Lenin & the Vanguard Party

Party, Faction & "Freedom of Criticism"




The emergence of differences with the Mensheviks over the role of bourgeois liberalism in the revolution weakened, but did not eliminate, the forces of conciliationism in the Bolshevik camp. At the all-Bolshevik Third Congress of the RSDRP in April 1905, Lenin found himself in a minority on the question of how to deal with the Mensheviks. He wanted to expel the Mensheviks, who had boycotted the Congress, from the RSDRP. The majority of delegates were unwilling to take such an extreme step. The Congress adopted a motion that the Mensheviks should be permitted to remain in a unitary RSDRP on condition that they recognize the leadership of the Bolshevik majority and adhere to party discipline. Needless to say, the Mensheviks rejected such unity conditions out of hand.

While the beginning of the 1905 Revolution deepened the split between Bolshevism and Menshevism, its further development produced overpowering pressures for the reunification of Russian Social Democracy. A number of factors, all reinforcing one another, created a tremendous sentiment for unity among members of both tendencies. Common military struggle against the tsarist state produced a strong sense of solidarity among the advanced workers of Russia, the militants and supporters of the social-democratic movement.

By the summer of 1905, a large majority of both tendencies consisted of new, young recruits who had not experienced the struggle of Iskraism against the Economists or the 1903 Bolshevik-Menshevik split and its aftermath. Thus for the majority of Russian social-democratic workers, the organizational division was incomprehensible and appeared to be based on "ancient history." The general belief that the differences within Russian Social Democracy were not significant was reinforced by the political disarray among the Menshevik leaders. The most prominent Menshevik in 1905 was Trotsky, head of the St. Petersburg Soviet, who was to the left of Lenin on the goals and prospects of the revolution. Thus the political attitudes of many who joined the Bolshevik and Menshevik organizations in 1905 did not correspond to the programs of their respective leaderships. In his 1940 biography of Stalin, Trotsky noted that in 1905 the Menshevik rank and file stood closer to Lenin’s position on the role of Social Democracy in the revolution than to Plekhanov’s.

The sentiment for unity was so strong that several local Bolshevik committees simply fused with their Menshevik counterparts in spite of opposition from their leadership. In his memoirs written in the 1920s, the old Bolshevik Osip Piatnitsky describes the situation in the Odessa social-democratic movement in late 1905:

"It was obvious to the [Bolshevik leading] committee that the proposal of union would be passed by a great majority at the Party meetings of both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, for wherever the advocates of immediate unity spoke they were supported almost unanimously. Therefore the Bolshevik committee was forced to work out the terms of union which they themselves were against. It was important to do that, for otherwise the union would have occurred without any conditions at all."
Memoirs of a Bolshevik (1973)

In his 1923 history of the Bolsheviks, Gregory Zinoviev sums up the 1906 reunification thus:

"As a consequence of the revolutionary battles of late 1905 and under the influence of the masses, the staffs of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were forced to re-unite. In effect the masses forced the Bolsheviks to reconcile themselves to the Mensheviks on several questions."
—History of the Bolshevik Party: A Popular Outline (1973)

Zinoviev’s statement is perhaps oversimplified. It is unlikely that Lenin simply capitulated to pressure from below. The overwhelming sentiment for unity meant that the organizational divisions no longer corresponded to the political consciousness of the respective memberships. Some of the Bolsheviks’ young recruits were actually closer to the left Mensheviks, and vice versa. A period of internal struggle was necessary to separate out the revolutionary elements who joined the social-democratic movement in 1905 from the opportunistic elements.


