V. I.   Lenin

A Letter to the Northern League[2]


Written: Written in April 1902
Published: First Published in 1923. Published according to the manuscript.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1964, Moscow, Volume 6, pages 161-171.
Translated: ??? ???
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala and D. Walters
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First of all, it is necessary to note the principal defect of the “programme” in respect of form, namely, that it lumps together the fundamental principles of scientific socialism with the narrow, concrete tasks, not only of a particular moment, but even of a particular locality. This defect becomes at once apparent even from a glance at the contents of the fifteen paragraphs of the programme. Let us do that.

§ 1—aim of the working-class movement in general.

§ 2—the principal condition for achieving this aim.

§ 3—immediate political task of Russian Social-Democracy.

§ 4—attitude of Russian Social-Democracy to the liberals, etc.

§ 5—ditto.

§ 6—the concepts of “class” and “party” (a particular difference of opinion with the “economists”).

§ 7—practical tasks of agitation.

§ 8—significance of propaganda.

§ 9—demonstrations and manifestations.

§ 10—May Day celebrations.

§ 11—leaflets and demonstrations on February 19.[3]

§ 12—economic struggle and social reforms.

§ 13—the necessity of an offensive as well as of a defensive struggle of the working class.

§ 14—active, not merely passive, role in strikes.

§ 15—strikes as the best means of struggle.

It will easily be seen that these paragraphs, which deal with such varied matters, should have been divided up   into separate sections (otherwise it may give rise to considerable misunderstandings among people unable to distinguish between fundamental principles and the practical tasks of the moment). It is not only inept but even utterly incorrect and ambiguous to place side by side a statement of the ultimate aim of socialism and a discussion with the “economists,” or a definition of the importance of strikes. What the Northern League should have done was first to make a clear statement of principle with regard to its convictions in, general, then to define the political tasks of the Party as the Northern League understands them, and, thirdly, to separate from these strictly programmatic theses the resolutions, of the organisation (the Northern League) on the problems of the practical movement (§§ 7-11 and 13- 15). A separate point should have been made of § 6, which defines the attitude of the Northern League to the differences of opinion among Russian Social-Democrats, while § 12 should have been included in the statement of principle (since the relation of the current struggle for petty improvements and reforms to the struggle for the ultimate aim is a general and not a specifically Russian question).

After this general remark, I shall now proceed to analyse the individual paragraphs:

§ 1 outlines the general aims of Social-Democracy as a whole. These aims are stated extremely briefly and disjointedly. True, the programme of a local organisation ought not to go into details, which are indispensable for the programme of a party. Fully realising this and considering that it was a very useful and important decision on the part of the Northern League not to keep silent about the fundamental principles of Social-Democracy even in a programme of a local organisation, I would in that case deem it necessary only to add a statement outlining the fundamental principles in greater detail. In other words, it should have been indicated, for instance, that the Northern League bases itself on international scientific socialism (the international character of the movement is not indicated anywhere in the programme), and subscribes to the theory of “revolutionary Marxism.” In addition to this general statement of its principles, it would be possible to add a proposition like § 1, but by itself it (§ 1) is not sufficient.

  As an organisation affiliated to the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, the Northern League should have declared its solidarity with the “Manifesto” ’of this Party; moreover, it would have been also useful to point to the solidarity of the Northern League at least with the draft programme of the Russian Social-Democrats prepared in the eighties by the Emancipation of Labour group. Such a statement, while leaving open the question of the modifications this draft requires, would more accurately define the Northern League’s stand in matters of principle. Here is the alternative: either you must yourselves draw up a complete account of all the fundamental principles of Social-Democracy (i.e., draw up the theoretical section of the Social-Democratic programme yourselves), or you must declare quite definitely that the Northern League subscribes to more or less well-known and established principles. The third way, the one chosen by the programme—to indicate the ultimate aim in an utterly disjointed manner—will not do.

