Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back


E. The Equality of Languages Incident

Let us return to the chronological order of the Congress sittings.

We have now convincingly seen that even before the Congress proceeded to discuss its actual business, there was clearly revealed not only a perfectly definite group of anti-Iskra-ists (eight votes), but also a group of intermediate and unstable elements prepared to support the eight anti-Iskra-ists and increase their votes to roughly sixteen or eighteen.

The question of the position of the Bund in the Party, which was discussed at the Congress in extreme, excessive detail, reduced itself to deciding about the principle, while its practical decision was postponed until the discussion on organisation. Since the points involved had been given quite a lot of space in the press prior to the Congress, the discussion at the Congress produced relatively little that was new. It must, however, be mentioned that the supporters of Rabocheye Dyelo (Martynov, Akimov, and Brouckère), while agreeing with Martov’s resolution, made the reservation that they found it inadequate and disagreed with the conclusions drawn from it (pp. 69, 73, 83 and 86).

After discussing the position of the Bund, the Congress passed on to the programme. This discussion centred mainly around amendments of detail which present but slight interest. The opposition of the anti-Iskra-ists on matters of principle found expression only in Comrade Martynov’s onslaught on the famous presentation of the question of spontaneity and consciousness. Martynov was, of course, backed by the Bundists and Rabocheye Dyelo-ists to a man. The unsoundness of his objections was pointed out, among others, by Martov and Plekhanov. It should be noted as a curiosity that the Iskra editorial board (on second thoughts, apparently) have now gone over to Martynov’s side and are saying the opposite of what they said at the Congress! Presumably, this is in accordance with the celebrated principle of “continuity”.... It only remains for us to wait until the editorial board have thoroughly cleared up the question and explain to us just how far they agree with Martynov, on what points exactly, and since when. Meanwhile, we only ask: has anyone ever seen a party organ whose editorial board said after a congress the very opposite of what they had said at the congress?

Passing over the arguments about the adoption of Iskra as the Central Organ (we dealt with that above) and the beginning of the debate on the Rules (which it will be more convenient to examine in connection with the whole discussion of the Rules), let us consider the shades of principle revealed during the discussion of the programme. First of all let us note one detail of a highly characteristic nature, namely, the debate on proportional representation. Comrade Egorov of Yuzhny Rabochy advocated the inclusion of this point in the programme, and did so in a way that called forth the justified remark from Posadovsky (an Iskra-ist of the minority) that there was a “serious difference of opinion”. “There can be no doubt,” said Comrade Posadovsky, “that we do not agree on the following fundamental question: should we subordinate our future policy to certain fundamental democratic principles and attribute absolute value to them, or should all democratic principles be exclusively subordinated to the interests of our Party? I am decidedly in favour of the latter.” Plekhanov “fully associated himself” with Posadovsky, objecting in even more definite and emphatic terms to “the absolute value of democratic principles” and to regarding them “abstractly”. “Hypothetically,” he said, “a case is conceivable where we Social-Democrats would oppose universal suffrage. There was a time when the bourgeoisie of the Italian republics deprived members of the nobility of political rights. The revolutionary proletariat may restrict the political rights of the upper classes in the same way as the upper classes used to restrict its political rights.” Plekhanov’s speech was greeted with applause and hissing, and when Plekhanov protested against somebody’s Zwischenruf,[1] “You should not hiss,” and told the comrades not to restrain their demonstrations, Comrade Egorov got up and said: “Since such speeches call forth applause, I am obliged to hiss.” Together with Comrade Goldblatt (a Bund delegate), Comrade Egorov challenged the views of Posadovsky and Plekhanov. Unfortunately, the debate was closed, and this question that had cropped up in it immediately vanished from the scene. But it is useless for Comrade Martov to attempt now to belittle or even altogether deny its significance by saying at the League Congress: "These words [Plekhanov’sl aroused the indignation of some of the delegates; this could easily have been avoided if Comrade Plekhanov had added that it was of course impossible to imagine so tragic a situation as that the proletariat, in order to consolidate its victory, should have to trample on such political rights as freedom of the press.... (Plekhanov: ’Merci.’)" (League Minutes, p. 58.) This interpretation directly contradicts Comrade Posadovsky’s categorical statement at the Congress about a “serious difference of opinion” and disagreement on a “fundamental question”. On this fundamental question, all the Iskra-ists at the Congress opposed the spokesmen of the anti-Iskra “Right” (Goldblatt) and of the Congress “Centre” (Egorov). This is a fact, and one may safely assert that if the “Centre” (I hope this word will shock the “official” supporters of mildness less than any other. . .) had had occasion to speak “without restraint” (through the mouth of Comrade Egorov or Makhov) on this or on analogous questions, the serious difference of opinion would have been revealed at once.

