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John Molyneux

Marxism and the Party

2. Lenin and the birth of Bolshevism

Although marxism in general is, as Gramsci put it, a ‘philosophy of action’ and thus hostile to fatalism, Marx himself, as we have shown, owing to the prevailing conditions and his determination to avoid sectarianism never fully emancipated himself from a fatalist conception of political organisation. The political party of the proletariat would emerge gradually, spontaneously, from the broad struggle of the working class. In social democracy this fatalist tendency thoroughly consolidated itself in the sphere of organisation and then extended itself to the theory of capitalist development, the proletarian revolution, and the nature of human activity itself. The practice of Bolshevism and the organisational ideas of Lenin marked a break with this fatalism, and thus constituted a tremendous step forward for marxist theory not only in relation to social democracy but also in relation to Marx. Only with Lenin was the concept of a broad party that represents, or is, the working class replaced by that of a ‘minority’ party (in the pre-revolutionary period) which is the vanguard of the class and which, since it is the organisational embodiment of the socialist future of that class, has a duty to defend itself from and struggle against all manifestations of opportunism.

1. The background to Bolshevism

Bolshevism was no ‘Venus’ born fully grown from the waves – it developed and grew through a host of struggles, internal and external. Nor can it be seen simply as the product of Lenin’s organisational genius. The idealisation of Lenin that is general in marxist circles combined with the tendency of Stalinist theoreticians to write Russian revolutionary history as though there were only two protagonists, the Russian people and Lenin (most other individuals having become unpersons), has created an image of Bolshevism as invented by Lenin much as Watt invented the steam engine. In fact the break with gradualism in the sphere of organisation was itself a gradual and only semi-conscious process, though one marked by many sharp and conscious struggles. Leninism was the product of a sustained and developing revolutionary response to a concrete situation, and to understand that response we must look at the elements in the situation that made it possible.

The first factor which springs to mind as a source of Bolshevism is what Tony Cliff calls ‘the tradition of substitutionism in the Russian revolutionary movement’. [1] This tradition was indeed very strong. In the 18600s and 1870s sometimes tens, occasionally hundreds, of heroic and idealistic intellectuals pitted themselves against the autocracy, alternatively ‘going to the people’ as their educators and enlighteners and ‘acting on behalf of the people’ with daring acts of terrorism. And in so doing these Narodniks gained the undying respect and admiration of Russian revolutionaries including Lenin especially, who refers repeatedly to their ‘devoted determination and vigour’. [2] To strengthen the case various pieces of biographical evidence can be thrown in: the formative influence on Lenin of such basically elitist writers as Chernychevsky and Tkachev [3], and of course the fate of his brother, executed for terrorism.

However, this argument, superficially attractive as it is, will not bear critical examination. It ignores the fact that Lenin cut his theoretical teeth precisely in the struggle against Narodism; that he opposed individual terrorism throughout his life; that he refused to countenance a seizure of power in 1917 until the Bolsheviks had a majority in the Soviets; and that he waged a most vigorous struggle against all forms of ‘putchism’, of attempts at uprisings by minorities, at the third Congress of the Communist International (1921).

It was not terrorism but the situation which produced terrorism that was an important factor in the development of Lenin’s ideas. Lenin could break decisively with the romantic and utopian theories of the terrorists, he could adhere absolutely to the theory of the class struggle as the lever of the social revolution, but he could not break with the reality of the Tsarist police. Under Tsarism political repression remained virtually absolute and so did the ban on all trade-union and strike activity.

In such a situation the social-democratic model of a broad mass party representing the whole of the working class was simply impossible. ‘Only an incorrigible Utopian would have a broad organisation of workers ... under the autocracy.’ [4] In fact as far as combating the Tsarist police was concerned, the smaller the organisation the better. Inextricably linked to the question of size and secrecy was the need for efficiency and vigorous training. Need for efficiency which is hammered home again and again in What is to be done?, and which was almost certainly the main objective factor in determining the success of this work at the time, gives rise to the concept of the professional revolutionary as the basis of the revolutionary organisation. Summing up his views on this aspect of the argument Lenin writes:

in an autocratic state, the more we confine the membership of such an organisation to people who are professionally engaged in revolutionary activity and who have been professionally trained in the art of combating the political police, the more difficult will it be to unearth the organisation. [5]