In the fall of 1905, the Bolshevik Central Committee and Menshevik Organizing Committee began unity negotiations. The Bolshevik Central Committee in Russia approved of fusions at the local level as the means of reunifying the RSDRP as a whole. Lenin, who was still in exile in Switzerland, strongly intervened to stop this organic unification from below. He insisted that the reunification take place at the top, at a new party congress, with delegates elected on a factional platform. In a letter (3 October 1905) to the Central Committee, he wrote:

"We should not confuse the policy of uniting the two parts with the mixing-up of both parts. We agree to uniting the two parts, but we shall never agree to mixing them up. We must demand of the committees a distinct division, then two congresses and amalgamation." [emphasis in original]

In December 1905, a United Center was formed consisting of an equal number of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. At the same time, the central organs of the rival tendencies, the Menshevik Iskra and Bolshevik Proletary, were discontinued and superseded by a single publication, Partinye Izvestaii (Party News).

Significantly, the Mensheviks agreed to accept Lenin’s 1903 definition of membership as requiring formal organizational participation. This was in part a concession to the Leninists, but mainly reflected the fact that in the relatively open conditions of 1905-06, formal organizational participation was not a bar to broad recruitment. The Mensheviks’ turnabout completely disproves the widespread notion that Lenin’s insistence that members must be subject to organizational discipline was a peculiarity of the underground. On the contrary, it was the Mensheviks who considered that illegality required a looser definition of membership so as to attract social-democratic workers and intellectuals unwilling to face the rigors and dangers of clandestinity.

The Fourth (or "Reunification") Congress, held in Stockholm in April 1906, was divided between 62 Mensheviks and 46 Bolsheviks. Also represented were the Jewish Bund, the Lettish social democrats and the Polish social democrats led by Luxemburg and Jogiches. No one has contested that the factions’ representation at the Fourth Congress corresponded to their respective strength at the base, among the social-democratic workers in Russia. (In early 1906, the Mensheviks had about 18,000 members, the Bolsheviks about 12,000.)

What accounted for the Menshevik majority among Russian social democrats in early 1906? First, the Bolshevik committeemen’s conservative attitude toward recruitment in early 1905 also manifested itself in a sectarian attitude toward the new mass organizations thrown up by the revolution—the trade unions and, above all, the soviets. Thus the Mensheviks were able to get a head start in vying for the leadership of the broad working-class organizations. Although Trotsky was not a Menshevik factionalist, his role as head of the St. Petersburg Soviet strengthened the authority of the anti-Leninist wing of Russian Social Democracy. Secondly, the Mensheviks’ advocacy of immediate, organic fusion enabled them to appeal to the young recruits’ political naiveté and desire for unity.

With the defeat of the Bolshevik-led Moscow insurrection in December 1905, the tide turned in favor of tsarist reaction. While the Bolsheviks considered the tsarist victories a temporary setback during a continuing revolutionary situation, the Mensheviks concluded that the revolution was over. The Menshevik position corresponded to the increasingly defeatist mood of the masses in the early months of 1906.

Throughout the period of the Fourth Congress, Lenin several times affirmed his loyalty to a unitary RSDRP. For example, in a brief factional statement at the conclusion of the Congress, he wrote:

"We must and shall fight ideologically against those decisions of the Congress which we regard as erroneous. But at the same time we declare to the whole Party that we are opposed to a split of any kind. We stand for submission to the decisions of the Congress.... We are profoundly convinced that the workers’ Social-Democratic organizations must be united, but in these united organizations there must be a wide and free criticism of Party questions, free comradely criticism and assessment of events in Party life."
—"An Appeal to the Party by Delegates to the Unity Congress Who Belonged to the Former ‘Bolshevik’ Group" (April 1906)

For Lenin, the reunification represented both a continuing adherence to the Kautskyan doctrine of "the party of the whole class" and a tactical maneuver to win over the mass of raw, young workers who had joined the social-democratic movement during the 1905 Revolution. We have no way of assessing the different weighting Lenin gave to these two very different considerations. Nor do we know how in 1906 Lenin envisaged the future course of Bolshevik-Menshevik relations.

