The Lenin wars: Over a Cliff with Lars Lih

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Nadezhda Krupskaya and Lenin with journalist Lincoln Eure in the Kremlin, February 1920.

[Click HERE to follow the entire debate on Tony Cliff's Lenin.]

By Paul Le Blanc

February 19, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- There has been a competing set of political agendas underlying the recently initiated historical debate over how to understand Lenin and the Bolsheviks. From the standpoint of revolutionary socialism, this aspect of the debate is hardly cause for dismay. As activists we are appropriately attempting to get a handle on “what is to be done”. This does not absolve us of the responsibility to get the history right. But for Marxists the point is not simply to understand history, but also make use of such understanding to help change the world.

In initiating an attack on the presumably false “Leninism” provided by Tony Cliff’s 1975 work Building the Party (the first volume of his political biography of Lenin), Pham Binh was laying the groundwork for a political argument. That became clear in his contribution “Another socialist left is possible”, submitted late in the series of exchanges that he initiated: advocating the creation of a multi-tendency socialist organisation, contrasted with the ideal of a Leninist party which he contends bears little relation to the actual theory and practice of Lenin. In responding to him, I sought to challenge what I saw as serious historical inaccuracies, but I have also been concerned to defend what I see as a valuable Leninist tradition that is a resource for revolutionary activists of today and tomorrow. (Paul D’Amato obviously had a similar motivation, but I will allow him to speak for himself rather than trying to speak on his behalf.) My own political agenda is made fully explicit in my own just-published “Revolutionary Organisation and the ‘Occupy Moment.’”

Lars Lih has now intervened in this debate with what seems like a strictly scholarly agenda. His intervention includes an attack on some of what I wrote, so I feel compelled to respond – but given the nature of his approach, I will do so more strictly as a scholar of the Russian revolutionary movement. Some readers may find this too “academic” for their tastes, although an exploration of what happened in history, especially in regard to Lenin and his comrades, has obvious (if indirect) connections to political activism. The necessarily collective process of getting the history right is vitally important as we wrestle with what to do next.

Before going further, I need to re-emphasise what I have said a number of times already – my great appreciation of Lars Lih over his wonderful contributions to the field of Lenin studies. He is a scholar of considerable integrity, in my opinion, whose work is greatly enhanced by the fact that he is fluent in Russian and has an incredibly fine mind and delicious wit and iconoclastic bent, facilitating a fruitfully critical-minded approach to the study of Lenin. I also consider him to be a friend with whom it has been a pleasure to share ideas – and sometimes to debate.

Being an iconoclast with integrity does not mean that one is inevitably right when he smashes some presumably “iconic” interpretation of what happened in history. There are times when Lars gets something wrong – as he himself would admit. In his intervention in this debate, I think he gets more than one thing wrong.

In his article, Lars deals with two issues: a debate at the Bolshevik Third Congress in 1905 between Lenin and some of his “committeemen” comrades, and on whether the Bolshevik party was formed in 1912. In the present contribution, I will focus on the first issue.

Regarding the 1912 conference that resulted in the Bolshevik party coming into being as a distinct entity, Lars writes the following: “Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not set out [emphasis added] to organize their faction as a separate party, they vehemently denied that they had done so after the Conference, and they were justified in making this denial.” I think that the emphasised words may be key. Regardless of what Lenin and his comrades “set out to do”, I am inclined to see 1912 as the year that the Bolshevik party came into being, flowing from what actually happened at the Prague conference. The fact that Lenin and his comrades hoped to unite with “party Mensheviks” independently of the Menshevik liquidators does not mean that this is how things turned out – “the Prague Conference opened the era of the independent existence of the Bolshevik Party, with its own Central Committee”, as Trotsky put it years later, in an account that seems consistent with what Zinoviev and Krupskaya also described after the fact.

The Mensheviks and most others who were invited to treat the Prague conference as authoritative did not do so. As Lars himself notes, “they refused to attend”. Nor did they adhere to the version of the organisation established in Prague in 1912. While responding sharply to critics, Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades did not seem shocked or disheartened by the Menshevik boycott, nor did they reverse gears hoping to retrieve the non-Bolshevik comrades who refused to join them. They forged ahead as a Bolshevik party. Or so it seems, despite the interesting details Lars provides.

