democratic centralism

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democratic centralism

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Democratic Centralism


the paramount principle of organizational structure, activity, and leadership of Marxist-Leninist parties, the socialist state, and the management of a socialist economy. The essence of democratic centralism lies in the combination of democracy and centralization. Democracy is the sovereignty, independent activity, and initiative of the toilers; and the election of directing bodies and their accountability to the masses. Centralization consists of leadership coming from one center, subordination of the minority to the majority, discipline, and the subordination of particular interests to general interests in the struggle to achieve the goal that has been set. Although democracy and centralism are contradictory and are in perpetual conflict in societies based on class antagonism, under the conditions of socialism they are in dialectical unity.

The idea of democratic centralism as the basic organizational principle for the structure of the revolutionary proletarian party was first advanced by K. Marx and F. Engels and found practical expression in the organizational structure of the League of Communists (founded in 1847; see the Rules of the League of Communists in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4, pp. 524–29). Generalizing the experience of the class struggle of the proletariat, V. I. Lenin developed the principle of democratic centralism. In his works What Is To Be Done?, Letter to a Comrade on Our Organizational Tasks, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back; and others, Lenin worked out the organizational principles for a proletarian party of a new type: party membership on the basis of acceptance of its program and compulsory joining of one of the party organizations; ironclad discipline, equally binding for all members of the party; the strictest implementation of party decisions; the subordination of the minority to the majority and of lower organizations to higher ones; the election and accountability of party bodies; and the development of the activity and initiative of the party masses. The norms of party life worked out by Lenin were consolidated in the Rules of the party that were adopted by the Second Congress of the RSDLP (1903); these rules were made more precise and were supplemented by succeeding congresses and conferences. The First Conference of the RSDLP (1905) accepted the principle of democratic centralism as indisputable. The Fourth (Unity) Congress of the RSDLP (1906) first introduced into the Rules the proposition that “all party organizations are built on the principles of democratic centralism” (The CPSU in Resolutions, 8th ed., vol. 1, 1970, p. 182). The Eighth All-Russian Conference of the RCP (Bolshevik; 1919) recognized democratic centralism as the “guiding principle of the organizational structure of the party” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 127).

Upon becoming the ruling party after the October Socialist Revolution of 1917, the Communist Party extended the exercise of democratic centralism to the state structure too. Democratic centralism was opposed by the Trotskyists, the so-called left Communists, members of the Democratic Centralists Group (detsisty), and other antiparty groupings that were striving, under the pretext of developing party democracy, to create and legitimize factionalism in the party and thus to undermine the monolithic unity of its ranks. The Tenth Congress of the RCP (Bolshevik; 1921) decisively condemned all factionalism in the party and adopted, on a motion by Lenin, the resolution “On Party Unity.”

A detailed definition of democratic centralism was given in the Rules adopted by the Seventeenth Congress of the ACP (Bolshevik; 1934). According to the Rules of the CPSU now in effect, democratic centralism means “(a) the election of all the directing bodies of the party, from top to bottom; (b) the periodic accountability of party bodies to their party organizations and to higher bodies; (c) strict party discipline and the subordination of the minority to the majority; (d) the unconditionally binding nature of the decisions of higher bodies for lower bodies” (Rules of the CPSU, 1971, p. 22).

The CPSU operates, on the basis of democratic centralism, as a monolithic organization unified by common ideological, organizational, and tactical principles, which are binding on every Communist. Party leadership is exercised from one central point. The supreme body of the CPSU is the party congress. In the intervals between congresses, all party activity is directed by the Central Committee of the CPSU. In their activity, the organizations and their committees of the republics, krais, oblasts, okrugs, cities, and raions are guided by the Program and Rules of the CPSU; they implement party policies and organize the execution of the directives of the Central Committee of the CPSU. They are autonomous in resolving local questions, with the stipulation that their decisions do not contradict party policies. Any manifestation of sectionalism and lack of discipline in carrying out the directives of higher organizations is inadmissible in the party. The strict subordination of organizations to the center and of lower bodies to higher ones guarantees the unity of action of all sections of the party and a high degree of organization and effectiveness in its work. Centralism is organically linked to internal party democracy.

The Twentieth Congress of the CPSU (1956) stressed the necessity of strict observance of the principles of democratic centralism. After the October 1964 plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU, the development of these principles was reflected in the further strengthening of the principle of collective leadership at the center and in the provincial organizations, the enhanced role of the plenums of party bodies, the display of complete confidence in cadres, and the improvement of internal party information.

