Paul Le Blanc: The birth of the Bolshevik party in 1912

Portrait of Lenin by Isaac Israelovich Brodskii, 1924.

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

By Paul Le Blanc

April 17, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- How odd it would be, one century after the fact, to hear the following over the air waves: NEWS FLASH! THE BOLSHEVIKS BECAME A POLITICAL PARTY IN 1912! In fact, it was the opposite “news” that flashed across a little corner of the internet’s far-left end. A young activist in the US socialist movement, Pham Binh, making positive reference to the outstanding contributions of historian Lars Lih in challenging myths regarding Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s revolutionary organisational perspectives, advanced his own challenging re-interpretation of Lenin’s thought and practice, claiming to have exploded “the myth that the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks separated into two parties in 1912.”[1]

Admittedly Pham’s primary purpose was not to open new pathways in Lenin scholarship, but to enhance the theoretical-historical legitimacy of a proposed pathway in the struggles of today: the idea that socialists (including those seeing themselves as “Leninists”) should merge into a single organisation despite significant political differences, since – contrary to various myths – this is the sort of thing that Lenin himself thought and said and did. I critically engaged with Pham, on practical political grounds but also in defence of the traditional notion that the Bolsheviks did, in fact, become a separate party in 1912.[2] Without necessarily sharing his activist agenda, Lars Lih proceeded to weigh in, quite generously (though with far greater nuance) on the side of Pham’s re-interpretation of the 1912 events.[3]

What is to be done by activists of today does not stand or fall on whether the Bolsheviks actually became an independent party in 1912. The purpose of the present contribution is not to derive strategies or tactics, from days of yore, for revolutionaries of 2012. I am concerned here exclusively with advancing our collective understanding of what did and did not happen in the Russian revolutionary movement a hundred years ago. Those who are not interested in that should stop reading. Those who find the history interesting are invited to continue. Those who would like to utilise an understanding of that history in order to evaluate some of the practical assertions of Pham Binh may also find something of value here.

In what follows, I will first offer a statement of the alleged “myth” from two respected scholars with divergent political perspectives. This will be followed by a sketch of the historical context out of which the 1912 conference was organised, and then an examination of Lenin’s own views advanced before the 1912 conference and reflected in what actually happened at that conference. We will conclude by surveying the assessments by various revolutionary activists who lived through this period as to the meaning of the 1912 developments.

What will be argued here – hopefully with sufficient documentation – is that, for all practical purposes, the so-called “myth” was a reality.

Given a certain amount of confusion, contentiousness and innuendo that has crept into this discussion, I must apologise to readers in advance for the fact that, rather than offering crisp summaries of what the political combatants of the early 20th century had to say, I will allow them to speak their own piece. What follows will be interlarded, I am afraid, with substantial quotations from primary sources.

The ‘Myth’

The year 1912 has been commonly seen, by those in the know, as the time when a revolutionary faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), the Bolsheviks led by V.I. Lenin, established their own independent party – independent, that is, from others in the RSDLP who had a different approach than the Bolshevik-Leninists. “Bolshevik” refers to what was the majority faction in a 1903 dispute at the RSDLP’s Second Congress, and the “Mensheviks” were the minority faction – though the fortunes and sizes of each would fluctuate in the succeeding years of revolutionary struggle, marked by upsurge, repression, renewed insurgency in the face of the absolutist monarchy and its capitalist junior partners in the Russian Empire in the years leading up to the First World War. “Social Democrats” of this period were socialists who, following the perspectives of Karl Marx, believed global capitalism was creating a social surplus and a growing working class in each country that could, through the workers’ own struggles, bring about working-class rule over society’s political and economic life.[4]

The basis for the split in the RSDLP had to do with two basic issues, one political and the other organisational. In the struggle to carry out a democratic revolution that would overturn the tsarist autocracy and pave the way for a socialist revolution, the Bolsheviks favoured the political independence and hegemony (leadership or predominance) of the working class, and its alliance with the vast peasant majority to carry through and consolidate the revolutionary overthrow. The Mensheviks argued that the democratic revolution would need to usher in a thoroughgoing capitalist industrialisation and modernisation of Russia in order to pave the way for the possibility of socialism (a notion which Lenin did not openly contest until 1917). This meant, they concluded, that there must be a firm alliance of the working class with the capitalist class, and Lenin denounced this as a class-collaborationist betrayal of the revolutionary Marxist program. The organisational differences were less clear cut. For example, both embraced the concept of democratic centralism, meaning freedom of discussion and unity in action, which was first clearly put forward by the Mensheviks. But the Mensheviks had a reputation for being organisationally “soft” in deference to personalities, while the Bolsheviks had earned a reputation for being more “hard” in prioritising efficient organisational functioning.[5]

“Early in 1912, the schism was brought to its conclusion”, according to Isaac Deutscher. “At a conference in Prague Lenin proclaimed the Bolshevik faction to be the Party.” Deutscher, a distinguished historian with admittedly pro-Lenin sympathies, felt this enabled Lenin’s Bolsheviks to move forward as the force that would lead the Russian Revolution of October/November 1917. But he insisted that the split was not simply the work of Lenin and his Bolsheviks. Leading Mensheviks such as Pavel Axelrod, Julius Martov and Theodore Dan had concluded by 1910 that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks could not remain in the same party – a conclusion which Lenin shared – and they “were no less determined than Lenin to carry the schism through to the end. The main difference was that while Lenin was shouting it from the housetops, Martov, Axelrod, and Dan kept their design to themselves and sought to put it into effect through a subtle tactical game.” While convinced that “the split was both inevitable and desirable”, however, they hoped to place “the odium of the schism on Lenin”.[6]

