Democratic centralism

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Democratic centralism is a practice in which political decisions reached by voting processes are binding upon all members of the political party. Although mainly associated with Marxism–Leninism,[1] democratic centralism has also been practiced by social democratic parties.[2][3]

In practice[edit | edit source]

In party meetings, a motion (new policy or amendment, goal, plan or any other kind of political question) is proposed. After a period of debate, a vote is taken. If the decision passes, all party members are expected to follow that decision, and not continue propagandizing or otherwise working against it, even if they disagree with it. In the development of socialism in the Soviet Union and China, democratic centralism was largely taken up in response to instability following their respective revolutions which required faster mechanisms of decision-making.

The decision can always be recalled if there is grounds for it, but until it is cancelled, all members of the party are expected to uphold it as if they agreed with it.

Consensus is generally sought over pure results, and there is often a lengthy period of debates before a decision is put to the vote. The debate period is used to refine the proposal that will be voted on until all (or most) members agree to it.

History[edit | edit source]

Lenin's conception[edit | edit source]

The text What Is to Be Done? written in 1902 is generally considered the foundational work of democratic centralism. At the time, democratic centralism was generally viewed as a set of principles for the organizing of a revolutionary workers' party. However, Vladimir Lenin's model for such a party, which he repeatedly discussed as being "democratic centralist", was the German Social Democratic Party, inspired by remarks made by the social democrat Jean Baptista von Schweitzer. Lenin described democratic centralism as consisting of "freedom of discussion, unity of action".[1]

The doctrine of democratic centralism served as one of the sources of the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. The Mensheviks supported a looser party discipline within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903 as did Leon Trotsky, in Our Political Tasks,[4] although Trotsky joined ranks with the Bolsheviks in 1917.

The Sixth Party Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks) held at Petrograd between 26 July and 3 August 1917 defined democratic centralism as follows:

  1. That all directing bodies of the Party, from top to bottom, shall be elected.
  2. That Party bodies shall give periodical accounts of their activities to their respective Party organizations.
  3. That there shall be strict Party discipline and the subordination of the minority to the majority.
  4. That all decisions of higher bodies shall be absolutely binding on lower bodies and on all Party members.[5]

After the successful consolidation of power by the Communist Party following the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War, the Bolshevik leadership, including Lenin, instituted a ban on factions in the party as Resolution No. 12 of the 10th Party Congress in 1921. It was passed in the morning session on 16 March 1921.[6] Trotskyists sometimes claim that this ban was intended to be temporary, but there is no language in the discussion at the 10th Party Congress suggesting such.[7]

The Group of Democratic Centralism was a group in the Soviet Communist Party who advocated different concepts of party democracy.

Soviet practice[edit | edit source]

Within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, evey citizen, regardless of race, gender, or nationality, and of voting age, was eligible to vote for a person, recall somebody, or run for a position themselves. The most fundamental unit of these elections would be the soviet (worker council), in which every person from a local soviet could vote for leaders to govern said soviet or even a larger governmental unit. Furthermore, it would be common for the people in that soviet to hold discussions about the candidate, often to assess the candidate's skill for the administraitive post. The soviets themselves would often include a village, factory, or group of factories.

The soviets would also be able to elect delegates to represent them in the higher organs of the government. Furthermore, it was common for the communist party to ask the soviets about their thoughts and experiences with particular policies.[8]

Such democratic procedures where further reinforced by the constitution of the USSR. For example, in the Soviet Constitution of 1936, it states in chapter 11:

Article 134. Member s of all Soviets of Working People's Deputies - of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R., the Supreme Soviets of the Union Republics, the Soviets of Working People's Deputies of the Territories and Regions, the Supreme Soviets of the Autonomous Republics, the Soviets of Working People’s Deputies of Autonomous Regions, area, district, city and rural (stanitsa, village, hamlet, kishlak, aul) Soviets of Working People's Deputies - are chosen by the electors on the basis of universal, direct and equal suffrage by secret ballot.[9]

People's Republic of China[edit | edit source]

Democratic centralism is also stated in Article 3 of the present Constitution of the People's Republic of China:

Article 3. The state organs of the People's Republic of China apply the principle of democratic centralism. The National People's Congress and the local people's congresses at different levels are instituted through democratic election. They are responsible to the people and subject to their supervision. All administrative, judicial and procuratorial organs of the state are created by the people's congresses to which they are responsible and under whose supervision they operate. The division of functions and powers between the central and local state organs is guided by the principle of giving full play to the initiative and enthusiasm of the local authorities under the unified leadership of the central authorities.[10]

This idea is translated into the supremacy of the National People's Congress, which represents China's citizens and exercises legislative authority on their behalf. Other powers, including the power to appoint the head of state and head of government, are also vested in this body.

Vietnam[edit | edit source]

The Communist Party of Vietnam is organized according to the Leninist principle of democratic centralism. In article 8 of the 2013 Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam the ideas of democratic centralism are laid out as:

Article 8 1. The State is organized and operates in concordance with the Constitution and the laws, governs the society by the Constitution and the laws, and practices the principle of democratic centralism. 2. All State agencies, cadres, officials and employees must show respect for the people, devotedly serve the people, maintain close contact with the people, listen to their opinions and submit to their supervision; resolutely struggle against corruption, wastefulness and all manifestations of bureaucracy, arrogance, authoritarianism.[11]

The Vietnamese constitution makes it law to follow the ideals of democratic centralism. In practice, legislators of The National Assembly of Vietnam are in charge of ratifying laws made by the Standing Committee of the National Assembly, and to elect the Chairman and Prime Minster of the National Assembly.[12] The National Assembly is the supreme body for legislature and executive motions and with the Communist Party of Vietnam as the vanguard, it follows the principles of democratic centralism.

Arguments for[edit | edit source]

In On Party Unity, Lenin argued that democratic centralism prevents factionalism. He argued that factionalism leads to less friendly relations among members and that it can be exploited by enemies of the party.

By the Brezhnev period, democratic centralism was described in the 1977 Soviet Constitution as a principle for organizing the state: "The Soviet state is organized and functions on the principle of democratic centralism, namely the electiveness of all bodies of state authority from the lowest to the highest, their accountability to the people, and the obligation of lower bodies to observe the decisions of higher ones". Democratic centralism combines central leadership with local initiative and creative activity and with the responsibility of each state body and official for the work entrusted to them.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Lenin, Vladimir (1906). The Congress Summed Up. Report on the Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P., vol.VIII. [MIA]
  2. Lih, Lars (2005). Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? in Context. Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 978-90-04-13120-0
  3. Sunkara, Bhaskar (2020-01-15). "The Long Shot of Democratic Socialism Is Our Only Shot" Jacobin. Retrieved 2020-02-14.
  4. Leon Trotsky (1904). Our Political Tasks. [MIA]
  5. History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) (1939) (p. 198). New York City: International Publishers.
  6. Protokoly (1933). ed. 585–7; 1963 ed. 571–573.
  7. Protokoly (1933). ed. 523–548.
  8. Pat Sloan (1937). Soviet Democracy: 'Electors and Administraitors' (pp. 170-173). [PDF] Victor Gollancz LTD.
  9. Constitution (Fundamental law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: '11' (1936). Moscow.
  10. English language text of Constitution of the People's Republic of China adopted 4 December 1982. Chapter 1. Article 3. Retrieved 29 December 2014.
  11. English Version of the Vietnamese Constitution. This version of the constitution was ratified on the 28th of November 2013.
  12. English Version of the Vietnamese Constitution Articles 95-100. This section of the constitution outlines the powers of the government.