Chapter 8
1907 SDLP conference

The congress of the Russian Social-democratic Labour Party was opened at the Brotherhood Church of Islington. 279 delegates with decisive votes and 42 delegates as well as 10 Duma deputies with consultative votes were present. At this Congress all tendencies and factions of Russian Social-democracy were represented – 81 Bolsheviki, 80 Mensheviki, 39 Poles, 54 Jewish “Bund,” and 25 Letts. At this Congress neither the Bolsheviki nor the Mensheviki had a stable majority, the national groups that stood between them formed a uniting centre – the “Bund” tending more towards the Mensheviki, the Poles and Letts more towards the Bolsheviki. Also Trotsky with his little “non-section” group belonged to the centre. Plekhanov, who was not over-fond of Trotsky, joked about that: “According to Dante in the centre of the earth stands the Devil, with us – Trotsky. But what sort of a devil is he?”

Amongst the delegates there were most of the distinguished leaders and well-known revolutionaries of our Party. Only Vera Sassulitsh, the old veteran of our movement, one of the founders of the “Group of Emancipation of Labour,” as well as Riazanov, the well-known historian of Marxism were not present as far as I can remember.

Of those old revolutionaries who had spent a whole lifetime in the movement and on whose initiative in 1883 the “Group of Emancipation of Labour” had been established, of these patriarchs of our Party George Plekhanov, Paul Axelrod, and Leo Deutsch were present at the Congress.

George Plekhanov opened the Congress whose delegates without exception honoured him as their teacher. His work Our Differences formed a landmark in the history of ideas in Russia. It had cut Russian Social-democracy from the navel-string of the utopian Socialism of the “Narodniki” and of putchism from whose womb it had sprung. His philosophical works were the foundation of our theoretical outlook; his economic, literary and polemical writings had served as textbooks for two generations of revolutionaries. Plekhanov wielded a sharp pen feared by his opponents; his sparkling wit and his brilliant lucid style made his writings easy reading, his speeches a feast for the audience. He was above medium build, had rich black hair, a strong black moustache and a small pointed black beard. His big shining dark eyes looking out from beneath bushy eyebrows seemed to pierce his opponent through and through. His attire was simple but neat; he possessed the manners of a highly educated Frenchman, the musical voice of an Italian, but the stubbornness of a Russian revolutionary tempered in the fire of the struggle for liberty.

Plekhanov’s truest comrade-in-arms and most intimate personal friend Paul Axelrod was also a man of great learning and deep thoughts, furthermore he was a good judge of human nature. When he wrote a preface to Lenin’s first pamphlet The Tasks of Russian Social-Democrats he proved a reliable prophet in his remark that the young author was destined to play a great part in the movement. As Axelrod was in the habit of polishing his works again and again, his articles had the peculiarity of arriving after the journal had been set up to go to press, and to create technical difficulties to the journals that greatly valued this contributor. All leading members of the Party desired to drink his wisdom straight from the well and were always sure of visiting him when they were about to make up their minds on an intricate theoretical or political problem. Axelrod was not a good speaker, he influenced solely through the content of his speeches not by their delivery. His appearance, too, was not imposing. He was short, wore a broad dark beard and had kindly dark eyes which did not give any indication of the tempestuous temperament hidden behind them. He earned his living in Switzerland by producing and selling kefir.[1]

The third of the veterans was Leo Deutsch, the great organiser who had gained world fame by his four escapes from Tsarist prisons and through his book Sixteen Years in Siberia which was translated into many languages. Leo Deutsch, in 1878, had been one of the initiators of the Tchigrin peasant rising when the revolutionists induced the peasants to rise by reading to them a beautifully printed supposed manifesto of the Tsar wherein the Tsar stated he desired to give the land to the peasants only the nasty officials would not permit it. Deutsch did not like to be reminded of this escapade of his youth, since this method was in flagrant contradiction to his later views. Now his hair had already turned grey, but his slender figure of medium height had not lost the old virility. He was one of the organisers of the Congress and of the safe return of the delegates.

The younger generation of the Iskra group – Lenin, Martov, Potressov, Dan and Trotsky – had all come to the Congress.

Among them, Martov, the leader of the Menshevik section, was outstanding by his sympathetic personality. He was the perfect contrast to Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik section, not only in a political sense. Both men were perfectly sincere; they were united in their object: a Socialist Russia, but they differed widely in their methods, habits and notions. While Martov was an absolute European, a typical Bohemian, a brilliant publicist, witty in his speeches (though no great orator), disdaining demagogy, always taking a wide view, fair and honest towards friend and foe – Lenin, on the contrary, was a typical Russian, pedantic in his personal habits, convincing by his powerful iron logic in his powerful effective speeches and in his brilliant writings which were effective though of a peculiarly heavy style, an iron character always heading straight for a fixed goal, at times not over-scrupulous in the choice of his means, inscrutable for friend and foe. While Martov was striving to convince the members of the Party solely by the strength of his arguments and took little interest in matters of practical organisation, which he mostly left to Dan, Lenin, the shrewd organiser, tried to realise his ideas in the Party through the discipline of blindly-following adherents. While Martov towered above his (Menshevik) section, which resembled a republic of free spirits, only as a primus inter pares, Lenin dominated his (Bolshevik) section, that less clearly defined unit, holding sectional meetings and binding their members to a certain extent by a sectional discipline. Fortunately, this sectional discipline was not yet of the Communist pattern, the individual delegate did not entirely surrender his political personality and frequently voted in one or another question against his section.