The eminent practicality of this emphasis on secrecy, training and professionalism in organisation should be clear. But this element of pure practicality or necessity in Lenin’s theory of organisation can easily be exaggerated. If immediate expediency were the sole consideration, then it would be true to say with Leonard Schapiro (and many other commentators) that ‘Lenin’s conceptions had perhaps moved nearer to the conspiratorial ideas of Narodnaya Volya, and away from Marx’s conception of the historic mission of an entire class’. [6] In fact this was not so; the hard core of professional revolutionaries were not seen as an end in themselves but as a means. Lenin stresses that the tighter the core of the party ‘the greater will be the number of people from the working class and from the other social classes who will be able to join the movement and perform active work in it’. [7] Lenin’s perspective was always one of a mass class movement against the autocracy but one led by a vanguard party. ‘We are the party of a class, and therefore almost the entire class (and in times of war, in a period of civil war, the entire class) should act under the leadership of our party.’ [8] Furthermore, if it were merely practical necessity that determined Lenin’s thought, then his ideas would possess only local, temporary significance. Bolshevism would have proved a specifically Russian phenomenon, an exception to the rule, rather than the basis for a vast international movement and tradition. Indeed the conspiratorial elements in Lenin’s conception are historically limited and Lenin recognises this.

Under conditions of political freedom our party will be built entirely on the elective principle. Under the autocracy this is impracticable for the collective thousands of workers that make up the party. [9]

If it was the level of repression that made a broad Western-type party impossible, it was the particular social and political conjuncture in Russia and trends within the revolutionary movement that stimulated Lenin into new theoretical insights and enabled him to take a step forward from the social-democratic model rather than a step backwards to conspiracy. This situation must therefore be examined.

The primary distinction between the tasks of the revolutionary movement in Western Europe and in Russia was that in the West capitalism had been firmly established, whereas in Russia capitalism was still nascent and the bourgeois revolution had not yet been achieved. Thus whereas in the West marxism presented itself straightforwardly as the theory of the overthrow of capitalism by the proletariat, in Russia marxism appeared to many as the theory of the inevitability of the development of capitalism. Since the authorities at first regarded the terrorists as the main danger and the terrorists argued that Russia could side-step capitalism by means of an immediate revolution, marxist criticism of terrorism and emphasis on the inevitability of capitalism was for a period welcomed or at least regarded as very much a lesser evil. This led to what became known as ‘legal marxism’, and marxism became a veritable fashion:

Marxist journals and newspapers were founded, nearly everyone became a marxist, marxists were flattered, marxists were courted, and the book publishers rejoiced at the extraordinary ready sale of marxist literature. [10]

Inevitably in such a situation a coalition of ‘manifestly heterogeneous elements’ [11] occurred. In particular calling themselves marxists were those who regarded capitalism as inevitable and progressive but who also wanted to fight it and overthrow it, and also calling themselves marxists were those who in reality supported capitalism as such and for whom socialism was cloudy rhetoric for the dim and distant future. (The leading representative of the latter trend was Pyotr Struve, originally a collaborator of Lenin and Plekhanov, who was, in 1905, to found the bourgeois-democratic Cadet Party.) This meant that from very early on Lenin felt himself in the position of having to select very rigorously those who really wanted to fight from a large number of people who mouthed radical phrases. This was a major factor in conditioning Lenin’s doctrinal intransigence and especially his insistence on distinguishing between what people said and what they were actually prepared to do. This latter faculty, which was so acutely developed in Lenin and is one of the most striking features of all his writings, was to play an enormous role in the development of Bolshevism as a separate party.

The revolutionary marxist answer to the problem of seeing capitalism as progressive and at the same time maintaining the complete independence of the proletariat for the fight against capitalism lay in the theory of the hegemony of the proletariat in the bourgeois revolution. Originating in Plekhanov (’the Russian revolution will succeed as a workers’ revolution or it will not succeed at all’ [12]), though later abandoned by him, and adopted and refined by Lenin, this theory was to become a hallmark of Bolshevism in the pre-1917 period. The essence of this theory was that the Russian bourgeoisie arrived late on the scene, long after

the bourgeoisie had ceased to be a revolutionary force on a world scale. Consequently the task of leading a revolution against the autocracy would fall to a proletariat which, although small, was developing rapidly in large scale modern industry and could ally itself to the tremendous elemental force of the peasant revolt. [13] In order to accomplish this task the proletariat would have to adopt the overthrow of Tsarism as its first and most important demand and place itself in the vanguard of every struggle for democracy and political freedom.

