Part Three: The Period of Reaction
‘Woe to the Vanquished’
The ancient Romans had a chilling way of describing the fate of conquered peoples: ‘Vae victis!’ – ‘Woe to the vanquished!’ The fate of the working people in every defeated revolution in history completely confirms this grim observation. The Russian revolution of 1905 was no exception. The regime sensed that the immediate danger had passed and stepped up repression. The democratic promises of October were rapidly consigned to the rubbish bin. A bloody regime of terror was everywhere unleashed – in the Baltic states, Poland, the Caucasus. Punitive expeditions spread terror through the villages, killing, raping, and burning houses.
Liberally plied with vodka, the Cossacks committed terrible atrocities against the peasant population. Women and girls were raped in front of their menfolk. Hundreds of peasants were hanged from the trees without any pretence of a trial. In all it has been estimated that the tsarist regime executed 15,000 people, shot or wounded at least 20,000, and deported or exiled 45,000, between mid-October and the opening of the first State Duma in April 1906. (O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, p. 202.)
For months on end, the orgy of reaction raged on unabated. By April 1906, apart from the 15,000 who had been shot or hanged, a further 75,000 were languishing in tsarist prisons. Special trains manned by tsarist execution squads advanced slowly along the Moscow-Kazan railway line into the frozen depths of Siberia, exacting a frightful revenge on the workers. The Bolsheviks suffered proportionately more than other trends from this repression, as they had the greater number of militant revolutionary workers. Their organisation among the Siberian railway workers was virtually wiped out. Among those murdered was A.I. Popov, central committee member and leader of the revolutionary movement in Siberia. The following lines, written to his mother from the death cell, movingly convey the spirit of these fighters:
I leave this world of darkness and repression with complete peace of mind, giving way to other, younger forces. If we have achieved little, they will finish off what we started. I die fully convinced that our bodies will provide a firm foundation upon which will arise a better future for my long-suffering native land. (Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, p. 164.)
Under the hammer blows of reaction, the Social Democratic organisations were gradually being pulverised. Many activists were arrested or killed. Others had to go underground, change town, or flee abroad. In order to hasten the strangling of the revolution, the government utilised the services of special auxiliaries recruited from the ranks of the lumpen-proletariat, that “passively rotting scum” as Marx called them, which on more than one occasion has furnished material for the purposes of counter-revolution. The Black Hundred gangs spread terror in the villages, usually in the form of anti-Semitic pogroms.
Kerensky, who at that time was practising as a lawyer and occasionally acted for the defence of accused revolutionaries, recalls that:
Reprisals in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution went on from late 1906 to the early part of 1909. After peasant and other uprisings had been crushed by punitive expeditions, it was a question of hunting out the remnants of revolutionary organisations – gangs, as they were called. The victims were handed over to military tribunals. It was a campaign of systematic judicial terror.
Many political cases were judged by district military tribunals. The chief military prosecutor at that time, General Pavlov, was a merciless man who expected the judges to fulfil their ‘duty’ without paying any attention to the arguments of the defence. Pavlov did not last long. Expecting attempts on his life, he took every precaution. He never left the Main Military Court building, where he had an apartment with a garden surrounded by a tall fence. That did not save him. He fell victim to a terrorist’s bullet in his own garden. But individual terrorism is impotent against the state. One reactionary official is replaced by another. The repression is further intensified.
A particularly savage revenge was inflicted on the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia, where the rising of the workers and peasants against the German landlords had a ferocious character. Starting in December, in the course of a six-month campaign, punitive expeditions killed 1,200 people, destroyed tens of thousands of homes, and flogged thousands of workers and peasants. At the end of 1906 and the beginning of 1907 the so-called Tukum Republic trial was held in Riga. Fifteen dragoons had been killed during an uprising in Tukum in 1905. Kerensky, who was one of the defence counsels, recalls what happened. A certain General Koshelev, one of the special military judges in the Baltic provinces, presided over the trial. He was a sadist who had a habit of studying pornographic photographs in court during the hearing of cases in which the accused could be sentenced to death. At the trial it soon became obvious that Koshelev was not interested in trying to establish the truth, but only in selecting 15 of the defendants to be killed as a retaliation for the dead dragoons. All 15 were hanged. The Tsar was delighted at the results of his Baltic expedition and commended his officers for “acting splendidly”. (A. Kerensky, Memoirs: Russia and History’s Turning Point, p. 76.)
Despite everything, it took fully 18 months to liquidate the revolutionary movement. It proved extremely difficult to extinguish the flame of revolt. No sooner had order been restored in one area, than the movement flared up elsewhere. New layers were constantly entering into struggle while others were abandoning the arena, exhausted and defeated. The general picture that was emerging was still unclear, and remained so throughout the course of 1906. At the start of 1906, the strike movement, though less than the last quarter of 1905, was still considerable. January-March saw 260,000 workers on strike. Significantly, two-thirds of these conflicts were political strikes. In the spring of 1906, there were symptoms of a new revolutionary upturn. The second quarter saw a further upswing of the strike movement – 479,000 workers out – more than even the summer of 1905. Again, there were both economic and political strikes. And not all of them ended in defeat. Out of 222,000 involved in economic strikes, 86,000 ended in victory, 58,000 ended in compromise, and only 78,000 were defeated. As late as the summer of 1906, it appeared that the strike wave, far from slackening, was gaining in intensity. In 1906 as a whole there were more than one million workers involved in strike action.
Did the December defeat in Moscow signify the decisive turning point in the destiny of the revolution? Was the general line of the movement ascending or descending? With the wisdom of hindsight, the answer seems obvious, but this was by no means the case at the time. The movement of the masses was far from uniform. The villages lagged behind the towns, and only began to move on a big scale in the course of 1906. The bloody repression in the villages did not prevent the emergence of new peasant movements – Saratov, Chernigorsk, Kharkov, Mogilev, one after the other entered the fray. One factor was precisely the return of sacked workers to the villages. The proletarianised ex-peasant, educated in the hard school of factory life and steeled by the experience of strikes and insurrection, served as a spur to the movement in the villages, providing the necessary leaven to his rural brothers and sisters. With the wisdom of hindsight (the cheapest of all forms of wisdom), these were only the after-echo of a movement which had already passed its peak. But this was by no means evident to those who were actively participating in the struggle at the time. Above all the most consistently revolutionary wing of the movement represented by the Bolsheviks were in no hurry to sign the death certificate of the revolution.
The working class also had other reserves. The national question, as foreseen by Lenin, rapidly came to the fore and acquired an extreme intensity. The burning sense of national injustice that had long smouldered beneath the surface burst into flame in Poland, Finland, the Caucasus, and the Baltic states. All this led Lenin to believe that the revolution had not yet exhausted its potential. To determine the precise nature of the situation, its inner dynamics and perspective, was of decisive importance for determining the correct tactics and slogans needed to preserve and strengthen the links between the masses and the proletarian vanguard. But this task, never straightforward, is rendered a thousand times more difficult in the heat of a revolution, when the moods of the masses can change with lightning speed. It was precisely this question – ‘through what stage are we passing?’ – which provoked the sharpest conflicts in the ranks of the revolutionaries in this period. Among the working class there were contradictory moods. Could the revolutionary wave in the countryside ignite again the movement in the towns? To this question no clear answer could be given. Lenin certainly regarded it as a possibility and worked out his tactics accordingly.
The Struggle Against Unemployment
Throughout 1906, the working class found itself in an increasingly difficult position, faced not only with physical repression but also with economic terrorism. Having recovered their nerve, the employers went on to the offensive, exacting revenge for the fright they had suffered. Lockouts and sackings were on the order of the day as the bosses took back the gains of the previous period. In the prevailing conditions, it was necessary to look for any opening, no matter how limited, and to exploit each and every legal loophole. The Party had to pay serious attention to any legal organisations which would provide a platform for agitation and propaganda: workers’ insurance, educational and cultural societies, and so on. An absolutely crucial question was work in the trade unions. Driven on to the defensive, the workers rallied to the legal trade unions. There was a big increase in union membership. By early 1907, there were more than 600 trade unions in Russia, with 245,000 members. On the other hand, the spread of unemployment as a result of the economic crisis placed on the order of the day the question of work among the unemployed.
The employers resorted to savage reprisals in order to destroy the gains won by the workers in the revolution. In the mass dismissals that affected all sectors in 1907 to 1909, 36 per cent of employees in the engineering industry had been sacked by January 1908. St. Petersburg Metals closed its shell shop; the Neva shipyards sacked 300 workers in 1908 and a further 700 in 1909. The heaviest blows fell upon the more advanced skilled sections of the class, mainly those under Social Democratic influence. This key group had already been singled out for the employers’ attention during the October 1905 lockout, and it continued until April 1906. The lockout, which was organised by the St. Petersburg employers in cahoots with the tsarist authorities, was aimed at teaching the workers of St. Petersburg, and particularly their natural leaders, a harsh lesson.
Under the conditions of mass sackings, which followed the December defeat, the struggle against unemployment assumed a great importance. The Social Democrats succeeded in organising a successful movement against unemployment, particularly in St. Petersburg but also to some extent in other industrial centres, such as Moscow and Odessa. Whereas most of the other centres were suppressed by the end of 1906, the movement in St. Petersburg was only finally broken up by the secret police and gendarmes in 1908. In Petersburg an ‘unemployed workers council’ (Soviet bezrabotnykh) was formed by the local Social Democrats, but from the beginning it was always linked to the employed workers. The workers in the big factories sent delegates to this Soviet. Other unemployed workers’ councils were formed in Tiflis, Moscow, Tver, Kostroma, Kharkov, Baku, Taganrog. But the one that set the pace for the others was the St. Petersburg Unemployed Council.
The work of the Petersburg Unemployed Council was documented in The Unemployed Councils in St. Petersburg 1906, a pamphlet written by the Bolshevik worker Sergei Malishev, who played an active role in the movement of the unemployed and was elected chairman of the Kostroma Soviet of Workers’ Deputies in 1905. The origins of this are to be found in the stormy events of 1905 when the employers used the weapon of the lockout to combat the strike movement. Realising that the only way to fight for the cause of the unemployed was by closely linking them with the workers in the factories, a commission of unemployed was organised by the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, with open departments in all the working class districts of St. Petersburg. Later, the commission adopted the resolution of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies to deduct 1 per cent from the wages of all the workers at the factories, mills and other institutions for the unemployed. They also organised a voluntary collection at all meetings and gatherings. Thus, the struggle of the unemployed was closely linked to the struggle of the brothers and sisters who remained at work. This position, which constitutes the cornerstone of Marxist tactics in the struggle against unemployment, was suggested by Lenin: it is interesting to note Lenin’s attitude towards the unemployed campaign. When he heard about the initiative taken on this question Lenin initially had some doubts as to whether the Unemployed Council alone could fulfil its programme by its own efforts:
“Through this organisation alone,” said Lenin, “you cannot influence the bourgeoisie; you will not be strong enough, and the unemployed workers themselves may not be able to develop this work on a broad proletarian class basis. Therefore, you must immediately extend the Unemployed Council to include representatives of those employed in all the factories and mills of St. Petersburg. You must now begin to agitate in the factories and mills for this purpose, and immediately arrange for the election of these representatives. The Unemployed Council must consist not only of 30 representatives of the unemployed, but of 100 or 150 representatives from all districts, from all the factories and mills. This will provide the unemployed with a genuine proletarian leading body which will really be able to exert pressure successfully on the City Duma and on the bourgeoisie generally”.
Lenin’s proposal to link the unemployed struggle to the workers who remained at work was accepted by the Council and formed the basis of its tactics.
The St. Petersburg Unemployed Council took charge of the movement of the unemployed, beginning with a register of all the locked out workers. In the words of Malishev:
This registration revealed an interesting fact – that 54 per cent of the workers who have been locked out were highly skilled workers, metal workers; 18 per cent were joiners, carpenters, stonemasons and other skilled occupations; and that only 21 per cent were common labourers. Those figures showed that the capitalists vented their wrath on those who fought in the front ranks of the working class. (Quoted in S. Malishev, The Unemployed Councils in St. Petersburg 1906, p. 16 and p. 8.)
The fact that the most skilled sections were singled out for attack is well documented. A survey by the Union of Metalworkers reveals that in 1908 the employers used the excuse of the economic crisis to get rid of the most skilled, highly paid, longest-serving metalworkers, who were regarded with much justice as the most militant section. Basing himself on this and other material, Robert McKean concludes:
They threw onto the streets the old, the sick and ‘the disturbers of internal order’ as well. During 1908, layoffs and filtering of operatives spread to printing and textiles. Reductions in rates of pay of 30 per cent or higher assumed wide dimensions throughout heavy and light industry in the years 1907 to 1911. In the pressure-gauge shop of the Langenzippen metalworking and casting plant wages were cut by half; in the boiler shop of the Baltic shipyards by 40 per cent. Workers’ factory commissions or committees were disbanded (as at Neva shipyards); shop delegates arrested or sacked (the Pipe works); meetings banned (St. Petersburg Metals). Fines and searches, which were thoroughly detested by workers, were swiftly reintroduced at many plants as early as 1907 and 1908 – among others at the Franco-Russian Society, Odner, Neva Shipyards, Pipeworks, Obukhov, San Galli, and St. Petersburg Metal. Less frequent was a direct and immediate assault on the 8 or 9 hour day, operatives’ most prized conquest of the revolution. (R.B. McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, pp. 8-9.)
During the course of 1906, the position of the unemployed became increasingly desperate. The outlook of the unemployed workers of St. Petersburg was graphically conveyed by Malishev:
Strolling along the Nevsky, we watched the well fed, contented bourgeoisie. Some – of higher rank – rode in magnificent carriages, with coats of arms and with one or two splendid horses; others, a lower estate – a bourgeois crowd – moved on foot along the Nevsky, filling the centre of the city, along Sadovaya, along the Gostin Road. They went into the stores, filled with goods, came out with armfuls of purchases, and youngsters, laden with these purchases, dragged after them to their homes. All that there was in these stores, stands, and warehouses, produced by the proletariat, was quite accessible to the bourgeoisie. We also went several blocks up along the Nevsky but we could only look into the Soloviev store. We could not go in and buy even a quarter of a pound of sausage because the merchant Soloviev’s well-fed salesmen would not want to sell such small portions, and, further, the price of sausage did not fit the size of our pocket. To relieve our feelings we swore roundly, linked arms and turned away from this smug Nevsky. We went along narrow alleys and finally, at Bassein Street, found a cheap restaurant where the two of us filled up on some kind of tripe for two kopecks.
The main problem, of course, was that most of the sacked workers had been blacklisted. Individuals and entire groups of ‘undesirables’ were turned out of the factories and mills. All that the unemployed had in the way of clothes and other valuables were sold or pawned. The position of the unemployed and their families was desperate. The collections raised by the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies raised some money, but the sums were so small that they changed nothing fundamental. Dining rooms were opened by the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies and by some liberal groups in some workers’ districts to provide some tens of thousands of dinners. However, after the October Manifesto the well-heeled liberals began to turn their backs on this and other working class activities. The workers were left to their own devices. To combat the problem of unemployment the Bolshevik group began to organise a campaign in favour of a programme of useful public works and unemployment benefit.
The approach of the Bolsheviks was expressed by a speaker at one congress, quoted by Malishev:
“The Bolshevik group, in whose name I speak now,” said the comrade, “supports the unemployed movement and helps us organise ourselves into a strong organisation. It is essential to organise all the unemployed and set up a leading body – an Unemployed Council. This council, with the help of the unemployed, must start a struggle for bettering the condition of the unemployed, not only through the distribution of dinners and 30 kopecks a day, but chiefly by getting the City Duma to organise large-scale public work for the unemployed. The unemployed are not paupers, they do not want charity. They demand bread and work. The question must be so presented that our demands to the City Duma win the support of all the workers in the factories and mills. The City must organise public work. There is quite enough work of that kind to be had in the city and it is now being given to various contractors who give the city administrators large bribes. The most highly skilled workers of all trades are to be found among the unemployed. They can do all types of work. The City has a number of contracts essential for public welfare; for instance, construction of tramways. The City has decided to replace horse power by electric cars, and it will not be able to do this unless the streets are paved. That opens up the possibility of providing public work for the unemployed. We must take steps to see that the City provides this public work; therefore I move that all the proposals which I have suggested be taken up by the meeting, adopted, and immediately carried out, because hunger and poverty will not wait”. (S. Malishev, The Unemployed Councils in St. Petersburg 1906, pp. 11-12 and p. 14.)
In order to organise the unemployed campaign it was decided to organise an Unemployed Council by holding elections at the dining rooms where the unemployed were getting their dinners and a group of worker-Bolsheviks were assigned to carry out the agitation for it and get the elections carried through. The Council drew up an appeal to the City Duma. It was decided to include 30 delegates from the large factories and mills in the Unemployed Council and elections were held among the employed in all the factories, mills, and workshops. Delegates were elected by the unemployed at general meetings on the basis of one for every 250 workers, and from factories and mill districts. These made up the District Councils. The latter managed the dining rooms, collected money in the factories and mills, registered the unemployed, gave material help and generally conducted the campaign on unemployment, on the basis of the slogan ‘For bread and work!’ A petition to the St. Petersburg City Council was drafted by the Unemployed Council and worded in the most forceful language. The petition was then discussed by the Unemployed Council, voted on, and sent to all the factories and mills of St. Petersburg and its vicinities to be discussed by the workers who were then asked to sign it.
The text of the petition read as follows:
Owing to unemployment, numberless workers’ families are now without bread. The workers do not want charities, or dole. We demand work. The masters refuse to give us work. They say they have no contracts. But the City has contracts and can provide work for the unemployed. We think that the way the City disposes of the public funds is scandalous. Public funds should be used for public needs and our need today is – work. Therefore, we demand that the City Duma immediately organise public work for all the needy. We demand not charity, but our rights, and we will not be satisfied with charity. The public work that we demand must be started immediately. All the unemployed of St. Petersburg must be allowed to do this work; every unemployed worker must receive an adequate wage. We have been delegated to insist on the fulfilment of our demands. The masses who have sent this will not be content with less. If you do not accede to our demands we will report your refusal to the unemployed and then you will not have us to deal with, but those who sent us, the masses of unemployed. (Quoted in S. Malishev, Unemployed Councils, p. 18.)
Speakers were dispatched to all the main factories to defend the petition, speaking at lunch hour breaks, during the change of shifts, and also holding factory gate meetings on the question of unemployment. Despite the fact that, after the mass sackings, only the less class-conscious workers remained at work, the petition received widespread support and sympathy. The whole thrust of the anti-unemployment struggle was designed to link the unemployed workers to their brothers and sisters who remained at work and who alone had the power to help them to solve their problems. In addition to this, the Council attempted to enlist the support of sympathetic sections of the middle class.
Whereas the Bolsheviks approached the unemployed struggle from a revolutionary and class point of view, the Mensheviks, typically, attempted to water down the demands of the unemployed movement in order not to alienate their liberal friends. They demanded the deletion of the rather threatening final paragraph of the petition, and also demanded that the unemployed delegation be restrained from entering into the City Duma. They also strongly opposed the election of representatives from the factories and mills to the Unemployed Council. However, divisions opened up in the ranks of the Mensheviks, leading to a split which gave the supporters of the petition a majority. On 12 April, 1906, the unemployed workers’ delegation made up of 30 people (15 from the unemployed and 15 from the factories) presented themselves at the St. Petersburg City Duma. At this stage, the revolutionary wave had still not sufficiently subsided to give the Duma the necessary self-confidence to refuse to meet the delegation. Fearing the reaction of the masses, the City Duma decided to admit the delegation and acceded to its demands as far as possible. However, this decision was not known to the delegation as it entered the Council chamber. Realising the worst fears of the Mensheviks, the unemployed representatives in the Council chamber did not mince words:
“We ask nothing of you; we demand!” said one of the speakers. “We think that all the money at your disposal rightfully belongs to us. If you do not give work to the unemployed nothing remains for us but to rob you,” said another speaker. “You have not seen the unemployed,” cried one of the representatives of the delegation, a young worker. “I live with them, I can tell you how they live, I can tell you what they, who sent me here, said: ‘Go, talk to the town councillors and the City Duma, and if they will not listen to you, we ourselves will go and grab them by the throat’”. (Ibid., p. 23.)
Frightened at the prospect of disorder, the town councillors were compelled to listen in silence to such incendiary speeches as this. When their ‘guests’ had finished, they suggested that the delegates leave the hall. But the latter declared that they would not leave until they had received an answer to their demands. Then the town councillors announced an intermission, cleared out the general public, and then resumed the session with the unemployed delegation present. Finally, under the direct pressure of mass action the gentlemen of the City Duma decided to retreat and conceded all the main demands of the unemployed. A large number of the unemployed had been thrown on the streets and found shelter in lodging homes, but their children had been sent away to stay with comrades who remained at work. Families were thus broken up. It was decided that some action would have to be taken to help the unemployed to pay their rent. The question of helping the unemployed to redeem their belongings from the pawn shops, particularly sewing machines and underwear, was also discussed by the Duma and decided in the affirmative.
The generosity of the City Duma was not entirely disinterested. Even at this moment a new strike movement was developing in St. Petersburg. The strikes were mainly of a political, rather than economic character. The solidarity of the workers with the unemployed bore important fruit; the latter participated actively in the struggle of the striking workers. In return for the solidarity shown by the workers in the previous months, the unemployed, together with the strikers in the Vyborg district, organised financial assistance for the strikers. However, with the ebb of the strike movement, the Black Hundreds and the liberals recovered their nerve and systematically set about sabotaging the reforms which they had previously granted. The programme of public works was obstructed as far as possible and the funds were gradually cut off. The Unemployed Council thereupon presented a new list of demands to the City Duma:
1) The eight-hour day. 2) Prohibition of overtime. 3) The establishment of a daily wage. 4) The observance of all necessary sanitary and hygienic conditions at work. 5) Employment to be given to the registered unemployed at the indication of the Unemployed Council. 6) The right to control all the internal affairs in the workshops by workers’ representatives.
Agitation around these demands was carried out by the Bolsheviks through their paper Volna (The Wave) which systematically set out to expose the conduct of the Cadets and liberals. However, the Duma refused to make any new grants. There were rumours that the Ministry of the Interior had sent instructions to the City Duma not to make many concessions to the unemployed. The impatience and anger of the unemployed grew. On 10 June, 1906, the Unemployed Council drew up a leaflet which denounced this state of affairs:
The Unemployed Council does not hide from the masses. The Duma is only procrastinating, playing with the unemployed, and has no intention whatever of keeping its promises. But the Council has not broken its contract with the Duma because to do that would mean to play into the hands of those who want to provoke the workers into premature action. This is exactly what the enemies of the working class, thirsting for proletarian blood, are waiting for.
At present, the provocation of the unemployed has increased to the highest degree. The Minister for the Interior has given special orders to the Duma and to the town councillors not to make concessions to the unemployed. His aim is quite clear – to provoke the unemployed to premature action at a time when their employed comrades are not ready to help them, and the Duma, of course, does readily what the Ministry wants it to do. However, we shall not allow ourselves to be provoked by the Duma. (Ibid., p. 40.)
The aim of this resolution was to combat the influence of ultra-left elements (anarchists and Social Revolutionaries) who were taking advantage of the frustration felt by the unemployed in order to advocate provocative actions with potentially disastrous results. By once more putting pressure on the Duma through mass action, the Council succeeded in gaining further concessions. The public work achieved helped to hold the class together and prevent further disintegration at a time when reaction reached its blackest point. At the same time, the correct tactics pursued by the Bolsheviks developed the revolutionary consciousness of the class. However, of necessity, such victories were short lived. In the second half of 1907, reaction gained the upper hand. The majority of the Bolsheviks were arrested. Others were forced to flee abroad. The majority of the organisers and leaders of the Unemployed Council were also arrested or were forced to go underground. From his prison cell in the first half of 1908 Sergei Malishev learned that the tsarist government had finally put an end to the public works schemes in St. Petersburg. When the government proceeded to close the public workshops on Kagarinsky Wharf, before the gendarmes set about their work, they called out a battery of light artillery, in case of any emergency.
Despite the remorseless advance of reaction, the RSDLP still maintained its structures and its basic cadres intact throughout 1906 and even maintained an open organisation. In his memoirs, Osip Piatnitsky describes the Moscow organisation where he worked in 1906, from which it is clear that the elective principle was still in place at that time:
Some of the districts were divided into sub-districts. The districts and sub-districts were connected with the factory meetings (now cells) and with the factory committees and commissions (now cell bureaux). The representatives of the district factory committees heard the reports of the district and Moscow Committees, elected a district committee, and sent representatives to the city conferences at which the Moscow Committee was elected from 1906 to nearly the end of 1907. (O. Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, pp. 101-2.)
Under the prevailing conditions the importance of work in legal and semi-legal organisations of all kinds is self-evident. The party participated in all manner of work, not just the trade unions, but co-ops, workers’ insurance societies, and also cultural activities, which served to maintain its links with the masses. Both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks made great use of clubs, which acted as fronts for the work of the revolutionaries.
The most important centres of party work were our clubs. In them we concentrated all our propaganda activities: our propaganda was distributed from them, and then the workers came to hear lectures on current affairs. There, too, our members in the Duma came to report to us on their work. Virtually all the organisational work was centred on these clubs – general and special party meetings were held there, party publications were distributed from there, these were the ‘addresses’ of the local district and sub-district branches, there all local news was collected, from there speakers were sent to factory meetings. And these were also the places where enlightened workers – men and women – could meet for friendly exchange of ideas and to read books and newspapers. All clubs aimed above all at having good libraries. And eventually they also encouraged art, there were music and song groups and the like.
The revolution aroused in the minds of the workers a thirst for ideas of all sorts, not just political in the narrow sense, but science, literature, art and culture in general. Broido explains:
At first, clubs were exclusively political, but soon their character changed. Propaganda meetings gave place to lectures and discussions of a more general nature, the clubs became ‘colleges’ of Marxism. Representatives of all club committees combined to work out systematic courses of lectures, to provide and distribute the necessary books and to supply book catalogues. Soon, groups of workers asked for courses on scientific subjects. And already in the winter of 1906–7 the programmes included physics, mathematics, and technology alongside economics, historical materialism, and the history of socialism and the labour movement.
In addition to the clubs there were many ‘evening schools’; they grew in number as the clubs attracted the attention of the police and were often closed down. These evening schools included some courses for the illiterate and were often attended by working-class men and women who were already playing influential roles in the movement. (E. Broido, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, p. 133 in both quotes.)
The clubs carried on a precarious, semi-legal existence right up to the outbreak of the First World War.
The revolution pushed the workers of both factions of the RSDLP together. Throughout the latter half of 1905 there had been a continuous and spontaneous process of unity from below. Without waiting for a lead from the top, Bolshevik and Menshevik Party organisations simply merged. This fact partly expressed the workers’ natural instinct for unity, but also the fact, as we have already seen, that the Menshevik leaders had been pushed to the left by pressure from their own rank and file. By December 1905 the two leaderships had effectively re-united. There was now one united Central Committee. A unification Congress was announced and the first issue of a joint organ published, called Partiniye Izvestiya (Party News). On the editorial board there were three Bolsheviks (Lenin, Lunacharsky, and V.A. Bazarov), and three Mensheviks (Dan, Martov, and Martynov). But the December events had knocked the fighting spirit out of the Menshevik leaders, who were already moving back to the right, placing a large question mark over prospects for unity.
Lenin was in favour of organisational unity, but did not for a moment abandon the ideological struggle, maintaining a firm position on all the basic questions of tactics and perspectives. This was entirely characteristic of Lenin’s whole approach – extreme flexibility on all organisational and tactical questions combined with an absolutely implacable attitude on all questions of principle and theory. However, we must be careful not to read into the history of Bolshevism intentions and ideas derived from our knowledge of subsequent events. For many years, the official Soviet histories presented the role of Lenin as that of an all-seeing, all-knowing Leader who foresaw everything in advance and guided the party with a sure hand towards the goal of ultimate victory. From this kind of hagiography, no understanding of the real Lenin can be gained. The whole history of Bolshevism remains shrouded in mystery, like a fairy story or a religious myth. It was neither. In fact, far from having an absolutely clear idea of where he was going at this time, Lenin was still very unsure as to how things were going to turn out. Of course, he was very clear on the need to stand firm on the basic ideas and revolutionary principles of Marxism, and also on the need to maintain the Bolsheviks as the consistently revolutionary wing of the RSDLP. But his support for reunification was neither a sham nor a manoeuvre. On the basis of the revolution, the Mensheviks had moved far to the left, and it was not at all clear how this would end up. Lenin was not yet clear in his own mind that it would be necessary to make a complete break, and did not finally come to this conclusion until 1912. It is entirely false to present the picture in any other way.
In fact, while the Party was formally united, from the outset it was divided into two opposing tendencies – the revolutionary and the opportunist wings. Reformism or revolution, class collaboration or an independent proletarian policy: these were the basic questions which separated Bolshevism from Menshevism. The basic differences immediately emerged over the attitude to the Duma and to the bourgeois parties. The Mensheviks stood for capitulation to the liberal bourgeoisie, which in practice had gone over to constitutional Monarchism and surrendered to the autocracy. For two months a heated discussion raged over different resolutions. The main working class centres supported the Bolshevik platform. But this was a very different Party to that of the past. Even the debates of the Third Congress one year earlier now seemed like ancient history. It was as if a whole epoch had been compressed into 12 months. There could be no question of maintaining the old narrow circle structures and mentality. The committeemen were increasingly elbowed aside by fresh workers and youth. The revolution had mobilised millions around the banner of Social Democracy. It was impossible and undesirable to maintain the old setup where delegates had been elected from narrow groups of professional revolutionaries (the ‘committees’). Now the Party had to be organised on a much wider basis, and on strictly democratic principles. The size of the Party is revealed by the ratio of members to delegates at the Fourth Party Congress – one to every 300 members.
The Fourth ‘Unity’ Congress was held from 10 to 25 April, 1906, in Stockholm, whence they had been invited by the Swedish Social Democrats. The general conditions of reaction undoubtedly gave rise to a distortion in the representation of the rival factions. Some Bolshevik branches were unable to send delegates through financial difficulties. Repression created other difficulties. As a general rule, the areas dominated by the Mensheviks, that is, small-scale industry and small towns, were less hard hit by reaction, which had a disproportionate effect on the Bolsheviks. Arrests, imprisonment and general disruption of party branches meant that the Bolsheviks were under-represented at the Fourth Congress, which was dominated by the Mensheviks. There were a total of 112 delegates with full voting rights and 22 consultative, representing 62 organisations. Also present were the representatives of national Social Democratic organisations (Poland and Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, Ukraine, and the Bund, and also the Bulgarian SDRP). The Bolsheviks had 46, the Mensheviks 62. In addition there was a small number of conciliators. Trotsky was in prison. Among the Bolshevik delegation – Lenin, Krassin, Gusev, Lunacharsky, Shaumyan, Bubnov, Krupskaya, Lyadov, A.I. Rykov, A.P. Smirnov, Frunze, Dzerzhinsky, and an obscure young Georgian with the alias Koba, later known to history by the name of Stalin.
The main issues debated at the Stockholm congress were the agrarian programme, the current situation and the tasks of the proletariat, attitude to the Duma, armed uprising, the partisan movement, the trade unions, the nature of the Social Democratic organisations, and the Party rules. The Mensheviks lost no time in seizing the advantage afforded by their majority. In a report of the congress written in May 1906, Lenin recalls that:
The elections at the Congress took only a few minutes. Virtually, everything had been arranged before the general sessions. The Mensheviks took all five seats on the editorial board of the Central Organ. As for the Central Committee, we agreed to elect three persons to it, the other seven being Mensheviks. What the position of these three will be, as a kind of supervisors and guardians of the rights of the opposition, is something that only the future can tell. (LCW, Report on the Unity Congress of the RSDLP, vol. 10, p. 375.)
