V. I.   Lenin

Political Sophisms

Published: Vperyod, No. 18, May 18 (5), 1905. Published according to the text in Vperyod.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1962, Moscow, Volume 8, pages 425-432.
Translated: Bernard Isaacs and The Late Isidor Lasker
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala
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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The Russian revolution has only just begun, but already all the features peculiar to political revolutions of the bourgeoisie stand clearly revealed. The lower classes fight, the upper reap the benefit of it. All the incredible hard ships of the revolutionary struggle have fallen upon the proletariat, as a class, and on a few young intellectuals from among the bourgeoisie. Nine-tenths of all the liberties that have been partially won (rather, scant strips of liberty) go to the upper classes of society, to those who do not work. Despite the law, there is now incomparably greater freedom of speech, assembly, and the press in Russia than there was ten years, one year, ago; but only the bourgeois newspapers and the “liberal” meetings benefit thereby to any extent worth mentioning. In their powerful urge towards freedom the workers keep forcing their way into new realms hitherto thought inaccessible to them; but this infiltration of the proletarian element proves, rather than refutes, our point. Active participation in the political struggle is in inverse ratio to the active appropriation of its fruits. The more advantageous the status of a given class in the socio-economic structure is, the more “advantageous” is the relation between the legal and the illegal movement (i.e., between what is permitted by law and what is contrary to the law). The movement of the liberal bourgeoisie, especially since January 9, has spread so widely in forms tolerated by the law that the illegal liberal movement has begun to dwindle be fore our very eyes with amazing rapidity. The movement of the working class, despite its assumptions, in one of its crucial phases, of an ultra-“legal” form (the presentation of a petition to the tsar by the working people of St. Petersburg),   finds itself completely outlawed and subject to harsh military reprisals. The movement of the working class has grown in comparably wider, but the relation between the legal and the illegal elements has hardly changed in favour of the former.

Whence this difference? Because the whole social and economic structure of Russia yields most fruit to those who work the least. Under capitalism that cannot be otherwise. It is the law of capital, which rules the political as well as the economic life. The movement of the lower classes raises a revolutionary force; it raises a mass of people, who, for one thing, are capable of tearing down the whole rotten structure, and, for another, are not attached to that structure by any special features of their position and would gladly tear it down. What is more, even though they are not fully conscious of their aims. these masses are nonetheless able and prone to tear the structure down, because their position is desperate, since constant oppression drives them to take the revolutionary way, and they have nothing to lose but their chains. This popular force, the proletariat, looms formidable before the lords of the rotten structure because there is some thing in the very position of the proletariat that is a menace to all exploiters. For that reason, any movement of the proletariat, however small, however modest it may be at the start, however slight its occasion, inevitably threatens to outgrow its immediate aims and to develop into a force irreconcilable to the entire old order and destructive of it.

The movement of the proletariat, by reason of the essential peculiarities of the position of this class under capitalism, has a marked tendency to develop into a desperate all-out struggle, a struggle for complete victory over all the dark forces of exploitation and oppression. The movement of the liberal bourgeoisie, on the contrary, and for the same reasons (i.e., by virtue of the essential peculiarities of the bourgeoisie’s position), has a tendency towards compromise instead of struggle, towards opportunism instead of radicalism, towards modest calculation of the likeliest and most possible immediate gains instead of a “tactless”, bold, and determined bid for complete victory. He who puts up a real fight will naturally go all out; he who prefers compromise to struggle will naturally point out beforehand what “morsels” he would be inclined, at best, to content himself   with (at worst, he would be content even with no struggle at all, i.e., he would make a lasting peace with the masters of the old world).

It is therefore quite natural for Social-Democracy, as the party of the revolutionary proletariat, to be so concerned for its programme, to take such pains to establish well in advance its ultimate aim, the complete emancipation of the working people, and jealously to guard this aim against any attempts to whittle it down. For the same reasons Social-Democracy is so dogmatically strict and firmly doctrinaire in keeping its ultimate goal clear of all minor, immediate economic and political aims. He who goes all out, who fights for complete victory, must alert himself to the danger of having his hands tied by minor gains, of being led astray and made to forget that which is still comparatively remote, but without which all minor gains are hollow vanities. Such concern for the programme and the ever critical attitude towards small and gradual improvements are incomprehensible and foreign to a party of the bourgeoisie, however great its love for freedom and the people may be.

