1903-4: the birth of Bolshevism

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One hundred years ago, in July/August 1903, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party held its Second Congress - not in Russia, since the scale of repression under the Czarist regime would have made this virtually impossible - but in Belgium and in Britain. Even then the need to shift the venue in the middle of the Congress was necessitated by the close surveillance of the "democratic" Belgian police. This congress has gone down in history as the one which saw the party split into its Bolshevik and Menshevik wings.

The historians of the ruling class have interpreted this split in various ways. For one school of thought - what we might call the Orlando Figes school of history, for whom the October revolution of 1917 was an unmitigated disaster - the emergence of Bolshevism was of course a Very Bad Thing.[1] If Lenin and his band of fanatics, whose political influences had more to do with Nechayev and native Russian terrorism than international socialism, had not removed the democracy from social democracy, if Menshevism rather than Bolshevism had triumphed in 1917, then we might have been spared not only the awful civil war of 1918-21, not only the Stalinist terror of the 30s and 40s, which were the inevitable consequences of Bolshevik ruthlessness, but in all probability Hitler, World War Two, the Cold War and no doubt Saddam Hussein and the Gulf Wars as well.

Such passionate anti-Bolshevism is normally only found in one other quarter: that of the anarchists. For them, Bolshevism hijacked the true revolution in 1917; if it had not been for Lenin, with his authoritarian vision inherited from the hardly less authoritarian Marx, if it had not been for the Bolshevik party, which like all parties strives only for its own monopoly of power, why, we might be free today, living in a world wide federation of communes?. Anti-Bolshevism is the one true distinguishing feature of all varieties of anarchism, whether the crude version somewhat caricatured in this paragraph, or the infinitely more sophisticated brands which today call themselves anti-Leninist communists, autonomists, etc etc - all of them agree that the last thing the working class needs is a centralised political party on the Bolshevik model.

When bourgeois ideology and its petty bourgeois anarchist shadow is not seeing communist organisations as malign all-powerful conspiracies that have done huge harm to the interests of mankind, it is dismissing them as risible, impotent, deranged, semi-religious cults that no one listens to anyway; as utopians, armchair theoreticians cut off from reality, incurable sectarians ready to split with each other and stab each other in the back at the drop of a hat. For this line of argument, the 1903 congress provides endless amounts of fuel: didn't Bolshevism originate in an obscure debate about a simple phrase in the party rules, about who is and who isn't a party member; still worse, didn't the final rupture between Menshevism and Bolshevism take the form of a quarrel about which personalities should or shouldn't be on the editorial board of Iskra? Surely that is proof enough of the futility, the impossibility of building a revolutionary party which is not like the faction-ridden sewers, the battle grounds of egoistic ambition, which we know all bourgeois parties to be?

And yet we persist, along with Lenin, in seeing the 1903 Congress as a profoundly important moment in the history of our class, and in seeing the split between Bolshevism and Menshevism as an expression of deep underlying social tendencies in the workers' movement, not only in Russia, but across the globe.

The international workers' movement in 1903

As we have argued elsewhere in the International Review (see the article on the 1905 mass strike in International Review n°90), the early 1900s were a transitional phase in the life of world capitalism. On the one hand, the bourgeois mode of production had reached unprecedented heights: it had unified the globe to a degree never before seen in human history; it had achieved levels of productivity and technological sophistication that could hardly have been dreamed about in past epochs; and at the turn of the century it seemed to be reaching new peaks with the generalisation of electrical power, of telegraphic, radio, and telephone communication, with the development of the automobile and the aeroplane. These dizzying technical advances were also accompanied by tremendous achievements at the intellectual level - for example, Freud published his Interpretation of dreams in 1900, Einstein his General theory of relativity in 1905.

On the other hand, however, dark clouds were gathering just when what the British call the "Edwardian summer" seemed to be at its sunniest. The world had been unified, it is true, but only in the interests of competing imperialist powers, and it was becoming increasingly evident that the world had grown too narrow for these empires to go on expanding without ultimately coming up against each other in violent confrontations. Britain and Germany had already embarked upon the arms race which presaged the world war of 1914; the USA, hitherto content to expand into its own western territories, had already entered the imperialist Olympics with the war against Spain over Cuba in 1898; and in 1904, the Czarist empire went to war with the rising power of Japan. Meanwhile, the spectre of the class war began to rattle its chains: increasingly dissatisfied with the good old methods of trade unionism and parliamentary reform, feeling in their bones the growing inability of capitalism to concede to their economic and political demands, workers in numerous countries were engaging in massive strike movements which often surprised and worried the now respectable captains of Organised Labour. This movement touched many countries in the late 1890s and early 1900s, as Rosa Luxemburg chronicled in her groundbreaking work The Mass Strike, the Party and the Trade Unions; but it reached a high point in Russia in 1905, which gave birth to the first soviets and rocked the Czarist regime to its foundations. In sum, capitalism may have reached its zenith, but the indications of its irreversible historical descent were now becoming clearer and clearer.

