Tony Cliff

From Marxist circle to Agitation

(July 1972)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.52, July-September 1972, pp.16-22.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This article is a much abbreviated extract from a chapter of the author’s forthcoming book on Lenin. Its interest is not merely historical. A complex chain of circumstances drove the Marxist movement back into small circle politics, a condition from which it is now in the process of emerging. This account of the problems associated with a similar transition in Russia towards the end of the last century has some relevance to controversies in the movement today.

Lenin Joins a Marxist Study Group

On 8 May 1887, Alexander Ulyanov, Lenin’s elder brother, and a number of his friends, were executed for an attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander III. A few months later Lenin participated in a revolutionary students’ circle in Kazan University, where he was enrolled as a student. He was arrested for participating in a student rally (5 December) and a couple of days later expelled from the University and exiled from Kazan to the village of Kokushkino, to live under the surveillance of the police. A year later, in the autumn of 1888, Lenin joined his first Marxist group, a Kazan Marxist circle organised by N.Y. Fedosoyev. In July 1889 N.Y. Fedosoyev and a number of members of the circle were arrested, but Lenin was not among them. In 1890 Lenin joined a Marxist circle in Samara, playing a central role in it for the next three years. In 1893 he moved to St Petersburg, and joined a Marxist circle of Technological Institute students in the autumn of the same year. He worked in the St Petersburg Marxist circles until his arrest on 8 December, 1895.

For seven long, very active years, Lenin participated in the Marxist study groups. One of his greatest attributes was his capacity to adapt himself to the needs of any kind of work, and with the change of needs, to change his method of working, to adapt himself to new tasks with the same enthusiasm and relentlessness as he had done to the old. In the long period in which Lenin belonged to the Marxist circles he fitted perfectly the needs: the development of individual Marxists among intellectuals and workers alike. In Volume I of Lenin’s Collected Works one may find his main writings of the period – practically all of them copied by hand or at best mimeographed in a few copies at a time. The titles of these works gives a clear characterisation of his occupation at the time: New Economic Development in Present Life (on V.Y. Postnikov Peasant Farming in Southern Russia), 64 book pages, written in 1893; On the So-called Market Question, 46 book pages. In 1894 he wrote a 200 page book What the ‘Friends of the People’ are and How they Fight the Social-Democrats (A Reply to articles in Russkoye Bogatsrvo opposing the Marxists). At the end of 1894 and beginning of 1895 he wrote a 170 page book, printed legally at the time in a miscellany, called The Economic Content of Narodnism and the Criticism of it in Mr Struve’s Book.

The Workers in the Circles

Workers joining the circles (kruzhki) showed fantastic enthusiasm for learning. Plekhanov described this type of worker thus:

‘After working at the factory 10-11 hours a day, and returning home only in the evening, he would sit at his books until 1 o’clock at night ... 1 was struck, by the variety and abundance of the theoretical questions which concerned him ... political economy, chemistry, social questions, and the theory of Darwin all occupied his attention ... It would have taken decades for him to assuage his intellectual thirst.’ [1]

About a socialist study group among Jewish workers we are told how the leaders were determined to enlighten the workers in a very wide range of subjects. Thus Leon Bernstein in Vilna taught his pupils ‘how the world was created, the sun and the earth, the seas and the volcanoes’, as well as lecturing on ‘the life of the I people beginning with wild tribes and ending with the English with their Parliament and their trade unions’. In another circle, ‘among the topics discussed were the emergence of social classes, slavery, serfdom and capitalism. Circle members studied Darwin and Mill, and read the masterpieces of Russian literature’. [2]

A historian of the Russian labour movement at that period wrote:

‘These workers discerned in literacy and enlightenment a way out of their hopeless social situation, and therefore eagerly took advantage of the opportunities afforded by the kruzhki. A number of the more perceptive workers not only quickly mastered the basic elements of learning, but displayed a keen interest in “science” and in a scientific understanding of their surrounding world.’ [3]

‘At this time the only thing we can do is devote ourselves to the education and organisation of workers – a task that, I hope, we shall carry through regardless of the threats and obstacles raised by our government. In order to make our efforts bear fruit, we must do our best to educate ourselves and others intellectually and morally; we must work at this as energetically as possible, so that the people around us will regard us as intelligent, honest and courageous men, have greater trust in us, and take us as an example for themselves and others.’ [4]

In practice the kruzhki relied on the peaceful dissemination of Marxist ideas as the way ahead. The outlook of P.N. Skvortsov, one of the earliest Russian Marxists, and founder of the first Marxist circle in Nizhni Novgorod, was typical. It has been described by his pupil, Mitskevich, thus:

‘We had long conversations on the future of the workers’ movement. How abstractly we still conceived the future forms of the workers’ movement is indicated by the perspectives outlined by Skvortsov: gradually the number of workers studying Marx will increase; they will draw still more numbers into the circles studying Marx; with time all Russia will be covered with such kruzhki and then .we will form a workers’ socialist party. What tasks this party was to perform and how it should conduct its struggle remained unclear.’ [5]

Some workers acquired ‘a sort of condescending, contemptuous attitude towards the masses who one might say were not considered worthy of socialism’s teachings ...‘ [6] In their own enlightenment the workers educated in the circles found a way of escape from the alienation of capitalism.

