Tony Cliff

Lenin 1

Chapter 2
From the Marxist study circle to industrial action

On 31 August 1893, Vladimir Ulyanov arrived in St. Petersburg. In the autumn of the same year, he joined a Marxist circle of Technological Institute students (G.M. Krzhizhanovsky, S.I. Radchenko, V.V. Starkov, G.B. Krasin, and others). As we have seen, in the spring of 1892, the police had arrested many of the members of the Brusnev group in St. Petersburg. However, a number of worker members of the group remained free, and a rather loose and informal workers’ organisation continued to exist. It was mainly, if not entirely, made up of workers whose chief interest was study. Workers joining the circles (kruzhki) showed an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

Plekhanov described the kind of worker who joined these study groups:

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 ... I 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]

When I asked the workers themselves what exactly they wanted from revolutionary writings, I met with the most varied answers. In most cases, each of them wanted a solution to those problems which for some reason were of special interest to my individual hearer at that particular moment. In the mind of the workers such problems were increasing enormously, and each had his favourite questions according to his own tendencies and character. One was particularly interested in the problem of God and claimed that revolutionary literature ought to use its energies mainly for destroying the religious beliefs of the people. Others were interested in historical or political problems, or in the natural sciences. Among my acquaintances in the factories there was also one who was specially interested in the question of women. [2]

The leaders of a Jewish workers’ socialist study group tried to enlighten the workers on a very wide range of subjects. Thus Leon Bernshtein 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 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.” [3]

A historian of the Russian labour movement of that period wrote as follows:

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 mastered the basic elements of learning, but displayed a keen interest in “science” and in a scientific understanding of their surrounding world. [4]

A worker addressing his comrades at a secret May Day celebration in 1891 vividly summarised the prevalent approach among members of a study circle:

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. [5]

In practice, the kruzhki relied on the peaceful dissemination of Marxist ideas to further the progress of the revolution.

The circles were intended to be schools of socialism, but the workers sometimes regarded them only as schools, placing all their hopes in the power of learning and paying little attention to revolutionary doctrines. This attitude was well expressed by a Vilna worker, who stated in 1892, “Like a faithful mother, knowledge will guide us peacefully over the sea of fears and pain to the land of life.” [6]

Their perspectives were vague, the outlook of P.N. Skvortsov being typical. He was one of the earliest Russian Marxists, and the founder of the first Marxist circle in Nizhni Novgorod. His pupil, Mitskevich, describes his attitude 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. [7]

The official rules of the Social Democratic “Workers’ Union” in Ivanovo-Voznesensk defined its membership as “critically thinking individuals seeking to realise progress in mankind” and declared its chief aim to be “propaganda among the more cultured workers of both sexes.” [8]

Worse than this, many circle members became alienated from their fellow workers. “As a result of protracted exposure to the intellectual diet of the socialist world, many workers became almost indistinguishable from the intelligentsia in outlook and in the range and depth of their learning.” [9]

The “advanced” workers, coming for the most part from the skilled trades, were almost as alienated from average workers as the intelligentsia. They spoke a more cultivated language than their fellows, prided themselves on book knowledge, and dressed more fastidiously even than the democratically minded intelligenty. Since many of them abstained from smoking, drinking, and cursing, they were occasionally mistaken for Pashkovites [members of a Bible tract sect] and made the butts of ridicule from their fellow workers. More alarming, they tended to stand aloof from strikes and other forms of elemental protest, which were becoming increasingly frequent. [10]

The workers in the circles, as described by Martov,

saw themselves as individuals emerging from a backward multitude and creating a new cultural environment. But this was only half the trouble. The [main] trouble was that, given this outlook, they viewed the entire process of the future rise of their class in [an] oversimplified rationalistic manner: They thought it would occur from the spread of that knowledge and those new moral concepts which they themselves had acquired in the circles and from reading. Arguments with them led us to the astounding discovery that their whole manner of social thinking was idealistic, that their socialism was still thoroughly abstract and utopian, and that the idea of employing the class struggle to transform the uncultured environment itself, in protest against which their own social awakening had occurred was still entirely alien to them. [11]