Luxemburg's text was also a polemic directed against those in the party who were unable to see the signs of a new epoch, wanted the party to put all its weight on the trade union struggle, and saw politics as essentially restricted to the parliamentary sphere. In the 1890s she had already led the combat against the "revisionists" in the party - typified by Eduard Bernstein and his book Evolutionary Socialism - who had taken capitalism's long period of growth and relatively peaceful development as a refutation of Marx's predictions of a catastrophic crisis. They thus "revised" Marx's insistence on the necessity for the revolutionary overthrow of the system. They concluded that social democracy should recognise itself to be what, in any case, it had increasingly become: a party of radical social reform, which could obtain an uninterrupted improvement of working class living standards, even a peaceful and harmonious growing over into a socialist order. At that time Luxemburg had been more or less supported against this overtly opportunist challenge to marxism by the centre of the party around Karl Kautsky, who stuck to the "orthodox" view that the capitalist system was doomed to experience increasingly powerful economic crises and that the working class would have to prepare itself to take power into its own hands. But this centre, which saw "revolution" as an essentially peaceful and even legal process, soon revealed itself to be incapable of understanding the importance of the mass strike and the insurrection in Russia in 1905, which heralded the new epoch of social revolution, where the old structures and methods of the ascendant period would not only be insufficient, but would become positive obstacles to the struggle against capitalism.

Luxemburg's analyses showed that in this new epoch, the principal task of the party would not be to organise the majority of the class in its ranks or win a democratic majority on the parliamentary terrain, but to assume the role of political leadership in the largely spontaneous mass strike movements. Anton Pannekoek took these views one step further to show that the ultimate logic of the mass strike was the destruction of the existing state apparatus. The reaction of the union and party bureaucracies to this radial new vision - a reaction based on a profound conservatism, a fear of the open class struggle, and a growing accommodation to bourgeois society - presaged the irreversible split that was take place in the workers' movement during the events of 1914 and 1917, when first the right, then the centre of the party ended up joining the forces of imperialist war and counter-revolution against the internationalist interests of the working class.

The Russian workers' movement in 1903

In Russia, the workers' movement, though much younger and less "developed" than the movement in the west, also felt the same pressures and contradictions. Like the revisionists in the SPD, a "harmless" version of marxism was propagated by Struve, Tugan-Baranowski and others - a "Legal" Marxism which emptied the proletarian world-view of its revolutionary content and reduced it to a system of economic analyses. In essence, Legal Marxism argued in favour of the development of capitalism in Russia. This form of opportunism, acceptable to the Czarist regime, did not have a great appeal to the Russian workers, who were faced with conditions of appalling poverty and repression and could hardly postpone the immediate defence of their living standards while an extremely brutal form of capitalist industrialisation imposed itself on them. In these conditions, a more subtle form of opportunism began to take root - the trend which became known as "Economism". Like the Bernsteinians, for whom "the movement is everything, the goal nothing", the Economists, such as those grouped around the paper Rabochaya Mysl, also worshipped the immediate movement of the class; but as there was no parliamentary arena to speak of, this immediacy was largely restricted to the day-to-day struggle in the factories. For the Economists, the workers were mainly interested in bread and butter issues. Politics for this current was largely reduced to seeking to achieve a bourgeois parliamentary regime, and was mainly seen as the task of the liberal opposition. As the Economist Credo, written by YD Kuskova, put it: "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". In this extremely narrow and mechanical vision of the proletarian movement, class consciousness, if it was going to develop on a wide scale, would in any case emerge more or less from an accretion of economic struggles. And since the factory or the locality was the principal terrain of these immediate skirmishes, the best form of organisation for intervening within them was the local circle. This too was a way of bowing down before the immediate fact, since the Russian socialist movement had for the first decades of its existence been dispersed in a plethora of loose, amateurish and often transient local circles with only the vaguest connections to each other.