§ 2 begins with an extremely inaccurate, ambiguous, and dangerous statement: “considering socialism to be the class interest of the proletariat.” These words identify, as it were, socialism with the “class interest of the proletariat.” And this identification is absolutely incorrect. Precisely at the present time, when an exceedingly narrow conception of the “class interests of the proletariat” has become extremely widespread, it is quite impermissible to present a formulation which, if it can be somehow acceptable, will be accepted only if the expression “class interest” is understood in an extremely broad sence. “Class interest” impels the proletarians to unite, to fight against the capitalists, to think about the prerequisites of their emancipation. “Class interest” makes them receptive to socialism. But socialism, as the ideology of the class struggle of the proletariat, is subject to the general conditions governing the inception, development, and consolidation of an ideology; in other words, it is founded on the sum total of human knowledge, presupposes a high level of scientific development, demands scientific work,.. etc., etc. Socialism is introduced by the ideologists into the proletarian class struggle, which develops spontaneously on the basis of capitalist relationships. The formulation of § 2,   however, throws an altogether false light on the real relation of socialism to the class struggle. Moreover, § 2 does not speak of the class struggle. That is its second defect.

§ 3 defines absolutism inadequately (for example, it does not point to its connection with remnants of the serf-owning system), in places bombastically (“boundless”) and vaguely (“ignoring” the individual). Further, the conquest of political liberty (it should have been noted that the Northern League sets this task to the whole Party) is essential, not only for the full development of the workers’ class struggle; in one way or another it should have been pointed out that it is also essential in the interests of all social development.

“The autocracy represents the interests of the ruling classes exclusively.” This is inaccurate, or wrong. The autocracy satisfies certain interests of the ruling classes, maintaining itself partly by the inertness of the mass of the peasantry and the small producers in general, partly by balancing between conflicting interests, and constituting, to a certain extent, an independent organised political force. The wording of § 3 is especially impermissible in view of the fact that the absurd identification of the Russian autocracy with the rule of the bourgeoisie is extremely widespread in our country.

“Incompatible with the principle of democracy.” What is the point of this when nothing has as yet been said about democracy? And does not the demand for the overthrow of the autocracy and the winning of political liberty express precisely the “principle” of democracy? This phrase will not do. Instead it should have been pointed out more precisely how consistent and determined we are (in comparison with the bourgeois democrats) in our understanding of the “principle of democracy”—for example, by describing in one way or another the idea and content of a “democratic constitution” or proclaiming our demand for a democratic republic as a matter of “principle.”

§ 4 is especially unsatisfactory. Instead of speaking about the “full” utilisation of “broad” liberty (as a matter of fact, this is just vague phrase-mongering, which could very well be replaced, and should be, by definite reference to a democratic republic and a democratic constitution,   for “full” utilisation means consistent democracy)— instead of this, it was imperative to state that it is not only the working class that is interested in political liberty. Silence on this score is tantamount to opening the door wide to the worst forms of “economism,” and to forgetting our general democratic tasks.

It is absolutely wrong to say that the realisation (?? attainment, conquest) of political liberty is “just as” necessary to the proletariat as higher wages and a shorter working day. This is just what it is n o t, for this is a necessity of a different and f a r   m o r e   c o m p l e x order than the necessity for wage increases, etc. The difference between the two “necessities” may also be clearly seen from the fact, for instance, that the autocracy is prepared to grant (and actually does occasionally grant) improved conditions to individual sections or groups of the working class if only these sections will make their peace with absolutism. The sentence under analysis is absolutely impermissible, reflecting as it does an incredible vulgarisation of “economic” materialism, and debasement of Social-Democratic understanding to the level of sheer trade-unionism.

Further. “In view of this”... should be deleted in view of what has been stated above . . . “in the impending struggle” (i.e., evidently the struggle against tsarism?) .. ."the Social-Democrats should come forward with a definite class programme and demands....” The class nature of our political programme and political demands is expressed precisely in the fact that they stand for complete and consistent democracy. If, however, one speaks about our entire programme in general, and not only about political demands, then its class nature should follow of itself from the very content of our programme. There is no point in speaking of a “definite” class programme; you yourselves must define, expound, express and formulate this class programme explicitly and with precision.

“...Without subordination to the liberal programme.... This is simply ludicrous. We come forward as the fore most democratic party, and suddenly make the reservation that we do “not subordinate”!! Like children who have just been freed from “subordination”!

  Our “insubordination” to the liberals should be expressed, not in phrases about insubordination, but in the whole nature of our programme (and, of course, of our activity). It is precisely that conception of political tasks which identifies (or at least equates) the necessity for liberty with the necessity for wage increases, that e x p r e s s e s   subordination of Social-Democracy to the liberals.

The end of § 4 will not do either; it is criticised in all that has been said above.

