D. Ivon Jones

Lenin’s First Book

Source: The Communist Review, March 1924, Vol. 4, No. 11.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

IT is just thirty years ago since Lenin issued his first book. The title of it was suggestive of combat. Who are these Friends of the People, and how they fight against the Social-Democrats.” (The title also reminds us that in those days a “Social-Democrat” meant a revolutionary Marxist.) The work, of course, could not be printed, and published legally, so it had to be typed and “mimeographed,” and in this form several hundred copies were issued in the spring of 1894, and passed from hand to hand among the Russian revolutionaries all over Russia. For the times were dark, the Czarist reaction was triumphant everywhere, and the least protest against the existing order was ruthlessly suppressed.

This book of Lenin’s, as one who read it at the time expressed it, was a veritable “voice from the underground,” a great decisive voice, the first clear call to the proletarian revolution ever heard in Russia. All the existing copies of this remarkable work had disappeared; it had not only gone out of print, but out of existence, until the October Revolution opened up the archives of the Russian police, and a copy of it was found last year and issued by the “State Publishing Department of the Soviet.”

Lenin’s first work should be widely known among Western Communists-and not only this, but his others mark the giant strides of the October revolution. When we read them, everything accidental falls away from the Russian revolution, and the genius of Lenin inspires it, not as one who happened to get a train through Germany, and happened to land in time, but as the inspiring directive force of the revolutionary advance guard from the very dawn of the workers movement in Russia. Having read this and others of his early brochures, we will not say that the secret of Lenin’s power lies in the fact that he was right on Brest Litovsk, or right on the new economic policy; we will say that the secret of his power begins thirty years back. For he, least of all, has not reaped where others have sown. Let us look back then and see how Lenin came to write this book with the provocative title, “Who are these Friends of the People?”

The Peasants in the ’Sixties

Seven years before he wrote it, that is, in 1887, on a day in March, half a dozen young revolutionaries belonging to the movement of the “narodovoltzi” (will of the people-ites) might have been seen sallying out into the streets of Petrograd with bombs in their hands disguised in the shape of books. They were intent upon the assassination of Alexander the Third, one of the cruellest of Russian Czars. But a spy was among them. They were all arrested on the way to the rendezvous, and executed a few days afterwards. At their head was Alexander Oulianov, then a young student, the elder brother of our Vladimir Oulianov-Lenin.

The “Narodniki” knew nothing of proletarian socialism—for the town proletariat in Russia were yet few in numbers—and their methods of struggle were hopelessly ineffective. In the sixties and the seventies, the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia did not resort to individual acts of assassination. They told the peasants of their oppression and placed their hopes in them. They “went to the people,” and they believed that once the peasantry realised the facts of the situation, they would rise in their masses and liberate the country from Czardom. But the peasants, whom the revolutionary intelligentsia had idealised as Communists by nature, and by occupation, turned out to be just ordinary producers. In spite of the common ownership (but extremely individualistic use) of village land, the germs of class division were already apparent among them, and, therefore, they were unable to achieve more than isolated and purely local “mutinies.”

After the failure of the revolutionary wave of the sixties and the seventies, the Russian intelligentsia decided that the work of emancipation from Czardom must be done by themselves singlehanded. They gave up preaching to the peasants, and resorted to individual acts of terror, shooting generals and bureaucrats who had made themselves notorious for their brutality. In 1881, they succeeded in assassinating Czar Alexander the Second. But again they were bitterly disappointed, for the peasants did not rise even to this supreme act. The chains of oppression were drawn still tighter, and it seemed as if oppression were indeed eternal. This was the mood of the revolutionary youth when Alexander Oulianov, representing the last of the heroic age of the revolutionary Narodovoltzi, conspired against the Czar, knowing beforehand—as all the devoted participants in these acts of terror knew—that whatever the result he would lose his life.

Some time before his execution Alexander Oulianov had come across a copy of Marx’s “Capital” and when he was home on his vacation he discussed it with his brother Vladimir. Here was another power of emancipation besides the dumb power of the peasantry, and the nerveless power of the unaided intelligentsia—the iron power of the industrial proletariat.

The final parting of the two brothers, one to Petrograd, the other to Kazan University, symbolises the break between two distinct epochs in the revolutionary history of Russia.

