History of the Bolshevik Party: Bolshevism - The Road to Revolution

"In the year 1917, Russia was passing through the greatest social crisis. One can say with certainty, however, on the basis of all the lessons of history, that had there been no Bolshevik Party the immeasurable revolutionary energy of the masses would have been fruitlessly spent in sporadic explosions, and the great upheavals would have ended in the severest counter-revolutionary dictatorship. The class struggle is the prime mover of history. It needs a correct program, a firm party, a trustworthy and courageous leadership-not heroes of the drawing room and of parliamentary phrases, but revolutionists, ready to go to the very end. This is the major lesson of the October revolution."

'Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution' is a comprehensive history of the Bolshevik Party, from it's early beginnings through to the seizure of power in October 1917. This important work was first published in 1999, with material collected by the author over a thirty year period, and has been republished here to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution.

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Why Study the History of Bolshevism?

In the year 1917, Russia was passing through the greatest social crisis. One can say with certainty, however, on the basis of all the lessons of history, that had there been no Bolshevik Party the immeasurable revolutionary energy of the masses would have been fruitlessly spent in sporadic explosions, and the great upheavals would have ended in the severest counterrevolutionary dictatorship. The class struggle is the prime mover of history. It needs a correct program, a firm party, a trustworthy and courageous leadership—not heroes of the drawing room and of parliamentary phrases, but revolutionists, ready to go to the very end. This is the major lesson of the October Revolution.[1]

A revolution, by definition, represents such a turning point whereby the process of human development is given a powerful new impetus. Whatever one thinks of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, there can be no question about its colossal historical significance. For more than three quarters of its existence, the 20th century was dominated by it. And even now, at the dawn of a new millennium, the world is still affected by its reverberations in a most fundamental way. The study of the Russian Revolution therefore requires neither explanations nor apologies. It belongs to that category of great historic turning points that compels us to speak in terms of a before and an after, like Cromwell’s revolution in England or the great French Revolution of 1789–93.

There are many points of similarity between the October Revolution in Russia and the great bourgeois revolutions of the past. At times these parallels seem almost uncanny, even extending to the personalities of the principal dramatis personnae, such as the similarity between Charles I of England and Louis XVI of France and Tsar Nicholas, together with their foreign wives. But for all the similarities, there is a fundamental difference between the Bolshevik Revolution and the bourgeois revolutions of the past. Capitalism, unlike socialism, can and does arise spontaneously out of the development of the productive forces. As a system of production, capitalism does not require the conscious intervention of men and women. The market functions in the same way as an anthill or any other self-organizing community of the animal world, that is to say, blindly and automatically. The fact that this takes place in an anarchic, convulsive, and chaotic manner, that it is endlessly wasteful and inefficient and creates the most monstrous human suffering, is irrelevant to this consideration. Capitalism “works” and has been working—without the need of any human control or planning—for about two hundred years. In order to bring such a system into being, no special insight or understanding is called for. This fact has a bearing on the fundamental difference between the bourgeois and socialist revolution.

Socialism is different from capitalism because, unlike the latter, it requires the conscious control and administration of the productive process by the working class itself. It does not and cannot function without the conscious intervention of men and women. The socialist revolution is qualitatively different to the bourgeois revolution because it can only be brought about by the conscious movement of the working class. Socialism is democratic or it is nothing. Right from the beginning, in the transitional period between capitalism and socialism, the running of industry, society, and the state must be firmly in the hands of the working people. There must be the highest degree of participation of the masses in administration and control. Only in this way is it possible to prevent the rise of bureaucracy and create the material conditions for the movement in the direction of socialism, a higher form of society characterized by the total absence of exploitation, oppression, and coercion, and therefore by the gradual extinction and disappearance of that monstrous relic of barbarism, the state.

There is also another difference. In order to conquer power, the bourgeoisie had to mobilize the masses against the old order. This would have been unthinkable on the basis of the declared aim of establishing the necessary conditions for the rule of Rent, Interest, and Profit. Instead, the bourgeoisie put itself forward as the representative of the whole of suffering humanity. In the case of 17th-century England, it was supposed to be fighting for the establishment of god’s kingdom on earth. In 18th-century France it advertised itself as the representative of the rule of Reason. Undoubtedly, many of those who fought under these banners sincerely believed them to be true. Men and women do not fight against all the odds, risking everything, without that special motivation born of a burning conviction of the rightness of their cause. The declared aims in each case turned out to be pure illusion. The real content of the English and French Revolutions was bourgeois and, in the given historical epoch, could have been nothing else. And since the capitalist system functions in the manner we have already described, it did not make much difference whether people understood how it worked or not.

The present work, unlike most others on the subject, does not set out from the view that revolutions belong only to the past. On the contrary. The present world situation provides ever more proof that the progressive role of capitalism is now completely exhausted. The material conditions for socialism have long been mature on a world scale. The possibility exists for creating a world of undreamed-of plenty. Yet countless millions live in abject misery. Looking round the world today, Lenin’s book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism has a specially modern ring. The power of the big banks, monopolies, and multinational companies has never been greater. And they have no more intention of surrendering it without a fight than the degenerate absolute monarchs of the past. The first condition of human progress is to break the power of these modern overlords. In order to bring this about, it is first necessary to defeat and overthrow the resistance of that class which holds power in present-day society: the bankers and monopolists who dominate not only through their economic power but also through their control of the state and their monopoly of culture.

In order to accomplish these tasks, it is necessary that the working class possess a party and a leadership which is adequate to it. Unlike the French and English revolutionaries of the 17th and 18th centuries, the modern working class can only transform society on the basis of a scientific understanding of the world in which it lives. This is provided by Marxism, the only really consistent and scientific kind of socialism. The history of Bolshevism provides us with a model of how this can be achieved. In all the annals of history it would be difficult to find another example of a growth so astonishing as that of the Bolshevik Party in 1917, when it passed from 8,000 to more than a quarter of a million members in the space of nine months. Yet this feat did not occur as the result of spontaneous combustion. It was the end result of decades of patient work, commencing with small circles and passing through a whole series of stages, in which spectacular advances were followed by bitter defeats, disappointment, and despair. The life of every man and woman knows similar moments. The sum total of such experiences is life itself, and the way in which an individual overcomes the problems of life and absorbs the lessons of all kinds of different circumstances is what enables him or her to grow and develop. It is just the same with the party. But individuals also learn valuable lessons from the experience and knowledge of others. How difficult life would be if we insisted on ignoring the accumulated knowledge of those around us! And in the same way it is necessary to study the collective experience of the working class in different countries and thus to avoid mistakes that have already been made; for, as George Santayana once pointed out, “he who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.”

Is a Party Needed?

The whole history of the class struggle over the last hundred years provides the answer to this question. Marxism does not at all deny the importance of the role of the individual in history, but only explains that the role played by individuals or parties is circumscribed by the given level of historical development, by the objective social environment which, in the last analysis, is determined by the development of the productive forces. This does not mean—as has been alleged by the critics of Marxism—that men and women are merely puppets of the blind workings of “economic determinism.” Marx and Engels explained that men and women make their own history, but they do not do so as completely free agents, but have to work on the basis of the kind of society that they find in existence. The personal qualities of political figures—their theoretical preparation, skill, courage, and determination—can determine the outcome in a given situation. There are critical moments in human history when the quality of the leadership can be the decisive factor that tips the balance one way or another. Such periods are not the norm, but only arise when all the hidden contradictions have slowly matured over a long period to the point when, in the language of dialectics, quantity is changed into quality. Although individuals cannot determine the development of society by the force of the will alone, yet the role of the subjective factor is ultimately decisive in human history.

The presence of a revolutionary party and leadership is no less decisive for the outcome of the class struggle as is the quality of the army and its general staff in the wars between nations. The revolutionary party cannot be improvised on the spur of the moment, any more than a general staff can be improvised on the outbreak of war. It has to be systematically prepared over years and decades. This lesson has been demonstrated by the whole of history, especially the history of the 20th century. Rosa Luxemburg, that great revolutionary and martyr of the working class, always emphasized the revolutionary initiative of the masses as the motor force of revolution. In this, she was absolutely right. In the course of a revolution the masses learn rapidly. But a revolutionary situation, by its very nature, cannot last for long. Society cannot be kept in a permanent state of ferment, nor the working class in a state of white-hot activism. Either a way out is shown in time, or the moment will be lost. There is not enough time to experiment or for the workers to learn by trial and error. In a life-and-death situation, errors are paid for very dearly! Therefore, it is necessary to combine the “spontaneous” movement of the masses with organization, program, perspectives, strategy, and tactics—in a word, with a revolutionary party led by experienced cadres.

A party is not just an organizational form, a name, a banner, a collection of individuals, or an apparatus. A revolutionary party, for a Marxist, is in the first place program, methods, ideas, and traditions, and only in the second place, an organization and an apparatus (important as these undoubtedly are) in order to carry these ideas to the broadest layers of the working people. The Marxist party, from the very beginning, must base itself on theory and program, which is the summing up of the general historical experience of the proletariat. Without this, it is nothing. The building of a revolutionary party always begins with the slow and painstaking work of assembling and educating the cadres, which forms the backbone of the party throughout its entire lifetime. That is the first half of the problem. But only the first half. The second half is more complicated: how to reach the mass of the workers with our ideas and program? This is not at all a simple question.

Marx explained that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself. The mass of the working class learns from experience. They do not learn from books, not because they lack the intelligence, as middle class snobs imagine, but because they lack the time, the access to culture and the habit of reading that is not something automatic, but is acquired. A worker who returns home after working eight, nine, or ten hours on a building site or on a conveyor belt, is not only physically but mentally tired. The last thing he or she wants to do is to study or go to a meeting. Far better to leave such things to “those who know.” But if there is a strike, the whole psychology is transformed. And a revolution is like a huge strike of the whole of society. The masses want to understand what is going on, to learn, to think, and to act. Of course, the actions of the masses, bereft of experience and the knowledge of tactics, strategy, and perspectives, find themselves at a disadvantage when faced with the ruling class, which, through its political and military representatives, has had a long experience and is far better prepared for such situations. It has in its hands a whole battery of weapons: control of the state, the army, the police and the judiciary, the press and the other mass media—powerful instruments for molding public opinion and for slander, lying, and character assassination. It has many other weapons and auxiliary forces: control of the schools and universities, an army of “experts,” professors, economists, philosophers, lawyers, priests, and others willing to swallow their moral scruples and rally to the defense of “civilization” (that is, their own privileges and those of their masters) against “chaos” and the “mob.”

The working class does not automatically arrive at revolutionary conclusions. If that were so, the task of party building would be redundant. The task of transforming society would be a simple one, if the movement of the working class took place in a straight line. But this is not the case. Over a long historical period, the working class comes to understand the need for organization. Through the establishment of organizations, both of a trade union and, on a higher level, of a political character, the working class begins to express itself as a class, with an independent identity. In the language of Marx, it passes from a class in itself to a class for itself. This development takes place over a long historical period through all kinds of struggles, involving the participation, not just of the minority of more or less conscious activists, but of the “politically untutored masses,” who, in general, are awakened to active participation in political (or even trade union) life only on the basis of great events. On the basis of great historical events, the working class begins to create mass organizations, to defend its interests. These historically evolved organizations—the trade unions, cooperatives, and workers’ parties—represent the germ of a new society within the old. They serve to mobilize, organize, train, and educate the class.

The masses, newly awakened to political life, must seek out that political party that is most capable of defending their interests; the party that is most resolute and audacious, but also that shows itself to be most farsighted, that can point out the way forward at each stage, issuing timely slogans that correspond to the real situation. But how to decide which party and program is the right one? There are so many! The masses must test the parties and leaders in practice, for there is no other way. This process of successive approximation is both wasteful and time-consuming, but it is the only one possible. In every revolution—not only Russia in 1917, but also France in the 18th century and England in the 17th century—we see a similar process, in which, through experience, the revolutionary masses, by a process of successive approximations, find their way towards the most consistently revolutionary wing. The history of every revolution is thus characterized by the rise and fall of political parties and leaders, a process in which the more extreme tendencies always replace the more moderate, until the movement has run its course.

In all the voluminous history of the world working class movement, it is impossible to find a history so rich and variegated as that of the Bolshevik Party before 1917. A history that spanned three decades and included all the stages of development from a small circle to a mass party, passing through all the stages of legal and illegal struggle, three revolutions, two wars, and was confronted with a vast array of complex theoretical problems, not only on paper but in practice: individual terrorism, the national question, the agrarian question, imperialism, and the state. And it would also be impossible to find anywhere else such a vast and rich treasure house of Marxist literature dealing with the whole gamut of problems from A to Z with such astonishing profundity as in the writings of the two greatest revolutionaries of the 20th century—Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Leon Davidovich Trotsky. Yet the modern reader who wishes to acquaint him- or herself with this material will come up against an insurmountable problem. Almost the entire literature on the history of Bolshevism has been written by hardened enemies of Bolshevism. With a very few honorable exceptions, such as the work done by the French Marxist historians Pierre Broué and Marcel Liebman, it is impossible to find a history of the Bolshevik Party worth the trouble of reading. But both Broué’s and Liebman’s subject matter is somewhat different to that of the present work, and, while their works can be recommended, they deal only partially with the subject with which we are concerned here, namely how the Bolsheviks prepared themselves for the task of taking power in 1917.

About the Present Work

The present work is written by a committed Marxist who has devoted the whole of his adult life to fighting for the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky. In thus declaring an interest, I do not regard it as a disadvantage, but quite the contrary. My standpoint is one that does not regard the history of Bolshevism as a merely academic interest, but as something living and relevant to the present day. My acquaintance with the history of Bolshevism is not confined to book knowledge. Forty years of active participation in the Marxist movement provide one with many insights which are not available to the writer whose interest is merely academic. Karl Kautsky, in the days when he was still a Marxist, wrote a book which must surely be one of the finest examples of the method of historical materialism—The Foundations of Christianity. In that book he describes the early Christian movement in a way that was only possible for someone who had had first-hand knowledge of the German Social Democracy in its heroic early days, when it was struggling in harsh underground conditions against the Anti-Socialist Law in Germany. True, the social content of both movements was radically different, as was the historical moment in which they were developing. Yet for all that, the parallels between these revolutionary movements of the dispossessed against the state of the rich and powerful are just as striking as the differences.

Many of the situations that faced the pioneers of Russian Marxism are very familiar to me from personal experience: not just the work of fighting for the ideas of Marxism in the British Labour movement, but experience of the revolutionary movement in France 1968, in Portugal in 1975, and in Spain during the last years of the Franco dictatorship and the underground movement against the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile—all these provided me with ample occasions to observe at first hand precisely the kind of situations that confronted the Bolsheviks in their long fight against the tsarist regime. In addition, I have had personal experience over many years with the work of revolutionaries in Third World countries in Latin America and Asia—especially Pakistan, which presents the features of a semifeudal society strikingly similar to tsarist Russia. In addition, thirty years ago as a student in the USSR, where I obtained a lot of material which I used in writing this book, I was able to meet and talk to people who had participated in the Bolshevik Party, including, on one occasion, two old ladies who had worked as secretaries for Lenin in the Kremlin after the revolution. I believe that these experiences have provided me with many insights of the true nature of Bolshevism.

Finally, I owe a great deal to Ted Grant, my comrade, friend, and teacher for the last forty years. I consider Ted not only to be the greatest living exponent of Marxism, but also a direct link—one of the last surviving links—with the great revolutionary traditions of the past: the Left Opposition and the Bolshevik Party itself. Thanks to his work over the past sixty years, the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky —the theoretical and practical leaders of October—have been kept alive, extended, and developed. The present work is intended as a companion volume to RussiaFrom Revolution to Counter-revolution, in which Ted traces the processes that took place in Russia after the October Revolution. I believe that, between them, these two volumes provide a comprehensive history and analysis of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution, from its earliest beginnings to the present day.

I am conscious that it is not the custom of academic historians of Bolshevism to “declare an interest,” as I have done here. That is unfortunate, since the vast majority of them, despite a superficial veneer of impartiality are, in fact, clearly motivated by prejudice against, or even outright hostility to, Bolshevism and revolution in general. Moreover, commitment to a definite standpoint by no means precludes objectivity. A surgeon may be passionately concerned with saving the life of his patient, but for that very reason will distinguish with extreme care between the different layers of the organism. I have attempted to deal objectively with the subject under consideration. Since the purpose of this book is to allow the new generation to learn all the lessons of the historical experience of Bolshevism, to gloss over the problems, difficulties, and errors would be both stupid and counterproductive.

When Oliver Cromwell had his portrait painted, he sternly admonished the artist to “paint me as I am—warts and all!” The same truthful attitude, the same forthright realism always characterized the thinking of Lenin and Trotsky. Where they made mistakes, they did not mince words in admitting it. After the revolution, Lenin said on one occasion that they had committed “many stupidities.” This is a far cry from the histories of the Stalinists which present a false picture of the Bolshevik Party that was always right and never wrong. The present work outlines the strong side of Bolshevism, but does not hide the problems. To do so would be to do serious damage to the cause of Leninism not in the past but in the present and the future. In order that the new generation should learn from the history of Bolshevism it is necessary to paint it as it was—“warts and all.”

I have deliberately used non-Bolshevik sources as much as possible, particularly Menshevik authors like Dan, Axelrod, and Martov, and also the Economist Akimov. At least some bourgeois writers, while critical of Bolshevism, have taken the trouble to cite a lot of relevant material. Books like David Lane’s work on the early history of the Russian Social Democracy, or Robert McKean’s St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions contains a wealth of material that cannot be found easily elsewhere. McKean’s book is no doubt intended as an antidote to the exaggerated picture of the strength of the Bolsheviks in the years before 1917, and would be far more valuable if the author had not been swayed by his hostility to Bolshevism. Most of the others are far worse.

Having studied this material for more than thirty years, the conclusion I have come to is this: the best source for rediscovering the history of Bolshevism is the writings of Lenin and Trotsky. They are an inexhaustible treasure house of information and ideas which, taken together, make up a detailed history of Russia and the world for the entire period under consideration. The problem is that it is a vast amount of material—45 volumes of Lenin in English, and about ten more in Russian. Trotsky probably wrote even more, but the publication of his works is more scattered. His brilliant autobiography My Life, the monumental History of the Russian Revolution, and his underrated last masterpiece Stalin provide a wealth of material for the history of Bolshevism. The problem is that the aspiring student of Bolshevism who attempts to read all this material would require an enormous amount of time to do so. I have therefore deliberately included a large number of quite lengthy quotes from these sources, although this has made the text both longer and more cumbersome. Despite these objections, it seemed necessary to me, for two reasons: 1) in order to avoid any suggestion of inaccuracy in quoting and 2) to stimulate the interest of the reader in reading the originals. For, at the end of the day, there can be no substitute for reading the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky.

Without the Bolshevik Party, without the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, the Russian workers, despite all their heroism, would never have taken power in 1917. That is the central lesson of the present work. If one examines the history of the international workers’ movement, one sees a whole series of bloody and tragic defeats. Here for the first time, if we exclude the brief but heroic episode of the Paris Commune, the working class succeeded in overthrowing their oppressors and beginning the task of the socialist transformation of society. As Rosa Luxemburg expressed it, they alone dared. And they succeeded brilliantly. This is the “crime” for which the bourgeoisie and its hired apologists can never forgive the Bolsheviks. To this day, the ruling class lives in mortal fear of revolution and dedicates no small amount of resources to combating it. In this, their task has been greatly facilitated by the crimes of Russian Stalinism. The betrayal of the ideas of Lenin by the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia finally led to its logical conclusion—the greatest betrayal in the whole history of the labor movement—the destruction of the USSR and the attempt of the ruling bureaucratic caste to move in the direction of capitalism. Now, 80 years after the revolution, all of the gains of October are being destroyed and replaced with “free market” barbarism. But it is never sufficient for the ruling class to overthrow a revolution. They must eradicate its memory, cover it with dirt and lies. In order to accomplish this feat, they require the services of faithful academics who are eager to place themselves at the service of maintaining the “free market economy” (read: “the rule of the big banks and monopolies”). This is what explains the blind hatred of Lenin and Trotsky that still characterizes the writings of all the bourgeois historians of the Russian Revolution, ill-concealed behind a mask of false impartiality.

How the Bourgeois ‘Explain’ October

The Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle, when he wrote about the great English revolutionary Oliver Cromwell, complained that before putting pen to paper he first had to dig out Cromwell from under a mountain of dead dogs. History in general is not impartial, and the history of revolutions least of all. Ever since the October Revolution, the Bolshevik Party and its leaders have been the object of particular hatred of all the forces hostile to the revolution. That includes not only the bourgeoisie and the Social Democrats, but all kinds of petty-bourgeois anarchist and semi-anarchist elements, and, last but not least, the Stalinists, who rose to power over the dead body of Lenin’s party. It is impossible to find a single decent history of the Bolshevik Party from any of these sources. Though the Western universities continue to churn out a never-ending stream of books on this or that aspect of the Russian Revolutionary movement, the hostility towards Bolshevism, and a poisonous attitude towards Lenin and Trotsky, are present from first to last.

The most common explanation for the October Revolution that is given in Western history books is that it was not a revolution at all but only a coup d’état carried out by a minority. But this “explanation” explains precisely nothing. How is it to be explained that a tiny handful of “conspirators,” numbering not more than 8,000 in March, were able to lead the working class to the seizure of power only nine months later? This implies that Lenin and Trotsky were possessed of miraculous powers. But to resort to the supposedly miraculous powers of individuals as an explanation of historical events again provides us with no explanation, but only refers the inquirer to the only place where superhuman (that is, supernatural) qualities can originate—namely, the realm of religion and mysticism. We are far from denying the vital importance of the individual in the historical process. The events of 1917 are perhaps the most striking confirmation of the fact that, under certain circumstances, the role of individuals is absolutely decisive. Without Lenin and Trotsky, the October Revolution would have never taken place. But to say that is not enough. The same Lenin and Trotsky had been active in the revolutionary movement for almost two decades before the revolution, and yet for most of the time were unable to carry out a revolution and for long periods were without any influence with the masses. To attribute the victory of October solely to the genius (benevolent or malevolent, depending on your class point of view) of Lenin and Trotsky is clearly nonsense.

The proof that the Russian Revolution involved an upsurge of the masses virtually without precedent in history is too voluminous to quote here. Thirty years ago, while I was a postgraduate student in Moscow, I recall a conversation I had with a woman, then very advanced in years, who had participated as a member of the Bolshevik Party in the revolution somewhere in the Volga region. I cannot remember the exact place, or even her name, but I remember that she had spent 17 years in one of Stalin’s labor camps, along with so many other Bolsheviks. And I remember another thing. When I asked her about the October Revolution, she answered with two words, which cannot be adequately translated: “Kakoi pod’yom!” The Russian word “pod’yom” has no equivalent in English, but means something like “spiritual upsurge.” “Such uplift!” would be a lame rendition of this phrase, which, more than a mountain of statistics, conveys the intensity with which the mass of the population embraced the revolution—not just the workers, poor peasants, and soldiers, but also the best representatives of the intelligentsia (this woman had been a school teacher). The October Revolution attracted all that was best, all that was alive, progressive, and vibrant in Russian society. And I remember how this woman’s eyes shone as she relived in her mind the joy and the hope of those years. Today, when all the usual gang of professional cynics are lining up to pour dirt over the memory of the October Revolution, I still recall the face of that old woman, heavily lined with long years of suffering, yet radiant in her memories in spite of all that later befell her and her generation.

One strand of bourgeois history in the last period was to attack Bolshevism by resurrecting its political enemies, Economism and, particularly, Menshevism. One of the principal “resurrection men” is Solomon Schwarz. His basic thesis is that “fundamentally Bolshevism stressed the initiative of an active minority; Menshevism, the activation of the masses.” From this initially false assertion the author derives his conclusion quite naturally that “Bolshevism developed dictatorial conceptions and practices; Menshevism remained thoroughly democratic.”[2] The present work will show that this assertion is baseless. It will show that the Bolshevik Party was characterized throughout its history by the widest possible internal democracy. It is a history of the struggle of ideas and tendencies in which everyone spoke their mind freely. Internal democracy provided the necessary oxygen for the development of the ideas which ultimately guaranteed victory. This is a very far cry from the totalitarian and bureaucratic regimes of the “Communist” parties under Stalin.

The latest offering from the school of anti-Bolshevik history is Orlando Figes’ book A People’s Tragedy, the Russian Revolution 1891-1924, (London, 1996). Here we are presented with a vision of the revolution straight out of Dante’s Inferno. This objective and scientific academic describes the October Revolution variously as a “conspiracy,” a “coup,” a “drunken rampage.” It was “more the result of the degeneration of the urban revolution (?), and in particular of the workers’ movement, as an organized and constructive force, with vandalism, crime, generalized violence and drunken looting as the main expressions of this social breakdown.”[3] Figes is well aware that the outbreaks of disorder and drunkenness perpetrated by backward elements were rapidly suppressed by the Bolsheviks. They constituted episodic incidents of no importance, yet here the incidental is presented as the essence of the revolution. Naturally, for a “scientific” defender of the established social order the essence of any revolution must be disorder, madness, and chaos. What else can be expected from the masses? They are too ignorant and backward to understand, let alone rule. No, such a responsible task should be left to those of us who are intelligent. Let the hewers of wood and drawers of water attend to their business and leave the running of society to the graduates of Cambridge University.

Are we being unjust to Mr. Figes? Maybe we are misreading the message of his very thick book? Let the author speak for himself. At the Congress of Soviets, a decisive majority voted for the transfer of power to the soviets. This is a slight difficulty for Figes’ central thesis (not characterized by excessive originality) that the October Revolution was just a coup. But not to worry! Orlando has the answer to every conundrum. The reason why the masses voted for soviet power was that they were too ignorant:

“The mass of the delegates, who,” writes Mr. Figes, “were probably too ignorant to comprehend the political import of what they were doing, raised their hands in support (weren’t they in favor of soviet power?).”[4]

It should be noted in passing that the argument that the majority of people who vote in elections are “probably too ignorant” to understand the political issues involved is an argument against democracy in general. What is Figes trying to say? That up until the time the Bolsheviks and their allies got a majority in the soviets, the workers and soldiers were fully aware of what was required, but in October they were suddenly “probably too ignorant” to know what they were doing? Such an argument will fool no one. That the delegates at the Congress of Soviets had not the benefit of a Cambridge education has, regretfully, to be admitted. In compensation, they had learned a few things in the course of a bloody war and nine months of revolution. They knew quite well what they wanted: peace, bread, and land. And they knew that the Provisional Government and its Menshevik and Social Revolutionaries backers would not give them what they wanted. They also learned in the course of experience that the only party that would give them these things was the Bolsheviks. All this they understood pretty well without passing any exams.

Of course, anyone is entitled to write history from an anti-revolutionary standpoint. But then it would be far better to declare from the outset that the real intention is to show that revolution does not pay, and that consequently, convince the reader that he or she would be far better off accepting the capitalist system for fear of worse to come. Alas, human frailty being what it is, such an admission seems rather more than these historians can cope with.

The Stalin School of Falsification

The other main source of the history of Bolshevism is the huge body of literature on the subject that was published over decades in the USSR and widely disseminated in the past by the Stalinized Communist Parties abroad. From all this, it is equally impossible to obtain a truthful impression of the history of Bolshevism. Having usurped power in conditions of backwardness where an exhausted working class proved unable to keep control in its hands, the bureaucracy was compelled to pay lip service to Bolshevism and October. In the same way the bureaucracy of the Second International paid lip service to “socialism” while carrying out a bourgeois policy, and the Pope of Rome pays lip service to the teachings of the early Christian Church. The ruling bureaucracy in the USSR, while placing Lenin’s body in a mausoleum, betrayed all the basic ideas of Lenin and the October Revolution, covering the spotless banner of Bolshevism with filth and blood. In order to consolidate its usurpation, the ruling caste was forced to exterminate the Old Bolsheviks. Like all criminals, Stalin wanted no witnesses who could speak out against him. This fact determined in advance the destiny of history books in the USSR.

It is frequently asserted that Stalinism and Bolshevism are basically the same thing. Indeed, this is what lies behind all the calumnies of the bourgeois historians of Bolshevism. But the democratic workers’ state established by Lenin and Trotsky in October 1917 had absolutely nothing in common with the bureaucratic-totalitarian monstrosity presided over by Stalin and his successors. The victory of Stalin and the bureaucracy, the result of the isolation of the revolution in conditions of crushing backwardness, poverty, and illiteracy, meant the wholesale abandonment of the ideas, traditions, and methods of Lenin and the transformation of the Third International as the vehicle of world revolution to a mere instrument of the foreign policy of the Moscow bureaucracy. In 1943, having been cynically used by Stalin as an instrument of Moscow’s foreign policy, the Communist International was ignominiously buried, without even calling a congress. The political and organizational heritage of Lenin was dealt a heavy blow for a whole historical period. This fact has heavily colored the view that many people have of the history of Bolshevism. Even well-meaning writers (not to mention the malicious ones) cannot help reading into the past all kinds of elements from the horrors of the later Stalinist regime which are entirely alien to the democratic traditions of Bolshevism.

In order to triumph, Stalinism was obliged to destroy every last vestige of the democratic regime established by October. The Bolshevik Party inscribed on its program in 1919 the famous four conditions for Soviet power:

1. Free and democratic elections with right of recall of all officials.

2. No official must receive a salary higher than that of a skilled worker.

3. No standing army but the armed people.

4. Gradually, all the tasks of running the state should be performed by everyone in turn. When everybody is a bureaucrat, no one can be a bureaucrat.

These conditions, which are spelled out in Lenin’s State and Revolution, are based upon the program of the Paris Commune. As Engels explained, this was no longer a state in the old sense of the word, but a semi-state, a transitional regime intended to prepare the way for the transition to socialism. This was the democratic ideal which Lenin and Trotsky put into practice after the October overturn. It had absolutely nothing in common with the bureaucratic and totalitarian monstrosity that replaced it under Stalin and his successors. Moreover, that regime could only be brought about on the basis of a political counterrevolution, involving the physical extermination of Lenin’s party in the one-sided civil war against Bolshevism—the Purge Trials of the 1930s. Let us just cite one figure to prove the point. By 1939, of Lenin’s 1917 Central Committee, only three were left alive: Stalin, Trotsky, and Alexandra Kollontai. The rest, apart from Lenin and Sverdlov, who died naturally, were either murdered or driven to suicide. Kamenev and Zinoviev were executed in 1936. Bukharin, whom Lenin described as “the Party’s favorite,” was executed in 1938. The same fate awaited tens of thousands of Bolsheviks under Stalin. One lone voice remained to denounce Stalin’s crimes and defend the genuine heritage of Bolshevism. That voice was stilled in 1940, when Leon Trotsky, lifelong revolutionary, leader of the October insurrection and founder of the Red Army, was finally murdered in Mexico by one of Stalin’s agents.

To those who persist in identifying Stalinism with Leninism, we are entitled to direct the following question: if the regimes of Lenin and Stalin were really the same, how did it come about that Stalin could only come to power by physically annihilating the Bolshevik Party?

Under Stalin and his successors, everything connected with the October Revolution and the history of Bolshevism was shrouded in a thick fog of distortion by the official mythology that passed for history in the USSR after Lenin’s death. The real traditions of Bolshevism were buried under a thick layer of lies, slanders, and distortions. The relation between the party and the class, and also, crucially, between the party and the leadership, was presented in the form of a bureaucratic caricature. The official Soviet histories present an over-simplified and one-sided picture of the relation between the Bolshevik Party and the mass movement. The impression is created that at every step the Bolsheviks were the commanding force that led and directed the revolution with the ease of a conductor waving his baton before an obedient and disciplined orchestra. From such versions one can learn nothing about either the Bolshevik Party, the Russian Revolution, or the dynamics of revolution in general. This is, of course, no accident, since the purposes of history under the rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy was not to teach people to make revolutions, but to glorify the ruling caste and to perpetuate the myth of an infallible leadership at the head of an infallible Party, which had nothing in common with Lenin’s Party, except a usurped name. In the same way all monarchies, but especially a dynasty that has usurped the throne, seeks to rewrite history to present its predecessors in the most superhuman and awesome light. Needless to say, any resemblance to the truth here is purely accidental.

The old Stalinist histories are virtually worthless as sources. To depict the history of Bolshevism as these people did—i.e., as a perfectly straight ascending line, leading irresistibly to the assumption of power—is to leave behind the realm of serious history and enter that of hagiography. I have used only one Soviet history here: the multi-volumed Istoriya KPSS (History of the CPSU) published in the USSR under the relatively “liberal” regime of Nikita Khrushchev in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This is probably the most detailed history of the Party published in the Soviet Union. It is useful for the mass of material it contains, much from unpublished party archives. But basically it is as one-sided as all the other Stalinist histories, and even the factual information should be treated with care.

‘New Lies for Old!’

This is not the place to deal with the events in Russia from Lenin’s death to the present day. That subject is the theme of the companion volume to the present work, Russiafrom Revolution to Counter-revolution, already referred to. Suffice it to say that the isolation of the Russian Revolution in conditions of frightful economic and cultural backwardness led inevitably, first to the rise of a privileged bureaucratic ruling caste that completely eradicated the traditions of Bolshevism and physically annihilated the Bolshevik Party, and finally liquidated the only progressive conquests of October that remained—the nationalization of the economy and the plan. The result, as predicted by Trotsky in 1936, has been the most terrible collapse of the productive forces and culture. The Russian people have paid an appalling price for the attempt of the bureaucracy to transform itself into a ruling class and to reinforce its power and privileges by moving in the direction of capitalism.

As we predicted from the beginning, this would inevitably meet with the resistance of the working class at a certain stage. True, this process has been retarded. How could it be otherwise? The long period of totalitarian rule, the partial discrediting of the idea of socialism and communism as a result; the immense confusion and disorientation caused by the collapse of the USSR; and then the unprecedented collapse of the productive forces which stunned the workers for a time. Finally, and most importantly, the absence of a real Communist party standing on the program, methods, and traditions of Lenin and Trotsky—all this has thrown the movement back. But now things are changing in Russia. Despite the lack of leadership, the working class is gradually drawing the necessary conclusions on the basis of experience. Sooner or later the movement of the workers will place firmly on the agenda the need for a genuine Leninist program, policy, and leadership.

With the collapse of Stalinism, the old histories have been consigned to a well-merited oblivion. But their place has been taken by a new and even more odious form of anti-Bolshevik falsification. The movement towards capitalism in Russia has spawned a new breed of “historians” anxious to do the bidding of their new masters by publishing all kinds of alleged “revelations” about the past. The fact that what they write now completely contradicts what they wrote yesterday does not appear to bother them in the slightest, since the aim is not (and never was) to establish the truth, but only to earn a living and please the Boss (which is pretty much the same thing here). For decades, these creatures churned out falsified histories of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution, representing Lenin much as the Orthodox Church produced the lives of the saints, complete with miracles, and with just as much scientific validity. They fawned on the Stalinist bureaucracy that paid them handsomely for producing this rubbish to order, and generally conducted themselves as model servants of the totalitarian regime. Now the Master has changed, they have jumped with the alacrity of a performing dog at a circus. From singing panegyrics to Stalin, Brezhnev, and Gorbachov, they have graduated to singing the praises of the “Market.”

These modern Russian writers share the morality and values of all the other “new Russians”—the values of the market, that is to say, the jungle. In order to ensure the new-found wealth obtained by the simple expedient of plundering the people of Russia, it is necessary to pour dirt on Russia’s revolutionary past, for fear that it may also represent Russia’s future. Just as there is a ready market in Russia for Mercedes Benz and pornography, so there is money to be made in slandering Lenin and the October Revolution. And where money is concerned, the “new Russian” intellectuals are no less enthusiastic than the assorted thieves, speculators, and spivs who now call the shots in Moscow. A whole new literary genre has evolved, which entails the following: a former Party or KGB hack “discovers” in the archives some “startling new revelation” relating to Lenin. This is then presented to the public in the form of a “learned” study signed by some academic or other who invests the “new” information with a spurious halo of “scientific objectivity.” After a few months, the “startling revelations” are published in the West, to an approving chorus. Then the comments from the Western media are published in the Russian press, but not before being suitably embellished by all sorts of lurid and quite fictitious additions. In fact, practically nothing of these “revelations” is new, and absolutely nothing is startling, unless it be the willingness of some people to believe anything at all.

Among other things, Lenin stands accused of advocating the use of violence—during the Civil War! But what is war, except the utilization of violence to some end or other—the continuation of politics by other means, in Clausewitz’s famous dictum? True, the Bible informs us that to take the life of another is a mortal sin. But this dictum never prevented Christian monarchs and politicians from employing the most violent means to support their own interests. Those who weep crocodile tears over the fate of Tsar Nicholas conveniently ignore the bloody cruelty that was the hallmark of his reign from the first day. Maybe the present work will jog their memory. And perhaps they will be surprised to learn that the October Revolution was a relatively peaceful affair, and that the terrible bloodshed occurred only as a result of the slave-holders’ rebellion of the White Guard, backed by world imperialism. In the three years after the October Revolution, the Soviet republic was invaded by no fewer than 21 foreign armies: British, French, German, American, Polish, Czech, Japanese, and others. As always, when it is a question of putting down a slave uprising, the ruling class acted with the most appalling cruelty. But this time it was different. The former slaves did not meekly submit, but fought back and won.

The violence of the landlords and capitalists was met by the violence of the oppressed workers and peasants. And it is this that they cannot forgive. Trotsky organized the working class into the Red Army and, by a combination of military skill and courage with a revolutionary and internationalist policy, succeeded in defeating all the forces of the counterrevolution. This undoubtedly involved the use of violence that was not strictly in accord with the Sermon on the Mount. The enemies of the revolution pretend to be horrified. But their rejection of violent means is not at all absolute. The same people who slander the memory of Lenin and Trotsky do not bat an eyelid when they mention an American President who ordered the atom bomb to be dropped on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or a British Prime Minister who ordered the incineration of men, women, and children in the blanket bombing of Dresden. Such actions, you see, are not only acceptable, but praiseworthy (“they shortened the war and reduced Allied casualties…”). The organizers of the campaign against Lenin and the Bolsheviks are well aware that the October Revolution was fighting a desperate war of self-defense. They know that, if the Whites had won, they would have implanted a ferocious dictatorship in Russia and the workers and peasants would have paid a terrible price. Therefore, the hullabaloo about Lenin’s alleged violence must be seen for what it is: cynicism and hypocrisy of the lowest order.

This slander is not only baseless, but frankly stupid. If Lenin was really an agent of German imperialism, it is impossible to explain the behavior both of Lenin and the German Army in the period after October. In fact, it was not Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but the Russian bourgeoisie that longed for the intervention of the German Army in 1917. There are plenty of witnesses to prove that the propertied classes in Russia would have preferred to surrender Petrograd to the Germans rather than see it fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks.

True, the German general staff hoped that Lenin’s return to Russia would help to destabilize tsarism and weaken it militarily. It is not unusual for imperialist powers to see in internal disorders a means of weakening an enemy. In the same way it is the duty of revolutionists to make use of all contradictions between the imperialists to further the revolution. Lenin was well aware of the calculations of Berlin. That is why, when he was blocked by England and France from crossing Allied territory to return to Russia, forcing him to return through Germany, he imposed the strictest conditions, specifying that no-one should either enter or leave his train en route. He knew that the enemies of Bolshevism would brand him as a “German agent.” But he took the necessary steps to answer this calumny in advance.

As Trotsky explained years later to the Dewey Commission:

He explained openly to the workers, the first Soviet in Petrograd; “My situation was such and such. The only way possible was to go across Germany. The hopes of Ludendorff are his hopes, and mine are totally different. We will see who will be victorious.” He explained everything. He concealed nothing. He said it before the whole world. He was an honest revolutionist. Naturally, the chauvinists and patriots accused him of being a German spy, but in his relationship with the working class he was absolutely impeccable.[5]

Throughout the First World War, not only the Germans but the Allies also used their stooges in the labor movement to buy support among left groups in other countries. But to allege that the Germans had bought the Bolsheviks with gold and that there existed an actual bloc between the Bolsheviks and German imperialism is not only monstrous but extremely stupid. It flies in the face of all the known facts about the political conduct of the Bolsheviks both during and after the war. For example, Volkogonov tries to show that German money was channelled to the Bolsheviks via Sweden when it can easily be shown that Shlyapnikov, the representative of the Bolsheviks in Sweden, publicly denounced the activities of the pro-German wing of the Swedish Social Democracy and would have nothing to do with the German agent Troelstra, while Lenin’s attitude to Parvus during the war is documented in the relevant chapter of the present work. One could say a lot more on the subject of Mr. Volkogonov’s lies and distortions, but, as the Russian proverb says: a fool can ask more questions than a hundred wise men can answer. And this observation holds good, not just for fools, but for far less well-intentioned people.

Leninism and the Future

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the bourgeois critics of Marxism were jubilant for a short time. But all their euphoria has quickly turned to ashes. The crisis of capitalism reflects itself, at this stage, in the pessimism of the strategists of capital. But as the crisis unfolds, it will also be reflected in the crisis of the mass organizations of labor which over the last decades have experienced a process of reformist and bureaucratic degeneration far worse than that suffered by the Second International in the period prior to 1914. For a long time the labor leaders treated Marxism as a dead dog. They whole-heartedly embraced the market and all the latest economic nostrums of the bourgeoisie. The apparent vitality of right-wing reformism in the post-war period, at least in the advanced countries of capitalism, was merely an expression of the fact that capitalism went through a prolonged period of expansion, similar to the twenty years or so before the First World War. But this period is now at an end. As I finish the closing chapter, the news is everywhere of a developing crisis in world capitalism.

Never since 1945 has the world been in such a state of ferment. Long ago Marx and Engels predicted that capitalism would develop as a world system. Now this prediction has been fulfilled in almost laboratory conditions. The crushing domination of the world market constitutes the most striking fact of our epoch. The triumph of globalization has been heralded as the final victory of the market economy. But this victory carried within itself the seeds of a catastrophe. Far from overcoming the fundamental contradictions of capitalism, globalization merely creates a new and vastly greater stage upon which the contradictions are manifesting themselves. The deep slump in Asia manifests itself as an unprecedented accumulation of unsold goods (overproduction, or “overcapacity”) is accompanied by a paralysis of what used to be the main motor force for world economic growth, Japan. On the other side of the world, the uncontrolled upward movement of the stock exchange is provoking fears of a financial collapse in the USA. The nervousness of the bourgeois finds its expression in constant alarms on the world’s stock markets.

The old argument about the alleged superiority of the “free market economy” now sounds like a sick joke to millions of people. Under the banner of “privatization,” the big banks and monopolies are engaged in looting the state; under the banner of “liberalization,” they force the weak bourgeoisie of the ex-colonial countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to open their markets to the exports from the West with which they cannot compete. This is the real reason for the chronic indebtedness of the Third World and the permanent crisis that afflicts two-thirds of the world’s population. Everywhere we see wars and conflicts over markets and meaningless frontiers for which the peoples must pay a dreadful price for the world crisis of capitalism. This situation bears a far greater resemblance to the world as it was one hundred years ago than the period of relative stability that followed the Second World War. The convulsions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are not as far away as they seem in Europe and North America. The catastrophe that resulted from the breakup of Yugoslavia shows that the same processes can affect the supposedly civilized peoples of the West unless the jungle logic of capitalism is eliminated and replaced with a rational and harmonious system on a world scale.

Ironically, the main detonator of the present crisis was the spectacular collapse of “free market” policies in Russia. This represents an important turning point not just for Russia but for the whole world. The temporary mood of exultation which predominated among the strategists of capital after the fall of the Berlin Wall has evaporated like a drop of water on a hot stove. In place of the old song about the alleged death of Marxism, socialism, and communism, they are now singing a very different refrain. The writings of the bourgeois economists and politicians are filled with forebodings and dark warnings about the clock being put back. In Russia, a social explosion is being prepared which will place on the order of the day a return to the traditions of 1917. On a world scale, the crisis of capitalism is entering a new and convulsive stage. The revolution in Indonesia is only the first act in a drama which will unfold over the coming months and years and will find an expression, not only in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but in Europe and North America too.

In this revolutionary reawakening, Russia will not occupy the last place. Lenin was fond of a Russian proverb: “Life teaches.” The lesson of the attempt to move towards capitalism in Russia has been a brutal one. But now the pendulum is beginning to swing in the opposite direction. The alarm of the capitalists and their Western backers is well founded. If the leaders of the CPRF were genuine Leninists, the Russian workers would now be on the eve of taking power. The working class is a thousand times stronger than in 1917. Once they started to move, nothing could stop them. The problem, as in February 1917, is the lack of leadership. The role being played by Zyuganov is even worse than that played by the Mensheviks in 1917. In all the speeches and articles of the leaders of the CPRF there is not one atom of the ideas of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. It is as if they had never existed. That is an indication of how far the Stalinist reaction against October has thrown the movement back. The regeneration of the Russian workers’ movement can only be brought about by a return to the genuine traditions of Bolshevism. The history of Bolshevism remains the classic model of the theory and practice of Marxism in its struggle to win the masses. It is necessary to go back to Lenin, and also to the ideas of the man who, together with Lenin, stood at the head of the October Revolution and guaranteed its success, Leon Trotsky.

The conduct of the leaders cannot hold back the movement forever. The workers are striving to find a way out of the crisis through their own class action. In so doing, they are rediscovering the revolutionary traditions of the past—the traditions of 1905 and 1917. The re-emergence of soviets, although they are variously styled: committees of action, strike committees, committees of salvation, is a clear proof that the Russian proletariat has not forgotten its revolutionary heritage. The movement will continue and grow, despite Zyuganov and co.—with the inevitable ebbs and flows. Was this not always the case? That is precisely the main lesson of the present work. And there is another lesson which we must never forget. Nothing can break the unconscious will of the working class to change society. Bolshevism is merely the conscious expression of the unconscious or semiconscious strivings of the proletariat to change the fundamental conditions of their existence. No force on earth can prevent the inevitable movement of the Russian workers. Over a period, through experience, the new generation will rediscover the road back to Bolshevism. The traditions are still there, and the revolution will find a way.


[1] Trotsky, Writings, 1935-36, 166.

[2] S. S. Schwarz, The Russian Revolution of 1905, the Workers’ Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism, 29.

[3] O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, the Russian Revolution 1891-1924, 495.

[4] Ibid., p. 491 (my emphasis).

[5] The Case of Leon Trotsky, 316.

1) On Russian Weights and Measurements:

1 dessyatine (desyatina) = 2.70 acres (1.09 hectares)

1 verst = 1.067 kilometers

1 pood = 36.11 pounds (16.38 kilograms)

2) On the Russian Calendar:

Until the revolution the old Russian (Julian) calendar was different to that used in the West (the Gregorian calendar). This produced a discrepancy of 12 days in the 19th century and 13 days in the 20th century. The Bolsheviks modernized the calendar, along with much else. The dating of events that occurred before 1918 therefore presents some difficulty. The choice is quite arbitrary and different writers use one system or the other. Whatever other anomalies may be incurred, it seemed undesirable to start referring to the November revolution, the March revolution, and the massacre of January 21! In general, therefore, I have preferred to keep to the Old Style, but occasionally both dates may be given. To change into the modern calendar, add 13 days (New Style). OS=Old Style; NS=New Style.

3) On Spelling:

The Russian (Cyrillic) alphabet contains several letters which do not exist in the Western (Latin) alphabet. Moreover, there is no universally accepted system of transliteration. Where certain spellings have become popular, I have retained this spelling. Frequently repeated names are spelled the English way (e.g. Tsar Nicholas). Otherwise, I have tried to keep as closely as possible to the Russian orthography.

4) A Brief Glossary:

Cossacks: A special caste with a strong military (but also communal-democratic) tradition. They were used by the tsarist regime as auxiliaries of the police against strikes and demonstrations. Although they consider themselves as a separate race, the Cossacks are in fact Russians and Ukrainians, the descendants of runaway serfs who made their homes in the wild frontier areas to Russia’s South and East where they were frequently at war with Russia’s enemies, the Poles and Turks.

Junkers: The name (of German origin) given in tsarist times to military cadets from officers’ schools.

Kulak: A rich peasant. The word actually means “a fist,” probably an ironic reference to the tight-fistedness of these elements.

Muzhik: The Russian name for a peasant. Sometimes used colloquially to mean “a man.”

Okhrana: Short for Okhrannoye Otdelyeniye or Department of Safety. It was the tsarist secret police, founded in 1881, which operated a vast network of spies, informers, and agents provocateurs who infiltrated the revolutionary movement and whose operations extended to many countries.

Pogrom: A racially motivated attack in which mobs, usually organized and directed by agents of the state, attack minorities. The victims were most often Jews, but also included other minorities, such as the Armenians in Azerbaijan.

Cadets: The acronym for Constitutional Democrats, the main bourgeois liberal party in Russia which emerged from the earlier Liberation (Osvobozhdeniye in Russian) League.

Social Revolutionaries (SRs): A petty-bourgeois party, descended from the Narodniks, which advocated a kind of “peasant socialism.” They split into a right and left in 1917. The Left supported the October Revolution and for a time were in a coalition government with the Bolsheviks.

Soviets: From the Russian word meaning advice or council. The soviets were democratically elected workers’ councils composed of delegates from the workplace. They first emerged during the 1905 Revolution as organs of struggle or extended strike committees. Disbanded during the period of reaction following the defeat of the 1905 Revolution, they re-emerged in February 1917, and, after October 1917, were transformed into organs of power and constituted the basis of the Soviet system, the most democratic and direct system of popular government ever devised. Under conditions of extreme backwardness and the isolation of the revolution in Russia, the soviets eventually lost power in the period of Stalinist reaction against October. Although power was in the hands of the workers’ soviets in name, by 1930 this was really a fiction. Power had passed into the hands of a privileged bureaucratic caste. In 1936, Stalin introduced a new constitution which formally liquidated the soviet power, replacing soviet democracy with a caricature of a bourgeois parliamentary democracy, in which the population was allowed to vote for a single party which routinely “won” 99 percent of the vote. Although the country was still called the “Soviet Union,” it had absolutely nothing in common with the regime of soviet democracy established by Lenin and Trotsky in 1917.

Duma: An ancient Russian word, virtually synonymous with soviet, meaning a council. During the reign of Nicholas II the State Duma was the name given to the national parliament. There were also local dumas, the equivalent of local councils.

Zemstvo (Russian plural, zemstva): Semi-official local organs of self-government. Shortly after the emancipation of the serfs, Alexander II attempted to loosen the strings of the autocratic regime, permitting a measure of local self-government through the establishment of the zemstvos, mainly in the provinces of central Russia. In practice, the experiment in “democracy” was extremely limited. There were no zemstvos in Western Russia, Poland, the Baltic states, the Cossack areas, Siberia, Central Asia, or Turkestan. Control of the zemstvos was in the hands of the rural gentry. They had virtually no powers and were dependent on the whims of the local governor, who was appointed by the central government. In effect, their remit was limited to local affairs: roads, schools, public health, famine relief, and so on. The zemstvos were the focal point of the moderate liberal opposition.

Zemsky Sobor: A name given in the 19th century to a democratically elected parliament, roughly equivalent to a constituent assembly.

1) The Death of an Autocrat

On March 1, 1881 the carriage of Tsar Alexander II was passing along the Catherine Canal in St. Petersburg, when a young man suddenly threw what looked like a snowball. The explosion that followed missed its mark, and the tsar dismounted, unharmed, to speak to some wounded Cossacks. At that moment, a second terrorist, Grinevetsky, rushed forward and with the words “it is too early to thank God,” threw another bomb at his feet. An hour and a half later, the Emperor of all the Russias was dead. This act marked the culmination of one of the most remarkable periods in revolutionary history—a period in which a handful of dedicated and heroic young men and women took on the combined might of the Russian tsarist state. Yet the very success of the terrorists in eliminating the figure at the apex of the hated autocracy simultaneously dealt the deathblow to the so-called Party of the People’s Will which had organized it.

The phenomenon of the Russian Narodniks (“populists,” men of the people) was a consequence of the extreme belatedness of Russian capitalism. The decay of feudal society proceeded faster than the formation of the bourgeoisie. Under these conditions, sections of the intelligentsia, especially the youth, broke away from the nobility, bureaucracy, and clergy and began to look for a way out of the social impasse. However, when they looked around for a point of support within society, they could not be attracted by the crude, backward and underdeveloped bourgeoisie, while the proletariat was still in its infancy, unorganized, politically untutored, and small in numbers, particularly in comparison with the many millions of peasants who made up the dumb, oppressed, and crushed majority of Russian society.

It was therefore understandable that the revolutionary intelligentsia should look to the “people” in the person of the peasantry as the main potential revolutionary force within society. This movement had its roots in the great turning point in Russian history in 1861. The emancipation of the serfs that took place in that year was by no means, as has been frequently suggested, the result of the enlightened benevolence of Alexander II. It flowed from the fear of a social explosion after Russia’s humiliating defeat in the disastrous Crimean War of 1853–56, which, like the later war with Japan, served to cruelly expose the tsarist regime. Not for the first, nor the last time, military defeat revealed the bankruptcy of the autocracy, providing a powerful impetus to social change. But the Edict of Emancipation solved none of the problems and, indeed, made the lot of the mass of the peasants considerably worse. The landlords naturally made off with the best plots of land, leaving the most barren areas to the peasants. Strategic points such as water and mills were usually in the hands of the landlords who forced the peasants to pay for access. Worse still, the “free” peasants were legally tied to the village commune or mir which had collective responsibility for collecting taxes. No peasant could leave the mir without permission. Freedom of movement was hampered by the system of internal passports. The village commune, in effect, was transformed into “the lowest rung of the local police system.”[1]

To make matters worse, the reform allowed the landlords to cut off and appropriate one-fifth (in some cases, two-fifths) of the lands formerly cultivated by the peasants. They invariably chose the best and most profitable parts—woods, meadows, watering places, grazing grounds, mills, etc.—which gave them a stranglehold over the “emancipated” peasant. Year after year, a greater number of peasant families sunk hopelessly into debt and impoverishment as a result of this swindle.

The emancipation of the serfs was an attempt to carry through reform from the top to prevent revolution from below. Like all important reforms, it was a byproduct of revolution. The Russian countryside had been shaken by peasant uprisings. In the last decade of the reign of Nicholas I, there were 400 peasant disturbances, and an equal number in the following six years (1855–60). In a space of 20 years, 1835–54, 230 landowners and bailiffs had been killed, and a further 53 in the three years before 1861. The announcement of the emancipation was met by a further wave of disorders and uprisings, brutally suppressed. The hopes placed by an entire generation of progressive thinkers on the ideas of reform were cruelly betrayed by the results of the emancipation, which turned out to be a gigantic fraud. The peasants, who believed that the land was rightfully theirs, were cheated in all directions. They had to accept only those allotments laid down by the law (by agreement with the landlord) and had to pay a redemption fee over a period of 49 years at 6 percent interest. As a result, the landlords retained approximately 71,500,000 desyatins of land, and the peasants, representing the overwhelming majority of society, only 33,700,000 desyatins.

In the years after 1861, the peasantry, hemmed in by repressive legislation on “poverty lots” and impoverished by the weight of debt, staged a series of desperate local uprisings. But the peasantry, throughout history, has always been incapable of playing an independent role in society. Capable of great revolutionary courage and sacrifice, its efforts to shake off the rule of the oppressor have only succeeded where leadership of the revolutionary movement has been taken up by a stronger, more homogeneous and conscious class based in the towns. In the absence of this factor, the peasant “jacqueries,”[2] from the middle ages onwards, have inevitably suffered the cruellest defeats. The result of the scattered nature of the peasantry, its lack of social cohesion, and lack of class consciousness.

In Russia, where capitalist forms of production were still at the embryonic phase, no such revolutionary class existed in the towns. Yet a class, or more accurately caste, of largely impoverished students and intellectuals, the raznochintsy (those without rank) or “intellectual proletariat” proved exceptionally sensitive to the subterranean mood of discontent which lay deep within the recesses of Russian life. Years later, the terrorist Myshkin declared at his trial that “the movement of the intelligentsia was not artificially created, but was the echo of popular unrest.”[3] As always, the ability of the intelligentsia to play an independent social role was no greater than that of the peasantry. Nevertheless it can act as quite an accurate barometer of the moods and tensions developing within society.

In 1861, the very year of the Emancipation, the great Russian democratic writer Alexander Herzen wrote from exile in London in the pages of his journal Kolokol (The Bell) urging the youth of Russia to go “to the people!” The arrest of prominent publicists like Chernyshevsky (whose writings were influenced by Marx and who had a big impact on Lenin and his generation) and Dimitri Pisarev, demonstrated the impossibility of peaceful liberal reform. By the end of the decade of the 1860s, the basis of a mass revolutionary movement of populist youth had been laid.

The appalling conditions of the masses in post-reform Russia moved the best sections of the intelligentsia to anger and indignation. The arrest of the most radical of the democratic wing, Pisarev and Chernyshevsky, only served to deepen the alienation of the intellectuals and push them further to the left. While the older generation of liberals accommodated themselves to the reaction, a new breed of young radicals was emerging in the universities, immortalized in the figure of Bazarov in Turgenyev’s novel Fathers and Sons. The hallmark of this new generation was impatience with the fumbling of the liberals, whom they treated with contempt. They believed fervently in the ideas of a complete revolutionary overturn and a radical reconstruction of society from top to bottom.

Within 12 months of the emancipation, the “reforming tsar” had moved towards reaction. There was a clampdown on intellectuals. The universities were placed under the oppressive vigilance of the reactionary Minister of Education, Count Dimitri Tolstoy, who imposed an educational system designed to crush independent spirits and stifle imagination and creativity. The schools were forced to teach 47 hours of Latin a week and 36 hours of Greek, with a heavy emphasis on grammar. Natural science and history were excluded from the curriculum as potentially subversive subjects—and the system of policing the mind was rigidly enforced under the baleful eye of the school inspector. The heady days of “reform” gave way to the bleak years of police surveillance and grey conformity. The move to reaction was intensified after the unsuccessful Polish uprising of 1863. The revolution was drowned in blood. Thousands of Poles were killed in battle, hundreds were hanged in the repression that followed. The brutal Count Muravyov personally hanged 128 Poles and transported 9,423 men and women. The total exiled to Russia was twice that number. Peter Kropotkin, the future anarchist theoretician, witnessed the sufferings of the Polish exiles in Siberia where he was stationed as a young captain of the Imperial Guard:

I saw some of [them] on the Lena, standing half naked in a shanty, around an immense cauldron filled with salt brine, and mixing the thick, boiling brine with long shovels, in an infernal temperature, while the gate of the shanty was wide open to make a strong current of glacial air. After two years of such work, these martyrs were sure to die from consumption.[4]

But, beneath the permafrost of reaction, the seeds of a new revolutionary revival were swiftly germinating. The case of Prince Kropotkin is a striking example of how the wind blows the tops of the trees first. Born into an aristocratic family, this one-time member of the Imperial Corps of Pages was, like many of his contemporaries, affected by the terrible suffering of the masses and driven to draw revolutionary conclusions. A keen scientist, Kropotkin vividly describes in his memoirs the political evolution of an entire generation: “But what right had I to these higher joys,” he asked himself, “when all around was nothing but misery and the struggle for a moldy bit of bread; when whatever I should spend to enable me to live in that world of higher emotion must needs be taken from the very mouths of those who grew the wheat and had not bread enough for their children?”

The cold cruelty towards the Poles showed the other face of the “reforming tsar,” a man who, in Kropotkin’s words, “merrily signed the most reactionary decrees and then afterwards became despondent about them.”[5] The corrupt and degenerate system of autocratic rule, the dead hand of bureaucracy, the all-pervasive whiff of religious mysticism and obscurantism roused all the living forces of society to revolt. “It is bitter,” wrote the poet Nekrasov, “the bread that has been made by slaves.” The revolt against slavery spurred the revolutionary student youth to search for a way out. Echoing Herzen, their watchword became: “V Narod!” (To the people!). To these courageous and dedicated youth, the words uttered by Herzen made an indelible impression: “Go to the people . . . That is our place . . . Demonstrate . . . that from among you will emerge not new bureaucrats, but soldiers of the Russian people.”[6]


[1] See Bernard Pares, A History of Russia, 404.

[2] This refers to the numerous peasant uprisings that took place in France during the late Middle Ages. They invariably had an extremely violent character.

[3] Quoted in Trotsky, The Young Lenin, 29.

[4] Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, vol. 1, 253.

[5] Ibid., vol. 2, 20 and 25.

[6] Quoted in S.H. Baron, Plekhanov—The Father of Russian Marxism, Spanish edition, 21.

2) ‘Going to the People’

This movement of mainly upper-class youth was naïve and confused, but also courageous and utterly selfless, and left behind a priceless heritage for the future. While criticizing the utopian character of their program, Lenin always paid warm tribute to the revolutionary valor of the early Narodniks. He understood that the Marxist movement in Russia was raised on the bones of these martyrs, who cheerfully gave up wealth and worldly comforts to face death, prison and exile for the sake of the fight for a better world. Theoretical confusion was only to be expected in a movement as yet in its infancy. The absence of a strong working class, the lack of any clear traditions or model from the past to light their path, the dark night of censorship which prevented them from having access to most of the writings of Marx; all this deprived the young Russian Revolutionaries of the chance to understand the real nature of the processes at work in society.

To most of the youth, Marx was seen as “just an economist,” whereas Bakunin’s doctrine of “implacable destruction,” and his calls for direct action, seemed to be more in tune with the spirit of a generation tired of words and impatient for results. Pavel Axelrod, in his memoirs, recalls how the theories of Bakunin gripped the minds of the radicalized youth with its striking simplicity.7 The “people,” according to Bakunin, were revolutionary and socialist by instinct—going right back to the Middle Ages—as shown by peasant revolts, the Pugachov uprising, and even brigands, who were held up as a good example to follow! All that was required to ignite a universal revolt, he maintained, was for the students to go to the villages and raise the standard of revolution. Local uprisings would soon provoke a general conflagration, bringing the whole existing order crashing down.

In a striking passage, Trotsky graphically recaptures the spirit of these youthful pioneers:

Young men and women, most of them former students numbering about a thousand in all, carried socialist propaganda to all corners of the country, especially to the lower reaches of the Volga, where they sought the legacy of Pugachov and Razin.8 This movement, remarkable in its scope and youthful idealism, the true cradle of the Russian Revolution, was distinguished—as is proper to a cradle—by extreme naïveté. The propagandists had neither a guiding organization nor a clear program; they had no conspiratorial experience. And why should they have? These young people, having broken with their families and schools, without profession, personal ties, or obligations, and without fear either of earthly or heavenly powers, seemed to themselves the living crystallization of a popular uprising. A constitution? Parliamentarianism? Political liberty? No, they would not be swerved from the path by these western decoys. What they wanted was a complete revolution, without abridgement or intermediate stages.9

In the summer of 1874, hundreds of young people from upper or middle class backgrounds went out to the villages, burning with the idea of rousing the peasantry to revolution. Pavel Axelrod, one of the future founders of Russian Marxism, recalls the radical break which these young revolutionaries had made with their class:

Whoever wished to work for the people had to give up university, renounce his privileged condition, and his family, turn his back even upon science and art. They had to cut all the bonds which linked them to the highest social classes, burn their bridges behind them. In one word, they had to voluntarily forget about any possible road of retreat. The propagandist, so to speak, had to effect a complete transformation of his inner essence, so that he would feel at one with the lower strata of the people, not only ideologically, but also in his habitual everyday behavior.10

These courageous young men and women had no definite program, other than to find a road to “the people.” Dressed in old working clothes bought from secondhand stalls in markets, clutching false passports, they travelled to the villages hoping to learn a trade which would enable them to live and work undetected. The wearing of peasants’ clothes was not the theatrical gesture it might appear at first sight. Kropotkin points out that:

The gap between the peasant and the educated people is great in Russia, and contact between them is so rare that not only does the appearance in a village of a man who wears the town dress awaken general attention, but even in town, if one whose talk and dress reveals that he is not a worker is seen to go about with workers, the suspicion of the police is aroused at once.11

Unfortunately, this admirable revolutionary spirit was founded upon theories which were fundamentally unsound. The mystical idea of a “special Russian road to socialism” which could somehow leap from feudal barbarism to a classless society, skipping the phase of capitalism, was the source of an endless series of errors and tragedies. A false theory inevitably leads to a disaster in practice. The Narodniks were motivated by revolutionary voluntarism—the idea that the success of the revolution can be guaranteed by the iron will and determination of a small group of dedicated men and women. The subjective factor,12 of course, is decisive in human history. Karl Marx explained that men and women make their own history, but added that they do not make it outside of the context of social and economic relationships established independently of their will.

The attempts of the Narodnik theoreticians to establish a “special historical path” for Russia, different from that of Western Europe, inevitably led them down the road of philosophical idealism and a mystical view of the peasantry. The theoretical confusion of Bakunin—a reflection of the very underdeveloped and inchoate class relations in Russia—found a ready audience among the Narodniks, seeking an ideological justification for their vague revolutionary aspirations.

Standing reality on its head, Bakunin portrayed the mir—the basic unit of the tsarist regime in the village—as the enemy of the state. All that was necessary was for the revolutionaries to go to the village and rouse the “instinctively revolutionary” Russian peasants against the state and the problem would be solved, without recourse to “politics” or any particular form of party organization. The task was not to fight for democratic demands (since democracy also represented a form of state and therefore another expression of tyranny) but to overthrow the state “in general” and replace it with a voluntary federation of local communities, based on the mir, purged of its reactionary features.

The contradictory elements of this theory rapidly became evident when the Narodnik youth attempted to put it into practice. The revolutionary exhortations of the students were met with sullen suspicion or outright hostility by the peasants, who frequently handed over the newcomers to the authorities.

Zhelyabov, one of the future leaders of the Narodnaya Volya party (People’s Will), graphically described the Narodnik youth’s desperate efforts to win over the peasants “like fish beating their heads against the ice.”13 Despite the terrible conditions of oppression and exploitation, the Russian peasant, who believed that “the body belongs to the tsar, the soul to God and the back to the squire,” proved impervious to the revolutionary ideas of the Narodniks. The shock and disappointment of the intelligentsia is echoed in the words of a participant:

We ourselves were too blindly assured of the imminence of the revolution to notice that the peasants had not nearly as much of the revolutionary spirit as we wanted them to have. But we did notice that they all wanted the land to be divided up among them. They expected the Emperor would give an order and the land would be divided up . . . most of them imagined he would have had it carried through long ago if he had not been prevented by the big landowners and the officialsthe two archenemies of both the Emperor and the peasants.

The naïve attempt to pass for peasants frequently had its tragicomical side, as one of the participants, Debogori-Mokrievich, recalls:

The peasants did not want to let us stay the night in their cottages: quite obviously they did not like the look of our dirty, ragged clothing. This was the last thing we expected when we first dressed up as workmen.14

Sleeping out in the open, hungry, cold and tired, their feet bleeding from long marches in cheap boots, the spirits of the Narodniks were dashed against the solid wall of peasant indifference. Gradually, inexorably, those who had not been arrested drifted back, disillusioned and exhausted, to the towns. The movement of “going to the people” was swiftly broken by a wave of arrests—more than 700 in 1874 alone. It was an expensive defeat. But the heroic and spirited speeches of defiance hurled from the dock by the arrested revolutionists served to kindle a new movement which began almost immediately.

The Narodniks swore by “the people” in every other sentence. Yet they remained completely isolated from the peasant masses they idolized. In reality, the entire movement was concentrated into the hands of the intelligentsia:

The Populists’ worship of the peasant and his commune was but the mirror image,” wrote Trotsky, “of the grandiose pretensions of the ‘intellectual proletariat’ to the role of chief, if not indeed sole, instrument of progress. The whole history of the Russian intelligentsia develops between these two poles of pride and self-abnegation—which are the short and long shadows of its social weakness.”15

But this social weakness of the intelligentsia merely reflected the underdeveloped state of class relations in Russian society. The rapid development of industry and the creation of a powerful urban working class which was to be brought about by a massive influx of foreign capital in the 1890s was still the music of an apparently remote future. Thrust back upon their own resources, the revolutionary intelligentsia sought salvation in the theory of a “special Russian road to socialism,” based upon the element of common ownership which existed in the mir.

The theories of guerrillaism and individual terrorism which have become fashionable among certain circles in recent times repeat in caricatured form the antiquated ideas of the Russian Narodniks and terrorists. Like the latter, they try to find a base in the peasantry of the Third World, in the lumpenproletariat, in fact, any class except the proletariat. Yet such ideas have nothing in common with Marxism. Marx and Engels explained that the only class capable of carrying through the socialist revolution and establishing a healthy workers’ state leading to a classless society was the working class. And this is no accident. Only the working class, by virtue of its role in society and in production, especially large scale industrial production, possesses an instinctive socialist class consciousness. Not accidentally, the classical methods of struggle of the proletariat are based upon collective mass action: strikes, demonstrations, picket lines, the general strike.

By contrast, the first principle of every other social class is the individualism of the property owner and exploiter of labor, both big and small. Leaving aside the bourgeoisie, whose hostility to socialism is the first condition of its existence, we have the middle class, including the peasantry. The latter is the social class least able to acquire a socialist consciousness. In its upper reaches, the wealthy peasant, lawyer, doctor, parliamentarian, stand close to the bourgeoisie. However, even the poor landless peasant in Russia, although formally a rural proletarian, had a consciousness very far removed from his brothers in the cities. The one desire of the landless peasant was to possess land, i.e., to become transformed into a small proprietor. Individual terrorism and “guerrillaism,” in all its multiplicity of forms, are the methods of the petty bourgeoisie, particularly the peasantry, but also the students, intellectuals and lumpenproletariat. It is true that under certain conditions—particularly in the present epoch—the mass of the poor peasants can be won over to the idea of collective ownership, as we saw in Spain in 1936. But the prior condition for such a development is the revolutionary movement of the working class in the towns. In Russia, the working class came to power by mobilizing the poor peasants, not on the basis of socialist slogans, but on the basis of “land to the tillers!” This fact, in itself, shows how far the mass of Russian peasants stood from a socialist consciousness even in 1917.

To the Narodniks, lacking in a sound theoretical basis, and setting out with a confused and amorphous concept of class relations (“the people”), the Marxist argument of the leading role of the proletariat sounded like so much hairsplitting. What did the working class have to do with it? Clearly Marx and Engels had not understood the special situation in Russia! The Narodniks, in as much as they considered the role of the workers in the towns, regarded them as an aberration—as “peasants in factories,” capable of playing only the role of auxiliaries to the peasantry in the revolution—precisely the opposite to the real relationship of revolutionary class forces, as subsequent events demonstrated.

As a crowning paradox, despite all the prejudice of the Narodnik theoreticians, almost the only area where the revolutionary appeals got an echo was among the despised “town peasants,” as they called the factory workers. Like the modern guerrillas, the supporters of Zemlya i Volya (Land and Freedom) adopted the policy of taking revolutionary workers out of the factories and sending them to the countryside. Plekhanov, before he became a Marxist, participated in this kind of activity and was able to see the consequences:

“The factory worker who has worked in the city for several years,” he wrote, “feels ill at ease in the country and goes back to it reluctantly . . . Rural customs and institutions become unendurable for a person whose personality has begun evolving a little . . .”

These were experienced people, sincerely devoted to and profoundly imbued with Populist views. But their attempts to set themselves up in the countryside led to nothing. After roving about the villages with the intention of looking for a suitable place to settle down (at which some of them were taken to be foreigners), they shrugged their shoulders at the whole business and finished by returning to Saratov where they established contacts among the local workers. No matter how astounded we were by this alienation from the “people” of its urban children, the fact was evident, and we had to abandon the idea of involving workers in a purely peasant business.16

According to the Narodnik theory, the town worker was further away from socialism than the peasant. Thus, a Narodnik organizer in charge of work among the workers of Odessa complained that “the men in the workshops, spoiled by urban life and unable to recognize their links with the peasants, were less open to socialist propaganda.”17 Nevertheless, the Narodniks did conduct work among the workers and obtained important results. The initiator of this pioneer work was Nikolai Vasilevich Chaikovsky. His group established propaganda circles in the workers’ districts of Petersburg, where Kropotkin was one of his propagandists. Reality forced sections of the Narodniks to come face to face for the first time with the “worker question” which, expelled by Bakuninist theories by the front door, persistently flew back through the window. Even at this very early period, the Russian working class, despite the extreme smallness of its numbers, was beginning to set its stamp upon the revolutionary movement.

The attitude of the workers to the “young gentlemen” was instructive. The Petersburg worker I.A. Bachkin recommended to his fellow workers: “You must take the books from the students, but when they begin to teach you nonsense, you must knock them down.” It was possibly Bachkin of whom Plekhanov was thinking when he passed the remark about the unwillingness of the workers to go to the villages to work. Bachkin was arrested in September 1874 and, upon his release in 1876, he told Plekhanov that he was “ready, as before, to work for revolutionary propaganda, but only among the workers . . .
‘I don’t want to go into the country on any account’ he argued. ‘The peasants are sheep, they will never understand revolution.’”18

While the Narodnik intelligentsia wrestled with the theoretical problems of the future revolution, the first stirrings of class consciousness were emerging in the urban centers. The emancipation of the serfs represented a collective act of violence against the peasantry in the interests of the development of capitalism in agriculture. The landlords were, in effect, “clearing the estates” for capitalism, as Lenin explained, accelerating the process of inner differentiation of the peasantry through the crystallization of a class of rich peasants (kulaks) at the top and a mass of impoverished peasants at the bottom. In order to escape the grinding poverty of village life, the poor peasants migrated in massive numbers to the towns, in search of jobs. In the period 1865–90, the number of factory workers increased by 65 percent, with those employed in mining increasing by 106 percent. A.G. Rashin gives the figures of the number of workers in European Russia (in 1,000s) as follows:19

YearFactories and workshopsMiningTotal

The development of industry experienced a particularly powerful impetus during the 1870s. The population of St. Petersburg grew from 668,000 in 1869 to 928,000 in 1881. Torn from their peasant backgrounds and hurled into the seething cauldron of factory life, the workers’ consciousness underwent a rapid transformation. Police reports chartered the growing discontent and audacity of the workforce: “The crude, vulgar methods employed by factory employers are becoming intolerable to the workers,” complains one such report. “They have obviously realized that a factory is not conceivable without their labor.” Tsar Alexander read the reports and pencilled in the margin: “Very bad.”

The growth of this labor unrest permitted the establishment of the first organized workers’ groups. The Southern Workers’ Union was set up by E. Zaslavsky (1844–78). Son of a noble but impecunious family, he went “to the people” in 1872–73, became convinced of the uselessness of this tactic and began propaganda work among the workers of Odessa. Out of these worker circles, with weekly meetings and a small subscription, the Union was born. Its program started from the premise that “the workers can get their rights recognized only by means of a violent revolution capable of destroying all privileges and inequality by making work the foundation of private and public welfare.”20 The Union’s influence grew rapidly until it was smashed by arrests in December 1875. The leaders were sentenced to hard labor. Zaslavsky himself got ten years. His health undermined by the harsh conditions of imprisonment, he became deranged and died of tuberculosis in prison.

A more substantial development was the Northern Union of Russian Workers, set up illegally in the autumn of 1877 under the leadership of Khalturin and Obnorsky. Victor Obnorsky, son of a retired NCO, was a blacksmith, then a mechanic. While working at different factories in St. Petersburg, he became involved in workers’ study circles, and had to flee to avoid arrest to Odessa, where he came into contact with Zaslavsky’s Union. He travelled abroad as a sailor, where he was influenced by the ideas of the German Social Democracy. Returning to St. Petersburg, he met P.L. Lavrov and Axelrod, the leading lights in the Narodnik movement. Stepan Khalturin was an important figure in the revolutionary movement of the late seventies. Like Obnorsky, a blacksmith and a mechanic by trade, he began his activity in the Chaikovsky group, where he worked as a propagandist. In his series of pen portraits of Russian worker militants, Plekhanov has left an enduring picture of this working-class revolutionary:

When his [Khalturin’s] activities were still on the right side of the law, he willingly met students and tried to make their acquaintance, getting every kind of information from them and borrowing books. He often stayed with them until midnight, but he very rarely gave his own opinions. His host would grow excited, delighted at the chance to enlighten an ignorant workman, and would speak at great length, theorizing in the most “popular” way possible. Stepan would gaze carefully, looking up at the speaker. Every now and then his intelligent eyes would reflect an amiable irony. There was always an element of irony in his relations with the students . . . with the workers, he behaved in a very different way . . . he looked upon them as more solid and, so to speak, more natural revolutionaries and he looked after them like a loving nurse. He taught them, he sought books and work for them, he made peace with them when they quarrelled and he scolded the guilty. His comrades loved him dearly: he knew this, and in return gave them even greater love. But I do not believe that even in his relations with them, Khalturin ever gave up his customary restraint . . . In the groups he spoke only rarely and unwillingly. Among the workers of Petersburg, there were people just as educated and competent as he was: there were men who had seen another world, who had lived abroad. The secret of the enormous influence of what can be called Stepan’s dictatorship lay in the tireless attention which he devoted to every single thing. Even before the meeting began, he spoke with everyone to find out the general state of mind, he considered all sides of a question, and so naturally he was the most prepared of all. He expressed the general state of mind.21

Khalturin was an outstanding representative of a type: the worker-propagandist active in the circles in the first period of the Russian labor movement. Yet even he was drawn into terrorist activities in the subsequent period, organizing a spectacular attempt on the tsar’s life.


7 See Axelrod, Perezhitoe i Peredumannoe, 111–2.

8 Emilian Pugachov, a Don Cossack, led a great uprising of the Cossacks and serfs against the gentry in 1773, in the reign of Catherine the Great. The rebellion initially met with success, with the mass seizure of land and the capture of a string of imperial fortresses. The rebels took Kazan and could have taken Moscow but, despite riots which broke out in a number of towns, the peasant rebellion proved incapable of linking up with the urban masses against the common enemy—the gentry and the autocracy. Although the rebels proclaimed the abolition of serfdom, they lacked a coherent political program capable of creating a broad revolutionary movement of the masses. This fatal weakness, plus localist tendencies, lack of organization and discipline, eventually undermined the revolt. The rebellion disintegrated and Pugachov was executed in Moscow in January 1775.

9 Trotsky, The Young Lenin, 28.

10 From Axelrod, The Working Class and the Revolutionary Movement in Russia, quoted in Baron, Plekhanov, 25.

11 Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, vol. 2, 119.

12 By the “subjective factor” Marxists mean the conscious factor in history—the action of men and women to change their lives and destinies, as opposed to the objective conditions, established by social development, which provide the basis for such actions. Most specifically, it refers to the role of the revolutionary party and leadership in the struggle for the socialist transformation of society.

13 D. Footman, Red Prelude, 86.

14 Quoted in D. Footman, Prelude, 47 and 49 (my emphasis).

15 Trotsky, The Young Lenin, 25 (my emphasis).

16 Quoted in Fyodr Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism, 162–63.

17 Quoted in F. Venturi, The Roots of Revolution, 511.

18 Ibid., 800 in both quotes.

19 A.G. Rashin, Formirovaniye Rabochego Klassa Rossiy, 12.

20 Quoted in Venturi, Roots, 515 and 516.

21 Ibid., 543.

3) ‘Land and Freedom’

In the meantime, the remnants of the Narodnik movement were attempting to regroup their forces in the towns under a new banner. In 1876, Zemlya i Volya was set up by the Natansons, Alexander Mikhailov, and George Plekhanov. The new underground organization was headed by a General Council with a smaller elected Executive Committee (or Administrative Center). Subordinate to these bodies were a Peasants’ Section, a Workers’ Section, a Youth (Students’) Section, and a new development, a “Disorganization Section,” an armed wing for “protection against the arbitrary conduct of officials.” The program of Zemlya i Volya was based on a confused idea of “peasant socialism”—all land was to be transferred to the peasants and self-determination was to be granted to all parts of the Russian empire. Russia was to be run on the basis of self-governing peasant communes. However, all this was subordinate to the central objective of the revolutionary overthrow of the autocracy, which was to be carried out “as speedily as possible”—the extreme haste being due to the idea of preventing the undermining of the peasant commune (the mir) by capitalist development! Thus, the real originators of “socialism in one country” were the Narodniks, who sought to deliver society from the horrors of capitalism by espousing the idea of a “special path of historical development” for Russia, based on the supposed uniqueness of the Russian peasantry and its social institutions.

On December 6, 1876, an illegal demonstration of anything up to 500—mainly students—assembled on the steps of Kazan Cathedral, with cries of “land and freedom” and “long live the socialist revolution!” The demonstration was addressed by a 21-year old student called George Plekhanov, whose revolutionary appeal led to the beginning of years of exile and underground life. Born in 1855, the son of an aristocratic family from Tambov, Plekhanov, like many of his generation, cut his teeth on the writings of the great school of Russian democratic authors—Belinsky, Dobrolyubov, and, above all, Chernyshevsky. While still an adolescent, he joined the Narodnik movement, participating in dangerous missions, including the release of arrested comrades and even the liquidation of an agent provocateur. Arrested several times, he always succeeded in escaping from his tsarist captors.

Following his daring speech, Plekhanov was forced to flee abroad, but his prestige was such that he was elected, in his absence, as a member of the “basic circle” of Zemlya i Volya. Returning to Russia in 1877, the future founder of Russian Marxism led a precarious underground existence. Armed with a knuckleduster and a pistol which he kept under his pillow at night, he went first to Saratov, on the lower Volga, where he was subsequently put in charge of the “worker section” of Zemlya i Volya. The young man’s firsthand experience of work with factory workers had a profound effect on his thinking, which undoubtedly helped him to break with Narodnik prejudices and find a road to Marxism.

In December 1877, an explosion in the gunpowder store at an arms factory on Vasilevsky Island killed six workers and injured many more. The workers’ funeral turned into a demonstration. Plekhanov wrote a manifesto which ended with the words:

Workers! Now is the time to understand reason. You must not expect help from anyone. And do not expect it from the gentry! The peasants have long been expecting help from the gentry, and all they have got is worse land and heavier taxes, even greater than before . . . Will you too, the workers in towns, put up with this forever?22

The author got his reply far sooner than he, or anyone else, expected. The economic boom which arose from the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78) created the conditions for an unprecedented explosion of strikes, spearheaded by the most downtrodden and exploited section of the class, the textile workers. Not for the last time, the more oppressed and volatile textile workers moved into action far more quickly than the big battalions in the metal industries. The workers went to ask for help from “the students,” through the agency of a number of individual worker-revolutionaries.

