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

Part One: The Birth of Russian Marxism

The Death of an Autocrat

On 1 March, 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 Russia 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 organised 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, unorganised, 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”. (See Bernard Pares, A History of Russia, p. 404.)

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 by-product 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 the 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 per cent interest. As a result, the landlords retained approximately 71,500,000 dessiatines of land, and the peasants, representing the overwhelming majority of society, only 33,700,000 dessiatines.

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’,1 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.” (Quoted in L. Trotsky, The Young Lenin, p. 29.) 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, immortalised in the figure of Bazarov in Turgenev’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, and 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. (P. Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, vol. 1, p. 253.)

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 mouldy 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”. (Ibid., vol. 2, p. 20 and p. 25.) 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.” (Quoted in S.H. Baron, Plekhanov - The Father of Russian Marxism, Spanish edition, p. 21.)

‘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 criticising the utopian character of their programme, Lenin always paid warm tribute to the revolutionary valour 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 still 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 radicalised youth with its striking simplicity. (P.B. Axelrod, Perezhitoe i Peredumannoe, p. 111-2.) The ‘people,’ according to Bakunin, were revolutionary and socialist by instinct – going right back to the Middle Ages – as shown by peasant revolts, the Pugachev 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 Pugachev and Razin.2 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 organisation nor a clear programme; 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 crystallisation 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. (L. Trotsky, The Young Lenin, p. 28.)

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 behaviour. (P.B. Axelrod, The Working Class and the Revolutionary Movement in Russia, quoted in S.H. Baron, Plekhanov, p. 25.)

These courageous young men and women had no definite programme, other than to find a road to ‘the people’. Dressed in old working clothes bought from second-hand 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. (P. Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, vol. 2, p. 119.)

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,3 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 organisation. 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”. (D. Footman, Red Prelude, p. 86.) 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 officials – the two arch-enemies 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.” (Quoted in D. Footman, Red Prelude, p. 47 and p. 49, my emphasis.)

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 idolised. 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 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. (L. Trotsky, The Young Lenin, p. 25, my emphasis.)

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 lumpen-proletariat, 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 labour, 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 lumpen-proletariat. 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 mobilising 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 hair-splitting. 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, 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. (Quoted in F. Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism, pp. 162-63.)

According to the Narodnik theory, the town worker was further away from socialism than the peasant. Thus, a Narodnik organiser in charge of work among the workers of Odessa complained that “the men in the workshops, spoiled by urban life and unable to recognise their links with the peasants, were less open to socialist propaganda”. (Quoted in F. Venturi, The Roots of Revolution, p. 511.) Nevertheless, the Narodniks did conduct work among the workers and obtained important results. The initiator of this pioneer work was Nikolai Vasilyevich 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’.” (Ibid., p. 800 in both quotes.)

While the Narodnik intelligentsia wrestled with the theoretical problems of the future revolution, the first stirrings of class consciousness were emerging in the urban centres. 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 crystallisation 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 per cent, with those employed in mining increasing by 106 per cent. A.G. Rashin demonstrates this process in table 1.1.

(1.1) Number of workers in European Russia (1,000s)


Factories and Workshops











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 realised that a factory is not conceivable without their labour.” Tsar Alexander read the reports and pencilled in the margin: “Very bad.”

The growth of this labour unrest permitted the establishment of the first organised 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 programme started from the premise that “the workers can get their rights recognised only by means of a violent revolution capable of destroying all privileges and inequality by making work the foundation of private and public welfare”. (Quoted in F. Venturi, The Roots of Revolution, p. 515 and p. 516.) The Union’s influence grew rapidly until it was smashed by arrests in December 1875. The leaders were sentenced to hard labour. 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 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, theorising 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. (Ibid, p. 543.)

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

‘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 organisation was headed by a General Council with a smaller elected Executive Committee (or Administrative Centre). Subordinate to these bodies were a Peasants’ Section, a Workers’ Section, a Youth (Students’) Section, and a new development, a ‘Disorganisation Section’, an armed wing for “protection against the arbitrary conduct of officials”. The programme 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 6 December, 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 first-hand 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? (Ibid., p. 548.)

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 organised 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 print shop. 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. (Ibid., p. 556.)

But within months of the appearance of the first issue of its illegal journal, Rabochaya Zarya (Workers’ Dawn), the police smashed the Union’s print shop and the bulk of its membership was swept away by a wave of arrests into hard labour, imprisonment, and exile. The result of the breakup of this first solid organisation 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 for 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 realisation 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 organisation. 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,” he argued. (Ibid., p. 556.) 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 organisation, a section of the Narodniks effected a 180° turn and set up a secret, highly centralised terrorist organisation – 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 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.” (Quoted in D. Footman, Red Prelude, p. 87.)

These four lines show up starkly the relation between terrorism and liberalism. The terrorists had no independent programme 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 Centre, 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-defence 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 organisation. 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 that the liberation of the labouring 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. (Quoted in J. Martov, Obshchestvennoe i Umstevennoe Techeniye v Rossii 1870-1905, p. 44.)

The adoption of the new tactics caused an open split in the movement, between the terrorists and the followers of Lavrov who argued in favour 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 favour 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. (Quoted in S.H. Baron, Plekhanov, p. 56, my emphasis.)

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 organising 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 organisations, 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 saviours of the masses, but strives to give an organised 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 organisation. 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 organisation, led by Plekhanov, that the first forces of Russian Marxism were to emerge.

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 favour 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 print shop and mopped up practically the whole organisation 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 organisation 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 organisation, highly centralised 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 programme 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 criticising 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.” (V. Lenin, Collected Works, Working Class and Bourgeois Democracy, vol. 8, p. 72, henceforth referred to as LCW.)

The programme 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 labour movement and terrorism, as Venturi explains: “Khalturin was constantly divided between the zeal for coercion and his duties as a workers’ organiser. 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.” (F. Venturi, The Roots of Revolution, p. 706.)

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, 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. (P. Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, vol. 2, p. 238.)

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 per cent 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 centre 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 vulgarised 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 labour 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. (S.H. Baron, Plekhanov, p. 95.)

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 favour 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 organisation as a tendency, but after the publication of Socialism and the Political Struggle, Tikhomirov quickly changed his mind and prohibited the admission of an organised 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 Labour.

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 Nikolayevich 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 Labour 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 Labour 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 programme had been “scrupulously copied from the German”. (Quoted in S.H. Baron, Plekhanov, p. 166 in both quotes.)

The 1880s saw the decisive victory of the ideas of Marxism in the European labour movement. In their isolation from the movement in Russia, the Emancipation of Labour 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 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. (K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, vol. 1, pp. 100-101.)

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

[I]n 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. (K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Correspondence, p. 364.)

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 labour leaders were sceptical 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 sceptical 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 organisation, 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.

The Emancipation of Labour 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 vigour of trunk, its spreading branches, and mass of foliage, we are not satisfied to be shown an acorn instead.” (G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, p. 75.) 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 generalisations based upon past experience. Theory is primary: all subsequent development stems from this. Despite the smallness of its size, the primitiveness of its organisation, and rather amateur methods, the great contribution of the Emancipation of Labour 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.” (Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, p. 132, my emphasis.)

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”. (Ibid., p. 136.)

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 organisations 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”. (G.V. Plekhanov, Perepiska GV Plekhanova i PB Aksel’roda, p. 87.)

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. (J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, vol. 1, p. 44.)

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 demoralised 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. (Quoted in F. Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism, p. 141.)