Opposing the Economist trend was the main aim of Lenin's book What is to be done?, published in 1902. Here Lenin had argued against the idea that socialist consciousness would arise simply out of the day-to-day struggle; it required the working class to intervene on the political terrain. It could not be engendered merely from the immediate relationship between employer and worker, but only from the global struggle between the classes - and thus from the more general relationship between the working class as a whole and the ruling class as a whole, as well as the relationship between the working class and all other classes oppressed by the autocracy.[2]

In particular, the development of revolutionary class consciousness required the building of a unified, centralised, and avowedly revolutionary party; a party which had gone beyond the stage of circles and the shortsighted, personalised circle spirit that went with it. Against the Economist view which reduced the party to a mere accessory or "tail" of the economic struggle, hardly distinct from other more immediate or general forms of workers' organisations such as trade unions, a proletarian party existed above all to lead the proletariat from the economic to the political terrain. To be equipped for this task, the party had to be an "organisation of revolutionaries" rather than an "organisation of workers". Whereas in the latter, being a worker seeking to defend immediate class interests was the sole criterion for participation, the former had to be comprised of "professional revolutionaries",[3] revolutionary militants who worked in strict unison regardless of their sociological origins.

Of course What is to be done? is famous, indeed notorious, for Lenin's formulations about consciousness - in particular his borrowing of Kautsky's notion that socialist "ideology" is the product of the middle class intelligentsia, leading to the view that working class consciousness is "spontaneously" bourgeois. Much has been made of his errors here, which (somewhat mirroring Economism) do indeed represent a concession to a purely immediatist view, in which the working class is seen as no more than the class as it is "now", in the workplaces, rather than as a historic class whose struggle also contains the elaboration of revolutionary theory. Lenin soon corrected most of these errors - indeed had already begun to do so at the 2nd Congress. It was here that he first admitted to "bending the stick too far" in his argument against the Economists, affirming that workers could indeed take part in the elaboration of socialist thought, and pointing out that, without the intervention of revolutionaries, spontaneously emerging class consciousness was in fact constantly being "diverted" towards bourgeois ideology by the active interference of the bourgeoisie. Lenin was to take these clarifications much further after the experience of the 1905 revolution. But in any case, the essential point of his critique of Economism remains valid: class consciousness can only be an understanding by the proletariat of its global and historic position, and cannot reach fruition without the organised work of revolutionaries.

It is also important to understand that Lenin did not write What is to be done? merely as an individual but as a representative of the current around the newspaper Iskra, which stood for terminating the phase of circles and for the formation of a centralised party with a definite political programme, organised in particular around a militant newspaper. The Iskra-ists went into the Second Congress as a unified trend, and delegates supporting this line were a clear majority, opposed mainly by a right wing made up of the Rabocheye Dyelo group around Martynov and Akimov, which was strongly influenced by Economism, and by the representatives of a form of Jewish "separatism" - the Bund. It is true, as Deutscher relates for example in the first volume of his biography of Trotsky, that there were already a number of tensions and differences within Iskra's leading group, but there was, or seemed to be, broad agreement on the approach contained in Lenin's book. This agreement continued for a large part of the Congress And yet by the end of the congress, not only had the Iskra group split, but the entire party was shaken by the historic break between Bolshevism and Menshevism, which, despite various attempts over the next ten years, was never to be healed.

In One step forward, two steps back (published in 1904), Lenin offers us a very precise analysis of the various currents within the Party Congress. It had begun as three-way split between the Iskra group, the right wing anti-Iskra-ists, and "the unstable vacillating elements", for whom Lenin used the term "the Marsh". By the end of the Congress, a section of the former Iskra-ists had itself sunk deep into the Marsh and - in the classic manner of centrism throughout the history of the workers' movement - ended up providing a new wrapping for the arguments of the openly opportunist right.[4] Furthermore, in Lenin's view, the characteristics of the Marsh coincided to a large extent to the undue influence of the intellectuals in the period of the circles - of a petty bourgeois stratum organically disposed towards individualism and the "aristocratic anarchism" which disdains the collective discipline of a proletarian organisation.

The divergences at the Second Congress

This split was later to harden into deep programmatic divergences about the nature of the coming revolution in Russia; in 1917 they were to constitute a class frontier. And yet they began not on the more general programmatic level but essentially around the question of organisation.

The main points on the agenda of the Congress were the following:

  • adoption of a programme
  • adoption of statutes
  • confirmation of Iskra as the "central organ" (literally this meant the leading publication of the party, although it was generally accepted that Iskra's editorial board would also be the Party's central body in the political sense, since the Central Committee established by the Congress was to have a mainly organisational role within Russia).

