In the wake of the dissolution of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), many socialists in the United States are asking themselves if democratic centralism inevitably leads to the bureaucratization of leadership, raising further questions about whether organizations and parties that consider themselves socialist should organize themselves this way.
My defense of democratic centralism is both theoretical and based on practical experience. On one hand, I believe that in order to win a revolution, we need a revolutionary party organized on the principle of democratic centralism, with thousands of militants organized with a clear program and strategy. On the other hand, for me this is not just a theoretical discussion, because I have 10 years of experience in the Socialist Workers Party (Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas, or PTS), a democratic-centralist organization in Argentina, and I have seen how it operates in practice.
Because of Argentina’s economic crisis in the early 2000s, I was unable to go to college and instead worked the slot machines in a casino in 2006. The working conditions were horrible: the low ceilings, dark rooms, smoke, and noise of the slots were unbearable. One in three co-workers was suffering from depression, and some of my co-workers suffered miscarriages because of the eight-hour shifts, six days a week. We were fighting for six-hour shifts when 70 rank-and-file workers were fired. Then, almost 1,000 casino workers went on strike against the layoffs. I was new to politics and had no idea who Marx and Trotsky were, but I knew that the bosses were my enemy and that I had to join with my co-workers to fight these horrible conditions. I joined the PTS in 2008, when I was 23 years old. The PTS took up the union struggle in democratic assemblies, where the rank and file not only debated among ourselves but also organized study sessions about the history of the Argentine labor movement, giving context and a depth of understanding to our struggle.
While there is no organization without contradictions, the kind of group we build has to be based on our final goal: the forced expropriation of the capitalist class and the democratic management of all society by the working class. This goal means building a party that confronts the capitalist class in class struggle, in the here and now, while preparing for the goal of insurrection.
So why democratic centralism to achieve these revolutionary goals? Put simply, democratic centralism means fostering broad internal democracy in order to act in unity and fight as a solid fist against the capitalist state and its institutions. It is not a static model or formula. It arises from the historical necessity that class struggle imposes on an organization whose goal is the triumph of working-class revolution.
The only way a socialist organization can achieve the necessary level of unity in action is to function with the highest degree of democracy allowed by the political moment. The discipline enacted in moments of acute class struggle results from the broad democracy of less repressive moments. The unity of action required in moments of class struggle is based on a program and common strategy that can only be produced through broad debate. During moments of relative calm, when there is not much class struggle or repression, an organization shifts its focus toward building a common strategy, program and practice through a broad, democratic debate and discussion.
In moments like these, a leadership is measured by its political acuity and its capacity to shape the organization to prepare for decisive moments of class struggle. The membership’s trust in its elected leadership is based not only on the leaders’ actions in class struggle but also in leaders’ political vision and intervention in the organization’s’ internal life: a vision of national and international politics, an understanding of the most dynamic phenomena, a hypothesis for where class struggle will develop and an openness to discussion and critique. The leaders must therefore be able to develop a correct political theory for the group and to reexamine their positions if their theory is proved wrong. As Leon Trotsky says, “A revolutionist is brought up only in the atmosphere of criticism of all that exists, including also his own organization. A firm discipline can be obtained only by conscious trust in the leadership. The trust can be gained not only by correct policy but also by an honest attitude to one’s mistakes.”
We must strive to build a party of leaders, in which comrades, whether or not they are elected as leaders, think about and debate the organization’s orientation. Elected leaders should represent an aspect of the group’s political orientation; they should be not only the most politically astute but also the best-equipped to carry out the urgent tasks voted on by the party. In this sense, leaders should be elected regularly and individually, not by slate, and judged by their earlier political work.