Seven years later we hear of Lenin in Petrograd, having meanwhile been expelled from Kazan University for agitation among his fellow students. When he wrote “The Friends of the People,” he had already formed a group of workers and intelligentsia, and had begun work among the factory hands. This work was not the teaching of abstract Marxism, but formulating on behalf of the workers of the most primitive demands, such as the abolition of the system of petty fines in the factories. Then, as always, Lenin, saw the emancipation of the workers behind every working class protest against their condition, be it only a protest against factory fines.

But it is not this side of Lenin’s work, his work as organiser of the proletarian struggle, that his first book chiefly reveals, it is his relations with these “friends of the people,” as he called them.

Relations with the “Friends of the People”

By this time the revolutionary phase of the “narodniki,” or populists, was past. Great names among the “narodovoltzi,” Zheliabov, Khaltourn the working man, etc., names honoured today by the Bolsheviks, who raise monuments to their memory; these men had passed away, and the “narodniki” against whom Lenin wrote were what he called “populists.” They had become respectable, had degenerated into opportunists of the most ordinary type, and even were able to sustain a legal press passed by the censor. At their head was Michaelovski, who carried on a literary warfare against Russian Marxism, and against the young groups of Social-Democrats then forming in the big cities.

Since the liberation of the serfs, class divisions within the peasantry had become clearer and sharper, and the narodniki while resolutely refusing to see these class divisions, had themselves, as Lenin showed, come to reflect the ideals of the richer peasant and small merchant capitalist of the villages.

Not that the parlour narodniki did not read Karl Marx. Indeed Karl Marx, was in great vogue in those days, not only among the Marxists but among both the narodniki and the advanced wing of the liberal bourgeoisie. While perverting Marx, they were compelled to use the terminology of Marxism to a large extent; they spoke of “capitalism” and “the bourgeoisie,” etc., with a familiarity that surprises an English reader, for the British bourgeoisie have been shrewd enough to refuse to accept these terms as terms representing facts, but only as terms of abuse. The narodniki had even corresponded with Marx, before their most opportunist phase had set in.

As Lenin points out in another of his books, against the “narodniki” (“Marxism reflected in bourgeois literature,”) the petit bourgeois everywhere have a capacity to see the class division clearly so long as it is in another country, while they are utterly blind to it in their own country.

The revolutionary narodovoltzi based their socialism on peasant economy, on the mir or village commune. They believed in the mission of Russia to contribute something wholly new to the world, and not merely receive from the West its culture. The narodniki continued on this line of thought and derided the idea of a proletarian movement; how could a million proletarians emancipate a country of over a hundred millions, they demanded. They pleaded that Russia so far was as a “tubula rasa,” (a clean slate), on which it was the duty of the classless intelligentsia to write their own will, instead of importing Western European civilisation as a whole, with its capitalism and its “plague of the proletariat.” The bourgeoisie were already in Russia, it was true, but it was not too late to “return to the true path.” Their duty was to “find a way to the fatherland.” One narodniki, Yoshakov, even declared that stagnation was better than the line of development through capitalism. All this, of course, was clothed in a mass of learned philosophy and abundant eloquence.

Russia was in a period of transition. The student youth, played a far more decisive role in the revolutionary movement in Russia than in the West owing to the general illiteracy of the labouring masses. These students were looking for new political faiths, and it was imperative, as Lenin elsewhere expressed it, to stop the confusion of advanced public opinion by “these Friends of the People,” in order to win over the youth to. revolutionary Marxism.

Lenin’s Evangel of Marxism

Plekhanov and others had for several years constituted a group in Genoa, and his writings as a “populariser” of Marx, are even referred to in Lenin’s book. But Lenin himself burst upon the political arena, a master Marxist, Plekhanov explains the new weapon, Marxism, as the fencing-master teaches the youth. Lenin is no “populariser” of Marx. His is Marxian in action; he takes up the weapon to go forth to combat. All his brochures, bear the stamp of having been written at high pressure. They are sparks from the struggle, not abstract studies, whatever he may have learnt in subsequent years, this work shows that he had nothing to unlearn. It contains allusions in some form or other to every strategy of the revolution later developed and associated with Lenin’s name. It was not until six months after the appearance of Lenin’s “Friends of the People,” that Plekhanov first published a book in Russia: it was “The Monistic View of History,” and was published legally.

