AS FIRST stated, the theory of democratic centralism, as the functional method of a political party, was based on the following reasoning: Social revolutionists needed not a mere parliamentary organization but a party of action which would function as a scientific body of direction, a vanguard of activists tied to the revolutionary masses, and a central control organon. The party should be An elite body of professional revolutionists dedicating their lives to the cause and carrying out their decisions with iron discipline. No task too small; no sacrifice too great.
Such a party could not be built from the bottom up but only from the top down. First, the scientific leadership would show the way, formulating the program and policies, educating the people, and working out the strategy and tactics. Advanced dedicated workers could join such a party and carry out the decisions. In Russia, under the despotism of the Czar’s police, political activity had to be carried out secretly. Full democracy by the rank and file membership was practically impossible to attain but, organized in small groups, the members could develop confidence in each other in the limited actions undertaken. Mutual confidence was far more important than voting since the lives of all might depend on the confidence each had in the other in the field. Some discussion in the political unit, or cell, might be attempted but, once a decision was made, unity in action and stern discipline was insisted on.
Persisting in such concepts, the Bolsheviks, under Lenin, formed a separate faction and split from the larger group of socialists forming the Social Democratic Labor Party of Russia. The leaders of the faction claimed leadership because they had elaborated this theory of the party and its functioning. The leaders of the Social Democrats (such as Plechanov, Martov, Petressov, Axelrod, Lenin, Trotsky, Lunacharsky, Zinoviev) were practically all intellectuals who, after a few brushes with the police, had to leave Russia to live in other countries of Europe. The discussions among the leaders were held abroad, even though there was great difficulty for others living in Russia to find their way to the gatherings or conventions. Among the leaders in exile, democratic discussion was axiomatic, but in the Bolshevik faction, once the leaders had decided, the rest (back in Russia) had to carry out the decisions. The statements issued by the emigre center was the law! If you didn’t like it you could leave the Party!
The emigre Party leaders could declare that their leadership ability had been tested in struggles against the Czar, as their forced exile abroad testified, but the fact was there was not too much testing in the field. In a few cases the exiles had participated in some demonstration and had been arrested, jailed, and exiled. Thanks to the work of the Nihilists in Russia and to the mass power of the socialists in Europe the mere existence of a single revolutionary spreading his ideas in a city was enough to give the well-organized Czarist police the jitters. The person arrested, imprisoned, and exiled could now understandably believe he was a “tested” revolutionary. But if we define that term as one who has organized physical demonstrations of the toilers with a thorough knowledge of strategy and tactics, there were relatively few who could be so certified. It was, rather, that the aggressive ferocity of the Czarist police had singled them out, not that their actions went beyond talk, which had brought them into exile. Their main heroism was on the lecture platform, in the conference room, at the editorial desk.
All this meant that when the class struggles became more intense, and real battle were raging in the strikes and demostrantions that followed, it could be revealed that these exiles had very little experience in strategy and tactics to be the actual leaders in these events. They could analyze the over-all political significance of the events and bring their views to the international socialist conventions, but the militants in the field had to develop their own initiative, ingenuity, and judgment to carry on the best they could.
When decisive world-shaking events occurred, such as World War I, the socialist “leaders” were found sadly wanting. All but a few sections took a nationalist course, each supporting its own national bourgeoisie in the frightful carnage. When the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917 the Bolshevik leadership, except Lenin (including Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bucharin, Stalin), practically capitulated to bourgeois pressure. Lenin had to threaten to leave the Party and denounce all these worthies as strike-breakers and traitors in order to save the situation. In all this confusion the system of democratic centralism remained and the leaders of the Party who had taken control of an enormously strengthened organization could now enjoy their undisputed victorious way.
FROM the start of the Russian Revolution, democratic tendencies became the rage. Everywhere there were meetings, discussions, voting. In the Soviets there was voting on all the vital issues of the day, on programs set up by leaders of rival parties fighting for power. In this kind of struggle a heavy advantage lay on the side of the Bolsheviks who, under Lenin, had long advocated a centralist party. In 1902 “democratic” centralism had been advocated because of Czarist terror; in 1917 it was advocated because of the needs of the civil war. In the civil war the power of the leadership was strengthened to an unheard degree.
But suppose the Bolshevik leaders made serious errors and the interests of the proletarian revolution were not carried out? Then the centralism of the leadership might destroy the democracy of the membership. After wrong decisions by the leadership there would follow the insistence on iron discipline and rigid implementation in carrying out such wrong orders. Then would come the further bureaucratization of the leaders, the creation of cliques and henchmen, false communications between leaders and members, further serious errors, etc., until the dictatorship of the proletariat or rule of the toilers would give way to the dictatorship of the party, the dictatorship of the party to the dictatorship of the executive committee, the dictatorship of the committee to the dictatorship of “the leader.”
An unforgivable blunder on the part of Lenin was his turning over of the control of the Bolshevik Party to Stalin. After Lenin’s death, Stalin’s gangsterism become the chief weapon of centralism. In their fight against Trotsky, the other leaders (such as Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bucharin, et al.) supported Stalin’s gangsterism until, with Trotsky out of the way, Stalin’s gangsters could shoot them in the back of the neck in the toilets of the secret police. “Democratic” centralism had turned to plain “centralism” while Russia was run by Stalin’s decrees. Under Stalin, Russia became a counter-revolutionary force. But let us not forget that Stalin came out of Lenin and "democratic” centralism.