Plekhanov, as head of the worker section of Zemlya i Volya, found himself virtually in control of the movement. Unfortunately, the Narodniks had no idea what to do with a workers’ movement which did not really enter into their scheme of the universe. In the space of two years, St. Petersburg saw 26 strikes. Not until the massive strike wave of the 1890s was this to be equalled. The members of the Northern Union played a prominent part in these strikes, and, by the first months of 1879, it reached its high water mark, with 200 organized workers and another 200 in reserve, carefully distributed in different factories. They were all linked to a central body. The workers’ circles even had a library, also carefully split up between different underground groups and widely used even by workers outside the Union. The resourceful Khalturin set up an underground printshop. Obnorsky entered into agreements with a workers’ group in Warsaw, “the first example of friendly relations between Russian and Polish workers,” as Plekhanov observed with satisfaction.23

But within months of the appearance of the first issue of its illegal journal, Rabochaya Zarya (Workers’ Dawn), the police smashed the Union’s printshop and the bulk of its membership was swept away by a wave of arrests into hard labor, imprisonment, and exile. The result of the breakup of this first solid organization of the working class was catastrophic. Khalturin and others drew pessimistic conclusions and went over to terrorism. It took ten years and countless unnecessary sacrifices for the movement to get the terrorist bug out of its system.

From its very outset, the revolutionary movement in Russia was divided by the polemics between “educators” and “insurrectionists,” the two lines being broadly identified with the respective positions of Lavrov and Bakunin. The failure of the movement “to the people” brought this disagreement to the point of an open split. In the period 1874–75, there were thousands of political prisoners in Russia, youngsters who had paid the price of their defiance with the loss of their freedom. Some were later released on bail and kept under surveillance. Others were exiled to Siberia by administrative order. The rest merely rotted in jail awaiting trial. Of those who remained active and at liberty, some decided to return to the villages, but this time as school teachers or doctors, devoting their time and energies to humble educational work and waiting for better days. But for others, the realization that Bakunin’s theory of an “instinctively revolutionary peasantry” was false meant that an entirely different road had to be found.

Zemlya i Volya was never a mass organization. A few dozen, mainly students and intellectuals in their 20s and 30s, made up its active membership. But the seeds of dissolution were present from the outset. Lavrov’s supporters looked to “open the people’s eyes” by peaceful propaganda. “We must not arouse emotion in the people, but self-awareness,”24 he argued. The frustrated attempts to provoke a mass movement of the peasantry by means of propaganda gave rise to a new theory whereby Bakuninism was stood upon its head. From “denying politics” and especially political organization, a section of the Narodniks effected a 180° turn and set up a secret, highly centralized terrorist organization—the Narodnaya Volya—designed to provoke a revolutionary movement of the masses by means of the “propaganda of the deed.”

The latest military humiliation of tsarist Russia in the Russo-Turkish War revealed anew the bankruptcy of the regime and gave fresh heart to the opposition. The leaders of Narodnaya Volya were determined to wage a war against the autocracy in a kind of terrorist single combat which would encourage “from above” the flame of revolt. A section of the youth was now burning with impatience. The words of Zhelyabov, future leader of Narodnaya Volya, sum the whole thing up:

“History,” said Zhelyabov, “moves too slowly. It needs a push. Otherwise the whole nation will be rotten and gone to seed before the liberals get anything done.”

“What about a constitution?”

“All to the good.”

“Well, what do you want—to work for a constitution or give history a push?”

“I’m not joking, just now we want to give history a push.’25

These four lines show up starkly the relation between terrorism and liberalism. The terrorists had no independent program of their own. They borrowed their ideas from the liberals, who leaned upon them to give emphasis to their demands.

In the autumn of 1877, nearly 200 young men and women were brought to trial for the crime of “going to the people.” They had already spent three years in jail without trial and there were numerous cases of ill-treatment meted out to the prisoners by brutal warders and officials. For the revolutionaries the systematic ill-treatment, torture, and humiliation suffered by the prisoners was the last straw. One particularly atrocious case caused widespread indignation in July 1877. When General Trepov, the notorious Petersburg police chief, had visited the Preliminary Detention Center, a young “political” called Bogolyubov refused to stand up. He was sentenced to 100 lashes on Trepov’s orders. A decisive turning point was passed in January 1878 when a young girl by the name of Vera Zasulich fired a shot at Trepov. This action, which Zasulich had planned and executed all on her own, was intended as a reprisal for the ill-treatment of political prisoners. After the Zasulich affair, the swing towards the “propaganda of the deed” became irresistible, particularly since, against all expectations, the jury had found her not guilty.

Initially, the use of terror was conceived as a limited tactic for freeing imprisoned comrades, eliminating police spies, and for self-defense against the repressive actions of the authorities. But terrorism has a logic of its own. In a short space of time, the terrorist mania took possession of the organization. From the outset, there were doubts about the “new tactics.” In the pages of the official party journal critical voices were raised:

“We must remember,” says one article, “that the liberation of the laboring masses will not be achieved by this (terrorist) path. Terrorism has nothing in common with the struggle against the foundations of the social order. Only a class can resist against a class. Therefore, the main bulk of our forces must work among the people.”26

The adoption of the new tactics caused an open split in the movement, between the terrorists and the followers of Lavrov who argued in favor of a prolonged period of preparation and propaganda among the masses. In practice, the latter trend was moving away from revolutionism, advocating the politics of “small deeds” and a “little by little” gradualist approach. The right wing of Narodnism was becoming indistinguishable from liberalism, while its more radical section prepared to stake everything on the force of the bullet and the “revolutionary chemistry” of nitroglycerine.

In the recent period, attempts have been made by the modern terrorists to distinguish themselves from their Russian forebears. The Narodnik terrorists, it is asserted, believed in individual terrorism, substituting themselves for the movement of the masses, whereas modern proponents of “armed struggle” or “urban guerrillaism” see themselves only as an armed wing of the mass struggle, whose purpose is to detonate the masses into action. Yet the supporters of Narodnaya Volya never claimed to be acting as a self-sufficient movement. Their stated objective was to initiate a mass movement, based on the peasantry, which would overthrow the state and institute socialism. Their aim was also supposed to be the “detonation” of the mass movement by giving a courageous example.

However, politics has a logic of its own. All the appeals of the Narodnaya Volya in the name of the masses merely served as a smoke-screen to reveal a deep-seated distrust in the revolutionary capacity of those same masses. The arguments advanced more than a century ago in Russia to justify terrorism have a strikingly similar ring to the arguments of “urban guerrilla” groups in more recent times: “We are in favor of the mass movement, but the state is too strong,” and so on and so forth. Thus, the terrorist Morozov affirmed:

Observing contemporary social life in Russia the conclusion is reached that, because of the arbitrary conduct and violence of the government, no activity at all is possible on behalf of the people. Neither freedom of expression, nor freedom of the press exists to work by means of persuasion. In consequence, for every vanguard activist it is necessary, first and foremost, to put an end to the present system of government, and to struggle against it there is no other means than to do it with arms in hand. As a consequence, we will fight against it in the style of William Tell, until we reach the moment when we win free institutions under which it will be possible for us to discuss without obstacles in the press and in public meetings all the political and social questions, and decide upon them by means of the free representation of the people.27

The Narodniks were courageous, but misguided, idealists who confined their targets to notorious torturers, police chiefs guilty of repressive acts, and the like. More often than not, they subsequently gave themselves up to the police in order to use their trials as a platform for the indictment of existing society. They did not plant bombs to slaughter women and children, or even to murder ordinary soldiers. On the rare occasions they killed individual policemen, it was to get hold of weapons. Yet, despite this, their methods were completely incorrect and counterproductive, and were roundly condemned by the Marxists.

The allegedly “modern” theories of urban guerrillaism only repeat in caricature form the old pre-Marxist ideas of the Russian terrorists. It is quite ironic that these people, who frequently lay claim to be “Marxist-Leninists,” have not the vaguest idea that Russian Marxism was born out of an implacable struggle against individual terrorism. The Russian Marxists scornfully described the terrorist as “a liberal with a bomb.” The liberal fathers spoke in the name of “the People,” but considered the latter too ignorant to be trusted with the responsible work of reforming society. Their role was to be reduced to passively casting a vote every few years and looking on while the liberals in Parliament got on with their business. The sons and daughters of the liberals had nothing but contempt for Parliament. They stood for the revolution, and, of course, “the People.” Except that the latter, in their ignorance, were unable to understand them. Therefore, they would resort to the “revolutionary chemistry” of the bomb and the revolver. But, just as before, the role of the masses was reduced to that of passive spectators. Marxism sees the revolutionary transformation of society as a conscious act carried out by the working class. That which is progressive is that which serves to raise the consciousness of the workers of their own strength. That which is reactionary is that which tends to lower the workers’ own opinion of their role. From this point of view, the role of individual terrorism is a wholly reactionary one. Thus, the policy of individual terrorism is most harmful to the cause of the masses precisely when it succeeds. The attempt to find shortcuts in politics frequently leads to disaster. What conclusions are the workers supposed to draw from a spectacularly successful act of individual terrorism? Only this: that it is possible to attain their ends without any necessity for the long and arduous preparatory work of organizing trade unions, participating in strikes and other mass actions, agitation, propaganda, and education. All that would be seen as an unnecessary diversion, when all that is needed is to get hold of a bomb and a gun, and the problem is solved.

The history of the twentieth century provides some tragic lessons in what happens when revolutionaries try to substitute the heroic actions of an armed minority for the conscious movement of the working class. Most often—as with the Narodnaya Volya—the attempt to challenge the might of the state by such methods leads to a terrible defeat and the strengthening of the very apparatus of repression that was meant to be overthrown. But even in those cases where, for example, a guerrilla war succeeds in overthrowing the old regime, it can never lead to the establishment of a healthy workers’ state, let alone socialism. At best, it will lead to a deformed workers’ state (a regime of proletarian Bonapartism) in which the workers are subjected to the rule of a bureaucratic elite. In fact, such an outcome is predetermined by the militaristic structure of terrorist and guerrillaist organizations, their autocratic command structure, lack of internal democracy and, above all, the fact that they function outside the working class, and independently of it. A genuine revolutionary party does not set itself up as a group of self-appointed saviors of the masses, but strives to give an organized and conscious expression to the movement of the workers themselves. Only the conscious self-movement of the proletariat can lead to the socialist transformation of society.

A section of the old Zemlya i Volya movement attempted to resist the trend towards terrorism, but was swept aside. An attempt to reach a compromise at the Voronezh Congress of June 1879 failed to stop the split which finally took place in October of that year with a formal agreement of both sides to dissolve the organization. The funds were divided and both sides agreed not to use the old name. The terrorist faction adopted the name of Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will), while the remnants of the old school “village” Narodniks took the name of the Cherny Peredel (Black Redistribution), echoing the old Narodnik idea of an agrarian revolution. It was from the latter organization, led by Plekhanov, that the first forces of Russian Marxism were to emerge.


22 Ibid., 548.

23 Ibid., 556.

24 Ibid., 556.

25 Quoted in Footman, Red Prelude, 87.

26 Quoted in J. Martov, Obshchestvennoe i Umstvennoe Techeniye v Rossii 1870–1905 gg, 44.

27 Quoted in Baron, Plekhanov, 56 (my emphasis).

The Birth of Russian Marxism

The prospects for Plekhanov’s tendency could hardly have been more bleak. The old tactic of “going to the people” was played out. The peasants were no more receptive to the blandishments of the Narodniks than before. Many old Narodniks finally gave up hope and voted with their feet, returning to a more convivial existence in the towns. Probably influenced by his earlier experience as head of the “workers’ section,” Plekhanov proposed to the members of the Cherny Peredel that they should conduct agitation among the factory workers. Plekhanov sought links with his former worker contacts, among them Stepan Khalturin of the Northern Union of Russian Workers. But the tide was running strongly in favor of terrorism even among the advanced workers. Khalturin himself participated, in February 1880, in an attempt against the life of the tsar. The supporters of Cherny Peredel were utterly isolated. The final blow came in January 1880 when, shortly after the appearance of the first issue of the group’s journal, the police descended on the underground printshop and mopped up practically the whole organization in Russia. The future of the non-terrorist trend in Narodnism, as Trotsky later observed, could not be an independent phenomenon, but only a brief and shadowy transition towards Marxism.

On the other side of the divide, the supporters of Narodnaya Volya appeared to be making spectacular gains. Incredibly, a tiny organization of no more than a few hundred men and women turned the tsar into a virtual prisoner in his own palace. For a time, the tide flowed irresistibly in the direction of Narodnaya Volya, which represented the most determined and revolutionary elements of the youth. The new organization, highly centralized and operating in the strictest secrecy, was headed by an Executive Committee, consisting of A.I. Zhelyabov, A.D. Mikhailov, M.F. Frolenko, N.A. Mozorov, Vera Figner, Sophia Perovskaya, and others. In comparison with the old Narodnik movement, the program of Narodnaya Volya represented an advance, inasmuch as it stood for a clearly political struggle against the autocracy. Lenin, who always paid tribute to the selfless heroism of the Narodnovoltsy, while implacably criticizing the tactic of individual terrorism, wrote later: “The Narodnaya Volya members made a step forward when they took up the political struggle, but they failed to connect it with socialism.”[28]

The program of Narodnaya Volya envisaged a “permanent popular representative body” elected by universal suffrage, the proclamation of democratic liberties, the transfer of land to the people, and measures to place the factories in the hands of the workers. The movement attracted many of the most courageous and self-sacrificing elements, including Khalturin of the Northern Workers’ Union. He showed great daring and initiative in obtaining a job as a carpenter on the imperial yacht. Having gained official confidence as a model workman, managed in February 1880 to plant a powerful bomb inside the Winter Palace, where he was engaged on repairs, blowing up the tsar’s palace in the middle of his capital! However, the response of the state was to step up repression, creating a virtual dictatorship under General Melikov. The case of Khalturin is particularly tragic. Early on, he sensed the contradiction between the need to build the labor movement and terrorism, as Venturi explains: “Khalturin was constantly divided between the zeal for coercion and his duties as a workers’ organizer. He gave vent to his feelings by saying that the intellectuals had compelled him to start from scratch after every act of terrorism and its inevitable losses. ‘If only they gave us a bit of time to reinforce ourselves,’ he said on each occasion. But then he too was seized by that thirst for immediate action which led him to the scaffold with them.”[29]

The very successes of the terrorists contained the seeds of their own disintegration. The assassination of the tsar in 1881 unleashed a reign of repression in which the terror of the individual against ministers and policemen gave way to the terror of the entire state apparatus against the revolutionary movement in general.

“Russia was divided into a number of districts,” Kropotkin recalled, “each of them under a governor general who received the order to hang offenders pitilessly. Kovalsky and his friends who, by the way, had killed nobody by their shots, were executed. Hanging became the order of the day. 23 persons perished in two years, including a boy of 19 who was caught posting a revolutionary proclamation at a railway station: this act was the only charge against him. He was a boy, but he died like a man.”[30]

A young girl of 14 was transported for life to Siberia for trying to rouse a crowd to free some prisoners on their way to the gallows. She drowned herself. Prisoners spent years in remand prisons—dens of typhoid fever—where 20 percent died in a single year awaiting trial. Brutal treatment by warders was answered by hunger strikes, which were dealt with by forced feeding. Even those who were acquitted were still exiled to Siberia, where they slowly starved on the pitiful government allowance. All this fed the indignation of the youth who burned with the desire for vengeance. Victims of the White Terror were replaced with new recruits, who merely ended up as new victims in the infernal cycle of repression-terrorism-repression. A whole generation perished in this way, and at the end of the day, the state, which does not rest on individual generals and police chiefs, emerged stronger than ever, despite the fact that Narodnaya Volya succeeded in assassinating a whole number of prominent tsarist officials.

The new Procurator General, the minister Pobedonostsev, promised a reign of “iron and blood” to wipe out the terrorists. A series of draconian laws gave the government sweeping new powers of arrest, censorship, and deportation, which affected not only the revolutionaries, but even the most moderate liberal tendencies. National oppression was stepped up, with the suppression of all publications in non-Russian languages. Laws were passed to strengthen the grip of the landlord on his peasants. A wave of reaction swept through the schools and universities, designed to crush all forms of independent thought and break the rebellious spirit of the youth. Contrary to the expectations of the terrorists, there was no mass uprising, no general movement of opposition. Very soon, all the hopes born of a generation of self-sacrificing heroism were reduced to ashes. The terrorist wing of Narodnism was swiftly decimated by a wave of arrests. By 1882, its center liquidated and its leaders in jail, the Narodnik movement broke up into a thousand fragments. Yet in the hour when the death-knell of the old Narodnism was sounding, a new movement was rapidly gaining ground in the rest of Europe, and a new class balance of forces was emerging in backward Russia itself.

For years, the ideas of Marx and Engels (albeit in an incomplete and vulgarized form) had been familiar to Russian Revolutionaries. Marx, and especially Engels, had engaged in polemics with the theoreticians of Narodnism. But Marxism had never had a sizeable following in Russia. Its denial of individual terrorism, its rejection of a special “Russian road to socialism” and of the alleged leading role of the peasantry in the revolution was too much for revolutionary youth to swallow. In comparison with Bakunin’s “propaganda of the deed,” the idea that Russia would have to pass through the painful school of capitalism seemed to smack of passivity and defeatism.

The old generation of Narodniks had a barely concealed disdain for theory. Insofar as they resorted to ideological argument, it was really as an afterthought, to justify the practical twists and turns of the movement. In turn they had put forward the idea of the central role of the peasantry, of Russia’s alleged “special historical mission,” Pan-Slavism, and terrorism. Having broken their heads against a solid wall, the ideologists of Narodnism, instead of honestly admitting their mistakes and attempting to work out an alternative strategy and tactic, proceeded to reaffirm the old bankrupt ideas, and, in so doing, sank ever deeper into a morass of confusion.

The first act of the new trend represented by Plekhanov, and a tiny handful of collaborators, was to build firm foundations for the future on the basis of correct ideas, theory, tactics, and strategy. This was the great contribution of Plekhanov, without which the future development of Bolshevism would have been unthinkable. Though still, in his own words, “a Narodnik to the fingertips,” Plekhanov sought an answer to the problems posed by the crisis of Narodnik ideology in a serious study of the works of Marx and Engels. Forced to flee abroad in January 1880, he had met and discussed with French and German Marxists then engaged in a fierce ideological struggle with the anarchists. This encounter with the European labor movement was a decisive turning point in Plekhanov’s development.

In the Russian underground, only a few works of Marx and Engels had been available, mainly on economic questions. Like others of his generation, Plekhanov was acquainted with the Marx of Capital, which the tsarist censors regarded as too difficult and abstract to be dangerous. It is doubtful whether the censors themselves could understand it, so how, they thought, could the workers make head or tail of it? Freed, for a time, from the pressures of direct participation in the revolutionary struggle in Russia, Plekhanov and the others had the enormous advantage of access to literature which was unobtainable there. It was a revelation to him.

Plekhanov’s study of Marxist philosophy, the writings on the class struggle, and the materialist conception of history cast a whole new light on the perspectives for the revolution in Russia. One by one, the old ideas of terrorism, anarchism, and Narodnism crumbled under the onslaught of Marxist criticism. He later summed up the experience:

Anyone who did not live through those times with us can hardly imagine the eagerness with which we threw ourselves into the study of Social Democratic literature, amidst which the works of the German theoreticians naturally occupied the first place. And the more closely we became acquainted with Social Democratic literature, the more we became aware of the weak points of our earlier views, the more we became convinced of the correctness of our own revolutionary development . . . The theories of Marx, like Ariadne’s thread, led us forth from the labyrinth of contradictions with which our minds were stuffed, under the influence of Bakunin.31

However, the break with the past was not easy to accomplish. Deutsch and Zasulich in particular still had illusions in the terrorists. In fact, when the news reached the group of the assassination of the tsar, all of them, with the exception of Plekhanov, were in favor of going back to Narodnaya Volya. The experience had to be gone through. But in any event, Plekhanov understood that the cadres of the future Russian Marxist workers’ party could not drop from the clouds. Narodnaya Volya represented the tradition of a whole generation of struggle against tsarism. Such a movement, steeped in the blood of countless revolutionary martyrs, could not be light-mindedly written off. Precisely because of its traditions, the Narodnik movement, even in the period of its degeneration, still attracted many of the young men and women, confusedly seeking a road to social revolution. Such a man was Alexander Ulyanov, Lenin’s brother, executed for his part in a plot against the life of Alexander III in 1887. Lenin himself had Narodnik sympathies and almost certainly began his political life as a Narodnaya Volya supporter. To save such people as this from futile terrorist gestures was the first duty of the Russian Marxists.

Despite the smallness of its forces, Plekhanov’s group caused alarm in the leading Narodnik circles, which immediately tried to stifle the voice of Marxism by bureaucratic means. The group’s attempts to find a road to the revolutionary youth in Russia soon came up against a stone wall of obstacles erected by the right-wing Narodnik leaders who controlled the party press. The editors of Vestnik Narodnoi Voli (The Narodnaya Volya Herald) refused even to print Plekhanov’s work Socialism and the Political Struggle, his pioneering work directed against anarchism. At first, Tikhomirov, the then leader of Narodnaya Volya, seemed inclined to accept the group’s request to join the organization as a tendency, but after the publication of Socialism and the Political Struggle, Tikhomirov quickly changed his mind and prohibited the admission of an organized group into Narodnaya Volya. First, they would have to dissolve, then each application for membership would be considered individually. The impossibility of a reconciliation was now clear to everyone, and in September 1883 the Marxists formed the Group for the Emancipation of Russian Labor.

At the time of the split, the group contained no more than five members: Plekhanov, Axelrod, and Vera Zasulich were all well-known figures in the Narodnik movement. Vera Zasulich enjoyed European fame as a result of the Trepov affair. Lev Deutsch (1855–1941), Zasulich’s husband, had been an active Narodnik propagandist in South Russia at the end of the 1870s. The role of Vasily Nikolaevich Ignatov (1854–85) is less well known. He had been exiled to Central Russia for participating in student demonstrations. He put up a large amount of money which enabled the group to start its activity before he died, tragically young, of tuberculosis which effectively prevented him from playing much of an active part. Deutsch, having been arrested in Germany in 1884, was sent to Russia to receive a long prison sentence, Ignatov’s death effectively reduced the group to just three people.

Ahead of them lay many years of hard and lonely struggle in the shadow of tedious anonymity. It takes a peculiar kind of courage for a small minority to take a conscious decision to struggle against the stream, isolated from the masses, in harsh conditions of exile, with only the slenderest resources and against apparently overwhelming odds. Not for the last time, the forces of Russian Marxism were reduced to the role of “a voice crying in the wilderness.” The only thing that sustained them was their confidence in the ideas, theory and perspectives. This, in spite of the fact that their ideas appeared to fly in the face of reality. The workers’ movement in Russia was still in its early stages. True, there were the beginnings of a strike movement, but that fell quite outside the scope of the socialists. Such workers’ groups that existed were still dominated by Narodnik ideas. The still feeble voice of the Emancipation of Labor Group was not heard in the factories. Even the students, still under the spell of anarchist and terrorist tendencies, proved difficult enough to reach.

In a letter to Axelrod written as late as March 1889, Plekhanov wrote:

Everyone (both “liberals” and “socialists”) unanimously say that the young people will not even listen to those who speak out against terrorism. In view of this we will have to be careful.

As soon as it was formed, the Emancipation of Labor Group was faced with sharp attacks from all sides for its alleged “betrayal” of “revolutionary” Narodnism. From exile, Tikhomirov wrote to his comrades in Russia warning them not to have anything to do with Plekhanov’s group. The stream of slanders and misrepresentations had an effect. The old Bakuninist, Zhobovsky, commented sarcastically: “You people are not revolutionaries but students of sociology.” The constant theme of these attacks was that the ideas of Marx could not be applied to Russia, and that Plekhanov’s program had been “scrupulously copied from the German.”32

The 1880s saw the decisive victory of the ideas of Marxism in the European labor movement. In their isolation from the movement in Russia, the Emancipation of Labor Group members instinctively drew closer to the mighty parties of the Socialist International. Plekhanov and his comrades wrote for its press, and spoke at its congresses—especially those of the German party, the party of Marx, Engels, Liebknecht, and Bebel. They derived moral comfort from the solid achievements of European Social Democracy. The forces of Russian Marxism were small, but they formed a detachment of a mighty proletarian army, numbering millions in Germany, France, Belgium. Here was a living proof of the superiority of Marxism, not in the language of Capital but in the statistics of trade union memberships, party branches, votes and Parliamentary fractions.

Even the support of European Social Democracy was, however, less than wholehearted. For years its leaders had entertained friendly relations with Narodnik leaders like Lavrov. Privately, the Social Democratic leaders looked askance at what appeared to be no more than an eccentric sectarian splinter group. The sharpness of Plekhanov’s polemics against internationally known figures of the Narodnik establishment caused consternation.

“To tell the truth,” wrote Plekhanov, “our struggle against the Bakuninists sometimes gave rise to fears even among the Western Social Democrats. They considered it inopportune. They were afraid that our propaganda, by causing a split in the revolutionary party, would weaken the energy of the struggle against the government.”

Particularly painful must have been the reservations expressed by Engels in his correspondence with Vera Zasulich. Engels accepted the impossibility of building socialism in a backward country like Russia as the starting point of his analysis. Marx himself, in the preface to the 1882 Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, and other writings, did not rule out the possibility of building a classless society in Russia on the basis of the village community (the mir), but linked it firmly to the perspective of the socialist revolution in the developed capitalist countries of Western Europe.

“If the Russian Revolution,” he wrote, “becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.”33

In his letter to Zasulich dated April 23, 1885, Engels expresses himself cautiously about Plekhanov’s book Our Differences. On the one hand, old Engels conveyed his pride that

in the Russian youth there exists a party which accepts frankly and unambiguously the great historical and economic theories of Marx and which has broken decisively with all the anarchistic and frivolously slavophile traditions of its predecessors.34

Such was not the case with many of the leaders of the Socialist International who looked askance at the tiny handful of Russian Marxists.

Already based on powerful parties with mass support, in their hearts the Western labor leaders were skeptical about the possibilities for creating a revolutionary Marxist workers’ party in Russia. Outwardly respectful of Plekhanov and his group, they privately scratched their heads in bewilderment. What was the point of all these endless disputes about obscure points of theory? Was it really necessary to split over such questions? Why couldn’t these Russians get their act together?

Their skeptical attitude seemed to be justified by the smallness of the group and the slowness of its progress. By comparison, the Narodniks had a much bigger organization, more resources, and infinitely greater influence inside and outside Russia. Yet the seemingly insignificant group of Plekhanov represented the embryo of a mighty mass revolutionary party—a party which, within the comparatively brief span of 34 years, was destined to lead the Russian workers and peasants to the conquest of power and the establishment of the first democratic workers’ state in history.


28  Lenin, Collected Works, Working Class and Bourgeois Democracy, vol. 8, 72; henceforth referred to as LCW.

29  Venturi, Roots of Revolution, 706.


30  Kropotkin, Memoirs, vol. 2, 238.


31  Baron, Plekhanov, 95.


32  Quoted in Baron, Plekhanov, 166 in both quotes.


33  Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. 1, 100–101.


34  Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, 364.

4) The Birth of Russian Marxism

The prospects for Plekhanov’s tendency could hardly have been more bleak. The old tactic of “going to the people” was played out. The peasants were no more receptive to the blandishments of the Narodniks than before. Many old Narodniks finally gave up hope and voted with their feet, returning to a more convivial existence in the towns. Probably influenced by his earlier experience as head of the “workers’ section,” Plekhanov proposed to the members of the Cherny Peredel that they should conduct agitation among the factory workers. Plekhanov sought links with his former worker contacts, among them Stepan Khalturin of the Northern Union of Russian Workers. But the tide was running strongly in favor of terrorism even among the advanced workers. Khalturin himself participated, in February 1880, in an attempt against the life of the tsar. The supporters of Cherny Peredel were utterly isolated. The final blow came in January 1880 when, shortly after the appearance of the first issue of the group’s journal, the police descended on the underground printshop and mopped up practically the whole organization in Russia. The future of the non-terrorist trend in Narodnism, as Trotsky later observed, could not be an independent phenomenon, but only a brief and shadowy transition towards Marxism.

On the other side of the divide, the supporters of Narodnaya Volya appeared to be making spectacular gains. Incredibly, a tiny organization of no more than a few hundred men and women turned the tsar into a virtual prisoner in his own palace. For a time, the tide flowed irresistibly in the direction of Narodnaya Volya, which represented the most determined and revolutionary elements of the youth. The new organization, highly centralized and operating in the strictest secrecy, was headed by an Executive Committee, consisting of A.I. Zhelyabov, A.D. Mikhailov, M.F. Frolenko, N.A. Mozorov, Vera Figner, Sophia Perovskaya, and others. In comparison with the old Narodnik movement, the program of Narodnaya Volya represented an advance, inasmuch as it stood for a clearly political struggle against the autocracy. Lenin, who always paid tribute to the selfless heroism of the Narodnovoltsy, while implacably criticizing the tactic of individual terrorism, wrote later: “The Narodnaya Volya members made a step forward when they took up the political struggle, but they failed to connect it with socialism.”28

The program of Narodnaya Volya envisaged a “permanent popular representative body” elected by universal suffrage, the proclamation of democratic liberties, the transfer of land to the people, and measures to place the factories in the hands of the workers. The movement attracted many of the most courageous and self-sacrificing elements, including Khalturin of the Northern Workers’ Union. He showed great daring and initiative in obtaining a job as a carpenter on the imperial yacht. Having gained official confidence as a model workman, managed in February 1880 to plant a powerful bomb inside the Winter Palace, where he was engaged on repairs, blowing up the tsar’s palace in the middle of his capital! However, the response of the state was to step up repression, creating a virtual dictatorship under General Melikov. The case of Khalturin is particularly tragic. Early on, he sensed the contradiction between the need to build the labor movement and terrorism, as Venturi explains: “Khalturin was constantly divided between the zeal for coercion and his duties as a workers’ organizer. He gave vent to his feelings by saying that the intellectuals had compelled him to start from scratch after every act of terrorism and its inevitable losses. ‘If only they gave us a bit of time to reinforce ourselves,’ he said on each occasion. But then he too was seized by that thirst for immediate action which led him to the scaffold with them.”29

The very successes of the terrorists contained the seeds of their own disintegration. The assassination of the tsar in 1881 unleashed a reign of repression in which the terror of the individual against ministers and policemen gave way to the terror of the entire state apparatus against the revolutionary movement in general.

“Russia was divided into a number of districts,” Kropotkin recalled, “each of them under a governor general who received the order to hang offenders pitilessly. Kovalsky and his friends who, by the way, had killed nobody by their shots, were executed. Hanging became the order of the day. 23 persons perished in two years, including a boy of 19 who was caught posting a revolutionary proclamation at a railway station: this act was the only charge against him. He was a boy, but he died like a man.”30

A young girl of 14 was transported for life to Siberia for trying to rouse a crowd to free some prisoners on their way to the gallows. She drowned herself. Prisoners spent years in remand prisons—dens of typhoid fever—where 20 percent died in a single year awaiting trial. Brutal treatment by warders was answered by hunger strikes, which were dealt with by forced feeding. Even those who were acquitted were still exiled to Siberia, where they slowly starved on the pitiful government allowance. All this fed the indignation of the youth who burned with the desire for vengeance. Victims of the White Terror were replaced with new recruits, who merely ended up as new victims in the infernal cycle of repression-terrorism-repression. A whole generation perished in this way, and at the end of the day, the state, which does not rest on individual generals and police chiefs, emerged stronger than ever, despite the fact that Narodnaya Volya succeeded in assassinating a whole number of prominent tsarist officials.

The new Procurator General, the minister Pobedonostsev, promised a reign of “iron and blood” to wipe out the terrorists. A series of draconian laws gave the government sweeping new powers of arrest, censorship, and deportation, which affected not only the revolutionaries, but even the most moderate liberal tendencies. National oppression was stepped up, with the suppression of all publications in non-Russian languages. Laws were passed to strengthen the grip of the landlord on his peasants. A wave of reaction swept through the schools and universities, designed to crush all forms of independent thought and break the rebellious spirit of the youth. Contrary to the expectations of the terrorists, there was no mass uprising, no general movement of opposition. Very soon, all the hopes born of a generation of self-sacrificing heroism were reduced to ashes. The terrorist wing of Narodnism was swiftly decimated by a wave of arrests. By 1882, its center liquidated and its leaders in jail, the Narodnik movement broke up into a thousand fragments. Yet in the hour when the death-knell of the old Narodnism was sounding, a new movement was rapidly gaining ground in the rest of Europe, and a new class balance of forces was emerging in backward Russia itself.

For years, the ideas of Marx and Engels (albeit in an incomplete and vulgarized form) had been familiar to Russian Revolutionaries. Marx, and especially Engels, had engaged in polemics with the theoreticians of Narodnism. But Marxism had never had a sizeable following in Russia. Its denial of individual terrorism, its rejection of a special “Russian road to socialism” and of the alleged leading role of the peasantry in the revolution was too much for revolutionary youth to swallow. In comparison with Bakunin’s “propaganda of the deed,” the idea that Russia would have to pass through the painful school of capitalism seemed to smack of passivity and defeatism.

The old generation of Narodniks had a barely concealed disdain for theory. Insofar as they resorted to ideological argument, it was really as an afterthought, to justify the practical twists and turns of the movement. In turn they had put forward the idea of the central role of the peasantry, of Russia’s alleged “special historical mission,” Pan-Slavism, and terrorism. Having broken their heads against a solid wall, the ideologists of Narodnism, instead of honestly admitting their mistakes and attempting to work out an alternative strategy and tactic, proceeded to reaffirm the old bankrupt ideas, and, in so doing, sank ever deeper into a morass of confusion.

The first act of the new trend represented by Plekhanov, and a tiny handful of collaborators, was to build firm foundations for the future on the basis of correct ideas, theory, tactics, and strategy. This was the great contribution of Plekhanov, without which the future development of Bolshevism would have been unthinkable. Though still, in his own words, “a Narodnik to the fingertips,” Plekhanov sought an answer to the problems posed by the crisis of Narodnik ideology in a serious study of the works of Marx and Engels. Forced to flee abroad in January 1880, he had met and discussed with French and German Marxists then engaged in a fierce ideological struggle with the anarchists. This encounter with the European labor movement was a decisive turning point in Plekhanov’s development.

In the Russian underground, only a few works of Marx and Engels had been available, mainly on economic questions. Like others of his generation, Plekhanov was acquainted with the Marx of Capital, which the tsarist censors regarded as too difficult and abstract to be dangerous. It is doubtful whether the censors themselves could understand it, so how, they thought, could the workers make head or tail of it? Freed, for a time, from the pressures of direct participation in the revolutionary struggle in Russia, Plekhanov and the others had the enormous advantage of access to literature which was unobtainable there. It was a revelation to him.

Plekhanov’s study of Marxist philosophy, the writings on the class struggle, and the materialist conception of history cast a whole new light on the perspectives for the revolution in Russia. One by one, the old ideas of terrorism, anarchism, and Narodnism crumbled under the onslaught of Marxist criticism. He later summed up the experience:

Anyone who did not live through those times with us can hardly imagine the eagerness with which we threw ourselves into the study of Social Democratic literature, amidst which the works of the German theoreticians naturally occupied the first place. And the more closely we became acquainted with Social Democratic literature, the more we became aware of the weak points of our earlier views, the more we became convinced of the correctness of our own revolutionary development . . . The theories of Marx, like Ariadne’s thread, led us forth from the labyrinth of contradictions with which our minds were stuffed, under the influence of Bakunin.31

However, the break with the past was not easy to accomplish. Deutsch and Zasulich in particular still had illusions in the terrorists. In fact, when the news reached the group of the assassination of the tsar, all of them, with the exception of Plekhanov, were in favor of going back to Narodnaya Volya. The experience had to be gone through. But in any event, Plekhanov understood that the cadres of the future Russian Marxist workers’ party could not drop from the clouds. Narodnaya Volya represented the tradition of a whole generation of struggle against tsarism. Such a movement, steeped in the blood of countless revolutionary martyrs, could not be light-mindedly written off. Precisely because of its traditions, the Narodnik movement, even in the period of its degeneration, still attracted many of the young men and women, confusedly seeking a road to social revolution. Such a man was Alexander Ulyanov, Lenin’s brother, executed for his part in a plot against the life of Alexander III in 1887. Lenin himself had Narodnik sympathies and almost certainly began his political life as a Narodnaya Volya supporter. To save such people as this from futile terrorist gestures was the first duty of the Russian Marxists.

Despite the smallness of its forces, Plekhanov’s group caused alarm in the leading Narodnik circles, which immediately tried to stifle the voice of Marxism by bureaucratic means. The group’s attempts to find a road to the revolutionary youth in Russia soon came up against a stone wall of obstacles erected by the right-wing Narodnik leaders who controlled the party press. The editors of Vestnik Narodnoi Voli (The Narodnaya Volya Herald) refused even to print Plekhanov’s work Socialism and the Political Struggle, his pioneering work directed against anarchism. At first, Tikhomirov, the then leader of Narodnaya Volya, seemed inclined to accept the group’s request to join the organization as a tendency, but after the publication of Socialism and the Political Struggle, Tikhomirov quickly changed his mind and prohibited the admission of an organized group into Narodnaya Volya. First, they would have to dissolve, then each application for membership would be considered individually. The impossibility of a reconciliation was now clear to everyone, and in September 1883 the Marxists formed the Group for the Emancipation of Russian Labor.

At the time of the split, the group contained no more than five members: Plekhanov, Axelrod, and Vera Zasulich were all well-known figures in the Narodnik movement. Vera Zasulich enjoyed European fame as a result of the Trepov affair. Lev Deutsch (1855–1941), Zasulich’s husband, had been an active Narodnik propagandist in South Russia at the end of the 1870s. The role of Vasily Nikolaevich Ignatov (1854–85) is less well known. He had been exiled to Central Russia for participating in student demonstrations. He put up a large amount of money which enabled the group to start its activity before he died, tragically young, of tuberculosis which effectively prevented him from playing much of an active part. Deutsch, having been arrested in Germany in 1884, was sent to Russia to receive a long prison sentence, Ignatov’s death effectively reduced the group to just three people.

Ahead of them lay many years of hard and lonely struggle in the shadow of tedious anonymity. It takes a peculiar kind of courage for a small minority to take a conscious decision to struggle against the stream, isolated from the masses, in harsh conditions of exile, with only the slenderest resources and against apparently overwhelming odds. Not for the last time, the forces of Russian Marxism were reduced to the role of “a voice crying in the wilderness.” The only thing that sustained them was their confidence in the ideas, theory and perspectives. This, in spite of the fact that their ideas appeared to fly in the face of reality. The workers’ movement in Russia was still in its early stages. True, there were the beginnings of a strike movement, but that fell quite outside the scope of the socialists. Such workers’ groups that existed were still dominated by Narodnik ideas. The still feeble voice of the Emancipation of Labor Group was not heard in the factories. Even the students, still under the spell of anarchist and terrorist tendencies, proved difficult enough to reach.

In a letter to Axelrod written as late as March 1889, Plekhanov wrote:

Everyone (both “liberals” and “socialists”) unanimously say that the young people will not even listen to those who speak out against terrorism. In view of this we will have to be careful.

As soon as it was formed, the Emancipation of Labor Group was faced with sharp attacks from all sides for its alleged “betrayal” of “revolutionary” Narodnism. From exile, Tikhomirov wrote to his comrades in Russia warning them not to have anything to do with Plekhanov’s group. The stream of slanders and misrepresentations had an effect. The old Bakuninist, Zhobovsky, commented sarcastically: “You people are not revolutionaries but students of sociology.” The constant theme of these attacks was that the ideas of Marx could not be applied to Russia, and that Plekhanov’s program had been “scrupulously copied from the German.”32

The 1880s saw the decisive victory of the ideas of Marxism in the European labor movement. In their isolation from the movement in Russia, the Emancipation of Labor Group members instinctively drew closer to the mighty parties of the Socialist International. Plekhanov and his comrades wrote for its press, and spoke at its congresses—especially those of the German party, the party of Marx, Engels, Liebknecht, and Bebel. They derived moral comfort from the solid achievements of European Social Democracy. The forces of Russian Marxism were small, but they formed a detachment of a mighty proletarian army, numbering millions in Germany, France, Belgium. Here was a living proof of the superiority of Marxism, not in the language of Capital but in the statistics of trade union memberships, party branches, votes and Parliamentary fractions.

Even the support of European Social Democracy was, however, less than wholehearted. For years its leaders had entertained friendly relations with Narodnik leaders like Lavrov. Privately, the Social Democratic leaders looked askance at what appeared to be no more than an eccentric sectarian splinter group. The sharpness of Plekhanov’s polemics against internationally known figures of the Narodnik establishment caused consternation.

“To tell the truth,” wrote Plekhanov, “our struggle against the Bakuninists sometimes gave rise to fears even among the Western Social Democrats. They considered it inopportune. They were afraid that our propaganda, by causing a split in the revolutionary party, would weaken the energy of the struggle against the government.”

Particularly painful must have been the reservations expressed by Engels in his correspondence with Vera Zasulich. Engels accepted the impossibility of building socialism in a backward country like Russia as the starting point of his analysis. Marx himself, in the preface to the 1882 Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, and other writings, did not rule out the possibility of building a classless society in Russia on the basis of the village community (the mir), but linked it firmly to the perspective of the socialist revolution in the developed capitalist countries of Western Europe.

“If the Russian Revolution,” he wrote, “becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.”33

In his letter to Zasulich dated April 23, 1885, Engels expresses himself cautiously about Plekhanov’s book Our Differences. On the one hand, old Engels conveyed his pride that

in the Russian youth there exists a party which accepts frankly and unambiguously the great historical and economic theories of Marx and which has broken decisively with all the anarchistic and frivolously slavophile traditions of its predecessors.34

Such was not the case with many of the leaders of the Socialist International who looked askance at the tiny handful of Russian Marxists.

Already based on powerful parties with mass support, in their hearts the Western labor leaders were skeptical about the possibilities for creating a revolutionary Marxist workers’ party in Russia. Outwardly respectful of Plekhanov and his group, they privately scratched their heads in bewilderment. What was the point of all these endless disputes about obscure points of theory? Was it really necessary to split over such questions? Why couldn’t these Russians get their act together?

Their skeptical attitude seemed to be justified by the smallness of the group and the slowness of its progress. By comparison, the Narodniks had a much bigger organization, more resources, and infinitely greater influence inside and outside Russia. Yet the seemingly insignificant group of Plekhanov represented the embryo of a mighty mass revolutionary party—a party which, within the comparatively brief span of 34 years, was destined to lead the Russian workers and peasants to the conquest of power and the establishment of the first democratic workers’ state in history.


28 Lenin, Collected Works, Working Class and Bourgeois Democracy, vol. 8, 72; henceforth referred to as LCW.

29 Venturi, Roots of Revolution, 706.

30 Kropotkin, Memoirs, vol. 2, 238.

31 Baron, Plekhanov, 95.

32 Quoted in Baron, Plekhanov, 166 in both quotes.

33 Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. 1, 100–101.

34 Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, 364.

5) The Emancipation of Labor Group

The revolutionary movement in Russia can triumph only as a revolutionary movement of the workers. For us there is no other way out, nor can there be. (Plekhanov—speech to the International Socialist Congress, Paris 1889.)

Hegel once remarked that “When we want to see an oak with all its vigor of trunk, its spreading branches, and mass of foliage, we are not satisfied to be shown an acorn instead.”35 Yet within the embryo of a healthy plant or animal is contained all the genetic information necessary for its future development. It is no different with the development of a revolutionary tendency. The “genetic information” here is represented by theory, which contains within itself a rich store of generalizations based upon past experience. Theory is primary: all subsequent development stems from this. Despite the smallness of its size, the primitiveness of its organization, and rather amateur methods, the great contribution of the Emancipation of Labor Group was to lay down the theoretical roots of the movement. Of necessity, the initial work of the group was confined to winning the ones and twos, of educating and training cadres, of hammering home the fundamental principles of Marxism.

“With all our hearts,” wrote Plekhanov, “we seek to work for the creation of a literature which is accessible to the understanding of the whole peasant-worker masses; we, nevertheless are obliged for the time being to confine our popular literary efforts to the narrow circle of more or less ‘intellectual’ leaders of the working class.”36

The writings of Plekhanov during this period served to lay the theoretical basis for the building of the party. Many of them remain classics to the present time, although they do not receive sufficient attention by students of Marxism. Not by chance, Lenin strongly recommended the republication of Plekhanov’s philosophical writings after the revolution, when the two men had long been political enemies. Socialism and the Political Struggle, Our Differences, and, above all, Plekhanov’s masterpiece, On the Development of the Monist View of History are masterly restatements of the fundamental ideas of dialectical and historical materialism.

Plekhanov’s onslaught threw the Narodnik leaders into disarray. Unable to provide a coherent answer to the Marxist case, they resorted to bitter complaints and spiteful allegations about the new group. Vestnik Narodnoi Voli (no. 2, 1884) alleged that “for them [the Marxists] the polemic with Narodnaya Volya is more topical than the struggle with the Russian government and with other exploiters of the Russian people.”37

How often have Marxists heard such allegations throughout our history! For the crime of insisting on theoretical clarity, for attempting to draw a clear line of demarcation between itself and other political tendencies, Marxism is always accused of the sin of “sectarianism,” of being against “left unity” and so on and so forth. It is one of the great ironies of history that one of Plekhanov’s main Narodnik critics, Tikhomirov (“NV”), who accused the group of disrupting revolutionary unity and submissively accepting the yoke of capital, himself later went over to the camp of monarchist reaction. Not for the first or last time, the advocator of unprincipled “unity” ended up by uniting with the enemies of the working class!

The work of penetrating the movement in Russia, however, proceeded with painful difficulty. The illegal transportation of literature posed enormous problems. Professional people and students, studying abroad, were enlisted to carry illegal literature when going back home on holiday. At various times, members of the group were sent into Russia to establish contacts. Such journeys were extremely hazardous and frequently ended in arrests. People from the interior who managed to establish direct contact with the Group were few and far between, and cherished like gold nuggets. In 1887–88, there was an attempt to set up a Union of Russian Social Democrats abroad, headed by the student Rafail Soloveichik, who had left Russia in 1884. But he clashed with the Group, went back to Russia, was arrested in 1889 and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment, during which he became mentally deranged and committed suicide. Another member of the same group, Grigor Gukovsky, a young student in Zurich, was arrested in Aachen and handed over to the tsarist government. Sentenced to prison, he also committed suicide. There were many such cases. The arm of the tsarist authorities was long. The Group constantly faced the danger of infiltration by police spies and provocateurs. One such spy was Christian Haupt, a worker who was engaged by the police to infiltrate the Russian Social Democratic organizations in exile. Unmasked by the German Social Democrats as a police spy, Haupt was expelled from Switzerland.

Worst of all was the sensation of complete political isolation, aggravated by the inevitable rows and squabbles of exile life. The émigré Narodniks, stung by Plekhanov’s criticism, gave vent to their hurt feelings by heated protests at being called “Bakuninists” and demands for public apologies. The overwhelming majority of the exiles were Narodniks, and implacably hostile to the new group which they regarded as traitors and splitters. Years later, Plekhanov’s wife recalled that “the Narodnaya Volya people and N.K. Mikhailovsky at that time controlled the hearts and minds of the Geneva émigrés and the Russian students.”38

After the murder of Alexander II, a period of rigid hopelessness overcame the whole of Russia . . . The lead roofs [prisons] of Alexander III’s government contained the silence of the grave. Russian society fell into the grip of hopeless resignation, faced as it was by the end of all hopes for peaceful reform, and the apparent failure of all revolutionary movements. In such an atmosphere, there could only emerge metaphysical and mystical tendencies.39

This is how Rosa Luxemburg recalled this bleak decade of reaction. The new tsar, Alexander III, was a giant of a man, strong enough to bend a horseshoe in his hand, but an intellectual pygmy. The real ruler of Russia was Pobedonostsev, the tsar’s former tutor, Procurator of the Holy Synod, who believed that Western democracy was rotten, that only the Russian patriarchal system was sound, that the press must be silenced, that schools must be under Church control, and that the tsar’s rule must be absolute. Village priests were expected to report any politically suspect parishioners to the police, and even their sermons were subject to censorship. All non-Orthodox and non-Christian religions were persecuted. Tolstoyans were regarded as particularly dangerous to church and state. Tolstoy himself was excommunicated. All student protest was ruthlessly put down.

These were hard times. On all sides there was retreat, ideological backsliding, and cowardly apostasy. The old Narodnik trend was in a complete impasse. Having burned their fingers with terrorism, the “extreme revolutionaries” effected another 180° somersault and eventually ended up in the camp of the liberal philistines, preaching a cowardly policy of “small deeds” and harmless cultural-educational work. Commenting on the decay of Narodnism, Martov wrote:

The fall of the revolutionary People’s Freedom was at the same time the collapse of Populism as a whole. Broad circles of the democratic intelligentsia were profoundly demoralized and disappointed in “politics” and their own heroic mission. A modest “cultivation” in the service of the liberal segments of the possessing classes: this was the sign under which the part of the intelligentsia that had remained loyal to Populism entered the grey epoch of the 1880s.40

For the first ten years or so of its existence, the Emancipation of Labor Group was forced to fight a weary battle against the stream. In order to find a road to the young generation, Plekhanov was obliged to seek collaboration with all kinds of confused and semi-Narodnik elements. One such group published a small journal, Svobodnaya Rossiya (Free Russia) which, in the leading article of its first issue, argued the impossibility of “organizing the workers and peasants around revolutionary action” and argued against putting forward ideas which might frighten liberal sympathizers. Contact with Russia resembled a game of blind man’s buff. The situation with the exiles could hardly have been worse. The frustrations of the Group are shown in the correspondence of Plekhanov with his closest collaborators. Even the literary activity of the Group was fraught with difficulties. The Emancipation of Labor Group lived in an atmosphere of continuous financial crisis. Being small in number, and with limited scope for raising cash, they usually depended on what are known in the American theatrical world as “angels,” wealthy sympathizers prepared to finance their literary ventures. Sometimes, these people were not even socialists, such as Guryev who put up the cash for the “three-monthly” Sotsial Demokrat. In general, the publications of the group came out on a very irregular basis. At times, the task must have seemed well-nigh hopeless. In the summer of 1885, Plekhanov wrote to Axelrod in terms verging on desperation: “But really we are standing over an abyss of all sorts over debts, and don’t know and cannot think what to catch hold of to stop ourselves falling in. Things are bad.”41

Throughout the dark days of the 1880s, Plekhanov and his family lived in extreme poverty. At times he gave private lessons in Russian literature for a small salary, living in the cheapest “pension” owned by a butcher who fed him exclusively on soup and boiled meat! Bad food and living conditions undermined his health. For a while he was dangerously ill with pleurisy, the effect of which lasted the rest of his life. Working under enormous difficulties, suffering remorseless pressure from all sides, the Emancipation of Labor Group was held together by faith in its ideas, but also by the colossal moral and political authority of Plekhanov. Within the Group, Plekhanov reigned supreme. Their very isolation made the members rally round in a closely knit circle, welded together by strong political and personal ties. Not for nothing did they later acquire the nickname of “The Family.” And Plekhanov was the indisputable head of the “household”—intellectually, he towered above the others, and yet there existed between them a strong sense of mutual dependence born of years of struggle and sacrifice in a common cause. In such circumstances it was hardly surprising that personal and political questions should become intermixed. Plekhanov was a tower of strength to the others, giving them moral support in times of doubt and personal crises.

The tragedy of people like Axelrod and Zasulich had a two-fold character. Under different historical conditions, these talented individuals could have played a far bigger role in the shaping of events. Long years of isolation in exile had a disastrous effect upon their psychological and intellectual development. Working under Plekhanov’s shadow, their evolution became stultified to the extent that, when conditions changed, they were unable to adapt and were lost to the revolution. Due to the conditions in which the Group was compelled to work for decades, traces of a narrow propaganda circle mentality would almost inevitably tend to creep in. Such factors did not have a fundamental significance in the early years, the long, slow period of theoretical preparation and tiny propaganda circles. Only at a later date, when the Russian Marxist movement was faced with the necessity of stepping over the limitation of the propaganda phase did the negative features of the Emancipation of Labor Group emerge.

For two decades, the membership of the Emancipation of Labor Group stayed virtually the same. Of its founders, V.N. Ignatov died too early to leave much of an imprint. Lev Deutsch was the heart and soul of the organizational side of the work, such as the arrangements for printing and distribution of literature. Pavel Axelrod was a talented propagandist who made a big impression on the young Lenin and Trotsky. His name was for a long time inseparable from that of Plekhanov. Vera Zasulich, a sincere, warm-hearted and impulsive person, suffered more than most from the trauma of exile. Ever impatient to close the gap between the Emancipation of Labor Group and the new generation of revolutionaries in Russia, she was forever taking up the cudgels on behalf of the youth, overcoming the resistance of Plekhanov and encouraging new initiatives—usually unsuccessful—with the youth groups in exile.

The patient work of the Marxists eventually bore fruit. The real reason for the whimpering of the Narodniks about “sectarianism” and “splitters” was the effect which the ideas of Marxism were having on their own followers. It is difficult to overestimate the impact which works like Our Differences (1885) had on the young revolutionaries inside Russia who were avidly looking for a way out of the impasse of Narodnism, which was now in a phase of self-evident decadence. The rightward shift of the Narodnik leaders reached its culminating point with the open renegacy of Tikhomirov—the target of many of Plekhanov’s polemics—who in 1888 published a pamphlet with the title Why I Ceased to Be a Revolutionary.

The collapse of the old revolutionary Narodnism had a profound effect among the youth inside Russia, producing a polarization between the pro-liberal reformist elements and the best elements of the youth, striving to find a road to revolution. Towards the end of 1887, S.N. Ginsburg, having recently returned from Russia, wrote in a worried tone to the Narodnik leader P.L. Lavrov:

Our Political Differences and Socialism and the Political Struggle have had their influence, and a strong one, which we must come to terms with . . . The importance of the individual, the importance of the intelligentsia in the revolution, are completely destroyed by them, and I have personally seen people who have been crushed by his theories. And the main thing is his tone, bold as if he was convinced of his rightness, his negation of all that has gone before, the reduction of all predecessors to a nil—all this is definitely having an influence.42

Ginsburg’s letter shows how, unbeknownst to the exiled Marxists, new groupings were crystallizing in the interior, discussing the failures of the past, drawing up a balance sheet and seeking a new way. Here the ideas of Plekhanov fell upon fertile ground. By the 1890s, the Group began to enjoy an enormous authority in the eyes of the increasing numbers of Marxist youth, and the name of Plekhanov was known in every underground propaganda circle and every police station in Russia.


35 G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, 75.

36 Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, 132 (my emphasis).

37 Ibid., 136.

38 Perepiska GV Plekhanova i PB Aksel’roda, 87.

39 J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, vol. 1, 44.

40 Quoted in F. Dan, Origins of Bolshevism, 141.

41 Perepiska GV Plekhanova i PB Aksel’roda, 66 and 21.

42 Ibid., 61.

6) Combined and Uneven Development

By the end of the 1860s, there were only 1,600 kilometers of railway lines in the whole country. In the following two decades this figure had increased 15 times. In the ten years between 1892 and 1901, no fewer than 26,000 kilometers of railway lines were built. Alongside the traditional industrial centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg, new ones sprang up in areas such as the Baltic, Baku, and Donbass. Between 1893 and 1900, the production of oil experienced a two-fold increase and that of coal went up three times. True, the development of industry did not have the organic character of the rise of capitalism in Britain, described by Marx in Capital. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 provided the material premise for the development of capitalism. But the Russian bourgeoisie came on to the stage of history too late to take advantage of the opportunity. The puny and underdeveloped forces of Russian capitalism could not compete with the powerful developed bourgeoisie of Western Europe and America. In common with the ex-colonial countries today, Russian industry was heavily dependent upon foreign capital, which exercised a crushing domination over the economy, principally through its control of the banking and financial system:

“The confluence of industry with bank capital,” wrote Trotsky, “was also accomplished in Russia with a completeness you might not find in any other country. But the subjection of the industries to the banks meant, for the same reasons, their subjection to the Western European money market. Heavy industry (metal, coal, oil) was almost wholly under the control of foreign finance capital, which had created for itself an auxiliary and intermediate system of banks in Russia. Light industry was following the same road. Foreigners owned in general about 40 percent of all the stock capital of Russia, but in the leading branches of industry that percentage was still higher. We can say without exaggeration that the controlling shares of stock in the Russian banks, plants and factories were to be found abroad, the amount held in England, France and Belgium being almost double that in Germany.”43

The penetration of Russian society by foreign capital gave a sharp impetus to economic development, shaking the giant out of 2,000 years of barbarism and into the modern era. But precisely this gave rise to an explosive social situation. Large numbers of peasants were torn from the changeless routine of village life and thrust into the inferno of large-scale capitalist industry.

The Marxist theory of combined and uneven development found its most perfect expression in the extremely complex social relations in Russia at the turn of the century. Side by side with feudal, semi-feudal, and even prefeudal modes of existence there sprang up the most modern factories, built with French and British capital on the latest models. This is precisely the phenomenon we now see in the whole of the so-called Third World, and was most strikingly revealed by the development of Southeast Asia in the first half of the 1990s. This provides a most remarkable parallel with the development of Russia exactly a hundred years earlier. And it is entirely possible that the political outcome could be similar. The development of industry in such a context acts as a spur to revolution. Russia shows just how quickly that can occur. Out of the stormy development of Russian capitalism in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties came the equally stormy awakening of the proletariat. The wave of strikes in the 1890s was the preparatory school for the revolution of 1905.

In just 33 years—from 1865 to 1898—the number of factories employing over 100 workers doubled—from 706,000 to 1,432,000. By 1914, more than half of all industrial workers were actually employed in plants with over 500 hands, and nearly one quarter in plants with over 1,000 hands—a far higher proportion than in any other country. Already in the 1890s, seven big factories in the Ukraine employed two-thirds of all the metal workers in Russia, while Baku had almost all the oil workers. Indeed, until 1900, Russia was the largest oil producer in the world.44

Nevertheless, despite the tempestuous upsurge of industry, the general picture of Russian society remained one of extreme backwardness. The mass of the population still lived in the villages, where the rapid development of class differentiation was given a powerful impulse by the crisis in European agriculture in the 1880s and early 1890s. The falling price of grain ruined whole layers of the peasantry, the appalling nature of whose existence is starkly portrayed in Chekhov’s short stories In the Ravine and Muzhiks. The rural semi-proletarian, deprived of land, hawking his labor around the villages, became a common sight. On the other end of the social spectrum the new class of emerging rural capitalists, the kulaks, growing rich at the expense of the village poor, could afford to buy land from the old landowners—a situation reflected with great wit and insight in Chekhov’s famous play The Cherry Orchard.

In spite of all the attempts of the tsarist regime to shore it up, the old village community, the mir, which according to the Narodnik theoreticians was to provide the basis for peasant socialism, was rapidly breaking up along class lines. Those unable to find work in the village swarmed into the towns, providing an immense pool of cheap labor for the newly established capitalist enterprises. The rapid growth of industry produced a growing class polarization within the peasantry, with the crystallization of a class of rich peasants, or kulaks, and a mass of landless rural poor who increasingly drifted to the towns in search of work. The fierce arguments between the Marxists and Narodniks about the inevitability or otherwise of the development of capitalism in Russia were being conclusively settled by life itself. Lenin’s earliest works, such as New Economic Developments in Peasant Life, On the so-called Market Question, and The Development of Capitalism in Russia were written to settle accounts with the Narodniks. But unlike the earlier writings of Plekhanov, these works are based on the irrefutable language of facts, figures and arguments.

The development of capitalism in Russia also meant the development of the proletariat, which soon served notice on the whole of society of its intention to place itself in the front rank of the struggle for change. The highly concentrated character of Russian industry rapidly created industrial armies of workers, organized and disciplined, and placed at the strategic points of society and the economy. The graph of the strike movement clearly indicates the rising confidence and class consciousness of the Russian working class in this period.





Number of strikes




Number of workers involved




(Source: Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, 96)

Starting in the spring of 1880, industry was hit by a crisis which lasted several years. This was a period of mass unemployment, in which the employers ruthlessly pushed down the already miserable wages of the workers. In addition to all the other problems, the workers were continually oppressed with all kinds of petty restrictions and arbitrary rules designed to keep them in subservience. Chief among these was the custom of imposing fines for a whole series of real or imagined offenses against the employers. The indignation and accumulated discontent of the workers finally exploded in a wave of labor agitation in 1885–86 in Moscow, Vladimir, and Yaroslavl, which culminated in the strike at the Nikolskoye Mill owned by T.S. Morozov.

The 11,000 workers at the Morozov works had their wages cut no fewer than five times in two years. At the same time, enormous fines were imposed for singing, talking loudly, walking past the manager’s office with a cap on, and so on. These fines frequently amounted to a quarter of a worker’s wage, and sometimes one-half. On December 7, 1885, all the pent-up rage and frustration at the years of petty vexations, theft, and arbitrariness burst forth with elemental force. The leader of the strike, Pyotr Anisimovich Moiseyenko (1852–1923), was an experienced revolutionary, an ex-member of Khalturin’s Northern Union, who had served a term in Siberian exile. A remarkable man, one of those natural leaders of the working class, Moiseyenko later wrote: “I first learned to understand, then to act.”

The enraged workers vented their anger by smashing up the factory food store, where the truck system compelled them to buy food at inflated prices, and the home of the hated foreman Shorin. Alarmed by the violence of the outbreak, the governor of Vladimir province drafted in troops and Cossacks. The workers presented the governor with their demands, but were met with repression. Six hundred workers were arrested. Troops surrounded the factory and the workers were forced back to work at the point of a bayonet. Nevertheless, such was the mood of the workforce that the factory was not fully operational until one month later.

The Morozov strike ended in a defeat. Yet the effect it had on the minds of workers all over Russia prepared the way for the mass strikes of the coming decade. In the trial of the strikers held in Vladimir in May 1886, Moiseyenko and the other defendants put up a spirited defense which turned into such a devastating indictment of factory conditions that the charges were quashed and the workers’ case upheld. The verdict of the Morozov trial sent a shock wave throughout Russian society. Thoroughly alarmed, the reactionary paper Moskovskiye Vedmosti protested:

But it is dangerous to joke with the masses of the people. What must the workers think, following the not-guilty verdict of the Vladimir court? The news of this decision spread like lightning through the whole of this manufacturing area. Our correspondent, who left Vladimir immediately after the announcement of the verdict, heard of it at all the stations . . .45

The Morozov strike showed the enormous potential power of the proletariat. The lesson was not lost on the tsarist regime, which, for all its support for the factory owners, decided that it would have to make concessions to the workers. This it did on June 3, 1886, when the Law on Fines was passed, limiting the amount which could be imposed and stipulating that the proceeds should not be appropriated by the employers, but be deposited in a special benefit fund for the workers. As always, reform is a byproduct of the workers’ revolutionary struggle to change society. Like the “Ten hour bill” legislation passed in Britain in the last century, the Law on Fines was an attempt to pacify the workers and prevent them from moving in a revolutionary direction, while simultaneously trying to lean on the workers to curb the demands of the bourgeois liberals. Such “benevolent” legislation did not prevent the savage repression of strikes and the wholesale arrest and deportation of workers’ leaders in the coming period. Nor did the new law have the desired effect of dampening down the strike movement. The Morozov strike inspired the workers with fresh courage, while the concessions granted by the all-powerful autocracy showed what could be gained by boldly fighting for their interests. In 1887, the total number of strikes exceeded those of the two previous years put together. Two years later, police chief Plehve was forced to report to Alexander III that in turn 1889 was “richer than 1887 and 1888 in disorders called forth by factory conditions.”46

The elemental upsurge of the strike movement indicated the increasing awareness of the workers of themselves as a class and a force within society. The more advanced strata, represented by people like Moiseyenko, were groping for ideas which could shed light upon their condition and show the way forward. This movement had a two-fold significance. On the one hand, these spontaneous outbreaks, frequently accompanied by acts of Luddism47 which bore witness to its as yet unorganized and semiconscious nature, announced to the world the emergence of the Russian working class on the stage of history. On the other hand, it furnished irrefutable proof of the correctness of the theoretical arguments of Plekhanov and the Emancipation of Labor Group. In the white heat of the class struggle, the basis was now laid for the coming together of the still numerically weak forces of Marxism and the powerful, but as yet incoherent forces of the Russian proletariat.

From the Marxist point of view, the importance of a strike goes far beyond the fight for immediate demands over hours, wages and conditions. The real significance of strikes, even when lost, is that the workers learn. In the course of a strike the mass of workers, their wives, and families inevitably become aware of their role as a class. They cease to think and act like slaves, and begin to raise themselves up to the stature of real human beings with a mind and will of their own. Through their experience of life and of struggle—particularly of great events—the masses begin to transform themselves. Beginning with the most active and conscious layer, the workers become profoundly discontented with their lot, and keenly feel their own limitations. Defeats, still more than victories, force upon the worker-activist the burning need for a clear understanding of the workings of society, of the mysteries of economics and politics.

The growth of capitalist industry itself produces a mighty army of the proletariat. But even the best army will be defeated if it lacks generals, majors and captains well schooled in the business of war. The stormy strike battles of the 1880s proclaimed to the world that the heavy battalions of the Russian proletariat were ready and willing to fight. But they also revealed the weakness of the movement, its spontaneous, unorganized, and unconscious nature, its lack of direction and leadership. The army was there. What was necessary was to prepare the future general staff. This conclusion now dawned irresistibly on the consciousness of the best workers. And with the serious and single-minded approach which characterizes worker-activists the world over, they settled down to learn.


43 Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 32.

44 Figures from F. Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism, 150 and B.H. Sumner, A Survey of Russian History, 324–31.

45 Quoted in LCW, Explanation of the Law on Fines Imposed on Factory Workers, vol. 2, 38.

46 Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, 100.

47 Luddism is the name given to a movement of the English workers in the early years of the industrial revolution. The rise of unemployment was blamed on the introduction of machines, which the workers smashed.

7) The Period of Small Circles

The fierce ideological battles of the previous decade had not been fought in vain. An increasing number of young people in Russia now looked towards Marxism as a means of changing society. For these young men and women, the watchwords were no longer “Go to the people,” but “Go to the workers!” Under the prevailing conditions, the work had to be conducted on strict underground lines. The usual method of the underground propaganda circle was to set up a kind of school in the factory districts where, under the guise of adult education classes, they would expound the basic ideas of socialism to small groups of workers. This is a period of many names—mostly strange and unfamiliar to the modern reader. The small groups which sprang up in one town after another must have appeared to the tsarist authorities as the result of some virulent and inexplicable virus.

Despite all their efforts, the Narodniks were completely incapable of linking up with “the people,” nor could they ever hope to do so, on the basis of false theories, program, and methods. Yet this seemingly intractable problem was now solved with complete ease by the Marxists. A solid bridgehead was rapidly constructed to link the latter with the workers. In all the major centers of industry, study circles, educational classes and “Sunday schools” sprang up, providing the seedbed for a whole new generation of working class revolutionary Marxists, the backbone of the future party of October. Thus began the so-called period of propaganda or kruzhovshchina (based on the Russian word for study circle). Here, after an exhausting day’s work under appalling conditions, many a horny-handed factory worker, fighting off mental and physical fatigue, spent long hours wrestling with the difficult chapters of Marx’s Capital—that same book which the tsarist censor considered too dry and abstruse to represent a danger. So great was the workers’ desire to learn that many a volume of Capital was torn apart in order to distribute it, chapter by chapter, among the largest possible number of people.

Through the pages of the police archives, the faces and numbers of arrested revolutionaries passed with monotonous regularity—just so many bacilli isolated and removed for the health of the body politic. Most of these men and women have long passed into obscurity. And yet upon the bones and nerves of these heroes and martyrs, the Russian workers’ movement was constructed. Perhaps the most vivid account of how these early Marxist propaganda circles functioned is contained in Krupskaya’s book about Lenin. Contact was made through a workers’ study circle, where the teaching of the “3 Rs” would be skillfully combined with at least the elementary ideas of socialism. Such a group was the Smolensk Sunday Evening Adult School, in the working class stronghold of Schlisselburg, where Nadezhda Krupskaya gave classes. The young lecturers were popular with the workers, with whom they established a very close rapport.

“Workers who belonged to the organization,” wrote Krupskaya, “went to the school to get to know people and single out those who could be drawn into the circle and the organization.”48

Elsewhere she recalls:

It was a kind of silent conspiracy. We were actually able to talk about anything in the school, although there was rarely a class without a spy; one had to refrain from using the terrible words “tsar,” “strike,” etc., and the most fundamental problems could be referred to. But, officially, it was forbidden to discuss anything at all: on one occasion they closed down the so-called recapitulatory group, because an inspector who had put in an unexpected appearance discovered that the ten times table was being taught there, whereas, according to the syllabus, only the four rules of arithmetic were allowed to be taught.49

At the same time that Plekhanov and his collaborators were establishing the Group for the Emancipation of Russian Labor abroad, the first genuine Social Democratic (i.e., Marxist) circle appeared in St. Petersburg, set up by a young Bulgarian student, Dimiter Blagoev (1856–1924)—the future leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party. In 1884, his group took the name “The Party of the Russian Social Democrats” and even began to publish a paper—Rabochii (The Worker). However, the group did not last long before it was smashed by the police. But the process was now too far advanced to be halted by police action. The following year another Social Democratic group was formed in the capital, this time with closer links with the working class. The group of P.V. Tochissky included apprentices and craftsmen and styled itself the “Brotherhood of St. Petersburg Artisans.”

Further afield in the Volga area of Central Russia, in Kazan, Nikolai Fedoseyev (1871–98) organized a group of students, one of the members of which was a young student by the name of Vladimir Ulyanov, later known as Lenin. The first seeds had been planted, and the first recruits had been won, albeit in tiny handfuls, in Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Saratov, Rostov-on-Don, and other towns in the region. This group disintegrated when Fedoseyev was arrested in the summer of 1889. Many years later, in December 1922, Lenin was to write a brief note on Fedoseyev to the Party History Commission in which he paid a warm tribute to “this exceptionally talented and exceptionally devoted revolutionary.”50

Working against tremendous odds, under intolerable difficulties and always at personal risk, the Marxist propagandists stubbornly persevered in their task. Many of them never lived to see the result of their labor. They never fought in the final great battles, nor did they see the old, hated structures of society topple. Their role was the hardest task of all. The arduous task of beginning; of building the movement out of nothing; of patiently winning over the ones and twos; of explaining, arguing, convincing; of attending to the thousand and one mundane, routine day-to-day tasks of building an organization, which pass unobserved by historians, but which lay at the heart of a great historical enterprise. Despite all the difficulties, the slow, patient work of the Marxists now began to bear fruit. Marxist groups were springing up all over Russia. In imitation of the Emancipation of Labor Group, they called themselves Leagues of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class. At the same time, the movement of the workers was assuming a mass character. Then, like a thunderbolt from a clear sky, something happened which completely transformed the situation.

In 1891 and 1892, a terrible famine swept the country, causing widespread starvation in the villages and a steep rise in food prices. Famine, cholera and typhus affected 40 million souls; whole villages perished, especially in the Volga region. Hungry peasants flooded into the towns, willing to accept work at any price. This, combined with an economic upturn, which paradoxically coincided with the famine, produced a wave of strikes, especially in the center and West of Russia, the centers of the textile industry. They were accompanied by clashes with police and Cossacks, notably in the strike of the Polish textile workers in Lodz in 1892.

The famine served to expose the bankruptcy of the autocracy and the corruption and inefficiency of the bureaucracy. The fate of the starving millions had a profound effect upon the youth. The student movement flared up again in Moscow and Kazan. The general stirring of society also had an effect on the liberals. Silenced by the reactionary regime of Alexander III, the Zemstvos were reawakened to life by the famine. All over Russia, well-to-do liberals based on the Zemstvos launched famine relief campaigns. The Zemstvo liberals, many of them ageing leftovers from the “going to the people” movement of the 1870s, eased their consciences by setting up soup kitchens. They did their best to give the struggle against the famine a harmless, non-political coloration, in line with their general policy of “small deeds.” But the social and political ferment provoked by the famine and the chaotic response of the tsarist administration served to stir up the intelligentsia, and provided numerous new recruits for the Marxists, who were locked in furious combat with the representatives of the liberal Narodnik trend. The bitterness of the struggle is reflected in an episode recalled by Krupskaya of one of Lenin’s first interventions, shortly after he arrived in St. Petersburg:

The conference was disguised as a pancake party . . . The question came up as to what ways we should take. Somehow general agreement was lacking. Someone said that work on the Illiteracy Committee was of great importance. Vladimir Ilyich laughed, and his laughter sounded rather harsh (I have never heard him laugh that way again). “Well, if anyone wants to save the country by working in the Illiteracy Committee,” he said, “let him go ahead.”51

Watching the situation attentively from afar, Plekhanov immediately understood that a fundamental change was taking place which demanded a shift in the methods hitherto employed by the Russian Marxists. The famine had exposed the bankruptcy of the autocracy to an unparalleled degree. The idea of a representative assembly, a Zemsky Sobor, began to gain ground among the liberal intelligentsia. Plekhanov seized the opportunity with both hands. In his pamphlet All-Russian Ruin, published in Sotsial Demokrat, issue 4, Plekhanov explained that the causes of the famine were not natural but social. Setting out from the chaotic situation brought about by the corruption and ineptitude of the tsarist authorities, he showed the need to conduct widespread propaganda and agitation, linking the concrete demands of the masses to the central idea of the overthrow of the autocracy.

Of course, the slogan of a Zemsky Sobor in the hands of the liberals was given a completely reformist and therefore utopian character. But Plekhanov, displaying a keen revolutionary instinct, advanced this demand as a militant, fighting slogan, as a means of mobilizing the masses and attracting the best sections of the democratic intelligentsia to the idea of an open struggle against tsarism.

“All those honest Russians,” he wrote, “who do not belong to the world of mere money-makers, kulaks, and Russian bureaucrats must at once begin to agitate for the Zemsky Sobor.”52

Plekhanov’s article represented the first concrete attempt to come to grips with the question of how to relate the workers’ movement to the movement of other oppressed classes against the common enemy, tsarism. Under conditions of tsarist enslavement, temporary and episodic blocs with the most radical elements of the petty bourgeoisie or even the bourgeois liberals were inevitable. Such agreements, however, in no sense presupposed the existence of programmatic agreement. On the contrary, the prior condition thereof was precisely that every party should march under its own banner: “March separately and strike together.” While defending the liberals and petty bourgeois democrats against tsarist persecution, and occasionally arriving at episodic agreements for practical questions such as the transportation of illegal literature, defense of arrested comrades, etc., the Marxists simultaneously subjected them to a merciless and unremitting criticism for their vacillations and confusions. Such a policy was designed to make use of each and every opportunity to push the movement forward while strengthening the position of Marxism and the independent class standpoint of the proletariat, in the same way that a mountain climber skillfully makes use of every chink and crevice in order to haul himself up to the summit.

The main thrust of Plekhanov’s argument was that the “total economic ruin of our country can be averted only by its complete political emancipation.” The appalling problems of the masses directly posed the question of revolutionary struggle against tsarism, in which the working class would play the key role. While, at this stage, no one yet spoke of the possibility of a socialist revolution in Russia, the skillful use of revolutionary-democratic demands, like the convening of a Zemsky Sobor, undoubtedly played an important agitational role in marshalling the revolutionary forces around the Marxist program. This policy had nothing in common with the latter-day policies of the Mensheviks and Stalinists, who, under the guise of “uniting all progressive forces,” try to subordinate the working class movement to the so-called progressive bourgeoisie. Both Plekhanov and, especially, Lenin poured scorn on the idea of a “People’s Front” which a section of the Narodniks were peddling even at this time. Before he became a Menshevik, when he still defended the ideas of revolutionary Marxism, Plekhanov answered those who accused him of frightening the liberals with the following rebuff: “In any case, we consider that the most harmful kind of ‘frightening’ is the frightening of socialists with the specter of frightening the liberals.”53


48 N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 17.

49 N.K. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, (1893-1917), 6.

50 LCW, A Few Words About N.Y. Fedoseyev, vol. 33, 453.

51 N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 12–13.

52 Quoted in V. Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895–1903, 16.

53 G. Plekhanov, Sochineniya, vol. 1, 403.

8) From Propaganda to Agitation

The new emphasis upon mass revolutionary agitation caught many by surprise. Future Economists like Boris Krichevsky were not slow to criticize the Emancipation of Labor Group for its “constitutionalism,” not understanding the need to advance democratic slogans alongside the elementary class demands of the proletariat. At the same time, many of the old hands even in Russia were reluctant to recognize the changed situation. The old habits of small propaganda circle activity died hard. In many cases, the transition to mass agitation was only accomplished after painful arguments and divisions. In his article On the Tasks of the Russian Social Democrats during the Famine in Russia (1892), Plekhanov gave the classic Marxist definition of the difference between propaganda and agitation:

A sect can be satisfied with propaganda in the narrow sense of the word: a political party never . . . A propagandist gives many ideas to one or a few people . . . Yet history is made by the masses . . . Thanks to agitation, the necessary link between the “heroes” and the “crowd,” between “the masses” and “their leaders” is forged and tempered.

Plekhanov stressed the urgent necessity for the Marxists to penetrate the broadest layers of the masses with agitational slogans, beginning with the most immediate economic demands, such as the eight-hour day:

Thus all—even the most backward—workers will be clearly convinced that the carrying out of at least some socialist measures is of value to the working class . . . Such economic reforms as the shortening of the working day are good if only because they bring direct benefits to the workers.54

This gives the lie to the reformist opponents of Marxism who argue that the Marxists are “not interested in reform.” On the contrary, throughout history, the Marxists have been in the forefront of the struggle for the improvement of the lot of the workers, fighting for better wages and conditions, shorter hours, and democratic rights. The difference between Marxism and reformism does not consist in the “acceptance” or otherwise of reforms (you only have to pose the question to see its patent absurdity). On the one hand, is the fact that serious reforms can only be won by mobilizing the strength of the working class in struggle against the capitalists and their state and, on the other, that the only way to consolidate the gains made by the workers and to guarantee all their needs, is to break the power of capital and carry out the socialist transformation of society. The latter is, however, unthinkable without the day-to-day struggle for advance under capitalism which serves to organize, train, and educate the working-class, preparing the ground for the final settling of accounts with its enemies.

The conditions for the transition to mass agitational work were prepared by the development of Russian capitalism itself. Throughout the decade of the 1890s, the graph of the strike movement continued on the upturn, and at the heart of the movement stood St. Petersburg. Here were the heavy battalions of Russian labor—the metal workers, 80 percent of whom were concentrated in big factories like the Putilov works. St. Petersburg was the place where the working class was growing fastest. Between 1881 and 1900, the working class of the capital grew by 82 percent—Moscow grew by 51 percent in the same period. A relatively high proportion of the Petersburg proletarians were literate—74 percent against 60 percent for the rest of Russia.

It was a new and youthful population. In 1900, over two-thirds of St. Petersburg had been born outside the city, and over 80 percent of its workers. They came from all over the Empire—hungry, penniless peasants, desperately seeking work. Those who were lucky entered the big textile and metal factories. The decisive sector in St. Petersburg was the metal industry, whereas in Moscow, textiles predominated. Well over half the workers of St. Petersburg were employed in big factories of 500 or more, while nearly two-fifths worked in giant works of over 1,000. The unlucky ones became beggars, street vendors or prostitutes.

The working day was long—between 10 and 14 hours—and conditions and safety were appalling. Workers often had to live in overcrowded factory barracks, where bad housing was made worse by polluted air and water and defective sewage, giving St. Petersburg its reputation as the most unhealthy capital in Europe. The conditions of the textile workers were particularly barbaric, working very long hours doing monotonous jobs amidst deafening noise, in unhealthy, hot, and humid conditions, the results of which, in the words of a government inspector,

. . . can be visually confirmed by [the workers’] outward appearances—emaciated, haggard, worn out, with sunken chests: they give the impression of sick people, just released from the hospital.55

About half the textile workers were women. This particularly exploited section of the class, mainly newly arrived peasants and unskilled laborers, proved to be extremely volatile. The revolutionary potential of the textile workers had already been demonstrated in the strikes of 1878–79, when the first confused attempt was made to link up the strikes and the revolutionary movement. These strikes frightened the authorities into making concessions. The First Factory Act of June 1, 1882 prohibited the employment of children under 12 years of age from working in factories, and limited the working day for children between 12 and 15 to between eight and 15 hours. A further Act of 1885 prohibited night work in certain branches of industry, and so on.

The workers were not destined to enjoy the fruits of their victory. The strikes were the reflection of an economic boom, related to the Russo-Turkish war, but, in the slump which followed, the capitalists took their revenge. Throughout the 1880s, a severe depression caused massive layoffs and unemployment, especially in the metal industry. Thousands of workers and their families were reduced to destitution. Those who remained in the factories had to keep their heads down and grit their teeth while the factory owners ruthlessly lowered wages. At the start of the 1890s, the economy began to pick up once more. The change was particularly noticeable from 1893 onwards. Major construction on the railways further stimulated growth in the metal industry in St. Petersburg and the south of Russia. Oil and coal fields were booming. And at once the fresh breezes of the class struggle began to blow. The idea of agitation immediately caught the imagination of the youth inside Russia. Already many of the youngsters were growing impatient with the limitations of work in the propaganda circles. The trail was blazed by the Social Democrats in the western areas of Lithuania and Poland, where the Lodz strike and May Day demonstration of 1892 indicated the explosive nature of the situation.

