Lenin & the Vanguard Party

Kautksyism & the Origins of Russian Social Democracy



Recently the British International Marxist Group (IMG) and the International Socialists (now Socialist Workers Party—SWP/IS), two of the largest groups of the British "far left," have taken to revising the history of the Bolsheviks. These groups have attempted to deny or obfuscate the principle of a democratic-centralist vanguard party by pointing to those elements of classic Social Democracy retained by the pre-1914 Bolsheviks as well as to Lenin’s tactical maneuvers against the Mensheviks.

The IMG, British section of the pseudo-Trotskyist United Secretariat, has performed the remarkable feat of making Lenin out to be a unity-above-all conciliator on the grounds that until 1912 the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were formally factions within a unitary Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDRP). The aim of this particular revisionism is to justify a grand unity maneuver for the British left. Their line is that "the political differences which Lenin and Trotsky considered could be contained within a united organization were vastly greater than those which divide the revolutionary left in Britain today" (Red Weekly, 11 November 1976). For an extended treatment of the IMG’s revisionism and its shabby tactical purpose, see "IMG Turns Lenin into a Menshevik," Workers Vanguard No. 164, 1 July 1977.

The most ambitious rewriting of Bolshevik history is that of Tony Cliff, longtime leader of the workerist-reformist SWP/IS. The Cliff tendency today sports a "left" veneer; sometimes they even parade around with portraits of Lenin and Trotsky. But this group had its 4th of August long ago, when in 1950, under the pressure of intensely anti-Communist public opinion, it refused to defend North Korea against U.S. imperialism and broke with the Trotskyist movement over this question. And yet this utterly shameless CIA "socialist" now presumes to lecture on what Lenin really meant to say in What Is To Be Done?

In the past, Cliff has been a prominent, explicitly anti-Leninist purveyor of Menshevism. His 1959 pamphlet, Rosa Luxemburg, states: "For Marxists in the advanced industrial countries, Lenin’s original position can much less serve as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’s." This bald statement was deleted from the second (1968) edition, but Cliff’s substantive position remained the same.

However the Cliffites are nothing if not trendy. And in contrast to the 1950s and ’60s, "hard" Bolshevism is now "in" among young leftists. So recently Cliff has written a seemingly sympathetic biography of Lenin, of which two of three projected volumes have appeared. Here Cliff presents Lenin in his own image as a nationally limited, workerist eclectic. Cliff’s central message is that there are no Leninist principles or even norms on the organization question:

"Lenin’s attitude to organisational forms was always historically concrete, hence its strength. He was never taken in by abstract, dogmatic schemes of organisation, but always ready to change the organisational structure of the party to reflect the development of the class struggle.

"Organisation is subordinate to politics. This does not mean that it has no independent influence on politics. But it is, and must be, subordinated to the concrete policies of the day. The truth is always concrete, as Lenin reiterated again and again. And this also applies to the organisational forms needed to undertake the concrete tasks." [emphasis in original]

In other words, whatever works at the time, do it.

Genuine Leninists recognize the primacy of the principles embodied in the first four congresses of the Communist International over pre-1914 Bolshevik practice. Furthermore, Trotsky in building the Fourth International systematized and deepened Leninist concepts developed in rudimentary form during the revolutionary turmoil of 1917-23. To deny the evolution of Bolshevism from 1903 to 1917 is to obliterate the principled opposition of Leninism to Kautskyism. To appeal to pre-1914 Bolshevik practice against the democratic centralism of Trotsky’s Fourth International is equivalent to citing Lenin’s "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry" against Trotsky’s "permanent revolution."

The Kautskyan Party of the Whole Class

The first volume of Cliff’s biography, subtitled "Building the Party," ends in 1914. This work mentions Kautsky exactly twice and the Second International not at all! Such an incredible omission warrants dismissing Cliff’s book out of hand as a serious study of Lenin’s position on the party question.