But Lars has promised to share with me a more thorough account of his findings and analysis. At his suggestion, I will want to consider what he has to share in that more thoroughgoing account before responding more substantially. As Lars notes, he will in fact be disagreeing with his own recent assertion in his fine short biography Lenin. Will I need to defend Lars from himself or instead fundamentally revise my own understanding? That remains to be seen.

But there is plenty to do in responding to what he says about 1905. In a note of friendly warning to me, Lars told me that I would not like what he had to say. And he is right.

Tony Cliff is not the issue

A fundamental flaw in Lars’s account of what I have written is that he seems to feel my primary purpose in disagreeing with Pham Binh is to defend Tony Cliff – an impression that might have been reinforced by the misleading title Pham gave to his polemic with me: “Paul Le Blanc’s Defence of Tony Cliff’s Building the Party”. While I do offer a partial defence of Cliff as not deserving to be trashed in the way Pham trashes him (even Lars defends Cliff a little bit on that score), that is at most a secondary concern of mine. I was primarily concerned about what I saw as distortions of history and a rejection of Leninism, not the defence of Tony Cliff.

As I have explicitly stated many times, I have never accepted Cliff’s assessment of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? and, even before Lars wrote Lenin Rediscovered, in my own book Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, I have defended that work in ways that are consistent with the way Lars himself defends it. Consequently, I never accepted Cliff’s assertions that the 1905 debate, which took place among the Bolsheviks, involved Lenin backing away from his 1903 work. When he describes the 1905 debate as a situation in which “the unfortunate Lenin had to persuade his supporters to oppose the line proposed in What is to be Done?” (Building the Party, p. 175), Cliff is quite simply wrong. I have never thought or said otherwise.

Therefore, when Lars protests, “I do not acknowledge that the debate described by Cliff – a debate about whether admitting workers to the committees was a good thing – ever took place”, I can only say that I agree with him. Lars does not disagree with the fact that there was such a debate (which is the point I was making in regard to Pham’s seeming denial), but he insists: “Cliff sees Lenin’s effort to get workers on the committees as evidence of discontinuity with his earlier stand, whereas I see it as evidence of continuity.” I completely agree with Lars on this. And if Pham also agrees, then this particular point of contention has pretty much evaporated. And yet contention seems to persist.

There was a 1905 debate – what was it about?

Lars says something else that is a bit unfair: “Le Blanc evidently has enough confidence in his knowledge of the empirical realities of the Russian underground in early 1905 to declare that Lenin was definitely right and the ‘committeemen’ were wrong. I do not share this confidence.”

Actually, in his Historical Materialism article responding to one of my friendly critical comments on his book, Lars shows an inclination to line up with the “committeemen” against Lenin, while I (relying more on a retrospective account by Nadezhda Krupskaya) am inclined to lean in Lenin’s direction. But I am quite willing to entertain the thought that Lenin was wrong and the “committeemen” right in this debate. I look forward to more work by those who have access to the Russian-language sources (especially Lars) to add more to our knowledge that could allow for a final judgment to be made.

To say it again: my primary point in this aspect of the debate with Pham was that such a debate did take place – as Lars, Krupskaya and others documented. My understanding was that Pham was denying the existence of such a debate. When he restated his position, saying “the debate at the 1905 third congress was over how recruit workers, not whether to recruit workers”, I offered a positive word in response: “Okay.”

Sadly, in his remarks Lars seems insistent – for reasons that make no sense to me – that I share Tony Cliff’s interpretation of the 1905 debate, and he therefore allows himself to write: “We must assume that Le Blanc and D'Amato agree both with Cliff and 'bourgeois academic Leninologists' about the anti-worker slant of Lenin's What Is To Be Done?” This is grotesque, having nothing to do with what I have ever thought or written.