2. The critique of ‘economism’

It was this theory which brought Lenin into conflict with the various trends which he grouped under the term ‘economism’. The main representatives of ‘economism’ at the time were Rabochaya Mysl (The Workers’ Thought), a journal published in St Petersburg from 1897 to 1902, and Rabocheye Dyelo (The Workers’ Task), the organ of the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad from 1899 to 1903 – the latter assuming a position which could more strictly be described as semi-economist. The basic contention of the ‘economists’ was that social democracy should concentrate its work not on the political struggle against the autocracy, but in serving and developing the economic struggle of the workers, and it was from the disputes with ‘economism’ that many of the fundamental ideas of Bolshevism emerged. In order to understand and assess those ideas it will therefore be necessary to look at the disputes in some detail – but even before that it is necessary to look at the context in which the disputes occurred and simply to ask why they were so important.

The basic reason was that Lenin saw ‘economism’ as leading inevitably to the abandonment of the hegemony of the proletariat in the coming democratic revolution by instituting a division of labour in which the workers would limit themselves to the trade-union struggle, leaving politics to the bourgeoisie. Indeed it was the open advocacy of such a division in the document known as The Credo, by Y.D. Kuskova of the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad, that first spurred Lenin to take up the cudgels against ‘economism’ with his Protest by Russian Social Democrats in August 1899. [14] In The Credo Kuskova had written: ‘For the Russian marxist there is only one course: participation in, i.e. assistance to, the economic struggle of the proletariat; and participation in liberal opposition activity.’ [15]

To Lenin such a course meant betrayal of the revolution, for ‘liberal opposition activity’ (i.e. the bourgeoisie) was completely incapable of consistent revolutionary opposition to the autocracy. He held that any attempt to narrow down the tasks of the proletariat and the social-democratic movement would play into the hands of the bourgeoisie, and regarded any tendency towards ‘economism’ as leading in that direction. In this way the debate over ‘economism’ foreshadowed the central issue for the Russian marxists during the next 17 years – the relative role and tasks of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in the revolution – with a fundamental continuity existing between the position of early ‘economism’ and late Menshevism that the leading role should go to the bourgeoisie.

From this it can be seen that Lenin was also correct in linking ‘economism’ to the international trend to reformism or ‘revisionism’ in social democracy, which he does right at the beginning of What is to be done? The ‘economists’ shared the de facto split between economics and politics and asserted with Bernstein the importance of ‘the movement’ (immediate demands) as against the ‘ultimate aim’ (socialism or, in this case, the overthrow of Tsarism).

Fierce polemic, for Lenin, meant getting to the very root of the disputed questions and pursuing ruthlessly the logic of his own and his opponents’ arguments; thus these polemics, though rooted in concrete issues, invariably possess a certain universal significance. [16] The product of the struggle against the ‘economists’ was What is to be done? which, quite deservedly, has had an immense influence on marxist theory and practice throughout the world and which, I would argue, has wrongly been regarded as the standard marxist text on the theory of the party. Thus any critical study of the marxist theory of the party must look very seriously at this work.

What is to be done? sums up all Lenin’s arguments against ‘economism’ and his case for a nationwide revolutionary organisation based on a cadre of professional revolutionaries and an all-Russia newspaper. Thus many of the points it makes are of a practical nature of the kind referred to earlier in this essay, but its central theme is the relationship of spontaneity and consciousness in the development of the revolutionary movement. The ‘economists’, holding that ‘politics always obediently follows economies’ [17] and that therefore political consciousness would grow organically from economic struggles, contended that the main task of marxists was to assist the economic struggle, and that Lenin and the Iskraists ‘belittled the spontaneous element’ and ‘overestimated consciousness’. But for Lenin even this method of presenting the problem was completely unsatisfactory. It was not that the spontaneous upsurge of the workers was unimportant (on the contrary it was profoundly important), but that its importance lay precisely in the demands that it made on consciousness, on organisation. The programme of Rabocheye Dyelo stated:

We consider that the most important phenomenon of Russian life, the one that will mainly determine the tasks and the character of the publication activity of the Union, is the mass working-class movement which has arisen in recent years.

