Lenin and democratic centralism

April 12, 2013 9:10 pm CDT

A very interesting historical examination of what they Bolsheviks meant by “democratic centralism.” I think Lih goes too far in his claim that there was no connection between the way the term was used by Lenin in 1906-07 and in 1920-21, as well as in his claim (elaborated in much greater detail in his important book Lenin Rediscovered) that Lenin did not make a distinctive contribution to the theory and practice of political organization. But he is absolutely right that the Bolsheviks’ internal political practices varied considerably from one period to another, depending on the external situation, and that when circumstances permitted, they implemented highly democratic procedures. For more on democratic centralism, see Paul Le Blanc’s recent articles on this website (herehere andhere) and my article “Rediscovering Lenin” in the March-April International Socialist Review. –PG

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Source: Weekly Worker

Thursday April 11 2013

How did ‘democratic centralism’ become ‘democratic centralism‘? Lars T Lih looks at the changing use of the phrase by the Bolsheviks

Vladimir Nevsky (1876-1937) lived the life (in the words of an autobiographical sketch written in the 1920s) of an “ordinary party worker”, a professional, in the Bolshevik underground. Joining the party in 1897, he was a mid-level Bolshevikpraktik who played a visible role in 1917 conducting party work in the army. Like so many others in his generation, he was arrested in the mid-30s and executed in 1937.

After the revolution, Nevsky became a pioneering party historian whose magnum opus, published in 1925, was entitled Istoriia RKP(b): kratkii ocherk – ‘History of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks): a short essay’. Despite the modest subtitle, this massive, 500-page study constitutes the first history of the Bolshevik Party to be fully documented and based on a range of sources. It was preceded only by Zinoviev’s History of the Bolshevik Party (1923), which was really more of an essay-cum-memoir by a leading activist than a careful historical work. Nevsky’s history appeared in the short window most propitious for a serious historical interpretation: after enough time had elapsed since the revolution for sources to be gathered and perspectives to unfold, but before Stalinist orthodoxy imposed its own straitjacket narrative.

Nevsky’s history has recently been republished in an excellent new edition by New Prometheus Press in St Petersburg (2009). Looking through its pages, we find an unexpected slant on a wide variety of topics in Bolshevik history. One of these is the meaning and status of the formula, ‘democratic centralism’. For reasons to be spelled out later, Nevsky’s discussion is one of the best sources for grasping what this concept actually meant to the Bolshevik underground. Democratic centralism is a not a major theme in Nevsky’s history. In fact, as far as I can tell, there are only two substantive discussions of the topic. I have translated the relevant passages and attached them as an appendix to this article.

The phrase, ‘democratic centralism’, entered the party lexicon at the end of 1905, when concessions forced on the tsar by the revolution inaugurated the heady ‘days of freedom’ that in some respects lasted for another couple of years. The new atmosphere of political freedom and the consequent opportunity to leave the stifling underground compelled the two Russian Social Democratic Workers Party factions to make a serious bid for reunification, as well as to restructure their party organisations in ways more fitting for above-ground activity. The Mensheviks were the first to express this imperative in a resolution passed by a conference in Petrograd in November. The relevant resolution insisted that:

The RSDWP 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 organisations which elected them.

Decisions of the guiding collectives are binding on the members of those organisations of which the collective is the organ. [Here follow some smaller guarantees of democratic practice: eg, agendas should be distributed ahead of time.]

The Canadian historian, Carter Elwood, comments: “Perhaps the most interesting of the Menshevik resolutions [in November1905] concerned ‘democratic centralism’. This term, which usually is associated with Lenin’s organisational principles inherent in What is to be done? (1902) and is considered his major contribution to party organisational theory, had not in fact been used either by Lenin himself or by the Bolsheviks in their own resolutions prior to this [Menshevik] conference.”[1]

Shortly afterward, at a conference of Bolshevik activists in Tammerfors (a town in Finland), the Bolsheviks passed a similar resolution:

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 to be given broad publicity [glasnost], and they are to be strictly accountable for these activities …

The conference orders all party organisations quickly and energetically to reorganise their local organisations on the basis of the elective principle; while it is not necessary for the moment to seek complete uniformity of all systems for electing institutions, departures (two-stage elections, etc) from fully democratic procedures are permitted only in the event of insurmountable practical obstacles.[2]

These days, as we know, the emphasis in the famous term is clearly ‘democraticcentralism’. Reading both the resolution and, even more, Nevsky’s gloss, we see that for the Bolshevik activists who used the term, the emphasis in the formula was clearly ‘democratic centralism’. After describing the central role of elections at all levels in the influential Petersburg party organisation prior to 1908, Nevsky goes on to insist that during these years:

Such occurrences as the replacement or appointment of comrades to leadership posts against the will of the organisation were unknown to the organisations during this period of time. If something like this did happen, it would have been considered a gross infringement of the basic principles of democratic centralism. Nearly always the most visible and authoritative members of our organisation entered at the district level as completely ordinary party workers and only gradually, earning the confidence of the mass , were moved up by this membership to responsible leadership posts.

