The Bolshevik Party and 'Zinovievism': Comments on a caricature of Leninism

By Doug Lorimer

The disintegration of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union opened an important debate within the Marxist movement about how to evaluate the history of the socialist movement, and especially of the Bolshevik Party, the party that led the world's first successful socialist revolution. One of the central aims of Links has been to provide a forum for such debate.

It is obviously important to carry out this evaluation in a way that does not make the mistake of confusing Stalinism with the theory and practice of the Bolsheviks when Lenin was the foremost leader of that party. Moreover—as was only to be expected—there are different views of what constituted the theory and practice of Bolshevism. Some of these differences have revolved around the role of Grigory Zinoviev.

In his article "Looking backward, looking forward: Pointers to building a revolutionary party", published in Links No. 23, John Percy made the following comment:

The idea of a revolutionary socialist party, or one taking any cues from the Bolshevik experience, is also hotly contested in the milieu, the "party" of former members of parties, reformed Leninists who've seen the error of their ways … The Marxism List based in the US has many people with this sort of background and outlook, who have espoused or developed a description of their perspective as "anti-Zinovievist", although I haven't seen any attempt by them to clearly distinguish themselves from anti-Leninism. Really, that's what they are, even if they feel better hiding behind Zinoviev.

Louis Proyect, a former member of the US Socialist Workers Party and the moderator of the Marxism List, has written a response to John Percy's article on that internet site. In it he attempts to defend his view that the Democratic Socialist Party's conception of the organisational character of the Leninist party is based, not on the actual Bolshevik experience, but on the distorted interpretation of this experience imposed upon the Communist International in 1924 by Comintern president Grigory Zinoviev, after Zinoviev had formed a political alliance with Stalin in the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. (The full article can be read at < >.)

1921 Comintern resolution

Proyect begins his response by claiming: "There really is no such thing as 'Leninism'. This was a term coined in the 3rd International almost based on a caricature of the Bolshevik Party." This is really a semantic point, since the term "Bolshevism" could be substituted for "Leninism" to designate the "current of political thought" (to use Lenin's formulation in "Left-Wing" Communism) which arose in 1903 and whose central contributor was Lenin.

Proyect goes on to claim, "Lenin was sensitive to what he perceived as a kind of schematic understanding of the Bolshevik Party early on". He quotes the following remarks from Lenin's report on "Five Years of the Russian Revolution and the Prospects of the World Revolution", presented to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in November 1922:

At the Third Congress in 1921, we adopted a resolution on the structure of Communist parties and the methods and content of their activities. It is an excellent resolution, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is taken from Russian conditions. That is its good side, but it is also its bad side, bad because scarcely a single foreigner—I am convinced of this, and I have just re-read it—can read it. Firstly, it is too long, fifty paragraphs or more. Foreigners cannot usually read items of that length. Secondly, if they do read it, they cannot understand it, precisely because it is too Russian … it is permeated and imbued with a Russian spirit. Thirdly, if there is by chance a foreigner who can understand it, he cannot apply it … My impression is that we have committed a gross error in passing that resolution, blocking our own road to further progress. As I said, the resolution is excellent, and I subscribe to every one of the fifty paragraphs. But I must say that we have not yet discovered the form in which to present our Russian experience to foreigners, and for that reason the resolution has remained a dead letter. If we do not discover it, we shall not go forward.[1]

Proyect then adds the comment: "Lenin's misgivings were prescient for within 3 years these 'Russian' tendencies had only deepened."

Proyect's comments miss the point entirely. Lenin's concern about the 1921 resolution was not that it would lead foreign Communists (most of whom had come from the left wings of the reformist social democratic parties) to create parties imbued with a "Russian spirit" or parties that were schematic caricatures of the Bolshevik Party. As he himself says, his concern was that, because they lacked an understanding of the history of the Russian Marxist movement, they would fail to understand the resolution and it would therefore remain "a dead letter", i.e., the new Communist parties would retain the non-revolutionary, bureaucratic practices of the reformist social democracy. The whole thrust of the resolution counterposes to those practices the revolutionary party-building methods and organisational practices of Bolshevism. That is why Lenin says the "resolution is excellent, and I subscribe to every one of the fifty paragraphs".

