23) The Second Congress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

152 Trotsky, My Life, 160.

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

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

24) The Real Meaning of the 1903 Split

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

156 Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, 85.

157 Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, 486.

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

159 Trotsky, My Life, 162.

25) Confusion in the Ranks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pyatnitsky was not alone in his attitude to the split:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

162 Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, 54.

163 Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes, 36.

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

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

166 Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, 63.

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

168 Quoted in Baron, Plekhanov, 327.