When…stable organisations are formed among the workers to transform the workers’ present sporadic economic war into conscious class struggle – then the Russian WORKER rising at the head of all the democratic elements, will overthrow absolutism and lead the RUSSIAN PROLETARIAT (side by side with the proletariat of ALL COUNTRIES) along the straight road of open political struggle to THE VICTORIOUS COMMUNIST REVOLUTION.
– Lenin, What the “Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats, 1894
Bolshevism had absolutely no taint of any aristocratic scorn for the independent experience of the masses. On the contrary, the Bolsheviks took this for their point of departure and built upon it. That was one of their great points of superiority.
– Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution
Lenin devoted his life to building a revolutionary party which could cohere the most advanced workers – the vanguard – into a fighting force capable of leading the mass of workers and drawing behind them the broader masses in a revolution to overturn society. And he succeeded.
However, until the debacle of the war, Lenin saw himself as in agreement with the Social Democratic parties of the Second International, making adjustments to what was possible in the conditions prevailing in Russia. It was not until after that disaster in 1914 that Lenin articulated elements of a theory of the party which is more clearly counterposed to the parties of social democracy – the reformist parties. In those later years Lenin developed ideas about the material roots of reformism in the working class and how to defeat mass reformist parties, questions which confront revolutionaries today. In a future article I will deal with these aspects of Lenin’s theory and its relevance for today.
But the fact remains that even though Lenin saw himself as operating within the framework of the social democratic parties of the West – most importantly the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) – the kind of party he built was in practice radically different. The Bolsheviks proved, in the storm of war and revolution, to be capable of rising to the challenge of the struggle where the SPD and others failed. This is why it is worth examining Lenin’s experience in building the Bolsheviks, what he actually did, what he argued and what kind of organisation he built.
Can we learn from the practice of an organisation in such different circumstances from those faced by the left a hundred years later? The revolutionary left in many countries today confronts similar issues to those which Lenin had to deal with: how to establish an organisation when the class struggle is not always favourable, how to make the transition from small, isolated groups to mass influence. How do you combine centralisation with democracy, or does the party need to be centralised?
Lenin’s view of the party was not passive, its role was not simply to “educate” workers. While most of the party’s work for most of the time was making propaganda, it was a form of intervention into the struggles of the working class. That’s why Lenin was known as a polemicist, he was always conscious of the need to defeat ideas which deflected workers away from revolutionary goals. The aim was to build a party capable of organising the most advanced workers so they would be capable of shaping events, maximising the possibility of working class victories. This is something Lenin theorised more clearly after 1914, but it was inherent in his practice from the 1890s.
How does an organisation acquire the skills to respond correctly, to intervene and influence events? By practice and by drawing lessons from that experience. It needs to develop a cadre who have learnt how to be patient, to understand when mass struggle is not possible and why, without concluding that workers will never struggle again. Its cadre must be able to respond to spontaneous outbursts and take them to the highest level possible. They have to be able to retreat in good order when workers suffer defeats, but also know how to build on victories. Think of the tests the Bolsheviks had to pass in 1917. It might have been obvious to most militants how to respond to the revolt of the working women in Petrograd in February 1917. But Lenin’s April Theses were rejected by the intellectual leaders while the workers instinctively agreed; then they had to retreat in good order after the July days, suffer persecution and then defend Kerensky who was jailing their leaders. They had to be able to take an intransigent stance when necessary, and be capable of making compromises with their enemies and rivals, surviving with their principles intact, as Lenin put it. Finally they had to prepare for the second revolution. This required determination, an ability to harness the organisational creativity of the masses and give it political meaning. To chart a course through these complex situations, an organisation needed a cadre with roots among workers and with sufficient experience to enable them to make the assessments each concrete situation demanded; and crucially, they had to have the authority to inspire workers to carry it through.
This means that for a party to be capable of rising to the challenge of revolution it must have been built before the moment is upon it. A revolutionary cadre does not simply emerge overnight, nor is it primarily the product of book learning, even though study and theory are critical. It must be educated in the actual struggle. Lenin’s writings which explain the different strategies and tactics he argued for can teach us a lot about how to apply the general principles of the Marxist idea of workers’ self-emancipation to many different situations.
It is not sufficient to have a few gifted leaders capable of this intellectual work. Traditions of loyalty, discipline, a common world view and the habits of open political debate are the best guarantee that any party will pass such tests. How else can a mass party of workers be mobilised and oriented for such momentous tasks without splintering in confusion and disarray? So we learn from Lenin and the Bolsheviks that internal democracy is not a luxury in a revolutionary organisation. We need to reject the standard views on both the right and among some on the left concerning democratic centralism.
We learn about all these questions by following Lenin’s struggle to build a revolutionary party.
However Lenin’s experience of building the Bolsheviks does not provide a ready-made template which can be applied to each new situation; looking for easy comparisons from which we can deduce day to day strategy and tactics is seriously at odds with Lenin’s approach. “Truth is concrete” was not just a cliché for Lenin, it was a guide to his practice. Every situation had to be confronted on the basis of an analysis of the social, economic and political developments.
The term “Leninism” is so misused it serves little purpose. In the literature about Lenin caricature and lies substitute for scholarship a lot of the time. For instance, in a symposium on Lenin organised by people associated with the far left, we find this casual assertion by one of the contributors that Lenin’s concept of the party was elitist: “Lenin made a significant contribution to dialectical thinking…one could…appreciate the many attractive features of this great revolutionary leader without in any way self-identifying as a Leninist, which in the dominant discourse usually means an adherence to his elitist concept of the vanguard party.” Frederick Jameson, in the same symposium, repeats what is a standard caricature of Lenin as “divisive, aggressive, sectarian” and refers to the “authoritarianism” of Lenin’s party. But he defends the authoritarian, anti-working class Blairite “Third Way”.
The dominance of Stalinism for decades meant that even the left has been influenced by bureaucratic ideas about “Leninism”. Apart from the fact that they misrepresent what Lenin stood for and how the Bolsheviks actually organised, these pictures of the Bolsheviks and Lenin are completely inadequate because they place so much emphasis on tactical and organisational questions. Lenin produced a huge body of path-breaking theoretical work. The relationship of this to his ideas about the role and structure of the Bolsheviks becomes clear, not by plucking out specific instances to back up one political orientation or another to apply today, but by studying the historical development of Lenin’s theory, politics and organisational practice. Many of the misrepresentations of Lenin are based on what Lars Lih calls the “text book” interpretation of Lenin’s What is to be Done? He has demolished this standard view in his scholarly Lenin Rediscovered. What is to be Done? in Context, confirming earlier accounts of Lenin by revolutionaries such as Hal Draper and Paul Le Blanc. So I will not explicitly deal with these arguments against Lenin. In this article I trace the steps Lenin took from the early 1890s until October 1917, drawing heavily on his own words. They contrast with and expose the myths of Lenin as the elitist, the Blanquist and aspiring tyrant which dominate the literature.
The desire for mass influence can make revolutionaries impatient with small socialist groups. Small groups which emphasise building among students are dismissed with a sneer. What we need is a mass workers’ organisation. However, when the revolutionary forces are tiny and the level of struggle is low, it will most likely be students and ex-students who have the freedom, the time and the inclination to put effort into politics. This is very clear in the early years of the revolutionary movement in Russia. Student circles played a critical role in the development of a layer of worker intellectuals, capable of leading the mass of workers in revolution. Students were central in seeking out workers and helping with their struggles. On the other hand workers would approach students and intellectuals for help with both theory and practical tasks. Almost all the worker leaders of the 1870s were involved with the liberal intelligentsia. And their debates influenced the political ideas that dominated the worker leaders.
In the early 1880s the student Blagoev’s circle developed a commitment to Marxism and contacted Plekhanov’s Emancipation of Labour Group (ELG), the founders of Marxism in Russia. It organised about 15 circles, each of 8-10 members, mostly metal workers and printers. They ran benefit societies, a central library and several mobile libraries and published two editions of the illegal paper, The Worker, which included articles from the ELG. The group had eclectic ideas, but Blagoev unequivocally declared himself a Marxist, and his circle between 1884 and 1887 helped disseminate the ideas of the ELG. Brusnev, a Bulgarian student, and another student, Pavel Varfolomeivich Tochiiskii, notable for his strong opposition to populism, pioneered the organisation of Marxists within workers’ circles in St Petersburg. Workers in the circles intervened into the disputes between populists and Marxists, and a small number of worker intellectuals came to question populism, eventually turning to Marxism. In the decade 1885 to 1895 workers’ struggles developed a new sophistication because of the growing involvement by workers influenced by the anti-Tsarist student circles and intelligentsia. A layer of worker intellectuals was gradually developing from the small, unstable and often unclear worker and student circles. It is difficult to see how the ELG would have established a Marxist current among workers without determined efforts by student circles.
It was into the resultant layer of “worker intellectuals”, tiny as it was, that Marxists intervened. Being in small groups, isolated from workers’ struggles, generates pressure for revolutionaries to try to gain wider influence by some means other than the patient work needed to build up small forces. We can learn from the experience in Russia when Lenin was beginning his political life. While the crises of Tsarism were relatively shallow, Marxism could only take the form of an abstract defence of ideas amongst an intelligentsia drawn from various class backgrounds. Prior to 1900, a worker intelligentsia was formed in St Petersburg through the propaganda of dissident students and young professionals. But with class struggle and opportunities for concrete intervention limited, students predominated within the social democratic movement. Marxism could only take root on a mass scale among workers in the context of a generalised crisis of Tsarism. That opportunity would emerge in the 1905 revolution.
In 1893 Lenin joined this radical political milieu in St Petersburg. If he took anything from these circles, it would have been the dynamic interaction between intellectuals and workers and the ability of the workers for critical thought and action. In the next ten, formative years Lenin would articulate a program based on his path-breaking analysis of the development of capitalism in Russia. To read these articles, polemics, programs and theoretical discussions is to hear the voice of someone absolutely convinced that the working class can overthrow the autocracy.
What “the Friends of the People” Are, written in early 1894, has some of the hallmarks of what would become Lenin’s approach for the rest of his life. This article, plus others at the time on the economic position of the peasantry, the market and a critique of the economics of Narodism, incorporated detailed analysis of a mass of social and economic data which Lenin had begun assembling when debating the Populists in the Samara circle where he had begun his political activity. Lenin is unrelenting in his polemic against abstract formulas:
The socialist intelligentsia can expect to perform fruitful work only when they abandon their illusions and begin to seek support in the actual, and not the desired development of Russia… Moreover, their THEORETICAL work must be directed towards the concrete study of all forms of economic antagonism in Russia…they must reveal this antagonism wherever it has been concealed by political history, by the peculiarities of legal systems or by established theoretical prejudice. They must…show that the exploitation and expropriation of the working people are essential under this system, and show the way out of this system that is indicated by economic development.
This theory…must furnish an answer to the demands of the proletariat – and if it satisfies the requirements of science, then every awakening of the protesting thought of the proletariat will inevitably guide this thought into the channels of Social-Democracy…[however], I by no means want to say that this work should take precedence over PRACTICAL work, still less that the latter should be postponed until the former is completed…theoretical and practical work merge into one aptly described by the veteran German Social-Democrat, Liebknecht, as: “Studieren, Propagandieren, Organisieren” (study, propaganda, organisation)… Such a presentation of the task guards Social-Democracy against…dogmatism and sectarianism.
This is a basic premise from which Lenin would never diverge. However, the article lacks any concrete organisational proposals and is overwhelmingly propagandist, reflecting the work of the revolutionaries in the workers’ circles. A few months later Lenin joined the struggle of industrial workers. This was a critical turning point, and unlike some intellectuals, he successfully made a turn to agitational work, writing the first agitational leaflet to appear in St Petersburg. It was addressed to the workers of the Semyannikov factory. In the leaflets he wrote we see the picture of Lenin drawn in virtually every memoir which mentions him in these early years. First there is his knowledge of the details of workers’ conditions. He knows about additives to the wool which “slows down the job terribly” causing delays which seem to increase “inadvertently”. He knows the wages of various workers and quotes how much a family needs to live on. He does not talk down to the workers, or to them as if to an alien force. He talks of “us” and “we” not “you”; he builds on the positive – “November 6th and 7th should be memorable days for all of us… The weavers, by their solid resistance to the employer’s pressure have proved that at a difficult moment there are still people in our midst who can uphold our common interests as workers, that our worthy employers have not yet succeeded in turning us for all time into the miserable slaves of their bottomless purses.”