We were launched upon these reflections by the “Draft of a Russian Constitution”, recently published by Osvobozhdeniye under the title “The Fundamental State Law of the Russian Empire”. This draft, known in Russia for some time, has now been issued with annotations and an explanatory comment as “the only complete, definitive edition revised by the authors themselves”. It appears that this draft originates, not with the Osvobozhdeniye League, but rather with a private group belonging to the League. Thus, we see here once again the dread of a clear, definite, and straightforward programme, which is typical of liberalism. The liberal party in Russia possesses immeasurably greater funds and publication capacities, and immeasurably greater freedom of movement on legal ground than does Social-Democracy; yet, with regard to programmatic definiteness, it falls strikingly behind Social-Democracy. The liberals fight shy of programmes; they prefer various contradictory statements in their newspaper (e.g., on the question of universal suffrage), or the “drafts” of private groups, which do not in any way commit the party as a whole (or the whole Osvobozhdeniye League). This is no accident, of course. It is the inevitable   result of the bourgeoisie’s social position, as a class, in modern society—a class caught between the autocracy and the proletariat and rent into factions over petty differences in interests. Political sophisms follow naturally from such a situation.

We should like to draw the reader’s attention to one such sophism. The main features of Osvobozhdeniye’s draft constitution are well known: the monarchy is retained—the question of the republic is not even discussed (apparently the “Realpolitiker” of the bourgeoisie do not consider this question important enough!); a bicameral parliamentary system is to be set up with universal, direct, and equal suffrage by secret ballot for the Lower House, and with two-stage elections for the Upper. The members of the Up per House are to be elected by the Zemstvo Assemblies and the municipal councils. There is no need to dwell on the details of this draft. The interest lies in its general conception and its advocacy on grounds of principle.

Our generous-spirited liberals want to share the state power as evenly and “fairly” as possible among three forces: the monarch, the Upper House (the Zemstvo House), and the Lower House (the House of People’s Representatives), that is, the autocratic bureaucracy, the bourgeoisie, and the “people” (the proletariat, the peasantry, and the petty bourgeoisie at large). The liberal publicists, in their heart of hearts, want the strife between these contending forces and the various combinations of these forces to be superseded by a “fair” concord of unity ... on paper! The thing is to have a gradual, balanced development, to justify universal suffrage from the point of view of the conservatives (Mr. Struve’s preface to this draft); a real guarantee for the interests of the ruling classes (i.e., real conservatism) is to be created in the form of the monarchy and the Upper House; and this supposedly cunning,but actually very naive, construction is to be clothed in highflown sophisms. The Russian proletariat will have to deal with liberal sophisms for a long time to come. It is time we examined them more closely.

The liberals begin their defence of the bicameral system by analysing anticipated objections to it. Characteristically, these objections are borrowed entirely from the usual   font of liberal-Narodnik ideas, which are being widely promulgated by our legal press. The nature of Russian society, it is claimed, is “profoundly democratic” and there is nothing in Russia like an upper class that owes its strength to its political services, to wealth, etc., for our nobility has been a class of servants of the government without “political ambitions”, besides which its material power has been “sapped”. From the point of view of a Social-Democrat it is absurd to take this Narodnik phrase-mongering seriously; there is not a word of truth in it. The political privileges enjoyed by the nobility in Russia are only too well known; the nobility’s strength is plainly evident in the tendencies of the conservative and moderate, or Shipov, party; its material power is “sapped” only by the bourgeoisie, with which the nobility is merging, and which does not in the least prevent it from amassing immense wealth that enables it to rob tens of millions of toilers. The class-conscious workers should have no illusions on this score. Narodnik phrase-mongering on the insignificance of the Russian nobility merely serves the liberals as a means of sugaring the pill of future constitutional privileges of the nobility. This liberal logic is psychologically inevitable; our nobility must be depicted as negligible in order that its privileges may seem only a negligible departure from democracy.

With the bourgeoisie occupying a position between the hammer and the anvil, idealistic phrases, too, are psychologically inevitable, phrases which our liberals in general and their pet philosophers in particular are now mouthing with such bad taste. “As far as the Russian liberation movement is concerned,” we read in the explanatory comment, “democracy is not only a fact but a moral and political postulate. It places moral justification for any social form above its historical justification....” Not a bad example of the turgid meaningless phraseology with which our liberals “justify” their approach towards betrayal of democracy! They complain of the “obloquy [?] that is heaped upon the Russian liberal party by representatives of the more extreme elements, who allege that this party seeks to put a bourgeois-aristocratic autocracy in the place of the bureaucratic autocracy”— yet our liberals would have the only truly democratic institution in their scheme, the House of People’s   Representatives, share power with both the monarchy and the Upper, Zemstvo, House!

Their “ethical” and “moral-political” arguments for an Upper House are these. In the first place, “a bicameral system exists everywhere in Europe, except in Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Luxemburg....” Not everywhere, then, if there are exceptions? Besides, what sort of argument is this: there are a great many anti-democratic bodies in Europe, therefore ... therefore they should be copied by our “profoundly democratic” liberals? The second argument: “It is dangerous to concentrate the legislative power in a single body”; another body should be set up to rectify mistakes and “too hasty” decisions...; “should Russia be bolder than Europe?” Thus, Russian liberalism does not want to be bolder than European liberalism, which has knowingly lost its progressive character through fear of the proletariat! Fine leaders of the “liberation” movement, indeed! Not a single serious step towards freedom has been made in Russia; yet the liberals already fear “hastiness”. Cannot the same arguments be used, gentlemen, to justify the renunciation of universal suffrage as well?