For the first ten years or so of its existence, the Emancipation of Labour 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 “organising the workers and peasants around revolutionary action” and argued against putting forward ideas which might frighten liberal sympathisers. 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 Labour 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 sympathisers 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.” (Perepiska GV Plekhanova i PB Aksel’roda, p. 66 and p. 21.)

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 Labour 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 Labour Group emerge.

For two decades, the membership of the Emancipation of Labour 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 organisational 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 Labour 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 polarisation 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. (Ibid., p. 61.)

Ginsburg’s letter shows how, unbeknownst to the exiled Marxists, new groupings were crystallising 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.

Combined and Uneven Development

By the end of the 1860s, there were only 1,600 kilometres 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 kilometres of railway lines were built. Alongside the traditional industrial centres 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 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 per cent 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. (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 32.)

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 pre-feudal 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. (Figures from F. Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism, p. 150 and B.H. Sumner, A Survey of Russian History, pp. 324-31.)

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 labour 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 labour for the newly established capitalist enterprises. The rapid growth of industry produced a growing class polarisation within the peasantry, with the crystallisation 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, organised and disciplined, and placed at the strategic points of society and the economy. The graph of the strike movement, shown in table 1.2, clearly indicates the rising confidence and class consciousness of the Russian working class in this period.

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 offences against the employers. The indignation and accumulated discontent of the workers finally exploded in a wave of labour agitation in 1885–86 in Moscow, Vladimir, and Yaroslavl, which culminated in the strike at the Nikolskoye Mill owned by T.S. Morozov.

(1.2) Strike movement in Russia





Number of strikes




Number of workers involved




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 7 December, 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 defence 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… (Quoted in LCW, Explanation of the Law on Fines Imposed on Factory Workers, vol. 2, p. 38.)

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 3 June, 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 by-product 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”. (Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, p. 100.)

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 Luddism4, which bore witness to its as yet unorganised and semi-conscious 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 Labour 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, unorganised, 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 characterises worker-activists the world over, they settled down to learn.

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, programme, 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 centres 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 skilfully 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 organisation went to the school to get to know people and single out those who could be drawn into the circle and the organisation. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 17.)

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

At the same time that Plekhanov and his collaborators were establishing the Group for the Emancipation of Russian Labour abroad, the first genuine Social Democratic (i.e., Marxist) circle appeared in St. Petersburg, set up by a young Bulgarian student, Dimiter Blagoyev (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) organised 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”. (LCW, A Few Words About N.Y. Fedoseyev, vol. 33, p. 453.)

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 labour. 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 organisation, 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 Labour 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 centre and West of Russia, the centres of the textile industry. They were accompanied by clashes with police and Cossacks, notably in the strike of the Polish textile workers in Łódź 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 colouration, 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”. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 12-13.)

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 mobilising 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.” (Quoted in V. Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895-1903, p. 16.)

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, defence 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 skilfully 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 skilful 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 programme. 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 spectre of frightening the liberals.” (G.V. Plekhanov, Sochineniya, vol. 1, p. 403.)

From Propaganda to Agitation

The new emphasis upon mass revolutionary agitation caught many by surprise. Future economists like Boris Krichevsky were not slow to criticise the Emancipation of Labour 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 recognise 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. (Quoted in V. Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895-1903, p. 17 in both quotes.)

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 mobilising 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 organise, 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 labour – the metal workers, 80 per cent 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 per cent – Moscow grew by 51 per cent in the same period. A relatively high proportion of the Petersburg proletarians were literate – 74 per cent against 60 per cent 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 per cent 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:

[C]an 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. (Quoted in G.D. Surh, 1905 in St. Petersburg: Labour, Society and Revolution, p. 54.)

About half the textile workers were women. This particularly exploited section of the class, mainly newly arrived peasants and unskilled labourers, 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 1 June, 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 8 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 Łódź 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 Muslims. Marriages consecrated in Catholic churches were not recognised 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 industrialised 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 labour 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 labour. But the movement, like a hydra-headed monster, reacted to the lopping off of one head by immediately sprouting two new ones. The Baltics 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 Labour Group and the Marxist underground in the interior. Bernard Pares comments on the state of affairs in Poland:

Warsaw University had been completely Russianised, 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. (B. Pares, A History of Russia, p. 465.)

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 per cent were usual, while profits of 100 per cent were not uncommon. The super-exploitation of the workers created favourable 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” (P. Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg, p. 20.) – 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 organise 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 labour in the notorious Schlisselburg 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 per cent of Jews were allowed to go to university (five per cent 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 baptised 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 organised bloody pogroms against the Jews; houses were sacked, and men, women, and children killed and maimed by lumpen-proletarian 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 per cent 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]…” (N. Levin, Jewish Socialist Movements 1871-1917, p. 16.)

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 dead weight of a culture fossilised 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 organisation 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 organised 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 mediaeval 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 organised 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 favourable 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.” (V. Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895-1903, p. 209.) 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 labour 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 organisations in Vilna alone, with a total membership of 962. “Within the Jewish labour movement itself, it was the craftsmen who pioneered, and the cigarette and match factory workers who lagged behind.” This class composition of the Jewish labour movement, no different to its fraternal organisations in the rest of Russia, was undoubtedly a factor in the conservative role played by the Bund, the Jewish organisation, 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 acclimatising them to Russian culture.” (Quoted in N. Levin, Jewish Socialist Movements 1871-1917, p. 226 and p. 234.) 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, 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 centre 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, 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. (Ibid., p. 240 in both quotes)

The success of the Vilna group led them to publish a pamphlet which caused quite a stir at the time: On Agitation, written by Arkadi 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.” (Ibid., pp. 240-241.)

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. (Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, p. 159.)

Already by 1891, the group was able to mobilise 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 reorganised 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 organise 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 organisers 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 endeavoured 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 labour 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. (N.K. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, 1893-1917, pp. 6-7.)

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 organisation, 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, 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 world view, the crown of which would be admittance to practical work. For us, who had already read the speeches of the SPD workers of 1 May, 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. (J. Martov, Zapiski Sotsial Demokrata, 92, quoted in A.R. Wildman, The Making of a Worker’s Revolution Russian Social Democracy 1891-1903, p. 37)

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. (N. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, 1893-1917, p. 7.)

By 1895, Lenin’s group had about 10–16 members, who between them organised the work of between 20 and 30 workers’ study circles, which in turn had up to 100–150 contacts. (Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, p. 222.) The group was connected to the workers’ circles through area organisers. 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 Labour – a name which was adopted in solidarity with Plekhanov’s Emancipation of Labour Group, apparently at Martov’s suggestion. A division of labour 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 print shops 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! (I. Verkhovstev, (ed.) Bor’ba za Sozdanie Marksistskoi partii v Rossii (1894-1904), p. 3.)

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 Fyodor Dan, the League put out more than 30 leaflets. (F. Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism, p. 205.) 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 organisational directives, exposures of the manoeuvres 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 organised, legal labour 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 favourite 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, “rumours 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”. (Quoted in A.R. Wildman, The Making of a Worker’s Revolution – Russian Social Democracy 1891-1903, p. 63.)

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 honour to make them clear enough so that even the less literate could read our proclamations without any trouble. 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. (L. Trotsky, My Life, p. 110.)

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. (Quoted in A.R. Wildman, The Making of a Worker’s Revolution – Russian Social Democracy 1891-1903, p. 64.)

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 ‘cosy’ 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 disorganise 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, I.V. 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.” (Ibid., p. 53 in both quotes.) Subsequent development showed that Babushkin’s fear was not entirely without foundation. Some of those who enthusiastically espoused ‘agitation’ and pooh-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. (L. Trotsky, Writings 1935-36, p. 153.)