For many members they were only ‘a means of acquiring knowledge and a personal escape from the gloom in which the working masses lived.’ [7]

Towards Agitation

The famine of 1891 led Plekhanov to try to open a new chapter in the Marxist movement: to move from circle work to mass agitation. In his pamphlet, On the Tasks of Socialists during the Famine in Russia, Plekhanov argued that the Marxists should conduct their educational work among the proletariat on two levels- ‘propaganda’ and ‘agitation’. ‘A sect’, he explained, ‘can be satisfied with propaganda in the narrow sense of the word: a political party never ... A propagandist gives many ideas to one or a few people, while an agitator gives only one or only a few ideas but to masses of people ... Yet history is made by the masses.’ [8]

In short, rather than concentrate merely on ‘the organisation of workers’ socialist circles’, the revolutionaries should try to move out and arouse mass discontent on the basis of political or ‘economic’ slogans such as the demand for the eight-hour working day. Demands of this kind would attract workers towards the socialist movement. ‘Thus all – even the most backward -workers will be clearly convinced that the carrying out of at least some socialist measures is of value to the working class ... Such economic reforms as the shortening of the working day are good if only because they bring direct benefits to the workers.’ It was the duty of the party ‘to formulate economic demands suitable for the present moment.’ [9]

Plekhanov’s call found no echo among the Russian workers. However there was a response among the Jewish workers living in the Western part of the Russian Empire, in Poland. In the regions of heavy Jewish population, strikes became very frequent, and reached a high point in 1895 in a textile strike in Bialystok which involved as many as 15,000 workers. As a matter of fact Jewish workers were far ahead of Russian workers in terms of trade union organisation. While as late as 1907, only 7 per cent of the St Petersburg workers were organised in trade unions, among the Jewish workers, already in 1900, 20 per cent of all the workers in Bialystok were organised in trade unions, 24 per cent in Vilna, 40 per cent in Gomel and 25-40 per cent in Minsk. In 1894 A. Kremer, a leading member of the Jewish Socialist organisation, in collaboration with Martov, wrote the pamphlet, On Agitation. It condemned sharply the preoccupation of the members of the Marxist circles in their own ‘self-perfection’. The task was not to create worker intellectuals alienated from the working class, but to train agitators. The mass of the workers could not be educated to socialism through abstract intellectual activity. The broad masses are drawn into the struggle not by intellectual considerations but by the objective course of events.’ The task of Social Democrats is one of constant agitation among factory workers on the basis of their everyday needs and demands.’ [10] The role of socialists as leaders of the masses was defined thus:

‘It is understood that the Social Democratic views of the agitator will determine the path along which he will lead the crowd. He must always be one step ahead of the masses, he must illuminate their struggle for them, explaining from a more general point of view the irreconcilability of their interests (with those of the employers) and thus he must expand the horizons of the masses.’ [11]

On Agitation had a mechanical, stages-theory concept of the relation between the industrial struggle, the struggle against the employers, and the political struggle against Tsarism. Thus in later years it became the theoretical foundation for the development of ‘Economism’, so harshly condemned by Martov, and even more by Lenin.

Actually On Agitation argued for concentrating practically exclusively on economic issues.

‘Abstaining for the time being from presenting the masses with wider tasks, Social Democracy was to leave it to the experience of the struggle itself to confront the workers no longer with individual employers but with the entire bourgeois class and the government power which stood behind it, and on the basis of this experience to widen and deepen its agitation.’ [12]

The initial reaction of the members of the circles to On Agitation was in many, many cases very hostile indeed. Martov records that representatives of Social Democratic circles from Kiev and Kharkov, visiting Vilna, were against adopting agitation. One of them argued that it would constitute an ‘infraction of the system of strict conspiracy which it had taken years to build up, and upon which the whole edifice of circle propaganda depended.’ Another objected that agitation ‘only touched the surface of proletarian consciousness, whereas the real task of Social Democracy was to train a ‘class-conscious workers’ vanguard’, by which they understood ‘well-rounded, educated, worker-Marxists’. [13]

