V. I.   Lenin

A Talk With Defenders of Economism

Published: Iskra, No. 12, December 6, 1901.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961, Moscow, Volume 5, pages 313-320.
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala and D. Walters
Public Domain: Lenin Internet Archive (2003). 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.
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Below we publish in full, as received from one of our representatives,

“A Letter to the Russian Social-Democratic Press.

“In response to the suggestion made by our comrades in exile that we express our views on Iskra, we have resolved to state the reasons for our disagreement with that organ.

“While recognising that the appearance of a special Social-Democratic organ specially devoted to questions of the political struggle is entirely opportune, we do not think that Iskra, which has under taken this task, has performed it satisfactorily. The principal drawback of the paper, which runs like a scarlet thread through its columns, and which is the cause of all its other defects, large and small, is the exaggerated importance it attaches to the influence which the ideologists of the movement exert upon its various tendencies. At the same time, Iskra gives too little consideration to the material elements and the material environment of the movement, whose interaction creates a definite type of labour movement and determines its path, the path from which the ideologists, despite all their efforts, are incapable of diverting it, even if they are inspired by the finest theories and programmes.

“This defect becomes most marked when Iskra is compared with Yuzhny Rabochy,[1] which, like Iskra, raises the banner of political struggle but connects it with the preceding phase of the South-Russian working-class movement. Such a presentation of the question is alien to Iskra. It has set itself the task of fanning ’the spark into a great conflagration’,[A play on the word Iskra, which means “spark”.—Tr.] but it forgets that necessary inflammable material and favourable environmental conditions are required for such a task. In dissociating itself completely from the ’Economists’, Iskra loses sight of the fact that their activity prepared the ground for the workers’ participation in the February and March events, upon which Iskra lays so much stress and, to all appearances, greatly exaggerates. While criticising adversely the activity of the Social-Democrats of the late nineties, Iskra ignores the fact that at that time the conditions were   lacking for any work other than the struggle for minor demands, and ignores also the enormous educational significance of that struggle. Iskra is entirely wrong and unhistorical in its appraisement of that period and of the direction of the activities of the Russian Social Democrats at the time, in identifying their tactics with those of Zubatov,[2] in failing to differentiate between the ’struggle for minor demands’, which widens and deepens the labour movement, and ’minor concessions’, whose purpose was to paralyse every struggle and every movement.

“Thoroughly imbued with the sectarian intolerance so characteristic of ideologists in the infantile period of social movements, Iskra is ready to brand every disagreement with it, not only as a departure from Social-Democratic principles, but as desertion to the camp of the enemy. Of such a nature is its extremely indecent and most reprehensible attack upon Rabochaya Mysl, contained in the article on Zubatov, in which the latter’s success among a certain section of the working class was attributed to that publication. Negatively disposed to the other Social-Democratic organisations, which differ from it in their views on the progress and the tasks of the Russian labour movement, Iskra, in the heat of controversy, at times forgets the truth and, picking on isolated unfortunate expressions, attributes to its opponents views they do not hold, emphasises points of disagreement that are frequently of little material importance, and obstinately ignores the numerous points of contact in views. We have in mind Iskra s attitude towards Rabocheye Dyelo.

Iskra’s excessive predilection for controversy is due primarily to its exaggerating the role of ’ideology’ (programmes, theories...) in the movement, and is partly an echo of the internecine squabbles that have flared up among Russian political exiles in Western Europe, of which they have hastened to inform the world in a number of polemical pamphlets and articles. In our opinion, these disagreements exercise almost no influence upon the actual course of the Russian Social-Democratic movement, except perhaps to damage it by bringing an undesirable schism into the midst of the comrades working in Russia. For this reason, we cannot but express our disapproval of Iskra’s fervent polemics, particularly when it oversteps the bounds of decency.

