Centralism

Marxist Dictionary

Tendency towards an organizational unification which expresses the character of the proletariat as a universal class.

Centralism is based on the identity and unity of interests that correspond to a class which does not fight for any particular privilege or interest, but for generic universal interests and human needs all over the world. That is why internationalism and centralism necessarily go hand in hand in every genuine expression of class struggle: if centralism affirms class unity within each of its expressions in a territory, internationalism affirms it among them.

Centralization is not the concentration of power in a few, it is power exerted by the whole class

In the working class, “centralism” does not mean adherence to a formal principle, namely the advocacy of a certain typology of command structures. And it certainly does not mean concentrating power in a single person or group, but on the contrary, extending the scope of decision of any class struggle organization to all its members, reflecting the universal character that permeates every class expression and putting it before any particularism, any sentiment or prejudice, imaginary privilege or real discrimination. In other words, centralism is the organizational expression of the idea of the unity of the class of the proletariat as a universal political subject.

Workers’ centralism is that of an assembly organizing a strike, not that of a board of directors standing on an organizational chart. When there is a strike, the spontaneous tendency is for its organization to fall into a single center: the assembly of all workers and for that assembly to bring together all workers regardless of their nationality, their sex, the employment contract they have – whether permanent or temporary – and who signs it – the main company or an auxiliary one. When the strike spreads, the committees (elected, with a direct mandate and revocable at any time) are united in turn into “delegate committees” which, when mobilizations become widespread, integrate in turn all kinds of representations of the non-exploiting classes through neighborhood, city, etc. assemblies.

The tendency towards unity is also present in community, defensive and working class expressions: resistance funds, solidarity networks, etc. only function and become valid spaces for the development of class consciousness if they are capable of overcoming in practice the identity divisions imposed by a society whose division into classes is expressed under a thousand particularisms and differentiated discriminations without possible historical overcoming within the capitalist system.

Centralism and the Party

The universal nature of the class is expressed in its entire historical being. Its total alienation from society, its being the negated class in any of the dimensions of capitalism, makes it live and assert the negation of every nationality and every particularism. This negation becomes a positive affirmation of the universality of its movement and its project.

This revolution is carried out by the class which society does not regard as such, does not recognize as a class, and already expresses the dissolution of all classes, nationalities, etc., within the present society

Marx and Engels. The German Ideology, 1846

In the organizational practice of the party this translates into centralism:

A pronounced centralist spirit exists throughout social democracy. Having grown up on the economic soil of capitalism, which tends to be centralist, and being obliged to wage its battle within the political framework of the great bourgeois centralized state, social democracy is, from birth, a determined enemy of all particularism and all federalism. Since social democracy has to defend the general interests of the proletariat as a class in the framework of a concrete state, against the partial and group interests of the proletariat, it shows the logical tendency to merge all the national, religious and professional groups of the working class into a single unitary party. (…) Social-democratic centralism has to be of an essentially different character from the Blanquist one; it cannot be anything else but the impetuous concentration of the will of the conscious and militant vanguard of the working class in front of its isolated groups and individuals, it is, so to speak, the “self-centralism” of the leading sector of the proletariat

Rosa Luxemburg. Organizational problems of Russian social democracy, 1904

Centralism is a natural tool for the development of class consciousness. By dissolving the boundaries and “identities” created by class society and capitalism within the proletariat, it affirms the unity and universality of its immediate historical project, socialism, while developing each concrete struggle to its maximum, which is also the maximum of its centralization.

It is therefore not surprising that already the first working class political organizations (Cabet’s “Icarian Communists” and Weitling’s “League of the Just”) operated centrally through permanently active international correspondence networks and unique congresses where the participants were genuine delegates delivering the proposals and results of the work on the texts under discussion from those who could not travel. That even in the first half of the nineteenth century equality was affirmed within a single organization for all its members, regardless of gender, nationality or ethno-religious origin, says much about the necessarily centralist nature of class political organization. Even more so if we put it in contrast with the forms of the petty bourgeoisie. Proudhonian federalism, the chaos of Bakuninist secrecy and the individualistic atomization of the student movements of ’68 or the “occupy” express well a class that tries to define itself through consumption and to generate cookie-cutter “identities”, as opposed to a class that is born of production and faces the alienation that is born of its social organization.

In the Second International, its left wing – Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Zetkin – fought hard against the formation of autonomous national “identity” groups and against the “federative” approach of the organization:

“Autonomy” under the Rules adopted in 1898 provides the Jewish working-class movement with all it needs: propaganda and agitation in Yiddish, its own literature and congresses, the right to advance separate demands to supplement a single general Social-Democratic programme and to satisfy local needs and requirements arising out of the special features of Jewish life. In everything else there must be complete fusion with the Russian proletariat, in the interests of the struggle waged by the entire proletariat of Russia. As for the fear of being “steam-rollered” in the event of such fusion, the very nature of the case makes it groundless, since it is autonomy that is a guarantee against all “steam-rollering” in matters pertaining specifically to the Jewish movement, while in matters pertaining to the struggle against the autocracy, the struggle against the bourgeoisie of Russia as a whole, we must act as a single and centralized militant organization, have behind us the whole of the proletariat, without distinction of language or nationality, a proletariat whose unity is cemented by the continual joint solution of problems of theory and practice, of tactics and organization; and we must not set up organizations that would march separately, each along its own track; we must not weaken the force of our offensive by breaking up into numerous independent political parties; we must not introduce estrangement and isolation and then have to heal an artificially implanted disease with the aid of these notorious “federation” plasters.

Lenin. “Does the Jewish Proletariat Need an “Independent Political Party?””, 1903

This approach was extended to all the “identities” that were considered at the time – of sex or generational – and which were later transferred to the Third International. As Clara Zetkin recalled in 1921 to those in charge of disseminating the International’s programme among women in each national section:

There is only one movement, only one organization of communist women -formerly socialist- within the communist party together with communist men. The aims of communist men are our aims, our tasks.

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