Date:    Tue, 10 Jun 1997 08:22:44 -0700
To:      marxism-international@jefferson.village.Virginia.EDU
From:    Ben Seattle 
Subject: M-I: (POF-5) Lenin builds a party within a party

Comrades and friends,

This is a brief survey.  Some of you may be able to supply necessary
correction to the history that I sketch out here.

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                           Chapter 5

               Lenin builds a party within a party
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The revolutionary party which was created in Russia was different than the
German party in several ways.  To begin with, the party was created and
grew under conditions of (more or less) complete illegality.  More
important was the way in which the revolutionary and reformist wings fought
one another.  Despite the illegality, the fight in Russia took place in
conditions in which it was far more *open* and *accessible* to the Russian
workers, who (more or less from the very beginning) were exposed to the
different ideologies, program and tactics of the warring factions (which
each had their own disciplined organizations, illegal press and clandestine
distribution apparatus), and had (relatively) *easy opportunities to pick
sides*, to hear what each side had to say about the other, to decide who
was right or wrong, and which trend deserved support.

In Germany the reformist and revolutionary wings were part of a party that
was dominated by a powerful center that, as the rot deepened, would, when
necessary, "talk revolutionary" and wink at the reformists.  The struggle
between the two wings was fought openly at various times and places--but
not in any way near the degree (or with the clarity) that took place in
Russia.  The revolutionary wing of the German party did not even have their
own periodical until December 1913, and did not have their own organization
until January 1916--when conditions of war and martial law (and their
previous lengthy failure to prepare for the moment of crisis) cost them

In Russia, because the struggle between the revolutionary and reformist
trends within the party was carried out with such all-encompassing clarity
and thoroughness--this struggle served to *polarize* everything.  Every
trend and every person striving for influence was placed in the position of
taking a clear stand on who was *right* and who was *wrong* and *why*.  The
overwhelming winner in this contest (at least amongst the workers) was the
revolutionary wing.  Because of all this, the trend in Russia that would
have corresponded to the *center* in Germany (dominated by personalities
such as Kautsky) never had as much chance to develop and never became much
of a force.  Instead it consisted of various flotsam and jetsam such as
Trotsky--who initially was quite popular but who, as the struggle between
the reformists and revolutionaries developed, came to be seen as something
of a charlatan and clown.

5a. Marxism takes root in Russia

Tsarist Russia (as it says in the "History of the CPSU(B) - Short Course",
the official Stalinist bible and a highly worthwhile and concentrated
collection of both facts and lies--written by those lucky enough not to
have been lined up against a wall and shot) entered the path of capitalist
development later than other European countries.  Agriculture was
reorganized in 1861 when the serfs were officially emancipated (althou they
could still be flogged for minor offenses up to 1903).  During the period
1865-90 the number of workers in large mills, factories and railroads
doubled from 700 thousand to 1.4 million.  By 1900 this number had doubled
again, mainly due to railroad construction which created a big demand for
steel (for rails, locomotives and cars) and fuel (coal and oil) and led to
the development of the metal and fuel industries.

Within Russia there was intense interest in all the latest revolutionary
theories from Europe.  Many Russians who had fled abroad to escape
persecution were exposed to Marxism.  One of them, Plekhanov, organized the
first Russian Marxist group in Geneva in 1883.  The appearance, in Russia,
of an upsurge in the workers' strike movement and other forms of social
protest, beginning around 1894, helped to create many ties between the
early marxist organizations and working class struggles.  This was in spite
of very heavy repression by the Tsarist police which would, within months
(or less), arrest and put out of action any group of marxists that were
distributing agitation to workers.  This led to great prestige for Marxism
and its victory over a rival ideology (Narodism) centered on the role of
the peasantry.  The 1st Congress of the Russian party (the Russian
Social-Democratic Labor Party, or RSDLP) was held in Minsk in 1898 but the
significance of this congress (composed of nine people) was mostly
symbolic.  Lenin was not there (he was in exile in Siberia, having been
arrested in December 1895) and the entire Central Committee elected there
was arrested shortly thereafter.

5b. The local circle spirit

Lenin describes the period from 1898 as one of disunity, dissolution and
vacillation.  There were essentially two problems at the time.  One was
that the various Marxist groups were chiefly composed of local circles,
which had very limited contact with one another.  The other problem was the
political influence of reformism (which, at the time, went under the banner
of "Economism") within the Marxist movement.

The "local circle spirit" was harmful in many ways.  Local circles could
not very easily exchange experience or learn from one another's mistakes.
This made it all the more difficult to fight the severe repression--and
allowed reformism to gain influence.