“This basic drawback of Iskra is also the cause of its inconsistency on the question of the attitude of Social-Democracy to the various social classes and tendencies. By theoretical reasoning, Iskra solved the problem of the immediate transition to the struggle against absolutism. In all probability it senses the difficulty of such a task for the workers under the present state of affairs but lacking the patience to wait until the workers will have gathered sufficient forces for this struggle, Iskra begins to seek allies in the ranks of the liberals and intellectuals. In this quest, it not infrequently departs from the class point of view, obscures class antagonisms, and puts into the forefront the common nature of the discontent with the government, although the causes and the degree of the discontent vary considerably among the ’allies Such, for example, is Iskra’s attitude towards the Zemstvo. It tries to fan into flames of political struggle the Zemstvo’s Frondian demonstrations, which are frequently called forth by the fact that the government   pays more attention to the protection of industry than to the agrarian aspirations of the Zemstvo gentry,[Lenin’s reference is to the liberal landlords, members of the Zemstvo Boards.—Tr.] and it promises the nobles that are dissatisfied with the governments sops the assistance of the working class, but it does not say a word about the class antagonism that exists between these social strata. It may be conceded that it is admissible to say that the Zemstvo is being roused and that it is an element fighting the government; but this must be stated so clearly and distinctly that no doubt will be left as to the character of a possible agreement with such elements. Iskra, however, approaches the question of our attitude towards the Zemstvo in a way that to our mind can only dim class-consciousness; for in this matter, like the advocates of liberalism and of the various cultural endeavours Iskra goes against the fundamental task of Social-Democratic literature, which is, not to obscure class antagonism, but to criticise the bourgeois system and explain the class interests that divide it. Such, too, is Iskra’s attitude towards the student movement. And yet in other articles Iskra sharply condemns all ’compromise’ and defends, for instance, the intolerant conduct of the Guesdists.

“We shall refrain from dwelling upon Iskra’s minor defects and blunders, but in conclusion we think it our duty to observe that we do not in the least desire by our criticism to belittle the significance which Iskra can acquire, nor do we close our eyes to its merits. We welcome it as a political, Social-Democratic newspaper in Russia. We regard one of its greatest merits to be its able explanation of the question of terror to which it devoted a number of timely articles. Finally, we can not refrain from noting the exemplary, literary style in which Iskra is written, a thing so rare in illegal publications, its regular appearance, and the abundance of fresh and interesting material which it publishes.

A group of comrades

September 1901."

In the first place, we should like to say that we cordially welcome the straightforwardness and frankness of the authors of this letter. It is high time to stop playing at hide-and-seek, concealing one’s Economist “credo” (as is done by a section of the Odessa Committee from which the “politicians” broke away), or declaring, as if in mockery of the truth, that at the present time “not a single Social-Democratic organisation is guilty of the sin of Economism” (Two Conferences, p. 32, published by Rabocheye Dyelo). And now to the matter.

The authors of the letter fall into the very same fundamental error as that made by Rabocheye Dyelo (see particularly issue No. 10). They are muddled over the question   of the relations between the “material” (spontaneous, as Rabocheye Dyelo puts it) elements of the movement and the ideological (conscious, operating “according to plan”). They fail to understand that the “ideologist” is worthy of the name only when he precedes the spontaneous movement, points out the road, and is able ahead of all others to solve all the theoretical, political, tactical, and organisational questions which the “material elements” of the movement spontaneously encounter. In order truly to give “consideration to the material elements of the movement”, one must view them critically, one must be able to point out the dangers and defects of spontaneity and to elevate it to the level of consciousness, To say, however, that ideologists (i.e., politically conscious leaders) cannot divert the movement from the path determined by the interaction of environment and elements is to ignore the simple truth that the conscious element participates in this interaction and in the determination of the path. Catholic and monarchist labour unions in Europe are also an inevitable result of the interaction of environment and elements, but it was the consciousness of priests and Zubatovs and not that of socialists that participated in this interaction. The theoretical views of the authors of this letter (like those of Rabocheye Dyelo) do not represent Marxism, but that parody of it which is nursed by our “Critics” and Bernsteinians who are unable to connect spontaneous evolution with conscious revolutionary activity.

