Centralism And Democracy

Young and Danes return to the fray in OP.No.6. As a polemic develops, there is a tendency for some points to be clarified, and others to be subject to the law of diminishing returns. In some respects, I feel that the operation of this law is already manifest. I will not try to contest points where the arguments of Young or Danes depend on the contested translation of a single word etc. F.G.

Young again makes great play of the idea that Lenin did not advocate political as opposed to economic forms of autocracy.

Lenin writes in 'State and Revolution':
'That in the history of revolutionary movements the dictatorship of individuals was very often the expression, the vehicle, the channel of the revolutionary classes has been shown by the irrefutable experience of history.'

Naturally, the implication is that this will continue to be the case. Lenin assumes that the political forms of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat can be identical with those of other classes. He continues:
'There is therefore, absolutely no contradiction in principle between Soviet (that is socialist, democracy) and the exercise of dictatorial powers by individuals.'

Lenin is, manifestly, not referring merely to the supposedly compartmentalised 'dictatorships' of factory managers. He is claiming that dictatorial powers, i.e. political authority, can be concentrated in the hands of unaccountable individuals (dictators) as opposed to democratically electable and revocable collectives. This of course, is absolutely contrary to everything written by Marx and Engels in relation to the constitution of a workers' state and indeed, the political organisation of the working class. Where did the 'dictatorship of individuals' figure in the history of the Commune, which Marx and Engels identified as the first instance of the 'political power of the working classes'?

Marx asserted that:
The great measure of the Commune was its own working existence. Its special measures could but betoken the tendency of a government of the people by the people.' The significance of the Commune lay only in this, that the workmen govern the Paris Commune'.

The political and social content of the Commune is determined by its democratic form. I will leave Young to establish how Lenin's post-revolutionary statements, such as the one above, can be harmonised with his pre-revolutionary utterances. In 1916, Lenin wrote:

'Capitalism cannot be vanquished without taking over the banks, without repealing private ownership of the means of production. These revolutionary measures, however, cannot be implemented without organising the entire people for democratic administration of the means of production (my emphasis) captured from the bourgeoisie'.

He adds:
'Civil war forcibly expropriates, immediately and first of all, the banks, factories, railways, the big estates etc. But in order to expropriate all this, we shall have to introduce election of all officials and officers by the people ... completely democratic administration of the food supply, the production of food etc.'

Lenin's later insistence on dictatorial management (in the vein of the Thatcherism of recent years) is completely at odds with these elementary outlines of workers' control. Young has claimed that the existence of dictatorial powers exercised by individuals in the workers' state does not contradict Marxist principles of social organisation. How then does Young explain Lenin's insistence to the contrary in his writings up to 1917?

On the point of Marx as the 'effective leader' as Young designates him, of the International, Young's point is that 'bourgeois intellectuals' are, or have been, required at the head of proletarian organisations. Presumably, this is intended in a general way, to legitimise the 'leadership' of petty bourgeois intellectuals in the scientific vanguards of today (OP has categorised this tendency as a 'leader centralist' variation of democratic centralism). Otherwise why make such a palaver about it?

But it must be pointed out, against scientific socialists of this sort, that the International did not have a 'leader' whether Marx or anyone else. It had an elected General Council. Whenever Marx wrote on behalf of the International, he made it plain that he wrote at the 'instruction' of the Council (with its some thirty odd members).

Everything he wrote on behalf of the International, including the 'Civil War in France', was first subjected to the approval, by a vote, of the Council. When a bourgeois paper (The Times) referred to Marx as the, chief of the International', which Young amends to 'effective leader', Marx was bothered enough to put the record straight:
'the General Council of the International Working Men's Association, will, I am afraid, continue to transact its business without the encumbrance of either a 'chief' or "president".'

The very role that Young is so anxious to supply for him, Marx himself contemptuously rejects, as an 'encumbrance' to the political organisation of the working class!

Marx is equally emphatic that, so far from political direction proceeding from a single individual, it is totally to misconceive the nature of the International to suppose that it was directed by a 'centre' of any kind.

He writes:
'The General council feels proud of the prominent part the Paris branches of the International have taken in the glorious revolution of Paris. Not, as the imbeciles fancy, as if the Paris, or any other branch of the International, received its orders from a centre.'

