Marxism-Leninism seeks revolution through organizing the working class & its reserve forces into a vanguard which acts as a front line & general staff of the revolution. This can be achieved through democratic centralism which combines the effectiveness of unity & discipline with democracy. Marxism-Leninism rejects loose disunited organizations & movements without leadership. Marxism-Leninism advocates leadership through example & guidance, by the most politically conscious members of the working class. If the party’s policies, tactics and positions are correct it will succeed in rallying support around it and to revolution.
Some people still idealize spontaneity and spontaneous grassroots movements. But such movements never lead to successful revolution. You need a popular mass movement, but you also need leadership and clear political goals. Without political consciousness these mass movements wither away and die and nothing changes, we’ve seen movements like this come and go a million times. Some people want to limit our movement to aimless protests with no clear goals, no agreement on principles and no organizational unity or capacity to bring change. Spontaneous popular movements that arise are good, but they are not enough. They create an opportunity for the Vanguard to introduce political consciousness, political goals, ideology and leadership.
Revolution is difficult, and anyone who is even remotely serious should realize that spontaneity alone is not enough.
“Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.”
~LENIN, What Is To Be Done? (Chapter 1)
“…to belittle the socialist ideology in any way, to turn aside from it in the slightest degree means to strengthen bourgeois ideology.”
~LENIN, What Is To Be Done? (Chapter 2)
Spontaneous protest actions by the people present an opportunity to build a real revolutionary movement. But some groups, especially anarchists and liberals, romanticize these spontaneous movements like Occupy Wall St. or Black Lives Matter. They think that any clear goals or ideology will ruin a good spontaneous grassroots movement, but this is a mistake. The problem with these movements is precisely that they are only spontaneous without any clear plans to facilitate change, or they are overtaken by liberals who romanticize just such aimless spontaneity.
“There is much talk of spontaneity. But the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology,… the fundamental error… bowing to spontaneity… failure to understand that the spontaneity of the masses demands a high degree of consciousness from us… The greater the spontaneous upsurge of the masses… the more widespread the movement, the more rapid, incomparably so, the demand for greater consciousness in the theoretical, political and organisational work…”
~LENIN, What Is To Be Done? (Chapter 2)
“…no revolutionary movement can endure without a stable organization of leaders that maintains continuity… the wider the masses spontaneously drawn into the struggle… the more urgent the need of such an organization, and the more solid this organization must be” ~LENIN, What Is To Be Done? (Chapter 4)
Role of the Party
“The Party is the leader, the vanguard of the proletariat”
~LENIN, Once Again On The Trade Unions, The Current Situation and the Mistakes of Trotsky and Buhkarin
The vanguard party has a special role. While anyone can join a trade union, or vote in bourgeois elections, only the most active and class-conscious workers join the revolutionary party.
Trade Unions almost exclusively focus on short term economic demandsm, not on long term political demands. Reformist election campaigns focus on trying to fix capitalism, a system that can’t be fixed. But the vanguard party seeks to overthrow the entire capitalist system. It combines economic and political demands, and has the necessary political knowledge to see that the system must be overthrown.
“The Party must regard itself not as an appendage of the parliamentary electoral machinery… and not as a gratuitous supplement to the trade unions… but as the highest form of class association of the proletariat, the function of which is to lead all the other forms of proletarian organisations, from the trade unions to the Party’s group in parliament… The Party, and especially its leading elements, must thoroughly master the revolutionary theory of Marxism, which is inseparably connected with revolutionary practice.”
~STALIN, The Prospects of the Communist Party of Germany and the Question of Bolshevisation
The party consists of the advanced sections of the poor and working people. They are the vanguard.
“The Party must be, first of all, the advanced detachment of the working class. The Party must absorb all the best elements of the working class, their experience, their revolutionary spirit, their selfless devotion to the cause of the proletariat. But in order that it may really be the armed detachment, the Party must be armed with revolutionary theory, with a knowledge of the laws of the movement, with a knowledge of the laws of revolution… ”
~STALIN, The Foundations of Leninism (Chapter VIII)
The Vanguard can’t win without the People
The vanguard can’t ever win alone. The good thing about the vanguard, is that it is politically conscious, but the bad thing about the vanguard, is that it is small. By definition the most advanced section of the working class is only a minority of the working class, and it cannot overthrow capitalism on its own. It must show the way, leading by example, and win the trust of the wide masses of the people to support it, and carry out the revolution. The revolution is not carried out by the vanguard, but by the people.
“Victory cannot be won with the vanguard alone…The immediate task that confronts the class-conscious vanguard of the international labour movement, i.e., the Communist parties… is to be able to lead the broad masses (now, for the most part, slumbering, apathetic, bound by routine, inert and dormant) to their new position, or, rather, to be able to lead not only their own party, but also these masses, in their approach, their transition to the new position.”
~LENIN, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder (Chapter 10)
“The point here is not that the vanguard should realise the impossibility of preserving the old regime and the inevitability of its overthrow. The point is that the masses, the millions should understand this inevitability and display their readiness to support the vanguard. But the masses can understand this only from their own experience. The task is to enable the vast masses to realise from their own experience the inevitability of the overthrow of the old regime, to promote such methods of struggle and forms of organisations as will make it easer for the masses to realise from experience the correctness of the revolutionary slogans.”
~STALIN, The Foundations of Leninism (Chapter VII)
The vanguard can only hope to guide the masses to revolution, if the ideas the party puts forward truly appeal to the masses and truly serve their interests. Winning the trust and support of the people is not easy, it only comes through hard work of educating the people and serving their interests. But it is absolutely necessary.
“…the Party would cease to be a party… if the Party turned in on itself and became divorced from the non-Party masses. The Party cannot lead the class if it is not connected with the non-Party masses, if there is no bond between the Party and the non-Party masses, if these masses do not accept its leadership, if the Party enjoys no moral and political credit among the masses.”
~STALIN, The Foundations of Leninism (Chapter VIII)
The organizational principle of democratic centralism is closely linked with the idea of Vanguardism, which arises from Marx’s concept of class consciousness. The debate around democratic centralism often boils down to the question of the role of a party member. Opponents of Leninism argued that anyone who supported socialism, should be able to sign up as a party member. In their mind, party members should not be oligated into anything, the party should be as big as possible, and it could tolerate different kinds of views.
1. Active revolutionaries:
In Lenin’s view the party needed active revolutionaries, not passive supporters. Hence a party member should belong to one of the party organizations and work in it. This separates a revolutionary party from a reformist party. A revolutionary party has no need for members who are nothing but voters, or names on a paper. These are sympathizers, supporters, not party members. Being a supporter is fine, but it is not enough.
2. Agreement on core principles:
In Lenin’s view a member of the party also needs to be someone who not only supports the idea of socialism, but actually upholds the principles and policy of the party. A Leninist party supports the ideas of revolutionary Marxism, and those who don’t agree with these core beliefs can’t be members of a Leninist party.
A party with mutually exclusive views about its fundamental beliefs will either be disunited or will lack any clear principle. This can work for a bourgeois party, or a party aimed only at winning some election seats, or passing small reforms, but it won’t work for a revolutionary marxist party. A revolution requires unity and trust.
3. Real unity:
The Leninist party functions based on “freedom of speech & unity of action”. This means that decisions are made democratically but they are binding on everyone. A member of the party is obligated to follow the decisions of the majority. When voluntarily joining the party, members agree to this principle. The same rules and decisions of the party are binding on all members, not only those who choose to follow them.
“Parties belonging to the Communist International must be organised on the principle of democratic centralism.”
~Terms of Admission into Communist International
“The discipline and organisation which come so hard to the bourgeois intellectual are very easily acquired by the proletariat… Mortal fear … and utter failure to understand its importance as an organising factor are characteristic of the ways of thinking which reflect the petty-bourgeois mode of life and which give rise to the … aristocratic anarchism, as I would call it. This aristocratic anarchism is particularly characteristic of the Russian nihilist. He thinks of the Party organisation as a monstrous “factory”; he regards the subordination of the part to the whole and of the minority to the majority as “serfdom”… division of labour under the direction of a centre evokes from him a tragi-comical outcry against transforming people into “cogs and wheels”… mention of the organisational Rules of the Party calls forth a contemptuous grimace and the disdainful remark … that one could very well dispense with Rules altogether.”
~LENIN, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (Part Q)
4. Against Factionalism:
In 1921 in the 10th Bolshevik party congress Lenin proposed the so-called “ban on factions” which was accepted. In practice this means that the party won’t tolerate any more or less permanent factional or opposition groupings, that work against the majority of the party or put forward a political line that goes against the rest of the party. Having such interal factions is obviously very harmful for a party as it divides members into competing cliques. According to democratic centralism, members of the party are obligated to go along with the decision of the majority, or they will have to leave.
“All class-conscious workers must clearly realise that factionalism of any kind is harmful and impermissible, for no matter how members of individual groups may desire to safeguard Party unity, factionalism in practice inevitably leads to the weakening of team-work and to… attempts by the enemies… to use it for counter-revolutionary purposes…”
~LENIN, Tenth Congress of the R.C.P.(B.) (Part IV)
Role of disagreement
The issue of unity naturally raises the question of disagreement. The party is not only based on unity, but also democracy and freedom of debate. In fact, real unity is only possible via agreement, it cannot be forced.
So, if party members 1) agree with the principles of the party 2) agree to follow the democratic decisions of the party, and 3) don’t take part in factional activity, then what is the role of disagreement?
Issues are decided democratically, with freedom of debate. Everyone will be able to say what they want to say. That doesn’t mean their proposition will be accepted, but they will have a chance to present it. Questions also won’t be decided for all time. The party’s principles will remain, but the practical policy will have to change constantly. The composition of the leadership will also change. This means that questions of the party’s political line will be raised again and will have to be decided again because the situation will change.
