Tony Cliff

Lenin 1

Chapter 16
Lenin Expels the Ultra-Leftists

LENIN HAD difficulties to contend with within the Bolshevik group itself. The question of the boycott was not shelved even after the second Duma elections, in which the RSDLP participated fully. These elections resulted in a considerable success for the party: 65 Social Democratic deputies were elected, including 18 pro-Bolsheviks. [1]

However, on June 3, 1907, Prime Minister Stolypin dissolved the second Duma and issued a new and highly unrepresentative electoral decree designed to rid the government of the opposition majority. The new regulations entitled the landowner curia to elect one elector for every 230 persons; the first urban curia one for every 1,000; the second urban curia one for every 15,000; the peasant curia one for every 60,000; and the worker curia one for every 125,000. The landlords and the bourgeoisie elected 65 per cent of the electors, the peasants 22 per cent (instead of the former 42 per cent), and workers 2 per cent (as against 4 per cent previously). The law disenfranchised the indigenous population of Asian Russia and the Turkic peoples of the Astrakhan and Stavropol gubernias, and cut by half the proportion of representatives for the population of Poland and the Caucasus. All non-Russian speakers were disenfranchised. The result was greatly to increase the proportion of members of the Duma representing the landlords and the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie, while sharply reducing the proportion of peasant and workers’ deputies, which was already small.

The boycott question, so recently resolved, was immediately revived. Local Bolshevik organisations voted overwhelmingly in favor of resuming the boycott of the Duma. At the party conference held in Finland in July 1907, eight of the nine Bolshevik delegates led by Bogdanov voted to go back to the policy of a boycott. Lenin voted with the Mensheviks, the Polish Social Democrats, and the Bundists to defeat the boycott.

When elections were held under the new law in the autumn of 1907, the Social Democrats managed to win 19 seats.

A section of the Bolsheviks formed themselves into a group known as Otzovists (Russian: otzovisty – ”recallists”) after the 1907 party conference. In 1908, they gathered organisational strength and became a serious challenge to Lenin’s position among the Bolsheviks. Contests were waged between Leninists and Otzovists for the allegiance of local organisations. Lenin retained control of the Moscow organisation only by a very narrow margin. In May 1908, at a general city conference in Moscow, the Otzovists had 14 votes, while Lenin’s supporters had 18. [2] The Regional Bureau of the Central Industrial Region was staunchly Otzovist. [3]

A less extreme form of opposition, called “Ultimatism”, prevailed in St. Petersburg. Its adherents demanded that the Social Democratic Duma delegation should be served with an ultimatum demanding that it make its conduct more uncompromisingly radical. The Ultimatists remained in control of the St. Petersburg Bolshevik organisation until September 1909. [4]

Although the main issue dividing Lenin and the boycotters was whether Social Democrats should participate in the Duma elections and have representatives in the Duma, the latter also wanted to boycott the legal trade unions. If the trade unions registered with the police and conducted only legal activities, then the boycotters considered them to be of no value to the cause of revolution. [5]

The leaders of the Otzovists included some very prominent people. These were Bogdanov (Maximov), second-in-command of the Bolsheviks for a number of years; the top Bolshevik organiser, Krasin; the propagandists and authors Lunacharsky, Gorky, and Bazarov; the historian M.N. Pokrovsky; and the leader of the Bolshevik group in the Duma, Alexinsky. They accused Lenin of “going over to the Menshevik point of view of parliamentarism at any price”. [6] At the all-Russian Conference of December 1908, the Menshevik Dan declared, “Who does not know that the Bolsheviks are now accusing Lenin of betraying Bolshevism.” [7]

The collapse of the revolutionary movement created the conditions for the bacillus of ultra-leftism to multiply. The similarity between the psychology of the revolutionaries after 1905 and after the revolution of 1848 is almost uncanny. To quote Marx’s words on Willich and Schapper, the Bogdanovs of his time:

The violent suppression of a revolution leaves a powerful imprint upon the minds of those involved, especially if they are torn away from their homes and cast into exile. So that even people with steady personalities may lose their heads for a longer or shorter period. They can no longer keep pace with the march of events. They refuse to admit that history has changed direction. Hence that playing around with conspiracies and revolutions which compromises the cause they are serving no less than themselves; hence, too, the errors of Willich and Schapper. [8]

After the crushing of a revolution, what could be more psychologically satisfying than to pose as an immediate task the preparation for a new armed uprising, as Bogdanov did?

