Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution by Alan Woods

Part One: The Birth of Russian Marxism

[section 5 of 7]

The First Congress of the RSDLP

At ten o’clock in the morning of 1 March 1898 (17 March, Old Style), a group of nine people gathered together in the flat of the railway-worker Rumyantsev in the western town of Minsk. The purpose of the gathering was ostensibly the name-day of Rumyantsev’s wife. In the next room a stove was kept burning, not because of the cold, but to burn compromising papers in the event of a police raid. With the close proximity of a mounted police barracks, and the fact that the nine persons concerned were the leaders of Social Democratic groups from Moscow, Kiev, Petersburg and Yekaterinoslav, as well as the Rabochaya Gazeta (Workers’ Journal) group and the Jewish Social Democratic organisation, the Bund, such precautions were clearly necessary. Under these conditions, the first and last congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party took place on Russian soil under tsarism. For some years the need for a congress to formalise the existence of the Party, elect a leadership and unify the local groups had been evident. From his prison cell, Lenin had earlier managed to smuggle out a draft programme for the Party, painstakingly written in milk between the lines of a book.

Some progress had already been made. The underground groups had agreed to rename themselves Leagues of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class and even to produce an illegal paper with the title Rabocheye Dyelo (Workers’ Cause). A clandestine committee was set up in Kiev for the purpose of printing the journal, the first issue of which appeared in August 1897 (although for reasons of clandestinity, it was dated November). The Kiev organisation was also entrusted with the arrangements of the congress, since it had escaped the worst of the arrests. Nevertheless, the idea of convening a congress inside Russia under these conditions was fraught with difficulties. Certain groups—such as the young group in Petersburg, the Odessa and Nikolaev groups, and the Union of Social Democrats Abroad—were not invited on the grounds of being security risks. The Kharkov group, on the other hand, declined to participate arguing that the setting up of the Party was premature.

It was no accident that the First Congress was held in Minsk. The Polish and western areas, as we have seen, were hotbeds of anti-tsarist revolutionary agitation where the two aspects of social and national oppression combined to create an explosive atmosphere. The strike movement of the 1890s acted as a focal point for the accumulated rage, bitterness and hatred of the oppressed nationalities, particularly the Jews. The movement of Jewish workers and artisans led to the setting up of the General Jewish Workers’ Union of Lithuania, Poland and Russia in 1897, a year before the First Congress of the Russian Party itself. For the first two or three years after its formation, as Zinoviev remarks, the Bund was “the strongest and most numerous organisation of our party”.[91] At the time of the First Congress, the Bund enjoyed far greater resources and a larger membership than Social Democratic groups in the rest of Russia, with 14 local organisations (or “committees” as they were then known) in Warsaw, Lodz, Belostok, Minsk, Gomel, Grodno, Vilna, Dvinsk, Kovno, Vitebsk, Mogilev, Berdichev, Zhitomir and Riga. Lesser committees also existed in many other areas, including Kiev, Odessa and Brest-Litovsk.

However, the Bund’s organisation was always more akin to a trade union movement than a revolutionary party. Even Akimov had to admit that the political level of its leadership was low: “I regard this as an unquestionable shortcoming of the Bund: the Jewish proletariat lacks theoreticians.”[92] In reality, as we have already seen, the bulk of its members were not proletarians but artisans and craftsmen. The chief authority consisted of a central committee (CC) of three, elected at the biennial congress. At local level the Bund organised trade union groups (often misleadingly translated as “trade councils”) propaganda committees and committees of intellectuals, discussion groups and agitation committees, all of which seem to have functioned more or less separately. The trade union groups gathered together 5-10 members of the Bund in a given trade. These were appointed by the CC and appear to have met regularly to discuss trade union matters. Only after August 1902 did the Bund, under the pressure of Iskra, set up revolutionary committees which grouped together the most advanced workers separate and apart from the trade union groups. The whole structure of the Bund was organised on a completely un-Marxist basis, with workers in trade union groups shut off in watertight compartments from intellectuals who worked autonomously in their own committees.

Despite the shortcomings of the Bund, the Jewish socialist workers and artisans played an important role in the early days of the movement. The fact that the first congress was held in Minsk was a recognition of that role. Only the Bund had the resources to organise such a congress under the very noses of the tsarist police. It is a tribute to their organisational skills that the congress successfully completed its course in six sessions which took place over three days. As no minutes were taken, practically all that is known of the proceedings is contained in the resolutions. Under the pressure of the Bund, it was agreed that “the General Workers’ Union of Russia and Poland enters the party as an autonomous organisation, independent only in those questions especially relating to the Jewish proletariat”.[93]

This concession to the national prejudices of the Bund was to give rise to a major polemic in the next period, when the national question occupied a central place in the deliberations of the Russian Marxists. While implacably opposing the oppression of national minorities in all its manifestations, and defending the rights of oppressed nationalities including the right to self-determination, Lenin insisted on the necessity to maintain the unity of the workers’ organisations and fought against any tendency to divide them on national lines.

The Social Democratic movement, as we have seen, made spectacular progress among the Jewish workers and artisans on the western borderlands of the Russian Empire. The leadership of the newly-formed Jewish workers’ organisation, the Bund, however, identified closely with the reformist standpoint of the Economists. The lack of a strong leading centre had the effect of aggravating the tendencies of local particularism, which had especially harmful effects on the relationship between the non-Russian socialists and their Russian counterparts. The leadership of the Bund began to develop a narrow, nationalist, standpoint which, if left unchecked, would have had extremely dangerous consequences for the Jewish workers themselves, as an oppressed minority. Osip Piatnitsky recalled that, in 1902 “the Jewish workers were organised earlier and work among them was easier than among the Lithuanians, Poles and Russians. The directing centre of the Jewish workers did not do any work among non-Jews, and did not want to work among them.”

At the same time, the existence of national divisions had led to the splitting of even the most basic organisations of the working class. There was not a single union in western Russia which accepted as members workers of all nationalities. The parties themselves, divided on national lines, maintained their own unions—the Lithuanian Social Democrats, the Polish Social Democrats, the PPS, and, of course, the Bund, which played an extremely negative role in perpetuating divisions which were seriously hampering the cause of workers in general, and Jewish workers in particular. The instinct of the Jewish workers was in favour of unity, but the leaders insisted on keeping them separate. Piatnitsky mentions a meeting of a Bund committee which he attended, “where the fact was discussed that, owing to their lack of class consciousness, the Russian workers were hindering the economic struggle of the Jewish workers, since, when the latter went on strike, the Russians took their places. Their decision on this question displayed the wisdom of Solomon: a few Russian workers must be induced to agitate among their own comrades”.[94]

The narrow craft traditions, and the small-scale and artisan character of much of the industry in this area, was the social base upon which the Jewish Social Democratic organisation, the Bund, grew up. The jewellers, cobblers, tailors, engravers, typesetters and tanners of Vilna proved more amenable than the Petersburg textile and metal workers to the ideas of Economism. Even here, however, the real reason for the phenomenon lay with the ideological confusion of the leadership. Vladimir Akimov, the extreme Economist, in his book on the early history of the Russian Social Democracy, is obliged to admit that the Vilna Social Democratic workers complained that the party was “not political enough”:

