16) The First Congress of the RSDLP

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

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

It was no accident that the First Congress was held in Minsk. The Polish and western areas, as we have seen, were hotbeds of anti-tsarist revolutionary agitation where the two aspects of social and national oppression combined to create an explosive atmosphere. The strike movement of the 1890s acted as a focal point for the accumulated rage, bitterness and hatred of the oppressed nationalities, particularly the Jews. The movement of Jewish workers and artisans led to the setting up of the General Jewish Workers’ Union of Lithuania, Poland and Russia in 1897, a year before the First Congress of the Russian Party itself. For the first two or three years after its formation, as Zinoviev remarks, the Bund was “the strongest and most numerous organization of our party.”95 At the time of the First Congress, the Bund enjoyed far greater resources and a larger membership than Social Democratic groups in the rest of Russia, with 14 local organizations (or “committees” as they were then known) in Warsaw, Lodz, Belostok, Minsk, Gomel, Grodno, Vilna, Dvinsk, Kovno, Vitebsk, Mogilev, Berdichev, Zhitomir, and Riga. Lesser committees also existed in many other areas, including Kiev, Odessa and Brest-Litovsk.

However, the Bund’s organization was always more akin to a trade union movement than a revolutionary party. Even Akimov had to admit that the political level of its leadership was low: “I regard this as an unquestionable shortcoming of the Bund: the Jewish proletariat lacks theoreticians.”96 In reality, as we have already seen, the bulk of its members were not proletarians but artisans and craftsmen. The chief authority consisted of a central committee (CC) of three, elected at the biennial congress. At local level the Bund organized trade union groups (often misleadingly translated as “trade councils”) propaganda committees and committees of intellectuals, discussion groups and agitation committees, all of which seem to have functioned more or less separately. The trade union groups gathered together 5–10 members of the Bund in a given trade. These were appointed by the CC and appear to have met regularly to discuss trade union matters. Only after August 1902 did the Bund, under the pressure of Iskra, set up revolutionary committees which grouped together the most advanced workers separate and apart from the trade union groups. The whole structure of the Bund was organized on a completely un-Marxist basis, with workers in trade union groups shut off in watertight compartments from intellectuals who worked autonomously in their own committees.

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

the General Workers’ Union of Russia and Poland enters the party as an autonomous organization, independent only in those questions especially relating to the Jewish proletariat.97

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

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

the Jewish workers were organized earlier and work among them was easier than among the Lithuanians, Poles and Russians. The directing center of the Jewish workers did not do any work among non-Jews, and did not want to work among them.

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

where the fact was discussed that, owing to their lack of class consciousness, the Russian workers were hindering the economic struggle of the Jewish workers, since, when the latter went on strike, the Russians took their places. Their decision on this question displayed the wisdom of Solomon: a few Russian workers must be induced to agitate among their own comrades.98

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

It was the workers themselves, who demanded the introduction of a “political” element into the Social Democratic agitation. It was they who were determined to expose the wrongs of the political system, to bring out the people’s lack of rights, to formulate the interests of the workers as a citizen. But the revolutionary organization, which hoped to guide (!!) the labor movement towards Social Democratic ideas, was afraid that it would not be understood by the working masses (!), that it would lose its influence if it now raised its own demands for “political” rights as the demands of the proletariat. Was the working class already well enough educated politically to appraise, to recognize its own interests? The leaders were not certain of this and hesitated to act.99

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

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

I was the severest enemy of nationalism and considered it the greatest sin that in 1898, while I was in prison, the Lithuanian Social Democracy did not enter the united Russian Social Democratic Labor Party.100

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

“The local committees,” says the resolution, “will carry out the depositions of the CC in the manner which they consider most suited to local conditions. In exceptional cases, the local committees reserve the right to refuse to carry out the demands of the CC, informing it of the reasons for the refusal. In all other matters, the local committees will function in a completely independent manner, being guided only by the party program.”101