His Draft and Explanation of a Programme for the Social Democratic Party, written during the industrial struggles of 1895-96, spells out his application of Marxism to the specific conditions of Russia. A typical passage reads: “the workers’ struggle acquires a social significance, becomes a struggle on behalf of all working people against all classes that live by the labour of others. That is why the workers’ struggle opens up a new era in Russian history and is the dawn of the workers’ emancipation.” He repeatedly returns to the necessity for concrete analysis on which political strategy, tactics and program should be based.
It is on this question that he continues his polemics against the Narodniks: “Disdain for conditions as they really are…unwillingness to analyse the real interests of the different classes of Russian society in their inter-relationships, the habit of laying down the law from above about the ‘needs’ and ‘destiny’ of the fatherland” are the hallmarks of populism. He sarcastically draws out the elitism of Narodism with phrases such as “the lofty style” of one writer, and “the remedies he proposes with such pomp”.
Acutely aware during the upsurge of industrial struggle of the mid-1890s that things have moved beyond the purely educational work of the study circles in which he first cut his teeth, he embraced the arguments in the pamphlet On Agitation by Martov and Kremer. The Draft Programme again and again returns to the advances workers have made and what it means for Social Democrats. They have “outgrown” the phase of elemental outbursts such as riots or sabotage. There is an emphasis on what workers learn from the struggle: “Every strike enriches the experience of the entire working class…the Russian workers are making tremendous progress, and that is why the attention of the Social-Democratic Party and all class-conscious workers should be concentrated mainly on this struggle, on its promotion.” He outlines in detail how the economic struggle brings workers up against the state and its laws and exposes them to the “political speeches” (his inverted commas), leading them to think about the broader questions.
In 1899 he devotes a whole article, “On Strikes”, to this point. Strikes are important for the role they play in raising workers’ confidence, and the lessons they draw from the experience. Strikes teach political lessons, because when the state cracks down, “It becomes clear to every worker that the tsarist government is his worst enemy… The workers begin to understand that laws are made in the interests of the rich alone.” He remarks that one of the best features is the sense of worth workers achieve in standing up to their exploiters: “What a great moral influence strikes have, how they affect workers who see that their comrades have ceased to be slaves and, if only for the time being, have become people on an equal footing with the rich!” But strikes are only a means by which workers struggle, and to confine their activity to strikes is to narrow and weaken it.
And he is always clear that you have to do what is appropriate for your actual situation, there are no general rules for what kind of party can or should be built. In response to P.L. Lavrov, who invokes Western European Social Democracy as a model to emulate in opposition to the Narodniks’ conspiratorial groups, Lenin replies: it is not possible in the conditions of repressive Russia. That is why the Social Democrats do not separate the struggle for socialism from the struggle for democracy; they have never thought they can build a legal workers’ party. But they have always contended “that this fight must be waged not by conspirators, but by a revolutionary party based on the working-class movement.” The Social Democrats think that “the period of conspiracies has long passed away.”
From these earliest experiences, Lenin did not see the role of revolutionaries as just educating workers in Marxism. He was evidently inspired by the advances workers were making through their involvement in struggles. The role of revolutionaries was to take their developing consciousness to an even higher level, but importantly, to organise them so they would be more effective fighters. He predicted that the success of Russian capitalism would lead to the inevitable crisis, and so the task for the Social Democrats was to prepare the working class with a higher level of understanding of their tasks before this crisis hit. “Social-Democrats have much to do to meet the requirements of the awakening proletariat, to organise the working-class movement, to strengthen the revolutionary groups and their mutual ties…to unite the workers’ circles and Social-Democratic groups…into a single Social-Democratic Labour Party!”
Lenin would never waver from this project, spelt out in such detail before he turned thirty. The experience of the industrial upsurge had transformed Lenin’s thought. He grasped that workers become revolutionary through their own experience of struggle, not just by the education offered in the circles. As Neil Harding says, “When this notion is integrated with Lenin’s theoretical analysis – especially his formulation of the idea of the proletariat as a vanguard class – the skeleton of his whole theory of revolution is laid bare.”
Written in August-September 1899, A Protest by Russian Social-Democrats, a reply to the Credo, marked a shift in Lenin’s orientation. He had spent years trying to put the influence of the old Narodnik traditions to rest. Now he realised that new developments raised new questions to be clarified. “Marxism linked up the economic and the political struggle of the working class into a single inseparable whole; and the effort of the authors of the Credo to separate these forms of struggle is one of their most clumsy and deplorable departures from Marxism.” The debates with the economists – whom he saw as part of international revisionism following Bernstein – pushed Lenin to articulate very clearly his commitment to training a layer of worker intellectuals: “Every viable working-class movement has brought to the fore…working-class leaders… And our Russian working-class movement promises not to lag behind the European movement in this respect.”
The economists’ arguments were not dissimilar to many raised against revolutionary organisations to this day. They tried to portray themselves as relating to workers’ real concerns, addressing them in terms they could understand. But Lenin rejected the idea that socialist literature should be kept at a level that the most backward workers can understand. He points out that many workers in Western Europe would not understand Social Democratic publications. Yes, he says, socialists should produce different kinds of literature, including agitational leaflets which all workers can relate to, oral agitation, things written in a more popular language and about local events. But this can’t be their central focus: “whoever forgets political agitation and propaganda on account of the economic struggle, whoever forgets the necessity of organising the working-class movement into the struggle of a political party, will, aside from everything else, deprive himself of even an opportunity of successfully and steadily attracting the lower strata of the proletariat to the working-class cause.” The advanced workers will influence those who lag behind if their level is raised.
The economists implied that building a party was counterposed to building workers’ immediate struggles. Lenin argued that this amounted to a rejection of revolution: “To reduce the entire movement to the interests of the moment…means to cater to workers’ worst inclinations. It means artificially to break the link between the working-class movement and socialism, between the fully defined political strivings of the advanced workers and the spontaneous manifestations of protest on the part of the masses.” Here we have a key aspect of his theory of revolution: the need for unity of organisation and spontaneity. In other words, the spontaneous struggles of workers would be able to be generalised and made more effective if a revolutionary party were built.
The “text book” interpretation of Lenin’s idea of a party as elitist and made up of intellectuals can only be sustained by ignoring Lenin’s arguments. “The creation of a durable revolutionary organisation among the factory, urban workers is…the first and most urgent task.” This layer of urban workers “will imbue [other layers] with ideas of class struggle, socialism and the political task of Russian democracy in general and of the Russian proletariat in particular.” No mention of the intelligentsia. And this is not a rhetorical flourish or an off the cuff comment. The point is repeated again on the same page and in other passages.
Lenin always regarded the intelligentsia as unreliable, and indeed became renowned for his attacks on them. In 1897 he wrote:
Educated people, and the “intelligentsia” generally, cannot but revolt against the savage police tyranny of the autocracy, which hunts down thought and knowledge; but the material interests of this intelligentsia bind it to the autocracy and to the bourgeoisie, compel it to be inconsistent, to compromise, to sell its oppositional and revolutionary ardour for an official salary, or a share of profits or dividends… Who does not know how easy it is in Holy Russia for a radical intellectual, or socialist intellectual, to turn into an official of the Imperial Government…his servility towards the government of the knout and whip?
In the second half of 1899, Lenin outlines the arguments for a centralised party. Workers need to generalise from local struggles to the wider working class; and it’s time to say “Enough of our amateurism! We have maintained sufficient maturity to go over to common action, to the elaboration of a common Party programme.” He asks the question: “How is the need for the complete liberty of local Social-Democratic activity to be combined with the need for establishing a single – and, consequently, a centralist – party?” and answers: “Social-Democracy draws its strength from the spontaneous working-class movement.” But local, spontaneous activity is not Social Democratic, strictly speaking, “since it will not be the organisation and leadership of the class struggle of the proletariat.” A genuinely Social Democratic party would make “the struggle for political liberty its chief purpose” and refuse to organise conspiracies or “to impose on the workers this or that ‘plan’ for an attack on the government, which has been thought up by a company of revolutionaries.” Centralisation of discussion, with formal rules for the conduct of affairs, is essential if every party member is to be responsible to that party. But “we do not for a moment think of pushing other forms of activity into the background – e.g., local agitation, demonstrations, boycott, the persecution of spies…protest strikes, etc., etc. On the contrary, we are convinced that all these forms of activity constitute the basis of the Party’s activity… The Party organ, far from competing with such activity, will exercise tremendous influence on its extension, consolidation, and systematisation.”
We see an activist with extraordinary determination and a preparedness to pay attention to the smallest details when it came to finding ways around state repression in order to build a party. Lenin’s argument for conspiratorial methods is prosecuted in minute detail. Division of labour is essential so that when someone falls foul of the state, they can be replaced more easily than if they were carrying out multiple tasks, all of which someone has to learn. And the removal of one small task is less disruptive to the wider chain of actions. It’s true that operating in small cells that know little of each other leads to isolation of individuals. So this is another argument for a party. “Only the establishment of a common Party organ can give the ‘worker in a given field’ of revolutionary activity the consciousness that he is marching with the ‘rank and file’, the consciousness that his work is directly essential to the Party, that he is one of the links in the chain that will form a noose to strangle the…Russian aristocratic government.”
Only someone with a deep sense of empathy with those carrying out dangerous illegal work could have written the articles. Lenin understands how to cohere such dedicated people to maximise how well they can operate and how to help them survive the rigours of their extraordinary lives. Historians who dismiss Lenin as authoritarian, elitist and power-hungry simply wipe out what are some of his most impressive qualities which shine through this writing.
It is not the intellectuals he expects to be the vanguard: “At a time when educated society is losing interest in honest, illegal literature, an impassioned desire for knowledge and for socialism is growing among the workers, real heroes are coming to the fore from amongst the workers, who, despite their wretched living conditions, despite the stultifying penal servitude of factory labour, possess so much character and will-power that they study, study, study, and turn themselves into conscious Social-Democrats – ‘the working-class intelligentsia’.” The revolutionary party must, therefore, “not lower its level artificially, but, on the contrary, it must raise it constantly… Only then will the demands of the working-class intelligentsia be met, and it itself will take the cause of the Russian workers and, consequently, the cause of the Russian revolution, into its own hands.”
Lenin enters the new century with seven years of experience in workers’ struggles, in agitational work and in producing propaganda. He has managed to establish Iskra, which is meant to be “an all-Russian working-class newspaper”, to carry his program. Iskra must relate to workers’ needs, presenting information about the history of working class struggles and those of the present. It will be an instrument to bring together the scattered struggles under one banner. The themes would have been familiar to anyone who had followed his arguments over the preceding years.
With the formation of the pro-Iskra “Petersburg Committee” in 1900, for the first time since the mid-1890s most social democrats were in one organisation. Lars Lih has assembled a series of articles Lenin wrote for Iskra which could be put into a book titled Political Agitation. Lih calls it “Lenin’s undiscovered book” which reveals “the unknown Lenin”. Lenin spells out that is it not for revolutionaries to impose dogmas or preconceived plans on the working class movement’s activity. If workers take initiatives, social democrats’ first responsibility is to support them. When workers rioted with bloody consequences in 1901, even though Lenin did not think this was the best way forward, he wrote: “the main source that nourishes revolutionary Social-Democracy is precisely the spirit of revolt in the worker masses that…breaks through from time to time in desperate outbursts. These outbursts awaken to purposive life the widest strata of workers crushed by need and darkness. They disseminate in them the spirit of a noble hatred of the oppressors and the enemies of freedom.”
Significantly, most of these articles have been simply ignored even though in Lih’s opinion, the series represents “one of Lenin’s most remarkable achievements”. He sums up his reaction on reading this series of articles: “I already knew, by the time I read the political agitation articles, that Lenin consistently expressed confidence in the worker movement… Yet even I was taken aback by the exuberance of his romantic characterisation of the workers.”
Lenin hates and rebels together with the masses, feels the rebellion in his bones, and does not ask of those in revolt that they act only with the permission of the “committees”.