Semashko, the present Commissar of Health in the Soviet Government, says in his “Dawn of the Workers’ Movement in Moscow,” and quoted in the introduction to the present edition,

“Our Marxian equipment at that time was pretty weak. When Michaelovski in 1893 began his celebrated campaign against the Marxists, our position seemed to be very much under fire. We had only a few foreign publications (chiefly Plekhanov’s “Our Differences,” the popular exposition of Guesde, Marx’s “Capital,” etc.), but these publications penetrated into Russia, of course, only in the form of great rarities, and besides that, did not give definite answers to those concrete questions which the Russian situation demanded. . . . . And when Comrade Lenin’s brochure appeared, “Who are these Friends of the People,” directed against the narodniki, and containing illuminating statistical material, it was for us a veritable evangel. We reprinted it on the hectograph, in spite of its size, through whole nights, hiding it in places most inaccessible to the police in case of search, and learning it almost by heart.”

Especially interesting now is the reminiscence of Martov, the Menshevik leader, and Lenin’s principal political opponent, writing in his “Memoirs,” lately published in Berlin, also quoted in the introduction to the present edition —

“Unlike the academic polemics of Strouve, from this brochure full of caustic characteristics of the theoretical and political tendencies of the narodniki leaders, there emanated a real revolutionary passion, and a plebeian roughness. The brochure showed both literary gift and the ripened political judgment of a man woven of a fibre from which party leaders are made. I was interested in the person of the author, but the level of conspiracy at that time was so high that I was only able to learn that it came from the group known as the “elders.” It was a year later that I heard that name of V. I. Oulianov.”

The reference to Strouve serves to remind us how long ago it is since this book was written, and Lenin had formed a literary alliance with the Left wing of the Liberal bourgeoisie, for such Strouve was in spite of his Social-Democratic veneer.

Lenin early defined Strouve’s tendency as one “towards bourgeois democracy, for whom the break-with the narodniki signified their conversion from petty bourgeois (or peasant) socialism, not to proletarian Socialism as with us, but to bourgeois Liberalism.” For Strouve gradually verted to the Right, joined the Cadet Party after the 1905 revolution, and was a minister in the governments of Wrangel and Denikin. Many uses may be made of Marx, besides proletarian use, of which fact Marxian colleges and classes should take note. Trotsky recently advised the youth to enter the study of Marxism through Leninism, as the only safe entry.

At that time, Lenin and Strouve were in the literary trenches together, firing at the narodniki, and in his second brochure, “Marxism reflected in bourgeois literature,” we see Lenin giving Strouve an occasional pat on the back for a good shot, but more often a box on the ears for bad aim. Strouve is said to have stiffened up a little towards the end of the century, for he attended the first Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party, at Minsk, in 1898.

This is the fascination of Russian revolutionary history: the whole process, which in England has taken centuries, is here squeezed into the lifetime of a man of genius, constituting an epic which the youth of the future will value more than all the epics of romance.

Was Capitalism Inevitable?

If, as Engels averred, France was a country in which all class struggles had a tendency to be fought out to the finish, Russia, is a country, in which the class struggle has been fought out not only to the finish, but from the very beginning practically in a lifetime. For a considerable portion “who are these Friends of the People,” is devoted to the controversy raging as to whether or not capitalism was inevitable in Russia; the Narodniki crying that it was not inevitable, and the Marxists with Lenin at their head saying it is already here long ago.

It is a long time indeed, a century squeezed into thirty years, since the chief defender of the capitalist line of development were the revolutionary Marxists. Lunatcharsky has described how he and a few other young students at that time heard that a certain nail factory, which was to replace handicraft production, had been forced to close down, and what a cloud of doubt this news cast over the faith of the young Marxists.

This is not the place, nor perhaps is it necessary to enter into explanation of this historical fact, of revolutionary Marxists—who were later without changing front to kill capitalism—here fighting “a reactionary social-political theory,” as Lenin described “populism.” That is they were defending capitalism in its progressive stage, fighting “the enemies of our ‘enemy.’”

