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Democratic centralism is the name given to the principles of internal organization used by Leninist political parties, and the term is sometimes used as a synonym for any Leninist policy inside a political party. The democratic aspect of this organizational method describes the freedom of members of the political party to discuss and debate matters of policy and direction, but once the decision of the party is made by majority vote, all members are expected to uphold that decision. This latter aspect represents the centralism. As Lenin described it, democratic centralism consisted of "freedom of discussion, unity of action."[1]

Leninist organizations' constitutions have typically defined the following key principles of democratic centralism:

  1. Election of all party organs from bottom to top and systematic renewal of their composition, if needed.
  2. Responsibility of party structures to both lower and upper structures.
  3. Strict and conscious discipline in the party—the minority must follow the majority decisions until such time as the policy is changed.
  4. Decisions of upper structures are mandatory for the lower structures.
  5. Cooperation of all party organs in a collective manner at all times, and correspondingly, personal responsibility of party members for the assignments given to them and for the assignments they themselves create.

The text What Is to Be Done? from 1902 is popularly seen as the founding text of democratic centralism. At this time, democratic centralism was generally viewed as a set of principles for the organizing of a revolutionary workers' party. However, Lenin's model for such a party, which he repeatedly discussed as being "democratic centralist", was the German Social Democratic Party, inspired by remarks made by the social-democrat Jean Baptista von Schweitzer.

The doctrine of democratic centralism served as one of the sources of the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. The Mensheviks supported a looser party discipline within the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1903, as did Leon Trotsky, in Our Political Tasks[2], although Trotsky joined ranks with the Bolsheviks in 1917.

After the successful consolidation of power by the Communist Party following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Russian Civil War, the Bolshevik leadership, including Lenin, instituted a ban on factions in the Russian Communist Party as Resolution No. 12 of the 10th Party Congress in 1921. It was passed in the morning session on March 16, 1921 (Protokoly 585-7). Supporters of Trotsky sometimes claim that this ban was intended to be temporary. But there is no language in the discussion at the 10th Party Congress suggesting that it was intended to be temporary (Protokoly 523-548).

The Group of Democratic Centralism was a group in the Russian Communist Party who advocated different concepts of party democracy.

By the Brezhnev period democratic centralism was described, in the 1977 Soviet Constitution, as a principle for organizing the state: "The Soviet state is organized and functions on the principle of democratic centralism, namely the electiveness of all bodies of state authority from the lowest to the highest, their accountability to the people, and the obligation of lower bodies to observe the decisions of higher ones. Democratic centralism combines central leadership with local initiative and creative activity and with the responsibility of the each state body and official for the work entrusted to them."

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