Tsarist Russia was, to use Lenin’s celebrated phrase, a “veritable prison-house of nations.” In the period of rampant reaction following the assassination of Alexander II, national oppression was intensified. Under the grim surveillance of Pobedonostsev, the twin watchdogs of autocracy—the police and the Orthodox Church—cracked down on everything which smacked of dissent—from independent thinkers like Leo Tolstoy to Polish Catholics, Baltic Lutherans, Jews and Moslems. Marriages consecrated in Catholic churches were not recognized by the Russian government. Under Nicholas II, the church property of the Armenian Christians was confiscated by the state. The places of worship of the Kalmyks and Buryats were closed. Forced russification was accompanied by what amounted to compulsory conversion to the Orthodox faith.

The development of industry took place very early on in the western fringes of the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania. More industrialized than the east, more literate, and with a strong German influence, these areas were quickly penetrated by the Social Democracy. However, the workers’ movement here was immensely complicated by the national question. Oppressed by tsarist Russia, the Polish and Baltic workers and peasants had a double yoke to bear. The dismemberment of Poland, carved up between Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Prussia, created a bitter legacy of national oppression, the effects of which were to have serious consequences for the future development of the labor movement. Memories of the defeat of 1863 and the horrific repression that followed kept alive a hatred for Russia among Poles.

The Russian authorities, especially sensitive about unrest in the Polish provinces, cracked down ruthlessly on the first Polish Social Democratic groups with arrests, torture and long sentences of hard labor. But the movement, like a hydra-headed monster, reacted to the lopping off of one head by immediately sprouting two new ones. The Baltic soon became a focal point of Marxist agitation and propaganda, serving as the entry point for illegal literature and correspondence between the émigré Emancipation of Labor Group and the Marxist underground in the interior. Bernard Pares comments on the state of affairs in Poland:

Warsaw University had been completely russianized, and Poles were taught their own literature in Russian; in 1885 Russian was introduced into primary schools as the language of teaching; Polish railway servants were sent to serve in other parts of the empire; in 1885 Poles were forbidden to buy land in Lithuania or Bolhynia, where they had constituted the majority of the gentry.56


54 Quoted in V. Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895–1903, 17 in both quotes.

55 Quoted in G.D. Surh, 1905 in St. Petersburg: Labor, Society and Revolution, 54.

56 B. Pares, History of Russia, 465.

9) The Jewish Workers’ Movement

Paradoxically, tsarism encouraged the industrial development of Poland as a “shop window” and in a vain attempt to head off the nationalist movement. But the very development of industry was undermining the regime and creating a fever of discontent in the towns and cities of Russia’s western borderlands. Conditions and wages were appalling, but profits of 40–50 percent were usual, while profits of 100 percent were not uncommon. The superexploitation of the workers created favorable conditions for the spread of socialist propaganda. In the midst of this lunar landscape of bleak reaction, the party known as Proletariat—the “hopeful forerunner of the modern socialist movement in Poland”57—was launched by the student Ludwig Warjinski. Warjinski’s group of socialist students formed circles of workers and embryonic trade unions. In 1882, the different groups coalesced to organize Proletariat, which led a series of strikes, culminating in a mass strike in Warsaw, which was violently put down by troops. Many of the leaders of Proletariat were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Four were hanged. Warjinski himself was not so fortunate. Sentenced to 16 years hard labor in the notorious Schlusselburg Fortress near St. Petersburg, he died a slow death.

After the arrests, Proletariat practically fell to pieces. By the time the young Rosa Luxemburg joined the movement, only remnants were left. Leo Jogiches, the son of a wealthy Jewish family, used his considerable personal income to finance the setting up of a new socialist group in Vilna in 1885. The Vilna Social Democrats later played a pioneering role, developing the technique of mass agitation among the workers, which was later taken up by the Marxists all over Russia. The young forces of the Polish proletariat received a powerful impulse from the newly awakened forces of the Jewish working class.

The majority of Jews lived in Poland and the western provinces, which were declared from 1881 to constitute the only place where Jews were allowed to live. Jews were dismissed en masse from all administrative posts and excluded from most professions in 1886. Only 10 percent of Jews were allowed to go to university (five percent in Moscow and St. Petersburg). From 1887, the same rule was applied to secondary schools. In 1888, all Jews in receipt of government scholarships were registered as Orthodox. Children were baptized against the wishes of their parents. Jews who became Orthodox were given a divorce with no questions asked. Special taxes were imposed on synagogues and kosher meat. As a means of dividing and disorienting the workers, the authorities organized bloody pogroms against the Jews; houses were sacked, and men, women, and children killed and maimed by lumpenproletarian mobs in connivance with the police.

The sizeable Jewish population in these areas, with its numerous artisans and small businesses, lived permanently on the brink of the abyss. The most oppressed layer of society, the Jewish workers and artisans, naturally provided fertile ground for the spread of revolutionary ideas. Not by accident, Jewish revolutionaries provided the Marxist movement with a number of leaders out of all proportion to their specific weight within society. Cosmopolitan Vilna, with its large concentration of Jewish workers and artisans, was one of the earliest strongholds of Social Democracy in the Russian Empire. From 1881 right up to the October Revolution, the outbreak of these barbaric acts of racial savagery were a permanent threat hanging over the heads of the Jewish people. The pogromists stirred up the backward Polish and Russian peasants against the Jews, making use of religious prejudice (the most common time for pogroms was Easter), and the hatred of the Jewish trader and moneylender. But the overwhelming majority of the Jews were poor workers and artisans. In 1888, a government commission reported that 90 percent of Jews were

a mass that lives from hand to mouth, amidst poverty and most oppressive sanitary and general conditions. The very proletariat is occasionally a target of tumultuous popular uprisings [i.e., pogroms] . . .58

The Jewish workers’ movement in western Russia, Poland and Lithuania had a long history. The strike wave which swept through these regions beginning in 1892 produced a ferment among all oppressed nationalities, especially the Jews, who suffered the most extreme national oppression. Cultural life began to stir in a kind of national renaissance. Breaking free from the deadweight of a culture fossilized for 2,000 years, the Jewish intelligentsia became open to the most radical and revolutionary ideas. In place of the old exclusivism and isolationism, they eagerly sought contact with other cultures, particularly Russian culture. As early as 1885, a section of the poor yeshivah students, training to become Rabbis, helped to launch the Narodnik revolutionary organization in Vilna. Now Jewish workers joined the struggle, eagerly learning Russian in order to read books and discover the new ideas for themselves.

Jewish workers had organized friendly societies or kassy, which collected funds for mutual benefit for as long as anyone remembered—possibly ever since Jews were expelled from the guilds in Germany and Poland. The structure of these societies recalled that of the medieval guilds themselves, or the early British craft unions, with their solemn initiation rituals, annual guild holidays, and strict secrecy concerning all their affairs. The artisans and workers organized in the kassy were conservative in outlook, hostile to socialist ideas and usually connected with the synagogue. Yet, the double burden which the Jewish workers had to bear, being oppressed as workers and as Jews, created exceptionally favorable conditions for the spread of revolutionary and socialist ideas. “A spontaneous movement,” wrote Akimov, “swept like a strong wind through the lower depths of Jewish society, through strata which had seemed immobile and incapable of comprehending or guiding themselves by any conscious ideas.”59 Precisely because of this, the Jewish socialist workers and intellectuals played a role in the Russian Revolutionary movement out of all proportion to their numbers.

The funds raised by the kassy were originally used not just for sick benefits and the like, but for clubbing together to buy a copy of the Torah! However, in the new climate of class struggle, the workers’ funds were used increasingly for labor disputes. The first documented strike of Jewish workers took place in Vilna in 1882—a strike of hosiery workers in which, significantly, the women played a major role. The most active elements were the Jewish craftsmen and artisans—jewellers, stocking makers, locksmiths, tailors, carpenters, printers, shoemakers. By 1895, there were 27 craft organizations in Vilna alone, with a total membership of 962. “Within the Jewish labor movement itself, it was the craftsmen who pioneered, and the cigarette and match factory workers who lagged behind.” This class composition of the Jewish labor movement, no different to its fraternal organizations in the rest of Russia, was undoubtedly a factor in the conservative role played by the Bund, the Jewish organization, in the early years of the RSDLP. The most advanced sections of Jewish society were far from being affected by the kind of Jewish nationalism later advocated by the Zionists. On the contrary, they saw the salvation of the Jewish people in the rejection of the age-old, hide-bound traditionalism and entry into the mainstream of Russian cultural and political life. “We were assimilationists,” wrote a socialist activist of this period, “who did not even dream of a separate Jewish mass movement. We saw our task as preparing the cadres for the Russian Revolutionary movement, and acclimatizing them to Russian culture.”60 The Jewish Social Democrats wore Russian dress carried Russian books and spoke Russian as much as possible.

In the socialist circles, a whole generation of Jewish youth was awakened to political and cultural life. Particularly striking was the courage of young Jewish girls from working class backgrounds, determined to participate in the movement, despite the implacable hostility of their elders:

“I see them now,” recalled a participant, “crate makers, soap workers, sugar workers—those among whom I led a circle . . . Pale, thin, red-eyed, beaten, terribly tired.”

They would gather late in the evening. We would sit until one in the morning in a stuffy room with only a little gas lamp burning. Often little children would be sleeping in the same room and the women of the house would walk around listening for the police. The girls would listen to the leader’s talk and would ask questions, completely forgetting the dangers, forgetting that it would take three-quarters of an hour to get home, wrapped in a cold, torn remnant of a coat, in the mud and deep snow: that they would have to knock on the door and bear a flood of insults and curses from their parents: that at home there might not be a piece of bread left and they would have to go to sleep hungry . . . and then in a few hours arise and run to work. With that rapt attention, they listened to the talks on cultural history, on surplus value . . . wages, life in other lands . . . What joy would light their eyes when the circle leader produced a new number of Yidisher Arbayter, Arbayter Shtimme, or even a brochure! How many tragedies young workers would suffer at home if it became known that they were running around with Akhudusnikers, with the “brothers and sisters,” that they were reading forbidden books—how many insults, blows, tears! It did not help. “It attracts them like magnets” mothers wailed to each other.

Here, in Lithuania and Belarus, the Jewish workers and the wholly russified Jewish intelligentsia were carrying on a kind of agitation which was far more broadly based than the limited propaganda activity common in Russia proper. They published leaflets written in the language of the mass of Jewish workers—Yiddish—which dealt with the immediate demands of the masses. At this time, a 19-year old student called Julius Martov, expelled from St. Petersburg for revolutionary activity, arrived in Vilna, already a thriving center of the Social Democracy. Martov recalled how the issue of agitation was raised by the workers themselves, compelling the Marxists to go beyond the limits of circle work:

“In my work,” he wrote, “I twice detailed talks on the aims and methods of socialism, but real life kept interfering . . . Either the members of the circle would themselves raise the question of some event that had occurred in their factory . . . or someone from another workshop would appear and we would have to spend the time discussing conditions there.”61

The success of the Vilna group led them to publish a pamphlet which caused quite a stir at the time: On Agitation, written by Arkady Kremer and Martov, became known as “The Vilna Program.” Despite traces of “spontaneism,” the document, with its central idea that the task of the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves, aroused a lot of interest in the period 1893–97, when furious discussions were taking place everywhere on the turn to agitation. It basically represented a healthy reaction against the narrow “small circle” mentality and a desire to forge contacts with the masses. The new pamphlet threw down a bold challenge to existing conditions: “The Russian Social Democratic movement is on the wrong path,” it proclaimed. “It has locked itself up in closed circles. It should listen for the pulse beat of the crowd and lead it. Social Democrats can and must lead the working masses because the proletariat’s blind struggle inevitably leads it to the same goal and the same ideal which the revolutionary Social Democrats have consciously chosen.”62


57 Frolich, Rosa Luxemburg, 20.

58 Nora Levin, Jewish Socialist Movements 1871–1917, 16.

59 V. Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895–1903, 209.

60 Quoted in N. Levin, Jewish Socialist Movements, 226 and 234.

61 Ibid., 240 in both quotes.

62 Ibid., 240–41.

10) The Petersburg League of Struggle

In the autumn of 1893 the Petersburg Social Democrats were only just recovering from the arrest of their leader, Mikhail Ivanovich Brusnyev. Up to this time, the orientation of the group can be seen in Brusnyev’s own words:

Our main and fundamental role [was to] turn the participants . . . in the workers’ circles into fully developed and conscious social democrats, who could in many ways replace the intellectual propagandists.63

Already by 1891, the group was able to mobilize 100 people at the funeral of the old revolutionary N.V. Shelgunov. There were contacts in the big factories and all the main workers’ districts. The work had been started by young students, but gradually the class composition of the group underwent a change. The students painstakingly set about the task of creating working-class cadres or “Russian Bebels,” as they expressed it. After the wave of arrests which carried off Brusnyev and many others in 1892, the group had been reorganized by S.I. Radchenko. It included a group of students from the Technical Institute, some of whom were destined to play a significant role in the development of the party, including Nadya Krupskaya, Lenin’s future wife and lifelong companion.

The basic method of the group was to organize study circles of workers from the main factories. Through individual worker contacts, others were drawn into the circle in the way described above by Krupskaya. The original contacts developed theoretically and themselves became organizers of other circles. In this way an ever-wider network of worker study circles was established. Lenin, who had arrived in St. Petersburg in the autumn of 1893, participated as a lecturer in these circles under the alias, Nikolai Petrovich. Lenin’s work in the circle is described by Krupskaya:

Vladimir Ilyich was interested in the minutest detail describing the conditions and life of the workers. Taking the features separately he endeavored to grasp the life of the worker as a whole—he tried to find what one could seize upon in order better to approach the worker with revolutionary propaganda. Most of the intellectuals of those days badly understood the workers. An intellectual would come to a circle and read the workers a kind of lecture. For a long time, a manuscript translation of Engels’ booklet The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State was passed round the circles. Vladimir Ilyich read with the workers from Marx’s Capital, and explained it to them. The second half of the studies was devoted to workers’ questions about their work and labor conditions. He showed them how their life was linked up with the entire structure of society, and told them in what manner the existing order could be transformed. The combination of theory with practice was the particular feature of Vladimir Ilyich’s work in the circles. Gradually, other members of our circle also began to use this approach.64

The circles did valuable work in assembling the working class cadres in ones and twos. But they also created certain conservative habits of mind which later proved an obstacle to the development of the movement. The young Martov confessed his mortification when an older worker-Marxist, a member of Brusnyev’s group, instead of inviting him to join the organization, presented him with a pile of books on ancient history and the origin of the species:

“Brought up in the previous period of complete social stagnation,” Martov writes, “S . . . apparently could not imagine any other way of training a revolutionary than having him work out, over a period of years, a complete theoretical worldview, the crown of which would be admittance to practical work. For us, who had already read the speeches of the SPD workers of May 1, 1891, and had been shaken by the bankruptcy of the regime in the face of the famine, it was psychologically inconceivable to condemn ourselves to such a long period of waiting.65

The “Vilna turn” caused a big impact on the movement in Russia and was hotly debated in the circles. Martov brought a copy of the pamphlet to St. Petersburg in the autumn of 1894. In her Memories of Lenin, Krupskaya recalls that:

When the Vilna pamphlet On Agitation appeared the following year, the ground was already fully prepared for the conducting of agitation by leaflets. It was only necessary to start work. The method of agitation on the basis of the workers’ everyday needs became rooted deeply in our party work. I only fully understood how fruitful this method of work was some years later when, living as an émigré in France, I observed how, during the tremendous postal strike in Paris, the French Socialist Party stood completely aside and did not intervene in the strike. It was the business of the trade unions, they said. They thought the work of the party was simply the political struggle. They had not the remotest notion as to the necessity for connecting up the economic and industrial struggles.66

By 1895, Lenin’s group had about 10–16 members, who between them organized the work of between 20 and 30 workers’ study circles, which in turn had up to 100–150 contacts.67 The group was connected to the workers’ circles through area organizers. By the end of the year, it was active in practically all the workers’ districts. In November, a decisive step was taken when a newly established Social Democratic group, including Martov, fused with the “veterans” to form the St. Petersburg League of Struggle for the Emancipation of Labor—a name which was adopted in solidarity with Plekhanov’s Emancipation of Labor Group, apparently at Martov’s suggestion. A division of labor was established in the group’s activities—finance, contact with groups of revolutionary-minded intellectuals, the printing of leaflets, etc. The group maintained contact with the underground printshops run by a group of Petersburg Narodniks, and so on. The leaders of the group were Lenin and Martov.

Well, brother, I can’t think what’s gotten into them these days, sending us all these political muzhiks all of a sudden! Before they used to bring us all upper class people and students, real gentlemen. But now in walk the likes of you—just a common muzhik—a worker!68

With these words the prison warder of the Taganskaya prison greeted the arrival of M.N. Lyadov, one of the leaders of the Moscow Workers’ League in the year 1895. In his own way, the old warder had grasped the profound change which had taken place in the Russian Revolutionary movement in the 1890s. The more or less rapid growth of the Petersburg League reflected a change in the objective situation. The upsurge in the strike movement presented unprecedentedly wide opportunities for agitation through popular leaflets. The latter enjoyed instant success and served to bring the small forces of Marxism into contact with ever wider layers of the workers. The young people, mostly new recruits with little understanding of Marxist theory, threw themselves enthusiastically into the work of factory agitation, mostly on “bread and butter” issues. This had spectacular results, meeting with instant success among even the most benighted, ignorant and oppressed layers of the class.

In just one strike, according to Fyodr Dan, the League put out more than 30 leaflets.69 Agitation was conducted as a dialogue with the workers. The League would carefully listen to workers’ grievances, take note of their demands, and collect reports of the struggles in different factories. They would then return this information to the workers in an agitational form, together with organizational directives, exposures of the maneuvers of management and the authorities, and appeals for support. Thus, the strike movement of the 1890s became a gigantic preparatory school of struggle, serving to educate a whole generation of workers and Marxists. In the absence of an organized, legal labor movement, the tiny leaflets caused a sensation. The appearance of a leaflet would cause a buzz of expectation on the shop floor. Whenever they could escape the watchful eye of the overseer, the workers would gather in small groups (the favorite location being “the club”—i.e., the factory toilet), where the leaflet would be read aloud to a chorus of “Well said!” and “Absolutely right!” Takhtarev recalls that a typical reaction would be: “To the director! Send it to the director!” and that in a very short time, “rumors about the leaflets circulated throughout the factories of St. Petersburg. Soon the intelligentsia no longer needed to seek out the workers, who avidly inquired after the ‘students’ and requested leaflets”.70

The success of the new approach is reflected in Trotsky’s autobiography:

We found the workers more susceptible to revolutionary propaganda than we had ever in our wildest dreams imagined. The amazing effectiveness of our work fairly intoxicated us. From revolutionary tales, we knew that the workers won over by propaganda were usually to be counted in single numbers. A revolutionary who converted two or three men to socialism thought he had done a good job of work, whereas with us, the number of workers who joined or wanted to join the groups seemed to be unlimited. The only shortage was in the matter of instruction and in literature. The teachers had to snatch from each other in turn the single soiled copy of the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels that had been translated by many hands in Odessa, with many gaps and mutilations of the text.

Soon we began to produce a literature of our own: this was, properly speaking, the beginning of my revolutionary work, which almost coincided with the start of my revolutionary activities. I wrote proclamations and articles and printed them all out in longhand for the hectograph. At that time we didn’t even know of the existence of typewriters. I printed the letters with the utmost care, considering it a point of honor to make them clear enough so that even the less literate could read our proclamations without any truble. It took me about two hours to a page. Sometimes I didn’t unbend my back for a week, cutting my work short only for meetings and study in the groups.

But what a satisfied feeling I had when I received the information from the mills and workshops that the workers read voraciously the mysterious sheets printed in purple ink, passing them about from hand to hand as they discussed them! They pictured the author as some strange and mighty person who in some mysterious way had penetrated into the mills and knew what was going on in the workshops, and 24 hours later passed his comment on events in newly printed handbills.71

The reaction of ordinary workers to the leaflets is reported by Takhtarev, writing while the comments were still fresh in his mind, in 1897:

‘Just think of the times we live in! . . . We used to work and work, and never see daylight. You could see it with your own eyes how they swindled us, but what could you do about it? . . . But now we have our boys who notice everything, everywhere, and take it down. Tell it to the Soyuz (League), you hear, we have to let them know about this.’

‘Who passes the leaflets?’

‘Students, I suppose. God grant good health to those people who print the leaflets.’ Whereupon the worker devoutly crossed himself.72

By energetically participating in agitation, the small forces of Marxism were able to play a role out of all proportion to their size. The small hectographed leaflets met a ready response. Often the mere appearance of these leaflets would suffice to plunge a whole factory into a ferment and discussion, exercising a major influence on the course of a dispute. Precisely the success of this agitation soon attracted the attention of the tsarist police. Well aware of the explosive mood of the workers in Petersburg, the authorities developed a healthy respect for what the leaflets could achieve. When, in February and April of 1896, a leaflet appeared voicing the demands of the workers in the shipbuilding yards in Petersburg, the Minister of the Interior, fearing a strike, ordered an investigation, which advised the port commander to concede the workers’ demands.

However, the transition from propaganda in small groups to mass agitation was not carried out painlessly or without internal strains and tensions. For many, the underground had become a way of life. It had a certain routine to which one became accustomed. A prolonged period of existence in small, underground circles fostered a certain narrow “circle mentality.” Paradoxically, despite the difficulties and dangers, it had a certain “cozy” side. The conditions of circle life did not demand much outward-going activity. One moved exclusively among comrades or advanced workers, in circles where everyone knew practically everyone else. By contrast, agitation among the masses seemed like a leap in the dark. Routine would be disrupted, ideas and methods radically altered. No wonder the proposal was met with mistrust and hostility on the part of a layer of the “old men”. Krassin and S.I. Radchenko warned of dire consequences if the new tactic were pursued: it would undermine the underground work, cause mass arrests, put comrades in danger, and disorganize the work.

The question of the “new turn” was thrashed out, first of all in the narrow circles of the veterans, and then presented for discussion at broader gatherings of workers, where extracts from Kremer’s pamphlet On Agitation were read out and debated. The St. Petersburg worker-propagandist, V.I. Babushkin, recalls his reaction to the new proposals:

I absolutely rebelled against agitation, though I saw the undoubted fruits of its work in the general upsurge of enthusiasm among the worker masses; for I was very much afraid of another such wave of arrests [as that which carried off some of the “old-timers,” including Lenin, in December 1895] and thought that now all would perish. However, I proved to be mistaken.

Martov recalls how this same Babushkin protested angrily to him about the new methods: “Here you begin throwing leaflets in all directions and in two months you’ve destroyed what it took years to create . . . The new youth, brought up in this agitational activity, will tend to be superficial in outlook.”73 Subsequent development showed that Babushkin’s fear was not entirely without foundation. Some of those who enthusiastically espoused “agitation” and poo-poohed theory and “circle narrowness” were not merely superficial, but downright opportunists. However, despite an element of youthful exaggeration, the reaction against the “circle mentality” was a necessary corrective to a conservative trend which, had it remained unchecked, would have converted the massive movement into a sect. Many years later, Trotsky was clearly thinking of this period when he wrote that:

Every working class party, every faction, during its initial stages, passes through a period of pure propaganda, i.e., the training of its cadres. The period of existence as a Marxist circle invariably grafts habits of an abstract approach onto the problems of the workers’ movement. Whoever is unable to step in time over the confines of this circumscribed existence becomes transformed into a conservative sectarian.74

An example of how the work was being held back by conservative attitudes was the discussion that took place among the Marxists in Moscow on how to intervene in the May Day of 1895. Mitskevich recalls the horrified reaction when he proposed to organize a clandestine meeting in the woods:

When I put the question to my comrades, they decided to celebrate inconspicuously and not to raise a ruckus. They were anxious not to spoil our work and they feared arrest. The comrades said: “It’s too early to speak up, our forces are still too small for open action: the idea of a big celebration—that’s an idea for the intelligentsia.”75

But life itself was preparing a big surprise—a sudden turn in the situation which stood all the old schemas on their head.

On May 23, 1896, a strike of the spinning assistants at the Russian Spinnery in the Narva district of St. Petersburg signalled the outbreak of a mighty wave of strikes. The textile workers improvised flying pickets which rapidly extended the strike. The lightning speed with which the strike spread was an indication of the explosive mood that had built up over the preceding decade. A major strike wave gripped the capital, and for the first time, the St. Petersburg Marxists found themselves at the head of a mass movement of the working class.

The changed conditions brought about by the strike wave provided the small forces of Marxism with colossal opportunities to spread their influence. Yet in the initial period, opportunities were frequently missed because of the resistance of the more conservative layers to the new methods. Thus, during the important strike of 2,000 weavers in Ivanovo-Voznesensk in October 1895, the leaders of the local Workers’ League initially opposed the proposal that they should send agitators to contact the strikers, and approach other factories to organize support for the strike. Eventually a compromise solution was reached that the League would accept no responsibility for the strike but that individual members would be allowed to participate at their own risk! Similar disputes arose in practically every social democratic circle. But gradually the new methods were accepted, and obtained spectacular results.

The Marxists did not limit themselves to agitation on economic questions, but also tried to place political ideas before the workers. After the arrests of December 1895, the Petersburg group published the leaflet: “What is a socialist and a political criminal?” In the first period of agitation, while setting out from the immediate grievances of the workers, every attempt was made to raise the workers’ horizons to broad political questions, linking the struggle for immediate demands to the central objective of the overthrow of the autocracy. By means of a bold participation in agitation, the influence of Marxism grew by leaps and bounds among ever wider layers of the working class. Despite the smallness of their forces, and the tremendously difficult objective situation, the Marxists had at last broken down the barriers separating them from the masses. The road was now open for the creation of a strong, united party of the Russian proletariat.


63 Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, 159.

64 Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, (1893–1917), 6–7.

65 J. Martov, Zapiski Sotsial Demokrata, 92, quoted in A.R. Wildman, The Making of a Worker’s Revolution-Russian Social Democracy 1891–1903, 37.

66 Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, (1893–1917), 7.

67 Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, 222.

68 I. Verkhovtsev, (ed.) Bor’ba za Sozdanie Marksistskoi partii v Rossii (1894–1904), 3.

69 F. Dan, Origins of Bolshevism, 205.

70 Quoted in A.R. Wildman, Making of a Worker’s Revolution, 63.

71 Trotsky, My Life, 110.

72 Quoted in Wildman, Making of a Worker’s Revolution, 64.

73 Ibid., 53 in both quotes.

74 Trotsky, Writings, 1935–36, 153.

75 Quoted in Wildman, Making of a Worker’s Revolution, 54–55.

11) ‘Legal Marxism’

Alexander III died on the November 1, 1894, and was succeeded by his son, Nicholas II. On the glittering occasion of the new sovereign’s marriage in January the following year, the Zemstvo liberals plucked up their courage and presented a petition—in the form of a congratulatory address: “We cherish the hope,” it said, “that the voice of the people’s needs will always be heard on the heights of the throne.” Nicholas’ cutting reply represents a veritable classic of a political demolition job:

I am glad to see representatives of all classes assembled to declare their loyal sentiments. I believe in the sincerity of those sentiments which have ever been proper to every Russian. But I am aware that of late, in some Zemstvo assemblies, there have been heard voices of persons who have been carried away by senseless dreams of the participation of Zemstvo representatives in the affairs of the internal administration. Let it be known to all that I, while devoting all my energies to the good of the people, shall maintain the principle of autocracy just as firmly and unflinchingly as my unforgettable father.

The assembled ranks of the Zemstvo gentry were forced to listen while this bucket of icy slops was poured over their heads. The message was not even read by the tsar, who dispatched an underling to do it for him.

“A little officer came out,” writes an eyewitness, “in his hand he had a bit of paper; he began mumbling something, now and then looking at that bit of paper; then suddenly shouted out: ‘senseless dreams’—here we understood that we were being scolded for something. Well, why should one bark?”76

In a scene worthy of a great artist, the young empress was said to have stood stiff and rigid, not bowing to the delegates as they crept past. Rodichev, the author of the “Tver petition,” was not even admitted to the reception and was forbidden to live in St. Petersburg for his pains. More than any amount of words, this amusing little cameo shows up the utter impotence and cowardice of the liberals of Zemstvo Russia on the eve of the twentieth century.

These were the years when the bourgeois intellectuals retreated into themselves, playing with spiritualism, mysticism, pornography, and “art for art’s sake.” Art and literature saw the rise of symbolism, with its mystical overtones, and the “decadent” school. All this was merely a reflection, not just of a fin de siècle malaise of the intellectuals, but of the general feeling of impasse and helplessness which followed the shattering of Narodnaya Volya. As Marx once observed, history repeated itself—first time as tragedy, second time as farce. In a pathetic caricature of Narodnism, liberal youth would dress up in peasant clothes and become “Tolstoyans,” participating in welfare and charity schemes for the relief of famine, campaigns against illiteracy, and the like.

The growing influence of Marxist ideas among the intelligentsia produced a peculiar phenomenon. The striking successes of Marxist ideology in the struggle against Narodnism began to interest a layer of bourgeois intellectuals in the universities, who became fascinated with Marxism as a socio-historical theory, without ever really grasping its revolutionary class content. The young bourgeoisie was striving to find a voice of its own, to assert its own interests and provide a theoretical justification for the inevitability of capitalist development in Russia. Some of the ideas put forward by Marxism in the struggle against Narodnism were eagerly grasped by a section of the intellectual spokesmen of the bourgeoisie. For a short time, “Marxism” in a bowdlerized, academic form, enjoyed a certain vogue among “left” liberal professors.

In the initial stages, when the forces of Marxism were small and lacking in influence, and the socialist revolution was as yet the music of an apparently distant future, these well-to-do intellectual dilettantes seemed actually to represent a definite trend in Russian Marxism. Given the appalling difficulties of the illegal revolutionary movement, their services were readily accepted. They gave money, collaborated in the publication of Marxist literature and, in the absence of a real Marxist press, facilitated the appearance of Marxist views, albeit in a watered-down form, in the pages of all-Russian legal journals. This situation offered certain possibilities for the Marxists, who were permitted to write in the pages of legal bourgeois journals like Novoe Slovo, Nachalo (not to be confused with the Nachalo published by Trotsky in 1905), and Samarsky Vestnik—always provided they did not “go too far,” of course. In this way there arose the strange hybrid monstrosity of “Legal Marxism,” the main representatives of which were P.B. Struve, M.I. Tugan-Baranovsky, S.N. Bulgakov, and N.A.

Because of the censorship, all the early works of Marxism in Russia had to come out in book form, which made it an expensive business. Struve met the cost of publishing his book out of his own pocket. Such was the thirst for Marxist ideas, even in a bowdlerized form, that it sold out in two weeks. Potresov, who had inherited a private fortune, used his money to finance the publication of Plekhanov’s Monist View of History. Given the immense difficulties of illegality, it was clearly necessary to exploit each and every legal opening to spread the ideas of Marxism. What could not be said openly in legal publications could be supplemented by the underground party press. Thus, for many years, the Russian Marxists could not call themselves “Social Democrats,” but had to use phrases like “Consistent Democrats” instead. As Trotsky pointed out many years later, they did not get off scot-free from this. A number of people associated with the party turned out to be precisely “consistent democrats”—and some not so consistent—but not at all Marxists! For the development of a healthy Marxist current it is necessary above all to be able to say what is. Only the development of a genuine illegal Marxist journal could serve to mend the damage done by the Legal Marxists and their shadow, the Economists. This was the great achievement of Lenin’s Iskra (The Spark).

Despite all the problems and overheads, the collaboration with the Legal Marxists was a useful and, in any case, unavoidable stage in the development of the movement in the early days. The great majority of those who flirted with Marxism in their youth later broke with the movement and passed over to the side of reaction. But at the time they played a useful role. Some, at least, appeared to have undergone a genuine conversion. But the majority soon recovered from their “socialist measles.” It was all too easy to explain away shortcomings in their mode of expression by the exigencies of legal work, the need to escape detection, arrest and so on. So long as the main tasks of the movement were of a more or less theoretical character, and directed mainly against the Narodnik enemies of the bourgeoisie, this collaboration, in fact, proceeded on a more or less satisfactory basis. It was a Legal Marxist—Struve—who wrote the manifesto of the first congress of the RSDLP!

Theirs was an anemic and emasculated view of Marxism, a “decaffeinated” Marxism, lacking life, struggle and revolutionary vitality. Not accidentally, the Legal Marxists rejected dialectics in favor of Neo-Kantian philosophy. Despite its appearance of uniqueness, and the somewhat special role it played in the early days of the movement in Russia, the same kind of abstract, undialectical and essentially non-revolutionary “Marxism” regularly reappears in the rarefied atmosphere of the universities of all countries, at every stage in the development of the movement. They were, in fact, an early example of what later became known as “fellow travellers.” Despite their intellectual flirtation with Marxism, in their lifestyle and psychology they remained firmly rooted in an alien class. Many years later Struve was to sum up the mentality of the Legal Marxists in the following passage:

Socialism, to tell the truth, never aroused the slightest emotion in me, still less attraction . . . Socialism interested me mainly as an ideological force—which . . . could be directed either to the conquest of civil and political freedoms or against them.77

On the face of it, the ideas of the Legal Marxists may now appear to be of merely historical interest. Yet, upon closer examination, one can already discern the outline of future and more portentous disputes. The basic idea underlying the argument of Struve and co. consisted in the following: the material conditions for socialism are absent in Russia, a backward, semifeudal country; the struggle against tsarism is a struggle for bourgeois democracy, not socialism; the workers’ party should therefore set aside all impossible illusions and realistically rely upon the good offices of progressive bourgeois liberals to usher in the new order. Such, in essence, are the future theories (in reality, the same theory) of Menshevism and Stalinism. In an embryonic form the two fundamentally opposing conceptions of the revolution—reform or revolution, class collaboration or an independent proletarian policy—had already made their appearance in the polemics of Lenin and Plekhanov against the Legal Marxist and Economist trends in the second half of the 1890s. At this time, no one who considered themselves a Marxist questioned the idea that Russia was on the eve of a bourgeois-democratic revolution. This idea flowed from the entire objective, socioeconomic and historical situation. The main struggle was against the autocracy, against feudal barbarism and the heritage of “bureaucratic and serf culture,” as Lenin was later to describe it. The central plank of the Marxists’ argument against the Narodniks was precisely the inevitability of a capitalist phase of development and the impossibility of a special independent path of “peasant socialism” in Russia.

For the Legal Marxists the prospect of a socialist revolution was reduced to a hazy theoretical prospect sometime in the dim and distant future. Such a perspective was quite safe, and basically committed them to nothing. To them, the revolutionary aspect of Marxism seemed quite unreal, whereas the economic arguments about the inevitable victory of capitalism in Russia seemed preeminently practical. Just how far these lifeless schemas stood from genuine revolutionary Marxism can be seen from the marvelously profound insights in the last writings of Engels’ old age, and in particular his correspondence with Vera Zasulich and other Russian Marxists. While underlining the impossibility of building socialism in a backward peasant country like Russia, old Engels laid heavy stress on the need for a revolutionary-democratic overthrow of the autocracy, which would then open the way for the socialist revolution in Western Europe. In the afterword to On Social Relations in Russia, written in 1894, Engels poses the question in this way:

The Russian Revolution will also give a fresh impulse to the labor movement in the West, creating for it new and better conditions for struggle and thereby advancing the victory of the modern industrial proletariat, a victory without which present-day Russia, whether on the basis of the [village] community or of capitalism, cannot achieve a socialist transformation of society.78

By a brilliant application of dialectics, Engels shows how the victory of socialism in the West, in turn, would interact upon Russia, enabling it to proceed straight from semifeudal conditions to communism. Here revolutionary dialectics are counterposed to the formal logic of “evolution.” Cause becomes effect and effect cause. The Russian Revolution, even on a bourgeois-democratic basis, would impel the all-European proletarian revolution, which in turn interacts upon Russia to produce a root-and-branch social transformation. The victory of the socialist revolution in the West enables the Russian workers and peasants to carry through the proletarian revolution in Russia and begin the socialist transformation of society. Under these circumstances it would not be theoretically excluded that the old Narodnik idea of the transformation of the village commune to communism might be possible.

Such a bold formulation never entered the heads of Struve or Tugan-Baranovsky, with their abstract formulas, which represented a lifeless and mechanical caricature of Marxism. In her memoirs, Krupskaya recalls that Struve “was himself a Social Democrat of a sort at that time,” but adds that “he was quite incapable of doing any work in the organization, leave alone underground work, but it flattered him, no doubt, to be called on for advice.”79 These few lines faithfully convey the essence of this layer of bourgeois and middle class intellectuals who “travelled” with the Party, considering themselves to be of it, but never really being in it, and always with one foot in another camp. Through the medium of this layer the pressure of alien classes was, unconsciously or half-consciously brought to bear, with dire results upon the young and immature forces of Marxism.

Struve, for a time, veered to the left as a result of the general movement of the intelligentsia, under the pressure of the working class in the stormy period of the 1890s, in the direction of Marxism. The relentless ideological criticism from Lenin and Plekhanov also played a role. There is little doubt that the withering criticism of the Russian bourgeoisie in the Manifesto of the First Congress, written by Struve, echoed the fierce controversies with Lenin a couple of years earlier:

And what does the Russian working class not need? It is completely deprived of what its comrades abroad freely and peacefully make use of: participation in the running of the state, freedom of the written and spoken word, freedom of association and assembly—in a word, all those weapons and means by which the West European and American proletariat is improving its position while struggling for its ultimate emancipation, against private ownership and capitalism—for socialism. But the Russian proletariat can only conquer the political freedom it needs by itself alone.

The further you go to the East of Europe, the weaker, more cowardly and baser the bourgeoisie becomes in the political field, and the greater the cultural and political tasks which fall to the lot of the proletariat. On its own strong shoulders the Russian working class must and does bear the cause of winning political freedom. This is an indispensable, though only a first, step towards the realization of the great historical mission of the proletariat, towards the creation of a social order in which there will be no room for the exploitation of man by man.80

Like many of the intellectual fellow travellers of Marxism, Struve never came to terms with dialectics. This fundamental theoretical weakness, alongside the usual middle-class hankering after the flesh-pots, the liking for an easy existence and an organic incapacity for personal sacrifice, serve to explain his subsequent development. Struve later broke with Marxism. In 1905 he joined the bourgeois Cadet Party and ended his days as a White émigré. Berdyayev ended up as an apologist for religious mysticism. The others underwent a similar transformation. Struve’s 1898 Manifesto, with its harsh condemnation of the Russian bourgeoisie, thus constitutes an ironically appropriate epitaph both on Struve and the phenomenon of Legal Marxism in general.


76 Slavonic and East European Review, vol. xxii, no. 34, 350 in both quotes.

77 Ibid.

78 Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. 2, 410.

79 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 29–30.

80 KPSS v rezolyutsiyakh i resheniyakh s’yezdov. Konferentsii y plenumov tsk, vol. 1, 15 (my emphasis).

12) Lenin and the Group for the Emancipation of Labor

In the winter of 1894–95, at a meeting in Petersburg of representatives of Social Democratic groups from various parts of Russia, a resolution was passed in favor of a more popular literature for workers to be published abroad. Lenin and E.I. Sponti from the Moscow Workers’ Union were made responsible for negotiating this question with Plekhanov’s Group for the Emancipation of Labor. In the spring of 1895, first Sponti and then Lenin went to Switzerland to establish contact with the Group. The impact caused among the émigrés by this breakthrough is conveyed in the correspondence of Plekhanov and Axelrod:

The arrival of E.I. Sponti and then, to a much greater degree, of V.I. Lenin (Ulyanov), were a great event in the life of the Group for the Emancipation of Labor; they were practically the first Social Democrats who had arrived abroad with a request from those who were carrying out the active work of the Social Democratic circles for business-like negotiations with the Group.81

Up till this moment, the members of the exiled Emancipation of Labor Group had been reduced to the role of onlookers and commentators on the great struggles taking place in Russia. The experience of past failures with people coming from the interior had also made them wary. But the newcomers soon convinced them that there now existed a real basis for the spread of Marxist ideas in Russia. The forces of the young generation joined hands with the exiled veterans. The two emissaries returned to Russia with a commitment on the part of the Group to begin the publication of a Marxist journal, Rabotnik (The Worker), while a more popular paper would be published in the interior with the title of Rabocheye Dyelo (The Workers’ Cause). The future of Russian Marxism seemed assured.

However, shortly after Lenin’s return to Russia disaster struck. On the night of December 19, as the first issue of Rabocheye Dyelo was being prepared for the printers, the police carried out a large-scale raid that carried off most of the leaders. When arrested, Lenin calmly denied that he was a Social Democrat, and when asked why he had illegal literature on him, shrugged his shoulders and said he must have picked it up in the flat of somebody whose name he had forgotten. In a courageous attempt to deceive the police into thinking they had arrested the wrong people, the remaining leaders, with Martov at their head, issued a mimeographed proclamation to the workers: “The League of Struggle . . . will carry on its work. The police have failed. The workers’ movement will not be smashed by arrests and exile: the strikes and struggles will not end until the complete liberation of the class from the capitalist yoke is achieved.”82 The ruse failed, and on January 5, 1896, Martov and the others were arrested.

While in prison, Lenin made plans for a major theoretical work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, and even managed to maintain correspondence with the organization by the skillful use of crude but effective clandestine methods. Messages were written in milk between the lines of books which would show up in yellowish brown when held up to a candle. He made an “inkwell” out of bread and would pop it in his mouth when a guard approached. “Today I have eaten six inkwells,” he wrote. One proclamation, To the Tsar’s Government, written in this way, was hectographed and distributed in hundreds of copies. The police went frantically looking for the author, never dreaming that he was already the guest of His Majesty. Despite everything, Lenin preserved his sense of humor, writing to his mother: “I’m in a far better position than most of the citizens of Russia. They can never find me.”83 Some of the prisoners fared less well. One of the leaders of the Petersburg League, Vaneyev, who was arrested with Lenin, caught tuberculosis—still the scourge of Russian jails today—and never recovered. Another went insane.

The arrests of the “veterans” had an extremely serious effect on the immediate development of the organization. By removing from the scene the most experienced and politically developed cadres, the leadership fell into the hands of younger people, some of whom were completely raw. The average age of the “old-timers” was actually around 24 or 25. Lenin’s party name was Starik (the Old Man). He was 26! The youngsters who now occupied leading positions were 20 or less. They were enthusiastic and dedicated, but politically untutored. The difference soon made itself felt. The striking success of the agitation movement exercised a powerful influence upon the minds of the youth and the intelligentsia, which was moving away from the discredited ideas of Narodnism and individual terrorism. New recruits entered the movement. But the general theoretical level was lowered. The battle against the old narrow, propaganda-circle mentality had been won. But in their eagerness to extend the mass influence of the Social Democracy through the vehicle of economic agitation, a section of the more impressionable students was inclined to present the issue in a one-sided way. In 1895–96 there appeared in Petersburg a group in the Technological Institute led by the talented and energetic medical student K.M. Takhtarev which began to argue that the Social Democrats should not see themselves as “leading” the workers but only as “serving” them by helping out in strikes.

Such was the growth in the influence of the Marxists, that the arrested leaders were very quickly replaced. But the quality of the leadership had suffered a severe blow. The tendency led by the student Takhtarev swiftly gained the ascendancy over the “old timers,” who everywhere were pushed to one side. The practical successes of agitation seduced these “activists” seeking an easy way out of the complex problem of building a revolutionary party. At first, almost imperceptibly, they began to adapt themselves to the prejudices of the most backward layers of the class, arguing that political ideas were too difficult for the masses, and that, anyway, politics was of no concern to the workers interested in improving their economic conditions.


81 Perepiska GV Plekhanova i PB Aksel’roda, 127.

82 Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, 228.

83 Quoted in R. Payne, The Life and Death of Lenin, 112.

13) The Economist Controversy

As frequently happens, a serious political difference first expressed itself on a seemingly accidental secondary issue. Before being sent into Siberian exile, in February 1897 Lenin and several other leaders were allowed three days in Petersburg to put their affairs in order. They used the time to hold a discussion with leading members of the League. A heated meeting took place between them and the new leadership, who were preparing to set up separate groups for workers and intellectuals. A sharp disagreement emerged on the question of a “workers’ fund” organized on nonpolitical lines. Without denying the possibility of work in such areas, Lenin, supported by Martov and others, placed the main stress on the need to build up the League of Struggle as a revolutionary organization. The new leadership, in effect, proposed watering down the program of the League in order, allegedly, to make it more attractive for workers. Such a dilution of the organization at an early stage of its development would have been fatal. Lenin argued firmly for the education of worker-cadres who should then be given key positions, but without reducing the organization to the level of the most backward workers. “If there are any conscious, individual workers deserving of confidence,” he argued, “let them come into the central group [of the League] and that’s all.”84

What lay behind the attitudes of the “youngsters” was an opportunist desire to find a “short cut” to the masses, an impatient desire to reap where they had not sown, together with a barely concealed contempt for theory. Such, in broad outline, were the common features of all the different varieties of “Economism,” a phenomenon which, more than a worked-out theory or policy, represented an ill-defined mood among certain layers of, particularly, the student youth which had entered the Social Democracy in the 1890s, and who lacked the same solid theoretical grounding that had characterized the earlier generation of Russian Marxists. For the first generation of Russian Marxists, economic agitation was only one part of the work, which always linked agitation with propaganda and tried to draw out the broader issues. The League had succeeded in winning over members from the old Narodnik movement by arguing a political case. On the other hand, the main task in relation to the strike movement was, while setting out from existing levels of consciousness, to raise the level of understanding of the workers and to make them realize through their own experience of struggle the necessity for a complete social overturn. Local agitational leaflets were too limited in their scope to do this. What was needed was a Marxist paper which would not only reflect the life and struggles of the proletariat but would also present the workers with a generalization of that experience, in other words, a revolutionary political organ which would serve to unite the strike movement with the revolutionary movement against the autocracy.

It was precisely on this project that Lenin and Martov were working before they were arrested. But the new leaders of the St. Petersburg League of Struggle had other ideas. It should be borne in mind that we are dealing with a cadre organization, still in its early beginnings, attempting to lay down basic principles both in politics and organization—moreover, a group working in dangerous underground conditions, having only just been hit by a punishing wave of arrests. For Lenin, organizational forms were not shibboleths or mathematical axioms, but part of a living process which changed and adapted with circumstances. His stand on this issue was thus not determined by abstract principles, but by the demands of the moment.

The phenomenon we have just described was not confined to Russia. It coincided with the campaign of Eduard Bernstein in Germany to revise the ideas of Marxism. Everywhere the slogan was raised of “freedom of criticism,” as a guise under which to smuggle alien and revisionist ideas into the party. The same controversies began to surface in the emigration, in the Union of Russian Social Democrats, an organization set up in 1894, mainly composed of students who had recently joined the Marxist movement. The Union was organizationally independent of the Emancipation of Labor Group, and had effective control of contacts with Russia. They were responsible for collecting funds, the print shop, organizing the transportation of clandestine literature and maintaining contacts with the interior. However, in order to preserve its control of the ideological field, the Emancipation of Labor Group insisted on the right to edit the Union’s publications, including the journal Rabotnik.

With the majority of the leaders in Siberian exile, only the exiled Group for the Emancipation of Labor remained to conduct a struggle against the new trend. Towards the end of 1897 the student S.N. Prokopovich, who up till then had been collaborating with the Emancipation of Labor Group, began to raise similar differences. This must have been a painful blow to the Group, at a moment when at last it looked as though their collaboration with the youth inside Russia was proceeding on a sound basis. Anxious to avoid a break, at first Plekhanov adopted an unusually conciliatory tone. In a letter to Axelrod dated the January 1, 1898, he wrote: “. . . We must publish his work on agitation: in my view it’s not bad, and we must encourage ‘young talents’ otherwise you know they’ll be complaining that we keep them down.”85

A large part of the initial friction between the two groups undoubtedly sprang from the resentment of the youth at the political protagonism of Plekhanov. They felt slighted and put down by the old timers, and resented the rigorous ideological control exercised over them. Despite Plekhanov’s attempts to be conciliatory, the conflicts became more frequent. The students soon seized on what was, admittedly, the weak side of the Emancipation of Labor Group’s activities: organization. They began to pick holes on organizational questions, demanding to see the accounts which were certainly in a chaotic state. Having scored a point here, the youth went on to other issues. The little circle around Plekhanov found itself increasingly beleaguered on all sides. Short of funds, and heavily dependent upon the “youngsters” in the Union of Russian Social Democrats for contact with Russia, the group was now in serious difficulties. The effect of the strains upon the morale and nerves of its members began to show, with increasingly tense relations between Plekhanov and Axelrod. By April 1898, there were clear signs of demoralization, with Axelrod asking himself whether the group had any reason to exist and Vera Zasulich, alleging illness, talking about dropping out of activity.

In his biography of Plekhanov, S.H. Baron sums up the attitude of the students towards the Emancipation of Labor Group:

Was not the dedication of the Group’s principal figure, Plekhanov, to abstract theoretical and philosophical works a patent demonstration of his alienation from Russian reality? . . . Arguing that they had lost contact with the situation in Russia and were ill-informed concerning its needs, the veteran Marxists were disqualified from leading the movement. Even if the Group had a more realistic vision of the demands of the time, their slowness and inefficiency rendered them incapable of fulfillling the leading role to which it laid claim. While the reins continued in its hands, essential tasks could not be attended to. Those who had founded and given a great initial impetus to the movement had become converted into an obstacle. Yet they refused to make way for those who were better qualified, and who had both a clear awareness of the necessities, and the energies essential for dealing with them. Another similar accusation they made towards them was that the hypercritical attitude of the Group and its intolerance towards divergent opinions impeded the development of new literary minds urgently needed by the movement . . . Organizing the opposition to the veterans, attacking their prerogatives, showing scant respect for their authority, the critics unleashed a kind of guerrilla war against the Group. What they clearly intended was to reduce the power of the veterans, and maybe they even thought about displacing them completely and themselves taking over the leadership of the movement.

To some extent, the tensions between the Emancipation of Labor Group and the newer generation of young people from Russia were comprehensible. Having conducted a stubborn struggle for Marxist theory, Plekhanov was reluctant to take a chance on allowing the newcomers to participate in literary and theoretical work. The subsequent political evolution of the latter showed that Plekhanov had good grounds for apprehension. On the other hand, Plekhanov was not the easiest individual to work with. His aristocratic aloofness and lack of sensitivity rankled and gave cause for resentment, especially among younger colleagues whose feathers he systematically ruffled. Not for nothing did the young Trotsky, who later also fell foul of the old man, characterize him as maître de tous types de froideur (past master of all shadings of coldness). However, what lay behind this campaign was the egotism of the intelligentsia, aggravated by the usual frustrations, personal conflicts and exaggerations of exile life. On the other hand, the contempt for theory, and demagogic appeals for “practical politics” and “activity” flowed from the arrogance of the intellectuals, which served for a fig leaf to cover up their profound ignorance. Baron summarizes Plekhanov’s views on these people thus:

Their preoccupation with matters of practical administration characterizes them as mere bureaucrats, men lacking in revolutionary passion, and with too narrow a spirit to be able to respond to the grandiose perspectives of the movement.86

As usual, Vera Zasulich attempted to conciliate between Plekhanov and “the youth.” But by the end of 1897, things took a serious turn. Until then, the conflicts between the Union and the Emancipation of Labor Group had been mainly confined to organizational, rather than political questions. But the recent appearance of the journal Rabochaya Mysl’ (Workers’ Thought) brought about a radical change in the situation.


84 Quoted in Wildman, Making of a Worker’s Revolution, 99.

85 Perepiska GV Plekhanova i PB Aksel’roda, 182.

86 Baron, Plekhanov, 254–55.

14) Rabochaya Mysl’

At this stage, it would not be correct to say that the “Economist” deviation already existed as a full-fledged current. But this discussion revealed alarming tendencies and an incipient opportunist trend which gave the “veterans” cause for concern. Their worst fears were confirmed with the appearance of Rabochaya Mysl’, the first issue of which came out in St. Petersburg in October 1887. This expressed the ideas of the new tendency in the most open and crudest fashion. The first issue had clearly laid down the attitude of the journal:

As long as the movement was no more than a means to soothe the conscience-stricken intellectual (!) it was alien to the worker himself . . . the economic base of the movement was obscured by the constant attempt to remember the political ideal . . . The average worker stood outside the movement . . .
The struggle for economic interests was the most stubborn struggle, the most powerful in terms of the numbers of people it was understandable to, and in terms of the heroism with which the ordinary person would defend his rights to existence. Such is the law of nature. Politics always docilely follows economics, and as a general result political shackles are snapped “en route.” The struggle for economic status, (?) the struggle against capital in the field of everyday vital interests and of strikes as a method of this struggle—such is the motto of the workers’ movement.87

The basic idea expressed in these lines is that workers cannot understand and do not need “politics.” The logic of this is that the revolutionary party is an irrelevance. Behind the demagogic advocacy of the independence of the workers from the intellectual leadership is really the independence of the workers from Marxism. The danger implicit in this idea was clear. If the Economists’ arguments were accepted, the party would be dissolved into the politically untutored mass of workers. Already at the meeting between the new leaders of the Petersburg League and Lenin and Martov, when they were released on parole in February 1897, Takhtarev had proposed that delegates of the trade union (Central Workers’ Group) be automatically allowed to participate in the League. Lenin defended the recruiting of workers into the party, but opposed blurring the distinction between the party, representing the most advanced section of the workers, and the broad organizations of the class, particularly at a moment when the party was fighting for its existence under the difficult and dangerous conditions of illegality.

Naturally enough, the Economist trend in general, and Rabochaya Mysl’ in particular, has got an excellent press from the present-day bourgeois critics of Bolshevism, who are willing to indulge in the most barefaced distortions in order to back any and every tendency against Lenin. The gist of the distortion is approximately as follows: the Economists were democratic, in favor of “opening up the party” to the workers, whereas Lenin was a conspiratorial elitist, determined to keep the leadership in the hands of a small clique of intellectuals, dominated by himself. A classic case of this is A.K. Wildman’s book, The Making of a Worker’s Revolution, which is an ill-disguised attempt to use the Economist controversy as a stick to beat Lenin. Unfortunately, “facts are stubborn things.” After searching frantically, Wildman finally discovered that there was actually a worker (just one) on the editorial board of Rabochaya Mysl’. But the leading lights of Rabochaya Mysl’ were all intellectuals from Takhtarev’s group. Most of them ended up as liberals and bitter enemies of socialism, which explains their sympathetic treatment in bourgeois history books. And lo and behold! On page 130 of his book, Wildman is compelled to admit that “despite their control of the leadership, the adherents of Rabochaya Mysl’ failed to bring worker representatives into the Soyuz Bor’by (League of Struggle), in flagrant contradiction of their theoretical commitments.” (My emphasis.)

Nor did the attempt to curry favor with the “masses” by talking down to them meet with much success. A genuinely revolutionary workers’ paper should not merely reflect the current position and consciousness of the workers, but, setting out from the present level of consciousness, should strive to raise it to the level of the tasks posed by history. Alongside agitational articles dealing with the daily lives and problems of workers, it should include more general articles (propaganda) and also some theory. Even such an ardent admirer of Rabochaya Mysl’ as Wildman had to admit that

after a few columns, the endless recitation of “swindles” and “gyps” by the bosses and bully ragging by the shop stewards [i.e., foremen], interspersed with blustering expressions of indignation, become wearisome.88

A worker might buy such a paper once or twice, but then, realizing that it is a mere repetition of what he already knows, that no attempt is made to raise his level of understanding or teach him anything new, would invariably get bored with it and stop reading it. After all, why should one buy a paper that tells you what you already know?

The intellectual theoreticians of Rabochaya Mysl’ who in words put the worker on a pedestal, in practice showed their contempt for the workers by talking down to them in the pages of their journal, which was merely a glorified strike bulletin. In their desire to be “popular” and produce a “mass paper,” the Economists were tail-ending the working class. The fact was shown up during a strike at the big Maxwell and Paul factory in December 1898. The striking workers, faced with brutal police tactics, chose to defend themselves. The workers’ letters that fell into the hands of the Social Democrats showed how much more advanced and revolutionary they were than the Economists were prepared to admit. One woman worker from the Vyborg district wrote:

You don’t know what a shame it was for me and all of us. We didn’t half want to go down the Nevsky Prospect [the main upper-class street in the center of Petersburg] or into the city. It’s really sickening to die in a hole like dogs where no one can even see you . . . And another thing I want to tell you: though they captured lots and lots of us—perhaps there are no more left at all—all the same we will stand fast.

Another worker remarked: “It’s a pity we didn’t have a banner. Another time we’ll get hold of both a banner and pistols.”89 The local Social Democrats welcomed this development, and sent an enthusiastic article to the editors of Rabochaya Mysl’ abroad. The émigré editors appended a statement criticizing the workers for exposing themselves to repression. When the St. Petersburg group received this issue, they were so incensed that they refused to distribute the journal for several months.

In Kremer’s famous pamphlet, On Agitation, the relation between economic agitation and the political struggle is spelled out clearly, when it states that “No matter how broad the workers’ movement is, its success will not be assured until the working class stands solidly on the basis of political struggle,” and that

the attainment of political power is the principal test of the fighting proletariat . . . Thus the task of the Social Democrat consists of constant agitation among the factory workers on the basis of existing petty needs and demands. The struggle provoked by this agitation will train the workers to defend their own interests, heighten their courage, give them assurance of their own powers and an awareness of the necessity for union, and, in the final analysis ultimately confront them with more serious questions demanding a solution. Prepared in this way for a more serious struggle, the working class will move on to the solution of its most pressing questions.

However, the Economists interpreted this in an entirely one-sided manner. Economic agitation and crude “activism” were elevated into a panacea. Revolutionary theory was effectively relegated to an unimportant secondary role. In this way, a correct idea was turned into its opposite, giving rise to the anti-Marxist “theory of stages,” which was later to have such a disastrous effect in the hands of the Mensheviks and Stalinists.

“Political demands,” wrote the Economist Krichevsky, “which in their nature are common to all Russia, must correspond initially to the experience extracted from the economic struggle by a given stratum of workers. It is only on the grounds of this experience that it is possible and necessary to move on to political agitation.”90

These lines express very clearly the opportunist nature of Economism, which flows from the desire to find a short cut to the masses by watering down the program of Marxism and abandoning “difficult” demands alleging that the masses are not ready for them. At bottom, this phenomenon was analogous to the politics of “small deeds” advocated by the liberal Narodniks. It fitted in perfectly with the cowardly opportunism of the Legal Marxists, who themselves really represented the left wing of bourgeois liberalism. Implicit in the ideas of the Economists was the fear of confronting the tsarist authorities, by avoiding political demands and attempting to present the activity of the Social Democrats as a “private affair” between workers and employers on the labor front, leaving the question of the state to others. In reality, the meaning of all the arguments of the Economists was that the Social Democrats should passively adapt themselves to the narrow limits of legality or semilegality offered to them by the tsarist state.

By confining themselves to economic demands they hoped to avoid the wrath of the authorities. In this sense, Economism was the mirror image of the position adopted by Legal Marxism. It was tantamount to abandoning the revolutionary struggle and handing over the leadership of the movement to the liberals. Such a scheme, however, flew in the face of the facts. If the Economists were willing to adopt a hands-off policy in the revolutionary democratic struggle against tsarism, the tsarist state was by no means prepared to stand aloof from the struggle between workers and capitalists. Strike after strike was broken up by the police and Cossacks. Wave after wave of arrests carried off the most active and conscious sections of the workers’ movement.

According to the report of the Bolshevik delegation to the 1904 Amsterdam Congress of the Second International, the average life of a Social Democratic group in Russia at this time was no more than three to four months. The constant wave of arrests carried off the older, more theoretically trained and experienced members, who were replaced by raw, half-prepared youth. This fact was an important element in the rapid rise of the Economist current during the latter half of the 1890s. A party which has such a high turnover, and is obliged to replenish its leadership with a constant influx of inexperienced and theoretically untutored young people, inevitably suffers from a certain ideological dilution and a general lowering of its political level. When the majority of these young people are students and intellectuals, the risk of political degeneration and the influx of alien ideas becomes magnified a thousandfold. A revolutionary party which loses its cadres loses its backbone. Losing its theoretical magnetic North, it is inevitably blown off course. Instead of intervening in the movement of the class in order to provide it with a conscious political direction, such a party is capable only of tail-ending the movement. The Russian Marxists had a graphic word for this tendency: Khvostism (tail-ism). Whereas revolutionary Marxism represents the most conscious thinking part of the working class, Economism and all the other schools of reformism personify a different and opposite part of its anatomy. Economism was never a homogeneous ideological trend.

Despite all the problems and setbacks, the new movement was growing rapidly. Social Democratic groups sprang up in Tver, Arkhangelsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Saratov, Kharkov, Kiev, Yekaterinoslav, Odessa, Tiflis, Batum, Baku, Warsaw, Minsk, Riga, and many other important centers. For the first time one could speak of a genuinely all-Russian Marxist organization. The situation in which these groups were forced to function was, however, not conducive to ideological clarity and organizational cohesion. Contacts between them were difficult, irregular and constantly being disrupted. Arrests frequently led to the disruption of some groups and the emergence of new ones. Under the circumstances the task of establishing a firm and authoritative leadership inside Russia proved well-nigh impossible. Inevitably the local Social Democratic groups tended to have a somewhat limited outlook. The absence of stable links with a national center, the problems created by illegal conditions, and the immaturity and inexperience of the majority of the membership meant that much of the work had a rather local and amateurish character. The Economists’ lack of concern with theory and their narrow insistence on the practical tasks of mass work and agitation was only the other side of the same coin. Possibly, the Economist deviations of a part of the Russian youth could have been put down to a case of ideological measles, were it not for the fact that they coincided with a far more serious international phenomenon.


87 Quoted in F. Dan, Origins of Bolshevism, 217.

88 A.K. Wildman, Making of a Worker’s Revolution, 132.

89 Quoted in Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, 71.

90 Quoted in F. Dan, Origins of Bolshevism, 216 and 218.

15) Bernstein’s Revisionism

On the 50th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto in 1898 Plekhanov was horrified to read in Die Neue Zeit an article by Bernstein, the prominent German Social Democratic leader, which questioned the basic ideas of Marxism. “Why, this is a complete denial both of revolutionary tactics and of communism,” wrote Plekhanov. “Those articles nearly made me ill.” This was only the opening shot in a sustained campaign which Bernstein waged in the German party press in favor of “revising” Marxism. Bernstein argued that Marxism was out of date. The supposedly “modern” theories of the present-day Labour leaders are only clumsy plagiarisms of notions far more ably expressed by Bernstein a hundred years ago.

Among other things, Bernstein argued that the concentration of industrial production was taking place at a much slower pace than had been foreseen by Marx; the great number of small businesses showed the vitality of private enterprise (“small is beautiful,” as they say nowadays!); instead of polarization between workers and capitalists, the presence of numerous intermediate strata means that society is much more complex (“the new middle classes”); in place of “the anarchy of production,” capitalism was capable of being controlled to the extent that crises were less frequent and less severe (Keynesianism and “managed capitalism”); and the working class, apart from being a minority of society, was only interested in the immediate improvement of its material conditions of existence (“upwardly mobile”).

Of course, these ideas did not drop from the sky. They reflected the pressure of a prolonged period of capitalist economic upswing which lasted for nearly two decades, coming to an end with the First World War. This period of relative social calm and also of relative improvements in the living standards of at least the upper layers of the proletariat in Germany, Britain, France, and Belgium gave rise to the illusion that capitalism was well on the way to solving its fundamental contradictions. The rapid growth in power and influence of the workers’ parties and trade unions also spawned a new caste of union officials, parliamentarians, town councillors and party bureaucrats who, in their living conditions and outlook, became progressively removed from the people they were supposed to represent. This stratum, reasonably well-off and lulled by the apparent success of capitalism, provided the social base for revisionism, a petty bourgeois reaction against the storm and stress of the class struggle, a yearning for the creature comforts and the desire for a peaceful and harmonious transition to socialism—in the dim and distant future.

Axelrod’s reaction to Bernstein’s articles in Die Neue Zeit (New Times) was initially more tolerant than Plekhanov, who was outraged by them. In fact, both Axelrod and Zasulich were shaken to the point of demoralization by the controversy. The impressionable Vera Zasulich, in particular, was tormented by doubts. Only Plekhanov remained absolutely firm, rallying his colleagues and launching himself into the fray. His articles against Bernstein and Konrad Schmidt (on philosophy, in defense of dialectical materialism) show Plekhanov at his finest: an indefatigable fighter in defense of the fundamental ideas of Marxism. The most prominent representatives of the left wing of the SPD, Rosa Luxemburg and Parvus, launched a fierce counterattack. But what shocked Plekhanov more than anything else was the reaction of Kautsky.

Generally regarded as the guardian of Marxist orthodoxy par excellence, Kautsky was also a personal friend of Plekhanov. But now he not only permitted the use of Die Neue Zeit—the journal of which he was editor—for this anti-Marxist diatribe, but also he initially refrained from criticizing Bernstein in print. In the light of subsequent history, Kautsky’s silence was significant. For all his scholarly theses on revolution and the class struggle, Kautsky’s Marxism had an abstract, scholastic character. Whereas Plekhanov regarded Bernstein as an enemy to be attacked, unmasked and, if necessary, driven out, Kautsky still saw him as an erring companion, whose theoretical eccentricities ought not to spoil an agreeably friendly relationship. Kautsky’s attitude is clearly revealed in a letter he wrote to Axelrod on March 9, 1898, congratulating him on his articles against Bernstein in the following terms:

I am most interested in your opinion of Eddie. Indeed, I’m afraid we’re losing him . . . However, I have still not given him up as a bad job and I hope that when he enters into personal—if only written—contact with us, then something of the old fighter will return to our Hamlet (sic), and he will once again direct his criticism against the enemy and not against us.91

When finally pushed and prodded by Plekhanov to make a public reply, Kautsky was careful to invest this with the softest possible tone, almost apologizing for taking him up: “Bernstein has obliged us to reconsider things and, for that, we should thank him.” Infuriated by this, Plekhanov wrote an open letter to Kautsky with the title Why Should We Thank Him? in which, among other things, he sharply posed the question: “Who will bury whom? Will Bernstein bury the Social Democracy, or the Social Democracy, Bernstein?”92

While the members of the Emancipation of Labor Group reacted sharply to Bernstein’s attempt to water down the revolutionary teachings of Marx, he had his admirers among the Russians. Before this, the Economist deviations lacked a coherent theoretical content. Now, beginning with the exiles, they eagerly seized on Bernstein’s ideas as a justification for their opportunist tendencies. Although Rabochaya Mysl’ sought to avoid politics like the plague, nevertheless it had a very definite political line—a reformist and antirevolutionary line:

“The development of factory legislation,” it declared, “workers’ insurance, the participation of workers in profits, the development of trade unions will gradually transform capitalist society into socialist society . . . Not the aggravation of poverty of the proletariat, not the aggravation of the conflict between capital and labor, not the aggravation of the internal contradictions of capitalist production will lead to socialism, but rather the growth and development of the strength and influence of the proletariat.93

The ideologues of Rabochaya Mysl’ were students and intellectuals through whom the pressure of the bourgeois-liberals was brought to bear upon the workers’ movement. Their open admiration for Bernstein was no accident. They represented a specific Russian variant of the international phenomenon of revisionism, which in turn was an expression of the interests of the middle-class “progressives” in the West who had drawn close to the workers’ movement when it was clear that the latter had definitely established itself as a powerful social agency and therefore a potential source of jobs, prestige and income. Indeed, from the very earliest days of the German Social Democracy, Engels had continually warned against the pernicious influence of the university “Katheder Sozialisten,” people like Dühring who graciously deigned to offer their services to the labor movement with a view to prodding it along the road of reformist class collaboration.

However, the parallel holds good only within certain limits. The social context in which Economism arose was very different to that in which German revisionism was born and prospered. Just as the Russian bourgeoisie represented a feeble and anemic growth in comparison to mighty German, French, and British capitalism, so the Russian Bernsteinists were very much the poor relations of international opportunism. They had no ideas of their own, other than the shifting fads, moods, and prejudices of the intellectuals. What ideological baggage they possessed was lifted from the Germans and British. Reformism has a material base. Capitalism in Britain, Germany, and France still had a progressive role to play in the development of the productive forces. The period of economic upswing which preceded the First World War, the amelioration of the lot of a section of the masses, and the consequent softening of relations between the classes was the social and economic premise for the rise of Bernsteinite revisionism. But the seeds which prospered in the soil of economic progress in the West proved virtually barren in the harsh and rocky terrain of Russia. Here there was no large labor aristocracy, but a mass of pauperized proletarians, slaving in large-scale industry. Only in one area did the ideas of Economism find the necessary raw material to get an echo in the working class.

With the most experienced leaders now almost all in jail, the level of the average member fell to an extremely low point. The ideas of Economism became widespread in the local committees. The practical consequences of this were seen as early as May Day 1899, when the young group in Petersburg put out a leaflet calling for a ten-hour working day, in contrast to the internationally accepted slogan of the eight-hour day, an action which was denounced in the first issue of Zarya as “a betrayal of international Social Democracy.”94

In order to place the movement in Russia on a firm footing, it was necessary to put an end to this state of affairs. The pressing need for a united party with a stable leadership and, above all, an all-Russian Marxist newspaper, was felt by everyone. Only with the launching of Lenin’s Iskra did the unification of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party become a viable proposition. But before that an attempt was made to launch the Party through a founding congress.


91 Perepiska G.V. Plekhanova i P.B. Aksel’roda, 208–9.

92 Baron, Plekhanov, 238.

93 Quoted in Wildman, Making of a Worker’s Revolution, 141.

94 Quoted in Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895–1903, 262.

16) The First Congress of the RSDLP

At ten o’clock in the morning of March 1, 1898 (March 17, 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 organization, the Bund, such precautions were clearly necessary. Under these conditions, the first and last congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party took place on Russian soil under tsarism. For some years the need for a congress to formalize 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 program 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 organization 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 organization of our party.”95 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 organizations (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 organization 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.”96 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 organized 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 organized 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 organize such a congress under the very noses of the tsarist police. It is a tribute to their organizational 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 organization, independent only in those questions especially relating to the Jewish proletariat.97

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’ organizations 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’ organization, the Bund, however, identified closely with the reformist standpoint of the Economists. The lack of a strong leading center 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 organized earlier and work among them was easier than among the Lithuanians, Poles and Russians. The directing center 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 organizations 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 favor 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.98

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 organization, the Bund, grew up. The jewelers, 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 organization, which hoped to guide (!!) the labor 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 recognize its own interests? The leaders were not certain of this and hesitated to act.99

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 thoroughgoing 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 organizations, and create the most favorable 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, while I was in prison, the Lithuanian Social Democracy did not enter the united Russian Social Democratic Labor Party.100

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 program.”101

A Central Committee of three was elected; it was agreed to issue a manifesto; the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad was recognized 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 fulfillled. 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 organization was smashed.102

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 center inside Russia. The center of gravity of the organization 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.”103 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 center. To the prevailing political confusion was added organizational chaos and amateurish methods of work.


95 Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, 51.

96 Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895–1903, 223.

97 KPSS v rezolyutsiyakh i resheniyakh, vol. 1, 16.

98 O. Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, 25 and 26.

99 Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895–1903, 215.

100 Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, 260.

101 Quoted in KPSS v rezolyutsiyakh i resheniyakh, vol. 1, 17.

102 Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, 265.

103 Trotsky, My Life, 117.

17) Rabocheye Dyelo

Paradoxically, the convening of the First Congress coincided with the lowest ebb of the Group for the Emancipation of Russian Labor. 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 Labor 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 Labor 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 defense 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.”104 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 printshop 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 Labor Group were not political but organizational 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 defense 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 honor 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 Labor 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. Realizing 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 criticized 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.105

Plekhanov now threw himself into the struggle, regardless of whether it would cause a split. His newfound 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 centers from the isolated settlements on the banks of the Yenisey river as sufficient defense 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’106 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 Democrats107 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 organizations, 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 recognize 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 laboring 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.108

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 restatement of the basic ideas of Marx and Engels on the question of the proletariat and its party. The proletariat only gradually begins to realize its historical potential, to become a real force as opposed to an undeveloped potential, to the degree to which it organizes as a class, independent of other classes.

The history of the workers’ movement begins with the unions, the basic organization of the class which were “not only a natural, but also an essential phenomenon under capitalism and . . . an extremely important means for organizing the working class in its daily struggle against capital and for the abolition of wage labor.” 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.”109

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, while 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, fertilizing 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 organization, was the reason why the dominant trend in Social Democracy at this time was based upon a highly centralized conception of organization. The word of the center 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 organization 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 organization 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 center of revolt, Babushkin showed himself able to run an organization unaided.

The general disorganization, together with the baneful influence of Economist ideas, meant that in several areas the organization 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 criticized 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.”110

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 organization renewed itself with new workers who learned in practice to trust their own ability and resourcefulness. A few years later, Lenin forcefully reminded the “committeemen” 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 twentieth 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 organization, 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 organization, 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 Riazanov. Recognizing Riazanov’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 hotchpotch 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. Riazanov 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 organizational neutrality.”111 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. Riazanov later resurfaced as a lecturer at the Capri school of the ultraleft 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, Riazanov 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.


104 LCW, What Is To Be Done? vol. 5, 349.

105 Quoted in Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895–1903.

106 See LCW, vol. 4, 215–21 and 255–96.

107 Ibid., 167–82.

108 The full text of the Credo is reproduced in Lenin’s Collected Works, A protest by Russian Social Democrats, vol. 4, 171–74 (my emphasis).

109 Ibid., 176–77 and 181.

110 Quoted in Wildman, Making of a Worker’s Revolution, 93 and 106.

111 LCW, To P.B. Axelrod, April 25, 1901, vol. 34, 60.

18) The Birth of Iskra

The entry into the struggle of the exiled Russian leaders tipped the balance decisively in favor 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 Labor Group. His fundamental idea was to rebuild 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 favorable 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 Extinguished112—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 behavior 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 behavior 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 Labor 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 Labor” group, that is a close circle of sympathizers (Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich, and Deutsch, who was serving hard labor). 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 labor 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.113

The meeting with Lenin and Potresov revealed just how much the members of the Emancipation of Labor Group were lagging behind the demands of the present stage of the movement. The informal methods, the organizational 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 organization 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 reemerge 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 Labor 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 Labor 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].”114

The Declaration of the Editorial Board of Iskra115 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, Struve, and many others have set the fashion.116

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 defense 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 organizational questions and in his dealings with people. Lenin knew how to value people with talent. Whatever their shortcomings, he endeavored 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 Labor 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.”117 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:118

“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 . . .”119

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.”120

Iskra was so successful because it fulfillled 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 maneuvers 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 center.

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.121

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 Labor Group did not fully grasp the significance of Iskra as a means of organizing the party. They centered 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 Labor 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 organizing 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 organizing 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 utilize 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 learned to pick out the telltale 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 printshops inside Russia, which printed Iskra from the layout sheets smuggled in from abroad. Printshops 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 sympathizers 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.


112 Ibid., 333–49.

113 Trotsky, Political Profiles, 85–87.

114 LCW, How the ‘Spark’ was nearly Extinguished, vol. 4, 348.

115 LCW, vol. 4, 351–56.

116 See Lenin’s initial draft in LCW, Draft of a Declaration of the Editorial Board of Iskra and Zarya, vol. 4, 320–30. Quoted here is LCW, vol. 4, 354–55.

117 Quoted in Trotsky, Lenin.

118 LCW, vol. 1, 333–507.

119 Perepiska GV Plekhanova i PB Aksel’roda, 270.

120 Trotsky, My Life, 171.

121 Iskra, No 7.

19) What Is To Be Done?

At the time of launching Iskra, the party in Russia hardly existed as an organized 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 Organization,” 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 favor 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 organization produced at this time are masterpieces in their own right. The idea of the paper as a collective organizer is brilliantly set forth in such works as Where to Begin, Letter to a Comrade, and What Is To Be Done?122 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 organizer . . . With the aid of the newspaper, and through it, a permanent organization 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 organization of various revolutionary actions.123

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. While correctly polemicizing 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 labor 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].124

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 twenty-four 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 organizing 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 organize 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 realizing 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.125

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 labor movement.126

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 organization, 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 organized. 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.127

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.


122 Where to Begin (LCW, vol. 5, 17–24), Letter to a Comrade (LCW, vol. 6, 235–52) and What Is To Be Done? (LCW, vol. 5, 349–529).

123 LCW, Where to Begin, vol. 5, 22–23.

124 LCW, vol. 5, 375 and 383–84 (my emphasis).

125 LCW, Second Congress of the RSDLP, vol. 6, 491 (my emphasis).

126 Trotsky, Stalin, 58.

127 LCW, vol. 5, 369 (my emphasis) and 384, note.

20) A New Awakening

The turn of the century saw a period of rapid industrial growth in Russia, which served to strengthen further the working class, now numbering nearly three million. Between 1894 and 1902 the number of workers in factories with a workforce of 100–150 went up by 52.8 percent. But in those big factories employing from 500–1,000 workers, the numbers rose by 72 percent. The biggest increase, however, took place in the largest factories, employing more than 1,000 workers, which increased by no less than 141 percent. In the early years of last century, 1,155,000 workers were employed by 458 enterprises. The class composition of the revolutionary movement reflected this profound shift in social relations. In 1884–90, a mere 15 percent of those arrested for political offenses were workers. In 1901–3, 46 percent, almost half, were workers. The statistics of the strike movement illustrate the rapid process of politicization of the working class:

Relative proportion of economic and political strikes in Russia





Political Strikes




Economic Strikes




(Source: Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, 357)

The launching of Iskra coincided with the beginning of a new revolutionary upsurge. The mass demonstrations of the workers of Kharkov on May Day 1900 was the signal for a stormy period of street demonstrations. “The Social Democracy,” wrote the gendarme General Spiridovich, “understood the tremendous agitational significance of going forth into the streets. From then on it took upon itself the initiative for demonstrations, attracting to them an ever greater number of workers. Not infrequently the street demonstrations grew out of strikes.”128

The militant mood which swept through the factories reflected the heightened social tension caused by the effect of the industrial crisis of 1900-1903, when about 3,000 factories were closed and 100,000 workers laid off. Wages were slashed as employers sought to get around the crisis by taking back the gains won in the strikes of the 1890s. As a result, the movement swiftly became politicized and more radical. A defensive strike at the big Obukhov militia factory in St. Petersburg in May 1901 led to a bloody clash with troops when workers fought back with stones and lumps of iron. The courageous fight back of the workers became known as the “Obukhov Defense.” It led to savage reprisals, 800 arrests, and many workers sentenced to hard labor. But it was a clear warning that the movement had reached a new stage, where the workers were prepared to go over onto the offensive and take on the state. Thus, through their own experience of struggle, the workers in action had moved far beyond the pettifogging “theory of stages” of the Economists.

In 1902, a virtual general strike broke out in Rostov-on-Don, with mass meetings of tens of thousands of factory and railway workers. Police and Cossacks were sent in, and workers were killed. Their funerals were turned into political demonstrations. The industrial movement reached a crescendo in 1903, when a wave of political strikes swept the South, affecting Tiflis, Baku, Odessa, Kiev, and Yekaterinoslav. The movement of the working class gave a mighty impulse to the struggles of the peasantry. Peasant revolts flared up in Poltava and Kharkov provinces. 10,000 troops were sent to suppress the risings, but soon the movement had spread to the Central Black Earth region, the Volga, and Georgia. Landlords’ houses went up in flames as the peasants rose and fought back against their tormentors: “The air is heavy with ominous things,” wrote a Voronezh landowner in 1901, “every day we see the glare of fires on the horizon: a bloody mist crawls over the ground.”129

The revolutionary mood rapidly spread to the students. Even such an apparently limited demand as university autonomy took on a revolutionary-democratic character under these circumstances. In order to crush the spirit of the students, the tsarist authorities resorted to the most brutal heavy-handedness, for example, sending dissident students into the army. Tens of thousands were seized on mass demonstrations, but this merely added fuel to the flames. Although the great majority of students were drawn from the upper classes and were close to the liberals in their political outlook, they increasingly looked to the working class as an ally in the struggle against despotism. Many ended up in the ranks of the Social Democracy. In the winter of 1901–2, some 30,000 students took part in a general strike against the government. In its second issue, Iskra called on the workers to “go to the aid of the students.”

Unlike the narrow-minded Economists, who looked askance at the student movement or anything else that went beyond the limits of trade union demands, Lenin understood the revolutionary potential of the movement of the students, despite their overwhelmingly non-proletarian makeup. Zinoviev explained:

Lenin and his supporters, in standing for the hegemony of the proletariat, took the view that if the working class was the leading factor, and if it was the fundamental and basic force of the revolution, it had to take on as assistant auxiliary forces all those who were to any degree inclined towards struggle against autocracy.130

The revolutionary movement of the masses served to awaken the intelligentsia from the slough of despondency. The setting up of the Social Revolutionary Party (SRs) in 1902 marked the reemergence of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie under the banner of Narodnism and terrorism. Bogoplepov, the Minister of Education, was shot at by the student Karpovich. Then Lagovsky shot the dreaded Pobedonostsev. The terrorist moods among the students were themselves a barometer of the developing revolutionary crisis. The Russian Marxists, while sympathizing with the students, did not spare their criticism of the blind alley of individual terrorism. One reactionary minister was replaced with another. The state remained intact, and in fact was strengthened. And the movement suffered increased repression.

The mass unrest gave heart to the liberals who began to make use of the limited powers of self-government afforded to them by the Zemstvo. By the turn of the century many Zemstvos were dominated by the liberals, who attempted to use them as a platform to press their demands on the government. Feeling the ground tremble beneath their feet, the political representatives of the Russian bourgeoisie hesitatingly began to organize. The publication abroad of an illegal liberal journal Osvobozhdenie (Liberation) in 1902 was the first timid step towards the setting up of the future Liberal Party. This event marked the final breach with Marxism of the former Legal Marxist trend of Peter Struve, who now became the editor of Osvobozhdenie. For all its “democratic” phraseology, the liberal bourgeoisie was seeking to do a deal with the autocratic regime for the introduction of a limited constitution. The trouble was that the regime was more inclined to put its trust in the Cossack’s whip than to lean on the liberals, whose ability to control the masses was conspicuous by its absence. However, one section of the government, represented by the Finance Minister, Witte, attempted to lean on the Zemstvos for support. Early in 1901, Witte wrote a confidential memorandum entitled The Autocracy and the Zemstvo, which was published illegally abroad with a preface by none other than Struve.