Furthermore, in his speech Lenin went on to say:

They [foreign Communist party members] … must learn to understand what we have written about the organisational structure of the Communist Parties … The resolution must be carried out. It cannot be carried out overnight; that is absolutely impossible … They must assimilate part of the Russian experience … We Russians must also find ways and means of explaining the principles of this resolution to the foreigners. Unless we do that, it will be absolutely impossible for them to carry it out. I am sure that in this connection we must tell not only the Russians, but the foreign comrades as well, that the most important thing in the period we are now entering is to study. We are studying in the general sense. They, however, must study in the special sense, in order that they may really understand the organisation, structure, method and content of revolutionary work.[2]

From his later comments, it is clear Proyect does not subscribe to the organisational norms set out in the 1921 Comintern resolution, in particular the first part of Thesis 50:

In their public appearances members of the Party are obliged to act at all times as disciplined members of a militant organisation. If there are disagreements on the correct method of action on this or that question, these should, as far as possible, be settled in the Party organisation before any public activity is embarked upon and the members should then act in accordance with the decision made. In order that every Party decision is carried out fully by all Party organisations and Party members, the largest possible number of Party members should be involved in discussing and deciding every issue. The different levels of the Party apparatus must decide whether any given question should be publicly discussed by individual comrades (in the press, in pamphlets), in what form and to what extent. If the decision of the organisation or leading Party body is in the view of certain other members incorrect, these comrades must not forget, when they speak or act in public, that to weaken or break the unity of the common front is the worst breach of discipline and the worst mistake that can be made in the revolutionary struggle.[3]

After misrepresenting Lenin's comments on the 1921 Comintern resolution, Proyect states, "By 1924 the Comintern had ratified a version of 'Leninism' that was totally at odds with the living historic example of the Bolshevik Party". Without telling us exactly how the 1924 version differed from either the "living historic example of the Bolshevik Party" or from the 1921 resolution which Lenin wholeheartedly endorsed, Proyect goes on to present "a few examples" which he asserts show how the version of Bolshevism propagated by the Comintern after 1924 diverged from the genuine article.

Public debate

The first of these is his claim that the "Bolsheviks carried out their debates publicly". To back up the assertion that this was a norm of Bolshevik organisational practice, Proyect claims: "As editor of a major Bolshevik newspaper, Bukharin hammered away at Lenin's position on the national question. This is documented in great detail in Stephen Cohen's political biography of Bukharin."

But here is what Cohen wrote on the dispute between Lenin and Bukharin on the national question:

The open dispute began in late 1915, ostensibly over control of the new journal Kommunist. The first (and only) issue contained an article by Radek, an East European social democrat close to the Bolshevik emigres. Radek's thinking on the national question was similar to that of Rosa Luxemburg, Piatakov, and by this time, Bukharin. Lenin objected to the article's viewpoint and refused to participate further in Kommunist, demanding that it be abolished …

Later in November … [Bukharin, Piatakov and Bosh] sent to the Central Committee a set of documents outlining their position on [the demand for self-determination of nations] and attacking Lenin's …

The controversy continued and grew increasingly acrimonious throughout most of 1916. The young Bolsheviks were outraged by Lenin's vehement response to their criticism … Lenin, on the other hand, regarded their opposition on this single issue not only as theoretical nonsense, but as political disloyalty. Their ideas, he charged, "have nothing in common either with Marxism or revolutionary social democracy": their request for open discussion reflected an 'anti-party' attitude.[4]

Thus, according to Cohen's account, there was no public debate between Lenin and Bukharin on the national question, and Bukharin's request to the party's central leadership for such a public debate was opposed by Lenin, a position the Bolshevik leadership agreed with.

In a March 1916 letter to fellow Bolshevik leader Aleksandr Shlyapnikov, Lenin explained why he was opposed to allowing Bukharin and his co-thinkers to have their views on the national question published in the party press:

We must refute such people, expose them, give them time to study and think, and be in no hurry to humour them: "Here are editorial rights for you, distribute your nonsense among the workers!!"

If that is allowed, they will bring matters to polemics in the press—and then I will be obliged to call them "imperialist Economists", and demonstrate their complete emptiness, the completely unserious and unthought-out character of their ideas. Polemics in the press will drive them away for years.[5]

Interestingly, this was the same consideration that US Socialist Workers Party national secretary James Cannon expressed to Trotsky when faced with demands from James Burnham and Max Shachtman in late 1939 that they be able to present their "Third Campist" position on the Soviet Union in the swp's public press. In December 1939, Cannon wrote to Trotsky:

Up until now we have felt that if B[urnham] and S[hachtman] carry their struggle into the public press in the present extremely sharp situation, and over such fundamental issues, they will be cutting off their own retreat. It would be much more difficult for them to reconcile themselves in one way or another to the party's rejection of their revisionist program once they have advertised it to the world …

Goldman maintains that the discussion in the press will serve our cause: that the force of our arguments in the controversy will mobilise the party sympathisers more firmly around the program of the Fourth International. I also think this would be the case. But I insist that if we take this step we must do it with eyes wide open. We must realise that a public discussion can hardly fail to accelerate the movement of Burnham and his satellite, Shachtman, in a direction opposite to ours.[6]

