the democratic aspect
Lenin in 1905. A revolution that shook a doctrine
[This article, which appeared in Monthly Review in
1970, is relevant to the question of what Lenin called "committee
men" in Marxist organisations.]
By Marcel Liebman
The year 1905 saw the first encounter between
Leninism and revolution. Until 1905 Lenin had been concerned with
working out the theory and everyday practice of the instrument of the
revolution, the vanguard Party. He had elaborated its structural
requirements and operational methods. He had developed some of his
most important, concepts – the necessity of Party centralisation,
the discipline by which it must be ruled, and the role of the
Party in guiding the masses and organising them into cadres in
order to counteract the defects of a spontaneity which he had forcefully
stressed. Finally, Lenin had stressed, especially in What
Is to Be Done? the prime importance of a party of
professional revolutionaries constituting, as it were, a political and
military order capable of both struggling against police repression and
providing a bulwark against opportunism. These ideas represented the
first systematic and coherent conception of an elitist Party
having the task of directing the activity of the proletariat.
The 1905 Revolution affords the first opportunity to
observe the flexibility of Lenin’s views, the pliability of his ideas,
and the essential characteristic of his revolutionary genius: his
ability to understand the meaning and ramifications of events, his
grasp of the fresh possibilities which arise out of new facts and play
sudden havoc with analyses – including his own – long taken
for granted; and last but not least, his will and capacity to learn from
the masses and successfully apply the lessons of the movement.
That he could do this was due not to shrewd and somewhat cynical
calculation on his part, but to his profoundly revolutionary and
democratic conviction that the people are the agents of their own
liberation, and to the temperament of a militant who readily abandons;
the drabness of theory in order to commit himself fully to the struggles
unleashed by the masses. Leninism is a doctrine, but it is also, a
pragmatic attitude oriented toward revolutionary action which deepens
and invigorates the doctrine and prevents it from becoming rigid.
This is evidenced by the manner in which Lenin reacted to the 1905
Revolution, and which in many respects foreshadows an attitude that made
him, in 1917, the principal architect of the Bolshevik victory.
We will trace the evidence by examining the
following: the conception and structures of the Bolshevik organisation
as they were transformed by the revolutionary events; Lenin’s views
regarding the nature of the Party, the role of the masses, and
revolutionary strategy; and, finally, his attempts to get his own
followers to accept his views.
1905 and the Bolshevik Revolution
The January 1905 events took most Russian
revolutionaries by surprise. The Bolsheviks in particular had not
anticipated these events and reacted to them generally with misgivings,
hesitations, and even some hostility. Although in the ensuing months
popular agitation spread throughout the country, they did not readily
alter their attitude. But the movement developed so rapidly, and its
success, although short-lived, was so spectacular, that the events could
not fail to leave a profound mark on Bolshevism. The Leninist
organisation shaped by the 1905 Revolution was different from its
original form, as elaborated by Lenin.
Lenin had presented the general principles
underlying his organisational views not only in What
Is to Be Done?; and One:
Step Forward, Two Steps Back, but also in numerous articles,
reports and speeches. A
Letter to a Comrade on Our Organisational Tasks, which dates
from September 1902, is in many respects the most interesting of these
documents. This letter does not contain mere generalities; it
furnishes information that enables us to understand Lenin’s concrete
views of the revolutionary Party. In this letter he describes his
conception of the relationship between the revolutionary organisation
and the mass of workers, and provides details concerning the structure
and functions of the Party.
The local committees, themselves subject to the
leadership of the Central Committee, should direct “all aspects
of the local movement”, and consist of “fully conscious Social
Democrats who devote themselves entirely to Social Democratic
activities.”1 The authority of the committees must extend
even to a number of technical matters and to sections quite competent to
deal with questions affecting their own localities, and their relations
with the local leadership must be governed by the principle of
centralisation and by strict hierarchic subordination. In this
connection Lenin emphasised that “the elective principle and
decentralisation [are] . . . absolutely impermissible . . . and even
altogether detrimental to revolutionary work, carried on under an
autocracy”.2 Finally, there are at the base “factory
(mill) committees” consisting of “a very small number of revolutionaries,
who take their instructions and receive their authority to carry on all
Social Democratic work in the factory directly from the committee”.
