Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party Second Congress


It is a remarkable fact that the minutes of the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, held in 1903, have never before been published in English. At first sight that might not seem remarkable: why should readers be interested in the proceedings of a small political organisation held so long ago? There are two main reasons. The first, and least important, is an historical one. As will be explained, this Congress came to assume an almost legendary role. It has frequently been misinterpreted and its sense distorted by anti-Marxist writers. English speaking students now have an opportunity of finding out for themselves what actually went on and checking up on some of the more fantastic accounts which have hitherto passed as accurate. The second, and more important, however, concerns current political tasks. The Congress proved to be a turning point in the development of the Marxist movement not only in Russia but also internationally. It is therefore part of the history of the revolutionary party in Britain. It was the dividing of the ways between principled Marxism and opportunism, prefiguring the split in the Second International as a result of the First World War. Therefore what went on at that Congress, and an understanding of the issues involved, contain important lessons for today.

To extract these lessons it is necessary to know more about the background to the Congress and the struggle it witnessed than can be explained in the course of this introduction. To get the best out of a reading of these minutes, Lenin’s own analysis, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back should also be studied. In fact, the two works complement each other. In this volume, the different shades of opportunism represented at the Congress expose themselves in their own words. Lenin’s famous book analyses fully the whole dialectical development of the divisions which led up to the split between the two trends—the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.

Writing in the Preface, Lenin emphasised two major outcomes of the Congress. Firstly there was the division of the Party into a majority (the Bolsheviks) and the minority (the Mensheviks), overriding all previous differences. Secondly there was the controversy over the principles of Party organisation involved in the conflicting proposals for Paragraph 1 of the Rules, his own and that of Martov. Speaking specifically of the minutes now being made available he wrote:

… the truly undeserved neglect of them can only be explained by the fact that our controversies have been cluttered by squabbles, and possibly by the fact that these minutes contain too large an amount of the unpalatable truth. The minutes of the Party Congress present a picture of the actual state of affairs in our Party, that is unique of its kind and unparalleled for its accuracy, completeness, comprehensiveness, richness and authenticity; a picture of views, sentiments and plans drawn up by participants in the movement themselves; a picture of the shades existing in the Party, showing their relative strength, their mutual relations and their struggles. It is the minutes of the Party Congress, and they alone, that show how far we have really succeeded in making a clean sweep of the survivals of the old, purely circle ties and substituting for them a single great party tie. It is the duty of every Party member who wishes to take an intelligent share in the affairs of his Party to make a careful study, of our Party Congress. (Collected Works, Vol. 7, p. 207.)

This shows how crucial Lenin thought the Congress had been and undoubtedly there is still much to be said for a study of its proceedings by anyone interested in building the revolutionary party today.

The First Congress of the RSDLP had been held at Minsk in March, 1898, consisting of only nine delegates. In the following years various socialist groups of workers and intellectuals were set up in different parts of the Tsarist Empire and among emigre groups abroad. Political work was carried on in conditions of repression and illegality making the establishment of a national organisation particularly difficult. In practice each group tended to act independently, without very much co-ordination according to the policies of the local leadership. A bad habit of work in small circles was established and this, coupled with the individualistic methods of many of the intellectuals who played an important part in the movement, not only exposed it to the blows of the Tsarist police but also prevented it from giving leadership as the growing working class and other oppressed sections of the population came into sharper collision with the autocracy. The Marxists had to do battle with those who wanted to concentrate on improving wages and social reforms, the so-called ‘economist’ tendency. Although this had been largely defeated by the time that the Second Congress met it still had its spokesmen. But the major question was how to organise a revolutionary party and sink roots in the working class. It was to this task that Lenin had addressed himself in What Is To Be Done?, where he called for the establishment of a strong, centralised and disciplined party organised by ‘professional revolutionaries’. This was a challenge to the old-style revolutionaries with their individualistic and anarchistic leanings as well as those who wanted a broad, ‘democratic’ party adapted to activities in a parliament of the West European kind.

The question of what sort of party therefore loomed over the Second Congress. Lenin at this time was the main animator of the Marxist journal Iskra, published abroad and smuggled into Russia, the main organiser of the Social-Democratic groups. However, the Iskra -ites were by no means homogeneous. Besides representatives of the older generation, like Plekhanov and Vera Zasulich, it also was supported by future Mensheviks who later carried off the title of the journal and were to take Plekhanov & Co. with them.

However, there is little doubt that Lenin and Iskra were the driving force for a new Congress whose task would be virtually to found the party anew, decide on its programme and its structure. Something had to be done to draw the different local groups together and to settle the ever-sharpening differences between the various political tendencies in the movement. The Second Congress was thus the outcome of a fight. In What Is To Be Done? Lenin had made his position clear and no one who read it could doubt what the Congress would be about; those who were not clear would have it spelt out again when the Congress met.