It is clear to me that the 1905 debate had nothing to do with Lenin backing away from What Is To Be Done? or with his Bolshevik comrades being stuck in the booklet’s “authoritarian” and “elitist” and “anti-worker” logic. In my view, Lenin’s 1902 work was permeated with a revolutionary, democratic and socialist spirit and logic, and it was “pro-worker” in multiple ways. It seems to me that Lars and I are therefore in agreement about what the debate was not about.

In what Lars writes, however, it is not entirely clear to me what he believes the debate was actually about. If, as he explains to us, (a) Lenin was in favour of a certain kind of transformation of the Bolshevik organisation, and if (b) all his comrades agreed on the need for such a transformation, and yet (c) Lenin’s resolution on such transformation was voted down as “unneeded” while (d) another resolution was passed which seemed to affirm the need for such a transformation, and yet (e) the discussion throughout was “quite emotional” – then what on Earth was going on? Lars assures us that “the hugely interesting debate among the delegates was over the empirical realities on the ground”. In stressing this, he strongly resists as utterly at variance with the facts anything “making the praktiki look undemocratic”, as well as the notion that there was any underlying or longer-term tension between Lenin (and certain other Bolsheviks) on the one hand and some of the Bolshevism’s practical underground cadres on the other. Given the fact that the debate was so fierce, the account Lars insists on doesn’t quite add up.

Krupskaya versus Lih

To repeat, once again, my interpretation comes primarily from Lenin’s comrade and companion Nadezhda Krupskaya. In his Historical Materialism article, Lars complained about the 1960 English translation of Krupskaya’s Reminiscences of Lenin, so I will utilise the 1930 translation of Memories of Lenin that says basically the same thing (pages 124-127 in the former, pages 137-140 in first volume of the latter). Given some of the innuendo that has crept into the discussion, it seems necessary to provide a very substantial extract of the account provided by Krupskaya. Readers who have read this far, however, are probably truly concerned with what she is writing about and consequently should find it quite interesting. In any event, coming neither from Le Blanc nor Cliff, but rather from someone fluent in Russian and with full access to the proceedings of the Third Congress, here is how Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s trusted comrade discussed the 1905 debate:

By this time the organizations in Russia had taken definite shape. They took the form of illegal committees working under drastically difficult conditions of secrecy. Owing to these conditions, the committees hardly anywhere had factory workers among their members, though they had a great deal of influence over the labor movement. The leaflets and “instructions” of the committees corresponded to the mood of the working masses, and the latter felt they had a leadership; the committees, therefore, enjoyed great popularity, but for the majority of the workers their activity was obscured by a haze of secrecy. The workers frequently met apart from the intellectuals in order to discuss the fundamental problems of the movement...

The “Komitetchik”[nickname for the members of the illegal local Party Committees working in Russia] was usually a fairly self-assured person, who realized what great influence the work of the committees had over the masses; he generally did not recognize any inner-Party democracy whatever. “This democratism only leads to us falling into the hands of the authorities; we are already quite well enough connected with the movement”, the Komitetchiks would say. And inwardly, these committee members always rather despised “the people abroad”, who, they considered, just grew fat and organized intrigues. “They ought to be sent to work under Russian conditions” was their verdict. The Komitetchiks did not like to feel pressure from abroad. At the same time, they did not like innovations. They were neither desirous nor capable of adapting themselves to the changing conditions.

In the period 1904-1905 these members of the committees bore tremendous responsibilities on their shoulders, but many of them experienced the utmost difficulty in adapting themselves to the conditions of increasing opportunities for legal work, and to the methods of open struggle... At the Third Congress there were no workers present – or, at any rate, not a single prominent worker. ... On the other hand, there were many committee members. If this is not borne in mind, a great deal of the matter in the reports of this Congress will not be properly understood.

The question of the “bridling” of the foreign center was not only raised by the Komitetchiks, but also by other prominent Party workers... There was a good deal of loose talk on this matter, but Vladimir Ilyich did not particularly take it to heart...

