Democratic centralism – ‘freedom of thought (sic.) and unity in action’? Rajinder Chaudhary

This is a guest post by RAJINDER CHAUDHARY; you can view his previous post on democratic centralism, on Kafila here.

The title of this note uses a quotation from ‘On Democratic Centralism’ by Com Prakash Karat carried in The Marxist, XXVI, 1, January-March 2010. This piece by the then General Secretary of the CPI(M) and the constitution of CPI(M) available on its official site (as updated in October 2015) throws interesting insights into operationalisation of the principle of democratic centralism, which recently once again came into public view in the Jagmati Sangwan episode. (All quotations henceforth are from either of these two documents.)

            Prima facie ‘unity in action’ appears quite desirable but is it really so in all situations? Does it require to ‘bind the entire collective into implementing that decision’ in all situations as Karat argues, or ‘the individual shall subordinate himself to the will of the collective’ as article XIII 1(b) of party constitution requires? Do all actions-decisions that a communist party undertakes in a parliamentary democracy like ours are of the war like situation requiring marshalling of all resources without exception? Obviously, all organisational decisions cannot be equally crucial to require binding the whole organization to it. Why can’t there be freedom of action where some members or units decide to focus on health issues and others on educational issues, and some may refrain from either? Why can’t some members/units try particular tactics of organization, follow a calendar of their own and others a different one? If it sounds that one is stretching the centralism aspect a bit too far, it may be noted that Karat points out that the ‘democracy is practiced, before the conference when the political line is being formulated. Centralism comes in when the line is being implemented’, ‘when the party is formulating its policies, at the time of conferences etc., there will be democracy in action, free discussions within the party forums. Once a call for action is given, the aspect of centralism will predominate’. As if defining the political line once in three years, clinches everything and thereafter, on no other issues independent and dencentralised decisions can be taken. In fact article XXXIII of the party constitution, makes it explicit that democratic centralism means “the centralised leadership based on inner-Party democracy under the guidance of the centralised leadership”. There is a whole article on “Inner-Party Discussions” (article XXI) which states thatState Committee can initiate inner-Party discussion on an important question of Party policy concerning that particular State… with the approval of the Central Committee” (emphasis added). So, even discussion at state level on state issues can only be initiated with the approval of the Central Committee (and off course format has to be approved too). This amply clarifies the meaning of ‘freedom of thought (sic.) and unity in action’ and where emphasis lies in ‘democratic centralism’. No wonder many times one has come across situation where Party members are just curious to know what the party line on particular issue was and not the detailed arguments and would not speak on a current issue until unless party line was clear.

Karat seems to make a fetish out of subordination of individual or minority to the majority by saying ‘it is only democratic centralism which requires the minority to abide by the Majority and the individual to submit to the will of the collective’. Any organized and collective endeavour requires subordination of individual to collective; this collective can be as small as few students sharing an accommodation or out on a picnic, and as broad as a society. What varies is extent of subordination and range of issues requiring this subordination. In any organization there are issues that are decided by simple majority and there are issues which require two-third or even greater majority. Then, there could be issues where individuals could be free to decide for themselves. Repeated emphasis on minority being subordinated to the majority view in Karat’s piece seems to be more appropriate to crude majoritarianism of the BJP kind rather than to a party dedicated to advance and protect interests of diverse sections of society.

To counter the argument that the Leninist principle of democratic centralism may have been appropriate to Russian conditions, and is not appropriate to other conditions, Karat gives two arguments. First that, it ‘is not the Russian party alone which faced attack and it was not the Russian revolution alone which was sought to be suppressed by foreign intervention. Every revolution in the 20th century underwent the same process of repression, counterrevolution/civil war and foreign intervention’. Secondly, it ‘is not counterrevolutionary violence alone that has to countered (sic)’; ‘…attacks and pressures on the party are continuous and relentless. These come in the form of ideological and political attacks and efforts to disorganize and weaken the Party’. If violent and non-violent ideological and political attacks on the Party are to be treated alike, then it is but a short step to make any criticism of the Party (though effectively it is usually a criticism of party leadership) as attack on revolutionary politics, on working class and so on. Is it really plausible to treat violent and ideological attacks and opposition alike? Is it plausible to argue that in ‘all conditions – of legality, semi-legality and illegality’ that communist parties function under, same organizational principle will be operative as Karat argues?