This definition of democratic centralism implies that it can exist only under certain conditions: namely, when society at large enjoyed relative political freedom and the party could operate above ground. Perhaps the most surprising yet revealing comment by Nevsky is the strict chronological limitation he places on periods of genuine democratic centralism:

From this point on, over the course of more than two years (right up to the beginning of the gloomy era of reaction [c 1908]), the party lived a life of complete democracy. Even in Petersburg and Moscow, where the pressure of the police apparatus was extremely high, even during 1906-07 the principles of democratic centralism were quickly realised and observed strictly and rigorously …

The ensuing years of reaction [after 1908] again drove our organisation into the underground for a long time, and only during 1917 and the beginning of 1918 did our party succeed for a short time in living according to the principles of democratic centralism.

Accordingly, Nevsky’s history does not take up this topic again until the downfall of the tsar in 1917. He then asserts that, “as soon as the party emerged from the underground and started to live under the conditions of the bourgeois regime, the principles of democratic centralism were immediately put in place and the strictest electoral principle was put into effect”. As in 1906-07, a key feature of democratic centralism in 1917 was “free discussion, a lively exchange of opinions, and consideration not only of local but also of all-Russian issues” (see the appendix for the relevant passages in full).

Nevsky’s discussion makes it difficult to regard democratic centralism as a distinctive or essential feature of Bolshevism. On the one hand, the Mensheviks not only introduced the term, but, as Nevsky mentions, they also promptly used Russia’s precarious state of political freedom to democratise their organisations. On the other hand, democratic centralism was irrelevant throughout most of Bolshevik history. We can restate Nevsky’s point by saying that true democratic centralism was only possible in those short intervals of time when the Bolsheviks were neither being repressed nor repressing others.

Lenin and ‘democratic centralism’

Intrigued by Elwood’s remark that Lenin never used the term “democratic centralism” prior to the Tammerfors conference in late 1905, I tried to locate each occurrence of the famous formula in his writings after that date. I relied on the usually trustworthy indexes provided by the Soviet editors to the fifth edition of Lenin’s complete works. Making generalisations about when a person does not use a term is always a bit tricky, however, and I would appreciate any counter-examples being brought to my attention.[3]

The main finding of my search can be simply put. Lenin only employed the term, ‘democratic centralism’, in two strictly limited periods: 1906-07 and 1920-21. Between these two points, I found exactly one example (in a peculiar and fascinating context outlined below). In each of these two periods, Lenin’s use of the term was triggered by groups to which he was opposed: by the Mensheviks in 1906-07 and the Democratic Centralist group headed by N Osinsky and others in 1920. In neither period do we find any systematic exposition of the meaning of the term. Lenin uses it in passing to make particular points.

Most strikingly, there is barely any connection between the meaning of the term as used in 1906-07 and in 1920-21. This is more than a matter of differing emphases: the terms simply refer to different things in the two periods. The phrase, ‘democratic centralism’, always has a working part and a decorative part. In 1906-07, the working part was ‘democratic’ and the formula referred to intra-party elections, control from below, and so forth. In 1920-21, the working part was ‘centralism’ and the formula referred primarily to the uniform policies required by a ruling party. ‘Democratic centralism’ is in essence a homonym: two distinct formulas that use the same words.

1906-07: ‘democratic centralism’

In 1906-07, following the introduction of the term in resolutions passed by the Unity Congress in Stockholm in April 1906, Lenin gave ‘democratic centralism’ a meaning similar to the one found in Nevsky’s party history: the selection of party leaders through genuine elections from below, open and lively discussion, replaceability of elected officials, and so forth. As such, it was something of a luxury – or, if this is too strong, something that was only possible in certain periods, when society at large enjoyed relative political freedom.

As noted by Elwood, ‘democratic centralism’ is often associated today with Lenin’s 1902 book, What is to be done? This association is doubly ironic. Not only is the term missing from his book, but, if he had used it, Lenin’s point would have been: democratic centralism is not possible under underground conditions. He argued in his book that anyone who thought that full-blooded electoral procedures were possible in underground organisations had not understood either how democracy worked, or how the underground worked, or both. The proto-Mensheviks on theIskra editorial board did not really disagree.[4]

According to a number of writers, especially those on the left, Lenin changed his mind in 1905 about the role of democratic procedures within the party. In actuality, Lenin never changed his mind – what changed were the political institutions of society at large. Lenin’s outlook was consistent: genuine intra-party democracy is mandatory when possible and dispensable when not.

Although the meaning of ‘democratic centralism’ is pretty much the same for Lenin and Nevsky, the attitude displayed by the two men strikes me as distinct. Even while supporting democratic centralism, Lenin does not display the emotional investment, the pride and enthusiasm, exhibited by the Russia-based praktik. Although Lenin supported electoral procedures as long as they were in place, centralism is what he is really fighting for in the pre-revolutionary period.