The terrible period of reaction caused many revolutionaries, especially those in exile, whose opportunities for concrete action were very few, to turn to abstract propaganda, whose verbal extremism was directly proportionate to its actual passivity. Devoid of practical revolutionary responsibility, this revolutionism was limited to self-glorification, and verbal intransigence became a facade for passive complacency.

When revolutionaries are isolated from any real support in the working class, the conditions are ripe for ultra-leftism. The more isolated they are, the less they are open to correction from workers in struggle, and the greater the attraction of extreme slogans becomes. Since practically nobody is listening, why not use extreme revolutionary phrases? In a void, the pressure to adjust to a new situation is minimal.

The impatience of Bogdanov and his friends for quick results, whatever the objective obstacles, could have been corrected by the party – this is the democratic element in democratic centralism. Unfortunately, however, the party hardly existed, and could not correct its leaders’ errors. Lenin accused them of rejecting “petty work”, especially the utilisation of the parliamentary platform. In practice, their tactics amounted to waiting for “great days”. They “hinder the thing that is most important and most urgent, namely, to unite the workers in big and properly functioning organisations, capable of functioning well under all circumstances, permeated with the spirit of the class struggle, clearly realising their aims, and trained in the true Marxist world outlook.” [9]

New times demand new tactics, Lenin argued.

During the revolution we learned to “speak French”, i.e., to introduce into the movement the greatest number of rousing slogans, to raise the energy of the direct struggle of the masses and extend its scope. Now, in this time of stagnation, reaction and disintegration, we must learn to “speak German”, i.e., to work slowly (there is nothing else for it), until things revive, systematically, steadily, advancing step by step, winning inch by inch. Whoever finds this work tedious, whoever does not understand the need for preserving and developing the revolutionary principles of Social Democratic tactics in this phase too, on this bend of the road, is taking the name of Marxist in vain. [10]

The revolutionaries, he said,

would do their duty even should it consist in an onerous, slow, humdrum daily grind, if history, after the issue of the struggle and after all opportunities for revolutionary action were exhausted, should condemn us to plod along the by-paths of an “autocratic constitution” ... In order to fulfil this obligation to the proletariat, it was necessary to take patiently in hand and re-educate those who had been attracted to Social Democracy by the days of liberty (there even appeared a type of “Social Democrat of the days of liberty”), who were attracted chiefly by the vehemence, revolutionary spirit and “vividness” of our slogans, but, who, though militant enough to fight on revolutionary holidays, lacked the stamina for work-a-day struggle under the reign of counterrevolution. Some of these elements were gradually drawn into proletarian activities and assimilated the Marxist world outlook. The others only memorised a few slogans without grasping their meaning, could only repeat old phrases and were unable to adapt the old principles of revolutionary Social Democratic tactics to the changed conditions. [11]

There is no doubt that in the long period of reaction and the slow subsequent rise, Bolshevism would have died if the ultra-left policies of Bogdanov and his allies had not been thrown overboard. In retrospect, many years later, Lenin could write in his book Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder (1920),

Bolshevism took shape, developed and became steeled in the long years of struggle against petty-bourgeois revolutionism, which smacks of anarchism or borrows something from the latter, and in all essential matters, does not measure up to the conditions and requirements of a consistently proletarian class struggle ... A petty bourgeois driven to frenzy by the horrors of capitalism is a social phenomenon which, like anarchism, is characteristic of all capitalist countries. The instability of such revolutionism, its barrenness, and its tendency to turn rapidly into submission, apathy, phantasms, and even a frenzied infatuation with one bourgeois fad or another – all this is common knowledge. [12]

He knew that to prepare for the great revolutionary battles to come, a revolutionary party must learn how to go through the period of reaction, together with the masses, in their front ranks, without dissolving into them, but also without detaching itself from them. This is also the period in which tough cadres can be trained and tempered. This training cannot, however, be done in a void, in isolation from the struggle, even if its scope and depth are very restricted indeed.



Bogdanov expelled

Between 8 and 17 June 1909 Lenin convened a conference of the extended editorial board of the Bolshevik journal Proletary in his apartment in Paris. At his instigation, this conference set aside the old Bolshevik Centre, elected at the London Congress of 1907, and assumed the power to appoint, remove, and legislate. It adopted a decision that “Bolshevism, as a definite tendency in the RSDLP, has nothing in common with Otzovism or Ultimatism,” and expelled Bogdanov (Maximov), the guiding spirit of Otzovism, from the ranks of the Bolsheviks. Bogdanov vainly challenged the right of a new editorial conference to remove people appointed by the previous conference. His call for a new Bolshevik congress was ignored.