It is unlikely that Lenin looked forward to or projected a definitive split and the creation of a Bolshevik party. Among other factors, Lenin knew that the Bolsheviks would not be recognized as the sole representative of Russian Social Democracy by the Second International. And when in 1912 the Bolsheviks did split completely from the Mensheviks and claimed to be the RSDRP, the leadership of the International did not recognize that claim.

Lenin probably would have liked to reduce the Mensheviks to an impotent minority subject to the discipline of a revolutionary (i.e., Bolshevik) leadership of the RSDRP. This is how he viewed the relationship of the Bernsteinian revisionists to the Bebel/Kautsky leadership of the SPD. However, he knew that the Menshevik cadre were unwilling to act and perhaps incapable of acting as a disciplined minority in a revolutionary party. He further recognized that he did not have the authority of a Bebel to make an opportunist tendency submit to his organizational leadership.

In striving for leadership of the Russian workers movement, Lenin did not limit himself to winning over the Menshevik rank and file, to purely internal RSDRP factional struggle. He sought to recruit non-party workers and radical petty bourgeois directly to the Bolshevik tendency. To this end the Bolshevik "faction" of the RSDRP acted much like an independent party with its own press, leadership and disciplinary structure, finances, public activities and local committees. That in the 1906-12 period the Bolsheviks, while formally a faction in a unitary RSDRP, had most of the characteristics of an independent party was the later judgment of such diverse political figures as Trotsky, Zinoviev and the Menshevik leader Theodore Dan.

In the course of a 1940 polemic against the American Shachtman faction, Trotsky characterized the Bolsheviks in this period as a "faction" which "bore all the traits of a party" (In Defense of Marxism [1940]).

Zinoviev’s History of the Bolshevik Party describes the situation following the Fourth Congress:

"The Bolsheviks had set up during the Congress their own internal and, for the party, illegal, Central Committee. This period of our party’s history when we were in the minority on both the Central Committee and the St. Petersburg Committee and had to conceal our separate revolutionary activity, was very arduous and unpleasant for us.... It was a situation where two parties were seemingly operating within the structure of one." [our emphasis]

Theodore Dan’s 1945 work, The Origins of Bolshevism (1970), presents a similar analysis of Bolshevik-Menshevik relations:

"It was not an organizational but a political divergence that very quickly split the Russian Social-Democracy into two fractions, which sometimes drew close and then clashed with each other, but basically remained independent parties that kept fighting with each other even at a time when they were nominally within the framework of a unitary party."

Democratic Centralism and "Freedom of Criticism"

From the Fourth Congress in April 1906 until the Fifth Congress in May 1907, the Bolsheviks were a minority faction in the RSDRP. In striving for the party leadership, the Bolsheviks did not primarily orient toward winning over a section of the Menshevik cadre. With a few individual exceptions, Lenin regarded the seasoned Menshevik cadre as hardened opportunists, at least in the immediate period. Paradoxically, the reunification demonstrated the hardness of the line separating the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks; few veterans of either group changed sides.

One of Lenin’s motives in agreeing to unity was that the continuing split repelled many social-democratic workers from joining either group. Since recruiting non-party elements was key to struggle against the Menshevik leadership of the RSDRP, Lenin naturally wanted to be able to publicly attack that leadership. It was in that historic context that Lenin defined democratic centralism as "freedom of criticism, unity in action." In the 1906-07 period, Lenin on numerous occasions advocated the right of minorities to publicly oppose the positions, though not the actions, of the party leadership.

