Review: Tom Freeman, 'Lenin’s Interventionist Marxism'

by Viktoria Ivanova • Published 12 January 2018

On a cold day in January 1905, Father Georgy Gapon led a march of workers from the Narva district on a mission to deliver an obsequious petition to Tsar Nicholas II. Unarmed, they sang patriotic songs and chanted “Long live the tsar!” They never made it to the Winter Palace. Soldiers of the Imperial Guard fired on the peaceful march before it could cross the Narva Gate.

This is the narrative of Bloody Sunday, considered the catalyst for Russia’s 1905 revolution.

It is less commonly known that there were several other marches organised to descend on the centre of St. Petersburg that day. One came from the Nevskii district, “the oldest and most concentrated centre of industry in the city”, which had become the centre of the labour movement, led by a significant layer of worker intellectuals with experience of years of struggle. This was not their first rodeo. The mood was more sober and less naïve. When the bullets began to fly, the marchers did not disperse in a panic. They had organised to regroup in the centre of the city. Another march, beginning from the Vyborg district – a newer region where growth was outstripping the Nevskii and which “would also be profoundly significant in the subsequent revolutionary history of the city” – was transformed into a street battle with the armed forces.[1] On Vasilevskii Island another group of marchers set up barricades, and battles continued for days. The resistance there was led by a Bolshevik student from a local university.[2]

For Tom Freeman, the devil is in the detail. This command of the facts is part of what makes Lenin’s Interventionist Marxism shine.

The book is the end product of Freeman’s extensive research in Russian archives, during the mid- to late 1990s. The research was undertaken as part of a PhD thesis originally titled “Lenin’s conception of the party: organisational expression of an interventionist Marxism”. Sadly, Freeman did not live to see his thesis published. When the new radical left Australian publisher Interventions was established in 2015, Sandra Bloodworth (who has contributed an introduction to the book) suggested the thesis for publication.

The focus of Freeman’s work is the St. Petersburg labour movement from 1861 to mid-1907. In one sense, this is quite narrow and somewhat of a limitation, though perhaps unavoidable in a book based on a PhD thesis. That said, Freeman makes a convincing case for the historical merits of this period. Specifically, he argues that it provides evidence for continuity in Lenin’s approach to class struggle and party building before, during and after 1905.

Freeman engages with the debates around Economism, determinism and spontaneity. He also has a unique take on what has been, until recently, considered orthodoxy. This orthodoxy discovers the essence of Bolshevism in Lenin’s apparently elitist formulation that socialist consciousness is introduced into the working class “from without”, and his program to build a conspiratorial party of intellectuals supposedly articulated in What Is To Be Done?

While these concepts and debates constitute the furniture of most recent radical accounts of the Russian revolution, few go as far as Freeman in emphasising the necessity for conscious leadership and interventionist Marxism across all phases of class struggle.

That Freeman was well positioned to do this is no coincidence. As a lifelong revolutionary, he brought to bear an activist and revolutionary perspective. This, combined with detailed historical research, allowed him to achieve three things.

Firstly, his work anticipates Lars Lih’s contribution – which played a role in rehabilitating Lenin studies – by several years.[3] Secondly, Freeman integrates theory into his historical understanding. I have argued the value for this approach to Leninism in a previous article.[4] For the far left, history has always been politically charged. It is also part of the way in which organisations form their understanding of their project and strategy. As well, his commitment to building a revolutionary Marxist group, even when isolated or marginal, has enabled Freeman to uncover aspects of Lenin’s praxis that are often overlooked by more academically oriented historians.

At the time of his research, Freeman was a member of the International Socialist Tendency in Australia, a Marxist current founded by Tony Cliff in the UK in the 1960s. Over a series of his works, Cliff established his own take on the Lenin orthodoxy. His reading was marked by its time. On the one hand, he differentiated himself politically from orthodox Trotskyism, which tended to cast Lenin in almost Stalinist terms – a leader gifted with perfect theoretical vision. On the other hand, he was responding, in part, to the radicalism of the 1960s.