In his preface, Struve makes clear his complete break with Marxism, adopting instead the role of unpaid and unsolicited adviser to the government. Struve wrote:

No doubt there are men among the higher bureaucracy who do not sympathize (!) with the reactionary policy . . . Perhaps it [the government] will realize, before it is too late, the fatal danger of protecting the aristocratic regime at all costs. Perhaps even before it has to face revolution, it will grow weary of its struggle against the natural and historically necessary development (!) of freedom, and will waver in its “irreconcilable policy”

and so on and so forth.


128 Trotsky, Stalin, 28.

129 N. Levin, op.cit., 282.

130 Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, 66

21) Tensions on the Editorial Board

In his article The Persecutors of the Zemstvo and the Hannibals of Liberalism, Lenin delivered a counterblast to Struve:

There is no place for submissiveness in politics, and the time-honored police method of divide et impera, divide and rule, yield the unimportant in order to preserve the essential, give with one hand and take back with the other, can be mistaken for submission only out of unbounded simplicity (both sacred and sly simplicity).131

The whole content of Lenin’s article is a devastating indictment of liberalism. From the very dawn of the Russian workers’ movement, the attitude to the bourgeois parties was always the keystone of a revolutionary approach. On this question, Lenin always displayed the most implacable intransigence. Significantly, this broadside against Struve and the liberals caused a disagreement within the Editorial Board of Iskra. Plekhanov and Axelrod were taken aback by the sharpness of the polemic. Plekhanov wrote to the latter, expressing his misgivings:

The author’s opinion on the introduction to the memo is quite right, and there is nothing to mitigate this, even though Vera Zasulich would have liked to very much. But his tone towards the liberals and liberalism in Russia is much too malevolent. There is a great deal of justice in what he says about our liberals, but it is no good maltreating them as he does. And one more thing. It is important that you should read carefully the passage dealing with the importance of Zemstvo work. You are our most perspicacious tactician and it is for you to judge whether the author is right. I have an idea that something is wrong here.132

Reluctantly, Lenin inserted a conciliatory paragraph at the end. Nevertheless, the general thrust of the article is quite clear: that the bourgeois liberals had amply demonstrated their cowardice and impotence, and, lacking power themselves, had to resort to pleading with the autocracy for concessions, unscrupulously utilizing the threat of revolution from below; that they would inevitably sell out for the sake of a rotten compromise with the government, which would then decoy them with false promises, “only to take them by the scruff of the neck and thrash them with the whip of reaction. And when that happens, gentlemen, we will not forget to say, serves you right!” The row over Lenin’s article, with the wisdom of hindsight, was not an accident. Despite Plekhanov’s criticisms of Struve, there was a tendency among the members of the Emancipation of Labor Group which did not see the need for a radical break with that layer of bourgeois intellectuals of the Legal Marxist trend which was now clearly traveling to the right, with one foot firmly in the camp of bourgeois liberalism. Half jokingly, Lenin and Krupskaya nicknamed Zasulich and Potresov the “Struvefreundliche Partei,” which can be loosely translated as the “be-nice-to-Struve Tendency.”

Old habits die hard. If we leave aside Plekhanov, who, for all his faults, was a giant, the other members of the old group found it increasingly difficult to adapt to the new situation. In general, it takes leaders of a very special type to be able to make the necessary transition from one historical epoch, with its particular demands, to another completely different period. Not accidentally, each period of transition tends to be accompanied by crisis and splits in which a certain layer, unable to adapt to the changed conditions, falls by the wayside. The creation of a mass workers’ party is incompatible with the amateurish and informal methods which characterize the initial period of propaganda activity. The need for a more professional approach was one of the central themes of Lenin’s writings at this time. “Organizing the work on a businesslike footing without introducing any personal element into it, and thus ensuring that caprice or personal relations associated with the past would not influence decisions,” wrote Krupskaya, “had now become an obvious need.”133

The tendencies of localism and amateurism which prevailed in many committees were holding back the work at a time when big possibilities were opening up. There could be no room for tendencies which sought to compromise and conciliate and perpetuate this mess. Iskra’s message, based on the need to fight for Marxist theory, for a unified party, for a professional approach to the work, struck a responsive chord among the workers, although by the end of 1901 there were only nine Iskra agents in the whole of Russia, and the tendency was still in a minority. Many members of local committees were skeptical or even hostile at first. Thus at the Second Congress one of the delegates remarked:

I recall the article Where to Begin? in No. 3 or 4 of Iskra. Many of the comrades active in Russia found it a tactless article; others thought this plan was fantastic, and the majority attributed it solely to ambition. Then I remember the bitterness shown towards Iskra by a majority of the committees: I remember a whole series of splits . . .134

The Iskra tendency was gradually built up by patient work around the paper itself. Starting as a monthly, Iskra later appeared every two weeks. Slowly but surely, a network was built up of worker-correspondents in the factories and workers’ districts, for the distribution of the paper, the systematic collection of funds, the link-up with different organizations, and the establishment of a periphery of sympathizers. A key role in this work was the steadily growing number of Iskra agents, men and women who dedicated themselves entirely to revolutionary work. Under difficult and dangerous conditions in the underground they undertook the task of building the tendency inside Russia, maintaining stable contact with the center abroad, organizing the illegal transportation of literature, establishing underground print-shops, etc. Commenting on this period in which he played an active role within the Iskra camp, Trotsky gives a vivid picture of the work and lifestyle of these agents:

The immediate task of Iskra was to select from among the local workers the persons of greatest stamina and to use them in the creation of a central apparatus capable of guiding the revolutionary struggle of the entire country. The number of Iskra adherents was considerable, and it was constantly growing. But the number of genuine Iskrovites, of trusted agents of the foreign center, was of necessity limited; it did not exceed 20 to 30 persons. Most characteristic of the Iskrovite was his severance from his own city, his own government [this appears to be a mistranslation of the Russian word gubyema meaning “administrative region”], his own province, for the sake of building the party. In the Iskra dictionary, “localism” was a synonym for backwardness, narrowness, almost for regression. “Welded with a compact conspiratory group of professional revolutionists,” wrote the Gendarme General Spiridovich, “they traveled from place to place, wherever there were party committees, established contacts with their members, delivered illegal literature to them, helped establish print shops and gathered the information needed by the Iskra. They penetrated into local committees, carried on their propaganda against Economism, eliminated their ideological opponents, and in this way subjected the committees to their influence.” The retired gendarme here gives a sufficiently correct characterization of the Iskrovites. They were members of a wandering order, above the local organizations which they regarded as an arena for the exercise of their influence.135

The first three centers for the distribution of Iskra were the Southern (Poltava), the Northern (Pskov) and the Eastern (Samara). These were later joined by the central (Moscow). The tendency was built up around the paper, according to Lenin’s theory of “the paper as organizer,” establishing a network of worker-correspondents in the factories, for distribution, the writing of articles, collection of funds, link-up with different organizations, and the cultivation of a local periphery of contacts. The paper was the focal point of all the work of the tendency. The period of disorganization and chaos was reflected in a proliferation of local newspapers and leaflets. Iskra was a powerful force for unification, bringing together local committees all over Russia and providing them with a stable link with the leading center abroad. The work began of systematically conquering the committees inside Russia for the Iskra tendency. It was work fraught with difficulties. Not only did Iskra agents have to evade the ever vigilant state police, but they sometimes had a battle on their hands just to gain admittance to the committees.

Modern bourgeois historians falsely accuse Iskra of maneuvering to gain control. But it was the Economists who, completely unable to defend their ideas against Marxist criticism, resorted to bureaucratic methods to silence their opponents. The Economist leader in the St. Petersburg committee, Tokarev, was so zealous in his expulsions of anyone who sympathized with Iskra that he earned the nickname of Vishibalo (the Bouncer). The upsurge of the revolutionary movement provided a fertile ground for the spread of Iskra’s ideas; in many areas, the struggle for influence within the committees led to splits. Invariably, however, the anti-Iskra committees tended to wither away and disappear, while the number of viable Iskra committees continued to grow. The success of Iskra did not escape the attention of the police. Towards the end of 1901 and early 1902, a large number of Iskra agents were arrested. But the setback did not halt the tendency’s advance.


131 LCW, Vol. 5, 70.

132 Perepiska GV Plekhanova i PB Aksel’roda, 270.

133 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 67.

134 1903, Minutes of the Second Congress of the RSDLP, 181.

135 Trotsky, Stalin, 39.

22) The Economists in Retreat

The main base which remained to the Economists of the Rabocheye Dyelo tendency was the émigré “Union of Social Democrats Abroad.” An attempt to achieve unity on a principled basis, after a unification conference in early 1901, broke down, and the Iskra supporters finally withdrew from the Union in September, setting up the “League of Revolutionary Social Democrats Abroad” the following month. The Economists of the Union of Social Democrats Abroad, seeing the situation in Russia slip out of their hands, decided to launch a pre-emptive strike by hastily convening a Party Congress, which they hoped might give them an advantage.

The Rabocheye Dyelo supporters linked up with the Bund which, apart from its general support for Economism, had another axe to grind. It was demanding, not just autonomy within the party, but the exclusive right to speak in the name of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party—set up at the First Congress, but properly organized in 1903—on Jewish affairs. This led to a head-on clash with Iskra who, as Krupskaya says, considered that “such tactics were suicidal for the Jewish proletariat. The Jewish workers could never be victorious single-handed. Only by merging their forces with the proletariat of the whole of Russia could they become strong.”136

In order to prevent Iskra from calling a congress, at which they knew they would be in a minority, the Economists and the Bund resorted to a maneuver. At the end of March 1902, they convened the so-called Byelostok congress. The idea was to exclude Iskra, but the patently unrepresentative nature of the gathering (there was, in fact, less representation than even at the First Congress), meant that the fiction could not be maintained. Furthermore, Iskra got to hear about the meeting and sent a representative, Fyodr Dan, who turned up uninvited and succeeded in compelling those present to drop the idea of calling it a congress, to designate it instead as a conference, and to elect an organizing committee for a congress. Shortly afterwards, the majority of the conference delegates were arrested, together with two members of the Organizing Committee (OC). After that, the entire work of convening the congress fell to Iskra. At a new congress held at Pskov in November 1902, a new OC was formed, this time with a majority of Iskra supporters. The preparations for the Second Congress now began in earnest.

The task faced by Iskra was quite formidable. Transportation of the paper was itself a nightmare. It travelled to Russia in double-bottomed suitcases, in book bindings, with sailors, with students, via Marseilles, Stockholm, Rumania, Persia, and even Egypt. Large numbers were lost en route. Krupskaya estimated that not more than one-tenth got through. The correspondence with the interior was haphazard. Often Iskra agents failed to maintain regular contact with the center in London, which at times drove Lenin to distraction. Even when the letters arrived, the problems did not cease. Addresses were frequently illegible or out of date. Ciphered messages could not be read because the milk or lemon juice in which they were written had faded. And the work was frequently set back by arrests. Despite all the problems, Iskra registered a steady advance. The publication of a regular fortnightly journal was the key to Iskra’s success. Unlike the amateurish local papers of its rivals, Iskra was professionally written and produced. Professionalism was the hallmark of all Iskra’s work. Not for nothing did Lenin lay stress on the importance of this in What Is To Be Done?.The successes of Iskra in Russia enormously enhanced the authority of the Editorial Board in London, which acted as the centre from which came not only theoretical guidance but also practical directives. But, unseen by the membership, there were serious and growing tensions among the leading figures of Iskra. As the preparations for the congress advanced and the decisive date grew nearer, so these contradictions assumed an increasingly unbearable character. The great bulk of the work rested on the shoulders of Lenin and his wife, Nadyezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya. Lenin was de facto editor and the dedicated and tireless Krupskaya performed wonders in organizational work, maintaining a huge correspondence with the interior. This was an important element in Iskra’s success. There were other dedicated people, like Blumenfeld, Iskra’s printer: “He was an excellent compositor and a fine comrade,” wrote Krupskaya. “He was very enthusiastic about his work . . . He was a comrade upon whom one could absolutely rely. Whatever he undertook, he did.”

Martov played an important role on the literary front. Plekhanov was a theoretical giant. But in practice the other older members of Plekhanov’s group played little or no role. Accustomed to decades of life in small émigré circles, characterized by extreme informality, where personalities loomed large and at times overshadowed politics, the old-timers were increasingly out of their depth in the new situation. The Emancipation of Labor Group members placed great store in the organizing abilities of Deutsch, but when he finally came to London, it soon became clear that the long years of exile had left their mark. After a short time in London, Deutsch had second thoughts and went back to the more convivial surroundings among the Paris exiles, leaving Lenin to shoulder the burden of preparing the Congress. Krupskaya recalls the situation in the hectic months of activity leading up to the Second Congress:

Actually, the entire work of the Organizing Committee and preparing the Congress lay on the shoulders of Vladimir Ilyich. Potresov was ill; his lungs could not stand the London fogs and he was under treatment somewhere. Martov was wearied by London and its secluded life and had gone to Paris where he was stranded.137

The six-strong Editorial Board (Lenin, Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich, Martov, and Potresov) was frequently the scene of bitter arguments. In the run-up to the Congress, there was a running battle between Lenin and Plekhanov over the draft programs each had drawn up. In an atmosphere of heightened tension, the tone of the discussion often became heated. When, in January 1902, Plekhanov presented his draft program, Lenin and Martov raised some criticisms, which Plekhanov, as usual, took as a personal insult. When it was proposed that the draft be voted on, point by point, his response was to walk out of the meeting. Subsequently, Lenin produced an alternative draft, which was discussed in a tense atmosphere. There were angry scenes, threats, and ultimatums. Krupskaya’s description of this meeting provides a vivid picture of the inner workings of the Iskra Editorial Board at this time:

The party program was being prepared for the Congress. Plekhanov and Axelrod attacked parts of the draft program which Lenin had drawn up. Vera Zasulich did not agree with Lenin on all points, but neither did she agree entirely with Plekhanov. Axelrod also agreed with Lenin on some points. The meeting was a painful one. Vera Zasulich wanted to argue with Plekhanov, but he looked so forbidding, staring at her with his arms folded on his chest, that she was thrown off her balance. The discussion had reached the voting stage. Before the voting took place, Axelrod, who agreed with Lenin on this point, said he had a headache and wanted to go for a walk. Vladimir Ilyich was terribly upset. To work like that was impossible. The discussion was so unbusinesslike.138

The initial disagreement concerned Plekhanov’s formula that, in Russia, capitalism was “becoming the dominant form of production.” Lenin countered with the phrase “has already become dominant.” At first sight, this is only a nuance. But nevertheless, it is a nuance which, in Lenin’s draft, emphasizes the maturity of objective conditions in Russia for the leading role of the proletariat. “And if capitalism has still not become the dominant form,” Lenin objected, “then should we not, perhaps, postpone the Social Democratic movement?”

Lenin’s insistence upon this point, and Plekhanov’s reluctance to concede it, strikingly illustrate the different psychological and political makeup of the two men: Lenin, the revolutionary realist, impatient with abstract formulae, always ready to draw bold practical conclusions and seeking a concrete, revolutionary application for theory; and Plekhanov, whose immensely talented and subtle intellect was not complemented by a revolutionary instinct and was thrown off balance by the demands of the living movement. Plekhanov’s formulations, as general statements of principle, had played a progressive role in the struggle against Narodnism, but were out of place in the new stage of the class struggle in Russia. Lenin complained that Plekhanov’s draft was not a guide to revolutionary action, but a textbook for students “and first year students at that, to whom one talks of capitalism in general and as yet not of Russian capitalism.”139

The essence of the disagreement, however, revolved not so much on fundamentals, but on a different approach to the work and a different conception of the role of the program. There was something abstract about Plekhanov’s draft, which Lenin found too academic and insufficiently concrete. It was the voice of the exiled propagandist, and not the rallying cry of a new mass revolutionary party. On Plekhanov’s side there was undoubtedly an element of spite in his attacks on Lenin, which contained phrases, as Martov complained, which he normally reserved for political enemies. Lenin’s draft was covered by Plekhanov with double underlinings, exclamation marks, sarcastic comments about style, and so on.

Relations between Lenin and Plekhanov were near a breaking point. Having patiently submitted to the indignities of Plekhanov’s behavior for the sake of unity, Lenin’s nerves were strained to the utmost: “Of course,” he commented bitterly, “I am no more than a ‘horse,’ one of the horses of the coachman Plekhanov, but the fact is that even the most patient horse will throw an over-demanding rider.”140 At one stage, Lenin considered “going public,” taking his differences with Plekhanov to the membership, but eventually drew back, realizing the damage such a split would cause on the eve of the Congress. Nevertheless, the bitter experience of these interminable wrangles gradually convinced Lenin of the impossibility of continuing on the old basis. He wrote to Axelrod at the end of March:

I very much fear that, in the absence of a new makeup in those voting, in the absence of a form of agreement about how exactly we vote, and who votes, and what significance should be given to the vote, our Zurich congress will once more solve nothing.141

The combination of an excessive burden of work, worries about the continual difficulties of communicating with Russia, and the strain of conflict on the Editorial Board undermined Lenin’s health. He developed a complaint known as “holy fire,” involving inflammation of the nerve ends of the back and chest. Lenin and Krupskaya did not even have a guinea to consult an English doctor, and he had to submit to a painful home treatment. On arrival in Geneva, Lenin broke down completely and had to spend two weeks in bed just on the eve of the Congress. Only the pressure of Axelrod and Zasulich induced Plekhanov to back down and apologize. In the end, a compromise was arrived at, but the incident served to bring to a head the intolerable position of the Editorial Board. Zasulich and Martov usually acted as conciliators between Lenin and Plekhanov. Martov, an outstandingly talented individual, had come from the interior, like Lenin. But his temperament and lifestyle drew him closer to Zasulich and the others.

Zasulich, Martov, and Alexeyev shared a bohemian existence in a kind of commune, ironically styled “the Den” by the fastidious Plekhanov. Krupskaya and others have left a vivid picture of Vera Zasulich shut up in her room, agonizing over an article while chain-smoking and living on endless cups of strong black coffee. “I regarded Martov as a rather charming type of bohemian with something of the eternal student about his appearance,” wrote Lunacharsky, “by predilection a haunter of cafes, indifferent to comfort, perpetually arguing and a bit of an eccentric.”142 Lenin always retained a high regard for Martov’s intellectual qualities. Indeed, Martov represents one of the most tragic figures in the history of the Russian revolutionary movement. As Trotsky wrote:

A talented writer, a resourceful politician, a penetrating mind and a graduate of the school of Marxism, Martov will nevertheless enter the history of the workers’ revolution as an enormous minus. His thought lacked courage, his incisiveness lacked will. Tenacity was no substitute. It destroyed him . . . A revolutionary instinct doubtless lay in Martov. His first reaction to great events always revealed a revolutionary aspiration. But after every such effort his thought not being sustained by the mainspring of willpower disintegrated and sank back. This would be observed at the first glimpses of the waves of revolution . . .143

The sensation on the part of the older members that they were slipping behind gave rise to an ill-concealed resentment against Lenin. Axelrod resented the fact that Iskra was based in London, not Switzerland, and so on. The work of the Editorial Board was hampered by the fact that the six members frequently split into two equal groups. Lenin was desperately looking for a capable young comrade from Russia to co-opt onto the Editorial Board in order to break the deadlock. The appearance of Trotsky, recently escaped from Siberia, was eagerly seized upon by Lenin in order to make the change. Trotsky, then only 22 years old, had already made a name for himself as a Marxist writer, hence his party name Pero (the Pen). In the earliest editions of her memoirs of Lenin, Krupskaya gives an honest description of Lenin’s enthusiastic attitude to Trotsky, the “young eagle.” Since these lines have been cut out of all subsequent editions, we quote them here in full:

Both the hearty recommendations of the “young eagle” and this first conversation made Vladimir Ilyich pay particular attention to the new-comer. He talked with him a great deal and went on walks with him.

Vladimir Ilyich questioned him as to his visit to the Yuzhny Rabochii [the Southern Worker, which adopted a vacillating position between Iskra and its opponents]. He was well pleased with the definite manner in which Trotsky formulated the position. He liked the way Trotsky was able immediately to grasp the very substance of the differences and to perceive through the layers of well-meaning statements their desire, under the guise of a popular paper, to preserve the autonomy of their own little group.

Meanwhile, the call came from Russia with increased insistence for Trotsky to be sent back. Vladimir Ilyich wanted him to remain abroad and to help in the work of Iskra.

Plekhanov immediately looked on Trotsky with suspicion: he saw in him a supporter of the younger section of the Iskra editorial board (Lenin, Martov, Potresov), and a pupil of Lenin. When Vladimir Ilyich sent Plekhanov an article of Trotsky’s, he replied, “I don’t like the pen of your Pen.” “The style is merely a matter of acquisition,” replied Vladimir Ilyich, “but the man is capable of learning and will be very useful.”144

In March 1903, Lenin formally requested the inclusion of Trotsky as a seventh member of the Editorial Board. In a letter to Plekhanov, he wrote:

I am submitting to all members of the Editorial Board a proposal to co-opt “Pero” as a full member of the Board. (I believe that for co-option not a majority but a unanimous decision is needed.)

We are very much in need of a seventh member both because it would simplify voting (six being an even number) and reinforce the Board.

“Pero” has been writing in every issue for several months now. In general he is working for Iskra most energetically, delivering lectures (and with tremendous success), etc. For our department of topical articles and items he will be not only very useful but quite indispensable. He is unquestionably a man of more than average ability, convinced, energetic, and promising. And he could do a good deal in the sphere of translation and popular literature.

We must draw in young forces: this will encourage them and prompt them to regard themselves as professional writers. And that we have too few of such is clear—witness 1) the difficulty of finding editors of translations; 2) the shortage of articles reviewing the internal situation, and 3) the shortage of popular literature. It is in the sphere of popular literature that “Pero” would like to try his hand.

Possible arguments against: 1) his youth; 2) his early (perhaps) return to Russia; 3) a pen (without quotation marks) with traces of feuilleton style, too pretentious, etc.

Ad 1) “Pero” is suggested not for an independent post, but for the Board. In it he will gain experience. He undoubtedly has the “intuition” of a Party man, a man of our trend; as for knowledge and experience these can be acquired. That he is hardworking is likewise unquestionable. It is necessary to co-opt him so as finally to draw him in and encourage him . . .145

However, Plekhanov, guessing that Trotsky would support Lenin, placing him in a minority, angrily vetoed the proposal. “Soon after,” adds Krupskaya, “Trotsky went to Paris, where he began to advance with remarkable success.”146

These lines by Lenin’s lifelong companion are all the more remarkable for having been written in 1930, when Trotsky was expelled from the Party, living in exile in Turkey, and under a total ban inside the Soviet Union. Only the fact that Krupskaya was Lenin’s widow saved her from Stalin’s wrath, at least for the time being. Later on she was forced by intolerable pressure to bow her head and accept, passively, the distortion of the historical record, though to the end she steadfastly refused to join in the chorus of glorification of Stalin, who, in the pages of her biography, plays a minimal role—which, in truth, reflects the real situation.

The experiences of the past three years showed the need to put the Party on a new footing. It was necessary to effect a decisive break with the past, to put an end to the small circle mentality, amateurism, organizational looseness and lay the basis for a strong, unified mass workers’ party. In view of the harm done by localism and the need to adapt to difficult underground conditions, Lenin laid heavy stress upon the need for centralism.

The forthcoming congress would have to elect a leadership in a situation where the most important political leaders were in exile. The interior clearly had to be represented on the leading bodies, but Lenin opposed the idea of the Iskra Editorial Board—which was entirely responsible for rebuilding the Party—relinquishing the leadership. Trotsky, who, as we have seen, had only recently escaped from Siberia, was surprised by Lenin’s formulation: “I arrived abroad with the belief that the Editorial Board should be made subordinate to the Central Committee. That was the prevailing attitude of the majority of Iskra followers.

“It can’t be done,” objected Lenin. “The correlation of forces is different. How can they guide us from Russia? No, it can’t be done. We are the stable center, we are stronger in ideas, and we must exercise the guidance from here.”147

No one suspected that at the longed-for Second Congress the Iskra camp would split precisely on the question of the leading bodies.


136 Krupskaya, O Vladimirye Ilyiche, 1924 edition, Vol. 1, 89.

137 Ibid., 63 (footnote) and 88.

138 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 67.

139 Leninskiy Sbornik, vol. 2, 65 and 84.

140 Leninskiy Sbornik, vol. 3, 395.

141 Pis’ma PB Aksel’roda i YO Martova, 60.

142 A.V. Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes, 132–33.

143 Trotsky, Political Profiles, 97–98

144 Krupskaya, O Vladimirye Ilyiche, vol. 1, 85–86

145 LCW, To G.V. Plekhanov. March 2, 1903, vol. 43, 110–11

146 Krupskaya, O Vladimirye Ilyiche, 1924 edition, vol. 1, 86.

147 Trotsky, My Life, 157.

23) The Second Congress

The winter of 1902–3 saw “a desperate struggle of tendencies”148 but gradually the political and organizational superiority of Iskra won the day. Committee after committee declared for the congress. Only a few expressed reservations. Yuzhny Rabochii criticized Iskra for its harsh treatment of the liberals. In desperation, the followers of Rabocheye Dyelo attempted to split a series of local committees, inciting the workers against “intellectuals.” Unfortunately, errors and clumsiness by Iskra supporters played into the hands of the opposition in some areas. In St. Petersburg, they allowed the rabochedeltsy to reverse the decision to support the congress. This, however, proved to be only a hiccup. By the time the congress was convened, only one committee, Voronezh, decided to stay away.

The congress finally convened on the July 17, 1903 in Brussels, where its first 13 sessions were held. The attentions of the police forced the Congress to move to London where it reconvened as an anglers’ club, periodically changing the venue to different workers’ meeting places to avoid detection. At the First Congress, the movement in the interior had been represented by only five local committees. The present gathering could now claim to represent several thousand members, with influence over hundreds of thousands of workers. The majority of delegates were young, mostly under 30 years old. Lenin, at 33, was already a veteran. The rapid pace of revolutionary events in Russia was a forcing house for the development of the young cadres of Marxism. Only the former members of Plekhanov’s Emancipation of Labor Group stood out as the representatives of an older revolutionary generation, belonging to a different epoch, almost a different world.

The conditions for acceptance as a delegation was a minimum of 12 months’ existence as an active organization. Several local committees (Voronezh, Samara, Poltava, Kishinev) were not invited because they did not fulfilll this condition. There were 43 delegates with 51 full votes. Partly because in many areas there was more than one local committee, every delegation was given two full votes, whether or not there were more than one delegate present. The Central Committee of the Bund was given three votes (one for the Bund’s foreign organization), and the two Petersburg organizations, one vote each. In addition, there were 14 people present with a consultative vote, including two representatives of the Polish and Lithuanian Social Democracy who arrived during the tenth session.

A great deal of time was taken up with the question of the place of the Bund in the party. This debate was of crucial importance in clarifying the Marxist attitude towards the national question. The historic significance of this can be gauged by the fact that without a clear position on the national question, the Russian Revolution could never have been successful. In The History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky gives a succinct definition of the Bolshevik position on the national question:

Lenin early learned the inevitability of this development of centrifugal national movements in Russia, and for many years stubbornly fought—most particularly against Rosa Luxemburg—for that most famous paragraph of the old party program which formulated the right of self-determination—that is, to complete separation as states. In this the Bolshevik Party did not by any means undertake an evangel of separation. It merely assumed an obligation to struggle implacably against every form of national oppression, including the forcible retention of this or that nationality within the boundaries of the general state. Only in this way could the Russian proletariat gradually win the confidence of the oppressed nationalities.

But that was only one side of the matter. The policy of Bolshevism in the national sphere had also another side, apparently contradictory to the first, but in reality supplementing it. Within the framework of the party, and the workers’ organizations in general, Bolshevism insisted upon a rigid centralism, implacably warring against every taint of nationalism which might set the workers one against the other or disunite them. While flatly refusing to the bourgeois state the right to impose compulsory citizenship, or even a state language, upon a national minority, Bolshevism at the same time made it a verily sacred task to unite, as closely as possible, by means of voluntary class discipline, the workers of different nationalities. Thus it flatly rejected the national federation principle in building the party. A revolutionary organization is not the prototype of the future state, but merely the instrument for its creation. An instrument ought to be adapted to fashioning the product; it ought not to include the product. Thus a centralized organization can guarantee the success of a revolutionary struggle—even where the task is to destroy the centralized oppression of nationalities.149

The Bund had played an important role in the early days of the movement, which earned it considerable prestige and enabled it to exercise a decisive influence on the First Congress, where it entered the RSDLP on the basis of autonomy. The weakness of the Russian Social Democracy meant that the Bund, in practice, led an independent existence up to the Second Congress, developing strong nationalist tendencies. At the Second Congress, the Bundists in effect spoke as an independent party, which was only prepared to enter the RSDLP on a loose, federal basis, which would have meant the legalization of separate organizations of the Jewish workers. Lieber, the Bundist spokesman, justified this on the grounds of the special position of the Jewish workers, suffering not only from class oppression but also racial oppression, which Russian workers would not have the same degree of interest in combating. Answering Lieber, Martov said:

Underlying this draft is the presumption that the Jewish proletariat needs an independent political organization to represent its national interests among the Social Democrats of Russia. Independently of the question of organizing the party on the principle of federation or that of autonomy, we cannot allow that any section of the party can represent the group, trade or national interests of any sections of the proletariat. National differences play a subordinate role in relation to common class interests. What sort of organization would we have if, for instance, in one and the same workshop, workers of different nationalities thought first and foremost of the representation of their national interest?150

Of course, on purely practical grounds, it would be possible to give a certain degree of autonomy to national groups within the party. This would, however, be of a purely technical character, arising from the need, for example, to publish material in the different languages of the groups concerned. There would have been no objections to the Bund enjoying the necessary autonomy to produce Party literature in Yiddish and conducting agitation among the Jewish workers and artisans with special material, etc. But what the Bund demanded was the exclusive right to speak in the name of the Jewish proletariat and, in effect, to have a monopoly of Jewish affairs within the Party. When the Bund’s pretensions were decisively rejected, its delegates abandoned the Congress. They were soon followed by the other representatives of the right wing, the Economists Martynov and Akimov, who were present as representatives of the émigré Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad, who walked out when the Congress recognized the rival League of Revolutionary Social Democrats as sole representatives of the party abroad. These walkouts decisively changed the balance of forces at the Congress.

Over the years, the events of this Congress have been heavily overlaid with a crust of myths, inventions and downright falsehoods. Here, it is alleged, Bolshevism emerged, fully clad and armed, like Pallas Athene from the head of Zeus. Yet closer examination reveals that the split between “Bolsheviks” (“majority-ites”) and “Mensheviks” (“minority-ites”), or more accurately between “hards” and “softs” in 1903 was by no means final but only an anticipation of future differences.

The Iskra group, in theory, had a clear majority with 33 votes. The open opponents of Iskra held eight votes—three Economists and five Bundists. The remaining votes were held by indecisive, wavering elements, whom Lenin later characterized as the “center” or “the marsh.” At first, everything seemed to be going smoothly for the Iskraites. There was complete unanimity in the Iskra camp on all political questions. Then suddenly everything started to change. During the 22nd session, when the Congress had been going on for two weeks, differences between Lenin and Martov began to surface. The crystallization of two trends within the Iskra camp was quite unforeseen. There had been tensions, of course, but nothing that would seem to justify a split. On a number of secondary issues (role of the Organizing Committee, the Bor’ba group, Yuzhny Rabochii).151 it became clear that some of Iskra’s supporters had voted with the right wing and the “marsh.” But these things seemed to be mere anecdotes. On all the important questions, the Iskra camp remained united. But suddenly, the unity was broken by an open clash between Lenin and Martov on an organizational issue.

The first clause of the party rules dealt with the question: “Who is a member?” Lenin’s draft reads as follows: “A member of the RSDLP is one who accepts its program and supports the Party both financially and by personal participation in one of the party organizations.” Martov opposed this clause and moved as an alternative that a member was somebody who accepted the program, and supported the Party financially and “ gives the party his regular personal cooperation under the direction of one of the party organizations.” On the face of it, there is only a slight difference between the two formulas. In fact, the real significance of the difference only became clear later. “The differences were still intangible,” Trotsky recalled, “everybody was merely groping about and working with impalpable things.”152 But behind Martov’s proposal was a certain “softness,” a conciliatory attitude which amounted to the blurring of differences between members and sympathizers, between revolutionary activists and fellow travellers. At the moment when all the energies of Iskra should have been concentrated on combating the old anarchistic formlessness and circle mentality, Martov’s position represented a big step back. Small wonder that it led to a sharp struggle in the Iskra camp on and off the floor of the Congress. In the months and years after the Congress, a whole mythology has been constructed about this incident. It is alleged that Lenin stood for dictatorial centralism and a small conspiratorial party, whereas Martov’s aim was a broad-based, democratic party which would allow the workers to participate. Both ideas are completely false.

To begin with, all the Iskra supporters were agreed upon the need for a strong, centralized party. That was one of the main arguments against the Bund’s national-federalism, in which Martov and Trotsky played the main role. Immediately prior to the discussion on Clause One, Martov is quoted in the Minutes as saying: “I would recall to Comrade Lieber that our organizational principle is not broad autonomy but strict centralization.” Incidentally, the Bund itself was a highly centralized organization. Its alleged opposition to centralism only applied to the party as a whole, and reflected nothing more than an unscrupulous defense of its own sectional interests. As to the demagogic argument that Martov’s formula was intended to “open the party to the workers,” that, too, is a misrepresentation. At the outset of the debate Axelrod let the cat out of the bag with the following example, which really revealed what was behind the proposal:

And, indeed, let us take for example a professor who regards himself as a Social Democrat and declares himself as such. If we adopt Lenin’s formula we shall be throwing overboard a section of those who, even if they cannot be directly admitted to an organization are nevertheless members . . . We must take care not to leave outside the party ranks people who consciously, though perhaps not very actively, associate themselves with that Party.153

The working class and its organizations do not exist in a vacuum, but are surrounded by other social classes and groups. The pressure of alien classes, of bourgeois public opinion, and especially the pressure of the intermediate layers, the middle class, the intellectuals who surround the workers’ organizations, is ever present. The demands of these layers that the workers should adapt their program, methods and organizational structure to suit the prejudices and interests of the petty bourgeoisie are a constant pressure. A long period of very close coexistence with the radicalized middle class in the person of the Legal Marxists had left its stamp on the consciousness of the older members of the Emancipation of Labor Group. They moved among social strata divorced from the working class, formed personal friendships with the radicalized quasi-Marxist university professors, lawyers, and doctors who helped them with financial donations and words of encouragement, but were not prepared to dirty their hands with practical revolutionary work. “I support your aims, but to come out openly as a socialist would be inconvenient and risky. Think of my job, my position, my career prospects,” and so on. Unconsciously, or perhaps semiconsciously, Axelrod, Zasulich, and Martov were acting as the spokesmen for this social stratum, the transmission belt for the pressures of alien classes upon the workers’ party.

Plekhanov was placed in a difficult position by this split, in which his friends and lifelong colleagues were ranged against him. For the first time in her life, Vera Zasulich openly stood up to her mentor. It must have been a shock, but to Plekhanov’s credit, he stood up against the pressure at the Congress. All his revolutionary instinct told him that Lenin was in the right. In the course of debate he pitilessly demolished the arguments of Axelrod and Martov:

According to Lenin’s draft, only someone who joins a particular organization can be regarded as a Party member. Those who oppose his draft say that this will cause unnecessary difficulties. But what do these difficulties consist of? They talk of persons who do not want to join, or who can’t join, one of our organizations. But why can’t they? As someone who has himself taken part in Russian Revolutionary organizations, I say that I do not admit the existence of objective conditions constituting an insuperable obstacle to anyone’s joining. As to those gentlemen who do not want to join, we have no need of them.

It has been said here that some professors who sympathize with our views may find it humiliating to join a local organization. In this connection, I remember Engels saying that where it becomes your lot to deal with professors, you have to be prepared for the worst (laughter).

The example, is, in fact, an extremely bad one. If some Professor of Egyptology considers, because he has by heart the names of all the Pharaohs, and knows all the prayers that the Egyptians submitted to the bull Apis, that it is beneath his dignity to join our organization, we have no need of that professor.

To talk of control by the Party over persons who are outside the organization means playing with words. In practice such control is impossible.

After a heated discussion, Martov’s variant was approved by 28 votes to 23, but only because the wavering elements in Iskra combined with the Economists of the Union, the Bund and the “Center,” represented by the trend around the journal Yuzhny Rabochii. Nevertheless, the split had not yet acquired a definite character. Lenin, in the course of the debate, showed that he was still anxious to reach agreement:

First, as regards Axelrod’s kind proposal (I am not speaking ironically) to “strike a bargain,” I would willingly respond to this appeal for I do not at all consider our difference so vital as to be a matter of life and death for the party. We shall certainly not perish because of a bad point in the rules!154

From a Marxist point of view, organizational questions can never be decisive. There are no eternal, fixed laws governing the mode of organization of a revolutionary party. The rules and organizational structures must change with changing circumstances and in line with the development of the party. The same Lenin who argued fervently for restricting the party membership in 1903, under different historical circumstances, in 1912, when the party was becoming transformed into a mass force representing the decisive majority of the active working class in Russia, in effect argued that the party should be open to any worker who considered himself a Bolshevik—a formula which apparently echoes Martov’s celebrated phrase that “every striker should be able to proclaim himself a Party member.” Does this mean that Lenin was wrong and Martov right in 1903? Such a conclusion would be to completely misunderstand the dialectical relationship between the mode of operation of the revolutionary party and the concrete stage through which both the party and the working class movement is passing. A house must be built upon solid foundations. In 1903, the Party was only taking its first hesitating steps towards the conquest of influence among the masses. It was necessary to lay heavy stress on basic political and organizational principles, above all the need for working-class cadres with a clear understanding of the ideas and methods of Marxism. This was all the more necessary in view of the chaotic period which had gone before. To have thrown the doors open at this concrete stage would have been absolutely disastrous, although at a different moment it would be necessary to do just that.


148 Krupskaya, O Vladimirye Ilyiche, 1924 edition, vol. 1, 81.

149 Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 890–91.

150 1903, Minutes of the Second Congress of the RSDLP, 81.

151 For a detailed explanation, see One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, LCW, vol. 7, 203–425.

152 Trotsky, My Life, 160.

153 1903, Minutes of the Second Congress of the RSDLP, 308 and 311 (my emphasis).

154 1903, Minutes of the Second Congress of the RSDLP, 321 and 326 (my emphasis).

24) The Real Meaning of the 1903 Split

However significant the consequences of the 1903 split were for the future, the differences which emerged at the Congress still bore an undeveloped character. The assertion that at the Second Congress, Bolshevism and Menshevism already existed as political tendencies is entirely without foundation. On all the political questions there was virtual unanimity within the Iskra tendency. Yet there have always been powerful vested interests in trying to read into these divisions far more than they contained in fact. This is not accidental. Both Stalinist and bourgeois historians have a vested interest in identifying Leninism with Stalinism, and the Stalinists needed to prove that Trotsky was a Menshevik from 1903 on.

The political tendency represented by Menshevism was only to take shape in the period following the Congress. The lines of demarcation were still confused. Plekhanov, the future social-patriot, initially stood with Lenin. Trotsky, the future leader of the October Revolution and founder of the Red Army, found himself temporarily in the camp of the minority. Contrary to the Stalinist slander that Trotsky was a Menshevik from 1903 onwards, he broke with Martov’s group in September 1904 and thereafter formally remained outside both factions until 1917. Politically, Trotsky always stood far closer to the Bolsheviks, but, organizationally, he had the illusion that it was possible to unite both wings of the Party. History finally showed this to be impossible. But Trotsky was not alone in this error, as we shall show.

Despite this evident fact, the Stalinists for decades have persisted in citing the hotheaded reaction of the 23-year-old Trotsky at the Second Congress as proof of his alleged Menshevism. Thus we read statements like the following:

Congress speeches by Lenin (?) and other Bolsheviks show that on the fundamental question of the party program (!) and rules, Trotsky was at one with the other Mensheviks and bitterly fought the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary line (!).155

This base slander originates in the campaign against Trotskyism launched in 1923–24, when Lenin lay on his deathbed, paralyzed and helpless. Zinoviev, who had formed a secret bloc with Kamenev and Stalin, with a view to forming the leadership after Lenin’s death, went to the lengths of writing an alleged “History of Bolshevism,” the main aim of which was to discredit Trotsky by means of a false and tendentious account of Party history. In regard to 1903, Zinoviev refers to “Comrade Trotsky who was at that time a Menshevik.”156

For their part, bourgeois historians such as Leonard Shapiro attempt to caricature Lenin’s arguments in favor of centralism to paint a picture of a ruthless dictator, riding roughshod over democracy. In fact, the 1903 split had a largely accidental character. Nobody had anticipated that this split would take place. The participants themselves were shocked and stunned by the unexpected turn of events. The fact that Lenin did not see it as a final parting of the ways was indicated by his ceaseless attempts to achieve unity with the minority in the months after the Congress. Krupskaya recalled that on one occasion when she mentioned the possibility of a permanent split, Lenin retorted: “That would be too crazy for words.”157

What lay behind the 1903 split was the difficulty of passing out of the initial phase of small circle life. Every period of transition from one stage of the development of the Party to another inevitably entails a certain amount of internal friction. We have already commented on the stresses and strains involved in the earlier transition from propaganda to agitation. Now the same problems recurred, but with far more serious results. The main objective of the Marxist tendency represented by Iskra was to bring the Party out of the embryonic period of circle life (kustarnichestvo) and lay the firm foundation for a strong and united Marxist workers’ party in Russia. Even before the Congress, however, Martov began to express doubts and vacillations as to whether it was desirable to convene a Party Congress at all. Would it not be better to hold a Congress of the Iskra tendency? The hesitations reflected the conservatism and routinism and the fear of the veterans of striking out in a new direction.

The ingrained habits of a small exile group instinctively rebelled against so violent a disruption of the old ways. The idea of formal elections, submission of the minority to the will of the majority, disciplined work, while acceptable in theory, proved hard to swallow in practice. The members of Plekhanov’s old group, accustomed to the life of a small, informal circle of friends, had long enjoyed immense political authority as veterans and members of the prestigious Iskra Editorial Board which was not strictly warranted by the role they now played. Axelrod and Zasulich felt an involuntary fear of losing their personal authority and having their individuality swallowed up in the new environment, dominated by the new generation of up-and-coming young cadres from inside Russia. The Congress minutes show how insignificant was the role played by the old-timers, with the natural exception of Plekhanov. They must have felt completely lost.

The element of personal prestige can play a very destructive role in organizations in general, and not only in politics. Petty struggles for positions, personal rivalries and ambitions can cause problems in football clubs, Buddhist temples and knitting circles, where no ideological or principled problems are involved. Under certain conditions they can cause splits and quite poisonous disputes in revolutionary organizations, including anarchist ones, which in theory at least do not subscribe to centralism—though in practice such groups are frequently dominated by cliques and dictatorial individuals. The problem is particularly acute in small organizations isolated from the masses, especially where the petty bourgeois element predominates. The veterans of the Emancipation of Labor Group never seriously imagined that the decisions of the Congress would change their status in the movement. Things would surely carry on much as before. It was unthinkable that they should occupy anything but the foremost positions, as they had always done. When Lenin moved the election of an Editorial Board of three, it caused an uproar, which took him completely by surprise—all the more so since this proposal had already been accepted by the editors before the Congress. But this agreement was only superficial. The proposal had deeply shocked and wounded the old editors who would be dropped. In the corridors of the Congress, they went around complaining about Lenin’s alleged tactlessness and insensitivity.

In the interests of Party unity, both the Iskra organization and the Emancipation of Labor Group were formally dissolved at the Congress. But when the question was posed of the winding up of Yuzhny Rabochii, its adherents waged a last-ditch struggle in favor of its being kept going as a “popular” paper—a concept which was firmly rejected by the majority. The proposals agreed on by the Iskra leadership prior to the Congress was for a Central Committee of three (from the interior), an Editorial Board of three and a Party Council made up of both bodies plus one other (Plekhanov). However, tensions immediately surfaced over the composition of the CC. The hard Iskra-ites favored a CC composed entirely of Iskra supporters. The softs, led by Martov, wanted to give representation to the center (Yuzhny Rabochii), and produced their own list of candidates. This was an indication that the soft Iskra current, represented by Martov, was trying to arrive at a compromise with the wavering, centrist trend around Yuzhny Rabochii. His attempt to postpone a decision on this issue provoked a commotion in the hall. But the row over Yuzhny Rabochii was nothing compared to the stormy scenes which accompanied the next session.

Lenin’s proposal for a three-man editorial board was not the reflection of dictatorial centralism but a simple expression of reality. There can be no doubt that logic was entirely on Lenin’s side, as Plekhanov was compelled to agree. The old Editorial Board of six had not even managed to meet once. In the 45 issues of Iskra under six editors, there were 39 articles written by Martov, 32 by Lenin, 24 by Plekhanov, eight by Potresov, six by Zasulich and only four by Axelrod. This over a period of three years! All the technical work was done by Lenin and Martov. “Actually,” wrote Lenin after the Congress, “I would add, this trio [Lenin, Martov, and Plekhanov], throughout these three years in 99 cases out of a hundred had always been the decisive, politically decisive (and not literary) central body.”158 The notion that a member of the Editorial Board of the Party’s official journal could be someone who did not personally participate in the work and whose only contribution was to provide the occasional article for publication did not square with the conception of a fighting proletarian organization.

Initially, the younger editorial board members, Martov and Potresov, were also in agreement with the change, but, under the frantic pressure of Zasulich and Axelrod, they changed their minds. Trotsky moved the reelection of the old editorial board of six. But the withdrawal of the Bundists and the supporters of Rabocheye Dyelo meant that the Iskra hards were now in a majority. Trotsky’s proposal was voted down, and a new Editorial Board consisting of Lenin, Plekhanov, and Martov was elected, whereupon Martov announced his refusal to participate on it. The split between the hard majority (Bol’shinstvo) and soft minority (Menshinstvo) was a fact. When the split fully surfaced, it assumed a violent character. In the session when the composition of the Editorial Board was discussed the atmosphere was stormy and at times “hysterical,” as the Bolsheviks later reported to the Amsterdam Congress of the Socialist International (1904).

The indignation aroused by this issue among young and impressionable revolutionaries is conveyed by Trotsky’s memoirs of the occasion:

In 1903 the whole point at issue was nothing more than Lenin’s desire to get Axelrod and Zasulich off the editorial board. My attitude towards them was full of respect, and there was an element of personal affection as well. Lenin also thought highly of them for what they had done in the past. But he believed that they were becoming an impediment for the future. This led him to conclude that they must be removed from their position in the leadership. I could not agree. My whole being seemed to protest against this merciless cutting off of the older ones when we were at last on the threshold of an organized party. It was my indignation at his attitude that really led to my parting with him at the Second Congress. His behavior seemed unpardonable to me, both horrible and outrageous. And yet, politically it was right and necessary, from the point of view of organization. The break with the older ones who remained in the preparatory stages, was inevitable in any case. Lenin understood this before any one else did. He made an attempt to keep Plekhanov by separating him from Zasulich and Axelrod. But this, too, was quite futile, as subsequent events soon proved.159

In the months after the Congress, the supporters of the minority raised a hue and cry about Lenin’s alleged “dictatorial tendencies” and “ruthless centralism.” These outbursts, which had not the slightest basis in fact, served as a smokescreen to cover the anarchistic behavior of Martov’s group, who, despite the pledges given by them at the Congress, refused to submit to the decision of the majority and waged a disloyal campaign against the leadership democratically elected at the Congress. Breaking the most elementary norms of conduct which apply in any party, they demanded that the minority should decide, and effectively tried to sabotage the work of the Party, by refusing to collaborate with its elected organs. A revolutionary party is not a discussion club, but a fighting organization. Nevertheless, the idea of the Bolshevik Party as a monolithic structure, where the leaders ordered and the rank and file obeyed, is a malicious falsehood. On the contrary, the Bolshevik Party was the most democratic party in history. Even in the most difficult periods of underground work, in the heart of the revolution and in the most dangerous days of the civil war, the internal regime, and especially its highest expression, the Congress, was the arena of open and honest discussion, with the clash of different ideas. But there is a limit for all things. At the end of the day, a party which seeks, not only to talk, but also to act, must reach decisions and carry them into practice.

At bottom, the attitude to party organization and discipline is a class question. The worker learns discipline in the everyday experience of factory life. The experience of strikes teaches a very hard lesson—the imperative need for united disciplined action as the precondition for success. On the other hand, the notion of organization and discipline is difficult for the intellectual to grasp. He or she tends to see the party precisely as a gigantic discussion group, in which to expound one’s views on each and every topic. The anarchistic individualism of the minority reflected, at bottom, the petty bourgeois standpoint with its organic incapacity for discipline and its tendency to mix up personal questions with political principle. However erudite, however well read, the intellectuals who has not placed themselves personally on the standpoint of the working class, come to a full stop precisely where the real task of the movement begins, that is, in the realm of action. “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways,” as Marx explained, “the point is, however, to change it.”


155 V. Grigenko and others, The Bolshevik Party’s Struggle against Trotskyism (1903–February 1917), 30.

156 Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, 85.

157 Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, 486.

158 LCW, To Alexandra Kalmykova, September 7, 1903, vol. 34, 162.

159 Trotsky, My Life, 162.

25) Confusion in the Ranks

The caricature of Lenin as a “ruthless dictator” and cynical maneuverer, ruthlessly trampling on his former colleagues in order to concentrate power in his hands, does not correspond to the facts. In her Memoirs of Lenin, Krupskaya gives a vivid picture of Lenin agonizing over the split with Martov:

At times he saw clearly that a rupture was unavoidable. He started a letter to Clair [Krzhizhanovsky] once, saying that the latter simply could not imagine the present situation, that one had to realize that the old relations had radically changed, that the old friendship with Martov was at an end; old friendships were to be forgotten, and that the fight was starting. Vladimir Ilyich did not finish that letter or post it. It was very hard for him to break with Martov. Their work together in St. Petersburg and on the old Iskra had drawn them close together . . . Afterwards Vladimir Ilyich had fiercely fought the Mensheviks, but whenever Martov’s line showed a tendency to right itself, his old attitude to him revived. Such was the case, for example, in Paris 1910 when Vladimir Ilyich and Martov worked together on the editorial board of Sotsial Demokrat (Social Democrat). Coming home from the office, Vladimir Ilyich often used to tell me in a pleased tone that Martov was taking a correct line and even coming out against Dan. Afterwards in Russia, Vladimir Ilyich was very pleased with Martov’s stand during the July Days [in 1917] not because it was any good to the Bolsheviks, but because Martov bore himself as behoves a revolutionary. Vladimir Ilyich was already seriously ill when he said to me once sadly: “They say Martov is dying too.”

This was typical of a side of Lenin’s character which is too often overlooked. Completely devoid of sentimentality, Lenin never allowed himself to confuse personal likes and dislikes with questions of political principle. But Lenin knew how to recognize talent in other people and did not easily give them up as a lost cause. Personal spitefulness was completely foreign to this man who all his life showed the greatest loyalty to other comrades. In the months following the Congress, Lenin himself made repeated attempts to reestablish unity, and even offered to make a series of concessions which, in effect, represented the abandonment of the positions won by the majority at the Congress. Krupskaya recalls that:

After the Congress, Vladimir Ilyich did not object when Glebov suggested co-opting the old editorial board—better to rough it the old way than to have a split. But the Mensheviks refused. In Geneva, Vladimir Ilyich tried to make it up with Martov, and wrote to Potresov, reassuring him that they had nothing to quarrel about. He also wrote to Kalmykova (Auntie) about the split, and told her how matters stood. He could not believe that there was no way out.160

No sooner had the Congress ended than Lenin approached Martov to try to arrive at an agreement. Martov wrote to Axelrod in a letter dated August 31:

I saw Lenin once [since the Congress]. He asked me to give my suggestions about collaboration. I said that I would give a formal answer when we had considered this formal proposal together, but in the meantime, refused. He talked a lot about the fact that by refusing to collaborate, we were ‘punishing the Party’, that nobody expected that we would boycott the paper. He even stated in public that he was prepared to resign if that were to be decided by the old Editorial Board, and that he intended to work twice as hard as a collaborator.161

If it had been up to Lenin, the split could have been quickly resolved. But the almost hysterical reaction of the minority made an agreement impossible. Defeated at the Congress, they launched a series of violent attacks against Lenin and the majority. Martov published a pamphlet accusing Lenin of causing a “State of Siege” in the party. A heated atmosphere was engendered, out of all proportion to the importance of the issues apparently at stake. Osip Piatnitsky, who was in charge of the distribution of Iskra in Berlin, recalls the surprise and consternation in the ranks at the report-back from the Congress:

We listened to the reports of both sides about the Congress, and then immediately began the agitation in favor of one or the other trend. I felt torn in two. On the one hand I was sorry that offense had been caused to Zasulich, Potresov and Axelrod, removing them from the Editorial Board of Iskra . . . On the other hand, I was wholly in favor with the organizational structure of the Party proposed by Lenin. My logic was with the Majority, but my feelings, so to speak, were with the minority.162

Pyatnitsky was not alone in his attitude to the split:

The news of the split hit us like a bolt from the blue. We knew that the Second Congress was to witness the concluding moves in the struggle with Workers’ Cause [the Economists], but that the schism should take a course which was to put Martov and Lenin in opposing camps and that Plekhanov was to “split off” midway between the two—none of this so much as entered our heads. The first clause of the Party statutes . . . was this really something that justified a split? A reshuffle of jobs on the editorial board—what’s the matter with those people abroad, have they gone mad?163

The quotation by Lunacharsky, who was to become one of Lenin’s principal lieutenants in the next couple of years, was a faithful reflection of the reaction of the majority of Party members to the split at the Second Congress. The prevailing mood was against the split, the real significance of which was not even clear to the principal protagonists.

The confusion of the rank and file was understandable. At this stage there were no obvious political differences between the majority and minority. However deplorable the behavior of the Martovites, whose spiteful attacks and boycotting of the work of the party reflected the hurt pride of individualist intellectuals, unwilling to submit their personal inclinations to the will of the majority, the real differences between Bolshevism and Menshevism were far from being clearly defined at this stage. It is true that the germs of these differences were already present in 1903, but for the moment they had not yet acquired a definite political content. Rather, it was a difference in attitudes—as reflected in Lenin’s characterization of the two trends as the “hards” and the “softs.” However, the clash of these two trends undoubtedly foreshadowed the future split between Bolshevism and Menshevism, which only finally took place in 1912, after nearly a decade of ceaseless attempts on the part of Lenin to unite the party on a principled basis. Lenin himself explained the reason for the split in the following passage:

Examining the behavior of the Martovites since the Congress, their refusal to collaborate on the Central Organ (although officially invited by the editorial board to do so), their refusal to work on the Central Committee, and their propaganda of a boycott—all I can say is that this is an insensate attempt, unworthy of Party members, to disrupt the Party—and why? Only because they are dissatisfied with the composition of the central bodies; for speaking objectively, it was only over this that our ways parted, while their subjective verdicts (insults, affronts, slurs, oustings, shutting out, etc.) are nothing but the fruits of offended vanity and a morbid imagination.164

Refusing all Lenin’s attempts at reconciliation, the Martovites pressed on with their campaign of agitation. They were particularly strong abroad. They had money and close contacts with the leaders of the European Social Democracy. In September 1903, Martov’s group took the first step in the direction of a split by setting up a “Bureau of the Minority,” with the aim of capturing the Party’s leading bodies by all available means. They began to publish their own factional literature for distribution in Russia. Despite all this, Lenin still pinned his hopes on reconciliation. On October 4, 1903 a meeting was held between Lenin, Plekhanov and Lengnik for the majority, and Martov, Axelrod, Zasulich and Potresov for the minority. The majority were willing to make concessions, but when the minority reacted by demanding a total overturn of the Congress decisions, it became clear that agreement was impossible. To accept such a demand would mean putting the clock back to the situation which prevailed before the Second Congress.

Factional struggle has a logic of its own. By repudiating the Second Congress, and defending organizational formlessness under the guise of an alleged “struggle against centralism,” the minority’s position on organizational questions was gradually becoming indistinguishable from the views of the Economists with whom, only yesterday, they had been at loggerheads. The accidental “bloc” of the softs with the Economist right wing at the Congress, which Lenin had already pointed out, by degrees turned into a fusion. The extreme Economist Akimov, with malicious irony, noted the approximation of the minority to the old opportunist views of Economism:

The move of the “soft” Iskra-ites towards the so-called Economists on organizational and tactical questions is recognized by everyone except the “softs” themselves. Yet even they are ready to admit that “we can learn a great deal from the Economists.”

Even at the [Second] Congress, the Union’s delegates [i.e., Economists] supported the Mensheviks and voted for Martov’s formulation. Today all the members of the former Union [i.e., the Economist-controlled Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad] regard the tactics of the “softs” as more correct, and as a concession to their own viewpoint. When it disbanded, the Petersburg Workers’ Organization [Economist] declared itself at one with the Mensheviks.165

The differences came to a head at the Second Congress of the League of Russian Revolutionary Social Democracy Abroad held in Geneva in October 1903. After the RSDLP Congress, the minority had tried to find a point of support for its position. The League of Russian Revolutionary Social Democracy Abroad was little more than a paper organization—a couple of pamphlets had come out in its name, but its activity was next to nothing, a logical state of affairs since the center of gravity was now in Russia. Immediately after the split, the Martovites decided to call a conference of the League in Geneva. This was done in a factional way; known supporters of the majority were not informed of the meeting, whereas supporters of the minority were brought from as far away as Britain. Lenin delivered the report-back of the Party Congress in measured terms, but was answered by a slashing attack by Martov, which poisoned the atmosphere from the outset.

At the Second Congress of the Party, it had been decided that the League would be the official overseas organization of the Party, with the same status as a local Party committee in Russia. This clearly meant that it would be under the control of the CC. But the minority, which controlled the League, would not accept this, and approved new rules giving the League independence from the CC with a view to turning it into a base for factional work against the majority. Lengnik moved that this be referred to the CC and when this was turned down, the representatives of the majority, incensed, walked out of the congress.

Piatnitsky, then a young technical worker in Iskra, described his bewilderment at the embittered factional atmosphere at the conference, where the forces of minority and majority were evenly divided:

The Congress opened. The Mensheviks sat on one side, the Bolsheviks on the other. I was the only one who had not yet definitely joined one side or the other. I took my seat with the Bolsheviks and voted with them. The Bolsheviks were led by Plekhanov. On the same day, I think, the Bolsheviks, with Plekhanov at their head, left the Congress. I, however, remained there. It was clear to me that the departure of the Bolsheviks, the majority, from the Central Organization and the Party Council would force the minority either to bow to the decisions of the Second Congress or break with it. But what could I do? Nothing. Both sides could boast of great leaders, responsible Party members who certainly ought to know what they were doing. While attending the sessions of the League Congress, after the departure of the Bolsheviks, I finally decided to adhere to the side of the latter, and also left the Congress.166

At a hastily improvised meeting in a nearby cafe, Plekhanov indignantly denounced the behavior of the minority and proposed a plan of action for a struggle against them. Nevertheless, in private, Plekhanov was filled with misgivings. Initially firm in defense of Lenin’s position, which he knew to be correct, Plekhanov’s nerve began to falter, as soon as it became clear that an unbridgeable gap was opening up between the majority and his old friends and colleagues. Had he done the right thing in siding with Lenin? Was it worth tearing the party apart for the sake of a few rules? Lenin and he had made every possible concession to the minority, but the latter demanded total surrender. What of that? What was so terrible about co-opting all the old editors back on for the sake of peace? After all, the old system, for all its faults, was better than this.

Lenin, too, was in favor of concessions, and even contemplated co-opting the former editors. But experience showed that every offer of concessions merely increased the intransigence of the minority. Reluctantly, Lenin picked up the gauntlet the other side had thrown down, because further retreats would do harm to the cause of the Party. The break with Martov had been extremely painful, even traumatic, for Lenin, who confessed to Krupskaya that this was the most difficult decision of his life. But for Lenin the interests of the Party, the working class and socialism were more important than any personal considerations.

Plekhanov was a different type altogether. The victim of “the dead sea of émigré life that drags one to the bottom,”167 Plekhanov proved unable to make the transition to the new historical period, a period of revolution which made new demands on the party and its leadership. What was truly amazing was not so much that he capitulated, but that he had sided with Lenin in the first place. It is a tribute to the man that he at least attempted to make the transition, and not only on this occasion. Later, in 1909, he again turned to the left and entered a bloc with the Bolsheviks. But that was his last attempt before finally veering to the right, to end up tragically in the camp of patriotic reaction in the last few years of his life. Trotsky once remarked that, in order to be a revolutionary, it is not enough to have a theoretical understanding. It is also necessary to have the necessary willpower. Without this, a revolutionary is like “a watch with a broken spring.” That phrase accurately describes Plekhanov’s weak side, which, despite his tremendous contribution, finally undermined and destroyed him.

The evening of October 18 saw the break with Plekhanov. At a meeting of the majority, only days after he had proposed an all-out struggle against the Martovites, Plekhanov did a 180° turn and argued for peace at any price: “I cannot fire against my own comrades. Better a bullet in the brain than a split,” he exclaimed. “There are times when even the autocracy has to give in.”168 He presented his demands in the form of an ultimatum: either they were accepted, or he would resign from the Editorial Board. Plekhanov’s defection was a heavy blow to the majority. With serious misgivings, but still hoping to facilitate unity, Lenin resigned from the Editorial Board shortly afterwards. However, far from uniting the Party, Plekhanov’s move had the opposite effect. The Martovites merely used their success to pass new demands: the co-option of minority supporters onto the Central Committee and the Party Council and the recognition of the discussion taken at the Second Congress of the League of Social Democrats Abroad. Having capitulated once, Plekhanov now gave in to all these demands, which, in effect, would overturn all the decisions of the Party congress.

The position of the majority looked extremely bleak. The minority now controlled the central organ, Iskra, the League Abroad and the Party Council. Only the Central Committee remained, theoretically, with the majority. But the majority was deprived of a voice. Gradually, Iskra ceased to publish the articles and letters sent in by the supporters of the majority. Meanwhile, the Mensheviks exploited to the full their contact and personal friendships with the leaders of the Socialist International. The Bolsheviks had a poor time of it in the international socialist press.

In his memoirs, Lyadov recalls a conversation he had with Kautsky in which the latter gave his voice to exasperation:

What do you want? We don’t know your Lenin. He’s a new man to us. Plekhanov and Axelrod we all know very well. We are accustomed to finding out about the state of affairs in Russia only through their explanations. It goes without saying that we cannot believe your assertion that suddenly Plekhanov and Axelrod have become opportunists. That’s absurd!


160 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 98–99 and 98.

161 Pis’ma PB Aksel’roda i YO Martova, 87.

162 Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, 54.

163 Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes, 36.

164 LCW, Account of the Second Congress of the RSDLP, September 1903, vol. 7, 34.

165 Akimov, A Short History of the RSDLP, 332.

166 Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, 63.

167 Krupskaya, O Vladimirye Ilyiche, vol. 1, 54.

168 Quoted in Baron, Plekhanov, 327.

26) Rosa Luxemburg

When Lyadov approached the editor of the German Social Democratic newspaper Vorwärts with a request to publish correspondence on the situation in the Russian Party, he was told that Vorwärts “could not spare much space for the movement abroad, especially the Russian, which is still so young and can give so little to the German movement.” In the haughty, condescending tone of this apparatchik, tinged with national narrow-mindedness, the outline of future developments can already be discerned. These German Party practicos had no interest in theory. While paying lip service to Marxism, they were immersed in the daily routine of party and trade union tasks. What could the German Party with its powerful trade unions and parliamentary fraction learn from the internal disputes of a small foreign party? Already to a significant section of the German leaders, internationalism was a book sealed with seven seals.

Particularly damaging to the Bolshevik cause was the attitude of the left wing of the German Party. Right up to 1914, Lenin regarded himself as a supporter of Karl Kautsky, the leader of the orthodox left of the Social Democratic Party. Yet Kautsky refused to allow Lenin space in his journal Die Neue Zeit to put the case of the Bolsheviks. In a letter, Kautsky wrote:

While there remains even the shadow of hope that the Russian Social Democrats will themselves overcome their disagreements, I cannot be in favor of the German comrades finding out about these differences. If they find out about them from another source, then, of course, we will have to take a definite position.169

Under the pressure of the Mensheviks, Kautsky came out against Lenin. But he did so cautiously. So long as the split in Russia did not disturb the internal life of the German Party, there was no need to make much of it, hoping that things would sort themselves out. After all, if the German Party could accommodate everybody from Bernstein on the right to Rosa Luxemburg and Parvus on the left, the Russian comrades ought to manage to get along without splitting over trivial questions.

In this way, only the arguments of the Mensheviks were heard in Western European Socialist Parties. Misled by the Mensheviks’ false and tendentious accounts of the differences, Rosa Luxemburg had written an article which Kautsky published in Die Neue Zeit under the neutral title: Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy. This article has been republished in English under the misleading title never used during Rosa Luxemburg’s lifetime—Leninism or Marxism? In this article, Rosa Luxemburg repeats the nonsense of the Mensheviks about Lenin’s alleged “ultracentralism” and “dictatorial methods.” It was precisely Lenin’s reply to this article which Kautsky refused to print. In his reply, Lenin explodes, one after the other, the myths created by the Mensheviks about his ideas on organization—myths which have been assiduously cultivated ever since by the enemies of Bolshevism. These arguments were answered in advance by Lenin:

Comrade Luxemburg says, for example, that my book [One Step Forward, Two Steps Back] is a clear and detailed expression of the point of view of “intransigent centralism.” Comrade Luxemburg thus supposes that I defend one system of organization against another. But actually that is not so. From the first to the last page of my book, I defend the elementary principles of any conceivable system of party organization. My book is not concerned with the difference between one system of organization and another, but with how any system is to be maintained, criticized and rectified in a manner consistent with the party idea.170

Rosa Luxemburg’s stand was no accident. For many years, she had been conducting a stubborn struggle against the bureaucratic and reformist tendency in the German Social Democratic Party. She watched with alarm the consolidation of a vast army of trade union and party functionaries into a solidly conservative bloc. She knew this phenomenon better than anyone else, even Lenin who had first hand experience of the German Party. Rosa Luxemburg understood that this enormous bureaucratic apparatus could become transformed, at a decisive moment in the class struggle, into a gigantic brake on the masses. And so it proved to be in August 1914, when all of Rosa Luxemburg’s worst fears were confirmed.

Even a cursory glance at Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet suffices to show that what she was really polemicizing against was not the ideas of Lenin (with which she was only acquainted in the caricature form presented by the Mensheviks), but the kind of bureaucratic-reformist degeneration with which she was only too well acquainted in her own party, the German SPD. How relevant to the present situation in the British Labour Party and to European equivalents are the words of this great revolutionary!

With the growth of the labor movement,” she wrote, “parliamentarianism becomes a springboard for political careerists. That is why so many ambitious failures from the bourgeoisie flock to the banner of the socialist parties. Another source of contemporary opportunism is the considerable material means and influence of the large Social Democratic organizations.”

The party acts as a bulwark protecting the class movement against digression in the direction of more bourgeois parliamentarianism. To triumph these tendencies must destroy the bulwark. They must dissolve the active, class conscious sector of the proletariat in the amorphous mass of an “electorate.”171

Of course, the struggle for the socialist transformation of society does not rule out participation in elections or in parliament. On the contrary, the working class of all countries has been to the forefront of the fight for democratic rights and will use every legal and constitutional right in order to improve its position and place itself in a commanding position to change society. The building of powerful trade union organizations, too, is a vital part of the preparation of the working class for the carrying out of its historic tasks. But this process has two sides. The working class and its organizations do not exist in a vacuum. Under the pressure of alien classes, organizations which have been created by the workers for the purpose of transforming society have become deformed and degenerated. The pressure of bourgeois public opinion bears down upon the leading layers.

The ruling class has developed a thousand and one ways of corrupting and absorbing the most honest and militant shop steward if he or she lacks a firm base in Marxist theory and perspectives. The separating out of a layer of full-time trade union officials, increasingly divorced from the shop floor and with all kinds of little perks and privileges, tends to create a distinct and alien mentality, particularly when the workers are not involved in mass struggles which act as a check on the leadership. But in a long period of decades of relative prosperity, full employment and class peace, the predominant trend is for the rank-and-file not to participate actively in their organizations, to trust their leaders and officials to get on with the job. This was the situation in Germany for almost two decades prior to the catastrophe of the First World War, when a conservative bureaucracy, Marxist in words, but reformist in practice, consolidated its hold on the labor movement by degrees—a process repeated in France and every other country in Western Europe. What was true of the unions was a hundred times more true of the parliamentary fraction in the Reichstag. Dominated by intellectuals and professional people, with a standard of living different to the millions of workers they represented, the Social Democratic leaders in parliament moved to the right, escaped the control of the working class and eventually became transformed into a privileged and conservative caste.

As a reaction against this, Rosa Luxemburg laid heavy stress on the spontaneous movement of the working class, elevating the idea of a revolutionary general strike almost to the level of a principle. This overreaction undoubtedly led her into a series of errors. One can say that in all of her disagreements with Lenin, including this one, Rosa Luxemburg was in the wrong. Yet it is equally undeniable that all these mistakes can be traced back to a genuine revolutionary instinct, a boundless faith in the creative power of the working class, and an implacable hostility to the careerists and bureaucrats who represent, in the words of Trotsky, “the most conservative force in the whole of society.” Rosa Luxemburg’s misgivings about Lenin’s alleged “pitiless centralism” were shared, for the same reason, by other German lefts, such as Alexander L. Helphand, generally known by his pen name, Parvus, whose works were greatly admired by Lenin, and also, at the time, by Trotsky who, after breaking from the Mensheviks, for a while worked closely with him.

In later years, Trotsky admitted that he had been wrong and Lenin correct on the organizational questions. His booklet Our Political Tasks, published in the heat of the factional struggle, contains many criticisms of Lenin which the author was later to describe as “immature and erroneous.”172 Yet there are elements even in this work which contained more than a grain of truth in relation to a certain side of Bolshevism, namely the psychology and mode of conduct of the committeemen, that layer of party “practicos” and “organization men and women” with whom Lenin himself was to enter into bitter conflict only a few months after the appearance of Trotsky’s controversial pamphlet.

Lenin had tried to avoid a fight, refusing to answer the continuous attacks made against him. But the outcome of Plekhanov’s action convinced him that no other situation was possible. This was made abundantly clear by an article, signed by Plekhanov in issue 52 of Iskra, entitled Where Not to Begin, a shameful attempt to provide a theoretical cover-up for the author’s capitulation. Under its new editors, Iskra was now transformed into a factional organ of the minority. The majority still controlled the CC. But having co-opted the old editors onto the Editorial Board, the minority now had a majority on the Party Council, the highest authority in the Party. By the end of the year, Lenin had come round to the view that the only way to resolve the crisis was to call a new Party Congress.

As was to be expected, the supporters of the minority who now controlled the Party Council turned down Lenin’s proposal. However, when Lenin took his request to the CC, theoretically controlled by the majority, he came up against unexpected resistance from his own supporters. In Lenin’s Works, we find letter after letter striving to convince the CC members of the correctness of this proposal. But the Bolsheviks on the CC shied away from what they saw as a final break with the Mensheviks. Lenin bitterly remarked:

I believe that we really do have in the CC bureaucrats and formalists instead of revolutionaries. The Martovites spit in their faces and they wipe it off and lecture me: “it is useless to fight!”173


169 Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, 518, 523, and 524.

170 LCW, vol. 7, 474.

171 Rosa Luxemburg, Leninism or Marxism?, 98 (my emphasis).

172 Trotsky, Stalin, 62.

173 LCW, To the Central Committee of the RSDLP, February 1904, vol. 34, 233.

27) War with Japan

Lenin’s decision to break with the Mensheviks at this point was not an accident. Up to this time, the central argument had centered on organizational questions. But now things began to take on an entirely new character, reflecting a sudden and sharp turn in the political situation. Student demonstrations, followed by the political strikes and demonstrations of the workers in 1902, were symptoms of a rapidly developing prerevolutionary situation. A political general strike in July and August of 1903 was followed by a brief lull, only to be succeeded by a new strike wave in the summer of 1904. A rash of strikes occurred in Petersburg, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Nizhny Novgorod, and the Caucasus, where a major strike shook the oil center of Baku in December. Under the pressure of the working class, the liberal bourgeois began to press their demands for a constitution. Feeling the ground shake under its feet, the regime was seized with panic. Plehve, Minister of the Interior, wrote cynically to General Kuropatkin, the Minister of Defense: “In order to stave off revolution, what we require is a victorious little war.”

Despite its backward, semifeudal character, and its dependence upon Western capital, tsarist Russia was one of the main imperialist nations at the turn of the century. Together with the other imperialist powers, Britain, France, and Germany, tsarist Russia participated in the carve-up of the world into colonies and spheres of influence. Poland and the Baltic states, Finland, and the Caucasus, the Far Eastern territories, and Central Asia, were, in effect, tsarist colonies. But the territorial ambitions of tsarism were insatiable. The avaricious gaze of St. Petersburg was fixed upon Turkey, Persia, and above all China, where the decaying Manchu dynasty was incapable of preventing the dividing up of the living body of China by the imperialist brigands, especially after the defeat of the so-called Boxer uprising in 1900, when Russia occupied the whole of Manchuria. This predatory expansion in the Far East brought Russia up against the rising young power of Japan. The Japanese imperialists interpreted Russia’s action as an attempt to block them on the mainland of Asia. In the summer of 1903, the War Party won the day in Tokyo. In the dead of the night in February 1904, the Japanese fell upon the Russian fleet in Port Arthur, using the very same tactics employed at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Japanese command of the seas was thus guaranteed and a bloody struggle began which was to lead to the fall of Port Arthur 11 months later with the loss of 28,200 Russian soldiers, half the garrison. Three weeks later, the first Russian Revolution had begun.

The new Iskra, under Menshevik control, had initially taken an ambiguous position on the war, confining themselves to appeals for peace. Lenin poured scorn on the idea, explaining that the victory of tsarism in the war would strengthen the regime for a period, whereas the military defeat of Russia would inevitably mean the outbreak of revolution. He subjected the Russian military campaign to a searing criticism, using it as a means of exposing the degenerate and corrupt essence of the regime. Lenin’s revolutionary internationalism had nothing in common with pacifism but set out from a class analysis of war as the continuation of politics by other means:

“The cause of Russian freedom and of the struggle of the Russian (and the world) proletariat for socialism depends to a very large extent on the military defeats of the autocracy,” he wrote in The Fall of Port Arthur.

This cause has been greatly advanced by the military debacle which has struck terror in the hearts of all European guardians of the existing order. The revolutionary proletariat must carry on a ceaseless agitation against war, always keeping in mind, however, that wars are inevitable as long as class rule exists. Trite phrases about peace à la Jaurés [Jean Jaurés, 1859–1914, prominent leader of the reformist wing of the French Socialist Party] are of no use to the oppressed class, which is not responsible for a bourgeois war between two bourgeois nations, which is doing all it can to overthrow every bourgeoisie, which knows the enormity of the people’s sufferings even in time of ‘peaceful’ capitalist exploitation.174

The calculations of the autocracy were based on cutting across the class struggle and forging a bloc based on national unity. The liberals at once revealed their reactionary essence. Their dislike of the autocratic regime which denied them a slice of the state pie struggled with greed at the prospect of big profits now to be made out of the war and the acquisition of new colonies in the East. The ex-Marxist Struve urged the students to support patriotic manifestos. However, after initially weakening the revolutionary movement, the war soon gave it a powerful impetus. The sight of the allegedly mighty Russian army collapsing like a house of cards at the first serious test, exposed the inner rottenness of the tsarist regime. Cracks began to open up in the very tops of the regime.

The discontent of student youth found its expression in the spread of terrorist moods. On July 15 the repressive Interior Minister Viktor Plehve was blown up by the Social Revolutionary Yegor Setonov. Forty years later P.N. Milyukov, the liberal leader, reflected the mood of society at the time: “Everybody rejoiced at his assassination.”175 Alarmed at the growing tide of revolution, the regime decided to make concessions. Plehve was replaced by Prince Sviatopolk-Mirskii, as the regime decided to opt for liberal reform to head off revolution. The humiliating military defeats made the war deeply unpopular not only with the masses, but also with the bourgeois liberals, who deftly switched from patriotism to defeatism. Terrified of the threat of revolution from below, the regime began to make concessions to the bourgeois liberals. Sviatopolk-Mirskii began to make noises about a “new era.”

In November, the Zemstvos were given permission to hold a congress in St. Petersburg. The liberal trend of Osvobozhdenie now had considerable influence in the Zemstvos and was the main force behind the banqueting campaign. The Menshevik Iskra proposed participation in the Zemstvo campaign and support for the liberals insofar as they were prepared to fight against the autocracy: the Social Democrats must therefore tone down their demands so as not to frighten off their political ally, they must compromise their program in the interest of achieving unity against reaction. No sooner had the Mensheviks publicly come out in favor of the liberals, than Lenin issued a blistering attack on the banqueting campaign. In his article The Zemstvo Campaign and Iskra’s Plan, Lenin mercilessly flayed the advocates of class collaborationism and defended an independent revolutionary class policy:

“Afraid of leaflets, afraid of anything that goes beyond a qualified-franchise constitution,” thundered Lenin, “the liberal gentry will always stand in fear of the slogan ‘a democratic republic’ and of the call for an armed uprising of the people. But the class-conscious proletariat will indignantly reject the very idea that we could renounce this slogan and this call, or could in general be guided in our activity by the panic and fears of the bourgeoisie.”176

The question of the attitude to the liberals immediately became the fundamental question by which all the trends of Social Democracy defined themselves. Zinoviev correctly states that

the question of the attitude of the working class to the bourgeoisie again arose with particular acuteness—the same basic question with which we collided at every stage of the history of the party and to which in the end all our disagreements with the Mensheviks could be reduced.177

In the autumn, the liberal Soyuz Osvobozhdeniya (Liberty League) issued a call for a campaign of banquets to put pressure on the government for reforms. Lawyers, doctors, professors and journalists organized semilegal meetings in the form of dinner parties where they would make speeches and toasts in favor of moderate constitutional reform. However the cowardice of the bourgeois liberals is shown by the fact that they did not even raise the demand for a Constituent Assembly based on universal suffrage, but only vague demands for the representation of the people on a broad democratic basis.

Under the pressure of the bourgeois liberals, the leaders of the minority were, in fact, moving away from the positions of revolutionary Marxism. Their cloudy, semi-pacifist characterization of the war was perhaps the first public expression of this fact. The Mensheviks were clearly passing over from merely organizational differences to political ones. Right wing Mensheviks like Fyodr Dan began to get the upper hand within the minority. The Mensheviks were reducing the role of the proletariat to that of mere cheerleaders of the liberals. In this way, the Mensheviks hoped to establish a “broad front” for democracy, including all “progressive forces.” The entire psychology of the Mensheviks was impregnated with a lack of confidence in the revolutionary potential of the working class. The workers were enjoined not to demand too much, or express too extreme views which might frighten the liberals. Iskra published statements like the following:

If we take a look at the arena of struggle in Russia then what do we see? Only two forces: the tsarist autocracy and the liberal bourgeoisie, which is now organized and possesses a huge specific weight. The working mass, however, is atomized and can do nothing; as an independent force we do not exist; and thus our task consists in supporting the second force, the liberal bourgeoisie, and encouraging it and in no case intimidating it by presenting our own independent proletarian demands.178

The Menshevik Iskra in November 1904 proposed to participate in the Zemstvo campaign of banquets. In effect Iskra was proposing support for the so-called left liberal wing of Osvobozhdenie:

In dealing with liberal Zemstvos and Dumas we are dealing with the enemies of our enemy, though they do not wish to or cannot go so far in their struggle with him as the interests of the proletariat requires; still, in officially speaking up against absolutism and confronting it with demands aimed at its annihilation (!) they are in fact our allies [in a very relative sense to be sure] even if [they are] insufficiently resolute in their aspirations . . .

But within the limits of fighting absolutism especially in the present phase, our attitude to the liberal bourgeoisie is defined by the task of infusing it with a bit more courage and moving it to join with the demands that the proletariat, led by the Social Democracy, will put forward. We should make a fatal mistake if we set ourselves the goal of forcing the Zemstvos or other organs of the bourgeois opposition through energetic measures of intimidation; under the influence of panic to give to us now a formal promise to present our demands to the government. Such a tactic would compromise Social Democracy because it would turn our political campaign into a lever for reaction.179

What is the meaning of this quotation? In essence it means a) support for the liberal bourgeois (“insofar as”) b) the working class must play second fiddle to the liberals c) we must not frighten the bourgeois (in other words tone down, abandon and capitulate) and d) all this is allegedly not to support reaction and in the name of “fighting reaction.”

Lenin immediately answered Iskra in a pamphlet on November 20 (New Style). He had no paper since Vperyod only started to come out in January 1905. Denouncing the Mensheviks’ proposal for a block with the liberals, Lenin proposed to utilize the Zemstvo campaign to organize militant workers’ demonstrations against both tsarism and the treacherous and cowardly liberals. The real difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism was the difference between class independence and class collaborationism, Marxism and revisionism, reformism and revolution. But it took several years, and the experience of war, revolution, and counterrevolution, for the real nature of these differences to become absolutely clear.

The class instincts of the workers rebelled against the idea of an alliance with the bourgeoisie. There were impassioned debates in the ranks of the Mensheviks. In Geneva and Russia, many Menshevik workers instinctively adopted a line in open contradiction to that of the editors of Iskra, and much closer to the position of the Bolsheviks. Of course, under the extremely difficult conditions of tsarist dictatorship, one could not rule out temporary, episodic agreements even with the bourgeois liberals. But the first condition for such agreements was always for Lenin the complete independence of the working class and its party: no mixing up of banners, no political blocs, no compromise on program or principles. Of course, the workers could not afford to ignore any opportunity to press their demands. Lenin advocated that the workers should go along to these legal gatherings and try to transform them into militant demonstrations.

