Tony Cliff

Lenin 1

Chapter 5
The 1903 Congress:
Bolshevism Is Born

Preparing the Congress

LENIN WAS ready and willing to deal not only with general problems of theory and politics, but also with the details of organisational work. This was one of his strengths and that of his faction or party, and was a characteristic that became evident during the Iskra period and the preparation for the second Congress – the years 1900–03.

Lenin was always anxious to meet active underground party workers. He invited released Siberian exiles and escaped prisoners to come and stay abroad for a time, and discussed with them the political, tactical, and organisational problems they faced. He drew promising comrades into the central work of the organisation, transferring them from one locality to another and using them as Iskra agents. There were at most 20 or 30 of these with whom Lenin maintained regular contacts. A key role in keeping in touch with Russia was played by Krupskaya.

When I arrived, Vladimir Ilyich told me that he had succeeded in arranging that I should be made secretary of Iskra on my arrival. This, of course, meant that contact with Russia would be carried on under the closest control of Vladimir Ilyich. Martov and Potresov had nothing against this then, and the Emancipation of Labour Group did not put up their own candidate; indeed, they attached little importance to Iskra at that time. Vladimir Ilyich told me it had been rather awkward for him to have to arrange this, but that he considered it necessary for the good of the cause. I was immediately snowed under with work. [1]

There were a number of difficulties involved in corresponding with Russian activists – above all the intervention of the police.

In reading now the correspondence with Russia, carried on in those days, one marvels at the naive forms of our conspiratorial work. All those letters about handkerchiefs (passports), brewing beer, warm fur (illegal literature), all those code-names for towns – beginning with the same letter as the name of the town (“Ossip” for Odessa, “Terenty” for Tver, “Petya” for Poltava, “Pasha” for Pskov, etc.) all this substituting of women’s names for men’s and vice versa – all this was transparent in the extreme. [2]

Trotsky reports:

Krupskaya ... was at the very centre of all the organisation work; she received comrades when they arrived, instructed them when they left, established connections, supplied secret addresses, wrote letters, and coded and decoded correspondence. In her room there was always a smell of burned paper from the secret letters she heated over the fire to read. She often complained, in her gently insistent way, that people did not write enough, or that they got the code all mixed up or wrote in chemical ink in such a way that one line covered another, and so forth. [3]

Krupskaya succeeded in co-ordinating the underground Iskra organisation to a degree never before achieved by any Russian revolutionary organisation – and all this was done without a single assistant in the one-room “head office,” smelling “of burned paper.”

Lenin’s nerves suffered.

Everything lay on Vladimir Ilyich. The correspondence with Russia had a very bad effect on his nerves. To wait weeks, or even months, for answers to letters, to be continually expecting the whole business to fall through, to be in a constant state of ignorance as to how things were progressing – all this was extremely incompatible with Vladimir Ilyich’s character. His letters to Russia were overflowing with requests to write accurately: “Once more we earnestly and categorically beseech and demand that you write us more often and in greater detail – in particular, do it at once, without fail, the very same day you receive this letter. Let us know you have received it, even if only a couple of lines.” His letters overflowed with requests to act more speedily. Ilyich would spend sleepless nights after receiving letters with such news as: “‘Sonia’ is as silent as a grave,” or “Zarin did not come to the Committee in time,” or “no contact with ‘the old woman’” ... These sleepless nights remain engraved on my memory. [4]

Iskra played a central role in preparing for the Congress. This journal had a unique place in the history of journalism. It was the organising centre of an underground party in Russia. The agents of the editorial board – nine in number by the end of 1901 [5], travelling secretly all over the country, got in touch with local groups, or set up groups where none existed, and co-ordinated their work. Previous attempts had encouraged pessimism. When, in 1900, Lenin, Martov, and Potresov

went abroad to found a newspaper and by means of it a Russian organisation, they risked suffering the fate of successive waves of Russian revolutionaries before them. These had gone abroad with the same hope that from Western Europe they would create a revolutionary movement in Russia; at best they had, one after another, founded organisations of émigrés if they succeeded in founding anything at all. But this time, “where these others failed, the triumvirate succeeded; their congress began truly as a congress of victors.” [6]

In preparing for the Congress, which, after the abortion of the 1898 Congress, was to be the real founding Congress of the party and to establish unity among the revolutionary groups, Lenin left nothing to chance.

The following is part of a letter from him to one of the Iskra agents, F.V. Lengnik, written on 23 May 1902:

Your task now is to turn yourself into a committee for preparing the Congress ... and to push your own people through into the largest number of committees possible, safeguarding yourself and your people more than the apple of your eye, until the Congress. Remember: All this is of the utmost importance! Be bolder, more pushy and more inventive in this respect, and in all others, as discreet and as careful as possible. Wise as serpents – and (with the committees: the Bund and St. Petersburg) harmless as doves. [7]

Another agent, I.I. Radchenko, was told to be very cautious toward the Jewish socialist organisation, the Bund.

Behave as impressively as you can and act with caution. Take on yourself the greatest possible number of districts in which you undertake to prepare for the Congress, refer to the Bureau (giving it some other name), in a word, make sure that the whole thing is entirely in your hands, leaving the Bund, for the time being, confined to the Bund ... And so, for the time being, have in mind the composition of a Russian Committee for Preparing the Congress which is most advantageous for us (you may find it convenient to say that you have already formed this committee, and are very glad to have the Bund participate or something like this). Take on yourself, without fail, to be secretary in this committee. These are the first steps, and then we shall see. I say have the composition “in mind” to have as free a hand as possible: Don’t commit yourself to the Bund right away (you can say, for example, that connections have been established with the Volga, the Caucasus, the centre – we have a man from over there – and the South – we’re sending two down there), and make yourself master of the undertaking. But do all this most carefully, without rousing objections. [8]

The loyalty declarations that appeared in the pages of Iskra in the winter of 1902–03 clearly show that Lenin’s agents were successful in carrying out their mission. Iskra won over one committee after another: in December 1902, the Nizhni-Novgorod Committee; in January 1903, the Saratov Committee; in February, the Northern Workers’ Union; in March, the Don Committee (Rostov), the Siberian Workers’ Union, the Kazan and Ufa Committees; in April, the Tula, Odessa, and Irkutsk Committees; and in May, the Mineworkers’ Union of South Russia and the Ekaterinoslav Committee. [9]

The work of the Iskra agents was well described by the general of the gendarmerie, Spiridovich:

Welded into a compact conspiratorial group of professional revolutionaries, they traveled from place to place wherever there were party committees, established contacts with their members, delivered illegal literature to them, helped to establish print shops and garnered the information needed by the Iskra. They penetrated into local committees, carried on their propaganda against “economism,” eliminated their ideological opponents and in this way subjected the committees to their influence. [10]

After months of persistent effort, the correspondence with Iskra agents and others in Russia became regular and increased considerably in volume. It gave Lenin a real insight into the thinking and feeling of militant workers. As Krupskaya put it:

The revolutionary movement in Russia continued to grow and at the same time correspondence with Russia also increased. It soon grew to 300 letters a month, which was an enormous figure for those days. And it provided Ilyich with a spate of material! He really knew how to read workers’ letters. I remember one letter, written by workers of the Odessa stone-quarries. It was a collective essay, written in several primitive-looking hands, devoid of subjects and predicates, and innocent of stops and commas. But it radiated an inexhaustible energy and readiness to fight to the finish, to fight until victorious. It was a letter in which every word, however naive, was eloquent of unshakeable conviction. I do not remember now what the letter referred to, but I remember what it looked like – the paper and the red ink. Lenin read that letter over many times, and paced up and down the room deep in thought. It had not been a vain endeavour when the Odessa quarrymen wrote Ilyich their letter: They had written to the right person, to someone who understood them best of all. [11]

Krupskaya was also treasurer of the Bolshevik Party, with sole access to its accounts. In addition, she organised the transportation of Iskra to Russia. This was an extremely onerous task. One of the people mainly concerned in carrying out the actual transportation of Iskra to Russia – Ossip A. Piatnitsky – gave a vivid description of the methods used:

To expedite the conveyance of literature into Russia in smaller quantities we used suitcases with double bottoms. Even before my arrival in Berlin a small factory manufactured such suitcases for us in large quantities. But the customs officials on the frontier soon smelled a rat, and several expeditions ended in failure. Apparently they recognised the suitcases, which were all of the same style. Then we ourselves began to put double bottoms of strong cardboard into ordinary suitcases, in which we could pack away 100 to 150 new numbers of the Iskra. These false bottoms were pasted over so skilfully that no one could tell that the suitcase contained any literature. Nor did the suitcase weigh much heavier as a result. We performed this operation on all the suitcases of outgoing men and women students who were sympathetic to the Iskra group; and also on the suitcases of all comrades who went to Russia, legally or illegally. But even that did not suffice. The demand for new literature was tremendous. We now invented “breast plates”: for the men we manufactured a kind of waistcoat into which we could stuff two or three hundred copies of the Iskra and thin pamphlets; for women we constructed special bodices and sowed literature into their skirts. With our equipment women could carry about three or four hundred copies of the Iskra.