From August Bebel’s offer in 1905 to mediate the Bolshevik-Menshevik split to the "unity conference" arranged by the International Socialist Bureau on the eve of World War I, the International leadership played a significant role in the internal life of the RSDRP. The pro-unity elements in particular, above all Luxemburg and Trotsky, sought to achieve through the German-centered International what they could not attain within the Russian movement.

Lenin was a revolutionary social democrat and, as Cliff himself notes in his second volume, Kautsky "had been the only living socialist leader whom Lenin revered." (This is actually an overstatement: in 1905 when Kautsky supported the Mensheviks, Lenin was harshly critical of him.) An understanding of Lenin’s position on the party question must therefore begin with the orthodox Kautskyan position; this was the doctrine of the "party of the whole class," or "one class—one party." Kautsky’s "party of the whole class" did not mean the recruitment of the entire proletarian population to the party. He recognized that the political activists within the working class would be an elite minority. No social democrat denied that membership standards involved some level of socialist consciousness, activism and discipline. What the Kautskyan doctrine did mean was that all tendencies regarding themselves as socialist should be in a unitary party. Kautsky maintained that revolutionary social democrats could unite and even have comradely collaboration with non-Marxist reformists. Thus the leadership of the German Social Democracy (SPD) at various times collaborated closely with the avowedly reformist, eclectic French socialist, Jean Jaurès.

The SPD leadership was immensely proud of their party’s disciplined unity, which they regarded as the main source of its strength. Bebel/Kautsky played a decisive role in the 1905 reunification of the French socialists, overcoming the split between the Marxist Parti Socialiste de France led by Jules Guesde and the reformist Parti Socialiste Français of Jaurès.

During the campaign to reunite the French, the International adopted the doctrine of "one class—one party" in resolution form at its 1904 Amsterdam Congress:

"In order that the working class may put forth all its strength in the struggle against capitalism it is necessary that in every country there exist vis á vis the bourgeois parties, only one socialist party, as there exists only one proletariat. Therefore, it is the imperative duty of all comrades and socialist organizations to make every effort to bring about this unity on the basis of the principles established by the international congresses, a unity necessary in the interests of the proletariat before which they are responsible for all fatal consequences of a continued breach." [emphasis in original]
—reproduced in Olga Hess Gankin and H.H. Fisher, eds., The Bolsheviks and the World War (1940)

Before World War 1, Lenin never challenged the above principle and on occasion affirmed it. When in 1909 the Bolsheviks expelled the ultraleft Otzovists (the "Ultimatists") from their ranks, Lenin justified this by contrasting the exclusiveness of a faction to the inclusiveness of a socialdemocratic party:

"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 opinion, 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." [emphasis in original]
—"Report on the Conference of the Extended Editorial Board of Proletary" (July 1909)

In practice in Russia, Lenin strove to create a disciplined, programmatically homogeneous revolutionary vanguard. Until World War I, however, he did not break in principle with the Kautskyan doctrine of "the party of the whole class." The resolution of that dialectical contradiction was one of the important elements creating Leninism as a world-historic doctrine, as the Marxism of our epoch.

Kautsky’s Analysis of Opportunism

The Kautskyan doctrine of the inclusive party was predicated on a particular historico-sociological theory of opportunism. Opportunist tendencies, it was argued, were a survival of petty-bourgeois democracy carried mainly by the intelligentsia and conditioned by the economic and ideological backwardness or immaturity of the working masses. The growth of the proletariat and of its organization would eventually strengthen revolutionary social democracy. Thus, Kautsky could tolerate a current like Jaurèsism as a kind of inevitable transition from radical democracy to revolutionary Marxism.

Kautsky’s identification of opportunism with pre-Marxist tendencies derived from the history of the European left in the decades following the revolutions of 1848. The principal tendencies opposed to Marxism (e.g., Proudhonism, Lassalleanism, Bakuninism) all expressed the desire of the artisan class to prevent its descent into the industrial proletariat. Marx and Engels understood that artisan utopian socialism could not be defeated simply through propaganda and agitation but required the actual development of capitalist society. It was recognized in the Second International that Marxism superseded such primitivist tendencies as Lassalleanism in Germany and Proudhonism in France primarily through the transformation of the urban artisan classes into a modern proletariat. The process by which Marxism overcame Lassalleanism, Proudhonism, Bakuninism, etc. became for Kautsky a paradigm of the struggle against opportunism in general.