Lenin emphasises that “every member of the factory committee should
regard himself as an agent of the committee, obliged to submit to an its
orders and to observe all the ‘laws and customs’ of the ‘army in
the field’, which he has joined and from which in time of war he has
no right to absent himself without official leave.” 3 It is
clear that this approach places great stress on the strict necessity for
army-like discipline and on the almost unlimited prerogatives of
committees whose composition reflects the predominance and even absolute
hegemony of professional revolutionaries. In keeping with Lenin’s
views and the requirements of the epoch, however, the nomination of
Party cadres – Bolsheviks well as Mensheviks – followed the system
of co-optation, the democratic principle of eligibility being almost
unknown in the practice of the Russian Social Democracy.
The Leninist approach was put to a severe test by
the revolutionary events that occurred in 1905 and 1906. Lenin
himself was the first to realise this. He had until then defended
the idea of a Party with a very restricted membership. In February 1905,
however, be stated that “we must considerably increase the membership
of all Party and Party-connected organisations in order to be able to
keep up to some extent with the stream of popular revolutionary energy
which has been a hundredfold strengthened ... Recruit more young
workers, extend the normal framework of all Party organisations ... Hundreds
of new organizations should be set up.”4
Lenin developed these ideas as the 1905 Revolution
unfolded. They had a twofold meaning: on the one hand, they marked
the transformation of the elitist conception of the Party into that of a
mass Party; and on the other, they implied a reorientation of the
relationship between the revolutionary organisation and the masses ie, a
new way of viewing the problem of spontaneity.
The decision to broaden Party membership – and
notably, to grant a more active role to working-class elements whose
role until then had been almost negligible – had a profound effect on
the nature of the Leninist organisation. In 1905 the Bolshevik and
Menshevik groups in Russia had a combined membership of only 8400.
By 1907 the number had risen to 84,000 (46,000 Bolsheviks and 38,000
Mensheviks). One year after the outbreak of the revolution, Lenin,
anticipating the actual development of the revolutionary organisation,
had already, for the first time, described it as a “mass party”.5
This expression, however, referred not only to the number of recruits,
but also to the structures and methods of action of the Party,
concerning which Lenin stated. “The new form of organisation, or
rather the new form of the basic organisational nucleus of the
workers’ party, must be definitely much broader than were the old
circles. Apart from this, the new nucleus will most likely have to
be a less rigid, more “free”, more “loose” organisation.”
Previously a staunch advocate of absolute committee
powers, Lenin now held that the “previous formal prerogatives [of
these committees] lose their significance at the present time.’’6
He advocated, moreover, a profound change in the activities of the
Social Democracy; without sacrificing its clandestine organisations, it
was nevertheless “abosolutely necessary” to create . . . new legal
and semi-legal Party organisations”.7 Lenin, although the
principal initiator of the clandestine Social Democratic Party, and
although he remained convinced of the necessity of maintaining the
underground character of some activists and aspects of the party,
observed: “0ur Party has stagnated while working underground . .
. it has been suffocated ... it has been suffocating underground during
the last few years. The “underground” is breaking up.”8
Origin of democratic centralism
In One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Lenin
had explained that the debate between the Bolshevik adherents of
centralism and their Menshevik opponents could be reduced to the basic
question of “bureaucracy versus democracy”. 9 In What
Is To Be Done? he had already stated that in a context in which
Russian socialism was forced underground and exposed to constant police
repression, respect for democratic principles should by sacrificed to
the requirements of security and effectiveness. Such principles
“amidst the gloom of the autocracy and the domination of the
gendarmerie [are] ... nothing more than a useless and harmful toy“.<SUP10<
SUP> The 1905 and 1906 upheavals swept away these concepts, which
Lenin himself rather inappropriately described as “bureaucratic”.
The revolution in fact was hardly three years old when he affirmed
“the full assertion of the elective principle could be applied
to a much larger extent than it is today”.11 The adoption
of the elective principle throughout the Party was a basic condition for
democratisation. There was another condition: restriction of the almost
arbitrary powers of the committees and, at the top, of the Central
Committee. Urged on by Lenin, the Bolsheviks adopted this course. The
Bolshevik Congress of April 1905 declared itself in favour of
“committee autonomy” with respect to the Central Committee, and the
latter’s authority was seriously affected. A year later, Lenin
expressed his satisfaction at the “democratic basis” of the St
Petersburg organisation. He explained that “all the Party
member and decide questions concerning the political campaigns of
the proletariat, and that all the Party members determine
the line of tactics of the Party organisations.” For many months, in
fact, life in the Bolshevik organisations was very intense; there were
prolonged and vigorous debates, which saw a clash between various
tendencies. The reunification of the Bolshevik and Menshevik
committees into a single movement underlined the necessity of allowing
delineated ideological tendencies to confront each other openly.