Internal democracy not only prepares an organization to intervene in reality but also trains new cadres and leaders. As Trotsky says, “The regime of party democracy can lead to the creation of a hardened and unanimous army of proletarian fighters only in case our organizations basing themselves on the firm principles of Marxism, are ready to fight irreconcilably but with democratic methods, all opportunistic, centrist and adventurous influences.” Vital to internal democracy are the political debates and discussions about the group’s orientation, the different kinds of oppression, Marxism, the group’s international practice, and other important components of socialist strategy. Without these discussions, there wouldn’t be a chance of questioning and thinking about what is best for the organization, and democracy would die in a pure formality.
Members must have total freedom to debate, discuss, and make decisions. Structurally, this freedom is guaranteed by congresses, conferences, mailing lists, and the right for minority opinions to be expressed in the organization’s press. Members must have the right to form tendencies and factions (temporary groupings around a political position). The last PTS congresses (which lasted four days) were streamed online so that the 3,000 members could listen to the full debates that later ended with delegates voting on resolutions.
“Democratic centralism” should not be a tool to hide differences, suspend debate, or silence all criticism, which was the bureaucratic distortion that Stalinism introduced and unfortunately reproduced in many organizations that claim to be revolutionary. The freedom to hold dissenting opinions and to form tendencies and factions is a necessary component of any healthy organization. It enriches debate between the different perspectives and sensibilities that necessarily exist in any group. In other words, a revolutionary organization is and has to be composed of workers, students, intellectuals, people from the poorest neighborhoods, and other sectors of the oppressed.
A revolutionary group should have a political orientation toward undocumented immigrants, people of color, trans folks, and other groups of the most oppressed sectors of society, struggling in social movements for a revolutionary and socialist perspective. Each of these sectors within an organization has its own perspective and expresses the different struggles and difficulties in their workplaces and communities, as well as the contradictions that put pressure on them. This makes them the ears of the party that listen to the masses and tune in to the political reality of the working class, making sure that these diverse perspectives are heard. It is central that the most oppressed be represented in leadership—not out of tokenism but as real leaders, orienting the group toward the most oppressed and exploited. The role of the party is to bring together these different sensibilities under the umbrella of a common program and strategy and to synthesize them in order to more effectively intervene in class struggle and social movements.
Let’s be less abstract. In the United States, a critical task of a revolutionary group is to discuss how to engage with the new generation of “socialists”: the more than 50% of young people who, according to polls, prefer socialism to capitalism. While it is critical to resist electoral and reformist pressures and to maintain the principle of working-class independence from capitalist political parties, it is also necessary to build a group that has come to this conclusion via discussion and debate, not top-down orders. Furthermore, a group should discuss how to engage with the new generation of socialists without sectarianism but also without promoting false illusions about progressive Democrats. To navigate this complex scenario and to discuss politics with co-workers and friends, the party must welcome the most vigorous internal debate. At the same time, a group should prepare for repressive situations such as those in Baltimore and Ferguson, as well as to confront fascist groups like those in Charlottesville in 2017.
In preparatory times like today, the party’s leadership is evaluated according to how it performs several tasks: how it responds to political and strategy debates, struggles against reformism and conciliatory sectors, orients the organization and establishes its capacity for self-criticism and political education, carries out political campaigns, develops a party composition according to its programmatic objectives, and guarantees a democratic internal life.
Any successful struggle (political and physical) against the bourgeoisie and its state—which is made up of hundreds of thousands of officials, a deadly apparatus of repressive forces and agents within the working class, like the union bureaucracy—requires a centralized organization that can act swiftly and effectively in times of upheaval. This is possible only with unity of action.
In moments when time is scarce and but events demand an immediate response, it takes discipline to work together. But this discipline is achieved only because of the trust that has been built over years of common experience and intervention in class struggle, as well as a common political development with members of the organization. When rubber bullets whistle through the air and tear gas clouds your view, when the physical safety of the group is threatened, the responsibility of making decisions falls on those who have earned the trust of members over time: decisions like whether we should confront the police or fall back, whether we fight back or resist nonviolently, putting our bodies on the line. These are the kinds of decisions that need to be made quickly, without much discussion, and we have to rely on our leadership to make them.