And Lenin comments:

That the mass movement is a most important phenomenon is not to be disputed. But the crux of the matter is, how is one to understand the statement that the mass working-class movement will ‘determine the tasks’? It may be interpreted in one of two ways. Either it means bowing to the spontaneity of this movement, i.e. reducing the role of social democracy to mere subservience to the working-class movement as such – or it means that the mass movement places before us new theoretical, political, and organisational tasks, far more complicated than those that might have satisfied us in the period before the rise of the mass movement. [18]

This dialectical conception of the relationship between spontaneity and consciousness, the mass movement and the party, represents a tremendous step forward for marxist theory and is an advance on any previous contribution to this problem (including that of Marx himself and especially that of German Social Democracy). Essentially it is the necessary starting point of a truly revolutionary theory of the party because it is a radical break with fatalism. [19] ‘We revolutionary social democrats, on the contrary, are dissatisfied with this worship of spontaneity, i.e. of that which exists “at the present moment”.’ [My emphasis – JM] [20]

For Lenin the development of the class struggle itself, even its economic form, is a process of moving from ‘spontaneity’ to ‘consciousness’.

Strikes occurred in Russia in the seventies and sixties (and even in the first half of the nineteenth century) and they were accompanied by the ‘spontaneous’ destruction of machinery, etc. Compared with these ‘revolts’, the strikes of the nineties might even be described as ‘conscious’, to such an extent do they mark the progress which the working-class movement made in that period. This shows that the ‘spontaneous element’ in essence, represents nothing more nor less than consciousness in embryonic form. [21]

Lenin therefore sees it as the duty of the revolutionary always to assist the conscious element and work to overcome spontaneity.

But Lenin is not merely arguing for organisation against lack of organisation, for leadership against the ‘tail-ending’ (tailism) of the ‘economists’. What is central to his attack on the ‘economists’ and to his view of the nature of tasks of the party is his rejection of the notion that proletarian class-consciousness can develop gradually on the basis of an accumulation of economic struggles.

As Lukacs writes:

The impossibility of the economic evolution of capitalism into socialism was clearly proved by the Bernstein debates. Nevertheless, its ideological counterpart lived on uncontradicted in the minds of many honest European revolutionaries, and was, moreover, not even recognised as either a problem or a danger. [22]

Lenin’s position on this was extreme and uncompromising.

Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected – unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a social-democratic point of view and no other. The consciousness of the working masses cannot be genuine class-consciousness, unless the workers learn, from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical and political life; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist analysis and the materialist estimate of all aspects of the life and activity of all classes, strata and groups of the population. [23]

And therefore:

Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers. [24]

In practical terms this meant that it was necessary for social democrats not merely ‘to go among the workers’, but to ‘go among all classes of the population; they must dispatch units of their army in all directions’. [25] Workers should be mobilised to take action in support of all victims of the autocracy including such groups as religious minorities and students. The social democrats’ ideal should not be the trade-union secretary, but the tribune of the people ... who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all, his socialist convictions and his democratic demands.’ [26] Essential to this strategy was an all-Russia newspaper keeping a vigilant eye on every aspect of political and social life in Russia and able to mount nationwide political exposures. ‘Without a political organ, a political movement deserving that name is inconceivable in the Europe of today.’ [27]

It is perhaps necessary to point out in passing that of course Lenin in no way regarded this diversification of forces as a modification or compromise of the class basis of the party. On the contrary, it was possible only on the basis of a prolonged period of largely economistic agitation in the working class. ‘In the earlier period, indeed, we had astonishingly few forces, and it was perfectly natural and legitimate then to devote ourselves exclusively to activities among the workers and to condemn severely any deviation from this course. The entire task then was to consolidate our position in the working class.’ [28] And in any case the whole purpose of the strategy was to ensure the hegemony of the proletariat in the struggle against the autocracy.

What is specifically and characteristically Leninist about this approach, and what distinguishes it from the methods of social democracy and the Second International, is not that marxists fight for democratic rights and for reforms. That much was common ground and indeed second nature to German Social Democracy. But the social democrats fought for reforms because they were ‘progressive’ and part of the development of capitalism into socialism; in other words, they fought for reforms as reformists. Whereas, for Lenin, the whole process was part of the battle for the class-consciousness of the proletariat, to enable it to grasp the relationships in action of all social classes and groups, and thus to fit itself for taking power. Thus for social democracy a yawning gap developed between the minimum and the maximum programme (between immediate demands and ultimate aim). While, for Lenin, all-sided political agitation was a means of bridging this gap and securing the predominance of the ultimate revolutionary aim.