The Debate on the Land Question
Central to the whole discussion was the agrarian question – an issue upon which the whole fate of the Russian Revolution hinged. The experience of the revolution showed the inadequacy of the old agrarian programme based on the otrezki (the cut-off lands). Lenin was in favour of adopting a much more radical agrarian programme based on the slogan of confiscation of land from the feudal landowners. This slogan was absolutely central to Lenin’s perspectives for the Russian Revolution. It was the slogan of a ‘people’s revolution’ – a thoroughgoing revolutionary transformation, led by the working class in alliance with the poor peasants. The basic task would be a radical solution of the landlords’ estates land problem by means of a complete agrarian revolution leading to confiscation to be carried out by peasant committees to smash the power of the landlords and, depending on circumstances – i.e., triumph of the armed uprising – a democratic republic and the nationalisation of the land.
Lenin advocated a revolution to clear out all the accumulated rubbish of feudalism. It was based on the perspective of a revolutionary struggle against the autocracy and armed insurrection, not class collaboration with liberals and parliamentary cretinism. The Mensheviks opposed calling on peasants to seize the land in favour of pettifogging reformism of the worst kind. In place of the revolutionary initiative of the masses, they favoured parliamentary manoeuvres and deals with the liberals behind the backs of the masses. Their policy on the land question flowed from their general reformist line. In contrast, Lenin pointed out that the land question would be solved by revolutionary means or not at all. In opposition to the reformist demand for the municipalisation of land (presumably under the rule of the autocracy!), he put forward the demand for the nationalisation of the land. However, Lenin was careful to point out – contrary to the prejudice of the Narodniks, who mistakenly saw in this the overthrow of capitalism – that land nationalisation is a bourgeois demand, which does not in itself signify the abolition of bourgeois property, but only of landlord-feudal property. As to the class forces of the revolution, Lenin spelled this out a thousand times: the bourgeois liberals were a counter-revolutionary force. The bourgeois-democratic revolution could only be carried out by an alliance of workers and poor peasants (semi-proletarian masses of town and countryside). Actually, the nationalisation of the land in the context of the bourgeois-democratic revolution means the most radical ‘clearing of the decks’ for the free development of capitalism. Together with the revolutionary overthrow of the autocracy, and its replacement by a democratically elected Constituent Assembly, it would mean the establishment of a bourgeois democratic regime under the most favourable conditions for the working class. The possibility of carrying out the socialist revolution in backward Russia before Western Europe never occurred to Lenin – or anyone else at this time, except for Trotsky.
Plekhanov also adamantly rejected the demand for nationalisation. Resorting to demagogic arguments, Plekhanov accused Lenin of putting forward the same arguments of the Social Revolutionaries, and argued that the demand for the division of the landlords’ estates was reactionary:
I say that the peasant idea of a general distribution of the land is a reactionary feature. And precisely in view of this reactionary feature, which has been refuted throughout our whole political history, I pronounce myself against the nationalisation of the land. So how can this feature be cited in evidence against me? Lenin is looking at nationalisation through the eyes of a Social Revolutionary. He has even begun to take over their terminology – for example, he is holding forth about the notorious people’s creativity.
With his customary irony, he went on:
It is pleasant to recall old friends, but it is unpleasant to see Social Democrats defending Narodnik positions. The agrarian history of Russia is more similar to the history of India, Egypt, China and other Eastern despotisms, than to the history of Western Europe… In order to smash despotism, it is necessary to eliminate its economic basis. Therefore I am against nationalisation now; when we argued this against the Social Revolutionaries, Lenin found that my arguments were correct. Lenin says “we will render nationalisation harmless”, but, in order to render nationalisation harmless, it is necessary to find a guarantee against restoration; but such a guarantee does not exist and cannot exist. Remember the history of France; remember the history of Britain; in each of these countries after a broad revolutionary swing, restoration followed. The same thing can happen to us; and our programme must be such that in carrying it out, it must cause the least harm in the case of restoration.
And Plekhanov concludes:
And that is why I reject nationalisation. Lenin’s draft is closely linked to the utopia of the seizure of power by the revolutionaries, and that is why those of us who have no taste for such a utopia must speak out against it. Municipalisation is another matter. (Congress Minutes, Chertvyortiy S’yezd RSDRP, Protokoly, pp. 59-60 and pp. 60-61.)
Plekhanov’s comments at least had the merit of clarity. When he accuses Lenin of linking his radical agrarian programme to the seizure of power by the revolutionaries, he is not far from the truth, although he presents it in the form of a caricature. The essence of Lenin’s solution to the agrarian problem was precisely a revolution in which the proletariat would base itself on a thoroughgoing peasant revolution to overthrow tsarism and institute a democratic republic. This demanded that the party should stand for the most radical programme of revolutionary democratic demands, and above all a revolutionary solution to the land problem. By contrast, Plekhanov and the Mensheviks attempted to frighten the Party with the philistine idea that revolution inevitably produces counter-revolution. Here we have in an extreme form the notion that the working class must do nothing to ‘provoke’ the counter-revolution, and, by extension, must cling to the shirt tails of the liberals. Lenin answered that the only full guarantee against the danger of restoration was the complete victory of the revolution. In this little episode is encapsulated two entirely different perspectives, two entirely different psychologies even.
In his reply to the discussion on the agrarian question, Plekhanov summed up in a nutshell the Menshevik position. He accused Lenin of Blanquism:
This is how matters stand – between Lenin and me there are extremely serious differences of opinion. These differences must not be glossed over. They must be clarified in all their importance and extent. Our party is living through a serious moment. The decisions that you will take today or tomorrow on the disputed questions will determine to a significant extent the fate of our entire party and therefore of our entire country. And for that very reason, comrade Lenin’s draft expresses not only his private opinion on the agrarian question, but the whole character of his revolutionary thinking.
Blanquism or Marxism – that is the question which we will decide today. Comrade Lenin himself admitted that his agrarian draft was closely link to his idea of seizure of power. And I am very grateful for his sincerity.
Now comes the crunch. Plekhanov revealed the attitude of the Mensheviks towards the seizure of power by the workers and peasants with these words:
After 17 October the seizure of power ceased being a utopia, comrade Lenin? But you spoke of this even before 17 October, and just as before 17 October I answered you. 17 October changes nothing in our evaluation of the idea of the seizure of power. Our standpoint consists in this, that the seizure of power is compulsory for us when we are making a proletarian revolution. But since the revolution now impending can only be petty bourgeois, we are duty bound to refuse to seize power. (Ibid., p. 139 and p. 142.)
Such was the argument of the Mensheviks in 1906–7. The revolution was a bourgeois revolution: the tasks before it were bourgeois-democratic; the conditions for socialism were absent in Russia. Therefore, any attempt by the workers to seize power was adventurism; the task of the workers was to seek alliance with the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties, to assist them to carry through the bourgeois revolution.
What was Lenin’s reply to Plekhanov? He made no attempt to deny that the revolution was bourgeois-democratic, certainly not that it was possible to build socialism in Russia alone. All the Russian Marxists, the Mensheviks, Lenin, and Trotsky were agreed on these questions. It was ABC that the conditions for a socialist transformation were absent in Russia, but had matured in the West. Replying to Plekhanov’s dark warnings of “the danger of restoration”, Lenin explained:
If we mean a real, fully effective, economic guarantee against restoration, that is, a guarantee that would create the economic conditions precluding restoration, then we shall have to say: the only guarantee against restoration is a socialist revolution in the West. There can be no other guarantee in the full sense of the term. Without this condition, in whichever other way the problem is solved (municipalisation, division of the land, etc.) restoration will not only be possible but positively inevitable.
Thus, right from the start, Lenin conceived of the Russian Revolution as the prelude to the socialist revolution in the West. He tied the fate of the Russian Revolution in an indissoluble link with that of the international socialist revolution, without which it would inevitably succumb to internal reaction:
I would formulate this proposition as follows: the Russian Revolution can achieve victory by its own efforts, but it cannot possibly hold and consolidate its gains by its own strength. It cannot do this unless there is a socialist revolution in the West. Without this condition restoration is inevitable, whether we have municipalisation, or nationalisation, or division of the land: for under each and every form of possession and property the small proprietor will always be a bulwark of restoration. After the complete victory of the democratic revolution the small proprietor will inevitably turn against the proletariat; and the sooner the common enemies of the proletariat and of the small proprietors, such as the capitalists, the landlords, the financial bourgeoisie, and so forth are overthrown, the sooner will this happen. Our democratic republic has no other reserve than the socialist proletariat of the West. (LCW, Unity Congress of the RSDLP, vol. 10, p. 280 in both quotes, my emphasis.)
In his report of the Congress, Lenin commented:
The right wing of our Party does not believe in the complete victory of the present, i.e., bourgeois-democratic, revolution in Russia; it dreads such a victory, it does not emphatically and definitely put the slogan of such a victory before the people. It is constantly being misled by the essentially erroneous idea, which is really a vulgarisation of Marxism, that only the bourgeoisie can independently ‘make’ the bourgeois revolution, or that only the bourgeoisie should lead the bourgeois revolution. The role of the proletariat as the vanguard in the struggle for the complete and decisive victory of the bourgeois revolution is not clear to the right Social Democrats. (LCW, Report on the Unity Congress of the RSDLP, vol. 10, pp. 377-78.)
The differences between Bolshevism and Menshevism here stand out with complete clarity. And yet, there were differences and doubts among the Bolsheviks themselves on this issue. Among others, Suvorov, Bazarov, and also Stalin opposed nationalisation in favour of ‘sharing out’ the land among the peasants. This demand reflected a petty-bourgeois tendency, a thousand miles removed from Lenin’s position.
Since we are concluding a temporary revolutionary union with the struggling peasantry, since we cannot on that account ignore the demands of that peasantry, we must support those demands, if, as a whole and in general, they do not conflict with the tendencies of economic development and with the progress of the revolution. The peasants demand division; division is not inconsistent with the above-mentioned phenomena; therefore, we must support complete confiscation and division. From that point of view, both nationalisation and municipalisation are equally unacceptable. (J.V. Stalin in Congress Minutes, Chertvyortiy S’yezd RSDRP, Protokoly, p. 79.)
In order to defeat ‘municipalisation’, Lenin was forced to withdraw his own resolution and vote with the supporters of ‘division’. Under certain conditions, the division of the landlords’ estates would, of course, be a step forward, but Lenin’s demand for nationalisation was the only consistent revolutionary demand. In the end, the final resolution was an unsatisfactory compromise.
Bolshevism and Menshevism
The other debates served to underline the rightward drift of the Mensheviks. For example, they now opposed the slogan of arming the masses, and got their view adopted by Congress. Irrespective of the question of the appropriateness of armed struggle at the given moment, the Menshevik position clearly represented the abandonment of the revolutionary struggle in favour of reformist parliamentarism and class collaborationist politics, as shown by their position on the agrarian question and attitude to the Cadets. Trotsky later described the change in the attitude of the Mensheviks:
The Mensheviks, who a mere few weeks back had stood for a semi-boycott of the Duma, now transferred their hopes from the revolutionary struggle to constitutional conquests. At the time of the Stockholm Congress, the support of the liberals seemed to them the most important task of the Social Democracy. (L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 72.)
In his report on the Duma, Axelrod admitted that most Menshevik activists in Russia had initially supported boycott, but complained that this was leaving the field open to other parties. It was time to change the line. He undoubtedly had a point. But in politics it is possible to be right for the wrong reasons. At bottom, the Menshevik position amounted to a permanent striving for a deal with the Cadets. By contrast, the Bolsheviks proposed to take advantage of conflict between the Duma and the regime to deepen revolutionary crisis, while at the same time striving to expose the Cadets by implacable criticism and winning over the peasant representatives – the Trudoviks – to ‘firm them up’ and drive a wedge between them and the Cadets. While Lenin, in every article and every speech at this time, waged a relentless war against parliamentary cretinism, the Mensheviks placed all their hopes on the Duma. However, when Lenin spoke, while ridiculing Axelrod for his exaggerated expectations in the Duma, he made no mention of the boycott tactic itself. This is significant. Evidently, he maintained his earlier reservations, but felt constrained by factional ties, from expressing his views openly. It was left to Krassin to put the case for boycott to the delegates. But the Mensheviks used their majority to good use. Finally, the Congress voted to agree to allowing the party to participate in the elections to the Duma.
However, the Bolsheviks had their own problems. They took an incorrect position on the Duma, opposing the setting up of a Social Democratic parliamentary fraction. In this detail we already perceive the ultra-left trend in Bolshevism – anti-parliamentary cretinism – which was really the mirror image of parliamentary and legalistic illusions of the Mensheviks. Contrary to the accusations usually levelled at Lenin for his alleged ‘sectarianism’ and propensity for splitting, he consistently defended the unity of the party. When in the course of the Congress Lenin was accused of stating that it was impossible for Bolsheviks and Mensheviks to work together in one party, he indignantly rejected the accusation:
It is not true that I ‘supported’ comrade Vorobyov’s statement that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks cannot work together in one party. I did not in any way ‘support’ such an assertion, and do not share that opinion at all. (LCW, Unity Congress of RSDLP, Written Statement at the Twenty-sixth Session of the Congress, vol. 10, p. 309.)
In general, it must be said that the Bolsheviks behaved far better as a minority than the Martovites had done at the Second Congress. In contrast to the Martovites in 1903, Lenin loyally accepted the position of minority on the CC, which was completely dominated by Mensheviks. A novel aspect of the new CC was the presence of the representatives of the national Social Democratic organisations for the first time: the Poles, represented by Warski and Dzerzhinsky; the Letts, by Danishevsky; and the Bundists, by Abramovich and Kremer. Thus, albeit temporarily, the Mensheviks scored a victory at this Congress, held in conditions of gathering reaction. There were some small victories. On the Party statutes, Lenin’s draft of the first paragraph of the Rules was accepted, and essentially the principles of democratic centralism adopted. This was really not a controversial question, but regarded as self-evident, not only by the Bolsheviks but also by the Mensheviks (who were in the majority!). There were some differences on organisational issues, but they did not lead to any serious problems. The Bolsheviks insisted that the two-centre system (the parallel existence of a central committee and central organ) had outlived its usefulness. But the Mensheviks succeeded in maintaining it, and made sure they had complete control of the editorial board, which was made up exclusively of Mensheviks (Martov, Martynov, Maslov, Dan, and Potresov), while graciously allowing the Bolshevik minority three places on the Central Committee.
In some respects, the Fourth Congress did represent a step forward, notably in strengthening the Party with the inclusion of workers’ organisations from other nationalities. In his report back to the Congress, previously mentioned, Lenin states the following:
Summing up the work of the Congress and the effect it has had upon our party, we must draw the following main conclusions. An important practical result of the Congress is the proposed (partly already achieved) amalgamation with the national social democratic parties. This amalgamation will strengthen the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. It will help to efface the last traces of the old circle habits. It will infuse a new spirit into the work of the party. It will greatly strengthen the proletariat among all the peoples of Russia.
And he added:
Another important practical result was the amalgamation of the minority and majority groups. The split has been stopped. The Social Democratic proletariat and its Party must be united. Disagreements on organisation have been almost entirely eliminated. (LCW, Report on the Unity Congress of the RSDLP, vol. 10, p. 376.)
The Polish and Lithuanian Social Democrats joined the RSDLP, and conditions were drawn up for unity with the Latvian (Lettish) Social Democrats. The conditions for the Bund’s joining the Party were also established, but the congress firmly rejected any idea of organising the working class on national lines. Later in the year (in August) the Bund also voted to join the RSDLP. Lenin commented that:
[T]he RSDLP has become, at last, really all-Russian and united. The number of members of our party is now more than 100,000. 31,000 were represented at the Unity Congress, then in addition about 26,000 Polish Social Democrats, about 14,000 Lettish, and 33,000 Jewish.
Lenin’s figures were confirmed by the left Cadet newspaper Tovarishch which estimated the total number of members enrolled in the RSDLP at about 70,000 in October 1906. This figure includes both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. To this must be added a further 33,000 for the Bund, plus 28,000 for the Polish Social Democrats and 13,000 for the Letts. (See L. Schapiro, History of the CPSU, p. 72, footnote.)
However, the impressive membership figures cited above do not reveal the whole story. The growth in membership tells us something about the advanced layers of the workers and youth, but not the masses. The December defeat was a turning point for the working class. In reality, although the RSDLP continued to grow, its influence in the masses was beginning to decline. Exhaustion bred moods of apathy and pessimism. Although for a time the movement continued, borne along by its own momentum, Lenin’s hopes for an early recovery of the revolutionary movement did not correspond to the real situation. Trotsky explains:
It [the RSDLP] continued to grow in membership. But its influence on the masses declined. A hundred Social Democrats were no longer able to lead as many workers into the streets as ten Social Democrats had led the year before. (L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 88.)
The Peasants’ Revolt
The centre of revolutionary activity passed from the town to the village. In April, 47 cases of peasant disturbances were registered; in May, 160; but by June the figure increased to 739. This was close to the highest figure for autumn 1905. Half of European Russia, especially the Volga area, where the tradition of Stenka Razin and Pugachev still burned in the memory of the muzhik, the central Black Earth zone, the Ukraine, Poland, Tambov, and other regions all were engulfed by the flame of revolt. Landlords fled their estates as strike committees were formed in villages by rebellious agricultural labourers. An inevitable consequence of peasant revolution was the upsurge in guerrilla actions – the classical mode of struggle of the peasantry. Such activities were particularly common in Latvia (the ‘forest brotherhood’) and Georgia (the ‘Red Hundreds’). This situation posed a mortal danger for the tsarist regime, which found its principal point of support in the class of feudal landowners, the main target of the concentrated rage and hatred of the dispossessed masses. There was yet another reason to fear the revolt in the villages. Immediately, the peasant revolution had an echo in the army, where the truculent mood of the troops, demoralised by defeat and aroused by the example of the workers in the towns, expressed itself in a new wave of mutinies and uprisings.
Under these conditions, the military policy of the Party still had a key role to play, and still more so its agrarian policy, as Lenin clearly understood. About 50 RSDLP committees had special military organisations and groups. On the party’s military organisation in Moscow, Piatnitsky writes:
A military technical bureau was attached to the Moscow Committee; this bureau was responsible for the invention, testing and production in great quantities, whenever necessary, of simple arms, including bombs; and with this the bureau was occupied all the time. The military technical bureau was completely isolated from the Moscow organisation, and was connected with the Moscow Committee only through the secretary of the committee. (O. Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, p. 104.)
The strongest of the military organisations, however, was in Petersburg. According to Leonard Schapiro, the Party still “maintained a wide network of organisations among the soldiers, and published some 20 illegal soldiers’ periodicals and newspapers”. (L. Schapiro, History of the CPSU, p. 99.) Some agitation was carried out in the army and navy with special publications like Kazarma (Barracks) and Soldatskaya Zhizn’ (Soldiers’ Life). The party conducted an energetic campaign among the army recruits, asking them not to fire on their brothers, but to come over to the side of the workers, bringing their arms with them. March 1906 saw the first Conference of Military and Fighting Organisations. But on the first day all the delegates were arrested. The first real conference took place on 16 November, 1906, in the relative safety of Tammerfors in Finland. Although Lenin certainly hoped that the movement in the villages might provide the spark that would reignite the revolution, he nevertheless argued continually for caution, against undue haste, against adventurism, seeing the dangers involved in premature and ill-prepared action. Lenin’s revolutionary optimism was always tempered with a healthy dose of realism, based upon a sober-minded appraisal of the situation. It would never have crossed his mind to launch the slogan of guerrilla war by a minority, as later became the fashion and led to defeat after defeat, especially in Latin America.
Like any other tactic, guerrilla war was always strictly subordinated to the needs of the mass movement of the working class. This did not mean that the Bolsheviks neglected work among other layers, such as the students and the peasants. On the contrary, the RSDLP attempted to conduct work among the peasants. Piatnitsky reports that in only eight months in 1906 the party’s illegal printing press in Moscow published four leaflets directed at the peasants with a total run of 140,000 copies, in addition to a further 20,000 copies of the party’s agrarian programme. The goal was still armed insurrection:
In 1906 and the first half of 1907, the entire work of the Moscow organisation was carried on with the approaching mass proletarian and peasant movement which would culminate in an armed struggle against tsarism. (O. Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, p. 106.)
Nevertheless, the Party’s influence among the peasants remained weak. Social Democratic propaganda found only a feeble echo among the peasants right up to 1917. The great majority of peasants, insofar as they possessed any political allegiance, looked to one or other of the ‘Narodnik’ parties – either the SRs, or, to an even greater extent, the Trudoviks. It was this layer that the autocracy was attempting to ensnare with promises of an agrarian reform. The First Congress of the Social Revolutionaries was held from 29 December, 1905, to 4 January, 1906. The political line was the usual eclectic mixture of utopian socialism (the idealisation of the peasant commune, the obshchina which would allegedly allow Russia to bypass capitalism and establish ‘socialism in one country’ in defiance of the laws of social and economic development) and ultra-leftism. The SRs had the illusion that the peasant commune could serve as the basis for socialism in Russia, not realising that it was the basis of tsarist autocracy, as the Trudovik Kerensky points out:
In demanding the ‘nationalisation’ or ‘socialisation’ of the land, the Narodniks had been certain that the peasants would easily shift from the communal to the cooperative system of land tenure. In actual fact, however, the peasant commune of that time had very little in common with the ideal commune as imagined by the Slavophiles and Narodniks. From the administrative standpoint, the commune was very convenient for police control – as Witte put it, for keeping the peasants under surveillance like little children – and also for collecting taxes, since defaulters were paid for by the rest of the commune on a pro rata basis. The authorities turned the commune into a bulwark of economic backwardness and gradually drained it of its vitality. Furthermore, compulsory membership in the commune was always a sore point among the peasants themselves. (A. Kerensky, Memoirs, p. 96.)
The tactical questions that concentrated the attention of Lenin and his collaborators at the time – boycott of elections, guerrilla warfare, etc. – were closely linked to the perspective for a revival of the revolution, and the possibility that the peasant movement might give an impulse to the movement of the workers in the cities. The apparently theoretical discussions at the Fourth Congress on the agrarian question were but a pale reflection of a stark reality. The peasants’ rebellion was on the upswing. Month by month the violent outbursts in the villages increased in number and intensity. For all these reasons, the agrarian question inevitably occupied a central importance in the activities of the State Duma.
In order to bring about the complete liquidation of the revolutionary movement, tsarism combined murderous repression with deceit, by offering a new electoral law which slightly increased the franchise, while still excluding more than 50 per cent of the adult population – women, all under 25 years, those in military service, workers in small factories, landless peasants, etc. On 23 April, the new electoral norms were published. The franchise was blatantly rigged in favour of the landlords. In the curiae, there was one landlord elector for every 2,000 population, while the ratio for the peasants was 1:7,000, and for the workers 1:90,000. In Perm province, for example, one landlord vote was equivalent to that of 28 peasants and 56 workers. The voting system was also indirect, with a complicated system of voting commissions (curiae) set up to ‘represent’ the different social estates – workers, peasants, landlords – voting for ‘electors’, who would then elect the members of the State Duma. In his memoirs, Kerensky says this about the electoral laws:
The new electoral law was complex, and it violated every canon of democratic procedure. Deputies were elected by provincial colleges consisting of delegates chosen separately by four groups (curias): landowners, the urban population, peasants, and, in a few districts, factory workers. One mandatory delegate to the Duma was elected by each curia, and the rest of the deputies were elected by the provincial college as a whole. (Ibid., p. 84.)
While the feudal landlords ruled the roost, the peasants were given a relatively privileged position vis-à-vis the workers. In typical Bonapartist fashion, the regime tried to lean on the peasantry (especially the rich, or ‘strong’ peasant) against the working class. The peasant representation in the Duma was therefore relatively high: around 45 per cent of the seats. This reflected the autocracy’s awareness of its own social isolation, and its overwhelming desire to gain a solid base of mass support in the more conservative layers of the rural population. For as long as anyone could remember, the Tsar had posed as the ‘Little Father’ – the Batyushka – of the People, an illusion which was traditionally shared by the Russian muzhik, who, in his hour of need, would sigh; ‘Bog vysoko; Tsar’ daleko’ (‘God is in heaven, and the Tsar is far away’). The diaries of Nicholas II show that he himself was convinced that the ‘People’ (i.e., the peasants) adored him – right up to the moment when they overthrew him and his dynasty. 9 January, 1905, drew a line of blood between the autocracy and the urban working class. The dream of erecting an impregnable bulwark around the monarchy in the shape of a loyal class of small peasant proprietors persisted and formed the very soul and substance of the Stolypin reaction. But by giving a voice – however distorted and tremulous – to the peasantry in the Duma, the autocracy unwittingly created a stick for its own back and provided a lever for the revolutionary socialist wing to exploit.
In addition to a rigged franchise, the rights of the Duma were severely restricted. Parts of the budget could not be discussed. Loans and currency were exclusively the competence of the Minister of Finance. The army and navy, of course, were under the personal control of the Tsar. The Council of Ministers, hitherto nominated by the monarch, was broadened to include an equal number of elected ministers, and, under the title of senate, was turned into an upper chamber with equal rights to the Duma! This gigantic swindle was the handiwork of Count Witte, who further displayed his usefulness to the Tsar by negotiating a sizeable loan from France.
To Boycott, or Not to Boycott?
At the Tammerfors Conference of the Bolsheviks, which took place while the Moscow uprising was reaching its bloody dénouement, the Bolshevik leaders had debated their attitude to the forthcoming elections to the Duma. The general mood was overwhelmingly in favour of a boycott. Yet Lenin struck a note of caution. When it came to the vote, two votes were cast against the boycott proposal – Lenin and Gorev. This provoked an outburst of indignation by the other delegates, which compelled Lenin to abandon his opposition. Not for the first or last time, he was forced to take into account the mood of the leading layer against his better judgement. His new stance was greeted by stormy applause, although, as he ruefully quipped, he was “retreating in full military order”. (Quoted in R. Service, Lenin: A Political Life, p. 149.)
The boycottists were strongest among that layer of committeemen, including Stalin, who was attending his first party meeting abroad, who considered that their practical knowledge of the situation in Russia was sufficient to place them on a superior plane to the party theoreticians, even to Lenin himself. In another session, the Tammerfors Conference voted for the reunification of the RSDLP. A fourth Party Congress should be convened, and preliminary measures should begin forthwith to unite the two factions on the basis of parity. Local committees should combine their activities, and committees should everywhere be elected from below and should be accountable to the lower echelons. However, democratic centralism should be applied and, once elected, the committees should be accorded “the entire fullness of power in the matter of ideological and practical leadership”. (KPSS v rezoluitsiakh, vol. 1, p. 136.)
Immediately after, meetings were held between the representatives of both tendencies, attended by both Lenin and Martov, to hammer out the obstacles to unity and convene the Fourth Party Congress. On the issue of boycotting the Duma, the Mensheviks gave way to the case for boycott, insistently put by the Bolsheviks. They were still under the impact of the recent events, and, anyway, were themselves suspicious of the Duma. However, by the time the Congress came around, they were already cooling off. After the December defeat, it was undoubtedly necessary to revise the party’s tactics to take account of the new situation. Having failed to take the enemies’ positions by direct assault, it was necessary to resort to siege tactics, making use of all legal possibilities to rally the workers around the revolutionary programme. To boycott parliament in such circumstances was a serious mistake. Trotsky points out that:
It is permissible to boycott representative assemblies only in the event that the mass movement is sufficiently strong either to overthrow them or to ignore them. But when the masses are in retreat the tactic of boycott loses its revolutionary meaning. (L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 98.)
There were heated internal discussions on tactics in relation to the boycott question. This debate throws into sharp focus the gulf separating Bolshevism and Menshevism. The Mensheviks with their customary inclination towards opportunism rapidly drew the conclusion that the revolution was over and that it was time to turn to the parliamentary arena. However, they faced considerable difficulty in persuading the party rank and file. They also originally refused to participate in elections, but then changed their position to one of a ‘semi-boycott’, linked to the confused and essentially meaningless slogan of ‘revolutionary self-government’. Lenin scornfully denounced their vacillations. “They do not believe in the revolution and they do not believe in the Duma,” he commented. Plekhanov, now on the right wing of the Mensheviks, advocated participation without more ado.
In spite of the increasingly ferocious repression, the Party was still able to function. Meetings still took place, in which tactical questions were hotly debated. The general mood of the Party members was still strongly against participating in elections to the Duma at this stage. On 11 February, at a Petersburg united Party conference, including both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Lenin led off on the party’s attitude to the Duma. Dan and Martov, representing the Mensheviks, spoke against. A second Conference approved Lenin’s position of ‘active boycott’. In later years Lenin honestly admitted that this position was a mistake, but at the time it undoubtedly reflected the prevailing mood of the activists. The reactionary nature of the Duma was evident, not only to the Bolsheviks, but to the majority of Social Democrats. The mood of the majority of Social Democrats throughout the country seems to have been strongly inclined to boycott. The lava of revolution had not yet cooled, so that not only the Bolsheviks, but also the Polish and Latvian Social Democrats, the Lithuanian and even the normally conservative Bund favoured the boycott tactic. Even many Mensheviks were ambivalent. But this mood of the party activists was out of step with the mood of the masses.
On the dispute over participation in the Duma elections in 1906, Eva Broido recalls how the RSDLP, in effect, stumbled into the Duma, almost unexpectedly:
The Bolsheviks were against, the Mensheviks for participation. In the end they agreed that the party should participate only in the first stage of the elections – that of the electoral colleges (there was no direct vote). In this way the party hoped to exploit the elections for the purposes of propaganda and agitation, particularly among the workers. In the event things turned out differently. Where the Mensheviks had a big majority, as in the Caucasus, the party went right through with the elections and returned several members to the Duma. In addition, several members who had been elected as independents now joined the Social Democrats. The party was thus represented in the Duma and had to define its attitude to current political events.
And she adds:
Moreover – and this was contrary to Bolshevik predictions – the Duma at once became a focus of public interest and concern, even among the working class. It was no longer possible simply to ignore the Duma – and we Mensheviks were convinced that we ought to make the fullest possible use of this opportunity of publicly proclaiming our socialist message to the whole country. (E. Broido, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, pp. 130-1.)
In the spring of 1906, elections were held for the first Duma. Given the relatively wide franchise offered by the October Manifesto, there was the potential for a successful campaign by the Social Democrats. Under this system, as we have seen, the workers voted separately through the system of electoral commissions known as ‘curiae’, which elected representatives in the following way. The elections were held in three stages: first, the workers elected representatives at a factory level; the latter then elected the ‘electors’; and finally the ‘electors’ elected the Duma deputies. Factories employing from 50 to 1,000 workers elected one representative. Bigger factories elected one for every 1,000 workers, and factories with fewer than 50 workers were excluded from voting. Paradoxically, the fact that the elections were indirect, which in itself was an undemocratic feature, also gave the Social Democrats an opening which they would not have had under a more normal system of voting, since they could concentrate their energies in a campaign in the workers’ curiae, their ‘natural constituency’.