Akimov, an early chronicler of the movement, quoted a worker, a member of one of the Marxist circles, saying: ‘Leaflets are a waste of time. What can you explain in a single leaflet? The worker should be given a book, not a leaflet. He must be taught. He must be drawn into a circle!’ [14]

Many worker members of the circles, ‘considered self-education, in the noblest sense of the word, the alpha and omega of the socialist movement, and they found unbearable the idea that, instead of devoting all the time to make themselves into “critically thinking personalities”, one ought to pick persons with agitational talents and equip them with that minimum of knowledge necessary to influence the masses.’ [15]

Yet notwithstanding all opposition inside the circles, agitation did take root and pushed aside the previous kruzhkovschina. In April 1894, a copy of On Agitation reached Moscow, where it was reproduced by hectograph, and immediately sent to other Social-Democratic groups all over Russia. In 1896 it was printed abroad in Geneva by the Emancipation of Labour group with a preface by Axelrod, and had an even wider dissemination.

Plekhanov Fails the Test

Not only a big proportion, possibly in many cases a majority of workers, members of the circles, failed to make the transition to agitation, but also, in practice, the Emancipation of Labour group failed to adapt itself too. It was Plekhanov who first argued the need to move to agitation – in 1891. But when it came to practice, Plekhanov and his friends were found wanting.

As early as 1892, A. Voden, a literate young Marxist from St Petersburg, visited Plekhanov and forwarded the request of the Brusnev group for popular literature for workers. Plekhanov remarked caustically that obviously these young praktiki ‘lacked the desire to learn to think like Marxists,’ and it seemed to Voden that he spoke ‘with vexation accumulated over a long period of tirne.’ [16] There were no less than six such missions before 1895, all ending in irreconcilable conflicts. Plekhanov’s wife, Rosalita Markovna, described his irritation with the ‘uncouthness, crudeness, and presumptuousness ... of these various provincial Lassalles’ who in his words ‘came to measure shoulders with us.’

It is true that a year earlier Plekhanov’s group agreed to publish a journal, Listok Rabotnika (The Workers’ Supplement) to be devoted primarily to news of the labour movement and industrial unrest in Russia. Plekhanov himself, however, refused to take part in this, and Vera Zasulich and Axelrod showed clear resentment at having to carry out this task.

Since there was no immediate revolutionary prospects in the ’80s and early ’90s the Emancipation of Labour group, shaped during that period, persisted in a pattern of practical activity that was inimical to mass agitation, whatever correct theoretical statements Plekhanov had made on the subject. It was Vera Zasulich who honestly pointed out the gulf between the group and the newly rising agitators in Russia. She wrote to Plekhanov:

‘Against us is practically the entire younger generation in union with those elements of the students who have already acted or are getting ready to act seriously. They are full of energy, feel that Russia is behind them ...

‘We cannot carry out the function of the Union, to create a worker literature. You say we cannot throw up the cause in which we worked for 15 years. Yet in the last three years we have been doing an entirely different work from that which we did in the preceding 12. That we could continue. I propose that we do it. We cannot publish a literature for the workers that would satisfy the demands of the Russians. And it seems to everyone that we are hampering those who can ... They will not attain their ideal either, but they possess such an ideal and we do not. They are thirsting for activity of that kind but not under our direction. I am for a simple avowal that we ourselves have not found the results of our editing of worker literature brilliant and that we give to our critics the opportunity to try their hand.’ [17]

Lenin as a Factory Agitator

Lenin adapted himself perfectly to the needs of industrial agitation. Furthermore, whatever the hierographic biographers say, the truth is that Lenin in the years 1894-6 did not denounce On Agitation as one-sided, mechanical and ‘economist’. His writings of this period perfectly fit the line put forward by it.

While in prison in 1895 he wrote a draft programme for the Social Democrats. This document was smuggled out of gaol, then lost and rediscovered only after the revolution. It is an interesting work, summing up very clearly Lenin’s views as reflecting On Agitation. Thus:

‘This transition of the workers to the steadfast struggle for their vital needs, the fight for concessions, for improved living conditions, wages and working hours, now begun all over Russia, means that Russian workers are making tremendous progress, and that is why the attention of the Social Democratic Party and all class-conscious workers should be concentrated mainly (my emphasis – TC) on this struggle, on its promotion.’ [18]

This economic struggle, Lenin continued, in the first place demonstrated to the worker the nature of economic exploitation, in the second, imbued him with a fighting spirit and in the third, developed his political consciousness. Class consciousness, including political consciousness, grows automatically from the economic struggle.

