Duncan Hallas

Building the Revolutionary Party

(June 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.79, June 1975, pp.17-22.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Duncan Hallas reviews Tony Cliff’s book on Lenin

THIS BOOK [1] is the most important work on the theory and practice of building a revolutionary socialist organisation that has appeared for some time. As a biography it has its faults. It would be no very great exaggeration to say that it might well have been called Building the Party – Illustriated from the Life of Lenin. No matter. A manual for revolutionaries – and that is what we have here – is needed more urgently than a fully rounded biography. This is a work whose lessons can and must be applied to the practical tasks of party building.

However, a word of caution is needed. Towards the end of his life Lenin said of a resolution on the organisation of Communist Parties, adopted by the Communist international:

The resolution is an excellent one, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say everything in it is based on Russian conditions. This is its good point but it is also ist failing ... it is too Russian ... if by way of exception some foreigner does understand it, he cannot carry it out ... I have the impression that we made a big mistake with this resolution, namely, that we blocked our own road to further success. As I have said already, the resolution is excellently drafted; I am prepared to subscribe to every one of its fifty or more points. But we have not learnt bow to present our Russian experience to foreigners. All that was said in the resolution has remained a dead letter. If we do not realise this, we shall be unable to move ahead. [2]

It is the spirit, not the letter, of the Bolshevik experience that is valuable. The differences between the Russia of 1910 and Britain – or Germany or the USA or wherever – in the 1970s are enormous.

It is simple-mindedness to believe that the answer to today’s problems can be found by an “appropriate” (actually, often highly inappropriate) reference to Lenin’s life and works without consideration of the circumstances of the time.

One of the great strengths of Cliff’s book is that it sets Lenin’s changing and developing ideas in the context of the struggle, of the living movement and the concrete yet ever-changing conditions in which it fought to exist and to grow. Nowhere is this clearer than on the nature of the revolutionary party.

The “authoritarian” party

IN 1902 Lenin proposed that the revolutionary party should be a highly centralised and “professional” organisation. A critic (Rosa Luxemburg) described it, not too unfairly, as follows:

... the party Central Committee should have the privilege of naming all the local committees. It should have the right to appoint the effective organs of all local bodies from Geneva to Liege, from Tomsk to Irkutsk. It should also have the right to impose on all of them its own ready-made rules of party conduct. It should have the right to rule without appeal on such questions as the dissolution and reconstitution of local organisations. This way the Central Committee could determine, to suit itself the composition of the highest party organs as well as of the Party Congress. [3]

And this stable organisation of leaders ensuring continuity’ as Lenin put it,

... must consist chiefly of people professionally engaged in revolutionary activity; that in an autocratic state, the more we confine the membership. to people who are professionally engaged in revolutionary activity and who have been professionally trained in the art of combating the political police, the more difficult it will be to unearth the organisation. [4]

Professionally engaged means, of course, full-time.

A worker-militant considered a suitable candidate for party membership should be pulled out of industry and turned into a professional revolutionary.

“A worker-agitator who is at all gifted and promising,” wrote Lenin in What is to be Done, “must not be left to work eleven hours a day in a factory. We must arrange that he be maintained by the party.” [5]

The party and the full-time apparatus, the “committeemen”, are pretty much the same thing on this plan. The great bulk of those we would accept as members are kept as sympathisers. Of course the whole machine is useless without the broad circles of sympathiser without them it has no leverage, the paper that serves it as organiser has no sale or influence, there is no money. But the sympathisers have no rights in the party and the (largely full-time) local committeemen who make up the organisation are directed by the “centre”, they do not direct it. Indeed, the political centre was almost always outside the country.

Is this a good organisational model or a bad one? The question is meaningless unless you consider the aims of the operation and the circumstances. The first thing to be said is that, in spite of later myths, it was not unique or specifically “Bolshevik”. Cliff notes that early in his political career Lenin had eagerly questioned survivors of the “populist” (narodnik) terrorist organisation Narodnaya Volya about their organisational methods, and in What is to be Done, he wrote that they “should serve as a model”.

