Skip to content

Eight-Episode TV Documentary Series: Preparing For Danger In Times Of Safety, Episode Six

{Editor’s Note: In June 2006, Beijing released an eight-episode TV documentary series: Preparing For Danger In Times Of Safety – Historic Lessons Learned from the Demise of Soviet Communism. It was a research project conducted by the government think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Science. Afterwards, the Chinese Communist Party instructed party members across the nation to watch the series and launch serious discussions. The script of the prelude of the documentary quotes Hu Jintao’s words, “There are multiple factors contributing to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a very important one being Khrushchev throwing away Stalin’s knife and Gorbachev’s open betrayal of Marxism-Leninism.” The full text of the narratives has been translated. What follows is the sixth episode.}

Episode Six: The Organizational Course Of The Communist Party Of The Soviet Union

In 1918, the first newly born socialist country in the world was facing a test of life and death. In order to smash the imperialists’ conspiracy to kill the Soviet regime, Lenin, using his strategic wisdom and vision, and proposed to engage in unilateral peace talks with Germany at a time when the Allies, including the United Kingdom, France, the U.S., and Japan, refused to recognize the Soviet regime. However, at first, the majority of the party members did not approve of this proposal.

On February 23, 1918, after repeated persuasive discussions, the CPSU’s Central Committee voted again and formally passed Lenin’s proposal, with 7 votes of yes, 4 no, and 4 abstentions. Thereafter, the Soviet Union signed the very restrictive “Blister Peace Agreement” with Germany.

Nevertheless, Bukharin insisted upon his view and opposed Lenin’s proposal at the 7th Congress of the CPSU. Lenin said, “On the issue of engaging in separate peace talks, some comrades had very different opinions and strongly criticized the central leadership… This is quite natural. This is the very legitimate right of a party member; it’s completely understandable.” What we are discussing here is not the “Blister Peace Agreement” per se, but the process of how the agreement was passed. The process demonstrated how Lenin set the best example for the implementation of the Democratic Centralism that he himself initiated.

“Give me an organization of revolutionists, and I will be able to turn Russia upside down.”

This is one of Lenin’s famous statements. After establishing the organization, he set a series of policies and principles for the organization. The most fundamental one was Democratic Centralism.

Marx and Engels had proposed and employed the basic principle of Democratic Centralism as early as when they were guiding the activities of the international proletarians, particularly the German Social Democratic Party.

Lenin inherited and advanced this principle while leading the Russian revolution and the party’s development. In December 1905, the concept of “Democratic Centralism” was used with conviction for the first time at the 1st Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Worker’s Party organized by the Bolsheviks. It was emphasized in the resolution that “the principle of Democratic Centralism is indisputable.”

In April 1906, the “Organization Guidelines” was passed based on Lenin’s proposal in the 4th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Worker’s Party. Article 2 specified, “All of the party’s organizations shall be established on the principle of Democratic Centralism.”

This was the first time that Democratic Centralism was written into the (Communist) Party’s Constitution.
In July 1920, the “Prerequisites to Join the Communist International” that Lenin drafted specified that, “Parties that join the Communist International should be established on the principle of Democratic Centralism.”

Since then, Democratic Centralism has become the universal organizational principle that the communist parties of all countries around the world must follow.

When Lenin was alive, group decision-making was adopted within the party. The nucleus of the party’s leadership was the Central Committee. At the time when there were only a few members of the central committee, it was quite easy to start a meeting and make a group decision. When a decision was being made, every member had equal rights to express his opinion. The final decision was made based on a majority of votes after thorough discussion. Each member got only one vote.

At various meetings of the party, the majority of people usually regarded Lenin’s speeches highly, but it also often invited sharp criticism from a few representatives. Lenin always listened carefully to them.

The party had a supreme leader and leaders at different levels, but there was no worshipping of any individual. Every party member fully enjoyed the rights ensured by the party Constitution. There was no discrimination as to ranking position or special members whatsoever. Leadership at all levels of party agencies had to be chosen through election; had to report their work to the party members; and were replaceable. Lenin believed that (party members) have the freedom to discuss, criticize, and express different opinions within the party, “Without the freedom to discuss and criticize, proletarians will not agree that it is unified action.”