Here one would like to use a word one often meets in Socialist theory, the word “dialectic,” and the “dialectical method” but that hitherto these words have had an extremely abstract meaning for the average reader. Lenin himself, however, devotes much space to the “subjective,” and “dialectical” methods here in this controversy with Michaelovsky, the leader of the narodniki, and we need not fear anything abstract for with Lenin everything is joined up with concrete cases, and the mystery of “subjective,” and “dialectical” methods is cleared up as with a magic wand.

Michaelovski had said that “sociology must begin with some utopias,” and he is agitated as to why Russia should go through the capitalist stage of development, and Lenin quotes him, giving us a cameo of the petty bourgeois ideologue’s political habit of thought:

“Our task,” says Michaelovski, “is not necessarily to grow a self dependent civilisation from our own national soil, but neither is it to transplant into our soil Western civilisation en bloc, with all its frictions and contradictions. We must take the best from everywhere, from wherever we can, whether our own or foreign, this is not a question of principal, but practical convenience.”

“This pure metaphorical philosopher,” says Lenin, “looks upon social relations as a simple mechanical aggregate of this and that institution, a simple mechanical linking together of this, that or the other social forms, like bricks taken from one building to form another. To this type of mind,” continues Lenin, “the dialectical method of thought, speaking the language of Marx, is utterly foreign, which looks upon society as a live organism in its functioning and in its development.”

Lenin and Historical Materialism

“Historical necessity” and the “dialectical method” are not mere words between scholars; Lenin desires to show the revolutionary youth where the course of the struggle is set; there where historical development has decreed in the “new social power: the class of the factory worker, the city proletariat.” Subjected to the same bourgeois exploitation that in substance is the exploitation of the whole of the labouring population of Russia, this class is placed however, in especially favourable conditions for its emancipation: it is altogether divorced from the old society, a society wholly based on exploitation; the very surroundings of its life organise it, compel it to think, and give it a means to enter into political conflict.” Lenin calls upon the revolutionary intelligentsia to join this class in its struggle.

In another brochure against the narodniki—“What is the heritage that we reject?” (the narodniki had accused the Marxists of breaking with the revolutionary heritage of the seventies). Lenin makes the following striking distinctions:—

“The bourgeois philanthropists of the seventies believed in the present line of progress (through capitalist democracy), because they did not see the contradictions inherent in it.

The narodniki fears the present line of social development because he sees the contradictions inherent in it.

The Marxist believes in the present line of social development because he sees that the only guarantee for a better future lies in the fullest development of these contradictions.”

But the doctrine of historical, necessity with Lenin is not a cover for academism, no encouragement to leave things to the “elements,” to sit at home by the fire and read Karl Marx until the next strike, brings along something interesting. Indeed, the isolated strike, while fulfilling him with pride of the workers, rends him with impatience at the absence of a directing proletarian Party.

Michaelovski accuses Marxism of turning men into marionettes and is concerned about the “conflict between historical necessity and the role of individuals” Lenin shows the futility of opposing historical necessity to personal effort. Historical materialism shows us under what conditions are personal activities assured of success, “in what consists the guarantee that personal effort does not remain an isolated act drowned in the sea of opposing acts.” For Lenin, enemy of the Great Man Theory, history nevertheless is made by living men. For his dialectical materialism does not replace, but guides personal efforts. He, least of all, believes in the “elements” clearing up the mess. He calls on men to act or the occasion will pass. His is the grand impatience of the revolutionary who believes that the revolution is inevitable “only if men will be men and not puppets.” And this is the new life that Marxism, especially Marxism as previously understood in England and America, imbibes from Lenin.

This controversy with the narodniki is of far more than historical interest, it is a guide to petty bourgeois ideology. In his work Lenin brings much statistical material on handicraft and peasant production, to show the “narodniki,” who decried capitalism as a foreign interloper, that their so-called “peoples industry,” was none other than capitalist production, exploiting the village masses all the more intensely by their partial dependence on the land. The “narodniki” stood for the non-alienability of the peasants from his land-plot, which Lenin denounces as a relic of feudalism. Looking forward and stepping backward is indeed the universal petty bourgeois trait. Lenin in the satire: “Pearls of a Populist Utopia,” 1897 says:—

“On the one hand, verbiose declamations on the dangers and folly of class division, and on the other hand—unmitigated class utopias. In these eternal waverings between the old and the new, in these curious attempts to jump through with its own head, that, is, to stand above all classes, consists the substance of every petty bourgeois, system of thought.”

