The Classist Dynamic of Democratic Centralism

It is the one hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. To celebrate this historic event a one day conference has been organised by the Socialist Workers Party in central London on 4th November. The editor of International Socialism, Alex Callinicos, is to be one of the main speakers. Topics to be covered include; The Revolution and its Relevance Today, The Bolsheviks and 1917, and How the Revolution was Lost.

Anyone who has been to such an event will, however, know what to expect. Not surprisingly, the promised debates and discussions will be dominated by a well rehearsed arguments that locate the reasons for the failure of the Russian Revolution outside of Leninist strategy. The rise of Stalin, the outbreak of the Civil War and the invading armies are popular examples of this.

It is worth keeping in mind, however, that there is another way of understanding why the Russian Revolution failed. This understanding has nothing to do with questionable individuals or challenging circumstances – the kind of historical facts, highlighted above – but rather relies on an institutional analysis of the Leninist Party itself. It is an argument that says that, even in the most favourable of conditions, the Leninist strategy is destined to fail to bring about a successful socialist revolution. This is an important argument but I am quite confident that it is not one that will be presented at the central London event, noted above, or any other event organised by Leninists. Ironically, as we shall see, the reason for this has nothing to do with a lack of logic or evidence in the argument but instead is based on class interests.

Leninist style vanguard parties are organised along particular lines. Their internal structure is referred to as “democratic centralism”. For Lenin and his followers this form of organising accommodates both “freedom of discussion” and “unity of action”, both of which are necessary ingredients for effective organising in the fight for the emancipation of the working class from capitalist exploitation. This all sounds very pragmatic. However, there is a fundamental flaw in Lenin’s thinking and it is one that can be traced back to Marx.

For Marx it is ownership of the means of production that is the sole defining criteria for different economic systems. In a capitalist economy it is the minority capitalist class who own the means of production. In contrast, the workers own nothing but their labour and are therefore forced to rent themselves out as wage slaves to the capitalists. Ownership, by the capitalists, of the means of production is what constitutes the material conditions for class domination – it is their source of class power. In a socialist economy the means of production are socialised. A shift from capitalist private ownership to workers common ownership removes this source of class power and is what constitutes a successful revolution.

The problem with Marx’s analysis is not that it is making wrong claims about the effects of private ownership. The problem is that, as typically expressed, it blinds people to important additional developments in class dynamics. Yes, ownership is a crucial factor in understanding economics and class. However, it is not the only factor. In addition to the apportionment of ownership there is also the equally crucial issue of the apportionment of empowering tasks. Just as it is the case that if a minority are allowed to own the means of production it will generate an economic elite with their own class interests, it is the case that if a minority are allowed to monopolise empowering tasks it will also generate an economic elite which develop their own class interests. And this is exactly what democratic centralism accommodates.

The economic feature that facilitates the monopolisation of empowering tasks is called the corporate division of labour. All economic systems have a division of labour of one sort or another. That is to say, all economies combine tasks into bundles we call “jobs”. However, with the corporate division of labour the apportioning division is unequal which results in some bundles of tasks, i.e. jobs, being more empowering than others. Just as private ownership constitutes a root cause of hierarchy within the economy the corporate division of labour generates elitism. Both are predicates on unfounded elitist assumptions about economic organisation which, in turn, produces class division and rule.

Furthermore, just as private ownership of the means of production constitutes the source of class power for the capitalist class, the corporate division of labour constitutes the source of class power for what have been referred to as the coordinator class. The Bolshevik Party came to dominate the Russian Revolution and with it applied their democratic centralist structure, via the state apparatus, nationwide. Not surprisingly, then, the Russian Revolution resulted in coordinator class rule – an economy free from capitalist class domination but where workers maintain their traditional role of following orders given from above by their superiors. Worst of all, socialism became synonymous with coordinatorism and the ideology of managerialism – a particularly devastating Orwellian twist to the struggle for freedom and justice and one perpetuated to this day by the followers of Lenin.


  1. Jim Jimwdr October 18, 2017 2:26 am 

    Elegantly argued. Thank you.I had however hoped for an analysis of SWP internally on the same lines. Not to pick on them so much as part of the growing critique of the NGO industrial complex pioneered at least by Ralph Dahrendorf a decade ago. How do we build parties and movements that avoid the tendencies to elitism, conservatism, inactivity, etc?

    Jim Driscoll, JimDriscoll@NIPSPeerSupport.org

    • avatar
      Mark Evans October 18, 2017 10:31 am 

      Hi Jim,
      In answer to your question, I would suggest developing models of what we want to organise for, that are participatory and then use those models to inform our strategy. Marxists and Leninists are typically against such an approach on the grounds that it is “utopian”. They tend to argue that utopian socialism is both undemocratic and unscientific. This can be true but it is not necessarily true.
      As for your point about the SWP, I would say that the analysis presented applies to them. However, Leninists tend to have an arrogance about them, which I trace back to their delusions about Marxism being a science, that is particularly strong in the SWP.

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