The discussion on the programme has been somewhat ignored by history, undeservedly so in fact. Certainly the 1903 programme itself strongly reflected the transitional phase in capitalism's life - the twilight phase between ascendancy and decadence, and in particular the expectation of some kind of bourgeois revolution in Russia (even if the bourgeoisie was not expected to be the leading force within it). But there is more to the 1903 programme than that: it was actually the first marxist programme to use the term dictatorship of the proletariat - an issue of some significance in that an explicit theme of the Congress was to be the combat against "democratism" in the party as well as in the revolutionary process as a whole (Plekhanov, for example, argued that should it come to that point, a revolutionary government should have no hesitation in dispersing a constituent assembly which had a counter-revolutionary majority within it, just as the Bolsheviks were to advocate in 1918 - though by this time Plekhanov had become a rabid defender of democracy against the proletarian dictatorship). The question of the "dictatorship" was also linked to the debate on class consciousness; like the councilists in a later period, Akimov saw the danger of a party dictatorship over the workers precisely in Lenin's formulations about consciousness in What is to be done?. We have already dealt briefly with this debate above; but the discussion at the Congress - particularly Martynov's criticisms of Lenin's views - will have to be taken further in another article, because, surprising as it may seem, Martynov's intervention is actually one of the most theoretical of the entire Congress and makes many correct criticisms of Lenin's formulations, without ever seizing the central point they were addressing. But this was not the issue which led to the split within the Iskra current. On the contrary: at this stage in the proceedings, the Iskra-ists were united in defending the programme, as well as the necessity for a unified party, from the criticisms of the right wing, avowedly democratist elements who distrusted the very term "dictatorship of the proletariat" and who in organisational matters favoured local autonomy against centralised decision-making.

Another important issue broached early on in the Congress also saw a unified response from the Iskra-ists: the position of the Bund in the party. The Bund demanded "exclusive rights" to the task of intervening in the Jewish proletariat in Russia; while the whole thrust of the Congress was towards the formation of an all-Russia party, the Bund's demands amounted to a project for a separate party for the Jewish workers. This was rebutted by Martov, Trotsky and others, the majority of whom themselves came from a Jewish background. They plainly showed the danger of the Bund's conceptions. If it were to be taken up by every national or ethnic group in Russia, the end result would be a worse state of dispersal than the extant fragmentation into local circles, and the proletariat would be entirely split along national lines. Of course, what was offered to the Bund still goes well beyond what would be acceptable today ("autonomy" for the Bund within the party). But autonomy was clearly distinguished from federalism: the latter meant a "party within the party", the former a body entrusted with a particular sphere of intervention but entirely subordinate to the overall authority of the party. This was therefore already a clear defence of organisational principles.

The split began - though it was not concluded - around the debate on the statutes. The actual point of contention - the difference between Martov's definition of party member, and Lenin's - was around a point of formulation that may seem extremely subtle (and indeed neither Martov nor Lenin were prepared to split over the issue). But behind it were two entirely different conceptions of the party, showing that there had not been a real agreement with What is to be done? within the Iskra group.

Let us recall the formulations: Martov's read "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".

Lenin's 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".

The debate on these formulations showed the real depth of the differences on the organisation question - and the essential unity between the openly opportunist right and the centrist "Marsh". It centred around the distinction between "rendering assistance" to the party and "personally participating in it" - the distinction between those who merely support and sympathise with the Party and those who have become committed militants of the Party.

Thus, following Akimov's intervention about the hypothetical professor who supports the Party and should be given the right to call himself a Social Democrat, Martov asserted that "The more widespread the title of Party member the better. We could only rejoice if every striker, every demonstrator, answering for his actions, could proclaim himself a Party member" (1903, Minutes of the Second Congress of the RSDLP, New Park, 1978, p312, twenty second session, 2 August). Both these approaches betrayed a desire to build a "broad" party on the German model; implicitly, a party that could become a serious political force inside, rather than against, bourgeois society.

Lenin's reply to Akimov, to Martov - and to Trotsky, who had already veered towards the Marsh at this point - restated the essential arguments of What Is T o Be Done:

"Does my formulation narrow or enlarge the concept of a Party member? (...) My formulation narrows this concept, whereas Martov's enlarges it, for what distinguishes his concept is (to use his own, correct expression) its 'elasticity'. And in the period of the Party's life which we are now passing through it is just this 'elasticity' that most certainly opens the door to all the elements of confusion, vacillation and opportunism (...) safeguarding the firmness of the Party's line and the purity of its principles has now become all the more urgent because, with the restoration of its unity, the Party will recruit many unstable elements, whose numbers will increase as the Party grows. Comrade Trotsky understood very incorrectly the fundamental ideas of my book What is to be done?, when he spoke about the Party not being a conspiratorial organisation (...) he forgot that in my book I advocate a whole series of organisations of different types, from the most secret and exclusive to comparatively broad and 'loose' organisations. He forgot that the Party must be only the vanguard, the leader of the vast mass of the working class, the whole of which (or nearly the whole of which) works 'under the control and direction' of the Party organisations, but the whole of which does not and should not belong to the Party" (ibid, p 327, twenty third session, August 2). The experience of 1905 - and above all of 1917 - would thoroughly vindicate Lenin on this point. The working class of Russia would create its own general fighting organisations in the heat of the revolution - the factory committees, soviets, workers' militias etc - and it is these bodies which would regroup the entire class. But precisely because of this, the level of consciousness within these organs would be extremely heterogeneous, and they would inevitably be influenced and infiltrated by the ideologies and agents of the ruling class. Hence the necessity for the minority of conscious revolutionaries to be organised in a distinct party within these mass organs, a party which was not subject to the temporary confusions and vacillations within the class, but was armed with a coherent vision of the proletariat's historic goals and methods. The "elastic" concepts of the Mensheviks, by contrast, would make them so lacking in any firmness that they would become at best a factor of confusion, at worst a vehicle for the schemes of the counter-revolution.

It has been argued that Lenin's "narrow" conception of the party, his rejection of the broad model favoured by European social democracy at the time, was the product of specific Russian traditions and conditions: the conspiratorial heritage of the People's Will terrorist group (Lenin's brother had belonged to this tradition and had been hanged for his part in an attempt to assassinate the Czar); the conditions of intense repression which made it impossible for any legal workers' organisations to exist. But it is far more true to say that Lenin's view of the party as a politically clear and determined revolutionary vanguard corresponded to conditions that were more and more to become international - the conditions of capitalist decadence, in which the system would more and more assume a totalitarian form, outlawing any permanent mass organisations and further highlighting the minority character of the communist organisations. In particular, the new epoch was one in which the role of the party - as Luxemburg had made plain - was not to encompass and directly organise the entire class, but to carry out the role of political leadership in the explosive class movements unleashed by the crisis of capitalism. In another article, we will see that Rosa Luxemburg seriously misread the significance of the 1903 split and supported the Menshevik line against Lenin. But beyond these differences there was a deep convergence which was to become evident in the heat of the revolution itself.

Party spirit versus circle spirit

To return to the debate on the statutes. At this stage of the Congress, before the exit of the Bund and the Economists, there was a narrow majority in favour of Martov's formulation. The actual split was around a seemingly far more trivial question - who was to be on the editorial board of Iskra. The almost hysterical reaction to Lenin's proposal to replace the old team of six (Lenin, Martov, Plekhanov, Axelrod, Potresov and Zasulich) with a team of three (Lenin, Martov and Plekhanov) was a real measure of the weight of the circle spirit within the Party, of the failure to grasp what the party spirit really meant, not in general, but in the most concrete sense.

In One step forward, two steps back, Lenin made a masterly summary of the difference between the circle spirit and the party spirit: "The editors of the new Iskra try to trump Alexandrov with the didactic remark that 'confidence is a delicate thing and cannot be hammered into people's hearts and minds' (...) The editors do not realise that by this talk about confidence, naked confidence, they are once more betraying their aristocratic anarchism and organisational tail-ism. When I was a member of a circle only - whether it was the circle of the six editors or the circle of the Iskra organisation - I was entitled to justify my refusal, say, to work with X merely on the grounds of lack of confidence, without stating reason or motive. But now I have become a member of a Party, I have no right to plead lack of confidence in general. For that would throw open the doors to all the freaks and whims of the old circles. I am obliged to give formal reasons for my 'confidence' or 'lack of confidence'. That is, to cite a formally established principle of our programme, tactic or Rules; I must not just declare my 'confidence' or 'lack of confidence' without giving reasons, but must acknowledge that my decisions - and generally all decisions of any section of the Party - have to be accounted for to the whole Party; I am obliged to adhere to a formally prescribed procedure when giving expression to my 'lack of confidence' or trying to secure the acceptance of the views and wishes that follow from this lack of confidence. From the circle view that confidence does not have to be accounted for, we have already risen to the Party view which demands adherence to a formally prescribed procedure of expressing, accounting for, and testing our confidence?" (p 189).