– Leon Trotsky, Stalin
Some of the first words Lenin penned, addressed to the masses inside Russia from Geneva on hearing of Bloody Sunday 1905, were: “Make way for the anger and hatred that have accumulated in your hearts throughout the centuries of exploitation, suffering and grief!” This is one side of Lenin, his identification with the suffering of the oppressed. But he knew that empathy was not sufficient. He had already sensed that things were changing and had begun to offer his analysis of the importance of the events unfolding before that dreadful day:
The strike that began at the Putilov Works on January 3 is developing into one of the most imposing manifestations of the working-class movement… The strike has already become a political event of tremendous importance…The Social-Democrats long ago predicted that such would be the inevitable outcome of the Zubatov movement in our country.
Some historians, including some who have exposed the “text book” view as the caricature it is, argue that there was a “break” in Lenin’s ideas in 1905, that it was not until he witnessed the revolution that Lenin had confidence that workers’ self emancipation was possible. However it is more accurate to say that the continuity of his ideas explains why he was the leader who best related to the revolutionary movement. Lih’s reinterpretation of What is to be done? makes it clear that “His reaction to both [1905 and the upsurge of struggle in 1912] can accordingly be predicted from WITBD and his political agitation articles for Iskra” and that Lenin thought “that the revolutionising of the workers is as unstoppable as a force of nature, despite the nay-saying of intellectuals whose weak faith was shaken by intervening months and years of worker quiescence.”
The Bolsheviks had about 3-400 members out of 800 Social Democrats in St Petersburg at the time of Bloody Sunday, probably no more than in 1895, but significantly clearer theoretically. They were still marked by the abstract propaganda common in the difficult times. Nevertheless, they overcame these limitations, and responded to the rising movement with an energy and enthusiasm that enabled them to advance and transform the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party into the basis for a serious organisation capable of building authority among workers.
There is no simple answer to the question of how narrow or broad Lenin thought a party should be. The demarcation Lenin openly argues for is for a program committed to the independent organisation of the working class. Alliances with other social layers will be temporary and friends of one day will be unreliable the next. This flows from his analysis that the working class is “the only thoroughly consistent and unreserved enemy of the autocracy, only between the working class and the autocracy is no compromise possible, only in the working class can democracy find a champion who…is not irresolute.”
The 1905 revolution raised the question of how, and on what basis, the revolutionaries should work with other reformers and radicals. As early as January, Lenin begins to address the question: “The immediate arming of the workers and of all citizens in general, the preparation and organisation of the revolutionary forces for overthrowing the government authorities and institutions – this is the practical basis on which revolutionaries of every variety can and must unite to strike the common blow.” However Lenin is clear that the independent organisation of the working class is imperative: “The proletariat must always pursue its own independent path, never weakening its connection with the Social-Democratic Party… But this…will never cause us to forget the importance of a common revolutionary onset at the moment of actual revolution.”
In February he gives more substantial consideration to the question of unity. In reply to the call to “spare the revolutionary forces” by means of a united attack he argues:
But surely this is done by a united, welded organisation which is at one on questions of principle, and not by lumping together heterogeneous elements. Strength is not spared but wasted by such lumping. To achieve a “fighting unity” in deed and not merely in word, we must know clearly, definitely, and from experience what exactly wherein and to what extent we can be united. Without this, all talk of fighting unity will be mere words, word, words; this knowledge, incidentally, comes from the very controversy, struggle, and animosity of which you speak in such “frightful” terms. Would it really be better if we hushed up the differences that divide vast sections of Russian public opinion and Russian socialist thought? …we do not renounce agreements for the struggle and in the struggle…the beginning of the revolution…undoubtedly brings closer the moment when such agreements can be practically implemented.
When Father Gapon, the leader of the Bloody Sunday protest, appealed for all the socialist groups to make an “agreement”, Lenin published his letter in his newspaper, Vperyod and responded: “We consider that the ‘agreement’ it proposes is possible, useful, and essential.” And again he stated that an “agreement” was appropriate “since only through the preservation of complete independence by each separate party on points of principle and organisation can the efforts at a fighting unity of these parties rest on hope… We shall inevitably have to getrennt marschieren (march separately), but we can vereint schlagen (strike together).”
However in the aftermath of 1905, Lenin would wage sharp polemics against leading Bolshevik intellectuals, being prepared when necessary to expel them. The drastic decline in party membership changed the relative weight of workers and intellectuals. And there was a marked shift to the right among the intelligentsia. The anarchic outbursts and insurrections unleashed by the revolution frightened many intellectuals for whom revolution had been an abstract concept. They were not prepared for violence. Then came the failure of the revolution and the realisation that the party would once again be forced to go underground. To a majority of the disillusioned intelligentsia, the sacrifices required could not be justified if the revolution was to be postponed. Many of them drifted into what legal work was available in the institutions of the labour movement or simply retreated into personal life and purely intellectual and literary pursuits. As a consequence, workers were propelled into leading positions in the party. Lenin was predictably enthusiastic about this development. He wrote of the “Bolshevik mass workers” and that the work of the party was being strengthened because “work on the local level has passed to a remarkable degree into new hands: into the hands of a new generation of party workers”.
This was the background to Lenin’s fight against many of the most prominent party intellectuals. In 1905 he was prepared to countenance moves towards unity with the Mensheviks. Now he was for a sharp demarcation from both ultra-lefts and those drifting towards accommodation with the liberals. Characteristically, Lenin is concerned to clarify the issues. Responding to significant support for the ultra-left ultimatist current around Maximov, he warns “there is nothing more erroneous and harmful than attempts to conceal this disease. We must lay bare for all to see the causes, the nature and the significance of our difference with the supporters of otzovism, ultimatism and god-building. The Bolshevik faction…must be clearly separated, demarcated from the new faction.” Even then, he argues that where the advanced workers can be won over, as in St Petersburg, “there, no one has ever preached splitting off and demarcation at all costs”. But where ultimatist circles are being formed on anything like a permanent basis, “demarcation is essential…for in St Petersburg the Party practical workers themselves have just admitted that [united] work is impossible under the banner of ultimatism.”
The Bolsheviks insisted that revolutionaries must commit to fighting for three basic demands: a democratic republic, the eight-hour day and confiscation of the landed estates to be given to the peasants. Revolutionaries had to defend the illegal organisation, not just promote legal activities. And they had to be involved in revolutionary class struggle among workers and the oppressed. In a statement in 1911 he writes: “to be a real party member, it is not enough to call oneself such, nor is it enough to carry on propaganda ‘in the spirit’ of the programme of the R.S.D.L.P.; one must also carry out the entire practical work in conformity with the tactical decisions of the Party.” This assessment is rooted in the situation: “In the present period of the counter-revolution, at a time of universal renegacy, resignation, and despondency, particularly among the bourgeois intellectuals, only the Party decisions on tactics provide an appraisal of the situation.” The resolutions are rejected by the liquidators and also some ultra-lefts because “these resolutions call for a line of activity which radically repudiates both opportunist and semi-anarchist vacillations… A Party member is one who pursues the tactical line of the Party in practice.” During these years until 1917 Lenin would frequently refer with sarcasm to Trotsky, the leader of the St Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies in the 1905 revolution for his fudging of questions and his attempts to bring together what Lenin called a “marsh” of differing tendencies. However, in 1917 he readily accepted Trotsky’s group into the Bolsheviks.
So how narrow it is, and what degree of unity can be achieved by a revolutionary organisation, was for Lenin a concrete question, not one of universal principle. Attempts to find examples at any one time to bolster arguments on this question misrepresent Lenin’s approach.
Pham Binh, in a polemic against “Leninist” parties in favour of broad parties, insists that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were not separate parties after 1912 as is usually thought on the left. He assumes that if this were historical fact, it would “prove” Lenin was for a broad party, not a “narrow” revolutionary organisation. At first glance it seems of little importance. There was an evolving process whereby two organisations entered the fray in 1917. And then it became clear that one was for workers’ power, opposed by the other, which in the end joined the counter-revolution after the October revolution. Does it add to our understanding of Lenin’s practice or revolutionary politics if we establish the precise time when the Bolsheviks became an independent organisation?
However, Paul Le Blanc, drawing on the work of historians such as Ralph Carter Elwood and the memoirs of the Bolshevik Shlyapnikov, makes a compelling argument that it was this decisive break which made it possible for the Bolsheviks to respond effectively to the rising level of struggle from 1912 until the outbreak of war. They were able to build serious roots among wide layers of workers. This, plus the fact of being united around a clear program, stood them in good stead in dealing with the crisis created by the war and the monumental failure of the Second International. Le Blanc and Lih have conducted an ongoing debate about the outcome of the Prague Conference of 1912, Lenin’s intentions and the significance of the events. By August 2012 Le Blanc commented that they had arrived at a new convergence of opinion:
The Prague conference of 1912 did not declare the existence of a new Bolshevik Party. It declared the reorganisation and renewal of the RSDLP – but one as much under Bolshevik control as had been the case in 1905. Except now there were no efforts to backtrack in the interests of unity. As Lih indicates…Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades were “not propagating a ‘new type of party’, as later Stalinist historians had it. They were propagating the party principle as it had always been understood in the Second International”… What emerged in 1912 was, nonetheless, a Bolshevik party, with a Bolshevik leadership, following a Bolshevik line.
That debate has contributed to a clearer view of the events surrounding the Prague Conference. But Lih and Le Blanc agree that the unresolved issue is what Lenin actually thought: did the outcome reflect his intentions? It can only be resolved by detailed study of Russian sources. However, in order to learn from the Bolshevik experience, what actually happened would seem more important than what Lenin intended. Developments in the next two and a half years are of paramount importance. Le Blanc outlines the process by which “the worker-Bolshevik became the predominant party type. Two interrelated processes – the ‘proletarianization’ of the Bolsheviks and the Bolshevization of the ‘conscious workers’ – accelerated in these years.” While serious caution is necessary in finding direct parallels with the Bolshevik experience and today, it’s worth trying to understand why it was that it was the Bolsheviks, and not their critics who polemicised relentlessly against Lenin’s “divisiveness”, who emerged as the revolutionary force capable of rising to the challenge of war and revolution.
Regardless of what Lenin intended – and in spite of the ongoing polemical rows about “unity”, accusations that Lenin was a “splitter” by such eminent figures as Trotsky – Lenin and his Bolshevik supporters were proved right. By any revolutionary criteria, the outcome of the years 1912-1914 certainly does not strengthen arguments for the kinds of “broad parties” which have become so popular on the international left in recent years. Those who argued for broad unity were wracked by crisis and dissension which made them increasingly ineffective, something Lenin never tired of pointing out. After the Prague conference the Bolsheviks were cohered around a clear revolutionary program, confident that they were right to separate from the “liquidationists”, i.e. those who rejected the need to maintain and build an illegal party. This coherence helped them to draw the majority of class conscious workers around them. In the debates about unity which continued until the war, Lenin could not be clearer about where he stood. In December 1913 he responded to the calls by the International Socialist Bureau for a clarification of the disagreements among the Russian Social Democrats in order to try to unite the various groups. He rejected “‘unity’ in the liquidationist meaning of lumping together, without regard for principles, all who care to call themselves Social-Democrats.”
In these debates all the terms of abuse hurled at “Leninism” in the literature to this day were used in the polemics against Lenin: “one constantly comes across proud references to Narodnik ‘unity’, in contrast with the ‘Marxist’ (and most often ‘Bolshevik’) tendency towards discord and splits.” In response to these attacks, Lenin again and again refers to what influence the different currents have in the workers’ movement. That is his benchmark. They are not debates about abstract principles. The test for Lenin is not personal “loyalties” and past grievances or alliances. It is how to organise the working class into a revolutionary struggle. He points out that his opponents admit they cannot lead this struggle:
[W]e read the following… “To the honour of the Marxists be it said that at present they enjoy considerable influence in the unions whereas we Left Narodniks work in them without a definite plan, and for that reason our influence is scarcely felt.” Strange, is it not? The conciliatory, tolerant, “united”, non-splitting, broad-minded, non-dogmatic Narodniks – notwithstanding their ardent desire and striving – conduct no insurance campaign, exercise no influence on the trade unions, and have no organised group in the Duma. But the “dogmatic” Marxists, who are “forever splitting” and thereby enfeebling themselves”, have been able to carry out all of these. And they are supported by an obvious and unquestionable majority of the class-conscious workers.
