The Bolsheviks and the Fraction

Printer-friendly version

The present acceleration of history, capitalism's entry into its phase of decomposition, sharply poses the necessity for the proletarian revolution, as the only way out of the barbarism of capitalism in crisis. History teaches us that this revolution can only triumph if the class manages to organize itself autonomously from other classes (the workers' councils) and to secrete the vanguard that will guide it towards victory: the class party. However, today, this party doesn't exist, and many are those who simply fold their arms because, faced with the gigantic tasks that await us, the activity of the small revolutionary groups who do exist may appear to be senseless. Within the revolutionary camp itself, the majority of groups respond to the absence of the party by endlessly repeating its very Holy Name, invoking it like some kind of deus ex machina that can solve all the problems of the class. Individual disengagement and overblown declarations about commitment are two classic ways of running away from the struggle for the party, a struggle which is going on here and now, in continuity with the activity of the left fractions who broke with the degenerating Communist International in the 20s. In the first two parts of this work, we analyzed the activity of the Italian Communist Left, which was organized as a fraction in the 30s and 40s, and the premature, completely artificial foundation of the Internationalist Communist Party by the comrades of Battaglia Comunista in 1942[1]. In this third part, we first showed[2] that the method of working as a fraction in unfavorable periods when there is no possibility of a class party existing, was the very method employed by Marx himself. In this issue we will also show that this marxist method of working towards the party found its essential definition through the tenacious struggle of the Bolshevik fraction in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. Against all those who gargle eulogies to the iron party of Lenin, and who refer ironically to the 'little grouplets that were the left fractions', we reaffirm that "the history of the fractions is the history of Lenin"[3] and that only on the basis of the work that they accomplished will it be possible to reconstruct tomorrow's world communist party.

"Without the Fractions, Lenin himself would have been no more than a bookworm"

In the passages cited in the previous issue, we saw how Battaglia doesn't lose any opportunity to make ironical comments about What Is To Be Done of 1902 being the perfect text book for the fractionists, and to paint a distorted picture of things for the umpteenth time[4]. If the comrades would stop getting so excited about the word party and would begin a sober study of the history of the party, they would discover that What Is To Be Done in 1902 could hardly talk about the Bolshevik fraction, due to the fact that it was formed in Geneva in June ... 1904 (the meeting of the '22')[5]. It's from here that the Bolsheviks began to develop the notion of the fraction and its relations with the whole party, a notion which took a definitive form with the 1905 revolu­tion, and above all the period of reaction which allowed its defeat[6].

"A faction is an organization within a party, united, by its place of work, language or other objective conditions, but by a particular platform of views on questions"[7].

"A party can contain a whole gamut of opinions and shades of opinion, the extremes of which may be sharply contradictory ... That is not the case within a section. A section in a party is a group of like-minded persons formed for the purpose of securing acceptance for their principles in the party in the purest possible form. For this, real unanimity of opinion is necessary. The different standards we set for party unity and sectional unity must be grasped by everyone who wants to know how the question of the internal discord in the Bolshevik section really stands"[8].

"But as a wing, ie a union of like-minded people in the party, we cannot work without unanimity on fun­damental issues. To break away from a wing is not the same as breaking away from the Party. The people who have broken away from our wing in no way lose the possibility of working in the Party"[9].

The fraction was thus seen as an organization within the party, clearly identified and with a precise plat­form, and which fights to influence the party, with the final aim of seeing its principles triumph in the party "in their purest form", ie. without any mediation or homogenization. The fraction works within the party, with other fractions defending other platforms, so that practical experience and public political debate allow the whole party to recognize which platform is most correct. This coexistence is possible on condition that there is no room in the party for those who have al­ready taken choices which will lead them out of the party, so that keeping them within the organization can only lead to the liquidation of the organization itself. In Russia this applied to the 'liquidators' who fought for the dissolution of the illegal party and its submission to Tsarist 'legality'. There was a fundamental difference between the Bolsheviks and the other fractions pre­cisely on this point: while the latter in general con­demned the liquidators, they still considered them to be members of the party. The Bolsheviks, by contrast, considered that there could be a place in the socialist party for all opinions - except those which are anti-so­cialist:

"The very foundation of conciliation ism is false - the wish to base the unity of the party of the proletariat on an alliance of all factions, including the anti-Social ­Democratic, non-proletarian factions; false are its unprincipled 'unity' schemes which lead to nothing; false are its phrases against 'factions' (when in fact a new faction is formed) ... "[10].

