In our view, "democratic centralism" means a democratic organisation cohesive enough it can act collectively, and promptly in crises, and with a continuously active rather than passive or only occasionally active membership.
All the rest is detail, and can change according to circumstances.
Some other groups on the left, including the anti-Stalinist left, interpret "democratic centralism" more in the style of the "monoliths" imposed on Communist Parties under the slogan of "Bolshevisation" by Zinoviev in 1924-5, or even of the later Stalinist super-monolithism.
In contrast, it is written into the constitution that AWL activists have not only the right but also the duty to be open about it when they disagree with the line of the majority or of the elected committees. We have the obligation to be active and reliable week by week, and to cooperate in duly-decided collective actions. We do not have the obligation to pretend to believe something different from what in fact we think: a rule imposing such an obligation harms the mainspring of revolutionary activism, which is the will to speak up one's ideas.
The term "democratic centralism" was first coined not by the Bolsheviks but by the Mensheviks, and based on the more vigorous organisational model adopted by the (previously very ramshackle) German Social Democratic party at its Jena congress in 1905. At that time no-one disputed the general formula. There was argument only about details and interpretations.
The Social Democratic parties abjured "democratic centralism" after World War 1, essentially because they wanted their parliamentarians and trade-union officials to be free from democratic control by the membership. That Social-Democratic hostility to "democratic centralism" gained influence among more left-minded people in reaction against how Zinoviev and Stalin twisted the formula.
Lenin wrote the following in 1906, soon after the term "democratic centralism" had started to become current.
He referred to a decision of the then Menshevik-majority Central Committee.
"In view of the fact that several Party organisations have raised the question of the limits within which the decisions of Party congresses may be criticised, the Central Committee, bearing in mind that the interests of the Russian proletariat have always demanded the greatest possible unity in the tactics of the RSDLP, and that this unity in the political activities of the various sections of our Party is now more necessary than ever, is of the opinion: (1) that in the Party press and at Party meetings, everybody must be allowed full freedom to express his personal opinions and to advocate his personal views; (2) that at public political meetings members of the Party should refrain from conducting agitation that runs counter to congress decisions; (3) that no Party member should at such meetings call for action that runs counter to congress decisions, or propose resolutions that are out of harmony with congress decisions.”
"In examining the substance of this resolution, we see a number of queer points. The resolution says that at Party meetings full freedom is to be allowed for the expression of personal opinions and for criticism (¤1), but at public meetings (¤2) no Party member should call for action that runs counter to congress decisions. But see what comes of this: at Party meetings, members of the Party have the right to call for action that runs counter to congress decisions; but at public meetings they are not allowed full freedom to express personal opinions!
"Those who drafted the resolution have a totally wrong conception of the relationship between freedom to criticise within the Party and the Party’s unity of action. Criticism within the limits of the principles of the Party Programme must be quite free (we remind the reader of what Plekhanov said on this subject at the Second Congress of the RSDLP), not only at Party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism, or such agitation (for criticism is inseparable from agitation) cannot be prohibited. The Party’s political action must be united. No calls that violate the unity of definite actions can be tolerated either at public meetings, or at Party members, or in the Party press.
"Obviously, the Central Committee has defined freedom to criticise inaccurately and too narrowly, and unity of action inaccurately and too broadly.
"Let us take an example. The Congress decided that the Party should take part in the Duma elections. Taking part in elections is a very definite action. During the elections (as in Baku today, for example), no member of the Party anywhere has any right whatever to call upon the people to abstain from voting; nor can criticism of the decision to take part in the elections be tolerated during this period, for it would in fact jeopardise success in the election campaign. Before elections have been announced, however, Party members everywhere have a perfect right to criticise the decision to take part in elections. Of course, the application of this principle will sometimes give rise to disputes and misunderstandings; but only on the basis of this principle can all disputes and misunderstandings be settled honourably for the Party. The resolution of the Central Committee, however, creates an impossible situation.
"The Central Committee’s resolution is essentially wrong and runs counter to the Party Rules. The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticism which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided on by the Party.