Somov, a former supporter of Rabocheye Dyelo, who went over to the Mensheviks, explains that “all the speeches prepared for the banquets were sharply critical of both the principles and the tactics of the liberal opportunists and ridiculed the feeble banquet resolutions and petition projects.” The following incident in Yekaterinoslav shows how the social democratic workers chose to intervene in the banquets of the liberals: “At a suitable moment, a group of workers appeared before the table of the town council members, and one of the group began to speak. The mayor tried to stop him, but lost his head when the workers resisted: the speech was concluded amid the hushed attention of the audience with the words:

“You and we represent opposite social classes, but we can be united by hatred of the same enemy, the autocratic order. We can be allies in our political struggle. For this, however, you must abandon the former road of meekness: you must boldly, openly, join in our demand: Down with the autocracy! Hail to a Constituent Assembly elected by the entire people! Hail a universal, direct, equal and secret suffrage!”

After the speech, proclamations of the Kuban committee of the RSDLP were scattered in the hall. The next day, the Committee issued a leaflet (in a thousand copies) describing the meeting and giving the Social Democratic speech in full.180

Elsewhere, similar interventions by these uninvited guests led to fights with the police and Cossacks. The intervention of these “crazy little kids” upset the plans of the liberals, who tried to keep the workers out. At a gathering of 400 doctors in St. Petersburg, some 50 workers were refused admission, but lobbied the delegates, who secured the reversal of the platform’s decision. The workers’ intervention, demanding the right to strike, created such a polarization among the doctors that the meeting broke up in disorder. There were many such cases. In the article Good Demonstrations of Proletarians and Poor Arguments of Certain Intellectuals, which appeared in the first number of the Bolshevik paper Vperyod,181 Lenin praised these tactics as a manifestation of the fighting spirit and inventiveness of the working class. The Mensheviks, by contrast, were prepared to water down their demands so as not to intimidate the liberals, to sacrifice the party’s independence for the sake of unity, in a word to subordinate the working class to the so-called progressive wing of the capitalists. This policy was later taken over by Stalin under the title of the “Popular Front.” Lenin poured scorn on the very idea:

Can it in general be acknowledged correct in principle to set the workers’ party the task of presenting to the liberal democrats or the Zemstvo-ists political demands “which they must support if they are to have any right to speak in the name of the people”? No, such an approach is wrong in principle and can only obscure the class consciousness of the proletariat and lead to the most futile casuistry.182

That the real basis of the Bolshevik-Menshevik split only emerged well after the Second Congress is attested to by many writers, beginning with Lenin who wrote that “Bolshevism as a tendency took definite shape in the spring and summer of 1905.”183 The political differences only began to emerge during the course of 1904. Solomon Schwarz writes:

Behind the mutual accusations, deep political differences lay hidden. Their not being fully conscious may have lent all the more passion to the dispute, which looked like intraparty squabbles to outsiders and the less sophisticated members of the two movements. The political differences came into the open only in late 1904.184

Fyodr Dan, one of the main leaders of the Mensheviks, states:

Today, with historical hindsight, it is scarcely necessary any longer to demonstrate that the organizational disagreements that, at the Second Congress divided the Iskra people into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were merely the cover for incipient intellectual and political divergences that were far more profound, and above all more persistent than the disagreements between the Economists and Iskra that had receded with the past and been completely liquidated by the Congress. It was not an organizational but a political divergence that very quickly split the Russian Social Democracy into two fractions which sometimes drew close and then clashed with each other, but basically remained independent parties that kept on fighting with each other even at a time when they were nominally within the framework of a unitary party . . . But at that time, at the beginning of the century, the political character of the split was far from immediately apparent, not only to the spectators on the side lines but to the participants in the fractional struggle themselves.185


174 LCW, vol. 8, 53.

175 S.S. Schwarz, The Russian Revolution of 1905, the Workers’ Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism, 32.

176 LCW, Zemstvo Campaign and Iskra’s Plan, vol. 7, 503.

177 Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, 108 (my emphasis).

178 Quoted in Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, 107–8.

179 Quoted in S.S. Schwarz, Revolution of 1905, 38.

180 Ibid., 41 and 48.

181 LCW, vol. 8, 29–34.

182 Ibid., 508.

183 LCW, vol. 16, 380.

184 Schwarz, Revolution of 1905, 32.

185 F. Dan, Origins of Bolshevism, 250.

28) Trotsky’s Break with the Mensheviks

In his last work, Stalin, Trotsky pointed out that the real differences had nothing to do with centralism versus democracy, or even, as of “hards” versus “softs,” but went far deeper.

“True firmness and resoluteness predetermine a person to the acceptance of Bolshevism,” he wrote. “Yet these characterizations in themselves are not decisive, there were any number of persons of firm character among the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. On the other hand, weak people were not so rare among the Bolsheviks. Psychology and character are not all there is to the nature of Bolshevism which, above all, is a philosophy of history and a political conception.”186

In his autobiography, Trotsky recalls how a section of the old leaders leaned towards the liberals:

The press was becoming more daring, the terrorist acts more frequent: the liberals began to wake up and launched a campaign of political banquets. The fundamental questions of revolution came swiftly to the front. Abstractions were beginning in my eyes to acquire actual social flesh. The Mensheviks, Zasulich especially, were placing greater hopes in the liberals.187

Trotsky’s characterization of the liberals was clear from an article which appeared in Iskra in mid-March 1904, where he described them as “half-hearted, vague, lacking in decision and inclined to treachery.” It was precisely this article which provoked Plekhanov to present the editors of Iskra with an ultimatum demanding Trotsky’s removal from the Editorial Board. Thereafter, Trotsky’s name disappeared from Iskra and his active collaboration with the Mensheviks to all intents and purposes came to an end. The “crime” of Trotsky in these years was that of “conciliationism,” or, to use an unkind expression, “unity mongering.” This conciliationism, however, was an attempt to re-unite the Party, a view shared by many within the Bolshevik camp and the Party in general. It had nothing to do with a conciliatory attitude to the enemies of the working class—the liberals and the so-called progressive bourgeoisie. It is an idea which Lenin spent his entire active life fighting against.

On this question, there was never any difference between Lenin and Trotsky, who wrote that

I was with Lenin unreservedly in this discussion, which became more crucial the deeper it went. In 1904, during the liberal banquet campaign, which quickly reached an impasse, I put forward the question, “What next?” and answered it in this way: the way out can be opened only by means of a general strike, followed by an uprising of the proletariat which will march at the head of the masses against liberalism. This aggravated my disagreements with the Mensheviks.

It was the Mensheviks’ support for the liberals and in particular their backing of the Zemstvo banqueting campaign that caused Trotsky to break with the Mensheviks in September 1904. Answering the lies of the Stalinists that he had been a Menshevik since 1903, Trotsky explains:

This connection with the minority in the Second Congress was brief. Before many months had passed, two tendencies had become conspicuous within the minority. I advocated taking steps to bring about a union with the majority as soon as possible, because I thought of the split as an outstanding episode but nothing more. For others, the split at the Second Congress was the beginning of the evolution towards opportunism. I spent the whole year of 1904 arguing with the leading groups of Mensheviks on questions of policy and organization. The arguments were concentrated on two issues: the attitude towards liberalism and that towards the Bolsheviks. I was for uncompromising resistance to the attempts of the liberals to lean on the masses, and at the same time, because of it, I demanded with increasing determination the union of the two Social Democratic factions.188

Despite the fact that the political differences between Bolshevism and Menshevism were now coming to the fore, many leading Bolsheviks did not understand Lenin’s position and tended to play the differences down. The predominant trend among the Bolshevik tendency inside Russia was precisely conciliationism. The great majority of the party activists did not grasp the reasons for the split, and rejected it. Even Lenin’s closest collaborators were, in effect, working against him. In February 1904, after a long period of vacillation, the CC inside Russia rejected Lenin’s call for a congress by five votes against one. This amounted to a public rebuff for Lenin. Yet those who voted against—Krzhizhanovsky, Krassin, Galperin, Gusarov, and Noskov (Zemlyachka voted for)—had worked closely with Lenin since the founding of Iskra, or even earlier. They had played a prominent role in organizing the revolutionary Marxist tendency in Russia. How could they behave in this way?

These were, in many ways, true Bolshevik types—tireless, dedicated party workers, good organizers, disciplined and self-sacrificing. But they were what might be called “practicos,” whose work consisted in a hundred and one detailed organizational tasks. Without such people, no revolutionary party can succeed. But there was also a negative aspect to the mentality of the Bolshevik “committeemen,” as they were known: a certain organizational limitedness, a narrowness of outlook and restricted theoretical horizons. Such types as these inevitably tended to look with a certain disdain upon the finer points of history and regard such controversies as those that took place at the Second Congress as mere émigré squabbles, of no practical importance. If the majority of them had initially sided with Lenin and Plekhanov, this was not out of any deep ideological commitment, but because the organizational stand of the majority struck them as being more in accord with the “Party spirit” which was the moving force of their lives.

But after Plekhanov’s defection, things began to appear more complicated. The former majority now looked very much like a minority, at least on the leading bodies. Lenin’s complete isolation seemed to underline his weakness. And, to the practicos, Plekhanov’s arguments carried more weight. What was all this fuss really about? Lenin attempted in his book One Step Forward, Two Steps Back to point out the issues of principle involved. But many of the committeemen were unimpressed. In January 1904, Lenin had finally organized a Bureau of Majority Committees to agitate for a Congress. Two CC members, Lengnik and Essen, were sent to Russia for this purpose, but were arrested. Meanwhile, the majority of Bolshevik conciliators on the CC actually ousted Lenin’s only supporter, Zemlyachka. The Bolshevik leadership was falling apart. Demoralized, Gusarov dropped out of activity, and Krzhizhanovsky resigned from the CC. The remaining CC members, Krassin, Noskov, and Galperin—all Bolshevik conciliators—proceeded to pull off an unprincipled coup.

In the summer, when Lenin was convalescing in the Swiss Alps, the triumvirate held a secret meeting of the CC and passed what became known as the “July declaration,” calling for reconciliation between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks and, in effect, surrendering on the minority’s terms. They accepted the “unquestionable legality” of the new Editorial Board of Iskra and the “equally unquestionable superiority of the central organ in everything which concerns the defense and clarification of the basic principles of the international Social Democracy’s program and tactics.”

These actions represented an explicit repudiation of Lenin, whom they relieved of the right to represent the CC abroad. They even insisted on the right to censor Lenin’s writings (“the printing of his writings . . . will be carried out on each occasion with the agreements of the members of the CC”)189 and prohibited agitation in favor of a Third Congress. Furthermore, Noskov was charged with reorganizing the party’s technical work abroad, which meant eliminating such supporters of Lenin as Bonch-Bruyevich, who had been involved in publishing Bolshevik material abroad, and Lyadov, who was in charge of finances. In addition, three more Bolshevik-conciliators, and then three Mensheviks, were co-opted onto the CC. When Lenin finally found out what was going on, he wrote an angry letter to the CC challenging the legality of its actions. A further letter was sent to the members of the Bolshevik committees, exposing the activities of the CC. He even sent a letter to Iskra asking it not to publish the illegal declaration. But the editors, ignoring Lenin’s request, published it in issue 72 under the title Declaration of the Central Committee. There was nothing left to Lenin but to break off all relations with the conciliators.

The situation was now grim indeed. Everything which had been achieved by the Second Congress was in ruins. One after the other, the leading bodies had been captured by the minority. The Martovites appeared to have triumphed all along the line. Lenin seemed to be utterly isolated. In reality, however, the Mensheviks’ victory had been achieved by maneuvering at the top. At grass roots level, things were different. An increasing number of committees were coming out in favor of a new Congress as the only way of resolving the crisis. The party committees in Petersburg, Moscow, Yekaterinoslav, Riga, the Northern Union, Voronezh, Nizhegorod, and, perhaps more surprisingly Baku, Batum, and the Caucasian Union, declared their support. Even abroad, Social Democratic groups in Paris, Genoa, and Berlin came out against the Mensheviks. According to a letter written by Lyubimov to Noskov in the autumn of 1904:

On the question of the declaration [of the CC], there has been such a row you can hardly make head or tail of it. Only one thing is clear: all the committees—except Kharkov, Crimea, Gornozavdsk, and Don—are committees of the majority . . . The CC has received a full vote of confidence from a very insignificant number of committees.190

Encouraged by the response inside Russia, Lenin convened a conference of 22 Bolsheviks in Switzerland in August 1904, which adopted his appeal To the Party, which became a rallying call for the convening of a Third Party Congress. With his customary honesty, Lenin described the serious crisis through which the Party was passing, adding that:

Nonetheless, we regard the Party’s sickness as a matter of growing pains. We consider that the underlying cause of the crisis is the transition from the circle form to party forms of the life of Social Democracy; the essence of its internal struggle is a conflict between the circle spirit and the party spirit. And, consequently, only by shaking off this sickness can our Party become a real party.

Only now did Lenin point out the class forces which lay behind the split:

Lastly, the opposition cadres have in general been drawn chiefly from those elements in our Party which consist primarily of intellectuals. The intelligentsia is always more individualistic than the proletariat, owing to its very conditions of life and work, which do not directly educate it through organized collective labor. The intellectual elements therefore find it harder to adapt themselves to the discipline of Party life and those of them who are not equal to it naturally raise the standard of revolt against the necessary organizational limitations, and elevate their instinctive anarchism to a principle of struggle, misnaming it a desire for “autonomy,” a demand for “tolerance,” etc.

The section of the Party abroad, where the circles are comparatively long-lived, where theoreticians of various shades are gathered, and where the intelligentsia decidedly predominates, was bound to be most inclined to the views of the “minority,” which then as a result proved to be the actual majority. Russia, on the other hand, where the voice of the organized proletariat is louder, where the Party intelligentsia too, being in closer and more direct contact with them, is trained in a more proletarian spirit, and where the exigencies of the immediate struggle make the need for organized unity more strongly felt, came out in vigorous opposition to the circle spirit and the disruptive anarchistic tendencies.191

By the autumn, the prospects for the Bolsheviks were looking brighter. A new leading team was gradually being put together with new arrivals from Russia—people like Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, Olminsky. After his month in the Alps, Lenin’s health was much improved. “It was as if he had bathed in a mountain stream and washed off all the cobwebs of sordid intrigue,” wrote Krupskaya.192 Encouraging reports were being received from Russia, where To the Party had been clandestinely distributed to the Party committees. According to Krupskaya, by mid-September, 12 out of 20 committees with full voting rights had come out in favor of a Congress, and the number was still growing. From this point on, the Bolsheviks were a serious organized force within Russia. By the end of the year a Bolshevik Organizing Center was established in the interior, with the backing of 13 Party committees. Still, the situation remained extremely fragile.

Unlike their opponents, the Bolsheviks were desperately short of funds. The question of a newspaper was initially out of the question. As a temporary substitute, Lenin and Bonch-Bruyevich launched a “Publishing House for Social Democratic Party Literature” which from early September began to publish individual titles by Lenin and his collaborators. This was, at least, a start. But the Mensheviks held all the cards when it came to publications. Not only did they control the prestigious Iskra, but they also had a good supply of money from wealthy sympathizers. They did not hesitate to use this unscrupulously as a weapon in the factional struggle. Krupskaya recalls with a note of bitterness how the Mensheviks put pressure on sympathizers to stop giving assistance to the majority:

Ilyich and I had some strong things to say about those “sympathizers” who belonged to no organization and imagined that their accommodation and paltry donations could influence the course of events in our proletarian Party!193

The question of funds from abroad was undoubtedly a factor in the capitulation of the Bolshevik-conciliators on the CC to the émigré center.

Despite their lack of resources, the Bolsheviks decided to launch a new paper called Vperyod (Forward). At a meeting in Geneva on December 3, an editorial board was elected, composed of Lenin, V.V. Vorovsky, M.S. Olminsky, and A.V. Lunacharsky, with Krupskaya as secretary. As usual, the lack of funds was made up for by personal sacrifice. Everyone scratched around for spare cash. Vorovsky handed over some author’s fees he had just received. Olminsky parted with a gold watch. Somehow or other, 1,000 francs were scraped together—barely enough for one and a half issues. But nobody was deterred by this. The first issue of the first truly Bolshevik newspaper duly rolled off the press on December 22, 1904. Just over a fortnight later, the Russian émigrés were amazed to hear the raucous shouts of the newspaper boys on the streets of Geneva: “Revolution in Russia! Revolution in Russia!”


186 Trotsky, Stalin, 50.

187 Trotsky, My Life, 166 (my emphasis).

188 Quoted in Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, 86, 166 (my emphasis), and 165.

189 Istoriya KPSS, 509 in both quotes.

190 Ibid., 509.

191 LCW, To the Party, vol. 7, 455–56.

192 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 106.

193 Ibid., 98.

29) January 9, 1905

Sire! We workers, our children and wives, the helpless old people who are our parents, we have come to you, Sire, to seek justice and protection. We are in great poverty, we are oppressed and weighed down with labors beyond our strength; we are insulted, we are not recognized as human beings, we are treated like slaves who must bear their lot in silence. And we have suffered it, but we are being driven ever deeper into beggary, lawlessness, and ignorance. Despotism and arbitrary rule are strangling us, and we are suffocating. Sire, our strength is at an end! The limit of our patience has been reached: the terrible moment has come for us when it is better to die than to continue suffering intolerable torment.

With these words, the working class of Russia made its first decisive entrance upon the stage of history, appealing to the clemency of the tsar, the “Little Father,” with a petition in its hands and a priest at its head. Eleven months later, the same working class rose against the autocracy, arms in hand, under the leadership of a Marxist party. In the intervening months, the first Russian Revolution unfolded on an epic scale, involving every layer of the proletariat and all other oppressed layers of society, passing through every imaginable phase of struggle and utilizing every conceivable fighting method, from economic strikes and petitions to the authorities through the political general strike and mass demonstrations, to an armed insurrection. The 1905 Revolution already revealed, albeit in an embryonic fashion, all the basic processes which were to be repeated on a higher scale 12 years later. It was a dress rehearsal, without which the final victory of the proletariat in October 1917 would have been impossible. In the course of 1905, all ideas, programs, parties, and leaders were put to the test. The experience of the first revolution was decisive for the future evolution of all the tendencies in Russian Social Democracy.

Yet the truth is that the beginning of the revolution found the Party in a lamentable state. On the eve of 1905 the Party was seriously weakened by splits and arrests. The internal faction fight had paralyzed its activities for many months. The activists inside Russia were confused and disoriented. Having lost control of the Party center abroad, the Bolsheviks were deprived of an organ, until the first issue of Vperyod came out in December 1904. An acute shortage of funds meant that even Vperyod led a precarious existence. The Mensheviks had more resources, but were thinner on the ground in the interior, with the exception of certain areas such as the South and the Caucasus, but there, too, they were in a relatively weak position. Given the nature of underground work, it is very difficult to estimate the exact strength of the Bolsheviks at this time. The St. Petersburg Party organization did not formally split until December 1904, when the Mensheviks broke away. Up to that time, Lenin’s supporters had been in the ascendant. But the internal struggle had had a damaging effect on the Party’s work, turning it inwards. This is reflected in the number of Bolshevik leaflets issued in Petersburg in 1904: only 11 for the whole year, as against 55 in 1903 and 117 in 1905.194

In general, the Bolshevik organization in Russia in the second half of 1904 was in a poor condition. Many of the full timers, as we have seen, did not really understand the split and were badly shaken by the defection of the conciliationist Central Committee. Despite encouragement and insistence from Lenin, they tended to lag behind the Mensheviks, who were now on the offensive, sending large numbers of agents and money into Russia. In St. Petersburg, they soon gained the upper hand over the Bolshevik-dominated committee. The mistakes and general inertia of the committee caused increasing discontent among the St. Petersburg workers, who were gradually turning to the Mensheviks. The Narva committee passed a resolution expressing its “disinclination to continue working under the leadership of the St. Petersburg committee.” The Vasiliev Ostrov committee passed a vote of “complete lack of confidence” in the Bolshevik-led committee. The Narva, Neva, Vasiliev Ostrov, and “Petersburg Side” sections, representing the bulk of the workers, broke away and declared for the Mensheviks. By December, they had set up a separate committee. Two rival committees continued to exist in St. Petersburg right up to the Stockholm Congress of 1906.

The loss of a number of key areas of St. Petersburg was a body blow to Lenin. It deprived the Bolsheviks of key points of influence and allowed the Mensheviks to get a head start in the stormy events of the following months. To make matters worse, it was clear that the losses were mainly the result of the deficiencies of the local Bolshevik leadership, the quality of which was shown by the stream of complaining letters sent to Lenin. He must have torn his hair out when he read the tearful reports of his principal agent in St. Petersburg, Rosalia Zemlyachka:

“No end of Mensheviks have flocked into Russia,” she wrote. “The Central Committee has managed to turn many people against us. There are not enough forces to carry on the fight and consolidate positions. Demands for people are coming in from all over. It is imperative to make a tour of the committees immediately. There is no one who can go. I am neglecting the Bureau and am absorbed in local work. Things couldn’t be worse. We need people. Everybody is asking. There is no one to work with . . .”

And the catalogue of complaints continues:

We are running the risk of losing one city after another for the lack of people. Every day, I get heaps of letters from various places, imploring [us] to send people. Just now I got a confused letter from Yekaterinoslav. They write that unless we send people and money at once, we shall lose Yekaterinoslav. But there are no people: one after another are retiring and no new ones arrive. Meanwhile the Mensheviks have consolidated their positions everywhere. They would be easy as can be to drive out if only we had people. The Bureau is a fiction since we’re all busy with local affairs.

And these lines were written on January 7, 1905, two days before Bloody Sunday. The constant complaints about a “lack of people” showed up the ingrained lack of confidence of the committeemen and women in the workers. Instead of bringing new blood onto the committees, co-opting the best elements of the workers and the youth, they sought easy solutions, demanding more full-timers from abroad. In every line of these letters, one sees a complete inability to relate the work of the leading circle with the living forces of the working class movement. Commenting on the situation, Litvinov wrote to Lenin:

The truble is that she [Zemlyachka] does not in the least realize in what a critical and sorry state we are. The periphery, if not everywhere against us, is hardly anywhere for us. The bulk of the party workers still think that we are a bunch of disorganizers without any kind of backing, that since the reconciliation [of the Central Committee and the Mensheviks] the attitude of the committee has changed, that all our efforts are but the death throes of the Bolsheviks. No conferences (least of all secret ones), no agitation will change this widespread view. I repeat, our situation is utterly shaky and precarious. We can get out of it only by 1) immediately calling a congress (not later than February) and 2) immediately starting a paper. Without the speediest fulfillment of these two conditions, we are going to certain ruin, and with giant steps, too . . . Petersburg we shall probably have to lose. Swarms of Mensheviks have arrived there . . . We ought to mobilize our forces for Petersburg, but who do we get there?

The Bolsheviks were in a mess, but in fact the position of the Mensheviks was not much better. Neither of the two factions had the support of the workers.

“The Social Democratic organization in St. Petersburg prior to January 1905, by almost any criteria, was weak,” writes Solomon Schwarz.

In December 1903, the joint Social Democratic organization had about 18 circles in the factories, and membership of circles was from seven to ten, which would give a total worker membership of not more than 180. If the students and intelligentsia had about the same, as seems likely, total membership would have been 360. During the winter of 1904 the Committee’s membership and activities declined, and the links with abroad were weak or non-existent . . . The same correspondent says that the Mensheviks too were losing support: in one region where they had 15 to 20 circles, by December 1904 they had only four or five.

In his memoirs, the leading Menshevik P.A. Garvi describes the position in Kiev on the eve of 1905: “A strange dearth of people in the organization. A remoteness from the working masses and their daily interests. A meager organizational life in comparison with the recent past—that is what struck me in Kiev, suggesting melancholy comparisons with the past, with the ebullient life of the Odessa organization of the 1901 and 1902 period. There was the Kiev committee; there were sector committees; in the sections there were propagandists conducting propaganda circles, usually leaflets were distributed through the circles, that was about all.

Getting ahead of myself I will say that during all of 1905 in Kiev, in Rostov and in Moscow daily we came up against one and the same phenomenon: in the party organizations were gathered mostly callow youths, hotheaded and resolute but weakly linked to the working masses and uninfluential in the factories. The old social democrats among the workers—the real vanguard of the advanced workers formed in the period of propaganda and of the so-called Economism—these old workers, for the most part, stood aside. In Kiev, Rostov, and Moscow and right up to the October strike I—and not only I—had to resort to more or less artificial methods to draw the “oldsters” into active party work. We arranged special meetings and evening parties with them, we reasoned with them, but they went into party work reluctantly and looked upon our organization and our working methods with mistrust.195


194 See David Lane, The Roots of Russian Communism, 71.

195 Quoted in Schwarz, Revolution of 1905, 54, 54–55, 55, 72, and 57.

30) ‘Zubatovism’

The weakness of the Party coincided with a new upswing in the workers’ movement, which was therefore obliged to express itself through other channels. In 1900–2, the head of the Moscow Okhrana (secret police), S.V. Zubatov, hit on the idea of setting up legal unions, under the control of the police, which were allowed to function, and even elect committees, subject to police vetting, and carry out activities, provided they were of a strictly economic, non-political character. Zubatov not only established legal trade unions, under the control of the police (a tactic ironically christened “police socialism” by the revolutionaries), but also went to great lengths to recruit revolutionaries as agents. He would visit them in prison, showing a fatherly interest in their welfare, brought them tea and biscuits and even Marxist literature to read. Interrogations were organized, not in prison but in the study of his home, where he tried to persuade them that the best way to defend the workers’ interest was to participate in his “movement.” By combining harshness with such methods, some of the weaker or more naïve elements were eventually ensnared and became informants upon their release. Once entangled, it became virtually impossible to escape. Known provocateurs were not treated very gently by the revolutionaries.

Zubatov was far more intelligent than the average tsarist police chief and his methods were quite successful for a time—too successful, in fact! In a climate of general labor unrest and in the absence of genuine mass legal organizations the workers entered the police unions in large numbers. In order to keep in the workers’ good books, over-zealous police officers even organized strikes. These unions contained thousands of workers—far more than the relatively small numbers active in the Social Democratic committees. With their customary resourcefulness, the workers turned the table on the police, and used the opportunity to press home their demands and organize legally in the workplaces. Zubatov’s unions gave the workers a chance to organize and express their grievances. The question arose of what attitude the Social Democrats should take towards these reactionary police unions. Many years later, when the Russian workers had already taken power, Lenin gave the answer in his masterpiece on revolutionary strategy and tactics, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder:

Under tsarism we had no “legal opportunities” whatsoever until 1905. However, when Zubatov, agent of the secret police, organized Black Hundred [the Black Hundreds were a reactionary, anti-Semitic organization used by tsarism as an auxiliary arm against the revolutionary movement] workers’ assemblies and working men’s societies for the purpose of trapping revolutionaries and combating them, we sent members of our party to these assemblies and into these societies . . . They established contacts with the masses, were able to carry on their agitation, and succeeded in wresting workers from the influence of Zubatov’s agents.

Lenin did not confine his remarks to the particular conditions of tsarist Russia, but laid down a general rule which governs the approach of Marxists to the mass organizations of the proletariat. In order to build a real revolutionary party, it is not sufficient to proclaim it from the street corner. It is necessary to find a road to the masses, regardless of all obstacles. It is necessary to go to the masses wherever they are:

To refuse to work in the reactionary trade unions means leaving the insufficiently developed or backward masses of workers under the influence of the reactionary leaders, the agents of the bourgeoisie, the labor aristocrats, or “workers who have become completely bourgeois” . . .

This ridiculous “theory” that Communists should not work in reactionary trade unions reveals with the utmost clarity the frivolous attitude of the “Left” Communists toward the question of influencing the “masses” and their misuse of clamor about the “masses.” If you want to help the “masses” and win the sympathy and support of the “masses,” you should not fear the difficulties, or pinpricks, chicanery, insults, and persecution from the “leaders” (who, being opportunists and social-chauvinists, are in most cases directly or indirectly connected with the bourgeoisie and the police), but must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found. You must be capable of any sacrifice, of overcoming the greatest obstacles, in order to carry on agitation and propaganda systematically, perseveringly, persistently, and patiently in those institutions, societies and associations—even the most reactionary—in which proletarian or semiproletarian masses are to be found.196

This was always the hallmark of Lenin’s method: absolute implacability on questions of theory and principle combined with extreme flexibility on tactical and organizational issues. The authorities attempted to construct a wall between the Marxists and the masses. The Social Democratic workers, by patient and careful work and flexible tactics, succeeded in breaking down the barriers, penetrating the unions, and fertilizing them with the ideas of Marxism. Under the irresistible pressure of the shop floor, the Zubatov unions became partially transformed into organs of struggle. After the strike wave of 1903, the unfortunate Zubatov was unceremoniously sacked. Even then this movement continued to play a role. Typical of these Zubatov unions was the St. Petersburg “Assembly of Russian Factory and Workshop Workers,” set up by Father Grigory Gapon with police permission.

Many Social Democrats failed to grasp the necessity of participating in Gapon’s organization in order to reach the masses. They were repelled by its reactionary features. Not for the first or last time, revolutionaries failed to understand the way in which the real movement of the working class unfolds. Setting out from an abstractly correct idea (“The workers need a revolutionary party”) they failed to take into account the real organization of the workers that had evolved out of concrete circumstances and which bore no resemblance to their preconceived ideas of what a workers’ organization ought to look like. Was this union not organized by the police in order to control the working class? How could Marxists participate in such an abomination? Yet the attempts of the tiny Social Democratic circles to win the masses directly by means of propaganda and agitation alone proved futile. The organized workers were mainly skilled and experienced proletarians, mostly members of Gapon’s union, who looked askance at the beardless youngsters who were trying to teach them lessons. Their propaganda seemed to rebound like water off a duck’s back. The Menshevik S. Somov (I.A. Pushkin) described the situation in their St. Petersburg organization at the start of the year:

A very sad picture emerged. Well-functioning organizations were to be found only in the Narva sector, with its 30,000 workers for example, the whole social democratic organization consisted of six or seven circles of workers of the Putilov and the Railway Car Construction plants (five to six workers in each circle) and the work was conducted according to old-fashioned methods, with long courses in political economy and primitive culture. True, there was also a sector organization of representatives of the circles, but what it did is hard to determine. Factory life found no echo at all in the circles. The diffuse unrest . . .
that was finding an expression in the powerfully developing Gapon movement in which the yearning of the working masses for broad organization and class unity was so clearly displayed was ignored as Zubatovism. Moreover, most of the workers belonging to our circle were very young men, just out of apprenticeship and with no influence whatsoever in their factory milieu.197

Those active in the circles were generally the more skilled and literate among the workers, good at their work and with a strong sense of pride in it, not just in politics but in the workplace as well. It was a hard milieu to penetrate.

“In those days,” wrote the Putilov worker A.M. Buiko, “it was felt that if a worker did not master his trade, did not become a good craftsman, then he was not a proper fellow. This point of view had its roots in the days of kustashchina, the propaganda circles, when old craftsmen regarded unskilled workers as a casual element in their midst . . . if a young man began a conversation with an older skilled fitter or turner he would be told: ‘Learn first how to hold a hammer and use chisel and a knife, and then you can begin to argue like a man who has something to teach others.’”198


196 LCW, vol. 31, 55 and 53 (emphasis in original).

197 Quoted in Schwarz, Revolution of 1905, 56.

198 Quoted in Surh, 1905 in St. Petersburg, 73.

31) Father Gapon

Gapon’s “union,” set up in April 1904, was in reality a friendly society which organized insurance schemes, libraries and social activities, such as musical evenings which the workers attended with their families. It was intended as a safety valve where workers, to some extent, could give voice to their grievances, but where all mention of politics was rigorously prohibited. Its declared aims, among other things, were to affirm “national consciousness” among the workers, encourage “sensible views” about their rights, and foster “activity facilitating the legal improvements of the workers conditions of work and living.” Since the Assembly’s leaders did everything in their power to exclude revolutionaries, it is not surprising that the revolutionary workers and intellectuals looked upon the new organization with extreme suspicion and hostility.

However, the efforts of the police and their union stooges to clamp the workers’ movement into a straitjacket of legal constraints was doomed to failure. The rising tide of discontent which affected all layers of society in the course of the Russo-Japanese War began to affect even the most backward strata of the working class. Up to this moment, the opposition to tsarism had mainly come from the liberal intelligentsia and the students. The big battalions of the working class seemed to have stood aside from the struggle. But, despite the appearance of calm, the factories and workers’ districts were seething with discontent. All that was required was some focal point which would enable this subterranean process to find a voice and a conscious, organized expression. After the assassination of Plehve, the hated interior minister, in July 1904, the regime, hopelessly compromised by military defeats and feeling the ground tremble beneath its feet, tried to forestall revolution from below by making concessions from the top. The relative softening of the regime in the autumn 1904 gave the workers more room to breathe. From September 1904 a series of mass meetings were held in the Petersburg factories, under the auspices of Gapon’s Assembly, which became increasingly popular with the workers. Fresh layers of workers, with no experience of struggle, were becoming organized. Gapon’s organization now had up to 8,000 members and branches in at least 11 districts of the city. This was a far larger number of workers than had ever participated in the Social Democratic organizations, which numbered at most 500 or 600 members.

The workers who joined Gapon’s union were not like the old, conscious Social Democratic workers, but completely raw, politically untutored masses, who brought with them all the prejudices imbibed for a thousand years from a backward peasant milieu. Insofar as injustice existed, the Russian peasant reasoned, this was the fault of the “tsar’s servants,” not the monarch who was the “people’s protector.” It was no accident that the union was headed by a priest. The Marxists had no real influence inside the Assembly, although there was a significant layer of workers who had passed through the Social Democratic organizations in the previous decade, had dropped out, and now resurfaced in this new milieu. It is important to bear this in mind when one reads the usual allegation that the 1905 Revolution was a “spontaneous movement.” Of course, the element of spontaneity was present. But equally, the events leading up to January 9 were, in fact, planned in advance by the leading group of Gapon’s organization, acting under the pressure of the workers, many of whom had been touched by the propaganda of Marxism in the big strikes of the 1890s.

The figure of Gapon himself is shrouded in an enigma. The prevailing opinion in Marxist circles at the time was that he was a simple police agent, who in all probability had deliberately planned the massacre of 9 January 1905 with the authorities. The notorious Stalinist Short Course states baldly that

in 1904, prior to the Putilov strike, the police had used the services of an agent provocateur, a priest by the name of Gapon . . . Gapon undertook to assist the tsarist Okhrana [secret police] by providing a pretext for firing on the workers and drowning the working class movement in blood.199

Gapon was undoubtedly mixed up with the police when the union was set up, and even had contacts with leading members of the government. But his was a very contradictory character. On January 9, when he narrowly escaped death at the hands of the tsarist troops, he marched side by side with the Social Revolutionary Pinchas Rutenberg. Later he was sheltered by Maxim Gorky, held discussions with Lenin in Geneva and came close to the Bolsheviks. Lenin was convinced of his childlike sincerity. But Gapon’s understanding of the revolution remained on a primitive level. Exile destroyed him, as it destroyed many others. He became demoralized, took to gambling and finally returned to Russia where, it seems, he attempted to resume his contacts with the police, writing a letter to the Minister of the Interior Durnovo. Finally, in March 1906, he was assassinated. Ironically, the bullet that killed him was fired by the same SR who had marched at his side on that fateful Sunday in January.

The idea that Gapon consciously led the workers to be slaughtered is clearly false. Gapon’s contradictory character reflected the mentality of the new generation of workers newly arrived from the villages and only half assimilated into the proletariat, bringing with them many prejudices and even reactionary ideas. An able organizer, a fine orator, and a natural leader, he spoke a language which the workers could understand. With its curious mixture of militancy and religion, class struggle and monarchism, it corresponded to the first, confused gropings towards consciousness of millions of the most downtrodden layers of society. The son of a peasant himself, who was touched in his youth by revolutionary ideas, Gapon faithfully expressed the confused strivings of this layer in which the desire to fight for a better life in this world is still entangled with hopes in the afterlife and belief in the Little Father. No one expressed the feelings of the masses better than Gapon. For that reason, the masses worshipped him.

“In the tense days of early January 1905,” writes Lionel Kochan, “he had the aura of a leader and a prophet: ‘. . . for each of his words men were willing to give their lives; his priest’s cassock and crucifix were the magnet that drew these hundreds of thousands of tormented people,’ wrote one observer.”200

Whatever Gapon’s motivations, he was stirring up forces neither he nor anyone else could control. While the revolutionaries branded him an agent provocateur, the authorities cursed him as a dangerous agent of the revolution. Irrespective of his subjective intentions, the latter description was far nearer the truth. But Gapon was ill-equipped to deal with the forces he had helped to conjure up. All along he gives the impression of being carried along by events beyond his control or understanding. On the eve of the massacre, this “leader of men” gave voice to his perplexity: “What would come of it? Good heavens, I don’t know. Something big, but what exactly, I can’t say. Who can make head or tail of all this?”201

The accumulated rage and bitterness of the factory workers finally exploded in a strike at the Putilov arms works—a strategic center of the St. Petersburg proletariat—in December. Starting in September 1904, there had been mass workers’ meetings in the factories under the auspices of the union, which gave the workers a chance to express their grievances and begin to acquire an idea of their own strength. The employers became alarmed and decided to crack down. The spark which ignited the powder keg was the dismissal of four activists of Gapon’s union. On December 28, a mass meeting of workers from 11 factories was convened by Gapon’s organization. The increasingly radicalized mood of the workers was slowly pushing even the Gaponite leaders to more militant positions. An indication of the sea change was the fact that representatives of the Social Democrats and Social Revolutionaries were invited to attend. At this meeting it was decided to send a delegation with a petition to the management, the factory inspectors, and the authorities in St. Petersburg, setting forth the workers’ grievances. By January 3, all 13,000 workers were on strike. The only people still inside the plant were two police agents. The strikers demanded an eight-hour day, a ban on overtime working, improved working conditions, free medical aid, higher wages for women workers, permission to organize a representative committee and payment of wages for the period of the strike.


199 Stalin, History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [Bolsheviks], 94.

200 L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, 87.

201 Quoted in Martov and others, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 2, 43.

32) The Putilov Strike

The idea of a petition was probably conceived by Gapon as a way of diverting the movement into safe channels. Possibly Gapon really believed he could act as a mediator between the Little Father and his “children.” But once put forward, in a situation of ferment among the masses, even this apparently innocuous idea had a logic of its own. The idea of an appeal to the tsar and a petition of demands immediately caught the imagination of the masses. Mass meetings were held all over the capital. Gapon dashed from one meeting to another, delivering increasingly radical speeches under the impact of the mood of the masses, who revered him. An eyewitness account gives a vivid impression of the electric atmosphere at these meetings, with their quasi-evangelical character, Gapon calling upon the Almighty to lead the workers in struggle, urging the workers to stand together and, if necessary, die together:

All those present were in a state of rapture—many were weeping, stamping their feet, banging chairs, beating with their fists against the walls and raising their hands on high, they swore to remain firm to the end.

The movement was rapidly turning into a general strike. By January 5, 26,000 workers were out; by January 7, 105,000; and the next day, 111,000. It was also acquiring a political character. A mass meeting on January 5 voted for the immediate convening of a Constituent Assembly, political liberty, an end to the war, and the freeing of political prisoners. In all probability, the initiative for these resolutions came from workers who had been influenced by the Social Democrats. Over a long period of Social Democratic agitation, propaganda, and organization, a considerable number of advanced workers had been in contact, to a greater or lesser extent, with the Social Democratic propaganda circles. A far larger number had been affected by the mass agitation carried out systematically by the Social Democrats for at least ten years prior to January 9. That the basic slogans of the Marxists had left their mark on the consciousness of the working class was demonstrated by the fact that a number of key Social Democratic demands found their way into Gapon’s famous petition—from the eight-hour day to the demand for a Constituent Assembly.

But although Social Democratic slogans were getting an echo, the Party itself was still completely isolated and without influence. Martov, in his history of the Russian Social Democracy, written only a few years later, confirms that

. . . the Social Democracy of both factions could not but notice that the stormy events in Petersburg in January 1905 took place not only outside the immediate leadership of the Social Democracy, but even without a significant participation by it as an organized whole.202

This is confirmed from the Bolshevik side by the minutes of the Third Congress which state that

the January events found the Petersburg committee in an extremely deplorable state. Its links with the working masses had been utterly disorganized by the Mensheviks. Only with great difficulty did they manage to maintain themselves in the city, Vasily Island and the Vyborg district.203

As always, the watchword of the movement of the masses is “unity.” They saw the Social Democrats as alien elements coming from without, and not part of their movement. At one mass meeting, Gapon chided a Social Democratic speaker with the words: “Do not introduce discord: let us march towards our sacred goal under a single peaceful banner, common to one and all.” Gapon’s authority appeared to be unassailable. By contrast, the revolutionary Social Democrats were regarded with suspicion by the workers. The report of the St. Petersburg Bolsheviks to the Third Congress in April admits that they had been very slow to intervene in what they saw as a reactionary police union, only beginning to pay it serious attention when the strike was well underway. In some parts of the city, notably the Vyborg district, they got a sympathetic hearing. But elsewhere in the city, they were given a rough ride. Often the chairman would not even allow them to speak.

“Up to the January 9,” the Petersburg delegate reported, “the attitude of the workers towards the [Bolshevik] committee was extremely hostile. Our agitators were beaten up, leaflets were destroyed, and the first 500 rubles sent to the Putilov workers by the students were accepted grudgingly.”204

A Menshevik writer bears this out:

In the Narva district, where the movement had originated, as late as the January 8, the workers enthusiastically welcomed the political content of Gapon’s petition. When a lone Social Democrat attempted to deliver a political speech, a howl went up from the assembled workers: “Down with him!” “Throw him out!”205

The numerical weakness and isolation of the Social Democracy at the beginning of the revolution was revealed in the words of Livshits, giving voice to the frustration of the Party activists in Petersburg at their inability to exercise a decisive influence before January 9:

“We Party workers,” he wrote, “knew very well that the forthcoming peaceful procession would not lead to anything worthwhile and would involve the masses in terrible bloodshed. But where was the force that could have forestalled this terrible misdeed, for which tsarism and clericalism was responsible? Such a force did not exist.”206

Yet in 24 hours the whole situation was transformed.


202 Ibid., vol. 2, 45 in both quotes.

203 Tretiy s’yezd RSDRP (Protokoly), 544.

204 Ibid., 158 and 44.

205 Quoted in J.L.H. Keep, The Rise of the Social Democracy in Russia, 157.

206 Martov and others, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 3, 540.

33) Bloody Sunday

The petition aroused tremendous enthusiasm when it was read out in mass workers’ assemblies where it was everywhere approved with acclamation. With breathtaking naïveté, Gapon wrote to the Minister of the Interior on the eve of Bloody Sunday, requesting legal permission for a peaceful demonstration in front of the Winter Palace: “The tsar has nothing to fear,” he wrote, “I, as the representative of the Assembly of Russian Workers, my colleagues, and the worker comrades—and even the so-called revolutionary groups of different trends—guarantee the inviolability of his person. Let him come forth like a true tsar, with courage in his heart, to meet his People and take unto his hands our petition.” Signed: “The Priest Gapon and Eleven Workers’ Deputies, St. Petersburg, January 8.”207

In an attempt to underline their peaceful intentions, the organizers banned the display of red flags. The Social Democrats, despite their grave misgivings about the demonstration, decided, correctly, to participate alongside the rest of their class. This the organizers agreed to only on condition that they marched at the rear of the demonstration, a measure which, in the event, saved the lives of many of them.

While the leaders of the union were straining every nerve to convince the government of their peaceful intentions, the latter, in a state of near panic, was preparing to teach the masses a bloody lesson. At two o’clock in the afternoon of Sunday, January 9, the workers began to assemble before the Winter Palace. The square was soon packed with a huge multitude not only of workers but students, socialist groups, women, children, and old people—in all about 140,000 people.

As agreed, the march to the palace was a peaceful one, without songs, banners or speeches. People wore their Sunday clothes. In some parts of the city they carried icons and church banners. Everywhere the petitioners encountered troops. They begged to be allowed to pass. They wept, they tried to go around the barrier, they tried to break through it. The soldiers fired all day long, the dead were counted in by the hundreds, the wounded in the thousands. An exact count was impossible since the police carted away and secretly buried the bodies of the dead at night.208

At least 4,600 people were killed and wounded that day.

The massacre of January 9 reveals “Nicholas the Bloody,” as he justly became known, not only as a cruel and contemptible man, but also as an exceedingly stupid monarch.

“The shots fired on the January 22, 1905,” recalls Eva Broido, “woke echoes all over Russia. Everywhere the masses were stirred out of their complacency: the old belief in the goodness of the ‘little father’ the tsar was dead. Even the most backward workers understood that much.”209

After the massacre, Gapon recoiled in horror, denouncing the tsar and appealing for an armed uprising. At an emotional meeting held on the night of Bloody Sunday, Gapon announced to the assembled workers: “We no longer have a tsar.” Crowds of workers roamed the streets, angry and desperate but without leadership. And suddenly, the same revolutionaries who had been rejected, shouted down and even beaten up became the focal point of intense interest. The Petersburg delegate at the Third Congress related how on the evening of the 9th the Bolshevik agitators took to the streets looking for groups of workers to address, but found that things had already gone beyond that stage. The workers had learned in a matter of hours more than decades of agitation and propaganda could ever teach them.

We were passed by carriages carrying away the dead, behind which ran crowds of people shouting “Down with the tsar!” You only had to throw arms at a crowd like this and they would have gone anywhere you wanted. On Vasily Island a scrap iron shop was broken into and the crowd armed themselves with old swords. This created a pathetic impression. Everywhere you could hear the cry: “Arms! Arms!” By evening the attitude towards the organization underwent a radical transformation. Our agitators were listened to with enthusiasm. The organizers could go wherever they pleased. On each of the successive days the same mood could be observed.210

Marx once wrote that the revolution at times needs the whip of counterrevolution to drive it forward. Despite the hypnotic effect exercised by Gapon on the workers at the time, he was merely an accidental figure thrown up by the movement of the masses, like a fleck of foam on the crest of a mighty wave, which flashes brightly for a moment before vanishing forever. His very success consisted in the fact that he was the personification of the first inchoate, spontaneous, instinctive movement of the working class, the first stirrings of consciousness of the masses. Inevitably, such a movement tends to seek out the line of least resistance, the well-worn paths, familiar sounding phrases, and famous leaders. It took the massacre of Bloody Sunday to knock out of the heads of the masses the century-old illusions in the tsar. In a revolutionary situation, the workers’ consciousness grows by leaps and bounds. Indeed, sudden and sharp shifts in the mood of the masses constitutes the essential element of a revolutionary or prerevolutionary period. By the end of the year, the revolutionary Social Democracy had definitely established itself as the hegemonic force within the working class, striving to place itself at the head of the revolutionary nation.

From exile in Switzerland, Lenin immediately hailed the January events as the beginning of the revolution in Russia:

“The working class,” he wrote, “has received a momentous lesson in civil war: the revolutionary education of the proletariat made more progress in one day than it could have made in months and years of drab, humdrum, wretched existence. The slogan of the heroic St. Petersburg proletariat, ‘Death or Freedom!’ is reverberating throughout Russia.”211

As we have seen, prior to January 9 the workers were not willing to read Social Democratic leaflets, and often tore them up and even beat the leafletters. But now the consciousness of the masses was transformed. One Social Democrat described the situation:

Now tens of thousands of revolutionary pamphlets were swallowed up without remainder; nine-tenths were not only read but read until they fell apart. The newspaper which was recently considered by the broad masses, and particularly by the peasantry, as a landlord’s affair, and when it came accidentally into their hands was used in the best of cases to roll cigarettes in, was now carefully, even lovingly, straightened and smoothed out, given to the literate, and the crowd, holding its breath, listened to “what they are writing about the war” . . . Not only did the soldiers moving along all the lines of the railway network almost fight for a newspaper or other printed sheet thrown from the window of a passing train, but the peasants of the villages near the railways from then on, and also for some years after the war, continued to ask passengers for “a little newspaper.”212


207 Ibid., vol. 2, 45.

208 Trotsky, 1905, 92.

209 E. Broido, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, 116.

210 Tretiy s’yezd RSDRP (Protokoly), 545.

211 LCW, The Beginning of the Revolution in Russia, vol. 8, 97.

212 Martov and others, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 2, part 1, 36–37.

34) Revolution Begins

Only two days before Bloody Sunday, the ex-Marxist liberal, Struve, wrote in his journal Osvobozhdenie: “There is not yet such a thing as a revolutionary people in Russia,” to which Trotsky replied scathingly, speaking of the liberals,

They did not believe in the revolutionary role of the proletariat; instead, they believed in the force of the zemtsy’s petition [a reference to the campaign of banquets and petitions launched the previous autumn by the liberals organized around the Zemstvos], in Witte, in Svyatopolk Mirsky, in jars of dynamite. There was no political prejudice in which they did not believe. Our belief in the proletariat was the only thing they regarded as prejudice.213

The magnificent movement of the proletariat was the final answer to all the skeptics.

On January 10, barricades appeared in St. Petersburg. By January 17, 160,000 workers were on strike in 650 factories in the capital. The spontaneous mass movement in solidarity with the Petersburg workers swept across the whole country. The events of Bloody Sunday caused an immediate reaction on the part of the working class. In January alone more than 400,000 workers participated in strikes throughout Russia. From January 14 to 20 the Polish capital was in the grip of a revolutionary general strike involving factories, trams, coach drivers, and even doctors. The city, occupied by Russian troops, resembled an armed camp. On January 16 socialist groups called a demonstration in which 100,000 workers took part. Troops called in to disperse the crowd fired up to 60,000 rounds. In three days, according to official figures, there were 64 dead and 69 wounded of whom 29 died later. A state of siege was declared.

The Baltic area was also swept by the revolutionary current. Riga, Revel, and all the other cities were involved in mass revolutionary movements. The center was Riga where on January 13, 60,000 workers staged a political general strike and 15,000 workers staged a protest march. The Russian governor general, A.N. Neller-Zakomelsky, ordered the troops to fire on the crowd, killing 70 and injuring 200. In the teeth of ferocious repression, the strike movement continued to sweep like wildfire through Poland and the Baltic states. A similar situation existed in the Caucasus where a political general strike broke out. The movement cut across all national lines: Polish, Armenian, Georgian, Lithuanian, and Jewish workers expressed their solidarity with their Russian class brothers in the most practical way—by fighting against the hated Russian autocracy. Most seriously of all, from the government’s point of view, a railway strike began in Saratov, in Central Russia, on January 12, which quickly spread to the other railway lines, extending the revolutionary wave outwards to the most backward provinces.

The movement of the workers had an electrifying effect on all classes in society. The public retreat of the regime encouraged not only the workers, but also the middle class, the bourgeois liberals, and the students.

The workers’ action strengthened the position of the radical elements within the intelligentsia just as the Zemtsy’s conference had earlier put a trump card in the hands of the opportunist elements.214

This movement provoked panic in government circles. After Bloody Sunday, the ruling clique intended to move quickly towards reaction, as indicated by the dismissal of the liberal Sviatopolk-Mirskii in favor of the conservative bureaucrat Bulygin, and the granting of almost unlimited dictatorial powers to General Trepov. Now all its calculations were thrown into disarray. Under the pressure of the growing strike movement, on February 18, the tsar issued his first Manifesto in which he hinted at a constitution and popular representation. By its united action, the working class had achieved more in one week than all the years of speechifying and petitions and banquets by the liberal bourgeois.

The shock waves that flowed from January 9 pushed the whole movement to the left. The tide began to flow strongly in favor of revolutionary action, and the revolutionary Social Democracy. Bolshevik and Menshevik workers, yesterday shunned and mistrusted by their workmates, now came to the fore in every factory. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the role of these conscious worker agitators in the unfolding strike wave, despite its apparently spontaneous character. The activities of the revolutionaries were greatly assisted by General Trepov who obligingly exiled large numbers of “truble makers” from St. Petersburg to the provinces where they acted as a necessary leaven to the revolutionary movement.

After Bloody Sunday, this situation experienced a complete turn-about. The possibilities which now unfolded before the Russian Marxists were now immense. But the Party, still reeling from the effects of the split, was in very poor shape to take advantage of the opportunities. A cursory glance at Lenin’s correspondence at this time reveals the deficient state of the organization, particularly with regard to contact between the Bolshevik activists inside Russia and the leading center abroad:

A nice business: we talk of organization, of centralism, while actually there is such disunity, such amateurism among even the closest comrades in the center, that one feels like chucking it all in in disgust. Just look at the Bundists: they do not prate about centralism, but every one of them writes to the center weekly and contacts are thus actually maintained . . . Really, I sometimes think that nine-tenths of the Bolsheviks are actually formalists. Either we shall rally all who are out to fight into a really iron-strong organization and with this small but strong party quash that sprawling monster, the new-Iskra [i.e., Mensheviks] motley elements, or we shall prove by our conduct that we deserve to go under for being contemptible formalists . . .

The Mensheviks have more money, more literature, more transportation facilities, more agents, more “names,” and a larger staff of contributors. It would be unpardonable childishness not to see that.215

While some element of exaggeration may be put down to Lenin’s natural feelings of frustration and impatience, the accusation of formalism directed against a layer of the Bolshevik professionals inside Russia was not at all accidental. Starting out from a position of clear superiority among the Party activists in Russia, the Bolshevik committeemen, when unexpectedly confronted with the explosive movement of the masses failed to react with the necessary flexibility, and consequently made mistakes and frequently lost the initiative. In a situation where hundreds of thousands of workers and youth were entering the arena of politics, seeking the revolutionary road, the most pressing need was to open up the Party, and let in at least the best elements among the masses. But the committeemen, steeped in the habit of clandestine, small circle work, proved reluctant to move over and make way for the new, fresh layers. They found a hundred and one excuses for not opening up—the workers were not ready to join, the need to safeguard security, and so on and so forth. After all, they reasoned, wasn’t the basic difference between Lenin and Martov at the Second Congress the need to safeguard the purity of the revolutionary vanguard by not swamping it with too many raw and untutored elements? We must not dilute the membership!

Yet that very Lenin who argued in favor of restricting Party membership in 1903 now argued even more vehemently in favor of opening the doors and windows and letting in the largest possible number of workers and youth:

“We need young forces,” he thundered, “I am for shooting on the spot anyone who presumes to say that there are no people to be had.

The people in Russia are legion: all we have to do is to recruit young people more widely and boldly, more boldly and widely, and again more widely and again more boldly, without fearing them. This is a time of war. The youth—the students, and still more the young workers—will decide the issue of the whole struggle. Get rid of all the old habits of immobility, of respect for rank, and so on. Form hundreds of circles of Vperyod-ists [i.e., Bolsheviks] from among the youth and encourage them to work at full blast. Enlarge the Committee threefold by accepting young people into it, set up half a dozen or a dozen subcommittees, “co-opt” any and every honest and energetic person. Allow every subcommittee to write and publish leaflets without any red tape (there is no harm if they do make a mistake: we on Vperyod will “gently” correct them). We must, with desperate speed, unite all people with revolutionary initiative and set them to work. Do not fear their lack of training, do not tremble at their inexperience and lack of development . . . [because] events themselves will teach them in our spirit. Events are already teaching everyone precisely in the Vperyod spirit.

Only you must be sure to organize, organize, and organize hundreds of circles, completely pushing into the background the customary, well-meant committee (hierarchic) stupidities. This is a time of war. Either you create new, young, fresh, energetic battle organizations everywhere for revolutionary Social Democratic work of all varieties among all strata, or you will go under, wearing the aureole of “committee” bureaucrats.216

Reminding his colleagues that “the strength of a revolutionary organization lies in the number of its connections,” Lenin wrote to Gusev on February 15:

A professional revolutionary must build up dozens of new connections in each locality, put all the work into their hands while he is with them, teach them and bring them up to the mark not by lecturing them but by work. Then he should go to another place and after a month or two return to check up on the young people who have replaced him. I assure you that there is a sort of idiotic, philistine, Oblomov-like fear of the youth among us. I implore you: fight this fear with all your might.217

These lines strikingly reveal the whole essence of Lenin’s method, particularly on organizational questions. While stressing the need for a strong, centralized revolutionary organization, Lenin’s attitude to organizational questions was always extremely flexible. After the Second Congress, the Mensheviks attempted to caricature Lenin as a hidebound bureaucrat, striving to create a party composed of an elite of intellectual professional revolutionaries which would exclude ordinary workers who would have to submit to the commands of an “all-powerful center.” This caricature, which has been maliciously repeated and exaggerated by bourgeois historians, is the opposite of the truth, as the above passage—very typical of the period with which we are dealing—irrefutably demonstrates.


213 Trotsky, 1905, 95.

214 Ibid., 96.

215 LCW, A Letter to A. A. Bogdanov and S. I. Gusev, February 11, 1905, vol. 8, 143–45.

216 Ibid., 146.

217 LCW, To S.I. Gusev, February 15, 1905, vol. 34, 296–97.

35) The Shidlovsky Commission

Conscious of the danger facing it from all sides, the regime acted with a mixture of ruthlessness and cunning. While attempting to crush the movement by new arrests, deportations, martial law and pogroms, the government simultaneously attempted to woo the liberal bourgeoisie with the Manifesto of February 18 and set in motion a maneuver designed to split and disorient the working class. Utilizing the time-honored trick of the ruling class in all countries when it feels its back to the wall, the tsarist government set up a commission headed by Senator Shidlovsky “to enquire into the causes of the discontent among the workers.” The aim of this stratagem was clearly an attempt to defuse the situation, diverting the workers away from revolutionary action and preventing them from moving in the direction of Marxism. In an unprecedented move, the government announced that the workers would be represented on the commission by means of elected delegates.

This maneuver presented the Marxists with a tactical problem. On the one hand, the reactionary aims of the government were quite clear. On the other hand, to refuse to participate would be to renounce a splendid opportunity to carry the ideas of revolutionary socialism to the mass of workers. For the Menshevik leaders, with their opportunistic leanings, there was no particular problem. They immediately advocated using the commission as a “tribune” from which to address the workers of all Russia. Among the Bolsheviks in Petersburg, however, the prevailing mood was initially in favor of a boycott. Similar moods existed also among the Menshevik workers who were far to the left of the leaders in exile. At the Third Congress, Rumyantsev (“Filipov” in the minutes) stated that “there were no differences over the need to boycott the [Shidlovsky] commission.”218 However, the general mood of the workers was overwhelmingly in favor of participation, and the Bolsheviks soon modified their position in favor of participating, at least in the election of delegates, taking full advantage of the legal opportunities for agitation among a wider layer of workers than would normally be possible.

The strike movement continued and intensified. The demands put forward by the workers ranged from the demand for hot water for tea and washup facilities, to the demand for the eight-hour day and a constituent assembly. The last-named demands showed the influence of Social Democratic ideas. Still more significant was the demand for the right to elect deputies and that the workers’ elected representatives should enjoy immunity. This already anticipated the formation of the Soviets in the coming months. If the authorities thought that the setting up of a commission would halt the mass movement, they were in for a rude awakening.

“The rank-and-file workers,” writes Surh, “were more intransigent and less willing to postpone strikes and entrust demands to the deliberations of the commission than were their deputies.”

Through the collective struggle the workers began to realize their strength as a class and their worth and dignity as human beings. A common demand, which reflected the awakening consciousness of the workers, was the demand for politer treatment of workers by managers and foremen:

“Unconditionally polite treatment by the plant management,” went the Putilov demands, “of all workers without exception, and the abolition of the use of ‘ty’ with workers [‘ty’ is the familiar form of ‘you’ and was reserved in public discourse for children and social inferiors like serfs and domestics].”

Workers at the Baltic Shipyards stated that

foremen, subforemen, and the whole management in general must without fail treat workers like people and not like an object . . . and not use unpleasant and unnecessary words, as is now done.219

Demands for the removal of unpopular foremen were frequently backed up by direct action. Workers would seize the offender, put him in a sack, and cast him out of the factory. By March 18, the Factory Inspectorate had recorded more than 20 cases of such “sackings” in St. Petersburg. After two sackings at the Putilov Works, the foremen apparently learned good manners and became extremely polite to the workers. The newly found mood of confidence of an awakened working class was fertile ground for revolutionary agitation. Taking advantage of the legal opportunities presented by Shidlovsky, Bolshevik and Menshevik agitators flooded the workplaces with their leaflets, and spoke at many mass meetings. The tactic of both factions was to participate in the elections, to use them as a platform to reach a large number of workers, but to refuse to participate in the commission itself until certain demands were met.

The correctness of the decision to participate in the campaign around the Shidlovsky commission was shown by subsequent events. On February 17, 400 candidates stood in the elections, of whom 20 percent were Social Democrats, 40 percent “radicalized workers” and the remainder “Economist” workers and others. But despite being in a minority, the Bolshevik delegates managed to set the tone of the meeting. The arrest of a number of delegates created a mood of angry militancy in which the Bolsheviks succeeded in delivering what amounted to an ultimatum to Senator Shidlovsky, demanding freedom of speech and assembly, the right of delegates to conduct their activities without let or hindrance, the right to meet and discuss freely with their electorate, and the freeing of their arrested comrades. But when, on the following day, the votes were due to be taken, the government decided that things were getting out of hand and refused to accept the workers’ demands, whereupon the boycott campaign now went ahead in earnest. Having been through the experience of the commission, shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the class, it was now relatively easy to expose the fraudulent nature of the entire maneuver, while simultaneously agitating for the eight-hour working day, a state insurance policy, democratic elections, and an end to the war. Three days later the authorities hastened to put an end to the one and only attempt to solve the labor problem by legal means. The workers, meanwhile, had learned a great deal from the experience which set an important precedent for the election of workers’ deputies which played a role in the establishment of the Petersburg Soviet later on.

Lenin understood clearly that all the manifestos, commissions, and promises of reform were only a smokescreen to deceive the masses, behind which the reaction was playing for time and preparing its revenge. Time was therefore of the essence. In an uninterrupted stream of articles, he poured scorn on the liberals with their illusions in peaceful constitutional reform, and flayed the Mensheviks for their illusions in the liberals. One of the facets of Lenin’s political genius was his ability to separate the essential from the inessential and grasp the essence of a problem. He quickly realized that it was now a question of “either . . . or.” The time for playing games was past. Either the working class, under a conscious revolutionary leadership, would succeed in gathering together all the oppressed masses under its leadership, above all the poor peasants and the oppressed nationalities, and smash the power of tsarism by an armed uprising, or, inevitably, the forces of black reaction would destroy the revolution, exacting a bloody revenge on the working class. There was no middle way. Everything, therefore, hinged on the Marxists’ ability to win over a decisive majority of the working class and as quickly as possible make the necessary political, organizational, and material preparation for a national armed uprising. This idea was at the kernel of all Lenin’s pronouncements throughout 1905 and partly explains the urgent and at times uncharacteristically sharp tone of his correspondence with the interior. There was no time to lose.

People can change. In a revolution they can change very swiftly. Early in February, Gapon himself, having been pushed temporarily to the left by his experiences, issued an Open Letter to the Socialist Parties of All Russia, which included an appeal for an armed uprising:

I call upon all the socialist parties of Russia to enter immediately into an agreement among themselves and to proceed to the armed uprising against tsarism. All the forces of every party should be mobilized. All should have a single plan of action . . . The immediate aim is the overthrow of the autocracy, a provisional revolutionary government which will at once amnesty all fighters for political and religious liberties, at once arm the people, and at once convoke a Constituent Assembly on the basis of universal, equal and direct suffrage by secret ballot.220

Gapon’s appeal was given a warm welcome by Lenin, who, in his article A Militant Agreement for the Uprising, stressed the need for a united front of all revolutionary forces to prepare the uprising, on the basis of the old slogan “march separately and strike together.” However, here, and in all his other articles, is emphatic on the absolute necessity of maintaining the complete political independence of the working class and its party:

We see in the independent, uncompromisingly Marxist party of the revolutionary proletariat the sole pledge of socialism’s victory and the sole road to victory that is most free from vacillation. We shall never, therefore, not even at the most revolutionary moments, forego the complete independence of the Social Democratic Party or the complete intransigence of our ideology.

Under the pressure of the mass movement, the Mensheviks, particularly the ones on the ground in Russia, began to move left. Not only the Bolshevik Vperyod, but also the Menshevik Iskra published articles and diagrams on street fighting. However, the opportunist tendencies which were already apparent before January 9 were revealed in the exaggerated role attributed by the Mensheviks to the liberal bourgeoisie and in Martov’s insistence upon political, rather than technical preparation of the masses for armed uprising, of which Lenin tersely commented: “The separation of the ‘technical’ side of the revolution from the political side of the revolution is the greatest twaddle.”221

The question of arming the workers, which Lenin persistently raised, flowed from the needs of the moment. While making conciliatory noises, the government was systematically preparing the forces of reaction. Shaken by the show of solidarity between the workers of different nationalities, the authorities set about trying to break this unity by organizing bloody pogroms. As early as February, the agents of the regime incited the Tartars in Baku to launch a murderous assault on the Armenians in that city. Throughout the year 1905, all over Russia, mobs were bribed with money and vodka by the police to beat up and murder Jews, socialists, and students. In organizing workers’ defense, the different party organizations cooperated in action. For practical purposes, agreements were arrived at involving Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Bundists, the socialists from other nationalities, and even petty bourgeois organizations like the nationalist Polish Socialist Party, and the SRs.

In theory, there would have been nothing wrong, under these conditions, with arriving at practical, episodic agreements even with the bourgeois liberals, for example, for joint defense against the pogromists, while maintaining complete organizational and political independence. But in reality, such agreements with the liberals were virtually nonexistent. The latter were striving, not for an armed insurrection, but for a deal with tsarism, leaning for a time on the mass movement in order to frighten the regime into granting a constitution. Lenin’s articles in this period were full of the sharpest attacks on the liberals, warning against their treachery and combating the Mensheviks’ attempts to blur the dividing line between the working class and the bourgeois liberals and foment illusions in the latter.


218 Tretiy s’yezd RSDRP (Protokoly), 179.

219 G.D. Surh, 1905 in St. Petersburg, 209 and 181.

220 Quoted in F. Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism, 305.

221 LCW, A Militant Agreement for the Uprising, vol. 8, 159 and 163.

36) Lenin and the ‘Committeemen’

Some people have attempted to find the “original sin” of Stalinism in Lenin’s method of democratic centralism. Actually, the organizational methods of Bolshevism, impregnated through and through with the spirit of democracy, have nothing in common with that monstrous bureaucratic caricature. A measure of centralism is necessary in any serious organization, whether a railway or a revolutionary party. Every political party, every stable organization, necessarily has a conservative side. The need to provide the material means to pass from the realms of theory to that of practice demands the creation of an apparatus. The living principle of an apparatus is routine: the thousand and one organizational tasks of collecting money, organizing distribution and sales of literature and so on, require a meticulous attention to detail. Without this, the construction of the party would be unthinkable. From the outset, a number of people must be dedicated to these tasks. As the party grows, their numbers increase. Unless special measures are undertaken to constantly raise the theoretical level of these comrades and enlarge their horizons, a certain organizational narrowness tends to creep in, which can play a harmful role under certain circumstances. Unconsciously or semiconsciously, the impression can be created of the primacy of organization, whereas ideas, principles, and theory are regarded as of secondary importance. The opinions, initiative, and criticism of the workers, the rank and file, are regarded as an unnecessary encumbrance, at variance with the principle of centralism, or control from above.

That there were elements of this in the Bolshevik Party (as in any other party) is undeniable. But the attempts by unscrupulous bourgeois historians to link this with the abominations of Stalinism and to blame Lenin’s “pitiless centralism” is a monstrous distortion. Unfortunately, a layer of Bolshevik organizers inside Russia, the so-called committeemen, on occasion acted like the very caricature invented by the Mensheviks. They interpreted Lenin’s organizational ideas as fixed and immutable formulas, to be applied mechanically, irrespective of the needs of the moment. Even the most correct idea, when carried beyond a certain limit, becomes transformed into its opposite. By making a fetish of organizational forms, and overlooking the dialectical method of applying these ideas in a rapidly changing situation, despite their undoubted capacity for self-sacrifice and hard work, the committeemen frequently played a negative role in the development of the Party, until corrected by the intervention of Lenin. Looking back on this period at the end of his life, Trotsky summed up Lenin’s position in the following way:

Lenin understood better than anyone else the need for a centralized organization: but he saw in it, above all, a lever for enhancing the activity of the advanced working men. The idea of making a fetish of the political machine was not only alien but repugnant to his nature . . . The habits peculiar to a political machine were already forming in the underground. The young revolutionary bureaucrat was already emerging as a type. The conditions of conspiracy, true enough, offered rather meager scope for such of the formalities of democracy as electiveness, accountability and control. Yes, undoubtedly the committeemen narrowed these limitations considerably more than necessity demanded and were far more intransigent and severe with the revolutionary workingmen than with themselves, preferring to domineer even on occasions that called imperatively for lending an authentic ear to the voice of the masses.222

A tendency towards routinism and conservatism can be seen in any apparatus, as any trade unionist knows from bitter experience. These elements, as we have said, were also present in the Bolshevik Party, but were far less important in the Bolshevik Party than in any other political party in history—and certainly less than in those Social Democratic parties and reformist trade unions which are entirely dominated by the worst sort of bureaucratic machines and parliamentary cliques, who have long ago sold their soul to the possessing classes. Politicians like Tony Blair or Felipe Gonzalez, who throw up their hands in feigned horror at the “Leninist” theory of democratic centralism, run their parties on the basis of the purest bureaucratic, centralist, and dictatorial lines. This centralism reflects, on the one hand, the interests, salaries, and privileges of the apparatus, on the other the pressure of big business which wishes to make the labor movement subject to its discipline. That these people should point an accusing finger at Lenin is hypocrisy of a highly advanced type.

Trotsky answers the cynical attacks on Lenin and Bolshevism:

“In this connection,” he adds, “it is rather tempting to draw the inference that future Stalinism was already rooted in Bolshevik centralism or, more sweepingly, in the underground hierarchy of professional revolutionists.

But upon analysis that inference crumbles to dust, disclosing an astounding paucity of historical content. Of course, there are dangers of one kind or another in the very process of stringently picking and choosing persons of advanced views and welding them into a tightly centralized organization. But the roots of such dangers will never be found in the so-called “principle” of centralism: rather they should be sought in the lack of homogeneity and the backwardness of the workers—that is, in the general social conditions which make imperative that centripetal leadership of the class by its vanguard. The key to the dynamic of leadership is in the actual interrelationship between the political machine and its party, between the vanguard and its class, between centralism and democracy. Those interrelationships cannot, of their very nature, be established a priori and remain immutable. They are dependent on concrete historical conditions, their mobile balance is regulated by the vital struggle of tendencies, which, as represented by their extreme wings, oscillate between despotism of the political machine and the impotence of phrase mongering.223

In common with many other bourgeois authors, Solomon Schwarz distorts Lenin’s ideas on organization beyond recognition. He tries to paint Lenin as a defender of the bureaucratic intelligentsia against the workers, by quoting from the minutes of the Third Congress, when the quotes he uses prove precisely the opposite. The same author is compelled to admit that similar problems existed in the Menshevik organization. This is clear from the discussions on reorganization that took place at their All Russian Conference of Party Workers in Geneva in April/May 1905, and in the letters of prominent Mensheviks. In a well known pamphlet entitled Workers and Intelligentsia in our Organizations, signed “A Worker” and published in 1904 with a foreword by Axelrod, the author says: “It is better not to harbor undue illusions about the Martovite intelligentsia either.”

In March 1905, Gusev, secretary of the Petersburg committee and of the Bureau of Majority Committees, wrote to the center abroad the following:

A circular on organizational questions is needed, particularly on the issue of drawing workers into the committees. It is necessary to stress the importance of the conditions in which this can be done. The criteria for bringing in workers should not be how well read they are, but how revolutionary, how devoted, energetic, and influential. Nowadays there are many such [people], and mainly among unorganized workers, most of them very young and lacking the qualities of political leaders, although they are well read in social democratic literature. Further, I have already written to you about moving the base of our organization, the secret work, to workers’ homes. Concretely, this means that a part of our best illegal forces must become outwardly proletarianized.224

The essence of the problem facing the Party was: how to establish firm links between the relatively small forces of the revolutionary vanguard and the mass of the workers and youth who were moving into struggle? The revolution does not unfold in an orderly and pre-determined fashion, like an orchestra responding to the flourishes of a conductor’s baton. It is a living play of forces, an equation even more complex than war between nations. The events of Bloody Sunday and afterwards, to pursue the military analogy, represented a general mobilization of the working class. But that class, only just recovering from its naïve illusions and striving to find the road to a complete overhaul of society, continually stumbling over the innumerable obstacles placed in its path, as yet lacked a general staff able to point the way forward to victory. Even the most courageous army never won a war without good generals. But the best of generals without an army do not count for much.

At this time, none of the main leaders of either the Bolsheviks or Mensheviks had yet returned to Russia. Martov only returned to Russia after October 17; Lenin slightly later, on November 4. The sole exception was Trotsky, who arrived in Kiev in February. There he established close contact with the key Bolshevik figure in Russia at that time, Leonid Krassin. Krassin was in charge of a large and well-equipped secret printing press somewhere in the Caucasus. But his role went far beyond that. A highly capable young engineer, Krassin was in many ways the prototype of a Bolshevik organizer. He proved to be an outstanding organizer and technician.

“The party, like the revolution, was still young at that time,” Trotsky recalls in his autobiography, “and one was struck by the inexperience and lack of finish revealed both by the members and their actions in general.


Krassin likewise was not wholly free from this fault. But there was something firm, resolute, and “administrative” about him. He was an engineer of some experience, he held a paying job and filled it well; he was valued by his employers, and had a circle of acquaintances that was much larger and more varied than that of any of the young revolutionaries of the day. In workers’ rooms, in engineers’ apartments, in the mansions of the liberal Moscow industrialists, in literary circles—everywhere, Krassin had connections. He managed them all with great skill and, consequently, practical possibilities that were quite closed to the others were opened to him. In 1905, in addition to participating in the general work of the party, Krassin had charge of the most dangerous fields of the work, such as armed units, the purchase of arms, the preparing of stocks of explosives, and the like. In spite of his broad outlook, he was primarily a man of immediate achievement, in politics as well as in life. That was his strength but it was also his heel of Achilles.225

Lenin greatly appreciated people like Krassin who got on with the work quietly, efficiently, and without fuss. Krassin’s work went on in secret, but he played an invaluable role in building the Party in this stormy period. Politically, Krassin was a conciliator. But conciliationist moods were common among Party activists in Russia, and still more among the workers, as was clearly reflected in the report of the Petersburg delegation to the party congress:

In the recent period the demand for an end to the split is becoming widespread. Worker-Bolsheviks and Mensheviks are holding joint meetings, either with or without the intellectuals, and everywhere the demand for unification is pushed to the fore.226

One way or the other, the split in the party had to be resolved.

The obvious solution was the convening of a party congress. The Bolsheviks had been agitating for the convening of the Third Congress for months, but the Mensheviks, fearing they would be in a minority, continually stonewalled. Early in February, a police raid on the Moscow apartment of the writer Leonid Andreyev led to the arrest of all the members of the Central Committee (mainly Mensheviks and conciliators). Those still at liberty contacted the Bolshevik “Bureau of Majority Committees” with the intention of reaching agreement to convene a congress.

Though formally this was the responsibility of the Party Council, a majority of the Party organizations inside Russia were clearly in favor. If two-thirds of the committees requested a congress, the Council was obliged by the rules to call one. By the beginning of April the Bolsheviks were able to prove conclusively that a total of 21 organizations inside Russia, including the CC, were in favor of a congress.227 This represented 52 votes out of a total of 75 that would represent the whole party at a congress—many more than what would be required by the rules. An Open Letter to Plekhanov, as chairman of the Party Council, written by Lenin in the name of the CC, was published early in April. Yet the Council, openly flouting the rules and in contempt of democratic procedure, refused to call the congress. Given the irresponsible and illegal behavior of the Council, the Bolsheviks had no alternative but to convene a congress themselves, in the name of the Central Committee and the majority of Party organizations in Russia. The Mensheviks, although invited to attend, stayed away and organized their own conference in Geneva. On April 12, 1905, delegates assembled in London for over two weeks of intense discussions on the fundamental problems of the revolution.


222 Trotsky, Stalin, 62 and 61.

223 Ibid., 61–62.

224 Quoted in Schwarz, Revolution of 1905, 214 and 216 (my emphasis).

225 Trotsky, My Life, 169–70.

226 Tretiy s’yezd RSDRP (Protokoly), 549.

227 These figures were accepted as correct by Martov. See Martov and others, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 3, 557.

37) The Third Congress

On April 12, 1905, the first genuinely Bolshevik Party Congress opened its doors in London. On the agenda were the following questions: 1) the armed uprising; 2) the attitude to the government’s policy, including the slogan of the provisional revolutionary government; 3) the attitude to the peasant movement; 4) relations between workers and intellectuals within the party; 5) party rules; 6) the attitude to other parties (including the Mensheviks); 7) the attitude to the non-Russian Social Democratic organizations; 8) the attitude to the liberals; 9) practical agreements with the Social Revolutionaries, and organizational questions. Present at the Congress were 24 delegates with full voting rights representing 21 committees, as well as a number of other party groups, including the Vperyod editorial board and the Bolshevik Organization Abroad, which had a consultative vote. Lenin was present, nominally as a delegate from Odessa.

The Congress took place in the white heat of revolutionary upswing. The Party was faced with a whole series of pressing political and tactical questions: the attitude to the government’s concessions (the Shidlovsky Commission), the slogan of a parliament (Zemsky Sobor), the constituent assembly, armed uprising and the provisional revolutionary government, legal and semilegal work, the national and agrarian questions, and so on. But the question which dominated all others was the armed insurrection. Lenin was particularly emphatic about this:

“The entire history of the past year,” he argued, “proved that we underestimated the significance and inevitability of the uprising. Attention must be paid to the practical aspect of the matter.”228

Lunacharsky (Voinov) opened the debate. The revolution in Russia had already begun in the sense that the masses had decisively entered the arena of struggle. What was now needed, he argued, was to give an organized form to this semispontaneous movement. Otherwise, all the heroism and energies of the workers could be dissipated in disorganized and aimless local uprisings. In the previous period, when the objective conditions for revolution were absent, the Russian Marxists, Plekhanov, in the first instance, had laid heavy stress on attacking the voluntarist theories of the Narodniks, those “romantic revolutionaries” who imagined that all that was needed was a decisive push by small terrorist groups to detonate the masses into action. For this subjective idealism, the problem of armed insurrection was something independent of time and space. For the Marxists, for whom the revolution must be the work of the workers themselves, it arises inevitably at a certain point in the development of the class struggle. Where the necessary objective conditions were absent, to put forward constantly the idea of insurrection and armed struggle is mere Blanquism.

This term, which was commonly used by the Russian Marxists to denote revolutionary adventurism, takes its name from the famous French revolutionary and utopian communist, Louis Auguste Blanqui (1805–81), who based himself on an ultraleft, conspiratorial conception of the revolution, as the work, not of the masses, but as a coup de main of a small revolutionary minority. Despite his undoubted sincerity and personal courage, Blanqui’s lack of theoretical understanding doomed him to play a negative role.

“Blanqui,” wrote Engels, “is essentially a political revolutionary, a socialist only by sentiment, because of his sympathy for the sufferings of the people, but he has neither socialist theory nor definite practical proposals for social reforms. In his political activities he was essentially a ‘man of action.’”229

The modern ultralefts have faithfully preserved all of Blanqui’s faults without possessing any of his virtues.

When the conditions were absent, the Russian Marxists concentrated on the slow work of developing Marxist cadres, emphasizing theory and organization, carefully husbanding resources and building links with the masses. But now, the entire situation had been transformed by the social earthquakes of war and revolution. After January 9, Martov’s argument that you cannot “organize” the revolution and his accusation of “Blanquism” directed at the Bolsheviks smacked of sophistry. In reality, the Mensheviks’ attitude flowed from their entire conception of the revolution as a bourgeois-democratic revolution in which the working class must subordinate itself to the liberal bourgeoisie. The question of organizing the workers for an armed uprising did not enter into their scheme of things, because they saw the workers’ role as merely backing up the liberals, and forcing the autocracy to retreat under the pressure of strikes and demonstrations directed towards placing the liberals in power. The Bolshevik position was radically different.

After the shock of Bloody Sunday, the consciousness of the masses was transformed. There was a wave of local strikes and demonstrations, often of a stormy character. One of the delegates recalled the electric mood in the factories:

After the January revolutionary week in Petersburg there was such a spate of anarchistic strikes that in many factories it was enough for only one of the workers to shout: “Down tools, lads!” for a strike to break out, and anyone who spoke out against it, received from the others the tag of “provocateur.”

The danger was that the energies of the workers would be dissipated in this way. What was required was to try to unify the movement so as to be able to concentrate “full strength at the point of attack.” The same delegate stressed the need to combat ultraleft adventurism and individual terrorism:

On the one hand, needless acts of petty terrorism, on the other, acts of senseless provocation, or clashes with the police and soldiers, when individual armed persons, by bringing their weapons into play, give the enemy reason and opportunity to fire upon and slaughter unarmed crowds.230

The delegates discussed in a businesslike manner all the technical details: the drawing up of strategic maps of towns, the training of competent officers, the raising of funds, but above all the need for every branch to possess detailed knowledge of local conditions and the mood of the workers. Side by side with the technical and organizational preparation, there was to be a stepping up of the ideological, agitational, and propaganda work, as an integral part of preparing for the overthrow of tsarism. Agitation was to be carried on, not only among the workers, but also among the intellectuals, students, youth, women, the non-Russian nationalities, and, as much as possible, among the peasants, beginning with the village poor. Special attention was devoted to work in the army, with the aim of winning over the soldiers to the side of the workers. The troops were to be leafletted, and a commission of experienced specialists was set up, under the control of the Central Committee, to work out a program of transitional demands for soldiers.

Nevertheless, even at a time when the question of armed insurrection had been pushed to the fore by events, the fundamental task of the Party was still that of winning over the masses. Without that, all the talk about overthrowing tsarism would have been so much empty chatter. The congress, however, confirmed many of Lenin’s fears that the Bolshevik activists inside Russia had been slow to react to changing conditions. Accustomed to functioning over a long period in small, closed circles in the underground, the committeemen were ill at ease in the mass movement and used every excuse to avoid getting too closely involved with it. A formalistic conception of organization, discipline, and centralism, together with certain ultraleft tendencies, served to cover up for an innate conservatism and cliquishness, inherited from the past. Lenin used the Congress as an arena to wage an implacable struggle against these tendencies.