The question of bringing workers on to the committees was fraught with much greater contention. Vladimir Ilyich vigorously defended the idea of including workers. The people abroad, Bogdanov and the writers, were also in favor. The Komitetchiks were against. Both sides became very heated. The members of the committees insisted that no resolution be passed on the subject; indeed, it would have been impossible to pass a resolution that workers should not be brought on to the committees.

In his speech in this discussion Vladimir Ilyich said: “I think we should consider the question more broadly. To bring workers on to the committees is not only an educational but also a political task. The workers have a class instinct, and even with little political experience they quite quickly become steadfast Social Democrats. I would very much like to see eight workers on our committees for every two intellectuals. If our written counsel, that as many workers as possible should be brought on to the committees, proves inadequate, it would be as well to issue this advice in the name of the Congress. If you get a clear and definite instruction from the Congress, you will have a radical means of fighting demagogy: it will be the express will of the Congress”.

Even before this occasion, Vladimir Ilyich had firmly championed the necessity of bringing the largest possible number of workers on to the committees. He already wrote about this in 1903 in his Letter to a Petersburg Comrade. Now, in defending this standpoint at the Congress, he became very heated, and even made interruptions. When Mikhailov (Postolovsky) said: “So in practical work very small demands are made of intellectuals, but extremely big demands are made of workers”, Vladimir Ilyich cried out: “That is absolutely true!” His exclamation was drowned in a chorus of – “Not true!” from the Komitetchiks. When Rumyanstiev said: “There is only one worker in the Petersburg committee, although work has been going on there for fifteen years”, Vladimir Ilyich shouted: “What a disgrace!”

Afterwards, when the debates had ended, Ilyich said: “I could not sit still and listen to them saying that there were no workers suitable to be members of the committees. The question drags on, and it shows there is a malady in the Party. Workers must be brought on to the committees”. If Ilyich was not very much concerned that his viewpoint met with such a rebuff at the Congress, it was simply because he knew that the approaching Revolution would itself radically cure the Party of this incapacity to make the committees working class in composition.

Perhaps Krupskaya got it wrong. “Lenin and the Bolsheviks never fought about ... recruiting workers to party committees”, Pham stated quite categorically in his opening polemic. “It simply did not happen.” Lars tells us that Pham is right. Simply because Krupskaya offers this interpretation of what happened does not necessarily mean that what she says is fully accurate or adequate. But Lars tells us: “I will be happy to engage in scholarly debate with anyone who consults this source and finds my empirical account inaccurate or misleading.” So he should start, perhaps, with Nadezhda Krupskaya if he disagrees with her account.

And then, perhaps, he has a responsibility to do the same with Solomon Schwarz, at the time a Bolshevik (later a Menshevik) who also had full access to the sources, was fluent in Russian and offers a similar account in The Russian Revolution of 1905: The Workers’ Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism (on pages 217-221). Lars tells us that he concluded, after examining the records, that Schwarz’s account was “tendentious and incorrect” in the conclusions he drew from the debate (though Schwarz’s “conclusions” arguably could be separated with his actual account of the debate, which is consistent with Krupskaya’s). Actually, an examination of Lenin Rediscovered reveals no critique or even mention of Schwarz’s account – not even in footnotes or bibliography. In his Historical Materialism article, the consideration of Schwarz he offers consists of three sentences: “In 1967, Solomon Schwarz published The Russian Revolution of 1905. Schwarz was a Bolshevik in 1905 but moved to the Mensheviks soon thereafter. His account is more a monograph than a memoir”. On the following page he tells us simply that the account is “deeply distorted” (147, 148). He doesn’t exactly make much of a case here.

For what it’s worth, I engaged with both Schwarz and Krupskaya before Cliff’s book was published, and it is their accounts – not Tony Cliff’s – on which I drew when discussing these matters in Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (so I never felt I was presenting “Cliff’s account”, let alone that I was endorsing his flawed interpretation of What Is To Be Done?). And to repeat, I am quite happy to entertain the thought that Lars is right and Krupskaya wrong regarding the issues under discussion, the nature and dynamics of the “committeemen”, etc. But in what he has actually presented, for those who have no way of reading through the Russian-language primary sources, there is – so far – no reason to decide that the account of Lars Lih is superior to that of Nadezhda Krupskaya.