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 organise 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”. (Quoted in A.R. Wildman, The Making of a Worker’s Revolution – Russian Social Democracy 1891-1903, pp. 54-55.)

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

On 23 May, 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 organise 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.

‘Legal Marxism’

Alexander III died on the 1 November, 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, 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? (Slavonic and East European Review, vol. 22, no. 34, p. 350 in both quotes.)

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 bowdlerised, 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. Berdyayev.

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 bowdlerised 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 anaemic and emasculated view of Marxism, a ‘decaffeinated’ Marxism, lacking life, struggle and revolutionary vitality. Not accidentally, the Legal Marxists rejected dialectics in favour 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. (Ibid.)

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, semi-feudal 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 pre-eminently practical. Just how far these lifeless schemas stood from genuine revolutionary Marxism can be seen from the marvellously 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 labour 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. (K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, vol. 2, p. 410.)

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 semi-feudal 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 organisation, leave alone underground work, but it flattered him, no doubt, to be called on for advice”. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, pp. 29-30.) 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 realisation 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. (KPSS v rezolyutsiyakh i resheniyakh s’yezdov. Konferentsii y plenumov tsk, vol. 1, p. 15, my emphasis.)

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.

Lenin and the Group for the Emancipation of Labour

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 favour 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 Labour. 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 Labour; 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. (Perepiska GV Plekhanova i PB Aksel’roda, p. 127.)

Up until this moment, the members of the exiled Emancipation of Labour 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 19 December, 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 working class from the capitalist yoke is achieved.” (Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, p. 228.) The ruse failed, and on 5 January, 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 organisation by the skilful 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 humour, writing to his mother: “I’m in a far better position than most of the citizens of Russia. They can never find me.” (Quoted in R. Payne, The Life and Death of Lenin, p. 112.) 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 organisation. 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 working 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.

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’ organised on non-political 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 organisation. The new leadership, in effect, proposed watering down the programme of the League in order, allegedly, to make it more attractive for workers. Such a dilution of the organisation 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 organisation 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.” (Quoted in A.R. Wildman, The Making of a Worker’s Revolution – Russian Social Democracy 1891-1903, p. 99.)

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 characterised 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 realise 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 generalisation 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 organisation, still in its early beginnings, attempting to lay down basic principles both in politics and organisation – moreover, a group working in dangerous underground conditions, having only just been hit by a punishing wave of arrests. For Lenin, organisational forms were not shibboleths or mathematical axioms, but part of a living process which changed and adapted with circumstances. His stance 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 organisation set up in 1894, mainly composed of students who had recently joined the Marxist movement. The Union was organisationally independent of the Emancipation of Labour Group, and had effective control of contacts with Russia. They were responsible for collecting funds, the print shop, organising 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 Labour 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 Labour remained to conduct a struggle against the new trend. Towards the end of 1897 the student S.N. Prokopovich, who up until then had been collaborating with the Emancipation of Labour 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 1 January, 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.” (Perepiska GV Plekhanova i PB Aksel’roda, p. 182.)

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 Labour Group’s activities: organisation. They began to pick holes on organisational 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 demoralisation, 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 Labour 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 fulfilling 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… Organising 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 Labour 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, characterise 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 summarises Plekhanov’s views on these people thus:

Their preoccupation with matters of practical administration characterises 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. (S.H. Baron, Plekhanov, pp. 254-55.)

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 Labour Group had been mainly confined to organisational, rather than political questions. But the recent appearance of the journal Rabochaya Mysl’ (Workers’ Thought) brought about a radical change in the situation.

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. (Quoted in F. Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism, p. 217.)

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 organisations 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 favour 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 favour 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:

[A]fter 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. (A.K. Wildman, The Making of a Worker’s Revolution – Russian Social Democracy 1891-1903, p. 132.)

A worker might buy such a paper once or twice, but then, realising 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 centre 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.” (Quoted in G. Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, p. 71.) 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 criticising 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:

[T]he 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.” (Quoted in F. Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism, p. 216 and p. 218.)

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 programme 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 labour 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 semi-legality 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 centres. For the first time one could speak of a genuinely all-Russian Marxist organisation. The situation in which these groups were forced to function was, however, not conducive to ideological clarity and organisational 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 centre, 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.

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 favour 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 polarisation 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 demoralisation 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 defence of dialectical materialism) show Plekhanov at his finest: an indefatigable fighter in defence of the fundamental ideas of Marxism. The most prominent representatives of the left wing of the SPD, Rosa Luxemburg and Parvus, launched a fierce counter-attack. 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 criticising 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 9 March, 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. (Perepiska G.V. Plekhanov i P.B. Aksel’roda, pp. 208-9.)

When finally pushed and prodded by Plekhanov to make a public reply, Kautsky was careful to invest this with the softest possible tone, almost apologising 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?” (S.H. Baron, Plekhanov, p. 238.)

While the members of the Emancipation of Labour 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 anti-revolutionary line:

The development of factory legislation, 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 labour, 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. (Quoted in A.R. Wildman, The Making of a Worker’s Revolution – Russian Social Democracy 1891-1903, p. 141.)

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 labour 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 anaemic 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 labour aristocracy, but a mass of pauperised 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”. (Quoted in V. Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895-1903, p. 262.)

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 Labour Party become a viable proposition. But before that an attempt was made to launch the Party through a founding congress.

The First Congress of the RSDLP

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

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

It was no accident that the First Congress was held in Minsk. The Polish and western areas, as we have seen, were hotbeds of anti-tsarist revolutionary agitation where the two aspects of social and national oppression combined to create an explosive atmosphere. The strike movement of the 1890s acted as a focal point for the accumulated rage, bitterness and hatred of the oppressed nationalities, particularly the Jews. The movement of Jewish workers and artisans led to the setting up of the General Jewish Workers’ Union of Lithuania, Poland and Russia in 1897, a year before the First Congress of the Russian Party itself. For the first two or three years after its formation, as Zinoviev remarks, the Bund was “the strongest and most numerous organisation of our party”. (G. Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, p. 51.) At the time of the First Congress, the Bund enjoyed far greater resources and a larger membership than Social Democratic groups in the rest of Russia, with 14 local organisations (or ‘committees’ as they were then known) in Warsaw, Łódź, Byelostok, Minsk, Gomel, Grodno, Vilna, Dvinsk, Kovno, Vitebsk, Moghilev, Berdichev, Zhitomir, and Riga. Lesser committees also existed in many other areas, including Kiev, Odessa and Brest-Litovsk.

However, the Bund’s organisation was always more akin to a trade union movement than a revolutionary party. Even Akimov had to admit that the political level of its leadership was low: “I regard this as an unquestionable shortcoming of the Bund: the Jewish proletariat lacks theoreticians.” (V. Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895-1903, p. 223.) In reality, as we have already seen, the bulk of its members were not proletarians but artisans and craftsmen. The chief authority consisted of a central committee (CC) of three, elected at the biennial congress. At local level the Bund organised trade union groups (often misleadingly translated as ‘trade councils’) propaganda committees and committees of intellectuals, discussion groups and agitation committees, all of which seem to have functioned more or less separately. The trade union groups gathered together 5–10 members of the Bund in a given trade. These were appointed by the CC and appear to have met regularly to discuss trade union matters. Only after August 1902 did the Bund, under the pressure of Iskra, set up revolutionary committees which grouped together the most advanced workers separate and apart from the trade union groups. The whole structure of the Bund was organised on a completely un-Marxist basis, with workers in trade union groups shut off in watertight compartments from intellectuals who worked autonomously in their own committees.