Some workers even acquired “a sort of condescending, contemptuous attitude towards the masses, who one might say were not considered worthy of socialism’s teachings.” The circles were for many only “a means of acquiring knowledge and a personal escape from the gloom in which the working masses lived.” [12]



Towards Agitation

The famine of 1891 led Plekhanov to try, however unsuccessfully, to begin 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, he 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.” [13]

In short, instead of restricting themselves to “the organisation of workers’ socialist circles,” the revolutionaries should try to move outward 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 all the workers toward 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.” [14]

Plekhanov’s call found no echo among the Russian workers. However, there was a response from Jewish workers living in the western part of the Russian Empire, in Poland. In general, the socialist movement in Poland was far in advance of that in Russia. As the Soviet historian, S.N. Valk, put it: “The socialist movement in Poland, from its inception, was a workers’ movement as well as a mass movement, in sharp contrast to the Russian revolutionary socialist movement, in which the tone was set by the intelligentsia and by the circles.” [15] In May 1891, there was a wave of strikes in many Polish towns, which came to a climax the following year with a general strike in Lodz.

Even more successful in organising agitation were Jewish socialists. In the regions of heavy Jewish population, strikes became very frequent, reaching a high point in 1895, in a textile industry strike in Bialystok, which involved as many as 15,000 workers. In 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 [16], in 1900, 20 per cent of Jewish 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. [17]

It is therefore not surprising that Plekhanov’s call for agitation among the workers was taken up first of all by the Jewish socialists who later organised themselves into the Jewish Bund. In 1894, A. Kremer, a leading member of the Jewish socialist organisation, wrote a pamphlet, Ob Agitatsii (On Agitation), in colLabouration with Martov. Ob Agitatsii sharply condemned the preoccupation of the members of Marxist circles with their own “self-perfection.” “Precisely the worker Social Democrats for the most part support that very preoccupation (circle propaganda) which we condemn as useless.” Reviewing the accomplishments of kruzhkovshchina, the pamphlet argued that “only the superior, more capable workers have thus obtained theoretical knowledge, which they associate in a very superficial way with real life and surrounding conditions ... The workers’ striving for knowledge, for escape from darkness, was exploited for the purpose of foisting on them the generalisations and tenets of scientific socialism.” [18]

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.” [19]

The [economic] struggle ... teaches the worker to stand up for his own interests, it elevates his courage, it gives him confidence in his own strength and consciousness of the necessity for unity, it places before him more important tasks demanding solution. Prepared thus for a more serious struggle, the working class proceeds to come to grips with these vital questions. The class struggle in this more conscious form creates the soil for political agitation, the goal of which is to change the existing political conditions to the advantage of the working class. The further program of Social Democracy becomes self-evident ... [20]

In order to get hold of that trifling issue capable of rallying the workers to the struggle, it is necessary to understand which abuses most easily excite the workers’ interests, to choose the most auspicious moment to begin, to know what methods of struggle under the given conditions of time and place are the most effective. Such knowledge demands that the agitator be in constant touch with the working masses, that he continually follow developments in a given branch of industry. In every factory there are countless abuses, and the worker may be interested in the most trivial details; to discern just when to advance a given demand, to know ahead of time about possible complications – such is the real task of the agitator ... Knowledge of the conditions of life, knowledge of the feelings of the masses ... will make him their natural leader. [21]

The role of socialists as leaders of the masses was defined thus:

The task of Social Democrats is one of constant agitation among factory workers on the basis of their everyday needs and demands ... 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. [22]

Ob Agitatsii had a mechanical theory of the relation between the industrial struggle, the struggle against the employers, and the political struggle against tsarism, based on the concept of “stages.” In later years, this became the theoretical foundation for the development of “economism”, so harshly condemned by Lenin. Thus the pamphlet stated:

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. [23]

The initial reaction of the members of the circles to Ob Agitatsii was in many cases very hostile. Martov records that representatives of Social Democratic circles from Kiev and Kharkov visiting Vilna argued 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’.” [24] Akimov, an early chronicler of the movement, quoted a worker, a member of one of the Marxist circles, as 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!” [25]

A comrade from Kiev related:

I went to see a woman worker and found her in tears. I asked what troubled her, and she said that some of her friends, former members of a workers’ circle, had visited her and ridiculed her for presuming to preach without undergoing circle training herself: “They seem to have turned you into a half-baked Social Democratic agitator, haven’t they? You ought to do some studying yourself before you teach!” [26]

One worker, Abram Gordon, in a pamphlet called Letter to the Intellectuals, reminded the Social Democratic intellectuals of their duty to serve the workers rather than to use them as “the cannon fodder of the revolution.” He denounced agitation as another attempt to keep the workers in semi-ignorance and to perpetuate their dependence on intellectual leaders of bourgeois origin. [27]

Criticising this attitude, Akimov said that such workers

failed to understand the profound significance of this change of tactics. It seemed to them that by abandoning propaganda activity in workers’ circles, the intelligenty were giving up their cultural role, that they were seeking to exploit the unconscious elemental movement of the masses and regarded the workers as mere “cannon fodder.” Indeed, the workers who belonged to the circles proved to be less democratic than the revolutionaries who were drawn from the intelligentsia. They felt superior to the masses and were irritated by the appearance of ignorant workers at the meetings. As a result, entire trades, including the typesetters, who until now had set the pace, withdrew from the movement. [28]

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 making themselves into ‘critically thinking personalities’ they ought to pick persons with agitational talents and equip them with that minimum of knowledge necessary to influence the masses.” [29]

Despite this strong opposition from inside the circles, agitation did take root and pushed aside the kruzhkovshchina. In April 1894, a copy of Ob Agitatsii reached Moscow, where it was hectographed and 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 achieved a wide distribution.



Plekhanov Fails the Test

The transition to agitation failed to be made by a large proportion, possibly a majority, of worker members of the circles. But although it was Plekhanov who in 1891 first argued the need to move toward agitation, when it came to practice, he and his Emancipation of Labour Group were themselves found wanting.

As early as 1892, A. Voden, a literate young Marxist from St. Petersburg, visited Plekhanov to pass on a request from 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 time.” [30] There were no less than six such missions before 1895, all resulting in insoluble conflicts. Plekhanov’s wife, Rosaliya 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.” [31]

In 1897, Tuchapsky, a Marxist from Kiev, was sent to Switzerland to ask Plekhanov and Axelrod to publish a series of popular propaganda pamphlets for Russian workers. The request was immediately rejected on the ground that they had no time for such tasks. [32]

It is true that a year earlier Plekhanov’s group had 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, though, refused to be involved with it, and Vera Zasulich and Axelrod were clearly resentful at having to undertake the task. In a letter written late in 1896, Vera Zasulich complained that she “began to revolt” when she set eyes on “the hopeless incredible phrases” of the articles presented for Listok Rabotnika. [33] Axelrod wrote: “Of course it is possible to publish such literary caricatures without me.” [34] Two years later, he wrote to Plekhanov that he and Vera Zasulich were “eager to escape having to edit illiterate and semi-literate publications.” [35]

The lack of enthusiasm for the publication of workers’ popular literature ensured that well over half a year went by between the decision to publish and the first appearance of Listok Rabotnika, and that only one issue of the journal appeared between November 1896 and November 1897!

