Point of view

Of Marxism and Democratic Centralism

Murzban Jal

The glorious robes of liberalism have fallen away and the most repulsive despotism stands revealed for the entire world to see.
—Karl Marx to Arnold Ruge, 1843

The working class is instinctively, spontaneously, communistic.
—VI Lenin, The Reorganization of the Party

The continuous posing of the question of democratic centralism and challenging its place in revolutionary Marxism is not merely one of the most important issues in contemporary Marxism. It is probably the most important question, the most important question, because it is this role of centralism and this role of the party that is responsible for Marxism’s inability to overthrow global capitalism, than any possible virtue of capitalism. Democratic centralism is said to be in strict opposition of the spontaneity of the masses. Lenin, stood for strict centralism. Lenin was against spontaneity. Like the immutable “laws of nature”, democratic centralism, was said to be necessary and universal. There can be no revolution without democratic centralism.

At first glance this idea of democratic centralism and the vanguard party seems directly in contradistinction to Marx’s idea of the politics of species being (Gattungwesen) and the understanding of communism as the recovery of the human essence (das menschliche Wesen) from the debris of class histories. This loss of the humanist politics of revolutionary Marxism lies, of course, with the Stalinist concept. Later Louis Althusser’s notion of Marxism as a theoretical anti-humanism, where Marxism was dissected in various pieces, laid the stamp of Marxism as an anti-humanist discourse. That an inherently dictatorial politics that followed Lenin’s death and Stalin’s take- over of the Bolshevik party and the consequent mass murder of the entire central committee of the party, not to forget the genocide of the mass of the revolutionaries, follows directly from the Stalinist policies. It is wholly unfortunate that the mainstream left parties in India, have hitherto unable to differentiate the revolutionary politics of Marx, followed by Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Liebniecht, Trotsky, et al; from the utterly anti-communist politics of firstly Stalin, followed by Khrushchev, Mao, et al.

One must dispel the surface reading which suggests that it was Marx himself who was responsible for the politics of democratic centralism (as both entrenched bourgeois ideology of late imperialism in crisis, as well as its alleged critiques of Marx like Noam Chomsky would make us believe). But it was actually the scene of early twentieth century Czarist Russia and the then emerging communist movement that was responsible for the birth of this idea. That Lenin’s 1902 What is to be Done? was the master text of this theory of democratic centralism and the role of the vanguard party has to be emphasised. But what one needs to do is also emphasise that Lenin never made a fetish of this text and would soon transcend (aufheben) the arguments of democratic centralism, the vanguard party and the rather Kantian idea that (revolutionary) consciousness comes “from the outside”, with the party as the bearer of the role of the “transcendent outsiders”.

What made Lenin firstly formulate this thesis was the nature of the revolution, the anti-democratic Czarist state and the scattered class composition in Russia. But what is more important (and as this writer feels almost un-theorised, if not under-theorised) is the question of the Asiatic mode of production, the place of the Oriental despotic state, the declining role of the communes in Russia and consequently the decline of the Narodniki movement. Lenin, one must note, was heir to these very central questions.

A historical and philosophical response to a borrowing of Lenin’s 1902 thesis is wholly metaphysical, as it is abstracted from concrete historical conditions. It is also metaphysical because it forgets that Lenin himself sublated this thesis and by 1907 advocated the thesis of the spontaneous nature of the proletariat. The historical response looks into the concrete nature of the Russian revolution which had to be seen within its own dialectical space and could not have an imposition of the European model of history on the entire world.

But if there is the myth of centralism as the model of a Leninist party, there is a diametrical opposite myth of the immutability of liberal democracy as a means of achieving communist power. Consequently the nature of politics could not be imposed from the European model, but would have to emerge form its own concrete mode of production. One would have to transcend the model of not only political despotism, but also, the model of liberal democracy. One will have to be neither a despot nor a liberal democrat. To understand this, one will have to go back to the young Marx’s theorisation of the state.

That Marx himself was anti-state has not been so far recognised. One usually brings up the Stalinist edition of Marx-Engels-Lenin volume against Bakunin and the anarchists. Marx here seems to say that the revolution needs authority. Authori-tarianism thus necessarily follows. Stalin was thus heir not only to Lenin, but the direct successor of Marx. There are two parts to counter this argument: (1) that Marx was necessarily anti-state—his Class Struggles in France and his letter to Kugelmann where Marx talked of literally smashing the state—are proof of his politics of anti-state; and (2) the fact that Lenin’s What is to be Done? (A rather neo-Kantian text,) was itself transcended is largely ignored. It must also be mentioned that Lenin suggested that the reprinting of this text was only under certain conditions. In 1921 he told Max Levin, “that is not desirable (to translate this work in non-Russian languages—author); the translation must at least be issued with good commentaries which would be written by a Russian comrade very well acquainted with the history of the Communist party of Russia in order to avoid false application.”

The problem with post-Lenin revolutionary politics is that it has suffered from a number of crises—mainly the theoretical crisis in not able to re-create revolutionary philosophy. Communists have to be the most modern, have to learn from concrete experiences than foster dogmatic and uncritical thinking. Unfortunately, at least in India, in mainstream marxist parties it is dogma which rules, dogma which has turned Leninism into mummified principles.

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Vol 54, No. 28, Jan 9 - 15, 2022