The “unity” of the varied intellectualist little groups is bought…at the price of their utter political impotence among the masses. And with us Marxists, too…the majority of the class-conscious workers are rallied around those who are most often, most zealously and most fiercely accused of being “splitters”.
Lenin was triumphant in his report of the results of Workers’ Press Day held in April 1914 to celebrate the second anniversary of the first edition of Pravda, “a day of review of the Marxist forces”. The liquidators proclaimed that the Workers’ Press Day was to celebrate their paper as well, even demanding that contributions be divided equally between the two organisations. But “the workers of St Petersburg flatly rejected the proposal for ‘general collections’. This call…evoked a certain response only among the students, and in a few factories in the provinces.” Lenin’s detailed summary of the results revealed that the Bolsheviks got most of their support from the proletariat. The liquidationists got most of theirs from students and intellectuals and from abroad. Lenin hammers what for him is the key issue and a matter of great pride: “the Pravdists predominate among the most advanced, energetic, organised and politically experienced proletariat of the capital city.”
Summing up what has been his argument, in essence, since the 1903 Congress, but increasingly confidently as the thing which divides the workers’ revolutionary party from the party of reformism and liberalism, he wrote: “What counts in establishing a working-class press and a working-class body is not big contributions from wealthy ‘friends’, but the activities of the workers themselves… We on our part, are proud that our ‘cast-iron reserve’ consists almost entirely of kopeks from workers.” The fact that the Rabochaya Gazeta received almost as much of their collections from non-proletarian sources as proletarian is not a mark in their favour but “further proof of the close connection between liquidationism and bourgeois intellectualists circles”. The role of the party is not a propagandist one of “education” in correct ideas, but of establishing roots and authority in the working class. Workers don’t just blindly follow any demagogue that comes along, they make judgements on the basis of previous activity as well as the arguments being made by organisations.
So Lenin took great care to collect data in order to argue his case to the International Socialist Bureau. “When they hear the talk of the Russian Social-Democrats abroad about the ‘chaos of factional strife’ in Russia (indulged in by Rosa Luxemburg, Plekhanov, Trotsky, and others), our foreign comrades perhaps imagine that the trade union movement in our country is split up. Nothing of the kind. In Russia there are no duplicate unions. Both in St Petersburg and in Moscow, the trade unions are united. The point is that in these unions the Pravdists completely dominate. Not one of the thirteen trade unions in Moscow is liquidationist.” The Bolsheviks were the overwhelming leadership in the unions in St Petersburg, predominating in the Metalworkers, Textile Workers, Tailors, Woodworkers, Shop Assistants and others. In the Insurance Board, the Bolsheviks won 47 of 57 delegates. Basing himself on the evidence of who workers cohered around, and giving an account of Pravda’s support for the illegal party as opposed to Robachaya Gazeta’s failure to support it, Lenin declared: “And we say plainly: if the liquidators do not want drastically to change their tactics and put a stop to their disruptive struggle against the organised majority of the class-conscious workers in Russia, let them stop talking about ‘unity’.”
The facts and the arguments I have outlined are typical of the themes of the writings throughout Volume 20 of Lenin’s Collected Works, i.e. his writing spanning over a year in the period of increasing working class struggles before the outbreak of war.
“The greatest catastrophe in history…the ruin of our most sacred hopes for human fraternity.” Romain Rolland, in his diary entry for 3-4 August 1914, summed up how the left felt when they learned that most of the parties of the Second International, in particular the mighty German SPD, had abandoned the internationalism of Marx and joined with their own bourgeoisie to send workers to the slaughter of war. Lenin assumed the reports in the press were lies, spread to encourage workers to enlist – until he learned they were true.
R. Craig Nation, in his study of how the left responded to this disaster, traced the remarkably rapid emergence of a socialist left committed to an internationalist stand against the war. Lenin and the Bolsheviks played a key role. Lenin’s intransigent emphasis on building a cadre committed to working class struggle now paid off. In spite of the police crackdown which threw the Bolsheviks into some chaos just as war was declared, they responded better than most of the parties of the International. In the first four months, in St Petersburg the Bolsheviks, who maintained a core of activists, issued seventy leaflets, agitating against support for the war and refusing to refer to the renamed city as Petrograd as a sign of their defiance of the prevailing chauvinism. Lenin was the only leading anti-war socialist who represented a mass-based party which stood firm against their government in the war.
In this crisis we see all the strengths of Lenin’s method. Short term expediency is not his concern. The task for Marxists was to stand against the tide of patriotic fervour in every country and to prepare for the inevitable crisis the war would cause. In the atmosphere created you had to state clearly the principles of Marx’s internationalism. So within weeks he had published the article with a title which would sum up his whole approach, War and Revolution, in which he states “the best war on war is revolution.” In spite of arrest, and on his release having to move to Switzerland, on 6 September he assembled the small group of Bolshevik émigrés who could make it and issued his Theses on the War. He declared the ideological collapse of the Second International and the need to agitate for the masses to turn the imperialist war into class war and revolution. This is not the place to assess all of Lenin’s arguments and the debates among the left who assembled in Zimmerwald. The relevant points here are Lenin’s ability to respond to crises, to analyse social, economic and political developments and how to utilise them in ways which would contribute to the final aim of socialist revolution. The theme in his thinking had always been that capitalism will inevitably cause crises which give rise to revolutionary opportunities. Now that prospect was real. He was preparing for revolution, not just in the abstract, but in reality.
While attempting to cohere an international left opposition to the war and the sell-out of the Second International and writing his theses to orient the Bolsheviks, Lenin was studying Hegel. This return to the roots of Marxist philosophy added a maturity to Lenin’s thought and his theory of revolution. He made a philosophical break from the determinism of the Second International, unlike even revolutionary thinkers like Rosa Luxemburg. However, politics informed every crucial argument he made. The distinctiveness of these two, related aspects of Lenin’s thinking – the centrality of politics and a dialectical understanding of historical change – would become clearer during the debates about the national question, but they informed his whole approach to the war. The Menshevik Martov simply raised the slogan of “peace” in the expectation that the masses would in time want peace. Lenin agreed that would be the case, but understood that simply arguing for a “peace strategy” could not lay the basis for revolutionary leadership of that sentiment when it developed. In a letter to Shlyapnikov, he argued: “We cannot allow that we be thrown together with the petty bourgeoisie, sentimental liberals, etc. The age of bayonets is upon us. This is a fact, and in consequence we must fight with similar weapons.” For Lenin, the most powerful weapon was mass action against the bourgeoisie’s war.
Our slogan is civil war. All arguments to the effect that this slogan is unworkable, etc., etc., are pure sophism. We cannot “make” it, but we propagate for it and work in this direction. In every country one must struggle first of all against one’s own proper chauvinism, awaken hatred for one’s own regime, call (repeatedly, persistently, ever again, tirelessly) for solidarity among the workers of the warring nations. No one is proposing to guarantee when and to what degree this work will prove practicable or justified: This is not what is at issue… Only such work is socialist and not chauvinist. And it alone will bear socialist fruit, revolutionary fruit.
Once the revolution of 1917 burst into history, Lenin quite naturally raised the slogan of peace. Those who portray Lenin as making these kinds of about-turns purely for opportunist reasons profoundly miss the point. Once workers are actually involved in revolution, old slogans become redundant. They had served their purpose, preparing the way for that revolution, steeling the advanced layers, encouraging workers to blame their own ruling class for their misery, giving political arguments to justify their bread riots, strikes and protests which had been growing for at least fifteen months. This was Lenin’s great strength, his ability to assess the political slogans which related to the demands of social and economic developments at key points in the struggle.
He resolutely opposed Luxemburg and Bukharin when they argued that national liberation was unrealisable under capitalism and that imperialism made any national struggle devoid of any progressive content. Their position was rooted in Second International determinist orthodoxy. Politically, Lenin could see that in this era of war and revolution, the struggle for the basic democratic demand for national independence could not be shunted to one side by such abstract theoretical arguments. Revolutionaries should argue for “unconditional” support for such movements. Any hesitancy by workers in the dominant, imperialist powers tied them to their own bourgeoisie. To make proletarian internationalism a political reality, they must support those who struggled against their own repressive state.
As Nation puts it, “Lenin’s response was radically innovative… For Lenin [revolutionary nationalism and proletarian class struggle] were complementary aspects of an emerging global confrontation.” This oriented Lenin and the Bolsheviks to conceive of revolution not as an isolated event, but as a “process that would unfold on the scale of history”. You can see how this strengthened Lenin’s confidence to carry through the revolution to the point of working class power in October 1917. The Bolsheviks staked the future of the revolution on that process of world revolution.
These theoretical and political debates are usually discussed by historians in isolation from Lenin’s theory of the party. However, his determination to build a revolutionary party prepared to lead the mass of workers is integral to understanding Lenin’s thinking. He had always maintained that theory was not sufficient; revolutionary practice was essential if the promise of revolution was to be realised. Hence the centrality of politics. On the other hand, his previous understanding that there can be no revolutionary practice without revolutionary theory took on an urgency in 1914. The collapse of the International needed explanation. His study of Hegel and the dialectic deepened his understanding of what he had previously carried out in spite of his rather mechanical philosophical positions.
Lenin’s renewed study of Hegel led him to a radical break with the “orthodox Marxism” of the Second International. He grasped more deeply what a dialectical totality entailed. Change is not linear, it is driven by internally contradictory aspects of that totality. This pushed him to ask: what is the difference between an undialectical and a dialectical view of change? His answer: “The leap. The contradiction. The interruption of gradualness.” The difference is between gradual, incremental changes and change as a result of internal contradictions in the totality. “The first conception is lifeless, pale and dry. The second is living. The second alone furnishes the key to the ‘leaps’, the ‘break in continuity’…to the destruction of the old and the emergence of the new.”
Now Lenin understood more fully that revolutionary crisis creates “moments” in which the possibility of fundamental change becomes both possible and urgent. It is this very rupture and the unpredictability of such crises which makes conscious intervention imperative. While Lenin grasped many crucial issues more fully at a theoretical level, there was also continuity in his approach. His insistence on building a party laid the basis for a dialectical understanding that practice overcomes the distinction between subjective and objective. In his polemic against the economists he had already spelled out that the party resolves the seeming contradiction between spontaneity and conscious action. He referred to the link (which should not be broken) “between the fully defined political strivings of the advanced workers and the spontaneous manifestations of protest on the part of the masses.” However, the new understanding of historical “leaps” clarifies that the party needs to be ready, it must prepare for the crises in times when the level of class struggle is low. More clearly than ever, the party is not simply the result of cumulative experience, neither is its role just to be the teacher, raising proletarians from their ignorance to the light of reason. Lenin now sees the critical importance of intervention in those “moments” to change the outcome of momentous events.
Michael Löwy, the Trotskyist biographer of Lenin, explained very well how these theoretical advances influenced Lenin’s political positions:
It is not difficult to find the red thread leading from the category of sum total to the theory of the weakest link in the imperialist chain; from the interpenetration of opposites to the transformation of the democratic revolution into the socialist revolution; from the dialectical conception of causality to the refusal to define the character of the Russian Revolution solely by Russia’s “economically backward base”; from the critique of vulgar evolutionism to the “break in continuity” in 1917.
This theory and politics permeated everything Lenin argued during 1917 and in the dreadful years of civil war and the degeneration of the revolution before his death. The theory informing Two Tactics of the Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, which counterposed the democratic and socialist revolutions in 1905, had to be ditched in order to write State and Revolution and to lead the October revolution. Now, Lenin understood that soviet power resolves the seeming distinction between the two and can carry out the democratic revolution at the same time as beginning the socialist transformation of society. These breakthroughs made it possible to accept that the soviets must take power, contrary to his earlier prognosis that the outcome of the revolution would be a bourgeois democratic republic. His understanding of “leaps” resulting from the internally contradictory conditions of capitalism, combined with the more thoroughly understood international process of world revolution, underpinned his agitation for the seizure of power in October 1917.
These theoretical advances were just as central to Lenin’s leadership of the Bolsheviks and of his intervention in the crucial year of 1917 as any ideas Lenin had about how the revolutionary party should be organised, if not more important. And yet, in debate after debate, and in historical accounts by respected academics, there is either an obsession with these organisational methods as the epitome of “Leninism”, or a separation of his theoretical works and his ideas about the party.