‘The workers’ class consciousness means the workers’ understanding that the only way to improve their conditions and to achieve their emancipation is to conduct a struggle against the capitalist and factory-owner class created by the big factories. Further, the workers’ class consciousness means their understanding that the interests of all workers of any particular country are identical, that they all constitute one class, separate from all the other classes in society. Finally, the class consciousness of the workers means the workers’ understanding that to achieve their aims they have to work to influence affairs of state, just as the landlords and the capitalists did, and are continuing to do now.

‘By what means do the workers reach an understanding of all this? They do so by constantly gaining experience from the very struggle that they begin to wage against the employers and that increasingly develops, becomes sharper, and involves larger numbers of workers as big factories grow.

‘The living conditions of the mass of working folk places them in such a position that they do not (cannot) possess either the leisure or the opportunity to ponder over problems of state. On the other hand, the workers’ struggle against the factory owners for their daily needs automatically and inevitably spurs the workers on to think of state, political questions, questions of how the Russian state is governed, how laws and regulations are issued, and whose interests they serve. Each clash in the factory necessarily brings the workers into conflict with the laws and representatives of state authority.’ [19]

Lenin faithfully followed this line of thought in his agitational leaflets and pamphlets of this time (1894-6). Step by step the reader was led to political conclusions which were not, however, explicitly stated. Thus, for instance, the conclusion of the pamphlet Explanation of the Law on Fines imposed on Factory Workers, written in prison in 1895, said: the workers

‘... will understand that the government and its officials are on the side of the factory owners, and that the laws are drawn up in such a way as to make it easier for the employer to oppress the worker...

‘Once they have understood this, the workers will see that only one means remains for defending themselves, namely, to join forces for the struggle against the factory owners and the unjust practices established by the law.’ [20]

At the time, even the tone of his demands was in quite a low key. Thus, for instance, his leaflet, The Working Man and Woman of the Thornton Factory, concentrated exclusively on economic issues, and made no illusion to politics. It ended with very moderate language:

‘In defending these demands, comrades, we are not rebelling at all; we are merely demanding that we be given what all the workers of other factories now enjoy by law, the return of what has been taken from us by those who placed all their hopes on our inability to uphold our own rights ...’ [21]

Lenin applied himself very seriously to prolonged discussions with workers. He prepared special questionnaires for this purpose, which dealt with the most intimate details. With the assistance of friendly workers, in the main members of study circles, he gathered very detailed information on conditions and grievances of workers in a given industrial plant. This information he then edited and wrote in the form of a leaflet to the workers of that plant. The leaflet dealt with concrete issues that all the workers understood. He made no embellishments in making vocal the demands and aspirations of the workers he met. He spent months in studying labour legislation, so that he could explain clearly the relevant laws and practices prevailing in the factories, and formulated the demands about which workers should complain to management.

Krupskaya wrote:

‘Vladimir Ilyich was interested in the minutest detail describing the conditions and life of the workers. Taking the features separately he endeavoured to grasp the life of the worker as a whole – he tried to find what one could seize upon in order better to approach the worker with revolutionary propaganda. Most of the intellectuals of those days badly understood the workers. An intellectual would come to a circle and read the workers a kind of lecture ...’ [22]

‘I remember, for example, how the material about the Thornton factory was collected. It was decided that I should send for a pupil of mine called Krokilov, a sorter in that factory, who had previously been deported from Petersburg. I was to collect from him all information, according to a plan drawn up by Vladimir Ilyich. Krolikov arrived in a fine fur coat he had borrowed from someone, and brought a whole exercise-book full of information, which he further supplemented verbally. This data was very valuable. In fact Vladimir Ilyich fairly pounced on it. Afterwards I and Apollinaria Alexandrovna Yakubova put kerchiefs on our heads and made ourselves look like women factory-workers, and went personally to the Thornton factory-barracks, visiting both the single and the married quarters. Conditions were most appalling. It was solely on the basis of material gathered in this manner that Vladimir Ilyich wrote his letters and leaflets. Examine his leaflets addressed to the working men and women of the Thornton factory. The detailed knowledge of the subject they deal with is at once apparent. And what a schooling this was for all the comrades working then! It was just then that we were learning attention to details. And how profoundly these details were engraved in our minds.’ [23]

What agitation looked like in practice at that time may be gathered from recollections of Krupskaya concerning the fate of one of the leaflets Lenin wrote at that time:

‘I remember that Vladimir Ilyich drew up the first leaflet for the workers of the Semyannikov works. We had no technical facilities at all then. The leaflet was copied out by hand in printed letters and distributed by Babushkin. Out of the four copies two were picked up by the watchman, while two went round from hand to hand.’ [24]

The immediate effect of the industrial agitation carried out by the St Petersburg Union – Lenin, Martov and their friends – was quite small. One historian described it thus:

‘Lenin’s proclamation (to Thornton workers) was issued on the group’s mimeograph on November 10, (1895) but on the same day the weavers went back to work without having gained concessions from management. The stariki thus failed in their first effort to fan the flames of industrial discontent.