Lenin raps out the words, “struggle, struggle, struggle,” in reply to a particularly pretty “narodniki” scheme for circumventing exploitation, which he compares (in Russian equivalent) to the good old recipe for catching rabbits (capitalism), namely, to put salt on their own tails. “Struggle, struggle, struggle,” of the exploited against their exploiters, and how to struggle that is the keynote of this book.

Formulates the United Front

The “narodniki” passed into history, nor did they survive as such into the new century. They left the field pathetically, complaining that the Marxists wanted to “squeeze every moujik through a factory boiler!” But Lenin never lost the occasion to emphasise that, though combating populist errors, the cause of the petty producers would be safe in the hands of the revolutionary Marxists. They would take up the democratic demands of the populists, sharpen them and make them more profound.

And Lenin, here foreshadows the principle of the United Front, he calls upon the democratic elements to form their own party, and at the same time calls upon all Socialists to break with the populists and form their own party. To the suggestion of an alliance of all parties, in the fight for political freedom Lenin replies that such an alliance can only occur on concrete issues, but a general movement of union there could not be.

This book, like all Lenin’s teachings, is a corrective against the tendency to base party tactics on the naked opposition of two classes, capital and labour irrespective of survivals and intermediates, which Lenin elsewhere describes as a “vulgarisation of Marx.” But on the other hand, the spirit of this book, which cannot be conveyed in any description, is the foremost antidote to any degeneration of the United Front tactics into wholesale promiscuity.

It was written in the most difficult environment imaginable, with every excuse for alliances, and every Marxian precedent to put forward the bourgeois parties as a screen against absolutism. Capitalist Imperialism tends to repeat these conditions in part, the political part; and this no doubt has influenced some American comrades to speak of a “La Follette revolution” (Liberator, October 1923). Lenin points out the duty of the proletariat to join in the struggle for the overthrow of absolutism, not only as a struggle for representative institutions, but mainly for the abolition of the social oppression hampering the village labouring masses in order that these allies of the proletariat may enter the struggle. It may not be superfluous to mark this distinction. The passage is worth quoting as it also contains the first reference to the Workers’ and Peasants’ Alliance which was more definitely formulated in 1905:—

“The workers should know that without the overthrow of these pillars of reaction (feudal institutions) it will not be possible for them to carry on a successful struggle against the bourgeoisie, because so long as they prevail, the village proletariat, whose support is essential to the victory of the working class, will not be able to emerge from the condition of a flogged and downtrodden people capable, only of dumb despair instead of national and persistent struggle.”

The distinction, however, is vital only so far as it serves to point to the moral still more sharply. For neither to the Liberal bourgeoisie nor to the small bourgeoisie does Lenin entrust any revolutionary task. The words “bourgeois revolution” or “democratic revolution,” as applied to Russia are not mentioned once in this book. In a country of feudal despotism, economically the most backward in Europe, where the most elementary democratic rights had yet to be won, this “voice from the underground” declares that the conquest of democracy is the task of the working class. Hear the great brave words with which he concludes:—

“It is to the class of the workers that the Social Democrats devote the whole of their attention, and the whole of their activity. When the advanced representatives of this class imbibe the idea of scientific socialism, the idea of the historic role of the Russian worker, and when this idea receives the widest dissemination, and a firm organisation of the workers is formed, transforming the present isolated economic conflicts of the workers into a conscious class struggle—then the Russian worker, placing himself at the head of all the democratic elements, will overthrow absolutism, and will lead the Russian proletariat (along with the proletariat of all countries), by the direct road of open political struggle to a triumphant communist revolution!”

One is at a loss which to marvel at most: Lenin’s great faith in the proletariat, or the proletariat that vindicated that faith. Lenin and the Russian proletariat “climb the hill together,” from the very foot; and it is not in a spirit of empty laudation, but from a sense of perfect mutual understanding with their leader, that the Moscow workers have inscribed upon one of their tramcars the words:

Ilytch, the brain of the Proletariat!1



1.  Short for “Vladimir Iltych,” (Vlaimir, son of Ilya).