The need for a new Congress was widely recognised. A meeting calling itself a ‘Congress’ was held at Byelostok in March, 1902, but it was able to do no more than set up an Organising Committee of three to prepare a Congress. Two members of this committee were soon arrested and another conference was held at Pskov in November of the same year. Here another Organising Committee was elected, dominated by Iskra -ites, and it set about drawing up a party programme and making preparations for the Second Congress. The first draft of the programme was drawn up by Plekhanov, the senior figure among Russian Marxists, but it failed to satisfy either Lenin or Martov, the future Menshevik leader, as being unsuitable. Plekhanov, under protest, revised his draft and this was taken as a basis for the Congress. In retrospect the differences over the programme assumed greater importance than they may have appeared to have at the time. They concerned nothing less than the nature of the coming revolution in Russia and thus the tactics and the strategy of the party. While there could be some agreement on the general points in the programme and on the tactics to be applied in the current struggle against the autocracy the area of difference was soon to be revealed as very wide indeed.

The first sessions of the Congress were held in Brussels from July 30,1903. After about a week the attention of the Belgian police forced the delegates to seek another meeting place and one was found in London where the Congress continued until August 23.

The proceedings of the Congress opened with the report from the Organising Committee regarding those organisations which had been invited or had not been recognised. It went on to consider standing orders and the questions to be discussed and it was decided that the position in the party of the Bund, i.e. the General Jewish Workers’ Union of Lithuania, Poland and Russia founded in 1897 and represented at the First Congress, should top the agenda. Lenin argued in favour of this on the grounds that other questions could not be considered until the Bund’s claim to a radical change in its position in the Party had been dealt with. While it already had autonomy, its representatives demanded that it should represent the Jewish proletariat as a whole and be only federally attached to the Party. As speakers pointed out, this was a nationalist demand which could quite well be taken up by other nationalities in the Russian Empire represented in the Party by local organisations.

The debate on the Bund was particularly impassioned as well as witnessing some tortuous exercises in casuistry on the part of its advocates. It was evident that its claims to exclusive representation of the Jewish proletariat had little support and when the final vote was taken on its proposals at the 27th session its five representatives were alone in voting for them. It thereupon decided to withdraw from the RSDLP and to leave the Congress. As its weight had been thrown onto the side of the opportunists (Martov & Co.), the departure of the Bund left Lenin and his supporters in the majority.

However, between the first and final debate on the Bund other important questions were voted on and decided in favour of the opportunist wing. This was particularly the case on the question of Paragraph 1 of the Rules. Two proposals were before the Congress. Lenin’s resolution ran: ‘A member of the RSDLP is one who accepts its programme and supports the Party both financially and by personal participation in one of the Party organisations.’ Martov’s proposal ran: ‘A member of the RSDLP is one who accepts its programme, supports the Party financially and renders it regular personal assistance under the direction of one of its organisations.’

Considered textually the differences may appear to be small. They derived their significance from the arguments put forward in their defence at the Congress which brought out all the sharpness of the difference between the future Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The speeches made by Martov and his supporters in showing just how broad they were prepared to make the concept of party membership and how amorphous such a party would be are particularly revealing when studied in their entirety. It is evident that much more lay behind this difference than one of terminology or even of party membership as such; it was the whole nature of the party and whether or not it was to be geared to revolutionary tasks which was at stake, whether or not Martov (and even Trotsky who also disagreed with Lenin) were aware of it or not. This was really the nub of the Congress and, remember, Lenin was outvoted on Paragraph 1. The Second Congress, while achieving the unification of the Party and providing the potential for overcoming the circle existence of the groups in Russia and abroad also witnessed a split on lines which had not existed, or had not been clear, before. This new difference between the majority (Bolsheviks) and minority (Mensheviks) was to dominate the subsequent history of the Party.

A further sharpening up of the conflict in the Congress came over the elections to the Party’s leading bodies, including the editorial board of Iskra. As readers will note, the debates were impassioned and at times stormy, so crucial were the issues at stake, in particular the question of centralised leadership for which Lenin fought. His opponents tried to bring the debate down to a personal level. This was particularly the case with Martov (the most prominent figure among the Mensheviks in subsequent years) who declared that he would not take up the post on the Iskra editorial board to which he had been elected because the Congress had failed to endorse all six former members. He raised the cry of ‘a state of siege’ in the Party as soon as he found himself in a minority. When Lenin replied he was subject to a barrage of interruptions, but he accepted that there was ‘a state of siege’ in the Party if that meant a struggle against ‘unstable and vacillating elements’ and ‘political diffuseness’. Lenin and his supporters had fought for the Congress precisely to remove these sources of weakness which had been hampering the work of the Party. Lenin’s victory on the question of the Iskra editorial board was the actual source of the subsequent split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks; it represented a victory for the party standpoint against sentimentality regarding old party members and individualism as represented by Martov and his friends.