The notion of a centralised 'directorate', a centre of party authority, is, may it be noted well, considered to
be 'imbecilic'. Even in the context of a workers' revolution, the Paris Commune of 1871, Marx indignantly rejects the idea that the members of the International are subject to the political authority of a 'centre'.

He outlines the real process:

'the power of the working class in all civilised countries belonging to the International, and being imbued with its ideas, they are sure everywhere in the working class movements to take the lead,'

In Marx's view, spontaneous, autonomous class initiatives direct the revolutionary movement; not a centralised party of professional revolutionaries.

Jane Danes lists a number of different points for attack. Danes tells us that she originally:
'argued that it was supremely important to regard democratic centralism not as a mere organisational form, but as a political and organisational principle in which the decisions taken by the party centre, its congress, are binding on all its members, including its leaders..'

Clearly 'form' and 'principle' are heavily laden in this context, but with what meaning? Does the emphasis on DC as a 'principle' mean that it cannot be discarded or abrogated? If not, what meaning are these terms intended to convey? For example, point 10 of the commendably clear 'Constitutional principles for Democratic Centralism' developed by OP, explicitly rejects this conception of democratic centralism, (DC) allowing that the leading bodies of the revolutionary party may temporarily suspend the principles of DC, 'in the event of a state of emergency'. Does Danes agree with this? She certainly believes that the party may exercise its dictatorship 'over the masses'. But if she does agree with Open Polemic, that the DC may be suspended as the leadership sees fit, what is left of DC as a 'principle'?

Danes repeats her previous insistence that:
'programme, strategy and tactics emanate from above at the party congress and are then directed from below, in the first instance, by the national leadership.'

When I originally quoted this passage, I omitted the clause, 'in the first instance' hoping to make an extremely obscure text a little lighter. According to Danes, I thereby stripped the passage of its 'dialectical content' and the inclusion of this clause was 'crucial' and the 'essence of the quotation'. The importance of this rather pompous song and dance is lost on me, I'm afraid, but I'm happy to restore it and allows others to decide whether it is crucial or not. But what does the passage mean? On this model of DC, programme etc. .emanate 'from above'. The emanation takes place at the party congress. The programme etc. are subsequently 'directed' from below by the national leadership (hold it - 'in the first instance!'). The leadership is thus defined as the source of authority from 'below'.

Whether an 'emanation' is anything so mundane as a vote, is left unclear. Danes elaborates further instances of direction 'from below'. These take place:
'down to (sic) the basic units of the party which discuss programme, strategy and tactics from below, in the first instance,'

I can't make head or tail of this. Having first defined direction from below as being 'in the first instance' by 'the national leadership', Danes now tells us that in addition, 'the basic units of the party' discuss programme etc., 'from below' also 'in the first instance'. It seems that control from below takes the form of discussion at the level of the basic party and the form of direction at the level of the party leadership. This adds up, in the words of Danes, to a 'dialectical process of democracy from above and below.'

Such a tangled elucidation of emanations, directions and discussion contributes nothing to an understanding of DC in abstraction from a concretely stated political constitution (such as that offered by OP). Its function is evidently to legitimate, in a manner reminiscent of medieval scholasticism, the perverse concept of 'democracy from above' (and at the same time from below). What can this mean except that there should be sources of political authority in addition to the expressed will of the majority? Democracy consists in a system whereby all members of a political body determine its policies and practices through a vote. Conventionally, where the vote of all members of a political body, whether a society or an organisation within a society, constitutes political authority, this signifies control from below. Where political authority is constituted by the vote of a few (or a single person) this signifies control from above.

As the pre-1917 Lenin concisely puts it:

'Democracy is a state which recognises the subordination of the minority to the majority.'

Oligarchy or dictatorship on the contrary, refers to a situation where political authority is constituted by the vote of a few or by the will of one person (hence the term 'the dictatorship of the proletariat' -i.e. the political authority of one class). The Orwellian phrase 'democracy from above' (contrast its converse, 'oligarchy from below') has no sense, 'dialectical' or otherwise.

