V. I.   Lenin

Reformism in the Russian Social-Democratic Movement

Published: Sotsial-Demokrat No. 23, September 14(1), 1911. Published according to the Sotsial-Demokrat text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, [1974], Moscow, Volume 17, pages 229-241.
Translated: Dora Cox
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala
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The tremendous progress made by capitalism in recent decades and the rapid growth of the working-class movement in all the civilised countries have brought about a big change in the attitude of the bourgeoisie to the proletariat. Instead of waging an open, principled and direct struggle against all the fundamental tenets of socialism in defence of the absolute inviolability of private property and freedom of competition, the bourgeoisie of Europe and America, as represented by their ideologists and political leaders, are coming out increasingly in defence of so-called social reforms as opposed to the idea of social revolution. Not liberalism versus socialism, but reformism versus socialist revolution—is the formula of the modern, “advanced”, educated bourgeoisie. And the higher the development of capitalism in a given country, the more unadulterated the rule of the bourgeoisie, and the greater the political liberty, the more extensive is the application of the “most up-to-date” bourgeois slogan: reform versus revolution, the partial patching up of the doomed regime with the object of dividing and weakening the working class, and of maintaining the rule of the bourgeoisie, versus the revolutionary over throw of that rule.

From the viewpoint of the universal development of socialism this change must be regarded as a big step forward. At first socialism fought for its existence, and was con fronted by a bourgeoisie confident of its strength and boldly and consistently defending liberalism as an integral system of economic and political views. Socialism has grown into a force and, throughout the civilised world, has already   upheld its right to existence. It is now fighting for power and the bourgeoisie, disintegrating and realising the inevitability of its doom, is exerting every effort to defer that day and to maintain its rule under the new conditions as well, at the cost of partial and spurious concessions.

The intensification of the struggle of reformism against revolutionary Social-Democracy within the working-class movement is an absolutely inevitable result of the changes in the entire economic and political situation throughout the civilised world. The growth of the working-class movement necessarily attracts to its ranks a certain number of petty-bourgeois elements, people who are under the spell of bourgeois ideology, who find it difficult to rid themselves of that ideology and continually lapse back into it. We can not conceive of the social revolution being accomplished by the proletariat without this struggle, without clear demarcation on questions of principle between the socialist Mountain and the socialist Gironde[2] prior to this revolution, and without a complete break between the opportunist, petty-bourgeois elements and the proletarian, revolutionary elements of the new historic force during this revolution.

In Russia the position is fundamentally the same; only here matters are more complicated, obscured, and modified, because we are lagging behind Europe (and even behind the advanced part of Asia), and we are still passing through the era of bourgeois revolutions. Owing to this, Russian reformism is distinguished by its particular stubbornness; it represents, as it were, a more pernicious malady, and it is much more harmful to the cause of the proletariat and of the revolution. In our country reformism emanates from two sources simultaneously. In the first place, Russia is much more a petty-bourgeois country than the countries of Western Europe. Our country, therefore, more frequently produces individuals, groups and trends distinguished by their contradictory, unstable, vacillating attitude to socialism (an attitude veering between “ardent love” and base treachery) characteristic of the petty bourgeoisie in general. Secondly, the petty-bourgeois masses in our country are more prone to lose heart and to succumb to renegade moods at the failure of any one phase of our bourgeois revolution; they are more ready to renounce the aim of a complete democratic   revolution which would entirely rid Russia of all survivals of medievalism and serfdom.

We shall not dwell at length on the first source. We need only mention that there is hardly a country in the world in which there has been such a rapid “swing” from sympathy for socialism to sympathy for counter-revolutionary liberalism as that performed by our Struves, Izgoyevs, Karaulovs, etc., etc. Yet these gentlemen are not exceptions, not isolated individuals, but representatives of wide spread trends! Sentimentalists, of whom there are many out side the ranks of the Social-Democratic movement, but also a goodly number within it, and who love to preach sermons against “excessive” polemics, against “the passion for drawing lines of demarcation”, etc., betray a complete lack of understanding of the historical conditions which, in Russia, give rise to the “excessive” “passion” for swinging over from socialism to liberalism,

Let us turn to the second source of reformism in Russia.

