90) The Balkan Wars

The national question has always been a treacherous minefield, because the demand for national liberation and “self determination” is not simple. Behind what appears at first sight to be a progressive demand can lurk the most reactionary forces and interests. That is why Lenin insisted that the demand for self-determination did not possess an absolute validity, but had to be subordinate to the interests of the proletariat and world revolution. Marxists are not at all obliged to support it in every case, as is frequently supposed. Marx had long ago pointed out the reactionary role played by “small nations” which become the cat’s-paws of imperialist “big brothers.” He was particularly scathing about Pan-Slavism, the doctrine whereby Russian tsarism put itself forward as the “Liberator” of the Slavs, and used this position to gain a foothold in the Balkans. Following in Marx’s footsteps, Lenin’s position on the national question was characterized by his constant insistence on the class question. He consistently warned against the danger of nationalist intoxication and wrote ironically about the slogans of “freedom,” behind which the bourgeoisie sought to conceal its reactionary intrigues and deceive the people.

In his writings on the national question before 1914, Lenin frequently uses the example of the way in which Norway separated from Sweden in 1905. This was a very simple example, and probably for that reason Lenin chose it. Unfortunately, the national question is not always so simple. Whether or not Marxists will defend the right of self-determination depends on the concrete circumstances of each case.

The categorical requirement of Marxist theory in investigating any social question is that it be examined within definite historical limits, and, if it refers to a particular country (e.g., the national program for a given country), that account be taken of the specific features distinguishing that country from others in the same historical epoch.

And again:

There can be no question of the Marxists of any country drawing up their national program without taking into account all these general historical and concrete state conditions.514

One would have thought that this was sufficiently clear. But unfortunately, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Having glanced at Lenin’s writings and caught sight of the phrase “right to self-determination,” some people who evidently consider themselves to be followers of Lenin conclude that, come rain, hail, or shine, it is always necessary to support each and every demand for independence. What Lenin carefully explained and qualified becomes transmuted into a kind of nervous tic, compelling those who suffer from it to jump to attention every time some nationalist group sounds the trumpet. One really wonders why Lenin bothered to write all those volumes, when it seems that those who speak and act in his name have clearly not understood a single line!

In the light of the most recent history of the Balkans after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, it is instructive to recall the position that Lenin took on the Balkan Wars. Did he immediately fall into line behind one or other of the belligerent countries? Far from it. He denounced the Balkan Wars as reactionary on all sides. There is no way that the working class could have supported any of the belligerents, although each one of them (of course!) loudly protested that they were the victims of aggression and that their “right to self-determination” was being violated.

“Never and in no place,” wrote Lenin of the Balkan conflict, “has ‘freedom’ been won by the oppressed peoples by means of war of one people against another . . . Real freedom of the Slav peasants on the Balkans, and also of the Turkish peasant can be won only by complete freedom within each country . . .”515

This is the real Lenin. This is the voice of his uncompromising revolutionary class internationalism. What a contrast with the disgraceful chauvinist demagogy of the leaders of the former Communist parties like Zyuganov today, who have thrown Lenin overboard and are echoing the old Slavophile rubbish which Marx and Lenin so despised.

In the period following the first Russian Revolution, storm clouds were gathering over Europe, which was soon to receive a harsh lesson in the importance of the national question. Even while events in Russia were moving towards a final split between the forces of revolutionary Marxism and reformism, on an international scale, other forces were being unleashed. The contradictions between the rival groups of imperialist powers—Germany, Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, and Russia—were raising the specter of war on an incomparably vaster and more terrifying scale than in the past. At the Copenhagen Congress of the Second International, which took place from August 15 to 25, 1910, the Russian party was represented by Lenin and Plekhanov. A central place in the debates at the International Congress was occupied by the struggle against militarism and the war question. Already at the Stuttgart Congress (August 1907) Lenin had included a number of amendments on the resolution on war, i.e., in the event of war, to take advantage of economic and political crisis to overthrow capitalism.

The explosive contradictions between the great powers reached the critical point in the Balkans in August 1914. But even before that, the fault lines were exposed by the Balkan Wars. The slow, ignominious decline of the Ottoman Empire was brought to a head by the successive wars of the Balkan peoples to free themselves from Turkish rule. In a series of wars, Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria won their freedom, but instantly became transformed into the puppets of different European powers (Britain, Russia, Austria, Prussia) and the small change of imperialist diplomacy. France was pressuring Russia to take a tougher line in the Balkans against Austria-Hungary which in the autumn of 1908 suddenly added to its colonial possessions in the Balkans by annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina, a clear provocation to the government of St. Petersburg. But in this vicious game of power politics, tsarist Russia was playing an equally predatory role. Its main aim had not varied for decades—to give cynical support to Bulgaria and Serbia against Turkey under the hypocritical banner of Pan-Slavism in order to dominate not only the Balkans, but Turkey itself. The seizure of Constantinople, and thus the gaining of access to a warm water port with an outlet to the Mediterranean, remained the central goal. This was the real purpose behind the setting up of the “Union of four monarchies” against Turkey.