“It was the workers themselves, who demanded the introduction of a ‘political’ element into the Social Democratic agitation. It was they who were determined to expose the wrongs of the political system, to bring out the people’s lack of rights, to formulate the interests of the workers as a citizen. But the revolutionary organisation, which hoped to guide (!!) the labour movement towards Social Democratic ideas, was afraid that it would not be understood by the working masses (!), that it would lose its influence if it now raised its own demands for ‘political’ rights as the demands of the proletariat. Was the working class already well enough educated politically to appraise, to recognise its own interests? The leaders were not certain of this and hesitated to act.”[95]

These few lines convey, better than anything else, the contemptuous attitude of the Economists towards the workers in whose name they purported to speak. The underlying idea is a complete lack of confidence in the ability of ordinary working people to understand the need for political struggle. Yet the necessity for social and political change confronts the workers at every stage in the struggle. Arising out of the economic struggle against individual employers, the workers inevitably draw the conclusion at a certain moment in time of the need to effect a thorough going transformation of society. And long before that, as the entire history of the working class movement from Chartist times onwards demonstrates, the proletariat understands the need to fight for every partial political and democratic demand which serves to strengthen its position, develop its class organisations and create the most favourable conditions for a successful struggle against its oppressors.

In view of the bloody history of Russian tsarism, the maintenance of a principled position on the national question undoubtedly posed colossal difficulties. It was a measure of the degree of mistrust and tension between the nationalities that the Lithuanian Social Democrats, after some hesitation, decided not to attend the congress of a “Russian” party, much to the chagrin of Dzerzhinsky who later wrote: “I was the severest enemy of nationalism and considered it the greatest sin that in 1898, whilst I was in prison, the Lithuanian Social Democracy did not enter the united Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.”[96]

Similarly, the congress made some concessions to the pressures of the local committees, jealous of their local autonomy: “The local committees,” says the resolution, “will carry out the depositions of the CC in the manner which they consider most suited to local conditions. In exceptional cases, the local committees reserve the right to refuse to carry out the demands of the CC, informing it of the reasons for the refusal. In all other matters, the local committees will function in a completely independent manner, being guided only by the party programme.”[97]

A Central Committee of three was elected; it was agreed to issue a manifesto; the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad was recognised as the party’s representative in the exterior; and Rabochaya Gazeta was named as its official organ. However, the hopes aroused by the congress were not destined to be fulfilled. One of the participants, Tuchapsky, recalls in his memoirs: “We left the Congress with a feeling of cheerful faith in our cause. Arriving in Kiev I gave a report back to the League and the Workers’ Committee. The congress resolutions were fully approved. It looked as if the work would now go forward still better and more successfully than in the past. But only a week after my return the Kiev organisation was smashed.”[98]

Before the month was out, five out of the nine participants had been arrested, including one CC member. The sole achievement of the CC was to publish the agreed Manifesto, written by Struve, who, while already moving to the right, made a surprisingly good job of it—his last service to the cause he was soon to betray. The First Congress had achieved everything it was able to achieve. The Party at least existed as a potential, a banner and a Manifesto. But conditions in Russia made it impossible to effect unification of the party on a principled basis. All the congress could do was to point the way. From 1898 until 1917, no further congress of the Party was to be held on Russian soil. The experience had served to demonstrate the impossibility, under conditions of illegality, of building a viable political centre inside Russia. The centre of gravity of the organisation inevitably passed to the exterior, where the forces of revolutionary Marxism, under conditions of relative security, could regroup and prepare for the next stage: the translation into reality of what had been attempted in Minsk in 1898.

In practical terms, the congress had changed very little. Trotsky, who had heard about it in prison at Kherson, commented that “a few months afterwards, no-one talked about the congress anymore”.[99] After the initial wave of excitement, the local committees sank back into the routine of local work, producing endless leaflets and proclamations in connection with the strike movement, which continued to spread. The groups inside Russia continued to function with little or no contact either with each other or with any kind of political centre. To the prevailing political confusion was added organisational chaos and amateurish methods of work.

Rabocheye Dyelo

Paradoxically, the convening of the First Congress coincided with the lowest ebb of the Group for the Emancipation of Russian Labour. Relations with the émigré youth were at breaking point. A congress of the Union of Social Democrats Abroad convened in Zurich in November 1898, only served to underline the isolation of the Emancipation of Labour Group. At the meeting, the youngsters had a majority and used it to capture control of the Union. In view of the now sharp differences of opinion within the Union, the veterans in the Emancipation of Labour Group had no choice but to resign from their positions. The leadership of the Union—notably Krichevsky, Ivashin and Teplov—were inclined towards the Economist position, but were embarrassed by the overt reformism and Bernsteinism of the Rabochaya Mysl’, the most extreme expression of Economism, represented in the Union by S.N. Prokopovich and his wife Y.D. Kuskova. They therefore decided to wind up Rabotnik, and launch a paper of their own, Rabocheye Dyelo,in line with the decisions of the Minsk congress.

Whereas Rabochaya Mysl’ represented a clear and open defence of Bernstein’s theory and Economism, Rabocheye Dyelo represented a trend which, as Lenin observed, was “diffuse and ill-defined, but for that reason the more persistent, the more capable of reasserting itself in diverse forms”.[100] The paper was published as the organ of the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad from 1899 to 1902, with the editorial board in Paris and its print-shop in Geneva. Its editors included such prominent spokesmen of Economism as B.N. Krichevsky and A.S. Martynov. Martynov later graduated from Economism, via Menshevism, to Stalinism, without having to modify his fundamental principles at any stage.

From the outset, the rabocheyedeltsy tried to play hide-and-seek with the ideas of Marxism, claiming that their differences with the Emancipation of Labour Group were not political but organisational and tactical. However, the link between Rabocheye Dyelo and Bernsteinism is indicated by the articles which appeared in the European socialist press, written by the editors of Rabocheye Dyelo in defence of Bernstein and Millerand, the opportunist French socialist leader who joined a bourgeois coalition in the early years of this century. To the supporters of Rabocheye Dyelo must go the honour of inventing the notorious theory of stages, later appropriated in a modified form by the Mensheviks and then by the Stalinists. This crudely mechanical and reformist theory held that before the workers were ready for socialist revolution, they had first to pass through a number of stages. First, purely economic agitation, then political agitation linked directly to economic agitation, and then purely political agitation! In fact, the Russian workers did not wait for the Economists to inform them when they were ready for political agitation, but proceeded to take up the political struggle, as shown by the rising graph of political strikes and demonstrations in the early years of this century.