3. Socialism from without?

At this point, we have summed up the main advances made by What is to be done? over the theory of the party to be found in Marx and prevailing in more dogmatic form in Russian ‘economism’ and to a certain extent in European social democracy. But there remains an important aspect of Lenin’s argument we have not dealt with – important not because of its centrality to Lenin’s own theory and practice, but because of its influence on many later followers. We are referring to the thesis that ‘political consciousness’ can only be introduced into the working-class movement ‘from without’, which is inserted to give theoretical justification to the attack on spontaneism. This thesis appears in What is to be done? in two forms. One, which we have cited already, is that:

Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers.

The other is that:

We have said that there could not have been social-democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness i.e. the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary, labour legislation etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. By their social status, the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. In the very same way, in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of social democracy arose altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working-class movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia. [29]

There is a clear distinction between the two formulations. The first is merely an extreme and slightly clumsy way of saying that workers need to understand the totality of social relations and all forms of oppression, knowledge of which comes from a much wider sphere than (’from without’) the factory. As such, one could quibble with the wording but the content is fairly unexceptionable. In the second formulation, however, ‘from without’ means from outside the working class, specifically from the bourgeois intelligentsia, and moreover it carries with it an attempt at a positive account of the origins and development of the theory of scientific socialism. This raises problems of considerable theoretical significance, especially for the theory of the party, so it is necessary to embark on a fairly detailed critical analysis of Lenin’s conception here.

The first point that must be made is that Lenin was here expressing ideas taken directly from Karl Kautsky, and indeed he uses a quotation from Kautsky to provide himself with theoretical authority.

But socialism and the class struggle arise side by side and not one out of the other; each arises under different conditions. Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. Indeed modern economic science is as much a condition for socialist production as, say, modern technology, and the proletariat can create neither the one nor the other, no matter how much it may desire to do so; both arise out of the modern social process. The vehicle of science is not the proletariat but the bourgeois intelligentsia. [30]

This resort to Kautsky, given the latter’s mechanical version of marxism and his subsequent political development, is clearly a danger signal to those of us working with the benefit of hindsight, and a number of latter-day Leninists have been critical of this point. Trotsky comments that Lenin himself ‘subsequently acknowledged the biased nature, and therewith the erroneousness, of his theory’. [31] Lucio Magri in a recent article calls the quotation from Kautsky an ‘enlightenment schema’ [32], and Nigel Harris refers to it as an ‘elitist statement’. [33]

The fundamental problem is that if one accepts literally the Lenin-Kautsky formulation that political consciousness derives from the bourgeois intelligentsia and at the same time that the political struggle must predominate over the economic struggle, then precious little is left of Marx’s fundamental dictum that ‘the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself: on the contrary the role of the working class would be a strictly subordinate one. The truly revolutionary class would be not the working class but the discontented intellectuals, thus implicitly confirming the typical bourgeois picture of radical movements as made up of a malevolent middle-class leadership and an ‘innocent’ manipulated working-class rank-and-file. The division of mental and manual labour inherent in class society, far from being overcome, is carried over into the socialist movement and sanctified in the revolutionary party.

In fact the whole presentation of science, theory and socialist consciousness (which are here equated) is completely un-marxist and has more in common with nineteenth century positivism and idealism. Science is seen as developing in complete isolation from social life, from practice. As far as the natural sciences, philosophy and bourgeois social science are concerned, this appears to be true insofar as the thinker tends to the isolation of the ivory tower, but in reality this is only an illusion, a mystification produced by class society. For this reason Marx refused to recognise philosophy or any other discipline as having its own history independent of the history of men active in society. Where the theory of socialism is concerned, even the relative and illusory autonomy of bourgeois science does not and should not exist if this theory is to be genuinely revolutionary. On the contrary, it must be intimately related to, influenced by and based upon the activity of the working class. Thus Marx writes:

Just as the economists are the scientific representatives of the bourgeoisie, so the socialists and communists are the theorists of the proletariat. As long as the proletariat is not sufficiently developed to constitute itself as a class, as long therefore as the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie has not acquired a political character, and while the productive forces are not yet sufficiently developed, within bourgeois society itself, to give an indication of the material conditions necessary for the emancipation of the proletariat and the constitution of a new society, these theorists remain Utopians who, in order to remedy the distress of the oppressed classes, improvise systems and pursue a regenerative science. But as history continues, and as the struggle of the proletariat takes shape more clearly, they have no further need to look for a science in their own minds; they have only to observe what is happening before their eyes, and to make themselves its vehicle of expression. [34]