The gulf between the Emancipation of Labour Group’s theoretical support for a turn to mass agitation and its unwillingness to carry this out in practice may be explained by the lack of immediate revolutionary prospects in the 1880s and early 1890s, the period during which the group was formed. Vera Zasulich frankly pointed out the gulf between the group and the newly rising agitators in Russia. She wrote to Plekhanov: “Is it not clear to you that we cannot work with this kind of person in one organisation? And not because he is bad! It is simply a difference in years, understanding, and mood.” [36] A few weeks later she wrote again:

Against us is practically the entire younger emigration 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 ... 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. [37]



Lenin as a Factory Agitator

Lenin adapted himself perfectly to the needs of industrial agitation. Furthermore, whatever the official biographers may say, the truth is that in the years 1894-96, he did not denounce Ob Agitatsii as one-sided, mechanical, and “economist.” His writings of the period coincide exactly with the line which it put forward.

While in prison in 1895, he wrote a draft program for the Social Democrats. This document was smuggled out of jail, then lost and rediscovered only after the revolution. It is an interesting work, summing up very clearly Lenin’s views on Ob Agitatsii. He wrote:

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. [38]

This economic struggle, Lenin argued, in the first place demonstrated to the worker the nature of economic exploitation; secondly, imbued him with a fighting spirit; and thirdly, developed his political consciousness. Class consciousness, including political consciousness, develops 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 the workers of any particular country are identical, that they all constitute one class, separate from all the other classes in society. Finally, it means the workers’ understanding that to achieve their aims they have to work to influence the affairs of state, just as the landlords and the capitalists have done and continue to do.

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 place 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. [39]

Lenin pursued this line of thought consistently in the agitational leaflets and pamphlets that he wrote during 1894–96. Step by step the reader was led to political conclusions that 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, stated that 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. [40]

At that time, 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 allusion 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 right.” [41]

In November 1895, in an article called What are our ministers thinking about? Lenin urged the expediency of leaving the tsar out of the argument, and talking instead about the new laws that favored employers and of cabinet ministers who were anti–working class. The monarch was still “The Little Father” to the workers and peasants, and Lenin’s sister Anna quotes him as saying: “Of course, if you start right away talking against the tsar and the existing social system you only antagonise the workers.” [42]

Late in 1894, Lenin and G.M. Krzhizhanovsky met Greshin-Kopelzon, Nikitin-Sponti, and Liakhovsky, who were then working in the Marxist groups of Vilna, Moscow, and Kiev, respectively, but who all had firsthand experience of the Vilna strike movement. The meeting accepted the basic thesis of Ob Agitatsii. Following this meeting, in 1895, Lenin, Martov, Krzhizhanovsky, and others founded the St. Petersburg League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class. The League was made up of about two dozen intellectuals and workers and played a crucial role in getting Social Democratic agitation started among the working class of St. Petersburg. From its foundation, Marxism never ceased to be associated with the workers of St. Petersburg. Martov and Lenin were the acknowledged leaders of the League, and its main activity was the issuing of factory leaflets. In preparing these, Lenin was greatly aided by Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, the young woman he met in 1894 and married a few years later.

In 1890, Krupskaya had joined the Marxist circle of Brunev and for five years (1891-96) taught at what was called “Evening Sunday School” in the industrial suburbs of St. Petersburg. On Sundays and two nights a week, she taught workers arithmetic, history, and Russian literature, from a level of illiteracy to quite an advanced stage. The school provided contact with serious workers, which was the attraction for the young Krupskaya and the other Marxist teachers in the same school. There were Alexandra Kalmykova, a well-to-do woman publisher and owner of a popular bookshop that in later years financed Lenin’s first émigré newspaper Iskra; Lydia Knipovich, who was destined to serve as one of the underground agents of the same paper; and also Elena Stasova, who in 1917 was to replace Krupskaya as party secretary. The Marxist teachers in the school founded an underground circle to coordinate their activities.

The workers displayed unlimited confidence in the “school mistresses”. Thus the gloomy watchman from the Gromov timberyards, with face beaming, told the teacher that he had been presented with a son; a consumptive textile-worker wanted her to teach her enterprising suitor to read and write; a Methodist workman who had spent his whole life seeking God wrote with satisfaction that only on Passion Sunday had he learned from Rudakov (another pupil) that there was no God at all. [43]

The school served as a source of recruitment for revolutionary workers.

