Socialist Courier previously discussed the concept of democracy. Those familiar with the Left will no doubt come across claims that the Trotskyist and Leninist political groups exercise a form of democracy called “democratic centralism”
Socialism’s crisis is a crisis in the meaning of socialism. Many label themselves “socialist” in one sense or another; but there has never been a time as now when the label was less informative. The range of conflicting and incompatible ideas that call themselves socialist is wider than ever.The nearest thing to a common content of the various “socialisms” is a negative: anti-capitalism. But even anti-capitalism holds less and less of a meaning in most cases.
Nowhere else than on the Left is the term “-ism” more extensively and frequently used. We are asked to adhere not only to anarchism, or syndicalism, or socialism, or communism, but also to Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, Maoism, Luxemburgism, and a host of much lesser theorists’ “isms”.
Throughout the history of socialist movements and ideas, the fundamental divide is between Socialism-from-Above to be handed down to the grateful masses in one form or another, and Socialism-from-Below holding the view view that socialism can be realized only through the self-emancipation of view that socialism can be realized only through the self-emancipation of the working class, reaching out for freedom with their own hands. The vanguard party and democratic centralism - are nowhere to be found in Marx, while the third, dictatorship of the proletariat, had an entirely different meaning to Marx than the Leninist interpretation.
The name “bolshevik” originated in a controversy between various factions within the Russian Social-Democratic Party meeting in convention in 1903. The word “bolshevik” (from “Bolshe”, meaning more) meant one of the majority, as distinct from the word “Menshevik” (from “menshe”, meaning less), meaning one of the minority. At the convention, however, the majority of the delegates, were later called “mensheviks”, while the minority styled themselves “bolsheviks.” This incongruous situation came about accidentally when, for a short time, the Jewish Socialist Bund boycotted the convention leaving the rump convention, for the moment with the minority in control. This moment was enough for the minority under Lenin, to seize the name “majority men” or "bolsheviks” and brand the real majority as “mensheviks” or “minority men.”
Thus the name “bolshevik” was a trick, a trick of propaganda and political maneuvering, having little to do with the truth of the situation. “Bolshevik” was simply term used by Lenin to give the impression that the majority of the members were with him for all time. He had “won” the Party. This was, of course, a lie. And how strange it seems that Lenin, the man of “principle” should deal with numbers not principles.
The leaders of the Russian Social Democrats (such as Pleckanov, Lenin, Martov, Axelrod, and Trotsky,) were practically all intellectuals who had to leave Russia to live in other countries of Europe. The discussions among the leaders were held abroad, and 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 taken for granted, 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!
It was Lenin’s contention that the working class, through its independent development, could achieve a trade union consciousness, but only a vanguard party, composed of professional revolutionists completely identified and fused with the working class, could imbue it with a socialist consciousness and make it aware of its great historic mission. In his pamphlets Lenin outlined the organizational steps necessary to be taken in order to achieve this kind of organization. He wanted a vanguard party closely connected with the masses, but hierarchically organized, with definite bodies, committees, and a program to which all members adhered, and which they actively carried out. The party was to be headed by a central committee which was responsible to the party congress, with the political leadership in the hands of the editorial board of the central party organ, which board could organize and reorganize the units of the party, admit or reject members, and make all political decisions.
The premise of Lenin’s democratic centralism was based on the following reasoning: revolutionaries needed not a mere parliamentary organization but a party of action which direct a vanguard of activists tied to the revolutionary masses. 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 cannot be built from the bottom up but only from the top down. First, the leadership would show the way, formulating the program and policies, educating the people, and working out the strategy and tactics. The more advanced dedicated workers would join such a party and carry out the decisions. A degree of discussion might be permitted but, once a decision was made, unity in action and stern discipline was insisted on. In the Russia of Lenin’s time, under the despotism of the Czar’s police, political activity had to be carried out secretly so full democracy by the rank and file membership was practically impossible to attain.
Within Russia where the class struggles became more intense, and real battles were raging in the strikes and demonstrations these exiles had very little experience in strategy and tactics to be the actual leaders in these events. They could analyse 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. Once the Russian Revolution, was underway the democratic tendencies expressed itself and everywhere there were meetings, discussions, voting. In the Soviets there was voting on all the vital issues of the day, on programmes set up by leaders of rival parties fighting for power. In this type of situation the advantage rested with the Bolsheviks who, under Lenin, had long advocated a centralist party.
In 1902 “democratic” centralism had been advocated because of Czarist terror and the secret police, but in 1917 it was advocated because of the needs of the civil war. In the civil war the power of the leadership was strengthened. The “ideal of ‘democratic centralism’ suffered further reverses, for in effect the power within both the government and the Party became concentrated in the hands of Lenin and the immediate retinue of Bolshevik leaders who did not openly disagree with him and carried out his wishes. The dictatorship (or rule) of the proletariat (or rule of the workers) gave 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.” Supposed “democratic” centralism had turned to into simple “centralism”. Many of todays’s vanguard parties go at great lengths about centralism, but are unsurprisingly rather silent about democracy.
“Democratic” centralism, as developed by the Bolsheviks was a Russian product, adapted for Russian conditions, as the Bolsheviks themselves. Rosa Luxemburg described Lenin’s conception of organisation thus: ‘the Central Committee is everything whereas the real party is only its appendage, a mindless mass which moves mechanically on the orders of the leader like the army exercising on the parade ground” It can be added that although everyone marches in step, the orders are usually wrong.
Democratic centralism poses as a form of inner party democracy, but it is really just a hierarchy by which each member of a party (ultimately of a society) is subordinate to a higher member until one reaches the all-powerful party central committee and its Chairman/General Secretary. This is a totally undemocratic procedure, which puts the leadership above criticism, even if it is not above reproach. It is a bankrupt, corrupt method of internal operations for a political organisation. You have no voice in such a party. The practice of Trotskyist-Leninist parties is that the Central Committee unilaterally sets policy for the entire organization, and their authority reigns.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain is a party of no leaders or, if you will, every member is a leader. Our directly elected Executive Committee is only a “house-keeping” committee for the day-to-day running of the Party (our General Secretary is little better than general dogs-body!). The EC has no power to decide policy. It doesn't even have the authority to submit resolutions to conference. Only branches can do that. Nor does conference decide - only a postal referendum poll of our individual members provides the mandate for Party decisions.