This was called “express transport” in our parlance. Everybody we could lay our hands on had to don these “breast plates” – responsible comrades and ordinary mortals alike. [12]

This way of transporting Iskra into Russia was very cumbersome and very costly. As Krupskaya recalled many years later: “Although a heap of money, energy, and time was put into all this transportation work, and tremendous risks were entailed, probably not more than one-tenth of the literature dispatched arrived at its destination.” [13] Rumour had it that the paper had a circulation of 100,000 in Kiev, but in fact the total number of copies printed of the first number was 8,000. [14]

Lenin was unique among revolutionary leaders at this time in his attitude toward the details of party organisation. This may best be understood by contrasting his point of view with that, say, of Rosa Luxemburg and her friends in the leadership of the Polish Social Democratic Party, which has been described as follows:

To a large extent each member of the elite acted on his own initiative and in accordance with his own predilections and habits. Orders were rare indeed; apart from exceptional cases ... communication was a matter of dispensing rabbinical shades of opinion. Dzierzynski was horrified at this laxity and saw it as evidence of deterioration. “No policy, no direction, no mutual assistance ... everybody has to cope on his own” ... Far from being an accidental lacuna in the party’s administration, this haphazard informality was deliberate and jealously guarded. Some of the leaders very much disliked having to deal with money and organisational routine at all; it kept them from their writing. “I have no wish to concern myself with money matters ... You must approach Wladek [Olszewski], the cashier, in such matters,” Marchlewski wrote indignantly to Cezaryna Wojnarowska in 1902. The same applied even more strongly to Rosa Luxemburg. At some stage a formal party decision was reached that she could not concern herself with organisational matters at all, that she should not participate in any of the official conferences or congresses. [1*]

Like Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky was also not involved in party administration. But this was because he did not, in fact, belong to any real party. Between 1904, when he broke with the Mensheviks, and 1917, when he joined the Bolsheviks, he was associated only with a small loose group of writers.

The whole preparation of the 1903 Congress was in the hands of Lenin. “How Vladimir Ilyich longed for the Congress!” Krupskaya reminisced. [16] But despite all his persistence, and all the hard work, the Congress took on a completely unexpected shape. Instead of being a unity congress, it was a congress in which the Russian Marxists split radically into two separate trends and organisations – the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.



The 1903 Congress

At the beginning of the Congress, things went well for the united leadership of Plekhanov, Lenin, Martov, Axelrod, Zasulich, and Potresov. Of the 51 votes, 33, or a clear majority, belonged to adherents of the Iskra position. Lenin’s careful preparation had helped to make this a certainty. Iskra’s chief rival, Rabocheye Dyelo, the “economist” paper, had only 3 votes; the Jewish Bund had 5; and 6 of the remaining delegates were unaligned. Plekhanov and Lenin called these last “the swamp,” as they sometimes voted with the Iskrists, sometimes against them. If the 33 Iskrists stuck together, they could certainly carry the day on every issue.

The first three sessions of the Congress (out of a total of 37) were devoted largely to trivial matters of procedure. After that came the discussion of the party programme, which was the most important item on the agenda. This was introduced by Plekhanov. The main question, about the dictatorship of the proletariat, drew practically solid support from all except the “economists” Martynov and Akimov. When the programme was finally adopted, everyone present voted for it except Akimov, who abstained.

Akimov attacked the programme for its spirit of party tutelage over the proletariat.

The concepts “party” and “proletariat” are set in opposition to each other, the first as an active, causative, collective being, the second as a passive medium on which the party operates. The name of the party is used throughout as subject, in the nominative case, the name of the proletariat as object, in the accusative case ...

The essential condition for the social revolution is the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., the conquest of such power by the proletariat as will allow it to suppress all attempts at resistance on the part of the exploiters. [A] How could the endorsement of this dictatorship be reconciled with the demand for a democratic republic? One of the delegates, Posadovsky, asked the Congress whether the party ought to subordinate its future policy to this or that basic democratic principle, as having an absolute value, or “must all democratic principles be subordinated exclusively to the interests of the party?” Plekhanov gave a clear and decisive answer:

Every democratic principle must be considered not by itself, abstractly, but in relation to that which may be called the fundamental principle of democracy, namely salus populi suprema lex. Translated into the language of the revolutionist, this means that the success of the revolution is the highest law. And if the success of the revolution demanded a temporary limitation on the working of this or that democratic principle, then it would be criminal to refrain from such a limitation. As my own personal opinion, I will say that even the principle of universal suffrage must be considered from the point of view of what I have designated the fundamental principle of democracy. It is hypothetically possible that we, the Social Democrats’ might speak out against universal suffrage. The bourgeoisie of the Italian republics once deprived persons belonging to the nobility of political rights. The revolutionary proletariat might limit the political rights of the higher classes just as the higher classes once limited their political rights. One can judge of the suitability of such measures only on the basis of the rule: salus revolutiae suprema lex.

And we must take the same position on the question of the duration of parliaments. If in a burst of revolutionary enthusiasm the people chose a very fine parliament – a kind of chambre introuvable – then we would be bound to try to make of it a long parliament; and if the elections turned out unsuccessfully, then we would have to try to disperse it not in two years but if possible in two weeks. [17]

Plekhanov’s statement precisely described the actual policies of the Bolsheviks, especially in 1917; he lived to bitterly regret his own words.

Martov, who by the time the Congress ended had become Lenin’s opponent, did not at this stage disagree with Plekhanov’s statement regarding the dictatorship of the proletariat. However, his definition was much less extreme. A few weeks later, in a report on the Congress to the League Congress of Russian Social Democrats Abroad, Martov tried to “defend” Plekhanov by toning down his statement: “These words [Plekhanov’s] aroused the indignation of some of the delegates; this could easily have been avoided if Comrade Plekhanov had added that it was of course impossible to imagine so tragic a situation as that the proletariat, in order to consolidate its victory, should have to trample on such political rights as freedom of the press. (Plekhanov: “Merci.”)” [18]

Trotsky, who at a later stage in the Congress would side with Martov against Lenin, at this point, in defending the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, missed the harsh reality that the dictatorship has to be directed against the conservative ideas spread among the masses by the old system of society, which is still fighting for survival. He rose to the defence of the program with a paraphrase from The Communist Manifesto:

The rule of the working class was inconceivable until the great mass of them were united in desiring it. Then they would be an overwhelming majority. This would not be the dictatorship of a little band of conspirators or a minority party, but of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority, to prevent counterrevolution. In short, it would represent the victory of true democracy. [19]

This, of course, was not an answer to Akimov’s argument, especially for Russia, where the proletariat was a tiny movement.

Lenin took very little part in the great program debate, except for his intervention on the agrarian aspects of the programme (see chapter 11). It is clear, however, as his policy in 1917 proved, that he was in complete agreement with Plekhanov.

The program adopted by the Congress was practically the same as the draft submitted to it. [20] The only differences were the addition of a demand for elected judges; and a few modifications of detail in the demands relating to legislation for the improvement of working conditions. It is interesting to note that during the debate on the program, Martynov, one of the “economist” delegates, delivered a sharp attack on Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? but got no support at all.

It is worth repeating, in the light of later events, that the program was adopted unanimously, with only one delegate abstaining. The unity of the Iskrists appeared less complete by the time the 16th and 17th sessions of the Congress took place. Several very close votes revealed that a number of them were voting with the Bund or the “economists” against Lenin and Plekhanov. But these votes were all on small points.

The bombshell of the Congress exploded in the 22nd session, devoted to the party rules. The occasion was the discussion of the first paragraph of the draft statutes, which defined membership. Lenin proposed that Article I should define a party member as one “who recognises the party’s program and supports it by material means and by personal participation in one of the party organisations.” Martov proposed an alternative starting off in exactly the same way, but with the final italicised phrase reading: “and by regular personal association under the direction of one of the party organisations”.

Lenin, taking the floor again and again, explained his formulation: He wanted a tightly organised party of revolutionaries.

The party must be only the vanguard, the leader of the vast masses of the working class, the whole (or nearly the whole) of which works “under the control and direction” of the party organisations, but the whole of which does not and should not belong to a “party” ... When most of our activities have to be confined to limited, secret circles and even to private meetings, it is extremely difficult, almost impossible in fact, for us to distinguish those who only talk from those who do the work. There is hardly another country in the world where the jumbling of these two categories is as common and as productive of such boundless confusion and harm as in Russia. We are suffering sorely ... It would be better if 10 who do work should not call themselves party members (real workers don’t hunt after titles!) than that one who only talks should have the right and opportunity to be a party member. That is a principle which seems to me irrefutable, and which compels me to fight against Martov ... We must not forget that every party member is responsible for the party, and that the party is responsible for every one of its members. [21]

Martov, too, spoke repeatedly. He was for a broad party. Trotsky sided with Martov, which was surprising, as in a previous session he seemed to be an even more extreme centralist than Lenin. Thus he had stated:

The rules, he (Comrade Akimov) said, do not define the jurisdiction of the Central Committee with enough precision. I cannot agree with him. On the contrary, this definition is precise and means that inasmuch as the party is one whole, it must be ensured control over the local committees. Comrade Lieber said, borrowing my expression, that the rules were “organised distrust.” That is true. But I used this expression in reference to the rules proposed by the Bund spokesmen, which represented organised distrust on the part of a section of the party towards the whole party. Our rules, on the other hand, represent the organised distrust of the party towards all its sections, that is, control over all local, district, national, and other organisations. [22]

Now Trotsky suddenly said: “I do not believe that you can put statutory exorcism on opportunism. I do not give the statutes any sort of mystical interpretation ... Opportunism is produced by many more complex causes than one or another clause in the rules; it is brought about by the relative level of development of bourgeois democracy and the proletariat.”