The uproar that ensued after the Austrian annexation of Bosnia also exposed the imperialist ambitions of the Russian bourgeois liberals, who demanded that Russia act on the Balkans. The right-wing Cadet leader Guchkov condemned the government’s decision not to go to war over Bosnia as a betrayal of the Slavs. The Russian government, he said, was displaying a “flabby indolence,” while the Russian people were prepared for the “inevitable war with the German races.” Behind this belligerence was the cold, calculating policy of the Russian bourgeoisie which looked forward to rich commercial profits from the seizure of Constantinople and control of the Black Sea and the shipping routes through the straits. Struve denounced the Bosnian affair as “a national disgrace,” and asserted that Russia’s destiny was to extend its civilization “to the whole of the Black Sea basin.” “The straits must become ours,” Mikhail Rodzianko, President of the Duma, told the tsar in March 1913. “A war will be joyfully welcomed and it will raise the government’s prestige.”516 There was also still unfinished business in the Balkans, since a significant part of Balkan territory (Macedonia) had remained under Turkish rule. On September 26, 1912 the first Balkan War broke out. Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece (the Union of four monarchies) lined up against Turkey. Formally, this was a war of national liberation of Balkan peoples against the Turkish oppressors, but behind the slogans which demagogically proclaimed freedom and self-determination lurked the predatory ambitions of the different national bourgeoisies, behind each of which stood one or another of the great powers, intent on waging war by proxy against its rivals. France, Germany, Britain, and Austria-Hungary were all watching the position in the Balkans with a mixture of greed, fear, and suspicion.

The decrepit Ottoman Empire was defeated in the First Balkan War. The Turkish yoke was removed, but immediately replaced by the yoke of the “national” Serb, Greek, and Bulgarian landlords and capitalists. Moreover, the latter immediately began to vie with each other over the spoils of victory, like rabid dogs fighting over a bone. The London Conference in the spring of 1913 finally established “Peace” in the Balkans after the First Balkan War, but did so in such a way as to guarantee the outbreak of a new and even more nightmarish war—one that would eventually sweep up not only the Balkans but the whole world in its train. The London Conference set the seal on the involvement of the Great Powers in the Balkans. This was a self-evident fact anyway. Behind the ruling clique of each of the “independent” Balkan regimes stood one or another of the European powers. And each of the latter was grouped in one of the two great blocs—the Triple Entente led by Germany, and the “Entente” led by Britain. Like Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany also had ambitions in the Balkans which may be summed up in the question: Who was destined to inherit the Ottoman Empire? Then, as now, the different national regimes on the Balkans were really just the agents of the main imperialist states.

The reactionary role of the national bourgeoisies in the Balkans was immediately revealed by their vicious expansionism, as expressed in the policy of “Greater Bulgaria,” “Greater Serbia,” “Greater Greece” and reflecting nothing more than the greed of ruling landlord-capitalist circles, conspiring with great powers for the ruination of all the peoples of the Balkans. The new war broke out on June 6, 1913, when Bulgaria attacked Greece and Serbia. Sensing the possibility of easy spoils, Rumania joined in. Turkey also weighed in against Bulgaria, which suffered a shattering defeat and the loss of a considerable amount of territory. This shows how empty the concept of “colonial” oppression is when seen from a formal and antidialectical position. Nations which were previously oppressed colonies can be transformed into their opposite. The war against Turkey might be said to have had a relatively progressive aspect, in that (theoretically at least) it was fought to free the Macedonians from the Turkish yoke, although, in practice, the different Balkan states were already seeking aggrandizement at the expense of their neighbors. But the Second Balkan War had an openly reactionary and imperialist character, as the Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Rumanian ruling cliques fought among each other for the division of the spoils.

There was not an atom of progressive content in any of this. Nor could the rights of self-determination be invoked in any meaningful way to solve the bloody impasse that afflicted the Balkans then and has continued to do so ever since. The only way out of the bloody impasse in the Balkans consisted in a revolution led by the working class with the aim of a democratic Balkan federation. That was Lenin’s position and also that of all genuine Balkan socialists and democrats, especially the greatest of them, Christian Rakovsky. These “national” wars, led by the national bourgeoisie, as Lenin explained, were infinitely more costly in human lives than a revolution would have been. Without a revolution led by the working class in alliance with the poor peasantry, no solution was possible for the Balkans. The real program defended by the Marxists as the only solution to the Balkan problem was explained by Trotsky in his article The Balkan Question and Social Democracy, which appeared in Pravda on August 1, 1910:

The only way out of the national and state chaos and the bloody confusion of Balkan life is a union of all the peoples of the peninsula in a single economic and political entity, on the basis of national autonomy of the constituent parts. Only within the framework of a single Balkan state can the Serbs of Macedonia, the sanjak, Serbia, and Montenegro be united in a single national-cultural community, enjoying at the same time the advantages of a Balkan common market. Only the united Balkan peoples can give a real rebuff to the shameless pretensions of tsarism and European imperialism.517

Lenin himself made the same point in his article The Balkan War and Bourgeois Chauvinism:

“The Balkan peoples,” he wrote, “could have carried out this task ten times more easily than they are doing now and with a hundred times fewer sacrifices by forming a Federated Balkan Republic. National oppression, national bickering and incitement on the ground of religious differences would have been impossible under complete and consistent democracy. The Balkan peoples would have been assured of truly rapid, extensive and free development.”518

Like Lenin, Trotsky saw the solution to the Balkan problem not in national but in class terms:

The historical guarantee of the independence of the Balkans and of the freedom of Russia lies in revolutionary collaboration between the workers of Petersburg and Warsaw and the workers of Belgrade and Sofia.519

These lines remain equally true today, except that the slogan of a Democratic Federation must now be replaced by that of a Democratic Socialist Federation of Balkan Peoples, as the only way to overcome the ghastly legacy of Balkanization to which neither capitalism nor Stalinism has the answer.


514 LCW, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, vol. 20, 400–401.

515 Lenin, Collected Works, in Russian, vol. 22, 151–52.

516 O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, 247 and 248.

517 Trotsky, The Balkan Wars 1912–13, 39–40.

518 LCW, The Balkan War and Bourgeois Chauvinism, vol. 19, 39.

519 Trotsky, The Balkan Wars 1912–13, 41–42.


91) The Gathering Storm

The real significance of the Balkan Wars is that they clearly revealed a tendency towards a world war. The tensions between the big imperialist powers had been steadily accumulating to the critical point where any accident could ignite a general conflict. The only hope of avoiding war was not pacifist declarations but the revolutionary movement of the working class. This was the position taken by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg at the congresses of the International that immediately preceded the First World War. On the face of it, the forces at the disposal of the international socialist movement were more than enough to stop a war. In 1914, the Second International was a mass organization with 41 parties in 27 countries with a total membership of about 12 million workers. Resolutions passed by big majorities in the Stuttgart and Basel congresses pledged the International to oppose war by all means at its disposal.

Lenin’s position on war was neither “warmongering” nor tearful pacifism but revolutionary through and through. Among the many slanders levelled against Lenin, one of the most absurd is that he “wanted war.” This assertion is frequently linked to a misinterpretation of his idea of “revolutionary defeatism” which has been almost universally misunderstood. When a Polish journalist, Majkosen, asked Lenin before the First World War whether, if war would hasten revolution, he wanted a war, he answered

No, I don’t want that . . . I am doing all I can, and will continue to do so till the end, to hinder the war mobilization. I don’t want millions of proletarians to be forced to slaughter one another impelled by the lunacy of capitalism. There can be no misunderstanding on this point. To objectively predict war, and to strive, in the event of such a misfortune to develop, to take advantage of it as best we can—that is one thing. To desire a war and work for it, that is something entirely different.520

In November 1912 the Basel Emergency Conference of the International was held. The impressive number of delegates proclaimed the colossal power of the labor organizations of the world—a total of 555 delegates representing 23 countries listened as the greatest issue of the day was earnestly debated. At the conference the predominant trend was pacifism. The great French socialist Jean Jaurès read out an antiwar resolution: “The proletariat demands peace in the most energetic terms,” he proclaimed. But such general declarations “for peace” are not worth the paper they are written on in the event of war breaking out. In order to transform such general sentiments into a fighting program against war, something else is required. That is why Lenin had moved an amendment at the Stuttgart Congress in 1907 stating that in the event of war, the working class would take advantage of the situation to overthrow capitalism. In fact, that would be the only way in which war could be stopped. Amazingly, Lenin’s amendment was unanimously approved. But, as it later became clear, the leaders of the international Social Democracy only voted for such resolutions because they had not the slightest intention of ever carrying them out.

Such was the general rule in almost all the parties of the Second International. The revolutionary program was safely kept locked in a drawer, tucked away in the Party’s constitution, to be taken out and dusted off to be read out at May Day meetings, and then put back again for the rest of the year. Between the theory and practice of the Social Democracy, there was an unbridgeable abyss. The masses believed in the socialist aims of the party, but for most of the leaders, sucked into the rarefied world of parliamentary politics, the latter were at best irrelevant and at worst an embarrassing encumbrance. Their outlook was well summed up in the winged phrase of the father of revisionism, Eduard Bernstein: “The movement is everything, the final goal is nothing.”

But just as the leaders of the Second International were lulling the workers with the vision of peaceful, gradual change and reform, the capitalist system was preparing a rude awakening for all classes in society. The Balkan Wars had solved nothing, but raised the temperature of international relations to fever pitch. Macedonia was divided between Greece and Serbia. Romania seized a chunk of Bulgarian territory (southern Dobrudja). In the western Balkans, the powers set up a new independent Albania. But Serbia, although victorious, was blocked from getting secure access to the Adriatic Sea, an aim in which she was backed by Russia. Defeated and humiliated in the Second Balkan War, Bulgaria waited for an opportunity to take her revenge and joined the camp of Germany and Austria. From fear of Russia, Turkey, the other defeated power, also moved closer to Germany, with whom it concluded an alliance in August 1914. On the other hand, Serbia and Montenegro grew even closer to Russia in self-defense against Austria-Hungary. In the words of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sazonov: “Our fundamental task is to guarantee the political and economic emancipation of Serbia.”521 The world was sliding uncontrollably towards war.

In Russia, the Bolshevik legal press waged a consistent antiwar agitation, concentrating on exposing the real war aims of tsarism in the Balkans. Lenin’s slogans were “Against interference of other powers in the Balkan war . . . War against war! Against any interference! For Peace: such are the workers’ slogans.” As opposed to the sentimental whimperings of the pacifists, Lenin always approached the question of war from a class standpoint, exposing the interests that lay behind the patriotic slogans. Lenin’s articles constantly denounced the capitalists and arms manufacturers and unmasked the real war aims of Russian tsarism, showing their material basis and class content. He always asked, with a lawyer’s turn of phrase, “cui prodest?”—who benefits from the arms race? There was no question of taking sides in this Balkan conflict. The interests of the Balkan people could not be served by a war. And the very idea that the right of self-determination of this or that Balkan statelet could serve as a justification for dragging the whole of Europe into war was simply monstrous. Later, in 1915, Lenin explained that if the war had been a question of a military conflict between Serbia and Austria alone, it would be necessary to support Serbia, from the point of view of the rights of nations to self-determination. However, this right was never considered by Lenin to be absolute for all times and circumstances. In no way could the struggle for self-determination of the Serbs or any other people justify plunging the whole world into a war. In this case, as always, the right of self-determination was subordinate to the interests of the working class and the world revolution.


520 V.I. Lenin. Biography, Moscow. 1963, 213.

521 B.H. Sumner, A Survey of Russian History, 380.

92) The Bolsheviks’ Influence Grows

The Bolshevik deputies in the Duma also did their duty on the question of the Balkan War. On June 12, 1913, Badayev announced the Bolsheviks’ refusal to vote for the war budget in the Duma, with the defiant slogan: “Not a penny for the arms budget.” Mass agitation was organized against war, with factory resolutions denouncing the Balkan War and the even greater threat of world war. At the same time there were antiwar demonstrations in Germany, France, and Britain. As the fatal year 1914 dawned, there were big strikes and demonstrations commemorating the anniversary of Bloody Sunday on January 9. In St. Petersburg, Riga, Moscow, Nikolaev, Warsaw, Tver, Kiev, Kheso, Drinsk, and other workers’ centers, 260,000 people participated in demonstrations. And this was only the beginning. From March 17 to 20 in St. Petersburg there were 156,000 workers on strike, in Riga 60,000, in Moscow 10,000. The atmosphere was white hot. Russia was rapidly moving towards a new revolutionary situation. On April 22, Bolshevik, Menshevik, and Trudovik deputies were excluded from the Duma for “obstructionism.” More than 100,000 workers participated in political protest strikes in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

One strike wave followed another. On May 1 more than half a million workers struck and demonstrated: in St. Petersburg there were 250,000, in Riga 44,000, in Moscow 32,000, in the Caucasus about 20,000. In its size and sweep, the movement surpassed even that of 1905. Lenin, in his article May Days of Revolution, pointed out that there are two basic conditions for a prerevolutionary situation: that the masses cannot live as before and that the ruling class cannot rule as before. This was clearly the case in Russia. On the eve of the World War, Russia was again rapidly heading for a new revolution. The workers’ movement was in a state of continuous ebullition. The growth in the party’s influence was recorded by Badayev, who deals with the structure of the St. Petersburg organization and the work of the St. Petersburg committee:

All activity in the St. Petersburg District is now controlled by the St. Petersburg Committee, which has been functioning since autumn last year. The Committee has contacts at all works and factories and is informed of all developments there. The organization of the district is as follows: At the factory, party members form nuclei in the various workshops and delegates from the nuclei form a factory committee (at small factories, the members themselves constitute the committee). Every factory committee, or workshop nucleus in large factories, appoints a collector who on each payday collects the dues and other funds, books, subscriptions for the newspapers, etc. A controller is also appointed to visit the institutions for which the funds were raised, to see that the correct amounts have been received there and collect the money. By this system, abuses in the handling of money are avoided.

Each district committee elects by secret voting an executive commission of three, care being taken that the committee as a whole should not know of whom the executive commission actually consists.

The district executive commissions send delegates to the St. Petersburg Committee, again trying to ensure that the names should not be known by the whole district committee. The St. Petersburg Committee also elects an executive commission of three. Sometimes, for reasons of secrecy, it was found inadvisable to elect the representatives from the district commission and they were co-opted at the discretion of the St. Petersburg Committee.

Owing to this system, it was difficult for the secret police to find out who are members of the St. Petersburg Committee, which was thus enabled to carry on its work, to guide the activities of the organizations, declare political strikes, etc.

The Committee is held in high esteem by the workers, who, on all important points, await its guidance and follow its instructions. Special attention is paid to the leaflets which the Committee issues from time to time.

St. Petersburg trade union organizations have decided not to call political strikes on their own initiative but to act only on instructions from the St. Petersburg Committee. It was the Committee which issued the call for strikes on January 9, April 4, and May 1. The workers strongly resented the suppression of Pravda and wanted to strike, but the Committee decided that it was necessary first to prepare the action properly and to issue an explanatory leaflet which should reach the masses. Within a few days another paper appeared and as it followed the same policy the workers were somewhat reassured. Although no appeal to strike action was issued, some 30,000 workers left their work.

Leaflets are of great importance and the Committee devoted much effort to perfecting its machinery for their printing and distribution. The Committee consists entirely of workers, and we write the leaflets ourselves and have difficulty in finding intellectuals to help in correcting them.

The St. Petersburg political strikes, far from ruining the organization, strengthened it. It may be asserted that the St. Petersburg organization was revived, strengthened, and is developing, owing to the political strike movement. The shouts of the Liquidators about a “strike fever” show that they are completely detached from the workers’ organizations and from the life of the masses; they altogether fail to grasp what is now taking place among the workers. From my position in the center of the St. Petersburg working-class movement, I notice everywhere how the strength of the workers is increasing, how it shows itself and how it will overwhelm everything.

The resolutions of the Cracow Conference were read and studied by the workers in the factories and the entire work of our organization was conducted in their spirit. Their correctness was fully proved in practice; taking active part in the work, I felt all the time that the line of policy was correct. I rarely met a Liquidator or heard of one; this surprised me at first, but later, at a meeting of metalworkers, I learned that they were almost nonexistent in St. Petersburg.522

Bolshevik influence was continually spreading to new layers of the class—to the youth and women. Pravda was the main weapon for this work. Its circulation grew to an impressive 40,000 a day, whereas the Mensheviks’ Luch (The Ray) sold a maximum of 16,000 copies. The Bolsheviks always took the question of revolutionary work among women workers very seriously. Lenin, in particular, attached an enormous importance to this question, especially in the period of the revolutionary upsurge from 1912–14, and during the First World War. It was at this time that International Women’s Day, February 23 (March 8), began to be celebrated with mass workers’ demonstrations. It is not an accident that the February (March, according to the new calendar) Revolution arose from disturbances around Women’s Day, when women demonstrated against the war and the high cost of living.

Social Democrats had begun consistent work among women workers during the 1912–14 upsurge. The Bolsheviks organized the first International Women’s Day meeting in Russia in 1913. The same year, Pravda began regularly publishing a page devoted to questions facing women. The Bolsheviks launched a women’s newspaper, Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker), in 1914, with the first issue appearing on International Women’s Day, when the party again organized demonstrations. The paper was suppressed in July along with the rest of the workers’ press. The Bolshevik paper was supported financially by women factory workers and distributed by them in the workplaces. It reported on the conditions and struggles of women workers in Russia and abroad, and encouraged women to join in struggle with their male coworkers. It urged them to reject the women’s movement initiated by bourgeois women following the 1905 Revolution.

A key question was the fight for leadership in the unions, where the Mensheviks were traditionally strong. Prior to the First World War in most countries the unions represented a minority of the class and were heavily dominated by the skilled trades who enjoyed higher wages and better conditions than the rest. This layer, which Marx characterized as the “aristocracy of labor” were frequently under the influence of the liberals and it was no accident that the trade unions, especially their leading layer, were organically inclined towards conservatism and opportunism. Russia was no exception to the rule, which explains why the Mensheviks were traditionally stronger than the Bolsheviks in this milieu.

The St. Petersburg trade unions, among the strongest and best organized had at most 30,000 members in 1914, and in the whole of Russia, there were no more than 100,000, a small percentage of the total work force. Nevertheless, as the basic units of the class, the unions were of fundamental importance to any tendency which aspired to the leadership of the masses. Despite all the difficulties, the Bolsheviks conducted patient revolutionary work in even the most bureaucratic and reactionary unions to win the majority. And eventually this painstaking and patient labor was crowned with success.

By 1913–14, the Bolsheviks were in a position to organize an intervention in all the trade union congresses and mount a successful challenge to the right wing. By the summer of 1914, the Bolsheviks had won the majority in the unions of both Moscow and St. Petersburg. In St. Petersburg, out of 19 trade unions, 16 supported the Bolsheviks, while only three (the draughtsmen, clerks, and chemists) were for the Mensheviks. In Moscow, all 13 trade unions were with the Bolsheviks. Given the traditional influence of the Mensheviks in the unions, this advance was particularly spectacular, and symptomatic of a complete change in the mood of the class.

Under the impulse of the mass revolutionary movement the right wing were losing their traditional base of support among the skilled layers of the working class and the unions. The statements of the Menshevik leaders of this period provide a frank admission of their growing isolation from the working class. A.L. Chkhenkeli, member of the Duma for Kars and Batum, lamented at a meeting of the Menshevik Duma fraction in January 1914 that “we have lost all our ties with the working class.” This evaluation received official confirmation at the OC’s meeting in February which admitted that “the Duma fraction stands at a remote distance from the popular masses.” The reason for the Mensheviks’ loss of support is not hard to find. Their entire policy consisted of cultivating their connections with the liberal bourgeoisie. They looked up, not down, for a solution. Consequently, the upsurge of the mass movement in the form of a stormy strike wave took them aback. In fact, they really regarded it as a nuisance, fearing anything that might frighten away their Cadet friends. This attitude of distrust towards the mass movement was intimately linked to their whole conception of the Russian Revolution as a bourgeois affair. The masses were supposed to behave responsibly, accept the role of second fiddle to the bourgeoisie, and not go “too far.”

“Mensheviks also remained extremely ambivalent in their attitude towards strikes,” writes Robert McKean. “In part their reservations derived from their different interpretation of the shape of a bourgeois revolution in Russian conditions and of the nature of the contemporary crisis . . . [However] the unspoken fear of Menshevik intellectuals was that the apparently ceaseless and uncontrollable surge of labor unrest would frighten off potential ‘bourgeois allies.’”

In an article in Nasha Zarya, Dan warned that “in the political struggle, the strike is not always the sole expedient means.”523 For reformist labor leaders, the strike, or any mass initiative from below is, of course, never “expedient.” But the masses see things differently, and soon learn how to distinguish between leaders and organizations that support them in struggle and those that act as permanent fire-hoses for the bosses.

The Bolsheviks showed no such restraint, and consequently were rapidly extending their influence in the unions, especially the key industrial unions, like the metalworkers. Even traditionally Menshevik unions, like the printworkers, moved away from the Liquidators, who were increasingly isolated and discredited. In the summer of 1913, they were defeated in the election of the Moscow printers’ union. The same thing happened in the Baltic region in the autumn. In April 1914 the Bolsheviks won half of the seats on the leading bodies of the Petersburg printers’ union. This energetic and successful drive into the trade unions proved to be a dress rehearsal for what occurred in 1917. The skillful combination of work in the illegal underground party organizations and the penetration of all kinds of legal workers’ organizations—the unions, the co-ops, the insurance societies (kassy), the legal press, and the Duma, was shown in practice to be the only correct road.