It was revealed even more distinctly over the matter of “equality of languages” (Minutes, p. 171 et seq.). On this point it was not so much the debate that was so eloquent, but the voting: counting up the times a vote was taken, we get the incredible number of sixteen! Over what? Over whether it was enough to stipulate in the programme the equality of all citizens irrespective of sex, etc., and language, or whether it was necessary to stipulate “freedom of language”, or “equality of languages”. Comrade Martov characterised this episode fairly accurately at the League Congress when he said that “a trifling dispute over the formulation of one point of the programme became a matter of principle because half the Congress was prepared to overthrow the Programme Committee”. Precisely.[2] [2] Martov added: “On this occasion much harm was done by Plekhanov’s witticism about asses.” (When the question of freedom of language was being discussed, a Bundist, I think it was, mentioned stud farms among other institutions, whereupon Plekhanov said in a loud undertone: “Horses don’t talk, but asses sometimes do.”) I cannot, of course, see anything particularly mild, accommodating, tactful or flexible about this witticism. But I find it strange that Martov, who admitted that the dispute became a matter of principle, made absolutely no attempt to analyse what this principle was and what shades of opinion found expression here, but confined himself to talking about the “harmfulness” of witticisms. This is indeed a bureaucratic and formalistic attitude! It is true that “much harm was done at the Congress” by cutting witticisms, levelled not only at the Bundists, but also at those whom the Bundists sometimes supported and even saved from defeat. However, once you admit that the incident involved principles, you cannot confine yourself to phrases about the “impermissibility” (League Minutes, p. 58) of certain witticisms. —Lenin The immediate cause of the conflict was indeed trifling, yet it did become a matter of principle and consequently assumed terribly bitter forms, even to the point of attempts to “overthrow” the Programme Committee, of suspecting people of a desire to “mislead the Congress” (as Egorov suspected Martov!), and of personal remarks of the most . . . abusive kind (p. 178). Even Comrade Popov “expressed regret that mere trifles had given rise to such an atmosphere” (my italics, p. 182) as prevailed during the course of three sittings (the 16th, 17th and 18th).

All these expressions very definitely and categorically point to the extremely important fact that the atmosphere of “suspicion” and of the most bitter forms of conflict (“over throwing”)—for which later, at the League Congress, the Iskra-ist majority were held responsible!—actually arose long before we split into a majority and minority. I repeat, this is a fact of enormous importance, a fundamental fact, and failure to understand it leads a great many people to very thoughtless conclusions about the majority at the end of the Congress having been artificial. From the present point of view of Comrade Martov, who asserts that nine-tenths of the Congress delegates were Iskra-ists, the fact that “mere trifles”, a “trivial” cause, could give rise to a conflict which became a “matter of principle” and nearly led to the overthrow of a Congress commission is absolutely inexplicable and absurd. It would be ridiculous to evade this fact with lamentations and regrets about “harmful” witticisms. No cutting witticisms could have made the conflict a matter of principle; it could become that only because of the character of the political groupings at the Congress. It was not cutting remarks and witticisms that gave rise to the conflict—they were only a symptom of the fact that the Congress political grouping itself harboured a “contradiction”, that it harboured all the makings of a conflict, that it harboured an internal heterogeneity which burst forth with immanent force at the least cause, even the most trifling.

On the other hand, from the point of view from which I regard the Congress, and which I deem it my duty to uphold as a definite political interpretation of the events, even though this interpretation may seem offensive to some—from this point of view the desperately acute conflict of principle that arose from a “trifling” cause is quite explicable and inevitable. Since a struggle between the Iskra-ists and the anti-Iskra-ists went on all the time at our Congress, since between them stood unstable elements, and since the latter, together with the anti-Iskra-ists, controlled one-third of the votes (8+10=18, out of 51, according to my calculation, an approximate one, of course), it is perfectly clear and natural that any falling away from the "Iskra "-ists of even a small minority created the possibility of a victory for the anti-Iskra trend and therefore evoked a “frenzied” struggle. This was not the result of improper cutting remarks and attacks, but of the political combination. It was not cutting remarks that gave rise to the political conflict; it was the existence of a political conflict in the very grouping at the Congress that gave rise to cutting remarks and attacks—this contrast expresses the cardinal disagreement in principle between Martov and myself in appraising the political significance of the Congress and its results.