Axelrod also came out against Lenin. Plekhanov, however, rallied to his side: “I have one preconceived idea, but the more I reflect on what has been said, the stronger is my conviction that the truth lies with Lenin ... Intellectuals may hesitate for individualistic reasons to join the party, so much the better, for they are generally opportunists ... For this reason if for no other, the opponents of opportunism should vote for his draft.”

The Iskrists were split, and Lenin’s proposal was outvoted 28 to 23. Martov’s majority included the five Bund delegates and the two “economists.” These seven gave Martov and his supporters a majority against Lenin sufficient to dominate the Congress thereafter.

How could Martov and Trotsky, who wholeheartedly supported Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?, which proposed that absolute authority should be given to the Central Committee of the party, reject Lenin’s definition of party membership? To combine a strong centralist leadership with loose membership was eclecticism taken to an extreme.

The harsh necessity for democratic centralism within the revolutionary working-class party is derived from the harsh imperatives of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Martov and Trotsky balked at this. Moreover, the leadership of a revolutionary party must provide the highest example of devotion and complete identification with the party in its daily life. This gives it the moral authority to demand the maximum sacrifice from the rank and file.

Years earlier, Engels, in arguing against the anarchists, had said that the proletarian revolution demanded a very strong discipline, a strong authority.

Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is an act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon, all of which are highly authoritarian means. And the victorious party must maintain its rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionaries. [23]

Thus the revolutionary party cannot avoid making strong demands for sacrifice and discipline from its own members. Martov’s definition of party membership fitted the weakness of his conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

After this decision regarding Article I of the party’s statutes, Lenin repeatedly found himself in a minority. In the 23rd to 26th sessions, Martov – now constantly opposing Lenin – successfully carried the day on one issue after another. The issues, however, were of quite small significance.

Lenin gained a majority again in the 27th session, in which the Jewish Bund’s desire to be the sole organisation of Jewish workers, and to preserve its autonomy in the party, was defeated (by 41 votes to 5, with 5 abstentions). Soon afterwards, the five Bund delegates walked out of the Congress. Then the two “economist” delegates also walked out, because the Congress decided that the Iskrist League of Russian Revolutionary Social Democrats Abroad should be the sole representative of the party abroad. Martov thus lost 7 votes at one blow, reducing his support to 20 votes, while Lenin kept his 24.

The Congress now had to elect the leading bodies of the party. It had already agreed on the central structure. The rules had designated a Central Committee of three to operate inside Russia and had appointed Iskra as the Central Organ of the party for ideological leadership. Standing over both of them was to be a Party Council, consisting of five members – two appointed by the Central Committee, two by the Central Organ, and the fifth elected by the Congress.

With his majority, Lenin got through his list of candidates for the Central Committee of three. It was the editorial board of Iskra, now the Central Organ of the party, which presented the difficulty, since it was generally assumed that the original six would be elected. Four of these, Martov, Potresov, Axelrod, and Zasulich, were now opponents of Lenin. Lenin moved an editorial board of only three – Plekhanov, Lenin, and Martov. This question was the one upon which the party split into the Bolsheviks (majority) and Mensheviks (minority).

Plekhanov, Lenin, and Martov were elected editors. Noskov, Krzhizhanovsky, and Lengnik, “Leninists all three,” were elected as the Central Committee. Plekhanov was elected chairman of the Party Council. The discussion of the membership of the editorial board – whether to reelect the six existing members, as Martov wished, or the three whom Lenin suggested – went on and on and on, for nine long sessions of the Congress. The debate was bitter and acrimonious.

After the long and exhausting wrangle on this issue, the rest of the Congress, one day in all, passed as if the delegates were half asleep and did not care at all. Of the 24 items on the agenda, they had up to the last day handled only four. After 5 p.m. on the last day – after a month of deliberation – the Congress began a desultory discussion of some resolutions on tactical questions. These included statements on demonstrations; on the trade union movement, and work among the sects; on work among the student youth; on how to behave under interrogation; on shop stewards; on the 1904 International Congress in Amsterdam; on the liberals (Starover’s resolution); on the liberals (Plekhanov’s resolution); on the Socialist Revolutionaries; on party literature; on anti-Jewish pogroms.

The most unfortunate resolution to be passed in this session was the one moved by Potresov (Starover) and supported by Martov and Axelrod on socialist support for liberals on the following conditions: (1) that the “liberal or liberal-democratic trends” should “clearly and unambiguously declare that in their struggle against the autocratic government they will resolutely side with the Russian Social Democrats!” (2) that the liberals “shall not include in the programs any demands running counter to the interests of the working class or the democracy generally, or obscuring their political consciousness,” and (3) that they should make universal, equal, secret, and direct suffrage the slogan of their struggle. (These were to become a cause of widespread misconceptions regarding the revolutionary potential of the liberals.) The delegates were so tired that they passed this resolution very quickly, along with a contradictory one moved by Plekhanov and supported by Lenin. In Potresov’s resolution, supported by Martov, Zasulich, and Axelrod (and, astonishingly, Trotsky), we have a foretaste of the Menshevism of 1905 and after. [24] It is interesting that both at the time of Congress and afterwards Lenin paid very little attention to this resolution, and was much more concerned about the conflict over the size of the editorial board.

The issue of whether there should be three or six on the editorial board, over which the party split, seemed like a storm in a teacup, a question of personal wrangling, too insignificant to split a serious movement. Lenin saw the differences as a conflict between those who accepted the party spirit of appointment of officials on the one hand, and those accustomed to circle attitudes and “the old boy network,” a conflict that had a large personal element in it. He was not at all sure, at the time, whether this justified a split.

The supporters of the old editorial board of Iskra used such arguments as, “The Congress has neither the moral nor the political right to refashion the editorial board” (Trotsky); “It is too delicate [sic!] a question” (Trotsky again); “how will the editors who are not reelected feel about the fact that the Congress does not want to see them on the board any more?” (Tsaryov).

Lenin’s comment was:

Such arguments simply put the whole question on the plane of pity and injured feelings, and were a direct admission of bankruptcy as regards real arguments of principle, real political arguments ... If we adopt this standpoint, which is a philistine and not a party standpoint, we shall at every election have to consider: Will not Petrov be offended if Ivanov is elected and not he, will not some member of the Organising Committee be offended if another member, and not he, is elected to the Central Committee? Where is this going to land us, comrades? If we have gathered here for the purpose of creating a party, and not of indulging in mutual compliments and philistine sentimentality, then we can never agree to such a view. We are about to elect officials, and there can be no talk of lack of confidence in any person not elected: Our only consideration should be the interests of the work and a person’s suitability for the post to which he is being elected.

He argued against “the old snug little band who insist on their circle ‘continuity’.” [25]

These people are so accustomed to the bell-jar seclusion of an intimate and snug little circle that they almost fainted as soon as a person spoke up in a free and open arena on his own responsibility ... Intellectualist individualism and the circle mentality had come into conflict with the requirement of open speaking before the party. [26]

When Martov, refusing to abide by the Congress’s decision regarding the editorial board, announced “We are not serfs!,” Lenin argued against this “aristocratic anarchism” and said that they “must learn to insist that the duties of a party member be fulfilled not only by the rank and file, but by the ‘people at the top’ as well.” [27] Why did Martov and his friends try to deny the actual inefficiency of the members of the old editorial board now removed by the Congress?

The old board of six was so ineffectual that never once in all its three years did it meet in full force. That may seem incredible, but it is a fact. Not one of the 45 issues of Iskra was made up (in the editorial and technical sense) by anyone but Martov or Lenin. And never once was any major theoretical issue raised by anyone but Plekhanov. Axelrod did no work at all (he contributed literally nothing to Zarya and only three or four articles to all the 45 issues of Iskra). Zasulich and Starover only contributed and advised, they never did any actual editorial work. [28]

Explaining his own motives, Lenin stated that, in the 45 issues of the old Iskra, Martov had contributed 39 articles; Lenin, 32; and Plekhanov, 24. Zasulich had written only 6 articles; Axelrod, 4; and Potresov, 8. [29]

The desire to express well-mannered support for the veterans instead of subordinating everything to the needs of the revolution was completely foreign to Lenin. It was not that he was cold toward the pioneers of Russian Marxism. He was particularly attached to Vera Zasulich, and so was Krupskaya. “‘Wait till you see Vera Ivanovna,’ Vladimir Ilyich said, the first evening I arrived in Munich – ‘there’s a person as clear as crystal.’ And it was the truth.” [30]

Her heroic past touched a deep chord in Lenin’s heart. In January 1878, as a young woman of 29, she had shot General Trepov, head of the gendarmerie in Petersburg, in protest against the maltreatment and humiliation of a political prisoner. At her trial, horrible police abuses were exposed. The jury was so shocked by the revelations and so impressed by the defendant that they acquitted her. When the police attempted to seize her outside the court, a sympathetic crowd rescued her and helped her escape. Abroad, she kept in close touch with Karl Marx. She was deeply loved and admired by Lenin, and he knew well that to remove her from the editorial board of Iskra would be a very hard blow for her. As Krupskaya put it:

Vera Ivanovna yearned very much for Russia. I think it was in 1899 she went to Russia illegally, not to work, but simply because “I must take a look at the mujik and see what his nose has grown like.” And when the Iskra began to appear she felt that this was a real piece of Russian work and clung on to it grimly. To her, leaving Iskra would have meant once more becoming isolated from Russia, once more beginning to sink into the dead sea of émigré life, that drags one to the bottom.

