Lenin & the Vanguard Party

Bolshevism vs. Menshevism: The 1903 Split




The Second Congress of the RSDRP, held in Brussels and then London in July-August 1903, was to be the culmination of the Iskraist project to create a centralized party based on a comprehensive program. (In part because of repression, the formal founding congress of the RSDRP in 1898 did not change the nature of Russian Social Democracy from a movement of localized propaganda circles.) The Economists were not excluded from the Congress, but it was arranged so that the Iskraists would be a decisive majority. The Iskra group accounted for about two-thirds of the Second Congress’ 46 delegates. Of the remaining third, about half were anti-Iskraists. These consisted of a few prominent Economists (Martynov, Akimov) and the semi-nationalist Bund, which claimed to be the sole representative of the Jewish proletariat and demanded a federated party.

In the first phase of the Congress, a solid Iskraist majority carried its line. The Iskraist group, including future Mensheviks, voted unanimously for a program which included elements later very much characteristic of Leninism. For example, the section "On the Trade Union Struggle" contains the following passage:

"In so far as this struggle develops in isolation from the political struggle of the proletariat led by the Social Democratic Party, it leads to the fragmentation of the proletarian forces and to subordination of the workers’ movement to the interests of the propertied classes."
—Robert H. McNeal, ed., Resolutions and Documents of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1974)

However, beneath the seemingly solid front of the Iskra group were very considerable tensions. One such potential polarity was between Lenin and Martov, who was consistently more conciliatory to the non- and anti-Iskraist elements of Russian Social Democracy. Even before the Congress, Martov was generally known as a "soft" Iskraist and Lenin as a "hard." Consequently, those Iskra supporters who favored a greater role for non-Iskraists in a unitary party looked to Martov as their natural leader; those wanting the Iskraists to keep a tight control of the party looked to Lenin.

The tension between Lenin’s "hards" and Martov’s "softs" manifested itself in a series of minor disputes from the very beginning of the Congress. As is well known, this tension exploded over the first paragraph of the rules which defined membership. Martov’s draft defined a member as one who "renders it regular personal assistance under the direction of one of its organizations." Lenin’s membership criterion was "by personal participation in one of the Party organizations."

Lenin’s narrower definition of membership was motivated by both a general desire to exclude opportunists (who were less likely to accept the rigors and dangers of full organizational participation) and by a desire to weed out dilettantes who had been attracted to Russian Social Democracy precisely because of its loose circle nature. Interestingly, it was Plekhanov who stressed the anti-opportunist aspect of a narrower party, while Lenin emphasized more practical, conjunctural considerations. Here is the heart of Plekhanov’s argument:

"Many of the intelligentsia will fear to enter, contaminated as they are with bourgeois individualism; but this is all to the good, since those bourgeois individuals usually constitute representatives of all kinds of opportunism. The opponents of opportunism should therefore vote for Lenin’s project, which closes the door to its penetration into the party."
—quoted in Leopold H. Haimson, The Russian Marxists and the Origins of Bolshevism (1955)

Lenin argued on somewhat different grounds:

"The root of the mistake made by those who stand for Martov’s formulation is that they not only ignore one of the main evils of our Party life, but even sanctify it. The evil is that, at a time when political discontent is almost universal, when conditions require our work to be carried out in complete secrecy, and when most of our activities have to be confined to limited, secret circles and even to private meetings, it is extremely difficult, almost impossible in fact, for us to distinguish those who only talk from those who do the work. There is hardly another country in the world where the jumbling of these two categories is as common and as productive of such boundless confusion as in Russia.... It would be better if ten who do the work should not call themselves Party members ... than that one who only talks should have the right and opportunity to be a Party member. That is a principle which seems to me indisputable, and which compels me to fight against Martov." [our emphasis]
—"Second Speech in the Discussion on the Party Rules" (2 (15) August 1903)

With the support of the Economists, Bundists and centrists, Martov’s formulation carried. However, the Economists and Bundists soon thereafter quit the Congress when it refused to accept their respective organizational claims. This gave Lenin’s "hards" a slight majority. The decisive split occurred over the election of the Iskra editorial board. The old editorial board contained four Martovite "softs" plus Lenin and Plekhanov. Lenin proposed that the board be reduced to three with him and Plekhanov forming a "hard" majority. This proposal was a highly emotional issue since the veterans, Axelrod and Zasulich, were sentimental favorites in the party. When Lenin’s proposal carried, the Martovites refused to serve on either the editorial board or central committee.

Much acrimonious debate centered on whether Lenin had informed Martov of his plan to reduce the editorial board before the Congress, whether Martov agreed, etc. The pre-history of the editorial board fight is unclear because it involved private discussions. What is clear is that Lenin’s unwillingness to compromise on the issue derived from the vote on membership criteria. It was definitely Lenin who began the factional struggle. He refused to regard the difference on membership criteria as an incidental dispute, but insisted it be made the basis for majority-minority representation on the party’s leading bodies.

The period between the Second Congress and the beginning of the revolution of 1905 was marked by the erosion of the Leninist "hard" majority. Throughout this period most of Lenin’s political energy was directed against those majority supporters who wanted to restore unity by capitulating to the Mensheviks, reversing the decisions of the Second Congress and liquidating the Bolshevik tendency.

The Mensheviks first counterattacked at a congress of the Foreign League of Russian Revolutionary Social Democracy in October 1903, where they secured a slight majority. When the League refused to recognize the authority of the leading bodies elected at the Second Congress, the Bolsheviks walked out. This finalized the split.

While Plekhanov supported the Bolshevik faction, he shrank from a definitive split over what appeared to be a purely organizational rather than a principled question. At a Bolshevik caucus meeting in November, he reportedly blurted out: "I cannot fire at my own comrades. Better a bullet in the head than a split" (quoted in Samuel H. Baron, Plekhanov: Father of Russian Marxism [1963]). He thereupon used his authority to co-opt to the Iskra editorial board the four Martovites from the old board; Lenin resigned in protest.

During 1904, the all-Bolshevik Central Committee, which Lenin joined after resigning from Iskra, followed Plekhanov’s course. Lenin, believing that his supporters were stronger among the committee men in Russia than among the more intellectual exile milieu, came out for a new party congress to re-establish his majority and recapture the now-Menshevik central organ, Iskra. The Central Committee opposed a new congress, co-opted three Mensheviks and effectively expelled Lenin from that body.

In late 1904, Lenin completely broke with the official central party bodies and established a de facto Bolshevik central committee called the Bureau of Majority Committees. At the start of 1905, the Bolsheviks established their own organ, Vperyod.

The logic of the factional struggle drove the Mensheviks to the right; gradually they replicated the politics of the defeated Economists. Martov and Plekhanov wrote self-critical articles about the old Iskra, stating they had been one-sided (in other words, Leninists) in their attacks on the Economists. The organic fusion of the Mensheviks and Economists was signaled by the co-optation of A.S. Martynov to the editorial board of the new Iskra.

The Leninists saw their struggle against the Mensheviks, both politically and organizationally, as a repeat of the fight of Iskraism versus Economism. One of Lenin’s lieutenants, Lyadov, instructed a Bolshevik supporter in late 1904 to re-fight the campaign against Economism:

"We are not to leave the party, but to fight for all our worth.... We have to conquer Russia [i.e., the committees] despite the central institutions, and we shall do this in the same way as Iskra once did. We have to repeat the work of Iskra and bring it to completion."
—quoted in J.L.H. Keep, The Rise of Social Democracy in Russia (1963)

By early 1905, Lenin was convinced the leading Mensheviks were incorrigible and organizationally unprincipled opportunists, and came out for a complete split. In contrast to the policy toward the Economists, Lenin opposed allowing the Menshevik leaders to participate in a new party congress, at which he intended to found a Bolshevik party:

"The [Menshevik] centres may and should be invited, but to accord them voting status is, I repeat, madness. The centres, of course, will not come to our Congress anyway; but why give them another chance to spit in our faces? Why this hypocrisy, this game of hide-and-seek? We bring the split into the open, we call the Vperyod-ists to a congress, we want to organise a Vperyod-ist party, and we break immediately any and all connections with the disorganizers-and yet we having loyalty dinned into our ears, we are asked to act as though a joint congress of Iskra and Vperyod were possible." [emphasis in original]
—"Letter to A.A. Bogdanov and S.I. Gusev," 11 February 1905

As Lenin projected, the Mensheviks boycotted the Third (all-Bolshevik) Congress held in London in April 1905 and convened their own rival gathering.

What did Leninism represent in 1904? Above all it represented a firm commitment to revolutionary social democracy, particularly the leading role of the proletarian party in the struggle against tsarist absolutism. It further represented an intransigent attitude toward demonstrated opportunists, like the Economist leaders, and a distrustful attitude toward their possible conversion to revolutionary politics. Lenin was committed to a centralized, disciplined party, and consequently intransigently hostile to the circlism-cliquism characteristic of the Russian social-democratic movement. Apart from the question of membership criteria, these differences between 1904 Bolshevism and Menshevism were difficult to express as counterposed principles. They manifested themselves over concrete organizational matters and appeared to most outsiders (like Kautsky) to represent differences in degree rather than in principle.

Trotsky’s Menshevik Polemic

Among the numerous anti-Lenin diatribes in 1903-04, Trotsky’s "Our Political Tasks" was much less significant than those of Axelrod, Plekhanov and Luxemburg. However, because of Trotsky’s later authority as a great revolutionary, various reformists and centrists have given prominence to his 1904 polemic. Tony Cliff, longtime leader of the International Socialists (now Socialist Workers Party) of Britain, has devoted a whole essay to Trotsky’s "prophecy" that Lenin’s organizational conceptions would lead the party to "substitute itself for the working classes" ("Trotsky on Substitutionism," International Socialism, Autumn 1960; reprinted in the I.S. collection, Party and Class [London, n.d.]). In particular, such left social democrats, claiming that Trotsky foresaw that Leninism must lead to Stalinism, invariably cite the following passage:

"In the internal politics of the party, these [Leninist] methods, as we will see, lead to the party organization replacing the party itself, the central committee [replacing] the party organization and finally a dictator [replacing] the central committee."
—from "Unsere politischen Aufgaben," in Leo Trotzki, Schriften zur revolutionären Organisation (Hamburg, 1970)

Conversely, the Stalinists have exploited "Our Political Tasks" to argue that Trotsky’s hostility to the Soviet bureaucracy was nothing but an expression of unregenerate Menshevism.

Apart from a large dose of subjective hostility toward Lenin motivated by a sentimental attachment to the pioneers of Russian Marxism, Trotsky’s polemic, like Luxemburg’s, is based on an ultra-Kautskyan conception of the party question. He sees the tasks of the party as raising the entire class to social-democratic consciousness through a lengthy, pedagogical process:

"One method consists of taking over the thinking for the proletariat, i.e., political substitution for the proletariat; the other consists of political education of the proletariat, its political mobilization, to exercise concerted pressure on the will of all political groups and parties....

"The party is based on the given level of consciousness of the proletariat, and intervenes in every great political event with the aim of shifting the line of development in the direction of the interests of the proletariat; and, even more importantly, with the aim of raising the level of consciousness, in order then to base itself on that raised level of consciousness and again use it to further this dual aim." [emphasis in original]

Trotsky is here strongly influenced by Axelrod, frequently quoted in the polemic, who at this time came out for convening an inclusive, non-party "workers congress." This would, in effect, have liquidated the weak, fledgling RSDRP.

To postpone the revolutionary struggle for power until the entire working class has achieved socialist consciousness is to relegate it "to the Greek calends"; under capitalism, the working class in its overwhelming majority cannot completely transcend bourgeois ideological influence. The revolutionary vanguard party must lead the mass of active workers in struggle, but among these workers there are many whose socialist convictions will be partial, inconsistent and episodic.

In his major anti-Menshevik polemic of this period, "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back" (May 1904), Lenin replies succinctly to the Axelrod/Trotsky position:

"The Party, as the vanguard of the working class, must not be confused, after all, with the entire class. And Comrade Axelrod is guilty of just this confusion (which is characteristic of our opportunistic Economism in general)....

"We are a party of a class, and therefore almost the entire class (and in times of war, in a period of civil war, the entire class) should act under the leadership of our Party, should adhere to the Party as closely as possible. But it would be... ‘tail-ism’ to think that the entire class, or almost the entire class, can ever rise, under capitalism, to the level of consciousness and activity of its vanguard, of its Social-Democratic Party." [emphasis in original]

It should be noted that Lenin’s formulation of class-party relations here still does not completely break with the Kautskyan "party of the whole class" since he obviously assumes only a single party based on the proletariat.

It is not substitutionism for a revolutionary party to lead—through the trade unions, factory committees, soviets, etc.—masses of workers who are not conscious socialists. This is precisely the task of the revolutionary vanguard. Substitutionism is when the vanguard engages in military action against the bourgeoisie without the support of the non-party masses. Substitutionism manifests itself in putschism, terrorism/guerrillaism, dual unionism or minority attempts at general strike action (like the German March Action of 1921). Despite repeated Menshevik accusations of Blanquism, Lenin’s Bolsheviks did not engage in such adventurist activities. By the eve of World War I the Bolsheviks had become the mass party of the Russian industrial proletariat, far outstripping the ill-organized, disparate Mensheviks.

In any case, those who would use the early Trotsky’s polemic against Leninism must come to terns with Trotsky’s own later renunciation and critique of his Menshevik and conciliationist position in those years. In My Life (1929) he wrote of the 1903 RSDRP congress:

"My break with Lenin occurred on what might be considered ‘moral’ or even personal grounds. But this was merely on the surface. At bottom, the separation was of a political nature and merely expressed itself in the realm of organization methods. I thought of myself as a centralist. But there is no doubt that at that time I did not fully realize what an intense and imperious centralism the revolutionary party would need to lead millions of people in a war against the old order."

Trotsky never authorized a reprinting of "Our Political Tasks," and it was explicitly not included in the Russian edition of his works published before the Stalinist usurpation.

Behind Luxemburg’s Anti-Leninist Polemic

Rosa Luxemburg’s "Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy," published in the SPD theoretical journal Neue Zeit and the Menshevik Iskra, is probably the most intrinsically significant of the anti-Lenin polemics following the 1903 split. It stands back from the immediate issues and personal recriminations of the split, and it does not engage in superficial unity mongering. Luxemburg’s differences with Lenin exist both at the level of the problems, tasks and perspectives of the Russian movement and of the organizational nature of social democracy in general. In both the Russian and general cases these differences center on the nature of opportunism and how to combat it.

Their differences over social-democratic opportunism in Russia can be briefly expressed as follows. Before the 1905 Revolution, Lenin saw the main opportunist danger as adaptation to tsarist absolutism; Luxemburg saw it as the subordination of the Russian proletariat to revolutionary bourgeois democracy out of power. For Lenin, a social-democratic opportunist was a dilettante quick to make a personal peace with tsarist society, and perhaps an aspiring trade-union official. For Luxemburg, a social-democratic opportunist was a bourgeois radical demagogue actually striving for governmental power, a Russian version of the French Radical leader Georges Clemenceau, an ex-Blanquist.

For Lenin from 1901 through 1904, and for the Iskra tendency as a whole, the main expression of Russian social-democratic opportunism was Economism, an amalgam of minimalist trade-union agitation, passive adaptation to liberal tsarism, organizational localism and individualistic functioning. Luxemburg was no less opposed to pure-and-simple trade unionism than was Lenin, but evidently did not regard Economism as a serious opportunist current in Russia, as a serious contender for influence over the working class. As for the circle spirit and anarchistic individualism which Lenin took as his main enemy at the organization level, Luxemburg seemed to consider these traits an unavoidable overhead cost at the given stage of the social-democratic movement in Russia. When the socialist proletariat is small, believed Luxemburg, a loose movement of localized propaganda circles is the normal and, in a sense, healthy organizational expression of social democracy:

"How to effect a transition from the type of organization characteristic of the preparatory stage of the socialist movement--usually featured by disconnected local groups and clubs, with propaganda as a principal activity--to the unity of a large, national body, suitable for concerted political action over the entire vast territory ruled by the Russian state? That is the specific problem which the Russian Social Democracy has mulled over for some time.

"Autonomy and isolation are the most pronounced characteristics of the old organizational type. It is, therefore, understandable why the slogan of the persons who want to see an inclusive national organization should be ‘Centralism!’...

"The indispensable conditions for the realization of Social-Democratic centralism are: 1. The existence of a large contingent of workers educated in the political struggle. 2. The possibility for the workers to develop their own political activity through direct influence on public life, in a party press, and public congresses, etc.

"These conditions are not yet fully formed in Russia. The first—a proletarian vanguard, conscious of its class interests and capable of self-direction in political activity—is only now emerging in Russia. All efforts of socialist agitation and organisation should aim to hasten the formation of such a vanguard. The second condition can be had only under a regime of political liberty." [our emphasis]
—Luxemburg, "Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy"

Luxemburg’s belief in the gradual transition from a movement of localized circles to a centralized, unitary party was not only counterposed to Leninism, but logically placed her outside and to the right of the pre-split Iskra tendency as a whole.

The view expressed above is at some variance with Luxemburg’s actual organizational practice in the Polish part of the Russian empire. The Luxemburg/Jogiches Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) was a very small, but highly centralized, propaganda organization. And, unlike Lenin’s Bolsheviks, Luxemburg’s SDKPiL made serious sectarian and ultraleft errors (see "Lenin vs. Luxemburg on the National Question," WV No. 150, 25 March 1977).

Mention of the SDKPiL is a reminder that one cannot simply take "Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy" at face value. Though from very different motivations, Luxemburg’s Polish social democracy was just as protective of its organizational autonomy as was the Bund. The SDKPiL sent two observers to the Second RSDRP Congress, where they negotiated for broad autonomy within an all-Russian party. Lenin’s advocacy of a centralized party of all social democrats in the Russian empire challenged, at least in principle, the highly valued organizational perogatives of Luxemburg’s SDKPiL.

Luxemburg looked for Russian social-democratic opportunism in exactly the opposite direction than did Lenin. Luxemburg feared that the Russian social-democratic intelligentsia would give rise to a radical bourgeois party using socialist rhetoric, and thus suppress the development of political class consciousness among the Russian proletariat. With this prognosis, Luxemburg saw in Lenin’s centralism, rather than in Menshevism, the most likely source of opportunism (i.e., adaptation to the bourgeoisie). Lenin’s insistence on the leading role of social democracy in the struggle against absolutism and on the leading role of professional revolutionaries in the party appeared to Luxemburg (and not only to her) as characteristic of a bourgeois radical party.

In fact, it was common in Menshevik circles in this period to accuse the Leninists of being bourgeois radicals in social-democratic clothing. The leading Menshevik, Potresov, for example, likened the Bolsheviks to Clemenceau’s Radicals. Luxemburg saw in Lenin’s "Jacobinism" the unconscious desire of radical bourgeois intellectuals to suppress their working-class base after overthrowing tsarism and coming to power. She advocated a broad, loose social-democratic movement as a curb on radical bourgeois demagogues à la Clemenceau the ex-Blanquist:

"If we assume the viewpoint claimed as his own by Lenin and we fear the influence of intellectuals in the proletarian movement, we can conceive of no greater danger to the Russian party than Lenin’s organizational plan. Nothing will more surely enslave a young labor movement to an intellectual elite hungry for power than this bureaucratic strait jacket....

"Let us not forget that the revolution soon to break in Russia will be a bourgeois and not a proletarian revolution. This modifies radically all the conditions of proletarian struggle. The Russian intellectuals, too, will rapidly become imbued with bourgeois ideology. The Social Democracy is at present the only guide of the Russian proletariat. But on the day after the revolution, we shall see the bourgeoisie, and above all the bourgeois intellectuals, seek to use the masses as a steppingstone to their domination.

"The game of bourgeois demagogues will be made easier if at the present stage, the spontaneous action, initiative, and political sense of the advanced sections of the working class are hindered in their development and restricted by the protectorate of an authoritarian Central Committee." [our emphasis]

A central premise of Luxemburg’s 1904 anti-Leninist polemic was that tsarist absolutism would soon be replaced by bourgeois democracy ("the revolution soon to break out in Russia will be bourgeois"). That is why she anticipated that radical parliamentarian demagogy would be the principal expression of social-democratic opportunism. The revolution of 1905 proved Luxemburg’s prognosis wrong. The revolution demonstrated that bourgeois liberalism was totally cowardly and impotent. It also demonstrated that social democracy was the only consistently revolutionary-democratic force in the Russian empire.

During the revolution, Luxemburg condemned the Mensheviks for tailing the constitutional monarchists (the Cadets) and moved close to the Bolsheviks. Agreeing with Lenin on the leading role of the proletarian party in the antitsarist revolution, Luxemburg/Jogiches’ SDKPiL formed an alliance with the Bolsheviks in 1906, an alliance which lasted until 1912 and gave Lenin leadership of the formally unitary RSDRP. At the Fifth RSDRP Congress in 1907, Luxemburg defended the narrowness and intransigence of the Bolsheviks, albeit with "soft" reservations:

"You comrades on the right-wing complain bitterly about the narrowness, the intolerance, the tendency toward mechanical conception in the attitudes of the Bolsheviks. And we agree with you.... But do you know what causes these unpleasant tendencies? To anyone familiar with party conditions in other countries, these tendencies are quite well known: it is the typical attitude of one section of Socialism which has to defend the independent class interests of the proletariat against another equally strong section. Rigidity is the form adopted by Social Democracy at one end when the other tends to turn into formless jelly, unable to maintain any consistent course under the pressure of events."
—quoted in J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (1966)

Liberals and social democrats have systematically suppressed reference to Luxemburg’s close alliance with Bolshevism from the revolution of 1905 until 1912 and again from the outbreak of World War I until her assassination during the Spartacus uprising in 1919. They have, however, fully exploited her 1904 polemic in the service of anticommunism. Thus, the widely-circulated Ann Arbor Paperbacks for the Study of Communism and Marxism reprinted "Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy" under the slanderous title "Leninism or Marxism?"

No less pernicious have been the efforts of many left-reformists and centrists to portray the Leninist democratic-centralist vanguard party as valid only for backward countries, while solidarizing with Luxemburg’s 1904 anti-Bolshevik position for advanced capitalist countries. We have already noted that this was exactly the position of the reformist-workerist Tony Cliff, before "hard" Leninism became fashionable among radical youth in the late 1960s.

It is to be expected that an outright revisionist like Cliff would solidarize with Luxemburg against Lenin. What is not expected is that an ostensibly orthodox Trotskyist (i.e., Leninist) organization would adopt the "Luxemburgist" line as valid for advanced countries. Yet this is just what the French Organisation Communiste Internationaliste (OCI) does. In an introduction to a popular French edition of What Is To Be Done? OCI leader Jean-Jacques Marie dismisses Lenin’s advocacy of a democratic-centralist vanguard as peculiar to early twentieth-century Russia, and asserts that Luxemburg’s 1904 position is appropriate to an advanced country with a highly developed workers movement.

"The centralist rigidity of What Is To Be Done? is linked to the particular characteristics of the Russian proletariat; that is to say, of a nascent proletariat which had just recently come out of the countryside impregnated with the traits of the Middle Ages, lacking education, crushed by conditions of existence similar to those of the French or English proletariat at the beginning of the nineteenth century....

"The role of the revolutionary intelligentsia as a factor of organization and consciousness, such as Lenin depicted it, is thus proportional to the degree of relative backwardness of a proletariat legally deprived of any form of trade-union or political organization.

"Thus the conflict between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, for example, appears—if you leave aside their personal traits-as the expression of the enormous difference which separated one of the most uneducated proletariats in Europe and the German proletariat, at that time the most powerful and politically most vigorous and mature in the world....

"If the struggle for the socialist revolution is international in essence, its immediate forms and also the means to lead it depend on numerous factors, among them the national conditions in which each party matures."
—introduction to Que Faire? (Paris, 1966)

The viewpoint which J.-J. Marie here attributes to Luxemburg is so diametrically opposed to her actual position it is hard to believe he has ever read "Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy." As we have seen, Luxemburg’s opposition to Leninist centralism for Russia was predicated precisely on the underdevelopment of the proletarian movement. In 1904, Luxemburg was a centralizer and disciplinarian in the German party because the revisionist right was formally a minority. And this is explicitly stated in "Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy":

"The Social Democracy must enclose the tumult of the non-proletarian protestants against the existing society within the bounds of the revolutionary action of the proletariat....

"This is only possible if the Social Democracy already contains a strong, politically educated proletarian nucleus class conscious enough to be able, as up to now in Germany, to pull along in its tow the declassed and petty-bourgeois elements that join the party. In that case, greater strictness in the application of the principle of centralization and more severe discipline, specifically formulated in party bylaws, may be an effective safeguard against the opportunist danger. That is how the revolutionary socialist movement in France defended itself against the Juaresist confusion. A modification of the constitution of the German Social Democracy in that direction would be a very timely measure." [our emphasis]

Luxemburg’s pressure for greater centralization in the SPD was successful at the radical-dominated 1905 Jena Congress, which adopted a genuinely centralist organizational structure. For the first time the officers of the basic party unit were made responsible to the national executive. Later on, of course, the SPD’s famous centralized apparatus was used to suppress the revolutionary left led by Rosa Luxemburg.

The heart of the differences between Luxemburg and Lenin in 1904 and also later did not center on the degree of centralization, but on the nature of opportunism and how to combat it. The question of centralism and discipline derives its significance only in that context.

Luxemburg’s 1904 anti-Lenin polemic was strongly conditioned by frustration at her essentially hollow victory over Bernsteinian revisionism. Revisionism was formally rejected by the SPD, the opportunists changed their tack and the party political activities continued much the same as before, in the spirit of passive expectancy. Not long after writing "Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy," Luxemburg expressed in a letter (14 December 1904) to the Dutch left socialist Henriette Roland-Holst her disillusionment with internal factional struggle in general:

"Opportunism is in any case a swamp plant, which develops rapidly and luxuriously in the stagnant waters of the movement; in a swift running stream it will die of itself. Here in Germany a forward motion is an urgent, burning need! And only the fewest realize it. Some fritter away their energy in petty disputes with the opportunists, others believe that the automatic, mechanical increase in numbers (at elections and in the organizations) is progress in itself!"
—quoted in Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy 1905-1917 (1955)

Luxemburg’s belief that an upsurge of militant class struggle would naturally dispel the opportunist forces in the SPD proved very wrong. In 1905 and again in 1910 a rising line of mass agitation against restricted suffrage was effectively suppressed on the initiative of the trade-union bureaucracy. In 1910 the Neue Zeit, under Kautsky’s editorship, even refused to publish Luxemburg’s article advocating a general strike.

In concluding "Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy," Luxemburg develops a theory of the inevitability of opportunism and even opportunist phases in a social-democratic party. Attempts to preserve the party against opportunism through internal organizational means will, she contends, only reduce the party to a sect. Herein lies Luxemburg’s fundamental difference with Lenin in 1904 and later:

"It follows that this movement can best advance by tacking betwixt and between the two dangers by which it is constantly threatened. One is the loss of its mass character; the other, the abandonment of its goal. One is the danger of sinking back to the condition of a sect; the other, the danger of becoming a movement of social reform.

"That is why it is illusory, and contrary to historic experience, to hope to fix, once for always, the direction of the revolutionary socialist struggle with the aid of formal means, which are expected to secure the labor movement against all possibilities of opportunist digression.

"Marxist theory offers us a reliable instrument enabling us to recognize and combat typical manifestations of opportunism. But the socialist movement is a mass movement. Its perils are not the insidious machinations of individuals and groups. They arise out of unavoidable social conditions. We cannot secure ourselves in advance against all possibilities of opportunist deviation. Such dangers can be overcome only by the movement itself—certainly with the aid of Marxist theory, but only after the dangers in question have taken tangible form in practice.

"Looked at from this angle, opportunism appears to be a product and an inevitable phase of the historic development of the labor movement."

Due to attempts by semi-syndicalist and ultraleft communist elements (e.g., "council communists") to claim Rosa Luxemburg as one of their own, it is often ignored that her polemic against Lenin on the organizational question was rooted in orthodox social-democratic concepts. The above-quoted passage is ultra-Kautskyan in identifying the social-democratic party with the entire labor movement. From the premise of Kautsky’s "party of the whole class," Luxemburg’s logic is unassailable. Not only is there an opportunist wing of a social-democratic party, but there must be periods in which the influence of this wing is expanding.

From her German vantage point, Luxemburg saw that to form a Leninist party must mean a break with significant working-class tendencies under opportunist leadership and influence. This anti-social-democratic conclusion was blocked from Lenin’s view by the unorganized state of the Russian party. In contrast to Luxemburg, Lenin was not faced with opportunist social-democratic tendencies which enjoyed a mass base. He believed the Mensheviks to be an intellectualist tendency incapable of building a mass workers movement.

Kautsky/Bebel Intervene to Restore Unity

While Luxemburg’s 1904 anti-Leninist polemic is today far better known, at that time the active pro-unity intervention of the SPD central leadership, Kautsky and Bebel, was more significant. It is important to consider Kautsky/Bebel’s intervention in order to realize that Lenin built a programmatically homogeneous revolutionary party in Russia in the face of opposition from the leading authorities of the Socialist International.

In early 1904, one of Lenin’s lieutenants, Lydin-Mandelstamm, wrote an article on the split for publication in Kautsky’s Neue Zeit. Kautsky refused to publish it, and his reply to Lydin in mid-May 1904 is his earliest written statement on the split. He found the split entirely unjustified and profoundly irresponsible. He was also astute enough to recognize that it was Lenin’s intransigence on the organizational question which perpetuated the split:

"Great responsibility rests upon the Russian social democracy. If it cannot unite, then it will stand before history and the international proletariat as a group of politicians which, out of personal and organizational difficulties of a very minor nature compared with its great historic task ... has let slip an opportunity for striking a blow at Russian absolutism. But Lenin would bear the responsibility for having initiated this destructive discord." [our translation]
—quoted in Dietrich Geyer, "Die russische Parteispaltung im Urteil der deutschen Sozialdemokratie 1903-1905," in International Review of Social History (1958)

On the substantive organizational question which led to the split, Kautsky saw "neither a principled opposition between the needs of the proletariat and intellectuals nor between democracy and dictatorship, but rather simply a question of appropriateness."

Kautsky sent a copy of his reply to Lydin to the Menshevik leadership, who rightly regarded it as support to their side. With the author’s permission, it was published in the new Iskra. In a letter (4 June 1904) to Axelrod, Kautsky deepened his pro-Menshevik stance to the point of giving them advice on how to best Lenin:

"But to a great degree the differences between you and the other side seem to rest upon misunderstandings. Not between you and Lenin, that I consider out of the question, but between you and Lenin’s supporters in Russia. I have at least had the opportunity of conversing with various supporters of Lenin who came from Russia and I have found among them no views which would render cooperation ... impossible. Their prejudice against you seems often only to rest on misinformation. If this is so, then unification would have to be possible, over and above Lenin’s head, if these elements are treated judiciously."

And, in fact, the Mensheviks sought, with some success, to win over the more conciliatory Bolsheviks.

A more public indication of Kautsky’s anti-Lenin stance was that Neue Zeit published Luxemburg’s "Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy" without dissociating the journal from the views expressed therein. When Lenin wrote a reply, Kautsky refused to publish it on the grounds that Neue Zeit was not the appropriate arena to fight out the RSDRP split. In a letter (27 October 1904) to Lenin, he justified publishing Luxemburg’s article by asserting that:

"I did not publish Rosa Luxemburg’s article because it treated the Russian disputes but in spite of this. I published it because it treated the organizational question theoretically, and this question is also a subject of discussion with us in Germany. The Russian disputes are touched on there only in a fashion that will not draw the uninformed reader’s attention to them. [emphasis in original]

Kautsky’s last assertion is disingenuous.

Kautsky advised Lenin to recast his reply in more theoretical terms if he wanted it published in the German organ. So far as we know, Lenin did not reply. One presumes Lenin regarded as decisive the specifics of the RSDRP split and didn’t want to be drawn into an abstract discussion on principles of organization.

In October 1904, August Bebel, the venerated chairman of the SPD, proposed to the Menshevik leadership that they call a unity conference of all the groups present at the Second Congress of the RSDRP. Shortly thereafter, the German leadership urged afar broader conference including the petty-bourgeois populist Social Revolutionaries and national-liberationist Polish Socialist Party. Thus in 1904 the German Social Democratic leadership favored a bloc, if not a party, embracing all the oppositional forces in the tsarist empire to the left of the bourgeois liberals. The Mensheviks rejected such a broad unity as opportunist. This was an early indication that the Martovites were not, as Lenin mistakenly believed, to the right of the SPD central leadership.

Kautsky believed that the Mensheviks were as desirous of restoring unity as he was. But the Mensheviks’ pro-unity stance was in part a pose for foreign consumption. In theory committed to a broad, inclusive party, the Menshevik leadership did not want to be in the same organization with Lenin’s "hards." In response to Bebel’s proposal, they agreed to call a "unity" conference inviting the Bund, Luxemburg/Jogiches’ SDKPiL and some smaller social-democratic groups. But they refused to invite the Leninists! By this time Lenin had lost the formal leadership of the RSDRP and had set up the Bureau of Majority Committees.

Kautsky now criticized the Menshevik leaders as irresponsible splitters. In a letter (10 January 1905) to Axelrod, he wrote:

"I don’t understand your not inviting Lenin. This may well be justified on formal grounds, but one cannot view the matter so formally. From a political standpoint the exclusion [of Lenin] from the invitation seems to me an error. Even if he does not formally represent a particular organization, still he has a great deal of support, and your task is either to win him along with his supporters or separate these supporters from him.... In the present situation, which demands a unity of all revolutionary forces, it is my view that your task is to go the utmost in conciliation. If unity is then demonstrated to be impossible, then Lenin will have placed himself in a bad light, then you can proceed against him with much greater force and success than at present, where your conflict appears almost solely one simply of authority." [emphasis in original]

Following the Bloody Sunday massacre in January 1905, the SPD leadership once again attempted to reunite the Russian social-democratic movement. Bebel publicly offered to arbitrate the differences. Bebel’s offer concluded with a paternalistic scolding of Russian Social Democracy:

"The news about this split has stirred up great confusion and definite discontent in the international social democracy and everybody expects that after a free discussion both sides will find a common basis for struggle against the common enemy."
—quoted in Olga Hess Gankin and H.H. Fisher, The Bolsheviks and the World War (1940)

The Mensheviks, knowing Bebel was close to them politically, readily accepted his proposal. Lenin in effect rejected the unity proposal. In a reply (7 February 1905) to the German party chairman, he stated that he had no authority to accept the arbitration offer, which had to be put to a new party congress. He then added that in view of Kautsky’s one-sided intervention, "it will not surprise me if intervention on the part of representatives of the German Social Democracy encounters difficulties within our ranks."

The all-Bolshevik Third Congress in April took no position on Bebel’s proposal, in effect rejecting it. The Bolsheviks’ self-confident spirit and unwillingness to accept German tutelage is well expressed by the delegate Barsov in his speech on Bebel’s offer:

"Our German comrades are a force, they have matured through an inexorably critical, internal struggle against all forms of opportunism at party congresses and other meetings-and we must mature in the same way in order to play our great role, independently forging our own organizations into a party, not merely ideologically but in reality.... We must become active leaders of the entire proletarian class of Russia, by uniting and organizing ourselves immediately for struggle against autocracy for the glorious future of the reign of socialism."




Posted: 15 April 2005