It was in this period and climate that a principle
arose which the communist movement would inake its own, at least on
paper, and which is constantly referred to nowadays – the principle of
democratic centralism. It reflected originally the accommodation
between the Bolshevik and and Menshevik factions; although adopted by
the (Unity) Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, held
in Stockholm in 1906 and dominated by the Mensheviks, it was
nevertheless incorporated into the statutory rules of the Party at
Lenin’s insistence. It was Lenin who offered a resolution at the
congress stating that “the principle of democratic centralism
in the Party is now universally accepted”.12 The resolution
itself was extremely laconic, but the ensuing discussion revealed the
significance which Lenin attached to democratic centralism. He
declared, for instance, that it was necessary “really to apply the
principles of democratic centralism in Party organisation, to work
tirelessly to make the local organisations the principal organisational
units of the Party in fact, and not merely in name, and to see to it
that all the higher bodies are elected, accountable, and subject to
recall”.14 The eligibility and revocability of the cadres
— their genuine representativeness – were therefore integral to
wider autonomy for the sections.
There was more. Democratic centralism, in
Lenin’s view, also implied “universal and full freedom to
criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite
action; it rules out all critcism which disrupts or makes difficult
the unity of an action decided on by the Party”.13
And on the same theme: “If we have really and seriously decided to
introduce democratic centralism in our Party . . . we must have these
[Party] questions discussed in the press, at meetings, in circles and at
group meetings.”16 And in connection with the debate in the
Russian socialist movement on the chances for armed insurrection, Lenin
added: “In the heat of battle, when the proletariat is straining
every nerve, no criticism whatever can be permitted in its
ranks. But before the call for action is issued, there should be the
broadest and freest discussion.”17
Freedom of discussion. Unity of action. The
question remains as to who has the power to issue these “calls for
action” which suspend the right of free criticism. Lenin’s
answer was unequivocal: only the Party Congress, and not the
Central Committee, has this power. He considered it even legitimate
to wage an “ideological struggle” against Central Committee
resolutions which he considered “mistaken”. On several occasions the
Bolsheviks, at Lenin’s urging, refused to carry out decisions made by
the Central Committee elected at the Stockhohn Congress. By invoking the
principle of democratic centralism in those instances, Lenin recognised
implicitly that this principle restricted the powers of the Central
Committee with repect to a more broadly based body – the Congress.
There was still another aspect to this defnfition.of
democratic centralism: the right of a minority to exist and express
itself freely within the Party. To be sure, Lenin had already invoked
these minority rights in 1903 and 1904, but his attitude in this respect
became particularly explicit in 1905 and 1906. The reunification of
Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, moreover, added a new dimension to the
problem. It became necessary to safeguard the revolutionary
strength of the Party against ideological confusion. Lenin drew the
following conclusions: “There can be no mass party, no party of a
class, without full clarity of essential shadings, without an open
struggle between tendencies.”18 He thus recognised the rights
of tendencies, and even of factions, which he descibed, at
the Stockholm congress as “quite natural.”19
To be sure, this broad and “liberal” definition
of democratic centralism and minority rights – broader and more
liberal than in many parties that profess to be democratic – was
advanced at a period when the Mensheviks constituted a majority. It was
nevertheless not fortuitous that the principle of democratic centralism
should have been adopted, and that Lenin should have decided to
translate this principle into reality, at a time when Leninism, under
the impact of revolutionary events adn the offensive of the massive, was
for the first time coming to grips with its very reason for existing –
From cadre organisation to the spontaneity of the masses
Without ever scorning or consistently distrusting
the revolutionary possibilities of the working class, Lenin had
nevertheless based an important part of the theories expounded in What
Is To Be Done? on the conviction that these possibilities – which
are latent, and frustrated by the dominant influence of bourgeois
ideology – must be “stimulated” from the outside. The initial
statement of his theories reflected Lenin’s belief that the
overwhelming majonity of workers are capable only of spontaneous actions
which, in themselves are essentially job-oriented and cannot effectively
challenge the “system” and generate socialist consciousness. This
pessimism had now been shown to be unjustified: without a powerful
outside “stimulus”, and without an organisation capable of
instigating, orienting, and directing the activity of the masses, these