The view of reformism as a historic lag or regression accounts for Kautsky’s limited aims in the "revisionist" controversy with Bernstein. He drew a sharp line between naive, pre-Marxian reformist, like Jaurès, and the conscious revisers of Marxism. In a letter of 23 May 1902 to Victor Adler, Kautsky defended the Belgian Socialist leadership from the charge of revisionism on the grounds that they were never Marxists to begin with, nor did they pretend to be:

"I maintain an entirely unprejudiced attitude towards them; the talk about their revisionism leaves me cold. They have nothing to revise, for they have no theory. The eclectic vulgar socialism to which the revisionists would like to reduce Marxism is something beyond which they [the Belgian Socialists] have not even begun to advance. Proudhon, Schäffle, Marx—it is all one to them, it was always like that, they have not retrogressed in theory, and I have nothing to reproach them with."
—quoted in George Lichtheim, Marxism (1961)

Kautsky’s aim in the "revisionist" controversy was not to purge the Second International of reformist tendencies or even practices, but to preserve the doctrinal integrity of the Marxist camp. If this were achieved, believed Kautsky, the development of the class struggle would eventually ensure the triumph of revolutionary social democracy.

Kautsky located the weakness of revolutionary social democracy in the backwardness of the proletariat, which reflected either a continued identification with the petty bourgeoisie or a lack of confidence in the strength of the workers movement:

"To a large degree hatched out of the small capitalist and small farmer class, many proletarians long carry the shells of these classes about with them. They do not feel themselves proletarians, but as would-be property owners.... Others, again, have gone further, and have come to recognize the necessity of fighting the capitalists that stand in antagonism to them, but do not feel themselves secure enough and strong enough to declare war on the entire capitalist system. These look to capitalist parties and governments for relief."
—The Road to Power (1909)

For Kautsky, the growth of the proletariat, of the trade unions, etc. strengthened the objectively revolutionary forces in society. What was required of Social Democracy was a patient, pedagogical attitude toward backward workers, although Kautsky also recognized that class consciousness could leap ahead during a revolutionary crisis.

With the partial exception of Luxemburg, no pre-war social democrat located the main source of reformism in the conservatism of the socially privileged bureaucracy created by the growth and strength of the labor movement, of the social-democratic parties and their trade-union affiliates.

Lenin’s Sociological Analysis of Menshevism

Lenin, following Kautsky’s methodology, regarded Menshevism as an extension of 19th-century petty-bourgeois radicalism into the workers movement. Because he considered the Mensheviks an "intellectualist" tendency, in a sense standing outside of the workers movement, he could split from them without positing the existence of two competing social-democratic parties, the one revolutionary, the other reformist. Lenin was convinced that the growth of social-democratic organization among the Russian proletariat would ensure the triumph of Bolshevism.

Lenin regarded the 1903 Martovite grouping as an expression of the attitudes and values of the old, freewheeling, individualistic revolutionary intelligentsia, as a rebellion of the circle spirit against the construction of a real workers party:

"Nonetheless, we regard the Party’s sickness as a matter of growing pains. We consider that the underlying cause of the crisis is the transition from the circle form to party forms of the life of Social-Democracy; the essence of its internal struggle is a conflict between the circle spirit and the party spirit. And, consequently, only by shaking off this sickness can our Party become a real party....

"Lastly, the opposition cadres have in general been drawn chiefly from those elements of our Party which consist primarily of intellectuals. The intelligentsia is always more individualistic than the proletariat, owing to its very conditions of life and work, which do not directly involve a large-scale combination of efforts, do not directly educate it through organised collective labor. The intellectual elements therefore find it harder to adapt themselves to the discipline of Party life, and those of them who are not equal to it naturally raise the standard of revolt against the necessary organisational limitations." [emphasis in original]
—"To the Party" (August 1904)

Lenin likewise analyzed Menshevik Liquidationism during the 1908-12 period (opposition to the underground party) in terms of intellectuals versus the proletariat:

"The first to flee from the underground were the bourgeois intellectuals who succumbed to the counter-revolutionary mood, those ‘fellow-travellers’ of the Social-Democratic working-class movement who, like those in Europe, had been attracted by the liberating role played by the proletariat ... in the bourgeois revolution. It is a well-known fact that a mass of Marxists left the underground after 1905 and found places for themselves in all sorts of legal cozy corners for intellectuals."
—"How Vera Zasulich Demolishes Liquidationism" (September 1913)

Lenin’s sociological analysis of Menshevism was valid as far as it went. The Martovite grouping in 1903 did represent in part the habits of the old revolutionary intelligentsia; one thinks of Vera Zasulich in this regard. Menshevik Liquidationism did represent in part the fleeing of intellectuals from the RSDRP toward bourgeois respectability during a period of reaction. But Menshevism was not primarily a tendency external to the labor movement. The Russian Mensheviks anticipated the labor reformism of the Second International as a whole, including particularly its mass parties. It was only during World War I, in the studies which led to Imperialism, that Lenin located the source of social-democratic opportunism within the workers movement—in a labor bureaucracy resting on the upper stratum of the working class.


Organized Russian Marxism originated in 1883 when Plekhanov broke from the dominant populist current to form the tiny exile Emancipation of Labor group. During the late 1880s—early ’90s, Marxism in Russia consisted of localized propaganda circles designed to educate a thin layer of advanced workers. In the mid-1890s, the Marxist propaganda circles turned toward mass agitation intersecting a major strike wave. This turn was in part inspired by the Jewish Bund. Ethnic solidarity enabled the Jewish Marxist intelligentsia to reach and organize Jewish workers in advance of Russian Social Democracy as a whole.

In part because of the imprisonment of the more experienced Marxist leaders (e.g., Lenin, Martov), the turn toward mass agitation rapidly degenerated into reformism. This tendency, dubbed Economism by a hostile Plekhanov, limited its agitation to elementary trade-union demands, while passively supporting the bourgeois liberal efforts to reform tsarist absolutism. In terms of international Social Democracy, the Economists were hostile to orthodox Marxism and consequently were loosely associated with Bernsteinism in Germany and possibilisme in France. In the later 1890s, Economism was the dominant tendency among Russian social democrats.

In 1900, the second generation of Russian Marxists (Lenin, Martov) coalesced with the founding fathers (Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich) to return Russian Social Democracy to its revolutionary traditions as embodied in the original Emancipation of Labor program. The revolutionary Marxist tendency was organized around the paper lskra. Lenin was the organizer of the Iskra group. He ran the agents in Russia whose task was to win over the local social-democratic committees or if necessary split them. Iskra provided, for the first time, an organizing center for a Russian social-democratic party.

In polemicizing against Lenin’s successful splitting tactics, the Economists pointed out that the German center did not seek to exclude the Bernsteinians. Lenin did not and in a sense could not argue for the exclusion of opportunists from the social-democratic party as a principle. Rather he justified his splitting tactics by a series of arguments based on the particularities of the Russian party situation. Right up to World War I, Lenin would appeal to one or another aspect of Russian particularism to justify constructing a programmatically homogeneous, revolutionary vanguard.

What were Lenin’s arguments for building the RSDRP without and against the Economists? The German party had strong revolutionary traditions and an authoritative leadership. The Russian party was embryonic and could easily fall prey to opportunism. The German leadership, Bebel/Kautsky, were revolutionary while the Bernsteinians were a small minority; in contrast, the Economists were temporarily the dominant trend in Russian Social Democracy. The German "revisionists" accepted party discipline, the Russian Economists were incapable of accepting party discipline. And in any case, the RSDRP did not exist as a centralized organization. These arguments are presented in What Is To Be Done? (1902):

"The important thing to note is that the opportunist attitude towards revolutionary Social-Democrats in Russia is the very opposite of that in Germany. In Germany ... revolutionary Social-Democrats are in favor of preserving what is: they stand in favor of the old program and tactics which are universally known.... The ‘critics’ desire to introduce changes, and as these critics represent an insignificant minority, and as they are very shy and halting in their revisionist efforts, one can understand the motives of the majority in confining themselves to the dry rejection of ‘innovation.’ In Russia, however, it is the critics and Economists who are in favor of what is; the ‘critics’ wish us to continue to regard them as Marxists, and to guarantee them the ‘freedom of criticism’ which they enjoyed to the full (for, as a matter of fact, they never recognized any kind of Party ties, and, moreover, we never had a generally recognized Party organ which could ‘restrict’ freedom of criticism even by giving advice)." [emphasis in original]

As is generally recognized, Lenin’s 1902 What Is To Be Done? was the authoritative statement of Iskraism. Despite his supposed sympathy toward Lenin, Cliff is much too much a workerist and Menshevik to accept What Is To Be Done? In fact, a central purpose of his biography is to argue that the 1902 polemic is an exaggerated, one-sided statement which in substance Lenin subsequently repudiated.

First Cliff vulgarizes Lenin’s position and then polemicizes against his own straw-man creation:

"In general the dichotomy between economic and political struggle is foreign to Marx. An economic demand, if it is sectional, is defined as ‘economic’ in Marx’s terms. But if the same demand is made of the state it is ‘political’.... In many cases economic (sectional) struggles do not give rise to political (class-wide) struggles, but there is no Chinese wall between the two, and many economic struggles do spill over into political ones." [emphasis in original]

Lenin did not attack the Economists for being indifferent to governmental policy. The Russian Economists agitated for state-initiated economic reforms and supported democratic rights, particularly the right to organize. In this purpose they passively supported the liberals. In What Is To Be Done? Lenin attacks the Economists’ political program as encapsulated in the slogan "giving the economic struggle itself a political character":

"Giving ‘the economic struggle itself a political character’ means, therefore, striving to secure satisfaction for these trade demands, the improvement of conditions of labor in each separate trade by means of ‘legislative and administrative measures’.... This is exactly what the trade unions do and have always done....

"Thus, the pompous phrase ‘giving the economic struggle itself a political character’ which sounds so ‘terrifically’ profound and revolutionary, serves as a screen to conceal what is in fact the traditional striving to degrade Social-Democratic politics to the level of trade union politics!" [emphasis in original]

For Lenin political class consciousness, or socialist consciousness, was the recognition by the proletariat of the need to become the ruling class and reconstruct society on socialist foundations. Anything less was trade-union consciousness.

Like all other current workerists and social democrats, Cliff must attack Lenin’s famous statement that socialist consciousness is brought to the workers from without by revolutionary intellectuals, that political class consciousness does not arise simply through the proletariat’s struggles to improve its conditions. Here are Cliff’s fatuous remarks on this question:

"There is no doubt that this formulation overemphasized the difference between spontaneity and consciousness. For in fact the complete separation of spontaneity from consciousness is mechanical and non-dialectical. Lenin, as we shall see later, admitted this. Pure spontaneity does not exist in life....

"The logic of the mechanical juxtaposition of spontaneity and consciousness was the complete separation of the party from the actual elements of working-class leadership that had already risen in the struggle. It assumed that the party had answers to all the questions that spontaneous struggle might bring forth. The blindness of the embattled many is the obverse of the omniscience of the few." [emphasis in original]

It is important to quote Lenin’s statement in full to understand what it means and does not mean:

"We said that there could not yet be Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. This consciousness could only be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., it may itself realize the necessity of combining in unions, for fighting against the employers and for striving to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical and economic theories that were elaborated by the educated representatives of the propertied classes, the intellectuals. According to their social status, the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. Similarly in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose quite independently of the spontaneous growth of the labor movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of ideas among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia." [emphasis in original]
What Is To Be Done?