This model was not even specifically Russian. The contemporary Macedonian “populist” party, the IMRO, which led the national Macedonian rising against Turkish rule from 1902, had the same centralist and “authoritarian” structure. Indeed the IMRO guerrillas were popularly known as “Commitadjs” – committeemen. And this is one example of many. Under a despotic regime no other sort of organisation has much prospect of survival, let alone growth. A more or less “military” structure is imposed on the organisation by force of necessity.

What was new in Lenin’s version was the emphasis on “an all-Russian newspaper issued very frequently”, around which the organisation would be built, and on the central role of factory committees; an emphasis which flowed from the marxist belief in the central role of the working class (although it was not the only potentially revolutionary class in the Russia of the time) and upon mass action, rather than small group terrorism, as the means to break the autocracy.

In passing, there are two misunderstandings about the What is to be Done? type of organisation which require brief comment; one is comic, the other is tragic. The comic misunderstanding used to crop up every now and then in disputes about recruitment. It is that the reason Lenin favoured a restricted membership was to ensure “a high political level” amongst that membership so that everything could be most democratically decided and the leadership subject to more effective control by the membership.

A more absurd proposition would be difficult to imagine. Police repression was what necessitated the party being a military organisation of “agents” (Lenin’s words) and ensured that the greatest obstacles were placed in the way of a democratic internal life.

A veteran Bolshevik activist – writes Cliff – estimated that, owing to police intervention, the average life of a Social- Democratic group at the beginning of the century was only three months ... Similarly, Lenin wrote in November 1908 “the average life expectancy of the revolutionaries during the first period of our revolution 1905 – TC] probably does not exceed a few months.”

The Tsarist police ensured that party members had a high level of commitment; the “high political level” is a myth, if it is taken to mean – as it usually is – a knowledge of the marxist texts and the history of the movement.

The tragic misunderstanding has more respectable antecedents. When, after Stalin had gained power in Russia, Trotsky was struggling (before 1934) to influence the policy of an existing international organisation which he believed was still potentially a revolutionary international (the Comintern), he naturally sought to build an international faction. He was tying to operate around an international which commanded the support of hundreds of thousands of workers throughout the world. After 1933 Trotsky was forced to conclude that the Comintern was degenerated beyond all hope of reform. He then fell into the error of believing that a new centralised international party could be created without serious working class support in the first instance. Many of his latter-day followers compound this error by arguing that real revolutionary organisations cannot be built “outside the international”’ which, however does not exist in any serious sense. An “international leadership”, a “world leadership” is essential we are told. That must be the starting point.

No marxist was more consistently internationalist than Lenin, but fortunately it never occurred to him that the building of the Bolshevik party was impossible except under the direction of the International Socialist Bureau, the leading body of the Second International. Indeed when it seemed likely that the ISB might attempt to impose “unity” between the Bolsheviks and their Menshevik and other opponents in Russia (at its Brussels Conference, July 1914), Lenin wrote:

What procedure is desirable, from our point of view, for the conference in Brussels?... Clearly we, in any case shall not accept the proposals of the liquidators, the Bund, Rosa [Luxemburg – DH] and Plekhanov (as well as of Kautsky and Vandervelde) ... Our only task is to make our terms clear, make a note of “their terms” and walk out.

... According to the liquidators’ newspaper, Vandervelde threw out a feeler in St Petersburg as to whether we would agree to the Executive Committee [of the ISB – DH] acting, not as mediator but as arbiter, that is, as supreme judge in our disagreements.

The answer is this. When Bebel proposed this in 1905 our congress rejected it with thanks, declaring that we were an autonomous party. I think today our congress will give the same reply. (Such, at any rate, is the opinion of the Central Committee.)

... Conciliatory formulas should be carefully recorded (this is most important), then slightly criticised, and – everything rejected. (Lenin’s emphases) [6]

Now Lenin did not take this line because he had “seen through” the leaders of the Second International and knew them to be opportunists. Far from it. The very article just quoted contains the most respectful references to Vandervelde, secretary of the ISB and soon to become one of His Belgium Majesty’s ministers. The betrayal of socialism by these leaders, especially the Germans, in August 1914 came as a shattering blow to Lenin. In this respect he was less perceptive than Rosa Luxemburg.