It should be noted that on various questions discussed at the Congress Trotsky was in opposition to Lenin and voted more often with the other side. His contributions were interesting but lacked a stable political position. Plekhanov, with his great reputation as the father of Russian Marxism, backed Lenin throughout the Congress but was to change sides later and join the Mensheviks. The loquacious Akimov, who stood on the right wing of the Congress, was constantly jumping up with his personal observations, blurting out the most opportunist points which could only embarrass Martov & Co. He left the Congress and little is known about what happened to him subsequently.

Summing up the work of the Congress Lenin later wrote in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back:

Our Party Congress was unique and unprecedented in the entire history of the Russian revolutionary movement. For the first time a secret revolutionary party succeeded in emerging from the darkness of the underground life into broad daylight, showing everyone the whole course and outcome of our internal Party struggle, the whole character of our Party and of each of its more or less noticeable components in matters of programme, tactics and organisation. For the first time we succeeded in throwing off the traditions of circle looseness and revolutionary philistinism, in bringing together dozens of very different groups, many of which had been linked solely by the force of an idea, and which were now prepared (in principle, that is) to sacrifice all their group aloofness and group independence for the sake of the great whole which we for the first time are actually creating—the Party. But in politics sacrifices are not obtained gratis, they have to be won in battle. The battle over the slaughter of organisations necessarily proved terribly fierce. The fresh breeze of free and open struggle blew into a gale. The gale swept away—and a very good thing it did!—each and every remnant of all circle interests, sentiments, and traditions without exception, and for the first time created genuinely Party institutions. (Collected Works, Volume 7, pp. 412-413.)

The Congress and its decisions did not resolve the party crisis or end the struggle. On the contrary, nothing had been settled; the struggle continued. The opportunists fought back and with Plekhanov’s support were able to take control of Iskra. Lenin and his supporters went ahead with the setting up of their own party committees and called for the convening of a Third Congress (‘Declaration of the nineteen’, October 1904). Lenin saw the difficulties following the Second Congress as growing pains. He called upon all trends to express their views but to accept majority decisions of the Congress. Guarantees were to be provided by the Party Rules for the minority to express its opinions and to have them published. As it turned out the minority was unable to accept this concept of Party unity based upon democratic centralism; it preferred the old circle mentality and was preparing itself for a further drift into opportunism in distinguishing itself with the adoption of the ‘two stage theory’ of the coming revolution in Russia. Lenin was fighting for an instrument able to make a revolution; the Mensheviks saw a long period of stable bourgeois democracy as the first stage, and for that a disciplined, centralised party was not required in their opinion.

We may add that Trotsky soon differentiated himself from the Mensheviks on the nature of the Russian revolution, developing the theory of the ‘permanent revolution’, which differed also from Lenin’s conception of ‘the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’. But the kind of revolution Trotsky envisaged could not be won without Lenin’s type of party; this he did not learn until 1917. Once having learned it, as Lenin himself Said, ‘there was no better Bolshevik’. When at the height of the struggle against the Left Opposition, in 1926, the Stalinists brought up these past differences, Trotsky said:

I have stated more than once, as is well known to all old party members, that on many most important questions I at one time fought against Lenin and the Bolshevik party, but I was not a Menshevik. If by Menshevism is understood a political class line—and that is the only way to understand it—then I was never a Menshevik. I broke organisationally and politically with what was to become Menshevism in the middle of 1904, i.e. from the moment when it began to take shape as a political tendency. I broke on the question of the attitude towards the liberal bourgeoisie, with the publication of Vera Zasulich’s article, and the article by Akselrod in which he presented his plan of supporting the Zemstvo liberals, etc. On the question of the role of the classes in the revolution I was never in agreement with Menshevism. And this was the fundamental question. (The Stalin School of Falsification, New Park Publications, pp. 118-119.)

The present volume will be an invaluable addition to the literature of revolutionary Marxism in the English-speaking countries. No ready-made answers to present-day problems of party building can, of course, be derived from a reading of the proceedings of the Second Congress of the RSDLP. This party proved to be the first one to achieve power and that was due decisively to the quality of its leadership and the nature of the preparation that it had made, under the guidance of Lenin, for the taking of power. This Congress was a stage, hut a very crucial one, in that preparation. As Lenin himself showed, the struggle at the Congress proceeded by a dialectic of its own and no Congress has been more fully analysed. Many historians and commentators deliberately distort its nature or misunderstand its significance. The reader will have to judge for himself in the light of subsequent developments; for our part there can be no doubt that Lenin was fully justified in taking the stand that he did. Since 1903 the socialist movement has seen innumerable congresses and conferences but few, perhaps none, have been more significant. That is why it is deserving of study, not only by historians concerned with setting the record straight, but even more by those involved in the building of the revolutionary party. In a very real sense the essential questions dealt with have come up many times before, and will do so again. This book can therefore play a role in the arming of the revolutionary party for the struggles now ahead, which require the defeat of the present-day Mensheviks.

T.K. (Tom Kemp)