The figures for the unions—embracing only a small minority of the workers, albeit an important one—by no means gives us a complete picture of the strength of the Party at this time. In most towns, the Bolsheviks had won a predominant influence in almost all workers’ clubs and associations which, under the influence of the Party, were given a political character. In many areas (especially the provinces) these clubs became centers of revolutionary activity. The same was true of the cooperative societies in the Ukraine and elsewhere, and in the workers’ mutual and insurance societies (kassy). By participating in such work, paying attention to the day-to-day problems of the workers and their families, the Bolsheviks were able also to establish contacts with other layers: traders, shopkeepers, accountants, railway employees, civil servants, artisans, and other non-proletarian sections. In St. Petersburg, Moscow, Riga, Baku, etc., legal work was conducted by the Bolsheviks even in sports clubs and musical and drama societies. The slow, patient work in these seemingly unpromising environments paid off handsomely in the end. After all, real revolutionary work is not at all glamorous, but consists in a proportion of about nine-tenths of precisely such humdrum and unspectacular work to sink roots in the masses wherever they are.

In order to build links with the peasants and rural proletarians—a vital task for a mass party in Russia—the Bolsheviks launched the slogan: “Carry the revolutionary word to the village.” Pravda published letters from peasants alongside those of the workers. Nor did the Bolsheviks neglect work among students and intellectuals. The Petersburg higher education group (which included all Social Democratic factions) under Bolshevik leadership had about 100 members, which was still relatively weak, reflecting the falling off of revolutionary influence in the intelligentsia in the previous period, but was expanding again. Thus, the newly formed Bolshevik Party carried into practice the old slogan of the Narodniks, “Go among the People!” But it did so on a higher basis, armed with a scientific program and a proletarian revolutionary policy. The whole thrust of the policy can be simply summed up: the proletariat must fight to place itself at the head of each and every oppressed section of society, and the Party must fight to win the leadership of the proletariat.


522 Quoted in A.Ye. Badayev, Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma, 117–18.

523 R. McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, 120 and 122.

93) The Bolsheviks on the Eve of the War

Feeling the earth quake under their feet, the bourgeois liberals began to distance themselves from the government, demanding reforms. They were both frightened themselves and attempting to frighten the regime into granting concessions. “Reform before it is too late!” That was their battle cry. They took heart from the growing conflict between “reformers” and “reactionaries” within the regime itself which proceeded in tandem with the conflict between the Cadets and the autocracy. There was even a “strike of Ministers” in 1913. As always, splits at the top are the first warning of an impending revolutionary crisis. The Interior Minister, Maklakov, wrote in worried terms to the tsar: “The mood among the factory workers is uneasy,” and advocated a crackdown. Naturally this proposal was approved by the tsar but turned down by the Prime Minister Kokovtsov—further indications of vacillations and splits at the top as the government lost its nerve and arguments broke out over whether to use the mailed fist or the velvet glove to deal with the problem.

By now the government was monopolized by the most reactionary elements. As war approaches, everything become clearer, sharper. All elements of confusion and ambiguity are removed. The “middle-ground” liberals, the compromisers, and all accidental figures and groupings are mercilessly squeezed out of the picture. And finally there remains only two trends which present society with a stark and imperious alternative—revolution or reaction. The liberals, in desperation, tried to lean on the working class and to this end patched up a deal. In March 1914, the Cadets set up a kind of “opposition committee” and even included a Bolshevik on it (I.I. Skvortsov-Stepanov). Despite the well-known spinelessness of the liberals, Dan and the Mensheviks placed all their hopes on this.

Informed of this development, Lenin considered it important as a symptom. Lenin advised Skvortsov-Stepanov to go along in order to obtain precise information on how far the liberals were prepared to go in practice, that is, to what extent the moneybags were prepared to make donations to help to develop the illegal press, and so on. The reply was, predictably, unclear! The Cadets (and still less their allies the Octobrists) had no serious intention of challenging the regime or aiding the revolution. Their pleas to the bureaucracy to “reform itself” were aimed at preserving the system, not overthrowing it. The Mensheviks committed the “small” mistake of confusing revolution with counterrevolution in a democratic guise. Faced with the working class, the liberals and reactionaries inevitably closed ranks in one reactionary bloc. The real difference between the liberals and the government was on how best to defeat the working class. Nevertheless, as Lenin said, it was necessary to use these splits in a skillful way, but not to sow illusions in them as the Mensheviks did.

Objectively the situation was ripe for revolution, but the decisive factor was the subjective factor—the capability of the working class and its leadership to take advantage of the situation to overthrow the autocracy and take power. The party was now stronger than ever, after parting company with the opportunists. But the war intervened to cut across the whole process. By the spring of 1914 Pravda had a daily circulation of almost 40,000, but many more were actually circulated and read in the factories. Pravda in April 1914 had 8,858 subscribers in 740 areas of Russia; by June the figure had risen to 11,534 in 944 areas. This sharp increase shows the rapid spread of Bolshevik ideas and the increased penetration of the masses. The Liquidators raised an anguished plea for “unity” only when the Bolsheviks already had, in practice, obtained an overwhelming majority in the class. In the spring of 1914—Pravda’s second anniversary (April 22)—there was a campaign for fund-raising (“Press day”). All party groups, trade union cells, factory groups, cultural societies, etc. were involved. The campaign obtained greetings and donations from 1,107 different workers’ groups. In addition to Pravda, there was also a theoretical journal, Prosveshcheniye (Enlightenment) as well as a host of regional and local papers.