On the question of participating in legal organizations such as trade unions, co-ops, insurance and benefit schemes, where the prevailing mood of the committeemen was for a boycott, Lenin warned that “the congress cannot lay down a hard and fast rule on this point. All methods should be used for agitation. The experience of the Shidlovsky Commission gives no ground whatever for a downright negative attitude,” and went on to shock the advocates of boycott by asserting that it would be correct, under certain circumstances, to participate even in a rigged tsarist parliament:

It is impossible to reply categorically whether it is advisable to participate in the Zemsky Sobor. Everything will depend on the political situation, on the electoral system, and on other specific factors which cannot be estimated in advance. Some say that the Zemsky Sobor is a fraud. That is true. But there are times when we must take part in elections to expose a fraud.

Lenin moved an addendum to the resolution on this question which stated:

As regards the actual and sham concessions which the weakened autocracy is now making to the democrats in general and to the working class in particular, the Social Democratic party of the working class should take advantage of them in order, on the one hand, to consolidate for the people every improvement in the economic conditions and every extension of liberties with a view to intensifying the struggle, and, on the other, steadily to expose before the proletariat the reactionary aims of the government, which is trying to disunite and corrupt the working class and draw its attention away from its urgent class needs at the moment of the revolution.231

Lenin’s flexible and dialectical understanding of revolutionary tactics and strategy clashed with the unyielding dogmatism of the committeemen, whose universe revolved around the axis of their narrow local circle, which they jealously guarded, on the one hand against the leadership in exile, on the other hand against the demands of the workers for a greater say in the running of inner-Party affairs. The class composition of the congress itself left a lot to be desired, as one of the delegates, Leshchinsky (Zharkov) commented:

Looking around me, at the composition of the present congress, I am astonished that in it there are so few workers, and yet, that workers suitable to be sent to the congress, without any doubt, could have been found.232

This is borne out by Krupskaya, who says in her memoirs:

There were no workers at the Third Congress—at least none of any mark . . .
There was no scarcity of committeemen though. Unless this makeup of the congress is borne in mind a great deal of what the congress records contain will not be properly understood.

In fact, the atmosphere at the congress became frequently heated, as Lenin tackled the prejudices of the practicos head on, while the latter did not conceal their resentment at the “interference” of the exiles.

“The committeeman,” wrote Krupskaya, “was usually a rather self-assured person. He saw what a tremendous influence the work of the committee had on the masses, and as a rule he recognized no inner-Party democracy. ‘Inner-Party democracy only leads to truble with the police. We are connected with the movement as it is,’ the committeemen would say. Inwardly they rather despised the Party workers abroad who, in their opinion, had nothing better to do than squabble among themselves—‘they ought to be made to work under Russian conditions.’ The committeemen objected to the overruling influence of the Center abroad. At the same time they did not want innovations. They were neither desirous nor capable of adjusting themselves to the quickly changing conditions.”233

Bogdanov moved a resolution, drawn up by Lenin, On the Relations Between Workers and Intellectuals Within the Social Democratic Organization, which, while recognizing the difficulties under conditions of illegality, argued in favor of applying the principle of elections more broadly, to open up the Party to the workers, to make room for the new, fresh layers on the Party’s leading committees.

This resolution called forth a storm of protest on the part of the committeemen. Kamenev (Gradov) was first on his feet:

I must decisively speak against approving this resolution. This question of the relation between the intellectuals and workers in Party organizations does not exist. (Lenin: It does exist!) No, it does not: it exists as an issue for demagogy—and that’s all.

Others argued that there was no time or forces to train workers, basing themselves on the famous quote from What Is To Be Done? which incorrectly asserts that socialist consciousness must be brought to the workers from without. Thus, Romanov (Leskov) complained: “It seems to me that here we are overestimating the psychology of the workers (sic!), as if the workers by themselves could become conscious Social Democrats.”234 Yet now the very author of What Is To Be Done? answered his critics by appealing to the class instinct of the workers, and deliberately shocked his audience by referring approvingly of the participation of the workers in the Party organization during the period of “Economism.” In the English Collected Works, this speech of Lenin’s has, for reasons best known to the Stalinist editors, been left out. I quote here from the Congress minutes in Russian:

It has been said here that the bearers of Social Democratic ideas are predominantly the intellectuals. That is not true. In the epoch of Economism, the bearers of revolutionary ideas were workers, not intellectuals . . . It is further asserted that at the head of the splitters are usually situated intellectuals. That observation is very important but does not settle the matter. I long ago advised in my written works that workers should be brought onto the committees in the greatest possible number. The period following the Second Congress was characterized by the insufficient implementation of this obligation—that is the impression I have got from my conversations with the “practical workers” . . . It is necessary to overcome the inertia of the committeemen (applause and booing) . . . the workers have a class instinct, and with just a little bit of political experience they very quickly become staunch social democrats. I would be very pleased if, in the make-up of our committees, out of every two intellectuals there were eight workers.235

This is the final answer to those who still persist in repeating Lenin’s mistake in What Is To Be Done?, where he erroneously asserts that the proletariat, left to itself, can only develop a “trade union consciousness.” Lenin never repeated that statement, and, in fact, repudiated it on more than one occasion. It was not Lenin, but the committeemen with their formalistic caricature of Bolshevism, who held this view, and who booed Lenin when he tried to correct them. So indignant was he at the contemptuous attitude of the intellectuals towards the workers that he deliberately provoked them by referring positively to the worker-Economists. As a matter of fact, many of the old worker-Economists of the Rabochaya Dyelo tendency subsequently joined the Bolsheviks whereas the Economist intellectuals, such as Martynov and Akimov, almost to a man, joined the Mensheviks. This is an interesting point which is never mentioned, but nonetheless true. Burning with indignation, Lenin again intervened:

I could hardly keep my seat when it was said that there are no workers fit to sit on the committees. The question is being dragged out: obviously there is something the matter with the Party. Workers must be given places on the committees. Oddly enough, there are only three publicists at the Congress, the others being committeemen: it appears however that the publicists are for placing the workers, whereas the committeemen for some reason are quite wrought up over it.236

All the passionate arguments put forward by Lenin and his supporters fell on deaf ears. The majority remained obdurate and Lenin’s resolution was rejected, on the grounds that there was “no need” for a special resolution on this subject. Subsequent events were to show just how right Lenin was. Despite this setback, the Third Congress marked a historic landmark. The basic ideas of Lenin on the leading role of the proletariat in the revolution, the need for absolute class independence and mistrust of the liberals, was adopted without dissent. The Party’s policy on the agrarian question (Lenin led off in this debate) was radically changed to include the confiscation of all the big landlords’ estates and the setting up of peasant committees. From this point onwards, the revolutionary solution of the agrarian problem lay at the heart of the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary strategy. The Party Rules approved at the Second Congress were basically reaffirmed, although Lenin made it abundantly clear that they were not to be interpreted in a narrow sense, but that the party organization should be quickly opened up to include the best of the workers and the youth. With the bitter experience of the split still fresh in everyone’s memory, he also insisted on including in the Rules clear and specific guarantees for the rights of minorities within the Party. Minorities were to have the right to express their point of view freely at all levels of the Party, subject only to the condition that the raising of differences should not be done in such a way as to disorganize and undermine the practical intervention of the Party in the struggle against tsarism and capitalism.


228 LCW, The Third Congress of the RSDLP, April 12 (25)–April 27 (May 10), vol. 8, 370.

229 Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. 2, 381.

230 Tretiy s’yezd RSDRP (Protokoly), 10 in both quotes.

231 LCW, The Third Congress of the RSDLP, April 12 (25)–April 27 (May 10), 1905, vol. 8, 375 and 376.

232 Tretiy s’yezd RSDRP (Protokoly), 124.

233 Krupskaya, Reminisences of Lenin, 125 and 124–25.

234 Quoted in Tretiy s’yezd RSDRP (Protokoly), 255 and 265.

235 Ibid., 262 (my emphasis).

236 LCW, The Third Congress of the RSDLP, vol. 8, 411.

38) How the Party Financed Itself

Lenin’s demand for the opening up of the ranks to let the workers in was entirely in tune with the real situation in Russia. Great events had shaken and transformed the consciousness of the mass of the workers. Decades of slow and painful work were now rewarded by a sudden upsurge in interest in the ideas of revolutionary socialism. The congress launched a new weekly paper, Proletary, to replace the Vperyod, and elected a new central committee to replace the old conciliationist one. The congress thus resolved the old unsatisfactory division between the Party’s central organ, Central Committee, and Party Council, reducing these to a single center, the CC, which was later divided into two parts, the exterior and the interior. Lenin, for the time being, remained outside Russia, while the Russian Bureau of the CC, based in St. Petersburg, was made up of Bogdanov, Krassin, and Postolovsky, with Rumyantsev later being co-opted on. Lenin was, in effect, in charge of the Foreign Bureau of the CC, which maintained close links with the Russian Bureau, but also had direct links with the local Party committees, with whom it carried on a regular correspondence.

The scope for the work inside Russia was now considerably easier. Although arrests were still made, sentences tended to be more lenient. Sometimes the local police were overruled by liberal provincial governors. The police themselves were losing their nerve. Under these circumstances, the local committees were able to meet almost daily. A typical local committee would consist of not more than a dozen people. Every member of a committee had a direct responsibility for some aspect of the work, either press, finance or agitation, or responsibility for a particular district or factory. They were linked to the workers through party circles. There were also Social Democratic student organizations, and beyond these a wider periphery of sympathizers. As soon as even one worker joined in a factory, he or she was expected to begin working under the direction of the local committee. We have already seen some of the negative features of the committeemen. But it would be wrong to lose sight of their positive side. They were professional revolutionaries, dedicated to the party, hard-working and self-sacrificing. Working under difficult conditions, they were almost always on the move. They lived a hand-to-mouth existence, on very low wages, around 25–35 rubles a month, funds permitting, which was not always the case! Some had a private income. Others were sometimes forced to do part-time jobs. Some, like Krassin, as we have seen, worked as a “cover,” which sometimes gave rise to amusing circumstances:

In St. Petersburg there was an insurance company, not inaptly named Nadezhda (Hope) whose directors made it their policy to employ as clerks men known to be active revolutionaries: they found that, although they seldom remained with the firm for long owing to the high incidence of arrests, they were exceptionally honest.237

After January 9, Buzinov recalled the dramatic transformation undergone by his fellow workers. Work became a matter of secondary importance, as they eagerly gathered in the workshops to read the latest political leaflet or newspaper.238 The Party publications, with their limited print run and infrequent publication, were now hopelessly inadequate to keep pace with the demand. The old Iskra had a print run of around 10–15,000 (fortnightly, although for a brief period it appeared weekly). Now the audience for a revolutionary socialist newspaper was at least 10 or 20 times that figure. The underground printshops could not keep up with the needs of the moment. But the possibility of launching a legal paper did not arise until later in the year when Trotsky and Parvus took over the old liberal Ruskaya Gazeta and transformed it into a legal organ of the Marxists. With its low price of one kopeck, and its popular style, circulation shot up from 30,000 to 100,000, reaching a staggering 500,000 by December. By comparison, the Bolshevik legal paper Novaya Zhizn’ (New Life), had a circulation of 50,000—which was still five times more than the total print run of the old Iskra. But that was not until the autumn. In the meantime, the local Party groups had to make do with whatever leaflets and other material they could duplicate on their humble hand-operated mimeograph machines.

The congress had given a much-needed boost to the morale of the Bolsheviks, who began to grow at a considerable pace. New branches and district committees were set up. Factory cells were established, as well as Bolshevik trade union factions, designed to take advantage of the new opportunities for legal trade union work in which, however, the Mensheviks had gained a head start. Bolshevik agitation and propaganda was carried out by small specialized groups of 10 to 12 people. Each agitator-organizer was responsible for a single district. The opportunities for carrying socialist ideas to the workers were now immense. Millions of leaflets were published by both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in the course of the year.

“The old forms of propaganda,” writes Krupskaya, “were dead and propaganda had turned into agitation. With the colossal growth of the working class movement, verbal propaganda and even agitation as a whole could not meet the needs of the movement. What was needed was popular literature, a popular newspaper, literature for the peasants and for the non-Russian nationalities.”239

These, and other pressing needs, immediately raised the question of finance. The question of arms, too, required large sums of money. The income of both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks did increase. Martov states that:

The budget of the revolutionary organizations, consisting in the period 1901–2 of a few hundred rubles, by mid-1905 had grown to tens of thousands of rubles a year.240

But the demands were constantly outstripping the available resources. David Lane, on the basis of a study of the Bolshevik and Menshevik press, concludes that, in February, the St. Petersburg Bolshevik Committee raised a total of 2,400 rubles, of which 265r was spent on the press and 375r on organization. There was a separate arms fund of 1,295r, of which 850r had already been spent. If we include a further 981r represented by a separate strike fund, this means that the total income of the St. Petersburg Bolsheviks in February 1905 was about 4,680 rubles. However, in just the first two weeks of July, the expenditure of the Bolsheviks had risen to 800r on arms, 540r on organization and 156r on literature.

“The Mensheviks’ income from February 15 to March 15,” according to Lane, “was larger than the Bolsheviks, being 4,039r (2,000r of which came from one contributor): of this sum, 1,250r were spent on arms, ‘organization’ in various regions came to 1,126r and 630r were spent on the printing presses.”241

In his history of the Social Democracy, Martov gives a whole series of figures for the financial state of both Menshevik and Bolshevik groups in 1905, which show how far the demands of the situation outstripped the income raised from the members in subscriptions. Thus, the Baku committee, in February, raised a total of 1,382 rubles, of which only 38 (3 percent) came “from workers.” Only 14 percent of the income of the Sevastopol committee came from subscriptions. The situation in Riga was better, but still only amounted to 22 percent. However, in the Bolshevik stronghold, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, the corresponding figure was 53 percent.242 Both factions received large donations from wealthy sympathizers. But the Mensheviks, with their far looser organization, were always far more dependent upon this source than the Bolsheviks, who strove for, and finally achieved, an organization built upon the kopecks of the workers—the only real foundation for a workers’ party. By contrast, we have already seen how, in early 1905, almost half of the income of the Mensheviks came from a single contributor. On February 15, according to the same source, the Petersburg Mensheviks’ income totalled 247 rubles “of which 200 rubles were from a sympathizer.”243 The situation with the Jewish Bund was completely different. Despite their opportunistic policy, the Bund had a well-established, centralized working class organization, about which Lenin spoke enviously more than once. Fifty percent of their needs were met from the workers’ donations.

Throughout 1905, neither the Bolsheviks nor the Mensheviks could keep up with the demand for socialist literature. Everywhere there was a thirst for the written word. The workers wanted to know. Workers who had been hostile or indifferent, or simply too afraid to accept a socialist leaflet, now eagerly sought out those of their comrades whom they knew to be somehow involved in revolutionary politics:

“If earlier no one (even) saw them,” recalls the smith Alexei Buzinov, who worked in the Nevsky Ship and Machine Works, “or perhaps did not want to notice them in order to keep out of truble, now everyone suddenly knew that these were smart, well-informed people. Many dug around in their past, memories began to come to light, and it turned out that someone here and there, somehow or other, had been in contact with socialists . . . From their side, I do not recall a single reproach, personal or otherwise, for earlier threats or insults. In the workers’ attitude towards them, it began to be recognized that the socialists were the leaders of the labor movement. They were paid heed to, they were looked after in a special way, with a kind of crude but touching good-heartedness.”244

Like the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks also had some wealthy sympathizers who were systematically tapped for cash. Well-heeled civil servants, Zemstvo liberals, doctors, and other professional people provided money through donations, put up full-timers and even hid fugitives. The radicalization of the professional layers was shown by the number of resolutions of sympathy and solidarity with the workers’ movement passed by professional unions. The engineers’ union actually elected the Bolshevik Krzhizhanovsky to its Executive Committee. Many intellectual unions collected money and gave assistance to the labor movement in the course of the year. The engineers voted at their congress not to participate in the compilation of black lists of worker activists. In Odessa, the director of a big printing works always helped the Bolsheviks out in a financial crisis. The industrialist Saava Morozov donated 2,000 rubles a month to Krassin from late 1903 onwards. Krassin’s biography states that he raised the necessary funds for Novaya Zhizn’ “mainly through the generosity of his employer, the manufacturer Saava Morozov.”245

Maxim Gorky, whose fame as a writer was already established, played a key role in raising this kind of money, enlisting the aid of many other writers and prominent intellectuals, whose enthusiasm had been aroused by the revolution. Students and other middle class people were approached for donations. Even the odd landowner, like A. Tsurupa, gave regular contributions. The collaboration of some of these wealthy sympathizers went well beyond the passive role of supplying sums of money, and some of them showed a real commitment and even took big risks for the workers’ cause. Such a case was that of a nephew of Morozov, Nikolai Schmidt, himself the owner of a furniture factory in the Presnaya district of Moscow. Although only 23 years old, Nikolai went over to the side of the workers in 1905. He provided funds not only for the Bolshevik paper Novaya Zhizn’, but also to purchase weapons. His factory, which played an important part in the Moscow uprising, was known to the police as a “devils’ nest.” Schmidt paid a terrible price for his devotion to the workers’ cause.

These donations became very important because the amount of money raised from subscriptions, paper and literature sales was nowhere near enough to meet the demands of the new situation. Immediately after the Third Congress of the Party Krassin was put in charge of secret military work. He organized the establishment of underground bomb factories and arms dumps. Arms were smuggled in from abroad. Local Party committees began to set up military groups (boyeviye komitety). The military committees were charged with obtaining arms and setting up fighting units. This work was stepped up in the autumn when it became clear that a decisive showdown was inevitable. Some of the money was raised from wealthy sympathizers. Yet another source of finance were the “appropriations,” bank robberies carried out by Bolshevik armed units. Lenin wrote many times on this question in his writings of 1905 on the revolutionary army and militia. In these writings Lenin insisted that the work of the armed units was necessarily bound up with the revolutionary movement of the masses and only permissible in such a situation. This was not a terrorist conspiracy but part of a broad movement and a united front including fighting agreements with all forces prepared to conduct a fight against the dictatorial regime. Such activities, it must be stressed, have nothing whatsoever in common with the kind of terrorism, guerrillaism and the like which has unfortunately become a feature of the modern period when, in the absence of an authoritative Marxist leadership, all kinds of primitive methods of struggle have reemerged from the dustbin of history.


237 J.L.H. Keep, The Rise of the Social Democracy in Russia, 181.

238 See Surh, 1905 in St. Petersburg, 239.

239 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 127.

240 Martov and others, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 2, 63.

241 Lane, Roots of Russian Communism, 78.

242 Martov and others, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 3, 569.

243 Lane, Roots of Russian Communism, 78.

244 Surh, 1905 in St. Petersburg, 238.

245 Lubov Krassin, Leonid Krassin his Life and Work,1929, 36.

39) Revolutionary Flood Tide

After the massacre of January 9, the movement in St. Petersburg temporarily ebbed, as the workers of the capital cautiously took stock of the position. The May Day demonstration in St. Petersburg was not a success, with only a few hundred turning out. Nevertheless, throughout the spring and summer of 1905, the pendulum swung continually to the left. While the workers of the capital temporarily stepped back to take stock of the situation, the more backward provinces were now being roused to struggle. On May 1, 200,000 workers struck in nearly 200 towns throughout Russia. The events in Petersburg stirred the provinces into action everywhere. The textile workers were well to the fore. On May 12, a general strike broke out in the Bolshevik stronghold of Ivanovo-Voznesensk, a textile town with 70,000 workers, lasting 72 days. By this time the Ivanovo-Voznesensk Bolsheviks numbered more than 400. Negotiations were conducted by elected factory delegates who met in a “meeting of Representative Delegates,” a soviet in all but name. Out of 128 delegates (of whom 23 were women) about 30 were Bolsheviks.

The Ivanovo-Voznesensk Soviet kept order in the town, issued proclamations, set up a militia, and controlled the press, thus in practice imposing freedom of the press, speech, and assembly. Daily mass meetings enabled the mass of workers to learn and exchange experiences. The peasants in the surrounding districts looked hopefully towards the Soviet to which they directed petitions. The militant unity of the proletariat and peasantry was being forged, not in words but in deeds, by the movement of the workers themselves. From May 23 the local Party got out a regular bulletin on the course of the dispute. By the end of June, the Ivanovo-Voznesensk Bolshevik organization had grown to 600 members, with 15-20 factory organizations. In the textile town of Lodz in Poland, the funeral of a worker killed by Cossacks turned into a mass political demonstration on May 15 with slogans such as “Down with tsarism!” and “Long live the revolution!” A wave of strikes and demonstrations swept through Poland and Lithuania, culminating in the June 23 general strike and uprising in Lodz, and solidarity demonstrations in Warsaw and Odessa.

The strike wave which gripped almost all the industrial areas throughout the spring and summer assumed an increasingly political character. Whereas in March, less than 30 percent of strikes were political, between April and August the figure had risen to 50–70 percent. Everywhere, the workers’ elected representatives to the factory committees and strike committees led the way. And all that a soviet is—at its inception—is an enlarged strike committee, an organ of struggle in the fight of the workers against the employers. The Soviets in Russia, those marvelously effective, flexible, and representative organizations of the workers, were not the invention of Lenin or Trotsky. Nowhere do they feature in the writings of Marx and Engels. They were the product of the inventive genius and initiative of ordinary working men and women. The Soviets were destined to play a central role in the whole development of the revolution, particularly during and after the great October strike.

Not only the urban workers but the peasantry was also gradually being drawn into the orbit of the revolution. Throughout the summer there were peasant disturbances and strikes of agricultural laborers in the Baltic area, the Ukraine, Don, Kuban, and the Caucasus. In some areas, the peasants virtually took over whole areas and ran their own affairs. The Mensheviks tried to use this as backing for their theory of “revolutionary self-government.” But the truth was that, unless the working class took power, such local outbreaks could only have an episodic character. While the Mensheviks looked towards the Zemstvo liberals, Lenin became increasingly convinced that the only possible ally for the workers in their struggle to overthrow the autocracy consisted in the peasantry, particularly the poor peasants. His vision of the revolution was that of the broadest possible movement of the workers and peasants, to overthrow tsarism, establish a provisional revolutionary government (democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry) which, without going beyond the limits of capitalism, would carry through the most radical and far-reaching democratic program, first and foremost the confiscation of the big estates and the handing over of land to the peasants.

Up till 1905, the Party’s agrarian program consisted of a series of limited demands which would alleviate the burdens on the peasantry, particularly the recovery of the otrezki, or “cut-off lands,” that is, the land which had been withheld from the peasants under the terms of the Emancipation of the Serfs Act of 1861. But now, the revolution in the urban centers was rapidly spreading to the villages. The general sentiment among the peasants was in favor of seizing the landlords’ estates. The old Party program was hopelessly antiquated. Taking cognizance of the new situation in the villages where the Party had redrafted its agrarian program to include the confiscation of all landowners’, government, church, monastic, and crown lands. The changed atmosphere in the villages opened up for the first time the possibility of social democratic work among the peasants.

Although the Party was still weak here, some circles were established in areas like Nizhegorod, Samara, Saratov, Kazan, and Tver. Lenin insisted on the establishment of purely Social Democratic groups in the villages, composed of farm laborers and rural proletarians. Only then would they seek agreements for joint work with other revolutionary-democratic groups. But the prior condition was not to blur over the distinction between workers and peasant small proprietors. An interesting pen portrait of the work of Bolshevik agitators in the villages is to be found in Sholokhov’s famous novel And Quiet Flows the Don, which describes how the Bolshevik Stockman organized a group of Cossacks around a poetry and literacy circle:

After long sifting and testing, a little group of the Cossacks began to meet regularly in Stockman’s workshop. Stockman was the heart and soul of the group and he worked straight towards a goal that only he fully understood. He ate into the simple understanding and conceptions like a worm into wood, instilling repugnance and hatred towards the existing system. At first he found himself confronted with the cold steel of distrust, but he was not to be repulsed. Even that could be worn away.246

This ferment in the villages had important repercussions in the armed forces, which were overwhelmingly of peasant composition. However, as so often happened in the history of revolutions, the revolt flared up first in the fleet, with its more proletarian class makeup. The Party’s work among soldiers and sailors was even more difficult than work among the peasants. On the eve of the 1905 Revolution, there were only three organized Party groups in the armed forces. However, in the course of the revolution, this number increased to a total of 27 groups.247 Military defeats created an explosive mood of discontent in the ranks, making them ever more receptive to Social Democratic agitation. News of the annihilation of the Russian fleet at Tsushima, (May 14–15, 1905) had an especially electrifying effect on the sailors. As so often happens in naval mutinies, the leading role was played by the petty officers, normally drawn from the most able and intelligent of the sailors, whose close proximity to the officers gave rise to a deep-seated contempt for the latter. The tensions and conflicts aroused by the arrogance and incompetence of the naval officers became increasingly unbearable when they were related to matters of life and death, in time of war. Precisely such a clash between the petty officers and officers led to the outbreak of the famous mutiny on the battleship Prince Potemkin Tavrichesky on June 14, 1905, immortalized in Eisenstein’s classic film The Battleship Potemkin.

The immediate issue was the bad food. But the underlying cause was the general discontent with the conduct of the war, and the piling up of unbearable contradictions over decades and generations. The Black Sea fleet had set out for the southern port of Odessa precisely when that city was in the grip of a general strike. No amount of military discipline and police surveillance could prevent the bacilli of revolution from reaching the ships anchored only a few miles away. The mutinying crew arrested all the officers, except the commander and six others who were killed. The sailors elected a committee from their midst which took the bold initiative of sailing into Odessa to appeal for support from the workers. A great crowd assembled around the corpse of the able seaman Grigory Valulinchuk, killed by an officer. A massive demonstration took place, and mass meetings were held in which Social Democratic agitators participated. This showed both the strong and the weak side of the spontaneous, elemental movement of the masses. All the elements were present for a decisive linking-up of the army with the revolutionary people. But in the absence of a conscious leadership, the “floating republic” could only have the character of an episodic development, which nevertheless was an anticipation of the going over of the soldiers and sailors to the side of the Soviets in 1917.

These events left the Odessa authorities thunderstruck. For a time they did not know what to do. In practice, power was in the hands of the workers. But they acted with no clear perspective, no overall policy or plan. This allowed the authorities time to concentrate their forces against Odessa. A naval force was sent against the Potemkin, but the mutineers succeeded in escaping to Rumania. The revolution in Odessa was brutally suppressed. The mutiny on the Potemkin therefore failed to lead to an insurrection, which was implicit in the situation. But it did not pass off without leaving its imprint. Terrified at the scale of the mass movement and the signs of inner decomposition in the armed forces, the government announced the holding of elections to the State Duma (parliament). Ten days later peace was concluded with Japan under humiliating terms. From a strictly military point of view, despite her earlier reverses, Russia had everything to gain from continuing the war. Japan’s reserves of men and money were nearly exhausted. Not the military strength of Japan but the threat of revolution at home led to the conclusion of peace. The rapid termination of the war was essential for the preservation of the autocracy.


246 Sholokhov, And Quiet Flows the Don, 259.

247 Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, 90.

40) The Bulygin Duma

The weakness of the autocracy was shown by the August 6 Manifesto promising a parliament or Duma (the Bulygin Duma). The ending of the war and the announcement of elections was greeted with elation by the bourgeois liberals. “The Japanese,” proclaimed one of them, “will not enter the Kremlin, but the Russians will!”248 However, closer acquaintance with the details of Bulygin’s proposals soon poured cold water over this precipitate and naïve optimism. Bulygin, the creature of the autocracy, had worked out what Lenin described as “the most reactionary constitution in Europe.” It gave the vote to the landowners, bourgeois, property-owning peasants, and the urban middle class, while the workers, the village poor, women, and servicemen—that is to say, the overwhelming majority of the population—were excluded. To add insult to injury, the Duma would only have consultative powers! The whole elaborate construction was a lie and a deceit behind which everything would continue as before.

From this moment on, the Duma occupied a central position in the tactical discussions of all Social Democratic tendencies. The Bolsheviks immediately came out in favor of a policy of “active boycott.” The position of the Mensheviks was ambiguous. In the Caucasus, focal point for the most backward and opportunist wing of Menshevism, they openly called for participation. However, in general, the mood of the Menshevik rank and file was against this. The Bolsheviks proposed a united front to the Mensheviks and the Social Democratic organizations of the nationalities for a boycott campaign. At local level, the Bolsheviks and Menshevik workers acted in unison. The petty-bourgeois Social Revolutionaries also supported the boycott. Even the liberals of the “Union of Unions” were compelled to come out in opposition, at least in words.

The government’s granting of autonomy to the universities, in itself an apparently secondary measure, represented a major turning point. The doors of the establishments of higher education were suddenly thrown open and through them poured the masses, thirsting for ideas, and eager to participate in the arena of public debate. Up to this point, the students had been involved in a passive student strike, refusing to turn up to classes. This was on the point of being broken when the whole movement took an entirely different direction. Throughout the autumn, the campuses and lecture theaters were the focal points of heated discussions. Beginning with the students, these debates became known to the workers who soon understood that here, at last, was a place they could meet and discuss unmolested by the police. “Alongside the students’ uniforms in the lecture theaters,” wrote an eyewitness, “ordinary clothes and, above all, workers’ overalls were to be seen with ever increasing frequency.”249

The explosion on the campuses showed that the pendulum was still swinging rapidly to the left, with new layers being drawn into the struggle. This was the fundamental consideration which determined the Bolsheviks’ attitude to the question of a boycott at this stage, although at the Third Congress Lenin was very careful to insist that the party should keep its options open on this question. More than anyone else, Lenin understood the need for extreme flexibility on all tactical and organizational questions and not to get carried away by ultraleft moods which would only serve to separate the advanced elements from the majority of the class.

In the given situation, the boycott of the Bulygin Duma project was absolutely correct. The revolutionary wave was still gathering in strength. The terms of the new constitution fell so far short of the expectations aroused that even a section of the liberals were opposed. The democratic aspirations of the masses collided against the solid wall of the bureaucratic-police regime. Only by the revolutionary overthrow of tsarism and a clean break with the past could the ground be cleared for the introduction of a genuine democracy. The exact nature of the transformation and the role of the different classes in the revolution were the subject of heated debate within the ranks of the workers’ movement, which will be dealt with later. But to all but the blindest reformist, it was evident that on the order of the day stood, not parliamentarianism but a revolutionary general strike and armed insurrection to overthrow the autocracy. This perspective was amply corroborated by the high tide of the revolution which was ushered in by the October strike in St. Petersburg and culminated in the December uprising in Moscow.


248 Pares, A History of Russia, 485.

249 Martov and others, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 1, 73.

41) The October Strike and the Soviet

By late summer the strike wave appeared to have subsided. The conclusion of peace with Japan, the Bulygin Duma and a series of other concessions seemed to have brought it to a close. But this appearance was deceptive. The movement was far from exhausted. The September-October strike movement was sparked off not by the most experienced and advanced sections of the class, but by the more backward layers. The summer months saw a decline in strikes in the big factories, but an increase in strikes of the most downtrodden and oppressed layers of the class—sawmill and brickyard workers, slaughterhouse workers, spinning assistants, pharmacists, postmen, waiters, bakers, even domestic servants. The proletarian army was calling up its reserves. Wave after wave joined in the struggle. A new impulse came from the Moscow printers’ strike which led to a general strike in Moscow on September 27. Beginning with a small dispute at the Sytin printworks in Moscow, the printers’ strike spread to 50 printshops within a few days and then rapidly became general throughout the city.

Just when the movement in Moscow appeared to be dying down, there was a new upsurge in St. Petersburg. On October 2, a sympathy strike of the printers was followed by a railway strike in Moscow on October 6. The railway workers struck and elected delegates. By October 10 there was an all-out railway strike. By mid-October, three quarters of a million railwaymen were on strike. The strikes became general, involving Moscow, Kharkov, Revel, Smolensk, Lodz, Minsk, Petersburg, Vilna, Odessa, Kazan, Tiflis, and other major centers. On October 16 Finland joined in. The rail strike became 100 percent, and the movement then spread swiftly to the post offices, telephones, telegrams, service employees, and professional workers. The strike rapidly took on a political character. This is what compelled the tsar on October 17 to issue a manifesto prompted by Count Witte. Two days later the general strike came to an end.

The role of the strike in general is to make the working class aware of itself as a living social force. The general strike is the highest expression of this. Lenin was fond of quoting the words of a German song: “All the wheels stand still if your mighty arms so will!” By participating in the strike movement, especially where this achieves an active form with mass participation, the workers acquire a feeling of their own strength through unity. The strike is a levelling phenomenon, serving to bind together the most advanced, politically conscious workers with the broadest layers of the class, who are aroused in action from the inertia of “normal” times. In the autumn of 1905, the revolution acquired an unprecedented sweep. At the head of the movement stood the proletariat, wielding its classical weapon of struggle—the general strike.

“In its extent and acuteness,” as Lenin later recalled, “the strike struggle had no parallel anywhere in the world. The economic strike developed into a political strike, and the latter into insurrection.”250

The working class, by making its power felt, drew behind it big sections of the middle class. The intelligentsia joined in the strike. “In many places juries refused to sit, lawyers to plead, doctors to attend patients. Justices of the peace closed down their courts.”251 The strike was accompanied by mass meetings where the workers thrashed out tactics and discussed strategy and politics. Increasingly, soldiers began to participate in these meetings, expressing solidarity with the people. The workers were beginning to organize militias for self-defense, to combat pogroms and keep order. In some places, the workers’ fighting squads went onto the offensive. There were clashes with Cossacks in Yekaterinoslav and barricades in Odessa.

Under certain conditions a general strike can lead to the wresting of serious concessions from the ruling class. But in the given context of Russia in 1905 a general strike must necessarily lead to the seizure of power or else lead to defeat. The general strike posed the question of power, but, in and of itself, could not resolve it. For that, it was necessary that the movement should be guided by a revolutionary party prepared to set before itself the most advanced tasks. The rapid development of the forces of Marxism in Russia, and the ease with which they placed themselves at the head of the mass workers’ movement in 1905, can only be understood in the context of a politically virgin proletariat with no long history of reformist trade unions and parties. Very swiftly, the Russian Marxists were able to win over the best class fighters in the factories who in turn enabled them to play a dominant role in the mass movement. That revolutionary Marxism should have proven so successful in a backward country such as Russia seems to be a paradox. But the contradiction is more apparent than real. The very backwardness of Russia—that is to say, the belatedness of its economic and social development—meant not only that the social contradictions were sharper and more glaring, but also that the working class was entirely fresh and unencumbered by prejudices, routine and the kind of deadening conservative traditions that flow from the bureaucracy of the mass trade unions and reformist parties in the “advanced” capitalist countries.

This fact largely explains the speed with which the Social Democrats passed from tiny propaganda circles to a mass force embracing hundreds of thousands in the space of just a few months. The Russian working class was politically virgin with no history of bourgeois or reformist organizations. Just as Russian industry did not have to pass through the long and painful process of organic development through manufacturing and handicrafts to large scale industry, so the Russian working class did not have to reproduce the slow and painful development of the British, French, and German workers, through a phase of trade unionism and reformism, but were able to move straight to the position of revolutionary Marxism. Dialectically, it transformed itself from the most backward to the most advanced class in Europe. Nevertheless, the winning over of the masses was not an automatic process. It demanded not only correct ideas and perspectives, but flexible tactics and the ability to connect with the living movement of the working class as it was in reality, and not in the imagination of sectarians.

To many of the Bolshevik activists, the question of insurrection was seen in exclusively technical terms, as an organizational question, a viewpoint which was connected to an exaggerated appraisal of the independent significance of the “apparat” and an underestimation of the political side, the need to win the masses through patient propaganda and agitation. This, however, is precisely the main point. Each party had its own armed fighting detachments or militias, not only the Social Democrats, but also the Social Revolutionaries. The need to form fighting detachments was, in the given conditions, self-evident. But it had to be linked to the mass movement via the Soviets. In fact, without fighting detachments soviets would be toothless “paper tigers,” but without the mass movement expressed in the medium of the elected soviets, the armed detachments could have had no significance. It was necessary to win the masses over in action, by means of timely slogans and correct tactics, to demonstrate in practice the superiority of Marxism on the basis of the concrete struggle and experience of the masses. In other words, the problem before the Party was to win over the mass movement and not to counterpose itself to it.

The whole question of the relationship of the Party and the mass movement can be reduced in the last analysis to the difference between the finished scientific program of Marxism and the necessarily unfinished, incomplete, and contradictory movement of the masses. Whoever is incapable of finding a bridge between these two aspects will forever be incapable of building a mass movement. Naturally, Lenin explained, the Social Democrats will fight for influence within the Soviets, and attempt to win them over. But the broad base of the Soviets, representing the big majority of workers, not only the advanced layers, but even the most backward layers in the factories, Social Democratic and nonparty, atheists and religious, literate and illiterate, skilled and unskilled, was a big plus in the revolutionary struggle against tsarism. Lenin was confident that, out of the experience of the struggle itself, the masses would, in time, draw the necessary conclusions and come to understand the validity of the Marxist program. The duty of the revolutionary vanguard was to “patiently explain,” and not to present ultimatums to the masses. The method of Lenin recalls the revolutionary realism of Marx who pointed out that “one real step forward of the movement is worth a hundred correct programs.”

In Russia, under the prevailing conditions, there was no opportunity for the creation of a mass reformist labor movement with a privileged labor aristocracy and an ossified bureaucracy at its head. The attempt to establish tame, government-controlled “Zubatov” unions came to nothing. After January 9, many of these unions became swiftly transformed by the masses into genuine organs of struggle. In all these events a key role was played by the Soviets. These embryonic organs of workers’ power began life as extended strike committees. The Soviets themselves first arose in the heat of the all-Russian October general strike. In the absence of well-established mass trade unions, the striking workers moved to elect delegates who began to come together in improvised strike committees, which were generalized to include all sections of the class. The creation of the Soviets in 1905 is a marvelous example of the creative genius of ordinary working people, once they enter the arena of struggle. Nowhere does the idea of soviets feature in the writings of the great Marxist thinkers prior to 1905. They were not foreseen in the pages of the Communist Manifesto, and they were not the creation of any political party, but the spontaneous creations of the workers in struggle, the product of the initiative and creative genius of the working class. In the first place they represented committees of struggle, assemblies of delegates drawn from the factories.252

There are many other examples.

The idea of elected plant delegates was already raised by the Shidlovsky commission. This gave the workers an initial experience. Thus on October 11 when the strike reached St. Petersburg they spontaneously elected delegates, including some from the Putilov and Obukhov plants. The system for the election to the Soviets was as follows: there was one delegate elected for every 500 workers (this was the same formula as for the Shidlovsky commission). Small workshops combined to send a delegate. On October 13 the first meeting of the Soviet took place at the Technical Institute with 40 people present, some of these were ex-Shidlovsky delegates. A Menshevik (Zborodsky) chaired the first meeting. Thereafter the number of delegates increased continuously; there were 80 to 90 at the second meeting from 40 big plants. At the third meeting 226 were present from 96 factories and five trade unions. Also present at the meetings were three representatives each of the Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, and Social Revolutionaries. In other words, the Soviet comprised of delegates from the shop floor, unions, and socialist parties. The Soviet proceeded to elect an executive committee of 22 members—two each from the seven city districts and two each from the four biggest trade unions.

The Petersburg Soviet was the most authoritative and influential in Russia. Very soon, the Soviet embraced practically the whole of the Petersburg proletariat, and set the tone for the rest of the country. At its peak the Petersburg Soviet gathered together 562 deputies from a total of 147 factories, 34 artisan associations, and 16 trade unions. 351 of its delegates were metal workers, the pretorian guard of the Russian proletariat. The Bolsheviks were represented on the executive committee by Khostolovksy and Bogdanov. But the leading political figure in the Soviet was undoubtedly Leon Trotsky. Throughout the October general strike and November lockout all eyes were on the St. Petersburg Soviet. Here was an extremely broad, democratic and flexible organ of struggle. In the course of the struggle, the Soviets gradually increased their functions and representative scope. Through the Soviet, the workers made use of the newly found, newly conquered freedom of the press by the simple expedient of taking over the printing presses. They compelled the introduction of the eight-hour day and even instituted workers’ control of production in some factories. They formed a workers’ militia and even arrested unpopular police officers. In addition to numerous other tasks the Soviet published Izvestiya Sovieta Rabochikh Deputatov as its public organ.

Following the example of St. Petersburg, workers took the initiative of forming soviets in other parts of Russia. By the autumn the Soviets had been set up in more than 50 other towns and cities including Tver, Kostroma, Kharkov, Kiev, Yekaterinoslav, Odessa, Rostov on Don, Novorossiysk, and Baku. The Moscow Soviet was only formed on 21 November. At its first meeting there were 180 delegates representing about 80,000 workers. It originally existed side by side with a so-called strike committee mainly composed of petty bourgeois elements dominated by SRs and assorted middle class “democrats.” However, by November this committee fused with the Soviet. In the great majority of cases the Social Democrats predominated, but the petty bourgeois democrats were also represented by the Social Revolutionary Party who, as we have seen, were present in the executive committee of the Petersburg Soviet.

In general, the consciousness of the masses develops slowly and unevenly. Although in a revolution it is enormously accelerated, the process of the awakening of the masses remains contradictory. Different layers draw different conclusions at different times. Thus, as late as November the tsar was still receiving petitions from striking workers from the provinces begging him to intervene on their behalf. This shows not only the uneven development of consciousness, but also the colossal difference between Moscow and Petersburg and the provinces. The contradiction is still more glaring between the consciousness of the town worker and the peasants. The movement that began in the towns was beginning to spread to the villages. By the end of 1905 peasant disturbances had broken out in 37 percent of European Russia, especially in the central Black Earth zone, Latvia, Southern Estonia, Georgia, and Ukraine. An attempt was made to organize a Peasants’ Union in the summer. The peasants expressed their greetings for “our brother factory workers.” But in their consciousness the peasants lagged far behind the workers. The villages were still considerably influenced by liberal illusions, reflecting the half-awakened state of mind of the rural masses. Under such conditions the leadership of the Peasants’ Union fell into the hands of the Social Revolutionaries and liberals, a phenomenon which was repeated later in February 1917.

In Moscow a soviet of soldiers’ deputies was set up and in Tver province a peasants’ soviet was formed. In Sevastopol, there were also sailors and soldiers present in the local workers’ soviet. But these were rare exceptions. The place where the revolution was beginning to penetrate the minds of the peasants was the army. Under the hammer blows of military defeats and the influence of the general revolutionary movement, the armed forces were in a state of ferment. Social Democratic influence was strong among sections of the sailors, traditionally the most working class section of the armed forces. A mutiny in Sevastopol in November led by Lieutenant Schmidt was brutally suppressed by the tsarist authorities. However, a whole series of mutinies in the army posed the question of the military in an especially sharp form. This had a very great symptomatic importance, because the army was overwhelmingly peasant in composition. One of the principal weaknesses of the 1905 Revolution was the lack of a firm base among the peasants. The rural masses were lagging behind the towns and this fact proved a fatal weakness in the December uprising. Elements of a peasant-soldier revolt were present, but not on a sufficient scale to make a fundamental difference to the outcome. By the time the conflagration had spread to the villages the movement in the towns was already on a downswing.

From distant exile, Lenin greeted the formation of the Soviets which, in a brilliant anticipation, he characterized as embryonic organs of workers’ power.

“I may be wrong,” he wrote, “but I believe (on the strength of the incomplete and only ‘paper’ information at my disposal) that politically the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies should be regarded as the embryo of a provisional revolutionary government. I think the Soviet should proclaim itself the provisional revolutionary government of the whole of Russia as early as possible, or should set up a provisional revolutionary government (which would amount to the same thing, only in another form).”253

This, in essence, was what actually occurred in October 1917.


250 LCW, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder, vol. 31, 27.

251 Trotsky, 1905, 111.

252 Nor is this observation limited to the question of the Soviets. Marx derived his idea of what a workers’ state would be like from the Paris Commune of 1871, when the workers of Paris took power. The program of the Commune was summed up by Marx in The Civil War in France, and later provided the basis for Lenin’s State and Revolution.

253 LCW, Our Tasks and the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, vol. 10, 21.

42) The Bolsheviks and the Soviet

Under conditions where the movement was acquiring a colossal sweep, the need to penetrate new layers, to adopt new methods of agitation, presented a big challenge to the party. A shakeup was required to take full advantage of the situation. Every day mass meetings in the cities were taking place all over Russia. Big opportunities opened up for the Social Democracy who virtually had the field to themselves. Their only real rivals were the Social Revolutionaries, who had a certain presence, and the petty-bourgeois nationalist organizations such as the PSP in Poland and the Jewish Bund. The anarchists in Petersburg were too insignificant to be represented in the Soviet executive. The same was true throughout the country, with the sole exception of Byelostok, where they had the majority. The bourgeois liberals had no base among the masses and made virtually no attempts to gain one. Their whole strategy was based on wheeling and dealing in order to extract a compromise from the regime.

The party was rapidly gaining ground among the most advanced elements. But in order to carry through the revolution, this is insufficient. It is necessary to win the masses. For this task, flexible tactics are necessary, in order that the relatively small forces of the proletarian vanguard can find a road to the majority of workers who have not yet drawn all the necessary conclusions. An absolutely key question for the linking up of the small number of organized Marxists to the broad mass of workers in struggle was the attitude towards the Petersburg Soviet. As we have seen, Lenin, despite being separated from the field of action by thousands of miles, was able immediately to grasp the significance of this striking new phenomenon. The same was not true of his followers in Petersburg. Displaying a complete lack of “feel” for the real movement of the working class, the Bolshevik central committee members in Petersburg were uneasy at the thought of a “nonparty” mass organization existing side by side with the party. Instead of seeing the Soviet as an important field of action, they regarded it with hostility, as a rival.

Because of the supposedly nonparty nature of the Soviet and its chairman, Khrustalyov, the St. Petersburg Bolsheviks went so far as to organize a campaign against the Soviet. They persuaded the federated council, consisting of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, to put an ultimatum to the Soviet that it must place itself under the leadership of the RSDLP. However, this proposal was rejected by the rank and file of a joint conference of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks on October 26. The Mensheviks opposed it; the Bolsheviks then went ahead on their own. On October 24, they had moved a resolution along the same lines in meetings at the Semyanikov and other metal factories, demanding that the Soviet accept the Social Democratic program and tactics and demanding that it must define its political stance. In the first issue of the legal Bolshevik paper, Novaya Zhizn’ an article appeared under the title On the question of the Soviet of Deputies which complained of the “extremely strange situation when the ‘Soviet’ does not stand in any dependent relationship to the party”.254

The Bolshevik CC published a resolution which was made binding upon all Bolsheviks throughout Russia, insisting that the Soviets must accept the party program. They adopted the kind of formalistic line of reasoning characteristic of sectarians at all periods: if the Soviet wanted to be a political organization then the Social Democrats must demand that it adopts the Social Democratic program, but if that was accepted then there would be no point in having a second Social Democratic organization parallel to the party itself. Therefore the Soviet should be wound up. This was tantamount to demanding that all members of the Soviet join the Social Democratic party. To be sure the editors of Novaya Zhizn’ stated that they were not 100 percent in agreement with the article, but the agitation against the Soviet continued just the same. On October 29, the Nevsky district committee declared inadmissible for Social Democrats to participate in any kind of “workers’ parliament” like the Soviet. A meeting of the Semyonov works adopted the same line. This position completely ignored the need to establish a firm link between the advanced workers who stood on the ideas of Marxism and the mass of the politically untutored workers. It was tantamount to demanding that the working class as a whole should enter into the Marxist party, a completely unrealistic conception which, if pressed, could only lead to the isolation of the minority of advanced workers from the rest of the class.

The crass formalism of this line of argument was conveyed in a number of articles in Novaya Zhizn’, notably one which appeared in issue 6 over the signature of Mendeleyev, where we read the following:

“The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies must not exist as a political organization and the social democrats must withdraw from it, since its existence acts negatively upon the development of the social democratic movement. The Soviet of Delegates can remain as a trade union organization, or it cannot remain at all.” The same author goes on to propose that the Bolsheviks should present the Soviet with an ultimatum: either accept the program of the RSDLP or else disband! The Bolshevik leaders justified their hostility to the Soviet on the grounds that it represented “the subordination of consciousness to spontaneity.”255

They went so far as to move a resolution on these lines in the Soviet. When it was turned down, the Bolshevik delegates, led by CC members Bogdanov and Knuyants, walked out. The other delegates merely shrugged their shoulders and proceeded to the next point on the agenda.

The mistakes of the committeemen and women played into the hands of the Mensheviks. Their more flexible attitude permitted them to take initiatives in setting up soviets, where they immediately won a head start over the Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks regarded the Soviets not as a provisional revolutionary government, to use Lenin’s expression, but as a “revolutionary self-government.” This was an analogy with the French Revolution of 1789 and the Paris Commune. However, the analogy was not with the strong side of these historical precedents, but precisely the mistakes of the Commune. The other Menshevik idea of a “labor congress,” was also a nonrevolutionary conception, which saw the Soviet, not as an organ of struggle through which the workers could take power, but as the starting point for a mass labor party, something like the British Labour Party. The slogan of a “labor congress” which was later taken up by Axelrod in particular, reflected the same idea. Thus, despite their success in participating in the Soviet, the Mensheviks’ entire approach was of a reformist, not revolutionary character.

From afar, Lenin followed the activities of his followers with a mixture of frustration and dismay. His unerring instinct and insight into the workers’ movement enabled him to grasp quickly the significance of the Soviets. But his colleagues did not share his understanding of the way in which the masses move. It took Lenin’s decisive intervention to straighten things out. In the meantime the Bolsheviks lost a lot of ground to the Mensheviks in the Soviets, and precious time and opportunities were lost. He must have torn his hair out when he learned of the behavior of his co-thinkers in St. Petersburg. Burning with impatience from Stockholm in early November, when he was en route to Russia, Lenin attempted, gently but firmly, to correct the mistakes of the Petersburg Bolsheviks. In the fifth issue of Novaya Zhizn’, an article signed by a prominent member of the Central Committee, B.M. Knuyants (Radin), posed the alternative of “Soviet or Party.” Answering Knuyants’ question Lenin retorted: “I think it is wrong to put the question in this way and that the decision must certainly be: both the Soviet of Workers Deputies and the Party.” Significantly, the editors did not publish the letter, which only saw the light of day in 1940.

“The only question—and a highly important one,” Lenin continues, “is how to divide, and how to combine, the tasks of the Soviet and those of the RSDLP.” Then, in a phrase which must have caused consternation among the committeemen, he adds: “I think it would be inadvisable for the Soviet to adhere wholly to any one party.” Lenin goes on to explain the elementary fact that the trade unions and the Soviets should strive to embrace all sections of the working class, irrespective of nationality, race, creed or political affiliation. Only the quasi-fascist Black Hundreds should be excluded, and that within these organizations of the masses, the Marxists should fight to win a majority for their ideas, program, and tactics.

“We do not shut ourselves off from the revolutionary people,” wrote Lenin, but “submit to their judgment every step and every decision we take. We rely fully and solely on the free initiative of the working masses themselves.”256

This is Lenin speaking: a very long way from the malicious caricature of a sectarian or a “Blanquist conspirator,” manipulating the masses from behind the scenes!

The October strike gave a mighty impetus to the revolt of the oppressed nationalities. Finland, the Baltic region, and large areas of the Caucasus became virtual no-go areas, especially after the announcement of reforms in the tsar’s October Manifesto. The “liberal” prime minister, Witte, wrote in worried terms to the tsar about the situation in Finland: “During the second half of last October events took place in Finland which have no precedent in almost a hundred years since the province has been under Russian rule. A political general strike was organized. A well-armed and organized ‘national guard’ [militia] made its appearance, which in many areas took over the role of the lawful police, ordering it to lay down its arms. Certain governors have been forced, under threats by the representatives of the local political parties, to resign their posts.” Count Witte’s daily correspondence with the tsar revealed increasing alarm at the revolutionary situation. Under pressure from Witte the tsar had released the October Manifesto. Now it was becoming clear that, far from halting the revolution, the concessions had merely given it a fresh impetus. If Witte expected a sympathetic hearing from the tsar, he was doomed to be disappointed. Nicholas wrote back: “Is it possible for these 162 anarchists to subvert the Army? They should all be hanged.” This was the tsar’s only comment in relation to Witte’s letter.

Witte’s comments on Finland were confirmed by other reports submitted to the tsar. One of these, written by the Governor General of Warsaw, contains the following assessment of the situation in Poland:

The fantastic mood of Polish society and the hostility toward Russians has acquired a hitherto unprecedented dimension . . . The October Manifesto did not call for specific activities, but on the contrary, provoked such serious happenings that the town of Warsaw and the surrounding regions took on the aspect of a single rebellious camp. Mass meetings in the streets and squares with orators calling for uprising. Catholic priests organizing “patriotic demonstrations” in the villages singing revolutionary songs and carrying red and black flags with the Polish eagle and revolutionary slogans.257

The Ukraine was also in a state of turbulence, with mass protest meetings in Kiev and Odessa in October. All the factors were maturing for the passing of power into the hands of the working class. The revolutionary movement in the villages was on the increase. In the last three months of 1905, 1,590 cases of peasant disturbances were reported. Splits were beginning to open up in the ranks of the autocracy. While Witte pleaded with the tsar to grant reform from above to head off revolution from below, General Trepov, the virtual dictator of Petersburg, issued the famous command to his troops: “Spare no cartridges!”

The weakness of the regime, faced with an explosion of popular anger, is revealed in the panicky tone of Witte’s letters to the tsar, and the continual complaints about the lack of troops. Finally, even the thick-headed Nicholas was compelled to come to terms with reality and grudgingly concede the need to hold elections to a State Duma. The tsar’s Manifesto of October 17 was hailed by Lenin as “the first victory of the revolution.” It was greeted by scenes of wild rejoicing on the streets. Crowds of excited people gathered in the city centers to discuss the situation. On 18, 19, and 20, October, with no preordained plan, the workers marched to the jails with red flags to demand the release of political prisoners. In Moscow, the jails were forcibly opened up and the prisoners carried shoulder-high through the streets. The position of the Bolsheviks was not to place any trust in paper promises and to carry on for a Constituent Assembly. Despite the mood of euphoria, Lenin hammered home the idea that the Manifesto was only a tactical retreat and warned against constitutional illusions and playing at parliamentarianism:

There is talk of liberty, of popular representation: some hold forth on a Constituent Assembly. But what is being constantly, hourly and minutely lost sight of is that, without serious guarantees, all these fine things are but hollow phrases. A serious guarantee can be provided only by a victorious rising of the people, only by the complete domination of the armed proletariat and the peasantry over all representatives of tsarist power who, under pressure by the people, have retreated a pace but are far from having yielded to the people, and far from having been overthrown by the people. Until that aim is achieved there can be no real liberty, no genuine popular representation, or a really Constituent Assembly with the power to set up a new order in Russia.

The regime was playing for time, offering concessions in order to defuse the situation, while behind the scenes preparing a counterstroke. A similar situation arises at a certain point in every revolution. It can be characterized as the phase of democratic illusions. People imagine that the problem has been resolved, that the revolution is over, when in reality it is only just beginning. The decisive battle lies in the future. The October Manifesto solved nothing fundamental, but it provided the excuse for the liberals to detach themselves from the revolution. As Lenin and Trotsky had foreseen, the bourgeoisie, which had all along been striving to get a deal with tsarism at the expense of the workers and peasants, now treacherously deserted the revolutionary camp. The big capitalists and landowners united in a reactionary bloc—the so-called Union of October 17, the “Octobrists,” which threw all its weight behind tsarist reaction. At the same time, the “liberal” section of the bourgeoisie founded the Constitutional Democrat Party, the “Cadets,” which came out in favor of a “constitutional monarchy,” in effect acting as a left flank for the autocracy, covering up the bloody reality of tsarist rule with pseudodemocratic constitutional phrase-mongering. Lenin was particularly scathing in his attacks on this “progressive” wing of the bourgeoisie, sparing no opportunity to denounce them for their cowardice and treachery.

“What is a constitution?” wrote Lenin. “A sheet of paper with the peoples’ rights recorded on it. What is the guarantee of these rights being really recognized? It lies in the strength of those classes of the people that have become aware of these rights and have been able to win them.”258

Lenin coolly analyzed the balance of forces at the given moment and concluded: “The autocracy is no longer strong enough to come out against the revolution openly. The revolution is not yet strong enough to deal the enemy a decisive blow. This fluctuation of almost evenly balanced forces inevitably engenders confusion among the authorities, makes for transitions from repression to concession, to laws providing for freedom of the press and freedom of assembly.”259

As Lenin had foreseen, what the autocracy gave with the left hand, it now prepared to take back with the right. The conquests achieved by the general strike heightened the confidence of the working class. Prisoners were released from jails, but the freedom conquered from below had a fundamentally unstable and fragile character. Only by decisively overthrowing the regime could genuine political and social emancipation be assured.

The going over of the liberals effectively cleared the deck for action. It was now a question of “either . . . or” for the revolution. Only an armed uprising, led by the proletariat, drawing behind it the peasant masses, the nationalities, and all oppressed layers of society could show the way out. The illusion of a constitutional reform was now exploded. The October Manifesto was a clear attempt on the part of the old regime to draw a line in the sand of revolution: “Thus far and no further!” Such reforms as had been achieved had been conquered not by the liberal wheeler-dealers, but exclusively by the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat. Far from drawing in its horns after the October Manifesto, Lenin urged the working class to summon up all its forces for a decisive showdown. Behind the façade of a proffered constitution, the autocracy was prepared for a bloody settling of accounts. The task of the revolutionaries in this situation was, while clearly understanding that the really decisive battles lay in the future, to grasp the opportunity with both hands, and make full use of the newly won freedoms to build the party rapidly, extend its influence within all spheres of social life, and prepare for the decisive battle. Lenin based himself on the idea of an uprising as the only guarantee. The arming of the people was linked to the fight for basic demands such as the reduction of the working day to eight hours and the freeing of all political prisoners. Lenin’s revolutionary realism was born out by subsequent events.


254 Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, 104.

255 Quoted by O. Anweiler, Los Soviets, 84 and 85.

256 LCW, Our Tasks in the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies—Letter to the Editors, vol. 10, 19 and 27.

257 Quoted in V.P. Semenikov and A.M. Pankratova, Revolyutsiya 1905 Goda—a Collection of Government Documents, 22–23 and 224–25.

258 LCW, Between Two Battles, vol. 9, 460.

259 LCW, The All-Russian Political Strike, vol. 9, 394–95.

43) ‘Nicholas the Bloody’

At the present moment, when it has become fashionable to present the image of Tsar Nicholas in the most attractive and humane colors, it is perhaps as well that we remind ourselves of the real character and role of the man known to his contemporaries as “Nicholas the Bloody.” We refer specifically to the attitude of the Little Father to the activities of the pogromists. From the beginning of his reign, Nicholas showed his willingness to resort to violence at the slightest pretext. In 1895, the year following his accession, the tsar telegraphed to a grenadier regiment that had distinguished itself in suppressing workers’ disorders: “Highly satisfied with the calm and bold conduct of the troops during the factory riots.” In 1905 he reacted in the same spirit: “Terror must be met with terror,” he wrote to his mother in December 1905, in commending the brutal repression of the Baltic peasants. “Orlov, Richter, and the others are doing very good work. Many seditious bands have been dispersed, their homes and property burned.” A little while later, on hearing that Riga had been captured, and that Captain Richter had hanged the chief agitators, the tsar commented: “Fine fellow!” In 1907 Bernard Pares, author of one of the best-known English histories of Russia, asked a Russian peasant what he thought of what had occurred during the previous five years. After a moment’s thought the peasant replied: “Five years ago there was a belief [in the tsar] as well as fear. Now the belief is all gone and only the fear remains.”260

As an answer to the revolutionary movement of the workers, the regime organized bloody pogroms against Jews, socialists, and “intellectuals.” In one month following October 17, anything up to 4,000 people were murdered, and a further 10,000 injured in bloody pogroms. Many Social Democrats perished in these attacks, notably the Bolshevik leader, Nikolai Bauman, who was murdered in Moscow shortly after being released from prison. Bauman’s funeral turned into a mass workers’ demonstration. The coffin was carried through the streets accompanied by a band playing revolutionary songs.

The party leaders followed with wreaths, red flags and heavy velvet banners, bearing the slogans of their struggle in ornate gold. They were flanked by an armed militia of students and workers. And behind them row upon row of mourners, some 100,000 in all, marched ten abreast in military formation. This religious-like procession continued all day, stopping at various points in the city to pick up reinforcements. As it passed the Conservatory it was joined by a student orchestra, which played, over and over again, the funeral dirge of the revolution: You Fell Victim to a Fateful Struggle. The measured heaviness of the marchers, their melancholy music and their military organization filled the streets with dark menace. As night fell, thousands of torches were lit, making the red flags glow. The graveside orations were emotional, defiant and uplifting. Bauman’s widow called on the crowds to avenge her husband’s death and, as they made their way to the city center, sporadic fighting broke out with Black Hundred gangs.

There were many other cases of people brutally tortured and murdered by the Black Hundred gangs financed and armed by the authorities as auxiliaries of the state. It is not difficult to prove the link between the pogroms and the authorities, from the local police chief right up to the tsar. Nicholas took a personal interest in the work of the Union of the Russian People which was behind the Black Hundreds. The direct connection between Nicholas and the Black Hundreds is not in doubt, as a recent history points out:

The tsar and his supporters at the court . . . patronized the Union, as did several leading Churchmen, including Father John of Kronstadt, a close friend of the royal family, Bishop Hermogen, and the monk Iliodor. Nicholas himself wore the Union’s badge and wished its leaders “total success” in their efforts to unify the “loyal Russians” behind the autocracy. Acting on the tsar’s instructions, the Ministry of the Interior financed its newspapers and secretly channelled arms to it.261

The tsar’s anti-Semitism is well documented:

He had a particular animus for the Jews. When Stolypin, the chairman of the Council of Ministers 1906–11, proposed to relax certain restrictions imposed on the Jews in the Pale of Settlement, the tsar replied: “In spite of the most convincing arguments in favor of an affirmative decision in this matter, an inner voice ever more insistently confirms that I should not take this decision upon myself. So far my conscience has never deceived me. Therefore in this case also, I intend to follow its dictates.” Not for nothing did the tsar become a member of the anti-Semitic Union of the Russian People, subscribe to the Union’s funds and receive its president, Dr. Dubrovin, on friendly terms. He had no sympathy for the victims of the pogroms that followed the publication of the Manifesto of October 1905. On the contrary, he saw in them a revolt against “the impertinence” of the socialists and revolutionaries.262

The Jews suffered terrible atrocities at the hands of the Black Hundred gangs, liberally plied with vodka and egged on by the police. And these horrors were organized at the top. At the police headquarters in Petersburg, thousands of leaflets were produced, inciting violence against the Jews for ruining Russia, calling upon the populace to “tear them to pieces and kill them all.” General Trepov personally edited the leaflet, which was subsidized by the Minister of the Interior to the tune of 70,000 rubles. The most brutal pogrom took place in Odessa where 800 Jews were murdered, 5,000 wounded, and more than 100,000 rendered homeless. The lumpenproletariat, the scum of society, protected by the forces of the state, was incited to commit the most unspeakable atrocities against defenseless people.

“The doss-house tramp is king,” wrote Trotsky.

A trembling slave an hour ago, hounded by police and starvation, he is now himself an unlimited despot. Everything is permitted to him, he is capable of anything, he is master of property and honor, of life and death. If he wants to, he can throw an old woman out of a third-floor window together with a grand piano, he can smash a chair against a baby’s head, rape a little girl while the entire crowd looks on, hammer a nail into a living human body . . . He exterminates whole families, he pours petrol over a house, transforms it into a mass of flames, and if anyone attempts to escape, he finishes him off with a cudgel. A savage horde comes into an Armenian almshouse, knifing old people, sick people, women, children . . . There exist no tortures, figments of a feverish brain maddened with alcohol and fury, at which he need ever stop. He is capable of everything. God save the tsar!263

The Bolshevik Piatnitsky who was in Odessa at the time recalls what happened:

There I saw the following scene: a gang of young men, between 25 and 20 years old, among whom there were plainclothes policemen and members of the Okhrana, were rounding up anyone who looked like a Jew—men, women and children—stripping them naked and beating them mercilessly
. . . We immediately organized a group of revolutionaries armed with revolvers . . . we ran up to them and fired at them. They ran away. But suddenly between us and the pogromists there appeared a solid wall of soldiers, armed to the teeth and facing us. We retreated. The soldiers went away, and the pogromists came out again. This happened a few times. It became clear to us that the pogromists were acting together with the military.264

The official report ordered by Witte clearly exposed the role of the police in this butchery, not only organizing the lumpenproletarian mobs and supplying them with vodka, but directing them to places where Jews were hiding and even participating directly in the massacre of men, women, and children. The governor of Odessa, Neidgart, admitted that “the crowds of hooligans engaged in wrecking and robbing, greeted him enthusiastically.” Baron Kaulbars, commander of the local troops, addressed the police with a speech beginning with the words: “Let’s call a spade a spade. Let’s admit that all of us, in our hearts, sympathize with this pogrom!”265

It cannot be argued that the tsar knew nothing of the pogroms, although, naturally, his links with the Black Hundreds were kept on a suitably discreet level. But Nicholas was well aware of what was going on, and approved of it, as his private correspondence reveals. On October 27 he wrote to his mother:

My Dearest Mama . . .

I’ll begin by saying that the whole situation is better than it was a week ago . . . In the first days after the Manifesto the subversive elements raised their heads, but a strong reaction set in quickly and a whole mass of loyal people suddenly made their power felt. The result was obvious, and what one would expect in our country. The impertinence of the socialists and revolutionaries had angered the people once more; and because nine-tenths of the trublemakers are Jews, the people’s anger turned against them. That’s how the pogroms happened. It is amazing how they took place simultaneously in all the towns of Russia and Siberia . . . Cases as far apart as Tomsk, Simeropol, Tver, and Odessa show clearly what an infuriated mob can do; they surrounded the houses where the revolutionaries had taken refuge, set fire to them, and killed everybody trying to escape.266

Kerensky confirms the blatant complicity between the pogrom-mongers and the authorities, including the tsar:

Shcheglovitov was encouraged in his attitude by the tsar, who was irreconcilable in political matters. His policy in the pogrom trials involving members of the Union of the Russian People [that is, the Black Hundreds, the forerunners of the fascists] was revealing. Among the documents of the Extraordinary Commission of Inquiry into the Activities of Former Ministers and Dignitaries set up by the Provisional Government is a statement made by Lyadov, department head at the Ministry of Justice. Lyadov asserted that among the appeals for pardon that were considered in his department, the tsar invariably approved those submitted by members of the Union of the Russian People and rejected those submitted by revolutionaries.267

How to fight the pogromists? Certainly not by appealing to the police and judiciary who, as we have seen, were behind the Black Hundreds. The wave of pogroms posed a question of self-defense in a most concrete and urgent fashion. Not futile appeals to the law, but workers’ self-defense! Defense, first of all, against the Black Hundreds, defense of Jews, Armenians, and of intellectuals. Wherever possible, the workers organizations came together and attempted to combat the racist gangs. On such issues, it is necessary to draw in the representatives of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie and the oppressed minorities, but always under the leadership of the workers’ organizations. Trust only in your own forces! The working class must fight fascism with its own methods! That was the position of Lenin, who, in an article on a pogrom in Bielostok, explains the Bolshevik policy.

Here are a few excerpts from a telegram received from a Bielostok elector, Tsirin: “A deliberately organized anti-Jewish pogrom has started.” “In spite of rumors that have been circulated, not a single order has been received from the ministry all day today!” “Vigorous agitation for the pogrom has been carried on for the past two weeks. In the streets, particularly at night, leaflets were distributed calling for the massacre, not only of Jews, but also of intellectuals. The police simply turned a blind eye to all this.

The old familiar picture! The police organizes the pogrom beforehand. The police instigates it; leaflets are printed in government printing offices calling for a massacre of the Jews. When the pogrom begins, the police is inactive. The troops quietly look on at the exploits of the Black Hundreds. But later this very police goes through the farce of prosecution and trial of the pogromists.” Lenin denounces the farce of government investigations and enquiries and poses the alternative in revolutionary terms: “Indict the culprits in unequivocal terms—it is your direct duty to the people. Don’t ask the government whether measures are being taken to protect the Jews and to prevent pogroms, but ask how long the government intends to shield the real culprits, who are members of the government. Ask the government whether it thinks that the people will long be in error as to who it is really responsible for the pogroms. Indict the government openly and publicly; call upon the people to organize a militia and self-defense as the only means of protection against pogroms.268

The bloody wave of pogroms posed the need for workers’ self-defense in a very concrete fashion. The question of armed struggle was a matter of life and death for the working class and the revolution. These activities, however, had nothing in common with the tactic of individual terrorism or “urban guerrillaism.” This was no secret conspiracy carried out by small groups of terrorists behind the backs of the workers, but a conscious revolutionary strategy linked to the masses. The fighting squads were closely linked to the Soviets and other workers’ organizations. Legal workers’ clubs set up rifle ranges where workers learned to handle arms under the noses of the police. For their part, the Bolsheviks pressed for the formation of a united front involving the unity in action of all workers’ organizations and also petty bourgeois democratic and nationalist groups—an agreement of all those forces who were prepared to fight in defense of the gains of the revolution and against the Black Hundreds.

Here and there the workers’ fighting squads inflicted defeats against the pogromists. In his memoirs, Piatnitsky describes the horrific pogrom against the Jews in Odessa, and the formation of a united front of Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Bundists, Dashnaks (Armenian nationalists), and supporters of Paol-Zion—a group set up in 1905 which attempted to combine Zionism with Marxism, a section of which joined the Bolshevik Party after the October Revolution. Armed detachments were sent to try to defend the Jews. Initially they succeeded in driving off the racist mobs, before coming up against the army and police whose superior forces compelled them to retreat, with some loss of life. Armed struggle was posed initially in terms of defense. However, in warfare the difference between defense and offense is of a relative character. A successful defensive struggle can be transformed into an offensive action. In Kharkov the fighting squads erected barricades and the demoralized troops surrendered without a fight. In Yekaterinoslav the workers fought back against the Cossacks with home made bombs, killing several. In Chita they succeeded in freeing political prisoners, including sailors from the Black Sea Fleet. These partial skirmishes were preparing the way for the decisive showdown between the working class and the autocracy which Lenin knew to be inevitable.


260 Quoted in O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy. The Russian Revolution 1891–1924, 203.

261 O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, 198–99 and 196.

262 Lionel Kochan, Russia in Revolution, 62–63.

263 Trotsky, 1905, 150–51.

264 O. Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, 82.

265 Trotsky, 1905, 150, note.

266 O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, 197–98.

267 Kerensky, The Kerensky Memoirs. Russia and History’s Turning Point, 79.

268 LCW, The Reaction is Taking to Arms, vol. 10. 509 and 510–11 (my emphasis).

44) Opening up the Party

At the start of the year, both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were really sects with next to no influence in the masses. But after January 9, they began to grow rapidly. When V. Frunze, the organizer of the Party committee in the important textile center of Ivanovo-Voznesensk, arrived in the town in May, he found “not less than between 400 and 500 activists,” mainly local workers. Martov says that there were 600 Bolsheviks there in mid-1905, the biggest committee in the central industrial region. The same author claims that the Party up to October could count the membership of its underground organization in “a few tens of thousands of workers, and a few thousand soldiers and peasants.” By September the Social Democratic agitation was already getting an echo not only among strikers but at mass meetings, in the universities, and the most radical slogans began to obtain support. However, its sphere of influence including workers participating in organizations directly linked to the Party was made up of “hundreds of thousands of the urban and rural populace.”269

The rapid growth of the party’s influence in the masses made it necessary to adapt its methods and structures to allow for rapid growth. The struggle to build the Party and to extend its influence over the broadest possible layers of the class now assumed the character of a race against the clock. In a series of internal conferences held in the autumn, Lenin insisted on the opening up of the Party, and the introduction of the elective principle from top to bottom, in order to change the composition of the committees, with an influx of fresh new workers and youth. Pressure had to be applied on the committeemen through the free airing of fresh views and criticisms from below and, where necessary, by the replacement of some of the older and conservative elements by new people who were capable of reflecting the real mood of the class. Throughout 1905, Lenin was impatient at the slowness with which the committeemen inside Russia had turned to the masses and made use of the enormous opportunities that opened up. After the October Manifesto, the conditions for Party work radically changed. Freedom of assembly and the press had been won, as well as the right to organize in unions. Everywhere there was a ferment of ideas and discussion. On all sides, the workers and the youth were seeking a vehicle with which to express their instinctive aspirations to change society.

Old methods and habits of thought die hard. Throughout the whole course of 1905 there was a sharp struggle over the need to open up the party and democratize the internal structures. It should be borne in mind that up until the autumn of 1905 the Party was still underground. But with the changed political climate the Party had to adapt its work to legal and semilegal conditions and to spend all its energies towards the penetration of the masses. In such a situation the old narrow circle mentality with its corresponding structures had to give way to broader based Party branches.

Lenin insisted repeatedly on the need to throw the Party open to workers and youth. This, however, often met with resistance from the committeemen, who interpreted organizational principles from a narrow and mechanical point of view. The fact is that there is no cookbook to determine the structures and rules of a revolutionary party. The party structures and rules must change with changing circumstances. The elective principle and internal democracy cannot be viewed in the same light for an underground organization and a party that seeks to gain a mass base in conditions of legality. Underground work necessarily imposes certain limitations on internal democracy, but only such that can be justified by the demands of security. In the autumn of 1905 Lenin demanded the opening up of the party. This was mainly because of the change in the objective conditions, but not entirely. The experience of the previous period had given him serious concern at the narrowness of the Bolshevik committeemen. The experience of the mistake over the Soviet had now convinced him of the urgent need for a shake up of the party and an increase of its working class composition. The party activists must find common ground and a common language with the masses, not cut themselves off from them.

The party’s structures had to be radically altered to take account of the new conditions. Many factory branches were set up to underline the new turn. The newly founded factory branches held open meetings. The Lessner factory branch recorded an attendance of 70 workers at one such meeting. The district committees in big industrial areas were split into smaller units, subdistricts. Further, a number of areas established workers’ clubs, either on a district or factory basis. In a series of internal conferences held in the autumn of 1905, the elective principle was introduced from top to bottom. This was a way of securing greater participation by the workers in the running of the party, but it was also a means of exerting pressure on the committeemen, of allowing fresh views and criticism to come from below and, if necessary, change the composition of the committees through an influx of fresh, new workers, so that the voice of the workers and their class instincts and experience in struggle could be heard and set its stamp on the party’s activities. A further development was the holding of citywide aggregates, where the entire membership could get together and discuss the work. The district committees in big industrial areas were split into smaller units covering subdistricts. In some areas, the city committee even drew up their own rules in line with the special conditions prevailing in their areas. This was the case, for example, in Petersburg and Ivanovo-Voznesensk.

From all this we can see how extremely flexible Lenin’s conception of organization always was. Democratic centralism embraces two apparently contradictory ideas—centralism and democracy. But in any strike, we see how both ideas can be combined in practice: the fullest freedom of discussion until a decision is taken, but after that, the fullest degree of unity in action. At certain moments in its history, the Bolshevik Party laid heavy stress on centralism, for example, during the long periods when it was forced to work in underground conditions. But in periods when they were permitted to work in “normal” legal conditions, the Bolsheviks, as we see here, favored the most open and democratic forms of organization. The revolutionary party is a living organism, not a lifeless fossil. At some stages in its history the Bolshevik Party has laid emphasis on its centralist aspect but at other times the democratic element took precedence. Legal work opened up far broader vistas for agitational work and propaganda. Whereas previously the party press has reached a relatively small number of workers, it could now reach the masses with legal journals, meetings and other means. Meetings were held under the watchful eye of the party defense squads in workers’ clubs, libraries and other public premises.

In the course of 1905, and especially after the October Manifesto, big opportunities opened up for work in the mass organizations in a series of legal and semilegal organizations—trade unions, embryonic factory committees, insurance societies, etc. In relation to the workers’ clubs, set up in the “days of freedom,” Schwarz writes:

The workers and social democratic workers’ clubs were mostly nonpartisan organizations, often not even aspiring to formal party membership, concentrating on political and general education.270

The Mensheviks originated this work. Their club at the Baltic Works in Petersburg had a membership of 120. Following their example, the mainly Bolshevik Vyborg district set up a club with 300 members. Normal membership for clubs of this type seems to have been around 200–300, at least in Moscow and Petersburg.

One indication of the growing revolutionary movement was the rapid mushrooming of trade union organizations. The task of penetrating the trade unions, a basic unit of working class organization, was an absolute priority for the Social Democrats. Even the most backward layers were seized by the instinct to get organized. However, it was precisely the weakness of trade unionism in Russia that gave the Soviet its colossal authority and strength as the main proletarian organization. The Soviets became the main center of activity and to some extent displaced the trade unions in 1905. Nevertheless, trade unions still remained an important field of work, especially for the more skilled workers. This was particularly true in the big industrial centers, notably in Moscow and Petersburg. However, the Bolsheviks were often slow to take advantage of the possibilities, preferring to concentrate on the well-worn and familiar areas of narrow circle life. Lenin repeatedly protested against this organizational routinism. In this field also the Mensheviks had a head start over the Bolsheviks, much to Lenin’s dismay. The Mensheviks took initiatives setting up trade union organizations in Petersburg, Moscow, Saratov, Baku, Odessa, etc. The trade unions very quickly moved on to Social Democratic traditions. In general, the Social Revolutionaries were not in the running. However, naturally within the trade unions there were many nonparty workers. That is after all the essential role of the trade unions: to unite the broadest layers of the class for struggle in defense of its own interests. The task for socialists is to fight for influence within them, gain a majority, and to exert influence over the broadest layers of the class.

There were many nonparty trade unions, particularly in the south and Volga region. In the west the Bund and the Mensheviks predominated. Moscow was a Bolshevik stronghold. The only reason why the Mensheviks could seize the initiative in Moscow was because the local Bolsheviks initially had a wrong position on the trade unions. They tried to set up separate trade unions with a definite party political identity and justified this with the aim of fighting against “nonpartyism.” For example, they set up a Bolshevik trade union among the bakers, technicians, and fitters and turners. This was a radically false position which was subsequently criticized by Lenin in his celebrated work “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder, where he explicitly states that it is wrong for Marxists to try to split the trade unions and establish “revolutionary” unions separated from the mass organizations. On this question also, the Bolshevik committeemen revealed their lack of understanding of Lenin’s position. Of course, the party must fight against “nonparty” trends, but the trade unions must embrace all sections of the working class irrespective of party affiliations. The only political trend that should be excluded from the trade unions are the fascists. Lenin wrote an article along these lines in Novaya Zhizn’ on December 2, 1905.


269 Martov and others, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 3, 575 in both quotes.

270 Schwarz, Revolution of 1905, 242.

45) The Party Press

It is impossible to say exactly what the numerical strength of the party was in 1905. If we take the figures for St. Petersburg, Martov calculates that, in the first half of 1905, the Mensheviks had 1,200–1,300 workers, and the Bolsheviks several hundred. By October, the two organizations had about the same number (which he does not give, but was clearly a lot more). In other words, the Bolsheviks gained proportionately more. Other writers differ. V.I. Nevsky calculates the worker membership of both factions in St. Petersburg as only between 890 and 1,000 at the end of the spring.271 However, in the following months, the membership experienced a rapid increase. By the end of the summer, the Moscow Bolsheviks numbered 1,035. The Riga Bolsheviks had, by the spring, 250 members and a presence in 25 factories, although the Mensheviks still had a majority there. The Ivanovo-Voznesensk committee doubled in the first half of the year, from 200 to 400; Voronezh went from 40 to 127; Nizhny Novgorod from 100 to 250, and Minsk from 150 to 300. Thereafter, the growth was explosive. Despite the incomplete and probably inexact nature of these figures, the overall picture of extremely rapid growth, doubling and trebling the membership in a few months, comes across clearly. By the end of the year, the Nizhny Novgorod organization tripled in size from 500 to 1,500. In Saratov and Minsk the Party Bolsheviks had 1,000 members by December.272

The Bolsheviks were strongest in the North, Northeast, the Central Industrial Region, the Volga, and the Urals. The Mensheviks also grew, but their influence was greatest in the South—Tiflis, Kutais, Batum, Guri in the Caucasus, which was now a Menshevik stronghold—and the West. According to one recent estimate, there were about 8,400 “organized Bolsheviks” in 1905. Probably, the Mensheviks had about the same.273 But in the context of general prerevolutionary ferment, the party’s sphere of influence was far wider. The scope for action was vastly increased after the issuing of the October Manifesto. Martov recalls that:

All in all, throughout this period, on the eve of the October days, the Social Democracy in the ranks of the illegal organizations could assemble several thousands of workers, students, soldiers, and peasants; but the sphere of its immediate organizational influence took in hundreds of thousands of people in town and countryside.274

The growth of the Bolsheviks was especially rapid in the capital. By the year’s end the St. Petersburg organization reached a figure of 3,000, a ten-fold increase in the course of one year. This numerical growth was accompanied by an internal transformation by a rapid influx of fresh, young workers onto the leading bodies at local and provincial level. These were the “natural leaders” of the working class thrown up by the revolution itself. Lenin could justifiably claim “in the spring of 1905 our party was a union of underground circles; by the autumn it has become the party of millions of the proletariat.” This was no exaggeration. The workers actually organized in the party could be numbered in tens of thousands. But there was a vast periphery of hundreds of thousands crying out for socialist ideas and who considered themselves as Social Democrats.