A big part of the problem (at least according to my sources) is that many
of the activists in the local circles did not see that there was any
problem--in having the Marxist movement take the form of local circles
isolated from one another.  These amateurish and parochial conceptions
(that a united and centralized party was not all that necessary) were in
turn part of the reformist ideology itself (which we will discuss in just a

5c. Iskra

Lenin was released from exile in January 1900 and immediately set to work
creating a big illegal Marxist newspaper on an all-Russian scale.  Such a
newspaper (he had concluded while he was in exile) could link up the
scattered Marxist organizations and pave the way for a real party.  The
idea was to print the paper abroad on very thin paper and smuggle it into
Russia, where the numbers available to circulate could also be bolstered by
reprinting in a few secret printing plants.  The first issue of "Iskra"
appeared by December 1900.  Not a bad way to kick off the twentieth century.

There were different ideas at the time about how the Marxists could unite
and create a party.  Some thought all the organizations should simply send
representatives to a 2nd congress.  Lenin strongly opposed this.  Lenin had
been carefully following events in Germany and understood that reformism
represented the influence of liberal sections of the bourgeoisie.  Even in
exile, Lenin had kept informed about the influence of "economism" and had
organized other political exiles to sign a protest against it which was
circulated in Russia and abroad.  Lenin had concluded that a Marxist party
that was really revolutionary--could only be created in the process of
smashing the influence of reformist ideology and practices.

Lenin believed it was essential that the local Marxist organizations be
told honestly and frankly that there existed two different sets of opinions
regarding the aims and objects of the party--and be given an opportunity to
make a deliberate and informed choice between the views and tactics of the
economists and the revolutionaries.  At that time the economists, who also
had their own press (illegally in Russia and legally abroad), were
conducting a campaign for their views.  Lenin countered this with a widely
circulated article, "Where to Begin?", in May 1901.  This was in the 4th
issue of Iskra and it took up most of the front page.  The article became
very popular and was reprinted as a pamphlet.  "Where to Begin?" described
itself as a "skeleton plan" for a work in progress.  That work turned out
to be "What Is To Be Done?", which appeared in March 1902, had a huge
influence and demolished economism.

5d. Lenin takes on the "Economists"

Lenin argued that Marxist work in Russia required a centralized
organization and that such an organization could best be created around a
common newspaper.  Such a newspaper would draw from, combine and train
people with a wide range of abilities from all who wished to assist the
Marxist cause (ie: some people were talented at organizing secret
distribution networks, others could write agitation, etc).  Such a
newspaper would allow the experience from one local area to become common
knowledge everywhere, so that costly mistakes were not repeated again and
again as each local area had to, so to speak, "re-invent the wheel".

Such a newspaper would also function as an arena of combat between various
views that could contend with one another in the open, in full view of
workers--who could in this way better understand the dynamics involved as
the struggle unfolded--and participate in a resolution that was in their
own interest.

Lenin was for a *centralized organization* and Lenin was for *an open
struggle of contending views*.  And Lenin argued that these two methods
*reinforced* one another.  It is useful, *today*, to discuss Lenin's
arguments and reasoning because, nearly a century later, there is no
shortage of sectarians who take some quote or phrase of Lenin out of
context and use it to justify their own opportunism and bankruptcy.  For
example, one of Lenin's better known quotes from this period is:

   "Before we can unite, and in order that we may unite,
    we must first of all draw draw firm and definite
    lines of demarcation."

Many "communist" organizations today attempt to use quotes such as this to
justify conceptions of "monolithism" (under which everyone who does not
agree with a series of beliefs from A to Z--is a dirty rat and a traitor to
the working class who should be hung, shot and *then* dealt with severely)
to isolate and protect themselves from the influence of "black hats" with
whom they have disagreements on matters of secondary importance.  In order
to oppose such sectarianism, it is important to understand that Lenin, in
the quote above (and in all his work from this period), was concerned
primarily in fighting the influence of *reformism*--which he correctly
grasped as representing the influence of the liberal section of the
bourgeoisie.  Lenin saw that the influence of reformism, if not defeated,
would undermine and destroy the movement of workers to have their own
politics *independent* of bourgeois control.  Lenin understood that the
struggle against reformism represented a *decisive* axis of development of
the Marxist movement in Russia.

The economist trend opposed Lenin with all sorts of bogus theories, the
most memorable perhaps being what Lenin termed "worship of spontaneity".
We will briefly touch upon this and similar theories (in the next section)
because they are of interest today, in the period of expanding use of the
internet.  But for now, we will finish our chronology.

5e. Parties within a party (Bolsheviks & Mensheviks 1903-11)

Lenin's "What Is To Be Done?" was, needless to say, a big hit.  By the time
of the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP in July 1903, "economism" as a trend had
no prestige left.  This did not, however, mean that reformism was defeated.
 Things don't work that way in real life.  The liberal bourgeoisie still
existed, still had their class interests separate from and opposed to the
working class, and still exerted considerable influence in the Marxist
movement in Russia.

