11) ‘Legal Marxism’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

77 Ibid.

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

79 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 29–30.

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

12) Lenin and the Group for the Emancipation of Labor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

82 Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, 228.

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

13) The Economist Controversy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

86 Baron, Plekhanov, 254–55.

14) Rabochaya Mysl’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

15) Bernstein’s Revisionism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

92 Baron, Plekhanov, 238.

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

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