Despite the shortcomings of the Bund, the Jewish socialist workers and artisans played an important role in the early days of the movement. The fact that the first congress was held in Minsk was a recognition of that role. Only the Bund had the resources to organise such a congress under the very noses of the tsarist police. It is a tribute to their organisational skills that the congress successfully completed its course in six sessions which took place over three days. As no minutes were taken, practically all that is known of the proceedings is contained in the resolutions. Under the pressure of the Bund, it was agreed that:

[T]he General Workers’ Union of Russia and Poland enters the party as an autonomous organisation, independent only in those questions especially relating to the Jewish proletariat. (KPSS v resolyutsiyakh i resheniyakh, vol. 1, p. 16.)

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

The Social Democratic movement, as we have seen, made spectacular progress among the Jewish workers and artisans on the western borderlands of the Russian Empire. The leadership of the newly-formed Jewish workers’ organisation, the Bund, however, identified closely with the reformist standpoint of the Economists. The lack of a strong leading centre had the effect of aggravating the tendencies of local particularism, which had especially harmful effects on the relationship between the non-Russian socialists and their Russian counterparts. The leadership of the Bund began to develop a narrow, nationalist, standpoint which, if left unchecked, would have had extremely dangerous consequences for the Jewish workers themselves, as an oppressed minority. Osip Piatnitsky recalled that, in 1902:

[T]he Jewish workers were organised earlier and work among them was easier than among the Lithuanians, Poles and Russians. The directing centre of the Jewish workers did not do any work among non-Jews, and did not want to work among them.

At the same time, the existence of national divisions had led to the splitting of even the most basic organisations of the working class. There was not a single union in western Russia which accepted as members workers of all nationalities. The parties themselves, divided on national lines, maintained their own unions – the Lithuanian Social Democrats, the Polish Social Democrats, the PPS, and, of course, the Bund, which played an extremely negative role in perpetuating divisions which were seriously hampering the cause of workers in general, and Jewish workers in particular. The instinct of the Jewish workers was in favour of unity, but the leaders insisted on keeping them separate. Piatnitsky mentions a meeting of a Bund committee which he attended:

[T]he 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. (O. Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, p. 25 and 26.)

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

It was the workers themselves, who demanded the introduction of a ‘political’ element into the Social Democratic agitation. It was they who were determined to expose the wrongs of the political system, to bring out the people’s lack of rights, to formulate the interests of the workers as a citizen. But the revolutionary organisation, which hoped to guide (!!) the labour movement towards Social Democratic ideas, was afraid that it would not be understood by the working masses (!), that it would lose its influence if it now raised its own demands for ‘political’ rights as the demands of the proletariat. Was the working class already well enough educated politically to appraise, to recognise its own interests? The leaders were not certain of this and hesitated to act. (V. Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895-1903, p. 215.)

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 affect 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 organisations, and create the most favourable conditions for a successful struggle against its oppressors.

In view of the bloody history of Russian tsarism, the maintenance of a principled position on the national question undoubtedly posed colossal difficulties. It was a measure of the degree of mistrust and tension between the nationalities that the Lithuanian Social Democrats, after some hesitation, decided not to attend the congress of a ‘Russian’ party, much to the chagrin of Dzerzhinsky who later wrote:

I was the severest enemy of nationalism and considered it the greatest sin that in 1898, while I was in prison, the Lithuanian Social Democracy did not enter the united Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. (Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, p. 260.)

Similarly, the congress made some concessions to the pressures of the local committees, jealous of their local autonomy:

The local committees will carry out the depositions of the CC in the manner which they consider most suited to local conditions. In exceptional cases, the local committees reserve the right to refuse to carry out the demands of the CC, informing it of the reasons for the refusal. In all other matters, the local committees will function in a completely independent manner, being guided only by the party programme. (Quoted in KPSS v rezolyutsiyakh, vol. 1, p. 17.)

A Central Committee of three was elected; it was agreed to issue a manifesto; the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad was recognised as the party’s representative in the exterior; and Rabochaya Gazeta was named as its official organ. However, the hopes aroused by the congress were not destined to be fulfilled. One of the participants, Tuchapsky, recalls in his memoirs:

We left the Congress with a feeling of cheerful faith in our cause. Arriving in Kiev I gave a report back to the League and the Workers’ Committee. The congress resolutions were fully approved. It looked as if the work would now go forward still better and more successfully than in the past. But only a week after my return the Kiev organisation was smashed. (Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, p. 256.)

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 affect unification of the party on a principled basis. All the congress could do was to point the way. From 1898 until 1917, no further congress of the Party was to be held on Russian soil. The experience had served to demonstrate the impossibility, under conditions of illegality, of building a viable political centre inside Russia. The centre of gravity of the organisation inevitably passed to the exterior, where the forces of revolutionary Marxism, under conditions of relative security, could regroup and prepare for the next stage: the translation into reality of what had been attempted in Minsk in 1898.

In practical terms, the congress had changed very little. Trotsky, who had heard about it in prison at Kherson, commented that “a few months afterwards, no one talked about the congress anymore”. (L. Trotsky, My Life, p. 117.) After the initial wave of excitement, the local committees sank back into the routine of local work, producing endless leaflets and proclamations in connection with the strike movement, which continued to spread. The groups inside Russia continued to function with little or no contact either with each other or with any kind of political centre. To the prevailing political confusion was added organisational chaos and amateurish methods of work.

Rabocheye Dyelo

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

Whereas Rabochaya Mysl’ represented a clear and open defence of Bernstein’s theory and Economism, Rabocheye Dyelo represented a trend which, as Lenin observed, was “diffuse and ill-defined, but for that reason the more persistent, the more capable of reasserting itself in diverse forms”. (LCW, What Is To Be Done?, vol. 5, p. 349.) The paper was published as the organ of the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad from 1899 to 1902, with the editorial board in Paris and its print shop in Geneva. Its editors included such prominent spokesmen of Economism as B.N. Krichevsky and A.S. Martynov. Martynov later graduated from Economism, via Menshevism, to Stalinism, without having to modify his fundamental principles at any stage.

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

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

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

The entire working class is one thing 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. (Quoted in V. Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895-1903.)

Plekhanov now threw himself into the struggle, regardless of whether it would cause a split. His new-found confidence received a powerful impulse as a result of events taking place thousands of miles away, in Siberia.

From the depths of the Siberian wilderness, Lenin and the other Social Democratic exiles followed with alarm the unfolding of events. Paradoxically, it was relatively easy for them to maintain at least a certain level of political activity. The era of Stalin’s and Hitler’s concentration camps had not yet dawned. The treatment of political exiles varied considerably, from extreme harshness to relatively liberal conditions. But in the main, the tsarist authorities were content to rely upon the vast distances which separated the urban centres from the isolated settlements on the banks of the Yenissei river as sufficient defence against the spread of revolutionary ideas. Political prisoners were not generally locked up. There was no need for it. They were kept under surveillance by local officials whose zealousness in the pursuit of duty was often conspicuous by its absence. As a result, the exiled revolutionaries could follow events with relative ease, receiving books and newspapers, conducting correspondence, and even holding illegal meetings. Lenin, while working on his monumental Development of Capitalism in Russia, keenly followed the polemics of Plekhanov against Bernstein. News of the crisis in the Union, and the resignation of Plekhanov, came as a painful blow. The victory of the Economist trend caused consternation among the exiles. Lenin began to write a series of polemics, such as Our Immediate Task, A Retrograde Trend in Russian Social Democracy and Apropos of the ‘Profession de Foi’ (See LCW, vol. 4, pp. 215-21 and pp. 255-96.) in which the ideas of Economism are subjected to merciless criticism.

An event which enraged the exiles was the appearance of the notorious Credo written by Kuskova early in 1899. The author of the document herself always protested that it was not meant for publication. However that may be, there is no doubt that the Credo has the merit of expressing in a particularly clear way the fundamental ideas of Economism. Lenin drafted the famous Protest of the Russian Social Democrats (Ibid., pp. 167-82.) by way of reply and convened a meeting of 17 exiles which met in the Siberian village of Yermakovskoe late in the summer of 1899. The meeting unanimously adopted Lenin’s text which was sent abroad where it was published by Plekhanov.

The words of the Credo are worth quoting:

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

The talk about an independent workers’ political party merely results from the transplantation of alien aims and alien achievements to our soil … For the Russian Marxist there is only one course: participation in, i.e., assistance to, the economic struggle of the proletariat, and participation in liberal opposition activity. (The full text of the Credo is reproduced in Lenin’s Collected Works, A Protest by Russian Social Democrats, vol. 4, pp. 171-74, my emphasis.)

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 realise its historical potential, to become a real force as opposed to an undeveloped potential, to the degree to which it organises as a class, independent of other classes.

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

Only an independent working-class party 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. (Ibid., pp. 176-77 and p. 181.)

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, fertilising the movement with their ideas and assisting its development, on one condition – that they have decisively broken with their class and placed themselves not only in words but in everyday practice on the standpoint of the proletariat. The problem with the Economists was that they saw, not the face of the proletariat, but only its backside.

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

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

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

The general disorganisation, together with the baneful influence of Economist ideas, meant that in several areas the organisation was divided between a group for workers and a separate one for intellectuals. This erroneous method existed in Yekaterinoslav, where it inevitably created conditions for the growth of mistrust and mutual antagonism. “I remember,” writes Babushkin, “that the intelligentsy often criticised the unliterary language of the leaflets [of the workers], and finally one was shortened and somewhat altered by the ‘city’ committee. This provoked a direct clash which threatened to lead to a complete breach between the workers and the intelligentsia.” (Quoted in Wildman, The Making of a Worker’s Revolution – Russian Social Democracy 1891-1903, p. 93 and 106.) In general, the development of the Moscow Workers’ League does not differ fundamentally from that of the St. Petersburg League of Struggle, which set the pattern for the rest of the country and which we still take as our basic point of reference. The Muscovites had suffered from a series of arrests, especially after 1896 when Zubatov took over the Moscow police department and made use of unreliable and weak-willed elements to obtain information about the league and send in agents provocateurs.

After each wave of arrests, the organisation renewed itself with new workers who learned in practice to trust their own ability and resourcefulness. A few years later, Lenin forcefully reminded the ‘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 organisation, which at the turn of the century had about 24 circles with up to 200 workers involved in them, came out against Economism.

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

A similar tendency was represented by the tiny group around Bor’ba (the Struggle), a paper launched by David Ryazanov. Recognising Ryazanov’s literary talent, and anxious to secure support for Iskra and Zarya, Lenin went out of his way to interest him in joint work, though in practice, the Bor’ba group represented very little, consisting of a group of intellectuals in Paris. Inside Russia, only the Odessa committee identified with it. It was a typical example of a small intellectual sect, whose activity consisted exclusively of literary work, and whose ideas were a 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. Ryazanov tried to put pressure on Iskra by refusing to collaborate unless they toned down their criticism of Rabocheye Dyelo. When this blackmail had no effect, he dissolved the ‘Iskra promotion group’ in Paris and began to complain that Iskra had “violated organisational neutrality”. (LCW, To P.B. Axelrod, 25 April, 1901, vol. 34, p. 60.) In the end, Lenin gave them up as a bad job. The Bor’ba group, despite their high pretensions, played no further role. At the Second Congress, they were not admitted, and the group soon folded. Ryazanov later resurfaced as a lecturer at the Capri school of the ultra-left Vperyod (Forward) faction in 1909 (not to be confused with the paper of the same name set up by Lenin in 1904). Despite his faults, Ryazanov was undoubtedly a talented intellectual. After the revolution, he became the director of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, until he, like so many others, was purged by Stalin.

The Birth of Iskra

The entry into the struggle of the exiled Russian leaders tipped the balance decisively in favour of Plekhanov. Still in Siberia, Lenin formed the ‘troika’ or triple alliance with Martov and Potresov which, on his insistence, took steps to link up with the Emancipation of Labour Group. His fundamental idea was to 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 favourable reception of their ideas by a significant section of the rank and file. By the summer of 1900, everything was ready for direct contact to be established with Plekhanov’s group.

With high hopes, Lenin left for Switzerland in July. His high spirits did not last long. After the bitter experience of the split in the Union, Plekhanov’s nerves were on edge. He was sullen, resentful and extremely suspicious of the newcomers. The discussions between Plekhanov, Axelrod, and Zasulich on the one side and Lenin and Potresov on the other unfolded in an extremely tense atmosphere. Lenin and Potresov were shocked by Plekhanov’s intolerant and abrasive manner. At times, the negotiations appeared to be near to a breakdown. In How the ‘Spark’ Was Nearly Extinguished (Ibid., pp. 333-49.) – an article written shortly after Lenin’s return, with the recent events still vivid in his mind – Lenin expresses the painful impression of Plekhanov’s behaviour on him:

My ‘infatuation’ with Plekhanov disappeared as if by magic, and I felt offended and embittered to an unbelievable degree. Never, never in my life had I regarded any other man with such sincere respect and veneration, never had I stood before any man so ‘humbly’ and never before had I been so brutally ‘kicked’.

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

Many years later, in 1922, when the October Revolution was already five years old, and Plekhanov had been dead for four, Trotsky expressed both the strong and weak sides of the old man in the following words:

Plekhanov spoke as an observer, like a critic, like a publicist but not like a leader. His whole destiny denied him the opportunity of directly addressing the masses, of summoning them to action and of leading them. His weak sides flowed from the same source as did his chief merit: he was a forerunner, the first crusader of Marxism on Russian soil… He was not the leader of the active proletariat, but merely its theoretical harbinger. He defended polemically the methods of Marxism, but he did not have the opportunity of applying them in practice. Though living for several decades in Switzerland, he did remain a Russian exile. Opportunist municipal and cantonal Swiss socialism with its extremely low theoretical level hardly interested him. There was no Russian party. For Plekhanov its place was taken by the ‘Emancipation of Labour’ group, that is a close circle of sympathisers (Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich, and Deutsch, who was serving hard labour). The more Plekhanov strove to strengthen the theoretical and philosophical roots of his position, the more he was short of these political roots. As an observer of the European labour movement, he passed utterly without attention over the most colossal political manifestations of petty-mindedness, cowardice, and compromise by the socialist parties; yet he was always on his guard against theoretical heresies in socialist literature. This violation of the unity of theory and practice which had grown out of the whole destiny of Plekhanov proved fatal to him. He proved unprepared for the great political events in spite of his great theoretical preparation. (L. Trotsky, Political Profiles, pp. 85-87.)