The soviets of working peoples’ deputies, trade unions, All-Union Lenin Communist Youth League, and other groups are built and operate in accordance with the principle of democratic centralism. Democratic centralism has become the foundation of the structure of the bodies of Soviet power, signifying the following: the election of all bodies of state power, at the center and in the provinces; the accountability of deputies to voters and the right of the latter to recall a deputy, if he does not justify their confidence; and the formation of bodies of state administration by representative bodies. All the bodies of state power and administration taken together constitute a single system and operate on the basis of the subordination of lower bodies to the direction and control of higher ones. The execution of the acts of a given Soviet state body is binding throughout the territory in which the body operates and for everyone to whom the acts apply. The Leninist principles of building Soviet state bodies on the basis of democratic centralism are consolidated in the Constitution of the USSR (1936).

In the Soviet multinational state, democratic centralism is combined with a socialist federal structure. Lenin noted that democratic centralism does not exclude, but rather presupposes, autonomy and federation (see Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 36, p. 151). The leading role of the Communist Party is a guarantee of the successful implementation of the principles of democratic centralism.

Democratic centralism is also exercised in other Marxist-Leninist parties. Defining the conditions for admittance to the Comintern, Lenin wrote: “Parties belonging to the Communist International must be organized on the principle of democratic centralism” (ibid., vol. 41, p. 209). Only under this condition can a working-class party successfully perform its role as the collective leader and organizer of the toiling masses in their struggle for the liquidation of the exploitative system and the building of communism. It is not accidental that present-day revisionists attack democratic centralism with particular fury, proposing to “separate democracy from centralism,” to ensure the freedom of factions and groupings, and to subordinate centralism to democracy. Destroying the indivisible principle of democratic centralism would mean a weakened leadership, the rejection of discipline, and ultimately the impotence of the political party. “Left” revisionists disclaim democracy and strive to install bureaucratic centralism.

As historical experience shows, any distortion at all of the principles of democratic centralism, the counterposing of democracy to centralism, or denial of the leading role of the Communist Party leads to serious consequences and threatens the socialist system. Decisively rejecting revisionist fabrications, the Conference of Representatives of Communist and Workers’ Parties meeting in November 1960 stressed in its declaration that Marxist-Leninist parties believe strict observance of the Leninist norms of party life based on the principle of democratic centralism to be an unalterable law of their activity. Although at present there is no leading center in the international communist movement, every Marxist-Leninist party, being independent, is called upon to follow collectively arrived-at decisions and documents. In the document of the International Conference of Communist and Workers’ Parties of June 17, 1969, Tasks of the Struggle Against Imperialism in the Contemporary Stage and Unity of Action of Communist and Workers’ Parties and All Anti-imperialist Forces, it is noted that the “national and international responsibilities of every communist and workers’ party are inseparable” (International Conference of Communist and Workers’ Parties, Documenty i materialy. Prague, 1969, p. 41). The strict observance of the collectively arrived-at decisions by every party ensures the unity of the entire world communist and workers’ movement and strengthens it as the leading political force of today.


Democratic centralism is the fundamental principle of economic management under socialism, in conformity with the relation of public socialist property to the means of production. The principle of democratic centralism embraces all phases of reproduction: production, distribution, exchange, and consumption of material wealth.

The democratic nature of economic management under socialism, which is predetermined by socialist property relations, is based on the constant, intimate connection and principled correspondence of the interests of the managing and managed units of the economy. As a result, the process of economic management occurs on the basis of comradely cooperation and mutual aid between the units.

The fundamental methodological and theoretical ideas with respect to democratic centralism in the management of the economy were presented and formulated by Lenin. “Our task now,” Lenin pointed out, “is to carry out democratic centralism in the economic sphere, to ensure absolute harmony and unity in the functioning of such economic under-takings as the railway, the postal service and the telegraph services, means of transport, and so forth. At the same time, centralism, understood in a truly democratic sense, presupposes the possibility, created for the first time in history, of a full and unhampered development not only of specific local features, but also of local inventiveness, local initiative, of diverse ways, methods, and means of progress to the common goal” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 36, p. 152). Further development of the Leninist doctrine of democratic centralism in economic construction came in the theoretical and practical activity of the CPSU and the Marxist-Leninist parties of other socialist countries, as well as in the works of Marxist economists about the economic management of the socialist economy.