I have often been part of the street resistance against repressive state forces. I have blocked highways and railroad tracks, occupied factories and public offices, marched in picket lines, and seen my comrades get beaten by the cops and arrested.
For example, at the PepsiCo factory, where the PTS led the shop floor committee, the PTS and the elected leadership of the factory coordinated a massive defense of the factory on the spur of the moment, when eviction seemed imminent. Hundreds of PTS militants and supporters at the entrance of the factory acted as human shields to the factory, retreating as the police violently beat them. This was a decision: We wouldn’t launch an offensive against the police, but we wouldn’t let them enter without a fight. Our elected officials were on the front lines, speaking to the media and getting pepper sprayed. Meanwhile, the lawyers were following up in the courts to try to free the comrades who got arrested; other comrades were live-streaming, while others were contacting the international press. This operation was led by the party’s elected leadership and the leadership of the factory committee, together with the workers who were occupying the PepsiCo factory.
Yet, I never obeyed orders like a soldier obeys in the capitalist army. In a regular army you don’t have any say on the goals or plan; most of the time, you are forced to participate with the fear of going to jail if you refuse. That is the opposite of what democratic centralism means.
Any organization that is prepared for class struggle, not to mention revolution, will face situations in which it confronts not only the repressive forces of the state but also groups that function outside the legal framework of the state, such as organized fascists, paramilitaries, or strikebreakers. Instances of counterrevolution and military dictatorship, or moments when an organization must act quickly and covertly to ensure the safety of the entire group, demand major discipline in action. These difficult situations do not allow time for long debate; the urgency of rapidly changing circumstances gives priority to quick response and unity of action. The main decisions in that moment should then be made by the democratically elected leadership. In moments like this, the leadership of a revolutionary organizations proves itself by its determination, boldness and insight as the organization confronts the extreme conditions of repression that the capitalist state uses at certain historical moments.
Democracy is central not only for the internal workings of the organization but also for intervening in the labor movement and building the foundations for the kind of society we want. If our goal is a society run democratically by the working class, it is the task of revolutionaries to fight for the broadest democracy for workers both within the unions and in processes of struggle in which the masses organize themselves democratically and horizontally.
Socialists do not try to impose the discipline, program, or ideas of our organization on the organizations of the masses. After all, that wouldn’t serve our goal of a socialist society run by workers. We support the freedom to form different tendencies within unions and for all political expressions to have a voice and a right to fight for their ideas. Workers won’t come to socialist conclusions if they are dictated to from above; we must experience class struggles and political struggle between tendencies in order to see who is who and what is what. Even if we are elected to leadership, we use the space to guarantee the broadest democracy of workers possible. Inevitably, this puts us on a collision course with the union bureaucracy, since their goal is to contain and control worker radicalization.
It is not enough to have a correct program in class struggle. Revolutionaries win the respect of our co-workers by sharing the hardships of our class, by fighting our bosses day in and day out, and by the consistency with which we defend the most oppressed among us, even in our workplaces. Socialists test their ideas every day at work, during breaks, and at social events. And in moments of class struggle, revolutionaries can win the right to lead workers’ organizations by putting forward correct tactics for the struggle.
An example of workers’ democracy and freedom of tendencies is seen at the Zanon ceramics factory, located in Argentina, one of the main emblems of workers’ management in the world; it has been operating without bosses for almost 20 years. Its highest decision-making body is the assembly, which includes no managers or supervisors. Raúl Godoy is one of the main leaders of the factory and the ceramics union, and a member of the PTS, the only socialist organization involved in the factory from the beginning. After workers took control in 2001, new jobs were created for members of political movements of unemployed workers who were organized in other left groups and who supported the workers during the takeover of the factory. These jobs allowed more left organizations to come in and participate in the decision-making process at the factory. Godoy, who was instrumental in promoting this proposal, explained that this would “enrich the assemblies.” He added, “We have full confidence in workers’ democracy, full confidence in political debate.”