Having said this, however, we need to remind ourselves exactly what ‘centralism’ means in the context of an underground party fighting to maintain even the slightest organisational coherence in a hostile environment. In the underground period, the typical issue for Lenin was not how powerful the party centre should be nor its exact relations to local bodies, but rather something much more elementary and existential: whether or not the party would have any functioning and generally recognised central institutions at all.

Thus it was in 1902-03, when the party had not yet created any official central institutions at all (What is to be done? offered a plan for achieving this widely supported goal). Thus it was in 1910-12, when factional troubles rendered problematic the continued existence of any functioning central committee. The opposite of this kind of ‘centralism’ was therefore kustarnichestvo, a term coined by Lenin that I translate as “artisanal limitations” and that refers primarily to local party organisations acting in complete independence and indeed ignorance of each other. Kustarnichestvo was the natural equilibrium state of an underground party.

Similarly, Lenin also used ‘centralism’ to insist on the simple necessity for the minority to submit to the decisions of the majority. Of course, he was all the more insistent on this point when he felt that he represented the majority, as in 1903-04 and again in 1912-14.

‘Democratic centralism’ in 1915

In November 1915, Lenin – writing directly in English – responded to a leaflet issued by an American group called the Socialist Propaganda League. This group supported the anti-war line of the Zimmerwald movement and called for a new, non-opportunist international. Naturally Lenin responded with enthusiasm. He nevertheless felt compelled to criticise certain positions of the Socialist Propaganda League that he felt overreacted to the sins of the Second International. This short piece is thus a preliminary sketch of his longer polemic in 1920 against ‘leftwing communism’. It also contains the single use of ‘democratic centralism’ I was able to find between 1907 and 1920.

Lenin first stressed that “we never say in our press that too great emphasis has been heretofore placed upon so-called ‘immediate demands’, and that thereby the socialism can be diluted”. He then moved on to the topic of “the democratic centralism” and made clear the original source of the social democratic norm of centralism:

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, after their treacherous conduct in the war.

Finally, Lenin used ‘centralism’ to invoke not intra-party governance, but rather party leadership of the masses. The following passage is another example of what I have elsewhere termed Lenin’s “heroic scenario”[5] of party and class leadership:

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 [when] 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.

1920-21: ‘democratic centralism

As far as I can tell, this 1915 discussion of “the democratic centralism” is the singleuse of the term to be found in Lenin’s writings from 1907 to 1920. At the 9th Party Congress in March-April 1920, Lenin used it to respond to the criticisms of the opposition group within the party who labelled themselves Democratic Centralists. This group put a high value on collegial, as opposed to one-man, leadership of various institutions. Lenin objected that collective leadership of this kind was not an organic part of democratic centralism. Rather, the term implied that the lower ranks of the party choose the higher bodies, which then could administer as they saw fit. In particular, the party congress examined the work of the central committee, removed it and installed a new one. This use of the term is not too far from pre-revolutionary usage.

After this exchange, however, ‘democratic’ by any definition dropped out of the picture and exclusive emphasis was given to centralism. An example that was highly important for the international communist movement is a paragraph from the famous ‘21 conditions’ for admission to the Comintern, as announced in summer 1920 (emphasis in original):

The parties belonging to the Communist International must be built on the basis of the principle of democratic centralism. In the present epoch of acute civil war the communist party will only be able to fulfil its duty if it is organised in as centralist a manner as possible, if iron discipline bordering on military discipline prevails in it, and if the party centre is a commanding [vlastnyi] and authoritative organ wielding wide powers and enjoys the universal confidence of party members.[6]

Although this passage can be found in Lenin’s collected works, it was as likely as not originally drafted by Grigorii Zinoviev. To my ear, the prose sounds more like Zinoviev. But exact authorship is immaterial, since Lenin undoubtedly completely endorsed it. The exclusive emphasis is on centralism, with no allusion to any sort of democratic procedure. But this insistence on quasi-military discipline is explicitly justified by a specific context: namely, “the present epoch of acute civil war”. The heavy-handed ‘centralism’ of the Comintern passage has thus little to do with the more elementary and existential ‘centralism’ of the underground period.

After summer 1920, Lenin used the term in various discussions and debates that arose in response to the new and unforeseen challenges of acting as a ruling party. Didn’t the party have to defend a single line when intervening in ‘non-party’ venues such as trade unions? Didn’t the party have a duty to ensure that uniform policies were enforced throughout the length and breadth of the land? And so on.

The anti-faction resolution passed by the 10th Party Congress in spring 1921 is a summary of many of these concerns. The words, ‘democratic centralism’, only appear in this resolution as the name of a particular proto-factional grouping. Nonetheless, the resolution undoubtedly summed up the current meaning of party centralism. We find here an explicit mention of the right to expel people from the party. Thus we have come full circle, since the pre-revolutionary understanding of democratic centralism, as set out by Nevsky, just as explicitly insisted on the right of local bodies to choose their own leaders.

