Thinking aloud about democratic centralism


After new members have joined the SWP, they are informed in due course that the party embodies democratic centralism, a simple and attractive formula along the following lines. “When an important decision needs to be taken about how the party relates to changing events in the outside world, we practise the maximum internal democracy. We discuss the question exhaustively with the maximum openness, and then, having taken our decision, we expect all members to argue for it, including those who disagreed with it. Only if we work together can we maximise our impact.”

When those same new members ask what that means in practice, they may get something like the list set out in Pat Stack’s recent post on the RS blog: “a three month pre-conference discussion period, with factions tolerated; a Central Committee (CC) elected by a slate system, majority votes taken at an annual conference end the matter, regardless of how close the votes were; no permanent factions; and the party’s strategy settled for nine months of the year, unless changed by the CC”. (

It used to be the case that the new recruits would also learn that this system of democratic centralism had 1) marked the SWP since its outset, having been acquired by Tony Cliff (like Moses receiving the tablets on Mount Sinai) from Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who 2) had always practise the slate system, etc, and whose victory in the 1917 revolution proved the success in practice of this method.

It is one small boon of the recent faction fight that nobody, not even the most devoted follower of the leadership, could still pretend either that the old, libertarian IS accepted these limits, or that they have anything to do with “Bolshevism”.

It is the case that there is an enormous gulf between the abstract vision of democratic centralism and its supposed concrete expression, and Pat should be applauded for having explained very clearly how historically Cliff adopted, and the party accepted, the present model. I won’t repeat the good points he makes.

Here, I just wanted to ask rather, what is the authentic component of democracy which democratic centralism is intended to embody?

You see when other people (maybe even, potential members of the SWP) think about democracy, they may give the world all sorts of meanings. It could just mean “elections” (i.e. the principle that representatives are elected, whether to Parliament or the CC). Of course, the classic Marxist critique of elections under capitalism is that they are too occasional, there is not generally a power of recall (see Marx on the Paris Commune), and that there are insufficient countervailing mechanisms, in all circumstances short of a revolution, to overcome the ruling-class’s domination of the means of production (ownership and control of newspapers, etc).

But I think that in a revolutionary party, everyone, even the most fanatical supporter of a leadership faction, would accept that democracy means a little more than just the leadership stands for election once a year. After all, in the abstract concept of democratic centralism, the very justification for centralism is that it follows an intense period of debate. “Democracy” in other words, has to mean something about who takes part in that discussion, and how carefully it is handled.

Democracy could mean the principle that majorities rule, and that minority who dissent from majorities have to be broken. (The Dave Hayes conception) But this hardly does justice to abstract vision of democratic centralism to which I have just alluded. A vote, after inadequate discussion, would be a vote which would be functionally inadequate. Not identifying with the process (25 minute speeches for one side, 6 minutes for the other…), people wouldn’t accept the outcome. And if they didn’t actively support the outcome – if they hadn’t been persuaded during the course of the debate – you simply wouldn’t get the intended combined activity towards a single goal, which democratic centralism is supposed to unleash.

Other questions occur to me.

How compatible is abstract democratic centralism with delegate democracy? On its most positive expression it seems to involve active participation not merely in the debate but in the final vote. How much damage then is done to democratic centralism by a party culture in which elections are used to send inactive members of the organisation to a conference (everyone knowing that many of them will never attend), in order to “block” an “anti-leadership” vote, over those who have been active in the organisation but would vote the “wrong way”? Doesn’t their deliberate exclusion from the final vote do some damage to the concept of a majority using democracy to bind the minority into joint activity?

How far can/should the election of delegates devolve responsibility for a decision if only the delegates are given a certain piece of information? (I’m thinking particularly of the January special conference, where the atmosphere in the hall, for those attended, was in every way different from the 30 second report back that many non-attendees were given: “a complaint was made by some people, I can’t tell you who they were or what the complaint was, only that, fortunately, conference voted to vindicate the person who had been subject to the complaint.”

Can you have democracy where a group of decision makers (the CC) is to a significant extent able to control who becomes a delegate?

And if you can have democracy in deciding a question of political perspective; can you have democracy as to a question of fact?

If you look back to the simple model of democratic centralism with which I opened, I described it as “When an important decision needs to be taken about how the party relates to changing events in the outside world”.

By a “question of fact” I mean votes about something like the following:

1 whether cheese is pink

2 whether the sun goes round the earth or vice versa

3 whether an internal disputes process was fair or not

None of these would satisfy the “intervention” criterion of democratic centralism. None of them would be votes about changing events in the outside world.

But, even more crudely still, they fail a further essential requirement of democratic centralism. They are votes about whether something happened or not, they are not votes that respond to Lenin’s question: “and what is to be done about it?”