Proyect claims that Cannon's rejection of any automatic right of a minority to publicly present its differences with the party majority was a product of Cannon's "strict adherence to the 1924 party-building formulae" of the Comintern ("Zinovievism"). However, Cannon's view—that whether differences within a Bolshevik-type party were to be publicly debated was a matter for the party to decide—were fully consistent with the 1921 Comintern resolution: "The different levels of the party apparatus must decide whether any given question should be publicly discussed …"

Next Proyect cites an incident in which two Bolsheviks voted against the position of the party in a mass meeting, implying that such a breaking of the common party front was a norm of Bolshevik organisational practice. He writes:

In John Reed's "10 Days that Shook the World", there is a reference to divided votes among party members over the key questions such as whether to expropriate the bourgeois press. At a November 17th 1917 mass meeting, Lenin called for the confiscation of the capitalist newspapers. Reed quotes him: "If the first revolution had the right to suppress the Monarchist papers, then we have the right to suppress the bourgeois press."

Proyect continues:

"Then the vote. The resolution of Larin and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries was defeated by 31 to 22; the Lenin motion was carried by 34 to 24. Among the minority were the Bolsheviki Riazanov and Lozovsky, who declared that it was impossible for them to vote against any restriction on the freedom of the press." So you have a kind of cognitive dissonance at work here. For "Leninists" like John Percy, these facts might suggest that the historic Bolshevik Party was a beta product and that only after the rules of conduct for building Bolshevik Parties were codified at the 1924 Comintern world conference did you end up with a production version.

What the incident might suggest to Leninists is that Riazanov and Lozovsky were "beta" Bolsheviks, who had not firmly understood that "to weaken or break the unity of the common party front is the worst breach of discipline and the worst mistake that can be made in the revolutionary struggle". In fact, Riazanov and Lozovsky were recent recruits to the Bolshevik Party, joining it in 1917. Fortunately, their breach of discipline did not result in the defeat of Lenin's motion.

What was in the "rules of conduct for building" Communist parties that was adopted by the Fifth Congress of the Comintern in July 1924 that departed from Bolshevism's organisational norms? In its call for the "Bolshevisation" of the Communist parties, the Fifth Congress defined the "basic features of a genuine Bolshevik party" as:

1. The party must be a real mass party, that is, it must be able, both when legal and illegal, to maintain the closest and strongest contacts with the working masses, and express their needs and aspirations.
2. It must be capable of manoeuvre, that is, its tactics should not be sectarian or dogmatic …
3. It must be revolutionary Marxist in nature, working undeviatingly towards its goals …
4. It must be a centralised party, permitting no factions, tendencies or groups; it must be fused in one mould.
5. It must carry out systematic and persistent propaganda and organisation in bourgeois armies.[7]

Of these five points, it is only part of point 4 beginning with "permitting" that was contrary to Bolshevism's organisational norms. Here is the actual distortion of Bolshevik organisational norms introduced under Zinoviev's leadership of the Comintern—transforming the temporary ban on factions, organised tendencies and platform groups adopted by the Russian Communist Party at its Tenth Congress in 1921, into a permanent and universal requirement for all Communist parties.

When Riazanov moved that the Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party make the ban permanent, Lenin objected, arguing that such a measure was "excessive" and "impracticable", adding that if "fundamental disagreements" were to arise in the party, when it came time to elect delegates to the next party, "the elections may have to be based on platforms".[8]

The purpose of the "Bolshevisation" campaign was to remould the leaderships of the foreign Communist parties into unquestioning agencies of the foreign policy goals of the Stalin bureaucracy (with whom Zinoviev was at that time allied), and this required that the parties become politically "monolithic" (as Zinoviev on one occasion termed it).

Party discipline

In his next example of the divergence between "Zinovievite" Bolshevism and the genuine article, Proyect claims that the "Bolsheviks were much more relaxed on questions of discipline than is the case in 'Leninist' parties today". He goes on to write: "To my knowledge, the only person ever expelled from Lenin's party was Bogdanov, about whom there is little doubt that he had broken with Marxism."

In fact, Bogdanov and his co-thinkers were not expelled from Lenin's party, but from Lenin's "faction" within the RSDLP—the tendency organised around the illegal paper Proletary, the organ of the Bolshevik-dominated Moscow and St Petersburg committees of the RSDLP, launched shortly after the Fourth Congress (1906) of the party.