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

We left the Congress with a feeling of cheerful faith in our cause. Arriving in Kiev I gave a report back to the League and the Workers’ Committee. The congress resolutions were fully approved. It looked as if the work would now go forward still better and more successfully than in the past. But only a week after my return the Kiev organization was smashed.102

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

In practical terms, the congress had changed very little. Trotsky, who had heard about it in prison at Kherson, commented that “a few months afterwards, no one talked about the congress anymore.”103 After the initial wave of excitement, the local committees sank back into the routine of local work, producing endless leaflets and proclamations in connection with the strike movement, which continued to spread. The groups inside Russia continued to function with little or no contact either with each other or with any kind of political center. To the prevailing political confusion was added organizational chaos and amateurish methods of work.


95 Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, 51.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

103 Trotsky, My Life, 117.

17) Rabocheye Dyelo

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

Whereas Rabochaya Mysl’ represented a clear and open defense of Bernstein’s theory and Economism, Rabocheye Dyelo represented a trend which, as Lenin observed, was “diffuse and ill-defined, but for that reason the more persistent, the more capable of reasserting itself in diverse forms.”104 The paper was published as the organ of the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad from 1899 to 1902, with the editorial board in Paris and its printshop in Geneva. Its editors included such prominent spokesmen of Economism as B.N. Krichevsky and A.S. Martynov. Martynov later graduated from Economism, via Menshevism, to Stalinism, without having to modify his fundamental principles at any stage.

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

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

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

“The entire working class is one thing,” he wrote, “and the Social Democratic party is another, for it forms only a column drawn from the working class—and at first a very small column . . . I think that the political struggle must immediately be started by our party which represents the advance guard of the proletariat, its most consistent and revolutionary stratum.105

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

From the depths of the Siberian wilderness, Lenin and the other Social Democratic exiles followed with alarm the unfolding of events. Paradoxically, it was relatively easy for them to maintain at least a certain level of political activity. The era of Stalin’s and Hitler’s concentration camps had not yet dawned. The treatment of political exiles varied considerably, from extreme harshness to relatively liberal conditions. But in the main, the tsarist authorities were content to rely upon the vast distances which separated the urban centers from the isolated settlements on the banks of the Yenisey river as sufficient defense against the spread of revolutionary ideas. Political prisoners were not generally locked up. There was no need for it. They were kept under surveillance by local officials whose zealousness in the pursuit of duty was often conspicuous by its absence. As a result, the exiled revolutionaries could follow events with relative ease, receiving books and newspapers, conducting correspondence, and even holding illegal meetings. Lenin, while working on his monumental Development of Capitalism in Russia, keenly followed the polemics of Plekhanov against Bernstein. News of the crisis in the Union, and the resignation of Plekhanov, came as a painful blow. The victory of the Economist trend caused consternation among the exiles. Lenin began to write a series of polemics, such as Our Immediate Task, A Retrograde Trend in Russian Social Democracy and Apropos of the ‘Profession de Foi’106 in which the ideas of Economism are subjected to merciless criticism.

An event which enraged the exiles was the appearance of the notorious Credo written by Kuskova early in 1899. The author of the document herself always protested that it was not meant for publication. However that may be, there is no doubt that the Credo has the merit of expressing in a particularly clear way the fundamental ideas of Economism. Lenin drafted the famous Protest of the Russian Social Democrats107 by way of reply and convened a meeting of 17 exiles which met in the Siberian village of Yermakovskoe late in the summer of 1899. The meeting unanimously adopted Lenin’s text which was sent abroad where it was published by Plekhanov.