No, it was simply that, as he says in his Report on the subject, he knew that the Bolsheviks had the only serious revolutionary marxist organisation inside Russia and if the International tried to “unite” it with its opponents, then the authority of the International must be disregarded. No “world leadership” could replace the organisation on the ground.

Later on, after the October revolution, he was to argue the opposite case, the case for the “world leadership” of the Executive of the Comintern (although never in the mechanical fashion that later developed). The “inconsistency” reflected different political conditions, different needs and above all different possibilities. To fail to change, and change again, if need be, under changing conditions is to confuse form with content; a rigidity which, unless quickly corrected, leads to sterility. So too with the nature of the party. Within a few years of publishing What is to be Done, Lenin was struggling against his own followers for a very different form of organisation.

The mass party

MUCH OF the argument of What is to be Done was directed against “economism”. A great deal of nonsense has been written about “economism” by people who imagine that the fault of the “economists” was that they failed to raise political slogans in every industrial dispute and that this sin is avoided by tacking on some “political” demand to whatever particular issues are in dispute.

In fact “economism” was the specifically Russian form of the “revisionism” (in fact the abandonment of marxism) that was developing as an extreme right wing in the various European Social-Democratic parties. As Lenin himself noted:

... the English Fabians, the French Ministerialists, the German Bernsteinians and the Russian Critics [Economists – DH] – all belong to the same family, all extol each other, learn from each other, and togetber take up arms against “dogmatic” Marxism. [7]

The particular form that Russian revisionism took around the turn of the century was denial of the need for an illegal party – the only kind possible under the conditions of the day.

The talk about an independent workers’ political party – stated the economists Credo – merely results from the transplantation of alien aims and alien achievements to our soil ... For the Russian Marxist there is only one course: participation in, i.e., assistance to, the economic struggle of the proletariat, and participation in liberal opposition activity. [8]

By 1903 the struggle against the “economists” was won (although not permanently – the Menshevik “liquidators” after 1906 were a new form of the same trend). The “professional” party was being built. But the 1905 revolution brought out the characteristic vices of this form of organisation, vices that are not accidental but the consequences of its virtues. Tenacity, singlemindedness, concentration on maintaining the organisation in the most difficult conditions; these, in addition to the necessary courage and devotion to duty, were the virtues of the “committeemen”. The other side of the same coin proved to be a strong trend towards conservatism and organisational sectarianism.

A military historian wrote of the training provided by the old German General Staff College, “It was designed, above all, to cultivate inflexibility of will; too often it also produced rigidity of intellect.” So it was with most of the “committeemen”, trained in the school of Tsarist repression. They found the greatest difficulty in adapting to the radically different requirements of an actual revolution.

When Soviets, workers’ councils, “spontaneously” sprang up in 1905 (i.e. sprang up without the call of any party), the typical Bolshevik committeeman viewed the development with the utmost suspicion. The revolution must be led by a party of professional revolutionaries – Lenin had said so – and anything outside party control must be, at best, a diversion and very probably dangerous. The problem of how party influence was to be established was approached in an “ultimatist” spirit.

Trotsky recalled:

Under Bogdanov’s influence, the Petrograd Bureau of the CEC (Bolsheviks) passed a resolution in October 1905: to submit before the Petrograd Soviet the demand that it recognise the leadership of the party; and in the event of refusal – to walk out of the Soviet. Krassikov, a young lawyer, in those days a member of the CEC (Bolsheviks), read the ultimatum at the plenary session of the Soviet. The worker deputies, among them Bolsheviks also, exchanged surprised looks and then passed on to the business on the order of the day. Not a man walked out of the Soviet. Shortly after that Lenin arrived from abroad, and be raked the ultimatists over the coals mercilessly. [9]

There were some Petrograd “committeemen” who had a more “flexible” approach. They wanted to participate in the Soviet – so as to wreck it from within! It was not a party organisation you see, and whatsoever is not of the party must be of the Devil.