It was for that reason that, when the question of the editorship of Iskra was brought up at the second Congress, she revolted. For her it was not a question of self-love, but a question of life or death. [31]

However, Lenin was far too honest intellectually, too devoted to the cause, to sacrifice the needs of the organisation to his own sentiments. And so Vera Zasulich had to go. Those who were ready to subordinate the needs of the movement to secondary considerations were later to show themselves to be conciliators, not revolutionaries. But this fact was as yet hidden even from the eagle eyes of Lenin.



Lenin’s Attitude to the Comrades

From the incident described above, one might draw the conclusion that Lenin was heartless, cold, and inconsiderate toward his comrades. Nothing was further from the truth. In fact he was very warm and generous toward them, showing kindness and attention to all their needs. Even when he broke with people politically, he often did not lose his affection for them. A case in point was his attitude to Martov.

It was exceedingly difficult for him to break with Martov. Work together in Petersburg, the period of work on the old Iskra, had bound them closely together. In those days Martov, who was extremely impressionable, had shown a keen sense for grasping Ilyich’s ideas and developing them in a talented manner. Afterwards, Vladimir Ilyich vehemently fought the Mensheviks, but every time that Martov, even in the slightest degree, took the correct line, his old attitude towards him revived. Such was the case, for example, in Paris in 1910, when Martov and Vladimir Ilyich worked together on the editorial of the Social Democrat. Coming home from the office, Vladimir Ilyich often used to relate in joyful tones that Martov was taking a correct line, or was even opposing Dan. Later, back in Russia, how pleased Vladimir Ilyich was with Martov’s position in the July (1917) days; not because it was of any advantage to the Bolsheviks, but because Martov was acting worthily – as behoved a revolutionary. [32]

During the winter of 1919–20 Lenin heard that Martov was very ill and sent him the best doctors available in Moscow.

No personal element affected Lenin’s political appreciation of individuals and vice versa. Krupskaya wrote:

One of Ilyich’s characteristic traits was his ability to distinguish disputes on principles from personal disputes and his ability to place the interests of the cause above everything else. When an opponent attacked him, Ilyich was roused, he hit back, pressed his own point of view; but when new tasks arose and it was found possible to cooperate with the opponent, Ilyich was able to approach the opponent of yesterday as a comrade. He did not have to force himself to do this, it came naturally. Herein lay Ilyich’s tremendous power. For all his jealousy touching questions of principle, he was a great optimist as far as persons were concerned. He would sometimes err, but on the whole this optimism was very beneficial for the cause. [33]

He could at one and the same time attack a person very strongly for his current political stance, but pay homage to his contributions in other fields.

In a letter commenting on Plekhanov’s political bankruptcy in 1905, he wrote, “I am sorry for the old man ... What a lovely brain.” [34] Two years later, in an article attacking Plekhanov bitterly for his policies in the 1905 Revolution, Lenin still went out of his way to praise his important earlier theoretical contributions.

Again, in a letter to the editorial board of Pravda, written some time after May 25, 1913, Lenin could overlook the past and write: “[Plekhanov] is valuable now because he is fighting the enemies of the working-class movement. [35] Even after 1917, when Plekhanov not only supported the war, but went out of his way, in his paper Edintsvo, to accuse Lenin of being a paid German agent, Lenin continued to praise Plekhanov’s contributions to Marxist theory.

Lenin showed great warmth and tact in helping comrades to develop, and to improve their knowledge. Krupskaya writes:

I recall Ilyich’s attitude towards inexperienced authors. In discussing their work with them he would get right down to the heart of the subject, to the fundamentals and make suggestions for improvement. But he did all this very discreetly, so that these authors hardly noticed that they were being corrected. And Ilyich was very good at helping people in their work. If, for example, he wanted someone to write an article but was not sure whether he would be able to do it properly, he would start a discussion with him, expound his ideas and get the prospective writer interested. After he had sounded him on the subject sufficiently, he would say to him: “Would you like to write an article on this subject?” And the author would not even have noticed that his preliminary discussion with Ilyich had helped him and that in writing his article he had actually used Ilyich’s expressions and turns of phrase. [36]

If Lenin had one weakness, it was that he fell in love with people too easily. “Vladimir Ilyich was always having these periods of enthusiasm for people. He seemed to discern some valuable quality in a person and clung on to it.” [37] But these enthusiasms did not continue for long. While, on first acquaintance, Lenin was always ready to “fall in love” with a new collaborator, after a longer acquaintance, he would nearly always discern elements of weakness in him.

His attitude toward a person tended to change radically, depending on whether at the time he was on his side or against him. There was no fickleness in these attachments. The reason why one often finds in Lenin’s writings startling contradictions in his comments on people is that his basic rule was that the needs of the struggle took priority over everything else. Lenin’s immense self-control, which allowed him to be objective in evaluating people’s contributions, including those of his opponents, his generosity of spirit and exceptional warmth, earned him not only the trust, but also the love of his associates.

After this digression on Lenin’s attitude toward his comrades, let us return to the aftermath of the 1903 Congress.



The Madness of the Split

Once while walking, Leo Tolstoy spotted in the distance the figure of a man squatting and gesturing strangely; a madman, he thought – but on drawing nearer he was satisfied that the man was attending to necessary work – sharpening a knife on a stone. Lenin was fond of citing this example. The interminable discussions and factional squabbles at the 1903 Congress looked to an outside observer like the activities of madmen.

It would be hard for an event to appear more trifling or meaningless than this split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Reading the minutes of the Congress, one cannot but be astonished that this was a turning point in the history of the Russian labour movement. Even the participants did not believe that the split was of great importance, or that it would last for any length of time. Thus Lunacharsky wrote subsequently:

The greatest difficulty in that struggle consisted in this, that the second Congress, having split the party, had not yet plumbed the really profound differences between the Martovists on the one hand and the Leninists on the other. These differences still seemed to turn on the one paragraph of the party statutes and the personnel of the editorial board. Many were embarrassed by the insignificance of the reason that led to the split. [38]

Piatnitsky, later a prominent official of the Comintern, but at that time a young workman, writes in his reminiscences:

I could not understand why petty differences kept us from working together ... Word reached us of differences of opinion within the Iskra group itself.

I could hardly believe those rumors. We had expected to hear of important differences with the Rabochaye Dyeloists and their supporters; but I personally had not expected any disunion within the Iskra group, which I was accustomed to consider as a homogeneous body. The agony of uncertainty lasted for many days. At last the delegates returned from the Congress to Berlin. We heard reports on the Congress from both sides, and immediately each side began agitating for its own line. I was torn between the two. On the one hand I was very sorry that they had offended Zasulich, Potresov ... and Axelrod, by expelling them from the editorial board of the Iskra ... Moreover, comrades with whom I had been especially close ... were in the Menshevik camp, whereas I fully endorsed the organisational structure of the party advocated by Comrade Lenin. Logically I was with the majority, but my personal sympathies, if I may so express myself, were with the minority. [39]

The engineer Krzhizhanovsky, who was very close to Lenin in those years, recalls, “To me personally, the thought about Comrade Martov’s opportunism seemed particularly far-fetched.” There is a great deal of such testimony. From Petersburg, from Moscow, from the provinces came protests and laments. No one wanted to acknowledge the split that had taken place at the Congress among the Iskrists. [40]

A factory worker wrote to Lenin, complaining about the split and “meaningless faction fight”:

Look comrade, is it a natural state of affairs when all energies are spent on travelling around the committees for the one purpose of talking about the majority and minority? Really, I don’t know, is this issue really so important that all energies should be devoted to it and because of it people should look on each other practically as enemies? For that’s what it comes down to: if a committee is let’s say, made up of followers of one camp, then nobody from the other camp will ever get into it, no matter how fit he may be for the work; in fact, he won’t get in even if he is essential to the work and it suffers badly without him. I don’t mean to say, of course, that the struggle over this issue should be given up altogether, no, only I think it should be of a different kind and should not lead us to forget our principal duty, which is to propagate Social Democratic ideas among the masses; for if we forget that we shall rob our party of its strength. I don’t know if it is fair or not, but when I see people trampling the interests of the work in the mud and completely forgetting them, I call them all political intriguers. It really hurts and fills you with alarm for the work when you see the people at the head of it spending their time on something else. When you see that, you ask yourself: is our party doomed to perpetual splits over such trifles, are we incapable of waging the internal and the external struggle at the same time? [41]

Personal bickering and vilification aggravated the split. Years later Lenin could write:

No struggle over principles waged by groups within the Social Democratic movement anywhere in the world has managed to avoid a number of personal and organisational conflicts. Nasty types make it their business deliberately to pick on “conflict” expressions. But only weak-nerved dilettantes from among “sympathisers” can be embarrassed by these conflicts, can shrug them off in despair or in scorn, as if to say “it is all a squabble!” [42]

At the time, in 1903, the personal enmity between the contestants added to the confusion.

That Lenin himself was not at all clear about the depth of the split and its future significance is apparent from his writings at the time. His uncertainty is revealed partly by the fact that the section of his Collected Works covering this period contains an unprecedented number of unmailed letters, undelivered statements, and articles drafted but not published. Those that did see the light of day indicate that he did not expect the split with the Mensheviks to continue for long, and did not think it was justified to break up the party over “trifling” issues. Thus he wrote in a letter to A.N. Potresov (September 13):

I ask myself: over what, in point of fact, would we be parting company as enemies for life? I go over all the events and impressions of the Congress. I realise that I often behaved and acted in a state of frightful irritation, “frenziedly”; I am quite willing to admit this fault of mine to anyone, if that can be called a fault which was a natural product of the atmosphere, the reactions, the interjections, the struggle, etc. But examining now, quite unfrenziedly, the results attained, the outcome achieved by frenzied struggle, I can detect nothing, absolutely nothing in these results that is injurious to the party, and absolutely nothing that is an affront or insult to the minority. [43]

Six months after the Congress he could write: “The disagreements that divide the two wings at the present time for the most part concern, not questions of program or tactics, but only organisational questions” [44]; “Questions of organisation ... are, of course, less fundamental than questions of tactics, let alone of program” [45]; “Formerly we used to differ over major issues, such as might in some cases even justify a split; now we have reached agreement on all major and important points, and are only divided by shades, about which we may and should argue, but over which it would be absurd and childish to part company.” [46] “If our party members are to be worthy representatives of the class-conscious militant proletariat, worthy participants in the world working-class movement, they must do their utmost to ensure that no individual differences over the interpretation and methods of realising the principles of our party program shall interfere, or be capable of interfering, with harmonious joint work under the direction of our central institutions.” [47]

Lenin wavered for months. Despite the myth propagated by the cult builders, he was not omniscient and could not foresee the results of the “little crack” in the party. His indecision badly affected his nerves. On the eve of the second Congress, Krupskaya remembers: “Vladimir Ilyich was so overwrought that he developed a nervous illness called “holy fire”, which consists in inflammation of the nerve terminals of back and chest ... On the way to Geneva Vladimir Ilyich was very restless; on arriving there he broke down completely, and had to lie in bed for two weeks.” [48] During the Congress he got into such a state that he stopped sleeping altogether and was extremely restless. [49]

In fact, after every conference, Lenin would go off, usually with Krupskaya, on long hiking or cycling expeditions. His self-discipline was so great that there were few indications of the surges of emotion that rocked him. Yet, in Krupskaya’s memoirs, there are constant references to weeks and months of nervous exhaustion.

If he managed to retain his composure and to soldier on, keeping his intellectual honesty, minimally affected by personal upsets and by his nerves and tensions, it was largely due to his life’s companion, Krupskaya, whose outstanding personality, devotion to the cause, energy and purity of character, and steadfast love sustained him.

To return to the events that followed the 1903 Congress – it was more than six months later that Lenin finally came to the conclusion that the split was justified and necessary. He stopped hesitating and came out firmly with the argument that the split was a reflection of the differences between the proletarian wing and the petty-bourgeois intellectualist wing of the party.

In his 230-page review of the 1903 Congress and its aftermath, called One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (written February–May 1904), he says that to “the individualism of the intellectual, which already manifested itself in the controversy over Paragraph 1, revealing its tendency to opportunist argument and anarchistic phrase-mongering, all proletarian organisation and discipline seems to be serfdom.” [50]

He quotes a letter written to Iskra (now a Menshevik paper), which denounced him for visualising the party as “an immense factory” headed by a director in the shape of the Central Committee. Lenin’s comment is that the writer

never guesses that this dreadful word of his immediately betrays the mentality of the bourgeois intellectual unfamiliar with either the practice or the theory of proletarian organisation. For the factory, which seems only a bogey to some, represents that highest form of capitalist co-operation which has united and disciplined the proletariat, taught it to organise, and placed it at the head of all the other sections of the toiling and exploited population. And Marxism, the ideology of the proletariat trained by capitalism, has been and is teaching unstable intellectuals to distinguish between the factory as a means of exploitation (discipline based on fear of starvation) and the factory as a means of a technically highly developed form of production. The discipline and organisation which come so hard to the bourgeois intellectual are very easily acquired by the proletariat just because of this factory “schooling.” [51]

In attacking the intelligentsia and emphasising the need for the revolutionary party to discipline it, Lenin quotes at length Kautsky’s brilliant characterisation of intellectual individualists:

The intellectual is not a capitalist. True, his standard of life is bourgeois, and he must maintain it if he is not to become a pauper; but at the same time he is compelled to sell the product of his labour, and often his labour-power, and is himself often enough exploited and humiliated by the capitalist. Hence the intellectual does not stand in any economic antagonism to the proletariat. But his status of life and his conditions of labour are not proletarian, and this gives rise to a certain antagonism in sentiments and ideas.

As an isolated individual, the proletarian is nothing. His whole strength, his whole progress, all his hopes and expectations are derived from organisation, when he forms part of a big and strong organism. This is the main thing for him; the individual in comparison means very little. The proletarian fights with the utmost devotion as part of the anonymous mass, without prospect of personal advantage or personal glory, doing his duty in any post he is assigned to with a voluntary discipline which pervades all his feelings and thoughts.

Quite different is the case of the intellectual. He does not fight by means of power, but by argument. His weapons are his personal knowledge, his personal ability, his personal convictions. He can attain to any position at all only through his personal qualities. Hence the freest play for his individuality seems to him the prime condition for successful activity. It is only with difficulty that he submits to being a part subordinate to a whole, and then only from necessity, not from inclination. He recognises the need of discipline only for the mass, not for the elect minds. And of course he counts himself among the latter ...

Nietzsche’s philosophy, with its cult of the superman, for whom the fulfilment of his own individuality is everything and any subordination of that individuality to a great social aim is vulgar and despicable, is the real philosophy of the intellectual; and it renders him totally unfit to take part in the class struggle of the proletariat.

Next to Nietzsche, the most outstanding exponent of a philosophy answering to the sentiments of the intelligentsia is probably Ibsen. His Doctor Stockmann (in An Enemy of the People) is not a socialist, as many have thought, but the type of the intellectual, who is bound to come into conflict with the proletarian movement, and with any movement of the people generally, as soon as he attempts to work within it. For the basis of the proletarian movement, as of every democratic movement, is respect for the majority of one’s fellows. The typical intellectual à la Stockmann regards a “compact majority” as a monster that must be overthrown. [52]

Lenin concluded that the position taken by Martov and his supporters reflected capitulation before the individualism of the intellectuals. Party rules should aim to discipline these same intellectuals.

It is interesting to compare Lenin’s arguments in What Is to Be Done? with One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. In the former, the target for criticism was the local activist, whose horizon was the narrow one of the circle. Hence the notion that the proletariat “is spontaneously drawn towards trade unionist consciousness” only, and that the Marxist intelligentsia has a central role to play in bringing class and political consciousness to the workers from outside. Now, two years later, in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, the proletarian elements in the party have to impose discipline on the intelligentsia. Times change, the needs of the movement change, and Lenin bends the stick over in order to steer the required course.




The 1903 split was a foretaste of later developments. The political differences between Lenin and Martov, considered in static terms, i.e., mechanically, were too small to justify a split. But when they are looked at from the point of view of their development, i.e., dialectically, it is clear that small differences can become big ones. In the united party, petty-bourgeois circles are not completely isolated from working-class circles; one faction tends to gather around itself and become the mouthpiece of a non-proletarian social group, while the other becomes increasingly antagonistic towards these petty-bourgeois elements. But in 1903, the differences were solely in the organisational field, and political and programmatic differences had not yet manifested themselves. For this reason, Lenin did not, to begin with, consider the split justified. However, the very existence of separate organisations may lead to political differences as policy develops within them, and the personal element may play a significant role in shaping policy within each group.

It is true that the two factions in 1903 were not chemically pure in composition. On the side of the Bolsheviks stood Plekhanov, who later became an extreme right-wing Menshevik, and on the side of the Mensheviks stood Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. But the character of the factions was basically determined by the two leaders who differed most in their characteristics, Lenin and Martov. The fact that the Bolsheviks were from the beginning called the “hard ones,” and the Mensheviks the “soft,” was a psychological characterisation that, on the whole, fitted the leadership of the two wings of the movement. Everyone spoke of Lenin’s hardness, and Martov’s softness was no less talked about. Many years after the 1903 Congress, Trotsky called Martov “the Hamlet of Democratic Socialism”: “His thought lacked the mainspring of will.” [53]

One expression of the difference in psychological traits between Lenin and Martov can be seen in the very choice of the names “Bolshevik” and “Menshevik.” Lenin steadfastly held to the title Bolshevik, while Martov meekly carried the label of Menshevik for the rest of his life. Even when Martov had a majority, he still called himself a Menshevik!

One of the pamphlets that Martov wrote against Lenin after the second Congress was called Once again in the minority! Had Lenin been in a minority on every issue in the Congress as he was on Rule 1, would he have called his group Mensheviks? Of course not. He would probably have called it the “Hards”, “Orthodox Marxists”, “Revolutionary Social Democrats”, or something similar. The names that Martov and Lenin chose were symptomatic: fatalism and submissiveness versus willpower and action. Here the historical and the personal factors became enmeshed.

One certainly could not describe Martov politically in 1903 as a reformist. He showed signs of centrism, which is a general term for very varied tendencies and groupings ranging from reformism to Marxism. One of the main characteristics of centrists is their obscuring of the need for a clear demarcation between the vanguard of the class and the mass, of the initiative of the minority and the routine of the majority. Centrism’s main drawback is its historical fatalism. Because it is so indefinite in nature, so lacking in clear, sharp character delineation, because it vacillates between Marxism and reformism, centrist groupings do not all move in the same direction. Some move leftwards toward Marxism and some rightwards toward reformism. In addition, lacking consistency as they do, centrists sometimes move to the left and then later veer to the right. In the process, differentiation takes place in the grouping itself, and splits ensue: Some sections move over completely to reformism, while others join the revolutionary wing of the labour movement.

In tsarist Russia, the differentiation between consistent revolutionaries, centrists, and reformists was impeded by the autocratic regime itself. In Western Europe, the most moderate elements of the labour movement were frankly describing themselves as reformists. But under the tsarist regime, even the most moderate of socialists could not constitute themselves into a party of reform. The “parliamentary road to socialism” could not attract where parliament did not exist. A semi-parliament at least was needed – the Tsarist Duma of later years – for a parliamentary cretinism to raise its head. Nobody in the Russian socialist movement in 1903 openly unfurled the banner of reformism.

The Bolshevik and Menshevik factions of Russian Social Democracy were heading for a deep schism, which would give expression in real political terms to the latent tendencies of the two factions, and which would rule out the possibility of any reconciliation. But this outcome was not foreseen by any of the participants in the quarrels of those days.

It needed the year of revolution of 1905 and the period of reaction of 1907–10 for Menshevism to be fully fashioned. Because the Menshevism of 1903 was largely centrism, the attitude of the Bolsheviks, including Lenin, to the split was very unclear and unstable. A further consequence was that the process of complete separation between Bolshevism and Menshevism took a number of years. To anticipate the story, the following was the history of their relationship:

July–August 1903

official split

Spring 1905

actual split







January 1912

final split



Bolshevik Leaders Refuse to Split with the Mensheviks

Shortly after the Congress, Plekhanov, who had supported Lenin there, changed his mind. He announced that he could not bear to “fire on his comrades,” that “rather than have a split, it is better to put a bullet in one’s brain.” He decided to invite Martov, Axelrod, Zasulich, and Potresov to join the editorial board of Iskra. Lenin resigned in disgust.

Lenin’s immediate reaction was to organise for the convening of a new Congress. Thus, on December 18, 1903, he wrote to one of his closest friends, G.M. Krzhizhanovsky:

The only salvation is – a congress. Its watchword: the fight against disrupters. Only by this watchword can we catch out the Martovites, win over the broad masses and save the situation. In my opinion, the only possible plan is this: for the time being not a word about the congress, complete secrecy. All, absolutely all, forces to be sent into the committees and on tours. A fight to be waged for peace, for putting a stop to disruption, for subordination to the Central Committee. Every effort to be made to strengthen the committees with our people. Every effort to be made to catch out the Martovites and Yuzhny-Rabochy people in disruption, pin them down by documents and resolutions against the disrupters; resolutions of the committees should pour into the Central Organ. Further, our people should be got into the wavering committees. Winning over the committees with the watchword: against disruption – this is the most important task. The congress must be held not later than January, therefore set to work energetically. I repeat: either complete defeat ... or immediate preparation for a congress. It must be prepared secretly at first during a maximum of one month, after which during three weeks the demands of half the committees to be collected and the congress convened. Again and yet again – this is the only salvation. [54]

However, it took Lenin 18 months, until May 1905, to manage to convene the Congress and thus set the seal on the split with the Mensheviks.

He first met resistance to the idea of the new Congress from the Central Committee. Although all its members were Bolsheviks, they were more and more exasperated with the split and were looking for a compromise with the Mensheviks:

shortly after the January meeting five of the six members of the CC then in Russia expressed their disapproval of Lenin’s demand for a new Congress. They also rejected his suggestion that they should co-opt two more members ... The motives behind the proposal were all too transparent. Their letter ended: “We all implore the Old Man (Lenin) to give up his quarrel and begin work. We are waiting for leaflets, pamphlets and all kind of advice – the best way of soothing one’s nerves and answering slander.”

But this was a course Lenin had no wish to adopt. “I am not a machine,” he replied, “and cannot do any work in the present disgraceful state of affairs.” [55]

After months of acrimonious correspondence with its members, by the summer of 1904, he was to all intents and purposes ousted from the CC, although formally still a member. In July 1904, the Central Committee made a move toward a compromise with the Mensheviks: in an announcement published in Iskra it recognised the full authority of the editorial board of the paper (made up of the five Mensheviks, including Plekhanov), called on Lenin to rejoin the board, and denounced his agitation for a new, third Congress to settle accounts with the Mensheviks.

Lenin had set up without the knowledge of the CC a body called the Southern Bureau of the CC, under the leadership of V.V. Vorovsky, who was not a CC member. It had no official status, but served Lenin as a means for calling a new Congress. The CC dissolved the Southern Bureau, and deprived Lenin of the powers of foreign representative of the Central Committee, forbidding his writings to be published without their sanction. [56] In place of Lenin, they appointed Noskov, a conciliator, as their official foreign representative.

But Lenin did not sit idly while this was happening. With the aid of Krupskaya in Geneva, and a group of supporters operating inside Russia, he built a completely new set of centralised committees, quite regardless of Rule 6 of the party statutes, which reserved to the Central Committee the right to organise and recognise committees. Three conferences of Bolshevik local committees were held in September–December 1904: (1) the Southern (Odessa, Ekaterinoslav, and Nikolayev committees); (2) the Caucasian (Baku, Batum, Tiflis, and Imeretian-Mingrelian committees); and (3) the Northern (St. Petersburg, Moscow, Tver, Riga, Norther, and Nizhni-Novgorod committees). At Lenin’s suggestion, the conferences elected a Bureau of Majority Committees to prepare and convene the third party Congress. The Bureau, of which Lenin became a member, was formally constituted in December 1904. [57]

A new Congress was first called for by 22 Bolsheviks at a conference, held in Switzerland in September 1904, and attended by 19 people, with 3 others subscribing to the decision. Among the 19 were Lenin, his wife, and his sister.

In December 1904, Lenin succeeded in establishing a newspaper of his own, Vperyod (Forward), which became the organ of Bolshevism. However, even after this, things did not go too well. Thus, on February 11, 1905, Lenin wrote to his two close supporters, A.A. Bogdanov and S.I. Gusev:

Just look at the Bundists: They do not prate about centralism, but every one of them writes to the centre weekly and contact is thus actually maintained. You only have to pick up their Posledniye Izvestia to see this contact. We, however, here are issuing the sixth number of Vperyod, yet one of our editors (Rakhmetov) has not written a single line, either about or for Vperyod. Our people “talk” of extensive literary connections in St. Petersburg and in Moscow, and of the Majority’s young forces, while we here, two months after the issuance of the call for collaboration ... have seen or heard nothing from them ... We did “hear” from strangers about some sort of alliance between the St. Petersburg Committee of the Majority and a group of Mensheviks, but from our own people not a word. We refuse to believe that Bolsheviks could have taken such an imbecilic, suicidal step. We did “hear” from strangers about a conference of Social Democrats and the formation of a “bloc”, but from our own people not a word, although there are rumors that this is a fait accompli. [58]

Resistance to the split was also widespread among the rank and file, and it took months of Herculean effort actually to put into effect the break between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in a number of Russian cities. In St. Petersburg, the party split in autumn 1904, when the Menshevik minority broke away from the local committee: “Many of the district cells even in 1904–05 were of a mixed Bolshevik-Menshevik composition, and many of the rank-and-file members were neither very conscious of the split nor of its significance.” [59]

In Moscow, the formal split did not take place until May 1905. In Siberia and other places, the two factions operated within the same organisational structure throughout 1904 and 1905, and continued to do so until the fusion conference held in April–May 1906.

The famous illegal Caucasian print shop, in which Bolshevik sympathies predominated, continued in 1904 to reprint the Menshevik Iskra as well as many Menshevik pamphlets. [2*] “Our differences of opinion,” writes Yenukidze, “were absolutely not reflected in our work.” Only after the third Congress of the party, i.e., not earlier than the middle of 1905, did the print shop pass into the hands of the Bolshevik Central Committee. [60]

A number of factors worked against the splitting of the RSDLP. First, as we have said, the differences between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were not at all clear. Second, there is always a general popular sentiment in favor of unity. Thirdly, all the important writers and theoreticians apart from Lenin were to be found among the Mensheviks – Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich, Martov, Trotsky, and Potresov. As we shall see later, during the years of reaction (1906–10), Lenin also lost the new highly qualified writers who joined the Bolsheviks at the time – Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, Pokrovsky, Rozhkov, and Gorky. The Bolsheviks always suffered from the fact that they had far fewer intellectuals and able journalists than the Mensheviks. The reverse side of the coin was that the Mensheviks fell victim to the illusion that their superiority in literary ability guaranteed their future influence in the labour movement.

To add to Lenin’s difficulties, in the summer of 1904, all the leaders of the socialist movement outside Russia sided with Martov and the Mensheviks. Among these were Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and August Bebel. The latter went so far as to say that the “monstrous scandal” of the Russian party wrangles proved that the behaviour of the Bolsheviks bordered “on unscrupulous and complete inability” to be leaders of the movement. [61]



Setbacks in Russia

On August 15, 1904, Lenin wrote to the St. Petersburg Bolshevik leadership:

The state of things in your Committee, which is suffering from a lack of people, lack of literature and complete lack of information, is similar to the state of things in Russia as a whole. Everywhere there is a terrible lack of people ... complete isolation, a general mood of depression and bitterness, stagnation as regards positive work. Ever since the second Congress, the party is being torn to pieces, and today things have gone very, very far in this respect. [62]

On December 22, 1904, he wrote: “That our party is seriously ill and has lost a good half of its influence during the past year is known to the whole world.” [63] And on March 11, 1905: “The Mensheviks at present are stronger than we are. It’s going to be a long and hard fight.” [64]

The Bolsheviks undertook very little activity in Petersburg in 1904. During that year, they issued only 11 leaflets, compared with 55 in 1903. Between May and November 1904, only one leaflet was issued, in July. [65]

In January 1905, for the whole of St. Petersburg, the Bolsheviks claimed 60 agitators, more than half of whom were “very young” and presumably new to revolutionary activity. Nevertheless Gusev, secretary of the St. Petersburg Committee, considered the Bolsheviks to have a vast conspiratorial organisation in the city. These local leaders seem to have been largely students. In the Town district, the 15 agitators and 10 propagandists claimed by the Bolsheviks were “exclusively students.” [66]

This was the situation in 1904 – the year in which the Russo-Japanese war broke out, which led directly to the revolution.

A similar decline of the party, affecting both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, took place in Moscow:

the Social Democrats in Moscow had only a few cells. During the summer and autumn of 1904 the RSDLP in Moscow appeared to be thoroughly routed. Its leaders were in jail and its activities had been brought to An almost complete halt. The leaflets of the Committee are an index of the activity: Of 252 leaflets published in Listovki Moskovskikh bol’shevikov v period pervoy russkoy revolyutsii (M. 1955), only 16 were printed in 1904. [67]

On January 5, 1905, four days before the outbreak of the revolution, Krupskaya wrote from Geneva to the Petersburg Committee of the Bolsheviks:

But where are the proclamations with which the Committee promised to deluge the city? We aren’t getting them. Nor any reports. We learned from foreign papers that the Putilov plant was on strike. Do we have connections there? Will it really be impossible to get information about the strike? Only it has to come quickly. Make every effort to arrange for workers themselves to write reports. [68]

Nevskii, quoting this letter, adds: “One of the greatest proletarian movements was beginning, already its spearhead – the Putilov workers – was fighting capitalists, but the centre abroad learned of these clashes from foreign papers, because the Bolshevik Committee in Petersburg had to devote itself entirely to fighting the conciliationist Menshevik organisations.” [69] In a later passage, Nevskii, no longer blaming the wicked Mensheviks, writes about “the remoteness of our organisation from the broad masses and its ignorance of the life and interests of these masses.”

Indeed, a vast strike movement was in progress, some unknown tremendous wave was rising, but the Bolshevik Committee was living its own segregated life; having once and for all appraised the Gapon movement as Zubatovite, it was not even able to sense that the strike at the Putilov plant was no common strike but a movement linked by the closest ties to all the Gapon locals, to the whole mighty strike movement of the entire Petersburg proletariat. [70]

A report of the Petersburg Committee to the third Congress (April–May 1905) described the situation in the party:

The January events caught the Petersburg Committee in an extremely sorry state. Its ties with the working masses had been utterly disorganised by the Mensheviks. We managed to preserve them, with great effort, only in the Town District (this sector has always held to the Bolshevik viewpoint), on Vasil’ev-Ostrov, and in the Vyborg sector. In late December the printing press of the Petersburg Committee was discovered. By that time the Petersburg Committee consisted of a secretary (through him the Committee communicated with the head of the press and with the finances commission), a chief writer and editor (otvetstvennyi literator), a chief organiser, an agitator (he was also the student organiser), and four organisers. There was not a single worker among the members of the Committee. The strike at the Putilov plant caught the Committee unprepared. [71]

The Mensheviks were also having a difficult time. The factional fight damaged both wings of the RSDLP. Years later Martov wrote:

It was necessary for tremendous renewed efforts by the Social Democratic forces in order to make the most of the upsurge in the working-class movement and to guide it to the right path. However the internal fight in the party prevented this possibility. The entire strength of the party was absorbed in this fight and in the winter 1903–04 the organisation’s activity came to a standstill. [72]

In one district of Petersburg, the number of Menshevik circles was reduced from 15 or 20 at the beginning of 1904 to only four or five by December. [73]



Lack of Centralised Leadership

Throughout 1904 and well into the years of the revolution, Lenin repeatedly complained, in letters to his close supporters in Russia, of lack of central leadership in the country itself, and weakness of communication with the leadership abroad.

In a letter of February 11, 1905, to A.A. Bogdanov and S.I. Gusev, he wrote:

A nice business: we talk of organisation, of centralism, while actually there is such disunity, such amateurism among even the closest comrades in the centre, that one feels like chucking it all in disgust. [74]

The Mensheviks have more money, more literature, more transportation facilities, more agents, more “names,” and a larger staff of contributors. It would be unpardonable childishness not to see that. [75]

In a letter of January 29, 1905, to the Secretary of the Majority Committee’s Bureau, he wrote: “I have a great favor to ask you. Please give Rakhmetov a scolding, yes, a good sound scolding.” He had only sent

two [letters] in 30 days. What do you think of that? Not a sign of him. Not a line for Vperyod. Not a word about the work, plans and connections. It’s simply impossible, incredible, a disgrace. No. 4 of Vperyod will come out in a day or two, and immediately after it (a few days later) No. 5, but without any support from Rakhmetov. Today letters arrived from St. Petersburg dated January 10, very brief ones. And no one arranged for good and full letters about the Ninth of January! [76]

In a letter to the Central Committee of the RSDLP dated July 11, 1905, Lenin says: “The general opinion is that there is no Central Committee, that it does not make itself felt, that no one notices it. And the facts confirm this. There is no evidence of the CC’s political guidance of the party. Yet all the CC members are working themselves to death! What’s the matter?” And he goes on to explain:

In my opinion, one of the principal causes of it is that there are no regular CC leaflets. Leadership by means of talks and personal contacts at a time of revolution is sheer utopianism. Leadership must be public. All other forms of work must be wholly and unconditionally subordinated to this form. A responsible CC litterateur should concern himself first of all with writing (or obtaining from contributors – though the editor himself should always be prepared to write) a leaflet twice a week on party and political topics (the liberals, the Socialist Revolutionaries, the Minority, the split, the Zemstvo delegation, the trade unions, etc.) and republishing it in every way, immediately mimeographing in 50 copies (if there is no printing press) and circulating it to the committees for republication. Articles in Proletary could, perhaps, sometimes be used for such leaflets – after a certain amount of revision. I cannot understand why this is not being done! Can Schmidt and Werner have forgotten our talks on this? Surely it is possible to write and circulate at least one leaflet a week? The report on the third Congress has not been reprinted in full anywhere in Russia all this time. It is so outrageous [77]

Apparently, the CC members completely fail to understand the tasks of “keeping in the public eye.” Yet without that there is no centre, there is no party! They are working themselves to the bone, but they are working like moles, at secret rendezvous, at meetings with agents, etc., etc. It is a sheer waste of strength! ... The thing is to act, to act all the time openly, to stop being dumb. Otherwise we here, too, are completely cut off. [78]

Our CC ... suffers from a lack of tenacity and sensitivity, from inability to take political advantage of every trifle in the party struggle. [79]

Again, in a letter to Lunacharsky of August 2, 1905, Lenin accuses the Bolshevik Central Committee of being much less effective in faction fighting than the Mensheviks. The Mensheviks, he says,

are lively busy bodies, brazen as hucksters, well skilled by long experience in demagogy – whereas among our people a kind of “conscientious stupidity” or “stupid conscientiousness” prevails. They can’t put up a fight, they’re awkward, inactive, clumsy, timid ... They’re good fellows, but no damn’d good whatever as politicians. They lack tenacity, fighting spirit, nimbleness and speed. [80]

The Central Committee, Lenin complained, also completely neglected the leadership abroad. The Central Committee

has a lofty contempt for us “foreigners” and keeps all the best people away from us or takes them from here. And we here, abroad, find ourselves behindhand. There is not enough ferment, stimulus or impulse. People are incapable of acting and fighting by themselves. We are short of speakers at our meetings. There is no one to pour cheer into people, to raise key issues, no one capable of lifting them above the Geneva marsh into the sphere of more serious interests and problems. And the whole work suffers. In political struggle a halt is fatal. There are thousands of demands and they are continually increasing. [81]



Priority for the Organisation Question

The difference between the concept of centralism expressed in What Is to Be Done? or Letter to a Comrade on our Organisational Tasks, and the reality among the Bolsheviks in 1904 and 1905 is remarkable! There was a total cleavage between the ideal of a coherent, efficient party structure as visualised in Lenin’s writings, and the ramshackle party organisation that existed.