Workers belonging to our organisation went to the school in order to observe the people and note who could be brought into the circles or drawn into the movement. These workers did not regard all the women teachers in the same light. They distinguished to what extent the teachers were versed in the work of our circles. If they recognised a schoolmistress to be “one of us,” they would make themselves known to her by some phrase or other. [44]

Krupskaya talked easily to worker-students at the school and played a central role both in gathering information about factory conditions for use in the League’s leaflets and in organising the distribution of the leaflets in the factories.

To elicit the necessary information for their leaflets, the League began to distribute questionnaires to individual workers, with whom contact had been made through the teachers. Fitter Ivan Babushkin reported, “We received lists with prepared questions, which demanded from us a careful observation of factory life ... My tool box was constantly packed tight with the most varied notices, and I exerted myself to write down unobserved the amount of the daily wages in our workshop.” [45]

And Lenin writes:

I vividly recall my “first experiment” which I would never like to repeat. I spent many weeks “examining” a worker, who would often visit me, regarding every aspect of the conditions prevailing in the enormous factory at which he was employed. True, after great effort, I managed to obtain material for a description (of the one single factory!), but at the end of the interview the worker would wipe the sweat from his brow, and say to me smilingly: “I find it easier to work overtime than to answer your questions.” [46]

The information obtained in this way was edited and written up in the form of leaflets for the workers of the individual plants. The leaflets dealt with concrete issues that all the workers understood.

Lenin spent months studying Labour legislation, so that he could explain clearly the relevant laws and practices prevailing in the factories, and formulate 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. [47]

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 named Krolikov, 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 married quarter. 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. [48]

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: ‘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.” [49]

The immediate effect of the industrial agitation carried out by the St. Petersburg League – 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 10 November 1895, but on the same day the weavers went back to work without having gained concessions from the management. The stariki [veterans – Lenin, Martov, etc. – TC] 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 striking 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 work 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. [50]

Lenin and five other members of the League were arrested in December 1895, and several more, including Martov, early in the new year. But the struggle did not prove fruitless. A few months later, the first mass strike in Russia proper took place under the banner of Social Democracy. This was a strike of textile workers in May 1896, in St. Petersburg. The members of the League, or rather those of its members who survived arrest, played a central role in the massive strike. It began as a protest against the nonpayment of wages for the three-day holiday celebrating 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, employing 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 League played a central part in it. 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 a significant movement.

How far Russia had moved since the end of 1895 may be gauged by reading a confidential circular from the minister of finance to the factory inspectorate of that time: “Fortunately Russia does not possess a working class in the same sense as the West does; consequently we have no labour problem; nor will either of these find in Russia a soil to produce them”! [51]



Defeat in Victory

The success of the movement, however, led to a grave internal crisis. The Social Democratic movement began to divide into “economist” and “political” currents. The correction of the one-sidedness of the kruzhkovshchina – an excess of emphasis on theory – led to its equally one-sided opposite, “economism”. This danger was already inherent in Ob Agitatsii, as Lenin and others noted with hindsight in 1898. One must bear in mind the conclusion reached by Ob Agitatsii:

The task of the Social Democrats consists of constant agitation among the factory workers on the basis of existing petty needs and demands. The struggle provoked by this agitation will train the workers to defend their own interests, heighten their courage, give them confidence in their own powers and an awareness of the necessity for union, and in the final analysis ultimately confront them with more important questions demanding a solution. Prepared in this way for a more serious struggle, the working class will move on to the solution of its most basic questions.

This formula opened the door to the theory of stages characteristic of the future “economists.” Socialists should limit their agitation to purely economic issues, first to the industrial plant, then to interplant demands, and so on. Secondly, from the narrow economic agitation, the workers would learn, through experience of the struggle itself, the need for politics, without the need for socialists to carry out agitation on the general political and social issues facing the Russian people as a whole. The arrest of Lenin, Martov, and others accelerated the move toward “economism” in the St. Petersburg League. The new comrades who joined the group had less theoretical training.