The words of the Credo are worth quoting:

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

The talk about an independent workers’ political party merely results from the transplantation of alien aims and alien achievements to our soil . . . For the Russian Marxist there is only one course: participation in, i.e., assistance to, the economic struggle of the proletariat, and participation in liberal opposition activity.108

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

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

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

“Only an independent working-class party,” wrote Lenin, “can serve as a strong bulwark in the fight against the autocracy, and only in alliance with such a party, only by supporting it, can all the other fighters for political liberty play an effective part.”109

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

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

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

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

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

The general disorganization, together with the baneful influence of Economist ideas, meant that in several areas the organization was divided between a group for workers and a separate one for intellectuals. This erroneous method existed in Yekaterinoslav, where it inevitably created conditions for the growth of mistrust and mutual antagonism.

“I remember,” writes Babushkin, “that the intelligentsy often criticized the unliterary language of the leaflets [of the workers], and finally one was shortened and somewhat altered by the ‘city’ committee. This provoked a direct clash which threatened to lead to a complete breach between the workers and the intelligentsia.”110

In general, the development of the Moscow Workers’ League does not differ fundamentally from that of the St. Petersburg League of Struggle, which set the pattern for the rest of the country and which we still take as our basic point of reference. The Muscovites had suffered from a series of arrests, especially after 1896 when Zubatov took over the Moscow police department and made use of unreliable and weak-willed elements to obtain information about the league and send in agents provocateurs.

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

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

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

Bor’ba’s attempt to play the “honest broker” between Iskra and Rabocheye Dyelo soon brought it into collision with the consistent Marxist trend. Riazanov tried to put pressure on Iskra by refusing to collaborate unless they toned down their criticism of Rabocheye Dyelo. When this blackmail had no effect, he dissolved the “Iskra promotion group” in Paris and began to complain that Iskra had “violated organizational neutrality.”111 In the end, Lenin gave them up as a bad job. The Bor’ba group, despite their high pretensions, played no further role. At the Second Congress, they were not admitted, and the group soon folded. Riazanov later resurfaced as a lecturer at the Capri school of the ultraleft Vperyod (Forward) faction in 1909 (not to be confused with the paper of the same name set up by Lenin in 1904). Despite his faults, Riazanov was undoubtedly a talented intellectual. After the revolution, he became the director of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, until he, like so many others, was purged by Stalin.


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

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

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

107 Ibid., 167–82.

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

109 Ibid., 176–77 and 181.

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

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

18) The Birth of Iskra

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

With high hopes, Lenin left for Switzerland in July. His high spirits did not last long. After the bitter experience of the split in the Union, Plekhanov’s nerves were on edge. He was sullen, resentful and extremely suspicious of the newcomers. The discussions between Plekhanov, Axelrod, and Zasulich on the one side and Lenin and Potresov on the other unfolded in an extremely tense atmosphere. Lenin and Potresov were shocked by Plekhanov’s intolerant and abrasive manner. At times, the negotiations appeared to be near to a breakdown. In How the “Spark” Was Nearly Extinguished112—an article written shortly after Lenin’s return with the recent events still vivid in his mind—Lenin expresses the painful impression of Plekhanov’s behavior on him:

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

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

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

Plekhanov spoke as an observer, like a critic, like a publicist but not like a leader. His whole destiny denied him the opportunity of directly addressing the masses, of summoning them to action and of leading them. His weak sides flowed from the same source as did his chief merit: he was a forerunner, the first crusader of Marxism on Russian soil . . . He was not the leader of the active proletariat, but merely its theoretical harbinger. He defended polemically the methods of Marxism, but he did not have the opportunity of applying them in practice. Though living for several decades in Switzerland, he did remain a Russian exile. Opportunist municipal and cantonal Swiss socialism with its extremely low theoretical level hardly interested him. There was no Russian party. For Plekhanov its place was taken by the “Emancipation of Labor” group, that is a close circle of sympathizers (Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich, and Deutsch, who was serving hard labor). The more Plekhanov strove to strengthen the theoretical and philosophical roots of his position, the more he was short of these political roots. As an observer of the European labor movement, he passed utterly without attention over the most colossal political manifestations of petty-mindedness, cowardice, and compromise by the socialist parties; yet he was always on his guard against theoretical heresies in socialist literature. This violation of the unity of theory and practice which had grown out of the whole destiny of Plekhanov proved fatal to him. He proved unprepared for the great political events in spite of his great theoretical preparation.113