Predictably, various rightist revisionists have "rediscovered" Lenin’s 1906 advocacy of "freedom of criticism" the product of a continuing adherence to a classic social-democratic concept of the party and a tactical maneuver against the Mensheviks—and proclaimed it the true form of Leninist democratic centralism. Certain left-centrist groupings which broke out of the fake-Trotskyist United Secretariat in the early 1970s, made "freedom of criticism" a key part of their program. The most significant of these groups was the West German Internationale Kommunisten Deutschlands, of which but feeble remnants exist today. The Leninist Faction (LF) in the American Socialist Workers Party, which gave rise to the short-lived Class Struggle League (CSL), likewise championed "freedom of criticism." A central leader of the LF/CSL, Barbara G., wrote a lengthy document entitled "Democratic Centralism" (August 1972) on the subject. The central conclusion is:

"Lenin felt that discussion of political differences in the party press was important because the party and press were those of the working class. If the workers were to see the party as their party, they must see party questions as their questions, party struggles as their struggles. The worker coming around the party must understand that he has the possibility of helping to build the party, not only through repeating the majority line, but through (under party guidelines) advancing his criticisms and ideas." [emphasis in original]

Barbara G. quotes approvingly from Lenin’s May 1906 article, "Freedom to Criticize and Unity of Action":

"Criticism within the limits of the principles of the Party Program must be quite free ... not only at Party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism, or such ‘agitation’ (for criticism is inseparable from agitation) cannot be prohibited."

The "Party" that Lenin is referring to here is not the Bolshevik Party which led the October Revolution. It is the inclusive party of all Russian social democrats led by the Menshevik faction, i.e., by demonstrated opportunists. To equate the RSDRP of 1906 with a revolutionary vanguard is to obliterate the distinction between Bolshevism and Menshevism.

Short of an open split, Lenin did everything possible to prevent the RSDRP’s Menshevik leadership from hindering the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary agitation and actions. We have already quoted Zinoviev to the effect that the Bolsheviks established a formal leadership structure in violation of party rules. They also had independent finances. By August 1906, the Bolsheviks had re-established a factional organ, Proletary, under the auspices of the St. Petersburg Committee where they had just won a majority.

That the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks could not coexist in a unitary party according to the formula "freedom of criticism, unity in action" was demonstrated by the St. Petersburg election campaign in early 1907. During this period the principal conflict between the groups focused on electoral support to the liberal monarchist Cadet Party. At a party conference in November 1906, the Menshevik majority adopted a compromise whereby the local committees determined their own electoral policy. In order to undermine the Bolshevik stronghold of St. Petersburg, the Central Committee then ordered that committee split in two. Correctly denouncing this as a purely factional maneuver, the Bolsheviks refused to split the committee. At a St. Petersburg conference to decide on electoral policy, the Mensheviks split, claiming the conference was illegitimate. They then supported the Cadets against the Bolshevik RSDRP campaign.

When Lenin denounced this act of class treason in a pamphlet, The St. Petersburg Elections and the Hypocrisy of the Thirty-One Mensheviks, the Central Committee brought him up on charges of making statements "impermissible for a Party member." The Central Committee’s juridical actions against Lenin were postponed until the Fifth Congress, where they were rendered moot by the Bolsheviks’ gaining a majority.

The spirit in which Lenin advocated "freedom of criticism" can be seen in his "defense" against the Menshevik accusation that he "cast suspicion upon the political integrity of Party members":

"By my sharp and discourteous attacks on the Mensheviks on the eve of the St. Petersburg elections, 1 actually succeeded in causing that section of the proletariat which trusts and follows the Mensheviks to waver. That was my aim. That was my duty as a member of the St. Petersburg Social-Democratic organization which was conducting a campaign for a Left bloc; because, after the split, it was necessary ... to rout the Mensheviks who were leading the proletariat in the footsteps of the Cadets; it was necessary to carry confusion into their ranks; it was necessary to arouse among the masses hatred, aversion and contempt for those people who had ceased to be members of a united party, had become political enemies.... Against such political enemies I then conducted—and in the event of a repetition or development of a split shall always conduct—a struggle of extermination." [emphasis in original]
—"Report to the Fifth Congress of the RSDLP on the St. Petersburg Split..." (April 1907)

