Ideas for the Struggle #4 Should We Reject Bureaucratic Centralism and Use Only Consensus?

This is the fourth in a series of articles on “Ideas for the Struggle” by Marta Harnecker.

1.  For a long time, left-wing parties were authoritarian.  The usual practice was bureaucratic centralism, very much influenced by the experiences of Soviet socialism.  All criteria, tasks, initiatives, and courses of political action were decided by the party elite, without knowledge or debate on the part of the membership, who were limited to following orders that they never got to discuss and in many cases did not understand.  For most people, such practices are increasing intolerable.

2.  But in challenging this bureaucratic centralist deviation, it is important to avoid falling into the deviations of ultra-democracy, which result in more time being spent on discussion than action, since everything, even the most insignificant, gets subjected to sterile debates that frequently abort any concrete action.

3.  In criticizing the bureaucratic deviation of centralism, the recent tendency has been to reject all forms of central leadership.

4.  There is a lot of talk about the need to organize groups at all levels of society and have these groups apply strict internal democracy — ideas that we obviously share.  What we don’t share is the idea that no effort needs to be made to give them a common organic link.  In favor of democracy, flexibility, and the desire to fight on many different fronts, there are those who reject efforts to determine strategic priorities and to attempt to unify actions.

5.  For some, the one and only acceptable method is consensus.  They argue that by using consensus they are aiming not to impose decisions but instead interpret the will of all.  But the consensus method, which seeks the agreement of all and appears to be more democratic, can in practice be profoundly anti-democratic, because it grants the power of veto to a minority, to such an extreme that a single person can block the implementation of agreements that are supported by an overwhelming majority.

6.  Moreover, the complexity of problems, the size of the organization, and political timing that compels us to make quick decisions at specific junctures make it almost impossible to use the consensus method on many occasions, even if we leave aside its manipulative uses.

7.  I believe that there cannot be political efficacy without a unified leadership that defines the course of action to take at different moments of the struggle and that, to achieve this definition, it is vital to have extensive discussion, where everyone voices their opinion and where, in the end, positions that everyone has to carry out are agreed upon and adopted.

8.  For the sake of coordinated action, the lower levels of the organization, when making decisions, should take the instructions given by the higher levels into account, and those who have ended up in the minority should in practice accept the line that won the debate, carrying out the task together with all the other members.

9.  A political movement that seriously aspires to struggle to transform society cannot afford the luxury of harboring undisciplined members who disrupt the unity of action, without which no action is politically effective.

10.  This combination of single central leadership and democratic debate at different levels of the organization is what is called democratic centralism.  It is a dialectic combination: in complicated political periods, of revolutionary fervor or war, there is no other solution than to lean towards the pole of centralism; in periods of calm, when the rhythm of events is slower, the pole of democracy should be emphasized.

11.  Personally, I do not see how one can conceive of successful political action if unified action is not achieved, and for that reason I do not think that there is any other method than democratic centralism if consensus has not been reached.

12.  A correct combination of centralism and democracy motivates the leaders and, above all, the members to take initiative.  Only creative action at every level of the political or social organization can ensure the progress of our struggle.  An insufficient democratic life impedes the unleashing of the creative initiative of all the militants, with its consequent negative impact on their performance.  In practice, this initiative manifests itself in the sense of responsibility, dedication to work, courage, and aptitude for problem‑solving, as well as in the capacity to express opinions, to criticize defects, and exercise control, with comradely care, over the higher bodies of the organization.

13.  Only a correct combination of centralism and democracy can render efficacious the decisions that are made, because having engaged in the discussion and decision-making makes each participant more committed to carry them out.

14.  When applying democratic centralism, we must avoid attempts to use narrow majorities to try and crush the minority.  The more mature social and political movements believe that it is pointless to impose a decision adopted by a narrow majority.  They believe that, if a large majority of militants are not convinced of the course of action to take, it is better to hold off until the militants think it over and become convinced themselves that such action is correct.  This will help us avoid the disastrous internal divisions that have plagued movements and parties of the left and prevent big mistakes from being made.


Bibliography of Marta Harnecker’s Works on This Theme

La izquierda después de Seattle, Siglo XXI España, 2002.

La izquierda en el umbral del Siglo XXI. Haciendo posible lo imposible, México, Siglo XXI Editores, 1999; España, Siglo XXI Editores, 1ª ed., 1999, 2ª ed., 2000 y 3ª ed., 2000; Cuba, Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2000; Portugal, Campo das Letras Editores, 2000; Brasil, Paz e Terra, 2000; Italia, Sperling and Küpfer Editori, 2001; Canadá (francés), Lantôt Éditeur, 2001; El Salvador, Instituto de Ciencias Políticas y Administrativas Farabundo Martí, 2001.

Hacia el Siglo XXI, La izquierda se renueva, Quito, Ecuador, CEESAL, 1991

Vanguardia y crisis actual or Izquierda y crisis actual, Siglo XXI España, 1990.  Under the title Vanguardia y crisis actual: Argentina, Ediciones de Gente Sur, 1990; Uruguay, TAE Editorial, 1990; Chile, Brecha, 1990; Nicaragua, Barricada, 1990.  Under the title Izquierda y crisis actual: México, Siglo XXI Editores, 1990; Perú, Ediciones Amauta, 1990; Venezuela, Abre Brecha, 1990; Dinamarca, Solidaritet, 1992.

Marta Harnecker is originally from Chile, where she participated in the revolutionary process of 1970-1973.  She has written extensively on the Cuba Revolution and on the nature of socialist democracy.  She now lives in Caracas and is a participant in the Venezuelan revolution.  This article was translated by Federico Fuentes for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, in which it first appeared; it is revised and reproduced here for educational purposes.  The original article “¿Hay que rechazar el centralismo burocrático
y practicar sólo el consenso?” is available at <>.