Carter Elwood, a widely respected historian of Russian Bolshevism (with admittedly anti-Lenin inclinations), whose meticulous research is acknowledged even by those disagreeing with his interpretations, has told a similar story in his essay “The Art of Calling a Party Congress (Prague 1912)”, though he is harder on Lenin and easier on the Mensheviks. The 1903 split in the RSDLP had led to factionalism so divisive that entirely separate Bolshevik and Menshevik organisations persisted within the official framework of the RSDLP. There was considerable pressure from RSDLP members, “particularly rank and file members in the underground”, to maintain party unity, and they were “encouraged by the results of the ‘Unification’ Congress held in Stockholm in 1906 and the ‘Unification’ Plenum of the Central Committee which met in Paris in January 1910. In each instance, the émigré leaders were forced to acknowledge the principle of party unity and to agree to work in common leadership bodies.” But this totally collapsed in 1912:

The two factions met separately that year – the Bolsheviks in Prague during January, the Mensheviks in Vienna during August – and the outcome was in effect the creation of two separate Social Democratic parties, each with its own leadership bodies, program and contacts with the underground. Never again would the two factions meet together. From 1912 to 1917, instead of working in concert for the overthrow of the autocracy, they were in competition for worker support. The ultimate winner of the contest was V. I. Lenin and his Bolshevik Party.[7]

This is the commonly accepted account that has been dismissed as a myth. There was no Bolshevik Party in 1912, we are told – there was only a Russian Social Democratic Labor Party of which the Bolsheviks were a loyal faction. This is partly true. There was never something officially entitled “The Bolshevik Party”. What Lenin and his comrades were intent on doing in 1912 was simply to reorganise the RSDLP, and that was the name of the organisation emerging from the Prague conference. One could add, along with our “myth busters”, that it is a Stalinist (and Cold War anti-communist) fiction to assert that Lenin intended to create “a party of a new type” (breaking from the old model associated with the pre-1914 Second International), and that he finally realised this intention in 1912.

While one might argue with certain details or nuances in what such historians as Deutscher and Elwood have put forward, however, we will see that the so-called “myth” is not a myth at all. It describes what came into being: not the Stalinist “party of a new type” and not a multi-tendency party uniting Bolsheviks and Mensheviks – but, for all practical purposes, an independent Bolshevik party.

Fragmentation and liquidation

In the years following the defeat of the 1905 revolutionary upsurge, the RSDLP was afflicted by a fragmentation that went beyond the Bolshevik/Menshevik split. According to Menshevik historian Boris Sapir, “the Party as an organized whole did not exist at the time... There were scattered groups around different leaders, not properly linked together, feeling their way amid the disappointment and apathy pervading Russian society” in the aftermath of the 1905 defeat. While “the less centralized Menshevik apparatus was the more disorganized”, the Bolsheviks also hardly existed as a cohesive whole.[8]

One could identify at least seven distinct RSDLP currents existing by 1911, three associated with the Mensheviks, three others associated with the Bolsheviks, and then an independent “anti-factional” current associated with Leon Trotsky.[9]

A majority of Mensheviks were either (a) liquidator-Mensheviks associated with Alexander N. Potresov or (b) non-liquidator Mensheviks associated with Julius Martov and Theodore Dan. A smaller grouping consisted of what were called “Party-Mensheviks” associated with George Plekhanov.

Among the Bolsheviks there were also three: what might be called a “hard” majority grouped around Lenin, a more conciliationist grouping that favoured RSDLP Bolshevik/Menshevik unity (including V.P. Nogin, Alexei Rykov), and an ultra-left grouping associated with Alexander Bogdanov, Gregory Alexinsky and Anatoly Lunacharsky, known as “Forwardists” based on the name of their paper, in Russian Vperyod. One of the questions associated with this latter faction was whether the RSDLP should refuse to participate in the parliamentary body established by the tsar, the Duma; a minority of its supporters answered with an unequivocal “yes” to boycotting, and became known as otzovists or “boycotters”. As a whole, the Forwardist-Bolsheviks inclined more sharply toward illegal underground work and away from legal reform activities, also emphasising a philosophical and cultural orientation which veered away from traditional Marxist perspectives. The Leninist Bolsheviks insisted on the necessity of combining, in a cohesive and well-organised manner, underground activity to advance revolutionary socialism with serious legal work (work in trade unions, the unemployed movement, educational-cultural clubs, even insurance societies, as well as in the electoral arena) to build a mass socialist workers’ movement.

It is worth considering Trotsky’s very interesting orientation, described years later. “In 1904—that is, from the moment differences of opinion arose as to the nature of the liberal bourgeoisie—I broke with the Minority [Mensheviks] of the Second Congress”, he noted, “and during the ensuing thirteen years belonged to no faction.” In his view, “the intra-party conflict came down to this: as long as the revolutionary intellectuals were dominant among the Bolsheviks as well as among the Mensheviks and as long as both factions did not venture beyond the bourgeois democratic revolution, there was no justification for a split between them; in the new revolution, under the pressure of the labouring masses, both factions would in any case be compelled to assume an identical revolutionary position, as they did in [the revolutionary upsurge of] 1905.” (Trotsky latter would abandon this orientation, incorporating Lenin’s organisational perspectives into his own.)[10]

Given the Mensheviks’ and liquidators’ centrality to the “myth-buster” re-interpretation of the 1912 Prague conference, we will need to give special attention to the meaning of liquidationism and its connection with the various components of Menshevism. And in order to do that, it makes sense to give attention to the two of “grand old men” of Menshevism – George Plekhanov and Pavel Axelrod.