‘While the Thornton strike was still in progress, a spontaneous strike also broke out at the Leferm tobacco factory (November 9), and four days later another occurred at the shoe factory Skorokhod. In both cases, on the basis of materials supplied by workers from the struck factories through the Central Worker Group, the stariki prepared proclamations defining the demands of the strikers. In neither case did they exert any influence on the course of events, for both strikes were short-lived and ended without any concessions being made to the workers. But the efforts did help to spread word of the illegal organisation.

‘The only strike which the stariki succeeded in stimulating before the police closed in on them took place in one section of the Putilov Works. Zinoviev, a worker at Putilov and one of its representatives in the Central Group, wrote a proclamation to workers in the steam-engine division, urging them to strike. His proclamation was mimeographed by Martov and led to a one-day stoppage on December 5. An appeal by Martov to the spinners of the Kenig factory issued at the same time seems to have produced no result.

‘In terms of actual achievement, the result of the appeals and proclamations issued by the stariki in November and early December was virtually nil.’ [25]

Lenin and five other members of the Union were arrested in December 1895, and several more, including Martov, early in the new year. However, the struggle was not in vain. A few months later the first mass strike in Russia proper took place under the banner of Social Democracy. This was the strike of the textile workers in May 1896 in St Petersburg. The members of the Union, or rather those of its members who survived arrest, played a central role in this massive strike. It began as a protest against the non-payment of wages for the three-day holiday in celebration of the coronation of Nikolai II. But it soon developed into a struggle for shorter hours and higher wages and spread to 20 of the biggest factories in Russia, involving 30,000 workers. The workers carried on the fight for the 10½-hour working day for three weeks, and when they finally decided to return to work, they did so as one man in all factories at the same time. This was not only the biggest strike in Russia. It was also the first to go beyond the bounds of a single industrial plant. And the St Petersburg Union was central in this strike. For the first time in the long history of the revolutionary movement in Russia, the revolutionaries had drawn the masses into action. Social Democracy became for the first time a significant movement in the country.

Defeat in Victory

However the success of the movement led to a grave internal crisis. The Social-Democratic movement began to split into ‘economist’ and ‘political’ currents.

The correction of the one-sidedness of the kruzhkovschina – an excess of emphasis on theory – led to the opposite one-sidedness, ‘economism’.

The fundamental assumption of the future ‘economist’ deviation was inherent in On Agitation. The political consciousness of the working class grows automatically from the economic day-to-day struggles against the employers, hence there is no need for parallel political agitation and organisation.

The arrest of Lenin, Martov and others accelerated the move towards economism in the St Petersburg Union.

‘After the arrest of Martov, Lyakhovsky and others, the forces of our group were further diminished. It is true new comrades joined the group, but these were people with less theoretical training, There was no time for study, for the movement demanded active service and a tremendous amount of energy. Everything went in agitation. There was not time even to think of propaganda. Our printed agitation was very successful. The leaflets were often drawn up hurriedly without an adequate study of concrete conditions. The weavers’ strike of 1896 took place under social-democratic influence. This turned the heads of many comrades. The basis arose for the growth of “Economism”.’ [26]

When F.I. Dan, the veteran Menshevik leader, drew up his political testament some 50 years later, he explained the rise of the ‘economist’ trend in Social-Democracy thus:

‘In responding sympathetically to the political notes that rang out in the economic agitation of the Union, tens of thousands of workers, drawn into an active organisational struggle for the first time, nevertheless accepted political emancipation merely as a remote “ultimate” goal of the movement. For them the “immediate” practical objective was those economic demands in whose name they were ready to risk striking and a possible loss of wages. In this respect the temper of the new layer of advanced workers, the new “workers’ intelligentsia” that was beginning to take shape in the fire of the mass struggle, fundamentally diverged from the temper not only of the Marxist intelligentsia but also of the first generation of Social-Democratic workers which had come to Social-Democracy not by the “practical” way of economic struggle but by the “ideological” way of propaganda in small groups.’ [27]

Added to the impact of ‘economism’ and the threat to socialism involved in it, were two other factors affecting the Russian labour movement at this time. One, the labour policy of the Tsarist secret police, and two, the rise of the powerful current of revisionism in the German Social Democratic Party, which was by far the most important socialist party in the world.