The 2nd Congress was the famous congress where a big fight broke out on
party rules and it became clear that there were two principle trends within
the Marxist movement in Russia.  Lenin's trend, which became known as the
Bolsheviks, turned out to be the revolutionary trend--while the opposing
trend, the Mensheviks, turned out to be the reformist trend--although this
was by no means clear to everybody at the time.

For the next eight and half years (from July 1903 to January 1912) these
two trends existed side by side in the same formal party althou each trend
had, in reality, its own ideology and practice--its own central bodies,
illegal press and internal culture.

The differences between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks only became more
clear in the course of:
(a) the vast upsurge in the workers' movement 
    leading to barricades in the streets of major cities
    and an armed uprising against the Tsar
    (what became known as the 1905 revolution), and
(b) the different attitudes of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks
    in the period of reaction and liquidationism
    which followed after the uprising was crushed.

The Mensheviks, it turned out, were not so much interested in a party of
social revolution for the emancipation of the working class from
capitalism--as they were a party of social reform which presupposed the
preservation of capitalist rule.  The Mensheviks, it became more clear with
time, had a striving to accept the leadership and the hegemony of the
liberal bourgeoisie--and were quite willing to sacrifice, toward this end,
the idea that the working class should have its own independent politics
and organization.

We have already reviewed (see section 4d: "Communist Cooperation and
Competition with Reformists") how the Bolsheviks carried out a policy of
simultaneous cooperation and competition with the Mensheviks--how the
Mensheviks, out of fear of exposure in the eyes of the workers, were forced
to go along with certain forms of cooperation--and how this worked to the
advantage of the Bolsheviks who won over considerable sections of workers
in the process.  This was a lengthy, protracted process in which it
gradually became more clear, to larger and larger sections of workers--what
was the basis of and what was at stake--in the antagonism of the two trends.

Lenin dealt at great length and in great detail with these questions,
because they were ultimately decisive.  The differences between the
revolutionary and reformist line, based as it was on different attitudes
towards the proletariat and the liberal section of the bourgeoisie,
penetrated all major questions of tactics and of attitudes toward key events.

5f. Concept of a party with an active base

Before getting into some of the more theoretical issues, we should ask:
what was the organizational issue which, in 1903, touched off the permanent
split of the Russian Marxists into two antagonistic camps ?

Actually, it was over what at first might seem to be a relatively minor
matter.  Lenin's position was that membership in the party should be
confined to those who *were members* of one of its constituent
organizations.  The Menshevik view was that membership should include all
who *worked under the direction* of a party organization.  The latter was a
much more vague and broadly inclusive term.

Why was this a big deal ?

It was a big deal because it affected the nature of the fight between the
reformist and revolutionary orientations.  Lenin had closely studied the
fight in the German party between the revolutionary and reformist wings.
Lenin saw that the outcome of this fight would ultimately decide everything
else.  Hence organizational questions must revolve around the what would
help the revolutionary orientation to maintain the upper hand within the

Requiring a party member to be a member of one of its organizations was a
stricter requirement, and gave the party much tighter control over the
activity which was carried out in its name.  In a period in which the
revolutionary struggle against the Tzar had enormous prestige and
popularity, for example, the party would attract large numbers of high
school students, professors and others who liked what the party was doing
and would want to help it--but who did not have a strong enough sense of
commitment--to actually join a party organization (with all the personal
sacrifice and strict discipline that such would require).

Lenin felt that by confining actual party membership (ie: those who,
whether by vote, or by other forms of influence, had the most decisive
affect on the destiny of the party) to those who had the stronger sense of
commitment, sacrifice and discipline--that the struggle against the
reformist infuence would be strengthened.  Those who were actually members
of party organizations would tend to take Marxist ideology more
seriously--and be less inclined to accept (or be passive towards) various
forms of bourgeois ideology.

I think part of the idea here--was to have a party with a *more active
base* than the German party, which included many who were not all that
committed to the cause of the working class and who acted in practice to
weaken the party or convert it into a vehicle for the politics of the
liberal bourgeoisie.  Rather than allow the party membership to be diluted
with those who were more casual in their attitudes, Lenin saw, correctly,
that by confining actual party membership to those who were more committed,
that the party would have much greater ability to maintain a revolutionary
course, carry out activity among the workers and ultimately link up with
and lead the activity of a vastly larger number of people.

And this did turn out to be decisive.

In analyzing the events of the 2nd Congress, in 1903, where this struggle
first erupted with such force, Lenin, in May 1904, wrote "One Step Forward,
Two Steps Back".  While it would probably be foolish for someone like
myself, who is hardly an expert on Lenin, to attempt to summarize "What Is
To Be Done" and "One Step Forward ...", it may be useful to touch on one or
two highlights--because the theoretical questions Lenin raises are of great
interest in understanding the forms of communist organization best suited
to the modern world.

(to be continued)


      Next week:  The Ideological Roots of Opportunism


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