This was the blackest moment in the life of the Emancipation of Labour Group. Isolation and the stresses of the factional struggle brought to the surface all the accumulated frictions within the group. Particularly serious was the row between Axelrod and Plekhanov which now came to a head. Axelrod had reason for complaint. For years, he had had to carry the burden of the work with the Union, taking the brunt of the attacks of the youth, while Plekhanov was absorbed in literary work, and of late had neglected even that. For a long time Plekhanov ignored Axelrod’s pleas to intervene against the new trend; rather, he tried to collaborate with the new journal, which was beginning to gain support. The reasons for his attitude were probably varied: partly, he was tied up with the struggle against Bernstein, and begrudged the time and effort in getting involved in what seemed like pettifogging squabbles. Partly he underestimated the danger, attributing it to a transient phase and youthful fads. Most probably of all he was afraid of a split with the youth which would cut their links with Russia and lay themselves open to the accusation that they were undermining the work of the comrades in the interior. The apparent lack of a point of support within Russia was a serious problem for Plekhanov and his colleagues.

But by early 1899, Plekhanov could hold back no longer. The last straw was when Bernstein boasted that the majority of Russian Social Democrats were closer to his ideas than to Plekhanov’s. The Legal Marxists Struve, Bulgakov and Berdyayev also publicly lined up behind the revisionist tendency. Most alarmingly of all, from December 1898, the Economist youth dominated the St Petersburg Social Democrats. Realising that the formerly amorphous trend of Economism now represented a specifically Russian variant of Bernstein’s revisionism, Plekhanov set to work on a major counterblast, the famous Vademecum for the Editors of Rabocheye Dyelo, which appeared in 1900. He followed it up with a further article, Once Again Socialism and the Political Struggle, published in the new theoretical journal Zarya, in which he criticised the attempt of Rabocheye Dyelo to blur the differences between the conscious revolutionary advance guard and the mass of the working class:

“The entire working class is one thing,” he wrote, “and the Social Democratic party is another, for it forms only a column drawn from the working class—and at first a very small column…I think that the political struggle must immediately be started by our party which represents the advance guard of the proletariat, its most consistent and revolutionary stratum.”[101] Plekhanov now threw himself into the struggle, regardless of whether it would cause a split. His new-found confidence received a powerful impulse as a result of events taking place thousands of miles away, in Siberia.

From the depths of the Siberian wilderness, Lenin and the other Social Democratic exiles followed with alarm the unfolding of events. Paradoxically, it was relatively easy for them to maintain at least a certain level of political activity. The era of Stalin’s and Hitler’s concentration camps had not yet dawned. The treatment of political exiles varied considerably, from extreme harshness to relatively liberal conditions. But in the main, the tsarist authorities were content to rely upon the vast distances which separated the urban centres from the isolated settlements on the banks of the Yenisey river as sufficient defence against the spread of revolutionary ideas. Political prisoners were not generally locked up. There was no need for it. They were kept under surveillance by local officials whose zealousness in the pursuit of duty was often conspicuous by its absence. As a result, the exiled revolutionaries could follow events with relative ease, receiving books and newspapers, conducting correspondence, and even holding illegal meetings. Lenin, while working on his monumental Development of Capitalism in Russia, keenly followed the polemics of Plekhanov against Bernstein. News of the crisis in the Union, and the resignation of Plekhanov came as a painful blow. The victory of the Economist trend caused consternation among the exiles. Lenin began to write a series of polemics, such as Our Immediate Task, A Retrograde Trend in Russian Social Democracy and Apropos of the ‘Profession de Foi’[102] in which the ideas of Economism are subjected to merciless criticism.

An event which enraged the exiles was the appearance of the notorious Credo written by Kuskova early in 1899. The author of the document herself always protested that it was not meant for publication. However that may be, there is no doubt that the Credo has the merit of expressing in a particularly clear way the fundamental ideas of Economism. Lenin drafted the famous Protest of the Russian Social Democrats[103] by way of reply and convened a meeting of 17 exiles which met in the Siberian village of Yermakovskoe late in the summer of 1899. The meeting unanimously adopted Lenin’s text which was sent abroad where it was published by Plekhanov.

The words of the Credo are worth quoting: “The change [in the party] will not only be towards a more energetic prosecution of the economic struggle and consolidation of the economic organisations, but also, and more importantly, towards a change in the party’s attitude to other opposition parties. Intolerant Marxism, negative Marxism, primitive Marxism (whose conception of the class division of society is too schematic) will give way to democratic Marxism, and the social position of the party within the modern society must undergo a sharp change. The party will recognise society: its narrow, corporative and, in the majority of cases, sectarian tasks will be transformed into social tasks, and its striving to seize power will be transformed into a striving for change, a striving to reform present day society on democratic lines adapted to the present state of affairs, with the object of protecting the rights (all rights) of the labouring classes in the most effective and fullest way…

“The talk about an independent workers’ political party merely results from the transplantation of alien aims and alien achievements to our soil… For the Russian Marxist there is only one course: participation in, i.e. assistance to, the economic struggle of the proletariat, and participation in liberal opposition activity.”[104]

The logic of the Credo could not be clearer: the working class should not strive to create its own revolutionary party, but should confine itself to “practical” trade union work and leave the political task of reforming the present system to the bourgeois liberals.

Lenin’s polemical writings against the Economists, beginning with the Protest are a classical re-statement of the basic ideas of Marx and Engels on the question of the proletariat and its party. The proletariat only gradually begins to realise its historical potential, to become a real force as opposed to an undeveloped potential, to the degree to which it organises as a class, independent of other classes.

The history of the workers’ movement begins with the unions, the basic organisation of the class which were “not only a natural, but also an essential phenomenon under capitalism and… an extremely important means for organising the working class in its daily struggle against capital and for the abolition of wage-labour”. But once established, the trade unions cannot confine their sphere of activity to economic demands, but inevitably tend to move into the political plane. Here, what is involved is not the sporadic struggles of individual groups of workers against their employers, but the struggle of the proletariat as a whole against the bourgeoisie as a class, and its state. Of necessity, the proletariat and its party enters into contact with other classes, the peasantry and the middle class, and has to establish working relations with other groups, but it does so from the standpoint of its independent interest as a class. Indeed, its role is to place itself at the head of all other oppressed and exploited layers to carry out a fundamental transformation of society. “Only an independent working-class party,” wrote Lenin, “can serve as a strong bulwark in the fight against the autocracy, and only in alliance with such a party, only by supporting it, can all the other fighters for political liberty play an effective part.”[105]

Thus, at the very earliest beginnings of the movement in Russia, the dividing line was clearly drawn between two trends. The first, a revolutionary Marxist trend, which based itself upon the working class and linked the perspective of a revolutionary overthrow of tsarism to the struggle for the hegemony of the working class in the camp of revolutionary democracy, implacably opposing all attempts to subordinate it to the liberals and “progressive” bourgeois. The second, a reformist current which, whilst paying lip-service to Marxism, effectively preached the policy of class collaboration and subservience to the liberals. This, in essence, was the basis of the disagreement between Marxists and Economists. In different guises, the same struggle reoccurred many times in the history of the Russian revolutionary movement, and with other names—although basically the same argument—continues to the present day.

In reality what is required is the creation of cadres, educated in the theory and practice of Marxism and integrated in the working class movement, starting with its most active and conscious layer. The class-composition of the party must be decisively proletarian. Students and intellectuals can play an important role, fertilising the movement with their ideas and assisting its development, on one condition—that they have decisively broken with their class and placed themselves not only in words but in everyday practice on the standpoint of the proletariat. The problem with the Economists was that they saw, not the face of the proletariat, but only its backside.

