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On Democratic Centralism (1982)

We communists are bitterly opposed to the democracy practiced in capitalist countries, that is, to "bourgeois democracy" based on periodic elections with secret ballots for presidents and parliaments or congresses. Bourgeois democracy is an elitist system that guarantees the capitalists run things while workers have no real say in how society works.

What kind of society do you want? We want a society where working people run everything for the interests of the workers. We want a system where every worker is actively pushed to become involved in running society, where everyone is trained to act for the common good, where putting individual self-interest above the social good is punished. We want a system that helps each worker grow, that corrects mistakes, that encourages honest evaluation and self-evaluation of each person. We want a system that stamps out rotten ideas and punishes anti-social behavior.

To get this kind of society, we need collective organization. That is why we need a Party--to encourage everyone to speak out and act, to draw on our collective strength, to help each other correct our mistakes. Too often we look at the party as restricting us and limiting us ("the Party makes me go to meetings," "the Party makes me talk about revolution at work.") Actually, the Party liberates us and gives us the strength to put our ideas into action. Isolated individuals will never change society; we need organization! This will continue to be true after the revolution just as it is before.

The Party is organized on the basis of democratic centralism. The Party is divided into cells, or clubs, which meet regularly to evaluate members' work and to make suggestions about how to improve it, and to evaluate the Party's positions and make suggestions for change. These suggestions are taken by the club leader to section meetings (made up of the club leaders and other leading comrades in an area, and by section leaders to the Central Committee. Based on the collective experience of the Party, the leadership decides on new positions (a new line) which all Party members are then bound to put into practice. Only if all of us put the same line into practice can we find out if the line works; if each of us goes our own way, we will never have the common strength of a united Party.

Democratic centralism is communist democracy. After the revolution we will run all of society along democratic centralist lines. Let us contrast communist democracy with bourgeois democracy, to show how communist democracy serves the interests of the working class, the great majority of people, while bourgeois democracy serves the interests of the bourgeoisie, the small rich elite.

Democratic centralism forces everyone to speak up. At club meetings, each person must express their opinions, including openly voicing their disagreements. Bourgeois democracy listens only to the silver-tongued stars, the media-fashioned "opinion makers." Most people are encouraged to be passive, to go along with the drift. Nothing encourages you to speak out if you are shy. This builds the elitist attitude that politics is only for the chosen few, that most of us are too dumb to know what is going on. This is inherent in a system based on large-scale elections, without small decision-making groups that meet regularly.

Democratic centralism forces people to evaluate themselves honestly and to listen to the evaluation of others (praise as well as criticism). This lets people grow and improve, and it holds back the liars and braggarts. Bourgeois democracy, on the other hand, encourages the con artist who can hide his failures and his cheating. The system penalizes honesty and thoughtfulness in favor of the best actor. Under bourgeois democracy, politicians are rarely held responsible for their mistakes. This is great for the elite who want to hide how they swindle and exploit us.

Besides drawing on the strength of the collective, democratic centralism also forces us to act in a collective manner--to do what is best for the group. He who pursues individual self-interest at the expense of the common purpose will catch hell at the next club meeting, because he makes things harder for his comrades. This way we learn to help each other. Bourgeois democracy is based on the principle of screwing the other guy so you can get ahead. Telling lies about your opponent is okay as long as you don't get caught. What counts is winning the election, not improving society.

Each Party member accepts the discipline of carrying out the Party line. So once a decision has been reached, we can be sure that there will be a struggle everywhere to put that decision into action. Under bourgeois democracy, there is no discipline except the courts and the jails. There is no system to win people to the common decision. There is nothing to guarantee that the rich and powerful will follow the decision of the legislature, if they can figure out how to avoid it; no one is going to call them to account in front of a mass meeting. Each person may try to undermine the group decision for his own advantage.

Finally, democratic centralism is based on struggling to weed out rotten ideas and anti-social behavior. We want to help each other become better people. Bourgeois democracy is based on "doing your own thing," which is the essence of civil liberties. Each person is said to be "free" to do whatever they want--that is, to screw everyone else, if they can get away with it." Free speech" protects vile racist crap that advocates mass murder. Communists want nothing to do with such "free speech"--we think that seriously dangerous anti-social ideas should be rooted out, not given free play. Bourgeois democracy protects creeps, while only democratic centralism encourages full and open discussion and criticism.

In short, bourgeois democracy helps a small elite that wants to hide its lies; bourgeois democracy encourages dog-eat-dog individualism; it forces most people to be passive while superstars take over politics. The problem with secret ballots, legislatures and civil liberties is not that the rich capitalists cheat on the rules for their own benefit. The problem is that the rules of bourgeois democracy guarantee that the great majority of people, the workers, are frozen out. If we were to institute bourgeois democracy after the revolution, that would only encourage the formation of a new capitalist class.