It is interesting to note that these lines by Lenin were directed against Trotsky, who, within the RSDLP, was the main opponent of the organized existence of frac­tions, something he saw as useless and damaging for the party. Trotsky's total incomprehension of the ne­cessity for fraction work would have catastrophic con­sequences during and after the degeneration of the Rus­sian revolution.

"It should be noted that Trotsky - on all the questions relating to the 1905 revolution, and during the whole period that followed - was generally with the Bolshe­viks on all questions of principle and with the Menshe­viks on all questions of organization. His incomprehen­sion of the correct notion of the party, during the course of this period, resulted in him standing 'outside the fractions' in favor of unity at any price.

His pitiful position of today - which is pushing him into the arms of social democracy - proves to us that on this question, Trotsky has learned nothing from events"[11].

Naturally, Lenin was violently attacked, both in the Russian movement and the international movement, for his sectarianism, his mania for splits, and everyone sang fine songs about the 'end of factionalism'. In fact, Lenin was the first to be for the end of factionalism, because he knew quite well that the existence of frac­tions was the symptom of a crisis in the party. But he also knew that the open, practical struggle of the frac­tion was the only remedy for the party's malady, since it was only through a public confrontation of platforms that a clear way forward could emerge.

"Every faction is convinced that its platform and its policy are the best means of abolishing factions, for no one regards the existence of factions as ideal. The only difference is that factions with clear, consistent, inte­gral platforms openly defend their platforms, while unprincipled factions hide behind cheap shots about their virtue, about their non-factionalism"[12].

One of the big lies inherited from Stalinism is that Bolshevism was a monolithic tradition where there was no place for empty chatter and pseudo-intellectual de­bate; this lie is in continuity with the Mensheviks' con­stant accusation that the Bolsheviks were 'closed to de­bate'. Of course, it's quite true that among the Men­sheviks and the conciliators, discussion was 'free', whereas among the Bolsheviks it was obligatory. But it's true in the sense that the first felt free to discuss when it suited them and to keep quiet when they had divergences to hide. For the Bolsheviks on the other hand, discussion wasn't free, it was obligatory, and be­came all the more obligatory when divergences arose within the fraction, divergences which had to be dis­cussed publicly so that they could either be reabsorbed or pushed to their conclusion, with an organizational separation based on clear motives.

"That is why we have initiated a discussion on these questions in Proletary. We have published everything that was sent to us, and reprinted all that the Bolshe­viks in Russia have written on the subject. So far, we have not rejected a single contribution to the discus­sion, and we shall continue to pursue the same course. Unfortunately, the otzavist comrades and those who sympathize with them have, so far, sent us little mate­rial, and, in general, have avoided making a frank and complete statement of their theoretical credo in the press. They prefer to talk 'among themselves'. We in­vite all comrades, otzavists and orthodox Bolsheviks alike, to state their views in the columns of Proletary. If necessary we shall publish these contributions in pamphlet form .... Our supporters should not be afraid of an internal ideological struggle, once it is neces­sary. They will be all the stronger for it"[13].