After reviewing this material, I am compelled to conclude that the common supposition that Lenin had a particular organisational philosophy called ‘democratic centralism’ that was distinct or essential to Bolshevism is something of a myth. In the pre-revolutionary years, the term was certainly never associated with the vision of a monolithic, non-factional ‘party of a new type’ that (in Zinoviev’s words) was “cast from one mould”. In the post-revolutionary years, the Bolsheviks did indeed become a party of a new type, since they were faced with a new and completely unprecedented challenge of running the Russian state. In my view, the quasi-military discipline mandated by the Comintern admission policy was undesired, unneeded, and impossible before the seizure of power, while afterwards it became desirable, necessary, possible and indeed just about inevitable.

Post-Lenin canonisation

A larger myth is the existence of a magic formula that somehow provides a key to resolving the eternal organisational dilemma of balancing coherence and unity on the one hand vs unforced enthusiasm and autonomy on the other. This thought leads to an intriguing historical question: when and why did ‘democratic centralism’ receive canonisation as just such a magic formula? I cannot answer this question, but I can note a few benchmarks.

Zinoviev’s party history, published in 1923, does not discuss the formula or indeed the underlying issues, except to claim that the Mensheviks were demagogic about the possibility of democracy in the underground. Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism, published in 1924, also does not mention the formula. In fact, when Stalin cites the 1920 Comintern resolution quoted above, he leaves out the opening sentence that mentions the term, ‘democratic centralism’. Nevertheless, Foundations of Leninismis a pretty good guide to evolving party norms.

Nevsky’s party history, published in 1925, not only gives us an insight into how the term was actually used by pre-revolutionary Bolshevism, but also its new status as canonised formula. In his discussion of What is to be done? and the early Iskraperiod (1901-03), Nevsky states the following (emphasis added):

In this fashion the foundations were laid for what is known today under the name of ‘democratic centralism’: that is, a type of revolutionary organisation in which maximal freedom of all members within each organisation coexists with a single will of a single centre, willingly recognised by everybody, along with the strictest execution of its directives (p224).

Perfect individual autonomy with perfect unity of will! Perhaps this is possible with the angels in heaven, but not among erring mortals on this dusty earth. Nevsky’s seeming discomfort with the canonised formula is indicated by the words I have emphasised. Indeed, Nevsky explicitly says in the same discussion that during this period electoral party democracy was irresponsible and destructive. In any case, this invocation of a magic formula that solves all organisational problems in all contexts is clearly distinct from the concrete historical meaning that Nevsky himself documents later in his book.

Nevsky as a source

Let me conclude by spelling out why Vladimir Nevsky’s discussion of democratic centralism should be accepted as a historically accurate account of what the term actually meant to pre-revolutionary Bolshevism. First, Nevsky could answer the old vaudeville question, ‘Voss you dere, buddy?’, with a ringing affirmative. Few people lived as fully the life of a Russia-based underground Bolshevik praktik. Further, he wrote his party history in the short window of time when historians could still tell the truth (or perhaps we should say more cautiously, when they did not have to tell lies). He was writing for a very informed audience whom he could not fool on matters such as this. Nevsky’s comments are also striking in their entire lack of polemics. He is not defending one interpretation of democratic centralism against another, but rather makes the automatic assumption that everybody understands what democratic centralism is all about. Finally, the pre-revolutionary use of the term by the émigré theorist, Lenin, is roughly congruent with its meaning as presented by the underground activist, Nevsky – particularly since Lenin never applied the term to underground organisations.

The pre-revolutionary formula of democratic centralism was simply not applicable to the underground party. Democratic centralism existed only during those brief periods of relative political freedom when the party could operate above ground. The post-revolutionary formula of democratic centralism makes sense only in the context of “acute civil war” and a party that has taken on state functions.

Today we live in a situation of relative political freedom, but not one of incipient civil war or a party-state. I leave to others to judge whether the practices legitimated today under the rubric of ‘democratic centralism’ bear any resemblance to the historical meaning of the term, as described by Vladimir Nevsky.

Appendix: Vladimir Nevsky on ‘democratic centralism’

1. This resolution [the resolution on democratic centralism passed at the Bolshevik Tammerfors conference in December 1905] had an enormous significance in the life of our party, since even before the Unity Congress the Bolsheviks (and the Mensheviks) had restructured their organisation on democratic principles. From this point on, over the course of more than two years (right up to the beginning of the gloomy era of reaction), the party lived a life of complete democracy. Even in Petersburg and Moscow, where the pressure of the police apparatus was extremely high, even during 1906-07 the principles of democratic centralism were quickly realised and observed strictly and rigorously.

The [Petersburg] organisation was completely restructured as it emerged from the underground. The sub-district, district and city committees were elected by direct elections. All members of the district organisation elected the members of a general city conference, and at the same time during these elections the members of the Petersburg committee of our organisation were also selected. The general city conference chosen by this kind of direct election was the supreme legislative organ of Petersburg Social Democracy. Between conferences, the executive organ was the Petersburg committee, which elected from its own ranks a very small executive commission (three to five members) for day-to-day ongoing work. The most complete democratism, the colossal authoritativeness of the directing centres and the most complete freedom of opinion was achieved by these methods.