That the movement in Russia should begin with the intelligentsia is not at all surprising. This is almost a law, and still more so in the case of Russia, given the whole history and conditions of the Russian revolutionary movement of the 1870s and 1880s. But under the new conditions, the whole situation was becoming transformed. A new generation of worker-revolutionaries was rapidly coming to the fore, the first graduates of the “university” of the Marxist circles of the 1890s. For the first time, in many areas workers began to take the running of the committees into their own hands. This was not, as some have falsely maintained, the result of the democratic theories of the Economist intellectuals, who, as we have seen, despite their workerism proved to be extremely reluctant to move over and make room for the workers in the leading committees, as Lenin demanded. It was almost entirely as a result of the constant wave of arrests, which continually carried off the more experienced leaders.

The need to escape detection and arrest, the most basic requirements of existence under the police regime, and not any preconceived theory of organisation, was the reason why the dominant trend in Social Democracy at this time was based upon a highly centralised conception of organisation. The word of the centre was law, and there could be no question of normal democratic functioning. A small central directing committee, not subject to election, was renewed by co-option. Subordinate to it were a series of commissions—for propaganda, agitation, fund raising, printing, and so on. Under existing conditions, this mode of operation was absolutely necessary. Even then, it did not prevent the infiltration of the organisation by agents provocateurs, who frequently succeeded in obtaining key positions in the party. However, the principle of centralism was often carried too far by the intelligentsia who dominated the committees. Lenin from the outset insisted on the need to train worker-cadres and bring them onto the leading bodies. But this work often clashed with the narrowness and insensitivity of the leading layer, who jealously guarded their prerogatives and interpreted the idea of centralism in a one-sided way, always finding a hundred reasons for not being able to co-opt fresh workers onto the committees.

The situation was completely upset by the wave of arrests in the latter half of the 1890s. Overnight, a layer of workers who had never had experience of leadership was forced to take over the reins. The worker Prokofiev describes his reaction to the sudden arrest of the leaders of the Moscow organisation in 1893: “I was depressed, sick and ashamed. I was left suddenly without leaders. This was an irreparable blow. When I told my comrades, we groaned and sat around as at a funeral,” but then they concluded that “…there was nothing to do but to hold out and continue the work ourselves. So we set out and began to work on our own.” Workers like Babushkin in St Petersburg came into their own in this period. Exiled in Yekaterinoslav in the south, then a turbulent centre of revolt, Babushkin showed himself able to run an organisation unaided.

The general disorganisation, together with the baneful influence of Economist ideas, meant that in several areas the organisation was divided between a group for workers and a separate one for intellectuals. This erroneous method existed in Yekaterinoslav, where it inevitably created conditions for the growth of mistrust and mutual antagonism. “I remember,” writes Babushkin, “that the intelligentsy often criticised the unliterary language of the leaflets [of the workers], and finally one was shortened and somewhat altered by the ‘city’ committee. This provoked a direct clash which threatened to lead to a complete breach between the workers and the intelligentsia.”[106] In general, the development of the Moscow Workers’ League does not differ fundamentally from that of the St Petersburg League of Struggle, which set the pattern for the rest of the country and which we still take as our basic point of reference. The Muscovites had suffered from a series of arrests, especially after 1896 when Zubatov took over the Moscow police department and made use of unreliable and weak-willed elements to obtain information about the league and send in agents provocateurs.

After each wave of arrests, the organisation renewed itself with new workers who learned in practice to trust their own ability and resourcefulness. A few years later, Lenin forcefully reminded the “committee-men” who had no confidence in the ability of workers to run the party that in this period, workers like Babushkin had done precisely that. Despite this, however, the party entered the 20th century in a very precarious condition. By 1900, the Economist trend appeared to have triumphed all along the line. In the western area, the Economists ruled supreme. In the Ukraine, they also had a predominant position. The Kiev committee actually backed the extreme Economist line, the Credo. However, there were signs that the mood of the rank-and-file was beginning to react against this situation. Under the influence of the tireless Babushkin, the Yekaterinoslav organisation, which at the turn of the century had about 24 circles with up to 200 workers involved in them, came out against Economism.

In January 1900, on the instigation of the Yekaterinoslav organisation, Yuzhny Rabochii (the Southern Worker) was launched. It put out a total of 13 issues until April 1903 when it ceased publication. Yuzhny Rabochii opposed Economism, but lacked a sufficiently firm theoretical basis and was inclined to wobble. A typical product of the local circle spirit and amateurism of the times, the editorial board was made up of the representatives of local committees with different shades of opinion, a fact which was reflected in the paper’s ambiguous wavering attitude in the struggle between Iskra and Economism, though it finally fused with Iskra.

A similar tendency was represented by the tiny group around Bor’ba (the Struggle), a paper launched by David Ryazanov. Recognising Ryazanov’s literary talent, and anxious to secure support for Iskra and Zarya, Lenin went out of his way to interest him in joint work, though in practice, the Bor’ba group represented very little, consisting of a group of intellectuals in Paris. Inside Russia, only the Odessa committee identified with it. It was a typical example of a small intellectual sect, whose activity consisted exclusively of literary work, and whose ideas were a hotch-potch of bits and pieces borrowed from other tendencies, but whose pretension to stand above all factions in reality placed it on an infinitely lower plane than any of them. Similar groups constantly surface in the history of the revolutionary movement, and invariably play a pernicious role, insofar as they play any role at all.

Bor’ba’s attempt to play the “honest broker” between Iskra and Rabocheye Dyelo soon brought it into collision with the consistent Marxist trend. Ryazanov tried to put pressure on Iskra by refusing to collaborate unless they toned down their criticism of Rabocheye Dyelo. When this blackmail had no effect, he dissolved the “Iskra promotion group” in Paris and began to complain that Iskra had “violated organisational neutrality”.[107] In the end, Lenin gave them up as a bad job. The Bor’ba group, despite their high pretensions, played no further role. At the Second Congress, they were not admitted, and the group soon folded. Ryazanov later re-surfaced as a lecturer at the Capri school of the ultra-left Vperyod (Forward) faction in 1909 (not to be confused with the paper of the same name set up by Lenin in 1904). Despite his faults, Ryazanov was undoubtedly a talented intellectual. After the revolution, he became the director of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, until he, like so many others, was purged by Stalin.

The Birth of Iskra

The entry into the struggle of the exiled Russian leaders tipped the balance decisively in favour of Plekhanov. Still in Siberia, Lenin formed the “troika” or triple alliance with Martov and Potresov which, on his insistence, took steps to link up with the Emancipation of Labour Group. His fundamental idea was to re-build the party around a genuine Marxist newspaper. Such a venture was clearly only possible if they joined Plekhanov in European exile. Having served out his term of exile, in early 1900, Lenin travelled illegally to St Petersburg where he met Vera Zasulich, who had been sent to establish contacts with the interior. The following months were taken up by preparations for the publication of the new journal Iskra, involving a series of visits to Social Democratic groups in different parts of European Russia, where Lenin and his co-thinkers were agreeably surprised by the favourable reception of their ideas by a significant section of the rank-and-file. By the summer of 1900, everything was ready for direct contact to be established with Plekhanov’s group.