The meeting with Lenin and Potresov revealed just how much the members of the Emancipation of Labour Group were lagging behind the demands of the present stage of the movement. The informal methods, the organisational looseness, the mixing up of personal questions with political issues which are the hallmarks of the life of a small propaganda circle, become intolerable obstacles once the organisation of a mass party and serious intervention in the mass movement are on the order of the day. Thanks mainly to Lenin’s great patience – and also to the fact that the consequences of a split were clear to everyone – a break was avoided. But although reasonably good working relations were quickly restored, the deeper causes of the conflict remained unresolved and were destined to re-emerge with redoubled force in the future. The compromise which was eventually reached between the two sides meant that Iskra would have an editorial board of six, consisting of the troika – Lenin, Martov, and Potresov – and the Emancipation of Labour Group – Plekhanov, Axelrod, and Zasulich, with Plekhanov having two votes. Control of the theoretical journal, Zarya (The Dawn) would be effectively in Plekhanov’s hands. But relations between the old members of the Emancipation of Labour Group and the new editors had been seriously damaged.

Outwardly, 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]. (LCW, How the ‘Spark’ Was Nearly Extinguished, vol. 4, p. 348.)

The Declaration of the Editorial Board of Iskra (LCW, vol. 4, pp. 351-56.) 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. (See Lenin’s initial draft in LCW, Draft of a Declaration of the Editorial Board of Iskra and Zarya, vol. 4, p. 320-30. Quoted here is LCW, vol. 4, pp. 354-55.)

The explicit denunciation of Legal Marxism, mentioning its most prominent representative by name, was a turning point. Even so, Struve did not immediately affect 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 affected was none other than Legal Marxism. The launching of Iskra, with its uncompromising stance on Economism and revisionism, its implacable defence of class independence and criticism of the liberals completely transformed the situation. Now Struve and his allies found themselves on the defensive. Yet Struve still attempted to use his name and influence to dominate the new journal, to push and prod it into a rotten compromise with the old, discredited ideas. Struve’s complaint that Lenin was trying to ‘use’ him could hardly cut any ice when in the previous period Struve himself had cynically used his considerable influence with the weak and immature forces of Russian Social Democracy to water down and distort its fundamental ideas and turn it into a mere appendage of liberalism.

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

The members of the old group, especially Zasulich and Axelrod, could not bring themselves to burn the bridges that still connected them to the layer of semi-liberal intellectual fellow travellers like Struve, even when, after 1902, their transition to the camp of bourgeois liberalism was clear to all. Yet it was Plekhanov who demanded that Lenin insert a public attack on Struve in the editorial statement! This incident, too, shows the differences in the whole style and personality of the two men. Zasulich once expressed it graphically in the following terms: “George (Plekhanov) is a greyhound: he shakes his victim by the scruff of the neck and in the end lets him go; you (Lenin) are a bulldog: you don’t let go.” (Quoted in L. Trotsky, Lenin.)

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 (LCW, vol. 1, pp. 333-507.):

You have a tendency, 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…” (Perepiska GV Plekhanova i PB Aksel’roda, p. 270.)

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.” (L. Trotsky, My Life, p. 171.)

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

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

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

I showed Iskra to many fellow workers and the copy was read to tatters: how we treasure it – much more than Mysl’, although there is nothing of ours printed in it. Iskra writes about our cause, about the all-Russian cause which cannot be evaluated in kopecks or measured in hours: when you read the paper, you understand why the gendarmes and the police are afraid of us workers and of the intellectuals whom we follow. It is a fact that they are a threat, not only to the bosses’ pockets, but to the Tsar, the employers, and all the rest… It will not take much now to set the working people aflame. All that is wanted is a spark, and the fire will break out. How true are the words “The Spark will kindle a Flame!” In the past, every strike was an important event, but today, everyone sees that strikes alone are not enough and that we must now fight for freedom, gain it through struggle. Today everyone, old and young, is eager to read but the sad thing is that there are no books. Last Sunday, I gathered 11 people and read to them Where to Begin. We discussed it until late in the evening. How well it expressed everything, how it gets to the very heart of things… And we would like to write a letter to your Iskra and ask you how to teach us, not only how to begin, but how to live and how to die. (Iskra, No. 7.)

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

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

What Is To Be Done?

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

Lenin’s writings on organisation produced at this time are masterpieces in their own right. The idea of the paper as a collective organiser is brilliantly set forth in such works as Where to Begin (LCW, vol. 5, pp. 17-24), Letter to a Comrade (LCW, vol. 6, pp. 235-52), and What Is To Be Done? (LCW, vol. 5, pp. 349-529.) In the first named of these works, the kernel of Lenin’s ideas is already clear:

The role of a newspaper, however, is not limited solely to the dissemination of ideas, to political education, and to the enlistment of political allies. A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and collective agitator, it is also a collective organiser… With the aid of the newspaper, and through it, a permanent organisation will naturally take shape that will engage, not only in local activities, but in regular general work, and will train its members to follow political works carefully, appraise their significance and their effects on the various strata of the population, and develop effective means for the revolutionary party to influence those events. The mere technical task of regularly supplying the newspaper with copy and of promoting regular distribution will necessitate a network of local agents of the united party, who will maintain constant contact with one another, know the general state of affairs, get accustomed to performing regularly their detailed functions in the All-Russian work, and test their strength in the organisation of various revolutionary actions. (LCW, Where to Begin, vol. 5, pp. 22-23.)

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 polemicising against the Economists’ slavish worship of ‘spontaneity’, Lenin allowed himself to fall into the error of exaggerating a correct idea and turning it into its opposite. In particular, he asserts that socialist consciousness:

[W]ould have to be brought to them [the workers] from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.

This one-sided and erroneous presentation of the relationship of the working class and socialist consciousness was not an original invention of Lenin, but was borrowed directly from Kautsky, whom he regarded at that time as the main defender of orthodox Marxism against Bernstein. Indeed, Lenin quotes approvingly the words of Kautsky that:

The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia [K.K.’s italics]: it was in the minds of individual members of this stratum that modern socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians, who, in their turn, introduce it into the proletarian class struggle where conditions allow that to be done. Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without [von Aussen Hineingetragenes] and not something that arose within it spontaneously [urwüchsig]. (LCW, vol. 5, p. 375 and pp. 383-84, my emphasis.)

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 organising a workers’ state and consolidating their hold on power, spreading the revolution to the rest of Spain, that was not their fault but the responsibility of the anarchist and syndicalist leaders of the CNT-FAI and the POUM. The workers’ leaders, by refusing to finish off the remnants of the bourgeois state and organise a new workers’ state power on the basis of democratically elected soviets of factory and militia deputies, signed the death knell of the Spanish revolution. In any event, what happened in Catalonia and other parts of Spain in 1936 was far beyond ‘trade union consciousness’. The same can be said of France 1968 and any case where the working class attempts to begin to take its destiny into its own hands.

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

Those who mechanically repeat the error of What Is To Be Done? nearly a century later, do so without realising that Lenin himself later admitted that this incorrect formulation was merely a polemical exaggeration. When, at the Second Congress of the RSDLP, an attempt was made to use this against him, Lenin replied:

We all now know that the ‘Economists’ have gone to one extreme. To straighten matters out somebody had to pull in the other direction – and that is what I have done. (LCW, Second Congress of the RSDLP, vol. 6, p. 491, my emphasis.)

In his biography of Stalin, Trotsky comments in these words:

The author of What To Do? himself subsequently acknowledged the biased nature, and therewith the erroneousness, of his theory, which he had parenthetically interjected as a battery in the battle against ‘Economism’ and its deference to the elemental nature of the labour movement. (L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 58.)

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

The essential idea which runs through What Is To Be Done? is the need to train worker cadres, not just class conscious trade union militants, but workers with a clear grasp of the ideas of Marxism:

Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of political activity.