Lenin recognised the formal justice of Bogdanov’s case. “From the formal point of view the removal of Maximov was ‘irregular’, say the removed ones, and ‘we do not recognise this removal’, for Maximov was ‘elected by the Bolshevik section of the London Party Congress’!” [13] But, knowing that the Bolshevik faction was a mere shadow of its former self, and fearing that Bogdanov might well have won over the majority at a new conference, Lenin fought strenuously against the convening of a Bolshevik congress. He successfully moved a resolution that, as

calling special Bolshevik conferences and congresses would inevitably split the party from top to bottom and would deal an irreparable blow to the section which took the initiative in bringing about such a total split in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the extended editorial board of Proletary resolves:

To warn all its supporters against agitating for a special Bolshevik Congress, as such agitation would lead objectively to a Party split and might radically impair the position which revolutionary Social Democracy has won in the party. [14]

The struggle against Bogdanov within the Bolshevik faction proved very difficult. Ultra-leftists are formalistic, sterile, and divorced from reality – but how can one prove this without mass action? Lenin could not turn to active workers, to the living movement, to obtain support for his stand against Bogdanov, and thus was forced to use whatever alternative was at hand – in this case the artificial, unrepresentative meeting of an enlarged editorial board.

Among Lenin’s supporters were many who did not like the seemingly arbitrary measures taken against Bogdanov. Even Stalin, a most stalwart follower of Lenin at the time, rebuked him for this high-handed action and for splitting the Bolsheviks. While declaring his political solidarity with Lenin over the attitude to the Duma elections, he wrote, in an editorial of Bakinsky Proletary dated 27 August 1909,

... in view of the fact that, notwithstanding the above-mentioned disagreements, both sections of the editorial board agree on questions of major importance for the group (appraisal of the current situation, the role of the proletariat and of other classes in the revolution, etc.), the Baku Committee believes that the unity of the group, and hence co-operation between both sections of the editorial board are possible and necessary.

In view of this, the Baku Committee disagrees with the organisational policy of the majority on the editorial board and protests against any “ejection from our ranks” of supporters of the minority on the editorial board. The Baku Committee also protests against the conduct of Comrade Maximov who declared that he would not submit to the decisions of the editorial board, thus creating fresh grounds for new and greater friction. [15]



A Philosophical Stick Used Against Bogdanov

One of the weapons that Lenin used against Bogdanov was philosophy. His connection with Bogdanov had been of long standing. The latter was a doctor of medicine, and a writer of considerable reputation on economics, sociology, natural sciences, and philosophy. Lenin had known him by reputation since 1898, when a copy of Bogdanov’s Short Course in Economic Science reached him in Siberia. He found the book so good that he rejected a proposal from a publisher to write a manual of political economy because “it would be difficult to compete with Bogdanov.” [16]

When Bogdanov joined the Bolsheviks in 1904, he sent Lenin the first volume of his philosophical work Empiriomonism (the second volume was published in 1905, and the third in 1906). It was this work, strongly influenced by the philosophical writings of neo-Kantians Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius, that became the main target of Lenin’s philosophical attack in 1909.

Plekhanov, the main spokesman of orthodox Marxist philosophy and now a Menshevik, taunted Lenin for his association with Bogdanov. Lenin replied at the third Congress of 1905,

Plekhanov drags Mach and Avenarius by the ears. It is absolutely incomprehensible to me what these men, for whom I haven’t the slightest sympathy, have to do with the social revolution. They write on individual and social organisation of experience, or something of the sort, but really they have no ideas on the democratic dictatorship. [17]

Lenin did not agree with Bogdanov’s philosophical views. In a letter to Gorky, he wrote that he read Bogdanov’s first volume immediately after receiving it, disagreed with it, and wrote a long letter of criticism to its author. When the third volume of Empiriomonism appeared in 1906, Bogdanov sent Lenin a presentation copy and Lenin immediately wrote a further “declaration of love, a little letter on philosophy which took up three notebooks”! But this did not stop Lenin from continuing to collaborate with Bogdanov politically, nor did he suggest that there was any need to break off the association on philosophical grounds, or that philosophy had any direct and necessary relation with political tactics.

