Leon Trotsky: On Democratic Centralism and the Regime


From a US Internal Bulletin in December 1937, prior to the formation the the SWP (US).

To the Editors
of Socialist Appeal (USA)

During the past months I have received letters in regard to the inner regime of a revolutionary party from several apparently young comrades, unknown to me. Some of these letters complain about the “lack of democracy” in your organisation, about the domineering of the “leaders” and the like.

Individual comrades ask me to give a “clear and exact formula on democratic centralism” which would preclude false interpretations. It is not easy to answer these letters. Not one of my correspondents even attempts to demonstrate clearly and concretely with actual examples exactly wherein lies the violation of democracy.

On the other hand, insofar as I, a bystander, can judge on the basis of your newspaper and your bulletins, the discussion in your organisation is being conducted with full freedom. The bulletins are filled chiefly by representatives of a tiny minority. I have been told the same holds true of your discussion meetings. The decisions are not yet carried out. Evidently they will be carried through at a freely elected conference. In what then could the violations of democracy have been manifested? This is hard to understand.

Sometimes, to judge by the tones of the letters, ie., in the main instance by the formlessness of the grievances, it seems to be that the complainers are simply dissatisfied with the fact that in spite of the existing democracy, they prove to be in a tiny minority. Through my own experience I know that this is unpleasant. But wherein is there any violation of democracy?

Neither do I think that I can give such a formula on democratic centralism that “once and for all” would eliminate misunderstandings and false interpretations. A party is an active organism. It develops in the struggle with outside obstacles and inner contradictions.

The malignant decomposition of the Second and Third Internationals, under severe conditions of the imperialist epoch, creates for the Fourth International difficulties unprecedented in history. One cannot overcome them with some sort of magic formula. The regime of a party does not fall ready made from the sky but is formed gradually in struggle. A political line predominates over the regime. First of all, it is necessary to define strategic problems and tactical methods correctly in order to solve them. The organisational forms should correspond to the strategy and the tactic.

Only a correct policy can guarantee a healthy party regime. This, it is understood, does not mean that the development of the party does not realise organisational problems as such. But it means that the formula for democratic centralism must inevitably find a different expression in the parties of different countries and in different stages of development of one and the same party.

Democracy and centralism do not at all find themselves in an invariable ratio to one another. Everything depends on the concrete circumstances, on the political situation in the country, on the strength of the party and its experience, on the general level of its members, on the authority the leadership has succeeded in winning. Before a conference, when the problem is one of formulating a political line for the next period, democracy triumphs over centralism.

When the problem is political action, centralism subordinates democracy to itself. Democracy again asserts its rights when the party feels the need to examine critically its own actions. The equilibrium between democracy and centralism establishes itself in the actual struggle, at moments it is violated and then again re-established. The maturity of each member of the party expresses itself particularly in the fact that he does not demand from the party regime more than it can give. The person who defines his attitude to the party by the individual fillips that he gets on the nose is a poor revolutionist.

It is necessary, of course, to fight against every individual mistake of the leadership, every injustice, and the like. But it is necessary to assess these “injustices” and “mistakes” not in themselves but in connection with the general development of the party both on a national and international scale.

A correct judgement and a feeling for proportion in politics is an extremely important thing. The person who has propensities for making a mountain out of a mole hill can do much harm to himself and to the party. The misfortune of such people as Oehler, Field, Weisbord, and others consists in their lack of feeling for proportion.

At the moment there are not a few half-revolutionists, tired out by defeats, fearing difficulties, aged young men who have more doubts and pretensions than will to struggle. Instead of seriously analysing political questions in essence, such individuals seek panaceas, on every occasion complain about the “regime”, demand wonders from the leadership, or try to muffle their inner scepticism by ultra-left prattling.

I fear that revolutionists will not be made out of such elements, unless they take themselves in hand. I do not doubt, on the other hand, that the young generation of workers will be capable of evaluating the programmatic and strategical content of the Fourth International according to merit and will rally to its banner in ever greater numbers.

Each real revolutionist who notes down the blunders of the party regime should first of all say to himself: “We must bring into the party a dozen new workers!” The young workers will call the gentlemen-sceptics, grievance-mongers, and pessimists to order. Only along such a road will a strong healthy party regime be established in the sections of the Fourth International.

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