Our bourgeois revolution has not been completed. The autocracy is trying to find new ways of solving the problems bequeathed by that, revolution and imposed by the entire objective course of economic development; but it is unable to do so. Neither the latest step in the transformation of old tsarism into a renovated bourgeois monarchy, nor the organisation of the nobility and the upper crust of the bourgeoisie on a national scale (the Third Duma), nor yet the bourgeois agrarian policy being enforced by the rural superintendents[3]—none of these “extreme” measures, none of these “latest” efforts of tsarism in the last sphere remaining to it, the sphere of adaptation to bourgeois development, prove adequate, It just does not work! Not only is a Russia “renovated” by such means unable to catch up with Japan, it is perhaps, even beginning to fall behind China, Because the bourgeois-democratic tasks have been left unfulfilled, a revolutionary crisis is still inevitable. It is ripening again, and we are heading toward it once more, in a new way, not the same way as before, not at the same pace, and not only in the old forms—but that we are heading toward it, of that there is no doubt.

The tasks of the proletariat that arise from this situation are fully and unmistakably definite. As the only consistently   revolutionary class of contemporary society, it must be the leader in the Struggle of the whole people for a fully democratic revolution, in the Struggle of all the working and exploited people against the oppressors and exploiters. The proletariat is revolutionary only insofar as it is conscious of and gives effect to this idea of the hegemony of the proletariat. The proletarian who is conscious of this task is a slave who has revolted against slavery. The proletarian who is not conscious of the idea that his class must be the leader, or who renounces this idea, is a slave who does not realise his position as a slave; at best he is a slave who fights to improve his condition as a slave, but not one who fights to overthrow slavery.

It is, therefore, obvious that the famous formula of one of the young leaders of our reformists, Mr. Levitsky of Nasha Zarya, who declared that the Russian Social-Democratic Party must represent “not hegemony, but a class party”, is a formula of the most consistent reformism. More than that, it is a formula of sheer renegacy. To say, “not hegemony, but a class party”, means to take the side of the bourgeoisie, the side of the liberal who says to the slave of our age, the wage-earner: “Fight to improve your condition as a slave, but regard the thought of overthrowing slavery as a harmful utopia”! Compare Bernstein’s famous formula—“The movement is everything, the final aim is nothing”—with Levitsky’s formula, and you will see that they are variations of the same idea. They both recognise only reforms, and renounce revolution. Bernstein’s formula is broader in scope, for it envisages a socialist revolution (==the final goal of Social-Democracy, as a party of bourgeois society). Levitsky’s formula is narrower; for while it renounces revolution in general, it is particularly meant to renounce what the liberals hated most in 1905-07—namely, the fact that the proletariat wrested from them the leadership of the masses of the people (particularly of the peasantry) in the struggle for a fully democratic revolution.

To preach to the workers that what they need is “not hegemony, but a class party” means to betray the cause of the proletariat to the liberals; it means preaching that Social-Democratic labour policy should be replaced by a liberal labour policy.

Renunciation of the idea of hegemony, however, is the crudest form of reformism in the Russian Social-Democratic movement, and that is why not all liquidators make bold to express their ideas in such definite terms. Some of them (Mr. Martov for instance) even try, mocking at the truth, to deny that there is a connection between the renunciation of hegemony and liquidationism.

A more “subtle” attempt to “substantiate” reformist. views is the following argument: The bourgeois revolution in Russia is at an end; after 1905 there can be no second bourgeois revolution, no second nation-wide struggle for a democratic revolution; Russia therefore is faced not with a revolutionary but with a “constitutional” crisis, and all that remains for the working class is to take care to defend its rights and interests on the basis of that “constitutional crisis”. That is how the liquidator Y. Larin argues in Dyelo Zhizni (and previously in Vozrozhdeniye).

“October 1905 is not on the order of the day,” wrote Mr. Larin. “If the Duma were abolished, it would be restored more rapidly than in post-revolutionary Austria, which abolished the Constitution in 1851 only to recognise it again in 1860, nine years later, without any revolution (note this!), simply because it was in the interests of the most influential section of the ruling classes, the section which had reconstructed its economy on capitalist lines.” “At the stage we are now in, a nation-wide revolutionary movement like that of 1905 is impossible.”