You can’t “test ideas in practice” about the colour of cheese or the direction of movement between the earth or the sun.

Democratic centralism works in certain circumstances, eg assuming the Tories are weak, and the unions strong, should we be campaigning for a general strike to being them down?

It’s not appropriate for questions which are perfectly factual.

The reasons it doesn’t work are as follows:

1) Question of fact have a different verification mechanism (not activism by your membership), one which you don’t control. If it was a party line that dinosaurs hadn’t existed or that Lenin was born in 4004 BC, we wouldn’t control the dinosaur fossils, Lenin’s mausoleum, etc.

2) Parties which try to control questions of fact are demanding for themselves a degree of control over their members’ conscience (i.e. an insistence that they actively say things which might make themselves look ridiculous) which no other comparable organisation demands. They look totalitarian. And in an epoch in which the most important knockdown argument against socialism remains “Lenin led to Stalinism” (ie that Marxism has been tested in practice and produced cruel and indefensible systems of political rule), being seen to imitate the democratic culture of high Stalinism is an effective way of losing a party friends and influence.

3) A very specific reason, related to our recent crisis: if the effect of your “democratic centralism about a question of fact” is to make it look like the SWP stands for the very precise antithesis of what it claims to stand for (i.e. in support of men who rape, in solidarity with employers who victimise workers…) then it is absolutely inevitable that a number of people are going to say, in practice, like Shanice McBean has also done recently. “Sorry, I prefer the old SWP that opposed oppression and I won’t defend the indefensible” (

Let me end with an unkind question:

Q: What was the last political organisation to insist that questions of fact were appropriate for democratic centralism?

A: The Catholic Church in threatening Galileo…

That worked well for the Church, didn’t it?

5 responses »

  1. What if what you are voting for is not a fact but a decision for action? If anyone can go any-old way then how can you decide wether to support a mobilisation or not, or which, or what emphasis, If everyone in the organisation is just making up their own minf then what brings them together and how do you decide?

  2. Dave, your main argument here is excellent and I agree with it. But do check your facts. Galileo was not “crucified” (crucifixion was not widely used in the seventeenth century). Galileo recanted so that he could get on with his work. That might – or again might not – be a relevant strategy in the present situation.

  3. Cheese is not pink.

    The trouble with Dave’s ‘question of fact’ argument is that it looks like carrying over a legal distinction – ‘questions of fact’ and ‘questions of law’ – into revolutionary politics.

    If someone in politics proposes that cheese is pink – or that the capitalists can be peacefully expropriated – then in both cases we should surely ask why the people arguing this nonsense are doing so, and argue against them.

    If that happens in our own ranks, then we can decide whether it’s a question of discipline based on a range of factors: is it important to the revolution, how developed is the argument in the class, what is the stage of development of the organisation, what are the immediate circumstances in the class struggle that frame the importance of the issue.

    But whether it’s a question of fact or not is immaterial.

  4. Coming to this a bit late… I think Richard’s right (even though some cheese is pink). If the party (any party) resolved tomorrow that the time was ripe to call for a General Strike Now, that would be a bigger mistake with worse consequences than resolving that Martin Smith was an innocent man or that Chris Nineham was a CIA agent. In both cases the party would have committed itself to a course of action – starting with maintaining those propositions against any challenge – which would be disastrous. It’s very hard to draw a bright line between questions of fact and questions of strategy in any case – OK, we resolve to do something (express solidarity with this strike, build for this day of action), but we’re always doing it for reasons grounded in propositions about how things are (this strike is winnable, this day of action won’t be a total waste of time and be quietly forgotten when we start building for the next one).

    The points about fact and verification are valid, but I think they’re always in play – there will always be a degree of tension between what the party’s saying about the world and what you can see with your own eyes, whether you’re being told that we must build for the march (strategy) because there were over 5,000 on the last one (fact), or that we need to go all out for the strike (strategy) because non-members are joining the union in droves (fact). When the party leadership screws up, there’s a lot of tension – but they don’t need to screw up over a question of fact.

    The real question is one that you skated over quite quickly, possibly because it’s old news to people with your party background (which I don’t share):

    How compatible is abstract democratic centralism with delegate democracy?

    From a council communist p.o.v. delegate democracy is what democratic centralism claims to be – in effect democratic centralism is a kind of nailed-down, War Communism version of delegate democracy. But I sense that’s not what you meant by delegate democracy…

    Can you have democracy where a group of decision makers (the CC) is to a significant extent able to control who becomes a delegate?

    O ferfuxake. This isn’t political theory, it’s plumbing – that’s your blockage, right there.

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