According to Menshevik historian Boris Sapir, Plekhanov “was no forebear of Menshevism nor a Menshevik by temperament. He was the father of Russian Marxism, siding now with the Mensheviks, now with the Bolsheviks, only to become estranged from both.” It would seem that only relatively small clusters in the underground (for example in Kiev) and a handful of émigrés were associated with him. In contrast, according to Sapir, “Menshevism with all its good and bad traits as a political system, and its specific moral approach to the Russian labor movement, was the creation” of Axelrod. Leading figures among the Mensheviks “undertook no important steps without his approval”, which meant that “the leaders of Menshevism from 1907 or 1908 to 1914, insofar as one can speak of central leadership, were Dan, Martov, and Potresov, supported by Axelrod.”[11]

Axelrod insisted, over and over again, that “we cannot, in absolutist Russia, ignore the objective historical requirement for ‘political cooperation’ between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie”, and the need for “the development of Russian capitalism” meant that “the working class could and should enter into agreements with liberal democratic bodies and afford them support.” As later explained by Menshevik veteran Lydia Dan, Axelrod’s call after 1905 for a workers’ congress – which was conceived as a means for dramatically broadening the working-class movement – shook “a certain party patriotism that we were all more or less imbued with”, among both Bolsheviks and many Mensheviks in the RSDLP. “So, naturally enough, it was not easy to reconcile yourself with the idea that the dominant line would not be the consolidation of the RSDLP but a loose inchoate organization which could attract a very large number of nonparty and not completely conscious members of the proletariat with only leanings in our direction.” Mensheviks as well as Bolsheviks asked what such an orientation would mean for the already existing RSDLP. Some felt it meant “everything should be disbanded”, notes Lydia Dan. “Axelrod didn’t say that, but he passed over in silence the issue of what to do with what remained of the party – to maintain an independent existence or merge into the broad-based open organizations.”[12]

Potresov and others around him forged ahead to make precisely such a liquidationist argument, insisting that post-1905 realities had already decided the issue: “Can there exist in sober reality, and not merely as the figment of a diseased imagination, a school of thought that advocates what has ceased to be an organic whole?” The RSDLP had already fallen apart in the wake of 1905. He likened the concerns of his critics to “playing with toy soldiers in the face of tragedy”, and predicted that a “new” and “wider” workers’ movement “would in its own good time” transcend the shambles of the old. Yet advocating an exclusively legal labour movement under the conditions of tsarism certainly had problematical qualities. “Entrenching themselves in trade unions, educational clubs and insurance societies, they carried on their work as cultural propagandists, not as revolutionaries”, is how Trotsky described the Menshevik liquidators. “To safeguard their jobs in the legal organizations, the officials from among the workers began to resort to protective coloration. They avoided the strike struggle, so as not to compromise the scarcely tolerated trade unions. In practice, legality at any price meant outright repudiation of revolutionary methods.” Potresov’s liquidationism – giving greater stress to the worker-capitalist alliance than was the case with many of the other Mensheviks – also explicitly challenged the traditional notion in the RSDLP that the workers must play the predominant (hegemonic) role in the democratic revolution. “Plekhanov alone is responsible for the [idea] of hegemony”, he complained. “There always was the dual picture of extreme amiability toward possible liberal allies and actually what can only be called dictatorship of social democracy in the Russian revolution.”[13]

Martov and Dan (associated with the Menshevik paper Golos, or “Voice”) did not fully agree with Potresov’s liquidationism – either organisational or theoretical. Uneasy with the proposal to jettison the notion of working-class hegemony in the democratic struggle, they also insisted that it would be necessary for revolutionaries to combine both legal and illegal work under the repressive political conditions existing in Tsarist Russia. Yet as Boris Sapir suggests, the line was blurred between Menshevik liquidators and non-liquidators:

The immense majority of Mensheviks in Russia were enthusiastically engrossed in founding and serving workers’ organizations. They preferred to shelve underground activities even if they felt that this “corrective” to the legal movement might in the long run prove necessary. Theoretically they probably agreed with Martov that the Party in Russia should be “an illegal organization of Social-Democratic elements fighting for an open labor movement, that is, among other things, for its own existence.” In practice, however, little was done in this direction ...[14]

While Martov and other co-thinkers were prepared to vote more than once against the ideas of liquidationism, therefore, they were not prepared to break with the liquidators and place them outside of the RSDLP. To do so would fracture the main forces of Menshevism, including among the non-liquidator Mensheviks, and for all practical purposes would give predominance in the RSDLP to the Leninist Bolsheviks. This Martov and the others were absolutely unprepared to do.

Plekhanov agreed with (and had helped develop) the Menshevik perspective of a worker-capitalist alliance. With the challenge to his cherished notion of “working-class hegemony” and to his sense of “party patriotism”, however, he indignantly broke from the Menshevik mainstream, and the organized clusters who shared his orientation came to be known as Party-Mensheviks. Within the Menshevik majority he became known, disdainfully, as “the Bard of the underground”, while, in the words of one Bolshevik historian (Zinoviev), “he gave us energetic assistance against those who would bury the party”. Carter Elwood stresses: “Perhaps even more significantly, his Party Menshevik followers in Russia increasingly cooperated with their Bolshevik counterparts on the local level.”[15]

There had been more than one attempt at achieving unity between the Menshevik and Bolshevik factions. At the 1910 plenum of the RSDLP’s broad central committee, it was believed by many that a rough unity had finally been achieved, with denunciations of both extremes in the RSDLP – boycottism (otzovism) on the left and liquidationism on the right. As it turned out, however, there seemed to be no practical consequences flowing from these official positions, nor was the practical disorganisation of the RSDLP reversed. Among RSDLP émigrés, polemics continued, and practical activists in Russia made do as best they could. As Bolshevik organiser Gregory Zinoviev observed at the time, “in the localities [in Russia], all Social Democratic workers—Bolsheviks as well as Mensheviks, and also workers connected to the Vperyod group and to [Trotsky’s émigré newspaper] Pravda—harmoniously carry out work together and together fight against the liquidators-legalists, who almost everywhere separate themselves from party groups and work completely independently of our party.”[16]

Reaching for clarity: two parties

“The end of 1910 was marked by a revolutionary upsurge”, Krupskaya notes. “Between 1911 and 1914 every month, right up to the outbreak of the war in August 1914, saw symptoms of the rising working class movement… The proletariat was not what it had been. It had behind it [thanks to the revolutionary events of 1905] the experience of strikes, of a number of armed uprisings, of a sweeping mass movement, and years of defeat. That was the crux of the matter. This made itself evident in all ways, and Ilyich threw himself into the living vortex with all his ardor ...”[17]

Lenin more than ever felt a sense of urgency about the development of a revolutionary party that would be up to the great tasks of the near future. “Ilyich simply could not stand this diffuse, unprincipled conciliationism, conciliationism with anyone and everyone which was tantamount to surrendering one’s positions at the height of the struggle.” He felt keenly that “the thing was to have a united Party centre, around which the Social-Democratic worker masses could rally. The struggle in 1910 was a struggle waged for the very existence of the Party, for exercising influence on the workers through the medium of the Party. Vladimir Ilyich never doubted that within the Party the Bolsheviks would be in the majority, that in the end the Party would follow the Bolshevik path, but it would have to be a Party and not a group.”[18]

By “not a group” Krupskaya seems to mean not simply a factional fragment, but rather the entire RSDLP. The “Bolshevik path” involved adhering to the notion of working-class hegemony in the struggle for a democratic revolution in Russia, building a worker-peasant alliance to carry through that revolution, combining both legal and illegal work within the framework of a well-organized and cohesive party.

Consequently, at the party school which the Leninist Bolsheviks organised near Paris, both Bolshevik-Forwardists and Party-Mensheviks were admitted along with Leninist Bolsheviks. “The same line was pursued at the Prague Party Conference in 1912”, Krupskaya noted later. “Not a group, but a Party pursuing a Bolshevik line. Naturally, there was no room in such a Party for Liquidators, against whom forces were being rallied. Obviously, there could be no room in the Party for people who had made up their minds beforehand that they would not abide by the Party decisions.”[19]

Krupskaya added: “With some comrades, however, the struggle for the Party assumed the form of conciliation; they lost sight of the aim of unity and relapsed into a man-of-the-street striving to unite all and everyone, no matter what they stood for.”[20]

In close consultation with Lenin, Lev Kamenev authored an important pamphlet in the summer of 1911 entitled The Two Parties, designed to win comrades to the perspective of an RSDLP which would follow the Bolshevik line. According to Kamenev’s authorised biographer of the mid-1920s, the pamphlet “signaled the final break with the Mensheviks”.[21] According to Lenin’s laudatory introduction to the pamphlet, “Kamenev has proved conclusively that, in point of fact, the liquidationist group represents a separate party, not the R.S.D.L. Party.” While Lenin identified Potresov and those around him as the key liquidators, he went on to identify “Mr. Martov and the Golos group trailing behind” the liquidators – widening the net further when he denounced “the intrigues of the circles abroad (such as the Vperyod and Golos circles, and the Trotskyites), who have fully demonstrated that they ignore the decisions of the Party, and that they refuse to give up an iota of their ‘freedom’ to support the liquidators.”[22]

Concerned not to alienate unconvinced comrades whom he hoped to win over, Lenin added: “Unfortunately, there are still quite a number of people who are sincerely opposed to liquidationism, but do not understand the conditions under which the struggle against it has to be waged.” Such well-meaning “conciliators” argued that European social-democratic parties must be able to contain both reformists such as Eduard Bernstein and revolutionaries such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky – a notion that Lenin did not contest. But the Russian liquidators had gone far beyond the reformists – “they are also trying to build a separate party of their own, they have issued the slogan that the R.S.D.L.P. does not exist; they pay no heed whatever to the decisions of the R.S.D.L.P.” He concluded that in most parties of the Socialist International “an opportunist guilty of but one-tenth of what the Potresovs, Igorevs, Bers, Martovs, Dans and their like have done and are doing against their Party and in defiance of its decisions would not be tolerated in the ranks of the party a single month.”[23]

It would be a mistake to assume that Lenin was forcing such intransigence into the pamphlet of poor “mild-mannered” Kamenev. In correspondence with his comrade, pressing for revisions, he commented:

(1) We must not call for a break with the conciliators. This is quite uncalled for and incorrect. A “persuasive” tone should be adopted towards them, by no means should they be antagonised. (2) The split should be discussed with more tact, always choosing formulations to the effect that the liquidators have broken away, created and proclaimed a “complete break”, and that the Party ought not to tolerate them (“and the conciliators ought not to confuse issues”), and so on.[24]

This is certainly the line that was put forward in the final version of The Two Parties. Lenin’s concluding comments actually indicate the gist of the conference he and others organised in Prague five months later:

In Russia … the illegal workers’ circles have been drawing away from the liquidators, and are dissociating themselves from them to an ever greater extent with each passing day, at the same time slowly and laboriously building up the revolutionary R.S.D.L.P. The task of the adherents of the Social-Democratic Labour Party is to help these circles, to translate the decisions of the R.S.D.L.P. into practical work, and to put an end to the game of agreement with the windbags abroad (the Golos group, the strongest group abroad, are also mere windbags). Membership of the Party means fighting for the Party. All talk about “agreement” with the liquidators who are building a non-Social-Democratic party, is a violation of the duty deriving from Party membership.[25]

Lenin’s desire to win the Bolshevik conciliators, and especially the working-class activists inside Russia influenced by concilationist moods, did not mean that he held back from sharp polemics against conciliationism.

In an autumn 1911 polemic “New Faction of the Conciliators, or the Virtuous” he was unrelenting. He blasted “conciliator” claims that the factional struggle in the RSDLP was primarily over organisational matters: “In reality, it is by no means the organisational question that is now in the forefront, but the question of the entire programme, the entire tactics and the whole character of the Party, or rather a question of two parties—the Social-Democratic Labour Party and the Stolypin labour party of Potresov, Smirnov, Larin, Levitsky, and their friends.” (Stolypin was the tsarist minister of the interior and later prime minister – this being a slam at the liquidators’ rejection of the illegal work.) The choice was between a genuinely socialist party and “a liberal labor party”. Mensheviks around the Golos of Martov and Dan were dismissed as “subservient to the liquidators”. He emphasised: “In substance the present Party crisis undoubtedly reduces itself to the question of whether our Party, the RSDLP, should completely dissociate itself from the liquidators (including the Golos group) or whether it should continue a policy of compromise with them.”[26]

Lenin was dismissive of both Trotsky’s non-factional faction (at the time organised around the paper Pravda) and the Bolshevik-Forwardists as not representing serious “trends” in the RSDLP. For him a trend meant a group with a set of well-defined political ideas that have been “widely disseminated among a broad strata of the working class”, which therefore applied only to Bolshevism and Menshevism, excluding those around Trotsky and the Forwardists. He added: “It is the first duty of revolutionary Social-Democrats to isolate these non-Social-Democratic and unprincipled groups that are aiding the liquidators. The policy which has been and is being pursued by Bolshevism and which it will pursue to the end despite all obstacles is to appeal to the Russian workers who are connected with Vperyod and Pravda, over the heads of these groups and against them.”[27]

Similarly, conciliationism was an impediment to what must be done: “the policy of your petty group hinged only on phrase-mongering, often very well-meaning and well-intentioned phrase-mongering, but empty nonetheless. A real approach to unity is created only by a rapprochement of strong factions, strong in their ideological integrity and an influence over the masses that has been tested by the experience of the revolution.” The legitimate political components of the RSDLP were represented by the Leninist Bolsheviks and the Party Mensheviks associated with Plekhanov:

Bolsheviks, unite—you are the only bulwark of a consistent and decisive struggle against liquidationism and otzovism. Pursue the policy of rapprochement with anti-liquidationist Menshevism, a policy tested by practice, confirmed by experience—such is our slogan. It is a policy that does not promise a land flowing with the milk and honey of “universal peace” which cannot be attained in the period of disorganisation and disintegration, but it is a policy that in the process of work really furthers the rapprochement of trends which represent all that is strong, sound, and vital in the proletarian movement.[28]

Two conferences: January and August 1912

The Bolshevik-organised All-Russia Conference of the RSDLP was held in January 17-30, 1912, according to the Gregorian calendar (or according to the Julian calendar of tsarist Russia January 5-17), in the city of Prague. In his later History of the Bolshevik Party, Gregory Zinoviev, one of the organizers of the conference, explained:

After the 1908 conference, and more especially after the 1910 plenum, we Leninist Bolsheviks said to ourselves that we would not work together with the liquidator Mensheviks and that we were only awaiting a convenient moment to break finally from them and form our own independent organization based upon the resurgent workers’ movement.

Our group decided that such a moment had arrived at the beginning of 1912, and called a party conference in Prague which was to re-establish our party [i.e., the RSDLP] which had been routed since 1905.[29]

The approach in organising the conference reflected the general orientation outlined by Lenin in 1911 – this was not seen or presented as a split-off of the Bolsheviks, but rather as a serious and necessary drawing together of the RSDLP. This is precisely how Krupskaya framed her discussion of it in Reminiscences of Lenin:

The Prague Conference was the first conference with Party workers from Russia which we succeeded in calling after 1908 and at which we were able in a business-like manner to discuss questions relating to the work in Russia and frame a clear line for this work. Resolutions were adopted on the issues of the moment and the tasks of the Party, on the elections to the Fourth Duma, on the Social-Democratic group in the Duma, on the character and organizational forms of Party work, on the tasks of the Social-Democrats in the anti-famine campaign, on the attitude towards the State Insurance for Workers bill before the Duma, and on the petition campaign.

The results of the Prague Conference were a clearly defined Party line on questions of work in Russia, and real leadership of practical work.

