Tony Cliff

Lenin 1

Chapter 1
Lenin becomes a Marxist

In all religions not only the holy man, but also his ancestors are endowed with extraordinary piety. In just the same way, the Stalinist legend makers attributed revolutionary convictions not only to Lenin from his early childhood, but also to his parents. A 602-page official biography of Lenin issued under the auspices of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism and published in Moscow in 1960 (Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Biografiia) described Lenin’s father as a progressive, radical educationalist, and his home in Simbirsk as a sort of revolutionary club. “The tone was set by Alexander” (Lenin’s elder brother), while Vladimir also “participated frequently in the discussion and with great success.”

All this is nonsense. Lenin’s father, Ilya Nikolaevich Ulyanov, was not a progressive educationalist. In 1869, he was appointed to the post of Inspector of Schools in the small Volga town of Simbirsk. In 1874, he was promoted to the position of Director of Schools for the entire province. He was now an Actual State Councillor, decorated with the Order of Stanislav, first class, and referred to as His Excellence. This made him a high-ranking nobleman, fourth in a table of fourteen ranks, with hereditary status.

These two dates in his father’s rise – 1869 and 1874 – are significant. Lenin singles them out in an article written in 1901, tracing the history of the tsarist struggle against local government (the Zemstvo), entitled The Persecutors of the Zemstvo and the Hannibals of Liberalism [1] as being precisely the years in which the tsarist bureaucracy acted against these local organs of self-government and itself took over the supervision of public education. Ilya Nikolaevich’s standing in the ministry of education, and his steady rise up the hierarchical ladder, somehow do not fit the image of a revolutionary, or even of a radical.

Lenin once recalled how, when Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, his father sadly buttoned his official’s uniform and went to Simbirsk cathedral to mourn the autocrat. He was a devout and practising Greek Orthodox Christian to the end of his life, and an unquestioning support of the tsarist autocracy. There is, of course, no reason to expect the father of a revolutionary to be a revolutionary himself.

The cult builders went even further, and endowed Lenin himself with superhuman attributes. He comes to life fully equipped, a Marxist and revolutionary practically from childhood. And from his bald head springs fully fledged the party that is destined to lead and shape the working class in revolution! The reality was very different. It took months, in fact years, of studying and thinking for the young Lenin to become a Marxist; first he had to break with the conservative views of his father, and then with the Narodnik stand of his elder brother.

On May 8, 1887, Alexander Ilyich Ulyanov, Lenin’s elder brother, was hanged for plotting the assassination of the tsar. This was a terrible shock for the young Vladimir, who was 17 years old at the time. He had not suspected that his brother was interested in politics. Alexander was reticent, introspective, “always meditating and sad.” He concealed his political ideas from everyone in the family, so that even his sister Anna, two years his senior, who was with him in Petersburg while he was involved in the assassination plot, knew nothing at all about his politics. Some years after the event, in 1893, the Social Democrat Lalayants questioned Lenin about the plot. Lenin answered: “For me as well as for the whole family the participation of my brother in the 1st of March affair came as a complete surprise.” [2]

The Ulyanov family was close and their personal relations very warm. It was in order to spare them that Alexander kept secret his political involvement. He was an extremely fine person, very much like his mother, “the same rare combination,” writes Anna, “of extraordinary firmness and serenity with wonderful sensitivity, tenderness and fairness: but he was more austere and single-minded, and even more courageous.”

Vladimir, four years younger than Alexander, had always tried to emulate his brother. When asked whether cereal should be eaten with butter or with milk, he replied, “Like Sasha.” He wanted to do everything “like Sasha” – except follow his politics. When, in the summer of 1886, Alexander Ulyanov returned from St. Petersburg to spend the university vacation with his family, he brought with him several books on economics, including Marx’s Capital. According to Anna’s memoirs, Vladimir did not even look at, let alone read, these books belonging to his brother, with whom he was sharing a room. At that time, she reports, he showed no interest at all in politics. [3]

The execution of Alexander must not only have had a deep, permanent effect on Vladimir, but also probably presented him with two alternatives for himself: either to follow in the footsteps of his martyred brother, become a Narodnik and a terrorist; or to flinch from revolutionary activity. For Stalinist legend makers, all is simple – the dilemma does not even exist. The story goes that, on receiving the news of his brother’s execution, Vladimir cried out: “No, we will not follow that road. That is not the road to take.” [4]

This is supposed to be the reaction of a young man of 17, who had broken with religion only a few months earlier, who did not yet know the name of Marx, who had not read a single illegal book, and knew nothing of the history of the Russian revolutionary movement!

His biographer Trotsky ironically asks to whom Vladimir addressed these wise words. Obviously not to his father, who had died a year before. Nor to Alexander, who had just perished on the scaffold. Nor to his sister Anna, who was in prison. Nor to his mother, who had gone to St. Petersburg to beg one minister after another to save her son. “Evidently,” writes Trotsky, “Vladimir confided his revelations as a tactician to Dimitri, who was 13, and Maria, who was 9!”

If Lenin had made up his mind in March 1887 to follow in Sasha’s footsteps, or to take another path of revolutionary struggle, or to avoid revolutionary politics altogether, his behavior in the next six years would be incomprehensible. He did not involve himself in any political activities; instead, he studied.

At the end of June 1887, the Ulyanov family moved to Kazan, where Lenin started his law studies at the university. However, this undertaking was cut short, as on December 4, he took part in a student demonstration, and although he did not play an important role, after a night in the police station, he was expelled from the university and from the city of Kazan. The reason was simply that he was the brother of the other Ulyanov. Vladimir and the rest of the family moved to Kokushkino, some 30 miles from Kazan, where his mother had an estate.

In he autumn of 1888, the entire Ulyanov family, except Anna, who had been arrested in March 1887, when visiting Alexander’s room, was allowed to take up residence once again in Kazan. Now Vladimir entered a socialist circle of which very little is known. It was made up of a few students who read good books together and exchanged ideas about what they read. The most important circle in Kazan was the one led by N.E. Fedoseev, who even at that time was a Marxist. According to Maxim Gorky, who lived on the Volga in those years and moved in radical circles, Fedoseev proclaimed his support for Plekhanov’s first important Marxist tract, Our Differences, as early as 1887. The Fedoseev group possessed a small illegal library and even an underground press. Vladimir, while in Kazan, came into contact with some of its less important members.

In July 1889, widespread arrests took place in Kazan. Not only were Fedoseev and his circle seised, but also members of the circle to which Vladimir belonged. However, he was fortunately not arrested himself, the Ulyanov family having moved out of town on May 3, to the village of Alakayevka, near Samara. On October 11, they moved again, to the town of Samara itself. Here Vladimir stayed until the end of August 1893, when he moved to Petersburg. The fact that Lenin was willing to spend four years in the dead-end town of Samara is proof enough that he was not yet ready to commit himself to active politics, that he was still studying and trying to decide which direction to take. Samara had almost no industry, and therefore virtually no industrial working class. Nor, unlike Kazan, did it have a university, and consequently, there were no students. Thus there was neither worker nor student unrest in the town.

Lenin needed these years in order to make up his mind whether to follow in Sasha’s footsteps, and, if not, what path to take. No doubt the young man was attracted to Narodism, whatever the Stalinist legend makers say. One of his fellow students, arrested with Vladimir in Kazan in December 1887, describes how most of the arrested students exchanged lighthearted banter. At one point someone turned to Ulyanov, who was sitting apart lost in thought, and asked what he intended to do after his release. Ulyanov replied: “What is there for me to think about? ... My road has been paved by my elder brother.” [5]

In Samara, Lenin sought out veterans of the terrorist underground, and questioned them closely on their conspiratorial techniques. In this way, he acquired knowledge that he later put to use in organising the Bolshevik Party. Before the Stalinist myth machine started working, quite a lot of evidence was produced to show that in his youth Lenin was under Narodnik influence. One witness to this effect was V.V. Adoratsky, the future director of the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute. According to him, in 1905, Lenin told him that he was very much influenced by Narodnik ideas. He admitted that, in 1888, he had thought very highly of the Narodnik terrorist movement, and that it took quite a time for him to free himself from these ideas. “During his last years in Samara, 1892–93, Lenin was already a Marxist, although he still retained traits associated with Narodnaya Volya (e.g., a special attitude toward terrorism).” [6]

Many years later, in What Is to Be Done? (1902), Lenin wrote:

Many of them [Russian Social Democrats] had begun their revolutionary thinking as adherents of Narodnaya Volya. Nearly all had in their early youth enthusiastically worshipped the terrorist heroes. It required a struggle to abandon the captivating impressions of those heroic traditions, and the struggle was accompanied by the breaking off of personal relations with people who were determined to remain loyal to the Narodnaya Volya and for whom the young Social Democrats had profound respect. [7]

When Krupskaya cited this passage in her memoirs, she added that it represented a piece of Lenin’s autobiography.