Such occurrences as the replacement or appointment of comrades to leadership posts against the will of the organisation were unknown to the organisations during this period of time. If something like this did happen, it would have been considered a gross infringement of the basic principles of democratic centralism. Nearly always the most visible and authoritative members of our organisation entered at the district level as completely ordinary party workers and only gradually, earning the confidence of the mass , were moved up by this membership to responsible leadership posts. Only by imbibing these principles of democratic centralism was our Bolshevik organisation able to acquire the crushing majority of the organised workers that manifested itself at the London congress.

The ensuing years of reaction again drove our organisation into the underground for a long time, and only during 1917 and the beginning of 1918 did our party succeed for a short time in living according to the principles of democratic centralism. Obviously, following the example of Petersburg, the principles of democratic centralism were quickly realised in other organisations of the party [Istoriia RKP(b), p355-56].

2. It was of the highest importance [after the February 1917 revolution] that the organisation of the Bolsheviks lived fully the life of a genuine proletarian democratic organisation. As soon as the party emerged from the underground and started to live under the conditions of the bourgeois regime, the principles of democratic centralism were immediately put in place and the strictest electoral principle was put into effect. Indeed, in the statutes of the Petrograd organization of the RSDWP, adopted at the city conference in April, section 5 states that “the basic district organ of the party is the district assembly”, and members of the Petrograd committee are elected by the district assembly (section 8). The Moscow organisation was imbued with similar principles; party organization was everywhere built on the same basic ideas.

Free discussion, a lively exchange of opinions, consideration not only of local, but also of all-Russian issues, an unusually lively interest in current issues, an absolutely universal participation in discussing and deciding these issues, the absence of any bureaucratic attitude to getting things done – in a word, the active participation of emphatically all members in the affairs of the organisation – were the distinctive features of our cells and committees [Istoriia RKP(b), p499].


1. RC Elwood (ed) Resolutions and decisions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Vol 1: The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party 1898-October 1917Toronto 1974, pp82-83. I have used Elwood’s translations of the Menshevik and Bolshevik resolutions, slightly modified.

2. Ibid p87. I have left out language calling for regional conferences.

3. The following discussion is based on material referenced in Spravochnyi tom k polnomu sobraniiu sochinenii VI Lenina, chapter 1, Moscow 1970, pp126-27, under the heading of ‘Democratic centralism in the party’. ‘Democratic centralism’ can also be applied to the state, but this is an entirely different topic. For example, in a passage from 1913 kindly brought to my attention by Mike Macnair, Lenin argues that ‘democratic centralism’ in the state mandates autonomy for local nationalities (see Within the party, however, Lenin was opposed to separate organisations for different nationalities.

4. For example, Menshevik leader Pavel Akselrod, writing in early 1905, condemned democratism in the underground because “it served as a cover for ambitious intriguers and even provided clever provocateurs with an access to the organisation” (LT Lih Lenin rediscovered Chicago 2008, p538). This is a harsher critique than any found in What is to be done?

5. LT Lih Lenin London 2011.

6. VI Lenin Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 5th edition, Vol 41, p209. The reference to military discipline is missing from translated versions of the admission conditions (see J Riddell Workers of the world and oppressed peoples, unite! Proceedings and documents of the Second Congress,1920 Atlanta 1991, p1014.


Rediscovering Lenin

ISR 88, March-April 2013

Lenin led a successful workers’ revolution, but are his ideas about organization still relevant today?

By Phil Gasper

Does it make any sense to identify oneself as a Leninist in the twenty-first century? One of the side effects of the continuing serious crisis of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain has been a renewed debate around this question. I don’t intend to go into the details of the turmoil in the SWP here—suffice it to say that after the serious mishandling of a rape accusation against a leading member and the Party leadership’s attempts to end discussion of the matter, some of its outside critics on the left have taken the opportunity to declare the Leninist model of party organization dead.

In turn, the SWP’s leading theoretician, Alex Callinicos, has mounted a defense of Leninism (implying along the way that the Party’s handling of the original case should not be questioned). The arguments are important because this journal and the SWP both emerged from the same political tradition. But it is possible to reject both the critics of Leninism and the interpretation of Leninism that Callinicos offers.

The left critics offer two main lines of argument. The first argument is that Leninism has always been undemocratic and elitist. The second argument is that it is implausible to think that the experience of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party that he led to power in the Russian Revolution of 1917 has any relevance for anti-capitalists today operating in completely different circumstances. I’ll turn to the first argument in a moment. The British Marxist Duncan Hallas (himself a leading member of the SWP until his death) responded to the second argument back in the 1970s:

If what is being said is that the Russia of 1917 and the Britain of today are so radically different that it is out of the question for the course of events in Britain to closely follow the pattern of the Russian events of sixty years ago then there is no dispute. We have no massive peasantry, no mass conscript army bled white by years of wholesale slaughter. The relative weight of the working class in British society is enormously greater and the bourgeoisie in this, the oldest of capitalist countries, vastly more substantial and experienced than its feeble Russian counterpart and so on and so forth.