The advent of legal conditions also created vast scope for the party press. The old illegal press was hopelessly inadequate in this situation. Ten days after the tsar’s Manifesto was published, the first issue of the Bolshevik paper Novaya Zhizn’ came out. The paper was published legally in the name of Gorky’s wife Maria Fedorovna Andreyeva. The editor was a poet, Minsky. This, however, was a front for the real editorial board with Krassin and Gorky in charge until Lenin himself assumed control after his return in November. Such precautions were very necessary. While theoretically a “legal” journal, Novaya Zhizn’ was published under the eagle eye of the censor. When the first issue carried the RSDLP program it was swiftly confiscated. Novaya Zhizn’ became the de facto official mouthpiece of Bolshevism up to its closure in early December. Its circulation was between 50,000 and 80,000, a major achievement for a party which only a month or so earlier had been underground.

On Gorky’s advice, the Bolsheviks entered into contact with liberal publishers who helped launch the venture. As usual, Gorky played an indispensable role in obtaining financial backing for the journal from well-to-do writers and intellectuals. Under the impact of revolution, many writers and poets, who would hitherto never have dreamed of participating in revolutionary politics, became actively involved with the Bolsheviks through the party press. Well-known poets and writers, like Balmont, Leonid Andreyev, and of course Gorky himself, contributed articles and money. The degree to which they were actually absorbed by the party is questionable. However, these “fellow travelers,” as they became known, undoubtedly played a useful role in popularizing and spreading the influence of Bolshevik ideas. Although the paper appeared under the name of bourgeois journalists, it was in fact the official organ of the party at this period. There were also other legal Bolshevik papers in the provinces: Borba and Vperyod in Moscow, Kavkazky Rabotchy Listok in Tbilisi, etc. The Bolsheviks also collaborated in other legal publications run by bourgeois liberals and Mensheviks and in general made use of any platform that gave their ideas a broader audience.

The Mensheviks still had a more powerful apparatus, more money and resources, better facilities for transport and literature and more big names than the Bolsheviks. On the other hand, their membership was looser and less disciplined than that of the Bolsheviks, who attracted the most militant and class conscious workers and youth. But there was still much to be done and time was running out. Lenin continuously hammered home the need to win the masses. In his first article in Novaya Zhizn’ written shortly after his return to Russia in early November, Lenin yet again laid heavy stress on the need to open up the party. In answer to the committeemen who opposed this on the grounds that it would lead to a dilution of the party, Lenin wrote:

Danger may be said to lie in a sudden influx of large numbers of non-Social Democrats into the Party. If that occurred, the Party would be dissolved among the masses, it would cease to be the conscious vanguard of its class, its role would be reduced to that of a tail. That would mean a very deplorable period indeed. And this danger could undoubtedly become a very serious one if we showed any inclination towards demagogy, if we lacked party principles (program, tactical rules, organizational experience) entirely, or if these principles were feeble and shaky. But the fact is that no such “ifs” exist. We Bolsheviks have never shown any inclination towards demagogy . . . we have demanded class-consciousness from those joining the Party, we have insisted on the tremendous importance of continuity in the Party’s development, we have preached discipline and demanded that every Party member be trained in one or another of the Party organizations.

But having given due weight to the need to build on strong foundations, Lenin goes on to stress the other side of the equation in terms designed to put the narrow-minded committeemen in their place:

The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social Democratic, and more than ten years of work put in by Social Democracy has done a great deal to transform this spontaneity into consciousness. Don’t invent bugaboos, comrades! Don’t forget that in every live and growing party there will always be elements of instability, vacillation, wavering. But these elements can be influenced, and they will submit to the influence of the steadfast and solid core of Social Democrats.

Once again, Lenin sharply repudiates the pernicious idea that socialist consciousness must be introduced into the working class “from without.” The workers, he insists, are “instinctively, spontaneously” socialist. The task of the revolutionaries is to give a conscious and organized expression to the unconscious, or semiconscious, aspirations of the workers to change society. Time and again in this period Lenin hammers home the need to open up the party, to recruit rapidly the new layers of workers and youth who are entering the struggle, to learn to speak the same language as the workers, to link up the activity of the small group of cadres with the activity of the newly awakened masses. That same Lenin who argued in favor of restricting the membership in 1903, now wrote the following: “At the Third Congress of the Party I suggested that there be about eight workers to every two intellectuals in the Party committees. How obsolete that suggestion seems today! Now we must wish for new Party organizations to have one social democratic intellectual to several hundred social democratic workers.”275 It is true that some who called themselves Bolsheviks never understood what Lenin was driving at—and that remains true to this day. But that is hardly Lenin’s fault. Even the most beautiful aria can be ruined by a singer who is tone-deaf.


271 Surh, 1905 in St. Petersburg, 261, note.

272 See Istoriya of KPSS, vol. 2, 35, 36, and 116.

273 See Lane, Roots of Russian Communism, 12.

274 Martov and others, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 3, 575.

275 LCW, The Reorganization of the Party, vol. 10, 31, 32 (my emphasis), and 36, footnote.

46) Trotsky in 1905

Of all the leaders of the Social Democracy, it was Trotsky who played the most prominent role in 1905. Lunacharsky, who was one of Lenin’s closest collaborators at the time, recalls that:

His [Trotsky’s] popularity among the Petersburg proletariat at the time of his arrest [in December] was tremendous and increased still more as a result of his picturesque and heroic behavior in court. I must say that of all the social democratic leaders of 1905–6 Trotsky undoubtedly showed himself, despite his youth, to be the best prepared. Less than any of them did he bear the stamp of a certain kind of émigré narrowness of outlook which, as I have said, even affected Lenin at that time. Trotsky understood better than all the others what it means to conduct the political struggle on a broad, national scale. He emerged from the revolution having acquired an enormous degree of popularity, whereas neither Lenin nor Martov had effectively gained any at all. Plekhanov had lost a great deal, thanks to his display of quasi-Cadet tendencies. Trotsky stood then in the very front rank.

Trotsky was only 26 when he first became president of the St. Petersburg Soviet. The first chairman of the Petersburg Soviet, the lawyer and Menshevik sympathizer G.S. Khrustalyov-Nosar, was, like Father Gapon, an accidental figure who played no independent role. In reality, the leading role in the Soviet was played by Trotsky, who became chairman after Khrustalyov’s arrest in November. Trotsky wrote most of the proclamations and manifestos of the Soviet and gained enormous popularity with the workers. Lunacharsky recalls that Trotsky “held himself apart not only from us but from the Mensheviks too. His work was largely carried out in the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies and together with Parvus he organized some sort of separate group which published a very militant and very well-edited small and cheap newspaper, Nachalo.” And he adds:

I remember someone saying in Lenin’s presence: “Khrustalyov’s star is waning and now the strong man in the Soviet is Trotsky.” Lenin’s face darkened for a moment, then he said: “Well, Trotsky has earned it by his brilliant and unflagging work.”276

The full significance of Lenin’s reaction can only be gauged if we realize that precisely on this decisive question—the attitude to the Soviet—the Petersburg Bolsheviks made a fundamental error, which lost them the opportunity of winning the majority of active workers in the capital. The mistakes of the Petersburg Bolsheviks allowed the Mensheviks to gain a majority in the Soviet. Since the break with the Mensheviks one year earlier, Trotsky had attempted to maintain an independent position between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. This earned him a number of justified rebukes from Lenin. However, despite the sharp differences over the question of unity—differences which, in any case, became increasingly irrelevant in the course of the year—there can be no doubt that on all political questions, Trotsky’s position was very close to that of Lenin. This is well attested to by writers from both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

Despite these well-known facts, the Stalinist historians attempted to describe Trotsky in 1905 as a “Menshevik,” as we read in the following, fairly typical, extract: “Trotsky’s denial of a revolutionary democracy (?) was in effect defense of the Menshevik idea of the bourgeoisie’s hegemony (!) in the forthcoming revolution.”277 This is entirely false. The differences which separated Trotsky from the Mensheviks as early as February 1904 are attested to unambiguously by the Menshevik leaders themselves. From late 1904 onwards, Trotsky and the German Left Social Democrat Parvus worked out a body of ideas which were later to provide the basis for Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. We will deal with the nature of this theory and the position of Lenin and the Mensheviks later. But first, let us put the record straight.

Trotsky, too, had a basic divergence of views with Iskra [the Menshevik organ] on the political conclusions to be drawn from the situation created by January 9. Trotsky wrote that after January 9 the working class movement “slipped into an uprising.” Hence the Constituent Assembly in and for itself could no longer be the fundamental and generalizing slogan of the party. After January 9 it was necessary to prepare for an armed uprising and the replacement of the tsarist government by a Revolutionary Provisional Government that alone could convoke a Constituent Assembly.278

These are the words of the Menshevik leader Fyodr Dan, written at a time when he and Trotsky were bitter political enemies. The basic ideas contained here, based on Trotsky’s pamphlet, Till the Ninth of January, are in complete agreement with the general position defended by Lenin. In his history of the Russian Social Democracy, Martov polemicizes not only against Lenin’s position, but also against the theories of Trotsky and Parvus.279

Perhaps the most impressive achievement made by Trotsky was the publication of a mass revolutionary daily paper. With the assistance of Parvus, he took over the former liberal paper Ruskaya Gazeta, changed the name to Nachalo (The Beginning), and transformed it into a popular and militant workers’ paper with a low price (one kopeck). Its circulation shot up from 30,000 to 100,000, reaching a staggering 500,000 by December. Nachalo, theoretically the organ of the Mensheviks replacing the defunct Iskra, in practice was controlled by Trotsky. It had a much bigger circulation than Novaya Zhizn’. Kamenev, who was one of the editors of Novaya Zhizn’, described to Trotsky the scene at the railway stations as his train passed:

The demand was only for revolutionary papers. “Nachalo, Nachalo, Nachalo,” came the cry of the waiting crowds. “Novaya Zhizn’” and then “Nachalo, Nachalo, Nachalo.” “Then I said to myself, with a feeling of resentment,” Kamenev confessed, “they do write better in Nachalo than we do.”280

The political line of Nachalo had nothing in common with Menshevism and on all the basic questions was identical with Lenin’s positions, a fact that was warmly acknowledged by Lenin many years later. Up to October it was still possible to argue for at least episodic agreement with the bourgeois liberals; thus in the first issue of Novaya Zhizn’ the editors still harked back to Plekhanov’s old slogan “March separately, strike together!” However, from abroad Lenin constantly hammered home his essential mistrust towards the liberals and warned that they would inevitably sell out. In the sixth issue of Novaya Zhizn’ Kamenev was already writing along different lines, arguing that any attempt to nominate a government of liberals behind the backs of the workers would be rejected and that the workers would have to overthrow such a Provisional Government. This was exactly what happened in 1917. In the following issue, number seven, an article by N. Minsky stated “between the bourgeois and Social Democratic policy there is not, nor can there be, even external, formal points of coincidence.” On this central question Nachalo’s position was identical to that of Lenin. Thus, when the first issue of Trotsky’s Nachalo appeared, it was warmly welcomed by the Bolshevik Novaya Zhizn’, which wrote:

The first number of Nachalo has come out. We welcome a comrade in the struggle. The first issue is notable for the brilliant description of the October strike written by Comrade Trotsky.281

Martov, who was supposed to be the paper’s coeditor together with Trotsky, frequently objected to its line, but was unable to get Trotsky to change it. In his history of the period, he lists a whole series of differences. For example, when Struve tried to enter into negotiations with the liberal bureaucrat Witte, Nachalo savagely attacked him as “an agent of Witte.” The leading article of Nachalo issue 8 stated that “the revolution has outrun its first phase, the Zemstvo opposition has recoiled and become a counterrevolutionary force.” Referring to this, a disgruntled Martov remarked that this formula was totally “at variance with the traditional conception of Menshevism.” And he complained that the line of Nachalo was identical to that of the Bolsheviks, citing a long list of offending articles.282 The Menshevik leader Dan wrote a grumbling letter to Kautsky:

In St. Petersburg they founded a newspaper, Nachalo, which succeeded Iskra, and throughout November and December 1905 it carried the most radical pronouncements, hardly distinguishable from those in the Bolshevik paper, Novaya Zhizn.’283

Martov’s biographer, Israel Getzler, makes the same point: “Thus Martov found himself in a minority on Nachalo which had become a propagator of Trotskyism rather than of Menshevism.”284

One of the more senseless slanders directed against Trotsky by the Stalinists is the accusation that he supported the demand for a labor congress. This deliberately distorts Trotsky’s position. In July 1906, writing from prison, Trotsky produced a pamphlet advocating a National Congress of Soviets. This idea was later caricatured by the Stalinists to announce that Trotsky supported the Menshevik idea of a “Labor Congress.” In his pamphlet entitled Our Tasks in the Struggle for a Constituent Assembly, Trotsky sets forth three basic demands: 1) local soviets of workers’ deputies; 2) an all-Russian Congress and 3) an all-Russian Workers’ Soviet as a permanent organization created by the Workers’ Congress.285 This idea brilliantly anticipates what actually happened in 1917. Solomon Schwarz, certainly no sympathizer of Trotsky, shows clearly that Trotsky’s idea has nothing in common with the Menshevik idea of a “Labor Congress,” i.e., the setting up of a reformist labor party:

From his argumentation it is clear, however, that Trotsky meant the all Russian Soviet to be “permanent” only for the duration of the revolution. Axelrod’s version of the Workers’ Congress was broader, more complex, and closely related to the idea of either creating a vast new Labor Party or transforming the SDP into such a party.286

And he adds in a footnote to page 234:

In all of its short existence (November 13–December 3) Nachalo did not carry a single article that even incidentally discussed the problem of a Workers’ Congress.

Despite the sharpness of the polemical struggle in the previous period, Lenin had a high opinion of Trotsky’s achievements, which contrasted favorably with the mistaken policies adopted by the Bolshevik committeemen inside Russia prior to Lenin’s return. Thus Krupskaya, in the second Russian edition of her memoirs, in a passage which, along with much else, has been deleted from all subsequent editions, quotes from a letter written by Lenin in September, which has also not seen the light of day:

In the September letter written to “Augustus,” Ilyich wrote: “To wait until you get complete agreement with the CC or among the agents is sheer utopia. We don’t want a coterie but a Party, dear friend!” In the same letter, replying to an indignant complaint that our people had been printing Trotsky’s leaflets, Ilyich wrote: “. . . They are printing Trotsky’s leaflets . . . dear me . . . there’s nothing wrong with that provided the leaflets are tolerable and have been corrected!’287

Finally, at the trial of the 52 members of the St. Petersburg Soviet that took place in September 1906, Trotsky turned his defense speech into a brilliant attack on the autocracy and a defense of the right to revolution.

“The historical power in whose name the prosecutor speaks in this court,” he thundered, “is the organized violence of a minority over the majority! The new power, whose precursor was the Soviet, represents the organized will of the majority calling the minority to order. Because of this distinction the revolutionary right of the Soviet to existence stands above all juridicial and moral speculations . . .”288

In effect, Trotsky was issuing a call for armed uprising from the dock. Having utilized the trial for the purpose of agitation, the main objective had been achieved. When the court refused the prisoners’ demand to interrogate a senator who had set up a printing press to disseminate pogromist literature, they staged a protest that forced the judges to expel them from the courtroom and sentence them in their absence.

While recognizing Trotsky’s role, Lenin was irritated by Trotsky’s stubborn refusal to join the Bolsheviks, although there was no principled disagreement—a fact that Lenin attributed to personal vanity. This was not the case. The main thing that prevented Trotsky from joining the Bolsheviks was the conduct of the Bolshevik committeemen in St. Petersburg, which scandalized and repelled him. This explains his reluctance to join Lenin’s faction and his insistence on reunification of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, who had turned sharply left and had shown a more flexible attitude to the Soviet than the local Bolsheviks. In later years, the question of “conciliationism” was the issue that sharply divided Lenin and Trotsky, but in 1905 even that difference was soon swept to one side.

The general upswing of the movement inevitably gave rise to a powerful desire for unity among the mass of the workers. The trend towards the unification of the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks became irresistible after October. In mid-November the Odessa Social Democrats voted in a general assembly of 1,500 to unify both factions. The same thing happened in Saratov and Tver. In Moscow and St. Petersburg the local committees and groups were already working together in a kind of a federal structure even before October. All over the country, branches of both factions passed resolutions demanding unity. Piatnitsky describes how when the Odessa Social Democrats received the proposal for reunification from the CC it was:

met with a warm response from among the party members, the Mensheviks as well as the Bolsheviks. That was easy to understand: that our few available forces were weak and scattered had become evident to every Party member during the pogrom . . . It was obvious to the committee that the proposal of union would be passed by a great majority at the Party meetings of both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, for wherever the advocates of immediate unity spoke they were supported almost unanimously.289

Lenin, who had returned to Russia on November 4, was now convinced of the need for the immediate reunification of the two wings of the RSDLP. His change of heart was no accident. Apart from the fact that the whole situation demanded it, he was now struggling to correct the sectarian errors of the Bolsheviks on the Soviet, the internal regime, and other questions. Probably Lenin believed that unification would help him overcome these sectarian deviations. But the main reason was the pressure from the ranks and the fact that the continuation of the split was holding up the Party’s growth.

“It is no secret to anyone that the vast majority of Social Democratic workers are exceedingly dissatisfied with the split in the Party and are demanding unity,” he wrote. “It is no secret to anyone that the split has caused a certain cooling-off among Social Democratic workers (or workers ready to become Social Democrats) towards the Social Democratic Party . . . Hence it is now possible not only to urge unity, not only to obtain promises to unite, but actually to unite—by a simple decision of the majority of organized workers in both factions.”290

Of course, there could be no question of unity if there were differences of principle. Trotsky’s paper, Nachalo, played a big role in ensuring the possibility of unity on a principled basis. Under the impact of the revolution, even the Menshevik leaders began to move to the left, at least in words. Thus Fyodr Dan wrote to Kautsky in November 1905: “We live here as though in a state of intoxication. The revolutionary air affects people like wine.”291 It should be noted that the Petersburg Mensheviks were far to the left of the Menshevik leadership in exile, and moved further to the left under the influence of Trotsky and Parvus. In the course of the revolution, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in the capital had drawn closer together. By the autumn they had already established a joint committee. Both Nachalo and Novaya Zhizn’ defended the restoration of unity. The Bolshevik central committee, with Lenin present, passed a unanimous resolution to the effect that the split was merely the result of the conditions of exile life, and that the development of the revolution itself had removed the basis for the split in the RSDLP.

Both sides made concessions. The Mensheviks now accepted Lenin’s formula for paragraph one of the party rules. This was rather ironic, since the Bolsheviks had already opened up and loosened their internal regime in accordance with the new conditions. The old arguments about conspiracy and ultracentralism were irrelevant. The Bolshevik Central Committee and the Menshevik Organizational Committee had also established a federative structure and were negotiating for unification. Both fractions were to call their own conference preparing the way for a unity Congress as soon as possible. In preparation for unification, the Bolsheviks called for a joint conference, but the Mensheviks preferred to call their own conference in November, whereupon the Bolsheviks, too, organized a conference at Tammerfors, Finland, on December 12 to 17, while the workers of Moscow were locked in a desperate struggle with the forces of reaction. In view of the highly charged situation, there was a need for a greater emphasis on tightening up security and strengthening the underground apparatus. On December 11 a new electoral law was announced. The Tammerfors conference came out for the active boycott of the Duma, based on the perspective of the imminence of an armed uprising. The logic of this position is clear. Generally speaking it is only permissible to boycott a parliament when you are in a position to overthrow it and offer something superior in its stead. On all sides the symptoms of revolutionary upheaval were in evidence. Between late October and early December the country was affected by strikes, peasant uprisings, mutinies in the Army and Navy, uprisings in Georgia and the Baltic.


276 A. Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes, 60–61 and 60.

277 V.A. Grinko and others, The Bolshevik Party’s Struggle against Trotskyism (1903–February 1917), 58.

278 F. Dan, Origins of Bolshevism, 305.

279 Martov and others, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 3, 553–54.

280 See Trotsky, My Life, 171–78.

281 Quoted in Trotsky, My Life, 182.

282 See Martov and others, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 3, 592–96.

283 See A. Ascher, Paul Axelrod and the Development of Menshevism, 241–42.

284 I. Getzler, Martov, 110 (my emphasis).

285 The quote can be found in Trotsky’s Works in Russian, Sochinyenyie, vol. 2, 435.

286 Schwarz, Revolution of 1905, 231.

287 Krupskaya, O Vladimirye Ilyiche, vol. 1, 144.

288 The Age of Permanent Revolution, 59.

289 Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, 87.

290 LCW, The Reorganization of the Party, vol. 10, 37–38.

291 Quoted in Ascher, Paul Axelrod, 241.

47) The Moscow Uprising

By the end of October the ferment in the villages had reached new levels, with 37 percent of European Russia affected, especially the central “Black Earth” zone, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, and the Ukraine. The wave of peasant discontent in turn spread to the armed forces. There was a series of mutinies in the army and navy, which underlined the importance of work among the soldiers and sailors. Alongside the legal mass work, the Bolsheviks also stepped up the material preparations for armed insurrection. Krassin was in charge of the military side of the work, penetrating the army and organizing fighting groups. The local committees established specialized units to obtain arms. This work was stepped up in the autumn with the creation of underground bomb factories and arms dumps. Once again, Gorky played a key role in raising money for this work, which was partly funded by what was known as “expropriations,” or raids on banks conducted by armed groups under Bolshevik control. The objective conditions for armed insurrection were rapidly maturing.

Throughout the autumn, all eyes were fixed on St. Petersburg, the storm center of the movement. But the workers in the capital, who bore the brunt of the conflict from January until November, were at the end of their tether. After the issuing of the October Manifesto, the liberal employers, who had previously appeared sympathetic to the revolutionary movement, and even paid the wages of striking workers, finally came out in their true colors. On October 31, the St. Petersburg Soviet called a general strike around the struggle for the eight-hour day. But the bosses put up stiff resistance and the strike ended in failure. On November 12, the Soviet called off the strike. This was the turning point. The October general strike really represented the last gasp of the movement in St. Petersburg. The November strike in Petersburg involved even bigger numbers of workers than in October. But this was really the last desperate effort of a working class gravely weakened by months of struggle. Sensing that the movement was beginning to run out of steam, the employers organized a lockout, while the police and troops moved to break up workers’ meetings by force. The November lockout revealed that the bosses were aware of the real situation. There were widespread repression, sackings and arrests. Fearing that the movement would disintegrate into a series of guerrilla disputes which could be crushed one by one, the St. Petersburg Soviet decided to beat a tactical retreat and, on November 12, after a tense debate, called off the strike, in order to withdraw in a united and organized fashion.

The defection of the bourgeois liberals tipped the balance in favor of the reactionary camp. General Trepov was now virtual dictator of Russia. Fearing “anarchy,” the liberals clung to his coattails. By 26 November, the regime felt strong enough to arrest Khrustalyov-Nosar on the premises of the Soviet Executive. The Soviet responded with a Financial Manifesto, written by Parvus, calling for the nonpayment of taxes and withdrawal of bank deposits to hasten the financial crisis of the regime. Even at this point, fresh new layers were entering the struggle every day: janitors, doormen, cooks, domestic servants, floor polishers, waiters, laundresses, public bath attendants, policemen, Cossacks—even the odd detective. Society had been stirred to the depths. But the increasing radicalization of the formerly politically inert mass disguised the fact that the “heavy battalions” of labor were now almost exhausted. The December strike in Petersburg was far less unanimous than in November, involving at most two-thirds of the workers of the capital. This fact indicated that the high point of the movement in Petersburg had been reached, and the revolutionary tide was beginning to ebb. On December 2 there was a mutiny of the Rostov regiment in Moscow. The following day, the St. Petersburg Soviet was arrested, including its chairman, Leon Trotsky.

The initiative now passed to the workers of Moscow. The mutiny of the Rostov regiment gave rise to hope that the garrison might come over. But the local Bolsheviks hesitated and, seeing that the movement did not spread, the troops quickly lost heart. In a couple of days the mutiny was crushed. This defeat depressed the soldiers and considerably reduced the prospect of them going over to the side of the workers. On the other hand, the mood in the factories of Moscow was reaching fever pitch. The workers were impatient for action. On December 4, the Moscow Soviet passed a motion congratulating the soldiers on their uprising and expressing the hope that they would come over to the side of the people. But by the time the ink was dry, the soldiers’ revolt had been crushed. Lenin had repeatedly expressed his anxiety about a premature uprising. He recognized that the party’s forces were still weak, the fighting squads too unprepared, to take on the full might of the state. Above all, the massive reserves of the peasantry had only begun to enter the field of battle. More than once he expressed the hope that the final showdown between the workers and the regime should be put off till the spring. But Lenin understood very well that the revolution cannot be directed like an orchestra under a conductor’s baton. Krupskaya vividly conveys Lenin’s attitude: “In answer to a question about the timing of the uprising he said: ‘I would put the uprising off till the spring, but we shan’t be asked anyway.’”292

About the Moscow uprising there has been a great deal of mythology, particularly created by the Stalinists. It is said that the initiative for the uprising belonged to the Bolsheviks. In reality, the Moscow uprising did not take place according to a definite plan. There was no direct order from the Central Committee. The initiative came from below—from the workers themselves. At the first Conference of fighting organizations of the RSDLP held in November 1906, a year after the uprising, the Central Committee’s representative, I. A. Sammer, dismissed the idea that the Central Committee had organized the whole thing, complaining that some comrades

have too mechanical a conception of the circumstances which gave rise to the December uprising in Moscow and are painting too bold a picture of the role of the Central Committee in the calling of this uprising. The Central Committee, it seems, pressed a button and the insurrection burst forth. If the CC hadn’t done it, the uprising would not have taken place!

The leadership was, in fact, overwhelmed by events. Radov, the Bolshevik leader, later confessed in a moment of truth that the forces at the disposal of the Party were woefully unprepared: “We must now frankly acknowledge that in that respect our entire organization and in part we, members of the Central Committee, were completely unprepared.”

That there was widespread support among the Moscow workers for the proposed action is not open to serious doubt. The Moscow workers, in contrast to the workers of Petersburg, were newly entering into the fray and impatient for action. A steady series of factory meetings pronounced for an insurrection. The mood of the factories affected the Moscow Soviet. The workers were pressing for action. The factories were in a tense mood of expectation, aware of the approach of the decisive moment. Zemlyatchka recalls that when the Bolshevik local leaders got up to speak in the Soviet, the question was no longer in doubt; “it was written on the workers’ faces.”293 Only the factory delegates, wielding a red card, had a decisive vote. The parties, as elsewhere, had a consultative vote. When the vote was taken, a forest of calloused hands was raised, in favor of a general political strike on December 7. The workers’ decision was unanimous. Under the circumstances, everyone knew that this was a vote for an uprising. The Menshevik right wing had reservations about the uprising, because of its effect on the liberals, but swallowed hard and decided to support it. The pressure from below proved irresistible. In fact, although the initiative came from the Bolshevik workers, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries also participated in the uprising. On December 5, the Mensheviks proposed a general strike of the railway workers of Moscow. The vote in the Soviet was seconded by the railway workers, the postal workers, and the Polish workers in Moscow.

An attempt was made to organize solidarity action in Petersburg. The newly reconstituted St. Petersburg soviet called on the workers and peasants to second the Moscow general strike. Summoning up their last ounce of strength, the workers of St. Petersburg attempted to support their brothers and sisters in Moscow. On December 8 more than 83,000 in St. Petersburg came out. The railway workers also called a general strike. However, the attempt to organize such action in Petersburg did not achieve the desired result. The exhaustion produced by many months of uninterrupted struggle was too great. The workers had come out three times in nine weeks and were now tired of strikes. Against them was arraigned the might of the state and they had lost confidence in their own strength. After the failure of the strike, support from Petersburg was limited to the sending of arms. But it was already too late.

The initial spark for the uprising appears to have been a government provocation—troops were sent to disperse a couple of workers’ meetings. There were demonstrations and clashes between soldiers and militiamen. The first barricades were thrown up, and hostilities began in earnest. On December 7 the general strike began, involving more than 100,000 workers, increasing to 150,000 on the following day. On December 7 and 8 there were mass meetings and street demonstrations in Moscow with isolated clashes with the police and a general strike. The Moscow soviet published a daily paper, the Moscow Izvestiya, which attempted to draw the widest layers of the population into struggle. The leadership of the movement, however, showed itself to be unprepared for a decisive combat. There was vacillation at the decisive point when the general strike could have been converted into an armed insurrection. Meanwhile the regime was already preparing a counterstroke. On December 8 a mass meeting was broken up by the police and 37 people were arrested. Even then the Soviet did not react. In such circumstances, as Marx explained, indecision is fatal. In the words of the great French revolutionary, Danton, the first rule of insurrection is audacity, audacity and yet more audacity. In place of this there were vague calls in Izvestiya on December 9 “to continually preserve our forces in a state of extreme tension.” The Soviet was waiting for the troops to go over. There was in fact wavering among the troops but decisive action was needed for this to be translated into action. The workers instinctively tried to approach the troops, but fraternization was not enough. Mere propaganda was a poor substitute for physical struggle, as Lenin put it. At this point, “propaganda of the deed” was on the order of the day. Taking advantage of this hesitation the counterrevolution struck back on December 9. In the course of the clashes there were many injured, killed, and arrested.

Only now did the masses realize the need for decisive action. There were not enough arms to go round, but the rebels counted on the support of the population and hoped that a sufficient number of the troops would go over to tip the balance in their favor. The workers’ militias immediately set about energetically disarming not only policemen but also soldiers to obtain weapons. The strike turned into an armed uprising, the masses participated in barricade building and clashes with police and troops. That the Bolshevik leaders were unsure of the capability of the Moscow leadership is shown by the decision of the Central Committee to send A. I. Rykov and M. F. Vladimirsky to Moscow to take charge of the situation. The fact that there were mistakes made is revealed by Lenin’s later comments. Answering Plekhanov’s famous remarks that “They should not have taken to arms!” Lenin said:

On the contrary, we should have taken to arms more resolutely, energetically and aggressively: we should have explained to the masses that it was impossible to confine ourselves to a peaceful strike, that a fearless and relentless armed fight was indispensable.294

Only when the fighting had actually begun did Izvestiya give clear instructions to the fighting squads: “Don’t act in a mass, act as small units of 3 to 4 men, not more!” It also recommended against setting up barricades.

Don’t occupy fortified positions! Troops will always be able to take them or simply smash them with artillery! Let our fortresses be the alleyways and courtyards and all those places from which it is easy to shoot and easy to get away from!295

Workers were also advised to keep away from mass meetings. “We now need to fight and only to fight.”

Under the new conditions of street fighting, partisan detachments, linked to the mass movement and the general strike, clearly played a key role. The police and troops found themselves confronted with an invisible and omnipresent enemy. The great advantage was that the fighting squads, though small, enjoyed the support of the masses. On December 9 and 10 the first barricades were erected. Following the advice of the Soviet, the insurgents did not attempt to defend the barricades, but they served a useful purpose in slowing down the troops and hindering the deployment of cavalry. The soldiers were enveloped in a hostile environment where every block of flats was an enemy fortress; every doorway and street corner, a potential ambush. The soldiers and police would dismantle the barricades at night only to find them rebuilt by morning. Despite their overwhelming superiority in numbers and firepower, the troops frequently found themselves in difficulties. More than once, the authorities must have held their breath at the sight of a city of one million inhabitants, the great majority composed of “the enemy,” locked in combat with an army of partially demoralized and unreliable troops. The Moscow proletarians fought like tigers. The fighting was particularly ferocious in the Presnya district, the center of the textile industry. The peak of the armed insurrection was on December 11. At one point the Moscow authorities were sufficiently alarmed to appeal for reinforcements. The government, still fearing an uprising in St. Petersburg, at first sent none.

Despite all this, the final outcome was never in doubt. Unless the troops came over, the workers were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. The technical military side was woefully inadequate. In early December there were only 2,000 armed men and a further 4,000 militia men, but without arms. Of these, between 250 and 300 were in the Bolshevik militia, between 200 and 250 were Mensheviks, and about 150 SRs. In addition the students, telegraph workers and other nonparty groups also had their own militias. There were not enough arms to go around but they counted on the support of the population, and, hopefully, also of the troops. The militias had been set up with the main aim of preventing pogroms, a concrete question involving defensive struggle, and they were ill prepared for the task of going over to the offensive. To add to the problems, on December 7 the entire leadership was arrested. From the beginning it was clear the movement was poorly prepared and largely improvised. The fighting squads tended to concentrate on defending their own areas, instead of going onto the offensive. Despite the heroism of the Moscow workers, lack of arms, poor coordination, and absence of military skill began to tell at last. Once the barricades had been built, the unarmed populace could only play the role of onlookers. Their passive support boosted the morale of the fighting units and enabled them to hold out for longer than anyone had the right to expect.

On December 13 the Moscow Mensheviks proposed calling a halt to the insurrection, but the Bolsheviks, under pressure from the workers, decided to continue. It is a debatable question to what extent the leaders were actually deciding events. The militias of not only the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, but also the SRs, were in no mood to give up the fight. As a result, the Bolshevik and Menshevik centers issued a joint declaration, Support the Moscow uprising!, appealing to the working class of Russia not to allow the government to put down the insurrection. But the situation had already decisively turned against the insurrection. The failure of the movement in Petersburg enabled the tsarist government to concentrate its forces on Moscow. The arrival of the Semyonovsky regiment on December 15 tipped the scales decisively against the insurrection. The irregular fighting forces of the insurgents were in no position to take on a frontal assault by the regular army. By December 16, only one district, Presnya, still remained in rebel hands. That day the Soviet executive committee voted to end the strike. As an act of defiance, the Presnya Social Democratic district committee voted to end the strike only on the evening of December 18. The gesture was to no avail. In the Presnya district there were about 350 to 400 armed militia men and 700 to 800 in the reserve—without arms—at the high point of the struggle. Red Presnya was bombarded into submission.

For two days and nights the Prokhorov cotton mill and the Schmidt furniture factories, which the workers had turned into fortresses with the support of the left-wing owners, were pulverized by artillery fire. The whole area was engulfed by flames. By nightfall of December 17, Presnya fell to the government forces. Overwhelmed by superior forces, the Moscow leadership was compelled to call off the fighting on the 18th. On the following day the general strike was also called off in order to prevent the further destruction of the cadres and to preserve all that was possible of the movement. The Moscow rising was at an end. The death toll, according to the Moscow Medical Union, was 1,059, of whom 137 were women and 86 children. The big majority were ordinary citizens. Casualties among fighting men on both sides were amazingly few. Only 35 soldiers were killed, including five officers. Then began the bloody chapter of mass arrests, shootings and deportations. Prisoners were shot down in cold blood. Workers’ children were taken to the police stations and beaten without mercy. Anyone who had sympathized with the workers’ cause was in danger. Nikolai Schmidt, the young manufacturer who had allowed the workers to use his factory as a base, suffered a tragic fate. Arrested after the uprising, he was barbarously treated by the police. They took him to the factory to show him their handiwork, pointing triumphantly to the bodies of the slaughtered workers. He was later murdered in prison.


292 Krupskaya, O Vladimirye Ilyiche, vol. 1, 132.

293 Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, 136, 141–42 and 137.

294 Lenin, Selected Works, English edition, Moscow 1947, vol. 1. 446.

295 Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, 142.

48) Defeat

The heroic proletariat of Moscow has shown that an active struggle is possible, and has drawn into this struggle a large body of people from strata of the urban population hitherto considered politically indifferent, if not reactionary. And yet the Moscow events were merely one of the most striking expressions of a “trend” that has broken through all over Russia. The new form of action was confronted with gigantic problems which, of course, could not be solved all at once . . .

Armed uprisings were not confined to Moscow. There were, in fact, a whole series of armed uprisings—in Kharkov, Donbas, Yekaterinoslav, Rostov-on- Don, the Northern Caucasus, and Nizhni-Novgorod and other centers. The national question also flared up with uprisings in Georgia and the Baltic states in particular. Even before the Moscow rising, there was a general strike and insurrection in Latvia. In Georgia, too, the December general strike gave rise to an armed uprising in the workers’ district of Tiflis (Tblisi), led by the legendary “Kamo” (Ter-Petrosyan). This uprising was smashed by reactionary peasants. There were also uprisings in Siberia (railway workers) and in many other areas local “republics” were declared. There were serious uprisings along the railway lines in the Donetsk region where battles occurred in several stations, attracting the support of peasants in the surrounding districts. In Yekaterinoslav news of the Moscow rising brought together Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Bundists, and SRs in united action for a political strike. There were strikes in mines and factories in the Donbass region organized by soviets or strike committees. In many areas there were clashes and battles with the army and police. The radicalization of the Mensheviks is shown by the fact that they organized and led the uprising in Rostov-on-Don, which was smashed by Cossacks using artillery. But the Moscow rising did not succeed in arousing the proletariat of St. Petersburg. This proved a fatal weakness. The absence of an uprising in the capital meant that the government could concentrate its forces on crushing the workers of Moscow, and then put down the local movements one by one. In the end, the defeat in Moscow took the heart out of the movement.

Bitterly disappointed at the failure of the Petersburg working class to come to the aid of the rising, some sections of the Social Democrats initially blamed the workers of the capital for the defeat. Such reactions in a moment of despair, are perhaps understandable. However, in later years, an entirely false interpretation of these events was unscrupulously put in circulation by the Stalinists, beginning with that notorious compendium of lies, Stalin’s Short Course which claimed that

the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, being the Soviet of the most important industrial and revolutionary center of Russia, the capital of the tsarist empire, ought to have played a decisive role in the revolution of 1905. However, it did not perform its task (!), owing to its bad, Menshevik leadership. As we know, Lenin had not yet arrived in St. Petersburg, he was still abroad. The Mensheviks took advantage of Lenin’s absence to make their way into the St. Petersburg Soviet (?) and to seize hold (?) of its leadership. It was not surprising under these circumstances that the Mensheviks Khrustalyov-Nosar, Trotsky (!), Parvus, and others managed to turn the St. Petersburg Soviet against the policy of an uprising.297

This is a particularly crass way of expressing a theme which has since been repeated in a variety of keys. However, this ignorant slander was answered in advance by Lenin, who on innumerable occasions expressed his complete solidarity with the general tactical line adopted by the St. Petersburg Soviet.

In her memoirs of Lenin, Krupskaya recalls the prevailing mood among the St. Petersburg working class at the time:

“The Central Committee,” she wrote, “called upon the proletariat of St. Petersburg to support the uprising of the Moscow workers, but no coordinating action was achieved.”

A comparatively raw district like the Moskovsky responded to the appeal, but an advanced district like the Nevsky did not. I remember how furious Stanislaw Wolski was—he had been agitating in that very district. He lost heart at once and all but doubted whether the proletariat was as revolutionary as he had thought it to be. He failed to take into account that the St. Petersburg workers were worn out by previous strikes, and most important of all, they realized how badly organized and poorly armed they were for a decisive struggle with tsarism. And it would be a struggle to the death, they had the example of Moscow to tell them.

Even in a revolutionary situation, different layers of the working class move at different speeds and at different times. To use a military analogy, the Achilles’ heel of the 1905 Revolution consisted of the fact that the bulk of the reserves were moving into action at a time when the advanced guard was worn out and incapable of continuing the struggle. This explains the apparently contradictory fact that the more backward working class districts were prepared to come out while the more advanced sections did not respond. The same observation holds good for the peasantry, without which the revolution in the towns was doomed to failure. Only in the course of 1906 did the movement in the villages assume massive proportions. By that time, however, the backbone of the working class movement had already been broken, although this was far from clear at the time.

The December defeat was a heavy blow. In her biography of Lenin, Krupskaya recalls that:

The Moscow defeat was a very bitter experience for Ilyich. It was obvious that the workers had been badly armed, that the organization had been weak, that even the links between Petersburg and Moscow had been poor.298

Yet even after the December defeat, Lenin did not believe that the revolution had exhausted itself. Throughout the year 1906, there was a whole series of strikes and movements of the proletariat, which led Lenin to believe that revolution was still on the agenda. Far from criticizing the Petersburg workers for not rushing to arms in December, Lenin gave the following evaluation of the situation:

Civil war is raging. The political strike, as such, is beginning to exhaust itself, and is becoming a thing of the past, an obsolete form of the movement. In St. Petersburg, for instance, the famished and exhausted workers were not able to carry out the December strike. On the other hand, the movement as a whole, though held down for the moment by the reaction, has undoubtedly risen to a much higher plane.

The peasant movement was growing and might yet have given a fresh impetus to the towns, particularly in the spring. The regime itself was in crisis, faced with the possibility of financial collapse. The inner cohesiveness of the armed forces was still in the balance. It was essential that the workers should husband their strength as far as possible for the decisive all-Russian struggle that lay ahead. And Lenin specifically warned the Petersburg workers against the danger of provocation:

It would be very much to the advantage of the government to suppress the still isolated actions of the proletariat. The government would like to challenge the workers of St. Petersburg immediately, to go into battle under circumstances that would be most unfavorable for them. But the workers will not allow themselves to be provoked, and will know how to continue on their path of independent preparation for the next all-Russian action.299

With the wisdom of hindsight, it is possible to see that the period from the October strike to the December uprising marked the high tide of the 1905 Revolution. With the defeat of the Moscow proletariat, the movement in the towns, despite the still powerful strike movement in 1906, had effectively been broken. The mighty upsurge of the peasantry came too late. The Party, which was weak and divided at the outset of the revolution, had grown impressively in the space of a few months, but the task of uniting and leading a movement of millions proved to be beyond the capabilities of a few thousand cadres, despite heroic endeavors and sacrifice. The incredible thing was not that the Russian Marxists had failed to lead the proletariat to victory in 1905, but the way in which a tiny handful of revolutionaries, with scarcely two decades of work behind them, had grown from insignificant propaganda circles to a powerful party, with tens of thousands of activists leading hundreds of thousands of workers, in the space of just a few months.

Although it was defeated, the revolution had not been in vain. In the same way, in science, even an unsuccessful experiment is not necessarily wasted. There are some similarities with the history of revolutions—though the human cost is, of course, incomparably greater. Without the experience of the Paris Commune and without the experience of 1905, the successful revolution of 1917 would have been impossible, as Lenin pointed out many years later:

All classes came out into the open. All programmatic and tactical views were tested by the action of the masses. In its extent and acuteness, the strike struggle had no parallel anywhere in the world. The economic strike developed into a political strike, and the latter into insurrection. The relations between the proletariat, as the leader, and the vacillating and unstable peasantry, as the led, were tested in practice. The Soviet form of organization came into being in the spontaneous development of the struggle. The controversies of that period over the significance of the Soviets anticipated the great struggle of 1917–20. The alternation of parliamentary and nonparliamentary forms of struggle, of the tactics of boycotting parliament and that of participating in parliament, of legal and illegal forms of struggle, and likewise their interrelations and connections—all this was marked by an extraordinary wealth of content. As for teaching the fundamentals of political science to masses and leaders, to classes and parties alike, each month of this period was equivalent to an entire year of “peaceful” and “constitutional” development. Without the “dress rehearsal” of 1905, the victory of the October Revolution in 1917 would have been impossible.300

The 1905 Revolution also had profound international effects. Overnight the idea of the general strike became a central issue in the discussions of the international workers’ movement. The revolution acted as an inspiration and a stimulus to the workers of the rest of Europe. In Germany there was a strike wave in 1905—508,000 workers were on strike—approximately four times more than in 1904. April 1906 saw the first political general strike in German history. Nor were the effects of the Russian Revolution confined to Europe. It had an effect on the developing revolutionary movements of the colonial peoples. In December 1905 Persia experienced its bourgeois revolution, which reached its peak in 1911. China in 1905 was also in the throes of a mass revolutionary movement associated with the bourgeois democrat Sun Yat-sen. This in turn prepared the Chinese bourgeois revolution of 1911–13. Turkey also saw the rise of a revolutionary movement. Like a heavy rock thrown into a still pond, the Russian Revolution made big waves capable of reaching very distant shores.

1905 was a decisive turning point. For the first time, revolutionary Social Democracy became a decisive force within the working class of the whole of Russia. Within a space of nine months, the movement underwent a complete transformation. The consciousness of the workers advanced by leaps and bounds on the basis of great events, which shook the foundations of all the old beliefs, habits, and traditions, compelling the working class to come to terms with the realities of its own existence. By a process of successive approximations, the working people tested one political option after another, from worker-priests and humble petitions, passing through economic strikes for better wages and conditions, constitutional reforms and imperial manifestos, bloody pogroms, street demonstrations, and workers’ self-defense squads, to the highest expression of the class struggle—the political general strike and armed insurrection. At each stage, the breaking free of the masses from their old illusions was marked by the rise and fall of political trends and accidental figures of all kinds. The Gapons and the Khrustalyov-Nosars for a brief instant loomed large upon the stage of history before vanishing forever, leaving no trace behind them. But the genuine revolutionary tendency represented by Bolshevism, despite all mistakes and inevitable ups and downs, advanced resolutely to its natural place at the head of the revolutionary proletariat. The theoretical, political, and organizational weapons which enabled the Bolshevik Party to lead the workers to victory in October 1917 were forged in the white heat of the revolution of 1905, and tempered in the long dark night of reaction which followed.


296 LCW, The Workers’ Party and its Tasks in the Present Situation, vol. 10, 94.

297 Stalin, History of the CPSU (B), 128.

298 Krupskaya, O Vladimirye Ilyiche, vol. 1, 142 and 159.

299 LCW, The Workers’ Party and its Tasks in the Present Situation, vol. 10, 93 and 94.

300 LCW, “Left-wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder, vol. 31, 27 (my emphasis).

49)‘Woe to the Vanquished’

The ancient Romans had a chilling way of describing the fate of conquered peoples: “Vae victis!”—“Woe to the vanquished!” The fate of the working people in every defeated revolution in history completely confirms this grim observation. The Russian revolution of 1905 was no exception. The regime sensed that the immediate danger was past and stepped up repression. The democratic promises of October were rapidly consigned to the rubbish bin. A bloody regime of terror was everywhere unleashed—in the Baltic states, Poland, the Caucasus. Punitive expeditions spread terror through the villages, killing, raping, and burning houses.

“Liberally plied with vodka,” writes Orlando Figes, “the Cossacks committed terrible atrocities against the peasant population. Women and girls were raped in front of their menfolk. Hundreds of peasants were hanged from the trees without any pretense of a trial. In all it has been estimated that the tsarist regime executed 15,000 people, shot or wounded at least 20,000, and deported or exiled 45,000, between mid-October and the opening of the first State Duma in April 1906.”301

For months on end, the orgy of reaction raged on unabated. By April 1906, apart from the 15,000 who had been shot or hanged, a further 75,000 were languishing in tsarist prisons. Special trains manned by tsarist execution squads advanced slowly along the Moscow-Kazan railway line into the frozen depths of Siberia, extracting a frightful revenge on the workers. The Bolsheviks suffered proportionately more than other trends from this repression, as they had the greater number of militant revolutionary workers. Their organization among the Siberian railway workers was virtually wiped out. Among those murdered was A.I. Popov, central committee member and leader of the revolutionary movement in Siberia. The following lines, written to his mother from the death cell, movingly convey the spirit of these fighters:

I leave this world of darkness and repression with complete peace of mind, giving way to other, younger forces. If we have achieved little, they will finish off what we started. I die fully convinced that our bodies will provide a firm foundation upon which will arise a better future for my long-suffering native land.302

Under the hammer blows of reaction, the Social Democratic organizations were gradually being pulverized. Many activists were arrested or killed. Others had to go underground, change town, or flee abroad. In order to hasten the strangling of the revolution, the government utilized the services of special auxiliaries recruited from the ranks of the lumpenproletariat, that “passively rotting scum” as Marx called them, which on more than one occasion has furnished material for the purposes of counterrevolution. The Black Hundred gangs spread terror in the villages, usually in the form of anti-Semitic pogroms.

Kerensky, who at that time was practicing as a lawyer and occasionally acted for the defense of accused revolutionaries, recalls that:

Reprisals in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution went on from late 1906 to the early part of 1909. After peasant and other uprisings had been crushed by punitive expeditions, it was a question of hunting out the remnants of revolutionary organizations—gangs, as they were called. The victims were handed over to military tribunals. It was a campaign of systematic judicial terror.

Many political cases were judged by district military tribunals. The chief military prosecutor at that time, General Pavlov, was a merciless man who expected the judges to fulfill their “duty” without paying any attention to the arguments of the defense. Pavlov did not last long. Expecting attempts on his life, he took every precaution. He never left the Main Military Court building, where he had an apartment with a garden surrounded by a tall fence. That did not save him. He fell victim to a terrorist’s bullet in his own garden. But individual terrorism is impotent against the state. One reactionary official is replaced by another. The repression is further intensified.

A particularly savage revenge was inflicted on the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia, where the rising of the workers and peasants against the German landlords had a ferocious character. Starting in December, in the course of a six-month campaign, punitive expeditions killed 1,200 people, destroyed tens of thousands of homes, and flogged thousands of workers and peasants. At the end of 1906 and the beginning of 1907 the so-called Tukum Republic trial was held in Riga. Fifteen dragoons had been killed during an uprising in Tukum in 1905. Kerensky, who was one of the defense counsels, recalls what happened. A certain General Koshelev, one of the special military judges in the Baltic provinces, presided over the trial. He was a sadist who had a habit of studying pornographic photographs in court during the hearing of cases in which the accused could be sentenced to death. At the trial it soon became obvious that Koshelev was not interested in trying to establish the truth, but only in selecting 15 of the defendants to be killed as a retaliation for the dead dragoons. All 15 were hanged. The tsar was delighted at the results of his Baltic expedition and commended his officers for “acting splendidly.”303

Despite everything, it took fully 18 months to liquidate the revolutionary movement. It proved extremely difficult to extinguish the flame of revolt. No sooner had order been restored in one area, than the movement flared up elsewhere. New layers were constantly entering into struggle while others were abandoning the arena, exhausted and defeated. The general picture that was emerging was still unclear, and remained so throughout the course of 1906. At the start of 1906, the strike movement, though less than the last quarter of 1905, was still considerable. January-March saw 260,000 workers on strike. Significantly, two-thirds of these conflicts were political strikes. In the spring of 1906, there were symptoms of a new revolutionary upturn. The second quarter saw a further upswing of the strike movement—479,000 workers out—more than even the summer of 1905. Again, there were both economic and political strikes. And not all of them ended in defeat. Out of 222,000 involved in economic strikes, 86,000 ended in victory, 58,000 ended in compromise, and only 78,000 were defeated. As late as the summer of 1906, it appeared that the strike wave, far from slackening, was gaining in intensity. In 1906 as a whole there were more than one million workers involved in strike action.

Did the December defeat in Moscow signify the decisive turning point in the destiny of the revolution? Was the general line of the movement ascending or descending? With the wisdom of hindsight, the answer seems obvious, but this was by no means the case at the time. The movement of the masses was far from uniform. The villages lagged behind the towns, and only began to move on a big scale in the course of 1906. The bloody repression in the villages did not prevent the emergence of new peasant movements—Saratov, Chernigorsk, Kharkov, Mogilev, one after the other entered the fray. One factor was precisely the return of sacked workers to the villages. The proletarianized ex-peasant, educated in the hard school of factory life and steeled by the experience of strikes and insurrection, served as a spur to the movement in the villages, providing the necessary leaven to his rural brothers and sisters. With the wisdom of hindsight (the cheapest of all forms of wisdom), these were only the after-echo of a movement which had already passed its peak. But this was by no means evident to those who were actively participating in the struggle at the time. Above all the most consistently revolutionary wing of the movement represented by the Bolsheviks were in no hurry to sign the death certificate of the revolution.

The working class also had other reserves. The national question, as foreseen by Lenin, rapidly came to the fore and acquired an extreme intensity. The burning sense of national injustice that had long smouldered beneath the surface burst into flame in Poland, Finland, the Caucasus, and the Baltic states. All this led Lenin to believe that the revolution had not yet exhausted its potential. To determine the precise nature of the situation, its inner dynamics and perspective, was of decisive importance for determining the correct tactics and slogans needed to preserve and strengthen the links between the masses and the proletarian vanguard. But this task, never straightforward, is rendered a thousand times more difficult in the heat of a revolution, when the moods of the masses can change with lightning speed. It was precisely this question—“through what stage are we passing?”—which provoked the sharpest conflicts in the ranks of the revolutionaries in this period. Among the working class there were contradictory moods. Could the revolutionary wave in the countryside ignite again the movement in the towns? To this question no clear answer could be given. Lenin certainly regarded it as a possibility and worked out his tactics accordingly.


301 O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, 202.

302 Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, 164.

303 A. Kerensky, Memoirs. Russia and History’s Turning Point, 76.

50) The Struggle Against Unemployment

Throughout 1906, the working class found itself in an increasingly difficult position, faced not only with physical repression but also with economic terrorism. Having recovered their nerve, the employers went on to the offensive, extracting revenge for the fright they had suffered. Lockouts and sackings were on the order of the day as the bosses took back the gains of the previous period. In the prevailing conditions, it was necessary to look for any opening, no matter how limited, and to exploit each and every legal loophole. The Party had to pay serious attention to any legal organizations which would provide a platform for agitation and propaganda: workers’ insurance, educational and cultural societies, and so on. An absolutely crucial question was work in the trade unions. Driven on to the defensive, the workers rallied to the legal trade unions. There was a big increase in union membership. By early 1907, there were more than 600 trade unions in Russia, with 245,000 members. On the other hand, the spread of unemployment as a result of the economic crisis placed on the order of the day the question of work among the unemployed.

The employers resorted to savage reprisals in order to destroy the gains won by the workers in the revolution. In the mass dismissals that affected all sectors in 1907 to 1909, 36 percent of employees in the engineering industry had been sacked by January 1908. St. Petersburg Metals closed its shell shop; the Neva shipyards sacked 300 workers in 1908 and a further 700 in 1909. The heaviest blows fell upon the more advanced skilled sections of the class, mainly those under Social Democratic influence. This key group had already been singled out for the employers’ attention during the October 1905 lockout, and it continued until April 1906. The lockout, which was organized by the St. Petersburg employers in cahoots with the tsarist authorities, was aimed at teaching the workers of St. Petersburg, and particularly their natural leaders, a harsh lesson.

Under the conditions of mass sackings, which followed the December defeat, the struggle against unemployment assumed a great importance. The Social Democrats succeeded in organizing a successful movement against unemployment, particularly in St. Petersburg but also to some extent in other industrial centers, such as Moscow and Odessa. Whereas most of the other centers were suppressed by the end of 1906, the movement in St. Petersburg was only finally broken up by the secret police and gendarmes in 1908. In Petersburg an “unemployed workers council” (Soviet bezrabotnykh) was formed by the local Social Democrats, but from the beginning it was always linked to the employed workers. The workers in the big factories sent delegates to this Soviet. Other unemployed workers’ councils were formed in Tiflis, Moscow, Tver, Kostroma, Kharkov, Baku, Taganrog. But the one that set the pace for the others was the St. Petersburg Unemployed Council.

The work of the Petersburg Unemployed Council was documented in The Unemployed Councils in St. Petersburg 1906, a pamphlet written by the Bolshevik worker Sergei Malishev, who played an active role in the movement of the unemployed and was elected chairman of the Kostroma Soviet of Workers’ Deputies in 1905. The origins of this are to be found in the stormy events of 1905 when the employers used the weapon of the lockout to combat the strike movement. Realizing that the only way to fight for the cause of the unemployed was by closely linking them with the workers in the factories, a commission of unemployed was organized by the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, with open departments in all the working class districts of St. Petersburg. Later, the commission adopted the resolution of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies to deduct 1 percent from the wages of all the workers at the factories, mills and other institutions for the unemployed. They also organized a voluntary collection at all meetings and gatherings. Thus, the struggle of the unemployed was closely linked to the struggle of the brothers and sisters who remained at work. This position, which constitutes the cornerstone of Marxist tactics in the struggle against unemployment, was suggested by Lenin: it is interesting to note Lenin’s attitude towards the unemployed campaign. When he heard about the initiative taken on this question Lenin initially had some doubts as to whether the Unemployed Council alone could fulfill its program by its own efforts:

“Through this organization alone,” said Lenin, “you cannot influence the bourgeoisie; you will not be strong enough, and the unemployed workers themselves may not be able to develop this work on a broad proletarian class basis. Therefore, you must immediately extend the Unemployed Council to include representatives of those employed in all the factories and mills of St. Petersburg. You must now begin to agitate in the factories and mills for this purpose, and immediately arrange for the election of these representatives. The Unemployed Council must consist not only of 30 representatives of the unemployed, but of 100 or 150 representatives from all districts, from all the factories and mills. This will provide the unemployed with a genuine proletarian leading body which will really be able to exert pressure successfully on the City Duma and on the bourgeoisie generally.”

Lenin’s proposal to link the unemployed struggle to the workers who remained at work was accepted by the Council and formed the basis of its tactics.

The St. Petersburg Unemployed Council took charge of the movement of the unemployed, beginning with a register of all the locked out workers. In the words of Malishev: “This registration revealed an interesting fact—that 54 percent of the workers who have been locked out were highly skilled workers, metal workers; 18 percent were joiners, carpenters, stonemasons and other skilled occupations; and that only 21 percent were common laborers. Those figures showed that the capitalists vented their wrath on those who fought in the front ranks of the working class.”304 The fact that the most skilled sections were singled out for attack is well documented. A survey by the Union of Metalworkers reveals that in 1908 the employers used the excuse of the economic crisis to get rid of the most skilled, highly paid, longest-serving metalworkers, who were regarded with much justice as the most militant section. Basing himself on this and other material, Robert McKean concludes:

They threw onto the streets the old, the sick and “the disturbers of internal order” as well. During 1908, layoffs and filtering of operatives spread to printing and textiles. Reductions in rates of pay of 30 percent or higher assumed wide dimensions throughout heavy and light industry in the years 1907 to 1911. In the pressure-gauge shop of the Langenzippen metalworking and casting plant wages were cut by half; in the boiler shop of the Baltic shipyards by 40 percent. Workers’ factory commissions or committees were disbanded (as at Neva shipyards); shop delegates arrested or sacked (the Pipe works); meetings banned (St. Petersburg Metals). Fines and searches, which were thoroughly detested by workers, were swiftly reintroduced at many plants as early as 1907 and 1908—among others at the Franco-Russian Society, Odner, Neva Shipyards, Pipeworks, Obukhov, San Galli, and St. Petersburg Metal. Less frequent was a direct and immediate assault on the 8 or 9 hour day, operatives’ most prized conquest of the revolution.305

During the course of 1906, the position of the unemployed became increasingly desperate. The outlook of the unemployed workers of St. Petersburg was graphically conveyed by Malishev:

Strolling along the Nevsky, we watched the well fed, contented bourgeoisie. Some—of higher rank—rode in magnificent carriages, with coats of arms and with one or two splendid horses; others, a lower estate—a bourgeois crowd—moved on foot along the Nevsky, filling the center of the city, along Sadovaya, along the Gostin Road. They went into the stores, filled with goods, came out with armfuls of purchases, and youngsters, laden with these purchases, dragged after them to their homes. All that there was in these stores, stands, and warehouses, produced by the proletariat, was quite accessible to the bourgeoisie. We also went several blocks up along the Nevsky but we could only look into the Soloviev store. We could not go in and buy even a quarter of a pound of sausage because the merchant Soloviev’s well-fed salesmen would not want to sell such small portions, and, further, the price of sausage did not fit the size of our pocket. To relieve our feelings we swore roundly, linked arms and turned away from this smug Nevsky. We went along narrow alleys and finally, at Bassein Street, found a cheap restaurant where the two of us filled up on some kind of tripe for two kopecks.

The main problem, of course, was that most of the sacked workers had been blacklisted. Individuals and entire groups of “undesirables” were turned out of the factories and mills. All that the unemployed had in the way of clothes and other valuables were sold or pawned. The position of the unemployed and their families was desperate. The collections raised by the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies raised some money, but the sums were so small that they changed nothing fundamental. Dining rooms were opened by the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies and by some liberal groups in some workers’ districts to provide some tens of thousands of dinners. However, after the October Manifesto the well-heeled liberals began to turn their backs on this and other working class activities. The workers were left to their own devices. To combat the problem of unemployment the Bolshevik group began to organize a campaign in favor of a program of useful public works and unemployment benefit.

The approach of the Bolsheviks was expressed by a speaker at one congress, quoted by Malishev:

“The Bolshevik group, in whose name I speak now,” said the comrade, “supports the unemployed movement and helps us organize ourselves into a strong organization. It is essential to organize all the unemployed and set up a leading body—an Unemployed Council. This council, with the help of the unemployed, must start a struggle for bettering the condition of the unemployed, not only through the distribution of dinners and 30 kopecks a day, but chiefly by getting the City Duma to organize large-scale public work for the unemployed. The unemployed are not paupers, they do not want charity. They demand bread and work. The question must be so presented that our demands to the City Duma win the support of all the workers in the factories and mills. The City must organize public work. There is quite enough work of that kind to be had in the city and it is now being given to various contractors who give the city administrators large bribes. The most highly skilled workers of all trades are to be found among the unemployed. They can do all types of work. The City has a number of contracts essential for public welfare; for instance, construction of tramways. The City has decided to replace horse power by electric cars, and it will not be able to do this unless the streets are paved. That opens up the possibility of providing public work for the unemployed. We must take steps to see that the City provides this public work; therefore I move that all the proposals which I have suggested be taken up by the meeting, adopted, and immediately carried out, because hunger and poverty will not wait.”306

In order to organize the unemployed campaign it was decided to organize an Unemployed Council by holding elections at the dining rooms where the unemployed were getting their dinners and a group of worker-Bolsheviks were assigned to carry out the agitation for it and get the elections carried through. The Council drew up an appeal to the City Duma. It was decided to include 30 delegates from the large factories and mills in the Unemployed Council and elections were held among the employed in all the factories, mills, and workshops. Delegates were elected by the unemployed at general meetings on the basis of one for every 250 workers, and from factories and mill districts. These made up the District Councils. The latter managed the dining rooms, collected money in the factories and mills, registered the unemployed, gave material help and generally conducted the campaign on unemployment, on the basis of the slogan “For bread and work!” A petition to the St. Petersburg City Council was drafted by the Unemployed Council and worded in the most forceful language. The petition was then discussed by the Unemployed Council, voted on, and sent to all the factories and mills of St. Petersburg and its vicinities to be discussed by the workers who were then asked to sign it.

The text of the petition read as follows:

Owing to unemployment, numberless workers’ families are now without bread. The workers do not want charities, or dole. We demand work. The masters refuse to give us work. They say they have no contracts. But the City has contracts and can provide work for the unemployed. We think that the way the City disposes of the public funds is scandalous. Public funds should be used for public needs and our need today is—work. Therefore, we demand that the City Duma immediately organize public work for all the needy. We demand not charity, but our rights, and we will not be satisfied with charity. The public work that we demand must be started immediately. All the unemployed of St. Petersburg must be allowed to do this work; every unemployed worker must receive an adequate wage. We have been delegated to insist on the fulfillment of our demands. The masses who have sent this will not be content with less. If you do not accede to our demands we will report your refusal to the unemployed and then you will not have us to deal with, but those who sent us, the masses of unemployed.307

Speakers were dispatched to all the main factories to defend the petition, speaking at lunch hour breaks, during the change of shifts, and also holding factory gate meetings on the question of unemployment. Despite the fact that, after the mass sackings, only the less class-conscious workers remained at work, the petition received widespread support and sympathy. The whole thrust of the antiunemployment struggle was designed to link the unemployed workers to their brothers and sisters who remained at work and who alone had the power to help them to solve their problem. In addition to this, the Council attempted to enlist the support of sympathetic sections of the middle class.


304 Quoted in S. Malishev, The Unemployed Councils in St. Petersburg 1906, 16 and 8.

305 R.B. McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, 8–9.

306 S. Malishev, The Unemployed Councils in St. Petersburg 1906, 11–12 and 14.

307 Quoted in Malishev, Unemployed Councils, 18.

51) Revolutionary Tactics

Whereas the Bolsheviks approached the unemployed struggle from a revolutionary and class point of view, the Mensheviks, typically, attempted to water down the demands of the unemployed movement in order not to alienate their liberal friends. They demanded the deletion of the rather threatening final paragraph of the petition, and also demanded that the unemployed delegation be restrained from entering into the City Duma. They also strongly opposed the election of representatives from the factories and mills to the Unemployed Council. However, divisions opened up in the ranks of the Mensheviks, leading to a split which gave the supporters of the petition a majority. On April 12, 1906, the unemployed workers’ delegation made up of 30 people (15 from the unemployed and 15 from the factories) presented themselves at the St. Petersburg City Duma. At this stage, the revolutionary wave had still not sufficiently subsided to give the Duma the necessary self-confidence to refuse to meet the delegation. Fearing the reaction of the masses, the City Duma decided to admit the delegation and acceded to its demands as far as possible. However, this decision was not known to the delegation as it entered the Council chamber. Realizing the worst fears of the Mensheviks, the unemployed representatives in the Council chamber did not mince words:

“We ask nothing of you; we demand!” said one of the speakers. “We think that all the money at your disposal rightfully belongs to us. If you do not give work to the unemployed nothing remains for us but to rob you,” said another speaker. “You have not seen the unemployed,” cried one of the representatives of the delegation, a young worker. “I live with them, I can tell you how they live, I can tell you what they, who sent me here, said: ‘Go, talk to the town councillors and the City Duma, and if they will not listen to you, we ourselves will go and grab them by the throat.”308

Frightened at the prospect of disorder, the town councillors were compelled to listen in silence to such incendiary speeches as this. When their “guests” had finished, they suggested that the delegates leave the hall. But the latter declared that they would not leave until they had received an answer to their demands. Then the town councillors announced an intermission, cleared out the general public, and then resumed the session with the unemployed delegation present. Finally, under the direct pressure of mass action the gentlemen of the City Duma decided to retreat and conceded all the main demands of the unemployed. A large number of the unemployed had been thrown on the streets and found shelter in lodging homes, but their children had been sent away to stay with comrades who remained at work. Families were thus broken up. It was decided that some action would have to be taken to help the unemployed to pay their rent. The question of helping the unemployed to redeem their belongings from the pawn shops, particularly sewing machines and underwear, was also discussed by the Duma and decided in the affirmative.

The generosity of the City Duma was not entirely disinterested. Even at this moment a new strike movement was developing in St. Petersburg. The strikes were mainly of a political, rather than economic character. The solidarity of the workers with the unemployed bore important fruit; the latter participated actively in the struggle of the striking workers. In return for the solidarity shown by the workers in the previous months, the unemployed, together with the strikers in the Vyborg district, organized financial assistance for the strikers. However, with the ebb of the strike movement, the Black Hundreds and the liberals recovered their nerve and systematically set about sabotaging the reforms which they had previously granted. The program of public works was obstructed as far as possible and the funds were gradually cut off. The Unemployed Council thereupon presented a new list of demands to the City Duma:

1) The eight-hour day. 2) Prohibition of overtime. 3) The establishment of a daily wage. 4) The observance of all necessary sanitary and hygienic conditions at work. 5) Employment to be given to the registered unemployed at the indication of the Unemployed Council. 6) The right to control all the internal affairs in the workshops by workers’ representatives.

Agitation around these demands was carried out by the Bolsheviks through their paper Volna (The Wave) which systematically set out to expose the conduct of the Cadets and liberals. However, the Duma refused to make any new grants. There were rumors that the Ministry of the Interior had sent instructions to the City Duma not to make many concessions to the unemployed. The impatience and anger of the unemployed grew. On June 10, 1906, the Unemployed Council drew up a leaflet which denounced this state of affairs:

The Unemployed Council does not hide from the masses the Duma is only procrastinating, playing with the unemployed, and has no intention whatever of keeping its promises. But the Council has not broken its contract with the Duma because to do that would mean to play into the hands of those who want to provoke the workers into premature action. This is exactly what the enemies of the working class, thirsting for proletarian blood, are waiting for.

At present, the provocation of the unemployed has increased to the highest degree. The Minister for the Interior has given special orders to the Duma and to the town councillors not to make concessions to the unemployed. His aim is quite clear—to provoke the unemployed to premature action at a time when their employed comrades are not ready to help them, and the Duma, of course, does readily what the Ministry wants it to do. However, we shall not allow ourselves to be provoked by the Duma.309

The aim of this resolution was to combat the influence of ultraleft elements (anarchists and Social Revolutionaries) who were taking advantage of the frustration felt by the unemployed in order to advocate provocative actions with potentially disastrous results. By once more putting pressure on the Duma through mass action, the Council succeeded in gaining further concessions. The public work achieved helped to hold the class together and prevent further disintegration at a time when reaction reached its blackest point. At the same time, the correct tactics pursued by the Bolsheviks developed the revolutionary consciousness of the class. However, of necessity, such victories were short lived. In the second half of 1907, reaction gained the upper hand. The majority of the Bolsheviks were arrested. Others were forced to flee abroad. The majority of the organizers and leaders of the Unemployed Council were also arrested or were forced to go underground. From his prison cell in the first half of 1908 Sergei Malishev learned that the tsarist government had finally put an end to the public works schemes in St. Petersburg. When the government proceeded to close the public workshops on Kagarinsky Wharf, before the gendarmes set about their work, they called out a battery of light artillery, in case of any emergency.


308 Ibid., 23.

309 Ibid., 40.

52) Reunification

Despite the remorseless advance of reaction, the RSDLP still maintained its structures and its basic cadres intact throughout 1906 and even maintained an open organization. In his memoirs, Osip Piatnitsky describes the Moscow organization where he worked in 1906, from which it is clear that the elective principle was still in place at that time:

Some of the districts were divided into subdistricts. The districts and subdistricts were connected with the factory meetings (now cells) and with the factory committees and commissions (now cell bureaux). The representatives of the district factory committees heard the reports of the district and Moscow Committees, elected a district committee, and sent representatives to the city conferences at which the Moscow Committee was elected from 1906 to nearly the end of 1907.310

Under the prevailing conditions the importance of work in legal and semilegal organizations of all kinds is self-evident. The party participated in all manner of work, not just the trade unions, but co-ops, workers’ insurance societies, and also cultural activities, which served to maintain its links with the masses. Both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks made great use of clubs, which acted as fronts for the work of the revolutionaries.

“The most important centers of party work were our clubs,” recalls Eva Broido.

In them we concentrated all our propaganda activities: our propaganda was distributed from them, and then the workers came to hear lectures on current affairs. There, too, our members in the Duma came to report to us on their work. Virtually all the organizational work was centered on these clubs—general and special party meetings were held there, party publications were distributed from there, these were the “addresses” of the local district and subdistrict branches, there all local news was collected, from there speakers were sent to factory meetings. And these were also the places where enlightened workers—men and women—could meet for friendly exchange of ideas and to read books and newspapers. All clubs aimed above all at having good libraries. And eventually they also encouraged art, there were music and song groups and the like.

The revolution aroused in the minds of the workers a thirst for ideas of all sorts, not just political in the narrow sense, but science, literature, art and culture in general. Broido explains:

At first clubs were exclusively political, but soon their character changed. Propaganda meetings gave place to lectures and discussions of a more general nature, the clubs became “colleges” of Marxism. Representatives of all club committees combined to work out systematic courses of lectures, to provide and distribute the necessary books and to supply book catalogues. Soon, groups of workers asked for courses on scientific subjects. And already in the winter of 1906–7 the programs included physics, mathematics, and technology alongside economics, historical materialism, and the history of socialism and the labor movement.

In addition to the clubs there were many “evening schools”; they grew in number as the clubs attracted the attention of the police and were often closed down. These evening schools included some courses for the illiterate and were often attended by working-class men and women who were already playing influential roles in the movement.311

The clubs carried on a precarious, semilegal existence right up to the outbreak of the First World War.

The revolution pushed the workers of both factions of the RSDLP together. Throughout the latter half of 1905 there had been a continuous and spontaneous process of unity from below. Without waiting for a lead from the top, Bolshevik and Menshevik Party organizations simply merged. This fact partly expressed the workers’ natural instinct for unity, but also the fact, as we have already seen, that the Menshevik leaders had been pushed to the left by pressure from their own rank and file. By December 1905 the two leaderships had effectively re-united. There was now one united Central Committee. A unification Congress was announced and the first issue of a joint organ published, called Partiniye Izvestiya (Party News). On the editorial board there were three Bolsheviks (Lenin, Lunacharsky, and V.A. Bazarov), and three Mensheviks (Dan, Martov, and Martynov). But the December events had knocked the fighting spirit out of the Menshevik leaders, who were already moving back to the right, placing a large question mark over prospects for unity.

Lenin was in favor of organizational unity, but did not for a moment abandon the ideological struggle, maintaining a firm position on all the basic questions of tactics and perspectives. This was entirely characteristic of Lenin’s whole approach—extreme flexibility on all organizational and tactical questions combined with an absolutely implacable attitude on all questions of principle and theory. However, we must be careful not to read into the history of Bolshevism intentions and ideas derived from our knowledge of subsequent events. For many years, the official Soviet histories presented the role of Lenin as that of an all-seeing, all-knowing Leader who foresaw everything in advance and guided the party with a sure hand towards the goal of ultimate victory. From this kind of hagiography, no understanding of the real Lenin can be gained. The whole history of Bolshevism remains shrouded in mystery, like a fairy story or a religious myth. It was neither. In fact, far from having an absolutely clear idea of where he was going at this time, Lenin was still very unsure as to how things were going to turn out. Of course, he was very clear on the need to stand firm on the basic ideas and revolutionary principles of Marxism, and also on the need to maintain the Bolsheviks as the consistently revolutionary wing of the RSDLP. But his support for reunification was neither a sham nor a maneuver. On the basis of the revolution, the Mensheviks had moved far to the left, and it was not at all clear how this would end up. Lenin was not yet clear in his own mind that it would be necessary to make a complete break, and did not finally come to this conclusion until 1912. It is entirely false to present the picture in any other way.

In fact, while the Party was formally united, from the outset it was divided into two opposing tendencies—the revolutionary and the opportunist wings. Reformism or revolution, class collaboration or an independent proletarian policy: these were the basic questions which separated Bolshevism from Menshevism. The basic differences immediately emerged over the attitude to the Duma and to the bourgeois parties. The Mensheviks stood for capitulation to the liberal bourgeoisie, which in practice had gone over to constitutional Monarchism and surrendered to the autocracy. For two months a heated discussion raged over different resolutions. The main working class centers supported the Bolshevik platform. But this was a very different Party to that of the past. Even the debates of the Third Congress one year earlier now seemed like ancient history. It was as if a whole epoch had been compressed into 12 months. There could be no question of maintaining the old narrow circle structures and mentality. The committeemen were increasingly elbowed aside by fresh workers and youth. The revolution had mobilized millions around the banner of Social Democracy. It was impossible and undesirable to maintain the old setup where delegates had been elected from narrow groups of professional revolutionaries (the “committees”). Now the Party had to be organized on a much wider basis, and on strictly democratic principles. The size of the Party is revealed by the ratio of members to delegates at the Fourth Party Congress—one to every 300 members.

The Fourth “Unity” Congress was held from April 10 to 25, 1906, in Stockholm, whence they had been invited by the Swedish Social Democrats. The general conditions of reaction undoubtedly gave rise to a distortion in the representation of the rival factions. Some Bolshevik branches were unable to send delegates through financial difficulties. Repression created other difficulties. As a general rule, the areas dominated by the Mensheviks, that is, small-scale industry and small towns, were less hard hit by reaction, which had a disproportionate effect on the Bolsheviks. Arrests, imprisonment and general disruption of party branches meant that the Bolsheviks were underrepresented at the Fourth Congress, which was dominated by the Mensheviks. There were a total of 112 delegates with full voting rights and 22 consultative, representing 62 organizations. Also present were the representatives of national Social Democratic organizations (Poland and Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, Ukraine, and the Bund, and also the Bulgarian SDRP). The Bolsheviks had 46, the Mensheviks 62. In addition there was a small number of conciliators. Trotsky was in prison. Among the Bolshevik delegation—Lenin, Krassin, Gusev, Lunacharsky, Shaumyan, Bubnov, Krupskaya, Lyadov, A.I. Rykov, A.P. Smirnov, Frunze, Dzerzhinsky, and an obscure young Georgian with the alias Koba, later known to history by the name of Stalin.

The main issues debated at the Stockholm congress were the agrarian program, the current situation and the tasks of the proletariat, attitude to the Duma, armed uprising, the partisan movement, the trade unions, the nature of the Social Democratic organizations, and the Party rules. The Mensheviks lost no time in seizing the advantage afforded by their majority. In a report of the congress written in May 1906, Lenin recalls that:

The elections at the Congress took only a few minutes. Virtually, everything had been arranged before the general sessions. The Mensheviks took all five seats on the editorial board of the Central Organ. As for the Central Committee, we agreed to elect three persons to it, the other seven being Mensheviks. What the position of these three will be, as a kind of supervisors and guardians of the rights of the opposition, is something that only the future can tell.312


310 O. Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, 101–2.

311 Eva Broido, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, 133 in both quotes.

312 LCW, Report on the Unity Congress of the RSDLP, vol. 10, 375.

53) The Debate on the Land Question

Central to the whole discussion was the agrarian question—an issue upon which the whole fate of the Russian Revolution hinged. The experience of the revolution showed the inadequacy of the old agrarian program based on the otrezki (the cut-off lands). Lenin was in favor of adopting a much more radical agrarian program based on the slogan of confiscation of land from the feudal landowners. This slogan was absolutely central to Lenin’s perspectives for the Russian Revolution. It was the slogan of a “people’s revolution”—a thoroughgoing revolutionary transformation, led by the working class in alliance with the poor peasants. The basic task would be a radical solution of the landlords’ estates land problem by means of a complete agrarian revolution leading to confiscation to be carried out by peasant committees to smash the power of the landlords and, depending on circumstances—i.e., triumph of the armed uprising—a democratic republic and the nationalization of the land.

Lenin advocated a revolution to clear out all the accumulated rubbish of feudalism. It was based on the perspective of a revolutionary struggle against the autocracy and armed insurrection, not class collaboration with liberals and parliamentary cretinism. The Mensheviks opposed calling on peasants to seize the land in favor of pettifogging reformism of the worst kind. In place of the revolutionary initiative of the masses, they favored parliamentary maneuvers and deals with the liberals behind the backs of the masses. Their policy on the land question flowed from their general reformist line. In contrast, Lenin pointed out that the land question would be solved by revolutionary means or not at all. In opposition to the reformist demand for the municipalization of land (presumably under the rule of the autocracy!), he put forward the demand for the nationalization of the land. However, Lenin was careful to point out—contrary to the prejudice of the Narodniks, who mistakenly saw in this the overthrow of capitalism—that land nationalization is a bourgeois demand, which does not in itself signify the abolition of bourgeois property, but only of landlord-feudal property. As to the class forces of the revolution, Lenin spelled this out a thousand times: the bourgeois liberals were a counterrevolutionary force. The bourgeois-democratic revolution could only be carried out by an alliance of workers and poor peasants (semiproletarian masses of town and countryside). Actually, the nationalization of the land in the context of the bourgeois-democratic revolution means the most radical “clearing of the decks” for the free development of capitalism. Together with the revolutionary overthrow of the autocracy, and its replacement by a democratically elected Constituent Assembly, it would mean the establishment of a bourgeois democratic regime under the most favorable conditions for the working class. The possibility of carrying out the socialist revolution in backward Russia before Western Europe never occurred to Lenin—or anyone else at this time, except for Trotsky.

Plekhanov also adamantly rejected the demand for nationalization. Resorting to demagogic arguments, Plekhanov accused Lenin of putting forward the same arguments of the Social Revolutionaries, and argued that the demand for the division of the landlords’ estates was reactionary:

I say that the peasant idea of a general distribution of the land is a reactionary feature. And precisely in view of this reactionary feature, which has been refuted throughout our whole political history, I pronounce myself against the nationalization of the land. So how can this feature be cited in evidence against me? Lenin is looking at nationalization through the eyes of a Social Revolutionary. He has even begun to take over their terminology—for example, he is holding forth about the notorious people’s creativity.

With his customary irony, he went on:

It is pleasant to recall old friends, but it is unpleasant to see Social Democrats defending Narodnik positions. The agrarian history of Russia is more similar to the history of India, Egypt, China and other Eastern despotisms, than to the history of Western Europe . . . In order to smash despotism, it is necessary to eliminate its economic basis. Therefore I am against nationalization now; when we argued this against the Social Revolutionaries, Lenin found that my arguments were correct. Lenin says “we will render nationalization harmless,” but, in order to render nationalization harmless, it is necessary to find a guarantee against restoration; but such a guarantee does not exist and cannot exist. Remember the history of France; remember the history of Britain; in each of these countries after a broad revolutionary swing, restoration followed. The same thing can happen to us; and our program must be such that in carrying it out, it must cause the least harm in the case of restoration.

And Plekhanov concludes:

And that is why I reject nationalization. Lenin’s draft is closely linked to the utopia of the seizure of power by the revolutionaries, and that is why those of us who have no taste for such a utopia must speak out against it. Municipalization is another matter.313

Plekhanov’s comments at least had the merit of clarity. When he accuses Lenin of linking his radical agrarian program to the seizure of power by the revolutionaries, he is not far from the truth, although he presents it in the form of a caricature. The essence of Lenin’s solution to the agrarian problem was precisely a revolution in which the proletariat would base itself on a thoroughgoing peasant revolution to overthrow tsarism and institute a democratic republic. This demanded that the party should stand for the most radical program of revolutionary democratic demands, and above all a revolutionary solution to the land problem. By contrast, Plekhanov and the Mensheviks attempted to frighten the Party with the philistine idea that revolution inevitably produces counterrevolution. Here we have in an extreme form the notion that the working class must do nothing to “provoke” the counterrevolution, and, by extension, must cling to the shirttails of the liberals. Lenin answered that the only full guarantee against the danger of restoration was the complete victory of the revolution. In this little episode is encapsulated two entirely different perspectives, two entirely different psychologies even.

In his reply to the discussion on the agrarian question, Plekhanov summed up in a nutshell the Menshevik position. He accused Lenin of Blanquism:

This is how matters stand—between Lenin and me there are extremely serious differences of opinion. These differences must not be glossed over. They must be clarified in all their importance and extent. Our party is living through a serious moment. The decisions that you will take today or tomorrow on the disputed questions will determine to a significant extent the fate of our entire party and therefore of our entire country. And for that very reason, comrade Lenin’s draft expresses not only his private opinion on the agrarian question, but the whole character of his revolutionary thinking.

Blanquism or Marxism—that is the question which we will decide today. Comrade Lenin himself admitted that his agrarian draft was closely link to his idea of seizure of power. And I am very grateful for his sincerity.