Lalayants, quoted above, who knew Lenin well in Samara, detected in him in March 1893 “certain sympathies for Narodnaya Volya terror,” and notes that this propensity caused conflict between the two of them. When, in the autumn of 1893, Lenin sought entry into a circle of St. Petersburg Social Democrats, he was examined thoroughly on the question of terrorism and found too favourably disposed toward it. [8]

Vladimir needed to make a long, thorough study, not only because Narodism had very deep roots, but also because, as we shall see later, the demarcation lines between Narodism and Marxism were not clearly defined for radical youth at the time. Another reason was that the ideas of Russian Marxism had not yet taken on flesh and blood in an active industrial working-class movement. They were still the prerogative of a few isolated intellectuals.

Vladimir’s main textbooks were the first and second volumes of Marx’s Capital. (The third volume had not yet been published.) He studied these with utmost intensity throughout his later life, finding in them guidance for his thinking, and an ever new source of ideas. He learned, as he himself said later, to “confer” with Marx. During the same period, he studied Russian radical journalism of the 1860s and 1870s, so that his knowledge of Narodism was very extensive. He made good use of this in later years, in his debates with the Narodniks and in his first efforts as a writer over the years 1893–99. As he later recalled, he never again in his life read as much as during the years 1888–93. [9]

He also made a serious study of statistical material on the Russian national economy, and wrote his first independent monographs aimed at throwing light on the Russian economic and social scene. From the records of the Samara library for 1893, a single year for which they have accidentally been preserved, it may be seen that Vladimir did not miss any relevant publications, whether official statistical compilations or economic studies by the Narodniks. [10]

Lenin needed years of study in order to make up his mind in relation to Narodism and Marxism. The tragedy of his brother struck him too deeply to allow for a quick decision. He started studying Marx’s Capital some time in 1889. This in itself does not mean that he decided to turn his back on Narodism. As we shall see, the Narodniks studied Marx. It seems that it was only in 1891 that he became acquainted with Plekhanov’s works, “without which one could not have arrived at Social Democratic positions,” as Trotsky rightly says. [11] In answering a questionnaire in 1919, Lenin made it clear that he became a Social Democrat (a synonym at that time for a Marxist) in 1893. [12] In 1920, answering another questionnaire on when he had started to take part in the revolutionary movement, he wrote: “1892–93”. [13]

The Stalinist legend, describing how young Vladimir decided on the correct path immediately after hearing the news of his brother’s fate, is not only psychologically stupid, but is also an insult to Lenin’s intellectual and emotional integrity. In this legend he appears as a freak – rigid, dry, dead, incapable of change.

His long investigation of Narodism was necessary for him to be able to avoid the tragedy of his brother, who, on the eve of the plot, was still in doubt whether he had taken the right path.

In the last week of the year [1886] he [Sasha] still argued against the plot, saying that it was absurd, and even suicidal, to engage in any political activity before one had clarified the principles on which it should be based. He felt the need for more theoretical work and for a more precise definition of aims and means ... But they answered his scruples with a telling reproach: Are we going to sit back, arms folded, while our colleagues and friends are victimised and while the nation at large is being oppressed and stultified? To engage now, they said, in the elaboration of theoretical principles would amount to surrender. Any philistine can theorise – the revolutionary has to fight. This was, of course, the voice of inexperience and impatience, the voice of youth. Alexander’s sense of revolutionary honour was sensitive to it, and, against his better knowledge, he yielded: No, he would not sit back, his arms folded. [14]

The ideas of every age are closely connected with those of the preceding one. Lenin’s state of mind in 1887 cannot be understood without taking account of the ideas of his elder brother. His intellectual development must be seen as flowing from and related to the Narodnik heritage. In order to come to grips with Narodism and to decide his attitude to it, Lenin, like any serious scientist, could not rely on the opinions of others, but had to study the subject at first hand.

In fact, he needed a much longer period of study than the next generation of Russian Marxists, such as Trotsky. First of all, of course, Trotsky had not had the traumatic experience of having a brother hanged for Narodnik terrorism. Secondly, being nine years younger than Lenin, he came into contact with revolutionary politics much later, in 1896, when the Marxists were already practically involved in strikes, even mass strikes, of workers. This was not the case in 1887, when the Marxist movement consisted almost entirely of four or five émigrés, with a handful of students supporting them here and there. But even Trotsky had to contend with Narodnik ideas. The first group he joined in Nikolayev was made up of people who considered themselves Narodniks. They had a hazy notion of Marxism. Only one member of the circle, a young woman named Alexandra Sokolovskaya, herself the daughter of a Narodnik, claimed to be a Marxist. It took a few months of controversy in the circle for Trotsky, who in the beginning sided with the Narodniks, to be converted by Alexandra Sokolovskaya to Marxism. (He later married her and they had two children; the fate of all three was tragically bound up with Trotsky’s.)

It is hard to understand why Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, this serious and – as the future was to show – active man, avoided any political commitment for five or six years. To explain why Lenin waited, we need to grasp the nature of Narodism, the interrelation of its ideas and those of Marxism, and the deep passions that the heroism of the Narodniks raised in the hearts of the young radicals of the time. One has also to understand the ideological alternative to Narodism that was developed at the time by Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism. Finally, the commitment of individuals – in our case, that of Vladimir – is affected not only by pure reason, but also by the interrelation of ideas and actions. Hence we need to grasp the actual state of the working-class movement at the time – how many strikes took place, and whether the Marxists or the Narodniks had any influence in them, and so on. To deal adequately with all this would demand far more space than we have at our disposal. However, without an understanding of the intellectual and political struggles of the period, Lenin’s development is not comprehensible. His roots were deep in the Russian revolutionary tradition of the preceding two generations of Narodism, a tradition culminating for him in the martyrdom of Alexander. An excursion into Narodism and Russian Marxism is therefore unavoidable. The personal evolution of Vladimir was closely linked with the evolution of the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia and the thin layer of revolutionary workers. His political biography is merged with the history of the movement.



The Narodniks

Narodism was a radical movement that began in the middle of the 19th century. It was born at the time of the Crimean War and the abolition of serfdom (1861), gained influence and renown during the sixties and seventies, and reached its zenith with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II (1881), after which it rapidly declined. However, it rose again out of its ashes on more than one occasion.

The foundations of the movement had been laid in the fifties and sixties by Herzen. He believed above all that the peasantry in Russia would be the foundation for socialism. “The future in Russia belongs to the peasant, just as in France it belongs to the workmen,” Herzen wrote to the French historian Michelet in 1851.

He believed that the collectively owned commune – the obshchina – which had survived in Russia, would form the foundation of socialism, rather than the publicly owned factory. Capitalist development could be avoided in Russia, Herzen argued. He wrote to Mazzini, “I believe that there can be no revolution in Russia except for a peasant war,” and he referred to Emelian Pugachev, the leader of the peasant war of 1773–75. This revolution was to strike at “the glacial despotism of Petersburg.” It would destroy the state. It would retain the periodical redistribution of the land traditional in village Russia, thus ensuring against the formation of a proletariat and hunger. It would develop internal self-administration. “Why should Russia now lose her rural commune, since it has been preserved throughout the period of her political development, since it has been held intact under the weighty yoke of Muscovite Tsarism, as well as under the European style autocracy of the emperors?”

But was Russia capable of achieving such a revolution? Two factors encouraged an affirmative answer to his question: the strength of the Russian peasant, who despite a succession of despotisms had retained his humanity, together with a feeling of independence and remoteness from authority; and above all the spiritual and intellectual life of modern Russia. [15] What was needed, Herzen argued, were revolutionaries who would dedicate themselves to the people. In an appeal written to students in 1861, he said: “To the people! ... That is your place ... Prove that out of you will come not clerks, but soldiers of the Russian people.”

N.G. Chernyshevsky came to more extreme conclusions than Herzen. The historian of Narodism, Franco Venturi, has described the relation between Herzen and Chernyshevsky in this way: “Herzen created Populism; Chernyshevsky was its politician. He provided Populism with its most solid content, and not only gave it ideas but inspired its main course of action by his brilliant publicising activities undertaken between 1853 and 1862.” [16]

In July 1848, Chernyshevsky wrote in his diary that he “was more and more being convinced by the ideas of the socialists.” Already he felt the need to translate these convictions into Russian. What could the words “revolution” and “socialism” mean in his own country? He answered that the only hope lay in a peasant revolt. “The only thing that is lacking is unity between the various local risings.” [17] A letter to Herzen, of anonymous authorship, but certainly expressing the views of Chernyshevsky and his friend, N.A. Dobrolyubov, clearly put forward the call for a peasant uprising.

You are evidently mistaken about the situation in Russia. Liberal landowners, liberal professors, liberal writers, lull you with hopes in the progressive aims of our Government ... You must not forget even for a moment that Alexander II will show his teeth, as Nicholas I did. Don’t be taken in by gossip about our progress. We are exactly where we were before ... Don’t be taken in by hope, and don’t take in others ... No, our position is horrible, unbearable, and only the peasants’ axes can save us. Nothing apart from these axes is of any use. You have already been told this, it seems, and it is extraordinarily true. There is no other means of salvation. You did everything possible to help a peaceful solution of the problem, but now you are changing your tune. Let your “bell” sound not for prayer but for the charge. Summon Russia to arms. [18]

Chernyshevsky, like Herzen, saw in the obshchina the foundation for socialism. But he did not idealise this institution, which had been inherited from patriarchal times. It needed to be revivified and transformed by Western socialism. For Chernyshevsky, the main enemy was not capitalism but Russian backwardness – “Asiatic conditions of life, Asiatic social structure, Asiatic order,” and his primary aim was the overthrow of the tsarist political regime.

In 1860, in Petersburg, a small underground organisation known as “Young Russia” was formed. Its immediate aim was “a bloody and implacable revolution, which shall radically change the whole foundation of contemporary society,” and its inspiration was Chernyshevsky. In 1862, Chernyshevsky was arrested and spent more than 18 months in the Peter and Paul fortress. Then he was sent to do hard labour in Siberia, where he remained until 1883. He was then allowed to live in Astrakhan, and eventually, a few months before his death in 1889, to return to his native town of Saratov.

In 1862-63 Zemlya i Volya (Land and Freedom) was established. This was a loose collection of groups made up mainly of students. The guiding spirit of the movement, even after his arrest, remained Chernyshevsky. One result of the formation of Zemlya i Volya was a rise in terrorist acts against the autocracy. On April 4, 1866, an attempt was made on the life of the tsar by the student Dimitri Karakozov. He failed and was executed, but his was the first act in a revolutionary drama that ended with the overthrow of Tsarism half a century later.

The decade of the 1860s, which opened on February 19, 1861, with the liberation of the serfs, closed with the solitary confinement in Peter and Paul fortress of Nechaev, one of the great figures in the heroic gallery of Narodism. He had attempted to create a tightly conspiratorial society called “The People’s Revenge”, which aimed to lead a peasant uprising. It failed and no insurrection took place, but Nechaev’s efforts were rewarded by solitary confinement in prison.

A second wave of the revolutionary movement opened at the beginning of the seventies, with a complete swing of the pendulum away from Nechaev’s conspiratorial methods (aided by revulsion against Nechaev’s organisation of the murder of one of his own collaborators). Instead there was a mass pilgrimage of intellectuals to the countryside to convert the peasantry. How widespread the movement was one can gauge from the fact that, in 1874, 4,000 people were imprisoned, questioned, or at least harassed by the police. [19]

In that period in 1874, called “the mad summer”, hundreds of thousands of young men and women

gave up their homes, their riches, honours and families. They threw themselves into the movement with a joy, an enthusiasm, a faith which one can feel only once in one’s life and which, once lost, can never be found again. It was not yet a political movement. Rather it was like a religious movement, with all the infectious nature of such movements. Men were trying not just to reach a certain practical end, but also to satisfy a deeply felt duty, an aspiration for moral perfection. [20]

The Russian peasant turned out to be less receptive to socialist ideas than the revolutionary intellectuals had been led to believe. They found it very difficult to communicate with the peasants, and the peasants were very suspicious of them. They were even frequently turned over to the police by the very people they had come to serve.

The Narodnik movement now acquired practical experience, and as a result new policies had to be drawn up. If the peasants were not ready to act, the revolutionaries had to act on their own. One of the new leaders, P.M. Tkachev, writing a few years later in 1879, spoke of “the complete fiasco” of going among the people, and added proudly:

We were the first to point out the inevitability of this fiasco; we were the first ... to implore youth to abandon that fatal antirevolutionary path and to return once more to the traditions of direct revolutionary work and a fighting, centralised revolutionary organisation [i.e., to the traditions of the Nechaev trend]. And ours was not a voice crying in the wilderness ... The fighting organisation of the revolutionary forces, the disorganisation and terrorisation of the government authorities, these have been from the very beginning the basic demands of our program. And at present these demands have at last begun to be put into practice ... at the present our only task is to terrorise and disorganise government authority. [21]

So, after going to the people, the pendulum swung back to terrorism. On January 24, 1878, a solitary young girl, Vera Zasulich, shot at the head of the Petersburg police, General Trepov, who had recently subjected a prisoner, Bogolyubov, to corporal punishment. In May, the head of the gendarmerie in Kiev was assassinated. In August 1879, Kravchinsky killed the chief of the Russian gendarmerie. Unlike Vera Zasulich, Kravchinsky was not alone. He was a member of Zemlya i Volya, which was by now a very well organised and disciplined group.

On April 2, 1879, Alexander Solovev, having personally informed Zemlya i Volya of his intention to assassinate Tsar Alexander II, but without the support of the organisation, made the attempt and failed. A few weeks later an active terrorist organisation, “Death or Liberty”, constituted itself within Zemlya i Volya. On March 1, 1881, it succeeded in assassinating the tsar.

But the hopes of the revolutionaries were bitterly disappointed. Their act did not lead to a popular uprising, but instead to a strengthening of the autocracy and to the suppression of all revolutionary activities for many years. The superhuman courage and moral fortitude of the terrorists were not enough to overthrow Tsarism.



The Narodniks “Adapt” Marxism

To understand the development of Russian Marxism, one must grasp the attitude of the Narodniks toward it. In 1848, and for years afterwards, the works of Marx and Engels could be imported into Russia legally, because, according to the censor, they constituted “an abstract speculation” with no relevance to Russia. [22] In 1872, Marx’s Capital (vol.1) was published in Russian (many years before it was published in French and English). It had an immediate sale of 3,000 copies. The executive committee of Narodnaya Volya wrote to Marx in 1880: “Citizen! The intellectual and progressive class in Russia ... has reacted with enthusiasm to the publication of your scholarly works. They scientifically recognise the best principles of Russian life.”

Marx’s description of the atrocities of the primitive accumulation of capital and the industrial revolution in England, of the theory of surplus value, his attack on the capitalist division of labour and alienation, his criticism of “formal” bourgeois parliamentary democracy, were interpreted by the Narodniks as proving that every effort should be made to prevent the development of capitalism in Russia. “Having learned from Marx about the high price of capitalist development, [the Narodnik] refused to pay this price, and set his hopes on the alleged possibility of restoring the archaic forms of social life and adapting them to fit the new conditions.” [23]

The fact that, for Marx, capitalism was progressive compared with feudalism, that parliamentary democracy, however formal and limited, was a step forward in comparison with autocracy – this the Narodniks failed to see. Using their knowledge of Marx’s Capital, Narodnik economists wrote books proving the possibility and necessity of noncapitalist development in Russia. The most original of these economists was V.P. Vorontsov, who used the pseudonym “V.V.” In his book The Fate of Capitalism in Russia (1882), he argued that Russian capitalism, being a latecomer, could not find external markets for its products. At the same time, its internal markets were not expanding, but on the contrary contracting, because capitalism ruined the peasants and artisans and reduced their purchasing power. Capitalism could not go beyond the creation of the small islands of modern industry needed to satisfy the wants of the upper classes. It could not become the dominant form of production. It could ruin millions of peasants and artisans, but could not give them employment or bring them into “socializing production.” It could develop intensively by the exploitation of labour, but not extensively by increasing employment. In the backward countries generally, it could only be destructive – a “parody of capitalism,” an “illegitimate child of history.” To the extent that islands of capitalism did exist in Russia, they were the artificial product of the state’s efforts.

While adapting Marxism, the Narodniks were basically utopian socialists. Seeing the Russian masses inert while they themselves held socialism to be a desirable ideal, they made no real causal connection between the masses of the present and the future. N.K. Mikhailovsky, one of the theoreticians of Narodism, expressed this dualism by speaking of two kinds of truths – “the truth of verity,” i.e., what actually is, and “the truth of justice,” i.e., what ought to be. The “world of what ought to be, the world of the true and just,” had no connection with the objective course of historical development. Marx’s description of the main characteristics of the outlook of the utopian socialists of his time fits the Narodniks well. Their main defect, The Communist Manifesto argues, was due to the fact that “the proletariat ... offers to them the spectacle of a class without any historical initiative or any independent political movement,” that they had not yet adopted the standpoint of the class struggle, and that the proletariat existed for them only in view of its being the “most suffering class.” [24] One has only to substitute the word “peasantry” for “proletariat” for this description to fit the Russian populists perfectly. From their utopian position arose their elitist concept of the role of the intelligentsia – the maker of history, whose task is to shape the inert, ignorant masses.

In the same way that one and the same religion can be professed by people of different levels of economic development, each giving it a different content, so the “Marxism” used by the Narodnik intelligentsia was different from the Marxism of a working-class movement. The grotesque combination of “Marxism” and Narodism was explained by the aging Engels in a letter of February 26, 1895:

In a country like yours, where modern large-scale industry has been grafted on to the primitive peasant commune and where, at the same time, all the intermediate stages of civilisation co-exist with each other, in a country which, in addition to this, has been enclosed by despotism with an intellectual Chinese wall, in the case of such a country one should not wonder at the emergence of the most incredible and bizarre combinations of ideas. [25]

One cannot but agree with A. Walicki, author of an important study of the social philosophy of the populists, when he writes that populism

was a Russian reaction to Western capitalism and, also, a Russian response to Western socialism – a reaction to Western capitalism and Western socialism by democratic intelligentsia in a backward peasant country at an early stage of capitalist development. And it is quite understandable that the classical Russian Populism was, first of all, a reaction to Marxism – after all, Marx was by then the leading figure of European socialism and, at the same time, the author of the most authoritative book on the development of capitalism. It is by no means an accident that the beginning of the full-fledged, classical Populism coincided in time with the first wave of the diffusion of Marxist ideas in Russia ... It is not an exaggeration to say that the encounter with Marx was of paramount importance for the formation of the Populist ideology, that without Marx it would have been different from what it was. [26]

Without understanding the intimate relations between Narodism and Marxism, one cannot grasp the great difficulties faced by Russian Marxists on their way forward from Narodism, obstacles that took years for Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism, to overcome, which reappeared in the pathway of his follower, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov.



The Heroism of the Narodniks

Our sketchy survey of the ideas of the Narodniks in the 1860s and 1880s is far from giving an accurate picture of the nature of Narodism. Their ideas were held with an extraordinary passion, which gave them the moral courage and determination to face many kinds of dangers and suffering. They went by the hundreds to solitary confinement in the Peter and Paul fortress, to Siberia, even to the gallows.

One can find no better witness to the heroism of the Narodniks than the American writer George Kennan, who started out as their opponent. Since Kennan had publicly condemned the terrorists in 1882, the Russian authorities willingly allowed him to enter Russia and visit prisons and forced labor camps, in the hope that his negative attitude toward the Russian revolutionaries would help attract world opinion to the side of the Russian government. However, after spending the years 1884–86 in Siberia, Kennan had this to say (in a letter quoted by Mrs. Dawes in the August 1888 issue of the American magazine The Century): “What I saw and learned in Siberia stirred me to the very depth of my soul – opened to me a new world of human experiences, and raised, in some respects, all my moral standards.”

I made the acquaintance of characters as truly heroic in mould – characters of as high a type as any outlined in history, and saw them showing courage, fortitude, self-sacrifice and devotion to an ideal beyond anything of which I could believe myself capable ... I went to Siberia, regarding the political exiles as a lot of mentally unbalanced fanatics, bomb-throwers and assassins. When I came away from Siberia I kissed those same men good-bye with my arms round them and my eyes full of tears. [27]

The 1880s were years of terrible reaction. After the assassination of Alexander II, the country was like a graveyard. There was hardly any further resistance. In 1883, Vera Figner, one of the most admirable figures on the executive committee of Narodnaya Volya, was arrested. The year after, G.A. Lopatin, who had been in close touch with Marx and Engels while abroad, returned to Petersburg to renew terrorist activities, but was soon arrested. With his arrest, numerous addresses fell into the hands of the police, leading to the liquidation of the remnants of Narodnaya Volya.

The last issue of the journal Narodnaya Volya, which came out on 1 October 1885, when the party itself no longer existed, painted in bleak colours the morale of the intellectuals:

Complete intellectual disintegration, a chaos of the most contradictory opinions on the most elementary questions of social life ... On the one hand, pessimism both personal and social, on the other hand, socio-religious mysticism ... . There was a flood of renegades of every kind. The more established strata of the intelligentsia frankly announced that they were sick and tired of peasants. Time to live for ourselves! The fading radical and liberal journals revealed the decline of social interest. [28]

Another description of the period comes from the pen of Rosa Luxemburg, writing while in prison during the First World War:

After the murder of Alexander II a period of rigid hopelessness overcame the whole of Russia ... The lead roofs [prisons] of Alexander III’s government contained the silence of the grave. Russian society fell into the grip of hopeless resignation, faced as it was by the end of all hopes for peaceful reform, and the apparent failure of all revolutionary movements. [29]

Characteristic of the time was the defection of one of the Narodniks’ most important leaders, Lev Tikhomirov, who published in Western Europe a confession called Why I Ceased to be a Revolutionary. (Soon afterwards he became one of the strongest supporters of Tsarism.) Large numbers of other ex-revolutionaries found their prophet in Leo Tolstoy, who, while rejecting the abomination of Tsarism, preached the doctrine of nonviolence. Tolstoy’s teaching seemed to provide moral support for the disillusioned and passive intelligentsia.

However, within the general tide of reaction, there were small eddies. The most important was the plot of March 1887, in which Alexander Ulyanov was a central figure. Six people took part. Three of them, including Ulyanov, considered themselves adherents of Narodnaya Volya; three others called themselves Social Democrats. The distinction between the former and latter, however, was not at all clear.

Alexander himself had read Marx diligently, but he was still a Narodnik, as is clear from the program he wrote for the group: Programme of the Terrorist Faction of the Party Narodnaya Volya. He was the main revolutionary force not in the peasantry but in the industrial working class. Socialism was “a necessary result of capitalist production and the capitalist class structure.” [30] This, however, the Programme argued, did not rule out “the possibility of another, more direct transition to socialism, provided that there are special, favourable conditions in the habits of the people and in the character of the intelligentsia and of the government.”

Capitalism was not a necessary stage before socialism. Capitalism was necessary only where “the process of transition is left to develop spontaneously, if there is no conscious intervention on the part of a social group.” The Programme recognised the necessity of “organising and educating the working class,” but this task had to be deferred, as revolutionary activity among the masses “under the existing political regime is almost impossible.” The autocracy had to be overthrown by means of terror, so that the working class could enter the political arena.

This peculiar eclecticism was an attempt to combine Narodism and Marxism. As we mentioned above, Alexander needed time to sort out his ideas. This he was not given. Lenin told Lalayants in 1893 that Alexander “considered himself a Marxist.” This was of course an exaggeration. Alexander’s tragedy was that he was a man of the transition in the period of transition. In his work on Russian social thought, Ivanov-Razumnik, describing the transitional character of the 1880s, says: “Before them stood Narodnichestvo, after them stood Marxism, themselves they represented an ideological void.” [31]



Plekhanov Breaks with Zemlya i Volya

As a result of the zigzags in its fortunes, there was a tug of war within Zemlya i Volya in the years 1878–79 between the supporters of mass agitation – going to the people – and the supporters of terrorism. The main proponent of the first tendency was Georgii Valentinovich Plekhanov.

By October 1879, Zemlya i Volya had ceased to exist. The agitators created a separate organisation called Chernyi Peredel (Black Redistribution). The name meant literally an equal distribution of the land among the “black” people, i.e., among the peasants. The terrorists adopted the name Narodnaya Volya, which, owing to the double meaning of the word Volya, meant at one and the same time “People’s Will” and “People’s Freedom”.

Chernyi Peredel was practically stillborn. “The organisation had no luck from the first day of its creation,” complained Deutsch, one of its founders, in his memoirs. “O.V. Aptekman, the chronicler of Chernyi Peredel and one of its leading members, begins his account of it with these doleful words: ‘Not in fortunate times was the organisation Chernyi Peredel born. God did not give it life, and three months later, it expired’.” [32]

As a result of the activities of a traitor within the organisation, its leaders, Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich, and Deutsch, were compelled to emigrate from Russia one after another. After a series of police raids, resulting in the seizure of the group’s printing press and the arrest of nearly all its members who were not out of the country, the group practically ceased to exist. Nevertheless, Chernyi Peredel was destined to play an important historical role. It became a bridge from populism to Marxism.



Turning to the Working Class

Empirically, and without a clear theoretical understanding of their problem, individuals among the Narodniks turned again and again toward the industrial working class. Without a consideration of these small shoots, the growth of Russian Marxism cannot be understood.

In 1870, for the first time in Russian history, a group of students, led by N.V. Chaikovsky, planted the seed of a working-class organisation. [1*] They did this not because they regarded the proletariat as the agent of socialism, but because they saw in the factory workers agents for spreading the Narodnik message among the peasants.

They therefore made contact with those who were least skilled and who were most directly bound to the life and spirit of the countryside. On principle they always chose textile rather than metal workers, for they recognised in them the representatives of what they considered to be the real people. A.V. Nizovkin, one of their most active propagandists, said that the metal workers had already been marked by urban civilisation. They dressed better; they no longer lived communally; and the traditions of the artel were dying out among them. The textile workers, on the other hand ... still dressed in country fashion and retained the habits which were typical of the village – from a communal spirit to drunkenness. [33]

The Chaikovists were very few in number.

It is difficult to say exactly how many members there were in the St. Petersburg group of the Chaikovists ... In 1928, nearly half a century later, three of the survivors ... tried to make up an exact list of their comrades between 1871 and 1874. They estimated a group of 19 in Moscow, 11 in Odessa, 8 in Kiev, and some in Kharkov, Orel, Kazan, and Tula. [34]

Each Chaikovist began his political work by contacting a small group of between three and five workers, whom he taught to read and write. He also gave them lessons in geography, history, physics, and other subjects. Lectures were held on such topics as the history of rebellions in Russia, the International, the German working-class movement, and political economy (based on the works of Marx). A library had been set up for those workers who were ready to pay 2 per cent of their wages toward its upkeep. Unfortunately, the Chaikovists did not survive police persecution. In 1873, they ceased to exist as an organised body.

While the Chaikovists were at work in St. Petersburg, an even more important and far more proletarian group was established in Odessa. It was centred around the figure of E. Zaslavsky, who directed it for eight or nine months, and it was called the Union of Workers of South Russia. This can be regarded as the first organisation of a truly working-class nature to come into being in the Russian Empire. [35] The Union, which had 50 to 60 members in its central organisation, was able to support two strikes, the first in January 1875, at the Bellino-Venderich factory and the second in August at Gullier-Blanchard’s. A manifesto was drawn up and distributed on the second of these occasions. The Union’s influence rapidly increased, not only in Odessa, but also in other towns along the Black Sea coast. Its program contained certain novel points. The tasks it set itself included “(a) the propaganda of the idea of the emancipation of the workers from the yoke of capital and of the privileged classes; and (b) the organisation of the workers of the South of Russia for the coming struggle against the existing economic and political order.” [36] At the end of 1875, an informer enabled the authorities virtually to put an end to the Union by arresting all its leaders.

But the arrest of the Chaikovists at the beginning of 1874, which smashed the cadres of that organisation, did not stop the slow and imperceptible spread of revolutionary ideas among the St. Petersburg workers. One of the most dramatic expressions of this, the culmination of six long years of the dissemination of ideas, was a demonstration in the Square of Kazan Cathedral on December 6, 1876. This was the landmark in the history of the Russian revolutionary movement. Plekhanov, who played a central role in the demonstration, described the event years later. Inspired by a demonstration staged by intellectuals in the spring of 1875 at the funeral of a student who was murdered by his jailers, a group of workers proposed a demonstration of their own. They assured Plekhanov that something like 2,000 of their number would attend. On the day, a crowd, composed mainly of students, but with some workers, gathered in front of the cathedral. Estimates of the number of the people in the crowd vary from 150 to 500. After delaying the proceedings for some time in the hope that more workers would turn up, and threatened with the danger that the whole effort would collapse, Plekhanov stood up and made a speech that ended with the words: “Long live the social revolution. Long live Zemlya i Volya.” A red banner with the words “Land and Liberty” was then unfurled. This small demonstration was the first workers’ demonstration in the history of Russia.

A wave of strikes took place in Petersburg between 1877 and 1879. There were 26 in all, an unprecedented level of strike activity, which was not repeated until the 1890s. It was at this period that a new organisation of workers arose in Petersburg, the Union of Workers of North Russia. It had about 200 members, with groups in all the working-class districts of the city. Its founder was the joiner Stepan Khalturin, the son of a peasant from the province of Vyatka. However, after only a few months of active life, the Northern Union was in its turn smashed by the police, and in 1880, it ceased to exist.

In 1879, Plekhanov, leading Chernyi Peredel, turned his back on Narodnik terrorism, and putting the emphasis on propaganda, also argued on empirical grounds for turning toward the working class. But the umbilical cord connecting his thinking with the Narodnik evaluation of the peasantry as agents of socialism had still not been cut. In February 1879, he wrote: “Agitation in the factories is increasing daily: that is the news of the day.” This agitation constituted one of those problems that “life itself brings to the forefront, its rightful place, despite the a priori theoretical decisions of the revolutionaries ... In the past, and not without reason, we put all our hopes and directed all our forces at the village masses. The urban worker held only second place in the revolutionaries’ calculations.”

Whereas the peasants in the village were under the influence of “the more conservative and timorous members of the peasant family” the “city workers ... constitute the most mobile, the most susceptible to incitation, the most easily revolutionised stratum of the population.”

Our large industrial centres group together tens and sometimes even hundreds of thousands of workers. In the great majority of cases these men are the same peasants as those in the villages ... The agricultural problem, the question of the self-administration of the obshchina, land and liberty: all these are just as close to the heart of the workers as of the peasants. In a word, it is not a question of masses cut off from the countryside but of part of the countryside. Their cause is the same, their struggle can and must be the same. And besides, the towns collect the very flower of the village population, younger people, more enterprising ... There they are kept far removed from the influence of the more conservative and timid elements of the peasant family ... Thanks to all this they will constitute a precious ally for the peasants when the social revolution breaks out. [37]

The coming socialist revolution would be a peasant revolution, but the workers were destined to be invaluable allies of the peasantry, as they were still basically peasants themselves, and they could act as intermediaries between the intelligentsia in the towns and the peasantry in the countryside. Narodnaya Volya, for years after Plekhanov’s break, also called for more emphasis on propaganda activity among industrial workers. Thus a programmatic article entitled “Preparatory work of the party” in Kalendar Narodnoi Voli (1883) states: “The working population of the towns, which is of particularly great significance for the revolution both by its position and its great development, must be the object of the party’s serious attention.” [38]

However, there is a basic difference between the Narodniks’ attitude, including Plekhanov’s in 1879, regarding propaganda work among industrial workers, and that of Marxists. The latter are “convinced that the workers are not necessary for the revolution, but the revolution for the workers.” [39] For the Narodniks, the workers are important for the revolution. A Narodnik can ask the question, “Why the working class?” while a Marxist can only ask the question, “Why Marxism?” as the working class is the subject of history for him, not the object.

Once more, in the attitude of the Narodniks to work among the proletariat, we have the case of a theory being outgrown by practice – a change in tactics without the understanding of theoretical consequences necessary for a consistent change of course. Narodism had outlived its time, and elements of Marxism emerged within the ideological framework of Narodism.



Plekhanov, Marxist Pioneer

Between 1880 and 1882, Plekhanov went all the way from Narodism to Marxism. In 1883, the Emancipation of Labor Group was established.

Also in 1883, Plekhanov wrote the first major Russian Marxist work, Socialism and the Political Struggle. This itself was by no means a short pamphlet, and it was followed a year or so later by the thick book Our Differences. The Bolshevik historian Pokrovsky stated what was common knowledge when he said that this work contained “practically all the basic ideas that formed the stock-in-trade of Russian Marxism up to the end of the century.” [40]

The future, Plekhanov said, submitting the commune to a searching analysis, did not belong to the peasants and their “commune.” He cited impressive data proving the increasing inequality and individualism among the communal peasantry. On the one hand, many peasants had lost, or were losing, the capacity to till the land allotments, and surrendered their rights to other peasants, becoming wage earners themselves. At the same time, others, the rich peasants or kulaks (“kulak” in Russian means “fist”), were increasingly cultivating the allotments of other peasants in addition to their own, purchased or rented additional land, and employed hired labour.

Plekhanov also attacked the idealisation of the commune’s past: “Our village community ... in reality has been the main buttress of Russian absolutism” and “is becoming more and more an instrument in the hands of the rural bourgeoisie for the exploitation of the majority of the agrarian population.” [41] He shattered the argument of the Narodnik economist, V.V., that capitalism could not develop in Russia because of the lack of markets. With great historical sweep, using examples from Colbert’s France, Germany under the Zollverein, and the United States, he showed that the state always intervened to protect young, growing industries against the overwhelming supremacy of Britain.

Further, contrary to V.V.’s arguments, home markets did not precede the development of capitalism as a precondition for it, but were created by capitalism itself. “The bourgeoisie created the markets, they did not find them ready made.” [42] The ruin of artisans and the invasion of agriculture by money relationships creates the market. “Any country’s transition from natural to money economy is necessarily accompanied by an enormous expansion of the home market and there can be no doubt that in our country this market will go over in its entirety to our bourgeoisie.” [43]

Plekhanov argued that it was utopian to believe, as the Narodniks did, that capitalism could be prevented from transforming Russian economy and society. He concluded that socialists should turn to the industrial working class as the harbingers of the future: “The rural population of today, living in backward social conditions, is not only less capable of conscious political initiative than the industrial workers, it is also less responsive to the movement which our revolutionary intelligentsia has begun.”

“And besides,” Plekhanov continued, “the peasantry is now going through a difficult, critical period. The previous ‘ancestral’ foundations of its economy are crumbling, the ill-fated village community itself is being discredited in its eyes, as is admitted even by such ‘ancestral’ organs of Narodism as Nedelya; and the new forms of labour and life are only in the process of formation, and this creative process is more intensive in the industrial centres. [44]

Plekhanov was the first Russian to argue that the working class was to play the chief role in the impending Russian revolution against the tsarist autocracy. Thus, in a statement to the founding congress of the Socialist (Second) International (July 1889), he proclaimed: “The revolutionary movement in Russia can triumph only as the revolutionary movement of the workers. There is not and cannot be any other way for us!” [45]



Still Inclined Towards Narodism

Plekhanov was still, however, attracted by the Narodniks. Narodnik ideas abound in his writings, especially those of 1883 and 1884. At that time, he did not contrast the future Social Democrats with Narodnaya Volya, but merely demanded that the latter should adopt Marxism. In Our Differences he wrote:

In presenting this first attempt at a program for the Russian Marxists to the comrades working in Russia, we are far from wishing to compete with Narodnaya Volya; on the contrary, there is nothing we desire more than full and final agreement with that party. We think that the Narodnaya Volya party must become a Marxist party if it at all wishes to remain faithful to its revolutionary traditions and to get the Russian movement out of its present stagnation. [46]

Despite his criticisms of the role of the rural communes, his concessions to Narodism were far-reaching even on this score. Thus he wrote:

When the hour of the decisive victory of the workers’ party over the upper sections of society strikes, once more that party, and only that party, will take the initiative in the socialist organisation of national production ... The village communities still existing will in fact begin the transition to a higher, communist form ... Communal land tenure will become not only possible, but actual, and the Narodist dreams of our peasantry’s exceptionalist development will come true. [47]

He also compromised with individual Narodnik terrorism. “And what about terror? ... We by no means deny the important role of the terrorist struggle in the present emancipation movement. It has grown naturally from the social and political conditions under which we are placed, and it must just as naturally promote a change for the better.” The Narodnik Party should

turn to the working class as to the most revolutionary of all classes in present-day society ... We are pointing out a way of making the struggle broader, more varied, and therefore more successful ... There are other sections of the population [i.e., other than the workers] for whom it would be far more convenient to undertake the terrorist struggle against the government. Propaganda among the workers will not remove the necessity for terrorist struggle, but it will provide it with opportunities which have so far never existed. [48] [2*]

Plekhanov also made allowances for the elitist attitude of the Narodniks toward the intelligentsia:

Our socialist intelligentsia has been obliged to head the present-day emancipation movement, whose direct task must be to set up free political institutions in our country, the socialists on their side being under the obligation to provide the working class with the possibility to take an active and fruitful part in the future political life of Russia ... That is why the socialist intelligentsia has the obligation to organise the workers and prepare them as far as possible for the struggle against the present-day system of government as well as against the future bourgeois parties. [50]

Plekhanov introduced authentic Marxism into Russia and made it a weapon adapted to the needs of the revolution. He discovered the working class as the bearer of the future Russian revolution. To make such a stride forward required a broad historical outlook, which Plekhanov most certainly possessed. He was one of the most learned, discerning, and cultured men of his time, with a powerful and original mind, critical and creative talents in many fields, and a brilliant literary talent. He studied such diverse subjects as organic chemistry, geology and anthropology, zoology and comparative anatomy, his inquiries ranging into fields as varied as history and aesthetics, ethnography, literature, epistemology, and art. He initiated Marxist literary criticism and pioneered the extension of Marxist research into a number of other fields.

It is difficult to grasp the importance of Plekhanov’s contribution to the Russian revolutionary movement, unless one can project oneself in imagination into the milieu of the radical intelligentsia of the early 1880s, steeped in a Narodism made sacrosanct by decades of struggle and the blood of martyrs. Only then can one understand the real excitement of being the pioneer, the first man to translate Marxism into Russian terms. Plekhanov’s first Marxian treatise, Socialism and the Political Struggle, Lenin testifies, had a significance for Russia comparable with that of The Communist Manifesto for the West. Plekhanov’s book On the Development of the Monist Concept of History (1894), according to Lenin, “reared a whole generation of Russian Marxists.” Trotsky stated, “The Marxist generation of the 1890s stood on the foundations laid down by Plekhanov ... Next to Marx and Engels, Vladimir owed the most to Plekhanov.” [51]



The “Strength” of the Emancipation of Labour Group

To understand why it took the young Vladimir Ulyanov so long to become converted to Plekhanov’s ideas, one must see that they were indeed disembodied ideas with no movement – no mass strikes or demonstrations of numerous followers to support them. In fact, for 10 years, 1883-93, the Emancipation of Labour Group existed only in exile. It was practically the whole of the Marxist movement.

At the outset, the group consisted of just five people! Plekhanov, Axelrod, Deutsch, Vera Zasulich, and V.I. Ignatov. Very soon it was reduced to three. Ignatov, who had provided a substantial amount of money to back the organisation, died in 1895 of tuberculosis, which had from the start prevented him from taking a very active part in the work of the group. Deutsch was arrested in mid-1884, while trying to organise the dispatch of literature into Russia. Plekhanov and the other two faced a decade of practically complete isolation. It is true that, throughout the 1880s, there existed circles in various Russian cities engaged in activities among the workers. But they were so feeble, the results of their work so imperceptible, the persecution of the police so effective, that they hardly managed to establish roots anywhere, and remained in complete isolation from one another. It took several decades of historical research to unearth even the existence of such groups, which, working under the most frightful conditions, were doing important groundwork in preparing for the extensive activity of the succeeding decade.

In 1884, a small group of intellectuals and workers, headed by the Bulgarian student Blagoev (later the founder of the Bulgarian Communist Party), wrote to the Emancipation of Labour Group: “We have come to the conclusion that there is much in common between our views and those of the Emancipation of Labour Group.” Deferring to their “foreign comrades, who have much more literary preparation and greater revolutionary experience,

the Blagoevtsi requested the establishment of regular relations, the shipment of literature, and a discussion of points of the program, and they promised to provide funds. No wonder that Plekhanov cried with relief to Axelrod, “We are not suffering in vain.” Thus began a period of a year of collaboration that ended only in the winter of 1885–86, when the Blagoev group, like others before it, was raided out of existence. [52]

Shortly after the destruction of the Blagoevtsi, another group, called the Tochiisky circle, rose, but this also had a very short existence, confined to 1888. Hardly had the police succeeded in liquidating it, when in 1889, a new revolutionary group arose, known as the Brusnev group, after its leader, an engineer of that name. Among the members of this group were a number of prominent workers, such as Bogdanov, Norinsky, Shelgunov, and Fedor Afanasiev. It ceased to exist after the police raids of 1892.

All in all, the 1880s were years of very small Marxist propaganda circles among Russian workers. Generally they were remembered as a time of darkness. “A man of the 80s” is a disappointed man, despondent and idle. In literature, this mood found expression in the plays of Chekhov – Uncle Vanya, Ivanov, and other characters – all manifestations of despair and small deeds.

There were very few workers’ strikes in the 1880s. In the six years 1881–86, there were only 48 strikes [53], and the Marxists hardly influenced any of them. One Russian labour historian could write, quite justifiably, in 1893, that until that year, labour unrest in Russia “had no connection whatsoever with any of the Social Democratic units.” [54]



The Same, Yet Different

In order to clarify his own ideas, to investigate his own relationship with Narodism, the young Vladimir Ulyanov started writing polemics against the Narodniks. “One cannot develop new views other than through polemics,” he wrote two decades later. [55] The history of ideas is the history of the conflict of ideas. These early polemical writings are not empty studies, but delve deeply into the facts of Russia’s economic and social development. Above all, Lenin wanted to grasp the reality of the society in which he lived, and which he was destined to participate in radically changing.

At the end of the Samara period, a manuscript by Ulyanov was circulating among the comrades. It was called A Dispute between a Social Democrat and a Populist, and most probably was a summary of Samara disputes presented in dialogue form. Unfortunately, the paper has been lost. Then he wrote a review of book-length study of the agrarian question called New Economic Developments in Peasant Life (On V.Y. Postnikov’s Peasant Farming in South Russia). The review, filled with statistics, and written for a legal magazine, was rejected – perhaps because of its length, perhaps because of its sharp critique of the prevailing Narodnik viewpoint. Ulyanov read his manuscript in the Samara study circle, where it instantly established his authority. One of the two handwritten copies of the review has come down to us, thanks to those indefatigable collectors of revolutionary manuscripts, the tsarist secret police. It is a very mature, unusually penetrating analysis of the economic and social scene in the countryside, although Ulyanov was still only 23 years old. The bulk of it was incorporated into his book, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, written half a decade later.

Ulyanov’s third piece of writing was another polemic against the Narodniks. It was called On the So-called Market Question, and was written in Petersburg in the autumn of 1893. Its main points were first outlined by Lenin at a meeting of a Marxist circle, at which a lecture called The Market Question by another young Marxist, G.B. Krasin, was discussed. According to participants in the meeting, Lenin’s paper made a great impression on all present. [56] The paper shows a very clear grasp of the second volume of Marx’s Capital. It is a fine, hard-hitting criticism of V.V.’s theory of the impossibility of “extensive” development of industry in Russia because of lack of markets. (The single copy of the manuscript was long considered lost, but was in fact found in 1937.) Ulyanov’s chief writing in 1894 was a work entitled What theFriends of the PeopleAre and How They Fight the Social-Democrats (A Reply to Articles inRusskoye Bogatstvo[3*] Opposing the Marxists). It circulated in three stout, carefully written notebooks. The notebooks created a remarkable stir among the few Marxists in Petersburg, and were soon hectographed and passed from hand to hand. Only the first and third parts of the work have survived, and they occupy 199 pages in Lenin’s Collected Works (fourth Russian edition). One can imagine the amount of sheer labour involved in writing all this out, neatly in the manuscript notebooks, and then all over again, letter by letter, on the hectographed sheets.

His next main work, written at the end of 1894 and the beginning of 1895, was yet another criticism of the Narodniks, The Economic Content of Narodism and the Criticism of It in Mr. Struve’s Book (The Reflection of Marxism in Bourgeois Literature). p.Struve, Critical Remarks on the Subject of Russia’s Economic Development, St. Petersburg, 1894. This again is quite a lengthy work – occupying 166 pages in the Collected Works. It was the first of his writings to be printed. But the police seized it, and only a few copies were saved.

For the rest of 1895 and 1896, Ulyanov wrote nothing more against the Narodniks. But in 1897, he wrote a further major attack on them, of 118 pages, entitled A Characterisation of Economic Romanticism (Sismondi and our Native Sismondists). Lastly came his major theoretical work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, which fills practically the whole of volume 3 of the Works (535 pages). This was a Marxist analysis of Russia’s economic development, polemically written against the Narodniks. All the research for and the writing of this book took place while Ulyanov was a police ward: first in prison, then in Siberia. He made use of 299 works in Russian, and 38 foreign studies in German, French, and English (or in Russian translation). These he purchased or borrowed by mail from distant libraries while he was living in prison or in Siberia. The book appeared during the last year of his exile in Siberia (1899) under the authorship of V. Ilyin.

In many ways, these works follow the path already opened up by Plekhanov, and Lenin never failed to note with gratitude his intellectual debt to Plekhanov. The last thing in his mind was a search for originality. He probably remembered the words of his great teacher and inspirer, Chernyshevsky:

A preoccupation with originality destroys originality itself, and true independence is given only to those who do not stop to think of the possibility of not being independent. Only the feeble talk of their strength of character. And only the man who is afraid of being easily discomfited is afraid of exposing himself to the influence of others. Current preoccupation with originality is a preoccupation with form. A man who has any real content will not worry unduly about originality. Preoccupation with form leads to baseless fabrications and emptiness. [57]

However, in a number of ways, Lenin’s writings against the Narodniks are indeed original, being radically different from those of Plekhanov. On the one hand, the young pupil had not the historical sweep of the old master. Where Plekhanov used historical examples from different countries, anthropological research into the fate of primitive communes, and so on, none of this appeared in Lenin’s writings. Nor is there the same wealth of literary and cultural allusions and brilliance of style. On the other hand, Lenin’s grasp of economic and social reality is far superior. His use of statistical data in detailed analysis of the actual situation is better than anything Plekhanov wrote. His penetration into the very complicated forms of feudal enslavement following the new capitalist relations in the countryside is nowhere to be matched. While still a disciple, Ulyanov branched out with his own distinct ideas, deviating from his master on two interrelated and, as the future was to show, decisive points: (1) his attitude to capitalist development as such, and (2) his attitude to the Narodniks.

The differences on the first point appear most clearly in The Economic Content and the Criticism of It in Mr. Struve’s Book. In order to appreciate them, we must understand the background against which it appeared. For a long time, the tsarist authorities were unconcerned about Marxism. During the seventies and eighties, volumes 1 and 2 of Marx’s Capital were passed by the tsarist censor.

“One can with certainty say,” declared the censor Skuratov in 1872 in the report on the first volume of Capital, “that in Russia only a few will read the book and still fewer understand [it].” The authorities of Alexander III also passed without hesitation the second volume, which existed in a Russian edition in 1885, as it was “in content and presentation a serious economic study comprehensible only to the specialist.” [58]

To encourage the fight against the Narodniks, in whom the tsar saw the main enemy, “legal Marxism” was permitted in the middle nineties. As early as the 1880s, a secret police agent advised his superiors to allow the buildup of Marxist forces as a counter to the more dangerous Narodniks. Since most Marxist writing in some way discredited Narodism, the officials supposed it would help to kill off the major oppositional ideology. From the Marxists themselves the government anticipated no trouble. Typically, a Nizhni-Novgorod police colonel expressed the opinion that they “are not dangerous at present”; and a Petersburg procurator considered them to be “as yet only theoreticians.” [59]

In 1894, Peter Struve submitted for publication a work clearly Marxist in orientation, called Critical Notes Concerning the Economic Development of Russia, and the censor allowed it. Its publication in September 1894 marked the beginning of the period of “legal Marxism,” which continued for the next five years.

Although Lenin took advantage of the legal opening for publishing Marxist literature, as, for instance, with his own book The Development of Capitalism in Russia, from the beginning he drew a clear distinction between himself and the leading legal Marxist, Struve. Struve’s book was a sharp attack on Narodism, but at the same time, it was an apologia for capitalism.

Plekhanov, however, had nothing but praise for it. Like Struve, he largely overlooked the contradictory, painful, and tragic aspects of capitalist development in Russia. Quite often he wrote almost as an apologist for capitalist industrialisation. Against Narodnik “subjectivism” he put forward rigid “objectivism.” The scientific socialists, he believed, were struggling for socialism not because it should be, but because it was the next stage in the magnificent and irresistible march of history. [60] “The Social Democrat swims with the stream of history,” [61] and the causes of historical development “have nothing to do with human will and consciousness.” [62] Gramsci quite rightly accused Plekhanov of “relapses into vulgar materialism.” [63] Because of his basic attitude, Plekhanov could approvingly quote Struve’s words: “We must conclude that we lack culture, and go to the school of capitalism.” [64]

Although Lenin is no less critical of the Narodniks than Struve or Plekhanov, his attitude to them is radically different. At the very beginning of his essay on the economic content of Narodism, and the criticism of it in Struve’s book, Lenin makes it clear that Marxism has nothing in common with “faith in the necessity of each country to pass through the phase of capitalism” or any other such mistaken ideas. [65]

Marxism does not base itself on anything else than the facts of Russian history and reality; it is also [like Narodism] the ideology of the labouring class; only it gives a totally different explanation of the generally known facts of the growth and achievements of Russian capitalism, has quite a different understanding of the tasks that reality in this country places before the ideologists of the direct producers. [66]

Lenin sharply attacked Struve’s “narrow objectivism”,

which is confined to proving the inevitability and necessity of the process and makes no effort to reveal at each specific stage of this process the form of class contradiction inherent in it – an objectivism that describes the process in general, and not each of the antagonistic classes whose conflict makes up the process. [67]

When demonstrating the necessity for a given series of facts, the objectivist always runs the risk of becoming an apologist for these facts. [68]

Against this Lenin counterposes the method of the materialist, “who discloses the class contradictions and in so doing defines his standpoint.” [69]

For Lenin, capitalism was progressive compared with feudalism, because capitalism creates its own gravedigger. Capitalism awakens millions from feudal torpor and organises them, and in this lies its progressiveness. To sharpen the class struggle of the proletariat against the capitalists – in this lies the main task of Marxists.

Plekhanov and Axelrod, in their turn, criticised Lenin’s article on Struve. He was in their eyes too sharp toward the liberal bourgeoisie. Thus Axelrod in his memoirs describes his discussion with Lenin:

“You show,” I said, “exactly the opposite tendency to the one expressed in the article I had prepared ... I ... wanted to show that in the given historic moment the immediate interests of the Russian proletariat coincide with the vital interests of the other progressive elements of society ... Both face the same urgent problem ... the overthrow of absolutism ... .”

Ulyanov smiled and observed: “You know, Plekhanov made exactly the same remarks about my articles. He expressed his thoughts in picturesque fashion: ‘You,’ he said, ‘turn your behind to the liberals, but we our face.’” [70]

This disagreement anticipated the future antagonism between Lenin, on the one hand, and Plekhanov and Axelrod, on the other, over their attitude to the liberals. From a careful reading of Plekhanov’s Socialism and the Political Struggle, one can predict Plekhanov’s eventual relationship with the liberals. He argues in this pamphlet that one should limit the aims of the anti-tsarist revolution to the “demand for a democratic constitution”.

Without trying to scare anybody with the yet remote “red spectre”, such a political program would arouse sympathy for our revolutionary party among all those who are no systematic enemies of democracy; it could be subscribed to by very many representatives of our liberalism as well as by the socialists ... Then the interests of the liberals would indeed “force” them to act “jointly with the socialists against the government”, because they would cease to meet in revolutionary publications the assurance that the overthrow of absolutism would be the signal for a social revolution in Russia. At the same time, another, less timid and more sober section of liberal society would no longer see revolutionaries as unpractical youths who set themselves unrealisable and fantastic plans. This view, which is disadvantageous for revolutionaries, would give place to the respect of society not only for their heroism but also for their political maturity. This sympathy would gradually grow into active support, or more probably into an independent social movement, and then the hour of absolutism’s fall would strike at last. [71]

Lenin also differed from Plekhanov in his attitude to the Narodniks. While the Lenin of 1893–95 drew clear lines of demarcation between himself and the Narodniks (much sharper than Plekhanov did in 1883–84), he never forgot that Narodism had a progressive, democratic, revolutionary aspect – unlike Plekhanov, who, once he had broken completely with Narodism, ceased to find anything progressive in it.

It is clear [Lenin argues] ... that it would be absolutely wrong to reject the whole of the Narodnik program indiscriminately and in its entirety. One must clearly distinguish its reactionary and progressive sides. Narodism is reactionary insofar as it proposes measures that tie the peasant to the soil and to the old modes of production, such as the inalienability of allotments, etc., insofar as it wants to retard the development of money economy ... But there are also other points, relating to self-government, to the “people’s” (that is to say, small) economy by means of cheap credits, technical improvements, better regulation of marketing, etc., etc ... Such general democratic measures are progressive ... The Narodnik, in matters of theory, is just as much a Janus, looking with one face to the past and the other to the future, as in real life the small producer is, who looks with one face to the past, wishing to strengthen his small farm without knowing or wishing to know anything about the general economic system and about the need to reckon with the class that controls it – and with the other face to the future, adopting a hostile attitude to the capitalism that is ruining him. [72]

For many years, as we shall see, Lenin fought for an alliance, not with the liberals, the Cadet Party, as proposed by Plekhanov, but with the Trudoviks, the petty bourgeois heirs of Narodism. In 1912, Lenin pointed out the connection between Bolshevism and the attempt to extract from Narodism its “valuable democratic kernel.”