Despite this remarkable progress, on the eve of a new revolutionary upturn, Lenin was uneasy. While recognizing that magnificent work had been done on the ground, he saw that the Central Committee tended to lag behind:

While in the field of agitation and propaganda of the party over the past two to three years of the new upswing an enormous amount of work has been done, in the field of organizational consolidation, up to the present time, proportionately very little has been done.524

Lenin was critical not only of the CC but also of the Pravda editorial board. He saw the need for new blood, for the renovation of the leading bodies with fresh layers of workers. This entailed, to some extent, a gamble, but anything was better than stagnation and excessive reliance on “old glories,” some of whom had fallen into routinism and conservatism. It was necessary to strike a balance. Lenin, with his habitual patience, tact, and loyalty, was always ready to preserve older comrades, but also always on the lookout for new talent—a most important part of the art of leadership. Lenin insistently demanded the inclusion of fresh workers in the leading bodies. Preparation was now underway for a new party congress. Once again the Liquidators opposed it, describing it as a “private meeting of Lenin’s clique.” But their protests no longer cut any ice.

The Liquidators were desperately thrashing about, announcing all kinds of plans—for the setting up of a federal committee to call a joint congress and the like, all of which were rejected. The Bolsheviks now had the upper hand. They had the troops on the ground. The Liquidators did not. The situation was so clear that the basis for conciliationism had completely evaporated. The Bolsheviks now turned down the proposals for unity but made it clear that any bona fide workers’ group in Russia would be invited to send delegates to the congress, irrespective of tendency. The question of “unity” had been settled in action. The “August Bloc,” riven with internal contradictions from its inception, finally broke up in early 1914. The Latvian Social Democrats—the only mass organization represented there—broke away, and the whole thing fell to bits. Trotsky had already resigned from the journals of the Liquidators and in February 1914 attempted to establish a new “non-factional” journal, Bor’ba. But the time for such attempts was long past. With his usual wry humor, Lenin commented that the unifiers couldn’t even unite among themselves. In desperation the Mensheviks turned to the Second International. But after the conduct of the Second International in the previous dispute, Lenin was on his guard. He considered this attempt to look for an honest broker as a joke. But because of the authority of the International, to turn down the offer of mediation would not have been understood. The Bolsheviks decided, after all, to participate in the “unification meeting” called by the International Bureau, with the intention of “exposing the fiction of the August Bloc.”525

At the meeting which took place in Brussels in July 1914, the Bolsheviks were represented by second-line leaders. Also present were the Menshevik Liquidators, Trotsky’s Bor’ba, Plekhanov’s Yedinstvo (Unity) group, the Menshevik Duma deputies, Vperyod, the Bund, the Letts, the Lithuanian Social Democrats, and three Polish groups. The International had wheeled out some of its big guns in an attempt to bring about a shotgun marriage between two politically irreconcilable trends by bureaucratic means. This was quite logical for people who had long ago turned their back on principled politics in favor of Realpolitik. The chairman of the meeting was the Belgian Social Democratic leader Vandervelde, along with Huysmans and Kautsky. In the course of the meeting, Kautsky uttered prophetic words that, “In Germany there is no split, despite the differences between Rosa Luxemburg and Bernstein,” a phrase which would soon be shown up for the hollow sham it was. The meeting accepted Kautsky’s motion that there were no differences in the Russian Social Democracy which should impede unity. But the Bolsheviks stood firm, despite pressures from all sides. At the meeting, which lasted three days, the Bolshevik representatives rejected the International’s pretensions to act as an arbitration court. They saw no reason to make concessions this time. Vandervelde threatened the Bolsheviks with condemnation at the next International Congress. In fact, the next Congress would never be held. Events on a vast scale would blow the old International sky high, cruelly exposing all the lies, half-truths, and shams upon which it had rested.

The weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie, and its dependence on foreign capital, in turn determined the foreign policy of tsarism, which found itself entangled as a junior partner in an alliance with Anglo-French imperialism. By 1912, everything was, in practice, subordinated to the perspective of war. The foreign policy of tsarism was dictated by the war aims of the ruling autocracy and the landlords, which was identical to those of the Russian bankers and capitalists. It amounted to the conquest of foreign territories, markets, and sources of raw materials—the classical policy of imperialism and expansionism. The Russian bourgeoisie, including its “liberal” wing, was content to play second fiddle to the autocracy in the hope of obtaining profitable markets as a result of war. But on the eve of the war, the autocracy was once more staring revolution in the face.

