Fascinating and Fearsome: Democratic Centralism

Ryan Heshmati

April 15, 2022 (Last Updated May 3, 2022)

As I filled out my key terms list for a history class, one, in particular, stood out: democratic centralism. Immediately, my head was filled with Orwellian thoughts of “doublethink,” from his classic novel 1984. Democratic centralism, in its Leninist form, represents the party elites making decisions for all citizens. It sells enslavement of people’s rights to make decisions as a mode of democratic decision-making. In 1984, this is seen with the doublethink statement, “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.” The Bolsheviks argued that since elections determined party leaders, the system was a fair one to allow progress and maintain order, but within a corrupt and ironically aristocratic Soviet Union, the “democratic” aspects were left behind.

While the legislative arm of the Soviet Union, the Supreme Soviet, did have elections, they occurred in a surveillance state that crushed, or more accurately poisoned, the opposition. The idea, as defined by the 1917 Sixth Party Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, that, “...there shall be a strict Party discipline and the subordination of the minority to the majority,” is everything people of the free world oppose. Howard Zinn summed it up when he stated “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” Otherwise, when one adheres to the view that the majority deserves a mob rule, it opens way to very serious oppression. Within the Soviet Union, this led to a strict enforcement of Party-approved ideas and censorship of other views in both verbal and written forms. The problem with democratic centralism is the government’s grip continues to grow stronger. Citizens were not even permitted to move within their own country without obtaining internal passports in the USSR.   


Today, alternative political ideologies continue to gain popularity, many seeking to incorporate democratic centralism into the current government. It is important to note that many of the most authoritarian governments in the world today have “democratic” in their names. This connects to Mark Twain’s assertion, “It isn’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble, It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Many may argue democratic centralism is in the past, but the lesson one can learn from it holds far-reaching, current implications. It is important to wonder, are the ideas and systems that add a “democratic” prefix to them today really so?