With high hopes, Lenin left for Switzerland in July. His high spirits did not last long. After the bitter experience of the split in the Union, Plekhanov’s nerves were on edge. He was sullen, resentful and extremely suspicious of the newcomers. The discussions between Plekhanov, Axelrod and Zasulich on the one side and Lenin and Potresov on the other unfolded in an extremely tense atmosphere. Lenin and Potresov were shocked by Plekhanov’s intolerant and abrasive manner. At times, the negotiations appeared to be near to a breakdown. In How the “Spark” Was Nearly Extinguished[108]—an article written shortly after Lenin’s return with the recent events still vivid in his mind—Lenin expresses the painful impression of Plekhanov’s behaviour on him: “My ‘infatuation’ with Plekhanov disappeared as if by magic, and I felt offended and embittered to an unbelievable degree. Never, never in my life had I regarded any other man with such sincere respect and veneration, never had I stood before any man so ‘humbly’ and never before had I been so brutally ‘kicked’.”

Plekhanov’s behaviour can be understood. He had had a series of bad experiences with younger people coming from the interior, and was still smarting from the coup of the youth in the Union Abroad. There was also a difference of opinion on how to proceed. In their anxiety to recuperate the maximum forces of the movement in Russia, Lenin and the others had made a number of concessions to Struve, including the statement in the original draft declaration that Iskra would be open to different political tendencies. This mistake was seized upon by Plekhanov, who vented his accumulated rage on the astonished newcomers. This incident casts a significant light on the state of affairs within the Emancipation of Labour Group. The long period of isolation from the workers’ movement in Russia had taken its toll.

Many years later, in 1922, when the October revolution was already five years old, and Plekhanov had been dead for four, Trotsky expressed both the strong and weak sides of the old man in the following words: “Plekhanov spoke as an observer, like a critic, like a publicist but not like a leader. His whole destiny denied him the opportunity of directly addressing the masses, of summoning them to action and of leading them. His weak sides flowed from the same source as did his chief merit: he was a forerunner, the first crusader of Marxism on Russian soil… He was not the leader of the active proletariat, but merely its theoretical harbinger. He defended polemically the methods of Marxism, but he did not have the opportunity of applying them in practice. Though living for several decades in Switzerland, he did remain a Russian exile. Opportunist municipal and cantonal Swiss socialism with its extremely low theoretical level hardly interested him. There was no Russian party. For Plekhanov its place was taken by the ‘Emancipation of Labour’ group, that is a close circle of sympathisers (Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich and Deutsch, who was serving hard labour). The more Plekhanov strove to strengthen the theoretical and philosophical roots of his position, the more he was short of these political roots. As an observer of the European Labour movement, he passed utterly without attention over the most colossal political manifestations of petty-mindedness, cowardice and compromise by the socialist parties; yet he was always on his guard against theoretical heresies in socialist literature. This violation of the unity of theory and practice which had grown out of the whole destiny of Plekhanov proved fatal to him. He proved unprepared for the great political events in spite of his great theoretical preparation.”[109]

The meeting with Lenin and Potresov revealed just how much the members of the Emancipation of Labour Group were lagging behind the demands of the present stage of the movement. The informal methods, the organisational looseness, the mixing up of personal questions with political issues which are the hallmarks of the life of a small propaganda circle, become intolerable obstacles once the organisation of a mass party and serious intervention in the mass movement are on the order of the day. Thanks mainly to Lenin’s great patience—and also to the fact that the consequences of a split were clear to everyone—a break was avoided. But although reasonably good working relations were quickly restored, the deeper causes of the conflict remained unresolved and were destined to re-emerge with redoubled force in the future. The compromise which was eventually reached between the two sides meant that Iskra would have an editorial board of six, consisting of the troika—Lenin, Martov and Potresov—and the Emancipation of Labour Group—Plekhanov, Axelrod and Zasulich, with Plekhanov having two votes. Control of the theoretical journal, Zarya (The Dawn) would be effectively in Plekhanov’s hands. But relations between the old members of the Emancipation of Labour Group and the new editors had been seriously damaged. “Outwardly,” wrote Lenin, “it was as if nothing had happened: the apparatus continued to work as it had worked until then, but within a cord had broken, and instead of splendid personal relations, dry, business-like relations prevailed, with a constant reckoning according to the principle: si vis pacem, para bellum [if you desire peace, prepare for war].”[110]

The Declaration of the Editorial Board of Iskra[111] was published in September. It reads like a declaration of war on all other tendencies in the Russian workers’ movement. Unlike the original draft drawn up by the troika, it denounces by name not only Bernstein and Rabochaya Mysl’ but also Rabocheye Dyelo and Struve (Plekhanov was particularly insistent on this). Lenin’s initial draft was written in a generally more conciliatory vein. The corrected version has a more implacable tone:

“Before we can unite, and in order that we may unite, we must first of all draw firm and definite lines of demarcation. Otherwise, our unity will be purely fictitious, it will conceal the prevailing confusion, and hinder its radical elimination. It is understandable, therefore, that we do not intend to make our publication a mere storehouse of various views. On the contrary, we shall conduct it in the spirit of a strictly defined tendency. This tendency can be expressed by the word Marxism, and there is hardly need to add that we stand for the consistent development of the ideas of Marx and Engels and emphatically reject the equivocating, vague and opportunist ‘corrections’ for which Edward Bernstein, P. Struve and many others have set the fashion.”[112]

The explicit denunciation of Legal Marxism, mentioning its most prominent representative by name was a turning point. Even so, Struve did not immediately effect an open break with Marxism, and even contributed one or two articles to the first issues of the paper. However, the first encounter of Struve with Lenin in exile, towards the end of 1900, led to an open confrontation. Struve’s arrogant demands for an increased say in the editorial line of the paper gave the game away. The relationship between the Marxists and the left liberal trend which went by the name of Legal Marxism, as Lenin later explained, was the first example of an episodic agreement between the Russian Marxists and another political trend. Without making any principled concessions, and maintaining an implacable criticism of the political deviations of the Legal Marxists, Lenin was prepared to enter into practical agreements with them for the sake of advancing the work in Russia, outwitting the police and censor and reaching a broader audience than would have been possible with the narrow limitations of illegal work. But there was an underlying contradiction from the beginning. The two trends were fundamentally incompatible, and, ultimately, the contradiction would have to be overcome by the triumph of one over the other.

At one stage it almost looked as if the supporters of Economism and revisionism had won. The Russian workers’ movement would thus have found itself tied hand and foot to the chariot of liberalism. And the agency through which this political subordination would have been effected was none other than Legal Marxism. The launching of Iskra, with its uncompromising stance on Economism and revisionism, its implacable defence of class independence and criticism of the liberals completely transformed the situation. Now Struve and his allies found themselves on the defensive. Yet Struve still attempted to use his name and influence to dominate the new journal, to push and prod it into a rotten compromise with the old, discredited ideas. Struve’s complaint that Lenin was trying to “use” him could hardly cut any ice when in the previous period Struve himself had cynically used his considerable influence with the weak and immature forces of Russian Social Democracy to water down and distort its fundamental ideas and turn it into a mere appendage of liberalism.