All Mr. Larin’s arguments are nothing more than an expanded rehash of what Mr. Dan said at the Conference of the R.S.D.L.P. in December 1908. Arguing against the resolution which stated that the “fundamental factors of economic and political life which gave rise to the Revolution of 1905, continue to operate”, that a new—revolutionary, and not “constitutional”—crisis was developing, the editor of the liquidators’ Golos exclaimed: “They [i.e., the R.S.D.L.P.] want to shove in where they have once been defeated”.

To shove again toward revolution, to work tirelessly, in the changed situation, to propagate the idea of revolution and to prepare the forces of the working class for it—that, from the standpoint of the reformists, is the chief crime of the R.S.D.L.P., that is what constitutes the guilt   of the revolutionary proletariat. Why “shove in where they have once been defeated”—that is the wisdom of renegades and of persons who lose heart after any defeat.

But in countries older and more “experienced” than Russia the revolutionary proletariat showed its ability to “shove in where it has once been defeated” two, three, and four times; in France it accomplished four revolutions between 1789 and 1871, rising again and again after the most severe defeats and achieving a republic in which it now faces its last enemy—the advanced bourgeoisie; it has achieved a republic, which is the only form of state corresponding to the conditions necessary for the final struggle for the victory of socialism.

Such is the distinction between socialists and liberals, or champions of the bourgeoisie. The socialists teach that revolution is inevitable, and that the proletariat must take advantage of all the contradictions in society, of every weakness of its enemies or of the intermediate classes, to prepare for a new revolutionary struggle, to repeat the revolution in a broader arena, with a more developed population. The bourgeoisie and the liberals teach that revolutions are unnecessary and even harmful to the workers, that they must not “shove” toward revolution, but, like good little boys, work modestly for reforms.

That is why, in order to divert the Russian workers from socialism, the reformists, who are the captives of bourgeois ideas, constantly refer to the example of Austria (as well as Prussia) in the 1860s. Why are they so fond of these examples? Y. Larin let the cat out of the bag; because in these countries, after the “unsuccessful” revolution of 1848, the bourgeois transformation was completed “without any revolution”.

That is the whole secret! That is what gladdens their hearts, for it seems to indicate that bourgeois change is possible without revolution!! And if that is the case, why should we Russians bother our heads about a revolution? Why not leave it to the landlords and factory owners to effect the bourgeois transformation of Russia “without any revolution”!

It was because the proletariat in Austria and Prussia was weak that it was unable to prevent the landed proprietors   and the bourgeoisie from effecting the, transformation regardless of the interests of the workers, in a form most prejudicial to the workers, retaining the monarchy, the privileges of the nobility, arbitrary rule in the countryside, and a host of other survivals of medievalism.

In 1905 our proletariat displayed strength unparalleled in any bourgeois revolution in the West, yet today the Russian reformists use examples of the weakness of the working class in other countries, forty or fifty years ago, in order to justify their own apostasy, to “substantiate” their own renegade propaganda!

The reference to Austria and Prussia of the 1860s, so beloved of our reformists, is the best proof of the theoretical fallacy of their arguments and of their desertion to the bourgeoisie in practical politics.

Indeed, if Austria restored the Constitution which was abolished after the defeat of the Revolution of 1848, and an “era of crisis” was ushered in in Prussia in the 1860s, what does this prove? It proves, primarily, that the bourgeois transformation of these countries had not been completed. To maintain that the system of government in Russia has already become bourgeois( as Larin says), and that government power in our country is no longer of a feudal nature (see Larin again), and at the same time to refer to Austria and Prussia as an example, is to refute oneself! Generally speaking it would be ridiculous to deny that the bourgeois transformation of Russia has not been completed: the very policy of the bourgeois parties, the Constitutional-Democrats and the Octobrists, proves this beyond all doubt, and Larin himself (as we shall see further on) surrenders his position. It cannot be denied that the monarchy is taking one more step towards adapting itself to bourgeois development—as we have said before, and as was pointed out in a resolution adopted by the Party (December 1908). But it is still more undeniable that even this adaptation, even bourgeois reaction, and the Third Duma, and the agrarian law of November 9, 1906 (and June 14, 1910) do not solve the problems of Russia’s bourgeois transformation.