masses were developing a basically political and revolutionary movement
of extraordinary breadth and depth. The proletariat, moreover,
frequently evidenced greater clarity of purpose and more lucid judgment
than the leaders who were supposed to guide them. Drawing, for example,
the lessons from the December 1905 Moscow insurrection, Lenin recognised
that “the proletariat sensed sooner than its leaders the change in the
objective conditionsof the struggle and the need for a transition from
the strike to the uprising”.20 This statement dates from
August 1906. Six months later, Rosa Luxemburg had declared that “the
masses as usual at any turning point of the battle only push the leaders
spontaneously to more advanced goals”.21
This is not the only analogy to be found at that
time between Lenin’s ideas as transformed by the revolutionary events
and those of Rosa Luxemburg, whose views seemed to be confirmed by
Lenin’s. In March 1906, Lenin expressed himself in a manner
strikingly similar to the theories which Rosa Luxemburg had developed in
Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Union. He writes:
“Mention a period in Russian or world history, find any six months or
six years, when as much was done for the free and independent
organization of the masses of the people as was done during the six
weeks of the revolutionary whirlwind in Russia.”22 Like
Luxemburg, Lenin now declared that the general strike, although due to
the initiative of the rnasses and not of a Party, was a form of
organisation. He spoke very highly of “the organisational abilities of
the people, particularly of the proletariat.”23 This
amounted to a substitution of the masses for the Party in one of its
essential functions, and came close to rehabilitating the proletarian
spontaneity which had formerly – especially in What Is To Be Done? –
so violently attacked.
Lenin’s distrust of working-class spontaneity had
led him in 1903 to draw up Party statutes designed to provide a
“bulwark” against opportunism and prevent the entry into the
organisation of doubtful, vacillating, unworthy elements incapable of
becoming part of the elite, of the proletarian vanguard. These fears had
now been swept away. Referring to the possibility that as a result of a
“sudden influx of large numbers of non-Social Democrats into the Party
. . . the Party would be dissolved among the masses .. . [and] cease to
be the conscious vanguard of its class, its role would be reduced to
that of a tail”, Lenin warned against exaggerating this danger: “It
would be simply ridiculous to doubt that the workers who belong to our
Party, or who will join it tomorrow will be Social Democrats in 99 cases
out of a 100.” Moreover, there was no need to “invent bugaboos . . .
in every live and growing party there will always be elements of
instability, vacillation, wavering. But these elements can be
influenced, and they will submit to the influence of the steadfast and
solid core of Social Democrats.”24
In January 1905, Lenin was still urging the Social
Democracy to “dominate [the] . . . spontaneous movement of the
masses”, thus using an expression that corresponded to the very
essence of his theory concerning the relationship between the Party and
the working class. In June of that same year, he had denounced the
slogan of “worker’ initiative” as dangerous. A few months
later, having absorbed the lessons of the revolution, he was discovering
the great virtues of proletarian spontaneity and initiative.
Lenin and Permanent Revolution
Until 1905 Lenin had paid little attention to the
problem of revolutionary strategy, confining himself to accepting the
basic Marxist approach to the question of the sequence of bourgeois
revolution and socialist revolution. At most, he had suggested that in
the Russian context the peasantry might be called upon to play a
positive role in the struggle to destroy the old, semi-feudal social
order. He remained in any case convinced that the bourgeois
revolution and the proletarian revolution were two distinct processes
separated by an historical stage, characterised politically by liberal
democracy and economically by capitalist development. Faithful, in this
respect, to an orthodoxy he had not yet come to view as inadequate, he
did not anticipate the contradictions that would result from the
“classical” Marxist perspective as soon as its assumptions were
applied mechanistically to largely pre-capitalist societies such as
Tsarist Russia. One example will suffice: how could a successful
bourgeois revolution be imagined in a country where the bourgeoisie,
contrary to its histoy in Western Europe, played a secondary role in the
development of society, and lacked dynamism and a spirit of enterprise
in economic as, well as political domains?
The outbreak of revolution in 1905 forced Lenin to
confront the problems of revolutionary strategy and go beyond the
generalities he had until then considered sufficient. In the
summer of 1905, he wrote a long and important pamphlet, Two
Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution , in
which he subjected the attitude of the Russian bourgeoisie to very
severe criticism, judging it both incapable of leading a revolution and
hostile to its victory, he thought that the bourgeoisie’s
revolutionary function would have to be assumed by the working class.