Clearly the Marxists must carefully extract the sound and valuable kernel of the sincere, resolute, militant democracy of the peasant masses from the husk of Narodnik utopias. In the old Marxist literature of the eighties one can discover systematic effort to extract this valuable democratic kernel. Some day historians will study this effort systematically and trace its connection with what in the first decade of the 20th century came to be called “Bolshevism.” [73]

While fighting Narodism as a wrong doctrine of socialism, the Mensheviks, in a doctrinaire fashion, overlooked the historically real and progressive historical content of Narodism as a theory of the mass petty-bourgeois struggle of democratic capitalism against liberal-landlord capitalism ... Hence their monstrous, idiotic, renegade idea ... that the peasant movement is reactionary, that a Cadet is more progressive than a Trudovik. [74]

Again and again Lenin repeated: “The Russian Social Democrats have always recognised the necessity to extract and absorb the revolutionary side of the Narodnik doctrine and trend.” [75]

In What Is to Be Done? (1902), Lenin argued that the revolutionary Marxists must also not overlook the positive achievements of the Narodniks in terms of organisational structure:

The magnificent organisation that the revolutionaries had in the seventies ... should serve us as a model ... no militant centralised organisation which declares determined war upon Tsarism ... can dispense with such an organisation ... Only a gross failure to understand Marxism (or an “understanding” of it in the spirit of “Struveism”) could prompt the opinion that the rise of a mass, spontaneous working-class movement relieves us of the duty of creating as good an organisation of revolutionaries as the Zemlya i Volya had, or indeed, an incomparably better one. [76]

We shall encounter Plekhanov again, first as Lenin’s teacher, then as his elder colleague, and finally as his implacable opponent. However, right from the beginning, the pupil showed his independence of his teacher, even when repeating and rearguing the case for Russian Marxism against Narodism.



In Anticipation

There is little interest in hunting for the influence of Plekhanov or anyone else on the young Ulyanov, since what matters is not what was borrowed, but what was made of the borrowings, and this depends on the experiences and the history of the individual who borrows, and on his actions in the struggle.

Vladimir Ulyanov’s break with Narodism, his original position with relation to the liberalism of Struve, and his dialectical attitude, i.e., his critical support of Narodism to the extent that the latter was a revolutionary democratic movement, are basic to his whole future development. Throughout his political career, Lenin regarded as fundamental the relation of revolutionary socialists to three social classes: the proletariat, the peasantry, and the bourgeoisie.

Lenin’s statements of this period already contain in embryo the central themes of his further theoretical development: the relentless opposition to the liberal bourgeoisie, the hegemony of the proletariat over the peasantry, and the alliance of the proletariat of the industrial countries with the national liberation movement in the colonies, which is largely a peasant movement. Being petty bourgeois, the peasantry vacillates between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie; it is revolutionary to the extent that it fights feudalism and imperialism, and reactionary to the extent that it clings to petty private property. The proletariat must both ally itself with the peasantry, and remain separate from it. It must lead it without merging with it, without following its vacillations. In Lenin’s attitude, the Marxism brought from the West is merged with the Russian national traditions of revolutionary struggle carried on by the Narodniks.

Marx wrote, “The philosophers hitherto interpreted the world, the task is to change it.” Lenin brought to this task not only his own personal passion and activism, but also the heroic traditions of the Narodniks. When one of the great heroes of Narodism, Zhelyabov (who organised the assassination of Alexander II) stated: “History moves too slowly, it needs a push,” Lenin was ready to do just that. Lenin represented the Russian proletariat, a youthful class very close to the peasantry, not hindered by shackles of routine and conservatism, bold and daring because outside it there were millions of other people – peasants – also oppressed, starved, lacking rights, humiliated. When the proletariat fights for democracy it fights not only in its own class interests, but also as the representative of the whole mass of the people, above all the peasantry. Instead of the solitary Narodnik “going among the people,” one has the proletariat as the leader of the countryside. But we are running ahead of the story of the present book.




1*. Chaikovsky ended his life as head of the White Government of Archangel after the October Revolution, and then died as an émigré in France.

2*. In the 1905 edition of Our Differences, Plekhanov gives the following lame explanation for his statement on terrorism, made in 1884: “On the basis of this passage it was subsequently said that the Emancipation of Labor Group sympathized with ‘terrorism.’ But as long as it has existed that group has held that terrorism is inconvenient for the workers; it was certainly useless at that time to pronounce against the terrorist activity of the intelligentsia who believed in it as in a god.” [49]

3*. Russkoye Bogatstvo was a leading journal of economics, sociology, philosophy, and literature, edited by the most prominent veteran Narodnik theoretician, N.K. Mikhailovsky.




1. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.5, translated from the 4th Russian edition, p.48.

2. I. Lalaiants, On my meetings with V.I. Lenin in the period 1893–1900, Proletarskaia revoliutsiia, no.1 (84), 1929, p.49.

3. A. Elizarova, Memories of Alexander Ilyich Ulyanov, Proletarskaia revoliutsiia, nos.2, 3, 1927, p.287.

4. P.P. Pospelov, et al., Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: Biografiia, Moscow 1963, p.9.

5. E. Foss, The first prison of V.I. Lenin, Ogonek, no.11, 1926, p.5.

6. V. Adoratsky, After 18 years (meeting Vladimir Ilyich), Proletarskaia revoliutsiia, no.3 (26), 1924, p.94.

7. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.5, pp.517-18.

8. G.M. Krzhizhanovsky, O Vladimire Ilyiche, Moscow 1924, pp.13-14.

9. N. Valentinov, Vstrechi s Leninym, New York 1953, p.106.

10. L. Trotsky, The Young Lenin, New York 1972, p.192.

11. Trotsky, ibid., p.131.

12. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.42, p.443.

13. Lenin, ibid., vol.42, p.453.

14. I. Deutscher, Lenin’s Childhood, London 1970, pp.52–53.

15. F. Venturi, Roots of Revolution, London 1960, pp.34-35.

16. ibid., p.129.

17. ibid., p.136.

18. ibid., p.159.

19. ibid., p.505.

20. ibid., p.503.

21. G.V. Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, vol.1, Moscow 1961, p.182.

22. B.A. Chagin, Proniknovenie idei marksizma v Rossiiu, Leningrad 1948, p.10.

23. A. Walicki, The Controversy over Capitalism, London 1969, p.63.

24. Manifesto of the Communist Party, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, vol.1, London 1950, pp.36-37.

25. Perepiska K. Marksa i F. Engelsa s russkimi politicheskimi deiateliami, Moscow 1947, p.341.

26. Walicki, op. cit., p.26.

27. Quoted by Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, vol.1, p.439.

28. Trotsky, Young Lenin, op. cit., p p.52-53.

29. V. Korolenko, Die Geschichte meines Zeitgenossen, vol.1, Berlin 1919, pp.47-48.

30. N.K. Karataev, Narodnicheskaia ekonomicheskaia literatura, Moscow 1958, p.631.

31. V. Ivanov-Razumnik, Istoriia russkoi obshchestvennoi mysl, vol.2, St. Petersburg 1908, p.335.

32. S.H. Baron, Plekhanov, London 1963, p.44.

33. Venturi, op. cit., p.511.

34. ibid., p.481.

35. ibid., p.516.

36. M.N. Pokrovsky, Brief History of Russia, vol.1, London 1933, p.220.

37. G.V. Plekhanov, Sochineniia, vol.1, Moscow 1923, pp.67ff.

38. Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, p.844.

39. Plekhanov, Our differences, ibid., p.384.

40. Pokrovsky, Brief History of Russia, op. cit., p.230.

41. Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, op. cit., p.451.

42. ibid., p.224.

43. ibid., p.266.

44. ibid., p.120.

45. ibid., p.452.

46. ibid., p.138.

47. ibid., p.390.

48. ibid., pp.391-92.

49. ibid., p.392.

50. ibid., pp.402-03.

51. Trotsky, Young Lenin, op. cit., pp.189-90.

52. Baron, op. cit., p.126.

53. L. Martov, Razvitie krupnoi promyshlennosti i rabochee dvizhenie v Rossii, Petersburg-Moscow 1923, p.19.

54. M. Gordon, Workers before and after Lenin, New York 1941, p.16.

55. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.18, p.297.

56. See N.S. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, London 1970, pp.14-15.

57. E. Lampert, Sons against Father, Oxford 1965, p.173.

58. D. Geyer, Lenin in der russischen Sozialdemokratie, Cologne-Graz 1962, pp.7-8.

59. Baron, op. cit., p.144.

60. Plekhanov, Izbrannie filosofskie proizvedeniia, vol.4, Moscow 1956, pp.113-14.

61. ibid., vol.1, p.392.

62. ibid., vol.4, p.86.

63. A. Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, London 1971, p.387.

64. See Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, op. cit., p.789.

65. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.1, p.338.

66. ibid., p.394.

67. ibid., p.499.

68. ibid., pp.400-01.

69. ibid., pp.401.

70. Perepiska G.V. Plekhanova i P.B. Akselroda, vol.1, Moscow 1925, p.271.

71. Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, op. cit., pp.116-17.

72. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.1, p.503.

73. ibid., vol.18, p.359.

74. ibid., vol.16, pp.119-20.

75. ibid., vol.4, p.246.

76. ibid., vol.5, pp.474-75.


Last updated on 20.1.2004