Before looking at the revolutionary year of 1917 let’s look at the myths about “democratic centralism”. This is a much abused term. Firstly, academics and historians usually completely misrepresent it. Alfred G. Meyer, in an influential study in 1956, proclaimed: “Lenin…was always suspicious of any democratic debate: because it might threaten the unity of the party in action.” He asserted that Lenin preferred “the revolutionary party as a disciplined, conspiratorial elite… The formula Lenin found for the resolution of the problem [of democracy] has become famous… It is the principle of ‘democratic centralism’ [which] projected the party as a genuinely collectivist organization, freely, consciously, and joyfully submitting to the leadership imposed on it by senior members.” Unfortunately Meyer and others can get away with such preposterous statements because even on the far left the concept is commonly misrepresented as rigid imposition of “discipline” on party members. The facts do not justify any of these interpretations.
In any case, democratic centralism was not an innovation by Lenin, so it is a falsification of history to present it, whatever interpretation is put on it, as a hallmark of “Leninism”. Before anyone had used the term democratic centralism in the RSDLP, the decisions of the Third Congress of April 1905 give a clear picture of the Bolsheviks’ attitudes to democracy, the rights of minorities, the relationship of local committees and organisations and rules. With revolution on the agenda, it was necessary to break out of the habits of the illegal circles where it was virtually impossible to have more than a modicum of democracy. Now Lenin insisted on democracy in the party to the extent that the illegal conditions they still worked in would permit. He was for the election of committees wherever possible, he supported the rights of minorities to form factions at any time. He was for their leaders being included in leadership bodies. In order to remove obstacles for the minority who Lenin had hoped would attend the Congress but didn’t, “the Third Congress took every measure to enable the Minority to work with the Majority in one party.” Minorities were guaranteed the “unconditional right” to carry on an ideological struggle, to publish their views and have them distributed by the party. And local rules guaranteeing the autonomy of local committees were strengthened, removing the right of the Central Committee to remove members from them.
In Russia it was the Mensheviks who first used the term democratic centralism, later in 1905. The Menshevik resolution to a party congress stated: “the RSDLP must be organized according to the principle of democratic centralism”, and that “actions affecting the organization as a whole…must be decided upon by all the members of the organization”. Also, “decisions of lower-level organizations [such as party branches] are not to be implemented if they contradict the decisions of higher organizations [such as national convention or party congress].” About a month later, the Bolsheviks passed a resolution “recognizing as indisputable the principle of democratic centralism”. They called for “the broad implementation of the elective principle”, adding that “while granting elected centres full powers in matters of ideological and practical leadership, they are at the same time subject to recall, accountable [to the membership] for these activities.” They repeatedly emphasised the discipline of elected and central bodies while at the same time demanding rights for local bodies.
In 1906 Lenin outlined the principles of democratic centralism as he understood them in a polemic against the Menshevik-dominated Central Committee. It’s clear the Bolsheviks did not think the Menshevik resolution gave sufficient emphasis to democracy and the rights of local organisations. It’s clear Lenin thought the party was too dominated by the Central Committee. The memory of the Mensheviks’ defiance of majority decisions after the 1903 Congress hardly inspired confidence that they were serious about the leadership being made accountable. Accordingly Lenin wrote: “a serious and extremely responsible task” was “to work tirelessly to make the local organisations the principle organisational units of the Party in fact, and not merely in name, and to see to it that all the higher-standing bodies are elected, accountable, and subject to recall… The autonomy of every Party organisation, which hitherto has been largely a dead letter, must become a reality.”
On the far left democratic centralism is often thought to mean that members of the revolutionary organisation have no right to voice disagreements in public. However, Lenin was for the “widest possible” discussions of the decisions of Party Congress, airing the disagreements for workers to make their own judgements. After the unity conference of April 1906, there was a clear dividing line between the right and the left of the party. He argued that all the workers’ organisations should discuss them and declare which decisions they agreed with or opposed. “If we have really and seriously decided to introduce democratic centralism in our Party, and if we have resolved to draw the masses of the workers into intelligent decision of Party questions, we must have these questions discussed in the press, in meetings, in circles and at group meetings.”
However, the ideological struggles could not be allowed to disrupt the unity of action workers needed. This of course can be difficult to delineate. In 1906, Lenin objected to a Menshevik resolution as too restrictive of the right to criticise party policy: “Criticisms within the limits of the principles of the Party Programme must be quite free, not only at Party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism, or such ‘agitation’…cannot be prohibited.” However, he did outline the limits to this freedom. Such agitation could not jeopardise the definite actions of the party either in party or public meetings. What was he getting at? Take the disagreement over whether to participate in the Duma elections. Until the elections were called, all members had the right to agitate against the decision. But once the elections were called, unless the opponents of participation had managed to overturn the decision, no criticisms of the policy could be tolerated. And all members were expected to carry out the decision. “Freedom of discussion, unity of action” was the slogan he raised to sum up what they should aim for.
Critics will tell you that Lenin changed his tune depending on what suited his factional interests. This is partly true, but this criticism is devoid of any political content. Lenin’s tactics were always framed by the guiding principle of defending a revolutionary program. After 1912, Lenin argued against the right to publish in non-party journals. The struggle against the intellectuals in the party who tailed the liberal bourgeoisie required stricter discipline than previously – not of the mass of members, but of the wavering intellectuals who had the ability to sow confusion about which allies the proletariat should trust. But he did insist that minorities had the right to air their arguments in the party publications.
So, talk of open discussion did not mean that any ideas could be propagated by party members. There has to be a line drawn between revolutionary and reformist or liberal. That in fact is why the party can allow open discussion, even in public. Its membership is committed to the basic principles of a revolutionary program. Within that there is room for all kinds of debates. And Lenin repeatedly argued that if workers were to choose between the different currents in the movement, they needed to know what each and every one argued. He was not afraid of open discussion, because he was confident that his line of march was informed by his analysis of developments in society and fitted with the ideas which would take the workers’ movement forward. They might not always be accepted, but steady work beside the most militant, class conscious workers would win them over as they saw the truth of the revolutionary positions.
Finally, there is the typical accusation that Lenin presided over a party “freely, consciously, and joyfully submitting to the leadership imposed on it by senior members.” In the history of the Bolsheviks there are numerous examples of Lenin in a minority, having to wage a fight to win a majority. In 1905 the St Petersburg Bolsheviks even refused to publish his argument that the soviets were the basis for a genuine workers’ government in which all the mass parties should compete for support. In March 1917 the leadership inside Russia censored Lenin’s “Letters from Afar” and in September the party paper refused to publish his calls for insurrection. Lenin had to fight for his positions, with no guarantee of imposing them. This description by Trotsky of the Bolsheviks before Stalinism is a far cry from the myths, the Stalinist portrayal of Bolshevism, and even the practice of some Trotskyist groups who invoke democratic centralism while they practise versions of bureaucratic centralism:
Freedom of criticism and intellectual struggle was an irrevocable content of the party democracy…indeed, how could a genuinely revolutionary organisation setting itself the task of overthrowing the world and uniting under its banner the most audacious iconoclasts, fighters and insurgents, live and develop without intellectual conflicts, without groupings and temporary factional formations? …
The Central Committee relied on this seething democratic support. From this it derived the audacity to make decisions and give orders.
February 1917 was one of those conjunctures for which Lenin was preparing. There are those who think that the spontaneous nature of the February uprising disproves Lenin’s theory of the party. Students who study the Russian Revolution are usually invited to discuss the question: was the February revolution “spontaneous”, or was it “organised”? And if the latter, who led it? The question is based on the assumption that “spontaneity” and “organisation” are counterposed. But this does not help clarify the issue, it only confuses it. The February revolution was, like all others, both spontaneous and organised.
Richard Stites, in his history of women’s liberation in Russia, describes the process by which a revolutionary situation unfolded: “By providing, almost by accident, a large-scale instance of unpunished civil disorder, they [the working class women of Petrograd] demonstrated the hopeless inability of the government to preserve law and order at the center of its power.” Just the conditions Lenin thought necessary for revolution: the masses refuse to go on in the old way and the rulers can no longer rule in the old way.
The Bolshevik worker Kayurov indicates the role of the conscious element represented by the party: “once there is a mass strike, one must call everybody into the streets and take the lead.” The spontaneity was not mindless and unthinking. It flowed from what workers had been discussing for months – what to do about the privations caused by the war. The Bolsheviks, with roots in the Petrograd working class, were imbued with the idea that the war should be turned into class war. So they were not hampered by a commitment to the war effort. Many historians only notice that the women’s uprising seems spontaneous and in defiance of the socialist organisations, and so they obscure the level of agitation and preparation for a “manifestation”. At least some women were preparing for months before, weighing up the odds, assessing their actions and options. Rex Wade’s account confirms Lenin’s conviction that the vanguard needs to be organised and educated in how to lead:
Especially important were the factory activists… Drawing on lengthy strike experience they quickly moved to the fore and provided the organizational skills and leadership for the demonstrations… They organized the columns of workers as they marched from the factories and exhorted workers to demonstrate rather than simply going home. They gave impassioned speeches articulating worker grievances and demanding the overthrow of the regime. These activists helped organize the strike committees and other revolutionary organizations.
Trotsky summed up the importance of the Bolsheviks, by implication admitting the momentous mistake he had made in standing aloof from the Bolsheviks prior to 1917:
Everywhere were to be found the interpreters of events, chiefly from among the workers… These leaders had often been left to themselves, had nourished themselves upon fragments of revolutionary generalisations arriving in their hands by various routes… Elements of experience, criticism, initiative, self-sacrifice, seeped down through the mass and created, invisibly to a superficial glance but no less decisively, an inner mechanics of the revolutionary movement as a conscious process… To the question, Who led the February revolution? We can answer definitely enough: Conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin.”
Lenin’s response to the February revolution brought together all the elements of his theory and practice. From his experience of the 1890s and 1905, combined with his return to Hegel’s dialectic and his analysis of the imperialist era, he was convinced that the war would create just such a crisis. One month before he had said in an address to young workers in Zurich: “We must not be deceived by the present grave-like stillness in Europe. Europe is pregnant with revolution. The monstrous horrors of the imperialist war, the suffering caused by the high cost of living everywhere engender a revolutionary mood; and the ruling classes…are more and more moving into a blind alley from which they can never extricate themselves without tremendous upheavals.”
From December 1915 he was re-reading Marx and Engels, discovering that the orthodoxy of the Second International had distorted the lessons they drew about the state from both the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune. In the Zurich address Lenin made a number of points which indicate he was ready for the coming storm. First, he emphasised the “awakening of tremendous masses of the people to political consciousness and revolutionary struggle” as the result of that one day, Bloody Sunday. This was “the historic significance” of 22 January 1905. He scoffed at the “‘highly educated’, supercilious and extremely stupid leader of the bourgeois reformists” who had predicted such a revolution was impossible. He tells how the reformists before the revolution dismissed the few hundred revolutionary organisers, and several thousand members of RSDLP local groups as a “sect”. But then within a few months the picture changed completely. The hundreds of revolutionary Social Democrats suddenly grew into thousands; the thousands became the leaders of between two and three million proletarians. With a population of 130,000,000, “Russia was transformed into a Russia of a revolutionary proletariat and a revolutionary people.” Lenin’s conclusion was the theme of his life: “it is necessary to study this transformation, understand why it was possible, its methods and ways… The history of the Russian revolution shows that it was the vanguard, the finest elements of the wage workers, that fought with the greatest tenacity and the greatest devotion… If we take the metal workers…the loss in wages was three times as great [as the average]! The finest elements…marched in the forefront, giving leadership to the hesitant, rousing the dormant and encouraging the weak.” He spelled out the transformative role of such mass struggle:
The real education of the masses can never be separated from their independent political, and especially revolutionary, struggle… Only struggle discloses to [the exploited class] the magnitude of its own power, widens its horizon, enhances its abilities, clarifies its mind, forges its will.