Being honest

To be honest, I was startled to read the story Lars tells in his current intervention: Lars Lih conscientiously put forward his well-researched account of the Bolshevik Third Congress back in 2006, in Lenin Rediscovered, and then he went on with his life, thinking all was well when – lo and behold! – what he believed he had resolved way back then somehow pops up again in 2012 as if he had never written his account in the first place.

In fact, I wrote an appreciation of his book, with the friendly criticism regarding the 1905 debate, back in 2006, at the request of the editors of Historical Materialism, for a symposium on his book that remained unpublished for several years. But Lars had access to my article from the very beginning, our correspondence was initiated by that article, and our friendship followed. We also had an interchange on these matters at the Historical Materialism conference a year or so after his book was published. When the symposium was finally published in a 2010 issue of Historical Materialism, it turned out that Lars had responded severely to my 2006 article in his essay that appeared in the same issue of Historical Materialism. I responded to what Lars wrote in two different articles – one in the Summer 2011 issue of a publication called Jacobin, back-to-back with an article that he wrote, and another article, including an even more substantial response, which appeared in the June 14, 2011 issue of Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, which has also carried material Lars has produced.

Given all of this, Lars’s surprise surprises me. But it seems of a piece with his persistent assertion that I agree with Tony Cliff’s interpretation of What Is To Be Done?, repeated yet again in his current intervention, despite my clear and consistent denials.

I believe that Lars is quite honest – so I am baffled to find myself, over and over again, in this strange loop. Here is what appears to me to be an explanation: If one accepts Krupskaya’s account of the 1905 debate, including her critical attitude (and Lenin’s) toward certain negative qualities to be found among the “committeemen” – Lars seems to feel – then one necessarily “must” subscribe to Cliff’s flawed understanding of What Is To Be Done? and to the stupid notion of “Lenin against the Bolsheviks”. I don’t think that’s true at all.

If I am going to continue being honest, there is yet another matter. Although Lars expresses agreement with Pham, I do not think that the quality of thought and analysis that get the two of them to their seemingly “identical” conclusions is comparable. Lars has a responsibility to encourage Pham to do better than he has done. He does that up to a point (his gentle admonition to be less severe in his judgments of Cliff, his similarly gentle admonition regarding the utter inadequacy of using a brief report on the Bolsheviks’ 1905 congress to conjure away the existence of a sharp debate), but it seems to me that he is too lenient.

Fortunately, in encouraging Paul D’Amato and me to do better than we have done, he is not too lenient at all. Unfortunately, it seems to me, the admonitions are largely misplaced – certainly on the issues having to do with 1905. Of course, I have also admonished him to do better as well, and it seems to me that if he does so he will add substantially to our knowledge, as he has done in so many ways up to now. And I will look forward to strolling with him down the Bolshevik pathway of 1912, to see what we can make of what happened way back then.

At the same time, while trying to get the history right, those of us engaged in revolutionary activism will continue to wrestle with “what is to be done” to change the world for the better.

Works cited

Cliff, Tony. Lenin, Volume 1: Building the Party. London: Pluto Press, 1975.

Krupskaya, N. K. Memories of Lenin, 2 volumes, translated by Eric Verney. New York: International Publishers, 1930.

______________. Reminiscences of Lenin, translated by Bernard Isaacs. New York: International Publishers, 1970.

Le Blanc, Paul. “Five points in response to Pham Binh”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 1, 2012,

____________. Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. Amherst, NY: Humanities Press, 1993.

____________. “Lenin and us: Into the past, back to the future”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, June 14, 2011,

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

____________. “Revolutionary method in the study of Lenin”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, January 31, 2012,

____________. Revolutionary organisation and the ‘Occupy moment’”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 2012,

____________. “Ulyanovsk: Book Review, Lars Lih, Lenin”, Jacobin, Summer 2011.

Lih, Lars. “Falling out over a Cliff”, Weekly Worker, February 16, 2012, Also at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 17, 2012,

_______. Lenin. London: Reaktion Books, 2011.