In all, there were during the Congress three major cases of a small number of Iskra-ists falling away from the majority—over the equality of languages question, over Paragraph 1 of the Rules, and over the elections—and in all three cases a fierce struggle ensued, finally leading to the severe crisis we have in the Party today. For a political understanding of this crisis and this struggle, we must not confine ourselves to phrases about the impermissibility of witticisms, but must examine the political grouping of the shades that clashed at the Congress. The “equality of languages” incident is therefore doubly interesting as far as ascertaining the causes of the divergence is concerned, for here Martov was (still was!) an Iskra-ist and fought the anti-Iskra-ists and the “Centre” harder perhaps than anybody else.

The war opened with an argument between Comrade Martov and Comrade Lieber, the leader of the Bundists (pp. 171-72). Martov argued that the demand for “equality of citizens” was enough. “Freedom of language” was rejected, but “equality of languages” was forthwith proposed, and Comrade Egorov joined Lieber in the fray. Martov declared that it was fetishism “when speakers insist that nationalities are equal and transfer inequality to the sphere of language, whereas the question should be examined from just the opposite angle: inequality of nationalities exists, and one of its expressions is that people belonging to certain nations are deprived of the right to use their mother tongue” (p. 172). There Martov was absolutely right. The totally baseless attempt of Lieber and Egorov to insist on the correctness of their formulation and make out that we were unwilling or unable to uphold the principle of equality of nationalities was indeed a sort of fetishism. Actually, they were, like “fetish-worshippers”, defending the word and not the principle, acting not from fear of committing an error of principle, but from fear of what people might say. This shaky mentality (what if “others” blame us for this?)—which we already noted in connection with the Organising Committee incident—was quite clearly displayed here by our entire “Centre”. Another of its spokesmen, the Mining Area delegate Lvov, who stood close to Yuzhny Rabochy, declared that "the question of the suppression of languages which has been raised by the border districts is a very serious one. It is important to include a point on language in our programme and thus obviate any possibility of the Social-Democrats being suspected of Russifying tendencies." A remarkable explanation of the “seriousness” of the question. It is very serious because possible suspicions on the part of the border districts must be obviated! The speaker says absolutely nothing on the substance of the question, he does not rebut the charge of fetishism but entirely confirms it, for he shows a complete lack of arguments of his own and merely talks about what the border districts may say. Everything they may say will be untruehe is told. But instead of examining whether it is true or not, he replies: “They may suspect.”

Such a presentation of the question, coupled with the claim that it is serious and important, does indeed raise an issue of principle, but by no means the one the Liebers, Egorovs, and Lvovs would discern in it. The principle involved is: should we leave it to the organisations and members of the Party to apply the general and fundamental theses of the programme to their specific conditions, and to develop them for the purpose of such application, or are we, merely out of fear of suspicion, to fill the programme with petty details, minutiae, repetitions, and casuistry? The principle involved is: how can Social-Democrats discern (“suspect”) in a fight against casuistry an attempt to restrict elementary democratic rights and liberties? When are we going to wean ourselves at last from this fetishist worship of casuistry?—that was the thought that occurred to us when watching this struggle over “languages”.

The grouping of the delegates in this struggle is made particularly clear by the abundant roll-call votes. There were as many as three. All the time the Iskra core was solidly opposed by the anti-Iskra-ists (eight votes) and, with very slight fluctuations, by the whole Centre (Makhov, Lvov, Egorov, Popov, Medvedev, Ivanov, Tsaryov, and Byelov—only the last two vacillated at first, now abstaining, now voting with us, and it was only during the third vote that their position became fully defined). Of the Iskra-ists, several fell away—chiefly the Caucasians (three with six votes)—and thanks to this the “fetishist” trend ultimately gained the upper hand. During the third vote, when the followers of both trends had clarified their position most fully, the three Caucasians, with six votes, broke away from the majority Iskra-ists and went over to the other side; two delegates—Posadovsky and Kostich—with two votes, fell away from the minority Iskra-ists. During the first two votes, the following had gone over to the other side or abstained: Lensky, Stepanov, and Gorsky of the Iskra-ist majority, and Deutsch of the minority. The falling away of eight “Iskra”-ist votes (out of a total of thirty-three) gave the superiority to the coalition of the anti-“Iskra”-ists and the unstable elements. It was just this fundamental fact of the Congress grouping that was repeated (only with other Iskra-ists falling away) during the vote on Paragraph 1 of the Rules and during the elections. It is not surprising that those who were defeated in the elections now carefully close their eyes to the political reasons for that defeat, to the starting-points of that conflict of shades which progressively revealed the unstable and politically spineless elements and exposed them ever more relentlessly in the eyes of the Party. The equality of languages incident shows us this conflict all the more clearly because at that time Comrade Martov had not yet earned the praises and approval of Akimov and Makhov.


[1] Interjection from the floor.—Ed.

[2]Note: This footnote has been moved into the body of the document.

  D. Dissolution of the Yuzhny Rabochy Group | F. The Agrarian Programme  

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