Lenin’s advocacy of "freedom of criticism" in the Menshevik-led RSDRP of 1906 was analogous to the Trotskyists’ position on democratic centralism when they did an entry into the social-democratic parties in the mid-1930s. The Trotskyists opposed democratic centralism for those parties in order to maximize their impact both among the social-democratic membership and outside the parties as well. Conversely, elements of the social-democratic leadership then came out for democratic-centralist norms in order to suppress the Trotskyists. Referring to the Trotskyists’ experience in the American Socialist Party of Norman Thomas, James P. Cannon expresses very well the unique applicability of democratic centralism to the revolutionary vanguard:

"Democratic-centralism has no special virtue per se. It is the specific principle of a combat party, united by a single program, which aims to lead a revolution. Social Democrats have no need of such a system of organization for the simple reason that they have no intention of organizing a revolution. Their democracy and centralism are not united by a hyphen but kept in separate compartments for separate purposes. The democracy is for the social patriots and the centralism is for the revolutionists. The attempt of the Zam-Tyler ‘Clarityite’ faction in the Socialist Party in introducing a rigid ‘democratic-centralist’ system of organization in the heterogeneous Socialist Party (1936-37) was a howling caricature; more properly, an abortion. The only thing those people needed centralization and discipline for was to suppress the rights of the left wing and then to expel it."
—Letter to Duncan Conway (3 April 1953), in Speeches to the Party (1973)

Following the definitive split with the Mensheviks and the creation of the Bolshevik Party in 1912, Lenin abandoned his 1906 position on "freedom of criticism." In July 1914, the International Socialist Bureau arranged a conference to reunite the Russian social democrats. Among Lenin’s numerous conditions for unity is a clear rejection of "freedom of criticism":

"The existence of two rival newspapers in the same town or locality shall be absolutely forbidden. The minority shall have the right to discuss before the whole Party, disagreements on program, tactics and organization in a discussion journal specially published for the purpose, but shall not have the right to publish in a rival newspaper, pronouncements disruptive of the actions and decisions of the majority." [our emphasis]
—"Report to the C.C. of the RSDLP to the Brussels Conference" (June 1914)

Lenin further stipulated that public agitation against the underground party or for "cultural-national autonomy" was absolutely forbidden.

Barbara G., in her paper on "Democratic Centralism," recognizes that by 1914 Lenin had changed his position:

"By 1914, then, Lenin had definitely changed his thinking on the following question: Where he used to think it permissible to have faction newspapers within the RSDLP, he now thought it impermissible because it confused and divided the working class."

Barbara G. minimizes Lenin’s rejection of "freedom of criticism." He not only rejected rival public factional organs, but the right of minorities to publicly criticize the majority position in any form. He further specified that on two key differences—the underground and "cultural-national autonomy"—the minority position could not be advocated publicly at all. It is characteristic of centrists, like Barbara G., to prefer the Lenin of 1906, who accepted unity with the Mensheviks and still adhered to classic social-democratic concepts of the party, to the Lenin of 1914, who had definitively broken with the Mensheviks and thereby challenged the Kautskyan doctrine that revolutionaries and labor reformists should coexist in a unitary party.

The membership and particularly the leading cadre of a revolutionary vanguard have a qualitatively higher level of political class consciousness than all non-party elements. A revolutionary leadership can make errors, even serious ones, on issues where the masses of workers are correct. Such occurrences will be very rare. If they are not rare, then it is the revolutionary character of the organization which is called into question, not the norms of democratic centralism.

A minority within a revolutionary organization seeks to win over its leading cadre, not to appeal to more backward elements against that cadre. The resolution of differences within the vanguard should be as free as possible from the intervention of backward elements, a prime source of bourgeois ideological pressure. "Freedom of criticism" maximizes the influence of backward workers, not to speak of conscious political enemies, on the revolutionary vanguard. Thus "freedom of criticism" does grave damage to the internal cohesion and external authority of the proletarian vanguard.




Posted: 15 April 2005