A key issue in the controversy over the composition of the editorial board was the sentimental attachment of Martov to his friends and comrades in the old Iskra, and his growing, but unfounded suspicion of Lenin's real motives in arguing that they should no longer be in the new team. The whole episode demonstrated a shocking inability of experienced revolutionaries like Martov and Trotsky to go beyond feelings of hurt pride or a purely personal sympathy and put the political interests of the movement above all ties of affinity. Plekhanov was to show the same difficulty later on: although at the Congress he had sided with Lenin, afterwards he found Lenin's denunciation of the attitude of Martov and Co. too intransigent, too harsh, and changed horses in mid-stream; and having obliged Lenin to resign from the Iskra team which had been elected by the Congress, he handed the Party organ over to the Mensheviks. All of the former Iskra-ites, who had previously defended Lenin against the charges of the right about his desire to set up a dictatorship, a "state of siege" to use Martov's term, in the Party, now could not find enough words to denounce Lenin's policies: Robespierre, Bonaparte, autocrat, absolute monarch, etc etc.

Again in One step forwards (p 201), Lenin defined this kind of reaction very eloquently, talking about the "incessant, nagging note of injury which is to be detected in all writings of all opportunists today in general, and of our minority in particular. They are being persecuted, hounded, ejected, besieged and bullied (...) you only have to take the minutes of our Party Congress to see that the minority are all those who suffer from a sense of injury, all those who at one time or another and for one reason or another were offended by the revolutionary Social Democrats". Lenin also shows the "close psychological connection" between these responses, all the grandiose denunciations of autocracy and dictatorship within the party, and the opportunist mind-set in general, including its approach to more general programmatic questions: "The predominant item consists of innocent passionate declamations against autocracy and bureaucracy, against blind obedience and cogs in wheels - declamations so innocent that it is still very difficult to discern in them what is really concerned with principle and what is really concerned with co-optation. But as it goes on, the thing gets worse: attempts to analyse and precisely define this detestable 'bureaucracy' inevitably lead to autonomism; attempts to 'lend profundity' to their stand and vindicate it inevitably lead to justifying backwardness, to tail-ism, to Girondist phrase mongering. At last there emerges the principle of anarchism as the sole really definite principle, which for that reason stands out in practice in particular relief (practice is always in advance of theory). Sneering at discipline - autonomism - anarchism - there you have the ladder which our opportunism in matters of organisation now climbs and now descends, skipping from rung to rung and skilfully dodging any definite statement of its principles. Exactly the same stages are displayed by opportunism in matters of programme and tactics: sneering at 'orthodoxy', narrowness and immobility - revisionist 'criticism' and ministerialism - bourgeois democracy" ( p200-1).

The behaviour of the Mensheviks raised the question of party discipline in another way. Although (following the departure of semi-Economists and the Bund) they had been a minority (hence the name) at the end of the Congress, they completely flouted the decisions it had made about the composition of Iskra's editorial board. Martov, in solidarity with his "ousted" friends, refused to serve on the new board, and later on his faction conducted a boycott of all the central organs as long as it was in a minority. The Mensheviks and all those who supported them internationally conducted a campaign of personal vilification against Lenin, accusing him in particular of trying to substitute an all-powerful central organ for the democratic life of the Party. Reality was very different: in fact Lenin clearly stood for the authority of the real centre of the Party, the Congress, which the Mensheviks had totally ignored. This is how Lenin defines the real issue behind the Mensheviks' cry of "democracy against bureaucracy": "Bureaucracy versus democracy is in fact centralism versus autonomism; it is the organisational principle of revolutionary Social Democracy as opposed to the organisational principle of opportunist Social Democracy. The latter strives to proceed from the bottom upward, and therefore, wherever possible, upholds autonomism and 'democracy' carried (by the overzealous) to the point of anarchism; the former strives to proceed from the top downward, and upholds an extension of the rights and powers of the centre in relation to the parts. In the period of disunity and separate circles, this top from which revolutionary Social Democracy strove to proceed organisationally was inevitably one of the circles, the one enjoying most influence by virtue of its activity and its revolutionary consistency (in our case, the Iskra organisation). In the period of the restoration of actual Party unity and dissolution of the obsolete circles in this unity, this top is inevitably the Party Congress, as the supreme organ of the Party; the Congress as far as possible includes representatives if all the active organisations, and, by appointing the central institutions?makes them the top until the next Congress" (One step forwards... p192-3).