A third argument: “One of the principal dangers to any political system in Russia is that it may be converted into a regime of Jacobin centralisation.” How dreadful! The liberal opportunists evidently do not mind borrowing ammunition against lower-class democracy from. the Social-Democratic opportunists, the new-Iskrists. The ridiculous bogy of “Jacobinism” dragged out by Axelrod, Martynov & Co. is doing the Osvobozhdeniye camp a good turn. But, gentle men, if you really feared the excesses of centralism (and not the “excesses” of consistent democracy), why should you limit universal suffrage in elections of the local—Zemstvo and municipal—bodies, as you are doing? Article 68 of your draft stipulates that “every person having the right to vote in the elections to the House of People’s Representatives has equally the right to vote in the local elections, if he has been domiciled in the given uyezd or town for a definite period of time, such restricted period not to exceed one year.” This article introduces a qualification, thereby virtually making the franchise non-universal; for everyone understands that it is the workers, farm-hands, and day-labourers   who are mostly obliged to move from town to town and from district to district without a permanent place of residence. Capital drives masses of workers from one end of the country to the other, giving them no chance to claim permanent residence; and because of that the working class is to forfeit a part of its political rights!

This limitation of universal suffrage is to apply to the very bodies, rural and municipal, that elect the Upper, Zemstvo, House. To combat alleged excesses of Jacobin centralism, a double departure is made from democracy: first, universal suffrage is to be limited by the residence qualification; secondly, the principle of direct suffrage is to be annulled by the introduction of two-stage elections! Can anything be clearer than that the bogy of Jacobinism only serves the purpose of every type of opportunists?

Small wonder, indeed, that Mr. Struve expressed his sympathy in principle with the Social-Democratic Girondists—-the new-Iskrists, that he sang the praises of Martynov, the famous champion of anti-“Jacobinism”. The Social-Democratic enemies of Jacobinism have paved the way for the liberal bourgeois.

The contention of the Osvobozhdeniye crowd that the Upper House, elected by the Zemstvo bodies, can best ex press “the principle of decentralisation”, the “multiformity of the different parts of Russia”, is sheer nonsense. Decentralisation cannot be expressed by limitation of the universal basis of the elections; multiformity cannot be expressed by limitation of the principle of direct elections. This is not the crux of the matter, which the Osvobozhdeniye people are trying to obscure. The real point is that by their system the Upper House is bound to become pre-eminently and chiefly an organ of the nobility and the bourgeoisie, since it is the proletariat that is largely affected by the residence qualification and the two-stage system of elections. The point, is so plain to anyone at all familiar with political questions that the authors of the draft anticipate this inevitable objection.

“Some people will say,” we read in the explanatory comment, “that no matter how the elections are organised, the big landowners and the employer class stand a chance of keeping control in the local community. We think [what a profoundly democratic thought!] that this is just another   case of exaggerated fear of the ’bourgeois element’. There is nothing unfair j!] in the landowning and manufacturing classes obtaining an adequate [1] chance of representing their interests [universal suffrage is not enough for the bourgeois element! I, so long as other social groups are grant ed wide opportunities for representation. Only privileges are morally objectionable and politically dangerous....”

Let the workers make a careful note of this “liberal” morality. It presumes to boast of democracy, to condemn “privileges”, while at the same time justifying residence qualification, two-stage elections, and the monarchy.... The monarchy, evidently, is not a “privilege”, or perhaps it is a morally unobjectionable and politically non-dangerous privilege!

Our society leaders of the “liberation” movement have started off well! Even in their most ambitious projects. which do not in the least commit their party as a whole, they devise advance apologies for reaction, defending the privileges of the bourgeoisie with sophistic attempts to prove that privileges are not privileges. Even in their publishing activities that least depend on material calculations and are least affected by immediate political aims, they contrive to prostitute the idea of democracy and slander the most consistent of all bourgeois democrats—the Jacobins of the Great French Revolution. And what are we to expect further? What are the practical politicians of the liberal bourgeoisie, responsible to their party, going to say, if the most idealistic of the liberals are already now preparing the theoretical ground for betrayal? If the boldest ambitions of the extreme Left Wing of the Osvobozhdeniye camp do not go beyond a monarchy with a bicameral parliament, if that is the only price the ideologues of liberalism demand, then on what terms will liberalism’s businessmen strike a bargain?

The political sophisms of liberalism offer the revolutionary proletariat slight, yet valuable, documentation as to the real class nature of even the most advanced elements of the bourgeoisie.


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