This radicalism, which in many countries was at least initially centred around students and universities, as Freeman points out, led to a rejuvenation of Marxism, but one that emphasised spontaneity and radical democracy. For many associated with the New Left or with more libertarian currents, this accompanied a rejection of Lenin as authoritarian. The heavy-handed bureaucratism of Communist parties around the world vindicated this rejection.

Both Cliff and co-thinker John Molyneux did well to present a more democratic Lenin.[5] Freeman’s work is an attempt to build on their presentation. Despite this, Freeman argues that Cliff and Molyneux presented an over-simplified and dichotomised Lenin. Prior to 1905, Cliff and Molyneux read Lenin as still holding a conspiratorial and elitist conception of the party. In their account, this changed following the events of Bloody Sunday. This, to Freeman’s mind, makes a concession to spontaneist or determinist arguments:

[I]f the mainstream had strong echoes of the broad economic determinism of the revisionists and centrists in the Second International, then the critics [Cliff and Molyneux, among others] at least partially echoed the determinism in relation to the class struggle of the revolutionary left within that movement. In particular, most critics at least partially rejected Lenin’s critique of “spontaneity” and the consequent necessary role he gave to conscious intervention in the development of workers’ struggle.[6]

It is this approach, one which refuses to read Lenin in stark or oversimplified terms, that sets Freeman’s work apart.

Growth of Marxist politics in Russia

Debates within the radical intelligentsia in the St. Petersburg districts may have played out in abstract terms – inevitably in their isolation from workers’ struggles. But at various points, they were necessarily linked with organisational and strategic outcomes. Here, theoretical perspectives enjoyed the privilege of rising to practice. This practice in turn allowed for real testing of theoretical perspectives. Far from being passive in this process, small numbers of worker activists were actors in it, and were more than capable of forming opinions on different tendencies. This is not to say that workers could substitute for the intelligentsia. Rather, their agency consisted in seeking out allies amongst the intelligentsia. Freeman points to examples in which workers sought out and recruited intellectuals to their cause.

In the pre-1905 period, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) is still in formation. This is not a history of a single, unified party, but rather of multiple nuclei which coalesce briefly under repressive conditions only to disperse and reunify in different forms. Continuity is embodied by individuals, for example, Plekhanov. Even in exile, despite isolation, he argued that intellectuals needed to agitate among workers.

Inside Russia, however, the situation was very fluid. Organisations were considered successful if they lasted longer than a year. Key leaders might expect arrest, imprisonment and exile. Leaders in one city would often reappear in others to start afresh. The effect of this, although often imperceptible, was cumulative. This was not, however, without its overheads. The frustrations of building in this environment constantly created a temptation towards terrorism on the one hand, and capitulation on the other (for example, in the form of “Legal Marxism” à la Pyotr Struve).

The political struggle for revolutionaries prior to 1905 revolved around forming solid organisations that could endure intense repression and that could make contact with workers. However, this was often set back by the tsarist state. Nevertheless, the political impacts were measurable. In the instance of a May Day demonstration, for example, it grew rapidly over three days, before dissipating as quickly as it had arisen. Experiences like these proved to Lenin – just as they prove to us – that the interventions of organised socialist intellectuals are not fruitless.

In a more concrete sense, this humanises not only the radical intellectuals of the early RSDLP, but the worker activists along whose side they struggled. It shows that the working class was developing a memory and its own traditions that survived despite regular setbacks or being driven underground. In fact, without this narrative, 1905 becomes a miraculous and inexplicable event.

Freeman’s book does not end with 1905 – its story continues through to 1907. These are the years in which the divisions in the RSDLP crystallise and bear consequences. It is in 1907 that the Bolsheviks enjoy significant quantitative and qualitative growth. Freeman argues that this was made possible by Lenin’s leadership. That is to say, without the difficult experience of building a small group in intensely repressive conditions, the Bolshevik Party, which generates so much discussion today, is inconceivable. The small groups which preceded its formation were by no means condemned to abstraction or mere propaganda. In fact, their activity necessarily conformed to the contours of tsarist hegemony; it both reflected the divide between the proletariat and the intelligentsia imposed by the Okhrana and sought to overcome it.