In the prevailing circumstances of today this profound theoretical error inevitably leads to a great tactical error, which has brought incalculable damage to Russian Social- Democracy. It is a fact that the spontaneous awakening of the masses of the workers and (due to their influence) of other social strata has been taking place with astonishing rapidity during the past few years. The “material elements” of the movement have grown enormously even as compared with 1898, but the conscious leaders (the Social-Democrats) lag behind this growth. This is the main cause of the crisis which Russian Social-Democracy is now experiencing. The mass (spontaneous) movement lacks “ideologists” sufficiently trained theoretically to be proof against all vacillations; it lacks leaders with such a broad political outlook, such   revolutionary energy, and such organisational talent as to create a militant political party on the basis of the new movement.

All this in itself would, however, be but half the evil. Theoretical knowledge, political experience, and organising ability are things that can be acquired. If only the desire exists to study and acquire these qualities. But since the end of 1897, particularly since the autumn of 1898, there have come forward in the Russian Social-Democratic movement individuals and periodicals that not only close their eyes to this drawback, but that have declared it to be a special virtue, that have elevated the worship of, and servility towards, spontaneity to the dignity of a theory and are preaching that Social-Democrats must not march ahead of the movement, but should drag along at the tail-end. (These periodicals include not only Rabochaya Mysl, but Rabocheye Dyelo, which began with the “stages theory” and ended with the defence, as a matter of principle, of spontaneity, of the “full rights of the movement of the moment”, of “tactics-as process”, etc.)

This was, indeed, a sad situation. It meant the emergence of a separate trend, which is usually designated as Economism (in the broad sense of the word), the principal feature of which is its incomprehension, even defence, of lagging, i.e., as we have explained, the lagging of the conscious leaders behind the spontaneous awakening of the masses. The characteristic features of this trend express themselves in the following: with respect to principles, in a vulgarisation of Marxism and in helplessness in the face of modern “criticism”, that up-to-date species of opportunism; with respect to politics, in the striving to restrict political agitation and political struggle or to reduce them to petty activities, in the failure to understand that unless Social-Democrats take the leadership of the general democratic movement in their own hands, they will never be able to overthrow the autocracy; with respect to tactics, in utter instability (last spring Rabocheye Dyelo stood in amazement before the “new” question of terror, and only six months later, after considerable wavering and, as always, dragging along at the tail end of the movement, did it express itself against terror, in a very ambiguous resolution); and with respect to   organisation, in the failure to understand that the mass character of the movement does not diminish, but increases, our obligation to establish a strong and centralised organisation of revolutionaries capable of leading the preparatory struggle, every unexpected outbreak, and, finally, the decisive assault.

Against this trend we have conducted and will continue to conduct an irreconcilable struggle. The authors of the letter apparently belong to this trend. They tell us that the economic struggle prepared the ground for the workers’ participation in the demonstrations. True enough; but we appreciated sooner and more profoundly than all others the importance of this preparation, when, as early as December 1900, in our first issue, we opposed the stages theory,[See present edition, Vol. 4, pp. 366-71.—Ed.] and when, in February, in our second issue, immediately after the drafting of the students into the army, and prior to the demonstrations, we called upon the workers to come to the aid of the students.[Ibid., pp. 414-19.—Ed.] The February and March events did not “refute the fears and alarms of Iskra” (as Martynov, who thereby displays his utter failure to understand the question, thinks—Rabocheye Dyelo, No. 10, p. 53), but wholly confirmed them, for the leaders lagged behind the spontaneous rise of the masses and proved to be unprepared for the fulfilment of their duties as leaders. Even at the present time the preparations are far from adequate, and for that reason all talk about “exaggerating the role of ideology or the role of the conscious element as compared with the spontaneous element, etc., continues to exercise a most baneful influence upon our Party.