Therein lay its tremendous significance. A Central Committee was elected at the conference … [and] candidates were nominated to replace arrested members … 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. Undoubtedly the conference was a big step forward in that it put a stop to the disintegration of the work in Russia.[30]

Questions were raised afterward regarding precisely who was invited to the presumably “All-Russia” gathering of the RSDLP. Of course, the Leninist Bolsheviks were fully represented, but as Lenin explained in correspondence with a comrade, the announcement for the conference “stated clearly and precisely that the Vperyod group + Trotsky + Plekhanov were invited, and the nationals [the Polish and Lettish organisations, and the Jewish Bund] three times”. He confided that he personally had opposed the invitation to Trotsky and the Forwardists, and also to Plekhanov (who by this time had indicated his disagreement with the conference). But as happened more than once before and after, he had been over-ruled by his comrades. On the other hand, the Menshevik liquidators and their partially critical comrades around Golos were not included among the invitees (and would be announced as having been expelled, at the Prague Conference, from the RSDLP).[31]

Apparently some of the Forwardists came to the Prague Conference, and also at least two of the Party-Mensheviks (one representing a “bona fide” organisation of workers from Kiev). Lenin warned his correspondent:

Don’t believe rumours. Neither the Plekhanovites nor the Vperyod people, no one left the Conference. There were in all two pro-Party Mensheviks. The one from Kiev behaved with extreme correctness and on the whole went with us. The one from Ekaterinoslav behaved with extreme obstructiveness, but even he did not leave the Conference and only moved “protests” in the spirit of Plekhanov.[32]

Krupskaya also remembered “the dispute between Savva (Zevin), the Ekaterinoslav delegate ... and the Kiev delegate David (Schwartzman) and also, I believe, Sergo. I remember Savva's excited face.” She explained:

I forget exactly what the dispute was about, but Savva was a Plekhanovite. Plekhanov had not come to the conference. ‘The make-up of your conference,’ he had written in reply to the invitation, ‘is so uniform that it would be better, that is, more in the interests of Party unity, if I took no part in it." He worked Savva up accordingly, and the latter moved protest after protest at the conference in the Plekhanov spirit. Later, as we know, Savva became a Bolshevik. The other Plekhanovite, David, sided with the Bolsheviks.[33]

Zinoviev also discussed the participation of the Party-Mensheviks: “This conference has a major historical significance. Present at the conference, incidentally, were two or three delegates who were supporters of Plekhanov and had arrived straight from party activity in Russia. Plekhanov himself however declined to take part, contending (and quite correctly) that the aim of the Prague Conference was to split from the Mensheviks. Plekhanov characteristically recoiled at the last minute from a split from the Mensheviks.” Zinoviev added:

At the Prague Conference the Bolsheviks predominated overwhelmingly. A new layer of Bolsheviks was represented there which had grown up and politically natured in the phase of the counter-revolution which lasted approximately from 1907 to 1911...

The conference at Prague consisted in effect of a handful of delegates (some 20 to 25 in number) led by Comrade Lenin, and took upon itself the presumption to proclaim itself to be the party and to break once and for ever from all other groups and sub-groups. This conference deposed the old Central Committee which had half rotted away and said to itself: it is we who are the party; whoever is not with us is against us; we will conduct a sharp struggle against everyone who refuses for his part to fight liquidationism.[34]

Plekhanov was hardly the only person negatively impressed by the gathering. V.S. Voytinsky (Woytinsky), a Bolshevik conciliator who soon went over the Menshevism, reports that RSDLP members in Siberian prison camps heard of the conference “with mixed feelings. A few Bolsheviks accepted it as the rebirth of the party, but the great majority considered the whole affair a bluff and the new Central Committee a fraud.” According to the leading Menshevik Theodore Dan, “in Prague the Bolshevik Conference ... definitively split the Russian Social- Democracy” and generated “a bitterness never seen before”.[35]

With the energetic assistance of Trotsky, an alternative All-Party Conference of the RSDLP was organised. It included the bulk of the Mensheviks, the Bund, members of the Polish organisation, plus some Bolshevik-Forwardists and Bolshevik conciliators. According to one Menshevik activist, Eva Broido, “in August 1912, at a party congress held abroad, the split between us and the Bolsheviks was made definitive; Trotsky’s group and the Jewish ‘Bund’ siding with the Mensheviks. The Social-Democrats in the Duma continued for some time to present a united front to the public. But a ‘united’ social-democratic party had ceased to exist, and the gulf between the two points of view grew ever wider.”[36]

This was, if anything, a rosy view. Trotsky himself had hoped (he indicates in his memoirs) that the Leninist Bolsheviks would also feel compelled to attend and that RSDLP unity would be finally achieved – but no such luck. “The conference met in Vienna in August, 1912, without the Bolsheviks, and I found myself formally in a ‘bloc’ with the Mensheviks and a few disparate groups of Bolshevik dissenters. This ‘bloc’ had no common political basis, because in all important matters I disagreed with the Mensheviks.”[37] The disparate forces that had gathered at the August conference quickly fell apart.

A report from the tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, commented: “According to agents’ information, the only well-organized and cohesive faction in the RSDLP at the present time is the Bolshevik-Leninist faction. They established their ‘all-Russian’ Conference, they have their Central Committee, their illegal organs abroad and legal ones in Russia, they have their committees.”[38]

Martov’s biographer Israel Getzler, drawing from Menshevik sources, describes the results of the split as devastating for his hero’s organisation:

When at long last the August bloc of Mensheviks, Bundists, Trotsky’s Pravda group, and the secessionist left wing of the Polish Socialist Party ... was formed in Vienna on August 1912 (springing ironically from Lenin’s initiative, not Martov’s or even from that of Trotsky, who organized it) it could do little more than register the fact that the Bolsheviks had captured and purged the Russian Social Democratic Party, controlled its institutions and its funds, and were forging ahead in conquering positions in the open areas of activity which they had hitherto spurned, such as the legal press, trade unions, and the Duma. The Mensheviks found themselves harassed and beaten in their own favorite areas of activity.