If, however, what is being suggested is that there is, after all, some non-

revolutionary road to socialism then we have to part company.

Hallas puts his finger on the crucial issue. For those who accept that capitalism cannot be replaced without a revolution and that the working class must be central to any such change (two big assumptions, to be sure, but ones that I will make here), then the experience of Lenin and the Bolsheviks—who successfully led such a revolution—cannot be ignored. However, neither can it simply be used as a blueprint, not just because conditions have changed, but also because Bolshevik practice itself changed over time. So it is necessary to look in some detail at the historical record.


For most of the past century many mainstream historians and political theorists promoted a familiar caricature of Lenin and Leninism that was also unfortunately accepted by many on the left. According to the caricature, Lenin was an elitist who believed that Russian workers would not become socialists by themselves and needed to be led by a party of professional revolutionaries in which decisions would be made by a small group of leaders and intellectuals at the top. On this view, Lenin’s political ideas and practice led, after his death, to the rise of Stalin’s dictatorship, including prison camps, slave labor, and the mass extermination of political opponents.

The caricature was useful propaganda for the West during the Cold War, but bears little relationship to reality. In recent years, no one has done more to challenge it than the historian Lars Lih, who systematically dismantled the myths in his mammoth 2006 study, Lenin Rediscovered. Lih’s book focuses on misinterpretations of Lenin’s What is to be Done?, written in 1902. It marshals an immense amount of historical and textual evidence to show that no one was more enthusiastic about the capacities and revolutionary potential of the Russian working class than Lenin. He wanted a disciplined, professional, centralized revolutionary organization because this was the only way to combat infiltration by Tsarist police spies.

However, Lih is so eager to refute the caricature that he ends up portraying Lenin as little more than an orthodox follower of Karl Kautsky, the leading theoretician of the German Social Democrats (SPD) and the socialist Second International. The reality is more complex. For many years, Lenin was a great admirer of Kautsky, whose theoretical works offered a defense of classical Marxism and the necessity of working-class revolution. But in practice, Kautsky came to accommodate himself to the increasingly reformist practice of the SPD, dominated by trade union bureaucrats and an almost exclusive focus on electoral politics. Lenin identified with Kautsky because he took him to be much more of a revolutionary than he really was.

In practice, Lenin was developing a very different conception of the party to Kautsky. Lenin did not break with Kautsky until 1914, when the SPD supported Germany’s entry into the First World War, but the differences between their approaches had started to become evident earlier. For example, in 1909, in a book entitled The Road to Power, Kautsky offered this conception of the party:

“The Socialist party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. We know that our goal can be attained only through a revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it. It is no part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare the way for it.”

Kautsky viewed revolution as a force of nature, something that was beyond the power of individuals or political parties to influence. If that was the case, there was no need for the SPD to do anything other than increase its representation in parliament and wait for the moment when inevitable historical processes would hand it political power.

For Lenin, by contrast, the whole point of a revolutionary party was to prepare the way for revolution. Historical forces might present the opportunity for revolutionary change, but without active organization and intervention, the ability to influence a mass movement during a period of intense crisis, and an understanding of when to advance and when to retreat, the moment would be lost. More than that, socialists would have to spend years patiently engaging in smaller struggles, both to learn how to lead as individuals and to build a party with the capacity to lead a successful revolution in the future.

Lenin’s goal was a party that brought together the most class conscious and militant sections of the working class well in advance of an actual revolutionary situation. During a period of social crisis, such an organization would be able to win the support of much larger numbers. As he put it in 1904:

… the stronger our Party organizations, consisting of real Social-Democrats, the less wavering and instability there is within the Party, the broader, more varied, richer, and more fruitful will be the Party’s influence on the elements of the working-class masses surrounding it and guided by it. The Party, as the vanguard of the working class, must not be confused, after all, with the entire class.

This was the basis of the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks—two wings of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party—in 1903, and in practice it led to a very different model of socialist organization to the one defended by Kautsky. But when Lenin talked about “less wavering and instability … within the Party,” he did not mean that there should be monolithic agreement on all issues. On the contrary, as he argued in 1907, “There can be no mass party … without an open struggle between tendencies.”