Let us look a little further. Why were “crises” In Austria and in Prussia in the 1860s constitutional, and not revolutionary? Because there were a number of special circumstances   which eased the position of the monarchy (the “revolution from above” in Germany, her unification by “blood and iron”); because the proletariat was at that time extremely weak and undeveloped in those countries, and the liberal bourgeoisie was distinguished by base cowardice and treachery, just as the Russian Cadets are in our day.

To show how the German Social-Democrats who themselves took part in the events of those years assess the situation, we quote some opinions expressed by Bebel in his memoirs (Pages from My Life), the first part of which was published last year. Bebel states that Bismarck, as has since become known, related that the king at the time of the “constitutional” crisis in Prussia in 1862 had given way to utter despair, lamented his fate, and blubbered in his, Bismarck’s, presence that they were both going to die on the scaffold. Bismarck put the coward to shame and persuaded him not to shrink from giving battle.

These events show,” says Bebel, “what the liberals might have achieved had they taken advantage of the situation. But they were already afraid of the workers who backed them. Bismarck’s words that if he were driven to extremes he would set Acheron in motion [i.e., stir up a popular movement of the lower classes, the masses], struck fear into their heart.”

Half a century after the “constitutional” crisis which “without any revolution” completed the transformation of his country into a bourgeois-Junker monarchy, the leader of the German Social-Democrats refers to the revolutionary possibilities of the situation at that time, which the liberals did not take advantage of owing to their fear of the workers. The leaders of the Russian reformists say to the Russian workers: since the German bourgeoisie was so base as to cower before a cowering king, why shouldn’t we too try to copy those splendid tactics of the German bourgeoisie? Bebel accuses the bourgeoisie of not having “taken advantage of the “constitutional” crisis to effect a revolution because of their fear, as exploiters, of the popular movement. Larin and Co. accuse the Russian workers of having striven to secure hegemony (i.e., to draw the masses into the revolution in spite of the liberals), and advise them to organise “not for revolution”, but “for the defence of their interests   in the forthcoming constitutional reform of Russia”. The liquidators offer the Russian workers the rotten views of rotten German liberalism as “Social-Democratic” views! After this, how can one help calling such Social-Democrats “Stolypin Social-Democrats”?

In estimating the “constitutional” crisis of the 1860s in Prussia, Bebel does not confine himself to saying that the bourgeoisie were afraid to fight the monarchy because they were afraid of the workers. He also tells us what was going on among the workers at that time. “The appalling state of political affairs,” he says, “of which the workers were becoming ever more keenly aware, naturally affected their mood. Everybody clamoured for change. But since there was no fully class-conscious leadership with a clear vision of the goal and enjoying the confidence of the workers, and since there existed no strong organisation that could rally the forces, the mood petered out [verpuffte]. Never did a movement, so splendid in its essence [in Kern vortreffliche], turn out to be so futile in the end. All the meetings were packed, and the most vehement speakers were hailed as the heroes of the day. This was the prevailing mood, particularly, in the Workers’ Educational Society at Leipzig.” A mass meeting in Leipzig on May 8, 1866, attended by 5,000 people, unanimously adopted a resolution proposed by Liebknecht and Bebel, which demanded, on the basis of universal, direct, and equal suffrage, with secret ballot, the convening of a Parliament supported by the armed people. The resolution also expressed the “hope that the German people will elect as deputies only persons who repudiate every hereditary central government power”. The resolution proposed by Liebknecht and Bebel was thus unmistakably revolutionary and republican in character.