In February 1908, he wrote:

The editorial board of Proletary, as the ideological spokesman of the Bolshevik trend, deems it necessary to state the following. Actually, this philosophical controversy is not a factional one and, in the opinion of the editorial board, should not be so; any attempt to represent these differences of opinion as factional is radically erroneous. Both factions contain adherents of the two philosophical trends. [18]

In a letter to Gorky of 25 February 1908 he wrote:

In the summer and autumn of 1904, Bogdanov and I reached a complete agreement, as Bolsheviks, and formed a tacit bloc, which tacitly ruled out philosophy as a neutral field, that existed all through the revolution and enabled us in that revolution to carry out together the tactics of revolutionary Social Democracy (= Bolshevism), which, I am profoundly convinced, were the only correct tactics [19]

Proletary must remain absolutely neutral towards all our divergences in philosophy and not give the reader the slightest grounds for associating the Bolsheviks, as a trend, as a tactical line of the revolutionary wing of the Russian Social Democrats, with empirio-criticism or empiriomonism. [20]

On April 16, he wrote again to Gorky, “Philosophy must be separated from party (factional) affairs: the decision of the Bolshevik Centre makes this obligatory.” [21]

However, when in 1908 it finally became clear that a revolutionary turn was not in the offing, the differences in tactics between Lenin and Bogdanov over such matters as the boycott, rather than receding, grew in importance. In the wake of the general ideological reaction, philosophical differences also assumed greater significance. Bogdanov, Bazarov, and Lunacharsky chose this moment to join with Mensheviks Yuskevich and Valentin and other writers to publish a symposium on philosophy entitled Outlines of the Philosophy of Marxism.

It would be wrong to assume that Lenin’s interest in philosophy was due solely to the fact that it provided a weapon in the faction fight against Bogdanov, although this element weighed heavily with him. Philosophy was inevitably coming to the forefront of Marxist thinking at the time. Before the 1905 Revolution, the economic doctrine of Karl Marx was the most important subject for discussion among socialists. During the revolution, its place was taken by Marxist politics. In the period of reaction after the revolution, Marxist philosophy inevitably came to the fore. As Lenin put it,

Pessimism, non-resistance, appeals to the “spirit” constitute an ideology inevitable in an epoch when the whole of the old order “has been turned upside down”, and when the masses, who have been brought up under this old order, who imbibed with their mothers’ milk the principles, the habits, the traditions and beliefs of this order, do not and cannot see what kind of a new order is “taking shape”, what social forces are “shaping” it and how, what social forces are capable of bringing release from the incalculable and exceptionally acute distress that is characteristic of epochs of “upheaval”. [22]

With politics apparently failing to overcome the horrors of the tsarist regime, escape into the realm of philosophical speculation became the fashion. And in the absence of any contact with a real mass movement, everything had to be proved from scratch – nothing in the traditions of the movement, none of its fundamentals, was immune from constant questioning.

The year 1904 was the centenary of the death of Immanuel Kant. In the next few years, a number of Marxists intensively discussed Kantian ethics and the “neo-Kantian” theory of knowledge as it figured in modern scientific thought. In this discussion, Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, Bazarov, and others tried to combine Marxism with the neo-Kantian theory of knowledge as put forward by Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius. Lunacharsky went as far as to speak openly in favor of fideism. [1*] Lunacharsky used religious metaphors, speaking about “God-seeking” and “God-building.” Gorky was influenced by Bogdanov and Lunacharsky, and The Confession, a novel he wrote at the time, reaches its climax in the following passage:

I called mankind to the new religion ... The people, they are the creators ... In them dwells God ... I saw here [the earth] – my mother – in the space between the stars ... and I saw her master, the almighty and immortal people ... Then I began my prayer: “Thou art my God, O sovereign people, and creator of all gods which thou hast formed from the beauties of thy spirit in the travail and torture of thy quest. And the world should have no other gods but thee, for thou art the only god that works miracles.” [24]

Lenin’s reaction was very sharp indeed. He wrote to Gorky, “The Catholic priest corrupting young girls ... is much less dangerous precisely to ‘democracy’ than a priest without his robes, a priest without crude religion, an ideologically equipped and democratic priest preaching the creation and invention of a god.” [25]

He used the “philosophical stick” against Bogdanov and his friends not only because of the factional differences between them regarding participation in the Duma elections, activity in the trade unions, and so on, but also because he saw in neo-Kantian philosophical idealism a dangerous threat to the survival of Marxism during the period of reaction. Socio-religious mysticism and political and social pessimism went hand in hand and threatened the remnants of the revolutionary movement.

Lenin’s own work Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, however, also suffered from the lack of real contact with a live movement. (One need only compare it with the magnificent, dialectically terse, and lively Philosophical Notebook, vol.38 of Lenin’s Collected Works.) It is significant that he never repeated its arguments in later pamphlets and articles, as he always did with his other writings. No special articles in the press elaborated the theses of this book. Nor is it referred to in any of Lenin’s writings, including his vast correspondence, after 1909.

By 1909, the struggle with the religious, mystical, soul-searching anti-materialist moods of the period of reaction was practically over – the dawn of a new rise of the mass movement was not far off.