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

“Outwardly,” wrote Lenin, “it was as if nothing had happened: the apparatus continued to work as it had worked until then, but within a cord had broken, and instead of splendid personal relations, dry, business-like relations prevailed, with a constant reckoning according to the principle: si vis pacem, para bellum [if you desire peace, prepare for war].”114

The Declaration of the Editorial Board of Iskra115 was published in September. It reads like a declaration of war on all other tendencies in the Russian workers’ movement. Unlike the original draft drawn up by the troika, it denounces by name not only Bernstein and Rabochaya Mysl’ but also Rabocheye Dyelo and Struve (Plekhanov was particularly insistent on this). Lenin’s initial draft was written in a generally more conciliatory vein. The corrected version has a more implacable tone:

Before we can unite, and in order that we may unite, we must first of all draw firm and definite lines of demarcation. Otherwise, our unity will be purely fictitious, it will conceal the prevailing confusion, and hinder its radical elimination. It is understandable, therefore, that we do not intend to make our publication a mere storehouse of various views. On the contrary, we shall conduct it in the spirit of a strictly defined tendency. This tendency can be expressed by the word Marxism, and there is hardly need to add that we stand for the consistent development of the ideas of Marx and Engels and emphatically reject the equivocating, vague and opportunist “corrections” for which Edward Bernstein, Struve, and many others have set the fashion.116

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

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

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

The members of the old group, especially Zasulich and Axelrod, could not bring themselves to burn the bridges that still connected them to the layer of semi-liberal intellectual fellow travellers like Struve, even when, after 1902, their transition to the camp of bourgeois liberalism was clear to all. Yet it was Plekhanov who demanded that Lenin insert a public attack on Struve in the editorial statement! This incident, too, shows the differences in the whole style and personality of the two men. Zasulich once expressed it graphically in the following terms: “George (Plekhanov) is a greyhound: he shakes his victim by the scruff of the neck and in the end lets him go; you (Lenin) are a bulldog: you don’t let go.”117 As early as 1895, Axelrod had chided Lenin for his vehement attacks on Struve in the article The Economic Content of Narodnism and the Criticism of it in Mr. Struve’s Book:118

“You have a tendency,” Axelrod complained, “which is the exact opposite of the tendency of the article I was writing for the miscellany [the article, typically, was not finished and never appeared]. You identify our attitudes to the liberals with the socialists’ attitudes to the liberals in the West. And I was just preparing for the miscellany an article entitled The Requirement of Russian Life, in which I was out to show that at this historical moment, the immediate interest of the proletariat in Russia coincided with the main interests of the other progressive element of the public . . .”

“Ulyanov smilingly replied: ‘You know, Plekhanov said exactly the same thing about my article. He gave a picturesque term to his thought:—“You turn your back to the liberals,” he said, “and we turn our face to them . . .”119

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

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

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

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

“That’s nice!” she exclaimed in utter despair. “They come to meet us and we strike them down.”120

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

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

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

I showed Iskra to many fellow workers and the copy was read to tatters: how we treasure it—much more than Mysl’, although there is nothing of ours printed in it. Iskra writes about our cause, about the all-Russian cause which cannot be evaluated in kopecks or measured in hours: when you read the paper, you understand why the gendarmes and the police are afraid of us workers and of the intellectuals whom we follow. It is a fact that they are a threat, not only to the bosses’ pockets, but to the tsar, the employers, and all the rest . . . It will not take much now to set the working people aflame. All that is wanted is a spark, and the fire will break out. How true are the words “The Spark will kindle a Flame!” In the past, every strike was an important event, but today, everyone sees that strikes alone are not enough and that we must now fight for freedom, gain it through struggle. Today everyone, old and young, is eager to read but the sad thing is that there are no books. Last Sunday, I gathered 11 people and read to them Where to Begin. We discussed it until late in the evening. How well it expressed everything, how it gets to the very heart of things . . . And we would like to write a letter to your Iskra and ask you how to teach us, not only how to begin, but how to live and how to die.121

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

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


112 Ibid., 333–49.

113 Trotsky, Political Profiles, 85–87.

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

115 LCW, vol. 4, 351–56.

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

117 Quoted in Trotsky, Lenin.

118 LCW, vol. 1, 333–507.

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

120 Trotsky, My Life, 171.

121 Iskra, No 7.

19) What Is To Be Done?

