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How Democratic Centralism Was Applied

November 10, 2020

Part 2 of ‘Party Organization in Lenin’s Comintern’

See Part 1: Shaping a Policy

Clara Zetkin, 1920

By John Riddell: The Comintern’s 1921 organizational theses, discussed in Part 1 of this study, were next mentioned in a world congress by Lenin himself, in his address to the Fourth World Congress in 1922. At the end of what was to be his last speech to the world movement, he expressed concern regarding the resolution. Although “prepared to subscribe to every one of its fifty or more points,” Lenin said, the resolution was “too Russian” and incomprehensible to non-Russian Communists. “Everything in it is based on the Russian experience”; non-Russians “will not understand it” and “cannot carry it out.” Lenin said. “The most important thing for all of us, Russian and non-Russian comrades alike,” is to take time to study.[1]

Only Clara Zetkin spoke to his remarks. Highlighting Lenin’s remark “that we all have much to learn,” Zetkin interpreted this as an appeal for patience. Declaring that “to win time is to win everything,” Zetkin added a characteristically elegant quotation from the German poet Goethe: “Time is my estate, and time my field to plough.”[2]

Elsewhere in the congress, some comments by delegates seemed to restrict the range of opinion permissible in a Communist party. Bulgarian Communist Vasil Kolarov, for example, called for “a common conception regarding all great questions,” insisting that “deviating viewpoints will necessarily lead to indiscipline” – a formula that suggested the need for a monolithic movement.

Vasil Kolarov

Radek is quoted in the proceedings as referring to a “Third Congress resolution forbidding the formation of factions.” The congress record contains no mention of such a decision. Radek may possibly have been referring to Point 6 in the Third Congress organizational resolution, which did condemn “internal power struggles or efforts to dominate the party.” In fact, neither these words nor anything else in the resolution barred formation of a politically constituted faction.[3]

On the whole, however, the tone of Fourth Congress debates encouraged member parties’ initiative, internal democracy, and self-reliance.

Trotsky, for example, called the formation of factions in France a “normal and healthy response” under the circumstances, while Zinoviev, in his closing summary, noted that “minorities exist on this or that question (that is always the case).”[4]

Willi Münzenberg

Willi Münzenberg explained to the congress how the international campaign for material aid to the Soviet republic, which he headed, helped increase the proportion members drawn into active party work. In the Comintern parties numbering hundreds of thousands of members, Münzenberg said, members “are not all simply political activists. The moment the Communist Party is organised as an open party, which anyone won by our agitation can join, it wins a large number of forces who may well not be politically active in the purely political daily work.” Many of these inactive members, he said, could be won to participate in the aid campaign for Russia.[5]

Application of the Twenty-One Conditions

Only rarely did organizational disputes in the national sections draw the attention of the congresses or ECCI plenums, and these discussions focused mainly on shortcomings in applying the Twenty-One Conditions.

The most stubborn internal dispute in the early Comintern took place in the French section. After its formation in December 1920, the ECCI worked to promote a united leadership combining a number of hostile factions. Two weeks before the opening of the Fourth Congress, however, a French CP congress ended in deadlock, and all sides asked the World Congress to mediate.

Leon Trotsky

At the congress, ECCI representatives argued in commission for a united leadership in France, including all factions and implementing the Twenty-One Conditions. These proposals met with stubborn resistance. The situation was unblocked by an initiative by Leon Trotsky, who called for enforcement of a Second World Congress decision to bar Communist membership in Freemasonry, a fraternal order that Communists viewed as a component of the capitalist ruling class. The Second Congress ban was an extension of the Twenty-One Conditions call for a clear break from bourgeois influences.

“There were Freemasons … in all three factions,” commission member Jules Humbert-Droz later commented. “Each of them would be equally affected by this decision.… Above all, the battle lines would shift: the Freemasons of all factions would unite against this decision of the International.[6]

Jules Humbert-Droz

The ban on Freemasons was incorporated in the commission’s ultimate proposal for a leadership based on proportional representation of all factions, with members nominated by the faction caucuses present in Moscow. The proposed list was submitted as a recommendation to the subsequent French party congress, which adopted it.[7]

Similar issues arose in the Norwegian and Swedish parties. In Norway, a group of party members studying in universities had formed an association to publish a magazine called Mot Dag (toward the dawn) critical of Comintern policy. The Fourth Congress ruled that in order to avoid harmful factionalism, the Mot Dag grouping must open its ranks to all students who belonged to the party.[8]

The 1923 Expanded ECCI Plenum considered a public controversy over religious beliefs that had arisen in the Swedish party. The plenum affirmed the Communist movement’s opposition to religious beliefs and organizations and ruled that its members must refrain from any form of religious propaganda.[9]

Apart from these incidents, the Comintern appeared by its Fourth Congress to have achieved something of an equilibrium in the application of democratic centralism in its member parties.