Socialism “from without”

Freeman spends a great deal of the book fleshing out Lenin’s infamous socialism “from without” formulation. Instead of attempting to rewrite, downplay or produce an apologia for it, he embraces the formulation and seeks to explain it. He argues:

The development of capitalism did indeed provide the material base to enable workers to resist exploitation and produced leaders who could articulate their grievances. Yet this articulation itself was a subjective process enabled by the critique of tsarism developed “outside” the workplace, indeed initially “outside” the working class as a whole. That critique was first made by dissident liberals, then Populists and finally by those moving towards a Marxist position.[7]

This is only an outrage to democracy if Marxists expect workers to spontaneously generate a worked-out world view. One may well argue that Marxism represents the standpoint of the proletariat without expecting that every proletarian or the proletariat as a whole will develop naturally or inevitably towards it. On the other hand, the very possibility of generating a Marxist world view, even if this possibility is realised by an intelligentsia, is governed by the existence and experience of the proletariat. Seen like this, strictly speaking, there is no “outside”; to introduce Marxism “from without” therefore might be more accurately rendered as relative to but not absolute separation from the class.

This theoretical insight, expanded historically, allows Freeman to develop a more concrete account of the intersection between leaders and led in the class struggle in the period of Russian history that he covers.

Yet, leaving it only at this, Freeman argues, could give way to a depiction of Lenin as authoritarian and elitist. But worker leaders were not passively acquiring an understanding of tsarism from the radical intelligentsia, they were taking on arguments critically, and at certain points “themselves became intellectuals” as Lenin fully expected they could.[8]

If the mainstream view was correct and Lenin’s intention was that the revolutionary agent was the intelligentsia, then it would also be true, as Molyneux claims, that the working class would be reduced to impotence and manipulated passivity. Yet this view is countered by Lenin’s comments here and in other passages from the polemic against the Economists. Thus the theoretical incapacity of the working class at this point is conditioned by the clause “exclusively by its own effort”. The implication is that workers could in fact become socialist theorists themselves – as long as revolutionary intellectuals did not adopt a determinist passivity in relation to this possibility.[9]

And in a footnote on the same page, Freeman argues that Lenin’s concept of this process was very similar to that of Gramsci’s concept of “organic intellectuals”.

Freeman insists that this dynamic of socialism “from without” persists throughout the entire period he covers, not just prior to the mass upheavals of 1905. He does not limit himself to an expectation that worker leaders can only develop political consciousness in times of upsurge. Rather, the interaction of intellectuals and worker leaders during low points of struggle flowed through and influenced their interaction during the high points.

Throughout the book, Freeman highlights the elements of organisation among workers. Strikes were unheard of during St. Petersburg’s early phase of industrial development, with resistance limited to random outbursts, often riots. The disputes were generally around poor wages.[10] Freeman notes here that this is not just an indication of Russia’s economic immaturity, but has a lot to do with worker leaders not yet coming into sustained contact with Russia’s radical intelligentsia.

But Lenin noted that with experience, especially of strikes, workers would plan more thoroughly, and begin developing the rudiments of organisation. And even these early forms of resistance were initiated by individual activists, often with the assistance of educated “outside” figures from the church or army who held liberal politics and ultimately were loyal to tsarism.

The first labour organisation, the Northern Union, emerged during the strike wave of 1878-9. Its politics were dominated by Populism and it was short-lived, largely because of the role of state intervention: “the state was concerned to maintain the separation between these ‘instigators’ and those dissident intellectuals ‘outside’ the class who sought to provide them with the means to articulate the grievances of their fellow workers”.[11]

On the other hand, the tsarist state promoted and funded conservative trade union organisations which ultimately played a role in organising workers and providing a basis for strikes. As Freeman points out, workplace committees sponsored by the state with the aim of co-opting the militants provided the model for the soviets of 1905.

Immediately, this is an argument against the determinist idea that as capitalist productive forces advance, so can socialist consciousness. Tsarism’s conscious strategy to prevent workers from drawing links between struggle and improvements in their working conditions reflected a very real division of theory (realm of the intelligentsia) and practice (realm of the workers). Termed the “two-pronged” approach, it relied on both pressuring employers to improve conditions while directly repressing the radical intelligentsia. At the same time the regime was establishing state-sanctioned schools, a necessity if tsarism was to raise the level of education of workers so they could operate more complex machinery and facilitate Russia’s imperialist endeavours, but often run by anti-tsarist radicals and revolutionaries like Krupskaya and later Lenin.


All of this had a profound impact on the politics of the intelligentsia. After combating the old ideas of the populists who favoured terrorism, Lenin realised that now the biggest threat to workers becoming Marxists was Economism. Freeman explains the phenomenon of Economism not as an over-emphasis on economic struggle as Cliff does, but as the effect of setbacks: “[T]he dominance of this reformist political view was the product not of the rise of workers’ struggle, but rather the repression of that struggle and the subsequent demoralisation of the ‘worker intelligents’.”[12] And the stabilisation of the economy in the early 1890s lessened the pressure for radical actions.

This explains the appeal of Economism, and how it gained traction among workers under the influence of intellectuals in their study circles. Gains could be made at the factory level in a way that could not be made by political activity. From there, it would make sense to assume that worker consciousness develops alongside its self-activity. So, at its core, Economism was an intellectual trend which attempted to sidestep an impasse in the struggle. Given this fit with the moment, proponents of Economism were capable of making temporary gains. And since many of the advocates of the more explicitly political currents within Russian Marxism were in exile, an additional space was produced for Economism, which downplayed independent Marxist politics. From the point of view of the working class, which was a long way from developing confidence in its own power, this could be persuasive.

To emphasise the spontaneous development of the working class towards socialist politics appears to be an anti-elitist position. Yet, the opposite is true. As Freeman shows, Economism was a theory – like all others – introduced from without. It was merely a theory that downplayed the importance of theory. In overstating the radicalism of the class, Economism effectively ceded ground. This tended to accept the consciousness of the proletariat as it was, rather than fighting for the next step in advancing consciousness. Insofar as the economists did have a positive program, it tended to emphasise strikes. And, by downgrading the need for politics, they effectively liquidated party identity. Lenin’s approach stressed the necessity for a relative separation between the minority who could be expected to form a Marxist party and the rest of the class.

In a sense, this was a more honest approach to politics: rather than flattering the class by overstating its radicalism, this approach made an argument to the class. Only by presenting Marxist politics to the class may proletarians freely choose between perspectives.

Freeman cites evidence for a similar dynamic in a number of different moments in the history of the Russian workers’ movement. At every point – from the beginnings of Marxism in the Central Workers’ Circle and Central Students’ Circle to the debates over Father Gapon’s organisation – he emphasises that Marxists met with success only when they made a clear and concrete political intervention into the workers’ movement.

Freeman’s research highlights the extent to which the role of students is generally underplayed in relation to Marxism in Russia and the practice of the Bolshevik party. The Central Students’ and Central Workers’ Circles were organised in the wake of student protests. It was students who connected exiled Marxists, based in Geneva, to the workers’ movement in St. Petersburg. Students distributed propaganda and ran study circles for worker leaders, and it was within the student and worker milieux that converging streams of Populism, liberalism and Marxism were debated out. The Economists self-identified as workers who rejected the influence of intellectuals, but in fact it was taken up by both workers and students.

Their paper Rabochaia Mysl was founded by a worker and a teacher from the “Sunday Schools” which were run by activists and largely tolerated, sometimes even promoted by the authorities, as a cheap way to have workers educated in literacy and other basic skills. The best known figure responsible for organising the Marxist movement was K.M. Takhtarev, a medical student, but worker intellectuals and circles based in factories were prominent in opposing economism, the best known being a circle of workers around M.I. Kalinin at the Putilov plant.[13]

What united them was the view that workers’ struggle had to be limited to economic demands, never a confrontation with the state.