Lenin had to strive with all the power at his command, to build up an organisation independent of and in opposition to the Mensheviks, and to create a party machine. He was so absorbed in the struggle against the Mensheviks that, incredible as it may seem, during the whole of the year 1904, there are only three references in his writings to the Russo-Japanese war. The overwhelming dominant theme is the split with the Mensheviks. A whole volume of his Collected Works, one of the stoutest, is all but filled with his writings on the Congress and the split, written in the most polemical, hard and irritable fashion.

Was it not madness to concentrate on building a party machine while an earthquake was shaking the state? But Lenin was not one to deviate from a decision arrived at centrally. Since 1900, he had repeated again and again that the key task facing the movement was the building of a revolutionary party. On April 21, 1901, he had written to Plekhanov about “the priority of organisation over agitation at the present time.” [82] In 1902, he rephrased Archimedes: “Give us an organisation of revolutionaries, and we will overturn Russia.” [83]

Unlike Marx and Engels, who lived in a period of expanding capitalism and hence did not emphasise party organisation, the immediacy of revolution for Lenin meant that party organisation was of cardinal importance. He could never have written, as Marx did to Engels on February 11, 1851:

I am much pleased with the public and authentic isolation in which we now find ourselves, you and I. It perfectly corresponds to our principles and our position. The system of reciprocal concessions, of half-measures tolerated only in order to keep up appearances, and obligation to share in public with all these asses in the general absurdity of the party – all that is done with now. [84]

Nor could he have replied to Marx as Engels did on February 12, 1851:

We now have a chance again at last ... to show that we need no popularity, no support from any party whatsoever ... From now on we are responsible only to ourselves, and when the moment comes that these gentlemen need us, we shall be in a situation to be able to dictate our own terms. Till then we shall at least have peace. To tell the truth, even a certain loneliness ... How can people like us, who avoid official positions like the plague, ever find ourselves at home in a “party”? ... The principal thing for the moment is: some way of getting our ideas into print ... What will all the gossip and scandal mean which the whole émigré pack may circulate against you, once you answer them with your political economy? [85]

To a person standing on the sidelines – even to many of those involved – 1903–04 was a period of squabbles, interminable discussions, splits between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, argument, and splits inside the Bolshevik faction itself – at a time when Russia was on the eve of a revolution.

Trotsky at that time considered Lenin’s factionalism to be sheer lunacy. In a pamphlet written in April 1904, he states: “Just at a time when history has placed before us the enormous task of cutting the knot of world reaction, Russian Social Democrats do not seem to care for anything except a petty internal struggle.” What a “heartrending tragedy” this was, and what a “nightmarish atmosphere” it created; “almost everybody was aware of the criminal character of the split.” [86]

But Lenin was absolutely single-minded. Whatever might happen, a revolutionary party had to be built, and urgently. So, consistently, doggedly, relentlessly, in the years 1900 to 1904, Lenin built a party machine. However far it may have been from his ideal model, when the 1905 Revolution came, he had a machine under his control. He had demonstrated in full measure the political, organisational, and administrative talent needed to build such an apparatus.

In the revolution itself, Lenin was to show that if necessary, if the masses went further than the party machine was prepared to move, he would be willing and able to overcome the lagging of the very machine he had built, by mobilising the energy of rank-and-file workers. But we are anticipating the story.



1*. Things changed in later years. By 1908, the informal consensus was disappearing, to be replaced by Jogiches’ attempt to exercise a Leninist supremacy – without the loyalty of a cohesive group like the inner Bolsheviks. [15]

2*. This was by far the largest underground printing press in Russia and was literally underground – in a cellar. The printers were seven self-sacrificing party members. They worked 10 hours a day and unlimited hours in emergencies. The cellar was without heat or ventilation. To avoid detection, no one was ever allowed to leave it during the day. At night the printers took it in turns to spend a couple of hours in the open air.




1. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, op. cit., p. 56.

2. ibid., p. 69.

3. Trotsky, My Life, op. cit., p. 152.

4. Krupskaya, op. cit., p. 78.

5. Pisma P.V. Akselroda i Iu. O. Martova, Berlin 1924, vol. 1, p. 46.

6. I. Getzler, Martov, London 1967, p. 75.

7. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 36, p. 112.

8. ibid., vol. 36, p. 113.

9. Wildman, Making of a Workers’ Revolution, op. cit., p. 241.

10. Trotsky, Stalin, London 1947, p. 39.

11. Krupskaya, op. cit., pp. 100–01.

12. O. Piatnitsky, Memoirs of a Bolshevik, London n.d., p. 57.

13. Krupskaya, op. cit., p. 71.

14. Geyer, Lenin, op. cit., pp. 319–20.

15. J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, London 1966, vol. 1, pp. 263–66.

16. Krupskaya, op. cit., p. 83.

17. Vtoroi sezd RSDRP, Moscow 1959, p. 374.

18. Protokoly 2-go ocherednogo sezda zagranichnoi ligi russkoi revoliutsionnoi sots.-demokratii, Geneva 1904, p. 57.

19. Vtoroi sezd RSDRP, op. cit., p. 169.

20. For the draft submitted, see Iskra, no.21, June 1, 1902; for the program adopted by the Congress, see KPSS v Rezoliutsiakh, op. cit., pp. 37–47.

21. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 6, pp. 502–03.

22. Vtoroi sezd RSDRP, op. cit., p. 169.

23. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Anarchism, op. cit., p. 103.

24. Martow, Geschichte, op. cit., p. 81.

25. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 7, p. 363.

26. ibid., p. 286.

27. ibid., p. 395.

28. ibid., p. 31.

29. ibid., vol. 34, p. 195.

30. Krupskaya, op. cit., p. 52.

31. ibid., p. 53.

32. ibid., pp. 92–93.

33. ibid., p. 217.

34. Letter to P.A. Krasikov, April 5, 1905, Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 36, p. 145.

35. ibid., vol. 35, p. 99.

36. Krupskaya, op. cit., pp. 229–30.

37. ibid., p. 76.

38. Quoted in Trotsky, Stalin, op. cit., p. 42.

39. Piatnitsky, op. cit., pp. 59–60.

40. Trotsky, Stalin, op. cit., p. 42.

41. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 7, p. 39.

42. ibid., vol. 18, pp. 181–82.

43. ibid., vol. 34, pp. 164–65.

44. ibid., vol. 7, p. 206.

45. ibid., p. 404.

46. ibid., pp. 346–47.

47. ibid., pp. 147–48.

48. Krupskaya, op. cit., p. 79.

49. ibid., p. 89.

50. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 7, pp. 356–57.

51. ibid., pp. 391–92.

52. ibid., pp. 324–25.

53. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, London 1934, p. 1156.

54. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 34, pp. 200–01.

55. Leninskii sbornik, vol. 15, pp. 249–59, 351–53.

56. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 7, p. 571.

57. ibid., p. 574.

58. ibid., vol. 8, pp. 143–44.

59. D. Lane, The Roots of Russian Communism, Assen 1969, p. 71.

60. Trotsky, Stalin, op. cit., p. 43.

61. Geyer, op. cit., p. 410.

62. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 34, p. 245.

63. ibid., vol. 8, p. 37.

64. ibid., vol. 34, p. 303.

65. Listovki Petersburgskikh bolshevikov, 1902–1917 gg., vol. 1, Leningrad 1939.

66. Lane, op. cit., p. 74.

67. ibid., p. 101.

68. V.I. Nevsky, Rabochee dvizhenie v ianvarskie dni 1905 goda, Moscow 1930, p. 85; S.M. Schwarz, The Russian Revolution of 1905, Chicago 1967, p. 65.

69. Nevsky, op. cit., p. 65.

70. ibid., p. 157; Schwarz, op. cit., p. 67.

71. Tretii sezd RSDRP, Moscow 1959, pp. 544–45.

72. Martow, op. cit., p. 88.

73. Lane, op. cit., p. 72.

74. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 8, p. 143

75. ibid., p. 145.

76. ibid., vol. 34, p. 293.

77. ibid., pp. 314–15.

78. ibid., p. 315.

79. ibid., p. 324.

80. ibid.

81. ibid.

82. ibid., vol. 36, p. 78.

83. What Is to Be Done?, ibid., vol. 5, p. 467.

84. Marx and Engels, Werke, Berlin 1966, vol. 27, p. 185.

85. ibid., p. 186.

86. N. Trotsky, Nashi politicheskie zadachi, Geneva 1904, p. 4.



Note by MIA

A. In the printed edition this sentence is included in the preceding quote. This is probably a typesetting error as this sentence does not appear in the minutes being quoted and runs counter to Akimov’s argument.


Last updated on 4 April 2015