Democratic centralism is a term that is whispered about by much of the modern ML(M) movement but rarely discussed openly. It is often badly explained and misunderstood. At its core, Democratic centralism is simply a process for collective decision making and collective action.
Democratic centralism is a method of collective decision making in an organization. Unlike many other decision-making processes, democratic centralism is also a process for collective action. This process follows the following general method: First, a rich culture of debate and principled criticism is curated within the revolutionary group. During this phase, it should not be altogether uncommon for a newer member or a group of newer members to write or say a criticism of a member of the central committee. As long as a process of principled criticism and self-criticism is curated within the culture of the organization this process does not shake the core of the party because new perspectives are welcomed as long as they are presented in a principled manner. In fact this process strengths the unity of the core of the party.
The second phase of Democratic Centralism is the centralism portion. Once a decision is reached by the membership of the party, it is followed by all party members. If after the decision there is a relevant event, this line is presented to the masses. This unity of action is called for even from members who do not agree with the decision. But at this point, the process is not over. What makes it Democratic Centralism is that at the next meeting the rich culture of debate is continued. If the old decision is found to be a bad idea by the membership at a subsequent meeting, this new decision is applied via centralism. Only through this cyclical process of democracy first and centralism second can an organization properly claim to be practicing Democratic Centralism.
Democratic Centralism is at its core a reflection of an efficient means of organizing a mass party large enough and ideologically prepared enough to wage armed rebellion against capitalist, fascist, and imperialist forces. This process was first conceived during the time of Marx and Engels and has been modified, clarified, and improved upon by Lenin, Stalin, Mao and the Russian and Chinese communists behind them.
But this foundation is not enough. Lenin says that Marxism calls for a concrete analysis of concrete things. Understandings of Democratic Centralism would be ineffective and incomplete if they relied simply upon an understanding stemming from just these revolutions. Maoism is a living ideology and has been theorized, improved upon, and clarified by many parties up until the end of the 19th century by people such as Ibrahim Kaypakkaya, Abimael Gonzalo, and many others. And further, Maoism brings Marxism into the 21st century with parties waging armed struggle against capitalist, fascist, and imperialists such as the People’s war in India or the rapidly accelerating people’s war being fought in the Philippines.
This process of collective decision making and action is successful in that it allows both rich debates to occur internally and a united front to be presented to the public. This way confusion and misinformation among the masses can be prevented and a consistent party line can be presented to them. The reason that this is necessary is that it is an indispensable portion of application of the Mass Line.
The Mass Line to say briefly is a cyclical three-part process of investigation among the masses, synthesizing their wants, needs, and ideas with a revolutionary edge, and presenting them back to the masses in such a way that they see themselves in the politics. If Democratic Centralism is not practiced there is no way that a cohesive and clear politic can be presented to the masses of laboring people in such a way that they will see themselves in it.
Democratic Centralism is also a term which is abused, liberalized, and in many cases openly negated by revisionists, opportunists, and ‘Little Lenins’. One extremely common way that Democratic Centralism is abused is to protect a party because of an accusation against a member of sexual violence. In most cases among chauvinist and revisionist parties and groupings, Democratic Centralism is used to tell members unhappy with the cover-up being carried out by the leadership, that they can not tell people about it. This is an obvious misuse of Democratic Centralism because it demands Centralism first and Democracy second or never. This is an improper order and implementation of Democratic Centralism and can not faithfully be called Democratic Centralism.
Many revisionist parties have the ‘old guard’ of party members who are very respected but who have no spirit of principled debate between the ‘old guard’ and newer members. Maoism has long recognized the importance of young people as a motive force in party affairs. Precisely because it provides a lifeline to the newest generations of the working class. If a party does not curate a culture of principled debate between all members of a party it can not faithfully claim to be practicing Democratic Centralism.
Democratic Centralism is a material and Marxist theorization of proper discipline between members and between members and the public. It is not a process of telling people what they can and can not say to the public before a rich culture of debate is practiced. One of many ways to gauge how successfully a party is implementing Democratic Centralism is how quickly it is able to grow and react to the changing needs and wants of the working class. Democratic Centralism is only correctly applied when the cyclical process of Democracy first Centralism second is followed. It is impossible for a party to grow and react to the changing needs of the broad laboring masses unless it is strictly and thoroughly applied.