To begin with, there was not much formal democracy within the Bolshevik faction. As the historian Marcel Liebman points out in his excellent survey Leninism Under Lenin, however, this was a consequence of the severe repression that existed in Russia before the 1905 revolution, so that the absence of internal elections “was characteristic of all Russia’s socialist organizations.” Liebman notes that “in their day-to-day actual political practice there was little to choose in this respect between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks: down to the Revolution of 1905 they both employed the same methods, in which co-option of leaders was the rule and election the exception.” But the revolutionary upsurge and the influx of workers into the Bolsheviks led to the “democratization of the party.” Lenin wrote in a short article in June 1906:

“The St. Petersburg worker Social-Democrats know that the whole Party organization is now built on a democratic basis. This means that all the Party members take part in the election of officials, committee members, and so forth, that all the Party members discuss and decide questions concerning the political campaigns of the proletariat, and that all the Party members determine the line of tactics of the Party organizations.” 

It was at this time that Lenin first articulated the principle of democratic centralism,

which he summed up as “freedom of discussion, unity of action.” Lenin argued for

the need to “work tirelessly … to see to it that all the higher-standing bodies are

elected, accountable and subject to recall.” He continued:

“If we have really and seriously decided to introduce democratic centralism in our Party, and if we have resolved to draw the masses of the workers into intelligent decision of Party questions, we must have these questions discussed in the press, at meetings, in circles and at group meetings.”

Speaking in the context of what would prove to be only a temporary reunification with the Mensheviks, Lenin added: “this ideological struggle must not split the organizations, must not hinder the unity of action of the proletariat.” However, “before the call for action is issued, there should be the broadest and freest discussion and appraisal of the resolution, of its arguments and its various propositions.”

The Party Congress was to be the highest decision making body, and Lenin emphasized that “under no circumstances shall we submit to decisions of the Central Committee (CC) which violate the decisions of the Congress.” But he also reserved the right to “fight ideologically against those decisions of the Congress which we regard as erroneous.” The previous year the Bolsheviks had explicitly guaranteed the right of a minority “to advocate its views and to carry on an ideological struggle, so long as the disputes and differences do not lead to disorganization.”

Within a few years, however, Lenin retreated from many of these organizational principles. With the final defeat of the revolutionary movement that had begun in 1905, a period of extreme reaction began in Russia from late 1907. It was a time of “disorganization and disintegration” for the left, with internal conflicts and divisions as the various groups shrank dramatically. Within the ranks of the Bolsheviks it was a time of bitter faction fights and expulsions, with Lenin increasingly attempting to impose a single “party line” on the membership. No doubt in such difficult circumstances some tightening of organizational practices was necessary in order to prevent the Bolsheviks from falling apart completely, but Liebman argues convincingly that Lenin swung much too far in this direction, calling this the period of “Leninist sectarianism.”


As circumstances changed, however, so did the Bolsheviks’ organizational practice. The final break with the Mensheviks came in 1912 during a period of renewed working-class militancy in Russia. Then came the war years, difficult at first, but finally leading—as Lenin believed they would—to a new revolutionary upsurge in February 1917 and the overthrow of the Tsar. In the process, the Bolshevik Party was transformed. Here is Liebman’s description:

Having been obliged by force of circumstance to organize in a not very democratic way, or even in a basically anti-democratic one, the Party opened itself in 1917 to the life-giving breeze of democracy. The rules of underground work, though they did not wholly vanish, became less important than the methods of public discussion. The monolithic character that Lenin had tried to give the Party during the last pre-war years disappeared completely, yielding place to a variety of tendencies that were in many ways mutually contradictory. The right of these tendencies to exist … now became a reality.

This pluralism, as is well known, extended all the way up to the Central Committee, where key issues were debated out, often in public. In April, Lenin declared that “it would be advisable openly to discuss our differences,” and Trotsky later reported in his History of the revolution, “Almost all the local organizations formed into majorities and minorities.” Members of the minority served on the Party’s executive bodies, were allowed ample space in its publications, spoke at length at its conferences, and generally issued a minority report at the end. Even when, on the eve of the October revolution, Kamenev and Zinoviev publicly disagreed with the seizure of power on behalf of the Soviets (workers’ councils in which the Bolsheviks now held a majority), putting the whole operation at risk, they remained on the Central Committee, despite the fact that Lenin personally wanted to expel them from the Party.

Lenin speaking to a crowd, 1917

Sharp disagreements and debates remained the order of the day after the Bolsheviks had come to power and during the Civil War that soon followed. In these extreme conditions, with the revolution fighting for its life first against blockade and invasion, then against a counter-revolutionary White Army backed by the capitalist powers, it is hardly surprising that the Bolshevik government frequently felt compelled to institute repressive measures against its political opponents. But in the early years of the revolution, such steps were seen as temporary expedients and were frequently lifted.

In 1921, with the economy in shambles and the future of the new Soviet state uncertain, factions were banned in the Bolshevik Party (now the Communist Part of the Soviet Union) itself.  The measure was explicitly intended to be temporary, but as the revolution degenerated over the next several years and as an entrenched state bureaucracy led by Stalin took power, the ban became permanent. As the revolution died, so did democratic centralism.