Getzler notes that in April 1912 the Bolsheviks were producing a daily newspaper in Petersburg in 29,000 copies, while the Mensheviks published only a more modest weekly paper. While by May the Mensheviks succeeded in establishing their own daily newspaper, the Bolshevik daily continued to sell twice as many copies. He adds: “Late in 1912 in the elections to the workers’ electoral colleges to the Duma six Bolsheviks were elected and not one Menshevik.” Lenin was able to report all this and more, with abundant statistics, to leading bodies of the Socialist International that were investigating the Russian situation. He was able to add: “But let us assume for a moment that our opponents (numerous in the opinion of the intellectualist groups and Party groups living abroad) are right. Let us assume that we are ‘usurpers’, ‘splitters’, and so forth. In that case would it not be natural to expect our opponents to prove, not merely with words but by the experience of their activities and their unity that we are wrong.”[39]

The truth was cruel for those who had angrily opposed the line advanced by Kamenev and Lenin in The Two Parties. Nothing had prevented them (except their own inability to do so) from forging an inclusive, unified party that would outstrip the Leninist Bolsheviks who reorganised the RSDLP. As Kamenev summarised it a dozen years later:

The year 1912 was a year of changes. In January the Bolsheviks broke off the last remains of organizational connections with the Mensheviks, and formed their own purely Bolshevik Central Committee at their own Bolshevik conference (at Prague). They excluded the liquidators from the Party, and proclaimed a program of revolutionary action. After the blood-bath on the Lena [where striking workers were shot down by tsarist troops], a stormy wave of proletarian movement arose, for the first time since 1905. This movement appropriated the program and tactics of the Bolsheviks in their entirety. The “Bolshevist epidemic” (to use the malicious term coined by the Mensheviks at the time) began to spread, and presently gained the final victory. The awakening labor movement removed the liquidators systematically from every position which they had contrived to gain during the previous sorrowful years of counter-revolution.[40]

The way it was

One is struck by Carter Elwood’s assertions, in his classic essay, “The Art of Calling a Party Conference”, that all along Lenin had sought “a homogenous party united behind his program and accepting his unquestioned leadership”, scheming to create “an all-Bolshevik ‘party of a new type’”. This notion, a throwback to interpretations shared by Stalinism on the one hand and Cold War anti-communism on the other, has been effectively challenged by the work of such historians as Lars Lih.[41] More than this, the evidence presented here indicates that Lenin was not always “in control” (how could he be?) and was by no means surrounded by “yes men” – without question he had earned great authority, but there was no “unquestioned leadership.”[42]

Lenin was clearly struggling not for a “party of a new type” but rather (a) for a party which he believed conformed to the social-democratic model of the pre-1914 Second International, and (b) for a party that would be true to the principles and perspectives of revolutionary Marxism. Before World War I he was inclined to think that these two were or could be the same thing. (New experiences – a horrific global war, a powerful surge of revolution, and a desperate civil war – would open new pathways of thought and practice.)

While there was no thought of a “party of a new type” in 1912, it would be a mistake to think that the Prague conference yielded a “multi-tendency” party in which Bolsheviks and Party-Mensheviks joined together as equal partners. Plekhanov, the theoretical centre of the Party-Mensheviks, spurned the conference, and of the two or three Party-Mensheviks present, one functioned as an ineffectual dissident and one was more or less absorbed into the immense Bolshevik majority. Krupskaya’s and Zinoviev’s comments suggest that at least some of the Party-Mensheviks became part of this Bolshevik-dominated incarnation of the RSDLP but it is not clear to me to what extent the Party-Mensheviks persisted as a distinctive tendency within this party. Other Party-Mensheviks, including Plekhanov himself, remained independent of it, joining with some Bolshevik-conciliators to publish four issues, in 1914, of a periodical called Yedinstvo (Unity), a polemical target of Lenin’s RSDLP.[43] Additional research will certainly shed light on such matters.

The door to the reorganised RSDLP was open, of course, to Plekhanov, to Trotsky, even to Martov if any of them had been willing to go through it – but this would have meant absolutely and definitively breaking with the liquidators and those inclined to trail along with the liquidators. And also, under those circumstances, it would have meant being part of a party that more or less adhered to “the Bolshevik line”. These were not things they were prepared to do (although five years later Trotsky and a number of others chose to do precisely that).

For all practical purposes, therefore, the party that emerged from the Prague All-Russia RSDLP Conference of 1912 was a Bolshevik party. That is not a myth. It happens to be the way it was.


[1] Pham Binh, “Mangling the party: Tony Cliff’s Lenin”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal 2012,, and Pham Binh, “The United States: Another socialist left is possible”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal 2012,

[2] Paul Le Blanc, “Revolutionary Methodology in the Study of Lenin”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal 2012, and Paul Le Blanc, “Revolutionary organisation and the Occupy movement”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal 2012,

[3] Lars Lih, “Falling out over a Cliff”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal 2012, . On my initial responses to what Lih raised, see Paul Le Blanc, “Lenin wars: Falling over a Cliff with Lars Lih”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal 2012, and Paul Le Blanc, “1912 and 2012”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal 2012,

[4] See Paul Le Blanc, From Marx to Gramsci, A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1996), and Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) for general theoretical and historical contexts.