Now comes the crunch. Plekhanov revealed the attitude of the Mensheviks towards the seizure of power by the workers and peasants with these words:

After October 17 the seizure of power ceased being a utopia, comrade Lenin? But you spoke of this even before October 17, and just as before October 17 I answered you. October 17 changes nothing in our evaluation of the idea of the seizure of power. Our standpoint consists in this, that the seizure of power is compulsory for us when we are making a proletarian revolution. But since the revolution now impending can only be petty bourgeois, we are duty bound to refuse to seize power.314

Such was the argument of the Mensheviks in 1906–7. The revolution was a bourgeois revolution: the tasks before it were bourgeois-democratic; the conditions for socialism were absent in Russia. Therefore, any attempt by the workers to seize power was adventurism; the task of the workers was to seek alliance with the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties, to assist them to carry through the bourgeois revolution.

What was Lenin’s reply to Plekhanov? He made no attempt to deny that the revolution was bourgeois-democratic, certainly not that it was possible to build socialism in Russia alone. All the Russian Marxists, the Mensheviks, Lenin, and Trotsky were agreed on these questions. It was ABC that the conditions for a socialist transformation were absent in Russia, but had matured in the West. Replying to Plekhanov’s dark warnings of “the danger of restoration,” Lenin explained:

If we mean a real, fully effective, economic guarantee against restoration, that is, a guarantee that would create the economic conditions precluding restoration, then we shall have to say: the only guarantee against restoration is a socialist revolution in the West. There can be no other guarantee in the full sense of the term. Without this condition, in whichever other way the problem is solved (municipalization, division of the land, etc.) restoration will not only be possible but positively inevitable.

Thus, right from the start, Lenin conceived of the Russian Revolution as the prelude to the socialist revolution in the West. He tied the fate of the Russian Revolution in an indissoluble link with that of the international socialist revolution, without which it would inevitably succumb to internal reaction:

I would formulate this proposition as follows: the Russian Revolution can achieve victory by its own efforts, but it cannot possibly hold and consolidate its gains by its own strength. It cannot do this unless there is a socialist revolution in the West. Without this condition restoration is inevitable, whether we have municipalization, or nationalization, or division of the land: for under each and every form of possession and property the small proprietor will always be a bulwark of restoration. After the complete victory of the democratic revolution the small proprietor will inevitably turn against the proletariat; and the sooner the common enemies of the proletariat and of the small proprietors, such as the capitalists, the landlords, the financial bourgeoisie, and so forth are overthrown, the sooner will this happen. Our democratic republic has no other reserve than the socialist proletariat of the West.315

In his report of the Congress, Lenin commented:

The right wing of our Party does not believe in the complete victory of the present, i.e., bourgeois-democratic, revolution in Russia; it dreads such a victory, it does not emphatically and definitely put the slogan of such a victory before the people. It is constantly being misled by the essentially erroneous idea, which is really a vulgarization of Marxism, that only the bourgeoisie can independently “make” the bourgeois revolution, or that only the bourgeoisie should lead the bourgeois revolution. The role of the proletariat as the vanguard in the struggle for the complete and decisive victory of the bourgeois revolution is not clear to the right Social Democrats.316

The differences between Bolshevism and Menshevism here stand out with complete clarity. And yet, there were differences and doubts among the Bolsheviks themselves on this issue. Among others, Suvorov, Bazarov, and also Stalin opposed nationalization in favor of “sharing out” the land among the peasants. This demand reflected a petty-bourgeois tendency, a thousand miles removed from Lenin’s position.

“Since we are concluding a temporary revolutionary union with the struggling peasantry,” Stalin said, “since we cannot on that account ignore the demands of that peasantry, we must support those demands, if, as a whole and in general, they do not conflict with the tendencies of economic development and with the progress of the revolution. The peasants demand division; division is not inconsistent with the above-mentioned phenomena; therefore, we must support complete confiscation and division. From that point of view, both nationalization and municipalization are equally unacceptable.”317

In order to defeat “municipalization” Lenin was forced to withdraw his own resolution and vote with the supporters of “division.” Under certain conditions, the division of the landlords’ estates would, of course, be a step forward, but Lenin’s demand for nationalization was the only consistent revolutionary demand. In the end, the final resolution was an unsatisfactory compromise.


313 Congress Minutes, Chertvyortiy S’yezd RSDRP, Protokoly, 59–60 and 60–61.

314 Ibid., 139 and 142.

315 LCW, Unity Congress of RSDLP, vol. 10, 280 in both quotes (my emphasis).

316 LCW, Report on the Unity Congress of the RSDLP, vol. 10, 377–78.

317 Congress Minutes, Chertvyortiy S’yezd RSDRP, Protokoly, 79.

54) Bolshevism and Menshevism

The other debates served to underline the rightward drift of the Mensheviks. For example, they now opposed the slogan of arming the masses, and got their view adopted by Congress. Irrespective of the question of the appropriateness of armed struggle at the given moment, the Menshevik position clearly represented the abandonment of the revolutionary struggle in favor of reformist parliamentarism and class collaborationist politics, as shown by their position on the agrarian question and attitude to the Cadets. Trotsky later described the change in the attitude of the Mensheviks:

The Mensheviks, who a mere few weeks back had stood for a semi-boycott of the Duma, now transferred their hopes from the revolutionary struggle to constitutional conquests. At the time of the Stockholm Congress, the support of the liberals seemed to them the most important task of the Social Democracy.318

In his report on the Duma, Axelrod admitted that most Menshevik activists in Russia had initially supported boycott, but complained that this was leaving the field open to other parties. It was time to change the line. He undoubtedly had a point. But in politics it is possible to be right for the wrong reasons. At bottom, the Menshevik position amounted to a permanent striving for a deal with the Cadets. By contrast, the Bolsheviks proposed to take advantage of conflict between the Duma and the regime to deepen revolutionary crisis, while at the same time striving to expose the Cadets by implacable criticism and winning over the peasant representatives—the Trudoviks—to “firm them up” and drive a wedge between them and the Cadets. While Lenin, in every article and every speech at this time, waged a relentless war against parliamentary cretinism, the Mensheviks placed all their hopes on the Duma. However, when Lenin spoke, while ridiculing Axelrod for his exaggerated expectations in the Duma, he made no mention of the boycott tactic itself. This is significant. Evidently, he maintained his earlier reservations, but felt constrained by factional ties, from expressing his views openly. It was left to Krassin to put the case for boycott to the delegates. But the Mensheviks used their majority to good use. Finally, the Congress voted to agree to allowing the party to participate in the elections to the Duma.

However, the Bolsheviks had their own problems. They took an incorrect position on the Duma, opposing the setting up of a Social Democratic parliamentary fraction. In this detail we already perceive the ultraleft trend in Bolshevism—antiparliamentary cretinism—which was really the mirror image of parliamentary and legalistic illusions of the Mensheviks. Contrary to the accusations usually levelled at Lenin for his alleged “sectarianism” and propensity for splitting, he consistently defended the unity of the party. When in the course of the Congress Lenin was accused of stating that it was impossible for Bolsheviks and Mensheviks to work together in one party, he indignantly rejected the accusation:

It is not true that I “supported” comrade Vorobyov’s statement that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks cannot work together in one party. I did not in any way “support” such an assertion, and do not share that opinion at all.319

In general, it must be said that the Bolsheviks behaved far better as a minority than the Martovites had done at the Second Congress. In contrast to the Martovites in 1903, Lenin loyally accepted the position of minority on the CC, which was completely dominated by Mensheviks. A novel aspect of the new CC was the presence of the representatives of the national Social Democratic organizations for the first time: the Poles, represented by Warski and Dzerzhinsky; the Letts, by Danishevsky; and the Bundists, by Abramovich and Kremer. Thus, albeit temporarily, the Mensheviks scored a victory at this Congress, held in conditions of gathering reaction. There were some small victories. On the Party statutes, Lenin’s draft of the first paragraph of the Rules was accepted, and essentially the principles of democratic centralism adopted. This was really not a controversial question, but regarded as self-evident, not only by the Bolsheviks but also by the Mensheviks (who were in the majority!). There were some differences on organizational issues, but they did not lead to any serious problems. The Bolsheviks insisted that the two-center system (the parallel existence of a central committee and central organ) had outlived its usefulness. But the Mensheviks succeeded in maintaining it, and made sure they had complete control of the editorial board, which was made up exclusively of Mensheviks (Martov, Martynov, Maslov, Dan, and Potresov), while graciously allowing the Bolshevik minority three places on the Central Committee.

In some respects, the Fourth Congress did represent a step forward, notably in strengthening the Party with the inclusion of workers’ organizations from other nationalities. In his report back to the Congress, previously mentioned, Lenin states the following:

Summing up the work of the Congress and the effect it has had upon our party, we must draw the following main conclusions. An important practical result of the Congress is the proposed (partly already achieved) amalgamation with the national social democratic parties. This amalgamation will strengthen the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. It will help to efface the last traces of the old circle habits. It will infuse a new spirit into the work of the party. It will greatly strengthen the proletariat among all the peoples of Russia.

And he added:

Another important practical result was the amalgamation of the minority and majority groups. The split has been stopped. The Social Democratic proletariat and its Party must be united. Disagreements on organization have been almost entirely eliminated.320

The Polish and Lithuanian Social Democrats joined the RSDLP, and conditions were drawn up for unity with the Latvian (Lettish) Social Democrats. The conditions for the Bund’s joining the Party were also established, but the congress firmly rejected any idea of organizing the working class on national lines. Later in the year (in August) the Bund also voted to join the RSDLP. Lenin commented that

the RSDLP has become, at last, really all-Russian and united. The number of members of our party is now more than 100,000. 31,000 were represented at the Unity Congress, then in addition about 26,000 Polish Social Democrats, about 14,000 Lettish, and 33,000 Jewish.

Lenin’s figures were confirmed by the left Cadet newspaper Tovarishch which estimated the total number of members enrolled in the RSDLP at about 70,000 in October 1906. This figure includes both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. To this must be added a further 33,000 for the Bund, plus 28,000 for the Polish Social Democrats and 13,000 for the Letts.321

However, the impressive membership figures cited above do not reveal the whole story. The growth in membership tells us something about the advanced layers of the workers and youth, but not the masses. The December defeat was a turning point for the working class. In reality, although the RSDLP continued to grow, its influence in the masses was beginning to decline. Exhaustion bred moods of apathy and pessimism. Although for a time the movement continued, borne along by its own momentum, Lenin’s hopes for an early recovery of the revolutionary movement did not correspond to the real situation. Trotsky explains:

It [the RSDLP] continued to grow in membership. But its influence on the masses declined. A hundred Social Democrats were no longer able to lead as many workers into the streets as ten Social Democrats had led the year before.322


318 Trotsky, Stalin, 72.

319 LCW, Unity Congress of RSDLP, Written Statement at the Twenty-sixth Session of the Congress, vol. 10, 309.

320 LCW, Report on the Unity Congress of the RSDLP, vol. 10, 376.

321 See L. Schapiro, History of the CPSU, 72, footnote.

322 Trotsky, Stalin, 88.

55) The Peasants’ Revolt

The center of revolutionary activity passed from the town to the village. In April, 47 cases of peasant disturbances were registered; in May, 160; but by June the figure increased to 739. This was close to the highest figure for autumn 1905. Half of European Russia, especially the Volga area, where the tradition of Stenka Razin and Pugachov still burned in the memory of the muzhik, the central Black Earth zone, the Ukraine, Poland, Tambov, and other regions all were engulfed by the flame of revolt. Landlords fled their estates as strike committees were formed in villages by rebellious agricultural laborers. An inevitable consequence of peasant revolution was the upsurge in guerrilla actions—the classical mode of struggle of the peasantry. Such activities were particularly common in Latvia (the “forest brotherhood”) and Georgia (the “Red Hundreds”). This situation posed a mortal danger for the tsarist regime, which found its principal point of support in the class of feudal landowners, the main target of the concentrated rage and hatred of the dispossessed masses. There was yet another reason to fear the revolt in the villages. Immediately, the peasant revolution had an echo in the army, where the truculent mood of the troops, demoralized by defeat and aroused by the example of the workers in the towns, expressed itself in a new wave of mutinies and uprisings.

Under these conditions, the military policy of the Party still had a key role to play, and still more so its agrarian policy, as Lenin clearly understood. About 50 RSDLP committees had special military organizations and groups. On the party’s military organization in Moscow, Piatnitsky writes:

A military technical bureau was attached to the Moscow Committee; this bureau was responsible for the invention, testing and production in great quantities, whenever necessary, of simple arms, including bombs; and with this the bureau was occupied all the time. The military technical bureau was completely isolated from the Moscow organization, and was connected with the Moscow Committee only through the secretary of the committee.323

The strongest of the military organizations, however, was in Petersburg. According to Leonard Schapiro, the Party still “maintained a wide network of organizations among the soldiers, and published some 20 illegal soldiers’ periodicals and newspapers.”324 Some agitation was carried out in the army and navy with special publications like Kazarma (Barracks) and Soldatskaya Zhizn’ (Soldiers’ Life). The party conducted an energetic campaign among the army recruits, asking them not to fire on their brothers, but to come over to the side of the workers, bringing their arms with them. March 1906 saw the first Conference of Military and Fighting Organizations. But on the first day all the delegates were arrested. The first real conference took place on November 16, 1906, in the relative safety of Tammerfors in Finland. Although Lenin certainly hoped that the movement in the villages might provide the spark that would reignite the revolution, he nevertheless argued continually for caution, against undue haste, against adventurism, seeing the dangers involved in premature and ill-prepared action. Lenin’s revolutionary optimism was always tempered with a healthy dose of realism, based upon a sober-minded appraisal of the situation. It would never have crossed his mind to launch the slogan of guerrilla war by a minority, as later became the fashion and led to defeat after defeat, especially in Latin America.

Like any other tactic, guerrilla war was always strictly subordinated to the needs of the mass movement of the working class. This did not mean that the Bolsheviks neglected work among other layers, such as the students and the peasants. On the contrary. The RSDLP attempted to conduct work among the peasants. Piatnitsky reports that in only eight months in 1906 the party’s illegal printing press in Moscow published four leaflets directed at the peasants with a total run of 140,000 copies, in addition to a further 20,000 copies of the party’s agrarian program. The goal was still armed insurrection:

“In 1906 and the first half of 1907,” writes Piatnitsky, “the entire work of the Moscow organization was carried on with the approaching mass proletarian and peasant movement which would culminate in an armed struggle against tsarism.”325

Nevertheless, the Party’s influence among the peasants remained weak. Social Democratic propaganda found only a feeble echo among the peasants right up to 1917. The great majority of peasants, insofar as they possessed any political allegiance, looked to one or other of the “Narodnik” parties—either the SRs, or, to an even greater extent, the Trudoviks. It was this layer that the autocracy was attempting to ensnare with promises of an agrarian reform. The First Congress of the Social Revolutionaries was held from December 29, 1905, to January 4, 1906. The political line was the usual eclectic mixture of utopian socialism (the idealization of the peasant commune, the obshchina which would allegedly allow Russia to bypass capitalism and establish “socialism in one country” in defiance of the laws of social and economic development) and ultraleftism. The SRs had the illusion that the peasant commune could serve as the basis for socialism in Russia, not realizing that it was the basis of tsarist autocracy, as the Trudovik Kerensky points out:

In demanding the “nationalization” or “socialization” of the land, the Narodniks had been certain that the peasants would easily shift from the communal to the cooperative system of land tenure. In actual fact, however, the peasant commune of that time had very little in common with the ideal commune as imagined by the Slavophiles and Narodniks. From the administrative standpoint, the commune was very convenient for police control—as Witte put it, for keeping the peasants under surveillance like little children—and also for collecting taxes, since defaulters were paid for by the rest of the commune on a pro rata basis. The authorities turned the commune into a bulwark of economic backwardness and gradually drained it of its vitality. Furthermore, compulsory membership in the commune was always a sore point among the peasants themselves.326

The tactical questions that concentrated the attention of Lenin and his collaborators at the time—boycott of elections, guerrilla warfare, etc.—were closely linked to the perspective for a revival of the revolution, and the possibility that the peasant movement might give an impulse to the movement of the workers in the cities. The apparently theoretical discussions at the Fourth Congress on the agrarian question were but a pale reflection of a stark reality. The peasants’ rebellion was on the upswing. Month by month the violent outbursts in the villages increased in number and intensity. For all these reasons, the agrarian question inevitably occupied a central importance in the activities of the State Duma.

In order to bring about the complete liquidation of the revolutionary movement, tsarism combined murderous repression with deceit, by offering a new electoral law which slightly increased the franchise, while still excluding more than 50 percent of the adult population—women, all under 25 years, those in military service, workers in small factories, landless peasants, etc. On April 23, the new electoral norms were published. The franchise was blatantly rigged in favor of the landlords. In the curiae, there was one landlord elector for every 2,000 population, while the ratio for the peasants was 1:7,000, and for the workers 1:90,000. In Perm province, for example, one landlord vote was equivalent to that of 28 peasants and 56 workers. The voting system was also indirect, with a complicated system of voting commissions (curiae) set up to “represent” the different social estates—workers, peasants, landlords—voting for “electors,” who would then elect the members of the State Duma. In his memoirs, Kerensky says this about the electoral laws:

The new electoral law was complex, and it violated every canon of democratic procedure. Deputies were elected by provincial colleges consisting of delegates chosen separately by four groups (curias): landowners, the urban population, peasants, and, in a few districts, factory workers. One mandatory delegate to the Duma was elected by each curia, and the rest of the deputies were elected by the provincial college as a whole.327

While the feudal landlords ruled the roost, the peasants were given a relatively privileged position vis-à-vis the workers. In typical Bonapartist fashion, the regime tried to lean on the peasantry (especially the rich, or “strong” peasant) against the working class. The peasant representation in the Duma was therefore relatively high: around 45 percent of the seats. This reflected the autocracy’s awareness of its own social isolation, and its overwhelming desire to gain a solid base of mass support in the more conservative layers of the rural population. For as long as anyone could remember, the tsar had posed as the “Little Father”—the Batyushka—of the People, an illusion which was traditionally shared by the Russian muzhik, who, in his hour of need, would sigh; “Bog vysoko; tsar’ daleko” (“God is in heaven, and the tsar is far away”). The diaries of Nicholas II show that he himself was convinced that the “People” (i.e., the peasants) adored him—right up to the moment when they overthrew him and his dynasty. January 9, 1905, drew a line of blood between the autocracy and the urban working class. The dream of erecting an impregnable bulwark around the monarchy in the shape of a loyal class of small peasant proprietors persisted and formed the very soul and substance of the Stolypin reaction. But by giving a voice—however distorted and tremulous—to the peasantry in the Duma, the autocracy unwittingly created a stick for its own back and provided a lever for the revolutionary socialist wing to exploit.

In addition to a rigged franchise, the rights of the Duma were severely restricted. Parts of the budget could not be discussed. Loans and currency were exclusively the competence of the Minister of Finance. The army and navy, of course, were under the personal control of the tsar. The Council of Ministers, hitherto nominated by the monarch, was broadened to include an equal number of elected ministers, and, under the title of senate, was turned into an upper chamber with equal rights to the Duma! This gigantic swindle was the handiwork of Count Witte, who further displayed his usefulness to the tsar by negotiating a sizeable loan from France.


323 O. Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, 104.

324 Schapiro, History of the CPSU, 99.

325 O. Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, 106.

326 Kerensky, Memoirs, 96.

327 Ibid., 84.

56) To Boycott, or Not to Boycott?

At the Tammerfors Conference of the Bolsheviks, which took place while the Moscow uprising was reaching its bloody dénouement, the Bolshevik leaders had debated their attitude to the forthcoming elections to the Duma. The general mood was overwhelmingly in favor of a boycott. Yet Lenin struck a note of caution. When it came to the vote, two votes were cast against the boycott proposal—Lenin and Gorev. This provoked an outburst of indignation by the other delegates, which compelled Lenin to abandon his opposition. Not for the first or last time, he was forced to take into account the mood of the leading layer against his better judgment. His new stance was greeted by stormy applause, although, as he ruefully quipped, he was “retreating in full military order”.328

The boycottists were strongest among that layer of committeemen, including Stalin, who was attending his first party meeting abroad, who considered that their practical knowledge of the situation in Russia was sufficient to place them on a superior plane to the party theoreticians, even to Lenin himself. In another session, the Tammerfors Conference voted for the reunification of the RSDLP. A fourth Party Congress should be convened, and preliminary measures should begin forthwith to unite the two factions on the basis of parity. Local committees should combine their activities, and committees should everywhere be elected from below and should be accountable to the lower echelons. However, democratic centralism should be applied and, once elected, the committees should be accorded “the entire fullness of power in the matter of ideological and practical leadership.”329

Immediately after, meetings were held between the representatives of both tendencies, attended by both Lenin and Martov, to hammer out the obstacles to unity and convene the Fourth Party Congress. On the issue of boycotting the Duma, the Mensheviks gave way to the case for boycott, insistently put by the Bolsheviks. They were still under the impact of the recent events, and, anyway, were themselves suspicious of the Duma. However, by the time the Congress came around, they were already cooling off. After the December defeat, it was undoubtedly necessary to revise the party’s tactics to take account of the new situation. Having failed to take the enemies’ positions by direct assault, it was necessary to resort to siege tactics, making use of all legal possibilities to rally the workers around the revolutionary program. To boycott parliament in such circumstances was a serious mistake. Trotsky points out that

It is permissible to boycott representative assemblies only in the event that the mass movement is sufficiently strong either to overthrow them or to ignore them. But when the masses are in retreat the tactic of boycott loses its revolutionary meaning.330

There were heated internal discussions on tactics in relation to the boycott question. This debate throws into sharp focus the gulf separating Bolshevism and Menshevism. The Mensheviks with their customary inclination towards opportunism rapidly drew the conclusion that the revolution was over and that it was time to turn to the parliamentary arena. However, they faced considerable difficulty in persuading the party rank and file. They also originally refused to participate in elections, but then changed their position to one of a “semiboycott,” linked to the confused and essentially meaningless slogan of “revolutionary self-government.” Lenin scornfully denounced their vacillations. “They do not believe in the revolution and they do not believe in the Duma,” he commented. Plekhanov, now on the right wing of the Mensheviks, advocated participation without more ado.

In spite of the increasingly ferocious repression, the Party was still able to function. Meetings still took place, in which tactical questions were hotly debated. The general mood of the Party members was still strongly against participating in elections to the Duma at this stage. On February 11, at a Petersburg united Party conference, including both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Lenin led off on the party’s attitude to the Duma. Dan and Martov, representing the Mensheviks, spoke against. A second Conference approved Lenin’s position of “active boycott.” In later years Lenin honestly admitted that this position was a mistake, but at the time it undoubtedly reflected the prevailing mood of the activists. The reactionary nature of the Duma was evident, not only to the Bolsheviks, but to the majority of Social Democrats. The mood of the majority of Social Democrats throughout the country seems to have been strongly inclined to boycott. The lava of revolution had not yet cooled, so that not only the Bolsheviks, but also the Polish and Latvian Social Democrats, the Lithuanian and even the normally conservative Bund favored the boycott tactic. Even many Mensheviks were ambivalent. But this mood of the party activists was out of step with the mood of the masses.

On the dispute over participation in the Duma elections in 1906, Eva Broido recalls how the RSDLP, in effect, stumbled into the Duma, almost unexpectedly:

The Bolsheviks were against, the Mensheviks for participation. In the end they agreed that the party should participate only in the first stage of the elections—that of the electoral colleges (there was no direct vote). In this way the party hoped to exploit the elections for the purposes of propaganda and agitation, particularly among the workers. In the event things turned out differently. Where the Mensheviks had a big majority, as in the Caucasus, the party went right through with the elections and returned several members to the Duma. In addition, several members who had been elected as independents now joined the Social Democrats. The party was thus represented in the Duma and had to define its attitude to current political events.

And she adds:

Moreover—and this was contrary to Bolshevik predictions—the Duma at once became a focus of public interest and concern, even among the working class. It was no longer possible simply to ignore the Duma—and we Mensheviks were convinced that we ought to make the fullest possible use of this opportunity of publicly proclaiming our socialist message to the whole country.331

In the spring of 1906, elections were held for the first Duma. Given the relatively wide franchise offered by the October Manifesto, there was the potential for a successful campaign by the Social Democrats. Under this system, as we have seen, the workers voted separately through the system of electoral commissions known as “curiae,” which elected representatives in the following way. The elections were held in three stages: first, the workers elected representatives at a factory level; the latter then elected the “electors”; and finally the “electors” elected the Duma deputies. Factories employing from 50 to 1,000 workers elected one representative. Bigger factories elected one for every 1,000 workers, and factories with fewer than 50 workers were excluded from voting. Paradoxically, the fact that the elections were indirect, which in itself was an undemocratic feature, also gave the Social Democrats an opening which they would not have had under a more normal system of voting, since they could concentrate their energies in a campaign in the workers’ curiae, their “natural constituency.”

The Bolshevik position was based on the expectation of an imminent new revolutionary upturn. But that was a misreading of the situation. The more advanced workers felt the need for a revolutionary party, but the masses were increasingly falling into apathy and passivity. It is a well-established fact that the mood of the most active and militant layer of workers can often be at variance with that of the rest of the class. The advanced guard can move too far ahead of the class. This is as bad a mistake in the class struggle as would be the analogous mistake in military tactics. If the advanced guard moves too far ahead and loses contact with the rear, it becomes seriously exposed and runs the risk of being chopped to pieces. This is equally true when the most militant layer, out of impatience, misjudges the mood of the workers, or confuses its own level of understanding with that of the majority. So it was in this case.

The Bolsheviks had misread the situation, and failed to appreciate that the revolution was in retreat. As in war, so in a revolution or even a strike, it is necessary to be able to retreat in good order when the situation demands it. To sound the advance when objective conditions demand a retreat is a recipe for disaster. In the event, the tactic of the active boycott failed to have any effect. The real nature of the Duma was by no means evident to the masses. Constitutional illusions were especially strong among the peasants, who believed they could get land. But the victory of the counterrevolution and the ebbing of the mass movement meant that, for broad layers of urban petty bourgeois masses, and the peasantry, and even a layer of the working class, the Duma remained the only hope, however tenuous, for some prospect of amelioration. The fact that such hopes were devoid of any rational basis did not make them any less persistent.

So long as Lenin continued to believe in the imminence of a new revolutionary upturn, he placed all his emphasis on the goal of armed insurrection:

“The revolutionary Social Democracy,” he wrote in October 1906, “must be the first to take its place in the most resolute and the most direct struggle and the last to resort to the most roundabout methods of struggle.”

In other words, his attitude to participation in even the most reactionary of parliaments was dictated, not by abstract principles or dogmatism, but by the demands of the revolution. For the whole period from 1906 to the outbreak of the First World War, the question of whether the Social Democrats should participate in the elections to the tsarist Duma, elected on the basis of what Lenin described as the most reactionary electoral law in Europe, was at the heart of the controversies on tactics and strategy that agitated the Party. Years later, in his classic “Left Wing” Communism, Lenin explained his position at that time:

When, in August 1905, the tsar proclaimed the convocation of a consultative “parliament,” the Bolsheviks called for its boycott, in the teeth of all the opposition parties and the Mensheviks, and the “parliament” was in fact swept away by the revolution of October 1905. The boycott proved correct at the time, not because nonparticipation in reactionary parliaments is correct in general, but because we accurately appraised the objective situation, which was leading to the rapid development of the mass strikes first into a political strike, then into a revolutionary strike, and finally into an uprising. Moreover, the struggle centered at that time on the question of whether the convocation of the first representative assembly should be left to the tsar, or an attempt should be made to wrest its convocation from the old regime. When there was not, and could not be, any certainty that the objective situation was of a similar kind, and when there was no certainty of a similar trend and the same rate of development, the boycott was no longer correct.

The Bolsheviks’ boycott of “parliament” in 1905 enriched the revolutionary proletariat with highly valuable political experience and showed that, when legal and illegal, parliamentary and nonparliamentary forms of struggle are combined, it is sometimes useful and even essential to reject parliamentary forms. It would, however, be highly erroneous to apply this experience blindly, imitatively, and uncritically to other conditions and other situations. The Bolsheviks’ boycott of the Duma in 1906 was a mistake, although a minor and easily remediable one. The boycott of the Duma in 1907, 1908, and subsequent years was a most serious error and difficult to remedy, because, on the one hand, a very rapid rise of the revolutionary tide and its conversion into an uprising was not to be expected, and, on the other hand, the entire historical situation attendant upon the renovation of the bourgeois monarchy called for legal and illegal activities being combined.332

The same point was made by Trotsky:

“The boycott is a declaration of outright war against the old government, a direct attack against it. Barring a widespread revolutionary revival . . . there can be no talk of the boycott’s success.” Much later, in 1920, he wrote: “It was an error . . . for the Bolsheviks to have boycotted the Duma in 1906.” And Trotsky adds: “It was an error, because after the December defeat it was impossible to expect a revolutionary attack in the near future; it was therefore senseless to spurn the Duma’s tribune for mobilizing the revolutionary ranks.”333

Hanging over all this discussion on the Duma was the far more fundamental question of the attitude of the workers’ party to the liberals. In the aftermath of the December events, there were clear indications of a shift in the mood of the contending classes. The workers were thrown onto the defensive everywhere. The December events also marked a decisive shift in the attitude of the liberals. The Cadets had already turned their backs on the revolution in October 1905. The Moscow uprising finally eradicated any last lingering sympathies they might have entertained for the revolutionary proletariat. Now they emerged in their true colors. The bourgeoisie to a man (and woman) united in opposition to December “madness.” It was, of course, not the first time in history that we have seen such a phenomenon. Exactly the same thing occurred in the 1848 revolution, as Marx and Engels explained.

The typical style of the liberals in the period of reaction was to appeal for reform to prevent revolution, calling on the state to “save itself.” Needless to say, such well-meaning advice was met by contemptuous guffaws from the Octobrist benches. The hypocritical whining of the liberals about the “excesses” of the counterrevolution were merely intended as friendly advice to the autocracy on the best method of strangling the revolution. Quite clearly, it is far better to strangle a person in such a way that he or she makes the least possible noise and fuss. But on the need for the strangling to be carried out, there could be no two opinions! This, in essence, was the difference between the two counterrevolutionary bourgeois blocs. The Cadets began to call themselves the “party of the people’s freedom.” The better to deceive the people and put an end to the revolution which had terrified them. The attitude to the Cadets constituted the fundamental dividing line between the Social Democrats, the Mensheviks advocating blocs and agreements with the Cadets in the Duma, while Lenin reserved his most bitter invective for these counterrevolutionary liberals.

The counterrevolutionary conduct of the liberals was no accident. The weak Russian bourgeoisie was tied by a thousand threads to the feudal aristocracy, by marriage, social origin, or direct ownership of land. According to a contemporary study by N. A. Borodin, The State Duma in Figures, out of the 153 Cadets in the First Duma, 92 were of the nobility. Of these, three owned landed estates between 5,000 and 10,000 dessyatines; eight owned estates from 1,000 to 2,000 dessyatines; and 30 owned estates from 500 to 1,000 dessyatines. Thus, about one-third of the Cadet deputies were actually big landowners.334 How could such people offer a solution to the most pressing problem facing Russia—the agrarian question? Despite their “progressive” protestations, on all the basic issues, the liberals in the Duma were far closer to the tsarist regime than to the workers and peasants.

The bourgeois liberals effectively split into two camps in the Duma, represented by the Right “Octobrists” and the “Left” (Constitutional Democrats, or Cadets as they became popularly known). But although they were formally opposed as “reactionaries” and “liberals,” the differences between them were more apparent than real. In relation to the revolutionary proletariat and peasantry, they stood firmly united in a single counterrevolutionary bloc representing the interests of order and property. While enthusiastically supporting the smashing of the revolution, the latter were not averse to leaning on the mass movement to put pressure on the regime to grant concessions. But not when the masses looked like challenging them for power. The bourgeois liberals who had already sold their soul to the autocracy (alleging that it had been miraculously transformed into a “Constitutional Monarchy”) immediately took their rightful place in the camp of “parliamentary” reaction, where they remained as His Majesty’s loyal opposition, a mere fig leaf for the counterrevolution. The question of the attitude of the Social Democracy to the bourgeois parties from this point on became the central question for the revolutionaries.


328 Quoted in Robert Service, Lenin, a Political Life, 149.

329 KPSS v rezoluitsiakh, vol. 1, 136.

330 Trotsky, Stalin, 98.

331 E. Broido, Memoirs, 130–1.

332 LCW, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder, vol. 31, 35–36.

333 Trotsky, Stalin, 93.

334 See LCW, vol. 12, 532, note.

57) Parliamentary Illusions

On April 27 (May 10), 1906, a hot summer’s day, the first State Duma opened its doors in the magnificent Tauride Palace, the former palace of Catherine the Great’s favorite, Potemkin. In a stately hall, flanked by dukes and courtiers in full regalia, the elected representatives of the people listened respectfully to the opening speech of Tsar Nicholas. A colorful and somewhat incongruous spectacle greeted the eyes of one English observer who captured it for posterity:

Peasants in their long black coats, some of them wearing military medals and crosses; popes (i.e., priests), Tartars, Poles, men in every kind of dress except uniform . . . You see dignified old men in frock coats, aggressively democratic-looking “intelligents,” with long hair and pince-nez; a Polish bishop dressed in purple, who looks like the Pope; men without collars; members of the proletariat, men in loose Russian shirts with belts; men dressed by Davies or Poole, and men dressed in the costume of two centuries ago . . . There is a Polish member who is dressed in light blue tights, a short Eton jacket and Hessian boots. He has curly hair, and looks exactly like the hero of the Cavalleria Rusticana. There is another Polish member who is dressed in a long white flannel coat reaching to his knees . . . There are some socialists who wear no collars and there is, of course, every kind of headdress you can conceive.335

The extremely heterogeneous composition of the Duma is here vividly conveyed. Here at last was a genuine cross section of Russian society all together under one roof, ready to solve the problems of society through democratic discussion and good will! But beneath the glitter and ceremony there was an invisible fault line. The tsar’s mother suffered such a shock at the sight of the great unwashed that for several days she was unable to compose herself. “They looked on us as so many enemies,” she later confided to the Minister of Finance, “and I could not stop myself from looking at certain faces, so much did they seem to reflect a strange hatred for us all.”336 The right-wing parties did not do well in the elections, and only 12 Octobrists (right-wing liberals) were returned. The Cadets benefitted from the boycott of the Social Democrats. Posing as the only left alternative, they won 184 seats. Confusion on the attitude to the Duma elections cost the Social Democrats dear. The RSDLP had attempted to boycott the elections, and then, when it became clear that the masses were participating, did a hasty about-face, but too late to recover lost ground. In effect, they had helped the Cadets. If the Social Democrats and SRs had put up candidates, the Cadet result would have been nothing like this, as was later shown in the following elections.

The mistaken tactic of the Social Democrats handed the Cadets effective control of the Duma on a plate. Puffed up with their own importance, they immediately put forward the proposal that a government should be formed that would be answerable to the Duma, as opposed to the accepted system whereby the tsar appointed the government, which was answerable to him alone. This was, in effect, a demand that power should pass to the Cadets. True to their parliamentary illusions, the Mensheviks supported the Liberals’ demand, while the Bolsheviks opposed it as playing with parliament. Even from a purely democratic point of view, this was not a demand that could be supported by a revolutionary party worthy of the name. So long as there was no equal, direct, and universal suffrage in Russia, the Duma was not representative of the people. To support the parliamentary maneuvers of the Cadets would be to create illusions in the minds of the people that such a government would be better than the undemocratic tsarist governments that had gone before. But this was not the case. The bourgeoisie wanted only to strike a bargain with the monarchy, while the revolutionary party of the working class wanted to sweep it away and replace it with a genuinely democratic government. The two aims were incompatible and that expressed itself in antagonistic tactics. The conflict over Duma tactics immediately split the RSDLP into two wings. “For or against the government of the Constitutional Democrats?” That was the question which was put to a party referendum.

In the course of the campaign around the referendum, the Menshevik Eva Broido describes a meeting at the Baltic Shipbuilding Wharf in Petersburg, a Menshevik stronghold, where Lenin spoke:

Declaring the meeting open I gave Lenin the floor. He spoke very well and with great elation. His speech was often interrupted by applause. And to my surprise he did not once attack the Mensheviks.337

Lenin lost the vote by a big majority, 50 to 13, but this shows his style in party polemics, especially when dealing with workers. Broido confessed her astonishment. Was this the same Lenin that had so sharply broken with Martov and Plekhanov? Yet in a debate before the workers who are under Menshevik influence, “he did not once attack the Mensheviks.” This tells us a lot about Lenin’s method of argument.

Although the text of Lenin’s speech at the shipyards has not been preserved, it is not hard to imagine its content. He would have attacked, not the Menshevik leaders, but the main enemy—the landlords and capitalists and the tsarist regime; he would have explained that the so-called liberals in the Duma, the Cadets, had turned their backs on the revolution and were striving for a deal with tsarism; he would have called upon the workers to rely only on their own strength, not to get entangled with alliances and deals with the treacherous liberals; and he would have demanded that the RSDLP—the workers’ party—stick firmly to a policy of class independence. Lenin always relied upon the strength of his case—facts, figures, and arguments—in order to convince his audience. Only by such means did he eventually win over the majority, first of the active layers, then of the working class as a whole. The same methods were used in 1917, when Lenin directed the Bolshevik Party to win the masses with the famous slogan “Patiently explain!”

Although the Duma was dominated by the Cadets, they were not the largest parliamentary group. There was, for reasons explained already, a sizeable bloc of peasant deputies—200 in all. Some thought that this would be a factor for stability. The illusion of the god-fearing, pro-tsarist muzhik was still strong in upper-class circles: “Thank heaven!” exclaimed Count Witte, “the Duma will be predominantly peasant.” But this optimism was premature. The muzhik was becoming conscious of his interests. A big section of the peasant deputies organized themselves as the “Labor Group” (the “Trudovaya Gruppa” or “Trudoviks” as they became known). Lenin immediately grasped the significance of this. The peasants had sent their representatives to the Duma, not to make speeches but to get the land. They would soon discover in practice that the Duma was powerless to solve their most pressing needs. In the meantime, the Social Democrats must try by all means to establish a firm link with the peasant deputies, whose contradictory psychology was described by Lenin thus:

[The typical Trudovik is a peasant who] is not averse to a compromise with the monarchy, to settling down quietly on his own plot of land under the bourgeois system; but at the present time his main efforts are concentrated on the fight against the landlords for land, on the fight against the feudal state, and for democracy.338

The Bolsheviks’ tactic consisted in trying to win away the Trudoviks from the influence of the Cadets. But such a tactic necessarily entailed the skillful utilization of parliament. The boycott tactic had failed. It was necessary to adapt the Party’s tactics to the prevailing conditions if it was not to be reduced to an impotent sect cut off from the masses. By skillfully combining legal and illegal work, it would be possible to get the best of both worlds. Revolutionaries could make use of such legal openings that were still available, and supplement this work with illegal activities. What could not be said in the pages of the legal press and from the tribune of the Duma, could be printed in the underground papers. The work of the Social Democratic deputies in the Duma could be publicized in legal papers such as Volna, Vperyod, and Ekho, which exposed the fraudulent character of this pseudoparliament and the sellouts of the liberals.

For the Mensheviks the Duma became the center of all attention. This reformist deviation was immediately noticeable in the declaration of the Social Democratic Duma Fraction of July 16, which asserted that the Duma “can become the center of the movement of the entire people against the autocratic police state.”339 There began an uninterrupted series of clashes between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks over the issue of the attitude to the Duma. The Menshevik-dominated Central Committee sent out a circular to all RSDLP branches asking them to support all steps taken by the Duma (that is, the Cadets) to change Goremykin, the chairman of the Council of Ministers, for a Cadet. The Bolsheviks immediately protested against this tail-ending of the liberals in the Duma. To this the Mensheviks replied that it was necessary to support the progressive bourgeoisie (i.e., the Cadets) against the Ministry. Lenin answered that the Party’s parliamentary representatives must maintain complete independence from all other parties, especially the bourgeois liberals. “Rely on your own strength,” he said to them. “Only in this way can we win over lower, oppressed strata of revolutionary petty bourgeoisie (Trudoviks), and split them away from the Liberals (Cadets).”

The Cadets’ ministerial ambitions, and their burning desire to save the autocracy from itself, soon brought them into collision with the ruling Ministry. In effect, they were saying to the tsar:

See, your ministers cannot be relied on to defend the old order. You need new men, people who enjoy the trust of the masses. Only we can keep the masses in check. But you must move over and share power with us.

But by now the powers-that-be had recovered from their initial alarm. They were getting the situation under control with the aid of the bullet and the noose. The services of the liberals were no longer required. Determined to eradicate the last vestiges of the gains of the revolution, the court clique went onto the offensive. Even the timid resistance of the Duma was too much for Nicholas to tolerate.

On May 13, 1906, the government rejected the demands of the Cadet Duma stated in its Address. In reply the Duma passed a resolution expressing “no confidence” in the Ministry and insisting on its resignation. The Menshevik CC of the RSDLP circulated to the Party organizations a resolution proposing to support the Cadet Duma’s demand for a Duma—that is a Cadet—ministry. The opportunism of the Mensheviks in the Duma was too much for the Party members to stomach. The Bolsheviks succeeded in getting the Party to condemn Milyukov’s Duma tactics. In Petersburg the Party organization voted 1760 for the Bolsheviks, 952 for the Mensheviks on this issue. At its July Conference, the Petersburg party organizations confirmed this position. After a debate in which Lenin spoke for the Bolsheviks and Dan for the Mensheviks, the Petersburg Social Democrats specifically rejected the call for a Duma Ministry. Despite this, the Social Democratic parliamentary fraction continued its conciliationist stance by supporting a Cadet resolution on the agrarian question.

Lenin poured scorn on the liberals’ Duma antics:

“The Duma is powerless,” he wrote. “It is powerless not only because it lacks the bayonets and machine guns that the government has at its command, but also because, as a whole, it is not revolutionary, and is incapable of waging a resolute struggle.”340

Lenin was soon shown to be correct. The Duma foundered precisely on the land question. Far from being a solid basis for reaction, the Trudovik peasants used their position in the Duma to agitate for peasants’ rights. The question of taking over the landlords’ estates was raised in the Duma, to the horror of the tsar. “What belongs to the landlord belongs to him,” was his angry comment. It spelled the end for the first Duma. Irritated by the radical-sounding speeches emanating from the halls of the Tauride palace, the tsar had already decided to put an end to this circus.


335 M. Baring, A Year in Russia, London, 191–92, 202. Quoted by L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, 121.

336 Quoted in O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, 214.

337 Eva Broido, Memoirs, 132.

338 LCW, An Attempt at a Classification of the Political Parties of Russia, vol. 11, 229.

339 Quoted in the Istoria KPSS, vol. 2, 202.

340 LCW, Resolution (II) of the St. Petersburg Committee of the RSDLP on the Attitude Towards the State Duma, vol. 10, 481.

58) The Duma Dissolved

Into this turbulent scenario stepped the flamboyant Pyotr Arkadevich Stolypin, then Minister of Interior, and from this point on, one of the key players of the period. A wealthy landlord with big political ambitions, Stolypin owned two estates, one in Penza province with 2,850 acres, and another in Kovno, with a further 2,500 acres. In addition, his wife, the daughter of a high official of the imperial household, owned another 14,000 acres in Kazan. He therefore had plenty of reasons for interesting himself in the land question. Although he is generally described as a progressive reformer, Stolypin had earned the tsar’s confidence by his application of the most brutal measures of repression during the period of “pacification” following the 1905 Revolution.

His draconian measures in suppressing one of the most turbulent of the Volga provinces in 1905–6 made him notorious,” writes Lionel Kochan. “His own words are suggestive: of one action against the peasants he reported to the Ministry of the Interior, ‘the whole village, almost, went to prison on my instructions . . . I billeted Cossacks in the houses of the worst offenders, left there a squadron of Orenburgers, and imposed a special regime on the village.’”341

Stolypin’s reputation with the people is shown by the fact that a hangman’s noose was referred to as a “Stolypin necktie,” and as late as the 1930s, railway trucks used to carry political prisoners to Siberia were still referred to as “Stolypin carriages.” However, he was undoubtedly one of the few really competent men among the tsar’s advisers in the period before 1914, until he was removed by an assassin’s bullet. Kerensky characterizes this consummate and skillful reactionary as follows:

Just before the first Duma was due to meet, a new Minister of the Interior was appointed in St. Petersburg. This was the governor of Saratov, Peter A. Stolypin, who was hardly known to anyone at the time of the appointment. In less than three months, just after the dissolution of the Duma on July 8, 1906, he was appointed chairman of the Council of Ministers . . . Of provincial upper-class origin, he was not a member of the St. Petersburg court set and had never been employed in any of the higher government establishments of the capital. The whole of his career had been spent in the provinces, where he had no lack of connections among prominent public and Zemstvo figures . . . He did not share the view of his predecessor Goremykin that the Duma was merely an idle “talking-shop.” On the contrary, unlike the hidebound and soulless bureaucrat, Goremykin, he was strongly attracted by the role of a constitutional minister. The idea of making speeches in parliament, openly debating vital issues with the opposition, and governing the country on the basis of his government majority appealed to him greatly.

The fighting spirit lacked by the St. Petersburg officials was more than compensated for by Stolypin. The tsar liked Stolypin for his youth, self-confidence, devotion to the throne, and readiness to carry out the tsar’s plan for illegal changes in the electoral law. The heads of the Council of United Gentry saw in him one of their own kind who would save the system of upper-class land proprietorship from destruction. The Octobrists and various other moderate constitutionalists, frightened by the excesses of the revolution, clutched at him as a drowning man clutches at a straw. They welcomed his program, which was intended to unify the government with the moderately liberal and conservative public, thus strengthening the constitutional monarchy and eliminating for good the revolutionary movement. They thought of him as a Russian Thiers (the man who consolidated the bourgeois Third Republic in France after the defeat of the Commune in 1871).342

Shortly before the dissolution of the Duma, Nicholas had appointed this “strong man” as chairman of the Council of Ministers in place of the “hidebound and soulless” Goremykin. At first, Stolypin, in a show of uncharacteristic modesty, refused to accept the honor, whereupon the tsar instructed him to kneel before his favorite icon. “Let us make the sign of the cross over ourselves and let us ask the lord to help us both in this difficult, perhaps historic, moment.” After this brief consultation with the Almighty, Nicholas then got down to serious business: “On what day would it be best to dissolve the Duma and what instructions do you propose to give to ensure order, chiefly in St. Petersburg and Moscow?” With the help of the Almighty, the date of the coup was fixed for Sunday July 9 (21).

The tsar need not have worried. The first Duma disappeared from history, not with a bang but a whimper. The liberals had not the slightest intention of stirring up the masses. Faced with the fait accompli of dissolution, some 200 deputies travelled to Vyborg, which, being under Finnish control, was relatively safe. There they issued the Vyborg Manifesto which called on the people to engage in acts of civil disobedience, such as nonpayment of taxes and refusal to accept military service, as a sign of protest at the dissolution. This document was drawn up by a joint parliamentary commission made up mainly of the Cadets and Trudoviks. True to form, the Cadets were unenthusiastic even about these demands and later backed out of it. This farcical experience exposed the counterrevolutionary character of the Cadets and the hopelessness of such methods. Horrified at this quite predictable turn of events, the Menshevik Central Committee called on the workers to strike and demonstrate in support of the Duma. But this call went unheeded.

Lenin opposed the call for demonstrations in support of the Duma. Lenin was never afraid to tell the truth to the workers. His position was always dictated by an unerring revolutionary instinct and realism. What should the working class fight for? Not for bourgeois parliamentarism, but against the main enemy—tsarist reaction. The working class must not accept any responsibility for bourgeois pseudodemocracy or spread illusions in the counterrevolutionary liberals, but come out openly for an armed uprising against the autocracy, not for the defense of the Cadet Duma, but for the Constituent Assembly, which will give land to the peasants, an eight-hour day to the workers, and full democratic rights for all. Here we have in a nutshell the difference between revolutionary Marxism and reformism.

While the Mensheviks participated in yet another pantomime with the Cadets, Lenin pressed home his call for a revolutionary united front with the Trudoviks. Under pressure from the mood of the working class and peasants, the Trudoviks actually agreed to a joint appeal with the Social Democrats for an armed uprising. Here, in outline, was the possibility of a “left bloc” with the Trudoviks, a united front of the organizations of the working class and peasant masses for the purpose of struggle against the autocracy and the liberals. While Lenin ruled out any deals with the bourgeois liberals, he accepted the possibility of temporary agreements with the Trudoviks, as the parliamentary representatives of the peasantry, and even occasionally voting together with the Trudoviks against the Cadets to win over the former. Such partial and temporary parliamentary agreements with the representatives of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie—without for a moment renouncing the right to criticize the Trudoviks for their inconsistency and vacillations—had nothing whatsoever in common with the political bloc with the liberals advocated by the Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks’ position was to use the Duma as a platform to expose the tsarist regime and the liberals, and at the same time for organizing outside parliament in preparation for revolution.


341 L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, 123.

342 Kerensky, Memoirs, 94–95.

59) The Question of Guerrilla War

In the period 1905–6, the revolutionary movement included an element of “guerrilla warfare,” with partisan detachments, armed expropriation, and other forms of armed struggle. But the fighting squads were always closely linked to the workers’ organizations. Thus, the Moscow military committee included not just RSDLP members, but also SRs, trade unionists (printers), and students. As we have seen, partisan groups were used for the purpose of defense against pogromists and the Black Hundred gangs. They also helped to protect meetings against police raids, where the presence of armed workers’ detachments was frequently an important factor in preventing violence. Occasionally, such groups could pass over to the offensive, though the target was not the armed forces of the state (against which they could not hope to win in a straight fight), but strikebreakers and fascists. One armed workers’ group staged an attack on a Black Hundred group in the Tver Inn in Petersburg in January 1906. Where conflicts with the police took place, it was usually in connection with the release of political prisoners, as in the daring raid on the Riga police department in order to secure the release of arrested Latvian revolutionaries. Precisely in Latvia the guerrilla movement reached its highest intensity when, in December 1905, a number of towns were actually captured by armed detachments of insurgent workers, agricultural laborers, and peasants before the uprising in Latvia was brutally suppressed by punitive expeditions under tsarist generals.

Other tasks included the capture of arms, the assassination of spies and police agents, and also bank raids for funds. The initiative for the setting up of such guerrilla groups was frequently taken by the workers themselves. The Bolsheviks strove to gain the leadership of these groups, to give them an organized and disciplined form, and provide them with a clear plan of action. There were, of course, serious risks entailed here. All kinds of adventurist, déclassé, and shady elements could get mixed up in these groups, which, once isolated from the movement of the masses, tended to degenerate along criminal lines to the point where they would become indistinguishable from mere groups of bandits. In addition to this, they were also wide open to penetration by provocateurs. As a rule it is far easier for the agents of the state to infiltrate militaristic and terrorist organizations than genuine revolutionary parties, especially where they are composed of educated cadres bound together by strong ideological ties, although even the latter are not immune to penetration, as we shall see later. However, Lenin was well aware of the dangers of degeneration posed by the existence of the armed groups. Strict discipline and firm control by party organizations and experienced revolutionary cadres partially guarded against such tendencies. But the only real control was that of the revolutionary mass movement.

As long as the guerrilla units acted as auxiliaries to the mass movement (that is, in the course of the revolutionary upswing) they played a useful and progressive role. But, wherever the guerrilla groups were separated from the mass revolutionary movement, they inevitably tended to degenerate. For this reason, Lenin considered it completely inadmissible to prolong their existence, once it was clearly established that the revolutionary movement was in irreversible decline. Once this stage was reached, he immediately called for the dissolution of all the guerrilla groups. In the initial stages, however, they played a positive role. There were many heroic and self-sacrificing people involved, working under the strict control of the Party. Such a man was the famous Armenian revolutionary Semeno Arshakovich Ter-Petrosyan (Kamo).

One of the main reasons for continuing the tactic after the defeat of the December uprising was simply that the party was short of funds. Up to that time, the party had relied to a great extent on big donations from wealthy sympathizers. In the period of constitutional agitation before 1905, and during the initial period of the revolution, a large part of the “progressive” bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia looked upon the Social Democracy with approval and even admiration. They tended to see it as merely as a more radical expression of the bourgeois-democratic movement. The activities of the revolutionary students and workers were regarded with indulgence, and even the kind of sneaking admiration which comes from the nostalgia for a lost youth. And as is natural in the outlook of hardheaded men of money, an element of calculation was involved. The bourgeoisie hoped to use the revolutionary movement as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the autocracy for a share in government. But after October 1905, the attitude of the liberal bourgeoisie began to change. The tsar’s manifesto having satisfied their basic demands, their enthusiasm rapidly began to cool. The Moscow rising finally convinced them that the workers meant business. This was getting to be a dangerous game! The reaction bared its teeth, and like Pontius Pilate, the liberals washed their hands of the whole affair. “We told you not to go too far! Don’t provoke the reaction! Why not accept what’s on offer? After all, half a loaf is better than a prison sentence.”

The sudden drying up of funds placed the party in a difficult position. Under attack from all sides, the Party was desperately short of resources, especially as the bourgeois liberals had turned against the revolution. Many former wealthy businessmen and intellectual fellow travellers, who had earlier been prepared to give money to the revolutionaries for a variety of motives, now hastily moved away, suddenly recalling that they had careers and families to worry about. For the working class, however, there was nowhere to retreat. This was now a life-or-death struggle. It was at this point that the question of expropriations assumed a burning importance. Kamo already had a long record of revolutionary activity, including imprisonment and escape from Baku prison, before he became famous for his part in the armed struggle. Cool-headed, brave, and efficient, Kamo was the personification of the best type of Bolshevik activist. After the mutinies at Sveaborg and Kronstadt, the peasant movement grew in intensity. There seemed to be every possibility that the revolution was entering into a new stage. The question of accumulating arms acquired a fresh urgency. Kamo was in charge of obtaining weapons, but there was a severe problem of cash. At the Stockholm Congress the Mensheviks had got control of the Central Committee, and they were not keen on the idea of arming. “Letters and telegrams to the Central Committee went unanswered. Requests for money remained like a voice crying in the wilderness.”343

Kamo did not flinch from taking the necessary action to arm the party. In a series of spectacular bank raids which drove the police frantic, large sums of money were “expropriated.” Yet Kamo himself lived very modestly on 50 kopeks a day. Like other Bolshevik partisans, he was totally dedicated to the party and the cause of the working class. His legendary bravery and audacity were shown by the Tiflis bank raid in the summer of 1907. Travelling on a forged passport as a well-known Georgian nobleman, Kamo went to Tiflis to organize a major expropriation. On the morning of June 23, dressed as an army officer, although he was suffering from wounds caused by an accidental explosion, Kamo led a spectacular attack which netted 250,000 rubles—a huge amount—from the State Bank. His later experiences read like an adventure novel. Having escaped to Germany, Kamo was arrested in Berlin with a suitcase full of dynamite. He had been betrayed by the agent provocateur Zhitomirsky.

Accused and indicted as a “terrorist-anarchist,” for four years he pretended to be mad. As a punishment for his conduct, he was placed naked in a basement cell at sub-zero temperatures for nine days. Sent to a prison for the criminally insane, he kept up the act. For four months he never lay down but stood with his face to a corner, standing first on one leg then another. The brutal treatment to which he was subjected included force-feeding, during which several of his teeth were broken. On two occasions he attempted suicide by hanging and opening his veins with a sharp bone. At first, the authorities believed he was feigning madness, but after six months of torture, they began to believe that his madness was the genuine article. Finally, in March 1909, the doctors decided that the state of the mentally deficient “anarcho-terrorist” Ter-Petrosyan was quite satisfactory, that he was quiet and rational, and even able to perform handicraft and gardening. Being returned to prison, Kamo again feigned madness and was subjected to more torture. “Civilized” German doctors inserted needles under his fingernails, his body was burned with red-hot irons, but to no avail. Kamo’s body was permanently scarred, but he kept up the pretense of insanity until finally the authorities decided that the upkeep of this foreign lunatic should not be paid by the German people, and ordered his extradition to Russia. Finally, he effected yet another daring escape from a mental hospital in Tiflis.

In her biography of Lenin, Krupskaya recalls how Kamo visited them in Paris:

He was very distressed to hear that a rupture had occurred between Ilyich and Bogdanov and Krassin. He was greatly attached to all three. Besides, he was unable to grasp the situation that had developed during the years he had spent in prison. Ilyich told him how things stood.

Kamo asked me to buy him some almonds. He sat in our Paris kitchen eating almonds, as if in his native Georgia, and telling us about his arrest in Berlin, about the way he had simulated insanity, about the sparrow he had tamed in prison, etc. Listening to his stories, Ilyich felt extremely sorry for that brave, devoted, childishly naïve man with the warm heart, who was so eager to perform deeds of valor, but who now did not know what to turn his hand to. His schemes were fantastic. Ilyich did not argue with him, but tried delicately to bring him back to earth with suggestions about organizing the transportation of literature and so forth. In the end it was decided that Kamo was to go to Belgium, have an operation on his eyes there (he was cross-eyed, and this always gave him away to the police spies), and then make his way south to Russia and the Caucasus. Ilyich examined Kamo’s coat and said: “Haven’t you got a warm coat? You’ll be cold in this, walking about on deck.” Ilyich himself always promenaded the deck incessantly when travelling by boat. Hearing that Kamo had no other coat, Ilyich got out the soft grey cloak which his mother had given him as a present in Stockholm and of which he was very fond, and gave it to Kamo. His talk with Ilyich, and the latter’s kindness, somewhat soothed Kamo.344

Like many others who had played an active part in the revolution, Kamo was now like a fish out of water in the period of reaction. The inactivity, the isolation, the pressures of émigré existence, all depressed and frustrated him. He soon returned to underground activity in his native Caucasus, where the revolutionary movement was on the eve of a new awakening. Rearrested, he was given four death sentences, later commuted to 20 years’ penal servitude as a sign of the tsar’s magnanimity on the three hundredth anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. Kamo was sent to the penal prison at Kharkov where he sat out the war sewing dresses, underclothes, and boots in the company of common criminals who learned to respect the man they called Big Ivan. Even in this hellish place, the spirit of revolt did not die. In order not to have to take his hat off in the presence of the warders, he went bare-headed even in the coldest weather. Kamo was only released from this place by the February Revolution, after which he immediately rejoined the ranks of the Bolshevik Party and played a heroic role in the Civil War. Having survived all these trials and tribulations, ironically, he died in a motorcycle accident in 1922.


343 S.F. Medvedeva, Kamo, The Life of a Great Revolutionist, 18.

344 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 212–13.

60) Lenin’s Attitude to Guerrillaism

The question of guerrilla war was closely linked to the perspective for a revival of the revolution, and the possibility that the peasant movement might give an impulse to the movement of the workers in the cities. The apparently theoretical discussions at the Fourth Congress on the agrarian question were but a pale reflection of a stark reality. The peasants’ rebellion was on the upswing. Month by month the violent outbursts in the villages increased in number and intensity. But the consolidation of the Stolypin reaction forced Lenin to reconsider the position. A turning point was the defeat of the mutinies at Sveaborg and Kronstadt. Whereas the Mensheviks had already given the movement up as lost, Lenin’s tactics were directed towards winning over the left petty bourgeois, the poor peasants, to the idea of an armed uprising, a movement in the villages which in turn could link up with the movement in the towns to bring about the overthrow of the autocracy. Nor was this perspective as utopian as might appear. While the working class of Petersburg and Moscow had suffered defeat, the movement in the villages was just beginning to get seriously underway. This in turn had an effect on the mass of peasants in uniform who made up the overwhelming majority of the tsarist army. Shaken by military defeat and months of revolution, the mood of the men in grey overcoats was becoming ever more unsettled. The critical point was reached on the night of July 17. A mutiny of soldiers and sailors erupted in the Sveaborg fortress near Helsingfors. When the St. Petersburg RSDLP committee got news of the uprising it sent representatives to the sailors in an attempt to persuade them to postpone the action. But it was already too late.

Although the RSDLP’s military organization participated in the revolt—two Lieutenants, A.P. Yemelyanov and Y.L. Kokhansky, were Social Democrats—the rising was mainly under the influence of the Social Revolutionaries. Out of ten artillery companies, seven participated actively in the rising, which advanced revolutionary-democratic slogans: down with the autocracy, for freedom for the people, land to the peasants. The Finnish workers took action in support of the mutineers. A general strike was begun in Helsingfors on July 18, spreading to other towns. The movement lasted for three days, but, badly prepared and with no clearly thought-out plan of action, subjected to a heavy bombardment from pro-government ships, the Sveaborg rising was crushed. The mutineers were handed over to the tender mercies of the tsarist courts-martial. Forty-three men were executed and hundreds others sent to penal servitude or imprisoned. This was no isolated case. Other mutinies occurred elsewhere. The news of the Sveaborg events caused a ferment in the naval garrison in Kronstadt and an actual mutiny on the cruiser Pamyat’ Azova near Revel. It seems that in this case, the RSDLP had been planning an action, but was disrupted by the arrest of the local military and workers’ organization on July 9. The government was aware of the plans for an uprising from its network of spies and quickly acted to smother the revolt. More than 2,500 Kronstadt mutineers were arrested. As in Sveaborg, the courts-martial were pitiless: 36 men were sentenced to death; 130 were sentenced to penal servitude; a further 316 were imprisoned, and 935 sent to corrective battalions.

The impact of the peasant movement was clearly discernible in the mutinies, which also contained the negative side of all peasant jacqueries in history—lack of perspective and formlessness—which enables a small force of determined disciplined officers used to command to subordinate to their will a far larger number of troops who lack discipline, organization and a clear plan of action, and who have been conditioned all their lives to obey. These were indeed the last throes of the revolution. After Sveaborg, the general outcome was no longer seriously in doubt. Reaction was triumphant, and celebrated its victory in the customary fashion—with a new wave of arrests, summary court martials, shootings, lockouts. Unemployment soared. And as Trotsky explained at the time, this onset of mass unemployment, coming in the wake of a severe political defeat, could not have the effect of reviving the fighting spirits of the workers, but precisely the opposite. The workers were stunned and disoriented. It would take time for them to recover. Trotsky predicted—and he was shown to be correct—that there would be no revival of the revolutionary movement in Russia until there was some kind of upturn in the economy.

Marxists have always conceived the peasant war as an auxiliary of the workers in the struggle for power. That position was first developed by Marx during the German revolution of 1848, when he argued that the German revolution could only triumph as a second edition of the Peasants’ War. That is to say, the movement of the workers in the towns would have to draw behind it the peasant masses. The Bolsheviks also explained that it was the workers in the cities who had to lead the peasants behind them. It is important to note that during the Russian Revolution the industrial working class represented no more than 10 percent of the population. Yet the proletariat played the leading role in the Russian Revolution, drawing behind itself the multi-millioned mass of poor peasants—the natural ally of the proletariat. No reference or hint at the possibility that the peasantry can bring about a socialist revolution can be found in the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky. The reason for that is the extreme heterogeneity of the peasantry as a class. It is divided into many layers, from the landless laborers (who are really rural proletarians) to the rich peasants who employ other peasants as wage laborers. They do not have a common interest and therefore cannot play an independent role in society. Historically they have supported different classes or groups in the cities. The only class able to lead a successful socialist revolution is the working class. This is not for sentimental reasons but because of the place it occupies in society and the collective character of its role in production.

By its very nature, guerrilla warfare is the classical weapon of the peasantry, and not the working class. It is suited for conditions of armed struggle in inaccessible rural areas—mountains, jungle, etc.—where the difficulty of the terrain makes it complicated to deploy regular troops and where the support of the rural masses provides the necessary logistic support and cover for the guerrillas to operate. In the course of a revolution in a backward country with a sizeable peasant population, guerrilla warfare can act as a useful auxiliary for the revolutionary struggle of the workers in the towns. But it would never have occurred to Lenin to put forward the idea of guerrillaism as a substitute for the conscious movement of the working class. Guerrilla tactics, from a Marxist standpoint, are only permissible as a subordinate and auxiliary part of the socialist revolution. This was precisely Lenin’s position in 1905. It had nothing in common with the kind of individual terrorist tactics pursued by the Narodnaya Volya and their heirs, the Social Revolutionary Party, still less the insane tactics of the modern terrorists and “urban guerrilla” organizations which are the very antithesis of a genuine Leninist policy.345

In his article on guerrilla war, Lenin gives a graphic picture of the situation:

The phenomenon in which we are interested is the armed struggle. It is conducted by individuals and by small groups. Some belong to revolutionary organizations, while others (the majority in certain parts of Russia) do not belong to any organization. Armed struggle pursues two different aims, which must be strictly distinguished: in the first place, this struggle aims at assassinating individuals, chiefs and subordinates in the army and police; in the second place, it aims at the confiscation of monetary funds both from the government and from private persons. The confiscated funds go partly into the treasury of the Party, partly for the special purpose of arming and preparing for an uprising, and partly for the maintenance of persons engaged in the struggle we are describing. The big expropriations (such as the Caucasian, involving over 200,000 rubles, and Moscow, involving 875,000 rubles) went in fact first and foremost to revolutionary parties—small expropriations go mostly, and sometimes entirely, to the maintenance of the “expropriators.” This form of struggle undoubtedly became widely developed and extensive only in 1906, i.e., after the December uprising. The intensification of the political crisis to the point of an armed struggle and, in particular, the intensification of poverty, hunger, and unemployment in town and country, was one of the important causes of the struggle we are describing. This form of struggle was adopted as the preferable and even exclusive form of social struggle by the vagabond elements of the population, the lumpenproletariat and anarchist groups.

Lenin insisted that armed struggle must be part of the revolutionary mass movement, and specified the conditions in which it was permissible:

“1) the sentiments of the masses be taken into account; 2) the conditions of the working class movement in the given locality be reckoned with, and 3) care be taken that the forces of the proletariat should not be frittered away.” And he also made it clear that, far from being a panacea, guerrilla war was only one possible method of struggle permissible only “at a time when the mass movement has actually reached the point of an uprising.”

The danger of degeneration inherent in such activity becomes an absolute certainty the moment the guerrilla groups are isolated from the mass movement. In the period following 1906, when the workers’ movement was in decline and the revolutionaries were reeling from a series of body-blows, the guerrilla organizations increasingly displayed signs that they were ceasing to be useful auxiliary organs of the revolutionary party, and becoming transformed into groups of adventurers, or even worse. Even while defending the possibility of guerrilla tactics as a kind of rearguard action against reaction at a moment when he still expected the revolutionary movement to revive, Lenin warned against “anarchism, Blanquism, the old terrorism, the acts of individuals isolated from the masses, which demoralize the workers, repel wide strata of the population, disorganize the movement, and injure the revolution,” and added that “examples in support of this appraisal can easily be found in the events reported every day in the newspapers.”346

As time passed, Lenin came to understand that the tactic of expropriation had outlived its usefulness. He was already coming round to this point of view before the Tiflis raid. But, given the acute shortage of funds, accepted the windfall by way of exception. However, the money from the raid did the party no good. The entire sum was in 500 ruble banknotes, impossible to exchange in Russia. The money was sent abroad, but to no result. The provocateur Zhitomirsky, who occupied a key position in the Bolsheviks’ foreign organization, alerted the police to the scheme. Litvinov, the future Soviet ambassador to London, was arrested while attempting to exchange the notes in Paris. The same fate awaited Olga Ravich, who later became Zinoviev’s wife, in Stockholm. But although the booty from Tiflis proved useless to the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks seized upon it to make a scandal that dragged on for years. The question of expropriations was also the occasion for heated discussions within the Bolshevik faction, where it soured relations. Finally, at the insistence of the Mensheviks, the question of expropriations was placed on the agenda of the Party control commission in January 1910. A resolution was passed condemning expropriations as an inadmissible violation of party discipline, while recognizing that the participants in these actions had not meant to damage the labor movement, but had merely been guided by “a faulty understanding of Party interests.”347

Not everyone who participated in the guerrilla movement was a Kamo. As the reaction dragged on and the workers’ movement remained in a depressed state, the dangers of the movement falling into the hands of déclasséd elements and actual criminals multiplied. Prominent among those who, in contradiction with Lenin’s position, persisted in the tactic of guerrillaism and expropriations long after the conditions for them had ceased to exist, was Koba-Stalin. Such tactics seriously undermined the movement. Olminsky, who was close to Lenin at this time, wrote:

Not a few of the fine youth perished on the gibbet; others degenerated; still others were disappointed in the revolution. At the time people at large began to confound revolutionists with ordinary bandits. Later, when the revival of the labor movement began, that movement was slowest in those cities where the “exes” (expropriations) had been most numerous. (As an example, I might name Baku and Saratov.)348


345 Such tactics led to defeat after defeat where they were put into practice in modern times, most notoriously in the 1970s in Latin America. It is a striking proof of how far the movement has been thrown back since the Second World War that ideas belonging to the prehistory of the movement, which should long ago have been consigned to the dustbin of history, have reemerged, parading as something new and original.

346 LCW, Guerrilla Warfare, vol. 11, 216, 222 (footnote), 219, and 216–17.

347 Trotsky, Stalin, 110.

348 Quoted in Trotsky, Stalin, 98–99.

61) The Stolypin Reaction

The Stolypin reaction began with draconian measures. On August 19, he set up field courts martial which meted out savage sentences against anyone who had been involved in revolutionary activity. Thousands of people were tortured, executed and exiled. Thousands of peasants were tried in military field courts. “Justice” was summary. Most of these trials were over in four days. The usual sentence was death, and 600 persons were executed in the first period. The “reformist” premier orchestrated a campaign of terror unprecedented even in the bloody annals of Russian tsarism. In the period 1907–9 more than 26,000 were brought before the tsarist tribunals. Of these, 5,086 were sentenced to death. By 1909 the jails were filled to overflowing with 170,000 people. But Stolypin was astute enough to realize that the revolutionary movement could not be extinguished by violence alone. There could be no question of a lasting solution unless the land question were addressed. With characteristic decision, Stolypin moved to tackle the problem through a land reform from the top. In order to consolidate itself, the reaction needed a broader social base. The bourgeois and landlord oligarchy, fused together in one reactionary bloc, looked around for allies in the village.

Land relations in prerevolutionary Russia were characterized by extreme backwardness. The peasants lived in 120,000 village communes, eking out an existence on the basis of subsistence economy with an extremely low productivity of labor. Peasant rights were nonexistent. Remnants of decaying feudalism still remained, despite the fact that serfdom had been abolished in 1861. The old feudal labor service persisted, along with the old serf mentality. Land hunger and a sense of deep resentment against the landlord simmered beneath the surface, but, finding no organized expression, remained latent like an inactive volcano. At the beginnings of the new century, the peasant had heard the echoes of revolt from the towns, and something stirred deep within him:

“No rumors came to me about any little books (revolutionary propaganda),” a peasant said after the peasant outbreaks of 1902. “I think if we lived better, the little books would not be important, no matter what was written in them. What’s terrible is not the little books, but this; there isn’t anything to eat.”

Whereas Lenin advocated a revolutionary settling of accounts with the landlords, Stolypin’s reform represented a reactionary bourgeois solution to the agrarian problem. A new law was drafted which forcibly broke up the commune to the advantage of the “bourgeois” minority of the peasantry, the so-called strong peasant or kulak: It was, to quote its author, “a wager, not on the needy and the drunken, but on the sturdy and the strong.” The prior condition for the introduction of capitalist agriculture into Russia was the breaking up of the communes and the creation of a class of rich peasants.

“The natural counterweight to the communal principle,” affirmed Stolypin, “is individual ownership. It is also a guarantee of order, since the small owner is the cell on which rests all stable order in the state.”349

The ukaz was issued in late 1906 and finally became law on June 14, 1910. The basic thrust of the law was to give peasants the right to leave the village commune—the obshchina—though in practice, only wealthy peasants had the means to be independent.

“The reform was put into effect with tremendous energy,” Kerensky writes, “but also with gross disregard for the most elementary tenets of law and justice. The government, which was ‘backing the strongest,’ expropriated the land belonging to the commune and gave it to those well-to-do peasants who opted to withdraw from it. They were given the best plots of land, in complete violation of the commune’s right to tenure. And the new owners of this land were given loans, amounting to 90 percent of cost, with which to set up their farms.”

Stolypin’s reform meant a violent shaking-up of relations on the land. By the end, perhaps as much as two-thirds of the land was in peasant hands. Yet in spite of all the benefits offered them, by the first day of January, 1915, only 2,719,000 peasant households could say that their holdings had become their private property (about 22 or 24 percent of the total amount of available peasant land). How did the majority of peasants view Stolypin’s land reform?

“For the most part,” Kerensky affirms, “the peasants took an unfavorable or even hostile view of the Stolypin land reform for two reasons. First, and most important, the peasant did not want to go against the commune, and Stolypin’s idea of ‘backing the strongest’ ran counter to the peasant’s outlook on life. He had no wish to become a semilandowner at the expense of his neighbors.”

Such a policy provided no solution to the pressing problems of the Russian peasant. But, in truth, the burning desire of the peasants for land was expressed in a whole series of uprisings in the villages which served notice on the autocracy that these “dark masses” were no longer content to support the unbearable burden of landlord oppression in silence. The proverbial patience of the Russian muzhik had reached breaking point. Here lay a mortal danger for the autocracy and an inexhaustible reserve of strength for the revolution. Thus, more than ever, the fate of the proletariat was inextricably bound up with the question of a revolutionary solution of the land problem. Kerensky concluded gloomily: “By his land reform Stolypin has thrown the brand of civil war into the Russian countryside.”350

Looking back on the years of reaction (1907–10), Lenin wrote in 1920:

Tsarism was victorious. All the revolutionary and opposition parties were smashed. Depression, demoralization, splits, discord, defection, and pornography took the place of politics. There was an ever greater drift towards philosophical idealism; mysticism became the garb of counterrevolutionary sentiments. At the same time, however, it was this great defeat that taught the revolutionary parties and the revolutionary class a real and very useful lesson, a lesson in historical dialectics, a lesson in an understanding of the political struggle, and in the art and science of waging that struggle. It is at moments of need that one learns who one’s friends are. Defeated armies learn their lesson.351

The workers’ movement was badly hit, and not only by arrests. Between 1906–10, 500 trade union organizations were shut down. Union membership plunged as unemployment rose inexorably. Membership of legal trade unions fell from 246,000 to 50,000, then to 13,000. The working day was lengthened to 12 hours, 15 in some cases. The rapid rise in unemployment, partly reflecting a world economic crisis, made the position of the workers still worse. In the Moscow area about a quarter of the metalworkers were out of work in 1907. A similar situation existed elsewhere. Coming on the heels of a serious political defeat, the onset of mass unemployment took the fighting spirit out of the working class. The employers drew up blacklists of activists, who were systematically expelled from the workplaces. Wages were driven down.

The downturn in the fortunes of the revolution inevitably provoked a series of internal crises and splits in all of the left parties. This is true not only of the Social Democrats, but also of the Social Revolutionaries. To numerical decline and financial difficulties were added scandals and splits. None other than the SRs’ leading terrorist and chief of its Battle Organization, Evno Azef, was unmasked as a provocateur. There was a right-left split in the SRs between the popular socialists (the right wing) and the Maximalists on the left who demanded immediate socialization of the land and factories. This was, in itself, quite a significant development, anticipating the split away of the Left SRs in 1917. At the SR’s Fifth Party Congress in May 1909, the delegate from Petersburg, Andreyev, pointed out that, in an organizational sense, the party had ceased to exist in the capital; only isolated individuals were left.352 There was even a split in the tiny anarchist movement between the advocates of terrorism and the anarcho-syndicalists.

Meanwhile, the reunification of the RSDLP did not signify an end to the inner-party struggle, but quite the opposite. Not only did relations between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks steadily worsen, but a whole series of splits opened up within the two main factions. The Menshevik right wing (Axelrod, Cherevanin) not only advocated a deal with the Cadets, but also put forward the idea of a “labor congress” of a nonparty character—a kind of reformist Labor Party in place of the old revolutionary Social Democracy. Here, at a very early date, we already have the germs of liquidationism. The disease of class collaborationism was widespread among all shades of Menshevik opinion. Plekhanov wrote an Open Letter to Conscious Workers in the left Cadet organ Tovarishch, calling on them to support the liberal bourgeoisie. The Menshevik Basilev went so far as to call for a fusion of Social Democrats with the SRs, and Cadets in one constitutional party, a proposal which Lenin called the “Mont Blanc of opportunism.” The only way out of the impasse was the immediate convening of a new party congress. Lenin waged a tireless campaign for this, basing himself on the Petersburg committee.

The reaction had won the battle but was not yet confident in itself. The regime combined the carrot with the stick. The tsar convened the second Duma, while stepping up repression. Once again, the issue was posed: should Social Democrats participate in elections to the Duma—yes or no? By this time, Lenin had come around to the view that boycott would be wrong. He had already come to the conclusion that it had been a mistake to boycott the first (Witte) Duma, although he was in a minority of one in this opinion among the leaders of the Bolshevik faction. In September 1906 he wrote that the boycott tactic must be reconsidered. By their very nature tactics cannot be regarded as something static and fixed for all time. They must reflect the existing situation in society, the psychology of the masses, and the stage the movement is at. If the revolution was in retreat, the party could not renounce any legal arena of struggle. It had a duty to utilize each and every opening, each and every platform which would serve to maintain the party’s links with the masses. To behave in any other way would be to make the party into a sect. A sectarian lives in his own little world, remote from the masses, and for this very reason, the concrete questions of tactics are a matter of indifference to him. Since he has invented his own (imaginary) proletariat in an ideal (equally imaginary) world, he has no need to strive to establish contacts with the real working class and its existing organizations. In his article Sectarianism, Centrism, and the Fourth International (1935), Trotsky characterizes sectarianism as follows:

The sectarian looks upon the life of society as a great school, with himself as a teacher there. In his opinion, the working class should put aside its less important matters, and assemble in solid rank around his rostrum. Then the task would be solved.

Though he swears by Marxism in every sentence, the sectarian is the direct negation of dialectical materialism, which takes experience as its point of departure and always returns to it. A sectarian does not understand the dialectical action and reaction between a finished program and a living—that is to say, imperfect and unfinished—mass struggle . . . Sectarianism is hostile to dialectics (not in words but in action) in the sense that it turns its back upon the actual development of the working class.353

The matter is completely different for a genuine Marxist tendency, which must find an answer to the question: how is it possible to link the finished scientific program of Marxism with the necessarily unfinished, contradictory, and inchoate movement of the masses? Such a question cannot be answered by repeating abstract formulae. The link must be established at every stage by taking into account the real conditions in which the movement is unfolding. For the advanced Social Democratic workers, it was clear that the Duma could not resolve a single one of the problems facing the proletariat and poor peasants. But for the masses, especially in the countryside, this was far from evident. Considerable illusions had been aroused in the possibility of achieving reforms through parliament, especially that most essential reform of all-agrarian reform. The village sent its representatives to the Duma, represented by the Trudovik (Labor) bloc, and waited impatiently for results. Even among the workers, while there were fewer illusions in the Duma, the defeat of the revolution meant that the latter began to occupy greater attention.

As a general rule, you only boycott a parliament when there is a realistic prospect of replacing it with something better, as was the case in November 1917. But where this is not the case, to boycott elections means only that the workers’ party is boycotting itself. Such a position has nothing in common with Leninism. Lenin was in favor of flexible tactics, reflecting the changed situation. As opposed to the Mensheviks who favored electoral deal with Cadets —the bourgeois liberals—Lenin supported electoral deals with the Trudoviks and SRs against the right parties and against the liberals. The idea of a Left Bloc of the parties of the proletariat and the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie against the bourgeois liberals was really an extension of the policy of the united front to the electoral plane. In the Duma it was permissible to vote together with these parties on specific points where principled agreement existed, while the Social Democrats kept their hands free at all times to criticize the inconsistent, ambiguous, and contradictory policies of the petty bourgeois parties.

The golden rule was: the absolute independence of the workers’ party at all times from all other tendencies (including the radical petty bourgeoisie); no programmatic blocs: no mixing up of banners; complete freedom of criticism. Above all, it was necessary to wage an implacable struggle against the bourgeois liberals. The essential aim was in fact to drive a wedge between the political representatives of the petty bourgeoisie and the Cadets. The outspoken rejection of reformist and parliamentary illusions and all forms of class collaboration—these were the essential features of Lenin’s policy in this period, reflected in a hundred speeches, articles, and resolutions. This policy in turn was the reflection of a longer-term strategy—to fight for the hegemony of the proletariat over the petty-bourgeois masses, especially the peasantry. The results of this strategy were fully revealed in the October Revolution.

This issue was settled at the November 1906 Conference, which, because of the prevailing situation of reaction, was held at Tammerfors in Finland. This was really a defining moment in the history of the party. The Mensheviks and Bund openly supported a bloc with the Cadets. Lenin regarded this as the decisive step which marked the definitive passing over of the Mensheviks to opportunism.354 But there was now a change of mood in the party, reflected in a growing support for Lenin’s position, which got the backing of 14 delegates (65 percent of the conference), expressed in a “minority report” stressing the need for class independence and that the only agreements permissible were episodic blocs with the revolutionary petty-bourgeois democrats. The Tammerfors Conference revealed the existence of sharp internal conflicts, but it did not lead to a split. Lenin confined himself to arguing for his ideas and fighting for the majority, confident that experience would prove him to be correct. To have split the party at such a time would have been irresponsible. More time was needed for the disputed questions on tactics to be clarified by events. However, the internal situation in the RSDLP was complicated. A de facto split on election tactics took place in the St. Petersburg organization which was finally settled at a local Conference held in early January 1907 which rejected blocs with the Cadets. Having lost the argument and the vote, the Menshevik delegates walked out to pursue their separate policy. This was a harbinger of future events. While formally united, the tensions between the different factions constantly increased.

Article four of the resolution on election tactics passed by the Conference states that “local agreements with revolutionary and oppositionist-democratic parties” were permitted “if, during the election campaign, they saw that there was a danger of the parties of the Right getting in.” In practice, this was used by the Mensheviks to support Cadet candidates in many areas.