Democratic centralism

Matt Cox explains the practical importance of democratic centralism in a Marxist-Leninist organisation

Matt Cox, is a member of the YCL’s YCL’s West and North Yorkshire branch

The British Left is certainly not bereft of political parties, or ideologies to accompany those parties. In recent times people on the left have called for even more parties, assuming that whatever new party is made will somehow have a kind of legitimacy or a kind of sui generis that others do not. What we need, however, is not a ‘New Party’ – but a Party of a ‘New Type’, in Lenin’s words.

The Party of a New Type is that which adheres to the organisational principle of democratic centralism. We are the youth wing of the Party of a New Type. After all, it is in our constitution – Section 1, subsection d, plain for all to see.

         “The organisation is based on the principle of democratic centralism.

This is not an abstract thing, but in fact a thing of life or death for a communist organisation. Democratic centralism is not a static principle, but a form of organisation – rather than placing limits on members, it defines, or ought to define, the behaviour of our members. 

The 1957 Report to the CPGB’s Congress on Inner-Party Democracy boasted that ‘we have made our Party the most democratic political organisation in the country. Our members and branches have more rights than those of other parties in relation to the formation of policy, the election of leadership, the criticism of leading bodies, and the taking and carrying out of decisions.’

The report recognises the thirty years’ experience of democratic centralism. Not thirty years later, the Communist Party of Great Britain disintegrated under the weight of internal factional disagreements. Anti-communists in the Party were allowed to form a faction which eventually captured the Party and divorced it from its working class base.

It was not just in the CPGB that factions led to the destruction and dissolution of a great Communist Party. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union was captured by a petty-bourgeois faction in the late 1980s, which ordered the suicide of the Party by the handing over of the state media and state enterprises to petty-bourgeois elements in the Soviet society. 

Years after the collapse of European socialism, the Party commissioned a new Inner-Party Democracy Report in 1997. This report – IPD 97 – was an improvement on the 1957 report, because it “demands the maximum active participation of the whole Party membership.” This is the correct Marxist-Leninist interpretation and an important improvement on the 1957 report. All Young Communists should read these reports and think about them seriously.

If we want to be a truly democratic centralist organisation, then the right to participate is not enough. What we need is the duty to participate. 

We should not understand the principle of democratic centralism as just being the rule of the majority over the minority. Democratic centralism actually demands the dialectical resolution of internal party debates and contradictions. The Communist organisation cannot and does not work if members do not put forward their views and exercise their right to have their voice heard. 

Our international comrades have good advice for us here:

Fidel Castro reminds us that “democratic centralism does not imply the abandonment of internal democracy; on the contrary, there should be collective internal discussion, but without losing respect for the discipline and directives from higher authorities.” He is right – but look at his words closely. The collective internal discussion is a recommendation, not an option.

Mao gave a a speech in 1957 describing “the democratic method of resolving contradictions among the people … in the formula ‘unity – criticism – unity. To elaborate, that means starting from the desire for unity, resolving contradictions through criticism or struggle, and arriving at a new unity on a new basis.”

The Communist Party of Cuba and the Communist Party of China are still here today. They still sit in government in those countries today and they still terrorise the bourgeoisie of their countries and of the empire generally. 

Like our comrades in Cuba and China, we must not be passive in our application of democratic centralism. We must take an active view of this principle.

Officers of the League should motivate their members to participate in discussions. They should be active in building the confidence of members to argue a position. Officers must be aware of the principle of ‘no stupid question’, and treat kindly members and encourage their participation. This is especially true for new members. If members feel they are not qualified or educated to speak on a topic, officers should point them towards educational materials and include them in the discussion at the next available moment. 

The most important point is that Branches should cultivate a culture of open discussion inside the Branch. As recognised in IPD 97, emphasises Marxist-Leninist education, this is also a duty and task of Branch Education officers. 

There are duties also on members. The Communist organisation is the only one that imposes more duties on members than it offers rights or privileges. Members should be bold, unafraid to make a position, but also be magnanimous and gentle towards other comrades. Participation in party democracy should not be considered a right or a privilege – it is a duty.

Common in all the texts describing democratic centralism is one word: unity. This is what centralism demands of its members: to have respect for and to carry out the instructions of the higher bodies. It means not to undermine the instructions of the higher bodies or to directly subvert them. 

For example, if the Central Committee distributes instructions to the Branches to urge members to support a particular organisation or campaign, the Branch Committees cannot instruct their members to do the opposite, or refuse to pass on this information. If the Central Committee or the District Committee gives an instruction which the Branch Committee disagrees with, the Branch Committee may not refuse to pass on this instruction to the members, and the members may not refuse to execute it.

We have the opportunity to build again the New Type of Party and the New Type of Youth League. We should avoid the mistakes of the past and learn as much as we can from the failures of historical Communist organisations. 

Democratic centralism isn’t just a principle or order that we are obliged to follow. It’s also a form and call to action. Only through correct application of these ideas can we hope to build a revolutionary movement worthy of its name.

Matt Cox

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