The Referendum and Democratic Centralism
21 October, 1939
We demand a referendum on the war question because we want to paralyse or weaken the centralism of the imperialist state. But can we recognise the referendum as a normal method for deciding issues in our own party? It is not possible to answer this question except in the negative.
Whoever is in favour of a referendum recognises by this that a party decision is simply an arithmetical total of local decisions, every one of the locals being inevitably restricted by its own forces and by its limited experience. Whoever is in favour of a referendum must be in favour of imperative mandates; that is, in favour of such a procedure that every local has the right to compel its representative at a party convention to vote in a definite manner. Whoever recognises imperative mandates automatically denies the significance of conventions as the highest organ of the party. Instead of a convention, it is sufficient to introduce a counting of local votes. The party as a centralised whole disappears. By accepting a referendum, the influence of the most advanced locals and most experienced and far-sighted comrades of the capital or industrial centres is substituted for the influence of the least experienced, backward sections, etc.
Naturally we are in favour of an all-sided examination and of voting upon every question by each party local, by each party cell. But at the same time every delegate chosen by a local must have the right to weigh all the arguments relating to the question in the convention and to vote as his political judgment demands of him. If he votes in the convention against the majority which delegated him, and if he is not able to convince his organisation of his correctness after the convention, then the organisation can subsequently deprive him of its political confidence. Such cases are inevitable. But they are incomparably a lesser evil than the system of referendums or imperative mandates which completely kill the party as a whole.
 In the course of its factional struggle, the minority put forward the demand for a referendum on the issue in dispute concerning the USSR. The majority opposed this. Trotsky came out in support of the majority’s rejection of a referendum. – Ed.