§ 5 reduces our general attitude towards all democracy in general to mere collaboration with other parties in practical matters. That is too narrow. If such parties exist, they should have been named concretely (not in the programme, but in a special resolution of the congress), and the attitude towards the Socialist-Revolutionaries, the Svoboda group,etc., should have been explicitly defined. If, however, it is a question, not of definite parties, but of the attitude towards other revolutionary (and opposition) trends in general, then the wording should have been expanded, in one way or another repeating the thesis of the Communist Manifesto about our support of every revolutionary movement against the existing system.[4]

§ 6 is out of place in the programme. It should have been transferred to a separate resolution and should have stated openly that it deals with the differences of opinion (or two trends) within the Russian Social-Democratic movement. This is more than “numerous misunderstandings.” The formulation of the differences of opinion is too narrow, for they are far from being limited to the confusion of class with party. There should have been a corresponding statement coming out resolutely and definitely against the “critics of Marxism,” “economism,” and limitation of our political tasks.

As to the second part of § 6, since it is elucidated in other paragraphs (7, 14, and others), a criticism of it is given in the comments on these paragraphs.

§ 7, like all that follows (with the exception of § 12), should go into a separate resolution, but should not be a direct part of the programme.

§ 7 formulates the “task” of the League’s activity in a limited way. We must not only “develop the class-consciousness of the proletariat”, but also organise the latter into   a political party—and then direct its struggle (both economic and political).

The statement that the proletariat finds itself in “definite, concrete conditions” is superfluous. It should either be omitted or these conditions should be defined (but this should be done elsewhere in the programme).

It is wrong to say that agitation is the “only” means of achieving our tasks. It is far from being the only means.

It is inadequate to define agitation as “influence over broad sections of the workers.” The nature of this influence should be indicated. It is necessary to speak about political agitation more directly, resolutely, definitely and in greater detail: otherwise, by keeping silent about political agitation as such and devoting two whole para graphs (14 and 15) to economic agitation, the programme strays (unintentionally) into “economism.” Special emphasis should have been placed on the necessity for agitation about all manifestations of political and economic, social and national oppression, irrespective of the class or section of the population affected by that oppression—the necessity (for Social-Democrats) to be in the forefront in all clashes with the government, and so on—and only then should the means of agitation (oral agitation, newspapers, leaflets, manifestations, etc., etc.) have been indicated.

§ 8 begins with superfluous repetition.

“Recognises propaganda only to the extent,” etc. This is incorrect. Propaganda does not only have this significance; it is not only a means of “training agitators,” but also a means of spreading class-consciousness in general. The programme goes to the other extreme. If it was necessary to come out against propaganda which some people divorce too much from the tasks of agitation, it would have been better to say: “in propaganda it is particularly necessary not to lose sight of the task of training agitators,” or some thing to that effect. But all propaganda should not be reduced to the training of “experienced and capable agitators,” and the “training of only individual class-conscious workers” should not be simply “rejected.” We consider this inadequate, but we do not “reject” it. And the latter part of § 8 (from: “our attitude being one of rejection”) should therefore be deleted altogether.

  § 9. I fully agree with this paragraph in essence. Perhaps “in connection with the most varied events in public life and government measures...” should have been added.

Instead of “the best means,” it would be more accurate to say: “one of the best means.”

Only the end of this paragraph is unsatisfactory. Demonstrations and manifestations unite, and should unite, not only the workers (moreover, to say “unites” through manifestations is insufficient, since we also want to unite organisationally, directly and for all time, and not only for one particular occasion). "...Thereby developing in them....” This is either inaccurate—class-consciousness cannot be developed by manifestations alone—or superfluous (it has already been said that it is one of the best means).

It would be useful to add something about the need to organise manifestations, about their preparation, conduct, etc.

In general, the absence in the programme of any reference to the necessity of devoting great attention to the matter of revolutionary organisation, in particular to setting up an all-Russian, militant organisation, is a great deficiency. Once reference is made to agitation, propaganda, strikes, and the like, it is quite inexcusable to say nothing about revolutionary organisation.

§ 10. It should have been added that in our country May Day must also become a demonstration against the autocracy, a demand for political liberty. Pointing to the international significance of the holiday is not enough. It must also be linked up with the struggle for the most vital national political demands.

§ 11. A very good idea, but expressed too restrictedly. Perhaps the words “among other things” should have been inserted, since demonstrations should be organised on the anniversary of the Commune as well, and on many other occasions; or “in particular” should have been inserted or else the impression may be created that demonstrations on other occasions are not necessary.