This demonstrates that Lenin made an enormous contribution to the historic definition of the nature and function of the fraction, in spite of all Battaglia's quips about the "ten commandments of the fractionist faith". Let's note in passing that Battaglia also talks in one phrase about the party alternative from 1902 on, and in another, says that the party was acting as such "at least from 1912". So what was Lenin doing between 1902 and 1912 if he wasn't doing fraction work? Macrobi­otic cooking? Actually what BC is really concerned about is affirming that the Bolsheviks didn't restrict themselves to theoretical work and the formation of cadres, but that they worked towards the masses and thus couldn't have been a fraction. For Battaglia, if you choose to work as a fraction, you're running away from the class struggle, refusing to dirty your hands with the problems of the masses, which means "limiting yourself to a policy of measured proselytism and propaganda, focusing on the study of so-called ba­sic problems, reducing the tasks of the party to the tasks of a fraction if not of a sect"[14].

The lines are drawn: on one side you have Lenin, who thinks of the masses, and who thus can only be in the party; on the other, the Italian Left in exile in the 30s, which works as a fraction and can therefore be no more than a club of students and little professors. We've seen what Lenin's real activity was; let's now look at the real activity of the Italian Left:

"It might seem that the tasks of the fraction are exclu­sively didactic. But such a criticism can be refuted by marxists with the same argument used against those charlatans who consider that the proletariat's struggle for the revolution and for the transformation of the world can be put at the same level as electoral activity.

It is perfectly true that the specific role of the frac­tions is above all a role of educating cadres through the experience of events, and thanks to the rigorous confirmation of the significance of these events. How­ever, it is also true that this work, above all an ideo­logical one, is done in consideration of the mass movements and constantly supplies the political solu­tion for their success. Without the work of the frac­tions, Lenin himself would have been a mere book­worm, not a revolutionary leader.

The fractions are thus the only historic place where the proletariat can continue its work for its class organization. From 1928 until now, comrade Trotsky has completely neglected this work of building frac­tions, and, because of this, he has not contributed to realizing the effective conditions for mass movements"[15].

As can be seen, Battaglia' s sarcasms about the frac­tion as a sect running away from the masses fall very flat. Bilan's concern was the same as the Bolsheviks' "to contribute to the realization of the effective condi­tions for mass movements". The fact that the Bolshe­viks had much greater links with the masses in the 1910s than the Italian Left in the 30s did not derive from the personal features of so-and-so, but from the objective conditions of the class struggle, which dif­fered hugely. The Bolshevik fraction was not made up of a group of comrades who had survived the degener­ation of the party in a period of counter-revolution and deep defeat for the proletariat. It was a part (often the majority) of a mass proletarian party (like all the par­ties of the 2nd International), which was constituted in an immediately pre-revolutionary phase which for two years (1905-6) was to shake the entire Russian empire, from the Urals to Poland. If you want to make a quan­titative comparison between the activity of the fraction of the Italian Left and that of the Bolsheviks, you must refer to a period which has certain historically com­parable aspects, ie. the revolutionary years between 1917 and 1921. In those years, the Abstentionist Communist Fraction (the left fraction of the PSI) de­veloped to the point that when it constituted itself as the Communist Party of Italy, it absorbed into its ranks one third of the membership of the old mass socialist party and all the youth federations. The comrades who had been able to guide this process were the ones who ten years later were militating in the Left Fraction in exile, but by then they had been reduced to a small handful. What had changed? Was it that those com­rades no longer had the will to lead mass movements? Obviously not:

"Since we have been in existence, it has not been possible for us to lead any class movements. It has to be understood that this isn't anything to do with our will, our incapacity, or the fact that we are a fraction. It is the result of a situation of which we have been a victim, just as the world-wide revolutionary proletariat has also been a victim of it" (Bilan 28, 1935).

What had changed was the objective situation of the class struggle, which had gone from a pre-revolution­ary phase which put on the agenda the transformation of the fraction into a party, to a counter-revolutionary phase which compelled the fraction to resist against the tide, to carry on a work which would contribute to the eventual emergence of a new situation, again putting on the agenda the transformation of the fraction into a party.