While there is a paucity of documentation on individual expulsions from Lenin's party (since such expulsion would have been carried out by local party units), there are two well-documented examples of mass expulsions. The first was in April 1905. At the Third Congress of the RSDLP, which was attended only by Bolsheviks, on the initiative of Lenin a resolution was adopted expelling all the Mensheviks—several hundred RSDLP members at the very least. The resolution stated:

Without even attempting to question the validity of the decisions adopted by, and the elections [to the Central Committee and editorial board of the party's central organ] held at, [the second (1903)] Congress, they have shamelessly flouted its decisions …

The Congress affirms that the adherents of the Party Majority, in drawing up resolutions against the disorganisers and in demanding the Third Congress, have exhausted all the resources of honest, comradely struggle against fellow-members of the Party ... The Congress declares that adherents of the Party principle have no alternative but to work separately from, and independently of, these disorganisers. The Congress therefore resolves that followers of the Minority, or new-Iskrists, may not be admitted to membership in any organisation of our Party.[9]

The second mass expulsion occurred in 1912, six years after the Fourth ("Unity") Congress of the RSDLP (which reunited the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks). The Sixth Conference of the RSDLP, upon Lenin's initiative, expelled all of the adherents of the "liquidationist" trend—those Mensheviks who advocated the "liquidation" of the then-illegal RSDLP and its replacement by a non-socialist "open labour party". Proyect goes on to write:

I have heard dsp (and wwp [Workers World Party]) members argue that expulsions almost never happen in their own organization. But discipline can take a variety of forms. You can employ the stick, but you can also enforce a kind of ideological uniformity through peer pressure. Members will be reluctant to vote against the party line because that will earn them the reputation of being "suspect". This in fact is how the cp's kept its membership in line most of the time. And the Trotskyists are no different … The desire to be accepted is a deeply human need, but it is a dagger at the heart of the revolutionary party.

Not only does Proyect imply that the Bolsheviks weren't really concerned about their organisation's internal discipline, but he asserts that "ideological uniformity" is a deadly threat to the political health of a revolutionary party. By contrast, Lenin was very concerned about building up the internal discipline of the Bolshevik organisation and saw its ideological uniformity as essential to developing and maintaining such discipline.

In his 1920 pamphlet "Left-Wing" Communism, Lenin explained that the victory of the Bolsheviks over the bourgeoisie was due to the existence of "the most rigorous and truly iron discipline in our party". He continued:

Only the history of Bolshevism during the entire period of its existence can satisfactorily explain why it has been able to build up and maintain, under most difficult conditions, the iron discipline needed for the victory of the proletariat.

The first questions to arise are: how is the discipline of the proletariat's revolutionary party maintained? How is it tested? How is it reinforced? First, by the class consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism. Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact, and—if you wish—merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people—primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian masses of working people. Third, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, that they are correct … these conditions cannot emerge at once. They are created only by prolonged effort and hard-won experience. Their creation is facilitated by a correct revolutionary theory, which, in its turn, is not a dogma, but assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement.

The fact that, in 1917-20, Bolshevism was able, under unprecedentedly difficult conditions, to build up and successfully maintain the strictest centralisation and iron discipline was due to a number of historical peculiarities of Russia.

On the one hand, Bolshevism arose in 1903 on a very firm foundation of Marxist theory. The correctness of this revolutionary theory, and of it alone, has been proved, not only by world experience throughout the 19th century, but especially by the experience of the seekings and vacillations, the errors and disappointments of revolutionary thought in Russia …

On the other hand, Bolshevism, which had arisen on this granite foundation of theory, went through 15 years of practical history (1903-17) unequalled anywhere in the world in its wealth … of forms, shades, and methods of struggle of all classes of modern society, a struggle which … assimilated more eagerly and successfully the "last word" of American and European political experience.[10]

So, according to Lenin, Bolshevism was founded upon "ideological uniformity"—the common adherence to the "only correct revolutionary theory". This ideological uniformity was a key factor contributing to Bolshevism's ability to "build up and maintain … the iron discipline needed for the victory of the proletariat". (The other key factor, according to Lenin, was "the utmost flexibility in their tactics".[11)]

Ideological heterogeneity

The third and final example presented by Proyect of how Bolshevism in practice differed from the "Zinovievist" caricature allegedly followed by the dsp, is that the "Bolsheviks were far more ideologically heterogenous than is the case in 'Leninist' parties". In support of this assertion, Proyect writes:

When Lenin argued in favor of an all-Russia Marxist organization, he saw Iskra as a way to unite the scattered forces and provide a platform for debate so that a program for the Russian revolution could take shape. In "What is to be Done", he wrote: "Before we can unite, and in order that we may unite, we must first of all draw firm and definite lines of demarcation. Otherwise, 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 struggle."

You'll note that Lenin did not call for a party based on an interpretation of some historical questions, such as the class nature of the ussr under Stalin, etc. He wanted to unite Marxists. This conception is radically different from the Leninist "improvement".

The implication of the last paragraph is that the dsp is politically "based on an interpretation of some historical question, such as the class nature of the ussr under Stalin". The dsp is politically based on a program that includes the lessons learned by the Marxist movement from the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution (which does require a Marxist interpretation of this historical experience—one of the most important in the history of the international working-class movement). But people seeking to join the dsp are not required to agree with this interpretation. It would be ridiculous to demand of applicants for membership of a Marxist party that they agree with its entire program before they can be admitted to its ranks, because such agreement can be acquired only through prolonged study combined with active participation in the party's work. What applicants for membership of the dsp are required to agree to is to conduct their political activity in accordance with the party's program and constitution and the decisions of its decision-making bodies.

Proyect claims that in the lead-up to the Second Congress (1903) of the RSDLP, Lenin "wanted to unite Marxists" and that his criteria for party unity, and for the Bolshevik organisation formed after the congress, allowed for a far greater "ideological heterogeneity" than the later "Leninist 'improvement'". This mixes together two things that, before 1914, were separate considerations for Lenin—his criteria for party unity and his criteria for the unity of the Bolshevik organisation.

Prior to 1914, Lenin accepted Kautsky's view—endorsed by the 1904 conference of the Second International—that the Marxist parties should be inclusive of all those who proclaimed themselves adherents of Marxism, even if, like Bernstein, they rejected the need for a proletarian revolution to achieve socialism and openly advocated a reformist perspective. On the other hand, so long as the Bolsheviks were constituted as a tendency within such a multi-tendency party, Lenin argued both that there must be no ideological heterogeneity within their ranks and that there must be complete agreement on tactics and questions of organisation. He explicitly spelled out these different criteria in his report to Bolshevik members on the June 1909 conference of the extended editorial board of Proletary which had expelled the Bogdanovites from the Bolshevik organisation:

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. That is not the case within a section. A section in a party is a group of like-minded persons formed for the purpose primarily of influencing the party in a definite direction, for the purpose of securing acceptance for their principles in the party in the purest possible form. For this, real unanimity of opinion is necessary.[12]

In 1914, on behalf of the RSDLP Central Committee, which following the 1912 split of the Bolsheviks with the majority of the Mensheviks—the "liquidationists"—consisted only of Bolsheviks, Lenin sent a report to the International Bureau of the Second International on the situation within the Russian Social Democratic movement. In the report, Lenin detailed a number of specific political positions which the Bolshevik Central Committee had decided would be grounds for exclusion from party membership. They included tactical issues such as the agitational slogans used by the party. Thus, declaring "in any form whatsoever" that "the slogans of a democratic republic and confiscation of the landed estates … are useless or of little use for agitation among the masses" was "not [to] be tolerated" in the ranks of the party.[13]

In the face of the capitulation of the parties of the Second International to imperialist national chauvinism at the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Lenin came to recognise the utter bankruptcy of the Kautskyite conception of the socialist workers' party:

Typical of the socialist parties of the epoch of the Second International was one that tolerated in its midst an opportunism built up in decades of the "peaceful" period, an opportunism that kept itself secret, adapting itself to the revolutionary workers, borrowing their Marxist terminology, and evading any clear cleavage of principles. This type has outlived itself. If the war ends in 1915, will any thinking socialist be found willing to begin, in 1916, restoring the workers' parties together with the opportunists, knowing from experience that in any new crisis all of them to a man (plus many other spineless and muddle-headed people) will be for the bourgeoisie, who will of course find a pretext to ban any talk of class hatred and the class struggle?[14]

The old theory that opportunism is a "legitimate shade" in a single party that knows no "extremes" has now turned into a tremendous deception of the workers and a tremendous hindrance to the working-class movement. Undisguised opportunism, which immediately repels the working masses, is not so frightful and injurious as this theory of the golden mean, which uses Marxist catchwords to justify opportunist practice, and tries to prove, with a series of sophisms, that revolutionary action is premature, etc.[15]

Lenin's struggle for a Marxist party

In their jointly written pamphlet, Socialism and War, published in 1915, Lenin and Zinoviev observed:

At the beginning of the [eighteen] nineties, the growth of public consciousness and the unrest and strike movement among the workers, turned Social-Democracy into an active political force inseparably connected with the struggle (both economic and political) of the working class. It was from that time too that the split into Economists and Iskrists began in the Social-Democratic movement.

Economism was an opportunist trend in Russian Social-Democracy …

The old Iskra (1900-03) waged a victorious struggle against Economism, for the principles of revolutionary Social-Democracy. The finest elements in the class-conscious proletariat sided with Iskra … Whereas the Economists adapted themselves to the backwardness of the masses, Iskra was educating the workers' vanguard that was capable of leading the masses onward …

The period of the bourgeois-democratic revolution gave rise to a fresh struggle between Social-Democratic trends; this was a direct continuation of the previous struggle. Economism developed into Menshevism. The defence of the old Iskra revolutionary tactics gave rise to Bolshevism.

In the turbulent years of 1905-07, Menshevism was an opportunist trend backed by the bourgeois liberals, which brought liberal-bourgeois tendencies into the working-class movement. Its essence lay in an adaptation of the working-class struggle to suit liberalism. Bolshevism, on the contrary, set the Social-Democratic workers the task of rousing the democratic peasantry for the revolutionary struggle, despite the vacillation and treachery of the liberals …

The period of counter-revolution again placed on the order of the day … the question of the opportunist and revolutionary tactics of the Social-Democrats. The mainstream of Menshevism, regardless of the protests from many of its finest representatives, brought forth the liquidationist trend …

This group of opportunists was expelled from the Party by the January 1912 Conference of the RSDLP, which restored the Party, in the teeth of furious resistance from a number of groups and coteries abroad …

The working class of Russia could not build up its party otherwise than in a resolute thirty-year struggle against all the varieties of opportunism.[16]

This struggle, of course, could not have built up the revolutionary party of the working class if it had remained only at the level of ideological struggle and had not taken definite organisational form, at least in the party of the Marxist, the proletarian-revolutionary, trend. As Lenin observed in 1913:

It is to enable the mass of a definite class to learn to understand its own interests and its position, to learn to conduct its own policy, that there must be an organisation of the advanced elements of the class, immediately and at all costs, even though at first these elements constitute only a tiny fraction of the class.[17]

The initial organisation of the Marxist trend within the Russian working-class movement was the self-appointed editorial board of Iskra (Lenin, Plekhanov, Martov, Potresov, Akselrod and Vasulich), which, following the launching of the paper in 1900, built up a militant organisation of Marxist cadres that refounded the RSDLP as a centralised party at the Second Congress in 1903.

The party split into two organisations in 1904 when the opportunist minority—formed at the congress out of a merger of a minority of the Iskrists, led by Martov, and the leaders of the Economist trend—managed to gain control of the central party bodies elected by the 1903 congress—the Central Committee and the editorial board of Iskra (recognised as the party's central organ by the congress)—and refused to accede to the demand for the convening of a new congress raised by the majority of the party's local committees. The latter, led by Lenin, constituted themselves into a separate centralised organisation—the Bureau of Party Committees of the Majority (the "Bolsheviks", as they designated themselves, the "Leninists" as they were designated by their Menshevik opponents)—which launched its own central weekly paper, Vperyod. In April 1905, the Bolsheviks organised a congress (boycotted by the Mensheviks) at which they constituted themselves as the RSDLP, electing a new Bolshevik-only Central Committee and expelling the Mensheviks from the party.

During the revolutionary upsurge of 1905, both the Bolshevik and Menshevik organisations grew substantially, recruiting from the rapidly expanding milieu of radicalised, class-conscious workers. By the end of 1905, the Bolsheviks had some 8400 members; the Mensheviks had a similar number. During the peak of the revolutionary upsurge, October to December 1905, the local members of the two organisations often pursued the same tactical orientation.

Furthermore, since both organisations proclaimed adherence to the same party program (drawn up by the Iskrists and adopted by the 1903 congress), and the organisational dispute that had initially led to the formation of two separate party organisations had evaporated when the Menshevik leadership in late 1905 proclaimed its willingness to abide by majority rule in the election of party leadership bodies, pressure mounted among the rapidly expanding numbers of revolutionary workers for the unification of the two organisations.

At the Fourth ("Unity") Congress held in Stockholm in April 1906, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks united into a single party organisation, with the Mensheviks securing a decisive majority of the new Central Committee—at the time the Mensheviks had 18,000 members and the Bolsheviks, 13,000. Lenin favoured the unification both because he accepted the Kautskyist conception of the socialist party as being inclusive of all those proclaiming themselves Marxists and because the previous disagreements on organisation had largely been eliminated. Formal unification would enable the Bolsheviks to conduct their ideological struggle against Menshevik opportunism more effectively among the organised and unorganised, class-conscious workers. As Lenin explained in his May 1906 written report on the congress to the St Petersburg members of the RSDLP:

We think that an important ideological result of the Congress is that there is now a clearer and more definite line of demarcation between the Right wing and the Left wing in Social-Democracy …

The Right wing of our Party … is constantly being misled by the essentially erroneous idea, which is really a vulgarisation of Marxism, that only the bourgeoisie can independently "make" the bourgeois revolution, or that only the bourgeoisie should lead the bourgeois revolution …

Against this tendency of our Right Social-Democrats we must wage a most determined, open and ruthless ideological struggle. We should seek the widest possible discussion of the decisions of the Congress …

But in the united Party, this ideological struggle must not split the organisations, must not hinder the unity of action of the proletariat. This is a new principle as yet in our Party life, and considerable effort will be needed to implement it properly.

Freedom of discussion, unity of action—that is what we must strive to achieve …

But beyond the bounds of unity of action there must be the broadest and freest discussion and condemnation of all steps, decisions and tendencies that we regard as harmful. Only through such discussions, resolutions and protests can the real public opinion of our Party be formed. Only on this condition shall we be a real Party, always able to express its opinion, and finding the right way to convert a definitely formed opinion into the decisions of its next congress.[18]

Lenin's 1906 argument for complete unity of action by party members in implementing the decisions of the party majority, combined with full freedom to discuss and criticise party decisions—including in public—has often been misinterpreted as Lenin's view of the norm of functioning of a revolutionary Marxist party. But to regard the RSDLP of 1906 as a revolutionary Marxist party is to obliterate the ideological distinction between Bolshevism and Menshevism.

Lenin's 1906 argument in favour of freedom of public criticism of party decisions must be seen in the context in which the Bolsheviks had to function within a party in which the petty-bourgeois reformist Menshevik leaders held a majority on the party's central leadership committee and determined the political line of its central press. In these conditions, the Bolsheviks wanted the freedom to criticise party decisions publicly so that they could directly recruit workers to the party on the basis of their ideological and tactical positions. As Paul Le Blanc observes in his book Lenin and the Revolutionary Party:

It is worth remembering that on the eve of the Unity Congress, Lenin … confided to [fellow Bolshevik] A.V. Lunacharsky: "If we have a majority in the Central Committee we will demand strictest discipline. We will insist that the Mensheviks submit to party unity." And if the Bolsheviks were a minority? "We won't permit the idea of unity to put a noose around our necks", Lenin replied, "and we shall under no circumstances permit the Mensheviks to lead us by the rope."[19]

An example of how the Bolsheviks conducted their public criticism of Menshevik opportunism was Lenin's January 1907 pamphlet, The St Petersburg Elections and the Hypocrisy of the Thirty-One Mensheviks, in which he accused the St Petersburg Menshevik leaders, who had temporarily broken away from the Bolshevik-dominated St Petersburg party organisation, of having entered into negotiations with the liberal bourgeois Constitutional Democrats (Cadets) "for the purpose of selling workers' votes to the Cadets" in the upcoming Duma election.

The Menshevik-controlled Central Committee brought Lenin up on charges of making public statements "impermissible for a Party member". In his written report to the RSDLP Fifth Congress on this dispute, Lenin observed:

… if the passage in question had stated: the thirty-one spoke in favour of adding workers' votes to Cadet votes on the condition that the Social-Democrats were assured seats in the Duma that would be an example of loyal and properly conducted polemics, permissible in Party members.

What is the difference between this last-quoted wording and the one I chose? The difference is in the tone, that tone which makes the whole music. Exactly. The wording is calculated to evoke in the reader hatred, aversion and contempt for people who commit such deeds. Such wording is calculated not to convince, but to break up the ranks of the opponent, not to correct the mistake of the opponent, but to destroy him, to wipe his organisation off the face of the Earth …

I may be asked: well, do you admit that such wording is impermissible? I shall answer, Yes, certainly, but only with the following little proviso—impermissible in members of a united party … [but] at the time the pamphlet was written a united party did not exist in the organisation from which it emanated (not formally, but in essence) …

By my sharp and discourteous attacks on the Mensheviks on the eve of the St Petersburg elections, I actually succeeded in causing that section of the proletariat which trusts and follows the Mensheviks to waver. That was my aim. That was my duty … because, after the split, it was necessary … to rout the ranks of the Mensheviks who were leading the proletariat in the footsteps of the Cadets; it was necessary to carry confusion into their ranks; it was necessary to arouse among the masses hatred, aversion and contempt for these people who had ceased to be members of a united party, had become political enemies, and were trying to put a spoke in the wheel of our Social-Democratic organisation in its election campaign. Against such political enemies I then conducted—and in the event of a repetition or development of a split shall always conduct—a struggle of extermination.[20]

The charges against Lenin were rendered moot by the Bolsheviks gaining a majority at the RSDLP's fifth congress.