Thus we see that at the time of the “constitutional” crisis the leader of the German Social-Democrats advocated resolutions of a republican and revolutionary nature at mass meetings. Half a century later, recalling his youth and telling the new generation of the events of days long gone by, he stresses most of all his regret that at that time there was no leadership sufficiently class-conscious and capable of understanding the revolutionary tasks (i.e., there was no revolutionary Social-Democratic Party understanding the   task implied by the hegemony of the proletariat); that there was no strong organisation; that the revolutionary mood “petered out”. Yet the leaders of the Russian reformists, with the profundity of Simple Simons, refer to the example of Austria and Prussia in the 1860s as proving that we can manage “without any revolution”! And these paltry philistines who have succumbed to the intoxication of counter revolution, and are the ideological slaves of liberalism, still dare to dishonour the name of the R.S.D.L.P.!

To be sure, among the reformists who are abandoning socialism there are people who substitute for Larin’s straight forward opportunism the diplomatic tactics of beating about the bush in respect of the most important and fundamental questions of the working-class movement. They try to confuse the issue, to muddle the ideological controversies, to defile them, as did Mr. Martov, for instance, when he asserted in the legally published press (that is to say, where he is protected by Stolypin from a direct retort by members of the R.S.D.L.P.) that Larin and “the orthodox Bolsheviks in the resolutions of 1908” propose an identical “scheme”. This is a downright distortion of the facts worthy of this author of scurrilous effusions. The same Martov pretending to argue against Larin, declared in print that he, “of course” did “not suspect Larin of reformist tendencies”. Martov did not suspect Larin, who expounded purely reformist views, of being a reformist! This is an example of the tricks to which the diplomats of reformism resort.[1] The same Martov, whom some simpletons regard as being more “Left”, and a more reliable revolutionary than Larin, summed up his “difference” with the latter in the following words:

To sum up: the fact that the present regime is an inherently contradictory combination of absolutism and constitutionalism, and that the Russian working class has sufficiently matured to follow the example of the workers of the progressive countries of the West in striking at this regime through the Achilles heel of its contradictions, is ample material for the theoretical substantiation and political justification of what the Mensheviks who remain true to Marxism are now doing.”

No matter how hard Martov tried to evade the issue, the result of his very first attempt at a summary was that all his evasions collapsed of themselves. The words quoted above represent a complete renunciation of socialism and its replacement by liberalism. What Martov proclaims as “ample” is ample only for the liberals, only for the bourgeoisie. A proletarian who considers it “ample” to recognise the contradictory nature of the combination of absolutism and constitutionalism accepts the standpoint of a liberal labour policy. He is no socialist, he has not understood the tasks of his class, which demand that the masses of the people, the masses of working and exploited people, be roused against absolutism in all its forms, that they be roused to intervene independently in the historic destinies of the country, the vacillations or resistance of the bourgeoisie notwithstanding. But the independent historical action of the masses who are throwing off the hegemony of the bourgeoisie turns a “constitutional” crisis into a revolution. The bourgeoisie (particularly since 1905) fears revolution and loathes it; the proletariat, on the other hands educates the masses of the people in the spirit of devotion to the idea of revolution, explains its tasks, and prepares the masses for new revolutionary battles. Whether, when, and under what circumstances the revolution materialises, does not depend on the will of a particular class; but revolutionary work carried on among the masses is never wasted. This is the only kind of activity which prepares the masses for the victory of socialism. The Larins and Martovs forget these elementary ABC truths of socialism.

Larin, who expresses the views of the group of Russian liquidators who have completely broken with the R.S.D.L.P., does not hesitate to go the whole hog in expounding his reformism. Here is what he writes in Dyelo Zhizni (1911, No. 2)—and these words should be remembered by everyone who holds dear the principles of Social-Democracy:

A state of perplexity and uncertainty, when people simply do not know what to expect of the coming day, what tasks to set them selves—that is what results from indeterminate, temporising moods, from vague hopes of either a repetition of the revolution or of ‘we shall wait and see’. The immediate task is, not to wait fruitlessly for something to turn up, but to imbue broad circles with the guiding   idea that, in the ensuing historical period of Russian life, the working class must organise itself not ‘for revolution’, not ‘in expectation of a revolution’, but simply [note the but simply] for the determined and systematic defence of its particular interests in all spheres of life; for the gathering and training of its forces for this many-sided and complex activity; for the training and building-up in this way of socialist consciousness in general; for acquiring the ability to orientate itself [to find its bearings]—and to assert itself—particularly in the complicated relations of the social classes of Russia during the coming constitutional reform of the country after the economically inevitable selfexhaustion of feudal reaction.”

