centralization, democratic centralism, and decentralization

I’m collecting here how marxists in their own words define centralization, democratic centralism, and decentralization as part of an ongoing debate I’m having with friends over revolution, organization, and the economy. Also see sections H 5.5, 5.6, and 5.10 of the anarchist FAQ for definitions of democratic centralism, why anarchists oppose it, and why it produces so-called bureaucratic centralism, an alleged wrong turn of democratic centralism. http://infoshop.org/faq/secH5.html#sech55. Seeing even just this narrow of a selection of marxists (it leaves out all the social democrats, and left communists) demonstrates in my opinion that lack of any semblence of a coherent notion of centralization. Centralization is more of a buzz word for being effective than a rigorous material concept used in building revolutionary praxis.


Marx, Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League

"At the soonest possible moment after the overthrow of the present governments, the Central Committee will come to Germany and will immediately convene a Congress, submitting to it the necessary proposals for the centralization of the workers’ clubs under a directorate established at the movement’s center of operations."


Ernst Mandel, Vanguard Parties

"What does “centralization” mean? It means centralization of experience, centralization of knowledge, centralization of conclusions drawn out of actual militancy."


Marx, Capital Vol I

"Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. Thus integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated."


Marx, 18th of Brumaire

"Finally the parliamentary republic, in its struggle against the revolution, found itself compelled to strengthen the means and the centralization of governmental power with repressive measures. All revolutions perfected this machine instead of breaking it."


Marx, Civil War in France 

"The centralized state power, with its ubiquitous organs of standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy, and judicature – organs wrought after the plan of a systematic and hierarchic division of labor – originates from the days of absolute monarchy, serving nascent middle class society as a mighty weapon in its struggle against feudalism. Still, its development remained clogged by all manner of medieval rubbish, seignorial rights, local privileges, municipal and guild monopolies, and provincial constitutions. The gigantic broom of the French Revolution of the 18th century swept away all these relics of bygone times, thus clearing simultaneously the social soil of its last hinderances to the superstructure of the modern state edifice raised under the First Empire, itself the offspring of the coalition wars of old semi-feudal Europe against modern France."


Marx, Abolition of Landed Property

"National centralization of the means of production will become the natural basis of a society composed of associations of free and equal producers consciously acting upon a common and rational plan."




Centralisation (or centralism) is the process or policy of concentrating communications and decision-making in a single “nerve centre”. The term dates from the 18th century when it was used in relation to forms of government and colonial rule.

Decentralisation is the process of distributing power and activity as far as possible.

Marxists believe not only that a combination of the two is optimum (a truism) but that an organisation should aspire to be as decentralised as possible, but that when an organisation is under stress or suffers trauma is has to be capable of employing a much higher degree of centralism.

However, any organisation that is normally centralised and lacking in democracy usually finds it most difficult to respond to crisis and change when necessary. Over-centralism in a workers’ organisation, such as Stalinism, is a symptom of decline."


Engels, Principles of Communism

"Centralization of money and credit in the hands of the state through a national bank with state capital, and the suppression of all private banks and bankers."


Lenin, State and Revolution

"If the workers voluntarily unite their armed forces, this will be centralism, but it will be based on the “complete destruction” of the centralized state apparatus—the standing army, the police, and the bureaucracy."

"Now if the proletariat and the poor peasants take state power into their own hands, organize themselves quite freely in communes, and unite the action of all the communes in striking at capital, in crushing the resistance of the capitalists, and in transferring the privately-owned railways, factories, land and so on to the entire nation, to the whole of society, won’t that be centralism? Won’t that be the most consistent democratic centralism and, moreover, proletarian centralism?"

Lenin, Critical Remarks on the National Question

"Marxists are, of course, opposed to federation and decentralisation, for the simple reason that capitalism requires for its development the largest and most centralised possible states."


Lenin, Left Wing Communism in Germany

"The anti-Party group of Democratic Centralists, consisting of Sapronov, Osinsky, V. Smirnov and others, came out against the Party line. Behind a cover of phrases about Democratic Centralism but in fact distorting that principle, they denied the need for one-man management at factories, came out against strict Party and state discipline, and alleged that the Central Committee did not give effect to the principle of collective leadership."

Mao, Quotations from Mao

"The policy for political work in our army units is fully to arouse the rank and file, the commanders and all working personnel in order to achieve three major objectives through a democratic movement under centralized leadership, namely, a high degree of political unity, better living conditions, and better military technique and tactics." 


Mao, Rectify the Party’s Style of Work

"They forget the system of democratic centralism in which the minority is subordinate to the majority, the lower level to the higher level, the part to the whole and the entire membership to the Central Committee."


Mao, Combat Bourgeois Ideas In The Party

"The solution of all these problems hinges on strengthening collective leadership and opposing decentralism. We have all along opposed decentralism. The directive issued by the Central Committee to its bureaus and the army commanders on February 2, 1941 stipulated that all circular telegrams, declarations and inner-Party directives bearing on the country as a whole must have the prior approval of the Central Committee"

"The decision on strengthening Party spirit puts the stress on the strict observance of discipline under democratic centralism, in other words, the minority is subordinate to the majority, the individual to the organization, the lower level to the higher level and the entire Party to the Central Committee (a case of subordinating the majority to the minority, as this minority represents the majority)."


Trotsky, On Democratic centralism and the regime

"When the problem is political action, centralism subordinates democracy to itself. Democracy again asserts its rights when the party feels the need to examine critically its own actions."

Trotsky, The Transitional Program

"The inner structure of the Fourth International is based on the principles of democratic centralism: full freedom in discussion, complete unity in action."


Mao, On the 10 Major Relationships

"For instance, we are now having a meeting, which is centralization; after the meeting, some of us will go for a walk, some will read books, some will go to eat, which is independence."


Progressive Labor Party, On Democratic Centralism

" The Party is divided into cells, or clubs, which meet regularly to evaluate members’ work and to make suggestions about how to improve it, and to evaluate the Party’s positions and make suggestions for change. These suggestions are taken by the club leader to section meetings (made up of the club leaders and other leading comrades in an area, and by section leaders to the Central Committee. Based on the collective experience of the Party, the leadership decides on new positions (a new line) which all Party members are then bound to put into practice. Only if all of us put the same line into practice can we find out if the line works; if each of us goes our own way, we will never have the common strength of a united Party."




One thought on “centralization, democratic centralism, and decentralization


    We must look not only at the term but at the reality. There is no impassable gulf between democracy and centralism, both of which are essential for China. On the one hand, the government we want must be truly representative of the popular will; it must have the support of the broad masses throughout the country and the people must be free to support it and have every opportunity of influencing its policies. This is the meaning of democracy. On the other hand, the centralization of administrative power is also necessary, and once the policy measures demanded by the people are transmitted to their own elected government through their representative body, the government will carry them out and will certainly be able to do so smoothly, so long as it does not go against the policy adopted in accordance with the people’s will. This is the meaning of centralism. Only by adopting democratic centralism can a government be really strong, and this system must be adopted by China’s government of national defence in the anti-Japanese war.

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