Democratic centralism as a tactic is crucial to modern socialist and communist parties under capitalism. During periods where the strength of capital is unfettered, it is a crucial organizational tool for the working class. Its effectiveness is self-evident when compared to parties that do not utilize this method of organization. It is capable of mobilizing and rallying the masses to the streets with a fervor and concreteness of action that no other model of political organization can bring. A socialist party of 3,000 can have more of an impact under such a model than one of 300,000.
But in reflecting on the history of the 20th century, one must come to the conclusion that the democratic centralist model is not at all applicable to a revolutionary government or post-revolutionary state. It is not at all applicable to the organization of a socialist society as such. Within such a framework, under any system, the central organs of party (and thereby state) power act as the sacred maintainers of the ‘correct’ political ideology and the ‘correct’ political line. Insofar as the party is of reasonable size, and insofar as democracy within the party is maintained, and insofar as it is a party taking a critical attitude towards the history of the 20th century, this is not a problem.
But when such a party becomes ‘the party’ for an entire society or a new emergency government, it converts Marxism into a political religion, into an alien dogma which cannot be questioned or genuinely believed in without such a person being half suspected of being a dissident. In this we the roots of a potentially totalitarian society. When Stalin took power, we saw precisely what such a state of affairs can bring to a country.
As victory becomes increasingly inevitable, millions flock to join the ‘winning’ party and the democratic aspect of democratic centralism is done away with to preserve the radical nature of the revolution. Under such a state of affairs, we find (as in the case of the Bolsheviks) that state terror becomes a lash by which the spiritual rebirth of the people is enforced at the direction of a small number of party intellectuals. But such a society is contradictory in the extreme, socialist democracy and the spontaneous action of the masses is the only thing that can bring a genuine spiritual rebirth in political life. And unrestricted individual liberty is a prerequisite to such a rebirth. It is rule by terror that demoralizes. Here we find one of the biggest mistakes of the Bolsheviks, one of the most accurate criticisms of Lenin and Trotsky.
But without a democratic centralist framework in capitalist society, in the midst of class struggle, the contradictions within a party of professional revolutionaries become innumerable. The agreed upon historical analysis of the history of the 20th century, the role of the Bolsheviks, the attitude a workers party should take in regards to modern political affairs, to economic affairs, to electoral politics, to historical figures, to methods of struggle, to anarchist tactics, to modern politicians and parties, and so forth, become so contradictory within such a party that its effectiveness on the battlefield of class struggle disintegrates entirely. It opens itself up as a ‘multi-tendency party’, meaning a party without a firm scientific or Marxist analysis of society.
Such a party and mode of political organization does have a time and place in which it should exist, as it is one that embodies the purest of democratic philosophies. But it should not exist as a party of professional revolutionaries and revolutionary intellectuals with the intent of leading the masses as they overthrow bourgeois society. It should not exist in a society where class consciousness is extremely low. These innumerable questions as to the positions such a party must take on various issues should be freely discussed and debated within the party, but once a decision has been made it must be accepted. This is the essence of democratic centralism: freedom in discussion, unity in action. When such a party becomes the only legal party in a newly born society, freedom of discussion vanishes, and the central leadership effectively becomes a dictatorship. Not a genuinely free and democratic dictatorship of the proletariat, but a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense of the word, in the Jacobin sense of the word. Such is the essence of Rosa Luxemburg’s early criticisms of the Russian Revolution.
A socialist party not ascribing to a particular variant of Marxist thought, that is not a democratic centralist party, has the potential of being a proletarian party in the truest sense of the word: a party in line with the will of the proletariat and the broad masses as it actually exists in a socialist society. Such a party, or parties, or such a political organization, can and should emerge in the spiritual rebirth that a genuinely free and democratic socialist society brings. Society must be shaped in line with the will of the working people, not in line with the will of a few political theorists and party intellectuals. But such a party has no place in a capitalist society with extremely low class consciousness, or as an effective revolutionary socialist party within capitalist society.
It is in this that we can declare democratic centralism to be good under capitalism, but bad under socialism. Of course it is never so black and white, but this is generally our analysis.