On the eve of the First World War, the revolutionary movement was even stronger and more widespread than in 1905. More important still, the consciousness of the working class was on a qualitatively higher level, a fact that was reflected in the Bolshevik majority. Trotsky later commented:

In order to understand the two chief tendencies in the Russian working class, it is important to have in mind that Menshevism finally took shape in the years of ebb and reaction. It relied chiefly upon a thin layer of workers who had broken with the revolution. Whereas Bolshevism, cruelly shattered in the period of the reaction, began to rise swiftly on the crest of a new revolutionary tide in the years before the war. “The most energetic and audacious element, ready for tireless struggle, for resistance and continual organization, is that element, those organizations and those people who are concentrated around Lenin.” In these words the Police Department estimated the work of the Bolsheviks during the years preceding the war.526

The Bolsheviks’ superiority was shown by a whole series of facts. In the elections to the Fourth Duma, the Bolsheviks won six out of nine of the workers’ places. In the political campaign around the establishment of an independent Duma fraction, the Bolshevik deputies got more than 69 percent of all workers’ signatures. After the establishment of an independent Duma Bolshevik fraction in October 1913, the Liquidators got the support of only 215 workers’ groups, while the Bolshevik deputies got 1,295 (85.7 percent!). Other statistics indicate the crushing superiority of the Bolshevik influence. In 1913, the Liquidators’ newspaper got the support of 661 workers’ groups while Pravda had 2,181 (77 percent). By 1914, (up to May 13), the corresponding figures were 671 to 2,873 (i.e., 81 percent). Thus, despite the difficulty of arriving at precise figures under the prevailing conditions of illegal and semilegal work, it can be calculated with a large degree of certainty that the Bolsheviks had the support of at least three-quarters of the organized working class.

The workers’ movement was going from strength to strength. New areas were constantly being drawn into the struggle. A strike of 50,000 oil workers in Baku began in May 1914. Strikes in solidarity with Baku took place in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kharkov, Kiev, Rostov, and Nikolaev. On July 1, the St. Petersburg committee of the Party called out the workers with the slogan: “Comrades of Baku, we are with you! A victory of the Baku workers is our victory!” The temperature was rising fast. On that day, a mass meeting of 12,000 workers in the big Putilov works was broken up by the police, with 50 injured and two dead. The news from Petersburg shook the whole country. By July 4, there were 90,000 on strike. The Bolshevik Central Committee called a three-day general strike as a test of strength. By  July 7, the strike was almost total with 130,000 workers out.

Even while the workers struck, French President Poincaré was in Petersburg to discuss certain delicate matters pertaining to the international situation with the tsar. While the two men calmly discussed the coming war, another kind of war had broken out on the streets of St. Petersburg. The center of the capital was occupied by police and troops who clashed with the workers. Although the strike had only been called for three days, the strike wave, in fact, was uninterrupted.

The following figures of the numbers out on strike reveal the real position in the months leading up to the War:

July 8


July 9


July 10


July 11 and 12

more than 130,000

(Istoriya KPSS, vol.2, 463.)

The government struck back. Pravda was closed on July 8 and Bolsheviks were arrested everywhere. Union headquarters and workers’ clubs were closed down. This was tantamount to officially recognizing that in July 1914 Russia was once more in the throes of a revolutionary situation. This fact could not be altered by a few arrests. By the summer, the strike movement had already exceeded that of 1905. One and a half million workers were participating in strikes, most of them political. But there were also weaknesses: the movement was mainly concentrated in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and the other major industrial centers. In 1905, the movement, at its high point, had been more widespread. In 1905, Petersburg accounted for 20 percent of the total strike statistics. In 1912-13, it was 40 percent, and in 1914, more than 50 percent.

These statistics show that there was quite a wide gap between the proletarian vanguard, concentrated in St. Petersburg and the other centers of industry, and the more backward masses, especially in the provinces, and the peasantry. A certain amount of time and experience was necessary in order to allow the provinces to catch up. It was still too early to enter into a decisive battle, although there was a great deal of impatience and ultraleft tendencies among the young Bolsheviks. Sections of the youth in Petersburg were impatient to go over onto the offensive. An ultraleft group led by the section of the bakers’ union set up a “left Bolshevik committee” and argued in favor of extending the barricade fighting. These young hotheads were responsible for a serious setback. They called together 123 delegates from factory committees who were all arrested by the police. On July 14, the strike came to an end. Things were clearly coming to a head, although Lenin was in favor of postponing the decisive clash for a little longer. He understood that the attitude of the peasantry was decisive for determining that of the army. Those who were pushing for the continuation of strike action and barricade fighting were pressing for an insurrection before the time was ripe. The July events could have been transformed, in normal circumstances, into a revolutionary situation. But dramatic events on the international scale cut across these developments.

As the whole of Europe stood trembling on the brink of the abyss, Russian tsarism was more afraid of social revolution than of war. On June 28 (NS), the Austrian Crown prince Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. Immediately a general mobilization was declared in Russia. When on July 10 (NS) the Austrian government presented Serbia with a humiliating ultimatum, St. Petersburg hastened to put pressure on its Serbian “brothers” to accede to all demands other than those that violated its rights as a sovereign state. This is just what the Serbs did in their reply to the note of July 10. It made no difference. The Vienna government considered the Serbian reply to be “insufficient.” At this juncture, any answer from Serbia would have been insufficient. On July 15, the Austrians began shelling Belgrade. Late on the evening of July 18, Count Pourtalès called on the Russian foreign minister Sazonov and informed him “with tears in his eyes” that from midnight, Germany was at war with Russia. The great slaughter was about to commence.


524 Voprosy Istoriya KPSS, 1957, no. 4, 117.

525 See Lenin, Collected Works, in Russian, vol. 24, 289.

526 Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 58.