As late as 1922, however, robust democratic procedures were still in evidence in the Communist International—the network of revolutionary parties from around the world launched in the wake of the Russian Revolution. One quote, from the Fourth Congress in November of that year, will suffice to illustrate the way in which minority voices were treated in Comintern debates:

“Chair: The next speaker is Comrade Duret, who represents the tendency in the Communist Party of France that opposes the united-front tactic. He has asked us to allow him a longer speaking time in order to explain this point of view. The Presidium has no objection. Any objections? So this is decided. The Presidium grants the speaker forty-five minutes.”

Alas, as the revolution in Russia degenerated, so did the Comintern. Within a few years, under the leadership of Zinoviev (then in alliance with Stalin) it had become a tool of the Soviet bureaucracy. At its Fifth Congress in July 1924 it called for the  “Bolshevization” of its member organizations and adopted “rules of conduct for building” Communist Parties. The fourth rule stated: “It must be a centralized party, permitting no factions, tendencies or groups; it must be fused in one mold.” The ban on factions that Lenin had explicitly seen as a temporary measure justified by emergency conditions in Russia, thus became a permanent feature of Communist Parties around the world. Soon they had become pawns of Stalin’s foreign policy that accepted without question whatever political line Moscow decided on.


So where does all this history leave us? It is obvious that there is not just one historical Leninism. In periods of retreat and repression, Lenin adopted practices quite different from those he endorsed at the high points of struggle. Some of those shifts were justifiable, some perhaps not, but those of us operating today in conditions of relative freedom compared to the despotism of the Tsarist state or the chaos of revolutionary Russia at the end of the civil war, should not look to these periods as models for our political practice today.

In some circumstances a revolutionary organization may need to be tightly centralized and secretive, with democracy reduced to a minimum. But in most of the advanced capitalist world, we are not in such circumstances today, and the democratic aspect of democratic centralism should thus be as extensive as possible. This is not just because democratic decision-making is good in itself, but also because it is a vital way in which any organization or party comes to a realistic understanding of the world around it and of the way forward. As Duncan Hallas put it:

“Such a party cannot possibly be created except on a thoroughly democratic basis; unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.”

It is here that I part company with Callinicos’s model of a party with a Central Committee that is either monolithic or keeps its disagreements private, that campaigns in the organization for its own perspective, but which faces no organized disagreement because factions are banned except in the months preceding an annual conference. The situation is even worse if a culture develops in which challenges to the leadership are regarded with suspicion or treated as a form of disloyalty.

The model of party organization that Callinicos defends was criticized many years ago by none other than Chris Harman, a member of the SWP’s Central Committee and one of it leading theorists until his death in 2009. Harman assessed the SWP’s experience in the late 1970s, and concluded that party leaders had accepted “the false premise that you can avoid the political pressures that develop in a period of difficulty for revolutionaries by restricting the number of comrades involved in the effective decision making of the organization.” According to Harman:

“We reached the stage where we feared that any discussion outside a very small group of comrades at the Centre would lead to unnecessary rows, to a factional atmosphere in the organisation, to more splits and more losses. Fear of ‘rocking the boat’ when times were difficult led us to down grade the importance of discussion over national perspectives, strategy and tactics.”

Harman pointed out that formal democracy was maintained “by the responsibility of the CC to an annual conference, and by the existence of a party council … whose ‘advice’ the CC was not likely to ignore,” but formal democracy was not enough. Over a period of time

“…the only discussion about the political priorities and the direction of the organisation came to be carried on within a very narrow group of CC members and full-timers. The attitude towards the rest of the organisation was almost ‘Don’t let the children find out we don’t always get on’.”

Another consequence of this form of organization is that leadership bodies—including the Central Committee—come to be dominated by party full-timers, insulated from the day-to-day experience of members in their workplaces and on campuses.

Harman believed that the problems could be overcome by setting up a strong National Committee, drawn from the ranks of the organization, to oversee the CC. But a National Committee can quite easily become a rubber stamp, and it is not in a position to challenge the Central Committee if it has no regular access to the information it would need to do so.

There would be a much more serious check on a centralized leadership body if the organizations members can group together to challenge decisions that they disagree with. Callinicos’s argument against this is that to allow such factions outside of a relatively short period each year is to allow permanent factions to develop that would seriously damage the organization’s ability to intervene effectively in the outside world.

But this argument presents us with a false choice—there is plenty of space between no factions and permanent factions. A faction might form to contest a particular issue, then disappear when the question is resolved. Comrades who find themselves on the opposite side of one dispute may find themselves on the same side on another. In any case, as Leon Trotsky warned in the early 1920s, banning factions carries its own dangers:

“If factions are not wanted, there must not be any permanent groupings; if permanent groupings are not wanted, temporary groupings must be avoided; finally, in order that there be no temporary groupings, there must be no differences of opinion, for wherever there are two opinions, people inevitably group together.”

The bottom line is that revolutionary organizations today need to draw on the most democratic elements of Lenin’s legacy, and where necessary to create new structures and processes of their own. Democratic centralism requires not just formal democracy before unity in action, but a culture of debate and discussion, where those in the minority can express their views fully. That is the real meaning of Leninism today.