"We think that the Central Committee has made a big mistake by publishing a resolution on this important question without first having it discussed in the Party press and by Party organisations; such discussion would have helped it to avoid the mistakes we have indicated".
Lenin used the term "democratic centralism" as a commonplace of effective organisation, not as a special new form, still less a special new form that he had invented. In a letter during World War One to left-wingers in the USA, he wrote: "We defend always in our press democracy in the party. But we never speak against the centralisation of the party. We are for democratic centralism. We say that the centralisation of the German labour movement is not a feeble but a strong and good feature of it. The vice of the present Social-Democratic Party of Germany consists not in centralisation but in the preponderance of the opportunists..."
Democratic centralism was and is a common-sense description of any organisation which is to act cohesively but on the basis of discussion. A choir which discusses democratically what it will sing, and then has all the different singers sing their parts in unison, is democratic centralist.
Revolutionary socialist politics needs a special sort of democracy and a special sort of centralism. It needs a democracy which comprises not just the formalities of voting, but well-informed debate on all the big political questions, driven by a truly revolutionary ardour for truth, and by a membership seriously educated in the whole heritage of socialist theory; and a rigorous accounting for mistakes.
It needs centralism, obviously, in the sense of the organisation acting cohesively to carry out majority-decided policies - to run campaigns, to circulate publications, to throw its influence one way or another on disputed issues in the labour movement.
It needs it more specifically in three senses. The organisation must collectively control its members who get positions in trade unions, or in parliaments and municipalities, rather than let them succumb to the pressures and influences of their positions.
The organisation must ensure that all its members are active, educated, and involved in the organisation's inner life. It must not, like social-democratic parties, have a big swathe of members who do little or whose political focus is elsewhere, in trade-union routine for example. If there are members who don't really know the issues in the organisation's debates, or don't have the necessary background education, or feel little commitment to carry out the eventual decisions, then the organisation's debates cannot be sharp and will often (as in social-democratic parties) be fudged, or swayed by demagogy or inertia.
Since the class struggle has sharp twists, the organisation must be able to reorient quickly and decisively. As Lenin put it in that same letter: "If in any given crisis the small group (for instance our Central Committee is a small group) can act for directing the mighty mass in a revolutionary direction, it would be very good". That capacity is established not by rules, but by the leading committees leading debates in the organisation with insight and honesty, so that they earn political authority.
Within those general guidelines, detailed forms of a revolutionary socialist organisation vary widely. In an intense and rapidly-changing political crisis, the organisation will need to be more brusquely "centralist" than in quieter times. One plague of revolutionary socialist organisations has been to take makeshifts which the Bolsheviks adopted in the Russian civil war - or in its aftermath when they faced problems of economic calamity, mass peasant discontent, and dispersal of working-class cadres - as the norm for all times.
Trotsky wrote: "We must not forget that even if we are centralists, we are democratic centralists who employ centralism only for the revolutionary cause and not in the name of the ‘prestige’ of the officials. Whoever is acquainted with the history of the Bolshevik Party knows what a broad autonomy the local organizations always enjoyed; they issued their own papers, in which they openly and sharply, whenever they found it necessary, criticized the actions of the Central Committee.
"Had the Central Committee, in case of principled differences, attempted to disperse the local organizations or to deprive them of literature (their bread and water) before the party had an opportunity to express itself—such a central committee would have made itself impossible.
"Naturally, as soon as it became necessary, the Bolshevik Central Committee could give orders. But subordination to the committee was possible only because the absolute loyalty of the Central Committee toward every member of the party was well known, as well as the constant readiness of the leadership to hand over every serious dispute for consideration by the party.
"And, finally, what is most important, the Central Committee possessed extraordinary theoretical and political authority, gained gradually in the course of years, not by commands, not by beating down, but by correct leadership, proved by deeds in great events and struggles".
(Leon Trotsky, The Crisis in the German Left Opposition, February 1931, Writings, 1930-31, p. 155)