- The Birth of Bolshevism Volume 2 – Bolshevism verses Menshevism – Resistance Books 2020 (PDF document)
This is the second of two volumes of key writings by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin published by Resistance Books covering the birth of Bolshevism as a political trend and a party organisation. The first volume contained the main works written by Lenin from 1899 through 1902 in which he polemicised against the opportunist “economist” current then dominant among the adherents of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party. The second volume covers the period from the second congress of the RSDLP in August 1903 to the setting up of the Bolshevik party organisation (officially called the Bureau of Majority Committees) in December 1904.
The first attempt to unify the scattered local organisations of Russian Marxists into a centralised party – undertaken through the founding congress of the RSDLP in Minsk in 1898 – had ended in failure only a few months later when all the members of the central committee elected by the congress had been arrested by the tsarist police.
In the later years of the l890s the local party committees of the RSDLP, which consisted of revolutionary intellectuals, radicalised students and a small layer of advanced workers, came under the domination of an opportunist trend that Georgy Plekhanov, the founder of the Russian Marxist movement, termed “economism”. The manifesto issued by the founding congress of the RSDLP had put forward the organisation of the working class in the struggle for political liberty and the overthrow of the semifeudal tsarist autocracy as the chief task of the Russian Marxists. By contrast, the economist trend, whose ideological centre was based around the magazine Rabocheye Dyelo (Workers’ Cause), published in Geneva, argued that Russian Marxists should limit their activity to assisting the workers in their spontaneous economic (trade-union) struggles, while passively supporting the efforts of the liberal bourgeois intelligentsia to pressure the tsarist autocracy into becoming a British-style constitutional monarchy.
In late 1900, Lenin and two other veteran members of the second generation of Russian Marxists – Yuli Martov and Alexander Potresov – joined forces with the first generation of Russian Marxists – Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod and Vera Zasulich (who had founded the Emancipation of Labour Group in Geneva in l883) – to combat the economists. The orthodox Marxist trend which they represented was grouped around the monthly paper Iskra (The Spark), the first issue of which was printed in Leipzig in December 1900.
While the editorial board of Iskra consisted of its six founding members, Lenin acted as its editor-in-chief. In collaboration with his partner, Nadezhda Krupskaya, who acted as Iskra’s correspondence secretary, Lenin was also the chief organiser of the Iskra organisation, directing the agents inside Russia whose task was to distribute the paper, raise funds for it, and to win over to Iskra-ism the local party committees. Lenin’s 1902 booklet What Is To Be Done? (see Volume 1) was a summary of the programmatic, tactical and organisational views of the Iskra-ists.
In January 1902 a conference of Iskra supporters working inside Russia was held in Samara. It elected a coordinating bureau and adopted rules of organisation. By August 1902, the Iskra-ists had won over majorities in the St. Petersburg and Moscow party committees, and in November the members of the Russian Iskra organisation took the initiative to form an organising committee to convene a party congress.
The second congress of the RSDLP was held in Brussels and then London in July-August 1903. The Iskra-ists accounted for about two-thirds of the 43 voting delegates at the congress. Of the remaining third, about half were hard-line opponents of Iskra-ism. They consisted of the most prominent economists, such as Alexander Martynov and Vladimir Akimov, and the semi-Zionist Jewish Workers’ League (the Bund). In the first phase of the congress, a solid Iskra-ist majority unanimously voted for a party program drafted by Plekhanov and Lenin (debate around which took up about two-thirds of the congress sessions) and endorsed Iskra becoming the central organ of the RSDLP.
However, toward the end of the congress differences began to emerge among the Iskra-ists. The most famous of these was over paragraph 1 of the draft party rules, which defined party membership. Lenin, supported by Plekhanov, presented a draft which defined a party member as anyone who “accepts the program and who supports the party both financially and by personal participation in one of the party organisations”. Martov, supported by the other three Iskra editorial board members, presented a draft which defined a party member as anyone “who accepts the program and who supports the party ‘both financially and by work under the control and direction of one of the party organisations”. Lenin’s definition was motivated by a desire to exclude those “who merely talked and to eliminate organisational chaos”. Unless party members participated in a party organisation, Lenin argued, they would not in practice be under the control and direction of the party.