After the Bolsheviks constituted themselves as the RSDLP in 1912, they rejected the idea that minorities had a right to use the public press to criticise the majority position. As Lenin noted in the July 1914 report of the RSDLP Central Committee to the International Socialist Bureau (the Second International): "The minority shall have the right to discuss before the whole Party, disagreements on programme, tactics and organisation in a discussion journal specially published for the purpose, but shall not have the right to publish in a rival newspaper, pronouncements disruptive of the actions and decisions of the majority."[21]An example of Leninist discipline

At the end of his comments on John Percy's Links article, Proyect claims: "The big problem for 'Leninist' organisations is that democratic centralism has tended to spill over into areas that it does not belong to. For example, is it breaking discipline for 'Leninist' party members to challenge an analysis found in the party paper?"

As is clear from the 1921 Comintern resolution on the organisation of the Communist parties, Lenin certainly believed that it is breaking disciple for members of a Bolshevik party to criticise publicly the decisions of the party's leading bodies without their prior agreement:

In their public appearances members of the party are obliged to act at all times as disciplined members of a militant organisation … when they speak or act in public … to weaken or break the unity of the common party front is the worst breach of discipline and the worst mistake that can be made in the revolutionary struggle.

This resolution was adopted by the Third Congress of the Comintern, the same congress which rejected the appeal of Paul Levi, former president of the Communist Party of Germany (kpd), against his expulsion from the kpd by the party's Central Committee for issuing a public pamphlet criticising the "analysis" made by the Central Committee (and subsequently presented in the party's press) of the kpd's failed attempt in March 1921 to organise a general strike. The Central Committee majority had refused to recognise that the kpd had suffered a major defeat.

Despite the fact that Lenin considered Levi's "intentions" to be "the purest, the most disinterested" and his political position to be "fundamentally correct", he told kpd leader Klara Zetkin (who shared Levi's fundamental assessment of the "March action") the Comintern congress would "condemn Paul Levi … However, Paul's condemnation will be based on his violation of discipline, not on his fundamental political points of view."[22]

In a letter to the kpd after the congress, Lenin explained that "essentially much of Levi's criticism of the March action in Germany in 1921 was correct". Nevertheless, Levi "had to be expelled" because he had "behaved like an 'anarchist intellectual' … instead of behaving like an organised member of the proletarian Communist International".[23]

What Proyect presents as the "living historic example of the Bolshevik Party" is, in fact, a caricature that has more in common with the practice of the pre-1914 west European and American parties of the Second International than with the actual views and practice of the Bolsheviks on questions of party organisation.


1. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Moscow, 1964, Vol. 33, p. 430.

2. Ibid., pp. 431-32.

3. Alan Adler, ed., Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, London, 1980, p. 257.

4. Stephen Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, London, 1974, pp. 36-37.

5. Lenin, CW, Vol. 35, p. 215.

6. James P. Cannon, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, Sydney, 2001, p. 128.

7. Jane Degres, ed., The Communist International, 1919-1943, London, 1971, p. 154.

8. Lenin, CW, Vol. 32, p. 261.

9. Lenin, CW, Vol. 8, pp. 193-94.

10. Lenin, "Left-Wing" Communism—An Infantile Disorder, Sydney, 1999, pp. 30-2, emphasis in original.

11. Ibid, p. 97.

12. Lenin, CW, Vol. 15, p. 430.

13. Lenin, CW, Vol. 20, p. 516.

14. Lenin, CW, Vol. 21, p. 110.

15. Lenin, CW, Vol. 21, p. 257.

16. Lenin, CW, Vol. 21, pp. 331-33, 338.

17. Lenin, CW, Vol. 19, p. 409.

18. Lenin, CW, Vol. 10, pp. 376-81.

19. Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, New Jersey, 1993, p. 131.

20. Lenin, CW, Vol. 12, pp. 424-26.

21. Lenin, CW, Vol. 20, p. 519.

[Doug Lorimer is a member of the Political Committee of the Democratic Socialist Party of Australia.]

All this is somewhat interesting. But one overarching caveat I would make is to consider the outcome. The Bolshevik's principles failed, in the end, to prevent their own party's self-destruction. You could make a good argument that they even helped to facilitate it.

I think we do better to take Marx's approach to 'ideology,' ie, he used the term only as a pejorative, counter-posed by 'science.' Science allows for contending working hypotheses. So should revolutionary parties. It can affirm a majority view to be carried out by all. Members unite on the basis of a program. They pay dues, and take part in party organizations. They act in tune with decisions of the majority, but internally, they can also work to change the majority.

If you want to be a mass party rather than a cult or a group of sycophants. it's rather foolish to think you can assemble a mass with a single, monolithic ideology. Masses, by their natures, even masses in an advanced contingent, have diverse views. That is inevitable. We can require of them to support the program and carry out decisions, whether they are in agreement or not, but to have them all think alike? It's either foolish or dangerous, and likely both.