The fixing of the agenda caused prolonged discussions. Lenin demanded that the “appraising of the present situation” should be placed on the agenda as the first item. After a pitched battle the Congress rejected this proposal by 142 to 133 votes. The majority objected to the “nebulous definition,” to the prejudicing of all later decisions by the adoption of a hazy, all-embracing resolution and decided to consider concrete questions and adopt definite decisions. The Communist conception which would tie down life to the Procrustes bed of resolutions once adopted, a tendency later on noticeable in all countries, was insisted upon already at that time.

No greater luck had Lenin with another point very dear to his heart: “Preparation of armed insurrection and formation of partisan groups.” This, too, was rejected, by 137 votes to 89. In our movement there were few who then believed in the possibility of a peaceful development in Russia. But the idea that the undoubtedly coning Revolution in Russia could be prepared by organising little armed groups seemed absurd to many delegates. The revolutionary wave had just ebbed away, and it was obvious that at least several years would have to elapse before new revolutionary events on a large scale would be even possible. It seemed to the delegates partisan groups at this juncture would rather correspond to the Blanquist notion that a handful of armed fanatics can “make” a revolution at will, than to the Marxist line taken by our Party and, of course, by Lenin, which requires careful analysis of objective trends in any given situation. Life has since upheld the majority’s view. Ten years later the Revolution came, and then the stone was sent rolling not by groups of armed revolutionary partisans but by discontented workers’ wives who demonstrated to demand cheaper food and the return of their men from the front, and by discontented soldiers who declined to shoot. In pre-Hitler Germany all the playing of soldiers practiced many years both by the “revolutionary” Communist “Rotor Frontkaempfer-Bund” and the “purely defensive” Social-democratic “Reichsbanner” were of no avail when it came to the test.

On the question of expropriations, the London Congress adopted the same attitude as the preceding Stockholm Congress – it definitely condemned these and prohibited any kind of participation therein to all members of the Party.

In two other important questions, however, the Congress endorsed more or less the point of view of the Bolshevik section. As to the attitude towards the Duma, a resolution was carried which on the whole expressed the Bolshevist conception but contained no censure of the Social-democratic group in the Duma, declaring that the latter had “in general upheld the interests of the proletariat and the Revolution.”

In defending the Party’s attitude to the bourgeois parties, which caused aroused the hottest controversy, the Bolshevist draft was taken as the basis of the resolution: the Mensheviki put forward seventy amendments....

The German and British Socialist parties had sent fraternal delegates to the Congress. Harry Quelch, leader of the Social Democratic Federation, welcomed the Congress in an enthusiastic speech. Ramsay MacDonald greeted the Congress on behalf of the Independent Labour Party. We had the pleasure of seeing our British friends frequently amongst us. MacDonald did a great service to the Congress: Tsarist spies had appeared in the vicinity of the Congress hall and had tried to photograph the delegates. Of course they got a sound thrashing from us. MacDonald complained to the Government, whereupon the Congress received police protection against any molestation by Tsarist agents. From Germany Rosa Luxemburg had come over. She delivered a long speech in Russian in which she took sides in our internal quarrels. Her point of view was akin to that of Trotsky and Parvus, who believed that the Russian Revolution already at that time might – avoiding the bourgeois-liberal stage – lead to the establishment of a Workers’ Government. Plekhanov replied to her in an extremely witty speech, brushing away all differences by gay laughter. He teased the young revolutionaries, whose revolutionary ideas vanished in the process of revolutionary discussions, and pictured Rosa Luxemburg as a revolutionary Madonna floating in the clouds. The entire Congress, that a few moments ago had been the scene of bitter controversy, was carried away by unifying mirth. Afterwards we stood in the lobby, a gaily talking group. Lenin remarked sarcastically: “Rosa does not understand Russian” to which Trotsky retorted: “But she understands the language of Marxism.”

The British “Social Democratic Federation” had organised in Holborn Mall a pleasant reception which had none of the stiffness characteristic of English receptions. H.M. Hyndman jumped on to a table and delivered a speech sparkling with wit. Even those who did not understand English felt at once the brother-spirit of a revolutionary.

The society “Friends of Russian Freedom” had also organised a reception. A number of well-known British politicians and men of letters were present. Plekhanov replied to their welcomes on behalf of the Congress in a brilliant, impressive speech in French. The great sympathies of wide circles of the British people to the Russian revolutionary movement were thus vividly brought home to us.

Peter Kropotkin, the old theorist of Anarchism also appeared at the Congress. We young people gathered around this patriarch of the Revolution and gladly answered his questions about our personal experiences in the revolutionary events of the last years. “The chief thing is that you are fighting,” he said kindly. “What matters is not the Party flag but the revolutionary goal. Russia must he liberated from the disgrace of Tsarism; at present this is the main thing.”

The Congress lasted three weeks – the money did not last so long. When Gorki and Andreieva once treated the Congress to beer and rolls, this was acclaimed by all sections.

At last the Congress was brought to an end. But now the real difficulties began – nobody had the money to return. Then Fanya Markovna Stepniak, the widow of the famous author of Subterranean Russia, and George Lansbury came to the rescue – they found a rich philanthropist who always had an open hand for radical movements. This was the soap manufacturer, Joseph Fels. He gave 3,000 for the home journey of the delegates. Thus the situation was saved and the London representative of the Jewish “Bund,” Dr. Nadel, who was in charge of the transport arrangements, could set to work.

When the Congress was over, I remained in England and settled down at first in the East End. I found work in a cabinetmakers’ factory but did not earn very much. I seriously took to learning English, read a great deal, and began to take an interest in the British working class movement.

1. kefir is a fermented milk product