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Paul Le Blanc responds to Lars Lih: Bolshevism and party building – convergence and questions

[Click HERE to follow the entire debate on Lenin.]

By Paul Le Blanc

May 5, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Revolutionary upheavals are made possible by the coming together of a number of diverse factors, one of which is the organisation, accumulation of experience and proliferating influence of conscious revolutionaries.

“Did the Bolshevik Party become the leading party of the Russian proletariat, and hence the Russian nation, by chance?”, asked Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci in 1924. A brilliant and knowledgeable analyst, he answered his own question: “The selection process lasted thirty years; it was extremely arduous; it often assumed what appeared to be the strangest and most absurd forms.” He added that the process involved “struggles of factions and small groups; ... it meant splits and fusions ...” (Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926: 210).

Would-be revolutionaries of later years, sometimes hoping to make sense of their own “absurdities” and small-group struggles, have often looked for insights into the tangled history of this Bolshevik party that was led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Of course, when Gramsci referred to a selection process of thirty years, he was factoring in the experiences of the late 19th century before the Bolshevik party actually came into being. In a recent article, I have made the case -- supporting the assertion of many others – for 1912 being the year that Bolshevism crystallised as a distinct party.

The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) that emerged from the January 1912 “all-Russia” conference in Prague, under the auspices of Lenin and his co-thinkers, did not present itself as “the Bolshevik party” – but it provides important clues as to the party-building perspectives associated with the Bolshevik tradition. This is an important question historically, and it is also of interest to would-be revolutionaries of today. It is hardly surprising that a debate has erupted (gathered in Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal) around this historical question as revolutionary struggle appears to have forced its way, once again, onto the global agenda.


It seems to me that a useful and clarifying convergence has developed in the online debate on the development of the Leninist conception of the revolutionary party – at least between Lars Lih and myself – with some issues still tantalisingly left up in the air. Lars has just published the first of a promised three-part series on Lenin’s views on the party in 1912, 1917 and 1920 (in the May 3, 2012, issue of the Weekly Worker I want, first of all, to bask in what strikes me as the areas of agreement, then brood over some possible disagreement, and finally turn to the up-in-the-air issues.

It seems to me that there are three broad areas of agreement between Lars and myself.

1. For all practical purposes, an independent Bolshevik party emerged from the Prague RSDLP conference of January 1912 (a fact codified by the Vienna RSDLP conference of August 1912). At the time it was not projected, by Lenin and his Bolshevik co-thinkers, as the creation of a Bolshevik party – but this is what it turned out to be.

2. This development did not represent some pre-conceived notion on Lenin’s part of creating any kind of “party of a new type” – for Lenin and his Bolshevik co-thinkers it represented, instead, the healthy realisation of what they perceived to be the Social-Democratic organisational model.

3. For Lenin and his Bolshevik co-thinkers, the organisational principles of democratic-centralism definitely allowed for, even assumed, the existence of tendencies and sometimes even more hardened factions within the same organisation, so long as majority decisions were respected by all – “freedom of discussion, unity in action”. (The term “democratic centralism” was first introduced and embraced by the Mensheviks in the RSDLP, but was also taken up and embraced even more consistently by the Leninist Bolsheviks.)

These three points are essential, it seems to me, for providing a coherent history of pre-1917 Bolshevism that does not ride roughshod over the known and documented facts. Our convergence around them constitutes a genuine forward movement in this discussion.

Critical questions

There are, however, certain critical questions raised by Lars that bring clouds into this sunny reality – but clouds are not always a bad thing. First, there is a methodological issue, but then something more substantive.

The methodological issue has to do with a certain kind of primary source material – memoirs or recollections. Here is a critical comment Lars makes about one aspect of my use of such sources:

He says he is relying on “primary sources”, by which he means material coming from direct participants in party life before the war. But he relies overwhelmingly on sources written after the event and particularly after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Using memoirs and other after-the-event sources is always tricky, but there are a number of reasons why they are particularly unreliable in the case of the Prague conference. By the 1920s, there were indeed two parties, leading to a tendency to retroject current views back to the earlier situation. Furthermore, and most importantly, by the 1920s the whole idea of having factions in the party was delegitimised.

First of all, I want to acknowledge what seems to me the partial validity of Lars’s point. Even setting aside the possibility of conscious distortion, the mind often plays tricks. Our memories of past thoughts or perceptions from “way back when” are sometimes coloured, or even seriously distorted, by what came after. Of course, what people say or write in the midst of the actual past events might also prove to be misleading – especially in a situation such as that existing in 1911 and 1912, when, as Lars so aptly puts it, “the internal party situation ... was insanely complicated”.

Sometimes, however, after-the-fact recollections have the advantage of helping us see the forest from the trees, making some retrospective sense of the welter of contemporary detail. It seems to me, in such a situation, that one must draw from a diverse set of recollections and also weigh the reliability of the various memoirists. (I think, for example, that Krupskaya’s Reminiscences of Lenin generally proves to be more reliable than Stormy Passage by the Bolshevik-turned-Menshevik Woytinsky on what Lenin thought and said.) If the same event is recalled and the same point made by several Bolshevik witnesses, several Menshevik witnesses, plus Trotsky, and if these can be harmonised with the documents of the time (including Lenin’s writings), then it seems to me one can conclude – to use the example of this particular case – that for all practical purposes a Bolshevik party came into existence in 1912. (One could add that if a scholar’s interpretation of what happened in 1912 happens to be totally at variance with how all or most participants later described it, that interpretation is, to put it mildly, problematical.)

Lars goes on to say: “Paul does not sufficiently allow for the possibility that the Bolshevik outlook in 1912 cannot be directly deduced from what turned out to be, ‘for all practical purposes’, the actual outcome.” I agree with the point that the Bolshevik outlook of 1912 is not necessarily consistent with the actual outcome – so I am happy that Lars would choose to focus attention on something that I have not sufficiently emphasised, especially when he adds: “In doing so, I will make heavy use of the Lenin material made available in Paul’s own excellent Lenin anthology Revolution, democracy, socialism (London 2008).”

What follows in Lars’s essay are a number of good and valid points. There is a problem, however, with what he says about Zinoviev’s 1920s account. Lars writes: “In his history of the party, written in the 1920s, Zinoviev makes what I consider to be misleading comments about Prague as ‘the moment of complete rupture with the Mensheviks’ (for example, he also says, quite incorrectly, that there were no Mensheviks present at the conference).” In fact (on pages 170-171 of the English language New Park edition) we find Zinoviev saying: “Present at the conference, incidentally, were two or three delegates who were supporters of Plekhanov and had arrived straight from party activity in Russia.”

These Mensheviks, of course, were not associated with the liquidator current headed by Potresov nor the Menshevik current conciliatory to the liquidators, headed by Martov and Dan – these were excluded from the Prague conference (as indicated in Lenin’s letter to G. L. Shklovsky of March 12, 1912, in Collected Works, vol. 35: 25-26), unlike the “party-Mensheviks” associated with Plekhanov. Lars is quite reasonable when he asserts: “Lenin really believed in the possibility of such a cross-factional bloc.”

But then an ambiguity creeps in: “Hostile observers at the time and later thought all that this talk of ‘party Menshevism’ was a ruse and an excuse to obtain an all-Bolshevik party. Underneath it all, they say, he equated liquidationism with Menshevism as such.”

It seems quite clear, from Lenin’s writings at the time (quoted extensively in my earlier contribution) that Lenin did equate liquidationism with the Menshevism represented by Martov and Dan – only the party-Mensheviks associated with Plekhanov were exonerated. One can argue that this was unfair to Martov and Dan, who did not subscribe to all the tenets of liquidationism, and were certainly more left wing than Potresov. But Lenin’s point, expressed in his August 1911 introduction to Kamenev’s pamphlet Two Parties, was that they tolerated and were in alliance with the liquidators, that they were politically “trailing behind” the liquidators, and consequently had no place in an RSDLP that rejected liquidationism.

After the Prague conference Lenin was even more emphatic. In March 1912, explaining matters to German comrades, he asserted that “the nucleus” of liquidationism was “made up of the majority of Menshevik writers (Potresov, Levitsky, Larin, Martov, Dan, Martynov, etc.)”, approvingly noting that Plekhanov “broke off relations with Martov and Axelrod”. In a communication to Camille Huysmans, secretary of the Second International, Lenin characterised Golos, the publication of Martov and Dan, as representing “the liquidationist press”. (See Lenin’s Collected Works, vol. 17: 225-228, 539-540, 548.)

What this adds up to is excluding the majority of the Mensheviks from the RSDLP (unless the bulk of the rank-and-file Mensheviks were prepared to renounce their own leaders and newspapers). Of course, if Martov, Dan and their followers would break from the liquidators in the way that Plekhanov and his party-Mensheviks had done, they would be more than welcome in the Prague-initiated RSDLP. From Lenin’s writings at the time, it seems clear that he had no expectation that such a thing would happen.

Tantalising issues

This brings us to tantalising issues that remain to be resolved – in part, I think, through more serious engagement with Russian-language sources that, for now, most of us English speakers don’t have access to. Here is how Lars frames it:

Paul Le Blanc ... does not seem to recognise any contradiction between his description of Lenin’s activities (setting up a “distinct Bolshevik entity”) and Lenin’s own description in the report to the Second International.

Whether or not the Bolsheviks actually did make a good-faith effort to organise a true “all-party conference” is a vexed question. In my own survey of documents from the period, I was impressed by the Bolsheviks’ consistent and energetic insistence that they were not organising a factional conference. Some non-Bolshevik opinion also partially supported their claim to represent at least the underground organisations of Russia proper.

I will add the strictly personal opinion I have expressed elsewhere: if indeed Lenin wanted to create a Bolshevik Party, he set about it in a way that was deceptive, disloyal, destructive and not to be imitated.

I think the reality of the “vexed question” with which Lars and the rest of us are wrestling is even more complex than he allows. I do not believe Lenin was “deceptive, disloyal, destructive”. At the same time, he was, (a) not at all naïve about the realities inside the RSDLP and, (b) absolutely committed to the triumph of revolutionary Marxist perspectives within the RSDLP and within the Second International. I will discuss each of these points in turn.

By 1912 it was clear to Lenin that the bulk of the Mensheviks (even Plekhanov himself), as well as Trotsky, had no intention of attending the Prague conference. It was no less clear that they would not adhere to the decisions of the Prague conference and would not become part of the version of the RSDLP emerging from that conference. Nor (except for Plekhanov and his party-Menshevik co-thinkers) was he inclined to make the newly reorganised RSDLP an entity to which they would feel they belonged. He showed no desire whatsoever to reverse course in order to gather together any of these comrades into the Prague version of the RSDLP. He had no inclination to attend the Vienna conference (which Trotsky had apparently hoped he would). Lenin and his Bolshevik co-thinkers simply forged ahead as the RSDLP.

Lars tells us: “A split in a party can be justified on two very different grounds. One is: your views are unacceptable; you must go. The other is: only my views are acceptable, only my group can stay. The first view excludes a specific group. The second view excludes all except a specific group.” The fact is, as Lars insists, that Lenin and his co-thinkers viewed the Prague conference, which they organised and dominated, as representing a spilt of the first kind – a split with liquidationism. Their reorganised version of the RSDLP remained opened to all comrades of the earlier, now disorganised version of the RSDLP who would join them in splitting from liquidationism. They were honest and sincere about this, and were perhaps cautiously hopeful that a significant section of the Menshevik rank and file (perhaps even a leader here and there) would become part of their version of the RSDLP. But after 1912 they were not inclined to have high expectations that this would be so – Lenin least of all.

Then there is the other point to consider, one that – as push came to shove – may have separated Lenin from some of his co-thinkers. It is worth asking to what extent Lenin anticipated this in 1911 and 1912.

Lenin took revolutionary Marxism very seriously. He believed that the purpose of the RSDLP (and the purpose of all the parties of the Second International) was not to be a resting place or an affinity group for diverse congregations of those who considered socialism to be a nice idea. The purpose of the revolutionary party was, instead, to educate, agitate and organi ze a working-class majority around the perspectives of revolutionary Marxism and socialist revolution. The reformist perspectives of Eduard Bernstein, and the class-collaborationist orientation of Pavel Axelrod, could be tolerated in the party if and only if they were not allowed to dominate and disorganise the revolutionary work of the party.

The heroically revolutionary role of the working class, Lenin felt, was built into the social-economic realities of capitalism. This would enable intelligent revolutionary Marxists to win a majority in the workers’ movement – and if one-time reformists and class collaborationists, after finally losing the debate and the vote, chose to go along with the revolutionary will of the majority, all well and good. And if not – if they flouted the democratic decisions of the party (as the liquidators had done) – they would sooner or later have to be excluded from the party. Since revolutionary Marxism was, in fact, the program and perspective of the Second International and of the RSDLP, Lenin was optimistic and confident, but hardly passive. There was neither deception nor disloyalty nor destructiveness in his intentions, his theory, or his practice. He was determined to build a unified but also scrupulously democratic workers’ party, one which would (as Krupskaya put it) end up following “the Bolshevik line.”

Lenin was neither tactful nor “deceitful” about what he thought – he was “shouting it from the housetops” (to quote Deutscher), in public writings as well as correspondence.

Work to be done

Among the questions up in the air are: (1) how conscious was Lenin beforehand that few non-Bolsheviks would be likely to be part of the Prague RSDLP, (2) how conscious were other Leninist Bolsheviks of the same likelihood, (3) to what extent did Lenin and/or his co-thinkers hope or expect that significant numbers of their RSDLP factional opponents would eventually “come over” to a party following the Bolshevik line, (4) to what extent did Lenin perceive similar dynamics developing in the Second International, and (5) to what extent did any of this impact on how revolutionary-minded working-class activists on the ground, inside Russia, thought and functioned from 1912 through 1917.

I have already indicated my own hunch regarding question #1 – that Lenin believed the RSDLP emerging from the Prague conference would and should be an entity following the Bolshevik line, repellent to the great majority of Mensheviks influenced by Axelrod, Potresov, Martov, Dan (with party-Mensheviks around Plekhanov possibly being a partial exception). But there are certainly different interpretations of this issue that can be advanced and defended.

More research is required, it seems to me, on all of these questions. What they all added up to, it seems to me, is fruitfully suggested by interpretations to be found in the later recollections of participants (especially Krupskaya, Zinoviev and Trotsky, in my opinion) – but our understanding is certain to be enriched by the kind of research that Lars and other scholars with access to Russian-language sources will be able to produce.

How Marxist activists are able to make use of all this in the struggles of today and tomorrow is perhaps the biggest challenge of all.

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