Centralism Within the International

The achievement of such a balance, even if temporary, proved to be more difficult on the level of the Moscow leadership’s relations with national sections of the International. Following the Second Congress, disagreements appeared in the German section regarding whether to prioritize united-front efforts to bring workers together in struggle as opposed to initiatives in action carried out, at least initially, by the Communist party alone.

The conflict led to a leadership overturn in the German section in February 1921, followed the next month by the damaging defeat of the party’s “March Action” initiative. In both cases, questionable initiatives of ECCI emissaries played a major role. At the June-July 1921 world congress in Moscow, these events came in for intense debate, but the questionable role played in them by ECCI emissaries was not examined. The two incidents revealed dangers inherent to the Comintern’s concept of international centralism, but the issue remained unexplored. (See “The Comintern’s Great Turn of 1920-21”)

Six months after the Third Congress, the question of centralism in the Communist world movement was posed frontally by the Executive Committee’s adoption in December 1921 of the united front policy. The new policy committed the International to seek unity in action with social-democratic parties around basic demands to defend workers’ livelihoods against employer attacks.

A test of the new policy was posed by the call of the left social democratic “Vienna Union” (the “Two-and-a-Half International”) for a consultation with representatives of the Comintern and the right-wing social democratic Second International for an inclusive conference of the world workers’ movement. In response, the ECCI declared that the Comintern would participate.[10] However, the French and Italian, Comintern sections rejected united-front policy and did not join in Comintern efforts with regard to this united-front consultation. The Comintern statutes empowered the ECCI to override such national decisions, but it did not do so, relying instead on a process of discussion and shared experience.

When the Fourth World Congress convened in November 1922, Zinoviev’s opening report zeroed in on the International’s failure to join in efforts around the “Conference of the Three Internationals” initiative:

Gregorii Zinoviev

I must say that what the French and to some extent the Italian party did was a disruption of the international campaign that our organization had initiated. We should see that clearly and take the necessary measures.[11]

Despite Zinoviev’s statement, the congress did not propose any action in response to this incident.

A congress resolution on “Reorganization of the Executive Committee” reaffirmed the authority of ECCI envoys but stressed the need to provide them with precise written instructions. The resolution’s proposal for direct election of ECCI members by the congress was adopted after some debate; other structural proposals were not controversial. The issue of enforcing international centralism was not addressed.[12]

The report and discussion of this issue, however, touched on issues that weighed heavily in the International’s later evolution. Hugo Eberlein, as reporter, stressed the need “for the Comintern to become, more and more, a truly centralised world party” in which the sections “view the central leadership of the International as truly a leading body.” Bukharin, reporting on Norway, said of the Comintern that “we are on the way to a constantly increasing centralisation.” Josef Grün of Austria said the International was moving from a time of agitation to one of “intensive organisational reconstruction.” Zinoviev echoed this call in his summary, calling for a time of “rehabilitating the parties.”

Hugo Eberlein

None of these goals were pursued in the congress resolution on reorganising the ECCI. Thus, where Eberlein’s report had proposed empowering ECCI envoys to exercise “close supervision” of national sections, the resolution limited this to “special cases.” Eberlein’s report had specified that the newly constituted organisational bureau was to supervise the organisation of the sections; this did not appear in the resolution.