It is always easy to smile at such absurdities with the benefit of hindsight. But it must be remembered that these same “committeemen” were dedicated, self-sacrificing revolutionaries whose experience had led them to confuse particular forms of organisation with the revolutionary content of the struggle. Organisational sectarianism, clinging to party methods and structures that events have made obsolete (sometimes very quickly) is a permanent danger for revolutionaries.

In the same spirit most of the “committeemen” were strongly opposed to opening up the party to the flood of new recruits made possible by the revolution. The party must not be “diluted” by a host of “raw workers”. In What is to be Done Lenin had quoted with approval (and too uncritically) Kautsky’s well-known statement:

But socialism and the class struggle arise side by side and not one out of the other; each rises under different conditions. Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. Indeed, modern economic science is as much a condition for socialist production as, say, modern technology, and the proletariat can create neither the one nor the other, no matter bow much it may desire to do so; both arise out of the modern social process. The vehicle of science is not the proletariat but the bourgeois intelligentsia: it was in the minds of individual members of this stratum that modern socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians who, in their turn, introduce it into the proletarian class struggle where conditions allow that to be done. Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without and not something that arose within it spontaneously. [10]

This highly abstract, partial and oversimplified position, which Lenin had, characteristically, exaggerated even further in the heat of polemic, was now used by his disciples to defend the “purity” of the party against the menace of dilution by militant but politically uneducated workers. All the arguments the “committeemen” needed – “the spontaneous development of the working class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology”, “a fierce struggle against spontaneity is necessary” and so on-could be, and were, quoted from the master’s own writings.

Lenin was driven to assert: “The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social Democratic” [11] (meaning, of course, revolutionary); a statement so one-sided as to be seriously misleading if taken as a general truth, but an emphasis absolutely necessary in the situation of 1905.

The whole question is an extremely complex one. Icautsky was, of course, right in saying that Marxism had been formulated by bourgeois intellectuals. He was wrong in implying that its development was not profoundly influenced by the actual class struggle (“side by side and not one out of the other”) indeed would have been impossible apart from working class action. Marx and Engels learned from the English working class, as even a cursory examination of their writings shows; they learned from the French working class. It was only after the experience of the Paris Commune that Marx came to fully understand the nature of a workers’ state – just as it was only after soviets had been created by nameless Russian working men that Lenin came to grasp their central importance.

So too, with the party. The theory, the tradition, the accumulated experience, that are indispensable do not arise anew at each working class upsurge. If they did there would be few defeats. Theory, experience, are indeed carried by “intellectuals” – although these may be workers who have been trained by a revolutionary party. The party is irreplaceable. But the accumulated experience only too often becomes sterile, worthless, unless it is related to the actual class struggle. Otherwise it becomes a dead dogma; dead and dogmatic because it is not even understood by those who parrot it, indeed it cannot be understood apart from practice. To stand a saying of Lenin’s on its head: Without revolutionary practice, no living revolutionary theory.

And the practice must relate to present opportunities in the class struggle. The Bolshevik committeemen of 1904-1905 had learned yesterday’s lessons very well, too well even. To adapt to the methods of open work new forces were needed and forces of a different kind. Not professional revolutionaries but workers in the shops, leading there and remaining there are the backbone of a revolutionary socialist organisation operating under legal or semi-legal conditions. And not as sympathisers but as members and leading members at that. Of course the professionals are still indispensable. But the nature of the committees is totally different. Workers in the plants must play the leading role.

Elsewhere I tried to express this, not very adequately, in these words:

The job of socialists is to connect their theory and aims with the problems and experiences of militants in such a way as to achieve a synthesis that is both a practical guide to action and a springboard for further advance. Such a synthesis is meaningful to the extent that it actually guides the activities of participants and is modified in the light of practice and that change in circumstances which it itself produces. This is the real meaning of the “struggle for a programme” that is so often turned into a fetish. [12]

What is weak about this formulation is that it does not say, emphasise and reemphasise that this is also a process of inner-party struggle, that through it the militants must come to lead the party units, that this is what is meant by “building a worker-leadership”.