Martov’s definition, on the other hand, was motivated by a desire to create a broad organisation similar to the Social-Democratic Party of Germany. Indeed, his definition of a party member was very similar to that used in the rules of the SPD – “They are members of the party who accept the principles of the party program and render the party all possible support”. In arguing for his definition, Martov stated: “The more widespread the title of party member the better. We could only rejoice if every striker, every demonstrator, answering for his actions, could proclaim himself a party member. For me a conspiratorial organisation only has meaning when it is enveloped by a broad social-democratic working-class party.” While both Plekhanov and Lenin regarded the SPD as the model of a socialist workers’ party, they believed that under the repressive conditions prevailing in tsarist Russia the socialist workers’ party – as Lenin had argued in What Is To Be Done? – could only exist and be built up as a compact body of committed and trained revolutionary working-class activists.
Furthermore, as Lenin later commented in his pamphlet One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Martov’s argument revealed that he and his supporters had actually held a conception of the workers’ party that was very similar to that of the economists:
Every striker should have the right to proclaim himself a party member? In this statement Comrade Martov instantly carries his mistake to the point of absurdity, by lowering social-democracy to the level of mere strike-making, thereby repeating the misadventures of Akimov. We could only rejoice if the social-democrats succeeded in directing every strike, for it is their plain and unquestionable duty to direct every manifestation of the class struggle of the proletariat, and strikes are one of the most profound and most powerful manifestations of that struggle. But we should be tail-enders if we were to identify this primary form of struggle, which ipso facto is no more than a trade unionist form, with the all-round and conscious social-democratic struggle. We should be opportunistically legitimising a patent falsehood if we were to allow every striker the right to “proclaim himself a party member”, for in the majority of cases such a “proclamation” would be false. We should be indulging in complacent daydreaming if we tried to ensure ourselves and others that every striker can be a social-democrat and a member of the Social-Democratic Party, in face of the infinite disunity, oppression, and stultification which under capitalism is bound to weigh down upon such very wide sections of the “untrained”, unskilled workers. This example of the “striker” brings out with particular clarity the difference between the revolutionary striving to direct every strike in a social-democratic way and the opportunist phrase-mongering which proclaims every striker a party member. We are a party of a class inasmuch as we in factdirect almost the entire, or even the entire, proletariat in a social-democratic way; but only Akimovs can conclude from this that we must in word identify the party and the class.
With the support of the economists and Bundists and a minority of the Iskra-ists, Lenin’s formula was defeated and Martov’s adopted. The remainder of the party rules – establishing a centralised and disciplined party organisation – were adopted by the congress, against the opposition of the economists, who advocated a loose, decentralised, organisation, and the Bundists, who favoured a federated structure in which they were recognised as the sole representatives of the Jewish workers.
While Lenin regarded the dispute over the definition of party membership as evidence of a growing accommodation of the majority of the old editorial board of Iskra toward a political bloc with the opportunist economists, he did not regard this difference as serious enough to split the party. “I by no means consider our difference so vital as to be a matter of life and death for the party”, he told the congress, adding: “We shall certainly not perish because of an unfortunate clause in the rules.”
Following the adoption of the rules, the economists and Bundists withdrew from the congress, giving the Iskra-ist majority led by Lenin a slight majority of the votes on the final outstanding issues before the congress – the election of the editorial board of Iskra and the election of the central committee. The old six-person editorial board, Lenin later noted, had had a “family character” marked by “painful, long-drawn-out, hopeless quarrels… which were often repeated, making it impossible for us to work for months on end”. Now that Iskra was to be the official organ of the party, Lenin wanted it to be directed by an editorial board which operated according to formal rules rather than as a family circle. Lenin therefore proposed that the editorial board be reduced from its previous six (self-appointed) members to three, nominating himself, Plekhanov and Martov. These three had carried out the bulk of the actual editorial work on the old editorial board and represented the distinct political trends within the Iskra-ists. This composition would ensure that decisions could not be deadlocked and gave the Iskra-ist majority at the congress control over the central organ.
Lenin’s proposal was adopted by 25 votes to 2, with l7 abstaining. Martov and his supporters then refused to participate in the election of the three-person central committee, as a result of which it was composed exclusively of supporters of the Iskra-ist majority (henceforth known as the Bolsheviks, from the Russian for majority), and Plekhanov was elected president of the party council – the highest decision-making body between congresses, composed of two members designated by the central committee, two designated by the Iskra editorial board and a president elected by the congress.