Contrary to the impression created by bourgeois historians, there was nothing base or disloyal about Lenin’s attitude to political opponents like Struve. Such practical agreements as were reached were freely entered into by both sides, and both sides had their eyes open. As we have seen, Lenin had come under severe criticism by Plekhanov who considered that he had made too many concessions to Struve. This was entirely in Lenin’s character. Ever implacable on questions of political principle, he was always extremely flexible on organisational questions and in his dealings with people. Lenin knew how to value people with talent. Whatever their shortcomings, he endeavoured with admirable patience to make use of their abilities to build the movement. But there was also another side. Once Lenin had made his mind up that someone was an irreconcilable enemy of the ideas of Marxism, he did not hesitate to draw all the necessary conclusions and wage a relentless political struggle against them. In this, Lenin’s approach was in stark contrast to the members of the Emancipation of Labour Group.

The members of the old group, especially Zasulich and Axelrod, could not bring themselves to burn the bridges that still connected them to the layer of semi-liberal intellectual fellow travellers like Struve, even when, after 1902, their transition to the camp of bourgeois liberalism was clear to all. Yet it was Plekhanov who demanded that Lenin insert a public attack on Struve in the editorial statement! This incident, too, shows the differences in the whole style and personality of the two men. Zasulich once expressed it graphically in the following terms: “George (Plekhanov) is a greyhound: he shakes his victim by the scruff of the neck and in the end lets him go; you (Lenin) are a bulldog: you don’t let go.”[113] As early as 1895, Axelrod had chided Lenin for his vehement attacks on Struve in the article The Economic Content of Narodnism and the Criticism of it in Mr Struve’s Book:[114] “You have a tendency,” Axelrod complained, “which is the exact opposite of the tendency of the article I was writing for the miscellany [the article, typically, was not finished and never appeared]. You identify our attitudes to the liberals with the socialists’ attitudes to the liberals in the West. And I was just preparing for the miscellany an article entitled The Requirement of Russian Life, in which I was out to show that at this historical moment, the immediate interest of the proletariat in Russia coincided with the main interests of the other progressive element of the public…”

“Ulyanov smilingly replied: ‘You know, Plekhanov said exactly the same thing about my article. He gave a picturesque term to his thought:— “You turn your back to the liberals,” he said, “and we turn our face to them…”’.”[115]

All along, Lenin’s implacable opposition to the liberals was a bone of contention with the old editors. Zasulich was particularly offended by it:

“Zasulich began to complain, in the peculiar, timidly insistent tone which she always assumed for such occasions, that we were attacking the liberals too much. That was a sore point with her.

“‘See how eager they are about it,’ she would say, looking past Lenin, though it was really Lenin whom she was aiming at. ‘Struve demands that the Russian liberals should not renounce Socialism, because if they do, they will be threatened with the fate of the German liberals; he says they should follow the example of the French Radical Socialists.’

“‘We should strike them all the more,’ said Lenin with a gay smile, as if he were teasing Vera Ivanovna.

“‘That’s nice!’ she exclaimed in utter despair. ‘They come to meet us and we strike them down’.”[116]

Iskra was so successful because it fulfilled a number of needs. As a workers’ newspaper it was a model. Here, simply expressed in a language which, without any trace of condescension, could be understood by any intelligent worker, was the theoretical answer to the ideas of the Economists and their allies. After the years of ideological confusion, the reaction of the socialist workers inside Russia to the new journal must have been like that of Aristotle when he likened the philosopher Anaxagoras to “a sober man among drunkards”. The paper’s masthead displayed a quotation from the reply of the Decembrists, writing to the poet Pushkin from Siberian exile: “The Spark will kindle a Flame!” Nearly a century after they were written, these lines were destined to come true.

Alongside the systematic exposure of the crimes of tsarism at home came detailed explanation of foreign policy, laying bare the intricacies and manoeuvres of bourgeois diplomacy. The life of the international workers’ movement was closely followed. But above all Iskra was a paper which accurately reflected the life, the struggles and the aspirations of the working class. In every issue a large amount of space was taken up by quite short reports from the factories and workers’ districts, painstakingly collected by Iskra agents inside Russia and smuggled out by clandestine means. In this way, often with a delay of months, the workers of different parts of Russia learned about the struggles of their brothers and sisters in other parts of the country and abroad. Small wonder that the paper was an instant success in the interior. The number of local party committees adhering to the new journal rapidly increased, opening up daily new possibilities but also imposing severe burdens on the still inadequate apparatus at the disposal of the exile centre.

In Iskra issue 7 (August 1901), a letter from a weaver vividly expressed the enthusiasm with which each issue was received by the advanced workers in Russia:

“I showed Iskra to many fellow workers and the copy was read to tatters: how we treasure it—much more than Mysl’, although there is nothing of ours printed in it. Iskra writes about our cause, about the all-Russian cause which cannot be evaluated in kopecks or measured in hours: when you read the paper, you understand why the gendarmes and the police are afraid of us workers and of the intellectuals whom we follow. It is a fact that they are a threat, not only to the bosses’ pockets, but to the tsar, the employers, and all the rest… It will not take much now to set the working people aflame. All that is wanted is a spark, and the fire will break out. How true are the words ‘The Spark will kindle a Flame!’ In the past, every strike was an important event, but today, everyone sees that strikes alone are not enough and that we must now fight for freedom, gain it through struggle. Today everyone, old and young, is eager to read but the sad thing is that there are no books. Last Sunday, I gathered 11 people and read to them Where to Begin. We discussed it until late in the evening. How well it expressed everything, how it gets to the very heart of things… And we would like to write a letter to your Iskra and ask you how to teach us, not only how to begin, but how to live and how to die.”[117]

Plekhanov and Axelrod wanted the paper to be published in Switzerland, where they could keep an eye on it. Lenin, Martov and Potresov were determined to publish elsewhere, and moved to Munich. In point of fact, the members of the Emancipation of Labour Group did not fully grasp the significance of Iskra as a means of organising the party. They centred their attention on Zarya, which was published legally in Stuttgart between April 1901 and August 1902, when a total of four numbers, published in three issues, came out. The only member of the Emancipation of Labour Group who was keen to participate in Iskra was Vera Zasulich, who travelled to Munich on a false Bulgarian passport. The bulk of the work of organising the journal fell to Lenin. His wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya played an invaluable role handling the extensive correspondence with Russia which reached them indirectly, via the addresses of German comrades, who forwarded them to Krupskaya.