The Bolshevik position was based on the expectation of an imminent new revolutionary upturn. But that was a misreading of the situation. The more advanced workers felt the need for a revolutionary party, but the masses were increasingly falling into apathy and passivity. It is a well-established fact that the mood of the most active and militant layer of workers can often be at variance with that of the rest of the class. The advanced guard can move too far ahead of the class. This is as bad a mistake in the class struggle as would be the analogous mistake in military tactics. If the advanced guard moves too far ahead and loses contact with the rear, it becomes seriously exposed and runs the risk of being chopped to pieces. This is equally true when the most militant layer, out of impatience, misjudges the mood of the workers, or confuses its own level of understanding with that of the majority. So it was in this case.
The Bolsheviks had misread the situation, and failed to appreciate that the revolution was in retreat. As in war, so in a revolution or even a strike, it is necessary to be able to retreat in good order when the situation demands it. To sound the advance when objective conditions demand a retreat is a recipe for disaster. In the event, the tactic of the active boycott failed to have any effect. The real nature of the Duma was by no means evident to the masses. Constitutional illusions were especially strong among the peasants, who believed they could get land. But the victory of the counter-revolution and the ebbing of the mass movement meant that, for broad layers of urban petty bourgeois masses, and the peasantry, and even a layer of the working class, the Duma remained the only hope, however tenuous, for some prospect of amelioration. The fact that such hopes were devoid of any rational basis did not make them any less persistent.
So long as Lenin continued to believe in the imminence of a new revolutionary upturn, he placed all his emphasis on the goal of armed insurrection: “The revolutionary Social Democracy,” he wrote in October 1906, “must be the first to take its place in the most resolute and the most direct struggle and the last to resort to the most roundabout methods of struggle.” In other words, his attitude to participation in even the most reactionary of parliaments was dictated, not by abstract principles or dogmatism, but by the demands of the revolution. For the whole period from 1906 to the outbreak of the First World War, the question of whether the Social Democrats should participate in the elections to the tsarist Duma, elected on the basis of what Lenin described as the most reactionary electoral law in Europe, was at the heart of the controversies on tactics and strategy that agitated the Party. Years later, in his classic “Left Wing” Communism, Lenin explained his position at that time:
When, in August 1905, the Tsar proclaimed the convocation of a consultative ‘parliament’, the Bolsheviks called for its boycott, in the teeth of all the opposition parties and the Mensheviks, and the ‘parliament’ was in fact swept away by the revolution of October 1905. The boycott proved correct at the time, not because non-participation in reactionary parliaments is correct in general, but because we accurately appraised the objective situation, which was leading to the rapid development of the mass strikes first into a political strike, then into a revolutionary strike, and finally into an uprising. Moreover, the struggle centred at that time on the question of whether the convocation of the first representative assembly should be left to the Tsar, or an attempt should be made to wrest its convocation from the old regime. When there was not, and could not be, any certainty that the objective situation was of a similar kind, and when there was no certainty of a similar trend and the same rate of development, the boycott was no longer correct.
The Bolsheviks’ boycott of ‘parliament’ in 1905 enriched the revolutionary proletariat with highly valuable political experience and showed that, when legal and illegal, parliamentary and non-parliamentary forms of struggle are combined, it is sometimes useful and even essential to reject parliamentary forms. It would, however, be highly erroneous to apply this experience blindly, imitatively, and uncritically to other conditions and other situations. The Bolsheviks’ boycott of the Duma in 1906 was a mistake, although a minor and easily remediable one. The boycott of the Duma in 1907, 1908, and subsequent years was a most serious error and difficult to remedy, because, on the one hand, a very rapid rise of the revolutionary tide and its conversion into an uprising was not to be expected, and, on the other hand, the entire historical situation attendant upon the renovation of the bourgeois monarchy called for legal and illegal activities being combined. (LCW, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, vol. 31, pp. 35-36.)
The same point was made by Trotsky: “The boycott is a declaration of outright war against the old government, a direct attack against it. Barring a widespread revolutionary revival… there can be no talk of the boycott’s success.” Much later, in 1920, he wrote: “It was an error… for the Bolsheviks to have boycotted the Duma in 1906.” And Trotsky adds: “It was an error, because after the December defeat it was impossible to expect a revolutionary attack in the near future; it was therefore senseless to spurn the Duma’s tribune for mobilising the revolutionary ranks.” (L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 93.)
Hanging over all this discussion on the Duma was the far more fundamental question of the attitude of the workers’ party to the liberals. In the aftermath of the December events, there were clear indications of a shift in the mood of the contending classes. The workers were thrown onto the defensive everywhere. The December events also marked a decisive shift in the attitude of the liberals. The Cadets had already turned their backs on the revolution in October 1905. The Moscow uprising finally eradicated any last lingering sympathies they might have entertained for the revolutionary proletariat. Now they emerged in their true colours. The bourgeoisie to a man (and woman) united in opposition to December ‘madness’. It was, of course, not the first time in history that we have seen such a phenomenon. Exactly the same thing occurred in the 1848 revolution, as Marx and Engels explained.
The typical style of the liberals in the period of reaction was to appeal for reform to prevent revolution, calling on the state to ‘save itself’. Needless to say, such well-meaning advice was met by contemptuous guffaws from the Octobrist benches. The hypocritical whining of the liberals about the ‘excesses’ of the counter-revolution were merely intended as friendly advice to the autocracy on the best method of strangling the revolution. Quite clearly, it is far better to strangle a person in such a way that he or she makes the least possible noise and fuss. But on the need for the strangling to be carried out, there could be no two opinions! This, in essence, was the difference between the two counter-revolutionary bourgeois blocs. The Cadets began to call themselves the ‘party of the people’s freedom’. The better to deceive the people and put an end to the revolution which had terrified them. The attitude to the Cadets constituted the fundamental dividing line between the Social Democrats, the Mensheviks advocating blocs and agreements with the Cadets in the Duma, while Lenin reserved his most bitter invective for these counter-revolutionary liberals.
The counter-revolutionary conduct of the liberals was no accident. The weak Russian bourgeoisie was tied by a thousand threads to the feudal aristocracy, by marriage, social origin, or direct ownership of land. According to a contemporary study by N. A. Borodin, The State Duma in Figures, out of the 153 Cadets in the First Duma, 92 were of the nobility. Of these, three owned landed estates between 5,000 and 10,000 dessiatines; eight owned estates from 1,000 to 2,000 dessiatines; and 30 owned estates from 500 to 1,000 dessiatines. Thus, about one-third of the Cadet deputies were actually big landowners. (See LCW, vol. 12, p. 532, note.) How could such people offer a solution to the most pressing problem facing Russia – the agrarian question? Despite their ‘progressive’ protestations, on all the basic issues, the liberals in the Duma were far closer to the tsarist regime than to the workers and peasants.
The bourgeois liberals effectively split into two camps in the Duma, represented by the Right ‘Octobrists’ and the ‘Left’ (Constitutional Democrats, or Cadets as they became popularly known). But although they were formally opposed as ‘reactionaries’ and ‘liberals’, the differences between them were more apparent than real. In relation to the revolutionary proletariat and peasantry, they stood firmly united in a single counter-revolutionary bloc representing the interests of order and property. While enthusiastically supporting the smashing of the revolution, the latter were not averse to leaning on the mass movement to put pressure on the regime to grant concessions. But not when the masses looked like challenging them for power. The bourgeois liberals who had already sold their soul to the autocracy (alleging that it had been miraculously transformed into a ‘Constitutional Monarchy’) immediately took their rightful place in the camp of ‘parliamentary’ reaction, where they remained as His Majesty’s loyal opposition, a mere fig leaf for the counter-revolution. The question of the attitude of the Social Democracy to the bourgeois parties from this point on became the central question for the revolutionaries.
On 27 April (10 May), 1906, a hot summer’s day, the first State Duma opened its doors in the magnificent Tauride Palace, the former palace of Catherine the Great’s favourite, Potemkin. In a stately hall, flanked by dukes and courtiers in full regalia, the elected representatives of the people listened respectfully to the opening speech of Tsar Nicholas. A colourful and somewhat incongruous spectacle greeted the eyes of one English observer who captured it for posterity:
Peasants in their long black coats, some of them wearing military medals and crosses; popes (i.e., priests), Tartars, Poles, men in every kind of dress except uniform… You see dignified old men in frock coats, aggressively democratic-looking ‘intelligents’, with long hair and pince-nez; a Polish bishop dressed in purple, who looks like the Pope; men without collars; members of the proletariat, men in loose Russian shirts with belts; men dressed by Davies or Poole, and men dressed in the costume of two centuries ago… There is a Polish member who is dressed in light blue tights, a short Eton jacket and Hessian boots. He has curly hair, and looks exactly like the hero of the Cavalleria Rusticana. There is another Polish member who is dressed in a long white flannel coat reaching to his knees… There are some socialists who wear no collars and there is, of course, every kind of headdress you can conceive. (M. Baring, A Year in Russia, London, pp. 191-92, p. 202. Quoted by L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, p. 121.)
The extremely heterogeneous composition of the Duma is here vividly conveyed. Here at last was a genuine cross section of Russian society all together under one roof, ready to solve the problems of society through democratic discussion and good will! But beneath the glitter and ceremony there was an invisible fault line. The Tsar’s mother suffered such a shock at the sight of the great unwashed that for several days she was unable to compose herself. “They looked on us as so many enemies,” she later confided to the Minister of Finance, “and I could not stop myself from looking at certain faces, so much did they seem to reflect a strange hatred for us all.” (Quoted in O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, p. 214.) The right-wing parties did not do well in the elections, and only 12 Octobrists (right-wing liberals) were returned. The Cadets benefited from the boycott of the Social Democrats. Posing as the only left alternative, they won 184 seats. Confusion on the attitude to the Duma elections cost the Social Democrats dear. The RSDLP had attempted to boycott the elections, and then, when it became clear that the masses were participating, did a hasty about-face, but too late to recover lost ground. In effect, they had helped the Cadets. If the Social Democrats and SRs had put up candidates, the Cadet result would have been nothing like this, as was later shown in the following elections.
The mistaken tactic of the Social Democrats handed the Cadets effective control of the Duma on a plate. Puffed up with their own importance, they immediately put forward the proposal that a government should be formed that would be answerable to the Duma, as opposed to the accepted system whereby the Tsar appointed the government, which was answerable to him alone. This was, in effect, a demand that power should pass to the Cadets. True to their parliamentary illusions, the Mensheviks supported the Liberals’ demand, while the Bolsheviks opposed it as playing with parliament. Even from a purely democratic point of view, this was not a demand that could be supported by a revolutionary party worthy of the name. So long as there was no equal, direct, and universal suffrage in Russia, the Duma was not representative of the people. To support the parliamentary manoeuvres of the Cadets would be to create illusions in the minds of the people that such a government would be better than the undemocratic tsarist governments that had gone before. But this was not the case. The bourgeoisie wanted only to strike a bargain with the monarchy, while the revolutionary party of the working class wanted to sweep it away and replace it with a genuinely democratic government. The two aims were incompatible and that expressed itself in antagonistic tactics. The conflict over Duma tactics immediately split the RSDLP into two wings. ‘For or against the government of the Constitutional Democrats?’ That was the question which was put to a party referendum.
In the course of the campaign around the referendum, the Menshevik Eva Broido describes a meeting at the Baltic Shipbuilding Wharf in Petersburg, a Menshevik stronghold, where Lenin spoke:
Declaring the meeting open I gave Lenin the floor. He spoke very well and with great elation. His speech was often interrupted by applause. And to my surprise he did not once attack the Mensheviks. (E. Broido, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, p. 132.)
Lenin lost the vote by a big majority, 50 to 13, but this shows his style in party polemics, especially when dealing with workers. Broido confessed her astonishment. Was this the same Lenin that had so sharply broken with Martov and Plekhanov? Yet in a debate before the workers who are under Menshevik influence, “he did not once attack the Mensheviks”. This tells us a lot about Lenin’s method of argument.
Although the text of Lenin’s speech at the shipyards has not been preserved, it is not hard to imagine its content. He would have attacked, not the Menshevik leaders, but the main enemy – the landlords and capitalists and the tsarist regime; he would have explained that the so-called liberals in the Duma, the Cadets, had turned their backs on the revolution and were striving for a deal with tsarism; he would have called upon the workers to rely only on their own strength, not to get entangled with alliances and deals with the treacherous liberals; and he would have demanded that the RSDLP – the workers’ party – stick firmly to a policy of class independence. Lenin always relied upon the strength of his case – facts, figures, and arguments – in order to convince his audience. Only by such means did he eventually win over the majority, first of the active layers, then of the working class as a whole. The same methods were used in 1917, when Lenin directed the Bolshevik Party to win the masses with the famous slogan ‘Patiently explain!’
Although the Duma was dominated by the Cadets, they were not the largest parliamentary group. There was, for reasons explained already, a sizeable bloc of peasant deputies – 200 in all. Some thought that this would be a factor for stability. The illusion of the god-fearing, pro-tsarist muzhik was still strong in upper-class circles: “Thank heaven!” exclaimed Count Witte, “the Duma will be predominantly peasant.” But this optimism was premature. The muzhik was becoming conscious of his interests. A big section of the peasant deputies organised themselves as the ‘Labour Group’ (the ‘Trudovaya Gruppa’ or ‘Trudoviks’ as they became known). Lenin immediately grasped the significance of this. The peasants had sent their representatives to the Duma, not to make speeches but to get the land. They would soon discover in practice that the Duma was powerless to solve their most pressing needs. In the meantime, the Social Democrats must try by all means to establish a firm link with the peasant deputies, whose contradictory psychology was described by Lenin thus:
[The typical Trudovik is a peasant who] is not averse to a compromise with the monarchy, to settling down quietly on his own plot of land under the bourgeois system; but at the present time his main efforts are concentrated on the fight against the landlords for land, on the fight against the feudal state, and for democracy. (LCW, An Attempt at a Classification of the Political Parties of Russia, vol. 11, p. 229.)
The Bolsheviks’ tactic consisted in trying to win away the Trudoviks from the influence of the Cadets. But such a tactic necessarily entailed the skilful utilisation of parliament. The boycott tactic had failed. It was necessary to adapt the Party’s tactics to the prevailing conditions if it was not to be reduced to an impotent sect cut off from the masses. By skilfully combining legal and illegal work, it would be possible to get the best of both worlds. Revolutionaries could make use of such legal openings that were still available, and supplement this work with illegal activities. What could not be said in the pages of the legal press and from the tribune of the Duma, could be printed in the underground papers. The work of the Social Democratic deputies in the Duma could be publicised in legal papers such as Volna, Vperyod, and Ekho, which exposed the fraudulent character of this pseudo-parliament and the sell-outs of the liberals.
For the Mensheviks the Duma became the centre of all attention. This reformist deviation was immediately noticeable in the declaration of the Social Democratic Duma Fraction of 16 July, which asserted that the Duma “can become the centre of the movement of the entire people against the autocratic police state”. (Quoted in the Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, p. 202.) There began an uninterrupted series of clashes between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks over the issue of the attitude to the Duma. The Menshevik-dominated Central Committee sent out a circular to all RSDLP branches asking them to support all steps taken by the Duma (that is, the Cadets) to change Goremykin, the chairman of the Council of Ministers, for a Cadet. The Bolsheviks immediately protested against this tail-ending of the liberals in the Duma. To this the Mensheviks replied that it was necessary to support the progressive bourgeoisie (i.e., the Cadets) against the Ministry. Lenin answered that the Party’s parliamentary representatives must maintain complete independence from all other parties, especially the bourgeois liberals. “Rely on your own strength,” he said to them. “Only in this way can we win over lower, oppressed strata of revolutionary petty bourgeoisie (Trudoviks), and split them away from the Liberals (Cadets).”
The Cadets’ ministerial ambitions, and their burning desire to save the autocracy from itself, soon brought them into collision with the ruling Ministry. In effect, they were saying to the Tsar: “See, your ministers cannot be relied on to defend the old order. You need new men, people who enjoy the trust of the masses. Only we can keep the masses in check. But you must move over and share power with us.” But by now the powers-that-be had recovered from their initial alarm. They were getting the situation under control with the aid of the bullet and the noose. The services of the liberals were no longer required. Determined to eradicate the last vestiges of the gains of the revolution, the court clique went onto the offensive. Even the timid resistance of the Duma was too much for Nicholas to tolerate.
On 13 May, 1906, the government rejected the demands of the Cadet Duma stated in its Address. In reply the Duma passed a resolution expressing ‘no confidence’ in the Ministry and insisting on its resignation. The Menshevik CC of the RSDLP circulated to the Party organisations a resolution proposing to support the Cadet Duma’s demand for a Duma – that is a Cadet – ministry. The opportunism of the Mensheviks in the Duma was too much for the Party members to stomach. The Bolsheviks succeeded in getting the Party to condemn Milyukov’s Duma tactics. In Petersburg the Party organisation voted 1760 for the Bolsheviks, 952 for the Mensheviks on this issue. At its July Conference, the Petersburg party organisations confirmed this position. After a debate in which Lenin spoke for the Bolsheviks and Dan for the Mensheviks, the Petersburg Social Democrats specifically rejected the call for a Duma Ministry. Despite this, the Social Democratic parliamentary fraction continued its conciliationist stance by supporting a Cadet resolution on the agrarian question.
Lenin poured scorn on the liberals’ Duma antics:
The Duma is powerless. It is powerless not only because it lacks the bayonets and machine guns that the government has at its command, but also because, as a whole, it is not revolutionary, and is incapable of waging a resolute struggle. (LCW, Resolution (II) of the St. Petersburg Committee of the RSDLP on the Attitude Towards the State Duma, vol. 10, p. 481.)
Lenin was soon shown to be correct. The Duma foundered precisely on the land question. Far from being a solid basis for reaction, the Trudovik peasants used their position in the Duma to agitate for peasants’ rights. The question of taking over the landlords’ estates was raised in the Duma, to the horror of the Tsar. “What belongs to the landlord belongs to him,” was his angry comment. It spelled the end for the first Duma. Irritated by the radical-sounding speeches emanating from the halls of the Tauride palace, the Tsar had already decided to put an end to this circus.
The Duma Dissolved
Into this turbulent scenario stepped the flamboyant Pyotr Arkadyevich Stolypin, then Minister of Interior, and from this point on, one of the key players of the period. A wealthy landlord with big political ambitions, Stolypin owned two estates, one in Penza province with 2,850 acres, and another in Kovno, with a further 2,500 acres. In addition, his wife, the daughter of a high official of the imperial household, owned another 14,000 acres in Kazan. He therefore had plenty of reasons for interesting himself in the land question. Although he is generally described as a progressive reformer, Stolypin had earned the Tsar’s confidence by his application of the most brutal measures of repression during the period of ‘pacification’ following the 1905 Revolution.
His draconian measures in suppressing one of the most turbulent of the Volga provinces in 1905–6 made him notorious. His own words are suggestive: of one action against the peasants he reported to the Ministry of the Interior, “the whole village, almost, went to prison on my instructions… I billeted Cossacks in the houses of the worst offenders, left there a squadron of Orenburgers, and imposed a special regime on the village”. (L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, p. 123.)
Stolypin’s reputation with the people is shown by the fact that a hangman’s noose was referred to as a ‘Stolypin necktie’, and as late as the 1930s, railway trucks used to carry political prisoners to Siberia were still referred to as ‘Stolypin carriages’. However, he was undoubtedly one of the few really competent men among the Tsar’s advisers in the period before 1914, until he was removed by an assassin’s bullet. Kerensky characterises this consummate and skilful reactionary as follows:
Just before the first Duma was due to meet, a new Minister of the Interior was appointed in St. Petersburg. This was the governor of Saratov, Peter A. Stolypin, who was hardly known to anyone at the time of the appointment. In less than three months, just after the dissolution of the Duma on 8 July, 1906, he was appointed chairman of the Council of Ministers… Of provincial upper-class origin, he was not a member of the St. Petersburg court set and had never been employed in any of the higher government establishments of the capital. The whole of his career had been spent in the provinces, where he had no lack of connections among prominent public and Zemstvo figures… He did not share the view of his predecessor Goremykin that the Duma was merely an idle ‘talking-shop’. On the contrary, unlike the hidebound and soulless bureaucrat, Goremykin, he was strongly attracted by the role of a constitutional minister. The idea of making speeches in parliament, openly debating vital issues with the opposition, and governing the country on the basis of his government majority appealed to him greatly.
The fighting spirit lacked by the St. Petersburg officials was more than compensated for by Stolypin. The Tsar liked Stolypin for his youth, self-confidence, devotion to the throne, and readiness to carry out the Tsar’s plan for illegal changes in the electoral law. The heads of the Council of United Gentry saw in him one of their own kind who would save the system of upper-class land proprietorship from destruction. The Octobrists and various other moderate constitutionalists, frightened by the excesses of the revolution, clutched at him as a drowning man clutches at a straw. They welcomed his programme, which was intended to unify the government with the moderately liberal and conservative public, thus strengthening the constitutional monarchy and eliminating for good the revolutionary movement. They thought of him as a Russian Thiers (the man who consolidated the bourgeois Third Republic in France after the defeat of the Commune in 1871). (A. Kerensky, The Kerensky Memoirs: Russia and History’s Turning Point, pp. 94-95.)
Shortly before the dissolution of the Duma, Nicholas had appointed this “strong man” as chairman of the Council of Ministers in place of the “hidebound and soulless” Goremykin. At first, Stolypin, in a show of uncharacteristic modesty, refused to accept the honour, whereupon the Tsar instructed him to kneel before his favourite icon. “Let us make the sign of the cross over ourselves and let us ask the lord to help us both in this difficult, perhaps historic, moment.” After this brief consultation with the Almighty, Nicholas then got down to serious business: “On what day would it be best to dissolve the Duma and what instructions do you propose to give to ensure order, chiefly in St. Petersburg and Moscow?” With the help of the Almighty, the date of the coup was fixed for Sunday 9 (21) July.
The Tsar need not have worried. The first Duma disappeared from history, not with a bang but a whimper. The liberals had not the slightest intention of stirring up the masses. Faced with the fait accompli of dissolution, some 200 deputies travelled to Vyborg, which, being under Finnish control, was relatively safe. There they issued the Vyborg Manifesto which called on the people to engage in acts of civil disobedience, such as non-payment of taxes and refusal to accept military service, as a sign of protest at the dissolution. This document was drawn up by a joint parliamentary commission made up mainly of the Cadets and Trudoviks. True to form, the Cadets were unenthusiastic even about these demands and later backed out of it. This farcical experience exposed the counter-revolutionary character of the Cadets and the hopelessness of such methods. Horrified at this quite predictable turn of events, the Menshevik Central Committee called on the workers to strike and demonstrate in support of the Duma. But this call went unheeded.
Lenin opposed the call for demonstrations in support of the Duma. Lenin was never afraid to tell the truth to the workers. His position was always dictated by an unerring revolutionary instinct and realism. What should the working class fight for? Not for bourgeois parliamentarism, but against the main enemy – tsarist reaction. The working class must not accept any responsibility for bourgeois pseudo-democracy or spread illusions in the counter-revolutionary liberals, but come out openly for an armed uprising against the autocracy, not for the defence of the Cadet Duma, but for the Constituent Assembly, which will give land to the peasants, an eight-hour day to the workers, and full democratic rights for all. Here we have in a nutshell the difference between revolutionary Marxism and reformism.
While the Mensheviks participated in yet another pantomime with the Cadets, Lenin pressed home his call for a revolutionary united front with the Trudoviks. Under pressure from the mood of the working class and peasants, the Trudoviks actually agreed to a joint appeal with the Social Democrats for an armed uprising. Here, in outline, was the possibility of a ‘left bloc’ with the Trudoviks, a united front of the organisations of the working class and peasant masses for the purpose of struggle against the autocracy and the liberals. While Lenin ruled out any deals with the bourgeois liberals, he accepted the possibility of temporary agreements with the Trudoviks, as the parliamentary representatives of the peasantry, and even occasionally voting together with the Trudoviks against the Cadets to win over the former. Such partial and temporary parliamentary agreements with the representatives of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie – without for a moment renouncing the right to criticise the Trudoviks for their inconsistency and vacillations – had nothing whatsoever in common with the political bloc with the liberals advocated by the Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks’ position was to use the Duma as a platform to expose the tsarist regime and the liberals, and at the same time for organising outside parliament in preparation for revolution.
The Question of Guerrilla War
In the period 1905–6, the revolutionary movement included an element of ‘guerrilla warfare’, with partisan detachments, armed expropriation, and other forms of armed struggle. But the fighting squads were always closely linked to the workers’ organisations. Thus, the Moscow military committee included not just RSDLP members, but also SRs, trade unionists (printers), and students. As we have seen, partisan groups were used for the purpose of defence against pogromists and the Black Hundred gangs. They also helped to protect meetings against police raids, where the presence of armed workers’ detachments was frequently an important factor in preventing violence. Occasionally, such groups could pass over to the offensive, though the target was not the armed forces of the state (against which they could not hope to win in a straight fight), but strikebreakers and fascists. One armed workers’ group staged an attack on a Black Hundred group in the Tver Inn in Petersburg in January 1906. Where conflicts with the police took place, it was usually in connection with the release of political prisoners, as in the daring raid on the Riga police department in order to secure the release of arrested Latvian revolutionaries. Precisely in Latvia the guerrilla movement reached its highest intensity when, in December 1905, a number of towns were actually captured by armed detachments of insurgent workers, agricultural labourers, and peasants before the uprising in Latvia was brutally suppressed by punitive expeditions under tsarist generals.
Other tasks included the capture of arms, the assassination of spies and police agents, and also bank raids for funds. The initiative for the setting up of such guerrilla groups was frequently taken by the workers themselves. The Bolsheviks strove to gain the leadership of these groups, to give them an organised and disciplined form, and provide them with a clear plan of action. There were, of course, serious risks entailed here. All kinds of adventurist, déclassé, and shady elements could get mixed up in these groups, which, once isolated from the movement of the masses, tended to degenerate along criminal lines to the point where they would become indistinguishable from mere groups of bandits. In addition to this, they were also wide open to penetration by provocateurs. As a rule it is far easier for the agents of the state to infiltrate militaristic and terrorist organisations than genuine revolutionary parties, especially where they are composed of educated cadres bound together by strong ideological ties, although even the latter are not immune to penetration, as we shall see later. However, Lenin was well aware of the dangers of degeneration posed by the existence of the armed groups. Strict discipline and firm control by party organisations and experienced revolutionary cadres partially guarded against such tendencies. But the only real control was that of the revolutionary mass movement.
As long as the guerrilla units acted as auxiliaries to the mass movement (that is, in the course of the revolutionary upswing) they played a useful and progressive role. But, wherever the guerrilla groups were separated from the mass revolutionary movement, they inevitably tended to degenerate. For this reason, Lenin considered it completely inadmissible to prolong their existence, once it was clearly established that the revolutionary movement was in irreversible decline. Once this stage was reached, he immediately called for the dissolution of all the guerrilla groups. In the initial stages, however, they played a positive role. There were many heroic and self-sacrificing people involved, working under the strict control of the Party. Such a man was the famous Armenian revolutionary Semeno Arshakovich Ter-Petrosyan (Kamo).
One of the main reasons for continuing the tactic after the defeat of the December uprising was simply that the party was short of funds. Up to that time, the party had relied to a great extent on big donations from wealthy sympathisers. In the period of constitutional agitation before 1905, and during the initial period of the revolution, a large part of the ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia looked upon the Social Democracy with approval and even admiration. They tended to see it merely as a more radical expression of the bourgeois-democratic movement. The activities of the revolutionary students and workers were regarded with indulgence, and even the kind of sneaking admiration which comes from the nostalgia for a lost youth. And as is natural in the outlook of hard-headed men of money, an element of calculation was involved. The bourgeoisie hoped to use the revolutionary movement as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the autocracy for a share in government. But after October 1905, the attitude of the liberal bourgeoisie began to change. The Tsar’s manifesto having satisfied their basic demands, their enthusiasm rapidly began to cool. The Moscow rising finally convinced them that the workers meant business. This was getting to be a dangerous game! The reaction bared its teeth, and like Pontius Pilate, the liberals washed their hands of the whole affair. “We told you not to go too far! Don’t provoke the reaction! Why not accept what’s on offer? After all, half a loaf is better than a prison sentence.”
The sudden drying up of funds placed the party in a difficult position. Under attack from all sides, the Party was desperately short of resources, especially as the bourgeois liberals had turned against the revolution. Many former wealthy businessmen and intellectual fellow travellers, who had earlier been prepared to give money to the revolutionaries for a variety of motives, now hastily moved away, suddenly recalling that they had careers and families to worry about. For the working class, however, there was nowhere to retreat. This was now a life-or-death struggle. It was at this point that the question of expropriations assumed a burning importance. Kamo already had a long record of revolutionary activity, including imprisonment and escape from Baku prison, before he became famous for his part in the armed struggle. Cool-headed, brave, and efficient, Kamo was the personification of the best type of Bolshevik activist. After the mutinies at Sveaborg and Kronstadt, the peasant movement grew in intensity. There seemed to be every possibility that the revolution was entering into a new stage. The question of accumulating arms acquired a fresh urgency. Kamo was in charge of obtaining weapons, but there was a severe problem of cash. At the Stockholm Congress the Mensheviks had got control of the Central Committee, and they were not keen on the idea of arming. “Letters and telegrams to the Central Committee went unanswered. Requests for money remained like a voice crying in the wilderness.” (S.F. Medvedeva, Kamo: The Life of a Great Revolutionist, p. 18.)
Kamo did not flinch from taking the necessary action to arm the party. In a series of spectacular bank raids which drove the police frantic, large sums of money were ‘expropriated’. Yet Kamo himself lived very modestly on 50 kopeks a day. Like other Bolshevik partisans, he was totally dedicated to the party and the cause of the working class. His legendary bravery and audacity were shown by the Tiflis bank raid in the summer of 1907. Travelling on a forged passport as a well-known Georgian nobleman, Kamo went to Tiflis to organise a major expropriation. On the morning of 23 June, dressed as an army officer, although he was suffering from wounds caused by an accidental explosion, Kamo led a spectacular attack which netted 250,000 roubles – a huge amount – from the State Bank. His later experiences read like an adventure novel. Having escaped to Germany, Kamo was arrested in Berlin with a suitcase full of dynamite. He had been betrayed by the agent provocateur Zhitomirsky.
Accused and indicted as a ‘terrorist-anarchist’, for four years he pretended to be mad. As a punishment for his conduct, he was placed naked in a basement cell at sub-zero temperatures for nine days. Sent to a prison for the criminally insane, he kept up the act. For four months he never lay down but stood with his face to a corner, standing first on one leg then another. The brutal treatment to which he was subjected included force-feeding, during which several of his teeth were broken. On two occasions he attempted suicide by hanging and opening his veins with a sharp bone. At first, the authorities believed he was feigning madness, but after six months of torture, they began to believe that his madness was the genuine article. Finally, in March 1909, the doctors decided that the state of the mentally deficient ‘anarcho-terrorist’ Ter-Petrosyan was quite satisfactory, that he was quiet and rational, and even able to perform handicraft and gardening. Being returned to prison, Kamo again feigned madness and was subjected to more torture. ‘Civilised’ German doctors inserted needles under his fingernails, his body was burned with red-hot irons, but to no avail. Kamo’s body was permanently scarred, but he kept up the pretence of insanity until finally the authorities decided that the upkeep of this foreign lunatic should not be paid by the German people, and ordered his extradition to Russia. Finally, he effected yet another daring escape from a mental hospital in Tiflis.