The Bogdanovists Fight On

After the split that Lenin forced in June 1909, Bogdanov and his supporters became an independent faction in the RSDLP. They proclaimed themselves the only “true Bolsheviks.” In December, they started their own journal, bearing the name of the first Bolshevik paper founded by Lenin and Bogdanov at the end of 1904 – Vperyod (Forward). For the next few years, they were known as the Vperyodist Bolsheviks.

For a time they did reasonably well relative to the Leninists. Lenin wrote in December 1910, “The Vperyodists ... have consolidated themselves as a faction with its own transport, its own agency, and have grown many times stronger since the plenum of January 1910.” [26]

In order to promote their ideas, Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, and Alexinsky, with the assistance of Maxim Gorky, organised a party school in Capri (Italy) in 1909, which continued for about four months. A second school was organised in Bologna at the end of 1910 and the beginning of 1911.

The students at the Capri school invited Ilyich to come to Capri to lecture there. Ilyich categorically refused. He explained to them the factional character of the school and asked them to come to Paris. Within the Capri school, a factional struggle flared up. In the beginning of November, five students (there were 12 in all), including Vilonov, the organiser of the school, officially declared themselves to be staunch Leninists and were expelled from the school. This incident proved better than anything else how right Lenin was when he pointed to the factional character of the school. The expelled students came to Paris.

Five other students of the Capri school arrived with Michael ... Ilyich delivered a series of lectures to them and devoted a great deal of attention to their studies. Then they left for Russia, except Michael who had tuberculosis ... At the end of December the studies at Capri came to a close and the rest of the students arrived in Paris. Ilyich delivered lectures to these also. He spoke to them on current topics, including The Peasant Movement and Our Tasks and The Agrarian Policy of Stolypin. [27]

These were days of very small deeds: a tiny party school abroad was an achievement. To all intents and purposes, the party hardly existed. The split with Bogdanov and his associates seemed to be the last straw.

To the participants in the quarrels amongst the Bolsheviks, and also to the bystanders, it looked as if Lenin’s party was finished. The number of members declined to a very low level, from more than 40,000 in 1907, to a few hundred in 1910. They were broken up into small groups and were infiltrated very heavily by the secret police. The groups hardly had any contact with one another or with the leadership abroad. Lenin also lost all the best writers he had had with him until then – Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, Pokrovsky, Rozhkov, and Gorky. The Mensheviks gloated over the intellectual poverty of the Bolsheviks. Thus, a few years after the expulsion of Bogdanov and the others, Martov felt he could practically write off the Bolshevik leadership:

... a handful of people literally without names or with names that had an unsavoury ring, a group which belonged rather to the intellectual Lumpenproletariat than to the intelligentsia. Having taken the baton into their hands, they turned corporals, carrying the name of one intellectual – Lenin – as their ideological banner. [28]

But this was a Menshevist illusion. The talent of party cadres for leadership could not be measured by the single yardstick of literary prowess. And Lenin kept hundreds of his cadres during the period of reaction, recruited a few more hundred and trained them – always preparing for the future.




1*. “Fideism” is defined by Lenin as “a doctrine which substitutes faith for knowledge, or which generally attaches significance to faith”. [23]



1. A. Levin, The Second Duma, Newhaven 1940, p.70.

2. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.15, p.458.

3. ibid., vol.16, p.42.

4. ibid., pp.68-74.

5. T. Hammond, Lenin on Trade Unions and Revolution, 1893-1917, New York 1957, pp.56-57.

6. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.16, p.67.

7. ibid., p.48.

8. Marx, The Cologne Communist Trial, London 1971, p.131.

9. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.16, p.349.

10. ibid., vol.15, pp.458-59.

11. ibid., pp.457-58.

12. ibid., vol.31, p.32.

13. ibid., vol.16, p.52.

14. ibid., vol.15, p.449.

15. Stalin, Works, op. cit., vol.2, p.172.

16. Letters to his mother, 14 February and 29 May 1898, Lenin, Collected Works, vol.37, pp.155, 264.

17. ibid., vol.8, p.389.

18. ibid., vol.13, pp.448-49.

19. ibid., p.449

20. ibid., pp.452-3.

21. ibid., vol.34, p.393.

22. ibid., vol.17, p.51.

23. ibid., vol.14, p.19.

24. Gorky, The Confession, London 1910, pp.309, 319-20.

25. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.35, p.122.

26. ibid., vol.16, p.366.

27. Krupskaya, op. cit., pp.174-75.

28. Nasha Zariia, no.3, 1914; Getzler, op. cit., p.137


Last updated on 20.1.2004