What Lenin was driving at here was not at all a belittling of the capacity of the workers to understand but quite the opposite. His main concern was to combat the petty bourgeois prejudice that ‘workers cannot understand theory’ and that the party literature must confine itself to economic slogans and immediate demands. On the contrary, Lenin insisted that:

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

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.

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 per cent. But in those big factories employing from 500–1,000 workers, the numbers rose by 72 per cent. The biggest increase, however, took place in the largest factories, employing more than 1,000 workers, which increased by no less than 141 per cent. 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 per cent of those arrested for political offences were workers. In 1901–3, 46 per cent, almost half, were workers. The statistics of the strike movement illustrate the rapid process of politicisation of the working class.

(1.3) Relative proportion of economic and political strikes in Russia





Political Strikes




Economic Strikes




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.” (L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 28.)

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 politicised 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 Defence’. It led to savage reprisals, 800 arrests, and many workers sentenced to hard labour. 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.” (N. Levin, Jewish Socialist Movements 1871-1917, p. 282.)

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. (G. Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, p. 66.)

The revolutionary movement of the masses served to awaken the intelligentsia from the slough of despondency. The setting up of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs) in 1902 marked the re-emergence 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 sympathising 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 organise. 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 sympathise (!) with the reactionary policy… Perhaps it [the government] will realise, 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.

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-honoured 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). (LCW, vol. 5, p. 70.)

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. (Perepiska GV Plekhanova i PB Aksel’roda, p. 270.)

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 utilising 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 Labour 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 travelling 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 characterise 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. “Organising 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.” (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 67.)

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, 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 sceptical 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… (1903: Minutes of the Second Congress of the RSDLP, p. 181.)

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 organisations, and the establishment of a periphery of sympathisers. 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 centre abroad, organising 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 centre, 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 conspirative group of professional revolutionists”, wrote the Gendarme General Spiridovich, “they travelled 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 characterisation of the Iskrovites. They were members of a wandering order, above the local organisations which they regarded as an arena for the exercise of their influence. (L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 39.)

The first three centres 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 organiser’, establishing a network of worker-correspondents in the factories, for distribution, the writing of articles, collection of funds, link-up with different organisations, 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 disorganisation 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 centre 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 manoeuvring 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 sympathised 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.

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 Labour Party – set up at the First Congress, but properly organised 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.” (N.K. Krupskaya, O Vladimirye Ilyiche, 1924 edition, vol. 1, p. 89.)

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 manoeuvre. 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, Fyodor 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 organising committee for a congress. Shortly afterwards, the majority of the conference delegates were arrested, together with two members of the Organising 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, Romania, 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 centre 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, Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya. Lenin was de facto editor and the dedicated and tireless Krupskaya performed wonders in organisational 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, characterised 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 Labour Group members placed great store in the organising 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 Organising 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. (Ibid., p. 63 footnote and p. 88.)

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 programmes 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 programme, 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 programme was being prepared for the Congress. Plekhanov and Axelrod attacked parts of the draft programme 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 un-businesslike. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 67.)

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, emphasises 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”. (Leninskiy Sbornik, vol. 2, p. 65 and p. 84.)

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 programme. 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 behaviour 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.” (Leninskiy Sbornik, vol. 3, p. 395.) At one stage, Lenin considered ‘going public’, taking his differences with Plekhanov to the membership, but eventually drew back, realising 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. (Pis’ma PB Aksel’roda i YO Martova, p. 60.)

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 apologise. 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, agonising 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 cafés, indifferent to comfort, perpetually arguing and a bit of an eccentric.” (A.V. Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes, pp. 132-33.) 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… (L. Trotsky, Political Profiles, pp. 97-98.)

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”. (N.K. Krupskaya, O Vladimirye Ilyiche, vol. 1, pp. 85-86.)

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 hard-working is likewise unquestionable. It is necessary to co-opt him so as finally to draw him in and encourage him… (LCW, To G.V. Plekhanov, 2 March, 1903, vol. 43, pp. 110-11, my emphasis.)

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.” (N.K. Krupskaya, O Vladimirye Ilyiche, 1924 edition, vol. 1, p. 86.)

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 affect a decisive break with the past, to put an end to the small circle mentality, amateurism, organisational 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 centre, we are stronger in ideas, and we must exercise the guidance from here”. (L. Trotsky, My Life, p. 157.)

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

The Second Congress

The winter of 1902–3 saw “a desperate struggle of tendencies” (N.K. Krupskaya, O Vladimirye, 1924 edition, vol. 1, p. 81.) but gradually the political and organisational superiority of Iskra won the day. Committee after committee declared for the congress. Only a few expressed reservations. Yuzhny Rabochii criticised 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 17 July, 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 Labour 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 organisation. Several local committees (Voronezh, Samara, Poltava, Kishinev) were not invited because they did not fulfil 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 organisation), and the two Petersburg organisations, 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 programme, 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’ organisations 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 organisation 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 centralised organisation can guarantee the success of a revolutionary struggle – even where the task is to destroy the centralised oppression of nationalities. (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, pp. 890-91.)

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 legalisation of separate organisations 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 organisation to represent its national interests among the Social Democrats of Russia. Independently of the question of organising 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 organisation 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? (1903: Minutes of the Second Congress of the RSDLP, p. 81.)

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 recognised 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 characterised as the ‘centre’ 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 crystallisation 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 Organising Committee, the Bor’ba group, Yuzhny Rabochii). (For a detailed explanation, see One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, LCW, vol. 7, pp. 203-425.) 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 organisational 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 programme and supports the Party both financially and by personal participation in one of the party organisations.” Martov opposed this clause and moved as an alternative that a member was somebody who accepted the programme, and supported the Party financially and “ gives the party his regular personal cooperation under the direction of one of the party organisations.” 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.” (L. Trotsky, My Life, p. 160.) But behind Martov’s proposal was a certain ‘softness’, a conciliatory attitude which amounted to the blurring of differences between members and sympathisers, 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, centralised 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 organisational principle is not broad autonomy but strict centralisation.” Incidentally, the Bund itself was a highly centralised organisation. Its alleged opposition to centralism only applied to the party as a whole, and reflected nothing more than an unscrupulous defence 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 organisation 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. (1903: Minutes of the Second Congress of the RSDLP, p. 308 and p. 311, my emphasis.)

The working class and its organisations 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’ organisations, is ever present. The demands of these layers that the workers should adapt their programme, methods and organisational structure to suit the prejudices and interests of the petty bourgeoisie are a constant pressure. A long period of very close coexistence with the radicalised middle class in the person of the Legal Marxists had left its stamp on the consciousness of the older members of the Emancipation of Labour Group. They moved among social strata divorced from the working class, formed personal friendships with the radicalised 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 semi-consciously, 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 organisation 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 organisations. But why can’t they? As someone who has himself taken part in Russian Revolutionary organisations, 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 sympathise with our views may find it humiliating to join a local organisation. 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 organisation, we have no need of that professor.

To talk of control by the Party over persons who are outside the organisation 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 ‘Centre’, 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! (1903: Minutes of the Second Congress of the RSDLP, p. 321 and p. 326, my emphasis.)

From a Marxist point of view, organisational questions can never be decisive. There are no eternal, fixed laws governing the mode of organisation of a revolutionary party. The rules and organisational 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 organisational 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.

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, organisationally, 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 programme (!) and rules, Trotsky was at one with the other Mensheviks and bitterly fought the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary line (!). (V. Grigorenko et al, The Bolshevik Party’s Struggle Against Trotskyism (1903-February 1917), p. 30.)

