And what, exactly, is “democratic centralism” I hear you ask?
It is the form of organization pioneered by Lenin and the Bolsheviks and adopted by all communist and Trotskyist organizations ever since.
In this model the political party is not about elections or representation in parliament, although they do that, but about creating a vanguard elite ready to seize power on behalf of the “the masses” when “the time comes”.
Typically a ‘democratic centralist’ party selects its members, who have to go through some sort of probationary period during which they are indoctrinated with the party’s values, ideology and methods before becoming full members.
Once members, individuals get to vote either directly or through delegates on party policy and direction. Often communist and Trotskyist parties have been divided internally into ‘factions’ supporting a particular platform or direction which is presented to the membership. A supposedly free discussion follows before a decision is reached – usually at some sort of congress. That’s the ‘democratic’ bit.
Once a decision has been reached a leadership is also elected to implement the platform – usually in the form of some sort of ‘PolitBuro’ or Central Committee.
From then on – and this is where the ‘centralist’ part comes in – every member is bound by the decisions of the congress and the leadership it has elected.
This form of organization often degenerates rapidly in one of two directions. Either – most common – a permanent ‘leadership’ emerges which gradually constrains dissent and purges opponents or, and this also happens frequently, the minority faction or factions refuse to accept the decision of the congress and split to form a new, pure, group.
Trotskyist groups are especially prone to this sort of splitting and were the inspiration of the famous jokes in Monty Pythons ‘Life of Brian’ about the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ vs the ‘Judean Popular Front’.
Early critics of this approach included (ironically) Trotsky himself and especially the German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg, who penned a scathing attack on Lenin’s organisationl precepts. She rather eerily predicted the sort of degeneration such centralism would eventually lead to.
Parliamentary socialist and social democratic parties – especially since World War I and even more so after WWII – adopted very different organizational forms. They drew their organizational precepts from representative democracy itself – so Party policy was most often shaped not by plebiscites of the whole membership but by various representative structures in which the representatives – rather like MPs in our Parliament – had some latitude and scope to exercise their own judgment. Moreover they were far less ‘disciplined’ than democratic centralist parties and dissenters given freedom to criticize, publicly, the direction of party policy.
MPs – Delegates or Representatives?
The difference comes out most clearly in the attitude to MPs. The early British Communist Party in the 1920s demanded that anyone standing as an MP sign, in advance, an undated resignation letter to be held by the CPGB central Committee. The idea was that if an elected MP strayed from the Party line they could be forced to resign as an MP.
This is of course the complete antithesis of how parliamentary democracy is supposed to work in Britain. MPs are elected to represent all their constituents, including those who didn’t actually vote for them, and to exercise their own judgment over issues. Of course as ‘Party’ MPs there is always a tension between Party policy and individual judgment, but the system and the political parties – on all sides – are supposed to live with that.
Labour has always been a ‘broad church’ embracing all sorts of social democratic, democratic socialist, guild socialist, and even revolutionary socialist elements – although in practice its leadership and MPs have always been predominantly social democratic.
So – is Labour becoming ‘Democratic Centralist’?
The answer is not yet – but there are ominous signs it is heading in that direction.
The notion that it is ‘the members who should decide’ on all party policy, through direct plebiscite, is certainly a huge tilt towards a democratic centralist party.
As is the notion that all MPs must now fall into line with “Jeremy’s Mandate” (ignoring all the other various forms of mandate Labour MPs have – see here). This also echoes the Bennite ‘mandatory reselection of MPs’ drive of the early 1980s.
Moves to purge the Shadow Cabinet and to deselect ‘disloyal’ MPs using the power of ‘one-member-one-vote’ is certainly reminiscent of a more ‘democratic centralist’ approach and does not sit comfortably in a representative democratic system.
The Labour membership is not – yet – like that of a classic democratic centralist party. It has not been selected and groomed into an elite cadre of ideologically pure ‘comrades’. It was noticeable in Corbyn’s election that only just half of actual fully-laid-up Labour members supported him – he won so decisively because of the “£3 socialists” and the Trade Union “affiliate” voters, who are far removed from any sort of revolutionary vanguard.
What has happened since is unclear – there has been a big influx of new Corbynista members and a smaller outflow of disgruntled ‘moderates’ – but how far this has fundamentally changed the character of Labour’s membership remains opaque.
The tragedy for Labour is that the process of increased tendency towards more ‘democratic centralist’ forms seems almost inevitable after it elected a leader who has the support of only about 1 in 10 of ‘his’ MPs and, crucially, seems utterly incapable of building serious working relationships with a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).
Jeremy Corbyn has spent his entire three decades in Parliament distancing himself from the rest of the PLP and voting almost relentlessly against his own Party. He has absolutely no experience of building coalitions of support and of the many compromises needed to do so. His whole political persona has been built on intransigence and “principle”.
Given this he and his small band of actual supporters have no choice but either give up and compromise with the rest of the PLP or to implement more and more ‘democratic centralist’ style ‘reforms’ to Party structures and processes. Given many of his advisers come from backgrounds in a variety of ‘democratic centralist’ groups this will likely be their default position anyway.
It is not really clear Corbyn actually is a hard-line socialist of some sort – his pronouncements are often vague, couched as broad generalities and piece-meal in nature. A volume of Comrade Corbyn’s Collected Works would be slim. But he is close enough to radical socialism that there is a clear fit between his ideology and the classic party organizational form – democratic centralism – that usually goes with it.