Further. It is wrong to appeal on February 19 (in leaflets) only to the workers. Apart from the fact that in general we always appeal to the entire people and even to the whole world in our demonstrations and in the leaflets issued   in connection with them, on February 19 in particular appeals should be addressed also to the peasantry. And if we are to appeal to the peasantry, that means we must draw up a Social-Democratic policy on the agrarian question. The programme does not touch on this question, and we quite understand that a local organisation may perhaps lack the time or the forces to deal with this. Nevertheless, it should certainly have at least been mentioned, in one way or another, in connection with one attempt or another to tackle it in Social-Democratic literature and in the practical activities of our movement.[1]

The end of § 11 will not do (“only class force”—which class? The working class alone?). Should have been deleted.

§ 12. We neither can nor will help “in every way” to improve the conditions of the workers under the present circumstances. For instance, we cannot help in the Zubatov[5] fashion, and even if Zubatov corruption is involved we shall not do that. We fight only for such improvement of the workers’ conditions as will raise their capacity to wage the class struggle, i.e., when the improvement of conditions is not bound up with corruption of political consciousness, with police tutelage, with being tied down to a given locality, with subjugation to a “benefactor,” with a lowering of human dignity. etc., etc. Precisely in Russia, where the autocracy is so much inclined (and is becoming more and more inclined) to buy itself off from revolution with various hand-outs and sham reforms, it is our duty to draw a clear line of demarcation between ourselves and all sorts of “reformers.” We also fight for reforms, but by no means “in every way”; we fight for reforms only in Social-Democratic fashion, only in a revolutionary way.

§ 13 is omitted by decision of the congress. And it should have been omitted.

§ 14 formulates the content and the tasks of economic agitation in too narrow a way. The latter is not confined to strikes alone. We need “better conditions,” not only for the cultural development of the proletariat, but particularly for its revolutionary development. The “active   role” of Social-Democrats in strikes does not end with encouraging the struggle for improvements in economic conditions. Strikes (like economic agitation in general) should always be used to encourage the revolutionary struggle for freedom and for socialism as well. Strikes should be used for political agitation also.

§ 15 is also most unsatisfactory. Strikes are not the “best” means of struggle, but only one of the means, and not always necessarily one of the best means. We must recognise the importance of strikes, make use of them and lead them at all times—but it would be all the more dangerous to exaggerate their importance, the more this has been done by the “economists.”

What is said further about strikes is redundant: it has already been stated in § 14. A reference to leadership of the economic struggle in general would have been sufficient. This leadership may sometimes consist in deterring from strike action. The programme expresses itself in too absolute a fashion, and for this very reason too restrictedly. The programme should have spoken about the task in general, that of leading the economic struggle of the proletariat, of making it more organised and conscious, of organising workers’ trade unions and endeavouring to develop them into all-Russian organisations, of utilising every strike, every manifestation of economic oppression, etc., for the most widespread socialist and revolutionary propaganda and agitation.

The end of § 15 limits the tasks of this agitation, making the use of political agitation depend, as it were, on action by the police, etc. Actually, however, we must try to use political agitation (and this is quite possible if the leaders are at all capable) before action by these “archangels,” and irrespective of that action. It should have been formulated more generally: “to take advantage of all and every opportunity for political agitation,” etc.

The end of § 15 is also incorrect. It is the less fitting for us to speak of “general strikes,” the less opportunity we in Russia have of preparing them. And, in general, there is no reason for speaking specially about “general” strikes in programmes (remember the absurd “general strike” in the pamphlet, Who Will Carry Out the Political Revolution?[6] After all, such misunderstandings are also possible). To   declare that strikes are “the best means of developing class-consciousness” is also absolutely incorrect.

As a whole, a serious revision of the programme would be highly desirable. In general it would also be desirable for the Northern League to take an active part both in the unification of revolutionary Social-Democracy in a party and in the preparation of the Party programme. For their part, the editors of Zarya and Iskra hope soon to acquaint the Northern League with their draft (most of which is already completed), and trust that the Northern League will co-operate in amending and circulating this draft and in preparing it for adoption by the entire Party.