The task of organising an illegal transportation network was full of difficulties. According to Osip Piatnitsky (Party name, Freitag), who was later made responsible for this work, the transportation of Iskra from Berlin to Riga, Vilna and Petersburg took several months. Nor was the work free from blunders of all sorts. In his autobiography, Memoirs of a Bolshevik (Zapiski Bol’shevika), Piatnitsky relates how they would utilise the services of Russian students to carry literature in false-bottomed cases. These cases were manufactured by a small factory in Berlin. A large order was placed for the product. But the frontier guards soon got wind of the trick. They learnt to pick out the tell-tale cases, which happened to be all the same style! After that, they began to use ordinary suitcases, with 100-150 copies of the paper hidden under a false bottom of strong cardboard. But the demand for Iskra continually outstripped supplies. New methods had to be found. Between 200 and 300 copies could be carried in specially stitched waistcoats and skirts. Even so, these methods had to be supplemented by the establishment of underground print-shops inside Russia, which printed Iskra from the layout sheets smuggled in from abroad. Print-shops of this sort were eventually set up in Moscow, Odessa and Baku. The endless details involved in such work absorbed a colossal amount of time and energy. It also took a lot of money, which was raised from sympathisers by Iskra agents in Berlin, Paris, Switzerland and Belgium who constantly sought funds and travellers prepared to carry literature, contacts, safe addresses and so on.

What Is To Be Done?

At the time of launching Iskra, the party in Russia hardly existed as an organised force. In the midst of ideological confusion, factional divisions gave rise to a series of splits and the setting up of small groups. In Petersburg alone, at the turn of the century, there was the “Group for the Self-Emancipation of the Working Class”, the “Group of Workers for the Struggle with Capital”, “Workers’ Banner”, “The Socialist”, “Social Democrat”, “Workers’ Library”, “The Workers Organisation” and others, all claiming to speak in the name of the RSDLP. Many of these groups were influenced by the ideas of the Economists. One common feature was the desire for a “pure proletarian” image. The first-named group advanced the idea that the interests of the intellectuals were at variance with those of the workers. This explains why the Petersburg League of Struggle itself, having been taken over by the Rabochaya Mysl’ faction of extreme Economism, actually split into two groups—one for workers and the other for intellectuals! Of course, all this posturing revealed, not a proletarian tendency, but precisely the opposite: the snobbishness of intellectuals who imagine that the way to win the workers is by pandering to the prejudices of the most backward layers of the working class. In the same way as the old Narodniks tried, with calamitous results, to “go to the people”, the would-be middle class revolutionist tries to curry favour by “abasing” himself before the workers, in reality demonstrating at one and the same time a pathetic lack of understanding of, and a deep-seated contempt for, working people.

Lenin’s writings on organisation produced at this time are masterpieces in their own right. The idea of the paper as a collective organiser is brilliantly set forth in such works as Where to Begin, Letter to a Comrade and What Is To Be Done?[118] In the first named of these works, the kernel of Lenin’s ideas is already clear: “The role of a newspaper, however, is not limited solely to the dissemination of ideas, to political education, and to the enlistment of political allies. A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and collective agitator, it is also a collective organiser… With the aid of the newspaper, and through it, a permanent organisation will naturally take shape that will engage, not only in local activities, but in regular general work, and will train its members to follow political works carefully, appraise their significance and their effects on the various strata of the population and develop effective means for the revolutionary party to influence those events. The mere technical task of regularly supplying the newspaper with copy and of promoting regular distribution will necessitate a network of local agents of the united party, who will maintain constant contact with one another, know the general state of affairs, get accustomed to performing regularly their detailed functions in the All-Russian work, and test their strength in the organisation of various revolutionary actions.”[119]

There is possibly no other work in the history of Marxist ideas which has been so ill-served as Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? Written between late 1901 and early 1902, this work was intended as a final settling of accounts with the Economists, and therefore has an extremely polemical slant throughout. Undoubtedly, there is a rich seam of ideas present in this work, which is, however, seriously flawed by a most unfortunate theoretical lapse. Whilst correctly polemicising against the Economists’ slavish worship of “spontaneity”, Lenin allowed himself to fall into the error of exaggerating a correct idea and turning it into its opposite. In particular, he asserts that socialist consciousness “would have to be brought to them [the workers] from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e. the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc”.

This one-sided and erroneous presentation of the relationship of the working class and socialist consciousness was not an original invention of Lenin, but was borrowed directly from Kautsky, whom he regarded at that time as the main defender of orthodox Marxism against Bernstein. Indeed, Lenin quotes approvingly the words of Kautsky that “The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia [K.K.’s italics]: it was in the minds of individual members of this stratum that modern socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians, who, in their turn, introduce it into the proletarian class struggle where conditions allow that to be done. Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without [von Aussen Hineingetragenes] and not something that arose within it spontaneously [urwüchsig].”[120]

Here the one-sidedness of Kautsky’s formulation stands out in all its crudity. It is true that Marxist theory, the highest expression of socialist consciousness, was not thrown up by the working class, but is the product of the best that has been achieved by bourgeois thought, in the form of German philosophy, English classical political economy and French socialism. However, it is not true that the proletariat, if left to itself, is only capable of rising to the level of trade union consciousness (i.e. the struggle for economic betterment within the confines of capitalism). Over a decade before the Communist Manifesto saw the light of day, the British working class, through the medium of Chartism —which Lenin himself described as the first mass revolutionary workers’ party in the world—had already gone far beyond the bounds of a mere trade union consciousness, passing from the idea of partial reforms and petitions to the idea of a general strike (“the grand national holiday”) and even armed insurrection (the “physical force” men, the Newport uprising). Likewise, the working men and women of Paris actually succeeded—without the presence of a conscious Marxist party at their head—in taking power, if only for a few months, in 1871. Let us recall that Marx himself learned from the experience of the Paris Commune, from which he extracted his idea of a workers’ democracy (“dictatorship of the proletariat”). In the same way, the idea of soviets (councils) was not the invention of Lenin or Trotsky, but the spontaneous creation of the Russian proletariat during the 1905 revolution.

Does this mean that Marxists deny the importance of the subjective factor—that is, the revolutionary party and leadership? On the contrary. The whole history of the world working class movement shows that the proletariat needs a revolutionary party and leadership in order to take power. But the subjective factor cannot be created by “spontaneous combustion”. It cannot be thrown up by events or improvised when the need arises. It has to be prepared painstakingly in advance over a period of years, perhaps decades. The question of the building of the revolutionary party and the movement of the class, however, are not the same thing. The two processes can be represented by two parallel lines that for a long time do not intersect. The working class learns from experience and draws revolutionary conclusions slowly and with great difficulty. Engels explained that there are periods in history in which twenty years are as a single day. Under the dead weight of habit, routine and tradition, the masses continue in the same old rut, until they are forcibly shaken out of it by great events. By contrast, Engels adds, there are other periods in which the history of twenty years is concentrated in the space of 24 hours.