Following the congress, Martov and his supporters – known as the Mensheviks (from the Russian for minority) – refused to accept these decisions. They counterattacked at a conference of the League of Russian Revolutionary Social-Democracy Abroad, which had previously been the foreign representative of the Iskra organisation and which the second congress had placed under the direction of the central committee as the sole party organisation abroad. At the conference, held in mid-October 1903, the Mensheviks secured a slight majority and refused to recognise the authority of the central committee elected by the second congress. The Bolsheviks then walked out of the league.
Under the pressure of the Mensheviks’ campaign, Plekhanov wavered and then capitulated, uniting with Martov to co-opt Axelrod, Potresov and Zasulich onto the Iskra editorial board, acting in clear violation of the decision of the second party congress and turning Iskra into an organ of the Mensheviks. On October 30, 1903, Lenin resigned from the board, and was co-opted onto the central committee. Then, at a meeting of the party council in mid-January 1904, Plekhanov joined with Axelrod and Martov (the two representatives of the Iskra editorial board) to overturn the Bolshevik majority on the central committee by co-opting Mensheviks onto the body. Lenin responded by moving a resolution for the convening of a third party congress, which was voted down by Plekhanov, Axelrod and Martov.
Writing to Lenin at the beginning of 1904, a worker active in the RSDLP inside Russia denounced all of the leaders abroad as “political intriguers”, but also touched on the important point at issue in the dispute between Lenin and the Mensheviks: “What’s the use of having congresses if their decisions are ignored and everybody does just as he pleases, saying that the congress decision is wrong, that the central committee is ineffective, and so on. And this is being done by people who before the congress were always clamouring for centralisation, party discipline, and so on, but who now want to show, it seems, that discipline is only meant for ordinary mortals, and not for them at the top.” Lenin responded: “The squabbles abroad among the writers and all the other generals (who you too harshly and bluntly call intriguers) will cease to be dangerous to the party only when the leaders of committees in Russia become more independent and capable of firmly demanding the fulfillment of what their delegates decide at the party congress.”
During l904, the Mensheviks tried to justify their overturning of the decisions of the second party congress by waging a furious demagogic campaign against Lenin, accusing him of being an advocate of “bureaucratic centralism” – for insisting that they abide by the decisions of the party congress. In response to this campaign, in May 1904 Lenin published his booklet One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, giving a detailed account of what had transpired at and after the second party congress and explaining from a Marxist standpoint what was at stake in the dispute between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.
During 1904, the other members of the old Iskra editorial board, in seeking to justify their course of action, wrote self-critical articles about the old Iskra, denouncing its criticisms of the economists as exaggerated and one-sided. This paved the way for an organic fusion between them and the remaining economists, signalled by the co-option of Martynov onto the editorial board of the new Iskra. In particular they repudiated the ideas advanced by Lenin in his 1902 booklet What Is To Be Done? on the relation of socialist consciousness to the trade-unionist consciousness of the spontaneous working-class movement, particularly the idea that socialist consciousness would not automatically arise among workers simply through the day-to-day struggles between them and their employers but had to be introduced by socialist ideologists into the spontaneous working-class movement. This idea did not originate with Lenin, but with Marx and Engels, who had argued in the Communist Manifesto of l848 that the Marxists had “over the great mass of the proletarians the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement”, and that this understanding was introduced into the proletarian movement by “a part of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole”.
In his l885 pamphlet Our Differences polemicising against Narodnism, Plekhanov had argued that it was the task of Russian socialists to “bring consciousness into the working class, and without that it is impossible to began a serious struggle against capital” At the second RSDLP congress, he had defended Lenin’s recapitulation of this argument in What Is To Be Done?, declaring: “Lenin was writing not a treatise on philosophy or history, but a polemical article against the economists, who said: We must wait for the working class to catch up, without the help of the ‘revolutionary bacillus’. The latter is forbidden to tell the workers anything, precisely because it was a ‘revolutionary bacillus’, that is, because it possessed a theoretical consciousness, But if you eliminate the ‘bacillus’, then you are left with a uniform, unconscious mass, into which consciousness has to be injected from without.” Now Plekhanov joined with Axelrod and Martov in arguing along the same fatalistic (mechanical-determinist) lines as the economists, claiming that “if the socialist revolution is a necessary consequence of the contradictions of capitalism, then it is clear that at a certain stage of social development the workers of capitalist countries would come to socialism even if left to themselves”.