Karat goes so far as to conclude that ‘without democratic centralism, there can be only a social democratic party – not a revolutionary one’. One is tempted to ask if that be so, what is wrong with it. Ignoring the historical Leninist attitude to the term ‘social democratic’, which is that of a term of abuse, what is wrong with being genuinely social democratic? Hasn’t the CPM (and other constituents of Left front) been functioning as a social democratic party all along, particularly when it is has been party in power? What are the revolutionary (and not reformist) steps that the party has taken? (This is not to negate many progressive steps that it has taken while in power but to know in what sense these are different from what a genuine ‘social democratic’ party would take?) What kind of revolutionary measures, rather than reformist measures, it can take through Third fronts and alliances with Lalu Yadav, Mulayam Yadav, Jayalalitha etc? Or, now with Congress? Isn’t defending/reintroducing some of the Nehruvian policy elements, in economic sphere and others, a most eminent task at hand just now? Going by the modern definition of social democracy given in Bottomore’s Dictionary of Marxist Thought, it would be a valuable contribution for the most vulnerable sections of society, if there was an effective and influential ‘reformist politics of the social democratic variety’ in India. Anyway, a party which swears to ‘bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India’ as CPI(M) does as per article XXA of its constitution, be anything other than ‘reformist … of the social democratic variety’?.(BTW, as per party constitution party accounts at various levels have to be audited by charted accountants. Quite a thing for a revolutionary party!)

But do, as many party members have argued in context of Jagmati Sangwan episode, non-party persons have a right to be worried about it? Karat thinks not. According to him, (even) ‘no other Left force can object to our internal organizational principle’. Many reasons can be advanced to argue that functioning of a political party is not just an internal family matter. Firstly, culture of democratic centralism is not likely to be confined to internal party matters alone; an ingrained trait is reflected in many spheres of life, including personal and family matters. More importantly, this organizational principle is likely to be reflected in mass organizations and broad fronts, where non-members are affected. As per party constitution, members working in mass organizations, their executives and those elected to various bodies of state ‘shall organise themselves into fractions … and function under the guidance of the appropriate Party Committee’. ‘They have to function under the guidance and decisions of the respective Party committees’. They ‘should carry out the decisions of the respective Party committees in the Executive or General Council of the particular mass organisation’. Hence, democratic centralism affects all mass and civil society organisations where party members participate. This is no consolation that, as Karat points out, of late principle of democratic centralism has been modified and it has been resolved that ‘to ensure democratic functioning of the mass organisations, all elected posts/committees should not be decided by the concerned Party committee (emphasis added)’, (but most of these can be decided by the some party committee or the other. Other change recently introduced is that ‘higher committees should not propose the name of the secretary of the next lower committee at the time of the conference. Panels for new committees were already being prepared by the concerned outgoing committees’.)

Lastly, when in ‘In the 14th Congress of the Party in 1992, the distortions in democratic centralism practiced in the Soviet Union and some of the other socialist countries were noted’, when it is realised that ‘Overcentralisation, bureaucratism and the lack of inner-Party democracy prevailed’, when it is recognised that ‘democracy and centralism cannot be set within a fixed ratio for all times’ isn’t it time that operative proportions of decentralisation and centralisation are reviewed, that open and public criticism of decisions of party leadership is allowed?. Let not a revolutionary party fall into the same trap as government of the day, treating any criticism of its action as being anti-national. Criticism of decisions of party leadership should not be viewed to be anti-party activity; even criticism of party ideology should not be viewed as abrogation of ideals of the party. It is high time that the organisational principle formulated under Lenin and ‘extended by the Communist International to all Communist parties in its third Congress in 1921’ with ‘its emphasis on centralization, creating a core of professional revolutionaries and secrecy’ are reconsidered, if for no other reason than the fact that it did not serve even Soviet Union well. It is high time that emphasis on members ‘to carry out the decisions of the Party (article IV(1)), ‘loyally to carry out decisions of the Party’ (article V), ‘to faithfully carry out the policy, decisions and the directives of the Party’ (article XI) is toned down a bit and effective social transformation is emphasised more. In this latter task, even non-members have a stake.