In her biography of Lenin, Krupskaya recalls how Kamo visited them in Paris:
He was very distressed to hear that a rupture had occurred between Ilyich and Bogdanov and Krassin. He was greatly attached to all three. Besides, he was unable to grasp the situation that had developed during the years he had spent in prison. Ilyich told him how things stood.
Kamo asked me to buy him some almonds. He sat in our Paris kitchen eating almonds, as if in his native Georgia, and telling us about his arrest in Berlin, about the way he had simulated insanity, about the sparrow he had tamed in prison, etc. Listening to his stories, Ilyich felt extremely sorry for that brave, devoted, childishly naïve man with the warm heart, who was so eager to perform deeds of valour, but who now did not know what to turn his hand to. His schemes were fantastic. Ilyich did not argue with him, but tried delicately to bring him back to earth with suggestions about organising the transportation of literature and so forth. In the end it was decided that Kamo was to go to Belgium, have an operation on his eyes there (he was cross-eyed, and this always gave him away to the police spies), and then make his way south to Russia and the Caucasus. Ilyich examined Kamo’s coat and said: “Haven’t you got a warm coat? You’ll be cold in this, walking about on deck.” Ilyich himself always promenaded the deck incessantly when travelling by boat. Hearing that Kamo had no other coat, Ilyich got out the soft grey cloak which his mother had given him as a present in Stockholm and of which he was very fond, and gave it to Kamo. His talk with Ilyich, and the latter’s kindness, somewhat soothed Kamo. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, pp. 212-13.)
Like many others who had played an active part in the revolution, Kamo was now like a fish out of water in the period of reaction. The inactivity, the isolation, the pressures of émigré existence, all depressed and frustrated him. He soon returned to underground activity in his native Caucasus, where the revolutionary movement was on the eve of a new awakening. Rearrested, he was given four death sentences, later commuted to 20 years’ penal servitude as a sign of the Tsar’s magnanimity on the three hundredth anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. Kamo was sent to the penal prison at Kharkov where he sat out the war sewing dresses, underclothes, and boots in the company of common criminals who learned to respect the man they called Big Ivan. Even in this hellish place, the spirit of revolt did not die. In order not to have to take his hat off in the presence of the warders, he went bare-headed even in the coldest weather. Kamo was only released from this place by the February Revolution, after which he immediately rejoined the ranks of the Bolshevik Party and played a heroic role in the Civil War. Having survived all these trials and tribulations, ironically, he died in a motorcycle accident in 1922.
Lenin’s Attitude to Guerrillaism
The question of guerrilla war was closely linked to the perspective for a revival of the revolution, and the possibility that the peasant movement might give an impulse to the movement of the workers in the cities. The apparently theoretical discussions at the Fourth Congress on the agrarian question were but a pale reflection of a stark reality. The peasants’ rebellion was on the upswing. Month by month the violent outbursts in the villages increased in number and intensity. But the consolidation of the Stolypin reaction forced Lenin to reconsider the position. A turning point was the defeat of the mutinies at Sveaborg and Kronstadt. Whereas the Mensheviks had already given the movement up as lost, Lenin’s tactics were directed towards winning over the left petty bourgeois, the poor peasants, to the idea of an armed uprising, a movement in the villages which in turn could link up with the movement in the towns to bring about the overthrow of the autocracy. Nor was this perspective as utopian as might appear. While the working class of Petersburg and Moscow had suffered defeat, the movement in the villages was just beginning to get seriously underway. This in turn had an effect on the mass of peasants in uniform who made up the overwhelming majority of the tsarist army. Shaken by military defeat and months of revolution, the mood of the men in grey overcoats was becoming ever more unsettled. The critical point was reached on the night of 17 July. A mutiny of soldiers and sailors erupted in the Sveaborg fortress near Helsingfors. When the St. Petersburg RSDLP committee got news of the uprising it sent representatives to the sailors in an attempt to persuade them to postpone the action. But it was already too late.
Although the RSDLP’s military organisation participated in the revolt – two Lieutenants, A.P. Yemelyanov and Y.L. Kokhansky, were Social Democrats – the rising was mainly under the influence of the Social Revolutionaries. Out of ten artillery companies, seven participated actively in the rising, which advanced revolutionary-democratic slogans: down with the autocracy, for freedom for the people, land to the peasants. The Finnish workers took action in support of the mutineers. A general strike was begun in Helsingfors on 18 July, spreading to other towns. The movement lasted for three days, but, badly prepared and with no clearly thought-out plan of action, subjected to a heavy bombardment from pro-government ships, the Sveaborg rising was crushed. The mutineers were handed over to the tender mercies of the tsarist courts-martial. Forty-three men were executed and hundreds others sent to penal servitude or imprisoned. This was no isolated case. Other mutinies occurred elsewhere. The news of the Sveaborg events caused a ferment in the naval garrison in Kronstadt and an actual mutiny on the cruiser Pamyat’ Azova near Revel. It seems that in this case, the RSDLP had been planning an action, but was disrupted by the arrest of the local military and workers’ organisation on 9 July. The government was aware of the plans for an uprising from its network of spies and quickly acted to smother the revolt. More than 2,500 Kronstadt mutineers were arrested. As in Sveaborg, the courts-martial were pitiless: 36 men were sentenced to death; 130 were sentenced to penal servitude; a further 316 were imprisoned, and 935 sent to corrective battalions.
The impact of the peasant movement was clearly discernible in the mutinies, which also contained the negative side of all peasant jacqueries in history – lack of perspective and formlessness – which enables a small force of determined disciplined officers used to command to subordinate to their will a far larger number of troops who lack discipline, organisation and a clear plan of action, and who have been conditioned all their lives to obey. These were indeed the last throes of the revolution. After Sveaborg, the general outcome was no longer seriously in doubt. Reaction was triumphant, and celebrated its victory in the customary fashion – with a new wave of arrests, summary court martials, shootings, lockouts. Unemployment soared. And as Trotsky explained at the time, this onset of mass unemployment, coming in the wake of a severe political defeat, could not have the effect of reviving the fighting spirits of the workers, but precisely the opposite. The workers were stunned and disoriented. It would take time for them to recover. Trotsky predicted – and he was shown to be correct – that there would be no revival of the revolutionary movement in Russia until there was some kind of upturn in the economy.
Marxists have always conceived the peasant war as an auxiliary of the workers in the struggle for power. That position was first developed by Marx during the German revolution of 1848, when he argued that the German revolution could only triumph as a second edition of the Peasants’ War. That is to say, the movement of the workers in the towns would have to draw behind it the peasant masses. The Bolsheviks also explained that it was the workers in the cities who had to lead the peasants behind them. It is important to note that during the Russian Revolution the industrial working class represented no more than 10 per cent of the population. Yet the proletariat played the leading role in the Russian Revolution, drawing behind itself the multi-millioned mass of poor peasants – the natural ally of the proletariat. No reference or hint at the possibility that the peasantry can bring about a socialist revolution can be found in the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky. The reason for that is the extreme heterogeneity of the peasantry as a class. It is divided into many layers, from the landless labourers (who are really rural proletarians) to the rich peasants who employ other peasants as wage labourers. They do not have a common interest and therefore cannot play an independent role in society. Historically they have supported different classes or groups in the cities. The only class able to lead a successful socialist revolution is the working class. This is not for sentimental reasons but because of the place it occupies in society and the collective character of its role in production.
By its very nature, guerrilla warfare is the classical weapon of the peasantry, and not the working class. It is suited for conditions of armed struggle in inaccessible rural areas – mountains, jungle, etc. – where the difficulty of the terrain makes it complicated to deploy regular troops and where the support of the rural masses provides the necessary logistic support and cover for the guerrillas to operate. In the course of a revolution in a backward country with a sizeable peasant population, guerrilla warfare can act as a useful auxiliary for the revolutionary struggle of the workers in the towns. But it would never have occurred to Lenin to put forward the idea of guerrillaism as a substitute for the conscious movement of the working class. Guerrilla tactics, from a Marxist standpoint, are only permissible as a subordinate and auxiliary part of the socialist revolution. This was precisely Lenin’s position in 1905. It had nothing in common with the kind of individual terrorist tactics pursued by the Narodnaya Volya and their heirs, the Social Revolutionary Party, still less the insane tactics of the modern terrorists and ‘urban guerrilla’ organisations which are the very antithesis of a genuine Leninist policy.
In his article on guerrilla war, Lenin gives a graphic picture of the situation:
The phenomenon in which we are interested is the armed struggle. It is conducted by individuals and by small groups. Some belong to revolutionary organisations, while others (the majority in certain parts of Russia) do not belong to any organisation. Armed struggle pursues two different aims, which must be strictly distinguished: in the first place, this struggle aims at assassinating individuals, chiefs and subordinates in the army and police; in the second place, it aims at the confiscation of monetary funds both from the government and from private persons. The confiscated funds go partly into the treasury of the Party, partly for the special purpose of arming and preparing for an uprising, and partly for the maintenance of persons engaged in the struggle we are describing. The big expropriations (such as the Caucasian, involving over 200,000 roubles, and Moscow, involving 875,000 roubles) went in fact first and foremost to revolutionary parties – small expropriations go mostly, and sometimes entirely, to the maintenance of the ‘expropriators’. This form of struggle undoubtedly became widely developed and extensive only in 1906, i.e., after the December uprising. The intensification of the political crisis to the point of an armed struggle and, in particular, the intensification of poverty, hunger, and unemployment in town and country, was one of the important causes of the struggle we are describing. This form of struggle was adopted as the preferable and even exclusive form of social struggle by the vagabond elements of the population, the lumpen-proletariat and anarchist groups.
Lenin insisted that armed struggle must be part of the revolutionary mass movement, and specified the conditions in which it was permissible: “1) the sentiments of the masses be taken into account; 2) the conditions of the working class movement in the given locality be reckoned with, and 3) care be taken that the forces of the proletariat should not be frittered away.” And he also made it clear that, far from being a panacea, guerrilla war was only one possible method of struggle permissible only “at a time when the mass movement has actually reached the point of an uprising”.
The danger of degeneration inherent in such activity becomes an absolute certainty the moment the guerrilla groups are isolated from the mass movement. In the period following 1906, when the workers’ movement was in decline and the revolutionaries were reeling from a series of body-blows, the guerrilla organisations increasingly displayed signs that they were ceasing to be useful auxiliary organs of the revolutionary party, and becoming transformed into groups of adventurers, or even worse. Even while defending the possibility of guerrilla tactics as a kind of rearguard action against reaction at a moment when he still expected the revolutionary movement to revive, Lenin warned against “anarchism, Blanquism, the old terrorism, the acts of individuals isolated from the masses, which demoralise the workers, repel wide strata of the population, disorganise the movement, and injure the revolution,” and added that “examples in support of this appraisal can easily be found in the events reported every day in the newspapers”. (LCW, Guerrilla Warfare, vol. 11, p. 216, p. 222 (footnote), p. 219 and pp. 216-17.)
As time passed, Lenin came to understand that the tactic of expropriation had outlived its usefulness. He was already coming round to this point of view before the Tiflis raid. But, given the acute shortage of funds, accepted the windfall by way of exception. However, the money from the raid did the party no good. The entire sum was in 500 rouble banknotes, impossible to exchange in Russia. The money was sent abroad, but to no result. The provocateur Zhitomirsky, who occupied a key position in the Bolsheviks’ foreign organisation, alerted the police to the scheme. Litvinov, the future Soviet ambassador to London, was arrested while attempting to exchange the notes in Paris. The same fate awaited Olga Ravich, who later became Zinoviev’s wife, in Stockholm. But although the booty from Tiflis proved useless to the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks seized upon it to make a scandal that dragged on for years. The question of expropriations was also the occasion for heated discussions within the Bolshevik faction, where it soured relations. Finally, at the insistence of the Mensheviks, the question of expropriations was placed on the agenda of the Party control commission in January 1910. A resolution was passed condemning expropriations as an inadmissible violation of party discipline, while recognising that the participants in these actions had not meant to damage the labour movement, but had merely been guided by “a faulty understanding of Party interests”. (L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 110.)
Not everyone who participated in the guerrilla movement was a Kamo. As the reaction dragged on and the workers’ movement remained in a depressed state, the dangers of the movement falling into the hands of declassed elements and actual criminals multiplied. Prominent among those who, in contradiction with Lenin’s position, persisted in the tactic of guerrillaism and expropriations long after the conditions for them had ceased to exist, was Koba-Stalin. Such tactics seriously undermined the movement. Olminsky, who was close to Lenin at this time, wrote:
Not a few of the fine youth perished on the gibbet; others degenerated; still others were disappointed in the revolution. At the time people at large began to confound revolutionists with ordinary bandits. Later, when the revival of the labour movement began, that movement was slowest in those cities where the ‘exes’ (expropriations) had been most numerous. (As an example, I might name Baku and Saratov.) (Quoted in L. Trotsky, Stalin, pp. 98-99.)
The Stolypin Reaction
The Stolypin reaction began with draconian measures. On 19 August, he set up field courts martial which meted out savage sentences against anyone who had been involved in revolutionary activity. Thousands of people were tortured, executed and exiled. Thousands of peasants were tried in military field courts. ‘Justice’ was summary. Most of these trials were over in four days. The usual sentence was death, and 600 persons were executed in the first period. The ‘reformist’ premier orchestrated a campaign of terror unprecedented even in the bloody annals of Russian tsarism. In the period 1907–9 more than 26,000 were brought before the tsarist tribunals. Of these, 5,086 were sentenced to death. By 1909 the jails were filled to overflowing with 170,000 people. But Stolypin was astute enough to realise that the revolutionary movement could not be extinguished by violence alone. There could be no question of a lasting solution unless the land question was addressed. With characteristic decision, Stolypin moved to tackle the problem through a land reform from the top. In order to consolidate itself, the reaction needed a broader social base. The bourgeois and landlord oligarchy, fused together in one reactionary bloc, looked around for allies in the village.
Land relations in pre-revolutionary Russia were characterised by extreme backwardness. The peasants lived in 120,000 village communes, eking out an existence on the basis of subsistence economy with an extremely low productivity of labour. Peasant rights were non-existent. Remnants of decaying feudalism still remained, despite the fact that serfdom had been abolished in 1861. The old feudal labour service persisted, along with the old serf mentality. Land hunger and a sense of deep resentment against the landlord simmered beneath the surface, but, finding no organised expression, remained latent like an inactive volcano. At the beginnings of the new century, the peasant had heard the echoes of revolt from the towns, and something stirred deep within him: “No rumours came to me about any little books (revolutionary propaganda),” a peasant said after the peasant outbreaks of 1902. “I think if we lived better, the little books would not be important, no matter what was written in them. What’s terrible is not the little books, but this; there isn’t anything to eat.”
Whereas Lenin advocated a revolutionary settling of accounts with the landlords, Stolypin’s reform represented a reactionary bourgeois solution to the agrarian problem. A new law was drafted which forcibly broke up the commune to the advantage of the ‘bourgeois’ minority of the peasantry, the so-called strong peasant or kulak: It was, to quote its author, “a wager, not on the needy and the drunken, but on the sturdy and the strong”. The prior condition for the introduction of capitalist agriculture into Russia was the breaking up of the communes and the creation of a class of rich peasants. “The natural counterweight to the communal principle,” affirmed Stolypin, “is individual ownership. It is also a guarantee of order, since the small owner is the cell on which rests all stable order in the state.”(Quoted in B.H. Sumner, A Survey of Russian History, p. 115 and p. 116.) The ukaz was issued in late 1906 and finally became law on 14 June, 1910. The basic thrust of the law was to give peasants the right to leave the village commune – the obshchina – though in practice, only wealthy peasants had the means to be independent. “The reform was put into effect with tremendous energy,” Kerensky writes, “but also with gross disregard for the most elementary tenets of law and justice. The government, which was ‘backing the strongest,’ expropriated the land belonging to the commune and gave it to those well-to-do peasants who opted to withdraw from it. They were given the best plots of land, in complete violation of the commune’s right to tenure. And the new owners of this land were given loans, amounting to 90 per cent of cost, with which to set up their farms.”
Stolypin’s reform meant a violent shaking-up of relations on the land. By the end, perhaps as much as two-thirds of the land was in peasant hands. Yet in spite of all the benefits offered them, by the first day of January, 1915, only 2,719,000 peasant households could say that their holdings had become their private property (about 22 or 24 per cent of the total amount of available peasant land). How did the majority of peasants view Stolypin’s land reform? “For the most part,” Kerensky affirms, “the peasants took an unfavourable or even hostile view of the Stolypin land reform for two reasons. First, and most important, the peasant did not want to go against the commune, and Stolypin’s idea of ‘backing the strongest’ ran counter to the peasant’s outlook on life. He had no wish to become a semi-landowner at the expense of his neighbours.”
Such a policy provided no solution to the pressing problems of the Russian peasant. But, in truth, the burning desire of the peasants for land was expressed in a whole series of uprisings in the villages which served notice on the autocracy that these ‘dark masses’ were no longer content to support the unbearable burden of landlord oppression in silence. The proverbial patience of the Russian muzhik had reached breaking point. Here lay a mortal danger for the autocracy and an inexhaustible reserve of strength for the revolution. Thus, more than ever, the fate of the proletariat was inextricably bound up with the question of a revolutionary solution of the land problem. Kerensky concluded gloomily: “By his land reform Stolypin has thrown the brand of civil war into the Russian countryside.” (A. Kerensky, The Kerensky Memoirs: Russia and History’s Turning Point, p. 97 and p. 98.)
Looking back on the years of reaction (1907–10), Lenin wrote in 1920:
Tsarism was victorious. All the revolutionary and opposition parties were smashed. Depression, demoralisation, splits, discord, defection, and pornography took the place of politics. There was an ever greater drift towards philosophical idealism; mysticism became the garb of counter-revolutionary sentiments. At the same time, however, it was this great defeat that taught the revolutionary parties and the revolutionary class a real and very useful lesson, a lesson in historical dialectics, a lesson in an understanding of the political struggle, and in the art and science of waging that struggle. It is at moments of need that one learns who one’s friends are. Defeated armies learn their lesson. (LCW, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, vol. 31, pp. 27-28.)
The workers’ movement was badly hit, and not only by arrests. Between 1906–10, 500 trade union organisations were shut down. Union membership plunged as unemployment rose inexorably. Membership of legal trade unions fell from 246,000 to 50,000, then to 13,000. The working day was lengthened to 12 hours, 15 in some cases. The rapid rise in unemployment, partly reflecting a world economic crisis, made the position of the workers still worse. In the Moscow area about a quarter of the metalworkers were out of work in 1907. A similar situation existed elsewhere. Coming on the heels of a serious political defeat, the onset of mass unemployment took the fighting spirit out of the working class. The employers drew up blacklists of activists, who were systematically expelled from the workplaces. Wages were driven down.
The downturn in the fortunes of the revolution inevitably provoked a series of internal crises and splits in all of the left parties. This is true not only of the Social Democrats, but also of the Social Revolutionaries. To numerical decline and financial difficulties were added scandals and splits. None other than the SRs’ leading terrorist and chief of its Battle Organisation, Evno Azef, was unmasked as a provocateur. There was a right-left split in the SRs between the popular socialists (the right wing) and the Maximalists on the left who demanded immediate socialisation of the land and factories. This was, in itself, quite a significant development, anticipating the split away of the Left SRs in 1917. At the SR’s Fifth Party Congress in May 1909, the delegate from Petersburg, Andreyev, pointed out that, in an organisational sense, the party had ceased to exist in the capital; only isolated individuals were left. (See R.B. McKean, Between the Revolutions, p. 62.) There was even a split in the tiny anarchist movement between the advocates of terrorism and the anarcho-syndicalists.
Meanwhile, the reunification of the RSDLP did not signify an end to the inner-party struggle, but quite the opposite. Not only did relations between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks steadily worsen, but a whole series of splits opened up within the two main factions. The Menshevik right wing (Axelrod, Cherevanin) not only advocated a deal with the Cadets, but also put forward the idea of a ‘labour congress’ of a non-party character – a kind of reformist Labour Party in place of the old revolutionary Social Democracy. Here, at a very early date, we already have the germs of liquidationism. The disease of class collaborationism was widespread among all shades of Menshevik opinion. Plekhanov wrote an Open Letter to Conscious Workers in the left Cadet organ Tovarishch, calling on them to support the liberal bourgeoisie. The Menshevik Basilev went so far as to call for a fusion of Social Democrats with the SRs, and Cadets in one constitutional party, a proposal which Lenin called the “Mont Blanc of opportunism”. The only way out of the impasse was the immediate convening of a new party congress. Lenin waged a tireless campaign for this, basing himself on the Petersburg committee.
The reaction had won the battle but was not yet confident in itself. The regime combined the carrot with the stick. The Tsar convened the second Duma, while stepping up repression. Once again, the issue was posed: should Social Democrats participate in elections to the Duma – yes or no? By this time, Lenin had come around to the view that boycott would be wrong. He had already come to the conclusion that it had been a mistake to boycott the first (Witte) Duma, although he was in a minority of one in this opinion among the leaders of the Bolshevik faction. In September 1906 he wrote that the boycott tactic must be reconsidered. By their very nature tactics cannot be regarded as something static and fixed for all time. They must reflect the existing situation in society, the psychology of the masses, and the stage the movement is at. If the revolution was in retreat, the party could not renounce any legal arena of struggle. It had a duty to utilise each and every opening, each and every platform which would serve to maintain the party’s links with the masses. To behave in any other way would be to make the party into a sect. A sectarian lives in his own little world, remote from the masses, and for this very reason, the concrete questions of tactics are a matter of indifference to him. Since he has invented his own (imaginary) proletariat in an ideal (equally imaginary) world, he has no need to strive to establish contacts with the real working class and its existing organisations. In his article Sectarianism, Centrism, and the Fourth International (1935), Trotsky characterises sectarianism as follows:
The sectarian looks upon the life of society as a great school, with himself as a teacher there. In his opinion, the working class should put aside its less important matters, and assemble in solid rank around his rostrum. Then the task would be solved.
Though he swears by Marxism in every sentence, the sectarian is the direct negation of dialectical materialism, which takes experience as its point of departure and always returns to it. A sectarian does not understand the dialectical action and reaction between a finished programme and a living – that is to say, imperfect and unfinished – mass struggle… Sectarianism is hostile to dialectics (not in words but in action) in the sense that it turns its back upon the actual development of the working class. (L. Trotsky, Writings: 1935-36, p. 153.)
The matter is completely different for a genuine Marxist tendency, which must find an answer to the question: how is it possible to link the finished scientific programme of Marxism with the necessarily unfinished, contradictory, and inchoate movement of the masses? Such a question cannot be answered by repeating abstract formulae. The link must be established at every stage by taking into account the real conditions in which the movement is unfolding. For the advanced Social Democratic workers, it was clear that the Duma could not resolve a single one of the problems facing the proletariat and poor peasants. But for the masses, especially in the countryside, this was far from evident. Considerable illusions had been aroused in the possibility of achieving reforms through parliament, especially that most essential reform of all-agrarian reform. The village sent its representatives to the Duma, represented by the Trudovik (Labour) bloc, and waited impatiently for results. Even among the workers, while there were fewer illusions in the Duma, the defeat of the revolution meant that the latter began to occupy greater attention.
As a general rule, you only boycott a parliament when there is a realistic prospect of replacing it with something better, as was the case in November 1917. But where this is not the case, to boycott elections means only that the workers’ party is boycotting itself. Such a position has nothing in common with Leninism. Lenin was in favour of flexible tactics, reflecting the changed situation. As opposed to the Mensheviks who favoured an electoral deal with the Cadets – the bourgeois liberals – Lenin supported electoral deals with the Trudoviks and SRs against the right parties and against the liberals. The idea of a Left Bloc of the parties of the proletariat and the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie against the bourgeois liberals was really an extension of the policy of the united front to the electoral plane. In the Duma it was permissible to vote together with these parties on specific points where principled agreement existed, while the Social Democrats kept their hands free at all times to criticise the inconsistent, ambiguous, and contradictory policies of the petty bourgeois parties.
The golden rule was: the absolute independence of the workers’ party at all times from all other tendencies (including the radical petty bourgeoisie); no programmatic blocs: no mixing up of banners; complete freedom of criticism. Above all, it was necessary to wage an implacable struggle against the bourgeois liberals. The essential aim was in fact to drive a wedge between the political representatives of the petty bourgeoisie and the Cadets. The outspoken rejection of reformist and parliamentary illusions and all forms of class collaboration – these were the essential features of Lenin’s policy in this period, reflected in a hundred speeches, articles, and resolutions. This policy in turn was the reflection of a longer-term strategy – to fight for the hegemony of the proletariat over the petty-bourgeois masses, especially the peasantry. The results of this strategy were fully revealed in the October Revolution.
This issue was settled at the November 1906 Conference, which, because of the prevailing situation of reaction, was held at Tammerfors in Finland. This was really a defining moment in the history of the party. The Mensheviks and Bund openly supported a bloc with the Cadets. Lenin regarded this as the decisive step which marked the definitive passing over of the Mensheviks to opportunism. (See V.I. Lenin, Collected Works in Russian, vol. 14, p. 125.) But there was now a change of mood in the party, reflected in a growing support for Lenin’s position, which got the backing of 14 delegates (65 per cent of the conference), expressed in a ‘minority report’ stressing the need for class independence and that the only agreements permissible were episodic blocs with the revolutionary petty-bourgeois democrats. The Tammerfors Conference revealed the existence of sharp internal conflicts, but it did not lead to a split. Lenin confined himself to arguing for his ideas and fighting for the majority, confident that experience would prove him to be correct. To have split the party at such a time would have been irresponsible. More time was needed for the disputed questions on tactics to be clarified by events. However, the internal situation in the RSDLP was complicated. A de facto split on election tactics took place in the St. Petersburg organisation which was finally settled at a local Conference held in early January 1907 which rejected blocs with the Cadets. Having lost the argument and the vote, the Menshevik delegates walked out to pursue their separate policy. This was a harbinger of future events. While formally united, the tensions between the different factions constantly increased.
Article four of the resolution on election tactics passed by the Conference states that “local agreements with revolutionary and oppositionist-democratic parties” were permitted “if, during the election campaign, they saw that there was a danger of the parties of the Right getting in”. In practice, this was used by the Mensheviks to support Cadet candidates in many areas. On the other hand, the Bolsheviks argued that:
[I]n the first stage of the electoral campaign, i.e., before the masses, they must, as a general rule, come forward as an independent party, and present Party candidates only for election.
Exceptions were allowed:
[I]n urgent cases, and then only with parties which wholly subscribed to the principal slogans of our immediate political struggle, i.e., which recognised the necessity of an armed insurrection, and fought for a democratic republic. In addition, such coalitions may be formed only with regard to the drawing up of a common list of candidates, and can in no way interfere with the political agitation of the Social Democrats. (Quoted in O. Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, pp. 146-47.)
The elections to the second Duma took place on 20 February, 1907. Despite everything, its composition was more left than that of the first Duma. The left was represented by 222 deputies out of a total of 518. The breakdown was as follows: 65 Social Democrats, 104 Trudoviks, 37 SRs, 16 ‘popular socialists’. This compared with just 54 right wingers (monarchists and Octobrists). The real losers were the Cadets, who had lost support to both the right and the left and now had only 98, as against 184 in the first Duma. There were more peasants in the second Duma than the first. However, the leftish composition of the Duma was paradoxically a symptom of the revolution’s decline, not of its rise. Although the masses – not just the workers but also the petty bourgeoisie – attempted to take their revenge on the autocracy by voting for the left in the Duma elections, they were no longer capable of a new insurrection.
The tactic of participating in elections was amply justified by the results. By dropping the boycott, they secured 65 deputies, mainly at the expense of the Cadets. The workers returned Social Democratic candidates on the first ballot. In Petersburg, oddly enough, the SR Party got many of its candidates elected. In the villages, many Left Bloc candidates were returned. The situation within the party was extremely fluid, and opinions were changing and veering in all kinds of directions. Differences began to emerge within the Menshevik faction, part of which joined the Left Bloc. In practice the differences between the right (monarchist/landlords) and Cadets were minimal: the ‘liberal’ bourgeois defended the interests of their landlord cousins, while reading them lectures on the best methods of keeping the masses in subjugation. In fact, many of the Cadets were themselves big landlords. The central question in all the Duma’s deliberations was the agrarian question. The Social Democratic parliamentary fraction provided a real rallying point for the left. But the fraction was still dominated by the Mensheviks, who had thirty-three deputies plus a number of sympathisers. The Bolsheviks numbered fifteen and three sympathisers.
Differences between the two factions surfaced immediately. Consistent with their policy of striving for deals with the Cadets, the Mensheviks proposed a Cadet for Speaker, while the Bolsheviks advocated either a Trudovik or a non-party peasant. The Social Democratic deputies in the Duma fought consistently to support the peasants’ demands. But life itself was revealing the glaring inadequacy of the old RSDLP agrarian programme. The Fourth Party Congress limited its demands to the municipalisation of land. But the situation had progressed far beyond such half measures. The peasants demanded nationalisation, and they did not limit themselves to speeches. There were 131 ‘incidents’ in March, 193 in April, 211 in May, and 216 in June. The debates in the Tauride palace were lit up by the bonfires of revolt that blazed in the villages.
The Fifth (London) Congress
The conduct of the Duma fraction gave rise to considerable discontent at rank-and-file level. This was one of the reasons for calling the Fifth (London) Congress. Throughout the months of February and March, 1907, the Party’s attention was concentrated on preparations for the Congress. As could be expected, the agenda was polarised between conflicting resolutions presented by the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. The Congress was originally going to be held in Denmark, but the tsarist authorities leaned on the government in Copenhagen and persuaded it to refuse permission. They then attempted to hold it across the water in Malmö, but the Swedish government made it clear they were not welcome, so they had to pack their bags yet again. The Congress eventually ended up in London, where it took up residence in the Brotherhood non-denominational Church in Southgate Road, Whitechapel, which, by an irony of history, belonged to those arch-enemies of revolutionism, the right-wing reformist Fabian Society. “I can still see vividly before me,” recalled Gorky many years later, “those bare wooden walls unadorned to the point of absurdity, the lancet windows looking down on a small, narrow hall which might have been a classroom in a poor school.” (Ibid., p. 146.) In such inauspicious surroundings, the revolutionaries gathered to hammer out the fate of the Russian Revolution.
At seven o’clock in the evening of 30 April the Fifth Congress opened. It lasted almost three weeks, until 19 May, 1907. It was a critical meeting. Despite the difficult conditions, this was the most representative gathering of Russian Social Democracy yet. There were no fewer than 303 delegates, as well as a further 39 with consultative vote. There was one delegate for every 500 party members (a total of 150,000 members in 145 party organisations), of which 100 were from the RSDLP, eight organisations of the Polish and Lithuanian Social Democrats, plus seven Latvian and 30 Bundist groups. These were the battle-hardened troops of the revolution. Although most were still in their twenties, there was scarcely anyone who had not served their apprenticeship in prison and exile. Since the previous congress 12 months earlier, the Russian section of the Party had increased from 31,000 to 77,000 members, i.e., two and a half times. However, these figures must be treated with caution. The sharpness of the factional struggle led both sides to inflate the figures of membership. Even bearing this in mind, it is clear that the Party had continued to grow, even in the period of reaction, reflecting, not the mood of the masses, but the radicalisation of a layer of the most conscious workers and students. For the same reason, the party’s left wing grew at a faster rate than the right wing.
The factional line-up was balanced on a knife’s edge. At the beginning of 1906, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in St. Petersburg were almost equal. But in the interval between the first and second Dumas, the Bolsheviks began to pull ahead. By the time of the second Duma, Trotsky recalls, they had “already won complete dominance among the advanced workers”. (L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 89.) This shift was reflected in the composition of the London Congress. The Stockholm Congress had been Menshevik; the London Congress was Bolshevik. At the previous congress, the breakdown had been 13,000 Bolsheviks and 18,000 Mensheviks (one delegate for every 300 party members). Now the situation was different. Of the full delegates, 89 were Bolsheviks, 88 Mensheviks.
This was the most remarkable galaxy of talent ever assembled at a Social Democratic congress. Plekhanov, Martov, Axelrod, Deutsch, and Dan were brilliant exponents of the Menshevik cause. The Bolshevik delegates included, among others, Lenin, Bogdanov, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bubnov, Nogin, Shaumyan, Lyadov, Pokrovsky, Tomsky. Gorky, the well-known writer, who was close to the Bolsheviks, was also present. Trotsky, recently escaped from exile, attended as a non-factional Social Democrat. There was also a young Georgian known as Ivanov who had no voice in the proceedings, as he had no credentials from any recognised party organisation in the Caucasus, which was represented by Shaumyan – later murdered by the British intervention forces in Baku – and Mikha Tskhakaya, who travelled with Lenin in the famous ‘sealed train’ in 1917. This silent visitor called Ivanov later gained notoriety under the name of Stalin. But at this stage he was unknown in Party circles outside his local area and his presence at the congress passed completely unnoticed.
A major factor was the participation of the non-Russian parties, which generally stood on the left, thus giving the Bolsheviks an overall majority. Among the delegates from Poland and Lithuania were Rosa Luxemburg, Markhlevsky, and Tyszka (Jogiches), who formed part of a closely knit group of 44 which swung the congress sharply to the left. Felix Dzerzhinsky, the future head of the Cheka, was to have been part of the Polish delegation but had been arrested en route. The equally radical Latvian Social Democrats were headed by another future leader of the Cheka and Red Army, Hermann Danishevsky. The changed composition of the congress was duly noted by the Police Department, which reported that “the Menshevik groups in their present state of mind do not present as serious a danger as the Bolsheviks”. They also included the following appraisal:
“Among the orators who in the course of discussion spoke in defence of the extreme revolutionary point of view were Stanislav (Bolshevik), Trotsky, Pokrovsky (Bolshevik), Tyszka (Polish Social Democrat); in defence of the opportunist point of view – Martov and Plekhanov,” (leaders of the Mensheviks). “There is clear intimation,” the Okhrana agent continued, “that the Social Democrats are turning toward revolutionary methods of struggle… Menshevism, which blossomed thanks to the Duma, declined in due time, when the Duma demonstrated its impotence, giving ample scope to Bolshevik, or rather, to extreme revolutionary tendencies.” (L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 89 in both quotes.)
The verbatim account of this Congress makes fascinating reading. Here we have the first real debate between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks on tactics and strategy. Compared to this, the differences at the Second Congress appear to be a mere anticipation – as, indeed, they were. Even the debates on the nationalisation versus municipalisation of the land at the Stockholm Congress did not really get to the heart of the problem, which emerged with absolute clarity at the Fifth Congress. On the agenda were reports from the Central Committee and the Duma fraction; the Party’s attitude to the bourgeois parties; the question of a Labour Congress; the Duma; the trade unions; the partisan movement; unemployment; the economic crisis; the lockout; organisational questions; the International Congress, and work in the army.
Martov opened the Congress with the Central Committee report. Since the outgoing CC was overwhelmingly dominated by the Mensheviks, Bogdanov gave a counter-report stating the Bolshevik point of view. The Congress thus opened with a heated discussion. But in contrast to the previous Congress, the Mensheviks were now on the defensive. When Plekhanov in his opening address assured the delegates that there were no revisionists in the Party, Lenin bent down, convulsed with silent laughter. Nearly everyone present at this Congress belonged to one faction or another, and this fact was reflected in the election of the presidium. This was composed of five delegates, one from each organised group. The Mensheviks chose Dan, the Bundists Medem, the Latvians Azis-Rozin, the Poles Tyszka, and the Bolsheviks Lenin. The Mensheviks showed their spiteful attitude from the outset by calling Lenin’s credentials into question. At this, the congress exploded, with delegates shouting and waving their fists at each other. Order was restored when the Mensheviks withdrew their objections, but the opening set the stage for the rest of the congress.
The Debate on the Bourgeois Parties
The key question which conditioned everything else was the attitude to the bourgeois parties. This question was thoroughly debated at the Congress. Four people led off on this subject – Lenin, Martynov, Rosa Luxemburg, and Abramovich. Lenin, who spoke first, highlighted the central importance of this issue:
The question of our attitude to the bourgeois parties is the nub of the differences in matters of principle that have long divided Russian Social Democracy into two camps. Even before the first major successes of the revolution, or even before the revolution – if it is permissible to express oneself in this way about the first half of 1905 – two distinct points of view on this question already existed. The disputes were over the appraisal of the bourgeois revolution in Russia. The two trends in the Social Democracy agreed that this revolution was a bourgeois revolution. But they parted company in their understanding of this category, and in their appraisal of the practical and political conclusions to be drawn from it. One wing of the Social Democracy – the Mensheviks – interpreted this concept to mean that the bourgeoisie was the motive force in the bourgeois revolution, and that the proletariat could occupy only the position of the ‘extreme opposition’. The proletariat could not undertake the task of conducting the revolution independently or of leading it.
Lenin accepted that:
[T]he aims of the revolution that is now taking place in Russia do not exceed the bounds of bourgeois society… But from this it does not at all follow that the bourgeoisie is the motive force or leader in the revolution. Such a conclusion would be a vulgarisation of Marxism, would be a failure to understand the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.
And he concludes:
[T]hat the bourgeoisie can be neither the motive force nor the leader in the revolution. Only the proletariat is capable of consummating the revolution, that is, of achieving a complete victory. But this victory can be achieved only provided the proletariat succeeds in getting a large section of the peasantry to follow its lead.
The Mensheviks complained of the “one-sided hostility” of the proletariat towards liberalism. Lenin replied that the bourgeois liberals did not represent a revolutionary, but a counter-revolutionary force:
The Mensheviks say that our bourgeoisie are “unprepared to fight”. Actually, however, the bourgeoisie were prepared to fight, prepared to fight against the proletariat, to fight against the ‘excessive’ victories of the revolution… To maintain silence at the present time about the counter-revolutionary nature of our bourgeoisie means departing entirely from the Marxist point of view, means completely forgetting the viewpoint of the class struggle. (LCW, The Fifth Congress of the RSDLP, vol. 12, p. 456, p. 457, p. 458 and pp. 462-63.)
In this debate, Rosa Luxemburg was naturally close to Lenin. She poured scorn on the Menshevik argument:
It turns out that this revolutionary liberalism striving for power, to which we are urged to adapt the tactics of the proletariat, and to please which they are ready to restrict the proletariat’s demands, this revolutionary Russian liberalism exists not in reality, but in the imagination, it is an invention, it is a phantom. (Applause.) And this policy, erected on a lifeless schema and on invented relations and not taking into account the special tasks of the proletariat in this revolution, calls itself ‘revolutionary realism’. (Congress Minutes, Pyatiy S’yezd RSDRP Protokoly, p. 386.)
Trotsky moved an amendment which Lenin commented on favourably. Here for the first time, Trotsky had the opportunity of expounding his views on the revolution before the Party. His speech in the debate on the attitude to the bourgeois parties, for which he was given only 15 minutes, was twice commented on by Lenin, who emphatically agreed with the views expressed by Trotsky, especially his call for a Left Bloc against the liberal bourgeoisie:
These facts are sufficient for me to acknowledge that Trotsky has come close to our views. Quite apart from the question of ‘uninterrupted revolution’, we have solidarity on fundamental points in the attitude towards the bourgeois parties.
On Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution, Lenin was not prepared to commit himself. But on the fundamental question of the tasks of the revolutionary movement, there was complete agreement. The differences between the positions of Lenin and Trotsky will be dealt with later. That these differences were regarded by Lenin as secondary was again revealed at the Congress when Trotsky moved an amendment to the resolution on the attitude towards the bourgeois parties. Lenin spoke against the amendment on the grounds, not that it was wrong, but that it added nothing fundamental to the original: “It must be agreed,” he said, “that Trotsky’s amendment is not Menshevik, that it expresses the ‘very same,’ that is, Bolshevik, idea.” (LCW, The Fifth Congress of the RSDLP, vol. 12, p. 470 and p. 479, my emphasis.) Lenin’s resolution on the attitude towards the bourgeois parties was passed by Congress.
Despite the identity of views on the analysis of the tasks of the revolution, Trotsky still attempted to steer a course in between the rival factions in a vain attempt to prevent a fresh split. “If you think,” he said at the Congress, “that a schism is unavoidable, wait at least until events, and not merely resolutions separate you. Do not run ahead of events.” Trotsky made the mistake of trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, attempting to mediate between the two factions. On the basis of the experience of 1905, Trotsky believed that a fresh revolutionary upheaval would have the effect of pushing the best elements among the Mensheviks, in particular, Martov, to the left. His main concern was to hold the forces of Marxism together in a difficult period, to prevent a split which would have a demobilising effect on the movement. This was the essence of Trotsky’s ‘conciliationism’, which prevented him from joining the Bolsheviks in this period. In later years Trotsky was honest in admitting his mistake. Commenting on this, Lenin wrote:
A number of Social Democrats in that period sank into conciliationism, proceeding from the most varied motives. Most consistently of all was conciliationism expressed by Trotsky, about the only one who tried to provide a theoretical foundation for that policy.
The extreme differences that now separated the right and left wings were brought out into the open at the Fifth Congress, which did not resolve them. The factional centres continued to exist and increasingly went their own way. The Bolsheviks had their own centre including Lenin and the Central Committee members, plus, among others, Krassin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Rykov. As so often happened, political differences found their expression in organisational questions. Even before the congress Axelrod, Larin, and others had been canvassing the idea of a so-called Labour Congress. Faced with the swift advance of reaction, the right wing Mensheviks advocated the closing down of the Party’s illegal organisations and the setting up of a broad Labour organisation including the SRs, anarchists, non-party people, “and Uncle Tom Cobley and all”. But they overlooked one little detail. The establishment of a ‘legal’ organisation in Russia in 1907 was not at all the same as the establishment of a mass Labour Party in Britain under conditions of bourgeois democracy. Under the given conditions, this proposal represented an opportunist adaptation to the norms established by the triumphant reaction. It would have meant in essence dissolving the activists into the mass of non-party, unorganised workers, an aim, incidentally, which has since been pursued by the right-wing labour leaders in Britain and other countries.
This proposal was also rejected by the Congress. This by no means signified the abandonment of the aim of creating a real mass workers’ party. But the way to do this is not to water down the party to the lowest common denominator, but to conduct a stubborn struggle to win the mass of the workers in action to the revolutionary programme. Having first won and educated the advanced layer of the class, it was necessary to find a road to the masses. The way to link up with the masses was by conducting patient work in the mass organisations, starting with the trade unions. The Party must not dissolve itself into the mass, but fight to win leadership of the unions.
A further point of difference concerned the relations between the Party and its parliamentary representatives. The Mensheviks defended the independence of the Duma fraction from the Central Committee. This was also rejected by Congress, which insisted that its public representatives must be under the control of the Party. The conduct of the Social Democratic deputies in the Duma – all Mensheviks at this time – came in for some bitter criticism, and the Congress carried a Bolshevik resolution criticising the Duma fraction. Finally the old dual leadership was abolished. Henceforth, only the Central Committee was to lead the Party. A 12-man CC was elected: five Bolsheviks (Goldenberg, Rozhkov, Dubrovinsky, Teodorovich, and Nogin), four Mensheviks (Martynov, Zhordania, Isuv, and Nikorov), two Poles (Warski and Dzerzhinsky) and one Lett (Danishevsky). The other three, consisting of the representatives of the Bund and the Latvian Social Democrats, were elected after the congress.
The Permanent Revolution
At this point, it is necessary to outline the main tendencies that crystallised in the Russian Social Democracy before 1914 on the central question of the nature and tasks of the Russian Revolution. The most important theory that emerged on this question was the theory of the permanent revolution. This theory was first developed by Trotsky, in collaboration with the German-Russian left Social Democrat, Alexander Helphand (alias Parvus), as early as 1904. The permanent revolution, while accepting that the objective tasks facing the Russian workers were those of the bourgeois democratic revolution, nevertheless explained how in a backward country in the epoch of imperialism, the ‘national bourgeoisie’ was inseparably linked to the remains of feudalism on the one hand and to imperialist capital on the other and was therefore completely unable to carry through any of its historical tasks.
The rottenness of the bourgeois liberals, and their counter-revolutionary role in the bourgeois-democratic revolution, was already observed by Marx and Engels. In his article The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-revolution (1848), Marx writes:
The German bourgeoisie has developed so slothfully, cravenly, and slowly that at the moment when it menacingly faced feudalism and absolutism it saw itself menacingly faced by the proletariat and all factions of the burghers whose interests and ideas were akin to those of the proletariat. And it saw inimically arrayed not only a class behind it but all Europe before it. The Prussian bourgeoisie was not, as the French of 1789 had been, the class which represented the whole of modern society vis-à-vis the representatives of the old society, the monarchy and the nobility. It had sunk to the level of a sort of social estate, as distinctly opposed to the crown as to the people, eager to be in the opposition to both, irresolute against each of its opponents, taken severally, because it always saw both of them before or behind it; inclined from the very beginning to betray the people and compromise with the crowned representative of the old society because it itself already belonged to the old society.
The bourgeoisie, Marx explains, did not come to power as a result of its own revolutionary exertions, but as a result of the movement of the masses in which it played no role:
The Prussian bourgeoisie was hurled to the height of state power, however not in the manner it had desired, by a peaceful bargain with the crown, but by a revolution. (K. Marx, The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-revolution, in MESW, vol. 1, pp. 140-41 and p. 138.)
Even in the epoch of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Europe, Marx and Engels mercilessly unmasked the cowardly, counter-revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie, and emphasised the need for the workers to maintain a policy of complete class independence, not only from the bourgeois liberals, but also from the vacillating petty bourgeois democrats:
The proletarian, or really revolutionary party, succeeded only very gradually in withdrawing the mass of the working people from the influence of the democrats, whose tail they formed in the beginning of the revolution. But in due time the indecision, weakness, and cowardice of the democratic leaders did the rest, and it may now be said to be one of the principal results of the last years’ convulsions, that wherever the working class is concentrated in anything like considerable masses, they are entirely freed from that democratic influence which led them into an endless series of blunders and misfortunes during 1848 and 1849. (F. Engels, Revolution and Counter-revolution in Germany, MESW, vol. 1, p. 332.)
Strictly speaking, Marx was not correct in attributing a revolutionary role to the bourgeoisie even in 1789. The bourgeois revolution in France was not carried out by the bourgeoisie, which wanted to reach a compromise with the monarchy, but by the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie, whose political representatives were the Jacobins, and the semi-proletarian masses of Paris and the other big cities. The role of the masses in the French revolution was brilliantly described by the anarchist Kropotkin in his history of the revolution. It has been amply documented in our own times by historians like George Rudé. The Great French Revolution of 1789–93 only succeeded to the degree that it pushed aside the representatives of the conservative big bourgeoisie in the National Assembly and, basing itself on the masses, carried out the most radical measures which, at the flood tide of the revolution, even began to go beyond the limits of the bourgeois-democratic task and threaten private property. At this point, the revolution halted and was thrust back by the Thermidorian reaction and then Bonapartism. The plebeian masses were defeated and driven from positions which they were unable to defend precisely because the objective conditions for socialism were absent. Only a capitalist development was possible. Under the revolutionary banner of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, by which the masses were induced to fight their battles for them, the wealthy merchants and men of property climbed to power and then delivered the coup de grâce to the revolutionary aspirations of those who had shed their blood for the revolution.
A similar tale can be told of the bourgeois revolution that took place in seventeenth-century England. The bourgeoisie, represented in Parliament by the Presbyterians, did everything in its power to arrive at a deal with Charles I. The royalist counter-revolution was defeated, not by the big merchants of the City of London, but by Cromwell’s New Model Army, which based itself on the Yeomen farmers of East Anglia and the nascent proletarian elements in London, Bristol, and the other towns and cities that fought for the parliamentary cause. Here too, the bourgeoisie showed itself to be incapable of carrying out its own revolution. In order to succeed, Cromwell had to sweep them aside and rouse the petty bourgeois and plebeian masses into action. True, once the monarchist reaction had been smashed, Cromwell turned on the radical wing (the ‘Levellers’ and ‘Diggers’) who, even at this stage, were drawing communist conclusions and calling private property into question. In so doing, Cromwell was merely recognising the indisputable bourgeois character of the revolution. Indeed, it could have no other character at this time in history. But that does not alter the equally indisputable fact that the victory of the bourgeois revolution in England, even at this early period, was not accomplished by the bourgeoisie, but against it.
The arguments of Marx and Engels in relation to Germany in 1848 were still more applicable to Russia at the turn of the century. The stormy development of industry had transformed the face of Russian society forever. But, in the first place, this development was confined to a small number of areas, namely the area around Moscow and St. Petersburg, western Russia (including Poland) and the Urals, and oil-rich Baku. The proletariat grew rapidly and became the decisive force from the 1890s onwards. But this did not alter the generally backward character of Russia, which had many of the features of a semi-feudal, and, to some extent, semi-colonial country. The development of industry was not a natural, organic outgrowth of Russian society, but the result of massive foreign investment from France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, and America. The Russian bourgeoisie, like the German bourgeoisie which Marx and Engels had castigated in 1848, had come on the stage of history too late, its social base was too weak, and above all its fear of the proletariat too strong for it to be able to play a progressive role. The fusion of industrial with landed capital, and the dependence of both upon the banks; the dependence on foreign capital was precisely what ruled out the possibility of a successful bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia.
In all of Lenin’s speeches and writings, the counter-revolutionary role of the bourgeois-democratic liberals is stressed time and time again. However, up until 1917, he did not believe that the Russian workers would come to power before the socialist revolution in the West – a perspective that only Trotsky defended before 1917, in his remarkable theory of permanent revolution. This was the most complete answer to the reformist and class collaborationist position of the right wing of the Russian workers’ movement, the Mensheviks. The two-stage theory was developed by the Mensheviks as their perspective for the Russian Revolution. It basically states that, since the tasks of the revolution are those of the national democratic bourgeois revolution, the leadership of the revolution must be taken by the national democratic bourgeoisie.
Trotsky, however, pointed out that by setting itself at the head of the nation, leading the oppressed layers of society (urban and rural petty bourgeoisie), the proletariat could take power and then carry through the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution (mainly the land reform and the unification and liberation of the country from foreign domination). However, once having come to power, the proletariat would not stop there, but would start to implement socialist measures of expropriation of the capitalists. And as these tasks cannot be solved in one country alone, especially not in a backward country, this would be the beginning of the world revolution. Thus the revolution is ‘permanent’ in two senses: because it starts with the bourgeois tasks and continues with the socialist ones, and because it starts in one country and continues at an international level.
Lenin agreed with Trotsky that the Russian liberals could not carry out the bourgeois-democratic revolution, and that this task could only be carried out by the proletariat in alliance with the poor peasantry. From 1905 until 1917, on the fundamental question of the attitude to the bourgeoisie, Lenin’s position was close to that of Trotsky, and, in fact, identical. This was publicly acknowledged by Lenin at the Fifth (London) Congress, as we have seen. Following in the footsteps of Marx, who had described the bourgeois “democratic party” as “far more dangerous to the workers than the previous liberals”, Lenin explained that the Russian bourgeoisie, far from being an ally of the workers, would inevitably side with the counter-revolution. “The bourgeoisie, in the mass,” he wrote in 1905, “will inevitably turn towards the counter-revolution, and against the people, as soon as its narrow, selfish interests are met, as soon as it ‘recoils’ from consistent democracy (and it is already recoiling from it!).”
What class, in Lenin’s view, could lead the bourgeois-democratic revolution?
There remains ‘the people’, that is, the proletariat and the peasantry: the proletariat alone can be relied on to march on to the end, for it goes far beyond the democratic revolution. That is why the proletariat fights in the forefront for a republic and contemptuously rejects stupid and unworthy advice to take into account the possibility of the bourgeoisie recoiling. (LCW, Two Tactics of SD in the Democratic Revolution, vol. 9, p. 98 in both quotes.)
Where Lenin differed from Trotsky was on the issue of the possibility of the Russian workers coming to power before the workers of Western Europe. Up to 1917, only Trotsky thought that this would happen. Even Lenin ruled this out, insisting that the Russian Revolution would have a bourgeois character. The working class, in alliance with the poor peasants, would overthrow the autocracy and then carry out the most sweeping programme of bourgeois-democratic measures. At the heart of Lenin’s programme was a radical solution of the land problem, based on the confiscation of the landlords’ estates and land nationalisation. However, as Lenin explained many times, the nationalisation of the land is not a socialist, but a bourgeois demand, aimed at the landed aristocracy. He repeated on dozens of occasions that the Russian Revolution would stop short of carrying out the socialist tasks, since, as everyone agreed, the objective conditions for building socialism were absent in Russia. But Lenin’s case did not rest there. Lenin was always an uncompromising internationalist. His whole perspective was based on the international revolution, of which the Russian Revolution was only a small part.
The Russian workers and peasants would overthrow tsarism and carry out the most radical version of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. This would then provide a powerful impetus to the workers of Western Europe, who would carry out the socialist revolution. Then, by uniting their efforts with those of the French, German and British workers, the Russian workers could transform their bourgeois-democratic revolution into a socialist one:
But of course it will be a democratic, not a socialist dictatorship. It will be unable (without a series of intermediary stages of revolutionary development) to affect the foundations of capitalism. At best, it may bring about a radical redistribution of landed property in favour of the peasantry, establish consistent and full democracy, including the formation of a republic, eradicate all the oppressive features of Asiatic bondage… lay the foundation for a thorough improvement in the conditions of the workers and for a rise in their standard of living, and – last but not least – carry the revolutionary conflagration into Europe.
Lenin’s position is absolutely clear and unambiguous: the coming revolution will be a bourgeois revolution, led by the proletariat in alliance with the peasant masses. The best that can be expected of it is the fulfilment of basic bourgeois-democratic tasks: distribution of land to the peasants, a democratic republic, etc. This, of necessity, since any attempt to ‘affect the foundations of capitalism’ would bring the proletariat into conflict with the mass of peasant small proprietors. Lenin hammers the point home: “The democratic revolution is bourgeois in nature. The slogan of a general distribution, or ‘land and freedom’… is a bourgeois slogan.” (Ibid., p. 56-57 and p. 112.) And for Lenin, no other outcome was possible on the basis of a backward, semi-feudal country like Russia. To talk about the ‘growing over’ of the democratic dictatorship to the socialist revolution is to make nonsense of Lenin’s whole analysis of the class correlation of forces in the revolution. Lenin explained his attitude towards the role of the proletariat in the bourgeois democratic revolution in hundreds of articles.
We are incomparably more remote than our Western comrades from the socialist revolution; but we are faced with a bourgeois-democratic peasant revolution in which the proletariat will play the leading role. (LCW, The Social Democratic Election Victory in Tiflis, vol. 10, p. 424, my emphasis.)
In what sense did Lenin refer to the possibility of socialist revolution in Russia? In the above quotation from Two Tactics, Lenin asserts that the Russian Revolution will not be able to affect the foundations of capitalism “without a series of intermediary stages of revolutionary developments”.
From all this, it is clear that Lenin ruled out the possibility of a socialist revolution in Russia before the workers had taken power in Western Europe. He maintained this view right up until February 1917, when he abandoned it and adopted a position which was essentially the same as Trotsky’s. However, even when Lenin had the perspective of a bourgeois revolution in Russia (in which the proletariat would play the leading role) he explained the dialectical relation between the Russian Revolution and the international revolution. The bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia will, he wrote, “last but not least carry the revolutionary conflagration into Europe. Such a victory will not yet by any means transform our bourgeois revolution into a socialist revolution; the democratic revolution will not immediately overstep the bounds of bourgeois social and economic relationships; nevertheless, the significance of such a victory for the future development of Russia and of the whole world will be immense. Nothing will raise the revolutionary energy of the world proletariat so much, nothing will shorten the path leading to its complete victory to such an extent, as this decisive victory of the revolution that has now started in Russia.” (LCW, Two Tactics of the SD in the Democratic Revolution, vol. 9, p. 57.)
Lenin’s internationalism here stands out boldly in every line. For Lenin, the Russian Revolution was not a self-sufficient act, a ‘Russian Road to Socialism!’ It was the beginning of the world proletarian revolution. Precisely in this fact lay the future possibility of the transformation of the bourgeois-democratic revolution into the socialist revolution in Russia. Neither Lenin, nor any other Marxist, seriously entertained the idea that it was possible to build ‘socialism in a single country’, much less in a backward, Asiatic, peasant country like Russia. Elsewhere Lenin explains what would be ABC for any Marxist, that the conditions for a socialist transformation of society were absent in Russia, although they were fully matured in Western Europe. Polemicising against the Mensheviks in Two Tactics, Lenin reiterates the classical position of Marxism on the international significance of the Russian Revolution:
The basic idea here is one repeatedly formulated by Vperyod [i.e., Lenin’s paper], which has stated that we must not be afraid… of Social Democracy’s complete victory in a democratic revolution, i.e., of a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, for such a victory will enable us to rouse Europe; after throwing off the yoke of the bourgeoisie, the socialist proletariat in Europe will in its turn help us to accomplish the socialist revolution. (Ibid., p. 82, my emphasis.)
This is the crux of Lenin’s prognosis of the coming revolution in Russia: the revolution can only be bourgeois-democratic (not socialist) but, at the same time, because the bourgeoisie is unfit to play a revolutionary role, the revolution can only be carried out by the working class, led by the Social Democracy, which will rouse the peasant masses in its support. The overthrow of tsarism, the uprooting of all traces of feudalism, and the creation of a republic will have a tremendously revolutionising effect on the proletariat of the advanced countries of Western Europe. But the revolution in the West can only be a socialist revolution, because of the tremendous development of the productive forces built up under capitalism itself, and the enormous strength of the working class and the labour movement in these countries. Finally, the socialist revolution in the West will provoke further upheavals in Russia, and, with the assistance of the socialist proletariat of Europe, the Russian workers will transform the democratic revolution, in the teeth of opposition from the bourgeoisie and the counter-revolutionary peasantry, into a socialist revolution.
Thus, at this stage [i.e., after the final victory of the ‘democratic dictatorship’], the liberal bourgeoisie and the well-to-do peasantry plus partly the middle peasantry organise counter-revolution. The Russian proletariat plus the European proletariat organise revolution.
In such conditions the Russian proletariat can win a second victory. The cause is no longer hopeless. The second victory will be the socialist revolution in Europe.
The European workers will then show us ‘how to do it’, and then together with them we shall bring about the socialist revolution. (LCW, The Stages, the Trend, and the Prospects of the Revolution, vol. 10, p. 92.)
Here and on dozens of other occasions Lenin expressed himself with the utmost clarity that the victory of “our great bourgeois revolution…
will usher in the era of socialist revolution in the West”. (LCW, Victory of Cadets and Tasks of Workers’ Party, vol. 10, p. 276 my emphasis.) No matter how the matter is presented, nothing can alter the fact that, in 1905, Lenin not only rejected the idea of the ‘building of socialism in Russia alone’ (the very idea would not have entered his head), but even the possibility of the Russian workers establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat before the socialist revolution in the West.
Trotsky always considered Lenin’s position to be progressive in relation to that of the two stages theory of the Mensheviks, but also pointed out its shortcomings. In 1909 he wrote:
It is true that the difference between them in this matter is very considerable: while the anti-revolutionary aspects of Menshevism have already become fully apparent, those of Bolshevism are likely to become a serious threat only in the event of victory.
These prophetic lines have often been taken out of context by Trotsky’s Stalinist critics, but in fact they accurately express what occurred in 1917, when Lenin came into conflict with the other Bolshevik leaders precisely over the slogan of the ‘Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry’, which Lenin abandoned in favour of a policy that was identical with that of the permanent revolution. When this book was published after the revolution, Trotsky wrote in a footnote:
This threat, as we know, never materialised because, under the leadership of Comrade Lenin, the Bolsheviks changed their policy line on this most important matter (not without inner struggle) in the spring of 1917, that is, before the seizure of power. (L. Trotsky, Our Differences, in 1905, p. 332 and footnote of the same page.)
From a materialist point of view, the final test of all theories is found in practice. All the theories, programmes and perspectives that were advanced and passionately defended by the different tendencies in the Russian labour movement concerning the nature and motor force of the revolution were subjected to the acid test in the events of 1917. At this point, the line separating Trotsky from Lenin dissolves completely. The line of Lenin’s Letters From Afar and his April Theses is absolutely indistinguishable from that which we read in Trotsky’s articles published in Novy Mir, written at the same time, but thousands of miles away in America. And, as Trotsky had warned in 1909, the counter-revolutionary side of the theory of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry only became evident in the course of the revolution itself, when Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Stalin used it against Lenin to justify their support for the bourgeois Provisional Government. An open split developed between Lenin and the other leaders of the Party who, in effect, accused him of – Trotskyism.
In point of fact, the correctness of the theory of the permanent revolution was triumphantly demonstrated by the October Revolution itself. The Russian working class – as Trotsky had predicted in 1904 – came to power before the workers of Western Europe. They carried out all the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, and immediately set about nationalising industry and passing over to the tasks of the socialist revolution. The bourgeoisie played an openly counter-revolutionary role, but was defeated by the workers in alliance with the poor peasants. The Bolsheviks then made a revolutionary appeal to the workers of the world to follow their example. Lenin knew very well that without the victory of the revolution in the advanced capitalist countries, especially Germany, the revolution could not survive isolated, especially in a backward country like Russia. What happened subsequently showed that this was absolutely correct. The setting up of the Third (Communist) International, the world party of socialist revolution, was the concrete manifestation of this perspective.
The situation is clearer still today. The national bourgeoisie in the colonial countries entered into the scene of history too late, when the world had already been divided up between a few imperialist powers. It was not able to play any progressive role and was born completely subordinated to its former colonial masters. The weak and degenerate bourgeoisie in Asia, Latin America, and Africa is too dependent on foreign capital and imperialism to carry society forward. It is tied with a thousand threads, not only to foreign capital, but with the class of landowners, with which it forms a reactionary bloc that represents a bulwark against progress. Whatever differences may exist between these elements are insignificant in comparison with the fear that unites them against the masses. Only the proletariat, allied with the poor peasants and urban poor, can solve the problems of society by taking power into its own hands, expropriating the imperialists and the bourgeoisie, and beginning the task of transforming society on socialist lines.
Had the Communist International remained firm on the positions of Lenin and Trotsky, the victory of the world revolution would have been assured. Unfortunately, the Comintern’s formative years coincided with the Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia, which had a disastrous effect on the Communist Parties of the entire world. The Stalinist bureaucracy, having acquired control in the Soviet Union, developed a very conservative outlook. The theory that socialism can be built in one country – an abomination from the standpoint of Marx and Lenin – really reflected the mentality of the bureaucracy, which had enough of the storm and stress of revolution and sought to get on with the task of ‘building socialism in Russia’. That is to say, they wanted to protect and expand their privileges and not ‘waste’ the resources of the country in pursuing world revolution. On the other hand, they feared that revolution in other countries could develop on healthy lines and pose a threat to their own domination in Russia, and therefore, at a certain stage, sought actively to prevent revolution elsewhere. Instead of pursuing a revolutionary policy based on class independence, as Lenin had always advocated, they proposed an alliance of the Communist Parties with the ‘national progressive bourgeoisie’ (and if there was not one easily at hand, they were quite prepared to invent it) to carry through the democratic revolution, and afterwards, later on, in the far distant future, when the country had developed a full-fledged capitalist economy, fight for socialism. This policy represented a complete break with Leninism and a return to the old discredited position of Menshevism – the theory of the two stages.