“Democratic” centralism, as developed by the Bolsheviks was as typical a Russian product, adapted for Russian conditions, as the Bolsheviks themselves. The Bolsheviks can say: Is it not true, as capitalism grows desperate, all communist parties will be driven underground and forced to operate in clandestine fashion, with leaders co-opted by other leaders, and members deprived of full knowledge to be able to vote correctly? Is it not true that civil war will burst out in all countries and the trials of civil war demand iron discipline by all? Yes, indeed!
But what our Bolshevik apologists ought to mention is:
1. Forming a revolutionary party means testing members to see whether they ought to become leaders. No leadership without being tested in the fire of the class struggle.
2. The leaders today will not have the privilege of running hundreds of miles way to safety as exiles and emigres to control a party from abroad from another country.
3. Above all, internationally, there will be no national party controlling other party leaderships as "grandfather” of an international Mafia!
As soon as the Bolsheviks could maintain a stable regime within Russia they immediately attempted to form a new international movement under their control, the Communist International, or Comintern. On the surface it seemed an attempt to extend the revolution all over Europe and the rest of the world. The Comintern congresses could be held, and the international center be maintained within Russia, with the Russians as the “tested leaders.” Under the theory of democratic centralism the Russians would be giving the orders to all the parties which would then have to carry out these orders with iron discipline.
The First Congress of the Comintern was called in 1919 at a time when Russia was in truly desperate straits and the revolution had failed in Germany, in Poland, in Hungary, in Bavaria, and elsewhere. It is not correct to assume that Lenin had created the Comintern basically in order to extend the revolution. It is, perhaps, more plausible to believe Lenin conceived of the Comintern as a needed international body to help defend the Soviet Union. From this nationalist point of view it did not much matter whether all revolutions failed as long as they harassed world capitalism and prevented it from destroying the soviets.
AT THE FIRST congress of the Comintern, held in 1919, it seems all the delegates, save two journalists were from the Soviet Union. This did not deter Lenin from launching his manifesto and later his theses and twenty-one points detailing what each national party would have to pledge before being allowed the honor of joining with the Bolsheviks in a world Communist Party. All recognized parties could send delegates to the Comintern congresses, provided they could manage to get there, but the majority of delegates would have to come from the Bolshevik Party which, under “democratic centralism” would hold complete control.
Complete control, of course, would mean:
1. Agents of the Russian Communist Party would have complete access to the national parties files, secrets, and membership;
2. The Russians could use these parties for their “fifth column” purposes, if need be;
3. The Russians could formulate the programs, policies, practices, and procedures of each of these parties, control their elections, and place their own men as leaders of each party;
4. The parties could be rendered completely subservient by money and other subsidies for their many activities.
Lenin’s finesse can be guessed at by the fact that soon after the formation of the rules of the Comintern, he developed his “New Economic Policy,” in which he urged foreign capitalists to invest in Russia with full guarantees of being able to export their profits at will. It was urgent to repair the terrible damage made by the civil war. It was vital to form communist parties abroad to push this project, to threaten countries refusing collaboration with a future of continuous harassment and political demonstrations and to promise collaboration with countries going strong with trade investment in Russia. Later, Stalin, in his rude and course manner, would develop that which Lenin began, as shown in dealings with Roosevelt and with Hitler (Lenin: his aristoi —Stalin: hoy poloi).
The spread of Bolshevism through the Comintern meant the dominance of “democratic centralism” on an international scale, led by the Russians. The trouble with this situation, from a revolutionary angle, however, was that the Bolsheviks, in order to lead, had not had a thorough and intimate knowledge of the countries and people they were leading, and this the ignorant, provincial, and nationalist Bolsheviks could not have. Did they really know anything of the United States, of China, of Africa, or much of Europe? Locked up in the prison of Czarism, what, indeed, could the Russians have known about countries and peoples abroad?
Thus, ignorant, arrogant, dictatorial Russian leadership, perforce, had to fail in each country, prevent a genuine communist party from arising, use its control only for the advancement of Russia, and finally destroy each and every revolutionary party and the Comintern itself!
What can the working class of the world learn from this debacle of Bolshevism in its practice of democratic centralism?
1. We must agree that the revolutionary party must be an active vanguard organization with a leadership tested in theory and in practice, coordinating all phases of the struggle of the toilers as a class in every aspect of their lives and work. The proletarianization of the leadership goes hand in hand with the intellectualization of the membership. Every member a leader; every leader tested in struggle!
2. We must also agree that we must ultimately face fascist terror and civil war and build our organization on the basis of small nuclei or cells making it difficult for the enemy to infiltrate and capture.
3. What we must insist on, however, is the optimum development within the cell, fraction, caucus, etc., of initiative, ingenuity, and judgment by each member in charge of a given aspect or departments of work, depending on the priority given such work by the cell itself. The organization and functioning of the base unit must be the basic task in the advanced industrial countries of the world.
4. The insistence on an ideal “monolithic” party must be considered as a mask for the dictatorship of a few in the party. Disagreements are to be tolerated without expulsion so long as those disagreements do not represent opposite sides of enemy classes, can be resolved in a fraternal manner, and unity in action in the class struggle can be maintained. The exaggeration of differences so as to make it appear that each dispute is one calling for methods of class struggle to be used to eradicate such differences, is, itself, a sign of opportunist or of sectarian degeneration calling for remedial action by the members.
5. On an international scale, no domination or centralism by any national party, but each party is to consider itself one among equals. Unity in action is to be chosen only when there is complete discussion and understanding with statutes clearly reflecting these principles.