so that, for example, city committees have begun to keep up their membership, not by elections by the members at [open] conferences, but by election by district committees, and sometimes even by way of cooption.

Thanks to all this, the ties between the ‘lower’ levels of the organisation with the ‘higher’ levels [nizy vs verkhi] have been weakened: the ‘lower’ levels are cut off from general party life, and the life of the ‘higher’ levels has been extraordinarily weakened, as we all know […]

Various ideological [ideinyi] tendencies exist in any strong and viable party; they are the guarantee of its growth and development. They find their expression in specific publications [literally, ‘in literary groups’], in freely created associations of fellow thinkers at congresses, conferences, etc. But in our party today they have taken on another and completely abnormal form: parties within the party, a situation that destroys the general unity of our work. Indeed, under present circumstances, they interfere with the free development even of the ideological tendencies themselves.

This state of affairs came about due to the fact that in our case the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks [as distinct factions] arose on the ground of an organisational split [in 1903-04]. This split was completed even before the ideological distinction of the two sides became fully defined. The factions became fortified in separate organisations that the party to this day has not been able to dissolve into itself […]

2. Zinoviev, ‘New tasks of the party’

Source: Pravda November 7 1923

In our own internal party life, we lately undoubtedly seem to be becalmed, and even outright stagnation can be observed in places. If we wish to carry out the tasks discussed earlier in even a minimally satisfactory way, or to show ourselves capable of responding to those international events that grab all our attention at present, then we must see to it that the internal life of the party becomes much more intensive. We must see to it that the worker democracy inside the party about which we talk so much takes on to a greater extent real flesh and blood.

Our main misfortune is that often practically all of the most important issues come to us from the top to the bottom already decided. This narrows the creativity of the whole mass of party members and diminishes the independent activity [samodeiatelnost] of the ‘lower’ [nizy] party cells. To a large extent, of course, this is inevitable. Our party is based on the principle of democratic centralism. Given that it administers a country such as ours, the Russian Communist Party cannot help being organised in a strictly centralised way. But to a very significant extent, this fact is explained by the way that the cultural-political level of the whole mass of party members lags so very strongly behind the level of its leadership strata. Many of our best party officials - at the behest of the party - are completely occupied with economic and administrative work, and so have no or very little possibility of plunging into mass party work among wide strata of the workers. Some of the comrades who are posted exclusively to party work are not always able to respond adequately to the new and huge demands on them that result from the growing exigencies of the masses. The party must devote all attention to these tasks, ones that have a predominant significance at present […]

Without indulging in superfluous bombast about the sanctity of the principle of worker democracy, it is imperative that worker democracy should actually be applied within the party, that free discussion within the party on general political, economic and other issues be intensified. In particular, we must draw the attention of the rank-and-file members of our party to the burning questions of industrial life.

The writer of these lines is fully aware of the fact that the present article has only put forth these questions without solving them. A genuine solution of these questions will come about only as a result of an exchange of opinions within our party. By summing up the collective experience of our party, we will discover those practical measures that will lead us to our goal […]



1. Weekly Worker April 11 2013.

2. For Lenin’s main response, see www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1910/np/i.htm#v16pp74-197. The Historical Materialism Book Series has announced a projected 10-volume edition of English translations of Bogdanov’s writings; for details, see http://bogdanovlibrary.org.

3. For further examples, see my essay, ‘Zinoviev: populist Leninist’, reprinted in B Lewis and LT Lih Head to head in Halle London 2011.

4. See ‘How Lenin’s party became (Bolshevik)Weekly Worker May 17 2012.

5. LT Lih Lenin rediscovered Leiden 2006, chapter 8.