The term 'unconditional democracy' on the other hand, has a plain meaning, free of pseudo-dialectical contortions. A democracy exists when, within an organisation or society, the vote of all members is the only source of political authority. No other authority, whether of 'leaders', unelected or unaccountable officials, etc. is allowed to over-ride the will of the majority expressed through the vote of all. An 'unconditional democracy' would therefore refer to a state of affairs where the will of the majority is not subjected to mediation or qualification.
Trotsky uses the term in this sense when he wrote of the Soviets in 1905, that they 'are not previously prepared conspiratorial organisations, which have seized power over the proletariat mass in a time of unrest. No, these are organs which are planned creations of that mass ... which have been elected by the masses, which are responsible to the masses [and are] unconditionally democratic institutions…'
Plainly, Trotsky believed there was nothing problematic in the term. 'unconditional democracy'. I pointed this out in my previous piece -Danes diplomatically chose to ignore it.

Marx felt that 'unconditional' democracy, its 'thoroughly expansive political form' ,expressed in 'really democratic institutions', would be guaranteed by five conditions: universal suffrage; election of all officials whether 'administrative, judicial and educational' (Engels) or, military, administrative, political' (Marx); officials to receive 'workmens' wages'; revocability 'at short term' (Marx) or 'at any time' (Engels); and 'strictly responsible' to the electorate enforced by all delegates being 'bound by the formal instructions of his constituents' (Marx).

Lenin refers to this process when he writes (in 1917) of; 'a certain reversion to 'primitive' democracy. For how else can the majority, and then the whole population without exception, proceed to discharge state functions?'.

In the same year, he insisted;
'We are not Blanquists, we do not stand for the seizure of power by a minority'.

The 'centralism' that unmediated democratic organisation implies, i.e. that all members, having voted, accept the will of the majority, can never therefore, be the ground of oligarchy or dictatorship in an organisation or society such that the majority are 'directed' by the few.

Yet Danes, with a rush of polemical blood to the head, says bluntly that 'there is no such thing as unconditional democracy'. She then contradicts her own argument when she says that 'unconditional democracy', 'can only come about when the economic state has reached the stage of abundance which we associate with the higher phase of communism.'

So there is no such thing as 'unconditional democracy', but it can also come into being! But as we shall see, this concession only compounds the error. First, Danes attempts to deny that a 'democratic republic' can be, unconditionally democratic'.

The state, as Engels says is:
'nothing more than a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy; at best an evil, inherited by the proletariat after (my emphasis) its victorious struggle for class supremacy'.

Contrary to Danes' contention that the democratic republic is a 'bourgeois state', Engels plainly says: the democratic republic is inherited by the proletariat, and continues in being after its victory. If Danes were right, the same state would have to be bourgeois and proletarian!

Reluctant as Danes has shown herself to be to swallow the clear meaning of the declaration, perhaps Engels's slightly impatient repetition of the point will decide the matter:

'For forty years Marx and I have repeated to the point of safety that for us the democratic republic is the only political form in which the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class can be first universalised and then reach its conclusion with the decisive victory of the proletariat.'
The decisive victory of the working class, i.e. the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the conclusion of its struggle. i.e. the overthrow of the capitalist class, takes place within the democratic republic.

In 1915, Lenin said precisely this:
'The political form of a society wherein the proletariat is victorious in overthrowing the bourgeoisie will be a democratic republic'.

The dictatorship of the proletariat is exercised over the bourgeoisie; the victory of the working class can therefore, only take place within it. If Lenin is right here, then the dictatorship of the proletariat can only be a democratic republic.

The matter is made abundantly clear by Marx himself. He refers directly to a future socialist society as the 'republic of labour', and identifies the Commune as such a republic:

'All vital elements of France acknowledge that a republic is only in France and Europe possible as a 'social republic', that is, a republic which disowns the capital and landowner class of the state machinery to supersede it by the Commune that frankly avows "social emancipation" as the great goal of the republic, and guarantees thus that social transformation by the Communal organisation'.

The element of continuity (i.e. universal suffrage) with the form of the bourgeois democratic republic is further emphasised:

'The republic had ceased to be a name for a thing of the past. It was impregnated with a new world. Its real tendency, veiled from the eyes of the world through deceptions ... came again and again to the surface in the spasmodic movements of the Paris working classes.'