The 3 June Coup
The 1905 Revolution in reality had lasted for two and half years. But by the summer of 1907, the last flickering embers of revolt were extinguished. Deprived of a leadership in the towns, the peasant revolt inevitably resolved itself into a series of uncoordinated and aimless uprisings which could be put down one by one. With every reverse of the mass movement, the self-confidence of the regime was reinforced. Finally, on 3 June, convinced of the impotence of the Cadets and the waning of the peasant movement, Stolypin decided to dismiss the second Duma and arrest the Social Democratic fraction. Immediately after the Fifth Congress finished, Stolypin challenged the Duma by demanding the expulsion of the 55 Social Democratic deputies, and the arrest of 16 of them. On the night of 2 June, without waiting for the Duma’s response, he proceeded to carry out the arrests. The next day the Duma itself was suspended. A new electoral law was drafted that was even worse than the previous one. When it finally convened, the Third Duma was the parliament of open reaction. Even Count Witte admitted in his memoirs that:
The new electoral law excluded from the Duma the voice of the people, i.e., the voice of the masses and their representatives, and gave a voice only to the powerful and the obedient.
Kerensky, who was a Trudovik deputy in the Third Duma, comments:
The electoral law of June, 1907, practically eliminated the participation of peasants and workers from the towns and villages. In the provinces the elections were virtually handed over to the moribund gentry, and in the larger towns the right of quasi-universal suffrage was also suppressed; the number of deputies was cut down, and half the seats were assigned under a curial system to an insignificant minority of the property-owning bourgeoisie. Representation of the non-Russian nationalities was reduced. Poland, for example, was allowed to send only 18 deputies to the Third Duma (and the fourth), as opposed to the 53 representatives sent to the first and second Dumas, and the Muslim population of Turkestan was excluded entirely.
The people’s representatives elected under Stolypin’s law were rightly called Russia’s ‘distorting mirror’. The left-wing parties making up the majority in the first and second Dumas practically vanished in the Third Duma of 1907–12, which, moreover, contained only 13 members of the Labour Group (Trudoviks) and 20 Social Democrats. The Social Revolutionaries boycotted the elections. The Cadets, the party of the liberal intellectuals, had dropped from their dominant position to the role of ‘His Majesty’s loyal opposition’, with 54 seats.
Out of 442 members of parliament, the reactionary parties (the Black Hundreds, Octobrists, and Cadets) had 409. The working class had only 19 deputies (Social Democrats) and the Trudoviks, only 14. A vastly different situation to that of the second Duma. Yet, as Lenin pointed out, this reactionary Duma at least had the merit of expressing the real situation in the country. Here was the real face of the Black Hundred autocracy, without its liberal mask.
Fifty seats were taken by the reactionary Union of the Russian People, which was subsidised from special funds available to the secret police and was patronised by the Tsar and Grand Duke Nicholas. These deputies, under the guidance of three very able men – Markov, Purishkevich, and Zamyslovsky – tried to sabotage the Duma from within by incessantly causing trouble. Along with these, 89 seats were given to a completely new party called the Nationalists. They were returned by and large from the western and south-western provinces, which had been torn by feuding between the Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, and Jewish sections of the population as far back as could be remembered. The gap between the Cadets and the right wing was filled by the 153 Octobrist deputies, of whom there had hardly been any at all in the first two Dumas. They thus comprised slightly more than a third of the total membership of the Duma. (A. Kerensky, Memoirs, pp. 101-2.)
The leading figure in this Duma was the Octobrist Guchkov, a big Moscow industrialist whose party represented the reactionary big bourgeoisie and landowners, but deemed it expedient to distance themselves from the ruling clique:
Guchkov, Khomyakov, Shidlovsky, and the other leaders of the Octobrist Party knew full well the danger to the country of the morbid atmosphere surrounding the Tsar. Well aware that they could not rely on the weak-willed Tsar, they firmly rejected all of Stolypin’s tempting invitations to join the government. They preferred to keep watch on the activity of the official government by applying the statutory rights of the Duma Budget Commission, to support it in the struggle against the irresponsible and powerful influence of the Rasputin clique in court circles, and to try to improve the country’s military and economic position through regular legislation. (A. Kerensky, Memoirs, p. 104.)
The Cadets effectively played the role of second fiddle to the Octobrists in the Third Duma. In turn, Guchkov leaned over backwards to support Stolypin against the court reactionaries, as the lesser evil. For their part, the Mensheviks looked towards the Cadets, also as the lesser evil. However, Stolypin was really the firmest supporter of the autocracy. His reforms were intended to preserve the rule of the Romanovs, while crushing the revolution underfoot. In this way, the ‘lesser evil’ becomes imperceptibly transformed into the greatest evil for the revolutionary cause. Guchkov, the representative of Russian big business, expressed his fervent loyalty to the autocracy by wholeheartedly embracing the cause of imperialism and militarism at a time when the international scene was already darkened by the clouds of impending war. The Duma vied with the government to show who was more patriotic. On 9 June, 1908, speaking in a debate on the army estimates, Guchkov spoke of “our buried military glory”. As a result of this cringing and fawning, the Third Duma was permitted to live out its full term of five years, until the election of the Fourth Duma in 1912.
Paradoxically, Stolypin’s position in the new Duma was no better than before. Playing the role of Bonapartist, manoeuvring between the different classes and parties, he had no firm point of support. Not a single party in the Duma backed him consistently. The strengthening of the right wing weakened him because the conservatives and the court clique hated him as a dangerous radical. The Tsar, not noted either for political acumen or personal gratitude, became increasingly distant from his faithful minister. Although he had concentrated great power in his hands, Stolypin’s life was constantly in danger, and he knew it. He wore a bulletproof vest and was always surrounded by bodyguards, but that did not save him. On the night of 1 September, 1911, Stolypin turned up for a special gala performance of Rimski Korsakov’s opera Tsar Saltan, in Kiev, which the Tsar also attended. During an interval, a young man in evening dress walked up to him and shot him twice. Theatrical to the end, Stolypin made the sign of the cross over Nicholas before collapsing. He died four days later. His last public utterance was “I am happy to die for the Tsar”, which was ironical since, by this time, Nicholas could not stand the sight of him. The student who did the deed was a Social Revolutionary turned police informer called Bogrov. He was executed without delay, and kept incommunicado beforehand, so no questions could be asked. Many people suspected that the assassination was the work of the secret police in cahoots with the court clique who hated Stolypin. This is most probable. The deepening crisis of society reflected itself in splits and clique struggles at the top. In a setup like the tsarist-Rasputin regime, political intrigue and assassination were inseparable travelling companions.
During this period, the fortunes of the revolutionary movement seemed to reach their nadir. Once again, the Party was reduced to difficult and dangerous underground work. Waves of arrests decimated the Party organisations. In the summer of 1907, all the Social Democratic Duma deputies were arrested. The workers were indignant, but by this time had not the strength to react. The reaction flexed its muscles and felt its own strength. For three long years, in 1908–10, it rained blows on the defeated labour movement. “The incessant mass arrests led to the destruction of one Party branch after another, until the Party practically ceased to exist,” writes the Menshevik Eva Broido. “The trade unions, too, suffered havoc; hundreds of their branches were dissolved and the formation of new ones was made extremely difficult.” (E. Broido, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, p. 136.)
As the most militant wing of the RSDLP, the Bolsheviks suffered proportionately greater losses. Their organisations in Petersburg suffered no fewer than 15 mass arrests of leaders in this period. Its leading committee was arrested six times. In Moscow, the area committee was arrested 11 times. The same situation prevailed everywhere. Each time the committees were reorganised, but in ever smaller numbers, and with less experienced people. However, there was at least one advantage. Most of those who stepped into the breach were workers. For the first time the Party committees were genuinely proletarian in composition. These worker cadres kept the illegal Party alive in conditions of extreme adversity. By contrast, many of the intellectuals became demoralised and fell away.
In 1908 Lenin noted in a letter to Gorky:
The significance of the intellectuals in our Party is declining; news comes from all sides that the intelligentsia is fleeing the Party. And a good riddance to these scoundrels. The Party is purging itself from petty-bourgeois dross. The workers are having a bigger say in things. The role of the worker-professionals is increasing. All this is wonderful. (LCW, Letter to Maxim Gorky, 7 February, 1908, vol. 34, p. 379.)
It would appear that Gorky was upset by Lenin’s comments, since in a subsequent letter he hastened to reassure him:
I think that some of the questions you raise about our differences of opinion are a sheer misunderstanding. Never, of course, have I thought of ‘chasing away the intelligentsia’, as the silly syndicalists do, or of denying its necessity for the workers’ movement. There can be no divergence between us on any of these questions. (LCW, To Maxim Gorky, 13 February, 1908, ibid., p. 385.)
Under these conditions, a process of selection was inevitable: unstable intellectuals left in droves, succumbing to the prevailing mood of reaction. By late 1907, the Petersburg Party had only about 3,000 members, not all active. Many of the best leaders were in jail or exile, their place taken by second-line leaders like Stalin, who began to make a name for himself at this time as an organiser. Stalin’s rapid advance to a leading position can easily be explained by the fact that, with the extreme shortage of capable people from Russia, Lenin eagerly pounced on any newcomer who seemed promising. Stalin had a certain flare for organisation, but no more than many other Bolshevik committeemen. Indeed, Stalin was a typical committee-man: tough, practical, and capable of displaying energy under certain conditions, but narrow in outlook. Stalin’s whole political career showed that, without Lenin’s guiding hand, he was devoid of any real political understanding, let alone theoretical depth. This is shown by the fact that Stalin continued to organise expropriations when the revolutionary wave had long ebbed and the counter-revolution was in full swing. Such tactics could have done serious damage to the Party if Lenin had not put a stop to them in time.
The new conditions demonstrated the necessity for combining illegal work with all manner of legal and semi-legal work. Only in this way was the Party able to maintain links with the masses. The forces at its disposal had been seriously depleted. By late 1908, about 900 Party members were abroad. But these numbers do not tell the whole story. Revolution, as Trotsky pointed out, is a mighty devourer of human energy. Many of the most experienced cadres were languishing in tsarist prisons or Siberian exile. Many of those that remained were traumatised, disoriented, mentally and physically exhausted. Cases of suicide were not uncommon, especially among the youth, who believed that the defeat signified the final liquidation of the revolution. Under such circumstances moods of pessimism and despair can quickly find an expression in all manner of ways, from open apostasy and desertion to various forms of political deviation – to the left as well as to the right. Frustration leads to moods of impatience and the search for panaceas and short cuts. This can express itself either in opportunist adaptation to the existing conditions or ultra-left adventures. Such phenomena, apparently extreme opposites, are in fact head and tail of the same coin.
At this time, Lenin found himself in a particularly difficult position. While the Party remained formally united, in practice the two factions functioned independently, a fact that was sharply revealed by the opposing policies pursued by the different factions on the Central Committee. The Menshevik members (Zhordania and Ramishvili) did not conduct underground work, since their entire strategy was to liquidate the underground Party and confine their activities to what was permitted by the tsarist authorities. The work of maintaining the illegal Party organisation inside Russia thus depended on the Bolsheviks on the CC (Dubrovinsky, Goldenberg, Nogin). But the latter were conciliators who by no means agreed with Lenin’s demand for an implacable struggle against the Menshevik CC members.
Under the circumstances, the formation of an organised tendency within the united Party was inevitable. The Bolshevik factional centre was established in 1907. There was nothing in the party rules to stop the publication of factional newspapers, so Lenin decided to go ahead. Despite all difficulties, the Bolshevik ‘centre’ managed to produce its own paper, Proletary (1906–9). Lenin edited the paper, which, among other collaborators, included Maxim Gorky, who also played an important role in raising funds. In the traditions of old Iskra, Proletary maintained correspondence with party organisations in the interior. Because of the problems of illegality, many other titles appeared in order to confuse the censor. There was the Sotsial-Demokrat, and a number of local party papers. At first, Lenin tried to set up an underground headquarters in Finland where the movement for national independence made it more difficult for the Russian authorities to re-establish complete control, but the arm of the Okhrana was long and the Bolshevik leader only narrowly escaped arrest. Once again Lenin had to make plans for exile.
Liquidationism and Otzovism
The demoralisation of the Mensheviks was expressed in the phenomenon which became known as liquidationism. Under conditions of reaction, the majority of the petty-bourgeois fellow travellers of the RSDLP swung to the right. This was not so much a worked-out political trend but a definite mood that permeated this social stratum, a mood of scepticism in the future of the socialist revolution, and above all a mood of doubt – doubts about the revolutionary potential of the working class, doubts about the validity of Marxist philosophy, doubts about themselves – doubts about everything. The clearest manifestation of this state of mind among the intelligentsia on the right wing of the movement was ‘liquidationism’ among the Mensheviks, but it had its mirror image on the left in the ‘otzovism’ that emerged in the ranks of the Bolsheviks. The feebleness of the Social Democratic Duma fraction, dominated by the Mensheviks, its organic tendency towards compromise with the liberals, and its rejection of control by the Party provoked the opposite trend of recallism and ultimatism. As Lenin often observed, ultra-leftism is the price the movement has to pay for opportunism. But, under conditions of growing reaction, refusal to make use of the Third Duma for the purpose of rallying the scattered forces of the Party would have been clearly harmful.
Liquidationist moods found their most developed expression in a layer of Menshevik intellectuals and writers. People like Potresov, Larin, Dan, Martynov, Axelrod, Cherevanin constantly accused the Bolsheviks of extremism, of going too far, and of fighting the bourgeois liberals. Some advocated giving up the idea of armed uprising altogether and making the Duma the focal point of all Social Democratic activity – that is, they stood for the abandonment of the perspective of revolution. Other Mensheviks like Zhordania did not go so far, but argued that, since the objective character of the revolution was bourgeois-democratic, the bourgeoisie (that is, the liberals) must lead it. This meant the abandonment of the hegemony of the working class – a ‘theoretical’ justification for the organic lack of trust in the working class on the part of the middle class intellectual, who disguises his servile acceptance of the rule of the big bourgeoisie behind a string of sophistries which ‘prove’ that the proletariat is unfit to stand at the head of society. This prejudice may be expressed directly and ‘sincerely’ (the workers are too ignorant, ‘don’t understand’, etc.) or in more subtle forms – ‘the revolution is bourgeois-democratic’, ‘the time is not right’, and so on and so forth. After all, for the intellectuals, accustomed to playing with ideas as with pieces on a chessboard, it is not difficult to make out a clever-sounding argument for any proposition whatever, in line with their current mood or self-interest (the two things are usually closely related). For these people, if one is to tell the truth, the time for the working class to take control of society will never be right. The Mensheviks tried to base themselves on all kinds of ‘erudite’ arguments and quotes from Marx to ‘prove’ that the Russian workers must subordinate themselves to the bourgeois liberals, help them to take power, introduce democracy, and then usher in a long period of capitalist development, after which, in about a hundred years or so, the objective conditions would be ready for socialism. In reality, such a position had nothing to do with Marxism, but was only a scholastic caricature. It was answered many times by Lenin and Trotsky. As a matter of fact, it was already answered in advance by Marx and Engels.
At bottom, all this was an expression of a collapse of morale. As early as October 1907, Potresov wrote to Axelrod:
We are undergoing complete disintegration and utter demoralisation…
There is not only no organisation, but not even the elements for it. And this non-existence is even extolled as a principle. (See L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 110.)
On 20 February, 1908, Axelrod wrote a letter to Plekhanov expressing his deep pessimism about the future:
Without leaving it [the Party] for the time being, and without pronouncing the inevitability of its demise, we should nevertheless consider it from this perspective and not identify our future movement with what happens to it. (Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, pp. 251-52.)
In the spring of 1908, the Mensheviks began to disband the underground Party organisations in Moscow and replace them with so-called initiative groups, which mainly limited themselves to those cultural activities and work in cooperatives and clubs that was permitted by the existing legislation. In July, Alexander Martynov and Boris Goldman issued an open call for the dissolution of the Party’s Central Committee and its replacement by an ‘information bureau’. This, in effect, meant the liquidation of the Party as a revolutionary force and the adaptation to the laws established by the Stolypin reaction.
The struggle against liquidationism was thus the struggle to preserve the Party as a revolutionary organisation – the struggle against the attempt of the right wing to water down and abandon its revolutionary aims and policy and to subordinate it to the liberals. Lenin spoke with scorn of the liquidationist tendencies, which he immediately saw as a reflection of the demoralised state of the intellectuals, who were turning their backs on the revolution with the excuse of rejecting ‘old’ methods of struggle and organisation.
The connection between liquidationism and the general philistine mood of ‘weariness’ is obvious. The ‘weary’ (particularly those weary as a result of doing nothing) are making no effort to work out for themselves an exact answer to the question of the economic and political appraisal of the current moment… ‘Weary’ persons of this kind, who ascend the rostrum of the publicist and from it justify their ‘weariness’ of the old, their unwillingness to work on the old, belong to the category of people who are not just ‘weary’, but are treacherous as well. (LCW, Those Who Would Liquidate Us, vol. 17, pp. 71-72.)
“The more this banner is ‘unfurled’,” Lenin wrote elsewhere, “the clearer does it become that what we have before us is a dirty liberal rag worn to shreds.” This was the essential nature of the struggle between Bolshevism and Menshevism that was to culminate in the split of 1912.
All this was, as Lenin understood, an expression of the counter-revolutionary moods among the intellectuals – their despair, their loss of faith in the working class and the perspective of a new revolution. It was the most obvious manifestation, but not the only one. Lenin often said that ultra-leftism is the price which the workers’ movement pays for opportunism. Liquidationism found its reflection in ultra-leftism. But whereas the former trend affected the Mensheviks, the latter found an echo in the ranks of Bolshevism, where it caused a great deal of damage. Already in March and April of 1908, some Social Democratic groups in Moscow put forward the idea of recalling the Party’s deputies and of boycotting the Duma. The Russian word for ‘recall’ is ‘otzvat’, from which we get the name of this tendency – otzovism (recallism). Lenin had come down firmly in favour of participation in the elections to the Third Duma. This was approved by the rank and file in the third Conference of the RSDLP (‘Second All-Russian’ Conference) which was held on 21-23 July, 1907, in Kotka in Finland. Present were 26 full delegates – nine Bolsheviks, five Mensheviks, five Poles, two Letts, and five Bundists. This position was not quite as clear-cut as it appears, since by this time serious cracks had opened up inside the Bolshevik faction. Some of the Bolshevik delegation were ‘boycottists’. However, the Poles and Letts supported Lenin’s position. The Party participated in the election. Four Bolsheviks were elected out of a total Social Democratic fraction numbering 19.
The inner Party dispute raised its head at every meeting. On 5-12 November, 1907, the fourth – or third ‘All-Russia’ – Conference, held in Helsingfors, once again discussed Duma tactics. Of the 27 delegates present, ten were Bolsheviks, four Mensheviks, five Poles, five Bundists, and three Letts. Lenin argued in favour of using the Duma, not as a vehicle for obtaining reforms – as argued by the Liquidators – but as a platform for revolutionary agitation, and always on the basis of class independence, not blocs with Cadets, as advocated by the Bundists and Mensheviks. It was agreed to accept temporary agreements with working class and peasant groups to the left of the Cadets, with a view to winning away the peasantry from the influence of bourgeois liberals. This was an important boost for Lenin’s position. Things appeared to be going in the right direction. Then there was a new setback.
In the spring of 1908, all the Bolshevik members of the Bureau in Russia were suddenly arrested. This completely disorganised the work of the Bolshevik faction in Russia. It was at this point that the Mensheviks took advantage of the situation by trying to turn the CC into a mere information centre. This proposal was defeated at the August Plenum, which took place in 1908 in Geneva. As usual, the Bolsheviks were backed by the Poles and Letts. It was decided to call a party conference to discuss the issue of liquidationism. The Mensheviks opposed this idea, as did the otzovists, who called for a ‘purely Bolshevik congress’, at a time when Lenin was trying to hold things together. In addition to the recall of the Duma fraction, the otzovist tendency demanded that the Party boycott work in the legal organisations. Under the prevailing conditions of counter-revolution it was essential that the Marxists made use of all legal openings, no matter how limited: trade unions, workers’ clubs, insurance societies and, above all, the Duma. To turn one’s back on these legal possibilities would have been a disastrous error. It would have signified abandoning any attempt to reach the masses, thus reducing the party to a mere sect. Lenin waged an implacable struggle against this ultra-left trend, which he correctly characterised as ‘liquidationism turned inside-out’.
Ultra-left moods were prevalent among the leading layer of the Bolshevik faction at this time. The main proponents of this trend included such key figures as Alexander Bogdanov (Maximovich), Grigory Alexinsky, A. Sokolov (Volsky), Martin Lyadov (Mandelshtamm), and also Gorky, whose limited grasp of the theoretical basis of Marxism was shown by his support for a semi-mystical philosophical trend called ‘god-building’. The urge to criticise and revise the fundamental theoretical postulates of Marxism was equally a reflection of the prevailing moods of pessimism and despair among the intelligentsia which can be observed repeatedly in the history of counter-revolutionary periods. Bogdanov’s support for an ultra-left policy was organically connected to his philosophical revisionism and rejection of dialectical materialism, which antedated the 1905 Revolution. Anxious as ever to make use of the services of talented people, Lenin was prepared to put up with Bogdanov’s eccentric ideas about philosophy, while making clear that he disagreed with them. But in the context of rampant counter-revolution, with desertion, despair, and apostasy on all sides, Lenin realised that it was impermissible to tolerate any further backsliding. To allow the Party to be permeated with the rotten mysticism emanating from its periphery of middle-class intellectuals would have been suicidal. It would have led inevitably to the liquidation of the Marxist party, beginning with its cadres.
It was necessary to make a stand in defence of Marxist theory, and Lenin did not hesitate to take up the cudgels, even though it might lead to a break with most of the leading comrades. Lenin’s fervent defence of Marxist philosophy has earned him many an ironic comment from non-Marxist historians. Naturally. If one does not accept Marxism anyway, how can one understand the need for a struggle for Marxist theoretical principles? Yet Marxism is a scientific doctrine which has an inner logic. It is not possible to separate out the three component parts of Marxism, as Lenin described them, accepting some and rejecting others, as one would select a tie or a pair of socks. Dialectical materialism stands at the heart of Marxism because it is the method of Marxism. Without dialectical materialism, the whole of Marxism falls to the ground, or else is transformed into a formalistic and lifeless dogma. Precisely for this reason, the bourgeoisie and its hangers-on in the universities have directed a constant tirade against Marxist dialectics which it tries to present as some kind of mystical idea or else as a meaningless sophistry. As a matter of fact, dialectical materialism represents the only consistent form of materialism, and therefore the only really consistent way of struggling against all forms of mysticism and religion. And the history of science is sufficient proof that science and religion are mutually incompatible schools of thought. Lenin’s struggle to defend Marxist philosophy was not understood by many party activists at the time. The average theoretical level of the membership had declined as a result of the rapid growth and the loss of experienced cadres through imprisonment and exile. Many of those who remained lacked a thorough grounding in Marxism, and, in the difficult conditions of underground work, looked askance at the apparently obscure and remote discussions taking place among the exiles. There were frequent appeals for unity and complaints about the factional struggle. But nothing could deflect Lenin from his course.
Mood of the Intelligentsia
The period of reaction expressed itself not only in physical acts of repression, but in far more insidious ways. The trauma of defeat affected people psychologically in a thousand different ways, in an epidemic of depression, pessimism, and despair. The working class does not live in isolation from other social layers. It is surrounded in all countries and in every period by other classes, in particular the petty bourgeoisie in all its innumerable subdivisions, which acts as a huge conveyor belt transmitting the moods, prejudices, and ideas of the ruling class into every corner of society. The proletariat is not immune to the pressure of alien classes transmitted via the petty bourgeoisie. Such influences play a particularly malevolent role in periods of reaction. Disappointed in the revolution and the working class, sections of the intellectuals withdrew from the struggle to retreat within themselves, where they felt safe against the storm blowing outside. The reactionary mood of the intelligentsia expressed itself in a variety of ways – subjectivism, hedonism, mysticism, metaphysics, pornography. It found its reflection in literature, in the prevailing school of Symbolism; in philosophy, where revolutionary dialectics were rejected in favour of Kantianism, with its strong subjective element. All this was merely an expression of the demoralisation of the intellectuals, a turning aside from the world and an attempt to seek refuge in an ‘interior life’, which under all manner of pretentious and essentially meaningless labels (‘Art for Art’s sake’, and so on) provided a comforting excuse for contemplating their navels. A contemporary source recalls how:
The radical sons of petty merchants submitted to their fate and took up positions behind the counters of their father’s business. One or other of the socialist students buried himself in knowledge as in a monastery.
This phenomenon is not new. It is something common to every period of reaction, when the hopes of the intelligentsia in revolution are dashed. After the fall of Robespierre, we saw the rise of the ‘gilded youth’, and a tendency towards hedonism and egotism. A similar phenomenon may be observed in England after the restoration of Charles II. The defeat of the 1848 Revolution in France saw a movement of the artists and poets, who had earlier displayed revolutionary tendencies, towards introversion and mysticism, the literary manifestation of which was the Symbolism of Baudelaire. It is no accident that the predominant school of Russian poetry during the years of Stolypin reaction was precisely Symbolism. A schoolboy of the time explains:
Now it was no longer Marx and Engels, but Nietzsche and Baudelaire and Wagner and Leonardo da Vinci whom we passionately discussed, we did not sing revolutionary songs but recited to one another poems of contemporary symbolist poets and our own imitations of them. A new period had begun. (Quoted in L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, p. 155 in both quotes.)
The principal trait of this poetry is its inward-looking character. The isolated individual turns his back on the world and seeks refuge in the darkness of the soul. As one Russian Symbolist expressed it:
We are all alone,
I was born alone.
Alone I shall die.
The whole movement was impregnated with religious and mystical notions. The author Fyodor Sollogub wrote: “I am the god of a mysterious world, all the world is in my dreams alone.” And V.V. Rozanov: “All religions will pass, but this alone will remain, simply sitting in a chair and looking in the distance.” (Ibid., p. 155.) And so on and so forth. This phenomenon was by no means confined to literature. Intellectual fellow travellers of the Cadets produced a journal called Vekhi (Landmarks) which attempted to give a philosophical basis to the mood of despair and pessimism among the petty bourgeoisie. “The intelligentsia should stop dreaming of the liberation of the people – we should fear the people more than all the executions carried out by the government, and hail this government which alone, with its bayonets and its prisons, still protects us from the fury of the masses,” wrote M.O. Gershenzon in the pages of Vekhi. (Quoted in O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, p. 209.)
A kind of de facto reactionary division of labour was established. While right-wing journals like Vekhi and Russkaya Mysl openly lauded and excused the reaction, in the salons of Moscow and St. Petersburg, intellectual ex-lefts, anxious to find some profound justification for their abandonment of the revolutionary cause, opened up a more subtle and more insidious assault on the ideology of Marxism which had so badly let them down. These unconscious or half-conscious anti-revolutionary moods among the intelligentsia were given a finished form by those renegades who had earlier formed the basis of the trend which became known as Legal Marxism, such as Struve, the philosopher Berdyaev, A.S. Izgoev, and D.S. Merezhkovsky. These former exponents of an anaemic and half-digested university ‘Marxism’, which is to be found in every period in academic circles, by some misconception imagine themselves to be Marxists, without any real relation to the real world of the class struggle. At the first signs of difficulties, these ‘fellow travellers’ jump ship and become apologists of reaction.
Of the two enemies, it is difficult to say which was the more harmful. This theoretical backsliding threatened the future of the revolutionary movement, gnawing away at its very foundations. It was imperative to engage in an implacable ideological struggle on all fronts to save the Party from a complete debacle. Not by accident, dialectics was singled out for attack by the intellectual critics of Marxism. Despite appearances, dialectics is not at all an abstract philosophical doctrine with no practical implications, but the theoretical basis of Marxism, its method and its revolutionary essence. Rejection of dialectical materialism implies rejection not only of the scientific philosophical basis of Marxism, but above all of its revolutionary essence.
These alien ideas soon began to penetrate the workers’ party itself. Kantianism was smuggled in via the fashionable theories of Ernst Mach, the Austrian physicist and philosopher whose theories were impregnated with the spirit of subjective idealism. In this guise, anti-Marxist philosophical views were echoed by the ultra-left trend in Bolshevism, including such leading members of Lenin’s faction as Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, and V.A. Bazarov. As usual, the lapse into revisionism was carried out under the banner of the search for new ideas. The appeal to novelty and originality always prefaces a reversion to old ideas fished out from the prehistory of the workers’ movement – anarchism, Proudhonism, Kantianism. As the French saying goes: ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!’ (‘The more things change, the more they stay the same!’). This trend tried to marry Marxism with… religion! Its supporters gave themselves some fancy names – ‘God Builders’ and ‘God Seekers’ – which reveal their real nature far more accurately than intended. Lunacharsky’s book Religion and Socialism argued that the “cold and impersonal” theories of Marxism could not be grasped by the masses and proposed the creation of a “new religion”, which would be a “godless religion”, a “religion of labour”, and so on and so forth. Socialism was referred to as a “new, powerful religious force”. (A.V. Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes, p. 35.) This mystical claptrap masquerading under the name of philosophy filled Lenin with indignation.
After a stormy united Party Conference held in Paris in December 1909, a new editorial board for Sotsial Demokrat was elected, consisting of Lenin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Martov, and Marchiewski. Nine issues were put out in the course of the year, during which, as Krupskaya recalls, “Martov was in a minority of one on the new editorial board, and he often forgot about his Menshevism”. And she adds: “I remember Ilyich once remarked with satisfaction that it was good to work with Martov, as he was an exceedingly gifted journalist. But that was only until Dan arrived.” (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 193.)
Many people get the idea that Lenin was a very hard man who took a perverse delight in ‘hammering’ his opponents in polemics. This impression – very far from the truth – is derived from a one-sided acquaintance with Lenin’s writings. If one merely reads the public articles, many of which were naturally of a polemical character, then it does seem that Lenin treats his opponents none too gently. But this gives only one side of the picture. If one reads Lenin’s correspondence, an entirely different picture emerges. Lenin was always extraordinarily patient and loyal in his dealings with comrades. He would go to great lengths to convince and carry his colleagues with him. Only in the last analysis, when the disputed issues passed over into the public domain, especially where issues of principle were at stake, Lenin would come out fighting. At this juncture, diplomacy took a back seat and no feelings were spared. For Lenin, all other considerations were secondary when it came to the defence of the fundamental principles of Marxism. This method can be seen clearly in this case.
That Bogdanov had reservations about dialectical materialism was not new. But in the storm and stress of the revolution, such things appeared of little importance. In any case, there was no time to devote to philosophy. But under conditions of reaction, the question appeared in an altogether different light. The dangers were all too clear. But to split over such questions, and in such a difficult situation – this thought was too awful to contemplate. Initially, Lenin attempted to play down the differences, so as to avoid a damaging conflict inside the Bolshevik leadership:
At the end of March Ilyich had been of the opinion that philosophical disputes could and should be detached from political groupings within the Bolshevik section. He believed that such disputes in the section would show better than anything else that Bogdanov’s philosophy could not be put on the same level as Bolshevism.