When deciding big political questions its important that everyone has the chance to speak. If the party is very split on a question the problem won’t be solved by a narrow majority trying to silence the minority. It is important that enough time is given for discussion to take place fully before a decision is made. Real unity can’t be forced and without democracy the party leadership will lose touch with the membership and make wrong decisions.
There will always remain people who don’t agree with the majority, and this is normal. Nobody agrees with everyone else on every single thing. Disagreement is allowed within the conifines of the party rules. As long as members don’t break party discipline or engage in factionalism, they can disagree, and when the time comes for a new decision and new vote, they can argue for their side just like everyone else.
“…an important, serious and extremely responsible task: really to apply the principles of democratic centralism in Party organisation, to work tirelessly to make the local organisations the principal organisational units of the Party in fact, and not merely in name, and to see to it that all the higher-standing bodies are elected, accountable, and subject to recall.”
“…there must be complete unity of action… Action by the proletariat must be united… But beyond the bounds of unity of action there must be the broadest and freest discussion and condemnation of all steps, decisions and tendencies that we regard as harmful. Only through such discussions, resolutions and protests can the real public opinion of our Party be formed. Only on this condition shall we be a real Party, always able to express its opinion, and finding the right way to convert a definitely formed opinion into the decisions…”
~LENIN, Report on the Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P. (Part VIII)
“Democratic centralization in the Communist Party organization must be a real synthesis, a fusion of centralism and proletarian democracy. This fusion can be achieved only on the basis of constant common activity, constant common struggle of the entire Party organization… enemies… assert that the Communist Party… is trying rule over the revolutionary proletariat. Such an assertion is a lie … the centralization of the organization, i. e., the aim to create a strong leadership, cannot be successful if its achievement is sought on the basis of formal democracy. The necessary preliminary conditions are the development and maintenance of living associations and mutual relations within the Party between the directing organs and members, as well as between the Party and the masses of the proletariat outside the Party.
(Principles of Party Organization, adopted by the 3rd Congress of the Comintern)
“Precise operation of democratic centralism in the Party as demanded by our Party statutes, unconditional electiveness of Party organs, the right to put forward and to withdraw candidates, the secret ballot and freedom of criticism and self-criticism…”
~STALIN, Mastering Bolshevism
“…democratic centralist method… is a mass-line method. First democracy, then centralism; coming from the masses, returning to the masses; the unity of the leadership and the masses… Both inside and outside the Party there must be a full democratic life, which means conscientiously putting democratic centralism into effect.”
~MAO TSE-TUNG, Talk At An Enlarged Working Conference Convened By The Central Committee Of The Communist Party Of China
“…we must affirm anew the discipline of the Party, namely:
(1) the individual is subordinate to the organization;
(2) the minority is subordinate to the majority;
(3) the lower level is subordinate to the higher level; and
(4) the entire membership is subordinate to the central Committee.”
~Mao Tse Tung, The Role of the Chinese Communist Party in the National War
In parties based on democratic centralism party bodies are elected. A democratic centralist party typically has one centralized leadership.
This can take a number of different forms:
Typically a communist party has local organizations, a Central Committee and a Politburo.
The communist party has a collective leadership. It has a Chairman and other high ranking positions, but none of them can decide on their own.
The C.C. is elected by a congress. The congresses are held at given intervals, for example every few years. In the congresses local organizations send representatives with right to vote who then elect the leadership of the party, the C. C. and political executive committee aka. the politburo.
The C. C. usually contains a relatively large amount of people. Somewhere around 20 is not unusual. The Politburo is smaller, consisting of the chairman and some other high ranking C. C. members. The job of the Politburo is to manage the every day affairs of the party and it has a lot of power but at the same time it’s accountable and aswerable to the C. C. The politburo is basically a smaller group of leaders who meet often and make quick decisions on immediate tasks. The C. C. is a bigger group that meets less often, maybe only a few times a year and decides broader questions of the party’s political, ideological and tatical line. The C. C. decides and the politburo implements the decisions.
LENIN, What Is To Be Done?
LENIN, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder
LENIN, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
LENIN, Report on the Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.
LENIN, Terms of Admission into Communist International
LENIN, Tenth Congress of the R.C.P.(B.)
LENIN, Once Again On The Trade Unions, The Current Situation and the Mistakes of Trotsky and Buhkarin
Principles of Party Organization, adopted by the 3rd Congress of the Comintern
MAO, The Role of the Chinese Communist Party in the National War
MAO, Talk At An Enlarged Working Conference Convened By The Central Committee Of The Communist Party Of China
STALIN, The Foundations of Leninism
PEKING REVIEW: A Discussion on Party Democratic Centralism
LENIN, Two Tactics
LENIN, The Reorganisation of the Party