From “worker intelligentsia” to “worker activists”

The approach of Lenin to small party-building in the years preceding the 1905 revolution was vindicated by the growth of Marxism and its transition from a small group of isolated intellectuals to a substantial layer of worker activists.

Freeman argues for a continuity in Lenin’s theory and practice that Cliff and Molyneux do not. Theorist Alan Shandro views this in terms of Lenin’s conception of proletarian hegemony.[14] For Freeman, it boils down to Lenin’s unwavering conception of the party as a “vehicle for conscious intervention” in all phases of class struggle.[15]

Prior to 1905 this had to be, by necessity, limited to a handful of individuals who could only conceptually conceive of a generalised class struggle. And they did so “from without” the class, through individual study. Where there were strikes and opportunities for intersecting with the class, the gains were short-lived and sectional. Where there were worker leaders who did take up more general politics, they could only do so as individuals.

The upheavals of 1905 served to broaden the scope of intervention. Following Bloody Sunday, Lenin famously argued for the opening of party structures. This moment is often cited as evidence of his turn away from conspiratorial, substitutionist party to building to a broad party reflecting the spontaneous nature of the upheavals. Rather, it was an argument to provide a lead to the most combative workers and recruit them to the ranks of the Marxist party so as not to lose them to political rivals, namely the liberals.

Thus, whereas the tiny intelligentsia had learnt by studying how others made history, the mass of activists learnt by actually making, or failing to make, history themselves. This meant that the theoretical disputes that had earlier fractured the intelligentsia persisted to divide the activists – but they did so in the form of divisions over tactics to be adopted in the mass struggle, rather than general questions of principle.[16]

For Lenin, passivity was the domain of the Mensheviks, and activity the strength of the Bolsheviks. Freeman quotes Lenin in celebrating a call to “recruit young people more widely and boldly, more boldly and widely, and again more widely and again more boldly, without fearing them”.[17]

Freeman takes us step by step through the variations of Lenin’s approach, from the initial outburst around Gapon in January 1905, through the downturn in the middle of the year, and finally in the October general strike. Lenin saw the struggles immediately following Bloody Sunday as qualitatively better than any struggles that preceded them. They were more combative, more political, and had the element of solidarity. He identified a new, radicalised layer in the working class he was determined should be recruited to Marxist politics.

In particular, insurrection, which had earlier been the ultimate vision of Social Democrat “intelligents”, now became the immediate aim of “activists”. Independence of Social Democracy from bourgeois liberalism, which had earlier been established in a struggle over principle within the “intelligentsia”, now had to be fought out among the “activists” over the tactics to be adopted in the struggle against tsarism.[18]

And we follow the agonising retreat punctured by upsurges which each time reinvigorated Lenin’s conviction that the Social Democrats should be preparing for insurrection. Ultimately the revolution was pushed back, but Lenin was the last to concede it was now a new period of reaction.

Freeman’s detailed account of the struggle to restructure the Bolsheviks in the midst of these ups and downs of the struggles of 1905 to 1907 is a devastating rebuff to both the orthodox and more sympathetic critics’ misrepresentations of Lenin’s ideas. Freeman argues that Lenin’s focus was never the party structure but always the necessity of producing a wider layer of “worker activists”. So there is no “template” for the revolutionary party that can be identified as “Leninist”. Whatever the circumstances, Lenin fought within the RSDLP to intervene to attempt to take workers’ struggles as far as possible, and at the same time, to recruit the most advanced workers. Flexibility on questions of party organisation based on this principle is the only guide to understanding Lenin’s ideas about the party.