Examination of the history of socialist and marxist thought also clearly refutes the ‘Lenin-Kautsky’ theory of ‘separate development’. The idea of socialism and the socialist revolution itself was not something invented or discovered by Marx; rather it emerged from the struggles of the masses as the extreme left wing

of the bourgeois revolutions in England and France – witness the Levellers and Babeufs Conspiracy of Equals (which Marx referred to as the world’s first communist party). Raya Dunayevskaya in Marxism and Freedom records the impact of the American Civil War and the English workers’ struggle over the working day on the structure of Capital. She writes:

No one is more blind to the greatness of Marx’s contributions than those who praise him to the skies for his genius as if that genius matured outside of the actual struggles of the period in which he lived. As if he gained the impulses from the sheer development of his own thoughts instead of from the living workers changing living reality by their actions. [35]

Indeed it was from the insurgent workers of Paris that Marx learned that the working class cannot simply take over the existing state machine but must smash it.

History also provides numerous examples of workers spontaneously rising to much greater heights than trade unionism and trade-union politics: the Chartists, the 1848 revolution in France, the Paris Commune, the Russian workers in 1905 and February 1917, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and so on.

But this critique of the way in which Lenin theoretically justified his position at this time does not, as some of Lenin’s hagiographers might maintain, undermine the whole basis of Lenin’s theory of the party. The fact of workers achieving socialist consciousness spontaneously does not entail a return to a social-democratic gradualist view, for this consciousness does not develop gradually, accumulating steadily and inevitably. On the contrary, it takes giant and sudden leaps forward and can suffer equally catastrophic shipwrecks. Nor does the consciousness spread evenly through the class, so the consciousness of the advanced socialist workers must be organised and centralised to increase to the maximum its influence within the ideologically heterogeneous class as a whole. These ideas will be returned to and developed later in this work, especially when dealing with the contribution of Rosa Luxemburg.

4. The Bolshevik-Menshevik split

Because of its great theoretical, historical and practical significance, What is to be done? tends to be regarded as the founding document of Bolshevism. In a certain sense this is correct, which is why we have subjected it to such detailed analysis. But it was not What is to be done? which directly occasioned the split of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party into Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. On the contrary, the pamphlet acted as a rallying point in the struggle for the second congress of the RSDLP, bringing together militants on an all-Russian basis and having the apparently united support of the leading intellectuals of Russian marxism – Plekhanov, Martov, Axelrod, Trotsky etc. It was the attempt to put the programme of What is to be done? into practice that produced the split. Those who thought themselves in agreement in theory found themselves in violent disagreement when those theories were translated into practical rules and decisions at the Second Congress in London in 1903.

The history of the development of the split is both complicated and obscure. A blow-by-blow account of the disputes at the congress is available in Lenin’s One Step Forward, Two Steps Back written immediately after the split in 1904. Briefly what happened was this. The formerly united (and dominant) Iskraist tendency within the party divided over the formulation of Paragraph I of the Rules. Martov’s formulation was as follows: ‘A member of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party is one who accepts its programme, supports the Party financially, and renders it regular personal assistance under the direction of one of its organisations.’ Whereas Lenin’s draft read: ‘A member of the Party is one who accepts its programme and who supports the Party both financially and by personal participation in one of the Party organisations.’ [My emphasis – JM] On this question the Iskraists split into two definite factions. Plekhanov supported Lenin, but when it came to the vote Martov, with the aid of anti-centralist ‘economist’ elements still within the party, gained a majority. But with the secession of the Rabocheye Dyelo economists and the Bund at a later session, the majority passed to Lenin’s faction, which enabled him to push through his slate of candidates for the Iskra editorial board. This replaced the old board of six (Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich, Lenin, Martov, Potressov) with a board of three (Lenin, Plekhanov, Martov). Martov and his supporters refused to accept this decision and Martov resigned from Iskra. The terms Bolshevik and Menshevik (meaning ‘majority’ and ‘minority’) referred to the vote on the editorial board, but, because officially the two factions remained parts of the same party, the names stuck and have passed into history.