Time and time again the working class has proven in action that it tends to move towards power. The Spanish proletariat, as Trotsky explained, was capable of making ten revolutions in the period 1931-37. In the summer of 1936, the workers of Catalonia, once again without the benefit of a Marxist leadership, smashed the fascist army and, effectively, had power in their hands. If they did not succeed in organising a workers’ state and consolidating their hold on power, spreading the revolution to the rest of Spain, that was not their fault but the responsibility of the anarchist and syndicalist leaders of the CNT-FAI and the POUM. The workers’ leaders, by refusing to finish off the remnants of the bourgeois state and organise a new workers’ state power on the basis of democratically elected soviets of factory and militia deputies, signed the death knell of the Spanish revolution. In any event, what happened in Catalonia and other parts of Spain in 1936 was far beyond “trade union consciousness”. The same can be said of France 1968 and any case where the working class attempts to begin to take its destiny into its own hands.

Ideas do not drop from the clouds, but are formed on the basis of experience. In the course of its experience, the proletariat inevitably draws certain general conclusions about its role in society. Under certain conditions, in the turmoil of great events, the learning process can be enormously speeded up. But even in normal periods of capitalist development, the old mole of history continues to burrow deep in the consciousness of the proletariat. At decisive moments, events can burst over the head of the working class before the latter has had time to draw all the necessary conclusions. The role of the advanced guard is not at all to “teach the workers to suck eggs”, but to make conscious the unconscious will of the working class to transform society. In this idea there is no hint of mysticism. Life itself teaches, as Lenin was fond of repeating. From a lifetime’s experience of exploitation and oppression, the working class, beginning with the active layers which lead the class, acquires a socialist consciousness. That is precisely the basis of the historical process which led to the birth of the trade unions and the mighty parties of the Second and Third Internationals. The elements of a socialist consciousness and the idea of a radical transformation of the social order are present in the rule books and constitutions of countless unions, bearing mute testimony to the underlying desire for change. The class struggle itself inevitably creates not only a class consciousness, but a socialist consciousness. It is the duty of Marxists to bring out what is already there, to give a conscious expression to what is present in an unconscious or semiconscious form.

Those who mechanically repeat the error of What Is To Be Done? nearly a century later do so without realising that Lenin himself later admitted that this incorrect formulation was merely a polemical exaggeration. When, at the Second Congress of the RSDLP, an attempt was made to use this against him, Lenin replied: “We all now know that the ‘Economists’ have gone to one extreme. To straighten matters out somebody had to pull in the other directionand that is what I have done.”[121] In his biography of Stalin, Trotsky comments in these words: “The author of What To Do? himself subsequently acknowledged the biased nature, and therewith the erroneousness, of his theory, which he had parenthetically interjected as a battery in the battle against ‘Economism’ and its deference to the elemental nature of the labour movement.”[122]

In spite of this defect, What Is To Be Done? was a major landmark in the history of Russian Marxism. In it, Lenin conclusively demonstrated the need for organisation, the need for professional revolutionaries whose main concern would be the building of the party and the need for a genuine mass All-Russian workers’ party. In order for the proletariat to take power, it must be organised. Failure to achieve this task would mean, as Trotsky explained, that the potential force of the working class would be uselessly dissipated, like steam which is dispersed in the air, instead of being concentrated by a piston-box.

The essential idea which runs through What Is To Be Done? is the need to train worker cadres, not just class conscious trade union militants, but workers with a clear grasp of the ideas of Marxism: “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of political activity.” What Lenin was driving at here was not at all a belittling of the capacity of the workers to understand but quite the opposite. His main concern was to combat the petty bourgeois prejudice that “workers cannot understand theory” and that the party literature must confine itself to economic slogans and immediate demands. On the contrary, Lenin insisted that “it is necessary that the workers do not confine themselves to the artificially restricted limits of ‘literature for workers’ but that they learn to an increasing degree to master general literature. It would be even truer to say ‘are not confined’, instead of ‘do not confine themselves’ because the workers themselves wish to read and do read all that is written for the intelligentsia, and only a few (bad) intellectuals believe that it is enough ‘for workers’ to be told a few things about factory conditions and to have repeated to them over and over again what has long been known”.[123]

Starting from the immediate problems of the working class, fighting for all kinds of partial demands, it is necessary to go beyond the particular and establish the link with the general, from the struggle of groups of workers against individual employers, to the struggle of the working class as a whole against the bourgeoisie and its state. In a brilliant line of argument, Lenin established the dialectical interrelation between agitation, propaganda and theory and explained the way in which the small forces of Marxism, by winning over the most advanced layers of the class, can subsequently win over the mass of the proletariat, and through the latter, all other oppressed layers of society—the peasantry, the oppressed nationalities, the women. The Economists were initially successful because they merely adapted to the prejudices of the most backward layers of the workers. But as Lenin argued: the workers are not children to be fed on such thin gruel. They do not want to be told what they already know. The workers have a thirst for knowledge, which it is the duty of the Marxists to satisfy. Taking as the starting point the immediate problems of the working people, it is necessary to raise the level of consciousness to a full understanding of its role in society, pointing the way forward out of the impasse.

Contents | Next Section


[91] Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, p. 51.

[92] Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895-1903, p. 223.

[93] KPSS v rezolyutsiyakh i resheniyakh, vol. 1, p. 16.

[94] O. Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, pp. 25 and 26.

[95] Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895-1903, p. 215.

[96] Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, p. 260.

[97] Quoted in KPSS v rezolyutsiyakh i resheniyakh, vol. 1, p. 17.

[98] Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, p. 265.

[99] Trotsky, My Life, p. 117.

[100] LCW, What Is To Be Done? vol. 5, p. 349.

[101] Quoted in Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895-1903.

[102] See LCW, vol. 4, pp. 215-221 and 255-296.

[103] Ibid., pp. 167-182.

[104] The full text of the Credo is reproduced in Lenin’s Collected Works, A protest by Russian Social Democrats, vol. 4, pp. 171-4 (my emphasis).

[105] Ibid., pp. 176-7 and 181.

[106] Quoted in Wildman, op. cit., pp. 93 and 106.

[107] LCW, To P.B. Axelrod, April 25, 1901, vol. 34, p. 60.

[108] Ibid., pp. 333-349.

[109] Trotsky, Political Profiles, pp. 85-7.

[110] LCW, How the ‘Spark’ was nearly Extinguished, vol. 4, p. 348.

[111] LCW, vol. 4, pp. 351-6.

[112] See Lenin’s initial draft in LCW, Draft of a Declaration of the Editorial Board of Iskra and Zarya, vol. 4, pp. 320-330. Quoted here is LCW, vol. 4, pp. 354-5.

[113] Quoted in Trotsky, Lenin.

[114] LCW, vol. 1, pp. 333-507.

[115] Perepiska GV Plekhanova i PB Aksel’roda, p. 270.

[116] Trotsky, My Life, p. 171.

[117] Iskra, No 7.

[118] Where to Begin (LCW, vol. 5, pp. 17-24), Letter to a Comrade (LCW, vol. 6, pp. 235-252) and What Is To Be Done? (LCW, vol. 5, pp. 349-529).

[119] LCW, Where to Begin, vol. 5, pp. 22-3.

[120] LCW, vol. 5, pp. 375 and 383-4 (my emphasis).

[121] LCW, Second Congress of the RSDLP, vol. 6, p. 491 (my emphasis).

[122] Trotsky, Stalin, p. 58.

[123] LCW, vol. 5, p. 369 (my emphasis) and p. 384, note.