“Everything went in agitation,” Krupskaya wrote. “There was not time even to think of propaganda ... 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.” [52]

In the political testament of F.I. Dan, the veteran Menshevik leader, written some 50 years later, the rise of the “economist” trend in Social Democracy was explained thus:

In responding sympathetically to the political notes that rang out in the economic agitation of the League, 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 their 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. [53]

A historian of this period of Russian Social Democracy put the “economists” into correct perspective when he said:

The roots of Economism are best sought in the agitational method of Social Democratic work. The socialists who had devised this method acknowledged the indifference of Labour to politics and proposed to overcome it by demonstrating the allegedly indissoluble link between economic interests and the country’s political order. Whereas in theory agitation was political, in practice it remained confined to economics. From agitation, which pushed politics into the background as a matter of tactical expedience, it was only one step to Economism proper, which subordinated politics to economics as a matter of principle. Economism thus came into being in Russia in 1896-97, in the wake of the emerging mass Labour movement. [54]

To add to the impact of “economism” and the threat to socialism involved in it, there are two other factors affecting the Russian Labour movement at that time. One was the Labour policy of the tsarist secret police. The other was the rise of the powerful current of revisionism, led by Eduard Bernstein, in the German Social Democratic Party, which was by far the most important socialist party in the world.

The secret police fancied the idea of “economism” as a reaction to the rising industrial struggle in Russia. General Trepov, head of the secret police, wrote in 1898:

If the minor needs and demands of the workers are exploited by the revolutionaries for such profound antigovernmental 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.

Following this logic, as we shall see later, Colonel Zubatov, head of the Moscow Security Police, organised police-controlled trade unions, first among Jewish workers, where “economist” agitation was most successful, and then among the Russians, an enterprise culminating in Father Gapon’s organisation of trade unions in St. Petersburg, which led to “Bloody Sunday” and the beginning of the 1905 revolution.

The second factor bolstering “economism” – German revisionism – was heralded by the publication in January 1899 of Eduard Bernstein’s 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, culminating in 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 everything.” This coincided perfectly with the ideas of the Russian “economists.” For them, too, “the movement,” in the sense of securing small concrete improvements in the economic conditions of workers, was all-important. Thus the whole political aim of the movement – above all the overthrow of Tsarism – dropped out of sight.

The link between “economism” and Bernstein’s revisionism was given concrete expression in a document called the Credo (1899). Its author was Y.D. Kuskova, at the time a member of the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad. It declared forthrightly that Bernstein’s revisionism was its theoretical base. The general law of working-class activity, it declared, should be to follow “the line 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 “line of least resistance in Russia” was economic action against the employers and an attempt to organise trade unions.

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 Labour movement, the organisation or organisations best conforming 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 mere 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. [55]

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

When Lenin, in exile in Siberia, received a copy of the Credo, he hastened to write a reply, A Protest by Russian Social Democrats (August 1899). The draft was discussed at a meeting of 17 Marxists in exile in Minusinsk region, and adopted by them. It made Lenin quite widely known in Social Democratic circles and accomplished its purpose well. As Martov said years later, it rallied the hundreds of exiles scattered all over Siberia to revolutionary Marxism. [56]

The years 1883-99 had witnessed the erratic development of the Russian Marxists from a propaganda sect isolated from the working class, to an agitational organisation restricting itself to the immediate day-to-day struggle of the workers, from pure theory to narrow practice. 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.