For the purpose of this study it is necessary to ask two questions. First, what were these disputes, seemingly a hairsplitting wrangle about words, really about? Secondly, what was the impact of the split on the developing Leninist theory of the party? To grasp the real meaning of any dispute in the marxist movement it is always necessary to see it in its context. ‘Truth is concrete’ as Lenin was so fond of saying. Writing in this vein we find Paul Frölich who sums up the situation as follows:

In order to understand these debates, it is necessary to keep in mind the state of the social-democratic movement at that time, with its unstable and anarchical network of circles, and the conditions in which an illegal party organisation had to operate under absolutism. At the same time, it is necessary to understand that deep political antagonisms were coming to a head in the discussions on the statutes, antagonisms which were still only felt rather than clearly expressed in any single argument. Lenin sensed grave dangers ahead and wanted to ward them off by organising the party more tightly. He was aware of the tremendous tasks which the party would face in the approaching revolution, and wanted to forge it into a weapon of iron. And, finally, he recognised that he alone out of the whole Iskra group would be able to lead the party with the necessary confidence and determination. The very impersonal and objective way in which he reached this conclusion explains his obstinacy on this question.

The wording of the two proposals for Paragraph I of the statutes gives hardly an inkling of the antagonism. It is certain that Martov wanted a party with ill-defined boundaries in accordance with the actual state of the movement, and with strong autonomy for the individual groups; a party of agitation which would broadly and loosely embrace everybody who called himself a socialist. Lenin, however, felt it was important to overcome the autonomy and the isolation of the local groups, and thus avoid the dangers inherent in their over-simplified and ossified ideas, not to speak of their backward political development. He wanted a firmly and tightly organised party which, as the vanguard of the class, would be closely connected with it, but at the same time clearly distinct from it. [36]

There was, however, another aspect of the debate which Lenin fastened on. There was a second possible interpretation of Martov’s formulation; ‘that a Party organisation [would be] entitled to regard as a party member anyone who renders it regular personal assistance under its direction’ and ‘that a committee would assign functions and watch over their fulfilment’. Lenin comments:

Such special assignments will never, of course, be made to the mass of the workers, to the thousands of proletarians (of whom Comrade Axelrod and Comrade Martynov spoke) – they will frequently be given precisely to ... professors ... high school students ... and revolutionary youth ... In a word, Comrade Martov’s formula will either remain a dead letter, an empty phrase, or it will be of benefit mainly and almost exclusively to ‘intellectuals who are thoroughly imbued with bourgeois individualism’ and do not wish to join an organisation. In words, Martov’s formulation defends the interests of the broad strata of the proletariat, but in fact it serves the interests of the bourgeois intellectuals, who fight shy of proletarian discipline and organisation. [37]

Raya Dunayevskaya also focuses on this point as the central question in the dispute.

The disciplining by the local was so crucial to Lenin’s conception that it held primacy over verbal adherence to marxist theory, propagandising marxist views, and holding a membership card ... Lenin insisted that the marxist intellectual needed the ideological discipline of the proletarians in the local because otherwise he was resisting not only local discipline hut also resisting being theoretically disciplined by the economic content of the Russian revolution. [38]

It was this softness towards the bourgeois intellectuals which was probably the main cause of Martovite hostility to Lenin (and this would fit very well the pattern of future Bolshevik-Menshevik differences). But to counter this particular deviation Lenin did not have to leave the ground of Kautskyite social-democratic orthodoxy. The organisational views of the Mensheviks could be taken together with those of Bernstein, Jaurès and the general opportunist trend in international social democracy [39], and there was even a lengthy quotation from Kautsky himself to fit the bill. [40] What was crucial for the development of Lenin’s thought – i.e. what enabled him to make a breakthrough into a new marxist approach to organisation – was the question of the distinction between the party of the class and the class itself, which Lenin was forced to clarify by the debate on the conditions of membership.

The stronger our party organisations, consisting of real social-democrats, the less wavering and instability there is within the party, the broader, more varied, richer and more fruitful will be the party’s influence on the elements of the working-class masses surrounding it and guided by it. The party, as the vanguard of the working class, must not be confused, after all, with the entire class. [my emphasis – JM] [41]

It is this last sentence which signifies the break with Marx’s concept of organisation in which the distinction between party and class remains blurred, and, more decisively, with the orthodox social-democratic conception of the party as representing the class. What renders this break permanent rather than temporary, and of universal rather than merely Russian, significance is that Lenin roots it not in practical necessities of secrecy (though these are of course not lost sight of) nor in an erroneous theory of the introduction of consciousness ‘from the outside’ but in the objective situation of the proletariat under capitalism:

Precisely because there are differences in degree of consciousness and degree of activity, a distinction must be made in degree of proximity to the party ... it would be ... ‘tailism’ to think that the entire class, or almost the entire class, can ever rise, under capitalism, to the level of consciousness and activity of its vanguard, of its social-democratic party. [42]

Of great importance in this passage is the charge of ‘tailism’ directed at his opponents. ‘Tailism’ (from the Russian khvost = tail) is Lenin’s figurative and polemical term for the ‘fatalism’ which was to prove the Achilles’ heel of the Second International. Running like a red thread through One Step Forward, Two Steps Back is the contrast between the Bolshevik activist, revolutionary outlook on the world and the ‘tailist’ fatalist complacency of the Mensheviks. Nothing illustrates this better than one of the disputes with Trotsky.

To the category of arguments, which inevitably crop up when attempts are made to justify Martov’s formulation, belongs in particular, Comrade Trotsky’s statement that ‘opportunism is produced by more complex (or: is determined by deeper) causes than one or another clause in the Rules: it is brought about by the relative level of development of bourgeois democracy and the proletariat.’ The point is not that clauses in the Rules may produce opportunism, but that with their help a more or a less trenchant weapon against opportunism can be forged. The deeper its causes, the more trenchant should this weapon be. Therefore, to justify aformulation which opens the door to opportunism on the grounds that opportunism has ‘deep causes’ is tailism of the first water.’ [43]

Trotsky analyses and explains a phenomenon and leaves it at that. Lenin accepts the explanation but wants to use it to do something about it.


1. Tony Cliff, Trotsky on Substitutionism, in Duncan Hallas et al., Party and Class, London (n.d.), p. 28. By ‘substitutionism’ Cliff means the tendency of individuals or parties to substitute themselves for the action of the masses.

2. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, Moscow 1969, p. 29.

3. See Leonard Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, London 1970, pp. 2,5.

4. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, op. cit., p. 117.

5. ibid., p. 121.

6. Leonard Schapiro, op. cit., p. 40.

7. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, op. cit., p. 121.

8. Lenin, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Moscow 1969, p. 58.

9. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 8, Moscow 1962, p. 196.

10. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, op. cit., p. 17.

11. ibid., p. 11.

12. This was Plekhanov’s statement at the First Congress of the Second International in 1889.

13. The best exposition of this theory and its socio-economic basis in Russian history is to be found in the first chapter of Trotsky’s The History of the Russian Revolution, London 1977.

14. Although economism in fact first arose in 1897. See Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, op. cit., p. 46.

15. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 4, op. cit., p. 174.

16. This does not, however, mean that they can be dragged from their context and applied uncritically in all times and places, thus using the letter of Leninism against the spirit of Leninism as has so often been done.

17. Cited in Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, op. cit., p. 37.

18. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, op. cit., p. 46.

19. Fatalism carried to its logical conclusion precludes the need for a revolutionary party, or even for any revolutionary activity. The problem with fatalism in the marxist movement, however, is that is has never openly announced itself but has always remained half-developed in such a way as to paralyse revolutionary intervention at crucial moments without exposing its bankruptcy and absurdity.

20. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, op. cit., p. 23.

21. ibid., p. 131.

22. Georg Lukacs, Lenin, London 1970, p. 24.

23. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, op. cit., p. 69.

24. ibid. p. 78.

25. ibid., p. 79.

26. ibid., p. 80.

27. ibid., p. 88.

28. ibid., p. 86. For an excellent account and analysis of this period see Tony Cliff, From a Marxist Circle to Agitation, International Socialism, No. 52.

29. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, op. cit., pp. 31–32.

30. ibid., p. 40.

31. Trotsky, Stalin, London 1968, p. 58.

132. Lucio Magri, Problems of the Marxist Theory of the Revolutionary Party, New Left Review, No. 60, p. 104.

33. Nigel Harris, Beliefs in Society, London 1971, p. 156.

34. Marx, Selected Writings on Sociology and Social Philosophy, in T.B. Bottomore and M. Rubel (eds.), London 1963, pp. 80–81.

35. Raya Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom, London 1972, p. 81.

36. Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg, London 1972, pp. 82–83.

37. Lenin, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, op. cit., p. 66.

38. Raya Dunayevskaya, op. cit., pp. 180–81.

39. Lenin, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, op. cit., p. 199.

40. ibid., pp. 121–23.

41. ibid., p. 57.

42. ibid., p. 58.

43. ibid., p. 71.

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