In reaction to the rising industrial struggle in Russia, the idea of ‘economism’ appealed to General Trepov, head of the secret police. He wrote in 1898:

‘If the minor needs and demands of the workers are exploited by the revolutionaries for such profound anti-government aims, then is it not up to the government as soon as possible to seize this weapon, that is so rewarding for the revolutionaries, from their hands and itself to assure the fulfilment of the task ... the police are obliged to be interested in the same thing as the revolutionary.’ [28]

Following this logic, Colonel Zubatov, head of the Moscow Security Police, would organise police-controlled trade unions, first among Jewish workers – where ‘economist’ agitation was most successful, then among the Russians, an enterprise culminating in Father Gapon’s organisation of trade unions in St Petersburg, that led to ‘Bloody Sunday’ the beginning of the 1905 revolution.

In January 1899 Eduard Bernstein published his The Premises of Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy. The central idea of this book was that of gradualism, of stages in reforming capitalism until its transformation into socialism.

The party’s influence, he wrote, ‘would be far greater than it is today, if Social Democracy could find the courage to free itself from outmoded phraseology and strive to appear as what in fact it now is, a Democratic Socialist party of reform’. ‘What is generally referred to as the ultimate aim of Socialism means nothing to me; it is the movement itself which means every thing.’ [29] This fitted perfectly the Russian ‘economists’. For them also the whole thing was ‘the movement’ in the sense of securing small, concrete improvements in the economic conditions of workers. Thus the whole political aim of the movement – above all the overthrow of Tsarism – was lost sight of.

The connection of ‘economism’ with Bernstein’s revisionism was given concrete expression in a document that entered the history of Russian Social Democracy under the name of the Credo (1899). Its author was Y.D. Kuskova, at the time a member of the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad. The Credo declared forthrightly that Bernstein’s revisionism was its theoretical base. The general law of working class activity, it declared, was for the movement to follow the path of least resistance.

‘In Russia the line of least resistance will never tend towards political activity. The incredible oppression will prompt much talk about it, and cause attention to be concentrated precisely on this question, but will never prompt political action. The economic struggle too is hard, infinitely hard, but it is possible to wage it, and it is in fact being waged by the masses themselves. By learning in this struggle to organise, and coming into constant conflict with the political regime in the course of it, the Russian worker will at last create what may be called a form of the labour movement, the organisation or organisations best confirm-to Russian conditions. At the present, it can be said with certainty that the Russian working-class movement is still in the amoeba state and has not yet acquired any form. The strike movement, which goes on with any form of organisation, cannot yet be described as the crystallised form of the Russian movement, while the illegal organisations are not worth consideration even from the more quantitative point of view (quite apart from the question of their usefulness under present conditions ...

‘... well, what is there for the Russian Marxist to do?! The talk about an independent workers’ political party merely results from the transplantation of alien aims and alien achievements to our soil ...

‘For the Russian Marxist there is only one course: participation in, i.e. assistance to, the economic struggle of the proletariat, and participation in liberal opposition activity.’ [30]

The duty of socialists was to support the workers in the effort to build trade unions, and to support the liberal bourgeoisie in the political struggle.

Lenin got a copy of the Credo when in exile in Siberia. He hastened to write a pamphlet, A Protest by Russian Social Democrats (August 1899). The draft of the Protest was discussed by a meeting of 17 Marxists in exile in Minusinsk region, and adopted by them. The Protest made Lenin known quite widely in Social Democratic circles. This document did its job well. It rallied to revolutionary Marxism, as Martov said years later, the hundreds of exiles scattered all over Siberia.

From a propaganda sect isolated from the working class, to an agitational organisation not rising above the immediate day-to-day struggle of the workers, from pure theory to narrow practice – these were the zig-zags of the Russian Marxists in the years 1883-1899.

Lenin’s sharp rebuke to the Credo made it clear that a synthesis of theory and practice was necessary.

‘The notorious Bernsteinism – in the sense in which it is commonly understood by the general public, and by the authors of the Credo in particular – is an attempt to narrow the theory of Marxism, to convert the revolutionary workers’ party into a reformist party.

‘The application of such a programme would be tantamount to the political suicide of Russian Social-Democracy, it would greatly retard and debase the Russian working-class movement and the Russian revolutionary movement (for us the two concepts coincide).’ [31]

As against this Lenin juxtaposed the synthesis of economic and political struggle of the working class as seen by Marxists:

‘For the socialist, the economic struggle serves as a basis for the organisation of the workers into a revolutionary party, for the strengthening and development of their class struggle against the whole capitalist system. If the economic struggle is taken as something complete in itself there will be nothing socialist in it ... It is the task of the bourgeois politician “to assist the economic struggle of the proletariat”; the task of the socialist is to bring the economic struggle to further the socialist movement and the successes of the revolutionary working-class party. The task of the socialist is to further the indissoluble fusion of the economic and the political struggle into the single class struggle of the socialist working-class masses ...