From the Bolshevik fraction of the RSDLP to the Russian Communist Party

As always, when one criticizes the positions of Battaglia, one has to return to the crucial issue, ie. the conditions for the rebirth of the party. We've seen how BC would like to whitewash Lenin of the infamous charge of adhering to the ''fractionist faith", from as early as 1902. In their willingness to make conces­sions, they grit their teeth and are ready to admit that the Bolshevik party only existed after 1912, on condi­tion that it's clear that the party did exist as such be­fore the revolutionary period which began in February 1917. What they try to avoid admitting at any cost is that the struggle of the Bolshevik fraction of the RS­DLP was concluded by its transformation into the Rus­sian Communist Party (Bolshevik) in 1917, because that would mean admitting that

"the transformation of the fraction into a party is conditioned... by the upsurge of revolutionary move­ments enabling the fraction to assume the leadership of struggles for the insurrection" (Bilan KNOB. 1933). We thus have to clear up whether or not this transfor­mation took place in 1912 - five years before the revo­lution.

What did happen in 1912? In Prague there was a conference of the territorial organizations of the RS­DLP, the groups working in Russia. This conference reorganized the party after it had been demolished by the reaction which followed the defeat of the 1905 rev­olution, and elected a new Central Committee to re­place the one which was thenceforward dissolved. The conference and the CC were dominated by the Bolshe­viks, whereas the other tendencies in the RSDLP didn't participate in Lenin's 'splitting' initiative. At first sight, it looks as though Battaglia is right: a conference of Bolsheviks has taken the initiative of reconstructing the party, independently of the other fractions; thus, from now on, the Bolsheviks are acting as a party, without waiting for the opening of a pre-revolutionary phase. But if we look a bit closer, we can see that things are rather different. The birth of a revolutionary fraction within the old party takes place in reaction to the party's illness, to its inability to come up with an adequate response to the necessities of history, to lacu­nae in its programme. The transformation of the frac­tion into the party doesn't mean that we just return to the old status quo, to the old party purged of oppor­tunists; it means the formation of a new party, founded on a new program which eliminates previous ambiguities and takes up the principles of the revolutionary fraction "in their purest form". Otherwise you would simply be going back to where you started, and that would lay the groundwork for the reappearance of all the opportunist deviations that had just been chased away. And is this what Lenin did in 1912, transform the fraction into a party based on a new program? Not at all. In the first place, the resolution approved by the conference declared that it had been called with the aim of "rallying all the Party organizations in Russia irrespective of factional affiliation, and (of) re-estab­lishing our Party as an all-Russian organization"[16]. It was thus not a purely Bolshevik conference, all the more because its organization was to a large extent car­ried out by the Kiev territorial committee which was dominated by pro-party Mensheviks, and it was a Men­shevik who presided over the commission for the veri­fication of mandates[17]. There was no talk of modi­fying the old program and the decisions taken con­sisted simply in putting into practice the resolutions condemning the liquidators, approved in 1908 and 1910 by "the representatives of all the factions". Thus the conference was not only composed of party mem­bers, "irrespective of factional affiliation", but was based on a resolution approved by "all the factions". It's obvious that this wasn't the constitution of the new Bolshevik party, but simply the reorganization of the old social democratic party. It's worth underlining that such a reorganization was only considered possible "in association with the revival of the workers' movement"[18] after the years of reaction between 1907 and 1910. As we can see, Lenin not only didn't think of founding a new party before the revolutionary battles, but didn't even have the illusion of reorganizing the old party in the absence of a new period of struggle. The comrades of Battaglia - and not only them - are so hypnotized by the word party that they have become incapable of analyzing facts lucidly, reading something as a decisive turning point when it was only an important step in the process of demarcation with opportunism. The election of a Central Committee in 1912 by a conference dominated by Bolsheviks cannot be considered to be the end of the fraction phase and the beginning of the party phase, for the simple reason that in London in 1905 there had been an exclusively Bolshevik conference which proclaimed itself to be the III Congress of the party, and which had elected an entirely Bolshevik CC, considering the Mensheviks to be outside the party. But by the following year, Lenin had recognized that this had been a mistake, and at the 1906 congress the party was reunified, maintaining the two fractions as frac­tions of the same party. In a similar way, between 1912 and 1914, Lenin considered that the period of the struggle of the fraction was coming to an end and that the time had come for a definitive selection. This may have been true from a strictly Russian point of view, but it would certainly have been premature from an in­ternational point of view:

"Lenin's fractional work took place uniquely within the Russian party and there was no attempt to expand it onto the international level. To be convinced of this you only have to read his interventions at different congresses and you'll see that this work remained com­pletely unknown outside the Russian sphere."[19].