In other labor disputes in which the leadership of the workplace is composed of members of the PTS (you can see some examples here, here, here, here and here), when negotiations take place between employers and workers while the state acts as a supposed intermediary, decisions are not made behind closed doors. On the contrary, before rejecting or accepting an offer, the terms must be publicized for consideration by all the workers of that company. Only then is a vote taken. We use this method for two reasons: First, because it is the right of workers to decide on the issues in their workplace, and, second, because transparency in the bargaining process is the best way to expose the maneuvers and diversions of the bosses and the state, who always try to give workers less than they demand and deserve. This method develops new working leaders, stimulates the active participation of activists, and contributes to the political development of workers through debate.
In contrast, union bureaucracies decide behind the workers’ backs because they are not interested in having an active base that engages in discussion and participates in the decision-making process. This makes it easier for the bureaucracy to maintain its own privileges by playing nice with the capitalists, rather than mobilizing the rank and file for class struggle.
Reformist and centrist organizations (which oscillate between reform and revolution) also tend to abandon the fight for workers’ democracy in order to win concessions or positions of leadership. For them, the main goal is to get a concession from the bosses, in which workers win improvements but remain disconnected from the idea of ending capitalist exploitation. For revolutionaries, our ultimate goal is to transform those labor struggles into schools of war that prepare workers for revolution: schools where workers learn through experience that cops are our enemies, that the role of the state and the union bureaucracy is to keep them in their place, that our struggles have a long history, that the working class is one, and that, ultimately, only socialism can resolve our problems.
Workers’ Democracy against Bureaucratic Centralization
On a larger scale, examples of workers’ democracy can be seen throughout the history of the working class. It came in the form of various types of councils and assemblies, the greatest example being the soviets of the Russian Revolution. The soviets arose throughout Russia before the seizure of power and were large self-organizing bodies of the masses in which the workers, peasants, and soldiers participated. Under the influence of the Bolshevik Party, they starred in the most important episode in human history, the revolution of 1917.
After this experience, a revolutionary party does not seek to be the only voice or to have total control, but rather to be part of a much larger movement. Rather than imposing its program on the masses, it tries to convince them of its ideas on the direction to follow—first in the revolutionary process of seizing power and then in consolidating the soviets as the maximum organ in the process of defending the revolution and abolishing the vestiges of the old system. In the end, as Trotsky said, a revolution is no more than the exploited masses taking the reins of their own destiny.
What I’m trying to show is that democratic centralism has nothing to do with the Stalinist perversion of “bureaucratic centralization,” in which debate is censored. There can be no democratic internal life within the framework of a single-party regime that has suffocated all types of working-class self-organization. Nor can there be democratic internal life within the supposed democracy of broad neo-reformist organizations that lack political agreement or a strategy to take power. How can there be even minimal unity in action if no one agrees on where the group should be going?
It is an exciting challenge to build an organization that fights for socialist revolution in the main empire in the world. Such a task can never be free of intense debates. As Trotsky would say, “How could a genuinely revolutionary organization, setting itself the task of overthrowing the world and uniting under its banner the most audacious iconoclasts, fighters and insurgents, live and develop without intellectual conflicts, without groupings and temporary factional formations?”
- Declaration of International Left Opposition to Left Socialist Conference, The Militant, September 1933, https://themilitant.com/1933/0644/MIL0644.pdf.
- Interview with Raúl Godoy. “Zanon, el hilo rojo. Capítulo 4: Control obrero,” http://www.laizquierdadiario.com/Zanon-el-hilo-rojo-Capitulo-4-Control-obrero.
- Leon Trotsky, “The Degeneration of the Bolshevik Party,” chap. 5, The Soviet Thermidor, The Betrayed Revolution, https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/revbet/ch05.htm#ch05-2.