The following text is “Freedom to Criticise and Unity of Action” by V I Lenin, Volna ["Wave"] no. 22, May 20, 1906. It can be found in the Collected Works, Vol.10. p.442.
The editors have received the following communication signed by the Central Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.
“In view of the fact that several Party organisations have raised the question of the limits within which the decisions of Party congresses may be criticised, the Central Committee, bearing in mind that the interests of the Russian proletariat have always demanded the greatest possible unity in the tactics of the RSDLP, and that this unity in the political activities of the various sections of our Party is now more necessary than ever, is of the opinion: (1) that in the Party press and at Party meetings, everybody must be allowed full freedom to express his personal opinions and to advocate his personal views; (2) that at public political meetings members of the Party should refrain from conducting agitation that runs counter to congress decisions; (3) that no Party member should at such meetings call for action that runs counter to congress decisions, or propose resolutions that are out of harmony with congress decisions.”
In examining the substance of this resolution, we see a number of queer points. The resolution says that at Party meetings full freedom is to be allowed for the expression of personal opinions and for criticism (¤1), but at public meetings (¤2) no Party member should call for action that runs counter to congress decisions. But see what comes of this: at Party meetings, members of the Party have the right to call for action that runs counter to congress decisions; but at public meetings they are not allowed full freedom to express personal opinions!
Those who drafted the resolution have a totally wrong conception of the relationship between freedom to criticise within the Party and the Party’s unity of action. Criticism within the limits of the principles of the Party Programme must be quite free (we remind the reader of what Plekhanov said on this subject at the Second Congress of the RSDLP), not only at Party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism, or such agitation (for criticism is inseparable from agitation) cannot be prohibited. The Party’s political action must be united. No calls that violate the unity of definite actions can be tolerated either at public meetings, or at Party members, or in the Party press.
Obviously, the Central Committee has defined freedom to criticise inaccurately and too narrowly, and unity of action inaccurately and too broadly.
Let us take an example. The Congress decided that the Party should take part in the Duma elections. Taking part in elections is a very definite action. During the elections (as in Baku today, for example), no member of the Party anywhere has any right whatever to call upon the people to abstain from voting; nor can criticism of the decision to take part in the elections be tolerated during this period, for it would in fact jeopardise success in the election campaign. Before elections have been announced, however, Party members everywhere have a perfect right to criticise the decision to take part in elections. Of course, the application of this principle will sometimes give rise to disputes and misunderstandings; but only on the basis of this principle can all disputes and misunderstandings be settled honourably for the Party. The resolution of the Central Committee, however, creates an impossible situation.
The Central Committee’s resolution is essentially wrong and runs counter to the Party Rules. The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticism which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided on by the Party.
We think that the Central Committee has made a big mistake by publishing a resolution on this important question without first having it discussed in the Party press and by Party organisations; such discussion would have helped it to avoid the mistakes we have indicated.
We call upon all Party organisations to discuss this resolution of the Central Committee now, and to express a definite opinion on it.