In fact, the definitive selection took place in the years 1914 to 1917, in the face of the dual test of war and revolution, dividing the socialists into social patriots and internationalists. Lenin was well aware of this and - as in 1906 when he fought for the unification of the party - in February 1915, replying to Trotsky's Nashe Slovo group, he wrote:

"We agree absolutely with you that the union of all the real internationalist social-democrats is one of the most vital tasks of the present moment"[20]. The problem was that for Lenin the unification of the inter­nationalists in a really communist party was only pos­sible if one made a clear break with those who weren't really internationalists, whereas Trotsky, as usual, wanted to reconcile the irreconcilable, wanted to base the unity of the internationalist party "on the union of all the fractions", including those who weren't pre­pared to break with the enemies of internationalism. For three years, Lenin fought incessantly against these illusions, transferring his fractional struggle for clarity from the purely Russian soil to the international one of the Zimmerwald Left[21]. This grandiose international struggle was the apogee and conclusion of the Bol­shevik's fraction work, which would bear its fruit with the outbreak of the revolution in Russia. Thanks to this tradition of struggle and to the development of a revo­lutionary situation, Lenin was able, as soon as he re­turned to Russia, to propose the unification of the Bol­sheviks with the other consistent internationalists, on the basis of a new program and under the name of the Communist Party, replacing the old term 'social democrat'. This led to the final selection, with the Bol­shevik right (Voitinsky, Goldenberg) going over to Menshevism, while the 'Old Bolshevik' center (Zinoviev, Kamenev) opposed Lenin in the name... of the old program upon which the 1912 conference had based itself. Lenin was accused of being the "gravedigger of the party's tradition"; he replied by showing that the entire struggle of the Bolsheviks had simply been the preparation for a real communist party:

"Let us create a proletarian Communist Party; its ele­ments have already been created by the best adherents of Bolshevism"[22]. Here is the conclusion of the grand struggle of the Bolshevik fraction; here is the real transformation into the party. We say real because, from a formal point of view, the name Communist Party wasn't adopted until March 1918, and the defini­tive version of the new program would only be rati­fied in March 1919. But the substantial transformation took place in April 1917 (VIII Pan-Russian Bolshevik Conference). We shouldn't forget that what distin­guishes a party from a fraction is its capacity to have a direct influence on events. The party is "a program, but also a will to action" (Bordiga), providing obvi­ously that this will is expressed in conditions objec­tively favorable to the development of a class party. In February 1917, there were only a few thousand Bol­sheviks and they had not played any leadership role in the spontaneous uprising which opened the revolution­ary period. At the end of April, there were more than 60,000 of them and they were already standing out as the only real opposition to the bourgeois Provisional Government. With the acceptance of the April Theses and the necessity to adopt a new program, the frac­tion became a party and posed the bases of Red Octo­ber.

In the next part of this work, we will see how the particular, historically original conditions of the degen­eration of the Russian revolution prevented the emer­gence of a left fraction that could resume, inside the degenerating Bolshevik party, Lenin's battle inside the social democratic party. The incapacity of the Russian opposition to form itself into a fraction would later be at the root of the historic failure of the Trotskyist in­ternational opposition, whereas the Italian Left, by car­rying on the methods of Marx and Lenin, was able to form itself into the International Communist Left in 1937[23]. We will also see how the abandonment of these methods by the comrades who founded the Inter­nationalist Communist Party in 1943 has been the source of the incapacity to act as a pole of revo­lutionary regroupment displayed by the two organizations (Battaglia, Programma Comunista) who derive from that party .


