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Revolutionary method in the study of Lenin – A response to Pham Binh

[For more discussion about Lenin, click HERE.]

By Paul Le Blanc

[Read Pham Binh's reply HERE.]

January 31, 2012 – Submitted to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Amid a continuing crisis of capitalism, the renaissance of Lenin studies – what I once referred to as “Lenin’s return” – continues. Aspects of this find reflection in new books, new articles, symposiums and debates as we attempt to clarify the actuality of Lenin’s thought and example, and (for some of us) their relevance for the situations we face.

In this context, a seemingly major and devastating critique of Tony Cliff’s 1975 volume Lenin: Building the Party, 1893-1914 has just been put forward by Pham Binh. It appears that Pham[1] is an activist in the US Occupy movement and is also very interested in the history of Bolshevism and the ideas of Lenin. Such a thing should be a source of joy for me, since I am very involved in Occupy Pittsburgh, and I have a similar intense interest in the history of Bolshevism and the ideas of Lenin.

But I have found Comrade Pham’s article, “Mangling the Party: Tony Cliff’s Lenin”, to be disappointing – rendered much less useful than it could have been, given that its obvious purpose is to persuade the reader that Tony Cliff’s book is little more than a mass of “egregious misrepresentations” and “has so many gross factual and political errors that it is useless as a historical study of Lenin’s actions and thoughts”. This is a demolition job. It doesn’t offer much that we can use and build on as we face the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Revolutionary method

One can argue, in response, that sometimes it is necessary to clear away obstructions in order to be able to develop more positive contributions. But it seems to me that the polemical single-mindedness of this essay gets in the way of the quest for truth and the genuine commitment to revolutionary method, which are ideals that Comrade Pham extols in what strikes me as the best part of the essay. There we find a criticism of Cliff’s problematical emphasis on Lenin’s presumed method of “bending the stick” (defined as one-sidedly distorting reality in order to emphasise what is deemed the “necessary” political point). I agree with Pham that Lenin’s revolutionary method was better than that, striving to keep “the whole process of development in mind instead of isolating its individual elements”. This does not mean that Lenin was always successful in this. More than that, I think Pham’s essay itself does not live up to this standard.

His single-mindedness regarding the “task at hand” (demolishing Tony Cliff) results in a significant amount of misinformation. For example, we are told that Cliff’s work on Lenin “was the first book-length political biography of Lenin written by a Marxist”, which ignores the invaluable contribution of the early 1930s by Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s comrade, co-thinker and companion, who focused systematically on his political thought and practice – Reminiscences of Lenin. Actually, if Krupskaya’s substantial volume is taken together with Leon Trotsky’s The Young Lenin and Moshe Lewin’s Lenin’s Last Struggle (both of which also precede Cliff’s work), we have a comprehensive account of Lenin’s political life. There is also Marcel Liebman’s important work, Leninism Under Lenin, an English translation (from the 1973 French edition) appearing first in 1975.

Hitting even closer to home for me personally, Comrade Pham writes that Cliff “shaped the approach” that I took in my study Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. I do not know why he seems so self-assured about this – especially since it is not true. For what it is worth, those who shaped my approach to Lenin include (aside from Lenin himself) the following: George Breitman, E. H. Carr, James P. Cannon, Isaac Deutscher, Hal Draper, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Moshe Lewin, Ernest Mandel and Leon Trotsky. I read Cliff after my approach to Lenin was basically in place.

I noted in the introductory comments to my book that there is some common ground between Cliff’s approach and mine. In the same book, I suggested problematical qualities in Cliff’s work. I have more than once expressed differences with his interpretation of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? (and I am in basic agreement with the work of Lars Lih on this matter), and I took seriously the critique of Cliff’s book by my friend Bruce Landau many years ago.[2] Other problems have been noted. Even before he published the charge, Lars Lih alerted me to the fact that at least one section of Cliff’s first volume on Lenin contains, almost word-for-word, passages from Solomon Schwarz’s important study The Russian Revolution of 1905: the Workers' Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism – with footnotes citing Schwarz but with the actual passages presented as if Cliff himself had written them.

In spite of this, I respected and continue to respect Cliff’s very substantial effort to draw together a comprehensive survey of Lenin’s political thought and to relate that to the historical realities Lenin faced. I also respect his desire to connect all of this with the issues, problems and challenges facing today’s revolutionary activists. I am alert to the criticisms of problems in Cliff’s political practice that negatively influenced his historical writing (some of this even comes through in Ian Birchall’s just-published sympathetic biography Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time), but I don’t think this justifies a one-sided dismissiveness.

Related to this, I have learned to develop an approach in my own discipline as an historian that cuts across the kind of polemic Comrade Pham has written. Figuring out “what happened in history” is a collective project and process, with various imperfect contributions helping us to get closer to an adequate understanding. It makes no sense to denounce as liars and fools and scoundrels those who were ahead of us in wrestling with the material, but who, we think, may have gotten it wrong.

On top of this, I believe that a genuine strength of Cliff is that he actually approaches the material as someone who is steeped in collective traditions and experiences of the Marxist movement, which involves attempting to apply revolutionary Marxism to political realities of one’s own time. This may sometimes yield misunderstandings (reading back into Lenin one’s own specific notions), but sometimes it also yields insights regarding how political realities – and the interplay of Leninist theory and practice – can be understood.


There is another problem related to what Comrade Pham does in this article. I am concerned that it could slide into its opposite – from a defence of Lenin’s ideas to a full-scale sectarian assault on those ideas. As it stands now, the comrade makes reference, with that unfortunate self-assurance, to the “secret expulsions and other abuses of power by party officials that plague all ‘Leninist’ organisations”. One can certainly find examples of this in one or another group (even those not self-identifying as “Leninist”), but as someone who has belonged to more than one organisation considering itself to be Leninist, and as a scholar who has studied other such organisations, I must challenge this assertion that “secret expulsions and other abuses of power” plague all such organisations that I have belonged to and studied. It is simply not true.

Pham goes further than this when he quotes the following passage from Cliff about what happened after the Bolshevik/Menshevik split at the 1903 congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party: “With the aid of Krupskaya in Geneva and a group of supporters operating inside Russia, [Lenin] built a completely new set of centralised committees, quite regardless of Rule 6 of the party statutes, which reserved to the Central Committee the right to organise and recognise committees.” Pham denies that Lenin, Krupskaya and others did such things, adding: “If Cliff’s statement is true, then Lenin was a hypocritical and ruthless faction fighter who attacked his political opponents for not playing by party rules that he exempted himself from.” God forbid that what Cliff wrote is, more or less, true! Where would that leave us?

The problem is (and no serious historian of the period disagrees) that Lenin and Krupskaya and Bolshevik supporters in Russia actually did put together a network of Bolshevik groups in Russia operating separately from the Menshevik faction. These were later described in detail by such veteran Bolsheviks as Osip Piatnitsky and Cecilia Bobrovskaya, among others (including Krupskaya).

In any event, the logic of failing to keep the whole process of development in mind instead of isolating its individual elements”, reflected here in the single-minded focus on proving Tony Cliff wrong, can result in getting one’s own facts wrong and ultimately – despite one’s intentions – validating all-too-common anti-Lenin diatribes. A more complex, comprehensive, dialectical method would be better, both historically and politically.

Heffalumps versus history

All too often, we humans prove to have limited patience and we pretend (sometimes even to ourselves) to know more than we actually do know. Attempting to “connect the dots” to secure a mental picture of what’s what, we connect “dots” that aren’t actually there – which ends up giving us the picture (for example) not of an elephant but of a heffalump. The one is a real creature that might be found in the wild, the other an imaginary creature in the imaginary brains of Winnie the Pooh and his friend Piglet. There are many “horrible heffalumps” (and even “heffable horrilumps”) unleashed by polemicists who take the time to secure only a partial understanding of what they are talking about. But we should try to do better than that as we seek an understanding of what happened in history.

Serious activists can benefit by turning their attention to those who went before us, to learn both positive and negative lessons from previous experiences of those who were trying to do the same kinds of things that we hope to do. The history of Russian revolutionaries – especially of the Bolsheviks – offers much that can be of value. This requires that we do better than what Comrade Pham has offered us in this recent critique.

It seems to me that Pham himself is capable of doing better than offering us heffalumps. There are genuine strengths, for example, in his discussion of what “democratic centralism” actually meant, strengths consistent with some of what Cliff says (as Pham acknowledges) and with the extended discussion offered in Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. It is an approach for dynamically combining freedom of expression and unity in action, taking decision making seriously so that decisions are actually carried out and tested in practice. As Pham notes, this concept is not unique to Lenin – the very term was put forward by the Mensheviks.

There was much common ground between those who were Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks, and this was especially true before the split among members of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) who would divide into those two factions. Following Lars Lih, Comrade Pham seems to “get” this. That is why it is confusing to find, as the first “big” point in Pham’s polemic, an angry insistence that there was no correspondence between Lenin’s thinking and the 1890s pamphlet by future Mensheviks Julius Martov and Arkadi Kremer, On Agitation.

Cliff suggests that Russian Marxism in general in the 1890s tended to be “mechanical, one-sided, stagiest, or ‘economist’” – and that this included Plekhanov, Lenin and the authors of On Agitation. Some historians (such as Lars Lih) argue that this critical generalisation is overdrawn. The fact remains that the pamphlet played an important role (at the time supported by Lenin, as Neil Harding, among others, emphasises) in helping the movement move beyond study circles and toward practical class-struggle agitation. Further thought and experience would result in the theoretical evolution of all concerned and eventually in Bolshevik/Menshevik divergences. Pham should not feel he must contest the truth of Cliff’s comment about common ground between Lenin and the authors of On Agitation, nor throw Lenin quotes at us to emphasise the difference between him and someone like Martov (who was, by all accounts, Lenin’s close friend, comrade and co-thinker as the 19th century gave way to the 20th). Doing so gets in our way of understanding the actual history of Russia’s revolutionary movement.

Pham also devotes considerable energy to arguing that in 1905 “Lenin and the Bolsheviks never fought about either recruiting workers to party committees or democratising the party at the third congress [of the Bolshevik organisation]”. He adds, with emphasis: “It simply did not happen.” He then cites a very brief 1500-word report from the Bolshevik central committee (reproduced in Lenin’s Collected Works) which does not mention this debate, which Pham seems to feel “proves” his point. What he fails to note, however, is what is said by others active in the movement at that time (the well-documented account of Bolshevik-turned-Menshevik Solomon Schwarz, Krupskaya’s memoirs, Trotsky’s biography of Stalin) about the actuality of just such a debate. In a scholarly dispute with me on the matter, Lars Lih, while minimising its significance, at least acknowledges the fact that there was such debate but argues that Lenin was wrong about the realities and unfair to those Bolshevik comrades on the other side of the debate, who outvoted him. Such matters are worth discussing now, as they were then – but Pham, too focused on making Cliff look bad, misses the opportunity to join in the discussion.

An even more embarrassing mistake comes when Pham writes: “Cliff adheres to the myth that the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks separated into two parties in 1912. However, a cursory glance at Lenin’s writings in 1912 reveals how wrong this view is.” He then takes a very cursory glance, quoting one sentence from a report by Lenin after the 1912 Prague conference, and based on this, Pham assures us:

“The 1912 Prague Conference separated pro-party Mensheviks and Bolsheviks from the liquidators. The Menshevik-Bolshevik divide did not culminate in two separate parties until the 1917 revolution.”

Pham seems unaware that Lenin at this point considered all Mensheviks to be liquidators, more or less, except for a handful of “party Mensheviks” around Plekhanov (only two or three of whom participated in the Prague conference).

A more knowledgeable historian than Comrade Pham, Isaac Deutscher (hardly a Cliff adherent), in The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921 (page 198), tells us: “Early in 1912, the schism was brought to its conclusion. At the conference in Prague Lenin proclaimed the Bolshevik faction to be the Party.” Trotsky says the same thing in his biography of Stalin (page 136): “Having thus gone all the way in breaking with the Mensheviks, the Prague Conference opened the era of the independent existence of the Bolshevik Party, with its own Central Committee.” Gregory Zinoviev, who was involved in the 1912 Prague conference, recounts in his History of the Bolshevik Party (page 170) that this was the moment “to break finally with them [the Mensheviks] and build our own independent organization based upon the resurgent workers’ movement”. In a succinct biography of Lenin (page 112), the highly respected Lars Lih affirms that Lenin decided to cut the Gordian Knot of factional strife “by simply deciding that his group was the real party”, elaborating: “After a series of institutional manoeuvres, the so-called Prague Conference of January 1912 – consisting of Lenin, Zinoviev, and about fourteen Bolshevik practiki from Russia – elected a new Central Committee and thus a new party.”

In Reminiscences of Lenin, Krupskaya explained (pages 230, 231): “The results of the Prague Conference were a clearly defined Party line on questions of work in Russia, and real leadership of practical work. ... A unity was achieved on the C.C. without which it would have been impossible to carry on the work at such a difficult time.”

As such eyewitnesses as Trotsky and John Reed note in their accounts of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks already existed as a separate, independent organisation – there was no need to carry out an organisational split in the midst of the revolutionary upheaval.

Activist conclusions

Comrade Pham comments very negatively on two sentences from Building the Party (page 110): “The leadership of a revolutionary party must provide the highest example of devotion and complete identification with the party in its daily life”, Cliff wrote. “This gives it the moral authority to demand the maximum sacrifice from the rank and file.” Pham comments: “At no time did Lenin use his position as a party leader to demand ‘maximum sacrifice from the rank and file’.” He adds: “This sounds like something from the Stalin era or from Mao’s Little Red Book which is full of timeless, moralistic phrase mongering.” I think the comrade is wrong in making this accusation – doing an injustice to Cliff, to Lenin and to the revolutionary activists who must join together to bring about the fundamental changes that can have some hope of bringing about a better world.

First of all, Cliff’s emphasis is that those who would offer leadership in a revolutionary organisation have a responsibility, in their own lives, to be absolutely devoted and committed to the revolutionary cause, struggle, movement, organisation. They will have no right to ask of others what they themselves will not be prepared to give. This is Cliff’s point in the quoted passage, and I do not recognise this as inherently Stalinist or Maoist. It is a revolutionary truism.

Nor is it true that Lenin never called on party members (leaders as well as rank and file) to make “the maximum sacrifice”. In his well-known 1900 article “The Urgent Tasks of Our Movement” (in the selection of Lenin’s writings I edited for Pluto Press, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism, pages 135-136), he said such things as this:

We must train people who will devote the whole of their lives, not only their spare evenings, to the revolution ... If we have a strongly organised party, a single strike may turn into a political demonstration, into a political victory over the government. ... Before us, in all its strength, towers the enemy fortress which is raining shot and shell upon us, mowing down our best fighters. We must capture this fortress, and we will capture it, if we unite all the forces of the awakening proletariat with all the forces of the Russian revolutionaries into one party which will attract all that is vital and honest in Russia. 

An element of “maximum sacrifice” is surely suggested in this passage, although for many that involves – far more than “sacrifice” – giving all that we have (our time, our creative energy, sometimes our very lives) for a struggle that will, in fact, positively enhance humanity’s future and therefore the meaning of our lives.

To argue against such things, to minimise what it will take to bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old, it seems to me, is not helpful. It may be this is unfair, and that Comrade Pham has other, more fruitful conclusions that flow from his critique. If so, he has not expressed them clearly. Aside from the strange assertion that present-day publishers should not keep Tony Cliff’s book in print, it is not clear what activist conclusions he would have us draw from what he has written. One can only hope that in future contributions he will do better than this.

Works cited

Binh, Pham. “Mangling the Party: Tony Cliff’s Lenin,” Links: Journal of Socialist Renewal, January 24, 2012 (

Birchall, Ian. Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time. London: Book Marks, 2011.

Bobrovskaya, Cecilia. Twenty Years in Underground Russia: Memoirs of a Rank-and-File Bolshevik. New York: International Publishers, 1934.

Cliff, Tony. Lenin: Building the Party, 1893-1914. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2002.

Deutscher, Isaac. The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879-1921. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954.

Harding, Neil. Lenin’s Political Thought: Theory and Practice in the Democratic and Socialist Revolutions. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1983.

Krupskaya, N. K. Reminiscences of Lenin. New York: International Publishers, 1970.

Landau, Bruce. Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, A Reply to Tony Cliff. Australia: Socialist Resistance, 2002. Available at

Le Blanc, Paul. Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1993.

____________. “Lenin and Us: Into the Past, Back to the Future,” Links: Journal of Socialist Renewal, June 14, 2011 (

____________. “Lenin’s Return,” WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society, Volume 10, September 2007.

____________. “Rediscovering Lenin,” Historical Materialism, 18.3 (2010).

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. “Urgent Tasks of Our Movement”, in Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings, edited by Paul Le Blanc. London: Pluto Press, 2008.

Lewin, Moshe. Lenin’s Last Struggle. New York: Vintage Books, 1970.

Liebman, Marcel. Leninism Under Lenin. London: Jonathan Cape, 1975

Lih, Lars T. Lenin. London: Reaktion Books, 2011.

_________. “Lenin Disputed”, Historical Materialism, 18.3 (2010).

_________. Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done?’ in Context. Chicago: Haymarket, 2009.

Milne, A. A. Winnie the Pooh. New York: Penguin/Dutton, 2006.

Piatnitsky, O. Memoirs of a Bolshevik. New York: International Publishers, 1931.

Reed, John. Ten Days That Shook the World. New York: International Publishers, 1926.

Schwarz, Solomon. The Russian Revolution of 1905: the Workers' Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

Trotsky, Leon. History of the Russian Revolution. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009.

___________. Stalin, An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence. New York: Stein and Day, 1967.

___________. The Young Lenin. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972.

Zinoviev, Gregory. History of the Bolshevik Party. London: New Park Publications, 1973.


[1] My understanding is that Pham Binh uses the Asian tradition of putting the family name first and individual name second, so I will refer to the comrade by his family name.

[2] A major point in the Landau pamphlet was that Cliff was closer to Rosa Luxemburg’s organisational views than to any kind of Leninism, which then seemed more plausible to me than it does today.

* * *

For more articles by Paul Le Blanc, click HERE.

For more discussion on how socialists organise, click HERE.

For more articles about Leninism, click HERE.


Bending the stick again

Once again I'll raise this "bending the stick" term. I come across the phrase often in Cliff, not so in Lenin (with whose writings I'm much more familiar). The following is part of a letter from one Ben Dalbey of Baltimore published in the < href="">International Socialist Review in 2008. I'm just copying it over here because it says what I was already thinking, only a in a little more depth.


Thanks to Paul D’Amato for his article “The myth of Lenin’s elitism” in the July–August ISR, and in par?ticular his defense and analysis of Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet What Is to Be Done? (WITBD).

I believe there is an important and unsatisfactory way of attempting to explain Lenin’s purportedly elitist formulations in WITBD within today’s socialist movement, which is to claim that Lenin is simply “bending the stick.” This formulation seems to have been at least largely introduced by Tony Cliff of the British Socialist Workers Party in his important book Building the Party. In Building the Party, Cliff writes, “At every stage of the struggle Lenin would look for what he regarded as the key link in the chain of development. He would then repeatedly emphasize the importance of this link, to which all others must be subordinated. After the event, he would say: ‘We overdid it. We bent the stick too far,’ by which he did not mean that he had been wrong to do so.”

It is not clear that the “quote” Cliff uses above is an actual quotation. Later in the same book Cliff writes, “Lenin’s ‘bending of the stick’ right over to mechanical over-emphasis on organization in What Is to Be Done? was, nevertheless, quite useful operationally, whereas, over a period of some four to five years, the Marxists in Russia had aroused a desire in the working class for confrontation at the factory level, the step now necessary was to arouse, at least in the politically conscious section of the masses, a passion for political action.”

I would argue that, on this question, it is Cliff who has the mechanical formulation and that “bending the stick” was not Lenin’s method of argument and should not be a model for socialists today. Moreover, reading WITBD through a “bending of the stick” prism creates two related problems: It allows the reader to dismiss out of hand rather than reckon with the actual argument Lenin is making, and it thus inhibits the reader’s ability to see the dialectical approach Lenin takes to the question of party building.

There is no mention of “bending the stick”—which is apparently a reference to a woodworking technique where a piece of wood is bent too far in one direction so that it will end up straight—within WITBD. (Lenin does, however, describe the need to seize the key link of the chain—a more useful metaphor.) At the 1903 Congress, it is Martov—who in this same series of meetings becomes the leader of the Menshevik faction of the Russian party—who says that Lenin “made a confession to us” that “‘the stick had been bent in one direction, and so we bent it the other way.’” Depending on which translation you use, Lenin may have also used the metaphor in the 1903 debates, saying—either “We all know that the economists bent the stick in one direction. In order to straighten the stick it was necessary to bend it in the other direction, and that is what I did,” or, “We all now know that the ‘economists’ have gone to one extreme. To straighten matters out somebody had to pull in the other direction—and that is what I have done.” In his 1907 introduction to the reprint of WITBD—written after the 1905 revolution—Lenin seems to make no mention of “stick bending,” but rather defends the essence of his pamphlet from detractors who chide him for an unhealthy obsession with organization—from the comfort of their by-then-well-established organization.

a question for "Leninists"

My response was submitted yesterday, but I have a question for Paul LeBlanc.

If the Bolshevik Party began with the Prague Conference of 1912 as he claims why is it that Lenin never uses the phrase "Bolshevik Party" in any of his writings or speeches in the 1912-1916 period prior to 1917?

Lenin's Tomb comment on Pham's article (from Marxmail)

I just saw this comment by Richard Seymour, in Marxmail, which i think sums up the problem with Pham Binh's article:

"As I see it, Binh's article has two remits. The first is to reformulate our understanding of Leninism, in a way that could potentially be useful. The second is to categorically junk Cliff and his contribution to socialist strategy, which is of dubious value. It is on the second that Le Blanc, himself hardly a Cliffite, is most critical. For here, Binh tends to arrive at summary, polemical judgements, that don't serve the first purpose of the article well. There is also a certain rebarbative tone that Binh always adopts when dealing with rivals on the far left, specifically those influenced by Cliff, but which always comes a cropper when accompanied by a howler or two."

Dubious value

What is of dubious value is Cliff's alleged contributions to "socialist strategy." When he was alive he helped engineer and sanction splits in his own International Tendency all over the world; after his passing the British SWP did not survive intact for very long.

Whether or not Leninism makes any sense is a related but separate issue from Cliff's treatment of Lenin, his ideas, his work, and history.

One thing I've learned is that people who lecture about "tone" do so in order to avoid dealing with content. Lenin had a word for that: quibbling.


It's ironic that Seymour focuses on my "rebarative tone" given his infantile, snarky one-liners and weak insults when it comes to arguments he cannot refute or subjects he is not confident enough to debate.

1912 - The Formation of the Bolshevik Party

That the RSDLP (Bolshevik) was founded in 1912 at a conference held in Prague cannot be argued away. It is a fact.

But to what degree did this change matters on the ground in Russia? Very little I suspect from the testimonies we have and we have quite a few. In fact we know that to some considerable degree the local organisations of the RSDLP remained united up to and in some cases beyond October 1917. Certainly the leading committees in exile and in the major cities were separated but the rank and file of the movement seemingly found it difficult to decide which party they adhered to.

We need then to be careful when speaking of a Bolshevik Party in the period 1912-1917 lest we give the impression that what we are dealing with is a well disciplined organisation with a clear political line. That was certainly hat Lenin desired and fought for but very far from the realities on the ground or so it would seem.

For me there is another problem in making 1912 the significant date in the history of the Bolshevik current - merely substituting 1912 for 1903 seems an exercise in myth making in any case - in that by doing so we play down the importance of his break with the Marxism of the Second International. That is to say the break Lenin made in 1914, with the social democratic centre, was and is fundamental in understanding the nature and role of the Bolsheviks in 1917.

It is this episode in the history of Bolshevism, and not the foundation of a Central Committee in 1912 or the adoption of an organisational document in 1912, that is vital if we are to construct revolutionary organisations in the conditions of today. Vital because if we can learnt to think dialectically, as Lenin did, then we may be able to assimilate the lessons of the past and apply them to todays conditions without falling into the trap of simply creating 1917 re-enactment societies which is what most Trotskyist groups are.


"That the RSDLP (Bolshevik) was founded in 1912 at a conference held in Prague cannot be argued away. It is a fact."

If it's a fact it should not be so difficult to prove. Do you have any evidence to support your claim? Let's see it.

As I noted in a comment above, Lenin doesn't seem to have agreed with your contention.

good point and partial disagreement

I like Mike Pearn's contribution.

I think it is definitely the case that realities "on the ground" among revolutionary and working-class activists in Russia often did not match up with resolutions, polemical articles, etc. While there are testimonies, as Pearn indicates, I think more work needs to be done to comb through the on-the-ground realities, which requires research efforts by those who, unlike me, can read Russian. I think we would find a mix -- some match-up between theory and practice, but some disconnect as well. It certainly wouldn't be total either way, but what the balance actually was cannot be established without more research. This doesn't mean, however, that the 1912 conference was a minor thing. Testimony from a number of prominent figures who were involved in the RSDLP at the time indicate, definitively, that among a significant layer of party cadre it was a big deal.

On the other hand, while I would agree that Lenin's Hegel studies in 1914 were extremely important, the work of Lars Lih and the collection of documents edited by Day and Gaido, "Witnesses to Permanent Revolution," have caused me to question the popular popular notion of Lenin's "break from the Marxism of the Second International." I think there is still something worth considering in that notion, but I now am inclined to think that it has often been overstated (including, at least to some extent, by me in the past).

I suspect that to the extent

I suspect that to the extent all this ever gets sorted out, the lesson will be that the Bolshevik party coalesced gradually over a long period of time, and that the participants singled out particular dates in hindsight when they were trying to make sense of what happened.

Reply to Pham on 1912

Comrade I feel that you are being rather pedantic here. Or am I wrong in asserting that the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP held a conference in 1912 which specifically excluded "the liquidators, grouped around the magazines Nasha Zarya and Dyelo Zhizni (to which Zhivoye Dyelo should now be added)"? As you will know this left the status of certain factional publications of the RSDLP in a bit of a grey area from the point of view of the new Bolshevik led party committees. These publications and their supporters were neither excluded or actively involved with the Bolshevik led committees of the RSDLP.

At the same time, more or less, another conference was held by the Organising Committee of the RSDLP which included the liquidators excluded from the RSDLP by the Prague Conference. Lenin waged a bitter struggle against the tendencies which attended the conference convened by the OC. In fact he went so as to report, in an approving manner, Plekhanovs remarks that the conference of the OC was an inaugural conference founding a new party. Lenin in other words took the position that the Prague conference and the conference convened by the OC of the RSDLP were conferences of different rival parties.

I would suggest to Pham that the above is a fair representation of the views held by Lenin concerning the rival conferences. But all of this is of little importance to me to be frank given that I made it clear in my small contribution that the holding of the Prague conference was unimportant given that the majority of social democratic organisations in Russia remained united effectively refusing to recognise either the Bolshevik CC or the Menshevik dominated OC as the leading organ of the RSDLP.

Indeed I went far further and argued that for me the definitive split between Lenin and Social Democracy came with the war in 1914 and his turn to Hegel. Pham being a pedant wishes to concentrate on the small matter of an unimportant conference and its legal standing. And even on that he gets his facts wrong.

No, you are not wrong. In

No, you are not wrong. In fact, you are proving my point that the 1912 conference excluded the liquidaotators, not the Mensheviks. However, there cannot be any talk of a "Bolshevik CC" when there was a pro-party Menshevik elected to that body and when that body did not claim to be a "Bolshevik CC."

As for your claim that "the majority of social democratic organisations in Russia remained united effectively refusing to recognise either the Bolshevik CC or the Menshevik dominated OC" I again ask for your source on this, not because I don't believe you but because I want to read and learn more to get to the bottom of this issue. Please post the name of the book or where ever you got this information from in this thread.

There can be no intelligent discussion of what, if anything, we can from the Bolshevik Party if we do not even understand how it came into being, when, under what circumstances, and in what context. I prefer to be labelled a pedant than continue to unknowlingly perpetuate falsehoods about Lenin and the Bolsheviks. It is a great disservice to them to continue to treat the facts and history of their experience in such a careless manner, and it is a great disservice to ourselves to try to "recreate" things which never in fact existed.

The January 1912 RSDLP conference

I agree with Pham Binh that the January 1912 conference was not seen by Lenin at the time as a Bolshevik conference, but rather as a conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. But in retrospect it can be seen as a stage in the construction of the Bolshevik party.

Below is an extract from a talk I gave a few years ago. (For the complete talk see


In January 1912, the Bolsheviks took the initiative to convene a conference of the RSDLP. It was not intended to be an exclusively Bolshevik conference. Menshevik-led local party organisations participated in the preparations for the conference. Pro-party Mensheviks, Vperyodists and Leon Trotsky were amongst those invited.

However, only two non-Bolsheviks came to the conference. Both of them were pro-party Mensheviks. But Plekhanov, the most prominent pro-party Menshevik, did not attend.

The conference elected a new central committee, composed entirely of Bolsheviks (Tony Cliff, Lenin, vol. 1, p 312, Pluto Press, London, 1975).

The conference is often said to have marked the final split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. But Lenin, in the resolutions and reports he drafted for the conference, said nothing about a split with the Mensheviks in general. Rather he drew a line of division between the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party and the liquidators.

He moved a resolution declaring that the liquidators were no longer party members, saying that "the Nasha Zarya and Dyelo Zhizni group has definitely placed itself outside the party" (a reference to two magazines published by the liquidators). The resolution called on "all Party members, irrespective of tendencies and shades of opinion, to combat liquidationism, explain its great harmfulness to the cause of the emamancipation of the working class, and bend all their efforts to revive and strengthen the illegal RSDLP" (LCW, vol. 17, p. 481).

Lenin still wanted to keep the door open to the pro-party Mensheviks, and anyone else who might be willing to help build a united party with the Bolsheviks. A conference resolution drafted by Lenin said that: "Everywhere in the localities without a single exception, Party work is being conducted jointly and harmoniously by the Bolsheviks and pro-Party Mensheviks, as well as by Vperyod supporters in Russia wherever there are any, and by all other Social-Democrats who recognise the need for an illegal RSDLP" (LCW, vol. 17, p. 465). The implication was that Lenin hoped this joint work would continue.


Why did the Bolsheviks take this approach? Why did they project the January 1912 conference as being open to the whole RSDLP (not including the liquidators, who were deemed to be outside the party), rather than making it a conference of the Bolshevik faction alone?

First, they wanted to involve broader forces than just those who identified as Bolsheviks at that time. They wanted to draw RSDLP members who might consider themselves as Mensheviks, or as non-aligned, into joint party-building work together with the Bolsheviks.

Second, they wanted to show rank and file RSDLP members that the Bolsheviks were for unity, and make it as hard as possible for their opponents to blame the Bolsheviks for any split that might occur.

Paul Le Blanc states that there were "a significant number of RSDLP members who favoured the combination of legal and illegal tactics, who maintained a revolutionary class struggle orientation, but were unalterably opposed to a split in the RSDLP". He quotes one such person as saying "I, like many others... am not a Bolshevik, I am not a Menshevik, I am not an Otzovist [ultraleftist], I am not a Liquidator -- I am only a social-democrat" (Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1993, p. 178).

Lenin had to relate to this sentiment. The fact that all non-liquidator elements of the RSDLP were invited to the conference showed that the Bolsheviks were not sectarian. The fact that most of those invited didn't turn up showed that they, not the Bolsheviks, were opposed to unity on a principled basis. As Lenin noted in a speech to the conference: "All have been invited and only those who refused to help the Party are absent" (LCW, vol. 41, p. 246).

In effect, the invitation to attend the conference, and the invitation to participate in carrying out the decisions of the conference, were a test for the pro-party Mensheviks. Were they serious about building the party or not? Plekhanov failed this test.

However, the Bolsheviks' efforts to bring about unity were not wasted. In the period after the conference there occurred a process which Lenin referred to as "unity from below". Writing in February 1913, he said:

"The workers have already started of their own accord, from below, on the solution of the problem of unity....

"Worker Social-Democrats everywhere are re-establishing integral illegal organisations of the RSDLP in the form of factory nuclei and committees, district groups, town centres, Social-Democratic groups in all kinds of legal institutions, etc." (LCW vol. 18, p. 454).

It is important to note that Lenin, in offering to work in a united party with the pro-party Mensheviks, was not proposing to water down the politics of the party. The January 1912 conference adopted a clear political line.

A key question was that of overthrowing the tsarist monarchy. Although the call for a democratic republic had been included in the 1903 RSDLP program, the majority of prominent Mensheviks, especially the liquidators, had in practice dropped that demand. The conference resolved that: "Propaganda for a republic, and against the policy of the tsarist monarchy, must be given special prominence to counteract, among other things, the widespread propaganda in favour of curtailed slogans and of confining activity to the existing 'legality'" (LCW, vol. 17, p.468).

The conference decided that the main election slogans for the coming Duma elections should be: a democratic republic; the eight-hour working day; and confiscation of all landed estates (LCW, vol.17, p. 468).

The party which emerged from the January 1912 conference was officially known as the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party. But because its political line was that which had come to be associated with the Bolshevik faction, and because its central leaders came from the Bolshevik faction, it was often referred to as the Bolshevik Party.


"in retrospect it can be seen as a stage in the construction of the Bolshevik party." -- I absolutely agree with this more nuanced view. Hindsight is always 20/20.

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