Thus behind the "trivial" differences were in fact major questions of principle - Lenin talks about opportunism in matters of organisation, and opportunism only exists in relation to principles. The principle is centralism; as Bordiga put it in his 1922 text "The Democratic Principle": "Democracy cannot be a principle for us. Centralism is indisputably one, since the essential characteristics of party organisation must be unity of structure and action". Centralism expresses the unity of the proletariat, whereas democracy is a "simple mechanism of organisation" (ibid). For the proletarian political organisation, centralism can never mean rule by bureaucratic fatwa, since it can only live if there is an authentic, conscious participation by the entire membership in the defence and elaboration of the party's programme and analyses; at the same time it must be based on a profound confidence in the central organs elected by the highest expression of the organisation's unity - the congress - to carry out the orientations of the organisation in between congresses. "Democratic" procedures such as votes and majority decisions are of course used throughout this process, but they are only a means to an end, which is the homogenisation of consciousness, and the forging of a real unity in action within the organisation.[5]

The political character of the organisation question: ignore it at your peril

Contrary to many in the proletarian milieu today, the issue of centralised functioning, of organisation, is by no means a secondary issue, a cover for deeper programmatic questions; it is a programmatic question in itself. The IBRP for example insists that recent splits in the ICC are not really about questions of organisation at all. They categorically refuse to address the issue of functioning, of clans, of centralisation, and look for "the real programmatic weaknesses of the ICC" which has led to the splits (for example, our alleged misreading of the class struggle or our theory of capitalist decomposition). This is an error of method, alien to Lenin's approach. Indeed it calls to mind the comments made by Axelrod after the Second Congress: "With my poor intelligence, I am unable to understand what may be meant by 'opportunism on organisational problems' posed as something autonomous, bereft of any organic tie to programmatic and tactical ideas" ("On the origins and meaning of our organisational differences", letter to Kautsky, 1904). But the struggle against organisational opportunism had already been amply demonstrated by Marx's practice in the 1st International, in particular against Bakunin's attempts to subvert centralisation by building up an array of secret organisations accountable to none but himself. At the 1872 Hague Congress, this issue was seen by Marx and Engels to be even more important to place on the agenda than the lessons of the Paris Commune - which were certainly among the most vital in the entire history of revolutionary proletarian movements.

In the same way, the Bolshevik/Menshevik split has left us with vital lessons concerning the problem of constructing an organisation of revolutionaries. Despite all the differences between the conditions faced by revolutionaries in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, and those which have confronted the re-emerging proletarian political camp since the historic revival of class struggle at the end of the 60s, there are nonetheless many points in common. In particular, the newly emerging groups in the last part of the 20th century have been particularly encumbered by the circle spirit. The rupture between them and the previous generation of revolutionaries, with all their experience of what it is to work in a real proletarian party; the traumatic effects of the Stalinist counter-revolution, which have instilled in the working class a deep mistrust of the very notion of a centralised political party; the powerful influences of the petty bourgeoisie and the intellectual strata after 1968, echoing the disproportionate weight of the intelligentsia in the early revolutionary movement in Russia; the incessant campaigns of the ruling class against the very idea of communism and in favour of an unquestioning acceptance of democratic ideology - all these factors have made the task of constructing proletarian organisations harder than ever today.

The ICC has written about these problems many times - the most recent example in this Review being our article on the 15th Congress of the ICC (International Review n°114), which also showed how all these difficulties are exacerbated by the putrid atmosphere of capitalist decomposition. In particular, the pressures of decomposition, which tends to gangsterise the whole of society, constantly tend to turn any remnants of the circle spirit into a more pernicious and destructive phenomenon - into clans, informal, parallel internal groupings with their own destructive agendas based on personal loyalties and hostilities.

We have also noted the striking parallels between splits in our own ranks, expressions of these difficulties, and the Bolshevik/Menshevik split in 1903. When the elements who formed the "External Fraction of the ICC" deserted our ranks in 1985, we published an article in International Review n°45 which drew out the historical parallels between the EFICC and the Mensheviks. In particular, the article showed that the "Tendency" which went on to form the EFICC had been a grouping based more on personal loyalties, hurt pride, and a misplaced feeling of persecution than on real political differences.[6]

In the same way, the so-called Internal Fraction of the ICC, formed in 2001, also exhibited many of the features of Menshevism in 1903. The IFICC had its origins in a clan which was quite comfortable with the progress of the ICC as long as it was ensconced in our international central organ. Indeed, it responded with a campaign of slander and denigration to a minority of comrades who had begun to look deeper into the real situation of the organisation. And yet as soon as this clan lost what it saw as a "position of power", it immediately began posing as the hounded and persecuted defender of democracy against the usurping bureaucracy. Having previously claimed to be the most vigorous defender of our statutes, it now began shamelessly flouting all the rules of the organisation, perhaps most notably the decision of the ICC's 14th Congress which had elaborated a coherent method for dealing with the divergences and tensions which had appeared in the central organ. This was a real echo of the behaviour of the Mensheviks towards the 1903 Congress.