At the party meetings then, there was no flattery; having criticism was as natural as human beings’ need for air. Lenin emphasized that one should listen to different opinions, even his opponent’s opinions. In 1921, when the “workers opposition group” in the party was being disbanded, Lenin required to seriously consider the issues that the “workers opposition group” was particularly concerned about, such as “opposing bureaucracy, advancing democracy, worker’s self-governing spirit, and any other practical suggestions.”

While Lenin emphasized the democratic process within the party including protecting any minority individual’s rights, he also especially emphasized the party’s centralization at the same time. In particular, (he) emphasized that the minority must obey the majority; parts must obey the whole body; no factional activities or tendencies of anarchism were tolerated within the party. Lenin clearly pointed out, “Actions are unified; discussion and criticism are free.” This “is the principle that democratic parties of advanced classes should have.”

Particularly after the victory of the October Revolution, with the interference of foreign armed forces, the serious situation of domestic war, the disruption of the party’s unification by domestic and foreign hostile forces from political, ideological, organizational and other aspects, as well as the dissemination of non-proletarian thought within the party, Lenin strongly emphasized the party’s centralization, unification and discipline. He said, “Proletarian’s unconditional centralization…is one of the essential preconditions to defeat the bourgeoisie.” “Whoever weakens the proletarian party’s iron principle, even by only a little bit, is actually helping the bourgeoisie to oppose proletarians.”

This was the essence and original form of the Democratic Centralism that Lenin proposed, established, and championed.

After the October Revolution, due to the imperialist’s armed interference and domestic anti-revolutionist’s armed rioting, the Bolsheviks were forced to use extreme centralism. The top power was centralized in the Politburo of the Central Committee; appointment of party leaders replaced election; and battle command was the way of working. It ensured the young Soviet regime would pull through the serious crisis. However it also weakened the democratic life within the party, restricted the majority of the party members’ democratic rights, and made some party leaders become tyrannous, privilege seeking, bureaucratic, and divorced from the people.

Regarding the situation of the Russian Communist Party at the time, Lenin proposed to enhance and perfect the oversight mechanisms within the party so as to ensure the implementation of the party’s Democratic Centralism by setting up an independent inner-party monitoring agency with high authority.

Under Lenin’s direction, the oversight mechanisms of the CPSU advanced greatly from the 9th to 12th CPSU Congress. From 1921 to 1922, Lenin personally hosted the CPSU’s 10th and 11th Congress, where “The Resolution of the Central Auditing Commission” and “The Regulations of the Central Auditing Commission,” were respectively passed. In 1923, Lenin, critically ill, wrote the article “How We Reorganize the Auditing Institute of Workers and Peasants” for the 12th Congress. The article scientifically elucidated the party and government’s oversight principle and mechanism.

The 11th CPSU Congress was the last party Congress Lenin attended. Under his leadership, (the party) established a complete inner-party oversight system, and formed a CPSU Control Committee and a Central Auditing Commission. It was required that members must have over 10 years of party membership.

The CPSU Control Committee was composed of 3 people, mainly responsible for examining the work of the party’s central agencies and the Secretariat of The Central Committee, as well as auditing the Central Committee’s budget. The Central Auditing Commission and all lower level commissions were elected by each corresponding level of the CPSU Congress, and were responsible for monitoring the work of each level of government.

During the early period when Stalin was the general secretary, the party’s Democratic Centralism and oversight mechanisms were well executed. Not only could the party’s Central Committee’s meetings be normally held, but debates of different opinions or public criticisms of Stalin in newspapers were allowed. When the Politburo was having a meeting, Stalin usually didn’t say anything, walking around the meeting table with a smoking pipe. After listening carefully to the speech from every comrade, he would then make his statement as the last one and make a decision after the meeting. The Soviet Constitution in 1936 went through discussion across the country for five and half months before the Soviet Congress passed it. On the eve of the German Fascists invasion of the Soviet Union, the evening of June 21, 1941, Stalin led the Politburo in a meeting until the following dawn.

After the 17th CPSU Congress in 1934, Stalin’s position in the party was already unshakable, his authority was beyond anyone else, and people’s praise of him kept rising. On many issues, he became overly confident, even acting on his own will without consulting others. For 13 years from the 18th Congress in 1939 to the 19th Congress in 1952, the CPSU Congress could not be held on time. Although the war was a factor for the delay, the deciding factor was that the inner-party political activities were not normal. Evidence of this is that, after the war ended, in the five years from 1947 to 1952, not even once did the party hold a plenary session of the Central Committee. If one opens the original document of the CPSU Politburo’s resolutions in 1934, it’s very rare to find a resolution that was passed by the Politburo’s votes. Most of them resulted from Stalin’s oral dictation, which was then transcribed by the secretaries. Many of the September documents were specially labeled as “Opinions Not Consulted Yet.”

However, it cannot be concluded that Stalin made all of the decisions individually. Zhukov, a senior leader in the CPSU and the army at the time, said in his memoirs, “During the whole period of the war, there were more than 200 meetings held by the CPSU’s Politburo, Central Committee’s Organization Department, and Secretariat of the Central Committee, discussing important issues including national defense, diplomacy, and economic development. The National Defense Committee led by Stalin passed more than 10,000 resolutions.” In the National Defense Committee, “there were often opposing opinions…. If no agreement was reached, the representatives from each opposing side would form a special committee. Then at the following meeting, they would present a proposal to the table that both sides agreed on.”

Starting with Stalin’s time, the monitoring and surveillance policies that Lenin himself established were not well implemented.

In 1934, The party Constitution passed by the 17th Congress of the CPSU had a new regulation on the role of the Central Auditing Commission, limiting its power to only 3 purviews: monitor the central committee’s execution of the resolution; investigate and hear the cases of those violating party discipline; investigate and hear the cases of those violating the party’s morals. Thus, the monitoring authorities were limited to checking the activities of subordinate agencies, the activities of opposing factions, and party members with different views. It was impossible for them to monitor the party agencies and the associated members at the same level.

The monitoring departments designed to check the bureaucracy also presented a serious problem in that they had become bureaucratic. They often only did it as a formality, even though they were checking on subordinate level party agencies and cadres. The more such things took place, the more disrespect it caused among the subordinate agencies.

The abnormal party democratic activities and non-functional oversight within the party greatly helped the propagation of bad conduct inside the party. When discussing the draft of the political report of the 18th Congress, only compliments from the Politburo members were heard. Stalin said, “The report you discussed was outdated. You haven’t seen the new version.” After a momentary embarrassment, Beriya who was good at flattery said, “The draft was already very good. One can only imagine how wonderful the revised one by comrade Stalin will be.

The habit of not speaking the truth and currying favor within the CPSU at the time was quite evident.

Stalin sometimes treated comrades with different views in the wrong way of “struggling cruelly, striking mercilessly,” broadening or even seriously broadening the scope of the strike. Because of this, it became very difficult to express different voices in the party. Only certain individuals held the right to explain the truth.

During the time of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, although “group leadership” was emphasized in formality, it was only a modification of a “one-man decision” to “a few people’s decision.” It did not actually carry out Democratic Centralism, not to mention inner-party oversight.

Party meetings, especially the CPSU Congress, according to the party’s Constitution, is an important way to carry out Democratic Centralism and oversight. However, according to a district party committee of the Republic of Kazakhstan’s document, in the 72 meetings during 1974 and 1975, only 12 people out of the more than 600 speakers raised different opinions from the party leader. The rest almost unanimously spoke meaningless, complimentary words.

Those who dared to speak truth and critics were subject to attacks and persecution. A senior engineer at the Southern Ural Railway Bureau spoke at a meeting for implementing the guidance of the 25th Congress of the CPSU, stating that Brezhnev’s working report to the Congress lacked the spirit of sufficient criticism, and that excess compliments and praise of his achievements were personal worship. Thereafter, this person was dismissed from the party.

During that period of time, the party newspaper once opened columns for monitoring and oversight. However, the targets were all middle or lower level cadres. Occasionally, there were one or two pieces criticizing high-level cadres, but they were published after the cadres had stepped down from their position.

Brezhnev, in his early days, made a partial revision of Khrushchev’s administrative system and organization line:

(He) abolished “Industrial Party,” and “Agricultural Party.” He enhanced central leadership of the local administrative system and ensured relative stability among the cadres. Overall, such a revision had a positive role at the time, but it didn’t solve the fundamental problems and also brought about new shortcomings.

In the later stages of Brezhnev’s time, the phenomenon of violating the principle of Democratic Centralism, abandoning inner party oversight, replacing the wisdom of the majority with the views of certain individuals or a few people, and using power to suppress the truth occurred again. The consequences were policy mistakes and even failures.

In 1979, the political situation in Afghanistan faced uncertainty. Afghanistan leaders asked the Soviet Union to send the army to help. At the March conference of the CPSU Politburo, it was universally agreed that, “There is no reason to send the army.” On December 4, five people – Brezhnev, Secretariat of The Central Committee Suslov, KGB Chair Andropov, Foreign Minister Gromyko, and Defense Minister Ustinov – held a secret meeting and changed the politburo’s decision. They sent an army to Afghanistan.

The war lasted 10 years; 50,000 soldiers lost their lives, costing tens of billions of dollars, and bringing suffering to countless families. It became the Soviet Union’s “bleeding injuries.”

In the era of Gorbachev, he walked away from the principle of Democratic Centralism, and pushed “democratization” to another extreme. At the CPSU Central Committee’s Plenary Session in February 1990, Gorbachev proposed, “reconsidering the principle of Democratic Centralism, putting an emphasis on democratization and the rights of party members.”

In the relationship between the superior and inferior, Gorbachev proposed an “autonomous-governing principle.” Between the central and local governments, the allied republics could refuse to execute if their central party would not agree with the CPSU Politburo’s resolution. This implied that the CPSU was no longer a combat organization with unified will and action.

This Plenary Session marked that the Soviet Union made big strides in political transformation. It also indicated that big changes would occur in the Soviet Union. Under the banner of “democratization,” and “openness,” the thought of bourgeois liberalism was allowed to come out. This was exactly what Gorbachev needed so as to establish his wrong political path. He wanted to speed up multi-party politics and privatization in the Soviet Union, and speed up the disintegration of the CPSU. Thus, those who favored capitalism in the party further amplified the effects, whereas other leaders in the Central Committee stepped backwards.

This is the other adverse result of the CPSU’s long time over centralization of power – dissemination of bourgeois liberalism. Bourgeois liberalism champions the so-called absolute democracy and freedom, literally denying any authority and organization discipline. In the end, the result was to propagate the capitalist-governed authority, style, and freedom.

In July 1990, the CPSU held the 28th Congress. Gorbachev publicly criticized the principle of “Democratic Centralism” in his report, saying, “There is a strong desire in the party to remove the principle from the party Constitution, because all the past practices have made the principle notoriously harmful.”

In the party Constitution passed by that Congress, the article of “The guiding principle of the party’s organization apparatus, all life, and activities is Democratic Centralism,” was formally eliminated.

Democratic Centralism and inner-party oversight as the CPSU’s principles of life and activity were thus completely discarded.

It’s worth noting that Gorbachev carried out his wrong path with his extreme individual and very communist method under the mask of so-called “democratization.” In the Politburo meetings, he usually didn’t listen to the opinions of other members, talked for one or two hours endlessly, and then decided it as the party’s direction. On August 24, 1991, without any legal procedure, it was actually his own decision to announce the automatic dissolution of the CPSU.

The cadre line is an important component of the organization line. It was because of this that Stalin made the famous statement, “After establishing the correct political line, tested by practice, the party cadres are the determining force of the party and the nation’s leadership.”

The political line of the CPSU determined its cadre line. After the political line was set, the issue of the cadres is the key to holding power and developing the nation for the party. The reason that the CPSU disintegrated was associated with its many mistakes in the cadres’ work.

The CPSU’s Constitution clearly defined that all levels of party agencies should be decided via election. Actually, in Stalin’s later time, a few individuals decided on some of the candidates at various levels of the party organization in advance. The election in the party was merely to go through the formality of the legal procedures. The 25-person central presidium (equivalent of the Politburo) of the 19th CPSU Congress was declared after Stalin and a couple of individuals made the decision.

The way that individual leaders appointed cadres, thus replacing the election mechanism to determine the leadership and cadres, placed many leaders out of the purview of necessary oversight, and ignored the opinions of the majority of party members. It even provided a convenient means for some special careerists to practice nepotism and discharge opponents.

Khrushchev was studying at the Institute of Technology at a time when the struggle within the party was fierce. Like many other party members, he stood at Stalin’s side. At the same time, he tried to send the message of being “loyal” through various avenues, in particular, through Stalin’s wife who was studying at the same institute. Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs, “My promotion was because Stalin paid attention to me through his wife Nadezhda. She praised me in front of Stalin. Stalin then asked Kaganovich to help me.” Thereafter, Khrushchev’s flattery of Stalin reached an insurmountable degree.

Decades later, Gorbachev also had a similar recollection. He said, while he was the secretary of the Central Secretariat Office, “Chernenko told me, Brezhnev knew you were on his side and loyal to him. He cares about that a lot.” This became an untold rule in the CPSU’s cadre promotion.

Because of the abandonment of Democratic Centralism, on the issue of cadre selection, the party’s political standards and the principles of both virtue and talent were replaced by nepotism. The tendency of intentionally developing loyal cadres and forming factions was quite popular. In Brezhnev’s period, when considering whether a cadre could be promoted, the primary condition was not the person’s level of talent, but rather whether he could develop a relationship with Brezhnev’s faction.

Brezhnev graduated from the Czechoslovakia Metallurgy Institute. He once worked for a long time in Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, Moldavia, and Kazakhstan. By his side, he accumulated a number of subordinates loyal to him, but they did not have virtue and talent. Many were his former subordinates and friends from where he had studied and worked. They were called the “Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk Gang.”

The “Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk Gang” was very powerful and had a prominent status then. Tikhonov, mediocre in both virtue and talent, was appointed as the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union only because he was Brezhnev’s fellow villager and alumnus.

When Gorbachev was in power, he exaggerated the dark side of the party, skillfully set up various titles to appoint people by favoritism, and made major changes in the cadres. He especially replaced the cadres opposing his so-called “reform,” (namely, those who persisted on the socialist road), with the cadres who supported his indiscriminate westernization. Within only more than a half year after he took office, he reorganized the Central Secretariat Office and the Politburo, adding 8 new and alternate members to the Politburo, and the Central Secretariat Office, and dismissing 2 people. Meanwhile, he replaced more than 20 ministers and dozens of leaders at the ministry level in the Soviet Council of Ministers and various departments in the Central Committee of the CPSU. In a short several years, 92.5% of the party secretaries of the 150 border areas, states, and municipalities were replaced.

To cadres working in the ideological area, Gorbachev was even more so, promoting the ones along his line and dismissing those against him. After Gorbachev became General Secretary, he immediately appointed Alexander Yakovlev, who had been demoted to Canada as Ambassador for 10 years because of his deep-seeded hatred toward the Socialist Soviet Union, as the head of the Department of Propaganda of the CPSU. In 1986 and in 1987, he was also promoted very quickly as a member of the Secretariat of the CPSU Central Committee and Politburo. Matlock, the former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union said that Gorbachev’s promoting Yakovlev to take care of the ideology domain was to “pick leaders of the news media as his main responsibility.” Under Yakovlev’s management, from 1986 to 1988, a number of the most influential Soviet publications were successively taken over by “new people.” These included Izvestia, Spark pictorial, Moscow News, The Communist Youth League Pravda, Argument and Fact weekly, Moscow Pravda, The Moscow Communist Youth League Member Newspaper, Youth magazine, New World magazine, and so on. The personnel of editorial departments of the CPSU’s newspaper Pravda, the magazine Communist, and Economics Newspaper also went through large-scale reshuffles. The chief editor of The Communist Journal, the CPSU’s most important theoretical publication, Kosolapov, a pundit of Marxist theory, was dismissed. Thereafter, these Soviet’s most influential mainstream publications fanned the flames and swayed public opinion. They acted as the front-runners for the collapse of CPSU and the disintegration of Soviet Union.

Gorbachev’s wrong cadre policy further created unprecedented ideological chaos in the CPSU, the government, and among army cadres. The serious problems of the CPSU’s cadre policy enormously damaged the party’s prestige. It created the general cadres, the party members, and the people’s loss of trust in the party. They became indifferent to the CPSU’s resolutions and instructions. All levels of organizations and the entire cadre troops were also paralyzed. It was thus conceivable that “decisions could not reach outside the Kremlin.”

At this point, the collapse of the CPSU was inevitable.