But then Krupskaya adds: “It grew clearer every day, however, that the Bolshevik group would soon fall apart.” (Ibid., p. 181.)
In his shallow and pretentious memoirs, N.V. Volsky (Valentinov) gives a picture of the sharp conflicts over philosophy that shook the Bolshevik organisation at this time. (See N.V. Valentinov, Encounters with Lenin, 1968.) Reading this, one realises that Lenin must have had the patience of Job. But everything has its limits. Despite all Lenin’s attempts at peace-making, the differences were too serious to paper over. To make matters worse, a defiant Bogdanov wrote an article in Kautsky’s journal Die Neue Zeit praising Machism. For Lenin, this was like a red rag to a bull. The German Party was the leading party of the International. To go public in the German party press was an open provocation. Worse still, the SPD had an ambiguous position on the question of philosophy, while the Austrian Social Democratic theoretician Friedrich Adler hailed Machism as a great scientific discovery. By giving the polemic in the Russian Party such a high profile internationally, Bogdanov upped the ante and deepened the split. From this moment there was no turning back.
It was very hard for Lenin to break with people with whom he had worked closely, as Krupskaya points out:
For about three years prior to this we had been working with Bogdanov and the Bogdanovites hand in hand, and not just working, but fighting side by side. Fighting for a common cause draws people together more than anything. Ilyich, on the other hand, was wonderful at being able to fire people with his ideas, infect them with his enthusiasm, while at the same time bringing out the best in them, taking from them what others had failed to take. Every comrade working with him seemed, as it were, to have a part of Ilyich in him, and that perhaps is why he was so close to them.
The conflict within the group was a nerve-wracking business. I remember Ilyich once coming home after having had words with the otzovists. He looked awful, and even his tongue seemed to have turned grey. We decided that he was to go to Nice for a week to get away from the hurly-burly and take it easy in the sunshine. He did, and returned fit again. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, pp. 193-94.)
Lenin now felt he had no alternative but to wage a war to the death against the supporters of Bogdanov. But as it happened, it was not Lenin, but Plekhanov who fired the first shot. His article Materialismus Militans (Militant Materialism), was written partly as an open letter to Bogdanov. But the main theoretical response was Lenin’s philosophical masterpiece, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, one of the seminal works of modern Marxism. This book played a key role in the ideological rearmament of the Russian working class and the reorientation of the movement, combating retrograde tendencies and reactionary ideas. Lenin cuts across the fog of mysticism as a hot knife cuts through butter. It was now a question of war to the finish. The hardening of Lenin’s attitude can be seen from his letters to his sister Anna, who was handling relations with the publisher of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. The latter tried to tone down the language used against the other side. But Lenin was now adamant that no concessions at all be made. In his text he used the word popovshchina (an untranslatable word, meaning approximately ‘priestliness’) to describe the outlook of the supporters of empirio-monism. This was incorrectly translated as ‘fideism’, which, apart from being linguistically inaccurate, clearly marked an attempt to water down the tone of Lenin’s polemic. This called forth a sharp rebuke from the author, expressed not in one letter but in several, for example, one dated 9 March, 1909:
Please do not tone down the places against Bogdanov and against Lunacharsky’s popovshchina. We have completely broken off relations with them. There is no reason for toning them down. It is not worth the trouble. (Letter to his sister Anna, 9 March, LCW, vol. 37, p. 414.)
And again, only three days later:
Please do not tone down anything in the places against Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, and Co. They must not be toned down. You have deleted the passage about Chernov being a ‘more honest’ opponent than they, which is a great pity. The shade of meaning you have given it is not the one I want. There is now no overall consistency in my accusations. The crux of the issue is that our Machists are dishonest, mean-spirited, cowardly enemies of Marxism in philosophy. (Letter to his sister Anna, 12 March, 1909, LCW, vol. 37, p. 416.)
The Bolsheviks Split
The leadership of the Bolshevik faction was now openly split. Their journal Proletary had a ‘narrow’ editorial board, composed of Lenin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev, whose collaboration began in these years, together with Bogdanov and CC members Goldenberg and Dubrovinsky. The above-named editors met together with others in a mini-Conference in Paris in 8-17 (21- 30) June, 1909. Among those present were Rykov and Tomsky, the future trade union leader from Petersburg. The aim of the conference was to discuss ‘otzovism’ and ‘ultimatism’. In open debate, Bogdanov defended his position, but was practically isolated. With the exception of Shantser, who took a conciliationist position, and two abstentions (Tomsky and Goldenberg), all the other delegates voted for Lenin’s position. The conference also discussed the philosophical views of Bogdanov’s group which were condemned. However, it should be noted that all Lenin’s positions were accepted with votes against and abstentions. Of course, there is nothing unusual about decisions being taken by majority votes. The idea that every vote must be unanimous belongs to the tradition of Stalinism, with its cult of the infallible Leader, something completely alien to the democratic traditions of Bolshevism. But in this case, the abstentions were significant in that many Party activists in Russia regarded the dispute on philosophy as an incomprehensible luxury in the difficult conditions in which the Party was now operating. For such people, to tell the truth, disputes about theory are always ‘inopportune’.
A typical example of this cast of mind was Stalin, who completely failed to grasp what Lenin was driving at. In a letter to M.G. Tskhakaya, he stated that empirio-criticism had good sides also, and that the task of Bolsheviks was to develop the philosophy of Marx and Engels “in the spirit of J. Deitzgen, mastering on the way the good sides of Machism”. This winged phrase, like others of the same kind that reveal Stalin’s narrow, ignorant, and crude vision of Marxism, were naturally omitted from his Collected Works, but survived in some forgotten corner of the Party archives, from whence they were extracted by the authors of the official Party history published under Khrushchev. (See Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, p. 272, my emphasis.) In all probability Stalin had never read a single line of Mach, and, as the personification of the Party ‘practico’, was indifferent to such theoretical questions, which were regarded as an annoying irrelevance and a distraction to everyday Party tasks. The above quote represents a clumsy attempt to achieve unity by the simple device of ignoring principled questions altogether.
However, Stalin was not the only one to fail to recognise the importance of the struggle for theoretical principles. On the contrary, such attitudes were widespread in the ranks of the Bolsheviks, including Lenin’s closest collaborators. The future leader of the Soviet trade unions, Mikhail Tomsky, was against all philosophy and declared, “I have never felt nostalgic about philosophy. Those who are going into philosophy want to escape the realities.” (Protokoly soveshchaniya rasshirennoy redaksii Proletariya, p. 12.)
On 26 May, 1908, Kamenev wrote in the first version of a letter to Bogdanov:
If… I am confronted with the ultimatum of working together politically, you must approve all the steps taken by us against our philosophical opponents… of course, in the struggle of these groups I have no other way out but to withdraw from this struggle. (Pod Znamenem Marksizma, No. 9–10, 1932, p. 203 my emphasis.)
Following the line of least resistance, he advocated that the Party’s central organ, Sotsial Demokrat, should publish not only articles by those who defended dialectical materialism, but also by those who opposed it; this at a time when Lenin had come to the conclusion that a complete break with the Bogdanovites was necessary. In the summer of 1908, Lenin wrote to Vorovsky, who had worked with him in Vperyod and in 1905, in terms which make it clear that an open break with the Bogdanov group was only a matter of time. Lenin even envisaged that he might be in a minority, in which case, he would make the break:
Thanks for the letter. Both your ‘suspicions’ are wrong. I was not suffering from nerves, but our position is difficult. A split with Bogdanov is imminent. The true cause is offence at the sharp criticism of his philosophical views at lectures (not at all in the newspaper). Now Bogdanov is hunting out every kind of difference of opinion. Together with Alexinsky, who is kicking up a terrible row and with whom I have been compelled to break off all relations, he has dragged the boycott out into the light of day.
They are trying to bring about a split on empirio-monistic and boycott grounds. The storm will burst very soon. A fight at the coming conference is inevitable. A split is highly probable. I shall leave the faction as soon as the policy of the ‘Left’ and of true ‘boycottism’ gets the upper hand. (LCW, Letter to V.V. Vorovsky, 1 July, 1908, vol. 34, p. 395.)
During this period, Lenin’s fortunes fell to their nadir. Although the support of the Polish and Latvian Social Democrats gave a majority to the Bolshevik positions at Party meetings, within the Bolshevik faction Lenin now found himself in a minority. Most of his closest former collaborators – Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, Lyadov – were otzovists. The new generation of leaders were strongly inclined to conciliationism. Lenin, Krupskaya, and the men who were to become their closest companions in the next few years, Zinoviev and Kamenev, were compelled to emigrate to Switzerland. An inveterate optimist by nature, Lenin was not given to bouts of depression. But when he arrived back in Geneva in January 1908, the signs of strain were showing. The atmosphere of gloom and depression permeates every line of the following passage of Krupskaya’s memoirs:
Geneva looked bleak. There was not a speck of snow about, and a cold cutting wind was blowing – the bise. Postcards with a view of the freezing water near the railings of the Geneva Lake embankment were being sold. The town looked dead and empty. Among the comrades living there at the time were Mikha Tskhakaya, V. Karpinsky, and Olga Ravich. Mikha Tskhakaya lived in a small room and got out of bed with difficulty when we arrived. The conversation flagged. The Karpinskys were then living in the Russian library (formerly Kuklin’s) where Karpinsky was manager. He had a very bad headache when we arrived and kept wincing all the time. All the shutters were closed, since the light hurt him. As we were going back from the Karpinskys through the desolate streets of Geneva, which had turned so unfriendly, Ilyich let fall: “I have a feeling as if I’ve come here to be buried”. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 162.)
Lenin’s misgivings were understandable. The situation of the Russian exiles was far worse than ever before. Funds had dried up, creating appalling hardship for people already traumatised by mental and physical suffering. The Bolsheviks had suffered most from arrests in the period of reaction, because the Liquidators confined themselves mainly to legal activities. Their organisation had less money than the Mensheviks, who could always rely on wealthy backers from the intelligentsia. Mainly for this reason, Lenin had tolerated the continuation of the ‘expropriations’ for longer than was really justified from a strictly political point of view. In January 1908, Lenin wrote a letter to the English socialist, Theodore Rothstein, underlining the dire financial position:
The Finnish smash up, the arrests of many comrades, the seizure of papers, the need to remove printing presses and to send many comrades abroad – all this has entailed heavy and unforeseen expenditure. The Party’s financial plight is all the more unfortunate because during two years everyone has grown out of the habit of working illegally and has been ‘spoiled’ by legal or semi-legal activities. Secret organisations have had to be organised almost afresh. This is costing a mint of money. And all the intellectualist, philistine elements are abandoning the Party; the exodus of the intelligentsia is enormous. Those remaining are pure proletarians who have no opportunity of making open collections. (LCW, Letter to Theodore Rothstein, 29 January, 1908, vol. 34, p. 375.)
The acute shortage of funds meant that there was no longer any money to pay for the large number of exiles who flocked abroad. In mid-December 1908, Lenin moved to Paris with his mother-in-law and Krupskaya. The life of the exiles was even worse there than in Geneva because there were so many of them. A hardship fund was set up, but it was pathetically small and could only be used in cases of extreme necessity. Lenin eked out a living from writing articles and the small amounts that his mother could send him from time to time. Poverty, depression, and sickness were the common lot of the exiles. Some went mad and ended their lives in insane asylums, others in lonely hospital beds, or at the bottom of the river Seine. It was a frustrating and lonely time. Krupskaya recalls the case of a man who had fought in the Moscow uprising and was now living in a working class suburb in Paris, keeping himself to himself. One day he went mad and started to babble incoherently. Recognising that the delirium was brought on by starvation, Krupskaya’s mother gave the man some food:
Ilyich was white with misery as he sat beside the man. I ran off to find a psychiatrist, who was a friend of ours, and the psychiatrist came and talked to the patient and gave it as his opinion that this was a serious case of insanity brought about by starvation, which had not yet reached a terminal stage; it would develop into persecution mania, and then the patient would be likely to commit suicide. (Quoted in R. Payne, The Life and Death of Lenin, p. 240.)
Such was the fate of the Russian exiles in the dark years of the Stolypin reaction.
While the Fifth Congress marked an important step forward for the Bolsheviks, it did not alter the fact that the movement inside Russia was facing very difficult times. The Bolsheviks were gaining the ear of the most radicalised sections of the workers and youth, but the general picture was one of unrelieved gloom. The 3 June coup ushered in a period of profound reaction. In 1907, the Party’s total membership was nominally 100,000. But this figure was to suffer a swift collapse. Only in the Caucasus was the decline somewhat less steep, but that was a stronghold of Menshevism. Nominal membership of the Bolshevik organisation in Petersburg stood at 6,778 early in 1907. One year later the figure was halved to 3,000, but by the start of 1909, only 1,000 people admitted to membership. By the spring of 1910, the Okhrana put the total membership at a mere 506. (See R.B. McKean, Between the Revolutions, p. 53.) Police raids continued to wreak havoc on the Party’s severely depleted underground organisations. In the first three months of 1908 the police struck again, this time concentrating on Party organisers in certain areas of Moscow and Petersburg. A member of the Bolshevik committee in Petersburg was forced to admit in private that, after the spring arrests, “work in the districts almost ceased…” (Kudelli, in Krasnaya letopis’, No. 14, quoted in R.B. McKean, Between the Revolutions, p. 53.)
Nor does this tell the whole story. Internal conflicts and splits meant that Lenin was almost totally isolated within his own faction. After the expulsion of Bogdanov’s group, the dominant trend in the leadership was the so-called conciliationist faction, which was increasingly disinclined to follow Lenin’s lead. Many years later, Trotsky described the situation of those bleak years in an interview with C.L.R. James (‘Johnson’):
James: How many were there in the Bolshevik Party?
Trotsky: In 1910 in the whole country there were a few dozen people. Some were in Siberia. But they were not organised. The people whom Lenin could reach by correspondence or by agent numbered about 30 or 40 at most. However, the tradition and the ideas among the more advanced workers was a tremendous capital which was used later during the revolution, but practically, at this time we were absolutely isolated. (L. Trotsky, Fighting Against the Stream, in Writings: 1938-39, p. 257.)
The accuracy of this estimate is attested to by Zinoviev, who writes:
The years of Stolypin’s counter-revolution were the most critical and most dangerous in the Party’s existence. In retrospect we can say quite unhesitatingly that in those hard times the Party as such did not exist: it had disintegrated into tiny individual circles which differed from the circles of the 1880s and early 1890s in that, following the cruel defeat that had been inflicted upon the revolution, their general atmosphere was extremely depressed. (G. Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, p. 165.)
The difficulties facing the underground Party were unprecedented. “In the course of one year after the Fifth Congress,” writes Schapiro, “in many organisations where membership had been estimated in hundreds it was now reckoned in tens.” And the same author estimates that “in the summer of 1909 only five or six Bolshevik committees in all were functioning”. (Schapiro, History of the CPSU, p. 101.) The same story is told by many different authors. “No more than five or six Bolshevik committees were still operating in Russia, and the Moscow organisation could boast only 150 members at the end of 1909,” writes Stephen Cohen. (S.F. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, p. 12.)
Krupskaya recalls the position:
They were difficult times. In Russia the organisations were going to pieces. The police, with the aid of agent provocateurs, had arrested the leading Party workers. Big meetings and conferences became impossible. It was not so easy for people, who had only recently been in the eye of the public, to go underground. In the spring (April-May) Kamenev and Warski (a Polish Social Democrat and intimate friend of Dzerzhinsky, Tyszka, and Rosa Luxemburg) were arrested in the street. A few days later Zinoviev, and then N.A. Rozhkov (a Bolshevik, member of our CC) were arrested, too, in the street. The masses withdrew into themselves. They wanted to think things over, try to understand what had happened; agitation of a general kind had palled and no longer satisfied anyone. People readily joined the study circles, but there was no one to take charge of them. These moods provided a favourable soil for otzovism. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 183.)
With the greatest difficulty, the Bolshevik centre maintained contacts with local groups in Russia, using conspiratorial methods. Osip Piatnitsky once again found himself in charge of sending illegal literature into Russia, especially the Bolshevik journals Proletary and Sotsial Demokrat – just as in the bad old days before 1905. The external centre for this activity was Leipzig, the internal centre in Minsk. And, just as in the old times, his work was closely observed by the tsarist Okhrana, whose agent Zhitomirsky had infiltrated a key position in the Bolsheviks’ foreign organisation. The Fifth Congress had approved a new way of electing the Party leadership at all levels. Given the acute problems of security, this had to include co-option. As leading people fell victim to police raids (efficiently directed by the likes of Zhitomirsky), so new people had to be co-opted to fill the gaps.
A letter from the Urals described the situation:
Our ideological forces are melting away like snow. The elements who avoid illegal organisations in general… and who joined the Party only at the time of the upsurge and of the de facto liberty that then existed in many places, have left our Party organisations. (See LCW, On to the Straight Road, vol. 15, p. 18.)
An article in the central organ summed up the position with the words: “The intellectuals, as is known, have been deserting in masses in recent months.” Commenting on this, Lenin writes:
But the liberation of the Party from the half-proletarian, half-petty-bourgeois intellectuals is beginning to awaken to a new life the new purely proletarian forces accumulated during the period of the heroic struggle of the proletarian masses. That same Kulebaki organisation which was, as the quotation from the report shows, in a desperate condition – and was even quite ‘dead’ – has been resurrected, it turns out. “Party nests among the workers [we read] scattered in large numbers throughout the area, in most cases without any intellectual forces, without literature, even without any connection with the Party Centres, don’t want to die… The number of organised members is not decreasing but increasing… There are no intellectuals, and the workers themselves, the most class-conscious among them, have to carry on propaganda work.” And the general conclusion reached is that “in a number of places responsible work, owing to the flight of the intellectuals, is passing into the hands of the advanced workers”. (Sotsial-Demokrat, no. 1, 28). (Ibid., p. 18 in both quotes.)
This had its disadvantages, however. The Party had lost many of its most experienced people, one way or another. The new influx were mainly raw and inexperienced in underground work, which made them easier targets for the police. On the other hand, it was far easier for the police to infiltrate their agents into the underground committees, which were soon full of spies and provocateurs. In order to tighten up on security, methods of election were changed to fit the new conditions. Local organisations seem to have had different ways of electing their committees, reflecting the demands of illegality. In Moscow, instead of electing committees at an all-city aggregate, they were now elected by smaller local meetings. In the beginning there were party cells, committees, and groups in all the big factories, but as time went on and the police intensified their hunt for activists, the party committees were increasingly disrupted and the active membership reduced to a minimum expression. As a rule, district committees were supposed to meet once a month, while the executive of the DC was to meet weekly. But it is doubtful if this was really maintained in most areas. In general only small numbers were involved and those groups that remained active tended to function autonomously.
These changes, however, did little to protect the Party from the attentions of the ever-increasing network of spies and provocateurs that, in the prevailing climate of demoralisation, managed to infiltrate even the most responsible posts and committees:
The gendarmes made visible the invisible text of the letter and – increased the population of the prisons. The scantiness of revolutionary ranks led unavoidably to the lowering of the Committee’s standards. Insufficiency of choice made it possible for secret agents to mount the steps of the underground hierarchy. With a snap of his finger the provocateur doomed to arrest any revolutionist who blocked his progress. Attempts to purge the organisation of dubious elements immediately led to mass arrests. An atmosphere of suspicion and mutual distrust stymied all initiative. After a number of well-calculated arrests, the provocateur Kukushkin, at the beginning of 1910 became head of the Moscow district organisation. “The ideal of the Okhrana is being realised,” wrote an active participant of the movement. “Secret agents are at the head of all the Moscow organisations”. The situation in Petersburg was not much better. “The leadership seemed to have been routed, there was no way of restoring it, provocation gnawed away at our vitals, organisations fell apart…” In 1909, Russia still had five or six active organisations; but even they soon sank into desuetude. Membership in the Moscow district organisation, which was as high as 500 toward the end of 1908, dropped to 250 in the middle of the following year and half a year later to 150; in 1910 the organisation ceased to exist.
In early 1909 Krupskaya wrote despairingly: “We have no people at all. All are scattered in prison and places of exile.” (Quoted in L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 95 in both quotes.) At the end of March 1910, Lenin complained: “There are few forces in Russia. Ah, if only we could send from here a good Party worker to the CC or for convening a conference! But here everyone is a ‘has-been’.” (LCW, Letter to N.Y. Vilonov, 27 March, 1910, vol. 34, p. 415.)
The Pro-Party Mensheviks
Meanwhile, the Mensheviks had their own problems. The danger of liquidationism was becoming clear, not only to the Bolsheviks, but to a growing number of rank-and-file Mensheviks. The opportunism of the Duma fraction provoked the indignation of the Menshevik workers. By the end of 1908, a process of inner differentiation was taking place in their ranks. Many Menshevik workers were breaking with the Liquidators who increasingly found themselves politically isolated. The ‘Pro-Party Mensheviks’, headed by Plekhanov, defended the maintenance of the underground party organisation, and naturally gravitated towards the Bolsheviks. Soon after the Fifth Congress Plekhanov left the editorial board of Golos Sotsial Demokrata (Social Democrat’s Voice) and launched his own journal, Dnevnik (The Diary), from which he launched a blistering attack on the ‘legalistic renegades’. Independent local groups broadly sympathetic to Plekhanov’s positions sprang up, especially among the exiles – in Paris, Geneva, Nice, and San Remo.
This unexpected development provided welcome relief for Lenin. Not only did it appear to hold out the hope of reuniting the revolutionary wing of the Party on a principled basis, but it might have fundamentally altered the balance of forces within the rival factions. Despite all the conflicts and hard words of the past, he showed great enthusiasm for the return of his old mentor to the revolutionary camp. Lenin probably hoped that unification with Plekhanov would help him to overcome the ultra-left tendencies in his own faction. In the delicate negotiations with the Pro-Party Mensheviks, Lenin showed both skill and sensitivity. Although the Bolsheviks were numerically far superior to the Plekhanovites, Lenin was careful not to present the relationship between the two trends in triumphalistic terms, but as a growing together of two equal groups of co-thinkers. He had to take into account the personal sensitivities of the eternally prickly Plekhanov, who wrote: “I mean a mutual drawing closer together, and not the Mensheviks switching to the Bolsheviks standpoint.” (G.V. Plekhanov, Works, in Russian, vol. 19, p. 37.) Lenin showed himself to be very tactful in this respect: “I am speaking of a mutual rapprochement, and not of the Mensheviks going over to the standpoint of the Bolsheviks,” he wrote. (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Russian edition, vol. 19, p. 23.)
This was the real Lenin – a thousand light-years removed from the caricature of the rigid and unforgiving sectarian and fanatic which malicious and dishonest critics have systematically tried to peddle. On the other hand, considerations of tact and diplomacy for Lenin never outweighed the need for political clarity. What was needed was “an agreement on the basis of the struggle for the Party and the Party principle against liquidationism, without any ideological compromises, without any glossing over of tactical and other differences of opinion within the limits of the Party line”. (LCW, Methods of the Liquidators and Party Tasks of the Bolsheviks, vol. 16, p. 101.)
By forming a bloc with Lenin to combat both opportunism and ultra-leftism, the founder of Russian Marxism paid his last service to the cause of the revolutionary working class and its party. Plekhanov came close to making the break with Menshevism at this time. He supported Lenin against both Liquidators and otzovists. But ultimately he proved unable to go the whole way. He baulked at unity with the Bolsheviks, and this proved to be an insurmountable obstacle, preventing Pro-Party Mensheviks from going over to the camp of consistent revolutionism. This scenario has been played out many times in the history of the international labour movement. Under certain conditions, honest left reformist or centrist leaders can make the transition to the camp of revolutionary Marxism. But history shows that this is rather the exception than the rule. More often than not, the mental habits and inertia of long periods of stagnation, and the vacillations and ambiguity which flow from confusion and unwillingness to call things by their right name, act as a powerful brake to prevent the process from coming to fruition. Such individuals – even the best of them, like Plekhanov and Martov – tend to recoil at the moment of truth and sink back into the morass of opportunist politics.
For a time, however, the united front with Plekhanov’s group gave new heart to Lenin’s supporters. Ordzhonikidze wrote to Lenin: “I welcome Plekhanov’s about-turn with all my heart… If he now really takes up a firm position, that will undoubtedly be a plus for the Party.” (Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, p. 269.) Alas, it was not to be. Plekhanov’s rapprochement with Bolshevism was almost entirely confined to the organisational question. Politically, he remained in the orbit of Menshevism, reluctant to completely break the umbilical cord that tied him to his old friends. Inevitably, he veered to the right once more – this time for good. In the First World War, he found himself in the camp of reactionary patriotism. From the standpoint of the revolution, the great man was dead. But for the time being, the collaboration of Leninists and ‘Plekhanovites’ had a positive effect. Many ‘Pro-Party Menshevik’ workers later became Bolsheviks.
Tensions in Proletary
The first and most pressing necessity was to resolve the simmering conflict with the ultra-left otzovists. In June 1909, the enlarged editorial board of Proletary met in Paris. Lenin hoped to make use of this meeting to firm up the leadership of the Bolshevik faction. In reality, it was a meeting of the Bolshevik factional centre. At the meeting, there was a clash on an important question, which fully reveals the difference between Leninism and ultra-leftism. Bogdanov called for a ‘purely Bolshevik congress’, that is to say, he wanted the Bolsheviks to split from the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and constitute themselves as a separate party. The demand for a ‘purely Bolshevik congress’ was supported by the other ultra-left Bolsheviks: Shantser, Lyadov, and Sokolov (Volsky). This doctrinaire appeal for the ‘independence’ of the revolutionary party, whether it is a party of two, or two million, is the constant refrain of ultra-lefts throughout history. It has nothing in common with Lenin’s skilful and flexible tactics, which were always guided by the need to connect with the masses. The first task was to win over the advanced layers of the working class, which in Russia were organised in the RSDLP. The rise of the right-wing liquidationist tendency in the RSDLP was not an argument for splitting away the revolutionary wing but, on the contrary, for redoubling the fight to defeat the right wing inside the party and tear the workers away from their influence. Upon the results of this struggle depended the future of the revolution in Russia.
Bogdanov’s argument about splitting from the RSDLP in order to establish the ‘independence’ of the revolutionary party was false to the core. In fact, the Bolsheviks were always independent, in the sense that they never compromised in the defence of their revolutionary programme, policy, and theory. But that is insufficient. It is necessary to find a way of carrying these revolutionary ideas to the working class, starting with the most advanced, organised layers. To the extent that a significant part of the organised workers in Russia were still under the influence of the Mensheviks, it was essential to continue the struggle inside the RSDLP – to fight to win the majority. That was Lenin’s line. But in order to do this, it was necessary to organise the revolutionary wing separately, as a faction inside the RSDLP. The Bolsheviks had their own centre, their own publications defending their revolutionary positions and carrying on a constant struggle against the party’s right wing. What more ‘independence’ than this was required? The formal declaration of a separate party? That would be merely an empty gesture, or worse, an adventure. To have accepted this ultra-left line would have doomed the Bolsheviks to sectarian impotence and handed the party over to the reformists on a plate. Bogdanov’s position on this issue was a further manifestation of ultra-left moods born out of impatience and frustration.
To the disgust of the Bogdanovites, the meeting not only threw out the demand for the ‘purely Bolshevik congress’, but also underlined the need for a rapprochement with the Pro-Party Mensheviks. According to Soviet historians, this meeting ‘expelled’ Bogdanov, but this is untrue. Despite the highly provocative behaviour of Bogdanov and his followers, they were not expelled from the Bolsheviks at the Paris meeting, which limited itself to a declaration that the Bolshevik faction “could accept no responsibility” for their activities. This public disassociation of Bolshevism from ultra-leftism was the prior condition for a rapprochement with the Pro-Party Mensheviks. But in any case, the break was clearly inevitable. The meeting also voted a resolution that instructed the Proletary representative on the central organ (CO) to “take a definite stand for the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels on philosophical questions, if such should arise, in the CO”. This position was by no means unanimous. Tomsky voted against and Kamenev, true to form, abstained.
After the meeting of the enlarged editorial board of Proletary in Paris, the position did not improve, but rapidly deteriorated into an open conflict. Bogdanov’s group had no intention of accepting the decision of the majority, but went onto the offensive, publishing a factional leaflet, defending the minority’s position in defiance of the decisions of the meeting. As a result of his defiance, Bogdanov was expelled from the Bolshevik faction. “The Bolshevik group was breaking up,” writes Krupskaya. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 198.) Lunacharsky moaned about Lenin’s ‘impatience’ while Bogdanov published a tendentious account of the discussions. The Vperyodists replied by entering into an open and public conflict with the Bolshevik majority faction. They moved a motion at the Petersburg committee against participation in the Duma elections campaign. Lenin’s supporters replied by calling a better attended district aggregate, where they managed to get this reversed. Sverdlov, released from jail in autumn 1909, played an important role in the Moscow organisation. This was a big help. But Lenin’s position was generally very insecure.
After the conference, the otzovists regrouped and established a factional centre of their own. Realising that they could not easily defeat Lenin in open debate, the Bogdanov group took advantage of the personal wealth and connections of Gorky, who sympathised with their philosophical views, to organise what was effectively a factional school in the unlikely surroundings of the Italian island of Capri. Bogdanov and Lunacharsky also launched their own faction organ, Vperyod (Forward). Lenin tried to take the struggle into the camp of the Bogdanovites, sending people to the Capri school. But the only result was to deepen the split. The workers in Russia were furious with the behaviour of the Vperyodists, but in general they were losing patience with all the émigrés and their philosophical disputes, which seemed remote from the problems on the ground in Russia. Despite everything, Lenin tried his best to save at least some of the boycotters from themselves. Contrary to the widespread picture of Lenin as a virulent factionalist, Krupskaya recalls that:
Ilyich hit back hard when he was attacked, and defended his point of view, but when new problems had to be tackled and it was found possible to cooperate with his opponent, Ilyich was able to approach his opponent of yesterday as a comrade. He did not have to make any special effort to do this. Herein lay Ilyich’s tremendous advantage. Very guarded though he always was on matters where principles were involved, he was a great optimist as far as people were concerned. Despite an occasional error of judgement, this optimism of his was, on the whole, very useful to the cause. But where there was no agreement on matters of principle, there was no reconciliation. (Ibid., p. 251.)
In June 1909 he wrote in Proletary of his conviction that: “comrade Lyadov, who has worked for many years in the ranks of the revolutionary Social Democracy, will not remain for long in the new God-building-‘otzovist’ faction but will return to the Party”. This detail once again shows a side of Lenin which the professional detractors of Bolshevism have carefully concealed – his tolerance, loyalty, and patience with people, qualities that are absolutely necessary for any true leader. Gorky recalled how Lenin would say to him:
Lunacharsky will come back to the party. He is less individualistic than the other two [Bogdanov and Bazarov]. He has an exceptionally gifted nature. I have a soft spot for him, know you. I love him as an excellent comrade! (Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, p. 296.)
Lenin spared no effort to help people where they showed a clear tendency to evolve in a revolutionary direction, to hold out his hand and to invite them to return, setting aside past differences and polemics, no matter how bitter. But he never allowed the search for unity to cloud the central question of the need to defend the purity of the revolutionary message. If that meant a split then so be it. As old Engels once expressed it, “the party becomes strong by purging itself.” Once he saw the inevitability of a break, Lenin could also be implacable.