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

Lenin’s writings on organization produced at this time are masterpieces in their own right. The idea of the paper as a collective organizer is brilliantly set forth in such works as Where to Begin, Letter to a Comrade, and What Is To Be Done?122 In the first named of these works, the kernel of Lenin’s ideas is already clear:

The role of a newspaper, however, is not limited solely to the dissemination of ideas, to political education, and to the enlistment of political allies. A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and collective agitator, it is also a collective organizer . . . With the aid of the newspaper, and through it, a permanent organization will naturally take shape that will engage, not only in local activities, but in regular general work, and will train its members to follow political works carefully, appraise their significance and their effects on the various strata of the population, and develop effective means for the revolutionary party to influence those events. The mere technical task of regularly supplying the newspaper with copy and of promoting regular distribution will necessitate a network of local agents of the united party, who will maintain constant contact with one another, know the general state of affairs, get accustomed to performing regularly their detailed functions in the All-Russian work, and test their strength in the organization of various revolutionary actions.123

There is possibly no other work in the history of Marxist ideas which has been so ill-served as Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? Written between late 1901 and early 1902, this work was intended as a final settling of accounts with the Economists, and therefore has an extremely polemical slant throughout. Undoubtedly, there is a rich seam of ideas present in this work, which is, however, seriously flawed by a most unfortunate theoretical lapse. While correctly polemicizing against the Economists’ slavish worship of “spontaneity,” Lenin allowed himself to fall into the error of exaggerating a correct idea and turning it into its opposite. In particular, he asserts that socialist consciousness

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

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

The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia [K.K.’s italics]: it was in the minds of individual members of this stratum that modern socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians, who, in their turn, introduce it into the proletarian class struggle where conditions allow that to be done. Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without [von Aussen Hineingetragenes] and not something that arose within it spontaneously [urwüchsig].124

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

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

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

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

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

We all now know that the “Economists” have gone to one extreme. To straighten matters out somebody had to pull in the other directionand that is what I have done.125

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

The author of What To Do? himself subsequently acknowledged the biased nature, and therewith the erroneousness, of his theory, which he had parenthetically interjected as a battery in the battle against “Economism” and its deference to the elemental nature of the labor movement.126

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

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

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

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

it is necessary that the workers do not confine themselves to the artificially restricted limits of “literature for workers” but that they learn to an increasing degree to master general literature. It would be even truer to say “are not confined,” instead of “do not confine themselves” because the workers themselves wish to read and do read all that is written for the intelligentsia, and only a few (bad) intellectuals believe that it is enough “for workers” to be told a few things about factory conditions and to have repeated to them over and over again what has long been known.127

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


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

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

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

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

126 Trotsky, Stalin, 58.

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

20) A New Awakening

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

Relative proportion of economic and political strikes in Russia





Political Strikes




Economic Strikes




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and so on and so forth.


128 Trotsky, Stalin, 28.

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

130 Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, 66

21) Tensions on the Editorial Board

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


131 LCW, Vol. 5, 70.

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

133 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 67.

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

135 Trotsky, Stalin, 39.

22) The Economists in Retreat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

137 Ibid., 63 (footnote) and 88.

138 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 67.

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

140 Leninskiy Sbornik, vol. 3, 395.

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

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

143 Trotsky, Political Profiles, 97–98

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

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

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

147 Trotsky, My Life, 157.