No less harmful is the influence exerted by the talk, allegedly in defence of the class point of view, about the need to lay less stress on the general character of discontent manifested by the various strata of the population against the government. On the contrary, we are proud of the fact that Iskra rouses political discontent among all strata of the population, and the only thing we regret is that we are unable to do this on a much wider scale. It is not true to say that in doing so, we obscure the class point of view; the authors of the letter   have not pointed to a single concrete instance in evidence of this, nor can they do so. Social-Democracy, as the van guard in the struggle for democracy, must (notwithstanding the opinion expressed in Rabocheye Dyelo, No. 10, p. 41) lead the activities of the various oppositional strata, explain to them the general political significance of their partial and professional conflicts with the government, rally them to the support of the revolutionary party, and train from its own ranks leaders capable of exercising political influence upon all oppositional strata. Any renunciation of this function, however florid the phrases about close, organic contact with the proletarian struggle, etc., with which it may deck it self, is tantamount to a fresh “defence of lagging”, the defence of lagging behind the nation-wide democratic movement on the part of Social-Democrats; it is tantamount to a surrender of the leadership to bourgeois democracy. Let the authors of the letter ponder over the question as to why the events of last spring served so strongly to stimulate non-Social-Democratic revolutionary tendencies, instead of raising the authority and prestige of Social-Democracy.

Nor can we refrain from protesting against the astonishing short-sightedness displayed by the authors of the letter in regard to the controversies and internecine squabbles among the political exiles. They repeat the stale nonsense about the “indecency” of devoting to Rabochaya Mysl an article on Zubatov. Do they wish to deny that the spreading of Economism facilitates the tasks of the Zubatovs? In asserting this, however, we do not in the slightest “identify” the tactics of the Economists with those of Zubatov. As for the “political exiles” (if the authors of the letter were not so unpardonably careless concerning the continuity of ideas in the Russian Social-Democratic movement, they would have known that the warning about Economism sound ed by the “political exiles”, to be precise, by the Emancipation of Labour group, has been strikingly confirmed!), note the manner in which Lassalle, who was active among the Rhine workers in 1852, judged the controversies of the exiles in London. Writing to Marx, he said:

“...The publication of your work against the ’big men’, Kinkel, Ruge, etc., should hardly meet with any difficulties on the part of the police.... For, in my opinion, the government   is not averse to the publication of such works, because it thinks that ’the revolutionaries will cut one another’s throats’. Their bureaucratic logic neither suspects nor fears the fact that it is precisely internal Party struggles that lend a party strength and vitality; that the greatest proof of a party’s weakness is its diffuseness and the blurring of clear demarcations; and that a party becomes stronger by purging itself” (letter from Lassalle to Marx, June 24, 1852).

Let the numerous complacent opponents of severity, irreconcilability, and fervent polemics, etc., take note!

In conclusion, we shall observe that in these remarks we have been able to deal only briefly with the questions in dispute. We intend to devote a special pamphlet to the analysis of these questions, which we hope will appear in the course of six weeks.


[1] Yuzhny Rabochy (Southern Worker)—a Social-Democratic newspaper published illegally by a group of the same name from January 1900 to April 1903; altogether 12 issues appeared. The newspaper circulated chiefly among Social-Democratic organisations in the south of Russia.

Lenin said of the Yuzhny Rabochy group that it was one of those organisations “which in words accepted Iskra as the guiding organ but in deeds followed their own particular plans and were distinguished for their instability on questions of principle”. The group existed until the Second Congress of the R.S.D.L.P. Subsequently the majority of the leading members of the group became Mensheviks.

[2] Zubatov—Colonel of the Gendarmes, tried to introduce “police socialism”. He set up fake workers’ organisations under the protection of the gendarmerie and the police in an effort to divert the workers from the revolutionary movement.

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