Workers self-emancipation and leadership contradict each other, and this has caused much Leninist ink to be spilt on the dangers of "substitutionalism" — the party substituting its own wishes for those of the masses because the party knows best. This totalitarian strategy can be avoided if the majority of workers know what they are doing before the socialist revolution takes place, in which case leadership becomes irrelevant. Democratic centralism has become a cornerstone of numerous Leninist parties, a concept entailing being more centralist than democratic. To a certain extent centralism is compatible with democracy, indeed is often necessary to make it effective. But often the problem arises that it didn’t give the leadership a free enough hand since, at least on paper, it is still subject to some degree of membership control. Democratic centralism is a structure which institutionalises the principle of leadership. Most existing political parties and trade unions do operate on this basis, where those at the top make all the keys decisions and generally control the organisation instead of being controlled by their members Leninism makes a virtue of this by not accepting that it is desirable that a political organisation of the sort they want should be organised on the basis of democratic control, and maximum participation in decision-making, by the membership.
Many left-wing political parties are unashamedly leadership organisations, not just in the sense that they seeks to lead the working class but also in the sense that it is organised internally on a leadership basis; in fact on a hierarchical basis where each layer of leadership has power over the levels below it, with the party’s national leadership – the members of its central committee – at the top. The national leadership decides everything important and then seeks to get the membership to follow their lead. This is not necessarily a difficult task since the membership, who also believe in the organisational principle of ‘democratic centralism’, accept the leading role of the leadership and are generally prepared to follow. So Lenin’s ‘democratic centralism’ places an enormous power in the hands of the leaders and in practice reduces the rank-and-file members to a merely consultative role. In Lenin’s scheme, the supreme policy-making body is the Party Congress; this decides the general line which the Central Committee has to follow until the next Congress. This is the theory; the practice is that the Central Committee completely dominates the Conference. The main item on the agenda is a report by the Central Committee on the political ‘perspectives’ which is usually a document of pamphlet-length. The Central Committee also submits other reports – on work in special areas of activity (industry, students, women), internal organisation, finance – for the Conference to discuss. What this means is that it is the Central Committee – the leadership – which quite literally sets the agenda for the Conference. The branch delegates meet, therefore, to discuss only what is put before them by the Central Committee. Not that the delegates are delegates in the proper sense of the term as instructed representatives of the branches sending them. Within the Socialist Workers Party, for instance, Delegates should not be mandated. Voting on motions submitted by branches is dismissed as a ‘trade union practice. Another open to manipulation by the leadership, is operated by the SWP:
‘At the end of each session of conference commissions are elected to draw up a report on the session detailing the points made. In the event of disagreement two or more commissions can be elected by the opposing delegates. The reports are submitted to conference and delegates then vote in favour of one of the commissions. The advantage of this procedure is that conference does not have to proceed by resolution like a trade union conference.’
No branch motions, no mandated delegates, No ballots of the entire membership.
In fact, no official of the SWP above branch level is directly elected by a vote of the members. One power that the branches do retain is the right to nominate members for election, by the Conference delegates, to the National Committee, but, as over presenting motions, they are discouraged from nominating people who do not accept the “perspectives” espoused by the Central Committee. So elections do take place to the National Committee but on the basis of personalities rather than politics. However, it is the way that the Central Committee is elected that is really novel: the nominations for election to new central committee are proposed not by branches but . . . by the outgoing central committee! Once again, in theory, branches can present other names but they never do.
It is easy to see how this means that the central committee – the supreme leadership of the organisation – is a self-perpetuating body renewed in effect only by co-optation. This is justified on the grounds of continuity and efficiency – it takes a time to gain the experience necessary to become a good leader so that it would be a waste of the experience gained if some leader were to be voted off by the vagaries of a democratic vote. Choosing the leadership by a competitive vote is evidently something else ‘with no place in a revolutionary party’ any more than in an army. The fact remains that “democratic centralism” can allow dictators to rise to power and all openly pro-capitalist political parties have a similar structure which can allow the leadership to act undemocratically.
It is not much different with other Trotskyist groups. Take Socialist Unity. In their version of democratic centralism, conference delegates elect a central committee (on a slate, that is for or against the entire committee, not a vote for individual members, this slate is normally put forward by the outgoing committee). The central committee can put motions to conference as well (whereas our Executive Committee may not). Subject to the sovereignty of Conference, decisions taken by the Central Committee (CC), National Committee (NC) and Party Council are binding on caucuses, districts and branches, and individual party members. Branches and/or district select delegates to Conference on a basis proportional to their membership, as determined by the Central Committee. The CC appoints the full-time organisers. Again the difference with ourselves is that our principle officers are directly elected (Gen Sec, treasurer, organiser). Our EC is directly elected. All our EC can only do is appoint people to a committee on the nomination of a branch. So there is at most just one layer between members and functionaries of the party.
Where has ‘democratic centralism’ ever allowed factions for long? Where has ‘democratic centralism’ allowed challenging incumbent leaderships? Where has ‘democratic centralism’ allowed public dissent? Trotsky answered at a Bolshevik party congress in 1924:
‘Comrades, none of us wants to be or can be right against the party. In the last analysis, the party is always right, because the party is the sole historical instrument that the working class possesses for the solution of its fundamental tasks. I have already said that nothing would be simpler than to say before the party that all these criticisms, all these declarations, warnings, and protests – all were mistaken from beginning to end. I cannot say so, however, comrades, because I do not think it. I know that no one can be right against the party. It is only possible to be right with the party and through it since history has not created any other way to determine the correct position.’ And ‘We can only be right with and by the Party, for history has provided no other way of being in the right’.