As for international discipline, Ernst Meyer saw it as rooted in the consciousness of member sections, a situation where “every sister party knows the others and, in its own activity, takes into account the reaction in the sister parties and the consequences for them.” Trotsky, sorting out the troubled affairs of the French party, took care to reaffirm its autonomy, presenting the congress’s role as providing “guidelines” and “advice.” In the many national disputes brought before the congress (e.g. Denmark, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia), its commissions sought to avoid a partisan stance and to unify the Communist forces in each country.[13]

1923 Debate on International Centralism

Ernst Meyer

Seven months after the Fourth Congress, an enlarged ECCI Plenum conducted a general review of “limits” to the application of centralism in the International’s relations with its member parties. The discussion focused on relations with the Norwegian section

The Comintern’s affiliate in Norway was the Norwegian Labour Party, a mass federated organisation dating back to the pre-war Second International. Despite many promises to reorganise the party along the lines of the Twenty-One Conditions, its leadership had failed to do so. The Fourth Congress passed a forceful resolution, insisting again on compliance. Again, the Norwegian majority failed to act. At the 1923 enlarged ECCI plenum, delegates opted again for further discussion and organized an extensive debate of the underlying issues.

Much of the discussion on centralism at the plenum went in the direction of calling for increased ECCI involvement in parties’ local activity and tactics. However, no decision along these lines was adopted. Instead, the adopted resolution, focused on the Norwegian party, was careful not to encroach on the authority of its leadership in local matters. The plenum’s proposals for changes to the Norwegian party’s policy and structure were made in the form of recommendations.

After the failure of further ECCI efforts to reach agreement, the party majority brought matters to a head by voting in November 1923 to reject ECCI proposals. This triggered a walkout by a significant minority, which formed the Communist Party of Norway.

During the plenum, the leaderships of two major parties – in Italy and Bulgaria – were subjected to stinging criticism.

  1. In Italy, the Comintern’s section was held to have sabotaged a Fourth Congress decision to seek fusion with the Italian Socialist Party, long a Comintern supporter but social democratic in tradition. The ECCI voted to alter the party’s national leadership to secure representation within it of the Italian party’s pro-fusion minority. This decision was the first such ECCI intrusion into national leadership selection. However, the ECCI did not challenge the majority control of the section’s elected majority leadership. 
  2. In Bulgaria, the Communist Party had refused to defend the ruling radical peasant party against an attack by a murderous right-wing military coup. The ECCI report criticizing this failing was a stinging blow to the authority of the Bulgarian section’s leadership, but the ECCI plenum made no move to alter its composition.

Although the two plenum decisions respected the autonomy of the national sections in choosing their leadership, the plenum’s handling of the two crises was nonetheless questionable. The shortcomings of the national party leaderships in both countries had a common root cause – a failure to apply the Comintern’s policy of the united front. Yet this failing was not taken up by the ECCI reporters (Zinoviev and Radek) or in the subsequent discussion. In both cases the ECCI leadership in Moscow had failed to press the relevance of united-front policy to the Bulgarian and Italian communists and thus bore a share of responsibility for their failings. Silence on this issue suggested an evasion of the ECCI leaders’ responsibility, in the framework of democratic centralism, to submit their conduct for a searching review.

Balance Sheet

The early Communist International is historically unique in terms of the size and character of its membership: dozens of nationally based revolutionary sections that included forces of diverse origins and viewpoints and whose membership often reached into six figures. During the early 1920s, an increasing number of these parties faced fierce repression. Still, to the degree possible, these parties maintained democratic functioning and revolutionary inclusivity.

In the early years, internal debates, including at the highest level – the global congresses – were marked by a spirit of unrestrained criticism and political controversy. The Executive Committee defended the movement’s unity, for the most part with success. Political agreement within the International grew in these years.

The need for centralism in the world movement was most often invoked in terms of the need for national sections to carry out decisions of the Comintern’s leading bodies. In practice, “centralism” was sometimes achieved in an opposite manner: “front-line” forces often took the lead. The early Comintern record shows many examples of correction through experiences of the national sections and the thinking of their worker ranks.

The record of the Fourth World Congress suggests that, by 1922, the influence of front-line parties was felt in determining not only national tactics but international strategy. Among the congress debates profoundly influenced by proposals from delegates of front-line parties were the following five points:

  • Resistance to fascism.
  • Transitional demands.
  • Workers’ and farmers’ government.
  • The anti-imperialist united front.
  • The united front issue as a whole.

United-front policy, in particular, evolved from experiences at the rank-and-file level (see “The Origins of United Front Policy”).

Based on the record, the decisive factor in genuine centralisation was thorough discussion and collaboration among authoritative national leaderships. For detailed development of this point, see “The Comintern in 1922: The Periphery Pushes Back.”)