This base slander originates in the campaign against Trotskyism launched in 1923–24, when Lenin lay on his deathbed, paralysed 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”. (G. Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, p. 85.)

For their part, bourgeois historians such as Leonard Shapiro attempt to caricature Lenin’s arguments in favour 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.” (Istoriya, vol. 1, p. 486.)

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 organisations 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 organisations, 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 organisations isolated from the masses, especially where the petty bourgeois element predominates. The veterans of the Emancipation of Labour 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 organisation and the Emancipation of Labour 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 favour 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 Iskraites favoured a CC composed entirely of Iskra supporters. The softs, led by Martov, wanted to give representation to the centre (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.” (LCW, To Alexandra Kalmykova, 7 September, 1903, vol. 34, p. 162.) 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 organisation.

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 re-election 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 organised party. It was my indignation at his attitude that really led to my parting with him at the Second Congress. His behaviour seemed unpardonable to me, both horrible and outrageous. And yet, politically it was right and necessary, from the point of view of organisation. 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. (L. Trotsky, My Life, p. 162.)

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 behaviour 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 organisation. 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 organisation 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 organisation 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 have 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.”

Confusion in the Ranks

The caricature of Lenin as a ‘ruthless dictator’ and cynical manoeuvre, 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 agonising 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 realise 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 recognise 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 re-establish 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. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, pp. 98-99 and p. 98.)

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 31 August:

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. (Pisma PB Aksel’roda i YO Martova, p. 87.)

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 favour of one or the other trend. I felt torn in two. On the one hand I was sorry that offence had been caused to Zasulich, Potresov and Axelrod, removing them from the Editorial Board of Iskra… On the other hand, I was wholly in favour with the organisational structure of the Party proposed by Lenin. My logic was with the Majority, but my feelings, so to speak, were with the minority. (O. Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, p. 54.)

Piatnitsky 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? (A.V. Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes, p. 36.)

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 behaviour 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 characterisation 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 behaviour 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. (LCW, Account of the Second Congress of the RSDLP, September 1903, vol. 7, p. 34.)

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 4 October, 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 organisational formlessness under the guise of an alleged ‘struggle against centralism’, the minority’s position on organisational 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’ Iskraites towards the so-called Economists on organisational and tactical questions is recognised 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’ Organisation [Economist] declared itself at one with the Mensheviks. (V. Akimov, A Short History of the RSDLP, p. 332.)

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 organisation – a couple of pamphlets had come out in its name, but its activity was next to nothing, a logical state of affairs since the centre 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 organisation 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 Organisation 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. (O. Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, p. 63.)

At a hastily improvised meeting in a nearby cafe, Plekhanov indignantly denounced the behaviour 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 defence 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 favour 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” (N.K. Krupskaya, O Vladimirye Ilyiche, vol. 1, p. 54.), 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 18 October 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.” (Quoted in S.H. Baron, Plekhanov, p. 327.) 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!

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 favour 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. (Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, p. 518, p. 523 and p. 524.)

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: Organisational 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 ‘ultra-centralism’ 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 organisation – 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 organisation 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 organisation. My book is not concerned with the difference between one system of organisation and another, but with how any system is to be maintained, criticised and rectified in a manner consistent with the party idea. (LCW, vol. 7, p. 474.)

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 polemicising 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 labour movement, 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 organisations.

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’. (R. Luxemburg, Leninism or Marxism?, p. 98, my emphasis.)

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 organisations, 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 organisations do not exist in a vacuum. Under the pressure of alien classes, organisations 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 organisations, 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 labour 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 organisational 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.” (L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 62.) 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 ‘organisation 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!” (LCW, To the Central Committee of the RSDLP, February 1904, vol. 34, p. 233.)

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 centred on organisational 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 pre-revolutionary 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 centre 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 Defence: “In order to stave off revolution, what we require is a victorious little war.”

Despite its backward, semi-feudal 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 Harbour 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.

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. (LCW, The Fall of Port Arthur, vol. 8, p. 53.)

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 15 July 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.” (S.S. Schwarz, The Russian Revolution of 1905, the Workers’ Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism, p. 32.) 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 programme in the interest of achieving unity against reaction. No sooner had the Mensheviks publicly come out in favour 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, 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. (LCW, Zemstvo Campaign and Iskra’s Plan, vol. 7, p. 503.)

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”. (G. Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, p. 108, my emphasis.)

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 organised semi-legal meetings in the form of dinner parties where they would make speeches and toasts in favour 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 characterisation of the war was perhaps the first public expression of this fact. The Mensheviks were clearly passing over from merely organisational differences to political ones. Right-wing Mensheviks like Fyodor 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 organised and possesses a huge specific weight. The working mass, however, is atomised 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. (Quoted in G. Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, pp. 107-8.)

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. (Quoted in S.S. Schwarz, The Russian Revolution of 1905, the Workers’ Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism, p. 38.)

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 20 November (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 utilise the Zemstvo campaign to organise 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 counter-revolution, 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 programme 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. (Ibid., p. 41 and p. 48.)

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 polarisation 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 (LCW, vol. 8, pp. 29-34.), 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 Zemstvoists 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. (Ibid., p. 508.)

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”. (LCW, vol. 16, p. 380.) 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 intra-party squabbles to outsiders and the less sophisticated members of the two movements. The political differences came into the open only in late 1904. (S. Schwarz, The Russian Revolution of 1905, the Workers’ Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism, p. 32.)

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

Today, with historical hindsight, it is scarcely necessary any longer to demonstrate that the organisational 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 organisational 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. (F. Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism, p. 250.)

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. Yet these characterisations 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. (L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 50.)

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. (L. Trotsky, My Life, p. 166, my emphasis.)

Trotsky’s characterisation 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 organisation. 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. (Quoted in I. Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, p. 86, p. 166, my emphasis, and p. 165.)

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 organising 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 organisers, disciplined and self-sacrificing. But they were what might be called ‘practicos’, whose work consisted in a hundred and one detailed organisational 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 organisational 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 organisational 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 organised 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. Demoralised, 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 defence and clarification of the basic principles of the international Social Democracy’s programme 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”) (Istoriya KPSS, p. 509 in both quotes.) and prohibited agitation in favour of a Third Congress. Furthermore, Noskov was charged with reorganising 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 manoeuvring at the top. At grass roots level, things were different. An increasing number of committees were coming out in favour 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. (Ibid., p. 509.)

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 organised collective labour. 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 organisational 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 organised 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 organised unity more strongly felt, came out in vigorous opposition to the circle spirit and the disruptive anarchistic tendencies. (LCW, To the Party, vol. 7, pp. 455-56.)

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. (Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 106.) 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 favour of a Congress, and the number was still growing. From this point on, the Bolsheviks were a serious organised force within Russia. By the end of the year a Bolshevik Organising Centre 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 sympathisers. 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 sympathisers to stop giving assistance to the majority:

Ilyich and I had some strong things to say about those ‘sympathisers’ who belonged to no organisation and imagined that their accommodation and paltry donations could influence the course of events in our proletarian Party! (Ibid., p. 98.)

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

Despite their lack of resources, the Bolsheviks decided to launch a new paper called Vperyod (Forward). At a meeting in Geneva on 3 December, 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 22 December, 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!”


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

2 Emilian Pugachev, 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 programme capable of creating a broad revolutionary movement of the masses. This fatal weakness, plus localist tendencies, lack of organisation and discipline, eventually undermined the revolt. The rebellion disintegrated and Pugachev was executed in Moscow in January 1775.

3 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.

4 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.