The latter’s numerical weaknew, however, forced it to seek allies who,
in Lenin’s view, were to be found not in the intelligentsia or the
urban middle classes, but in the population of the countryside. This was
the origin of the formula of the “democratic dictatorship of the
proletariat and the peasantry”. But in spite of the effort of
political imagination necessitated by this approach, Lenin remained a
captive of certain formulations. He continued to emphasise the
distinction between the bourgeois revolution and the socialist
revolution, and remained convinced that the revolutionary alliance of
workers and (poor) peasants did not negate the essentially bourgeois
character of the political, economic, and social upheaval that was to
shake Russian society. Only Trotsky and Parvus developed a theory
which, taking into consideration revolutionary dynamism in all its
creative richness and complexity, rejected the old dogmas, and broke at
last with orthodoxy. This was the origin of the idea of permanent
Desirous of playing up the antagonism between Lenin
and Trotsky, the historians of the Soviet Union have emphsised the
irreconcilable nature of their views in regard to permanent revolution.
Those familiar with Lenin’s propensity for sharp and often acid
polemics and verbal violence, however, cannot fail to be struck by the
moderate tone of his criticism of Trotsky’s theories regarding
peremanent revolution. The future founder of Soviet Russia had not had
the occasion to read the study in which Trotsky elaborated his ideas.
Lenin, moreover, modified his own views as the revolutionary upsurge of
the masses pushed forward; the contrast between the “classicism” of
his earlier views and the character of his new ideas is at titnes so
striking that one readily finds an amost “Trotskyist” point of view
in his writings of that period. Here, too, his pragmatism and his
characteristic tendency to reject doctrinal considerations in favour of
the lessons and requirements of action induced Leninism to come to terms
Alluding to the Marxist theory regarding the
bourgeois and socialist stages of the revolution, Lenin declared in the
spring of 1905: “If we interpret this coorrect Marxist scheme .
. . to mean that we must measure off in advance, before any ascent
begins, a very modest part, let us say, not more than one step, if, in
keeping with this scheme and before any ascent begins we sought to “draw
up a plan of action in the revolutionary epoch”, we should be
virtuosi of philistinism.25 As for the transition from the
bourgeois revolution to the proletarian revolution, he stated in Two
Tactics of Social Democracy that it might he short and could be
hastened by the Party’s attitude. Pursuing his analysis, he
added that there was no real gap between the bourgeois and proletarian
stages: “The complete victory of the proletarian revolution will mark
the end of the democratic revolution and the beginning of a determined
struggle for a socialist revolution.”26 A few months later
he distinguished between the different stages of revolutionary
development, and stated that the period in which the bourgeoise would
adopt an overtly hostile attitude toward the revolution would be
followed by another period which he described as follows: “On the
basis of the relations established [during the preceding period] a new
crisis and a new struggle develop and blaze forth, with the proletariat
now fighting to preserve its democratic gains for the sake of a
socialist revolution. This struggle would have been almost
hopeless for the Russian proletariat alone and its defeat would have
been as inevitable as the defeat of the . . . French proletariat in
1871, had the European socialist proletariat not come to the assistance
of the Russian proletariat.” And Lenin concluded: “in such
conditions the Russian proletariat can win a second victory. The
cause is no longer hopeless. The second victory will be the socialist
revolution in Europe.”27 Since these different stages were
likely to succeed each other very rapidly, and since, moreover, these
stages seemed to be part of a continuous process, his analysis, although
quite summary, was nevertheless extremely close to that of Trotsky. As a
matter of fact, in an apparently innocuous article written by Lenin in
September 1905, there appears the following, typically “Trotskyist”
sentence: “From the democratic revolution we shall at once, and
precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength
of the class conscious and organised proletariat, begin to pass to the
socialist revolution. We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We
shall not stop half-way.”28
On the one hand, permanent revolution; on the other,
uninterrupted revolution. Lenin used this formulation but once.
But he used it. Is it not significant that it crops up at the
mornent when the revolutionary storm, having shaken Lenin’s theories
on organisation, also put his strategic concepts to the test?
After the defeat of the proletariat in 1906 and the restoration of
Tsarism, Lenin apparently abandoned the perspective of “uninterupted
revolution”, which he had envisaged in 1905. It took until 1917
for this perspective to reappear, assert itself, and triumph.