This is a theme throughout Freeman’s account, and the basis for his argument that Lenin broke from Second International determinism more profoundly than his critics. Lenin, he argues, was never passively determinist, whether in the development of a leadership in the workers’ movement or intervening in this leadership to win a layer of workers to Marxism; and never determinist about the party. That is the basis for Lenin’s reputation as a polemicist. Nothing could be left to simply develop under the impact of events. So Lenin can only be understood if his positions are examined firmly within the context at any given time. Freeman sums up the impact of 1905-1907:

Associated with this transformation of the context, Lenin shifted his own conception of party organisation from a limited and defensive current of “intelligents” to an open and broad party of “activists”. Most critical writers lean to the conclusion that this shift constitutes a break between an earlier authoritarianism or substitutionism and a later “spontaneism” more consistent with the working class self-consciousness essential to Marx’s own views. Yet a comprehensive review of Lenin’s writing following Bloody Sunday reveals a continuity from before 1905 in the nature of the party as a vehicle for conscious intervention. As was the case earlier, such an “elite” was necessary to realise the objective possibility of workers’ class consciousness, through generalising from individual and sectional experience to the class nature of society as a whole.[19]

The new situation, with strong elements of spontaneous outbursts, did not challenge Lenin’s previous assumptions but opened the possibility to broaden the scope of the party’s activity:

It is certainly true that at times when such an apparently “spontaneous” rise was evident, notably in January and October 1905 as well as June 1906 and February 1907, Lenin single-mindedly promoted the consequences of this rise for Social Democratic intervention. Yet in the relative slumps between these peaks of struggle, Lenin’s comments argued a more deliberate role for Social Democrats in developing the consciousness of the “activists”. Just as before Bloody Sunday, the crux of Lenin’s views on party organisation lay in the task of intervention to raise consciousness, not in any particular comments on structure, which were always related to the particular context in which this task was to be carried out.[20]

In a recent article titled “Lenin Studies: Method and Organisation”, Paul Le Blanc outlines the merits of recent contributions to Leninism, focusing mainly on Antonio Negri, Tamás Krausz and Alan Shandro. He writes that their work “provides a more consistent activist and revolutionary edge that might have relevance for future struggles, particularly in relation to the question of organisation”.[21] He also credits the invaluable work of Lars Lih, Neil Harding and Tony Cliff, among many others.

If Freeman’s work had been published when his thesis was completed in 1999, he almost certainly would have been added to this list. More importantly, it would have sooner provided a valuable resource to small revolutionary organisations worldwide.

Freeman’s contribution is not as vast in scope as Lih’s, or as theoretically rich as Shandro’s. Almost 20 years have passed between his authoring this study and its being published. And yet, it does more than just anticipate recent breakthroughs. It sheds light on an area of Russian history and an element of Lenin’s experience of party building that has been unduly neglected. That is, the work of small groups of individuals, operating in times of relative stability and obscurity, setting up the foundations for intervening in class struggle when the opportunity arises.

Cliff, Tony 1986 [1975], Lenin: Building the Party 1883-1914, Bookmarks.

Freeman, Tom 2017, Lenin’s Interventionist Marxism, Interventions.

Ivanova, Viktoria 2017, “Review: Alan Shandro, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony”, Marxist Left Review, 13, Summer.

Le Blanc, Paul 2017, “Lenin Studies: Method and Organisation”, Historical Materialism.

Lih, Lars 2006, Lenin Rediscovered: What is To Be Done? In Context, Haymarket Books.

Molyneux, John 1978, Marxism and the Party, Pluto Press, London.

Shandro, Alan 2015, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony: Political Practice and Theory in the Class Struggle, Haymarket Books.

[1] Freeman 2017, p80.

[2] ibid., p119.

[3] Lih 2006.

[4] Ivanova 2017, p119.

[5] Cliff 1986; Molyneux 1978.

[6] Freeman 2017, p75.

[7] ibid., p83.

[8] ibid., p84.

[9] ibid., p69.

[10] ibid., p78.

[11] ibid., p82.

[12] ibid., p97.

[13] Sandra Bloodworth, “Introduction”, Freeman 2017, p10.

[14] Shandro 2015.

[15] Freeman 2017, p253.

[16] ibid., p111.

[17] ibid., p257.

[18] ibid.

[19] ibid., p253.

[20] ibid., p254.

[21] Le Blanc 2017, p1.

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