We can see the need for democratic centralism if we study the experience of past communist movements. For instance, in the Russian Revolution, many leaders thought that bourgeois democracy was the best system, but bitter experience taught them that only through democratic centralism could the revolution advance. When Lenin first proposed the idea of democratic centralism in What Is To Be Done? he was apologetic about the new concept, saying it was unfortunately necessary because of the repression in Czarist Russia. The idea that democratic centralism is an evil forced upon us by capitalist repression is still widespread. This is very wrong. Democratic centralism is communist democracy; it is what we want to replace bourgeois democracy with.

After the revolution in 1917, many Bolsheviks still had illusions about some aspects of bourgeois democracy. For instance, there was considerable unhappiness with the Party's decision to outlaw other parties and later, to ban factions inside the Party. Some people reasoned that if one Party is good, more parties must be better. Lots of parties would allow "freedom of choice." This is a rotten idea which avoids the basic question, "what is the political line guiding the different parties?" The reason the Bolsheviks outlawed the other parties was that all the other parties were being used as tools by the capitalists in their drive to reconquer power. The battle between workers and capitalists will heat up after the revolution, and the capitalists will use every opportunity to organize. The working class needs to be united against the class enemy.

Some people think that having one party stifles discussion and disagreement. Quite the contrary: Having many parties often leads to sham competition based on personalities, as in the U.S., with the Democrats and Republicans. A democratic-centralist party organizes full discussion: each party member is required to express his frank opinion on all party policies, and all workers outside the party are urged to do the same.

Some people worry that the Party may go revisionist. That is a real danger, because revisionism--capitalist ideas clothed in a communist cover--is the form bourgeois ideas take within the workers' movement. But having many parties is only an excuse for revisionists to organize under the cover of another party. If the one party were to be taken over by revisionists, then communists would split the party, found a new party dedicated to the violent overthrow and suppression of the revisionist party.

The Bolsheviks also gave some support to workers' councils (soviets) in 1917-18. These soviets were usually organized on bourgeois democratic lines, and they had the usual faults of bourgeois democratic institutions. The superstar speakers and the best educated and richest (meaning the skilled workers) dominated. Individualism was the order of the day: many factory soviets refused to cooperate for the common good in the spring of 1918, hoarding goods that were vital for the defense of the revolution and for provisioning workers elsewhere. In practice, the soviets were pretty much under the influence of syndicalism," which calls for the workers in each factory to run their plant without any overall organization of society as a whole. Syndicalism is basically capitalism based on workers' cooperatives. We communists want to see a collective solution, with workers as a class running society as a whole, not competing with each other.


The Chinese revolution also had a mixed experience with respect to communist democracy. The Chinese Communist Party made a lot of rotten concessions to the capitalists, including letting them keep some small bourgeois parties. The good thing that the Chinese Communist Party did was to develop the concept of a mass line. The Chinese Revolution advanced to the left whenever this concept was put into practice, as during the Yenan period, the Great Leap Forward, and the early part of the Cultural Revolution. The mass line was summed up in a slogan, "from the masses, to the masses"--which is a good description of how communist leadership works. The communists learn from the experiences of the non-Party workers; the Party distills the best aspects of the workers' views and forms a new line; the communists then go out to win the non-Party workers to support this new, more left line.

Unfortunately the Chinese Communist Party often strayed from this principle and made the Party into something of a privileged elite. The Party must be open to everyone who accepts its principles and its discipline. If entry is restricted, the opportunists will double and redouble their efforts to get in, figuring that membership is a sure ticket to success in a career; ordinary workers will be discouraged. The Party's goal must be to recruit every worker into the Party, to involve every worker in the democratic centralist process. The correct way to resolve the problem of the Party's relation to non-Party workers is to recruit all workers to the Party.

Finally, we should be clear that there is no one thing called "democracy." There are different kinds of democracy, and each kind serves a different class. For instance, there was the "democracy" of ancient Greece, especially Athens. This "democracy" is often paraded as an example of true freedom. What crap! The only people who were allowed to vote in ancient Greece were the "freemen," which excluded the great majority of the people, who were either slaves or voteless women and foreigners. Greek democracy was slave owner democracy.

Bourgeois democracy arose as part of the struggle against feudalism. Feudalism was based on the rule of kings and lords, whose power the new capitalists wanted to overthrow. When the new bourgeoisie said "all men are created equal," they meant that they should be equal with the kings and lords and that privileges should be based on wealth, not on inherited title. Jefferson saw no contradiction between writing the Declaration of Independence and owning slaves; the Declaration only applies to the bourgeoisie. That is why only those who owned property were allowed to vote. Later, as the working class got stronger, the capitalists discovered that bourgeois democracy could be used as a powerful myth to pull the wool over the eyes of workers.

Unfortunately, many workers partially accept this myth and think that the U.S. is a "free" country, where everyone has an equal chance to get ahead, the people choose the government, have freedom of speech, etc. We must step up our work to show that bourgeois democracy is democracy for the capitalist rich, who have a dictatorship over the rest of us, the working class. Our goal is to replace this dictatorship of the bourgeoisie with a dictatorship of the proletariat. The dictatorship of the proletariat will be based on communist democracy among the workers and ruthless dictatorship by the workers over the capitalist.

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