Rajinder Chaudhary was Professor of Economics at MD University, Rohtak (Haryana) before taking voluntary retirement a few years ago. For the past 7 years Chaudhary has been promoting natural, self-reliant farming. He was recently Member-Secretary of People’s Tribunal on  Jat reservation agitation in Haryana.

3 thoughts on “Democratic centralism – ‘freedom of thought (sic.) and unity in action’? Rajinder Chaudhary

  1. At the outset one is inclined to observe in all humility that the principle of Democratic Centralism in the organization of a communist party as enunciated by Lenin is a dialectical concept.It is not a mechanical concept not even a dynamic one.It is clear that Centralism is qualified by the adjective Democratic.That means it is neither autocratic nor bureaucratic nor militaristic.and nor any other one.Dialectics demands that it should be applied as a living and evolving principle and as a dead and as an ossified one.In other words inner party democracy is its one of the ingredients alongwith majority minority and individual subordinating to the collective etc.Thus there can be situations where centralism has to prevail after due democratic process but only after that.Similarly Centralism itself has to be seen as the product of that process.Here Centralism is subjected to Democracy in the organization as a whole.The example of Communist International of 1921 well fits in in this context according my interpretation of Democratic Centralism

  2. shaturya

    Communists all over the world were beholden to then USSR or China for their systems and practices . In USSR and China, Communists were dealing with despotic rulers and hence behaved more like a disciplined army. Once they defeated the despots , the politburo of communist parties turned into a ruling clique. Karl Marx’s theory of autocracy of proletariat came very handy in giving an ideological base for perpetrating their power through so called ‘ barrel of a gun’. The tyranny of Stalin and Mao became the role model of communists.

    This was the pattern all over the world . Many despots legitimised their rules through communist/socialist route with the blessings of USSR and China.

    Indian communists were, however , in a unique situation after independence. They faced democracy and the socialistic Congress with deep nationalistic support among Indian populace. The y had no identified enemy to fight with.This stunted the communists. The communists’ manifesto , richly borrowed from USSR , couldn’t reconcile itself to the democratic freedom enjoined upon Indian populace through the constitution. They continued the practice of the tyranny of politburo in their intra party functioning though a la USSR of yore.

    It is high time that the communists embrace the principle of individual freedom of thought to the extent of practicality of a collective action. Muzzling the individual freedom of thought through an interplay of words like ‘subordination to the collective will’ will be counterproductive to the existence of the communists in the present world of India.

    Why should it bother people external to it ? It should . The fundamental reason being that any political party affects the whole fibre of the country. The communist movement was precious for the development of socialistic policies in the country. In the present milieu of rightist primacy, it is all the more important that people’s voices are raised. Yes, the history of communists in power in India, notably W.Bengal , is nothing to write home about, even on human right canvas.But , the communists in opposition are necessary for the political system.

    I do hope that the communists will reform themselves for allowing individual freedom of expression in intra-party forums with a smile.


    Recent decisions and actions of the mainstream communist parties and their leaders giving reasons for the decisions have been more ‘ central’ than ‘ democratic’ . Their alignment with Congress which has so eagerly supported GST bill that is anti- people and pro- corporate is a case in point. The communist ‘ form’ must be broken to analyse ‘ contend’ and the capitalist designs should be laid bare as rightly did in the works of Balzac. ( Speech on low intensity conflict by Rivera in ‘ virasam – revolutionary writers organisation – Telugu writers 25 conference held in Vijayawada )

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