On the basis of such a fatalistic conception, Axelrod had begun to argue that the Russian Marxists should strive for the creation of an all-inclusive, nonparty, workers’ organisation, which in practice would have meant the liquidation of the still very weak revolutionary socialist party. In One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Lenin observed that the “party, as the vanguard of the working class, must not be confused, after all, with the entire class. And Comrade Axelrod is guilty of just this confusion (which is characteristic of our opportunist economism in general… [I]t would be… ‘tail-ism’ to think that the entire class, or almost the entire class, can ever rise, under capitalism, to the level of consciousness and activity of its vanguard, of its social-democratic party.”
Lenin’s position was also to come under attack from the leadership of the German party in the form of an article, “Organisation Questions of Russian Social Democracy”, by the Polish-born Marxist Rosa Luxemburg. This was printed in the SPD’s theoretical journal Neue Zeit, edited by Karl Kautsky. As can be seen from the reply Lenin submitted to Neue Zeit – “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Reply by N. Lenin to Rosa Luxemburg” – but which Kautsky refused to print, Luxemburg’s article ignored the actual issues in dispute within the RSDLP and repeated the demagogic accusations made by the Mensheviks about Lenin being an “ultracentralist”.
Two elements in her article, however, indicated that at this time Luxemburg stood to the right of the presplit Iskra tendency as a whole. At one point in her polemic, countering Lenin’s statement that a revolutionary social-democrat is nothing else but “a Jacobin [a revolutionary democrat] joined to the organisation of the proletariat, which has become conscious of its class interests”, Luxemburg argued that “the social-democracy is not joined to the organisation of the proletariat, it is itself the proletariat” – a claim that, taken at face value, obliterates the distinction between the inevitable minority of politically organised, class-conscious workers and the unorganised, non-class-conscious working-class masses. Elsewhere in her polemic against Lenin, she argues that the creation of a centralised workers’ party was only possible in conditions of full political liberty, which of course did not exist in tsarist Russia. She wrote:
How to effect a transition from the type of organisation characteristic of the preparatory stage of the socialist movement – usually featured by disconnected local groups and clubs, with propaganda as a principal activity – to the unity of a large, national body, suitable for concerted political action over the entire territory ruled by the Russian state? That is the specific problem which the Russian social-democracy has mulled over for some time.
Autonomy and isolation are the most prominent characteristics of the old organisational type. It is, therefore, understandable why the slogan of the persons who want to see an inclusive national organisation should be “centralism”…
The indispensable condition for the realisation of social-democratic centralism are: (1) The existence of a large contingent of workers educated in the political struggle; (2) The possibility for the workers to develop their own political activity through direct influence on public life, in a party press, and public congresses, etc.
These conditions are not yet fully formed in Russia. The first – a proletarian vanguard, conscious of its class interests and capable of self-direction in political activity – is only now emerging in Russia. All efforts of socialist agitation and organisation should aim to hasten the formation of such a vanguard. The second condition can be had only under a regime of political liberty.
The clear implication of this view was that the Russian Marxists could not get out of the framework of a loose movement of localised propaganda circles and move to form a centralised, national, party organisation until after tsarist absolutism had been replaced by a bourgeois democracy. This view, however, was at variance with her organisational practice in the Polish part of the Russian empire, where Luxemburg’s own Social-Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) functioned as a small but highly centralised party organisation.
At the end of July l904, Lenin convened a conference of 22 Bolsheviks in Switzerland at which an appeal “To the Party” was issued calling for a struggle to convene a third RSDLP congress. Over the following few months, conferences of local party committees inside Russia declared in support of this call and in December 1904 elected a Bureau of Majority Committees, which began publishing a weekly paper, Vperyod (Forward), and constituted itself as the organising committee for the third congress of the RSDLP. With these developments, the split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks had hardened into two rival party organisations.
While the split had been centred around organisational questions, by the end of 1904 the rightward political shift of the Mensheviks had confirmed Lenin’s assessment that the opportunism of the economist Rabocheye Dyelo was being revived by the Mensheviks in the new Iskra. As explained by Lenin in his December 1904 article “Good Demonstrations of Proletarians and Poor Arguments of Certain Intellectuals”, the Menshevik new Iskra had begun to tail-end the liberal-bourgeois agitation for a constitutional-monarchy, rather than providing revolutionary leadership to the growing movement among the working class for a democratic republic – a movement which would reach insurrectionary dimensions over the following l2 months.