The democratic republic and its instrument, universal suffrage, finds its true form free of 'deceptions', in the dictatorship of the proletariat. Now it is beyond doubt that the political form of the Commune was founded on the principles of 'unconditional' democracy unmediated universal suffrage. It is equally beyond doubt that the Commune, was for Marx as for Engels, the dictatorship, the political rule, of the proletariat.
Marx said:
'there cannot be two opinions about it - the Commune was the conquest of political power of the working classes.'

And Engels:
'Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat.'

Finally, here is Marx stating unequivocally, that the consistent democracy of the Commune is the form of the 'social republic' if that does not prove with the utmost clarity, that the dictatorship of the proletariat took the form of a democratic republic, let Jane Danes tell us why!

To sum up, in the preliminary phase of socialism, where classes continue to exist, the proletariat, which forms a majority of the population, rules democratically over the other classes - this is the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is not a dictatorship because it represents the rule of one man, or one faction or party, or because it is not democratic, but because it represents the absolute rule of one class. It is 'qualitatively different from a 'bourgeois state' precisely because the proletariat represents a majority of the population and its will is expressed through the political machinery created by unmediated democracy. What else is the meaning of the famous passage from the Communist manifesto?

'The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.'

To spell it out in concrete terms, in a workers' democratic republic, political authority is constituted solely by the will of the majority and is not subject, as it is in a bourgeois democratic republic, to the 'conditions' of a restricted franchise (as in Marx's day), autonomous 'representatives', an unaccountable leadership, a Sovereign' parliament, an unelected judiciary, or the power of the unelected owners of the means of production etc. Indeed, Marx expressly distinguishes the bourgeois democratic republic from the Communal democratic republic. The bourgeois republic of the French Empire was no more than:

'the delusion of unorganised 'universal suffrage' in the hands of the state gendarme and the parson.'

The democratic republic in its bourgeois form, where democracy exists only as an 'organised delusion', Marx elsewhere calls 'vulgar' democracy, and Engels formal or 'pure' democracy. Certain democratic states are 'vulgar' not because they are democratic, but because they are not democratic enough. Marx and Engels therefore distinguish deceptive and inadequate forms of democracy from the democracy of a workers' democratic republic.

In the bourgeois republic, universal suffrage is a 'delusion' because the vote only allows the majority to transfer political power back to an unaccountable minority - most clearly exemplified in what Marx calls the mock sanction of the plebiscite'. The unconditional expansion of democracy, the liberation of democratic processes, 'transforms' the bourgeois democratic republic into the proletarian democratic republic.
Marx says that this is 'the general suffrage ... adapted to its real purposes'. The 'bureaucratic-military' apparatus of the 'continental' state is indeed 'smashed'. The working class cannot, as Marx insists, 'simply take hold of the ready made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes'. But it is the impediments to democracy that are smashed not democracy itself. The proletarian state, does not cease to be either democratic or a republic.

The pre-revolution Lenin described this admirably:

'Through utilisation of bourgeois democracy to socialist and consistently democratic (my emphasis) organisation of the proletariat against the bourgeoise and against opportunism. There is no other path. There is no other way out.'

Democracy in its bourgeois form is not abolished or restricted: it is enlarged, or made 'consistent' as Lenin aptly says. Thus despite Danes' obscure efforts at refutation, the democratic republic is truly, as Engels incontrovertibly says, 'the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat.'

Whereas Danes suggests that 'unconditional democracy' is a feature only of the final stage of communist society (and so safely out of the way for the present), it is truer to say that Marx and Engels envisaged a communist society beyond the state and so beyond democratic processes themselves. Where there are no classes left in society, as under achieved communism, the interests of individuals are assumed to integrate harmoniously without the intervention of any authority at all: without the coercive force of the state, and so without a democratic state.

Remember Lenin said: 'Democracy is a state.' As Engels puts it:
'a new generation, reared under new and free social conditions, will be able to throw on the scrap heap all this state rubbish.'

The dictatorship of the proletariat is itself a part of this 'state rubbish' but a state 'transformed' (Marx), or 'no longer a state in the true sense of the word' (Engels). It is a state in the process of becoming not a state, in correspondence with the process whereby class society is dissolved into a free association of producers.

