Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Our view of democratic centralism must change

by the National Apparatus Secretary and Workers Movement Journalist

First Published: In Struggle! No. 270, November 3, 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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We need to change the way we are organized. But how? Some people say democratic centralism should be abandoned. We disagree – unfortunately no one has yet come up with a coherent alternate organizing principle to replace it. Democratic centralism needs to be subjected to the same materialist critique as the ideological and political line of Marxism and Leninism do. Both have become ossified and must be progressively transformed so that they are justified on the basis or an up-to-date scientific theory and a concrete analysis of concrete conditions. We suggest three changes to make in our application of democratic centralism.

Unity of action, not monolithism

Although never comfortable with it, IN STRUGGLE! has upheld the idea of a monolithic party. Monolithic means that the organization not only acts as one but also seeks to appear in public as if it thinks as one. Article 3.1 of our constitution says democratic centralism “is based on the unity of action, purpose and leadership resulting from decisions taken democratically.” (our emphasis). That article should be rewritten to expunge the idea of monlithism. Concretely that would mean:

(1) Unity of action would be understood to be the main objective of democratic debate in the organization; it would be virtually the sole criterion of whether divergent views could be expressed in public. Members should be expected to uphold unity of action, to apply the organization’s line, even if they disagree with it. However, it would be taken as normal for them to acknowledge publicly that they personally disagree with the line they are applying. The object of internal debates would be to maximize ideological and political “unity of purpose” but not seek identity of views (unanimity).

The same goes for “unity of leadership”. Historically, leadership has mostly been “monolithic” in presenting its decisions to the rank and file as if they were unanimous. Not that minority views were never presented, indirectly, with the identity of the author hidden and the degree of support too, but it was not systematic. The result? Members don’t see the whole picture. They understand less about the reasoning that led to majority decisions and debate among them is less likely to take a look at minority as well as majority views. The level of information and debate in the leadership bodies (where the sharpest struggles tend to get confined) is significantly higher than it is among the membership. The same is true far a monolithic organization in relation to the masses. We are in a period when debate among the masses is particularly critical. It is stem important to strengthen the debate and unity of purpose among the masses than it is to “protect” the “secret” that our members often disagree or the “secret” (in most cases) of who does so and in what ways. A revolutionary organization without democratic centralism (unity of action) might well be just a debating society; an organization that is monolithic in its dealings with the masses may well fail to promote the necessary debates.

(2) Apart from efficiency in a combat situation, the prime argument for centralism in a revolutionary organization is that it is the best way to make the parts of the organization serve the whole. There is an explicit hierarchy: “all members and probationers, whatever their function, must submit to the Organization; the minority must submit to the majority, the lower bodies to the higher bodies, the entire Organization to the Central Committee and the Central Committee to the Congress.” (3.1) Hierarchies exist in practice of course in all organizations. The problem occurs when you make a virtue out of that necessity. A monolithic approach presumes that the highest (central) bodies represent the interests of the whole almost by definition and indeed are the only bodies within the organization that could do so. Our remedy in the past has been to strengthen the centre as the genuine embodiment of the whole always, by making it more completely subject to democratic process. This is a one-sided and monolithic idea of unity. There is also a need to strengthen the base units and the individual cadre and their ability to uphold the interests of the whole organization.

Giving individual cadre more frequent and direct ways of participating in making decisions for the whole organization is needed. Congresses should be held every year instead of every three. The central committee should have more direct representation from the base units and meet more frequently. Base units should be granted more autonomy to take real initiative within the guidelines set by the programme and higher bodies. Those initiatives should include the responsibility to develop and propose new policy. We have the example now of the women’s and science collectives. Why not have an existing base unit with experience intervening in day-care struggles initiate new policy proposals on day care?

Membership open to all revolutionaries, not just professionals

IN STRUGGLE! has acted in practice as if all members must be at the same (highest) level of commitment and political development. This was reflected in the time it took for people to “change status” from sympathizer to probationer and from probationer to full member. Another example: the “levelling” mentality of the dues policy which tended to confiscate any wealth above a rather minimum level. The rhythm of work has largely been dictated by the speed at which the centralized apparatus acted. That pace was both too fast (leaving no time for life and responsibilities outside the organization) and too slow (too much waiting for work plans from above, not enough testing of those plans in practice).

Educating the mass of advanced and militant workers and progressives practically and theoretically is a key task. In Tsarist Russia, Lenin’s tactic to do this was to form a nucleus of professional revolutionaries first. We also have given primacy to building a professional nucleus carrying out specialized tasks (and reproduced the same model in miniature within each region and each cell). It has resulted in a top-heavy apparatus. We should try a different tactic. We must become an organization composed mainly of “part-timers” or “amateurs”, operating at different levels of intensity. We would still be an organization of disciplined revolutionaries united around a revolutionary programme. Our priority must be to progressively educate and train people to be more and more “professionally” competent in particular skills and general political knowledge. We’ll still need some full-time professionals, although individuals can rotate in and out. Their main job: to help organize things so the “amateurs” can do the bulk of the work. A principle we have learned: full-timers, although specialists, should do both intellectual and manual tasks.

The criteria for membership should be article 2.1 and nothing more: “Any individual 18 years old or older who adheres to its Programme, accepts its Constitution, carries out its decisions, observes its discipline, pays membership dues and is actively involved in one of its organizations can be a member or probationer of the Organization.”[1] What the content of that programme should be at the present time is evidently a separate debate.

What is key is that we be organized in order to accept into our ranks all people who have a revolutionary commitment and are willing to act on it – irrespective of the time they may have or the “level” of their political development. And that we provide them with a democratically organized framework within which they can contribute and participate.

From “need to know” to “need to protect”

Any organization serious about revolution must be able to withstand repression and to mobilize the people to fight back massively against it. The relative importance of being as open as possible to the masses and as closed as possible to the police will shift depending on the concrete circumstances. It is very important to be able to move quickly from one way of functioning to another. Many of us whose formative political experiences included the U.S. government’s systematic assassination of Black Panther leaders and the Canadian government’s actions in the October crisis have tended to have little confidence that the masses could or would help revolutionaries against the police; hence we have favoured a “closed” organization, operating on the “need to know” principle. People within the organization know the absolute minimum about what others are doing. Eighty per cent of what the Organization does is classified “internal” and kept confidential from non-members. We need to be more open to the masses. Why not consider options like radically separating legal and illegal work (like the IRSP and INLA do)? This might make it possible to change the ratio of internal to public information about our legal activities from 80/20 to 20/80. The question becomes “Do we need to protect this information?” not “Do they need to know it?”. What do we need to protect at this point? The names of individuals, the identity of people in sensitive posts, some specific tactics? The answer to this question depends, as do all the points in this article, on your concrete analysis of present conditions and our political tasks.

National Apparatus Secretary (Political Bureau) and Workers movement journalist


[1]Article 2.2 which requires all members to belong to a cell, should be dropped. This would require members to exercise their rights and duties in other democratically organized forms, for example in their committees in the national or regional apparatus or in specialized committees working in specific fields – culture, women etc. So should 2.3 which defines member’s duties as if all people must operate at the same maximum level.