Like the Mensheviks, both these splits felt compelled to "lend profundity to their stand and vindicate it", rapidly discovering that they had developed important programmatic differences with the ICC - even though they had originally posed as the true guardians of the ICC's platform and fundamental analyses. Thus the EFICC ditched the heavy burden of our framework of decadence; the IFICC immediately got rid of our concept of decomposition, which is somewhat "unpopular" in the proletarian milieu that this gang is trying to infiltrate. In this context, the inability of the proletarian milieu to treat the organisation question as a political question in its own right has made it quite incapable of responding adequately to the organisational problems faced by the ICC (not to mention their own problems), and all the more vulnerable to the seductive campaigns of a group like the IFICC, which has a purely parasitic role in the milieu.

We mention these experiences not because we want to put them at the same level as the events of the 1903 Congress - for one thing, we certainly do not delude ourselves into thinking that we are already the class party. It remains the case that those who do not grasp the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat it. Without assimilating the full significance of the split between Bolshevism and Menshevism, it will be impossible to progress towards the formation of the proletarian party of the next revolution. No more than the Bolsheviks - whether in 1903, 1914, 1917, or other key historical moments - can any of the proletarian organisations of today and tomorrow avoid organisational crises and splits. But if we are armed with the lessons of the past, such moments of crisis will, as happened again and again in the history of the Bolsheviks, enable proletarian political organisations to emerge politically strengthened and invigorated, and thus more capable of facing up to the imperious demands of history.

In a second article, we will look in more detail at the debate about class consciousness at the Second Congress, and at the controversy between Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg over the split in Russian Social Democracy.


[1] A humoristic reference to 1066 and all that, a caricature of history text books used in English schools.

[2] Some of what Lenin says in What is to be done? about revolutionaries acting as "tribunes of the people" has to be seen in light of the way that the Russian social democrats understood the coming revolution, which was seen to be not the direct struggle for socialism but one aimed initially at the overthrow of the autocracy and the inauguration of a phase of "democracy". The Bolsheviks, unlike the Economists and the Mensheviks later on, were convinced that this task was beyond the capacities of the Russian bourgeoisie, and would have to be carried out by the working class. In any case, the more substantive point remained: socialist consciousness cannot arise without the working class becoming aware of its general position in capitalist society, and this necessarily involves looking beyond the confines of the factory to the entirety of class relations within society.

[3] Lenin made clear at the Congress that he didn't mean by this term "professional revolutionaries" only full time, paid Party agents; in essence, the term "professional" was used in contrast to the "amateur" approach of the circle phase where groups had no clear form, no firm plan of activities, and on average only lasted a few months before being broken up by the police.

[4] This analysis of the three main currents within the workers' political organisations - openly opportunist right, revolutionary left, and hesitant, vacillating centre - retains all its validity today, as does the term marsh or swamp which Lenin applies to the centrist trend. It is worth adding the footnote on this term from Lenin's own text, because it is so redolent of what frequently happens today when the ICC uses the term marsh or swamp to characterise the shifting zone of transition between the politics of the proletariat and the politics of the bourgeoisie: "There are people in the our Party today who are horrified when they hear this word and raise an outcry about uncomradely methods of controversy. A strange perversion of sensibility due to (...) a misapplied sense of official form! There is scarcely a political party acquainted with internal struggles that has managed to do without this term, by which the unstable elements who vacillate between the contending sides have always been designated. Even the Germans, who know how to keep their internal struggles within very definite bounds indeed, are not offended by the words versumpft ('sunk in the marsh'), are not horrified, and do not display ridiculous official prudery" (One step forwards, p 23-4)

Of course, when we use this term today, we are normally talking about an area between proletarian and bourgeois organisations, whereas Lenin is talking about the marsh inside the existing proletarian party. These differences reflect real historical changes which we can't go into here, but this should not obscure what is common between the two applications of the term.

[5] Later on Lenin used the term "democratic centralism" to describe the method of organisation he was advocating, just as later on he was to use the term "workers' democracy" to describe the mode of operation of the soviets. In our view, neither of these terms are very useful, above all because the term democracy ("rule by the people") implies a non-class standpoint. We will have to return to this question at a later date. What is interesting however is that Lenin did not use this term in 1903, and indeed his principal target was precisely the ideology of "democratism" within the workers' movement.

[6] Our 1993 orientation text on organisational functioning, published in International Review n°109 (a text which also develops an important analysis of the 1903 Congress) makes it more explicit that the EFICC was indeed a clan rather than a real tendency or fraction, while our "Theses on Parasitism" (International Review n°94) show the organic link between clans and parasitism: the clans or cliques which have been involved in splits with the ICC invariably evolve into parasitic groups which can only play a negative and destructive role within the proletarian milieu as a whole. This has been confirmed in spades by the trajectory of the IFICC.



History of the workers' movement: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: