|The next time you run into one of our latter-day "Marxist-Leninists" who
trace their lineage to the historic split between the Bolsheviks and the
Mensheviks in the Russian Social Democracy, give them a little quiz. Ask
them to identify the authors of the following 2 opposing motions around
which the historical split took place. One is Lenin, leader of the
Bolsheviks, the other is Martov, the Menshevik leader.
1. A party member is one "who recognizes the Party's programme and supports
it by material means and by personal participation in one of the Party's
2. A party member is one "who recognizes the Party's programme and supports
it by material means and by regular personal assistance under the direction
of one of the party's organizations."
Lenin is the author of the first motion and Martov the second. As should be
clear from this, the split between Bolshevik and Menshevik did not involve
the kind of deeply principled questions that caused the Zimmerwald Movement
to emerge as a counter to the socialist parliamentarians who voted for W.W.I.
It is essential to understand is that the whole purpose of the convention
at which this historic split took place was to form a party where none
existed. It was Lenin and Plekhanov's intention to form a new
social-democratic party on the model of the Western European parties. It
was not, as our contemporary "Marxist-Leninists" believe, an initiative to
innovate some new "democratic-centralist" type of party. Plekhanov was the
father of Russian Marxism and Lenin considered himself a disciple of
Plekhanov. In the articles leading up to the convention, Lenin continuously
pointed to the example of Kautsky's party in Germany as something Russian
socialists should emulate.
As often occurs in the socialist movement, Lenin was confronted by
roadblocks. The most important of these was "Economism". Economism was a
current within Russian social democracy which tended to limit struggles to
bread- and-butter issues at the individual factory level. It was suspicious
of any efforts to make the struggle nation-wide and general, such as was
the goal of more orthodox Marxists like Plekhanov and Lenin.
Lenin was a master of getting to the heart of underlying socio-economic
dynamics. He explained that "Economism" was a reflection of the more
primitive, handicrafts phase of Russian capitalism when shops were smaller
and more isolated. He noticed the great concentration of large factories in
major cosmopolitan centers and concluded that a more professional and more
generalized approach was needed in line with the changed circumstances.
Economism belonged to Russia's past; orthodox Marxism was the way forward.
He saw modern social democracy as corresponding to the highly complex and
specialized nature of modern mass production. He saw socialist parties as
the working-class equivalent of large-scale industrial plants. A
centrally-managed, large-scale division of labor was needed to move the
struggle forward, just as it was necessary to construct steam locomotives.
Lenin was no enemy of capitalist technology and mechanization. Rather he
sought to appropriate its positive features whenever necessary.
The split between Bolshevik and Menshevik took place at only the second
convention of the Russian socialist movement not the 22nd or the 32nd. The
basis goal of the convention was to establish the structure and purpose of
a new Russian socialist party.
One of the key ingredients of a socialist party, according to Lenin, was a
newspaper. He saw a national newspaper as a way of uniting and orienting
social democrats. A newspaper would allow the party to have a national
focus. It would allow all of the particular economic struggles to be
politically linked together in a meaningful fashion.
Lenin did not envision the newspaper as a means of propagating a "party
line".It had just the opposite role. The newspaper would be the vehicle for
allowing opposing views to be compared and weighed against each other in
order to allow the party to arrive at a political orientation.
Lenin argued that unity must be "worked for". He said:
"Before we can unite, and in order that we may unite, we must first of all
draw firm and definite lines of demarcation. Otherwise our unity will be
purely fictitious...We do not intend to make our publication a mere
store-house of various views. On the contrary, we shall conduct it in the
spirit of a strictly defined tendency. This tendency can be expressed by
the word Marxism. ... Only in this way will it be possible to establish a
genuinely all-Russian, Social- Democratic organ. Only such a publication
will be capable of leading the movement on the high road of political
Another common source of confusion is Lenin's use of the term "professional
revolutionary". In his view, "professional revolutionaries" are the key to
the success of Russian social democracy.
In modern "Marxist-Leninist" groups, "professional revolutionaries" are
those who are on movement payroll. People who are not full-timers but who
contributed lavishly of their time and funds are lower on the hierarchy.
They are like the drone bees who keep the hive functioning.
This of course has nothing to do with Lenin's understanding of the term.
For Lenin, the need for "professional revolutionaries" arose within the
context of the difficult and semi-clandestine nature of socialist activity
under Czarism. Professional revolutionaries were needed at the core of the
party to keep the apparatus functioning in case of police crack-downs.
As an extension of his ideas about divisions of labor in large-scale
capitalist enterprises being adapted to socialist organizations, Lenin saw
the need for gradations of skill, expertise and conspiratorial training
appropriate to the levels of risk in each phase of organizational activity.
At each level the degree of risk could be minimized by introducing
specialization of function, so that, at no matter what level, activists
would have the chance to become proficient in dealing with their own area
As in every aspect of his recommendations for Russian Social Democracy,
Lenin was operating within the concrete conditions of Russian objective
conditions at a given time in history. In 1907 Lenin was very specific
about the particular framework of "What is to be Done" which addressed
problems in the 1899-1903 time-frame.
"Concerning the essential content of this pamphlet it is necessary to draw
the attention of the modern reader to the following.
"The basic mistake made by those who now criticize 'What is to be Done' is
to treat the pamphlet apart from its connection with the concrete
historical situation of a definite, and now long past, period in the
development of our Party."
So much for our contemporary Bolsheviks who use Lenin's writings the way
amateur cooks use the recipes of French masters such as Jacques Pepin. If
they don't follow the recipe to the letter, what comes out could be
inedible. But we now have to create our own recipe, just the way Lenin did.
Let us conclude with an examination of the question of democratic
centralism, probably the most vexing legacy of the period coincident with
"What is to be Done" and one that has been most widely misinterpreted. In
1906 Lenin said that "the Russian Social Democracy was in agreement on the
principles of democratic centralism, guarantees for the rights of all
minorities and for all loyal opposition, on the autonomy of every Party
organization, on recognizing that all Party functionaries must be elected,
accountable to the Party and subject to Recall."
Later Lenin clarified how tolerant of political disagreements his concept
of democratic centralism was. He wrote "The principle of democratic
centralism and autonomy for local Party organizations implies universal and
full freedom to criticize so long as this does not disturb the unity of a
definite action; it rules out all criticisms which disrupts or makes
difficult the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticisms which
disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided on by the
Party." Nowhere does Lenin suggest that democratic centralism applies to
doctrine. Every member would of course have his or her interpretation of
political questions, but once a decision had been made to build a strike or
a demonstration, etc., it was incumbent upon each member to concentrate on
building the action. Many contemporary "Leninists" attach some kind of
apocalyptic meaning to the split at the second congress of the Russian
Social Democracy in 1903 as if two radically different and irreconcilable
sets of principles were opposed to each other--Bolshevism and Menshevism.
This split is seen as the fountainhead of all 20th century revolutionary
politics, the dividing line between communism and opportunism or some such
Those who think that the rival motions between Martov and Lenin constitute
some kind of fault-line of revolutionary politics must then explain why
Lenin told participants at this congress that, referring to Martov's
motion, "we shall certainly not perish because of an unfortunate clause in
Let's let this sink in. Lenin, arch-enemy of opportunism, said that the
motion which caused the Bolshevik-Menshevik split was simply "unfortunate".
The differences between orthodox Marxists who were educated by Plekhanov
and, on the other hand, the Economists who gravitated to the newspaper
"Rabochaya Mysl" were principled and clear. The differences within the
orthodox camp, which included the Bolshevik Lenin and the Menshevik Martov,
were not so clearly defined. The Bolsheviks were anxious to rid the party
of all elements who resisted the creation of a centralized Russian Social
Democracy, while the Mensheviks tended to be more conciliatory to the
Economists and the Bundists. The Bundists shared with the Economists a
resistance to a centralized and unified Russian party that could coordinate
struggles on a national level. Their particular interest was in preserving
some kind of automony for their exclusively Jewish membership, a goal that
was in conflict, needless to say, with creating one party for the entire
So when Lenin and Plekhanov triumphed, they maneuvered to isolate the
Bundists and Economists as much as possible. This meant overruling the
original Menshevik proposal that would have preserved some representation
on the editorial board of Iskra for Bundists and Economists. The proposal
passed by the new Bolshevik majority at the congress consisted of only
three seats on Iskra, none to be allocated for the decentralizers.
It was this issue more than the original fight over Lenin and Martov's
rival motions which precipitated the split. The narrowing of the Iskra
staff meant that such long-time party leaders as Zasulich, Akselrod and
Potresov would lose their posts. Why was Lenin so anxious to dump these
old-timers? Was it because they were smuggling capitalist ideology into the
pages of Iskra? The real concern of Lenin was much more practical, as
befits a revolutionary politician who strived for professionalism above all
else. In his "Account of the Second Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.", Lenin
describes the motivation for getting rid of them:
"The old board of six was so ineffectual that never once in all its three
years did it meet in full force. That may seem incredible, but it is a
fact. Not one of the forty-five issues of Iskra was made up (in the
editorial and technical sense) by anyone but Martov or Lenin. And never
once was any major theoretical issue raised by anyone but Plekhanov.
Akselrod did no work at all (he contributed literally nothing to Zarya and
only three of four articles to all the forty-five issues of Iskra).
Zasulich and Strarover only contributed and advised; they never did any
actual editorial work."
Lenin was simply interested in getting rid of dead wood, people who were
not carrying their load. Those who simply "advised" were not needed. Lenin
sought to place genuine contributors at the helm of the major newspaper of
Russian Social Democracy. I empathize deeply with his lack of respect
toward people who are simply "advisers". The revolutionary movement needs
people who can get things done. If this Marxism list ever went through a
split between "advisers" and people who know how to get things done, I'm
sure that most of us know who these two respective groups would include.
Who did Lenin propose as the three people best qualified to lead the new
Iskra editorial board? They were Lenin himself, the great Marxist educator
Plekhanov and Martov. Martov, we should remind ourselves, was the
individual who put forward a motion rival to Lenin's on the requirements of
party membership. This motion has become synonymous with Menshevism itself.
It is like the apple in the Garden of Eden for dogmatic interpreters of the
historic split. The trouble is that these dogmatic interpreters can't
account for the fact that Lenin then proposed to put Martov--the Serpent
himself--in a leading position at Iskra.
Also, to be perfectly blunt, the reduction of representation on the Iskra
leading bodies generated bitter personal rivalries. Personal rivalries! Can
you believe that? Aren't you glad that we've evolved beyond those sorts of
problems. As it developed, Zasulich and Akselrod were deeply insulted by
their firing from Iskra. Martov, an old friend of theirs, rallied to their
defense and then decided to step down himself from the newly re-constituted
editorial board. Even Plekhanov, one of the most hard- line Bolsheviks,
eventually drifted into the Menshevik camp. (Does this sound like typical
movement wrangling over "petty" issues? Well, yes it does. Because, believe
it or not, it is.)
The Menshevik Akselrod, who had every reason to be bitter at Lenin, saw no
great principles involved in the split either. Years later he confided to
Kautsky that personality was what caused the great divide between Bolshevik
and Menshevik. Kautsky said:
"As late as May 1904 Akselrod wrote that there were 'still no clear,
defined differences concerning either principles or tactics', that the
organizational question itself 'is or at least was' not one of principle
such as 'centralism or democracy, autonomy, etc.', but rather one of
differing opinions as to the 'application or execution of organizational
principles...we have all accepted'. Lenin had used the debate on this
question 'in a demagogic manner' to 'fasten' Plekhanov to his side and thus
win a majority 'against us'."
Would genuine political differences between the two factions eventually
emerge? Certainly they would and sooner rather than later. In 1905 and 1906
major struggles between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks developed over how to
overthrow Tsarism and to create a democratic republic. In 1903, however, at
the famous "split" conference, there were none. Furthermore, attempts to
derive some kind of new organizational approach to revolutionary
party-building from the split are just as ill-advised.
When one of today's "Marxist-Leninist" groups votes to change the party
line at a convention, then every member has to defend this new line in
public. It would mean, for example, that CPUSA members would have been
under discipline to defend Soviet intervention in Afghanistan publicly.
Party rank-and-file members who oppose the line have to wait patiently for
the next convention in order to persuade the majority of his or her position.
The problem, of course, is that in "Marxist-Leninist" formations, it is
difficult to maintain such contrary positions and resist peer pressure to
conform to the rest of the group in between conventions. When individuals
or groupings decide to maintain dissident points of views like these, it is
often the prelude to a split. This has nothing in common with Lenin's
concept of democratic centralism. The Bolsheviks were free to criticize
party positions publicly as long as they acted in a disciplined fashion
with respect to demonstrations, strikes and other *actions*.
Comrades, brothers and sisters, we face the same types of problems that
Lenin faced. We need a socialist party, but none exists. The
self-designated "vanguard" parties will not do. The amount of consensus
that exists in the general left- wing, socialist population which probably
numbers in the 10's of thousands is sufficient to launch such an
organization. We also need a newspaper that will allow us to discuss and
debate with various points of view in order to arrive at a strategy for an
American revolution. No such strategy exists today.