Public socialist property makes it necessary and possible to centralize the major functions of economic administration on a scale embracing the entire national economy. At the same time, democratic centralism presupposes the economic independence of individual entities (factories and other units). Solutions of local economic tasks, as well as the development of specific forms and methods of realizing the directives of the bodies guiding the economy as a whole, remain uncentralized. Under socialism, the interests of individuals and the different collective bodies and social groups coincide with the interests of socialist society as a whole. This unity is reflected in the existence of the public economic interest, the nonantagonistic nature of the contradictions among interests, and the possibility of coordinating, unifying, and centralizing the actions of the bearers of distinct, different interests on an economy-wide scale. At the same time, there is objective diversity in the conditions of management and the conditions for achieving common, coordinated, centrally established economic goals; hence the necessity of diversifying economic decisions and independently selecting and realizing one or another variant means of achieving economy-wide aims within the limits of a common national economic plan.

One characteristic of socialism is the democratic implementation of centralization in the solution of economic tasks. In this regard, centralization embraces the solution of the most important questions of the economic life of society: the development of a national economic pattern and national economic ratios; the determination of the direction and tempo of the society’s economic development; the coordination and connection of plans made up in the provinces; the implementation of unified state policies in the areas of technical progress, capital investments, the distribution of production, and the remuneration of labor, prices, and finances; the implementation of a single system of accounting and statistics; and the elaboration of a system of norms of economic behavior for all economic units. In this way, the leading role of the centralized management of the economy and the practical subordination of the actions of the relatively distinct economic units to the interests of developing social production as a whole are ensured. Economic independence develops within the limitations that arise from the leading role of centralized economic management.

Deviation from democratic centralism and lack of awareness of the priority of social interests—or even a denial of those interests—lead to the anarcho-syndicalist distortion of democratic centralism. “We are for democratic centralism,” Lenin stated. “And it must be clearly understood how vastly different democratic centralism is from bureaucratic centralism on the one hand, and from anarchism on the other” (ibid., p. 151).

Bureaucratic centralism is dangerous in that it fetters the creative initiative of the masses and prevents the complete emergence and efficient use of the reserves of economic development. The struggle against bureaucratic centralism is one of the main tasks in perfecting the administration of socialist society. Democratic centralism “in no way excludes, but on the contrary presupposes, the fullest freedom of various localities and even of various communes of the state in developing multifarious forms of state, social, and economic life,” Lenin wrote. “There is nothing more mistaken than confusing democratic centralism with bureaucracy and routinism” (ibid, pp. 151–52).

Anarcho-syndicalism can be no less harmful to socialist construction. It is dangerous in that it undermines centralism and prevents the utilization of its advantages and the launching of effective planning. In practice, anarcho-syndicalism leads to sectionalism, a lack of coordination in activities, and a striving for unwarranted economic isolation.

The actual relationships between centralization and independence, collective leadership and one-person management; the interrelationships of public, class, collective, and personal interests; and the actual divisions of administrative functions among various bodies in the administration—none of these things can be definitively established, but depend rather on the specific historical conditions of development of the economy. The number of centrally decided problems of economic management may change, becoming larger or smaller according to the objective conditions of the economy and the economic tasks that society must carry out at a given stage in its development. At the same time, the laws of development of socialist society are such that no matter how the “machinery” of administering the national economy changes, democratic centralism must invariably expand and deepen. As the Program of the CPSU states, “Within the limits of a unified national economic plan, the economic independence and rights of local bodies and of factories will expand even further; plans and proposals coming from below, beginning with factories, must play an ever greater role in planning” (1971, pp. 86–7). The democratic nature of socialist administration is the advantage of the socialist system, and it is realized in the interests of communist construction.

The USSR and other socialist countries have accumulated much experience in economic management on the basis of democratic centralism. In the course of the historical development of the socialist system, the general forms of implementing democratic centralism in the management of the economy that have been developed and verified in practice have included centralized planning and administration, economic independence of enterprises and associations, the combination of territorial and branch principles in organizing the administration, the combination of one-person and collective leadership in the management of the economy, economic discipline and responsibility, control of the managing unit by the managed unit, and the active participation of the masses in the management of production.

All these general forms and principles of implementing democratic centralism developed in specific new ways in the course of the economic reforms carried out in the USSR and other socialist countries since the mid-1960’s. The current stage of economic development requires that the efficiency of social production be increased. This task can be resolved by means of the development, in every possible way, of the economic independence of enterprises, associations, branches, and economic regions on the basis of and within the limits of strengthening and improving centralized long-term planning and economy-wide administration. In the course of reforms being carried out, there is an increase in the number of economic tasks that are being resolved independently by enterprises, associations, branches, and regions. At the same time, the central planning and managing economic bodies concentrate on the resolution of key problems of economic development.



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