And he emphasised the “peculiar mass organisation” which was formed “in the fire of the battle” – the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies which, with representatives from the workplaces, began to play the part of a provisional revolutionary government in some cities. All the elements which would make up his strategic approach after the February revolution are spelled out. So two days after the news of the fall of the Tsar and the creation of the Provisional Government Lenin could write a thesis to orient the Bolsheviks. In it he argued that the revolution was by no means complete. “It cannot but set itself the task of continuing the fight for a democratic republic and socialism.” Workers needed to be armed, and because of the wavering and confusing role of the other socialist and liberal parties, “we cannot consent to any blocs, or alliances…among the workers” because the most important thing was to clarify the situation for workers. Such alliances could only “inject an element of falseness in the minds of the masses, making them dependent on the Russian imperialist bourgeoisie.”
Cheidze, the Menshevik President of the Soviet, greeted Lenin on his arrival at the Finland station: “Comrade Lenin, in the name of the Petrograd Soviet and of the whole revolution we welcome you… But – we think that the principal task is the defence of the revolution.” This “delicious but” as the Menshevik Sukhanov calls it, led to an appeal to Lenin for unity. Sukhanov records: “Lenin…stood there as though nothing taking place had the slightest connexion with him…turning away from [the Soviet leaders] he made this ‘reply’: ‘Dear Comrades, soldiers, sailors and workers! I…greet you as the vanguard of the worldwide proletarian army…. The Russian revolution accomplished by you has prepared the way and opened a new epoch. Long live the world-wide Socialist revolution!’”
Sukhanov sums up the experience: “Suddenly before the eyes of all of us, completely swallowed up by the routine drudgery of the revolution, there was presented a bright, blinding, exotic beacon obliterating everything we ‘lived by’.” Lenin declared, according to the outraged Sukhanov: “We don’t need any government except the Soviet of workers’, soldiers’ and farmhands’ deputies!” He attacked the Soviet majority, who were backing the Provisional Government as “the same old opportunists, speaking pretty words but in reality betraying the cause of socialism and the worker masses.”  Raskolnikov, a leading Bolshevik sailor, wrote that Lenin’s tactics laid down a Rubicon between the tactics of the leading Bolsheviks yesterday and the coming weeks.
The shock with which Lenin’s declaration was greeted and what was to follow reveals some significant things about the Bolsheviks. Firstly, most people, including Bolshevik members, did not know that Lenin had been bombarding the Bolshevik paper Pravda with letters, along with theses and notes to the Bolshevik leaders which had clearly spelled out the position he put so bluntly. They did not know it because Bolshevik cadre did not assume that everything Lenin wrote was sacrosanct. Kamanev and Stalin, once they took over the editorship of Pravda from comrades like Shlyapnikov, simply edited out the hostile analysis of the Provisional Government and why the soviets should take power. It is significant that Alexandra Kollontai alone supported Lenin at the Central Committee meeting which debated Lenin’s April Theses. She had been receiving Lenin’s letters to forward into Russia and so had had time to think through Lenin’s arguments.
The Letters from Afar are imbued with the ideas which would be brought together in The State and Revolution, appropriately dubbed Lenin’s most “avant-garde” text by Terry Eagleton. Lenin’s first letter had spelled out his position clearly. In it we see his method: “We must first endeavour to define [the actual political situation] with the greatest possible objective precision, in order that Marxist tactics may be based upon the only possible solid foundation – the foundation of facts.” He described the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies as “the embryo of a workers’ government, the representative of the interests of the entire mass of the poor…i.e., of nine-tenths of the population, which is striving for peace, bread and freedom”. The Provisional government would not fulfil these aims.
In the third Letter he concludes: “we cannot overthrow the new government at one stroke”. That will mean a second revolution demanding the same heroism and sacrifice by the masses as in February.All his confidence in working class organisational ability and political good sense spills across the pages. He praises the Soviet and Workers’ Deputies for their proposal to establish a proletarian-soldier “supervising committee” over the Provisional Government. “It is proof that the instinct and mind of the proletarian masses are not satisfied with declamations, promises of reforms and freedoms, with the title ‘minister authorised by the workers’, and similar tinsel, but are seeking support only where it is to be found, in the armed masses of the people organised and led by…the class-conscious workers.” But, he warns, it will amount to nothing if it remains within the narrow limits of parliament, it needs instead to become the basis for workers’ rule.
He spells out further the need for a workers’ state and what that would mean. It must be based on “a genuine people’s militia, i.e., one that, first, consists of the entire population. Of all adult citizens of both sexes, and second, one that combines the functions of a people’s army with police functions.” He calculates that there could be an army of 50,000 at any time, being paid for the time they spend drilling by the employers. “That’s the type of ‘state’ we need!” Who, he asks, can ensure comradely discipline and “that the palaces and rich apartments abandoned by the tsar and aristocracy should not remain vacant, but provide shelter for the homeless and destitute”? – “a people’s militia, to which women must belong equally with men.”
The April Theses and Lenin’s report to the Bolshevik Congress were possibly the most important documents of the revolution and they illustrate Lenin’s methodology with great clarity. They combine an analysis of how he expected the crisis to continue to unfold with the strategy and tactics which would be necessary to win the masses to an understanding of how they could win: “The government must be overthrown, but not everybody understands this correctly. So long as the provisional government has the backing of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, you cannot ‘simply’ overthrow it. The only way it can and must be overthrown is by winning over the majority of the Soviets.”
His efforts to turn the party around tell us a lot about Lenin. He oriented to the worker members, not the intellectuals and leaders. The party workers wanted an end to the war, the eight-hour day, and they supported the land being granted to the peasants. Moreover, they could see that the Provisional Government was not about to make any of these a reality. They protested vigorously against the right wing positions taken by leaders such as Stalin, even demanding their expulsion from the party. Lenin relied on the revolutionary instincts and understanding of worker members. His absolute identification with the working class explains Lenin’s quick victory. At the party conference, a mere three weeks after his arrival, it was only a matter of endorsing Lenin’s thesis that the soviets would have to take power. His position had already been endorsed by district after district.
The events of the rest of 1917 tested Lenin’s method to the extreme. And they illuminated his strengths and the correctness of the lessons he had drawn over 25 years. His intervention in 1917 is a rebuff point by point to the portrait of him as an aspiring tyrant, a Jacobin or Blanquist. His prioritisation of politics over abstract schemas, combined with his more clearly dialectical understanding of historical process, provided the basis for his response to events from February to October.
Look at Lenin’s arguments in April when the Bolsheviks were a small minority in the Soviets: “We are not charlatans. We must base ourselves only upon the consciousness of the masses… We must not be afraid to be a minority… We will carry on the work of criticism in order to free the masses from deceit… Our line will prove right. All the oppressed will come to us.”
Lenin staked everything on his analysis of the likely developments, i.e. that the Provisional Government could not satisfy the expectations raised by the revolution; and that the masses would learn from their experience. After a round of useless slaughter at the front in the senseless offensive sanctioned by the Provisional Government, he emphasised that “The sad experience of the new stage of the war…will inevitably lead to the political downfall of the Socialist-Revolutionary and Menshevik parties. The task of the workers’ party is to help the masses realise and take proper account of this experience, to prepare properly for this great downfall, which will show the masses their true leader – the organised urban proletariat.”
After the debacle of the July days Lenin addressed detailed, patient arguments to the worker militants on why they needed to drop the slogan “All power to the soviets” in the article “On Slogans”. Part of his argument was that they needed to wait until they had won a majority to an understanding of what was needed and a commitment to carry it through. Jean-Jacques Lecercle has praised this article because, he argues, it provides the basis of a Marxist philosophy of language. Whether we can go so far or not, his analysis of Lenin’s article is pertinent. First, as he says, Lenin employs “a concept of meaning, as linked to the conjuncture in which the utterance is produced: meaning is the result of …political struggle.” There are no fixed rules, these need to be reassessed with each new conjuncture. As a consequence, what is said is not a mere description, but an intervention into the state of affairs. “What is suggested here is a political concept of discourse – of discourse as intervention.” Lecercle captures what is central to Lenin’s method: that truth is concrete, and that the role of revolutionaries is to intervene because the outcome of any given situation is more or less an open question. And in a period of revolution, events develop more rapidly than in “normal” times. Convincing the masses to turn their backs on the parties they have to this point supported “would be a very long and arduous process under the ‘normal’ conditions of capitalist development, but both the war and economic disruption…are ‘accelerators’ that may make a month or even a week equal to a year.”
Lenin is at pains to point out that a “sharp turn in history” means revolutionaries must “adapt themselves to the new situation” just as suddenly as the turn has occurred. “The turning point of July 4 was precisely a drastic change in the objective situation. The unstable condition of state power had come to an end…power has passed into the hands of the counter-revolution… The slogan calling for the transfer of state power to the Soviets would now sound quixotic or mocking.” Again in this article we have Lenin’s method clearly articulated. Deal with facts, not generalities: “It is not a question of Soviets in general [on which a new state needs to be built], but of combating the present counter-revolution and the treachery of the present Soviets… The substitution of the abstract for the concrete is one of the greatest and most dangerous sins in a revolution.” Revolutionaries should not deceive the masses, their role is to speak the truth in order that they can carry through what will be necessary for victory. “The slogan calling for the transfer of power to the Soviets might be construed as a ‘simple’ appeal for the transfer of power to the present Soviets…[but this] would mean deceiving the people. Nothing is more dangerous than deceit.”
Again and again Lenin patiently outlines the arguments the Bolsheviks need to take to the masses and his never-flagging belief that those masses will learn from experience. However, this process would not be automatic. The revolutionary proletariat, via its own party, the Bolsheviks, had to intervene, had to help the masses understand their experiences and draw the right conclusions. Lenin’s strength had always been his instinctive rejection of fatalism and his emphasis on the need for intervention based on concrete analysis of the situation. His study of Hegel had raised those aspects of his thinking to a newer, higher plane. He grappled with a point which Marx had made decades before and which Lenin was to explicitly articulate during 1917: “Ideas become a power when they grip the people.” There are particular conjunctures where consciousness is not simply a subjective opinion about the world, but becomes, through collective practice, an element in the objective reality of the world. Philosophically, therefore, practice overcomes the distinction between subjective and objective. Lenin’s emphasis on building a revolutionary party laid the basis for this understanding. But in turn, this understanding is an essential element of the theory of the party. Lenin’s whole conception of the revolutionary party is dialectical. The party, made up of advanced workers, is part of, but for long periods separated from, the majority of the working class – an expression of the dialectical understanding of the unity of opposites. “The unity…of opposites is conditional, temporary, transitory, relative.” His concept of an interventionist party sums up the essential nature of practice. And the idea that revolutions are the response to the crises of capitalism, i.e. revolutionaries do not make revolutions, rests on an understanding of the concrete historical nature of development.
In August, faced with Kornilov’s attempted coup, the moderate parties – who for years had berated Lenin for refusing to be part of a vacillating “marsh” and had argued for unity with those who tailed the liberal intelligentsia – proved incapable of uniting all the parties to defend the revolution. It was only the Bolsheviks, led by the “sectarian” Lenin, who were able to unite all the left forces to defeat Kornilov. The Bolsheviks were the only organisation built on the basis of clear principle and honesty, the only party dedicated to the victory of the working class. And Lenin was clear: defend the Kerensky government from a military coup, but give it no political support. The way to defeat Kornilov was by revolutionary means: arm the workers, mobilise the masses and use their power to thwart this mortal threat to the revolution.
As the Menshevik Sukhanov observed: “At that time, [the Bolshevik Party] was the only organisation that was large, welded together by elementary discipline, and united with the democratic rank and file of the capital. Without them the Military Revolutionary Committee was impotent…With the Bolsheviks…the Military Revolutionary Committee had at its disposal all organised worker-soldier strength.” The effect of Kornilov’s march on Petrograd was to galvanise masses of people into action, transforming the situation. As Lenin had predicted, it was experience of the counter-revolution which educated the masses. The historian David Mandel sums up well the effect of Kornilov’s advance:”the howl of the factory horns announcing the emergency seemed to dispel in one swoop the sluggish, depressed mood of the preceding two months. There followed a show of enthusiasm, the like of which had not been seen since February.”
The coup collapsed in four days. “The insurrection had rolled back, crumbled to pieces, been sucked up by the earth”. And an important lesson in revolutionary strategy was established: how to form a united front with forces who in turn have to be discredited and defeated. As Lenin understood, moralistic desire for “revenge” had no part in a revolutionary strategy. The role of the party was to attempt to lead the actions necessary in order to defend the interests of the working class.