The national direction of any serious revolutionary organisation is necessarily in the hands of party professionals. They may be a-workers or ox-intellectuals but they become professional revolutionaries, concerned, amongst other things, with political assessment, theory, analysis, maintaining the organisation, finance and a host of other matters. But each £ leadership is always in danger of reproducing the negative features of conservatism and organisational fetishism – as are the “professionals” in the districts – unless it is indissolubly linked with party units that are saturated with the experience of the day to day struggle and dominated by workers who are engaged in it. The necessity for inner-party democracy arises from this relationship.

Cliff gives an excellent statement of the position:

There is a dialectical relationship between democracy within the party and the party’s roots in the class. With out a correct class policy and a party composed of proletarians there is no possibility of healthy party democracy. Without a firm working class base all talk of democracy and discipline in the party is meaningless verbiage. At the same time, with out constant self-criticism, development of a correct class policy is impossible. [13]

A party of this type cannot, of course, be built under all circumstances. Cliff rightly stresses that Lenin’s 1902 “authoritarian” party model was correct, essential at the time it was propounded (as opposed to some of the dubious arguments Lenin borrowed from Kautsky to justify it). And after the defeat of the December 1905 armed rising in Moscow, the Bolsheviks were, slowly at first, driven back to the professional cadre type of organisation.

In the summer of 1905 the Moscow district bad 1,435 members. The figure rose in mid-May 1906 to 5,320. But by mid-1908 it bad dropped to 250 and six months later it was 150. By 1910 the organisation had ceased to exist, when the District Secretaty s job fell into the bands of one Kukushkin, an agent of the okhrana, the secret police. [14]

December 1905 was the decisive turning point of the first Russian revolution, in spite of the fact that the Bolsheviks continued to grow for a while longer. This, however, was not so obvious at the time.

Tactics, unity and splits

THE QUESTION that stood before the party in 1906 was: what now then? – wrote Lenin’s close associate, Zinoviev – Has the revolution ended? ... are we going through our 1847 or our 1849? ... an 1847, the eve of the 1848 revolution, or an 1849, the period following the half-victoty, half-defeat of the 1848 revolution ... Put another way, was 1906 merely the herald of new battles or were the major battles already behind us and the movement on the wane? [15]

The Bolshevik leaders, Lenin included, said firm1y – 1847, the new wave of revolutionary upsurge lies in the immediate future. Events proved this view mistaken. The Menshevik leaders, or most of them, said firmly – 1849, what lies ahead is a long period of non- revolutionary development. Events proved this view more correct, although the period was to be much shorter than that following 1849.

In short, the Bolsheviks had a mistaken perspective and the Mensheviks a more correct one. But this does not exhaust the question. The Mensheviks were moving rapidly to the right after the defeat of the Moscow rising: their perspective was, in part, a consequence of, and justification for, this rightward drift. The Bolsheviks retained their revolutionary will and optimism: their perspective was, in part, an expression of this fact. They were not willing to give up the tactics appropriate to the period of actual revolution – including armed struggle – until every possible opportunity had been exploited to the limit of the possibilities.

They were not willing to order a retreat until they were clearly being driven right off the field. Because of this they retained the morale and cohesion of their cadres much better than did the abstractly more correct Mensheviks. There were, of course, underlying political reasons for the different views- the Menshevik belief that the Russian bourgeoisie could be induced to lead the overthrow of Tsarism and the Bolshevik certainty that they could not, matters which Cliff explains clearly and at length.

But mistakes, even “necessary”, unavoidable, mistakes have also to be paid for. Will-power has its limitations. In a still fluid situation, stubbornness and determination can sometimes reverse an adverse tide. In the full flood of reaction they cannot, and persistence in inappropriate tactics leads to isolation and ruin.