‘Agitational activity among the masses must be of the broadest nature, both economic and political, on all possible issues and in regard to all manifestations of oppression whatever their form. We must utilise this agitation to attract growing numbers of workers into the ranks of the revolutionary Social-Democratic party, to encourage the political struggle in all conceivable manifestations, to organise this struggle and transform it from its spontaneous forms into the struggle of a single political party. Agitation, therefore, must serve as a means of widely expanding the political protest and the more organised forms of political struggle. Today our agitation is too hemmed in; the range of questions it touches upon is too limited. It is our duty therefore not to legitimise this narrowness but to try to liberate ourselves from it, to deepen and expand our agitational work.’ [32]

Lenin points out that the historical roots of reformism lie both in the one-sidedness of the kruzhkovschina and of the reaction to it.

‘In their early activity, Russian Social-Democrats restricted themselves merely to work in propaganda circles. When we took up agitation among the masses we were not always able to restrain ourselves from going to the other extreme.’ [33]

Lenin goes on to point out that certain organisational forms, a certain organisational narrowness, also fostered ‘economism’. This organisational narrowness characterised both the kruzhkovschina stage and the industrial agitation stage:

‘Working in the isolation of small local workers’ circles, the Social Democrats did not devote sufficient attention to the necessity of organising a revolutionary party which would combine all the activities of the local groups and make it possible to organise the revolutionary work on correct lines. The predominance of isolated work is naturally connected with the predominance of the economic struggle.’ [34]

The conflict between orthodox Marxists, like Lenin and Martov, and the ‘economists’ also took on an organisational form that anticipated very much the debate on organisation between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, although at that time the protagonists of the two future tendencies, Lenin and Martov, were on the same side in the argument.

After the culmination of the strike in St Petersburg in 1896, many newly recruited members of the movement, workers and intellectuals alike, demanded to shift the organisation away from being, in its centre, made up of professional revolutionaries, The ‘economists’ explained that the political and highly conspiratorial character of the Union was rooted in the lack of understanding by intellectuals of the real needs of the mass of the workers. The conspiratorial nature of the organisation was derived from its emphasis on the priority of political activity. In mainly economic agitational activity the need for conspiracy and centralism would be much smaller. The local, loose, factory and area workers’ organisations were all that was required. An ‘economist’ organisation would be local in character, concerned with problems facing workers in a single factory, or at most a number of factories in one locality. Centralism versus parochialism are the organisational reflection of the split between the political revolutionaries and the ‘economists’. The professional revolutionary, in the ‘economists’ scheme, would be replaced by workers who did not have to leave their place of work and their normal local habitat.

As we have seen, many of the members of the Circles did not make the transition to industrial agitation. But of those who did, very few fell into ‘economism’. It was the new activists who grew up in the industrial struggle itself. To anticipate the story – the development of Bolshevism and Menshevism – here is the testimonial of the Menshevik leader Dan, writing some half-century after the events:

‘It is worth noticing that later on almost all the most eminent of the working-class Social-Democrats of this “first call-up” who lived to see the 1905 and 1917 revolutions (Babushkin, Shelgunov, Shapoval, Poletayev and others), turned up in the ranks of the Bolsheviks, while out of the ranks of the “workers’ intelligentsia”, baptized in the strike movement of the second half of the ’90s, there emerged those future cadres of the legal and semi-legal trade unions, co-operative, cultural enlightenment, etc, workers’ movement that for a long time were the chief support of Menshevism.’ [35]

Bending the Stick

The years 1894-6 remained very dear to Lenin till the end of his life. It was at that time that Lenin really became a workers’ leader. To quote Krupskaya:

‘This Petersburg period of Vladimir llyich’s work was one of extreme importance, although the work was unobserved and not apparent in substance. He himself so described it. There were no external effects. We were not concerned with heroic moves, but with how to establish close contact with the masses, to become intimate with them, to learn to be the expression of their best aspirations, to learn how to make them understand us and follow our lead. But it was precisely during this period of work in St Petersburg that Vladimir Ilyich became moulded as leader of the working masses.’ [36]

With all the one-sidedness of the factory agitation at the time, Lenin continued to appreciate this period as a very important and necessary stage in the development of Russian Social Democracy. He was very ready to admit both the progressive role of this stage and the dangers inherent in it. Thus in a letter he wrote on 9 November 1900 to Plekhanov, he said:

‘The economic trend, of course, was always a mistake, but then it is very young; while there has been overemphasis of “economic” agitation (and there still is here and there) even without the trend, and it was the legitimate and inevitable companion of any step forward in the conditions of our movement which existed in Russia at the end of the 1880s or the beginning of the 1890s. The situation then was so murderous that you cannot probably even imagine it, and one should not censure people who stumbled as they clambered up out of that situation. For the purposes of this clambering out, some narrowness was essential, and legitimate: was, I say, for with this tendency to blow it up into a theory and tie it in with Bernsteinism, the whole thing of course changed radically ... the overemphasis of “economic” agitation and catering to the “mass” movement were natural.’ [37]

The readiness to bend the stick far in one direction, and then to reverse and bend it far in the opposite direction – a characteristic that he had throughout his life, took clear form already at this early stage of his development as a revolutionary leader. At every stage of the struggle Lenin would look to what he thought the key link in the chain of development. He would then emphasise and repeat ad infinitum, the importance of this link as the immediate step. Grasping the central problem, he would say: ‘We overdid it. We bent the stick too far ...’ Saying this, he did not mean at all to say he had been wrong. To win the main battle of the day, the concentration of all energies on the task facing him was necessary. Uneven development of different aspects of the struggle make it necessary to look always to the key link in every concrete situation. If the key problem is the need for study, for laying the foundations of the first Marxist circles, Lenin would repeat and repeat, emphasise again and again the central role of study. In the next stage, if the need is to overcome circle mentality, he would raise on a pedestal industrial agitation. In the next turn of the struggle, the need is to smash ‘economism’. Well and good, this is what Lenin does. He always makes clear the task of the day, repeating a thousand times what is needed, using the heaviest, thickest strokes to describe the tasks. Tomorrow Lenin will recapture the balance, will unbend the stick, and then bend it again in another direction.

Despite the benefits of this method in overcoming obstacles, they make it dangerous for anyone to use Lenin’s writing on tactical and organisational questions as a source for quotation. When one quotes him on any tactical or organisational question, one must be clear what were the concrete issues the movement was facing at the time of writing.

Another specific characteristic of Lenin already appeared at this early stage of his development: an attitude to organisational forms as always historically determined. Lenin never adopted abstract, dogmatic schemes of organisation. He was always ready to change the organisational structure of the party at every turn of the development of the class struggle. Organisation, he was convinced, should be subordinated to politics. This, however, does not mean that it has no independent influence on politics. There is a reciprocal relation between one and the other. In certain situations, there can even be priority for organisation.




1. G.V. Plekhanov, The Russian Worker in the Revolutionary Movement, Sochineniia, Vol.III, p.131.

2. E. Mendelsohn, Worker Opposition in the Russian Jewish Socialist Movement from the 1890s to 1903, in International Review of Social History, 1965.

3. A.K. Wildman, The Making of a Workers’ Revolution: Russian Social Democracy 1891-1903, p.31.

4. V. Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895-1903, pp.235-6.

5. S.I. Mitskevitch, Revoliutsionnaia Moskva, p.144.

6. S. Martov, Zapiski sotsialdemokrata, p.227.

7. Ibid.

8. G.V. Plekhanov, O zadachi sotsialistov v borbe s golodom v Rossii, p.58.

9. Ibid., p.79.

10. Ob agitatsii, pp.9, 16.

11. Ibid., p.16.

12. L. Martov, Istoriia rossiiskoi sotsialdemokratii, p.28.

13. Martov, Zapiski sotsialdemokrata, pp.250-2.

14. Akimov, op. cit., p.238.

15. Martov, Zapiski sotsialdemokrata, pp.227-8.

16. Na zare legal ‘nogo marksizma’, Letopis Marksizma, No.3, pp.207-8.

17. L Deich, editor, Gruppa Osvobozhdenie Truda, Vol.VI, pp.207-8.

18. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.11, p.114.

19. Ibid., p.115.

20. Ibid., p.72.

21. Ibid., p.85.

22. N. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, p.21.

23. Ibid., p.26.

24. Ibid., p.25.

25. R. Pipes, Social Democracy and the St Petersburg Labor Movement, 1885-1897, pp.93-94.

26. Krupskaya, op. cit., p.29.

27. F.I. Dan, Origins of Bolshevism, p.211-2.

28. L. Tatarov, K istorii ‘Politseiskovo Sotsializma’, Proletarskaia Revoltutsiia, No.5, 1927, p.115.

29. E. Bernstein, Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus and die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie, pp.165, 169.

30. The Credo quoted by Lenin in Collected Works, Vol.IV, pp.173-4.

31. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.IV, pp.176-8.

32. Ibid., pp.293-4.

33. Ibid., p. 367.

34. Ibid.

35. Dan, op. cit., p.212.

36. Krupskaya, op. cit., p.27.

37. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.36, pp.51-2.


Last updated on 19.10.2006