This is not a programmatic statement, but rather a historical analysis with implications for the organizational question. The socialist movement predated the development of mass economic organizations of the industrial proletariat. The socialist movement arose out of the bourgeois-democratic revolutionary currents (the Babouvist tradition represented by Blanquism in France and the League of the Just in Germany). Except for Britain, the earliest trade unions arose through the transformation of the old mercantilist artisan guild system.

For example, in the German revolution of 1848 Stephan Born’s mass trade-union movement, the Workers Brotherhood, was largely based on the traditional guild structure. The leaders of the embryonic trade unions were generally the traditional authority figures of the plebeian community. Methodist ministers, like the Tory radical J.R. Stephens, played a significant leadership role in the early 19th-century British workers movement. Catholic priests played a similar role in the first French trade unions, for example among the rebellious silk workers of Lyons. In most countries the emergence of a socialist labor movement resulted from the political victory of the revolutionary intelligentsia over the traditionalist leaders of the early workers organizations. When Lenin wrote What Is To Be Done? the mass economic organizations of the Russian working class were the police-led unions (Zubatovite) whose most prominent leader was the priest Gapon.

Lenin was a dialectician who understood that the consciousness and leadership of the working class underwent qualitative changes historically. With the important exception of the U.S., trade-union economism (associated with bourgeois liberal illusions and religious obscurantism) is no longer the dominant ideology of the world’s proletariat. In the advanced capitalist countries, it is socialist reformism, carried through the social-democratic and Stalinist labor bureaucracies, which binds the working class to the bourgeois order. In backward countries, populist nationalism with a socialist coloration (e.g., Peronism, Nasserism) is the characteristic form of bourgeois ideological dominance over the working masses.

In the Russia of 1902, a small, homogeneous Marxist vanguard, composed of declassed intellectuals with a thin layer of advanced workers, was able to break the mass of the workers from police trade unionism and the Orthodox church. Today it requires an international Trotskyist vanguard, necessarily composed in its first stages of declassed intellectuals with relatively few advanced workers, to break the world’s working classes from the domination of social-democratic and Stalinist reformism and populist nationalism.

In exactly the opposite sense of Cliff, What Is To Be Done? cannot be regarded as the definitive Leninist statement on the party question. Despite the angularity of its formulations, the 1902 polemical work does not go beyond the bounds of orthodox, pre-1914 Social Democracy. If this work had represented a radical break with Social Democracy, Plekhanov, Martov et al. would never have endorsed it. It was only after the split in 1903 that Martov, Axelrod and other Menshevik leaders discovered in What Is To Be Done? alleged substitutionalist and Blanquist conceptions. It was Lenin’s intransigent attitude in practice toward opportunism, circle-spirit cliquism and all obstacles to building a revolutionary RSDRP that caused the Menshevik split, not particularly the ideas expressed in What Is To Be Done? If Cliff finds What Is To Be Done? too Leninist for his liking, it is because his hostility to Bolshevism is so strong that he must reject Lenin even when the latter was still a revolutionary social democrat. In reality the 1902 work is an anticipation, not a full-blown exposition, of post-1917 communism.

It is common in left-wing circles to regard What Is To Be Done? as the definitive Leninist statement on the party question. For example, the American Shachtmanite Bruce Landau, in a critical review of Cliff’s biography (Revolutionary Marxist Papers No. 8), concentrates on the Iskra period. He justifies this narrow focus by quoting Trotsky on Lenin’s development:

"It was precisely during this short time that Lenin became the Lenin he was to remain. This does not mean that he did not develop further. On the contrary. He grew in stature ... until October and after; but this was really organic growth."
—On Lenin: Notes for a Biography (1924)

Trotsky is here referring to the development of Lenin’s political personality, not to his ideas and their programmatic expression. The decisive period for the development of Leninist communist doctrine was 1914-17, not 1900-03.



Posted: 15 April 2005