The faulty perspective which leads to such tactics has to be corrected. This can be a costly process. In the Bolshevik case it produced a serious split in the party’s cadres.

Two closely interrelated questions, Boycottism and guerrilla activities, were central to the disputes around the reorientation of the party. Boycottism first arose in connection with the Duma, the “parliament”, that the Tsar’s ministers had conceded in an attempt to head off the revolutionary threat to the regime’s survival. The Duma was largely a fake parliament but that was not the main issue. In an 1847 situation it should be possible to sweep such a body aside along with all the institutions of the old regime. In an 1849 situation it will not be possible and the need is to utilise the opportunities, however limited, that it may present for agitation and propaganda.

The problem was very succinctly outlined by Trotsky:

It is permissible to boycott representative assemblies only in the event that the mass movement is sufficiently strong either to overthrow them or to ignore them, But when the masses are in retreat, the tactic of the boycott loses its revolutionary meaning. Lenin understood that and explained it better than others. As early as 1906 he repudiated the boycott of the Duma. After the coup of 3 June 1907, (the Tsar dissolved the first Duma and some of its liberal members held an illegal meeting which issued a manifesto calling for a refusal to pay taxes – DH) be led a resolute fight against the Boycottists precisely because the high-tide had been succeeded by the ebb-tide. [16]

The Boycottists, holding firmly to an 1847 perspective that had less and less connection with reality, developed into a consistent ultra-left tendency. Not only the Duma but also the legal trade unions (which were hedged in with all manner of police regulations and restrictions) should be boycotted because they were “Tsarist institutions”. As the party became less and less a mass organisation and more and more an organisation of party professionals, the necessary “feedback” from activity diminished, ultra-leftism flourished and Lenin found himself a minority in his own party.

At one point the upper band was gained by people who said: Why go into trade unions? Our concern is the party. – wrote Zinoviev – We will go underround and work there and as far as the unions are concerned the Mensheviks can sit tight. This was a major error for which we paid a high price. [17]

It had become absolutely essential to break with the ultra-lefts. They were serious and self-sacrificing revolutionaries but these policies would destroy the party as an effective organisation if they were persisted in. Unfortunately, in the conditions of the post-1905 repression, their ideas had a great appeal to the “steel-hard” cadres of the underground. Cliff sums it up beautifully:

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 at void, the pressure to adjust to a new situation is minimal. [18]

Lenin forced a split in 1909, lost some excellent revolutionaries in the process, and brought into being a rival “true Bolshevik” organisation which was a serious competitor for a period. Yet this hard decision was necessary. Splits are not the sovereign remedy for all internal party ills as some would-be disciples of Lenin imagine. The costs in terms of confusion and demoralisation of supporters can be high – they were in Russia. But faced with irreconcilable tendencies living under one “party roof”, and without the corrective that substantial participation in a real mass movement can bring, the split is unavoidable if paralysis is to be avoided.

So it was too with the final split (or rather break-down of unity negotiations) with the Mensheviks. The dominant trend in Menshevism after 1906 – the “liquidators” – were a reincarnation of the “economists”, a reformist current. There were indeed “party Mensheviks” and there was Trotsky, advocate of an all-embracing unity of all the factions. But the “party Mensheviks” proved to be an inconsistent, “centrist”, grouping and Trotsky’s “all-in” party a recipe for disintegration. Its brief realisation in 1912 (minus the Bolsheviks), the August Bloc, fell to pieces almost at once.

Boycottism was one aspect of the failure of many of the Bolshevik machinemen to adapt to new circumstances. Continuance of the armed struggle was another. The Bolshevik “fighting detachments” were originally armed units intended to serve as shock troops in the course of the revolution, not a substitute for, but as a supplement of, the mass struggle. At critical moments such units could play a key role in breaking the morale and discipline of the police – though they could hardly shatter the army, that was a question of mass agitation and the disintegration of discipline from within.

After the defeat of the December rising the fighting detachments were reduced to guerrilla actions. On an 1847 perspective this could be seen as an aspect of the preparation for the next round. The Bolsheviks were not alone in maintaining guerrilla warfare. For example, Pilsudski’s “revolutionary fraction” of the Polish Socialist Party (the extreme right wing nationalist tendency), the Armenian Dashnag terrorists (a “populist” organisation) and a number of other groups followed the same course. But; for marxists, guerrillerism could only be a viable course of action on the assumption that the defeat of the rising was temporary, that a new mass rising was on the agenda. Otherwise it was a self-defeating, self-isolating substitutionalism of the Narodnaya Volya or Baader-Meinhof type.

In the event Lenin himself was much slower to abandon armed action than boycottism. Yet the two policies were inextricably connected. If it is necessary to abandon the boycott then, by the same token, the armed struggle is inappropriate. Lenin did not immediately draw this conclusion. He was influenced by financial need – the contributions from sympathisers (notably from bourgeois sympathisers) fell off sharply as the reaction gained ground. The fighting detachments increasingly concentrated on “expropriations” – bank robberies to finance the underground apparatus.

Trotsky was right in saying that “there was an element of adventurism, usually foreign to Lenin’s policies” in this. Under conditions of increasing reaction the fighting detachments inevitably degenerated. The Mensheviks, of course, made much of this and denounced Lenin’s “irresponsibility”. But that does not alter the facts. The continuation of armed struggle under the new conditions did not injure Tsarism. It injured the Bolshevik organisation.

A typical picture of how even the most disciplined detachments degenerated is given in his memoirs by ... Samoilov, the former Duma deputy of the Ivanovo-Voznesensk textile workers. The tietachment, acting originally “under the directives of the party centre”, began to “misbehave” during the second half of 1906. When it offered the party only a part of the money it had stolen at a factory (having killed the cashier during the act), the party’s committee refused it flatly and reprimanded the fighters. But it was already too late; they were disintegrating rapidly and soon descended to “bandit attacks of the most ordinary criminal type”. Always having large sums of money the fighters begun to occupy themselves with carousing, in the course of which they often fell into the hands of the police. [19]

Or again,

Olminsky, one of the more noticeable of Lenin’s comrades in arms, shed critical light on that period from the perspective of Soviet times. “Not a few of the fine youth,” he wrote, “perished on the gibbet; others degenerated: still others were disappointed in the revolution. At the same time people began to confound revolutionists with ordinary bandits. Later, when the revival of the revolutionary labour movement began, that revival was slowest in cities where expropriations bad been most numerous.” [20]

The point has been emphasised because this is one of the very few areas in which Cliff does not draw the lessons of the experience as sharply he might have done.

In conclusion

THIS REVIEW has only touched on a few aspects of the rich material presented in the book, which takes the story up to 1914. The whole question of the nature of the Russian revolution, the role of the peasantry and its relationship to the working class, the utilisation of loopholes for legal work under illegal conditions and many other important matters, which are discussed by Cliff, have had to be passed over. There are not many books of which it can be truly said that they are indispensable handbooks. This is one of those few.




1. Lenin, Volume 1, Building the Party by Tony Cliff, Pluto Press. £3 paperback.

2. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 33, p.430.

3. Luxemburg, Selected Political Writings, p.96.

4. Lenin, CW, Vol.5, p.464.

5. Ibid., p.472-3.

6. Lenin, CW, Vol.20. pp.534-5.

7. Lenin, CW, Vol.5, p.352.

8. Lenin, CW, Vol.4, p.174.

9. Trotsky, What Next?, in Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p.167.

10. Lenin, CW, Vol.5, p.383-4.

11. Lenin, CW, Vol.10, p.32.

12. Towards a revolutionary socialist party, Party and Class, p.18.

13. Cliff, Lenin, p.269.

14. Ibid., p.240.

15. Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, p.140.

16. Trotsky, Stalin, Vol.1, p.152.

17. Zinoviev, History, p.153.

18. Cliff, Lenin, p.283

19. Trotsky, Stalin, p.151.

20. Ibid., p.153.


Last updated on 19.10.2006