[1] The first two parts were published in IR 59 and 61. For a deeper analysis of the activity of this current, we recommend reading our two pamphlets La Gauche Communiste D'Italie 1927-52 and Rapports entre la fraction de gauche du PC d'Italie et l'Opposition de Gauche Internationale 1929-33

[2] See ‘Third Part: from Marx to Lenin, 1848-1917. 1. From Marx to the Second International' in IR 64

[3] Bordiga's intervention at the 6th Enlarged Executive Committee of the Communist International, in 1926

[4] "In 1902, Lenin had laid the tactical and organizational bases upon which were to be built the alternative to the opportunism of Russian social democracy, a party alternative, unless you want to pass off What Is To Be Done as the ten commandments of the fractionist faith"  (‘Fraction and Party in the Experience of the Italian Left', Prometeo 2, March 1979).

[5] The Bolshevik (‘Majority') at the 1903 congress of the RSDLP were the fruit of a temporary alliance between Lenin and Plekhanov. The 1904 fraction called itself Bolshevik in order to lay claim to the positions defended by the Congress majority of 1903

[6] It is significant that the complete theorization of the concept of the fraction by Lenin was not achieved until the years of reaction following the 1905 revolution. It is only the activity of the fraction that makes it possible to hold out in unfavorable periods.

[7] ‘The new faction of conciliators, or the virtuous', Social Democrat no. 24, October 18 (31), Lenin, Collected Works, 17

[8] ‘Conference of the extended editorial board of Proletary, 8-17 (21-30) June 1901, supplement to no 46 of Proletary, Collected Works, 15.

[9] ‘The liquidation of liquidationism', Proletary no. 46, 11 (24) July 1909, Collected Works, 15

[10] Idem note 4

[11] ‘The problem of the fraction in the Second International', Bilan 24, 1935

[12] Idem note 4

[13] ‘On the article Questions of the Day', Poletary no 42, 12 (25) February 1909, Collected Works, 15. Otzovism was a dissident current inside the Bolshevik fraction in the darkest years of the reflux, it tended towards reducing fraction work to that of a mere network.

[14] Political Platform of the Internationalist Communist Party (Battaglia Communista), 1952. In a recent publication of this text (1982), this passage was reproduced unchanged.

[15] ‘Towards the Two and Three-Quarter International', in Bilan 1, 1933; extracts published in the Bulletin D'etude et de Discussion, Revolution Internationale, no 6, April 1974.

[16] 6th General Conference of the RSDLP, Prague conference 6-17 (18-30) January 1912, Resolution on the Russian organizing commission for the convening of a conference, Collected Works, 17

[17] ‘The situation in RSDLP and the immediate tasks of the Party', 16 July 1912, Gazeta Robotnicza no. 15-16, Collected Works, 18: "It was a delegate from that organization (Kiev) that was chairman of the Credentials Committee at the Conference!"

[18] Taken from the resolutions of the conference. Lenin came back to this subject in 1915: "The years 1912-14 marked the beginning of a great new revolutionary upswing in Russia. We again witnessed a great strike movement, the like of which the world has never known. The number involved in the mass revolutionary strike in 1913 was, at the very lowest estimate, one and a half million, and in 1914 it rose to over two million, approaching the 1905 level" (Socialism and War, July-August 1915, Chapter II, ‘The working class and the war', Collected Works, 21.

[19] ‘The problem of the Fraction in the II International', Bilan 24, 1935.

[20] Letter from the CC of RSDLP to the editorial board of Nashe Slovo, 10 (23) March 1915, Collected Works, 15

[21] For a better understanding of the role of the Bolsheviks in the Zimmerwald Left, see our article in IR 57.

[22] ‘The dual power', Pravda no. 28, 9 April 1917, Collected Works, 24

[23] For an analysis of the work of the Italian Fraction in the 30s, see the first part of this work, in IR 59.


Heritage of the Communist Left: 

Political currents and reference: 

General and theoretical questions: