Lenin & the Vanguard Party

The Struggle Against the Boycotters




The Fifth Congress of the RSDRP, held in London in May 1907, was almost evenly divided between the Bolsheviks with 89 delegate votes and the Mensheviks with 88. At the Fourth Congress a year earlier three associated parties—the Jewish Bund, Latvian Social Democrats and Luxemburg/Jogiches’ Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL)—had been incorporated into the RSDRP on a semi-federated basis. At the Fifth Congress the Bund had 54 delegate votes, the Latvian Social Democrats 26 and the SDKPiL 45.

In the course of a year’s sharp factional struggle against the Mensheviks’ liberal tailism and pro-Constitutional Democrat (Cadet) policy, the Bolsheviks had overcome their minority position within the Russian social-democratic movement. However, now the factional leadership of the RSDRP depended upon the three "national" social-democratic parties. The Bund consistently supported the Mensheviks. The Lettish Social Democrats generally supported the Bolsheviks, but sometimes mediated between the two hostile Russian groups. It was through the support of Rosa Luxemburg’s SDKPiL that Lenin attained a majority at the Fifth Congress and in the leading bodies of the RSDRP for the next five years. The Lenin-Luxemburg bloc of 1906-11 is significant not only in its actual historic effect, but also because it reveals the relationship between evolving Leninism and this most consistent and important representative of pre-1914 revolutionary social democracy.

The decisive issue at the Fifth Congress was the attitude toward bourgeois liberalism, and specifically electoral support to the Cadet Party. With the support of the Letts and Poles (and also the left-wing Trotsky/Parvus group among the Mensheviks), the Bolshevik line carried; the Congress condemned the Cadets:

"The parties of the liberal-monarchist bourgeoisie, headed by the Constitutional Democratic Party [Cadets], have now definitely turned aside from the revolution and endeavor to halt it through a deal with the counterrevolution."
—Robert H. MeNeal, ed., Decisions and Resolutions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1974)

Another resolution instructed the RSDRP Duma fraction to oppose "the treacherous policy of bourgeois liberalism which, under the slogan ‘Safeguard the Duma,’ in fact sacrifices the popular interests to the Black Hundreds" (ibid.). A few months after the Congress, a party conference decided to run independent RSDRP candidates in the upcoming Duma elections and to support no other parties.

While the Lettish and Polish Social Democrats supported the general Bolshevik line at the Fifth Congress, they also moderated Lenin’s fight against the Mensheviks. They voted against Lenin’s motion to condemn the Menshevik majority of the outgoing Central Committee. The defection of the Latvian Social Democrats and the SDKPiL also accounted for Lenin’s only serious defeat at the 1907 RSDRP Congress. The congress voted overwhelmingly to oppose the Bolsheviks’ "fighting operations" for "seizing funds" of the tsarist government.

During this period the Mensheviks’ attack on the Leninists centered on these armed expropriations. Their near-hysterical reaction to the Bolsheviks’ expropriations flowed from its shocking impact on bourgeois liberal respectability. Also the expropriations gave the Bolsheviks a financial superiority over the Mensheviks. In condemning the Bolsheviks’ expropriation of government funds, the Mensheviks were convinced that they had unimpeachable social-democratic orthodoxy on their side.

The Bolsheviks, however, did not face the normal situation in which such robbery would immediately trigger the repressive apparatus of an overwhelmingly powerful and centralized state. Neither did they risk the condemnation of workers who might think they were mere criminals in political garb. Nor did the Bolsheviks maintain these expropriations as a "strategy" to be carried out over an extended period with the likely result of degeneration into lumpen criminal activity.

Lenin believed that there was a continuing revolutionary situation, in which the mass of workers and peasants were actively hostile to tsarist legality. The Bolsheviks’ expropriations were concentrated in the Caucasus, where armed peasant and nationalist bands regularly challenged tsarist authorities. Lenin regarded the expropriations as one of several guerrilla tactics in the course of a revolutionary civil war. The Bolshevik-Menshevik dispute over armed expropriations was thus inextricably bound up with their fundamental difference over the political and military vanguard role of the proletarian party in the revolution to overthrow the autocracy.

Lenin’s position on armed expropriations was presented in a resolution for the Fourth Congress held in April 1906. He continued to uphold this position through 1907:


(1) scarcely anywhere in Russia since the December uprising has there been a complete cessation of hostilities, which the revolutionary people are now conducting in the form of sporadic guerrilla attacks upon the enemy.... We are of the opinion, and propose that the Congress should agree....

(4) that fighting operations are also permissible for the purpose of seizing funds belonging to the enemy, i.e., the autocratic government, to meet the needs of insurrection, particular care being taken that the interests of the people are infringed as little as possible."
—"A Tactical Platform for the Unity Congress of the RSDLP" (March 1906)

Tsarist Reaction and the Ultraleft Bolsheviks

Shortly after the Fifth RSDRP Congress, in June 1907 the reactionary tsarist minister Stolypin executed a coup against the Duma. The Duma was dissolved and a new (Third) Duma proclaimed on the basis of a far less democratic electoral system. In addition, the social-democratic deputies were arrested and charged with fomenting mutiny in the armed forces.

Stolypin’s coup marked the definitive end of the 1905 revolutionary period. The victory of tsarist reaction opened up a new, and in one sense final, phase in the Bolshevik-Menshevik conflict, over the need to re-establish the underground as the party’s basic organizational structure. The onset of reaction also produced a very sharp division within the Bolshevik camp between Leninism and ultraleftism, a factional struggle which had to be resolved before the historically far more significant conflict with Menshevism could be fought to a finish.

The conflict between Lenin and the ultraleft Bolsheviks centered on participation in the reactionary tsarist parliamentary body. Behind this difference lay Lenin’s recognition that a reactionary period had set in, requiring a tactical retrenchment by the revolutionary party. The first battle occurred at a July 1907 RSDRP conference to determine policy for the upcoming Duma elections. Lenin still believed that Russia was passing through a general revolutionary period but regarded boycotting the elections as tactically unjustifiable:


(1) active boycott, as the experience of the Russian revolution has shown, is correct tactics on the part of the Social Democrats only under conditions of a sweeping, universal, and rapid upswing of the revolution, developing into an armed uprising, and only in connection with the ideological aims of the struggle against constitutional illusions arising from the convocation of the first representative assembly by the old regime;

(2) in the absence of these conditions correct tactics on the part of the revolutionary Social-Democrats calls for participation in the elections, as was the case with the Second Duma, even if all the conditions of a revolutionary period are present."
—"Draft Resolution on Participation in the Elections to the Third Duma" (July 1907)

In presenting this resolution Lenin found himself a minority of one among the nine Bolshevik delegates to the conference. The resolution passed with the votes of the Mensheviks, Bundists and Lettish and Polish Social Democrats; all the Bolsheviks except Lenin voted against.

The Bolshevik boycotters were, to be sure, greatly overrepresented at this particular party gathering. Lenin had significant support for his position among the Bolshevik cadre and ranks and was quickly able to gain more. However, the ultraleft faction of 1907-09 was the most significant challenge to Lenin’s leadership of the Bolshevik organization that he ever faced. The ultraleft leaders—Bogdanov (who had been Lenin’s chief lieutenant), Lunacharsky, Lyadov, Alexinsky, Krasin—were very prominent Bolsheviks. As likely as not, a majority of the Bolshevik ranks supported boycotting the tsarist Duma in this period. Only Lenin’s great personal authority prevented the development of an ultraleft faction strong enough to oust him and his supporters from the official Bolshevik center or to engineer a major split.

Lenin was aided in this faction struggle by the heterogeneity of the ultraleft tendency. A not very important tactical question divided the ultraleft Bolsheviks into two distinct groupings, the Otzovists ("Recallists") and the Ultimatists. The Otzovists demanded the immediate, unconditional recall of the RSDRP Duma fraction. The Ultimatists demanded that the Duma fraction be presented with an ultimatum to make inflammatory speeches, which would provoke the tsarist authorities into expelling them from the Duma or worse. In practice, both policies would have had the same effect, and Lenin denied that there was a significant division among his ultraleft opponents.

Lenin’s position on the ultraleft faction was presented in resolution form at a June 1909 conference of the expanded editorial board meeting of Proletary, a de facto plenum of the Bolshevik central leadership. At this conference, Bogdanov was expelled from the Bolshevik organization. The key passages of the resolution state:

"The direct revolutionary struggle of the broad masses was then followed by a severe period of counter-revolution. It became essential for Social-Democrats to adapt their revolutionary tactics to this new situation, and, in connection with this, one of the most exceptionally important tasks became the use of the Duma as an open platform for the purpose of assisting Social-Democratic agitation.

"In this rapid turn of events, however, a section of the workers who had participated in the direct revolutionary struggle was unable to proceed at once to apply revolutionary Social-Democratic tactics in the new conditions of the counterrevolution, and continued simply to repeat slogans which had been revolutionary in the period of open civil war, but which now, if merely repeated, might retard the process of closing the ranks of the proletariat in the new conditions of struggle." [emphasis in original]
—"On Otzovism and Ultimatumism"

Bogdanov’s answer to Lenin is summarized in his 1910 "Letter to All Comrades," a founding document of his own independent group:

"Some people among your representatives in the executive collegium—the Bolshevik Center—who live abroad, have come to the conclusion that we must radically change our previous Bolshevik evaluation of the present historical moment and hold a course not toward a new revolutionary wave, but toward a long period of peaceful, constitutional development. This brings them close to the right wing of our party, the menshevik comrades who always, independently of any evaluation of the political situation, pull toward legal and constitutional forms of activity, toward ‘organic work’ and ‘organic development’."
—Robert V Daniels, ed., A Documentary History of Communism (1960)

Bogdanov’s phrase about "a long period of peaceful, constitutional development" is ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so. As against many Mensheviks, Lenin did not regard a new revolution as off the agenda for an entire historical epoch, i.e., for several decades. By 1908, he concluded that before another revolutionary upsurge (like that of 1905) there would be a lengthy period in terms of the working perspectives of the party and relative to the past experience and expectations of the Bolsheviks. 1908 was not 1903. And this reality was precisely what the Otzovists/Ultimatists denied.

Philosophy and Politics

Otzovism/Ultimatism was associated with neo-Kantian idealistic dualism represented by the Austrian physicist-philosopher Ernst Mach, a philosophical doctrine then much in vogue in Central European intellectual circles. Bogdanov’s Empiriomonism (1905-06) was an ambitious attempt to reconcile Marxism with neo-Kantianism. In 1908 Bogdanov’s factional partner Lunacharsky deepened this idealism into outright spiritualism, positing the need for a socialist religion. Lunacharsky’s "god-building" was, needless to say, a great embarrassment for the Bolsheviks as a whole, and even for the Otzovist/Ultimatist faction.

Bogdanov’s sympathy for neo-Kantian philosophical doctrine was both well known and longstanding. As long as Bogdanov functioned as Lenin’s lieutenant, and did not in himself represent a distinct political tendency, his neo-Kantianism was considered a personal peculiarity among both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks alike. But once Bogdanov became the leader of a distinct and for a time significant tendency in Russian Social Democracy, his philosophical views became a focus of general political controversy. Plekhanov, in particular, exploited Bogdanovism to attack the Bolshevik program as the product of flagrant subjective idealism. Lenin thus spent much of 1908 researching a major polemic against Bogdanov’s neo-Kantianism, Materialism and Empiriocriticism, in order to purge Bolshevism of the taint of philosophical idealism.

Lenin’s close political collaboration with Bogdanov, despite the latter’s neo-Kantianism on the one hand, and his massive polemic against Bogdanov’s philosophical views on the other, have been used to justify symmetric deviations on this question by ostensible revolutionary Marxists. That the neo-Kantian Bogdanov was an important Bolshevik leader is sometimes cited to argue for an attitude of indifference toward dialectical materialism, a belief that the most general or abstract expression of the Marxian world view has no bearing on practical politics and associated organizational affiliation. When he broke with Trotskyism in 1940, the American revisionist Max Shachtman justified a bloc with the anti-dialectician and empiricist James Burnham by citing the "precedent" of Lenin and Bogdanov.

At the other pole, Lenin’s major polemic against an opponent’s idealistic deviation from Marxism has encouraged a tendency to "deepen" every factional struggle by bringing in philosophical questions—by reducing all political differences to the question of dialectical materialism. This mixture of pomposity and rational idealism has become a hallmark of the British Healyite group. (The Healy/Banda group has become so outright bizarre that it can no longer be taken seriously, least of all in its philosophical mystifications.)

The Healyites justified their 1972 split from their erstwhile bloc partners, the French neo-Kautskyan Organisation Communiste Internationaliste (OCI), by positing the primacy of "philosophy." They appealed to Lenin’s 1908 polemic against Bogdanov as orthodox precedent:

"Lenin tirelessly studied the ideas of the new idealists, the neo-Kantians, in philosophy, even during the hardest practical struggle to establish the revolutionary party in Russia. When these ideas, in the form of ‘empirio-criticism,’ were taken up by a section of the Bolsheviks themselves, Lenin made a specialized study and wrote against them a full-length work, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.

"Lenin understood very well that the years of extreme hardship and isolation after the defeat of the 1905 Revolution exposed the revolutionary movement to the greatest pressure of the class enemy. He knew that the most fundamental task of all was the defence and development of Marxist theory at the most basic level, that of philosophy. [our emphasis]
— International Committee, In Defence of Trotskyism (1973)

This passage is a complete falsification at several levels. To begin with, Lenin’s historically more important political struggle in the period of reaction was not against Bogdanov’s ultraleft Bolsheviks, but against the Menshevik Liquidators. In this latter struggle, philosophical questions played no particular role.

The Healyites also falsify Lenin’s relationship with Bogdanov. When Bogdanov became part of the Bolshevik leadership in 1904, he was already a well-known neo-Kantian (Machian). Lenin and Bogdanov agreed that the Bolshevik tendency as such would take no position on the controversial philosophical issues. Lenin explains this in a letter to Maxim Gorky (25 February 1908) wherein he endorses his past relationship with Bogdanov, despite the latter’s philosophical deviation:

"In the summer and autumn of 1904, Bogdanov and I reached a complete agreement, as Bolsheviks, and formed the tacit bloc, which tacitly ruled out philosophy as a neutral field, that existed all through the revolution and enabled us in that revolution to carry out together the tactics of revolutionary SocialDemocracy (Bolshevism), which, I am profoundly convinced, were the only correct tactics." [emphasis in original]

It was the right-wing Menshevik Plekhanov who brought the question of dialectical materialism versus neo-Kantianism to the forefront in order to discredit and split the revolutionary Bolshevik leadership. In defending the Bolsheviks against Plekhanov, Lenin went so far as to deny that the issue of neo-Kantian revisionism was at all relevant to the revolutionary movement in Russia. At the all-Bolshevik Congress in April 1905, Lenin stated:

"Plekhanov drags in Mach and Avenarius by the ears. 1 cannot for the life of me understand what these writers, for whom I have not the slightest sympathy, have to do with the question of social revolution. They wrote on individual and social organization of experience, or some such theme, but they never really gave any thought to the democratic dictatorship."
—"Report on the Question of Participation of the Social-Democrats in a Provisional Revolutionary Government" (April 1905)

In part as a result of his later fight with Bogdanov, Lenin modified his 1905 position, which drew too arbitrary a line between political and philosophical differences. He came to realize that fundamental differences among Marxists over dialectical materialism will likely produce political divergences. However, for Lenin program remained primary in defining revolutionary politics and associated organizational affiliation. Lenin never repudiated his close collaboration with Bogdanov in 1904-07. And he was absolutely right to ally with the revolutionary social democrat, albeit neo-Kantian, Bogdanov against the pro-liberal social democrat, albeit dialectical materialist, Plekhanov. Only when Bogdanov’s neo-Kantian conceptions became associated with a counterposed, anti-Marxist political program did Lenin make the defense of dialectical materialism against philosophical idealism a central political task.

Against the Mystification of Dialectics

The Marxist program as the scientific expression of the interests of the working class and of social progress is not derived simply from a subjective desire for a socialist future. The Marxist program necessarily embodies a correct understanding of reality, of which the most general or abstract expression is dialectical materialism. However, as Marx himself wrote in 1877 to the Russian populist journal, Otechestvenniye Zapiski, he does not offer "a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being supra-historical" (Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence [1975]). Dialectical materialism is a conceptual framework which permits, but does not guarantee, a scientific understanding of society in its concrete historical development. In other words, an understanding of the dialectical nature of social reality guides a complex of historical generalizations (e.g., that the state apparatus under capitalism cannot be reformed into an organ of socialist administration, that in this epoch a collectivist economic system represents the social dominance of the proletariat) which underlies the Marxist programmatic principles.

The Healyite mystification of the Marxist attitude toward philosophy is a product of their degeneration into a bizarre leader-cult. In the early 1960s Healy’s Socialist Labour League understood that dialectical materialism was nothing other than a generalized expression of a unitary worldview, and not an abstract schema or method existing independently of empirical reality. Cliff Slaughter’s 1962-63 articles on Lenin’s 1914-15 studies of Hegel, reprinted in 1971 as a pamphlet, Lenin on Dialectics, contain a trenchant attack upon the idealization of dialectics:

"Lenin lays great stress on Hegel’s insistence that Dialectics is not a master-key, a sort of set of magic numbers by which all secrets will be revealed. It is wrong to think of dialectical logic as something that is complete in itself and then ‘applied’-to particular examples. It is not a model of interpretation to be learned, then fitted on to reality from the outside; the task is rather to uncover the law of development of the reality itself....

"The science of society founded by Marx has no room for philosophy as such, for the idea of independently moving thought, with a subject-matter and development of its own, independent of reality but sometimes descending to impinge upon it."

Slaughter then quotes Marx’s judgment on a concept of philosophy in The German Ideology: "When reality is depicted, philosophy as an independent branch of activity loses its medium of existence."

But by the late 1960s the Healyites had "rediscovered" a medium of existence for philosophy as an independent theory. Dialectical materialism was presented with much fanfare as "the theory of knowledge of Marxism," as an expression of the philosophical category known as epistemology. Thus in a collection of documents on the split with the OCI (Break With Centrism! [1973]), we read:

"What was most essential in the preparation of the sections was to develop dialectical materialism in a struggle to understand and to transform the consciousness of the working class in the changing objective conditions. This means the understanding and development of dialectical materialism as the theory of knowledge of Marxism....

"We are certainly saying that dialectical materialism is the theory of knowledge of Marxism, of the path of struggle from error to truth—not to a ‘final’ truth, but continually making advances through contradictory struggle to real knowledge of the objective world."

This Healyite notion of dialectical materialism is both enormously restrictive and is an idealization of knowledge. There is no valid, separate theory of knowledge. At the level of individual cognition, a theory of knowledge is derived from biological and psychological scientific investigation. At the level of social consciousness, a theory of knowledge is a constituent part of an understanding of historically specific social relations. Thus, central to the Marxist understanding of knowledge is the concept of false consciousness, the necessary distortion of reality associated with various social roles.

The traditional philosophical category of epistemology (in both its empiricist and rationalist forms), by separating the conscious subject from nature and society, is itself an ideological expression of false consciousness. Dialectical materialism criticizes the various traditional concepts of epistemology as well as other philosophical concepts and categories. But Marxism does not criticize traditional philosophy by positing itself as a new, alternative philosophy, which likewise exists independently of a scientific (i.e., empirically verifiable) understanding of nature and society.

The Healyite mystification of dialectical materialism—"the path of struggle from error to truth"—is primarily a justification for the infallibility of a leader-cult. The program, analyses, tactics and projections of the Healyite leadership are thus held to be exempt from empirical verification. For example, to this day the Healyites claim that Cuba is capitalist! Critics and oppositionists are told that they don’t understand reality; this capacity being monopolized by the leadership, which alone has mastered the dialectical method. The similarity between the Healyite view of dialectics and religious mysticism is not coincidental.

To summarize, the systematic rejection of dialectical materialism (e.g., Bogdanov, Burnham) must lead sooner or later to a break with the scientific Marxist program. But to believe á la Healy that every serious political difference within a revolutionary party can or should be reduced to antagonistic philosophical concepts is a species of rational idealism. Such philosophical reductionism denies that political differences commonly arise from the diverse social pressures and influences that bear down upon the revolutionary vanguard and its component parts, and also differences in evaluating empirical conditions and possibilities.

Significance of the Struggle Against Otzovism/Ultimatism

The end of the factional struggle between the Leninists and Otzovists/Ultimatists occurred at the previously mentioned June 1909 conference of the expanded editorial board of Proletary. The conference resolved that Bolshevism "has nothing in common with otzovism and ultimatism, and that the Bolshevik wing of the Party must most resolutely combat these deviations from revolutionary Marxism." When Bogdanov refused to accept this resolution, he was expelled from the Bolshevik faction.

As we pointed out in Part One of this series, in justifying Bogdanov’s expulsion Lenin clearly affirmed his adherence to the Kautskyan doctrine that the party should include all social democrats (i.e., working-class-oriented socialists). He sharply distinguished between the Kautskyan "party" and a faction, the latter requiring a homogeneous political program and outlook:

"In our Party Bolshevism is represented by the Bolshevik section. But a section is not a party. A party can contain a whole gamut of opinions and shades of opinions, the extremes of which may be sharply contradictory. In the German party, side by side with the pronouncedly revolutionary wing of Kautsky, we see the ultra-revisionist wing of Bernstein. This is not the case within a section. A section in a party is a group of like-minded persons formed for the purpose primarily of influencing the party in a definite direction, for the purpose of securing acceptance for their principles in the purest form. For this, real unanimity of opinion is necessary. The different standards we set for party unity and sectional unity must be grasped by everyone who wants to know how the question of internal discord in the Bolshevik section really stands." [emphasis in original]
—"Report on the Conference of the Extended Editorial Board of Proletary" (July 1909)

After Bogdanov’s expulsion he and his co-thinkers established their own group around the paper Vperyod, deliberately choosing the name of the first Bolshevik organ (of 1905). The Vperyodists appealed to the Bolshevik ranks in the name of true Bolshevism. Though many Bolshevik workers supported the Otzovist/Ultimatist position on participating in the Duma, they were unwilling to split from Lenin’s organization on this question. Thus Lenin had to combat diffuse ultraleft attitudes from the Bolshevik ranks for the next few years until the Otzovist/Ultimatist tendencies completely dissipated.

The Otzovist/Ultimatist claim to represent the true Bolshevik tradition, and that Lenin had become a Menshevik conciliator, could not be dismissed out of hand as ridiculous. Bogdanov, Lyadov, Krasin and Alexinsky had been among Lenin’s chief lieutenants, the core of the early Bolshevik center. Lunacharsky had been a prominent Bolshevik public spokesman. The Mensheviks thus baited Lenin over the defection of his best-known and most talented collaborators. Through the 1907-09 factional struggle against Otzovism/ Ultimatism, a new Leninist leadership was crystallized from among the more junior Bolshevik cadre—Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, Tomsky and a little later Stalin. This was to be the central core of the Bolshevik leadership right through the early period of the Soviet regime.

How does one account for the fact that most of the first generation of Bolshevik leaders defected to ultraleftism, giving way to a second generation which assimilated Leninism in its developing maturity? The Bolsheviks originated not only as the revolutionary wing of Russian Social Democracy, but were also empirically optimistic about the perspectives for revolutionary struggle. And this self-confident optimism was borne out by events. The period 1903 to 1907 was in general one of a rising line of revolutionary struggle enabling the Bolsheviks to become a mass party. It is understandable therefore that a section of the Bolsheviks would be unwilling to face the fact of a victorious reaction which required a broad organizational retreat. These Bolsheviks reacted to an unfavorable reality with a sterile, dogmatic radicalism which at the extreme took the form of socialist spiritualism. It is a mark of Lenin’s greatness as a revolutionary politician that he fully recognized the victory of reaction and adapted the perspectives of the proletarian vanguard accordingly, though this meant breaking with some of his hitherto closest collaborators.




Posted: 15 April 2005