[5] Background with documentation on the matters summarised here can be found in Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1993), 68-77, 91-98, 127-141, 171.

[6] Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, Trotsky: 1879-1921 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), 198, 201; Le Blanc, 173-181.

[7] Carter Elwood, “The Art of Calling a Party Conference (Prague 1912)”, in his valuable collection The Non-Geometric Lenin: Essays on the Development of the Bolshevik Party 1910-1914 (London: Anthem Press, 2011), 17.

[8] Boris Sapir, “Notes and Reflections on the History of Menshevism”, in Leopold H. Haimson, ed., The Mensheviks, From the Revolution of 1917 to the Second World War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 354

[9] Le Blanc, 143-187. For bits and pieces on Bolshevik conciliators, see Robert V. Daniels, The Conscience of the Revolution: Communist Opposition in Soviet Russia (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969), 15-16, 26-27; Elwood, 21, 25; N. K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (New York: International Publishers, 1979), 207.

[10] Leon Trotsky, Stalin, An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence (New York: Stain and Day, 1967), 112; Trotsky’s description and self-critique of his conciliationism mirrors aspects Lenin’s own sharp critique in “The New Faction of Conciliators, Or the Virtuous”, in V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 17, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 258. Deutscher (200, 201) comments on “how thoroughly Trotsky had misjudged the outcome of a decade of controversy”, his efforts on behalf of unity being based on “illusions.”

[11] Sapir, 355

[12] Abraham Ascher, ed., The Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976), 60, 62, 65; Leopold H. Haimson, ed., The Making of Three Russian Revolutionaries: Voices From the Menshevik Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 206, 207.

[13] Le Blanc, 171; Ascher, 76, 77; Trotsky, Stalin, 110-111; Sapir, 359-360.

[14] Sapir, 356-357.

[15] Gregory Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, From the Beginnings to February 1917, A Popular Outline (London: New Park Publications, 1973), 156-158; Elwood, 20.

[16] Le Blanc, 167-179; Zinoviev, History, 165-167; Zinoviev (Konferentsii RSDRP 1912, p. 126), as cited in Lars Lih, “Falling over a Cliff”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal 2012,

[17] Krupskaya, 215.

[18] Ibid., 211, 205-206.

[19] Ibid., 206.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Georges Haupt and Jean-Jacques Marie, eds., Makers of the Russian Revolution: Biographies of Bolshevik Leaders (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974), 45.

[22] Lenin, “The New Faction of Conciliators”, 225, 228.

[23] Ibid, 227.

[24] V. I. Lenin, “To L. B. Kamenev”, Collected Works, Volume 43, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971), 279-280.

[25] V. I. Lenin, “Introduction to the Pamphlet Two Parties”, Collected Works, Volume 17, 228.

[26] Lenin, “The New Faction of Conciliators”, 260, 261.

[27] Ibid., 271, 273, 274.

[28] Ibid., 274, 275.

[29] Zinoviev, History, 170.

[30] Krupskaya, 229-230.

[31] V.I. Lenin, “To G.L. Shklovsky”, Collected Works, Volume 35 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), 25-26.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Krupskaya, 227-228.

[34] Zinoviev, History, 170-171.

[35] W. S. Woytinsky, Stormy Passage, A Personal History Through Two Russian Revolutions to Democracy and Freedom: 1905-1960 (New York: Vanguard Press, 1961), 203; Theodore Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism (New York: Schocken Books, 1970), 390.

[36] Eva Broido, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 142.

[37] Leon Trotsky, My Life, An Attempt at an Autobiography (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), 225.

[38] Elwood, 35.

[39] Israel Getzler, A Political Biography of a Russian Social Democrat (London: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 134-135; Lenin, “Report to Brussels (1914)”, in V. I. Lenin, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism, Selected Writings, ed. by Paul Le Blanc (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 213.

[40] G. Zinoviev, I. Stalin, L. Kamenev, Leninism or Trotskyism (Chicago: Daily Worker Publishing Co., 1925), 56.

[41] Elwood, 19, 34. Lars Lih has written a fine critical review of Elwood’s important volume of essays, tentatively entitled “The Non-Geometric Elwood”, which includes a critique of Elwood’s account of the 1912 Prague conference – the review should appear soon. Lih’s demolition of the “textbook” Cold War anti-communist interpretation of Lenin can be found in Lenin Rediscovered (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 200). Also valuable is Lars T. Lih, Lenin (London: Reaktion, 2011). Others in past years effectively challenging this “textbook” anti-Leninism include such political activists as James P. Cannon, C.L.R. James, Hal Draper, and Ernest Mandel, and such scholars as Moshe Lewin, E. H. Carr, Isaac Deutscher, and Robert C. Tucker. These lists are hardly exhaustive. (One might add ... Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas, Chris Harman.)

[42] Elwood himself, in his illuminating article “Lenin and Pravda, 1912-1914”, in The Non-Geometric Lenin, 37-55, documents the fact that in regard to the central paper of the Bolshevik-dominated RSDLP, Lenin – highly respected as he was – simply did not run the show: more than once he was thwarted by tough-minded comrade-editors, his advice being ignored, his articles rejected, etc.

[43] V.I. Lenin, “Plekhanov, Who Knows Not What He Wants”, Collected Works, Volume 20 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), 309-312, and also 598 fn153 for information on Yedinstvo.