[1] For instance, the attempts of the workers to stage demonstrations in connection with floggings of the peasants, etc. —Lenin

[2] The Northern League of the R.S.D.L.P. or the Northern Labour League—a regional union of the Social-Democratic organisations in Vladimir, Yaroslavl, and Kostroma gubernias. It arose in 1900-01 on the initiative of 0. A. Varentsova and V. A. Noskov, who were exiled from Yaroslavl and Ivanovo-Voznesensk, went to live in Voronezh and, together with other exiled Social-Democrats (A. I. Lyubimov, L. Y. Karpov, A. A. and N. N. Kardashev, D. V. Kosterkin), there formed a group of the Iskra trend. Among those who also took part in the organisation of the Northern League were M. A. Bagayev, an Ivanovo-Voznesensk worker; N. N. Panin, a worker of the Putilov Factory, exiled to Siberia for taking part in the St. Petersburg League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class; A. P. Dolivo-Dobrovoslky, and others. In the years 1901-05, the League guided the working-class movement in this industrial region. Its activities grew considerably after the Kineshma Conference, held in August 1901 of representatives of the Social-Democratic committees of Ivanovo Voznesensk, Vladimir, Yaroslavl, and Kostroma. At the League’s   congress in Voronezh on January 1-5, 1902, it took final shape electing a Central Committee (Bagayev, Varentsova, Panin, and others) and adopting a programme, which V. I. Lenin criticised in his letter to the Northern League.

From the outset the Northern League was linked with Iskra and shared the latter’s political line and plan of organisation (in the Iskra organisation’s report to the Second Congress of the R.S.D.L.P. it was pointed out that “of all the Party committees, the Northern League alone immediately entered into friendly relations with Iskra”). In an open letter published in No. 34 of Iskra on February 15, 1903, the League expressed complete solidarity with the programme of Iskra and Zarya and with Lenin’s hook, What Is to Be Done?, and recognised Iskra and Zarya as the leading organs of the R.S.D.L.P. The League was smashed by the secret police in the spring of 1902, but was quickly reformed, its representatives (V. A. Noskov, F. I. Shchekoldin, A. M. Stopani, A. I. Lyubimov) taking an active part in preparations for the Second Congress of the R.S.D.L.P. The League’s delegates to the Second Congress (L. M. Knipovich and A. M. Stopani) adhered to the Leninist majority.

After the Second Congress of the R.S.D.L.P., the Northern Labour League was reconstituted as the Northern Committee of the R.S.D.L.P., the local committees becoming groups of the Northern Committee. At the conference of Northern organisations of the R.S.D.L.P. held in Kostroma in July 1905, the Northern Committee was abolished and the Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Yaroslavl, and Kostroma independent committees were formed.

[3] The reference is to the organisation of demonstrations on the anniversary of the 1861 Peasant Reform. Paragraph 11 of the Northern League’s programme stated that leaflets issued on this occasion should “point out to the workers that they could expect nothing from the autocratic government” and should “endeavour to destroy the illusion that the emancipation was the personal act of the tsar, an act of good will on his part.”

[4] Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Moscow, 1958, Vol. I, p. 65.

[5] Zubatov—colonel of gendarmerie and chief of the Moscow Secret Police, on whose initiative a policy of “police socialism” was conducted in 1901-03. This consisted in the setting up of legal workers’ organisations intended to divert the workers from the political struggle against the autocracy. Through these organisations Zubatov attempted to direct the working-class movement towards the achievement of purely economic aims, and it was suggested to the workers that the tsarist government was prepared to help improve their economic conditions.

The reactionary character of Zubatovism was unmasked by the revolutionary Social-Democrats, who made use of legal working-class organisations so as to draw the working masses into the   struggle against the autocracy. As Lenin was to write later: “Thus the Zubatov movement oversteps its bounds and, started by the police in the interests of the police, in the interests of support for the autocracy, in the interests of corrupting the workers’ political consciousness, this movement turns against the autocracy, becomes an explosion of the proletarian class struggle” (see present edition, Vol. 8, “The St. Petersburg Strike”).

Under the impact of the revolutionary movement in 1903, the tsar’s government was forced to liquidate the Zubatov organisations.

[6] The pamphlet, Who Will Carry Out the Political Revolution?, was written by A. A. Sanin and printed in 1899 in the symposium, The Proletarian Struggle, No. 1, published by the Urals Social-Democratic Group. The author of the pamphlet, who adopted the position of “economism,” denied the need to create an independent political party of the working class and maintained that a political revolution could be carried out by means of a general strike, without any preliminary organisation and preparation of the masses, and without an armed uprising.

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