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Defining the term socialist party

A Party that follows Marxist and Leninist ideals in a socialist system functions in an entirely different way than its counterparts in western democracies. The following text addresses the differences in the way in which political parties are understood in the two systems and attempts to highlight the main distinguishing features. We will start by reminding ourselves of the main elements that form our understanding of what a party is in a democratic system, as described in basic course 1 and in other sections of this education server:

The understanding of the term party in a democratic system

The illustration opposite demonstrates one of the most central features of parties active in democratic systems: A party links "the people" with the political system "the state". This linking is two directional: Firstly, parties articulate the interests of the people and feed these interests into society's decision-making centre. Secondly, parties keep citizens informed about the political decisions that have been taken in a political system.

In a democracy, political parties are just one of many institutions performing a mediating role between the political system and society. A wide range of other independent political organizations are also extremely active in this so-called intermediate sphere; these include associations, civil-action groups, other political parties and the media. The term pluralism is a word used to express this state of affairs.

While they share a mediating role, there is one large difference between these other mediatorial organizations and political parties: Political parties want to exercise direct influence on the decisions made in a given political system using parliament and other state bodies. Indeed, it is for this very reason that they put themselves forward for election. While it is true that other organizations - in particular associations - also try to influence the decision-making process, this participation is different in that it has not been legitimized by the electorate. Of all the organizations and institutions in this intermediate sphere, it is political parties alone that extend their influence into the area of 'state' to differing degrees.

One definition of parties in a democratic system of government might be as follows:

A party is an association of citizens that links pluralistic society with the political system. A party performs a mediating role. In addition to this, it also contributes to the decision-making process in a given political system or attempts to gain a position in which it can contribute. Contribution of this sort to the decision-making process is legitimized by the electorate.

The understanding of the term party in a socialist system

As the illustration opposite demonstrates one of the key aspects of a socialist system is the way in which the Communist Party projects itself into the areas of "state" and "the people" engulfing all. Rather than the party being a part of an intermediate system linking the people and the political system, the party is the system. The party feeds its own interests into the political system rather than articulating the interests of the populace. As a result of this, a (single) party in a socialist system is not a mediator between society and the political system as described above.

Moreover, the number of actors depicted by the two illustrations are different in number. In the socialist model there are no civil-action groups, associations or media - only one party. The reason for this is that civil-action groups do not exist in socialist states. Indeed, the Communist Party has a constitutionally founded monopoly of power, which serves in ruling out the existence of other autonomous parties. Elections in socialist nations are not free in the democratic sense of the word. The electorate are not free to 'choose' between alternatives. The "Party" in a socialist state is not legitimized by the electorate. Justification for party power is derived from Marxist and Leninist ideology.

In contrast to their democratic counterparts, the media and associations in socialist systems are not independent, autonomous players. They are dominated by the party and mostly function as a sort of transmission belt for implementing party policy. In a socialist system the main role of trades unions is to mobilize and discipline workers so they are ready to implement economic plans drawn up by the party. Positions of power and influence within the union are filled with party members. Trade union leaders are more often than not also top party officials. That which is particularly true for trade unions also extends to other areas of society. The party has great sway and power in choosing those to hold public office across all areas of society. Neither is the media an autonomous institution. The job of the media is to "educate" the population. The media receives instructions and is controlled by the Party. It is a "mouthpiece" for the Party and as such is subject to censorship.

The leadership role of the Party

According to Lenin, the strived-for socialist revolution and the subsequent expansion of socialism must be carried out under the leadership of the Communist Party. Indeed, he said that only the Communist Party had the most highly developed awareness about the needs of society and the correct insight into the things that needed to be done for society to develop. To this end, the Communist Party's leadership role would stretch into all areas of political and civil life and be derived from its monopoly of knowledge.

Another striking aspect highlighted by the illustration and of enormous importance is the "size" of the party: The party superimposes itself completely upon the political system. In stark contrast to political parties in western democracies, which project themselves into the political system only, Party influence in socialist states extends beyond that of forming political opinion and contributing to the decision-making process. The Party dominates the entire decision-making process within the political system both with regard to staffing and content. Moreover, Party influence extends far further into the community. This finds expression in the fact that the Communist Party steers and controls many areas at a social and community level. Indeed, its influence even extends beyond local businesses and companies into the private lives of the people.

[Above: Lenin]

Democratic centralism

The principle of democratic centralism conceived by Lenin formed the Communist Party's fundamental organizational base and was an integral part of the statue for all parties based on Marxist and Leninist ideas. Democratic centralism encompassed the following elements:


All ruling party bodies may stand for election from lower to higher levels


Regular reporting by party bodies for presentation before the party and senior party bodies


Tight party discipline and subordination of minorities below the majority; a ban on the formation of other political groupings


Decisions made by senior party bodies are absolutely binding for all lower-ranking bodies

In reality the two centralist elements dominated and legitimized the concentration of power in the hands of the Party secretariat and the Politburo.

As far as the democratic election of members from lower to higher levels was concerned, the Party leadership was indeed elected, but the choice of candidates had to be approved in advance by senior Party authorities. The second democratic feature, namely the requirement to report, was used more to pass on instructions and propaganda than it was to exercise control and revision from the bottom upwards.

Set against this background, how might we define a socialist party? The following definition attempts to address some of the most important characteristics:

In a socialist system, the Communist Party is an association of citizens with a monopoly of power which steers and controls society in its entirety. It justifies and derives its ruling position from Marxist and Leninist ideology.

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This online service on the subject of political education was developed by agora-wissen, the Stuttgart-based Gesellschaft für Wissensvermittlung über neue Medien und politische Bildung (GbR) (Partnership for the Exchange of Information Using New Media and Political Education). Please contact us with your questions or comments. Translation from German into English by twigg's Übersetzung deutsch-englisch.