In response to the situation created by the attempted Kornilov coup Lenin, the supposed arch-sectarian bent on nothing but splits and sectarian rivalry, now argued that the Bolsheviks should offer a compromise to the very parties with which he had demanded no compromises whatsoever in April. Lenin’s words written at the time are the answer to his critics to this day. “The usual idea…about the Bolsheviks…encouraged by a press which slanders them, is that the Bolsheviks will never agree to a compromise with anybody… The idea is flattering to us as the party of the revolutionary proletariat, for it proves that even our enemies are compelled to admit our loyalty to the fundamental principles of socialism… Nevertheless, we must say that this idea is wrong… The task of a truly revolutionary party is not to…renounce all compromises, but to be able, through all compromises…to remain true to its principles, to its class,…to its task of paving the way for revolution.”
He offered a deal with the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks now that Kerensky had been discredited. In return for genuine democratic rights to organise and freedom of the press, the Bolsheviks would refrain from revolutionary actions to overthrow the new government. But that government had to be subordinated to the will of the soviets. This, he thought, might be a chance for a peaceful transfer of power. However, he immediately muses “Perhaps this is already impossible?”
Now Lenin would begin preparing the Bolsheviks to lead an insurrection to transfer power to the soviets. Would they rise to the ultimate test? As early as mid-September, he writes “History will not forgive us if we do not assume power now.” The first question was “the opportunist lie that preparation for insurrection, and generally the treatment of insurrection as an art, is ‘Blanquism’”. It is astonishing that historians still assert that Lenin was a Blanquist. His arguments could not be clearer.
To be successful, insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class. That is the first point. Insurrection must rely upon the revolutionary upsurge of the people. That is the second point. Insurrection must rely upon that turning point in the history of the growing revolution when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height, and when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemy and in the ranks of the weak, half-hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution are strongest. That is the third point. And these three conditions for raising the question of insurrection distinguish Marxism from Blanquism.
Once these conditions exist, however, to refuse to treat insurrection as an art is a betrayal of Marxism and a betrayal of the revolution.
In reply to the proposition that “the Marxist party cannot reduce the question of an uprising to that of a military conspiracy”, he argues: “Military conspiracy is Blanquism if it is organised not by a party of a definite class, if its organisers have not analysed the political moment in general and the international situation in particular, if the party has not on its side the sympathy of the majority of the people, as proved by objective facts, if the development of revolutionary events has not brought about a practical refutation of the conciliatory illusions of the petty bourgeoisie, if a majority of the Soviet-type organs of revolutionary struggle that have been recognised as authoritative…have not been won over, if there has not matured a sentiment in the army (if in war-time) against the government…if the slogans of the uprising…have not become widely known and popular, if the advanced workers are not sure of the desperate situation of the masses…if the country’s economic situation inspires earnest hopes for a favourable solution of the crisis by peaceable and parliamentary means.” As he says, “this is probably enough.”
And to show that the conditions which make insurrection necessary exist, he compares the situation following the defeat of Kornilov with the month after the July Days. “Now…we have the following of the majority of a class, the vanguard of the revolution, the vanguard of the people, which is capable of carrying the masses with it.” The peasants recognise that they will not get the land from the bloc of Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. This “is the chief reason for the popular-character of the revolution.” Only the Bolsheviks have a clear way forward, while the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries “are vacillating in an incredible fashion”, as are the international imperialists. Here we have Lenin’s method clearly on display. Every step in the political process must be considered in light of the actual circumstances.
He immediately turns to the practicalities of political intervention which follow. The Democratic Conference is, he reminds his comrades, representative of a minority of the population: “It would be a big mistake, sheer parliamentary cretinism on our part, if we were to regard the Democratic Conference as a parliament… The power of decision lies outside it in the working-class quarters of Petrograd and Moscow.” His proposals are striking. The most intuitive response to an emergency, to a significant decision, is to strengthen your numbers. At the Conference, Lenin argues, the Bolsheviks must cohere as a group “without striving for numbers, and without fearing to leave the waverers in the waverers’ camp. They are more useful to the cause of the revolution there than in the camp of the resolute and devoted fighters.” The Bolshevik faction should draw up a declaration which makes it clear that long speeches are irrelevant, that action is needed. Once they have read it, “we must dispatch our entire group to the factories and the barracks. Their place is there, the pulse of life is there, there is the source of salvation for our revolution… There, in ardent and impassioned speeches, we must explain our programme.”
And when the Bolshevik faction at the Conference defied Lenin’s urgings and stayed, Lenin rebuked them sharply, concluding: “Ten soldiers or ten workers from a backward factory who have become politically enlightened are worth a thousand times more than a hundred delegates.” On 22 September, he notes in his diary that they should have boycotted the Conference. He begins to consider boycotting the Pre-Parliament elections. To this end he draws out the lessons of previous boycotts: “Tactics cannot be based on the bare fact that the oppressors deceive the people; tactics must be shaped after analysing class relations in their entirety and the development of both extra-parliamentary and parliamentary struggle… We must boycott the Pre-Parliament…and go to the Soviet of Workers’, Soldiers and Peasants’ Deputies, to the trade unions, to the masses in general. We must call on them to struggle. We must give them a correct and clear slogan: disperse the Bonapartist gang of Kerensky and his fake Pre-Parliament.” And, as usual, Lenin’s solution is to use the mass of the advanced workers to bring pressure to bear on the Bolshevik leaders: “not all is well with the ‘parliamentary’ leaders of our Party; greater workers’ supervision over them.”
His study of Hegel, Marx and Engels during the war gave Lenin a very clear idea that history does not develop in smooth, linear fashion. He understood that there are conjunctures of events when conscious intervention of individuals and parties could tip the balance between potential outcomes. This was one of them. The masses would not wait patiently for months, possibly not even weeks, for the party to play the role it had been built for. The masses were willing, but revolutionaries had to take responsibility and organise the last insurrection to destroy the weakened state before it destroyed the revolution. The Bolshevik majorities in the soviets was not a constitutional or formal question for Lenin. It was not a question of factional advantage over their rivals, but an important indicator of mass consciousness.
Lenin is increasingly frustrated as his criticisms of the intervention in the Democratic Conference were censored by the Central Committee. He mentions their “‘subtle’ hint that I should keep my mouth shut, and as a proposal for me to retire.” But he has no such intention. Instead, he tenders his resignation from the CC in order to campaign among the rank and file of the party, “For it is my profound conviction that if we ‘wait’ for the Congress of Soviets and let the present moment pass, we shall ruin the revolution.” He was wrong on the tactic of waiting for the Congress of the Soviets; Trotsky had a better feel for how to effect the insurrection, as he was in Petrograd. But Lenin was right on the strategic, historical issue of the need to set a date and to resolutely carry it through. We have the example of October 1923 in Germany as a compelling contrast. The flame of revolution flickered alive again after many defeats, but the KPD (German Communist Party) leadership dithered, and allowed it to be snuffed out, sealing the fate of the German working class, and ultimately of world capitalism as the masses could not muster the confidence and determination to try again for power. As he spells out in the Theses for the October 8 Congress:
[A]ll the decisions of the Bolshevik Party, all its political declarations for many years, may be reduced to the concept that the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies is a reality only as an organ of insurrection, as an organ of revolutionary power. Apart from this, the Soviets are a meaningless plaything that can only produce apathy, indifference and disillusion among the masses, who are legitimately disgusted at the endless repetition of resolutions and protests.
In answer to the objection that the mood of the people does not support his argument, he explains that the signs of growing apathy and indifference are understandable. “It implies not the ebb of the revolution…but the ebb of confidence in resolutions and elections. In a revolution, the masses demand action, not words from the leading parties, they demand victories in the struggle, not talk. The moment is approaching when the people may conceive the idea that the Bolsheviks are no better than the others, since they were unable to act when the people placed confidence in them.”
Ever watching for the next turn the party needed to take, Lenin – having demanded that there be no blocs with other forces at the Democratic Conference – recognising the fracturing of the SRs now agitates for a bloc with the left SRs to draw them into the organisation of an insurrection.
The Second All Russian Congress of Soviets opened at 11.45pm on 26 October. And at the same time a telegram from Lenin was flying through the airwaves to every corner of Russia:
To the citizens of Russia
The Provisional Government has been overthrown. State power has passed into the hands of the organ of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, the Military Revolutionary Committee, which stands at the head of the Petrograd proletariat and garrison.
The cause for which the people have struggled – the immediate proposal of a democratic peace, the elimination of landlord estates, workers’ control over production, the creation of a soviet government – the triumph of this cause has been assured.
Long live the workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ revolution!
However the Stalinist counter-revolution casts a long shadow over this achievement. It caused jubilation on the right and confusion on the left. The tragedy was that Russia remained isolated as the revolutionary upheavals across Europe failed to bring workers to power. As both Lenin and Trotsky predicted, without a successful revolution in Western Europe, they were doomed. Trotsky and those who followed his lead have produced sufficient evidence to confirm this analysis. The argument that this defeat flowed from some original flaw in Bolshevism has no validity. It is a concession to idealism on the one hand and on the other a capitulation to the reactionary utopia of Stalin’s “socialism in one country”.
An elitist, undemocratic party of the type outlined in the “text book” view of Lenin could not possibly have won the confidence of the mass of workers and inspired them with the confidence to lead broader masses to victory in 1917. Because Lenin’s practice and the actual nature of the Bolsheviks has been obscured by the myths which surround this history, many activists are understandably reluctant to even consider the question of why we need to build a revolutionary party. That is why it’s necessary to clarify Lenin’s practice. Then debates about whether to build a revolutionary party based on his ideas can be about what Lenin actually stood for, rather than a mythical “Leninism”.
We can draw out a theory of the party from the experience of the Bolsheviks which I have outlined. First, it needs to be a Marxist party. The general world view of Marxism provides a guide to principle and a means to understand every new development because it is the only theory of how socialism can be won. The overarching theme of Lenin’s writings is a commitment to working class struggle. It is significant that when the Second International failed the test of war Lenin did not spend his time agonising about the structures or organisational norms of the German SPD. He returned to the very roots of Marxism, to Hegel and to what Marx and Engels had concluded from their experience of the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune.
Lenin’s history shows the dialectical relationship between theory and practice. The struggle for clarity and understanding cannot be separated from the class struggle. That’s why training a cadre by this process before workers have to solve the problem of revolution is the only way an interventionist party capable of convincing workers of what is necessary to win victory can be built. There is a constant reassessing of the theory and principles made both necessary and possible by the experience of workers’ struggles. His return to Marx and Engels in 1915 helped Lenin to clarify the need to smash the state. He came to a clearer recognition of the role of workers’ democratic institutions – the soviets in Russia – as the basis for a democratic state to replace the bureaucratic state apparatus of capitalism.
After the collapse of the Second International, he more clearly understood the role of the party; and in grappling with the failure of Western Social Democracy and figures like Kautsky, he articulated a theory of why the most advanced workers need a party if the working class is to lead a revolution. The central idea of Marxism is that socialism is only possible if capitalism is overthrown by an international workers’ revolution. Lenin’s response to the abandonment of that principle by the major parties of the Second International was to say a new international must be built. He came to more clearly understand that defeating reformism was not simply a matter of fighting about ideas. Organisational demarcation from reformists was a necessity in order to combat their influence, and this intersected with his clearer understanding of the need for an interventionist party.
While capitalism is constantly restructuring the world system, the fundamentals do not change. It remains a system of exploitation and crisis, and so the need for and the possibility of revolution link our times to those of the Bolsheviks. In spite of differences of detail, the experience of Lenin and the Bolsheviks is a guide to the kind of organisation which needs to be built again today.
 Corey Oakley and I have been discussing what kind of party needs to be built today and what we can learn from Lenin for a couple of years. His contribution to this article was considerable. And Mick Armstrong was as usual a source of knowledge and ideas.
 Lenin, “What the ‘Friends of the People’ Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats”, Lenin’s Collected Works (LCW), Vol.1, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977. Lenin always used capitals and italics to drive home his points, I have left them as they appear in the collected works throughout.
 Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Pluto Press, London, 1977 [1932-33], p.809.
 Chris Harman of the British Socialist Workers Party disagreed with Lars Lih’s claim that Lenin was an Erfurtian until the war. The issues are of interest, but can be set aside for the purposes of this article: Chris Harman, “Lenin Rediscovered?” Historical Materialism, Vol.18, Issue 3, 2010.
 Kevin B. Anderson, “The Rediscovery and Persistence of the Dialectic of Philosophy and in World Politics”, Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis and Slavoj Zizek (eds), Lenin Reloaded. Towards a Politics of Truth, Duke University Press, London, 2007, p.121.
 Frederick Jameson, “Lenin and Revisionism”, Budgen et al, Lenin Reloaded, pp.70 and 61.
 Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered. What is to be Done? in Context, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2006; Hal Draper, The Myth of Lenin’s “Concept of the Party”. Or What they did to What is to be Done?, 1990 at www.marxists.org; Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1993.
 Tom Freeman, Lenin’s Conception of the Party: Organisational Expression of an Interventionist Marxism, PhD Thesis, Department of Political Science, University of Melbourne, 1999, Chapters 3 and 5. Freeman was a long term member of the International Socialist Tendency. The information about the early years of students and workers is from this thesis.
 Freeman, Lenin’s Conception of the Party, Chapter 5.
 The two first articles in Lenin’s Collected Works, “New Economic Developments in Peasant Life” and “On the so-called Market Question”, were to a large extent incorporated into “What the ‘Friends of the People’ Are”.
 Lenin, “What the ‘Friends of the People’ Are”, pp.296-297.
 Neil Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2009 [1977-78], p.335.
 Lenin, “To the Working Men and Women of the Thornton Factory”, LCW Vol.2, pp.81-85.Ellipse in original.
 Lenin, “Draft and Explanation of a Programme for the Social Democratic Party”, LCW Vol.2, p.107.
 Lenin, “About a Certain Newspaper Article”, LCW Vol.2, pp.321-322.
 For a discussion of this transition and the influence of On Agitation see Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought, pp.109-134; Tony Cliff, Building the Party, Bookmarks, London, 1986, pp.42-59.
 Lenin, “Draft”, pp.113-115.
 Lenin, “On Strikes”, LCW Vol.4, p.317.
 Lenin, “On Strikes”, p.314.
 Lenin, “On Strikes”, p.318.
 Lenin, “The Tasks of the Russian Social-Democrats”, LCW Vol.2, pp.340-341.
 Lenin, “The Tasks of the Russian Social-Democrats”, pp.346-347.
 Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought, p.110.
 Lenin, “A Protest by Russian Social-Democrats”, LCW Vol.4, p.175. To drive home his point Lenin submitted three articles for publication: “Our Programme”, “Our immediate tasks” and “An Urgent Question”.
 Lenin, “A Retrograde Trend in Russian Social-Democracy”, LCW Vol.4, pp.255-278.
 Lenin, “A Retrograde Trend”, pp.282-283.
 Lenin, “A Retrograde Trend”, p.284.
 For a biting critique of arguments against the vanguard party see Terry Eagleton, “Lenin in the Postmodern Age”, Budgen et al, pp.42-50.
 This is the central thesis of Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered.
 Lenin, “The Tasks of the Russian Social-Democrats”, pp.329-331.
 Lenin, “The Tasks of the Russian Social-Democrats”, pp.335-337.
 Lenin, “Our Immediate Tasks”, LCW, Vol.4, p.217.
 Lenin, “Our Immediate Tasks”, p.218.
 Lenin, “Our Immediate Tasks”, p.219.
 Lenin, “An Urgent Question”, LCW, Vol.4, p.224.
 Lenin, “A Retrograde Trend”, pp.280-281.
 Lenin, “Draft of a Declaration of the Editorial Board of Iskra and Zarya”, LCW Vol.4, pp.320-330.
 All quotes from Lenin are from Iskra, in Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, p.202.
 Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, pp.190-191.
 Leon Trotsky, Stalin. An Appraisal of the Man and his Influence, Stein and Day, New York, 1967, p.64.
 Trotsky quotes this sentence to illustrate his description of Lenin above. Trotsky, Stalin, p.64.
 Lenin, “The St Petersburg Strike”, LCW Vol.8, pp.90-91.
 Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, pp.429-430.
 Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, pp.101-124; Freeman, Lenin’s Conception of the Party, Chapter 5.
 Lenin, “The Tasks of the Russian Social-Democrats”, p.335.
 Lenin, “The Beginning of the Revolution in Russia”, LCW Vol.6, p.99.
 Lenin, A Militant Agreement for the Uprising”, LCW Vol.8, pp.158-159.
 Lenin, “A Militant Agreement”, pp.163-164.
 Quoted in Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, p.191.
 Lenin, “A Word to the Bolsheviks of St Petersburg”, LCW Vol.16, p.75.
 Lenin, “Resolution adopted by the Second Paris Group of the R.S.D.L.P., on the State of Affairs in the Party”, LCW Vol.17, p.222.
 Paul Le Blanc, “The Great Lenin Debate – History and Politics”, http://links.org.au/node/3011; Lars Lih, “Bolshevism and Revolutionary Social Democracy”, Weekly Worker 917, June 7, 2012, http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004864.
 Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, p.189.
 See John Percy, “An international balance sheet of the ‘broad party’ strategy”, in this issue.
 Lenin, “Once More on the International Socialist Bureau and the Liquidators”, LCW Vol.20, p.54.
 Lenin, “Narodism and Liquidationism as Disintegrating Elements in the Working-class Movement”, LCW Vol.20, p.60.
 Lenin, “Narodism and Liquidationism”, p.61.
 Lenin, “The Results of Workers’ Press Day Summed Up”, LCW Vol.20, p.548.
 Lenin, “The Results of Workers’ Press Day”, pp.548-49.
 Lenin, “The Results of Workers’ Press Day”, p.550.
 Lenin, “The Results of Workers’ Press Day”, p.551.
 Lenin, “Report of the C.C. of the R.S.D.L.P. to the Brussels Conference and Instructions to the C.C. Delegation”, LCW Vol.20, p.508.
 Quoted in R. Craig Nation, War on War. Lenin, the Zimmerwald Left, and the Origins of Communist Internationalism, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2009, p.5.
 Nation, War on War, pp.30-34.
 This is summed up in his Philosophical Notebooks, LCW Vol.38, a major advance over his earlier Materialism and Empirio-Criticism written in the debates with Bogdanov and other Bolshevik philosophers after 1907. See John Rees, The Algebra of Revolution. The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition, Routledge, London, 1998, pp.170-201.
 Nation, War on War, pp.36-38.
 Robert Service argues that Lenin is a pragmatic opportunist, changing his positions to suit his own purposes, Alex Callinicos, “Lenin in the Twenty-first Century?” in Budgen et al, Lenin Reloaded, p.24.
 Nation, War on War, p.111.
 Lenin, “On the Question of Dialectics”, LCW, Vol.38, p.358.
 For a discussion of these theoretical issues see Rees, Algebra of Revolution, p.191 and Savas Michael-Matsas, “Lenin and the Path of Dialectics”, Budgeon et al, Lenin Reloaded.
 For a discussion of this clarification of Lenin’s thought see Daniel Bensaid, “‘Leaps! Leaps! Leaps!’”, International Socialism Journal 95, Summer 2002, reproduced in Budgen et al, Lenin Reloaded.
 Quoted in Rees, Algebra of Revolution, p.192.
 For example, the essays in Budgen et al, Lenin Reloaded, are divided into Lenin’s philosophy, “politics and its subject”, and his writings on war and imperialism. With a few notable exceptions such as Daniel Bensaid, Terry Eagleton and Lars Lih, abstract theory is separated from Lenin’s ideas on the party, limiting the lessons activists can draw from them.
 Quoted in Paul Le Blanc (ed), Revolution, Democracy, Socialism. Selected writings of V.I. Lenin, Pluto Press, London, 2008, pp.36-37.
 Lenin, “Report on the Third Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party”, LCW Vol.8, pp.434-437.
 Le Blanc, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism, pp.38-39.
 Lenin, “Report on the Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.”, LCW Vol.10, p.376. This point was repeated in “Freedom to Criticise and Unity of Action”, LCW, Vol.10, p.443.
 Lenin, “Report on the Unity Congress”, p.377.
 “Freedom to Criticise and Unity of Action”, pp.442-43.
 Alfred G. Meyer, quoted in Le Blanc, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism, p.36.
 Leon Trotsky, Revolution Betrayed, Pathfinder, New York, 1980, pp.94-95.
 Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia. Feminism, Nihilism and Bolshevism, 1860-1930, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1990, p.290.
 Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p.121.
 Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia, pp.288-290.
 Rex Wade, The Russian Revolution, 1917, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p.32.
 Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, pp.169-171.
 Lenin, “Lecture on the 1905 Revolution”, LCW Vol.23, p.253.
 Lenin, “Lecture on the 1905 Revolution”, pp.237-240.
 Lenin, “Lecture on the 1905 Revolution”, p.241.
 Lenin, “Draft Theses, March 4 (17), 1917”, LCW Vol.23, pp.290-291.
 N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917. A Personal Record, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1984, pp.273-274.
 Quoted in Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, pp.313-314.
 Eagleton, “Lenin in the Postmodern Age”, Budgen et al, p.56.
 Lenin, “Letters from Afar. First Letter: the First stage of the First Revolution”, LCW Vol.23, pp.304-305. Little did the activists of the Occupy movement of 2011 know they were taking up Lenin’s slogan of the 99 percent!
 Lenin, “Letter from Afar. Third Letter: Concerning a Proletarian Militia”, LCW Vol.23, p.323.
 Lenin, “Letters from Afar. Second Letter: The New Government and the Proletariat”, LCW Vol.23, p.318.
 Lenin, “Letters from Afar. Third Letter”, pp.328-329.
 Lenin, “Petrograd City Conference”, LCW Vol. 24, p.146.
 Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p.810.
 Lenin, “To What State have the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks Brought the Revolution?”, LCW Vol.25, pp.120-122.
 Jean-Jacques Lecercle, “Lenin the Just, or Marxism Unrecycled”, in Budgen et al, Lenin Reloaded, p.274.
 Lenin, “On Slogans”, LCW Vol.25, p.190.
 Lenin, “On Slogans”, p.185.
 Lenin, “On Slogans”, pp.191-192.
 Lenin, “Constitutional Illusions”, LCW Vol.25, p.210.
 Rees, Algebra of Revolution, pp.188-190.
 Lenin, “On the Question of Dialectics”, pp.357-358.
 See Lenin, LCW Vol.25, pp.285-289 for Lenin’s writing on the coup.
 Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution, p.505.
 David Mandel, The Petrograd Workers and the Soviet Seizure of Power, quoted in Derek Howl, “Book watch: The Russian Revolution” International Socialism Journal 62, Spring 1994, p.140.
 Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p.736.
 Lenin, “On Compromises”, LCW Vol.25, pp.309-314.
 Lenin, “The Bolsheviks Must Assume Power”, LCW Vol.26, p.21.
 Lenin, “Marxism and Insurrection”, LCW Vol.26, pp.22-23.
 Lenin, “Letter to Comrades”, LCW Vol.26, pp.212-213.
 Lenin, “Marxism and Insurrection”, pp.23-24.
 Lenin, “Marxism and Insurrection”, pp.24-27.
 Lenin, “Heroes of Fraud and Mistakes of the Bolsheviks”, LCW Vol.26, pp.43-51.
 Lenin, “From a Publicist’s Diary. The Mistakes of the Party”, LCW Vol.26, pp.52-58.
 Lenin, “The Crisis has Matured”, LCW Vol.26, p.84.
 Lenin, “Theses for a Report at the October 8 Conference of the Petrograd Organisation, Also for a Resolution and Instructions to those Elected to the Party Congress”, LCW Vol.26, p.143.
 Lenin, “Letter to the Bolshevik Comrades”, LCW Vol.26, p.184.
 Lenin, “Letter to I.T. Smilga, Chairman of the Regional Committee of the Army, Navy and Workers of Finland”, LCW Vol.26, p.71.
 Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power. The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2004 , pp.274-275.
 Trotsky, Revolution Betrayed; Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, Bookmarks, London, 1988 ; Anthony Arnove, Peter Binns, Tony Cliff, Chris Harman, Ahmed Shawki, Russia: From Workers’ State to State Capitalism, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2003 [four essays in this book first published by Bookmarks, London, 1987].