Lenin’s struggle against the Bolsheviks
In 1905, therefore, the organisational principles
and strategic concepts of Bolshevism, both as theory and instrument,
underwent a profound transformation. For the true nature of this
phenomenon to be understood, it remains to be shown that in order to
bring about this change Lenin had to engage in frequent struggle against
his own followers and that these struggles, moreover, were wged against
those who based their opposition on the very principles of Leninism, in
other words, that the maturation, democratisation, and radicalisation of
Bolshevism were achieved through a confrontation between Lenin and
numerous Bolsheviks who clung to, formulations and schematic views
elaborated by Lenin himself. This was, for instance, the case with with
respect to the change in Party structures. Lenin had to oppose those
whom he eased Komitetchiki, committee bureaucrats, who, as he had done
in 1902, cautioned the Party against the temptation of “playing at
democracy”. The debates at the April 1905 Bolshevik Congress in London
were particularly stormy. With far from unanimous support, Lenin
insisted on the need to “proletarianise” the Party cadres. But the
cadres of professional revolutionaries openly expressed their distrust
of the workers whom they considered incapable of taking on functions of
leadership. Listening to their spokemen, Lenin says, “I could hardly
keep my seat.”29 He submitted an amendment to the statutes
obligating the Party to increase the number of workers in the Bolshevik
committees. The amendment was rejected. According to Krupskaya, Lenin
“was not greatly upset at his point of view receiving such a severe
rebuff at the Congress … because he realised that the approaching
revolution was bound to radically cure the Party of this incapacity to
give the committees a more pronounced worker make-up.”30
This was, in fact, what happened. But the tone of
some of Lenin’s letters clearly indicates the strength of the
opposition he encountered in his own organisation. In a letter
addressed to a St Petersburg Bolshevik in February 1905, he wrote: “Be
sure to put us in direct touch with new forces, with the youth,
with newly formed circles . . . So far not one of the St.
Petersburgers (shame on them) has given us a single new
connection . . . It’s a scandal, our undoing, our ruin! Take a lesson
from the Mensheviks, for Christ’s sake.”31 And again:
“You must be sure to organise, organise, and organise hundreds
of circles, completely pushing into the background the customary,
well-meant committee (hierarchic) stupidities. This is a time of war.
Either you create new, young, fresh, energetic battle
organisations everywhere . . . or you win go under, wearing the aureole
of ‘committee bureaucrats’.”32 In another letter
addressed to the Bolshevik combat committee of the capital in October
1905, he urged his followers to send “for heaven’s sake . . . all
‘functions, rights, and privileges’ to the devil”.33
His revolutionary flexibility was already beginning
to clash with the conservative inertia of the Party structures, although
the latter were still not far removed from their origins.
A similar confrontation took place in connection
with role to be granted by the Bolshevik organisation to the most
original creation of 1905 – the Soviets. Many of Lenin’s
followers, in fact, regarded them with distrust and hostility.
Were the Soviets not the result of spontaneous mass action, an outcome
of the spontaneity against which Lenin had warned them? Didn’t
they represent an institution that could hardly be said to have a
structure, that lacked a hierarchic and ideological framework, that was
independent of the Social Democratic which Lenin – yes Lenin himself
– had proclaimed as absolutely necessary? In this regard, Lenin
was unprepared to grasp and accept the phenomenon of Soviets. This was
especially the case with respect to the most famous Soviet, that of St
Petersburg, which, moreover, was controlled by the Mensheviks. In
fact, Bogdanov, who was at the time the leading member of the Russian
Bureau of the Bolshevik organisation, went so far as to maintain that
the Soviet might become the nucleus of an anti-socialist party. In
his view, the Bolsheviks should force it to accept their program as well
as the authority of their Central Committee, after which it would be
absorbed into the Party. With the approval of many Leninists, Bogdanav
added that if the Soviet refused to follow this course, the Bolsheviks
should withdraw their support and denounce its political line.
Krasin, the Party representative in the St Petersburg Soviet, demanded
officially that it accept the program and authority of the Social
Lenin’s attitude was much more flexible than that
of his comrades. On the eve of his return to St Petersburg in
November 1905, the Bolshevik organ Novaya Zhizn published an
article expressing profound distrust of the Soviets. In his reply
Lenin stated that the author of the article in question “is wrong in
raising the question . . . ‘the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies or the
Party?’ I think that it is wrong to put the question in this way and
that the decision must certainly be: both the Soviet of Workers Deputies
and the Party.”34 Going counter to the views of his
followers in the capital, Lenin declared: “I think it inadvisable to
demand that the Soviet of Workers Deputies should accept the Social
Democratic program and join the Russian Social Democratic Labour
Party.” Adding that the “Soviet of Workers’ Deputies should be
regarded as the embryo of a provisional revolutionary government”,
Lenin was in fact pleading for its autonomy with respect to the
The official newspaper of the St Petersburg
Bolsheviks refused to publish Lenin’s point of view. This
tension between Lenin and his followers, by whose hesitations and
timidity he was so distressed, can be traced in other instances as well.
For example, the “Bloody Sunday” which precipitated the 1905
Revolution was regarded with great reserve by the St. Petersburg
Bolsheviks, who had misgivings about primitve character and certain
religious aspects of the demonstration led by the priest Gapon. Lenin,
on the contrary, was enthusiastic. From January on, he urged on the
struggle and its radicalisation, following with mounting hopes the
progress of the revolutionary offensive These feelings were not shared
by all Bolsheviks. Ath their London congress in April 1905 Bogdanov, one
of the most important leaders of the organisation, expressed the view of
what was undoubtedly a considerable portion of trhe membership when he
urged the cadres to insist above all on “the importance of
discipline”, and to persist in this course “unabashedby unreasonable
accusations that they are slowing down the development of the
revolutionary mood of the masses”.36
These misgivings concerning the spontaneous action
of the proletariat that had little or no organisatoin persisted
throughout 1905, together with a very pronounced hesitation to commit
the Party to an armed insurrection. Lenin, on the contrary, defended
this course with all his strength, but had to compromise with the more
moderate elements, notably on the wording of the resolutions which the
Bolsheviks at the London Congress devoted to the problem of
insurrection.Lenin, however, declared at the Congress that “we
underestimated the significance and inevitability of the uprising”.37
He expressed the desire of seeing a discussion not only of the principle
of armed uprising, but also of its practical preparation. He kept
returning to this theme throughout the summer and autumn of 1905.
Judging by the tone of his appeals, it would appear that his views were
not favourably received by his followers.
June 20, 1905: “Away, then, with all doubts and
vacillations. Let it be realised by one and all, now and without delay,
how absurd and discreditable are all pretexts today for evading this
urgent task of the most energetic preparation of the armed uprising.”
And he added an urgent warning against “the danger of delays”.38
October 16, 1905: “It horrries me – I give you
my word – it horrifies me to find that there has been talk about bombs
for over six months, yet not one has been made! And is the most
learned people who are doing the talking . . . Go to the youth,
gentlemen! That is the only remedy!” And he insisted: “Go to the
youth. Form fighting squads at once everywhere . . . Let groups
be at once organised of three, 10, 30, etc, persons. Let them arm
themselves at once as best they can, be it with a revolver, a knife, a
rag soaked in kerosene for starting fires . . . the evil today is our
Last days of October 1905. “All delays, disputes,
procrastination and indecision spell ruin to the cause of the
uprising.” Twelve years later, almost to the day, Lenin used the same
language to break down similar resistance on the part of his adherents. We
have here a striking and characteristic analogy: Lenin’s attitude in
1905, in effect, foreshadows his attitude in 1917. lenin in 1905 – the
first challenge to a doctrine by its author, Lenin’s first revolt, as
it were, against Leninism.
This revolt contained the seeds of a revolution.
But before 1917 history would again furnish a demonstration a contraio. The
Revolution of 1905 had revealed the profoundly democratic component of
Lenin’s strategy. The triumph of the counter-revolution,
beginning in 1907, brought with it on the other hand an intensification
of the authoritarian elements also present in his theories. The
proletarian victories of 1905 had imposed on Lenin, more than on the
Leninists, a revision, sometimes agonising, of certain of his ideas.
But this revision was as ephemeral as the revolutionary successes which
were its cause. When Tsarism succeeded in re-establishing itself
and the period began, in 1908, which is known in the history of the
Russian workers’ movement as the “years of reaction’, Bolshevism
was reduced to the dimensions, and acquired the characteristics, of a
sect. The defeat and discouragement of the masses, the
imprisonment and death of thousands of militants, the departure into
exile of the socialist leaders, the return of even more severe
conditions of clandestinity than existed before 1905, forced the
organisation back into its old rut. It was then, that
authoritarian tendencies developed, an urge to monolism, a propensity to
dogmatism, and other negative traits which the historian cannot ignore
when he draws up the balance sheet of Leninism.