The often proclaimed goal of integrating national sections into a single centralized global revolutionary party remained elusive. The calls to centralise authority in the ECCI’s hands failed to take into account limits imposed by the Comintern’s actual political dynamics. As Zetkin pointed out in a private letter to Lenin on 25 January 1921, the ECCI was “far too cut off” to do more than “recognise the broad lines of development and deduce basic conclusions.” The ECCI “cannot possibly survey all the concrete circumstances that must be considered in carrying out the guidelines.” This limitation “is understandable, but it leads to errors.”[14]

Zetkin’s warning must be understood in the context of the realities of workers’ international collaboration a century ago. Commercial air travel was as yet unavailable; written messages and reports were restricted to the speed of train or boat; electronic communication was constricted to the severe limits of a now-forgotten artefact: the telegram.

Even now, in the era of Internet and intercontinental air travel, another decisive obstacle remains. The goal of leading the working-class majority in establishing workers’ power has to be achieved – now as then – on the level of the national state. Achieving this goal demands close mutual understanding and confidence between leadership and working-class ranks is decisive. This must be achieved above all in the framework of the intervention of national parties in the class struggle of their country.

Centralism in the early Comintern was achieved above all through globally coordinated campaigns, such as the efforts to defend and aid the young Soviet republic, which were strikingly successful. In practice, the decisive force for centralism – that is, the International’s unity in action – was not so much “iron discipline” as the knitting together of initiatives in Moscow and in the front line parties in great global mobilizations.

A Participant’s Assessment

U.S. Communist James P. Cannon, a founding leader of the Comintern and a prominent advocate of international centralism in the 1920s, left us a vivid description of how international centralism in Lenin’s Comintern worked out in practice:

James P. Cannon

The leaders of the Russian Revolution had an absolutely decisive moral and political authority. There were Lenin and Trotsky and Zinoviev and Radek and Bukharin – new great names that the revolutionary workers of the world were recognising as the authentic leaders of the revolution. These were the men who set up, with the aid of a few others, the Comintern, the Third International.

They had state power in their hands. They had unlimited funds, which they poured out generously to subsidise and support the foreign parties. When there was a difference of opinion in any party, with two or three factions growing up, they could subsidise delegations to travel from any part of the world to Moscow. The differing groups could have full representation before the executive body to discuss the issues. The international leaders could get a real picture on the spot, hearing the representatives of the different tendencies themselves, before offering advice. And that’s what they mainly offered in the early days – advice, and very few orders.

Speaking of representation, I was a delegate to Moscow five times. And every time I was there, delegates from other factions in the American CP were also there. At the Sixth Congress in 1928, we had about 20 delegates from the US, representing all three factions, and the whole expense was paid by the Comintern.

After the degeneration of the Russian party and the emergence of Stalinism, the centralism of the Comintern – which Trotsky and Lenin had handled like a two-edged sword, which they didn’t want to swing carelessly – became in the hands of Stalin an instrument for suppressing all independent thought throughout the movement.[15]

Cannon also described how he and another representative of a minority current in the U.S. party at the Fourth Congress set out to win the Comintern leadership to a proposal to support his tendency’s proposal to dissolve his party’s parallel underground structures. Many members initially criticized this proposal as a violation of Point 3 in the Twenty-One Conditions: (“Create everywhere a parallel organizational apparatus that in the crucial hour can help the party discharge its duty to the revolution.”) Nonetheless, the arguments of the U.S. minority convinced the ECCI members and won the day.[16]

The creative power of international consultation did not receive much comment at the time – it was simply taken for granted. Nor did early Comintern members take note of what now strikes us as a unique strength of their International – its membership’s diversity in ideological training, experience, and outlook.

As for the organizational resolution of 1921, although rarely invoked in subsequent discussions, its evocation of a dynamic fusion of centralism and democracy was largely realized as member parties restructured their activity around a coherent pattern of mass campaigns.

A pattern of course correction through feedback from the front-line parties, little noticed at the times, is clearly evident in International’s stenographic records, documents, and resolutions, many of which are now available in volumes of the Comintern Publishing Project.

At the time, the Comintern’s democratic practices seemed self-evident. The dynamic fusion of centralism and democracy evoked in the 1921 resolution received, despite Lenin’s appeal, little further analysis. Such silences undercut resistance to bureaucratic pressures in the mid-1920s and after that ultimately pressed the Comintern into a monolithic mould. Nonetheless, at the time of Lenin’s death in January 1924, the Comintern appeared to have achieved a measures of equilibrium in the application of democratic centralism within national sections.

