Soviet Union Table of Contents
Democratic centralism involves several interrelated principles: the election of all leadership organs of the party from bottom to top; periodic accounting of party organs before their membership and before superior organs; strict party discipline and the subordination of the minority to the majority; unconditional obligation by lower party bodies to carry out decisions made by higher party bodies; a collective approach to the work of all organizations and leadership organs of the party; and the personal responsibility of all communists to implement party directives.
In the words of American specialist on Soviet affairs Alfred G. Meyer, democratic centralism is primarily centralism under a thin veil of democracy. Democratic centralism requires unanimity on the part of the membership. The concept requires full discussion of policy alternatives before the organization, as guided by the leadership, makes a decision. Once an alternative has been voted upon, however, the decision must be accepted by all. In principle, dissent is possible, but it is allowed only before a decision becomes party policy. After the party makes a decision, party norms discourage criticism of the manner of execution because such criticism might threaten the party's leading role in Soviet society.
The principles of democratic centralism contradict one another. One contradiction concerns the locus of decision making. Democratic centralism prescribes a collective approach to the work of all organizations, which connotes participation of all party members in decision making. Yet, democratic centralism also holds that criticism of agreed-upon policies is permissible only for the top leadership, not for rank-and-file party members. Hence, discussion of these policies can take place only after the leadership has decided to permit it. The leadership will not allow discussions of failed policies, for fear that such discussions will undermine its power and authority.
A second contradiction concerns the issue of accountability. Democratic centralism holds that lower party bodies elect higher party bodies and that the latter are accountable to the former. Nevertheless, democratic centralism also prescribes the unconditional subordination of lower party bodies to higher party bodies. In reality, superiors appoint those who nominally elect them to their positions and tell them what decisions to make (see Nomenklatura , this ch.).
Democratic centralism undermines intraparty democracy because the party has formally proscribed factions. The Tenth Party Congress in 1921 adopted a "temporary" ban on factions in response to the Kronshtadt Rebellion (see Revolutions and Civil War , ch. 2). In 1989 this ban remained in effect. Every party member has the right to express an opinion in the party organization to which he or she belongs. Before a decision is taken, however, party members cannot appeal to other members in support of a given position. Moreover, party members cannot engage in vote trading. In democratic systems, a party member holding a minority position on an issue can exercise influence if allowed to organize people with similar views and if allowed the opportunity to persuade others. Without these opportunities, democratic procedures remain an empty formality.
Devoid of democratic content, the political and organizational logic of democratic centralism contributed to the emergence of dictatorship in the Soviet Union. Despite the formal ban, in the early 1920s factions emerged in the party because Lenin failed to work out orderly procedures for leadership succession (see The Era of the New Economic Policy , ch. 2). In the absence of these procedures, new leaders had to attempt to cloak their policies in the mantle of ideological orthodoxy. To prevent criticism from rivals, the new leader could label real and potential opponents a faction and, according to the Party Rules (see Glossary), which banned factions, take steps to remove them from the party. For example, Nikita S. Khrushchev took these steps against his opponents in 1957 (see Collective Leadership and the Rise of Khrushchev , ch. 2). The leader thus could eliminate real and potential rivals, but ultimately, however, only success in action could prove a leader's policies correct. Success in action required the commitment of the party, and commitment of the party demanded that ordinary party members perceive that the leader possessed infallible judgment. Democratic centralism provided a necessary condition for the leader's claim to infallibility because it prevented ordinary party members from criticizing the policies of the party elite.
Data as of May 1989
Soviet Union Table of Contents