Trotsky and Conciliationism
Trotsky thought it was possible to unite the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, or, to be more accurate, the left-wing tendency in Menshevism represented especially by Martov. He was not the only one. Lenin himself was attracted more than once to the idea of unity with Martov, whose personal and political qualities he always recognised. Lunacharsky recalls that as late as 1917, Lenin dreamed of a bloc with Martov. At this time certainly Lenin held out hopes that Martov would come over:
The next spell of emigration struck Martov a very hard blow; never, perhaps, had his tendency to vacillate been so marked nor probably so agonising. The right wing of Menshevism soon began to go rotten, deviating into so-called ‘liquidationism’. Martov had no wish to be drawn into this petty bourgeois disintegration of the revolutionary spirit. But the ‘liquidators’ had a hold on Dan and Dan on Martov and as usual the heavy ‘tail’ of Menshevism dragged Martov to the bottom. There was a moment when he would literally have made a pact with Lenin, urged to do so by Trotsky and Innokenty, who were dreaming of forming a powerful centre to counter the extreme left and the extreme right.
This line, as we know, was also strongly supported by Plekhanov, but the idyll did not last long, rightism gained the upper hand with Martov and the same discord between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks broke out again.
Martov was then living in Paris. I was told that he had even begun to go slightly to seed, always a lurking danger for émigrés. Politics was degenerating into an affair of petty squabbles and a passion for bohemian café life was beginning to threaten him with a diminution of his intellectual powers. However, when the war came Martov not only pulled himself together but from the start took up an extremely resolute position. (A.V. Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes, p. 136.)
Trotsky hoped that all the left-wing elements might come together, on the basis of a break with the extreme right-wing Liquidators and the ultra-left Bolsheviks. Although politically close to Bolshevism, Trotsky was critical of what he saw as Lenin’s ‘factionalism’. He nursed the hope that the left wing of Menshevism would, in time, break with the right, and Lenin’s seeming intransigence infuriated him. From October 1908, he succeeded in publishing a paper called Pravda (The Truth) intended for illegal circulation in Russia, which was a big success. Pravda was published in Vienna and financed by two wealthy sympathisers, Adolf Joffe, the future outstanding Soviet diplomat who was later to commit suicide in protest against the Stalinist bureaucracy, and M.I. Skobelev, the son of a Baku oil magnate, who later re-emerged as a minister in the Provisional Government. Part of the new paper’s success was that it wrote in a lively and popular style and avoided the strident factional tone that characterised other underground Social Democratic publications. Instead of attacking other publications and groups, it concentrated on denouncing the problems of the working class and attempted to find common ground between the Bolsheviks and left Mensheviks. This was very popular with the workers in Russia, but profoundly irritated Lenin, who was involved in a struggle on two fronts and suspicious of unity-mongering. But Lenin now found himself in a minority in the leadership of his own faction, where conciliationist tendencies were strong.
Trotsky’s wrong position on organisation was the source of endless disputes with Lenin. The period under consideration witnessed the sharpest of clashes between Lenin and Trotsky in which Lenin heatedly denounced ‘Trotskyism’. But it is clear that for Lenin ‘Trotskyism’ was synonymous with Trotsky’s position on organisation (i.e., conciliation) and not at all his political views, which were close to Bolshevism. Moreover, the sharpness of the polemics between the two men had another explanation, which is not immediately obvious to the modern reader. The harshness of Lenin’s language in these polemics was dictated by the fact that, under the guise of ‘Trotskyism’, he was really attacking conciliatory tendencies in the leadership of his own faction. But the real story was for a long time suppressed beneath a thick layer of lies and distortions aimed at justifying the Stalinist bureaucracy and blackening the names of the Old Bolsheviks who fought against it.
In fact, for a time, Trotsky actually appeared to be on the point of succeeding. Many Bolshevik leaders were in agreement with him on the question of unity – that is, they supported precisely the weakest side of Trotsky’s position, not the strongest. On the Central Committee, the Bolsheviks N.A. Rozhkov and V.P. Nogin were conciliators. Krupskaya commented ironically that “Nogin was a conciliator who was out to unite all and everyone”. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 207.) So were Kamenev and Zinoviev. Given the popularity of Trotsky’s paper with workers in Russia, a number of Bolshevik leaders were in favour of using Pravda for the purpose of bringing about a fusion of Bolsheviks and Pro-Party Mensheviks. At the Paris meeting of the Proletary editorial board, Kamenev and Zinoviev, now Lenin’s closest collaborators, proposed the closing down of Proletary and moved that Pravda should be accepted as the official organ of the Central Committee of the RSDLP. This position was also supported by others like Tomsky and Rykov. The proposal was passed against the opposition of Lenin, who counter-proposed the setting up of a popular Bolshevik paper and monthly theoretical journal. In the end, a compromise was reached whereby Proletary would still come out, but not more than once a month. Meanwhile it was agreed to enter into negotiations with Trotsky with a view to making the Vienna Pravda the official organ of the RSDLP CC. This fact shows the strength of the conciliationist tendencies in the ranks of the Bolsheviks, and also tells us quite a lot about the attitude of the Bolsheviks towards Trotsky in this period. The minutes of the meeting of Proletary referred to were published in 1934, in order to discredit Zinoviev and Kamenev before their murder by Stalin, but were later consigned to the archives and hardly ever referred to. (Protokoly soveshchaniya rasshirennoy redaktsy Proletary, Moscow, 1934, quoted in the Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, p. 293.)
Lenin was increasingly isolated within his own faction, and compelled to make concessions against his better judgement just to hold things together. The psychology of the Bolshevik conciliators was conditioned by the kind of ‘practical politics’ which prides itself on its haughty contempt for theory and principle, and is always looking for short cuts that, in the end, always turn out to be the opposite. This philistine mentality always regards a struggle for principles as ‘sectarianism’, an accusation that was frequently levelled against Lenin by his opponents. Kamenev and his fellow conciliators regarded themselves as infinitely wiser and more practical than Lenin, perhaps not on theory, but in the practical search for solutions to the party’s ills. In November 1908, Kamenev wrote to Bogdanov:
In the ‘squabble’ that has started here I stand in the ‘middle of the road’ line and hope to stay there… I feel that just as the struggle against conciliation was binding on me in 1904, so conciliation is equally binding on me now. (Pod Znamenem Marksizma, No. 9–10, p. 202.)
As late as 1912, when Lenin had already firmly set out on the course of a final split with the opportunists, a significant part of the leadership dragged their feet, as Krupskaya points out:
Obviously, there could be no room in the Party for people who had made up their minds beforehand that they would not abide by the Party decisions. With some comrades, however, the struggle for the Party assumed the form of conciliation; they lost sight of the aim of unity and relapsed into a man-of-the-street striving to unite all and everyone, no matter what they stood for. Even Innokenty, who fully subscribed to Ilyich’s opinion that the main thing was to unite with the Pro-Party-Mensheviks, the Plekhanovites, was so keen to preserve the Party that he began himself to incline towards a conciliatory attitude. Ilyich set him right, however. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 206.)
In retrospect, it seems inexplicable that Trotsky should have wasted so much time in attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable. But he was not the only one who failed to understand what Lenin was driving at. It is sufficient to mention the name of Rosa Luxemburg to make the point. Like Rosa, Trotsky was mistaken, but his mistake was that of a sincere revolutionary with the interests of the working class and socialism at heart. Most probably the source of his error was also similar to hers. Rosa Luxemburg was early repelled by the centralised bureaucratic machine of the German SPD and, overreacting to it, tended to reject centralism per se. Not fully understanding Lenin’s position, and taking as gospel the caricature of the Mensheviks, she subjected his organisational ideas to a harsh and unjust criticism that partially clouded their relations, although politically they usually stood on the same side. Trotsky was repelled by the narrowness of the Bolshevik committeemen, who sought to reduce the most complex political questions to simple organisational problems, and presented the dialectical relation between the class and the party in a mechanical way that at times resembled a caricature, as when the Bolshevik committeemen in St. Petersburg demanded that the St. Petersburg Soviet dissolve itself when it refused to accept the leadership of the party. Trotsky was inclined to base his opinion of Bolshevism, not on Lenin, but on a mechanical caricature of Lenin’s ideas which passed for Bolshevism in certain circles. This kept him at a distance, despite the closeness of his political views with those of Lenin, right up to 1917, when the actual experience of the revolution caused all the old disagreements to dissolve.
In later years Trotsky admitted that on this question Lenin had always been in the right. In his autobiography Trotsky explains the basis of his error:
In its view of the future of Menshevism, and of the problems of organisation within the party, the Pravda never arrived at the preciseness of Lenin’s attitude. I was still hoping that the new revolution would force the Mensheviks – as had that of 1905 – to follow a revolutionary path. But I underestimated the importance of preparatory ideological selection and of political case-hardening. In questions of the inner development of the party I was guilty of a sort of social-revolutionary fatalism. This was a mistaken stand, but it was vastly superior to that bureaucratic fatalism, devoid of ideas, which distinguishes the majority of my present-day critics in the camp of the Communist International. (L. Trotsky, My Life, p. 224.)
After Lenin’s death, as part of an unscrupulous campaign to blacken Trotsky’s name, the Stalinists deliberately exaggerated the significance of the differences between Lenin and Trotsky. But these old polemics ceased to have any interest for Lenin after 1917 when Trotsky joined the Bolshevik Party and took a firm stand against conciliationism. In November 1917, that is, after the October Revolution, the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ Kamenev and Zinoviev advocated the formation of a coalition government with the Mensheviks. At that time, Lenin said:
As for coalition, I cannot speak about that seriously. Trotsky long ago said that a union was impossible. Trotsky understood this, and from that time there has been no better Bolshevik. (Quoted in L. Trotsky, The Stalin School of Falsification, p. 105, my emphasis.)
The January Plenum
1910 was the period of the most complete degeneration of the movement and of the most widespread flood of conciliatory tendencies. In January, a plenum of the Central Committee was held in Paris, at which the Conciliators gained a very unstable victory. It was decided to restore the Central Committee in Russia with the participation of the Liquidators. Nogin and Germanov were Bolshevik Conciliators. The revival of the ‘Russian’ collegium – that is, of the one acting illegally in Russia – was Nogin’s task. (L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 123.)
The prevailing conditions of reaction, and the appalling difficulties faced by all Social Democrats, understandably encouraged those elements who favoured unity at any price. Out of these moves towards unity came the idea of a special Plenum to kick out the Liquidators and otzovists and establish unity between the Bolsheviks and non-Liquidator Mensheviks. But Lenin was unimpressed by all these attempts at unity. He wrote sarcastically that Trotsky was in a bloc with people “with whom he agrees on nothing theoretically but in everything practically”. (LCW, An Open Letter to All Pro-Party Social Democrats, vol. 16, p. 339.) What Lenin meant was that, while Trotsky was politically at odds with the Liquidators and otzovists, he nevertheless continued to argue in favour of conciliation and unity, and thus found himself in an unprincipled bloc. Lenin saw no point in participating in a Plenum of elements who stood for mutually exclusive political positions. But he no longer carried a majority in the Bolshevik camp on this question. The violence of the discussions among the Bolshevik leaders was later hinted at by Lenin in a letter to Gorky: “Three weeks of agony, all nerves were on edge, the devil to pay…” (LCW, Letter to Maxim Gorky, 11 April, 1910, vol. 34, p. 420.) But Lenin’s protests were in vain. Outvoted within the Bolshevik faction, he was compelled reluctantly to go along with the Plenum.
In January 1910, for the last time, the leading representatives of the different tendencies of the RSDLP met together in an attempt to patch up their differences. The Plenum took place in Paris from 2 to 23 January, 1910. The leaders of all the factions were present, except Plekhanov, who declined to attend, pleading illness. The absence of the Pro-Party Mensheviks was a further blow to Lenin, since his preference was for unity with Plekhanov’s group. Given the extremely heterogeneous nature of such a gathering, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. In order to secure genuine unity, it is not enough to proclaim it. Unless there is principled agreement on the fundamental questions, such an attempt usually only succeeds in uniting three groups into ten! The differences separating the different groups were too great to be overcome by resolutions piously proclaiming the need for unity. That is why Lenin opposed the convening of such a gathering. Far from ‘resolving’ the issues, this explosive mixture of inflammable elements inevitably led to an immediate blow-up. At Lenin’s insistence, the Plenum passed a resolution condemning both liquidationism and otzovism as bourgeois influences within the Party. Subsequently, however, the supporters of these trends insisted on watering this down. The question arose of calling a Party Conference to try to resolve the problems. Lenin insisted that the largest number of workers from illegal party organisations be invited to this. On this basis, the Bolsheviks agreed to support the idea. The Plenum also agreed to grant Trotsky’s Pravda a monthly subsidy and to place Kamenev on its editorial board as the representative of the Central Committee.
There was a row over money. The Mensheviks caused a scandal over funds belonging to the Bolsheviks, which had been obtained by the controversial method of ‘expropriations’. Still more controversial was a large sum of money left to the Party by millionaire industrialist Savva Morozov. At the time of the Plenum, for once, the Bolsheviks had plenty of money thanks to a nephew of Morozov, Nikolai Schmidt, who was murdered in a tsarist prison after the December defeat. Before he died, Nikolai got word to his friends outside that he was leaving all his property to the Bolsheviks. In addition, his younger sister Elizaveta Schmidt decided to donate her share of the inheritance to the Bolsheviks. But as she was not yet of age, a fictitious marriage had to be organised with a member of one of the party’s fighting squads who had somehow managed to keep on a legal footing. By this means the Bolsheviks managed to obtain the money immediately. That is why Lenin could write confidently that Proletary was now able to pay for delegates to the Plenum. The Mensheviks were incensed when they discovered the situation, and raised hell. This was the cause of the kind of hysterical and acrimonious dispute which so often poisoned the atmosphere of émigré circles.
A heavy price was, in fact, paid by the Bolsheviks for the sake of unity. Against Lenin’s protest, they agreed to cease publication of their central organ, Proletary. More painful still, the Bolshevik group’s funds were handed over to a committee of trustees established by the Socialist International. The matter of the Schmidt inheritance was ‘resolved’ when the disputed funds were handed over for temporary safekeeping to this commission, which was composed of Mehring, Klara Zetkin, and Kautsky. Lenin was, to put it mildly, unhappy about this and insisted on the right to get this back if the Mensheviks did not likewise wind up Golos Sotsial-Demokrata and disband their factional centre. Future developments would prove him right. Finally, the remaining 500 rouble notes left over from the Tiflis expropriation were burned.
It is not correct, as is frequently done, to attribute the failure of the attempt at unity to Lenin’s intransigence. As a matter of fact, at this stage, the main obstacle to unity were the Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks had already expelled the otzovists, so they had no trouble in voting for that. A very different situation existed in the camp of Menshevism, where liquidationism reigned supreme. How could they expel the Liquidators? It would have supposed an act of self-immolation, which not one of them was prepared to contemplate. Thus, when both factions agreed to disband their factional apparatus and merge, the Bolsheviks actually loyally carried out the decision, but the Mensheviks did not. Martov later admitted that they only agreed because the Mensheviks were too weak to risk an immediate split. (See J. Martov, Spasiteli ili Uprazdniteli?, p. 16.)
At the end of the meeting, in a hollow gesture, Lenin and Plekhanov were unanimously elected as delegates to the forthcoming Congress of the Socialist International. The Bolshevik conciliators had achieved their objective. Kamenev was sent by the Bolsheviks to Vienna to represent them on Trotsky’s Pravda, which was granted a regular subsidy of 150 roubles from the Central Committee. But Lenin remained unconvinced. His judgement on the January Plenum was that it marked a partial retreat by the Bolsheviks for the sake of unity. But its decisions were contradictory and could not be carried out. The Mensheviks did not dissolve their centre and continued to publish the Golos. The agreement to repay the Bolshevik funds in such a case turned out to be a dead letter. The money placed in the care of Kautsky’s committee remained in Germany, where, after the outbreak of war, it was eventually impounded by the Treasury and used to pay for the Kaiser’s war effort.
‘Unity’ Breaks Down
After the Paris meeting, Lenin wrote to his sister Anna Ilyichna:
We have been having ‘stormy’ times lately, but they have ended with an attempt at peace with the Mensheviks – yes, yes, strange as it may seem; we have closed down the factional newspaper and are trying harder to promote unity. We shall see whether it can be done. (Letter to his Sister Anna, 1 February, 1910, LCW, vol. 37, p. 451.)
The tone of this letter shows that Lenin was sceptical from the beginning about the prospects for unity, and it is also clear from the reference to things being “stormy” that there were sharp words on the subject between Lenin and his conciliator colleagues. But in the end he had to give way, and, while sceptical, was prepared to give it one last try (“We shall see whether it can be done”). In order to convince his colleagues, it was necessary to pass through the experience. “Ilyich believed that the utmost concession should be made on organisational issues without yielding an inch on fundamental issues,” writes Krupskaya. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 206.)
Immediately after the Plenum Lenin summoned a meeting of the Bolshevik faction. This very fact shows that the two factions continued to operate exactly as before. In other words, the Plenum had solved precisely nothing. Any agreement with the Menshevik-Liquidators could only be temporary and would inevitably break down. It was as impossible to mix revolutionism and reformism as to mix oil and water. The growing divergence between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks made a nonsense of the January Plenum, leaving Trotsky in an unnatural bloc with the Mensheviks, with whom, politically, he had nothing in common. Pravda continued to appeal for unity, but the whole position had been rendered obsolete by life itself. Trotsky tried to call a Party conference for November 1910. Lenin called Trotsky’s position “unprincipled adventurism”. Having gone through the experience of attempting to unify the Party ever since 1906, Lenin must have already made up his mind that a split was, sooner or later, inevitable. The behaviour of the Menshevik-Liquidators was now an obstacle in the path of the working class. Lenin was never afraid to draw bold conclusions when the interests of the movement demanded it. But he had to carry his followers with him. It was a path they were not eager to tread.
This growth of the revolutionary movement led to a further sharpening of the contradictions within the Party. As the masses were moving left, so the Menshevik-Liquidators were veering to the right. Matters were clearly leading in the direction of a split. This showed the futility of conciliationism and the ‘January Plenum’. Lenin’s appraisal of the Plenum was confirmed by events. The Liquidators, as we have seen, naturally, broke all the agreements. The factions maintained their separate factional centres and apparatuses, while loudly proclaiming the virtues of unity. The very day after swearing their unshakable allegiance to unity, the Liquidators began to organise a public faction around the legal journals Nasha Zarya and Dyelo Zhizni. These people (Potresov, Levitsky, etc.) represented the extreme right-wing tendency in Menshevism. The other Menshevik faction around Golos Sotsial-Demokrata, Martov, Dan, and Axelrod, were only ‘shamefaced liquidators’, standing far closer to the former than to the genuine revolutionary wing of the Party. On the ‘left’, the Vperyodists (Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, Alexinsky) continued their factional activities, having virtually split off from the Bolsheviks, organising their own factional ‘schools’. Ironically, the ultra-left Vperyodists frequently found themselves in an unprincipled bloc with the Mensheviks against the Bolsheviks.
Behind the façade, the factional struggle not only continued, but was intensified, moving inexorably in the direction of a split. The Menshevik Golos continued to appear, with attacks on the underground party groups and Pro-Party Mensheviks; Martov, Dan, Axelrod, and Martynov published a kind of ‘manifesto’ calling for the establishment of a ‘legal-open party’; and so on. In other words, the agreements reached by the January Plenum were not worth the paper they were written on. By the end of 1910, Lenin was already demanding the return of the Bolshevik funds, not surprisingly without success. Lenin was not in the least surprised at this outcome. He had predicted it. He had only gone through the experience of the Plenum, which he personally regarded as ‘idiotic’ and ‘fatal’, (See LCW, Letter to A. Rykov, 25 February, 1911, vol. 34, p. 443.) to convince his conciliationist colleagues of the impossibility of agreement. Lenin warned Kamenev:
I do not see any possibility of carrying on fruitful work with the Liquidators, on the Right and on the Left, especially with Trotsky, but I do not object to your going to Vienna to give you a chance to see for yourself that I am right. (O Vladimire Ilyiche Lenine. Vospminaniya, 1900–1922.)
Lenin was soon shown to be right. Kamenev, who had quarrelled with Trotsky, handed in his resignation from the Pravda editorial board on 13 August, 1910.
Even after it became clear that the Mensheviks were not going to respect the decisions of the plenum, the Bolshevik conciliators still kept up their futile attempts to get ‘unity’. The Bolshevik members of the Central Committee carried on endless negotiations with the Liquidators with the aim of organising the CC, but never got anywhere. In his memoirs, Piatnitsky describes the euphoria of the conciliator Nogin after the January Plenum:
While Nogin was telling me about the decisions of the Plenum he was almost speechless with joy at the fact that it had at last been possible to unite the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks for practical work in Russia (the Plenum had vigorously denounced the Liquidators and recallism-ultimatism) and that henceforth the ‘Nationals’ were to participate in the work. Only one thing worried him: Comrade Lenin firmly opposed all the resolutions of the Plenum which made concessions to the Mensheviks and those decisions which hampered the work of the Bolsheviks by making them dependent on chance representatives of the ‘Nationals’, although he submitted to the majority of the Bolshevik CC membership. Nogin told me with bitterness that Lenin did not understand the vital importance of Party unity for work in Russia. (O. Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, p. 153.)
These illusions were completely unfounded. The ink was not dry on the paper, when the decisions of the January Plenum began to unravel rapidly. The Bolsheviks were in a weaker position than before. They were now dependent on the representative of the Social Democrats of Poland and Lithuania to get decent policies through the editorial board of Sotsial Demokrat. Financially they were much worse off, and depended on the Foreign Bureau of the CC for cash. It was an intolerable position. To make matters worse, the Bolsheviks were the only ones to carry out the decisions of the Plenum. The balance sheet of conciliationism was entirely negative. In 1911, Lenin commented, with some justice, that the Plenum had drained the Party of its strength for over a year. However, the setback for the Bolsheviks was more apparent than real. What was decisive was not the artificial combinations at the top, but what was taking place in the Party’s grass roots in Russia. After the failure of the January adventure, the process of rapprochement of Bolsheviks and Pro-Party Mensheviks was resumed all over Russia: Ukraine, Saratov, Urals, Nizhny Novgorod, Latvia, and other centres, the real forces of the Party were involved in a process of regroupment. Inside Russia the big majority of worker Mensheviks supported Plekhanov, and these now moved closer to the Bolsheviks in joint action.
One important side effect of these events was that they played a role also in Lenin’s growing awareness of opportunism as an international phenomenon because of the role of the International leaders in the Russian inner-Party dispute. Up until this moment, Lenin had regarded himself as an orthodox ‘Kautskyite’, in the period when Karl Kautsky stood – or at least seemed to stand – on the left of the Second International. But Kautsky’s temporising role in relation to the struggle between the right and left wings of the RSDLP raised serious doubts in his mind. Lenin was taken by surprise by the conduct of the leaders of the Socialist International. He was deeply shocked and offended by the unprincipled behaviour of Kautsky and the other representatives of the International who in practice backed the conciliators, publishing their articles in the international Social Democratic press. These doubts were substantiated after August 1914 when Kautsky, along with all the other leaders of the German SPD, with the honourable exception of Karl Liebknecht, shamefully betrayed the cause of international socialism.
Lenin’s extremely sharp tone is explained by the fact that he was completely isolated, even within his own faction. He could see further ahead than the others, but was powerless to act on his own instincts. Lenin himself reached the conclusion that a split was inevitable only after much hesitation. The dividing line for Lenin was probably 1910. But even so, the formal split did not occur until two years later. This was not accidental. Lenin was consistently outvoted in the leadership of the Bolshevik faction. In a way, this was not surprising. It should not be forgotten that the idea of a split between revolutionary and reformist Social Democrats was an entirely new one (except for France, which had earlier experienced the split between the supporters of Guesde and Jaurès, and Bulgaria, with the split of the ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ socialists which did not exactly fit this pattern, but these were exceptions to the rule). On an international scale the split did not happen until 1914–15. The trauma of August 1914 still lay in the future.
On the Eve
It is said that the darkest hour comes just before the dawn. On the eve of a new revolutionary upsurge, Lenin’s position appeared hopeless. Out of three leading centres of the RSDLP, two (the Foreign Bureau of the CC and CC inside Russia) were dominated by the conciliators (and also the Liquidators in the latter case). The Bolshevik members of the Russian CC (interior) were conciliators (first Dubrovinsky and Goldenberg, then, after their arrest, Nogin and Leiteisen), always running after agreements with the Liquidators (Isuv, Bronstein, Yermolaev). Lenin was indignant at the compromising tactics of his supporters, and insistently demanded rapprochement with Pro-Party Mensheviks and implacable struggle against the ‘unprincipled bloc’ of the January Plenum. Lenin’s opponents shook their heads and muttered about ‘sectarianism’.
Things were not much better in Russia. Just before the new upswing, the Bolshevik organisations were in an extremely enfeebled state. In the spring of 1911, Lenin described the position of the Party as follows:
At present the real position of the Party is such that almost everywhere in the localities there are informal, extremely small, and tiny Party workers’ groups and nuclei that meet irregularly. Everywhere they are combating liquidator-legalists in the unions, clubs, etc. They are not connected with each other. Very rarely do they see any literature. They enjoy prestige among workers. In these groups Bolsheviks and Plekhanov’s supporters unite, and to some extent those Vperyod ‘supporters’ who have read Vperyod literature or have heard Vperyod speakers, but have not yet been dragged into the isolated Vperyod faction set up abroad. (LCW, Material for the Meeting of CC Members of RSDLP, vol. 17, p. 202.)
In his study of the St. Petersburg labour movement at this time, Robert McKean writes:
As all revolutionary coteries deliberately refrained from keeping proper lists of members and financial accounts for obvious reasons of conspiracy, it is quite impossible to paint an accurate picture of the size of the underground, its social composition or the state of its finances at the beginning of 1912. The total number of adherents was undoubtedly extremely minute and constantly changing due to frequent waves of arrests. The estimates claimed in the party press must be treated with the greatest caution, although even these testify to the paucity of supporters. Lenin’s factional organ claimed some 300 in the summer of 1911, as did the ‘Central Group of Social Democratic Workers’ at the end of the year. At the Bolsheviks’ Prague Conference in January 1912 the St. Petersburg delegate P.A. Zalutsky furnished the probably more accurate estimate of 109 supporters of Lenin. The evidence adduced here suggests that within the Bolshevik faction the ‘Central Group’s’ claim was the more accurate of the two. At the most, there must have been a mere 500 or so Social Democratic party members. In all districts and factories there can have existed only little groups of 10, 20 or 30 or so card-carrying members. These doleful figures must be set against the total labour force in St. Petersburg of 783,000, of whom 240,000 were factory workers, at the time of the December 1910 city census. (R.B. McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, pp. 82-83.)
The fortunes of the RSDLP, and first and foremost its revolutionary wing, seemed to have hit rock bottom. Yet beneath the surface invisible forces were working to transform the whole situation. The key to the change must be sought in the economic base upon which the superstructure of politics, and all social life in general, rests. The economic depression that struck immediately after the December defeat had knocked the wind out of an already exhausted working class. Trotsky, in a brilliant prediction, warned that the Russian workers would not move back into action until the economy began to pick up again. This prognosis was confirmed by events. By early 1910, the economic situation began to improve, and the labour movement also began to revive, although slowly at first. There was an increase in strikes, some of them at least partially successful, to improve wages and conditions. This placed on the agenda the urgent need to rebuild the party. But how? And with what methods and policies? There was no consensus. On the contrary, the controversies were fiercer than ever, especially in exile, where they were characterised by a particularly venomous character.
Once the workers began to move in a revolutionary direction, the entire position began to change. That is what Lenin was counting on, and events proved him to be correct. The upsurge in the workers’ movement breathed new life into the underground party circles. Looking for a vehicle to express their aspirations, the workers quite naturally gravitated towards that banner and name that was familiar to them from the earlier period – the RSDLP. The new layers had no knowledge of the inner-party splits and squabbles. Most of them had never read the party programme or statutes. But when they moved to change society, they rallied to their traditional mass organisation. Here too, Lenin’s tactics had been vindicated. If the Bolsheviks had succumbed to the ultra-left impatience of Bogdanov and split from the party, they would have been isolated. True, they would have grown. But for every worker that joined them, 100 would have joined the RSDLP. The party was transformed by an influx of fresh workers and youth. Overnight, groups sprang up in new areas. By 1912, the Tiflis (Tblisi) RSDLP organisation had 100 members. The party in the Urals could count groups of 40–50 members. The main beneficiaries of this growth were the underground revolutionary groups of Bolsheviks and Pro-Party Mensheviks. These new layers brought with them a breath of fresh air and almost automatically gravitated to the left wing – that is, the Leninists, who were more active, militant and better organised than all the rest. Active participation in the party increased as the masses moved into struggle again. New members were recruited, and once they joined, were rapidly won over by the Bolshevik cadres. The prestige and support for the Bolsheviks, as the left wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, grew by leaps and bounds as the demands of the new revolutionary situation made themselves felt.
1 Such tactics led to defeat after defeat where they were put into practice in modern times, most notoriously in the 1970s in Latin America. It is a striking proof of how far the movement has been thrown back since the Second World War that ideas belonging to the prehistory of the movement, which should long ago have been consigned to the dustbin of history, have re-emerged, parading as something new and original.
2 The figures for the representation of the parties in the Duma have been calculated differently by different authors. Sometimes the discrepancies are just one or two, but sometimes they are quite important. For instance, the Istoriya puts the number of Trudovik deputies at 104, Kochan at 98, and Pares at 201! This may be the result of the somewhat unstable lines of division between the formations on the ‘right’ and ‘left’. In the given example, Pares probably confused the total number of peasant deputies with those specifically organised in the ‘labour’ (Trudovik) group. Such discrepancies are common in this field. The figures reproduced here are from the Istoriya KPSS.
3 Here is another discrepancy. The Istoriya puts the number of sympathisers at three; Kochan at 11.
4 The venue was only one of several ironies associated with this Congress. An even more amusing incident relates to the way the Congress was financed. The Party being, to all intents and purposes, bankrupt, the revolutionaries were compelled to seek a loan. This was finally arranged by Gorky through the mediation of the English socialist, George Lansbury, with an English soap manufacturer. The loan was due to be repaid by 1 January, 1908. Probably the lender was not unduly surprised when not a penny arrived. However, the debt was not forgotten. After the October Revolution, the Soviet government, through the services of Krassin, its ambassador in London, returned the money to the lender’s heirs, who, no doubt utterly astonished, returned the letter acknowledging the debt, signed by all the participants in the congress!
5 The notes of the Russian edition of the minutes of this Congress, published in 1959, with astonishing cynicism, state that: “In fact, Trotsky supported the Mensheviks on every basic question.” (Congress Minutes, Pyatiy S’yezd RSDRP Protokoly, 812.)
6 In fact not only Lunacharsky and Lyadov, but most of the Vperyodists later did rejoin the Bolshevik Party. Even Bogdanov returned in the end. He surfaced in 1918 as a Party activist and theoretician. One of his books (on Marxist economics) was used in the 1920s as a Party textbook. Later he was one of the leading lights of the so-called Proletkult tendency, a sure sign that he had lost none of his iconoclastic tendencies and formalistic leanings. But in the years of bureaucratic counter-revolution he dropped out of politics. Not all the Vperyodists returned to the Party, however. V.A. Bazarov gave up politics altogether and was hostile to the October Revolution.