Beginning at the Fifth World Congress in 1924, however, the Comintern’s central leaders campaigned for the extensive reorganization of its member parties (“Bolshevization”) along lines that radically reduced national autonomy and the scope for internal democracy while promoting the growth of bureaucracy in the Moscow center.[17]

The democratic centralism of the early Communist International thus remains today in large measure a hidden treasure, well worth the effort to discover.

See also Part 1: Applying Democratic Centralism

Other Posts on Comintern Organization


[1]. Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International (4WC), Chicago: Haymarket, 2011, pp. 293–305.

[2]. 4WC, p. 337. For Goethe text in translation, see Peter Lang, Poems of East and West, 1998.

[3]. 4WC, p. 44 (Radek); 3WC, p. 979 (resolution).

[4]. For a discussion of democratic centralism at the Fourth Congress, see 4WC, pp. 41-45.

[5]. 4WC, p. 42.

[6]. Humbert-Droz, Jules, De Lénine à Staline, Neuchâtel: A la Baconnière, 1971, 119–20.

[7]. The Fourth Congress adopted three resolutions on the French Communist party, on organization, political orientation, and “program of work and struggle,” which can be found in 4WC, 1013–17, 1123-32, 1194–8. 

[8]4WC, pp. 1088-89.

[9].  Mike Taber, ed., The Communist Movement at a Crossroads, Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922–1923 (hereinafter: Crossroads), Leiden: Brill, 2018, pp. 605-6)

[10]. Taber, Crossroads, pp. 222-4.

[11]. 4WC, p. 98.

[12]. 4WC, pp. 1133–7.

[13]. 4WC,pp. 41–45. 

[14]. 4WC, p. 45.

[15]. James P. Cannon, “Internationalism and the SWP,” in Speeches to the Party, New York: Pathfinder, 1973, pp. 73–4.

[16].  See Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism, New York: Pathfinder, 1973, pp. 64–73.

[17]. For a critical analysis of Zinoviev’s role, see Joel Geier, “Zinoviev and the Degeneration of World Communism,” International Socialist Review, no. 93.

  1. It’s a pity you don’t explain what democratic centralism means, or are you only talking to the exclusive few who do (or think they do)? It’s this elitist approach to fundamental issues that’s been the death of the left.

    Neither do you address the really important issue of what I call the separation of powers, that is to say, the issue of administrative functions and those of political decision-making (normally made, and CONTROLLED by the ‘central committee’).

    Virtually all Communist parties that I’m familiar with merged these two functions (and not only communist parties, I saw it at work so-to-speak, inside the African National Congress). Thus the fundamental democratic idea behind democratic centralism becomes merely a slogan controlled by the party hierarchy who also control not only the decison-making apparatus but also the actual administration of the party’s structure (the bureaucracy).

    An example of this that illustrates just how undemocratic communist parties are, can be seen at work in the example of how a Party Congress works (or doesn’t) when the administrative functions that regulate how a congress works are controlled by the Central Committee which, for example controls who may or may not, propose policy issues, resolutions from the floor (the delegates) of the Congress.

    When the party elite control the process of how the Congress (Party) is administered, they de facto control how political decision-making is controlled in THEIR favour. I saw this at work myself when I was delegate to the Young Communist League Congress in the 1960s. The Central Committee not only decided which resolutions (from the dlegates) were permitted to be debated, they also actually controlled the decision-making MECHANISM, the sub-committee that dealt with those proposals from the floor, going as far, for example, or locating that sub-committee in ANOTHER BUILDING and not informing delegates where it was! Call that democratic centralism? My arse!

    • Thank you for these important comments. I suggest you go back to PART ONE of this series and check out the discussion there of how to define democratic centralism. ( In that article, I note that the organizational culture of Lenin’s Comintern was more democratic in several important ways than what became common later on in organizations looking to the Comintern example. I give a link to an article that spells out this point. Please have a look. I would then like to continue this conversation. John Riddell

  2. Thanks, John, for your tireless work on the Comintern. It’s to your great credit that this history is now available – a “hidden treasure, well worth the effort to discover.” The extraordinary achievements of the world socialist movement should and can inspire us today.

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