This is consummate, frank, smug reformism of the purest water. War against the idea of revolution, against the “hopes” for revolution (in the eyes of the reformist such “hopes” seem vague, because he does not understand the depth of the contemporary economic and political contradictions); war against every activity designed to organise the forces and prepare the minds for revolution; war waged in the legal press that Stolypin protects from a direct retort by revolutionary Social-Democrats; war waged on behalf of a group of legalists who have completely broken with the R.S.D.L.P.—this is the programme and tactics of the Stolypin labour party which Potresov, Levitsky, Larin, and their friends are out to create. The real programme and the real tactics of these people are expressed in exact terms in the above quotation—as distinct from their hypocritical official assurances that they are “also Social-Democrats”, that they “also” belong to the “irreconcilable International”. These assurances are only window-dressing. Their deeds, their real social substance, are expressed in this programme, which substitutes a liberal labour policy for socialism.

Just note the ridiculous contradictions in which the reformists become entangled. If, as Larin says, the bourgeois revolution in Russia has been consummated, then the socialist revolution is the next stage of historical development. This is self-evident; it is clear to anyone who does not profess to be a socialist merely for the sake of deceiving the workers by the use of a popular name. This is all the more reason why we must organise “for revolution” (for socialist revolution), “in expectation” of revolution, for the sake of the “hopes” (not vague “hopes”, but the certainty based on exact and growing scientific data) of a socialist revolution.

But that’s the whole point—-to the reformist the twaddle about the consummated bourgeois revolution (like Martov’s twaddle about the Achilles heel, etc.) is simply a verbal screen to cover up his renunciation of all revolution. He renounces the bourgeois-democratic revolution on the pretext that it is complete, or that it is “ample” to recognise the contradiction between absolutism and constitutionalism; and he renounces the socialist revolution on the pretext that “for the time being” we must “simply” organise to take part in the “coming constitutional reform” of Russia!

But if you, esteemed Cadet parading in socialist feathers, recognise the inevitability of Russia’s “coming constitutional reform”, then you speak against yourself, for thereby you admit that the bourgeois-democratic revolution has not been completed in our country. You are betraying your bourgeois nature again and again when you talk about an inevitable “self-exhaustion of feudal reaction”, and when you sneer at the proletarian idea of destroying, not only feudal reaction, but all survivals of feudalism, by means of a popular revolutionary movement.

Despite the liberal sermons of our heroes of the Stolypin labour party, the Russian proletariat will always and invariably put the spirit of devotion to the democratic revolution and to the socialist revolution into all that difficult, arduous, everyday, routine and inconspicuous work, to which the era of counter-revolution has condemned it; it will organise and gather its forces for revolution; it will ruthlessly repulse the traitors and renegades; and it will be guided, not by “vague hopes”, but by the scientifically grounded conviction that the revolution will come again.


[1] Compare the just remarks made by the pro-Party Menshevik Dnevnitsky in No. 3 of Diskussionny Listok (supplement to the Central Organ of our Party) on Larin’s reformism and Martov’s evasions. —Lenin

[2] Mountain and Gironde—the two political groups of the bourgeoisie during the French bourgeois revolution at the close of the eighteenth century. Montagnards (representatives of the Mountain), or Jacobins, was the name given to the more resolute representatives   of the bourgeoisie, the revolutionary class of the time; they stood for the abolition of the autocracy and the feudal system. The Girondists, as distinct from Jacobins, vacillated between revolution and counter-revolution, and their policy was one of compromise with the monarchy.

Lenin called the opportunist trend in Social-Democracy the “socialist Gironde” and the revolutionary Social-Democrats “proletarian Jacobins”. After the R.S.D.L.P. split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Lenin frequently stressed that the Mensheviks represented the Girondist trend in the working-class movement.

[3] Rural superintendent—the administrative post introduced in 1889 by the tsarist government in order to increase the power of the landlords over the peasants. The rural superintendents were selected from among the local landed nobility, and were given enormous administrative and judicial powers over the peasantry including the right to have the peasants arrested and flogged.

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