Danes cannot accept that the democratic republic continues in being after the victory of the proletariat, because her conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat necessarily involves a degree of 'dictatorship' interpreted as the rule of the few, of 'one party'. Hence the evolution of the wonderfully bizarre concept of 'democracy from above' and simultaneously 'from below'. Yet a moment's reflection shows that, however adequate this may appear as a tribute to the later views of Lenin, it cannot be made to appear consistent with the views of Marx and Engels. As Engels said very simply, the Paris Commune, 'was the dictatorship of the proletariat.' But as a matter of historical fact, the Commune did not involve any form of dictatorship, in the form of any restriction of political authority to the few, or to one party.

Fortunately, we have a direct commentary on the revolutionary ambitions of contemporary protagonists of the 'centralised party dictatorship' approach. Engels writes in the same 1891 preface referred to by Danes, that the Commune 'proved the grave of the Proudhon school of socialism'.

He then adds:
'The Blanquists fared no better. Brought up in the school of conspiracy, and held together by the strict discipline that went with it, they started out from the viewpoint that a relatively small number of resolute, well-organised men would be able ... not only to seize the helm of the state, but also, by a display of great ruthless energy, to maintain power until they succeeded in sweeping all of the people into the revolution and ranging them round the small band of leaders. This involved above all, the strictest, dictatorial centralisation of all power in the hands of the new revolutionary government.'

This is Dane's and Young's conception of the role of the party dictatorship 'over the masses' to the very life! It's accuracy, with its emphasis on 'strict discipline', 'strict centralisation' etc. achieves an effect almost of parody.

But unhappily for Danes and company, Engels goes on to deride it:
'And what did the Commune, with its majority of these same Blanquists actually do? In all its proclamations to the French in the provinces, it appealed to them to form a free federation of all French Communes with Paris ... It was precisely the oppressing power of the former centralised government... it was precisely this power that was to fall everywhere, just as it had already fallen in Paris.'

And the Commune, to repeat, was the dictatorship of the proletariat, and at the same time the 'grave' of the 'disciplined', 'resolute', 'well-organised' band of revolutionaries preaching the centralised, one-party dictatorship. The implications for the Leninist-Bolshevik dictatorship, I leave Danes and Young to assess for themselves.

Danes then refers to the distinction between the dictatorship of the party, and the dictatorship of the class. Danes protests first, that Lenin did not refer to any 'distinction between' the two 'types' of dictatorship but merely wrote of the 'presentation of the question dictatorship of the party or dictatorship of the class.' That is, he presents the distinction! Danes then says she did not try to attack this distinction and I was wrong to say that she did. Does this mean that there is no distinction, or merely that she didn't attack it? I don't know, because, having made the distinction (and anyone can see that they are not the same thing) she then attacks it.

The attack is another convoluted affair conducted in a rather lecturing tone:
'You see, the party of the class, despite the degree of dictatorship that it may maintain over the class as a mass, always remain subordinate to the 'dictatorship of the class' as determined by the existent socio-economic formation and that is the case whether the socioeconomic formation is capitalist or socialist.'

Picking the bones out of this is no easy task. First, it appears that the party 'may' exercise a dictatorship 'over the class as a mass'. So the minority (perhaps a very small minority) represented in the party structure constitutes a source of political authority (very sharp authority, a 'dictatorship') over the working class. But this is not the end of it.

Danes maintains with Lenin that it is 'evidence of the most incredible and hopeless confusion of mind' to present the question, party or class dictatorship. This she says, is because the political authority of the class is necessarily subordinate to the material conditions of the society in which it is exercised, 'the existent socio-economic formation'. The 'dictatorship' of the class therefore doesn't refer to the possession of political authority at all. Incredible as it may seem, Danes' idea is that the dictatorship of the class consists in the material conditions of its mere existence. Danes is claiming that because a party dictatorship has a social base, the social base also exercises the 'dictatorship'!