On the one hand, the working-class movement is being sundered from socialism, the workers are being helped to carry on the economic struggle, but nothing, or next to nothing, is done to explain to them the socialist aims and the political tasks of the movement as a whole. On the other hand, socialism is being sundered from the Labour movement; Russian socialists are again beginning to talk more and more about the struggle against the government having to be carried on entirely by the intelligentsia because the workers confine themselves to the economic struggle. [57]

Against this, Lenin posed the synthesis of the economic and political struggles 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 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. [58]

Lenin points out that the historical roots of reformism lie in the one-sidedness both of the kruzhkovshchina 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.” [59] He goes on to point out that a certain organisational narrowness, which characterised both the kruzhkovshchina stage and the industrial agitation stage, also fostered “economism”:

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. [60]

The conflict between the orthodox Marxists, like Lenin and Martov, and the “economists” also took on an organisational form, which anticipated the debate on organisation between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. At this point, however, the protagonists of the two future tendencies, Lenin and Martov, were on the same side in the argument.

After the successful strike in St. Petersburg in 1896, many newly recruited members of the movement, workers and intellectuals alike, demanded to shift the organisation from being in its core of professional revolutionaries. The “economists” explained that the political and highly conspiratorial character of the League resulted from the priority given by the intellectuals to political activity and their lack of understanding of the real needs of the mass of the workers. In mainly agitational economic activity, the need for conspiracy and centralism would be much less. 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, and the loose local factory and area workers’ organisation would suffice. Centralism versus parochialism was the organisational reflection of the split between the political revolutionaries and the “economists.” The professional revolutionary, in the “economists” scheme, would be relegated and replaced by workers who did not have to leave their place of work and their normal local habitat.

Many of the members of the circles, as we have seen, did not make the transition to industrial agitation. But of those who did, very few fell into “economism.” It was the new activists who emerged in the industrial struggle itself, culminating in the textile strike of 1896, who were the main ones to succumb. The testimony of the Menshevik leader Dan, writing some 50 years after the events, relates this to the later development of Bolshevism and Menshevism:

It is worth noting 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 “worker intelligentsia”, baptised in the strike movement of the second half of the 1890s, 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. [61]



Bending the Stick

The years 1894–96 were important for Lenin’s development into a workers’ leader. To quote Krupskaya:

This Petersburg period of Vladimir Ilyich’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. [62]

Despite the one-sidedness of the factory agitation at the time, Lenin always valued this period as a very important and necessary stage in the development of Russian Social Democracy. He was ready to admit both its progressive role and the dangers inherent in it. Thus in a letter he wrote on November 9, 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. [63]

This readiness to bend the stick too far in one direction and then to go into reverse and bend it too far in the opposite direction was a characteristic that he retained throughout his life. It was already clearly apparent at this early stage of his development as a revolutionary leader.

At every stage of the struggle, Lenin would look for what he regarded as the key link in the chain of development. He would then repeatedly emphasise the importance of this link, to which all others must be subordinated. After the event, he would say: “We overdid it. We bent the stick too far,” by which he did not mean that he had been wrong to do so. To win the main battle of the day, the concentration of all energies on the task was necessary.

The uneven development of different aspects of the struggle made it necessary always to look for the key link in every concrete situation. When this was the need for study, for laying the foundations of the first Marxist circles, Lenin stressed the central role of study. In the next stage, when the need was to overcome circle mentality, he would repeat again and again the importance of industrial agitation. At the next turn of the struggle, when “economism” needed to be smashed, Lenin did this with a vengeance. He always made the task of the day quite clear, repeating what was necessary ad infinitum in the plainest, heaviest, most single-minded hammer-blow pronouncements. Afterwards, he would regain his balance, straighten the stick, then bend it again in another direction. If this method has advantages in overcoming current obstacles, it also contains hazards for anyone wanting to use Lenin’s writing on tactical and organisational questions as a source for quotation. Authority by quotation is nowhere less justified than in the case of Lenin. If he is cited on any tactical or organisational question, the concrete issues that the movement was facing at the time must be made absolutely clear.