These dark years ended shortly before the First
World War with the unleashing of a revolutionary offensive, which was
braked but not broken by the war. And it was then, and more than
ever under the pressure of the masses, that Lenin achieved what remains
his greatest historial merit: to have realised in 1917 the exceptional
and decisive identification between a class and its party.
The ebbing of the revolutionary tide, the failure of
the world revolution, the withdrawal into itself of Soviet Russia,
sounded the knell of this symbiosis. History, however, even while
recording its disappearance, cannot forget it and must preserve its
lesson. This lesson is simple: revolutionary parties, even those which
claim to direct the masses, fulfill their functions only in
privileged moments when, renouncing the role of guide for that of cadre,
they reverse the relation connecting them with the proletariat and
submit to the liberating impetus which emanates from it.
Translated by Alfred Ehrenfeld. Monthly Review,
1970. Marcel Liebman, 1929-1986, was a Belgian Marxist historian.
references to Lenin’s writing in the following notes are the
English-language edition of the Collected Works of Lenin. 1. Letter
to a Comrade on Our Organisational Tasks, (September 1902) Collected
Works, 1961, vol. 6, p. 237.
2. Ibid., p. 242.
3. Ibid., pp. 243-244.
4. New Tasks and New Forces (February 1905),
1962, vol, 8, pp. 217-219.
We Boycott the State Duma? (January 1906), 1962, vol. 10, p. 99.
Reorganisation of the Party (November 1905), 1962, vol. 10, pp.
7. Ibid., p. 29.
8. Ibid., p. 32.
9. One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, 1961,
vol. 7, p. 401.
10. What Is To Be Done?, 1961, vol. 5, p.
Third Congress of the RSDLP. (April 1905), 1962, vol. 8, p. 409.
12. Let the Workers Decide (June 1906), 1962,
vol. 10, p. 503.
Tactical Platform for the Unity Congress of the RSDLP (March
1906), 1962, vol. 10, p. 163.
on the Unity Congress of the RSDLP (May 1906), 1962, vol. 10, p.
15. Freedom to Criticise and Unity of Action
(May 1906), 1962, vol. 10, p. 443.
17. Ibid., p. 381.
Who Are the Judges? (November 1907), 1962, vol. 13, p. 159.
19. Report on the Unity Congress of the RSDLP,
1962, vol. 10, p. 323.
of the Moscow Uprising (August 1906), 1962, vol. 11, p. 173.
21. Quoted in J.P. Nettl,Rosa Luxemburg
(London, 1966), vol. 1, p. 333.
Victory of the Cadets and the Tasks of the Workers’ Party (May
1906), 1962, vol. 10, p. 258.
23. Ibid., p. 259.
24. The Reorganisation of the Party (November
1905), 1962, vol. 10, pp. 31-32.
the Provisional Revolutionary Government (May-June 1905), 1962,
vol. 8, p. 465.
26. Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the
Democratic Revolution (June-July 1905), 1962, vol. 9, p. 130.
27. The Stages, the Trend, and the Prospects of
the Revolution (end of 1905, beginning of 1906), 1962, vol. 10, p.
Democracy’s Attitude Towards the Peasant Movement (September
1905), 1962, vol. 9, pp. 236-237.
29. The Third Congress of the RSDLP, 1962,
vol. 8, p. 411.
of LeninKrupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (Moscow, 1959),
31. Letter to Gusev (February 15, 1905),
1966, vol. 34, p. 296.
32. A Letter to Bogdanov and Gusev (February
11, 1905), 1962, vol. 8. p. 146.
33. Letter to the Combat Committee of the St.
Petersburg Committee (Oct. 16, 1905), 1962, vol. 9, p. 345.
Tasks and the Soviet of Workers Deputies, 1962, vol. 10, p. 19.
35. Ibid., p. 21.
36. S. Schwarz, The Russian Revolution of 1905:
the Workers’ Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism
(Chicago-London, 1967) p 133.
37. The Third Congress of the RSDLP, 1962,
vol. 8, p. 370.
Struggle of the Proletariat and the Servility of the Bourgeoisie,
1962, vol 8, p. 538.
39. Letter to the Combat Committee of the St
Petersburg Committee, 1962, vol. 9, pp 344-346.
40. Tasks of Revolutionary Army Contingents,
1962, vol. 9, p. 424.