For Danes, the 'dictatorship of the party' is exercised through a political apparatus of decision making and coercion. The dictatorship of the class, on the other hand, is exercised through the brute fact of its material position in the process of production. The dictatorship of the party therefore is a real political process; the dictatorship of the class is metaphorical; it is not a political process, but a set of material conditions. And this is presented, apparently in all seriousness, as an explanation of why it is that the dictatorial power of the few is simultaneously the rule of the many. Or as Danes would argue, 'democracy from above and below'.

This interpretation is confirmed by Danes' conclusion: 'It is not a matter of choice between two, qualitatively different, kinds of 'dictatorships' -a 'dictatorship of a party' in essence, despite appearance, is always exercised within a 'dictatorship of the class'.

The apologetic phrase, 'despite appearance', is priceless. Even where a party dictatorship is in the interests of a certain class, it is still exercised over that class, not by it. If Danes were right, then it would be logically impossible to believe in the dictatorship of the party to the exclusion of the dictatorship of the class, i.e. to be a Blanquist of the sort Engels so eloquently describes. Danes' argument is however, not totally divorced from social reality. It functions as an ideological defence of the worst excesses of the Stalinist dictatorship. Despite workers enduring the most appalling levels of exploitation and conditions of work, the constant threat of forced labour, imprisonment or execution 'the existent socioeconomic formation' in Danes' sanitising formula - her argument serves to buttress the claim of the Stalinist regimes that the working class, at the same time, always lived under their own dictatorship.

Let us recall the case of the Commune once more. Surely not even Danes will say that it was a dictatorship of 'a party'. Yet, for Marx and Engels, it was the dictatorship of the proletariat. So we have an historical situation, confronted by Marx himself, in which the dictatorship of the class existed without the dictatorship of the party. If one can exist apart from the other, then Lenin's contention, that to talk of one or the other is 'childish nonsense' cannot, in logic, be true. Now transfer attention to the Stalinist Soviet Union, circa 1936. Here, undoubtedly, is a dictatorship of the party, stripped of all democratic processes that could be interpreted as a (real) 'dictatorship of the class'. On the one hand, therefore, a dictatorship of the class, on the other, a dictatorship of the party. So you see the question ridiculed by Lenin (and Danes), dictatorship of the class or dictatorship of the party, of two qualitatively different kinds of dictatorship, is presented not only by Marx, not only by logic, but is presented by history itself.

Finally, and just as a point of interest, would Young and Danes (and other theorists of democratic centralism) care to explain the curious fact that their defences of allegedly Marxist ideas never refer to what Marx himself wrote? Could it be that the concept of
democratic centralism has no foundation in the theory and practice of Marx himself?

F. Gordon.
Red Action BM Box 37 LONDON WC1 N3 XX

Open Polemic comments:

In short, Open Polemic regards F. Gordon as adopting a utopian and therefore mistaken position in respect to the vanguard revolutionary party. Gorden has adopted the path that both left 'revolutionaries' and right revisionists have recently trod, that of attempting to separate Marx from Lenin. In this way the body of scientific knowledge known as Marxism-Leninism is attacked. The means by which this is attempted is to ignore the phenomena of imperialism and its attendant ideology of social democracy.
Gordon always harks back to the 'simpler' world of the 19th century and it is astounding yet true that, in the long polemic with Danes and Young, Gordon makes not a single reference to imperialism and the divisions in the working class in the imperialist centres. Revolution in the 20th century becomes not just a matter of mobilising the working class against capitalism, but rather of defeating the imperialist ideology of social democracy within the working class. Lenin was in a position to grasp this new reality whereas Marx was not.
Engels himself as early as 1874 - three years after the Paris Commune, noted that it would be folly to resurrect the International in its old form, the proletarian world had become too big, too extensive. I think that the next International - after Marx's writings have had some years of influence - will be directly communist and will openly proclaim our principles ...'
With these changed conditions came the need for a more centralised, structured party. Reality determined this, not the whim of this or that revolutionary leader.
Gordon has set himself against Leninism so on this we must part company. However, there may yet be opportunities for joint work within ACRU -the recently formed Association of Communists for Revolutionary Unity. This Association makes provision for joint anti-imperialist work between Marxist-Leninists and those who proclaim themselves proletarian revolutionaries. We would be prepared to immediately discuss such collaboration with F. Gordon and the comrades in Red Action.

Open Polemic Issue 8