Another of Lenin’s characteristics already apparent at this early stage of his development is an attitude to organisational forms as always historically determined. He never adopted abstract, dogmatic schemes of organisation, and was ready to change the organisational structure of the party at every new development of the class struggle. Organisation, he was convinced, should be subordinated to politics. This, however, did not mean that it had no independent influence on politics. There was a reciprocal relation between them. In certain situations, organisation might even be granted priority.




1. G.V. Plekhanov, The Russian worker in the revolutionary movement, Sochineniia, vol.3, p.131.

2. Plekhanov, ibid., p.143.

3. E. Mendelsohn, Worker opposition in the Russian Jewish socialist movement: From the 1890s to 1903, International Review of Social History, 1965.

4. A.K. Wildman, The Making of a Workers’ Revolution: Russian Social Democracy, 1891–1903, Chicago 1967, p.31.

5. Vladimir Akimov on the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism, 1895–1903, edited by J. Frankel, London 1969, pp.235–36.

6. Quoted in Mendelsohn, op. cit.

7. S.I. Mitskevich, Revoliutsionnaia Moskva, Moscow 1940, p.144.

8. Wildman, op. cit., p.34.

9. ibid., p.32.

10. ibid., p.37.

11. L. Martov, Zapiski sotsial-demokrata, Berlin-Petersburg-Moscow 1922, pp.224–25.

12. ibid., p.227.

13. Plekhanov, O zadachi sotsialistov v borbe s golodom v Rossii, Geneva 1892, p.58.

14. ibid., p.79.

15. S.N. Valk, Materials on the history of May Day in Russia, Krasnaia letopis, no.4, 1922, p.253.

16. V.V. Sviatlovsky, Istoriia professionalnogo dvizheniia v Rossii, Leningrad 1925, p.301.

17. D. Pospielovsky, Russian Police Trade Unions, London 1971, p.7.

18. Ob agitatsii, Geneva 1896, p.1.

19. ibid., p.9.

20. ibid., p.16

21. ibid., p.17.

22. ibid., pp.17–18.

23. Martov, Istoriia RSDRP, Moscow 1922, p.28.

24. Martov, Zapiski sotsial-demokrata, op. cit., pp.250–52.

25. Akimov, op. cit., p.238.

26. ibid., p.288.

27. Martov, Zapiski sotsial-demokrata, op. cit., pp.227–32.

28. Akimov, op. cit., p.214.

29. Martov, Zapiski sotsial-demokrata, op. cit., pp.227–28.

30. A. Voden, At the dawn of legal Marxism, Letopis marksizma, no.3, 1927, p.80.

31. Wildman, op. cit., p.166.

32. ibid., p.164.

33. L. Deich, ed., Gruppa Osvobozhdenie Truda, vol.6, Moscow 1928, p.174.

34. Perepiska G.V. Plekhanova i P.B. Akselroda, op. cit., vol.1, p.166.

35. ibid., p.32.

36. Deich, op. cit., pp.204–05.

37. ibid., pp.207–08.

38. ibid., p.114.

39. ibid., p.115.

40. ibid., p.72.

41. ibid., p.85.

42. Novy mir, June 1963.

43. Krupskaya, op. cit., p.19.

44. ibid., p.20.

45. Geyer, op. cit., p.49.

46. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.5, p.491.

47. Krupskaya, op. cit., p.21,

48. ibid., p.26.

49. ibid., p.25.

50. R. Pipes, Social Democracy and the St. Petersburg Labor Movement, 1885–97, Cambridge, Mass., 1963, pp.93–94.

51. Pokrovsky, op. cit., vol.2, p.37.

52. Krupskaya, op. cit., p.29.

53. T. Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism, New York 1964, pp.211–12.

54. Pipes, p.124.

55. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.4, pp.173–74.

56. Martov, Zapiski sotsial-demokrata, op. cit., p.410.

57. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.4, p.367.

58. ibid., pp.293–94.

59. ibid., p.367.

60. ibid., p.367.

61. Dan, op. cit., p.212.

62. Krupskaya, op. cit., p.27.

63. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.36, pp.51–52.


Last updated on 20.1.2004