2 Marx Comes to Russia

In March 1872 a heavy tome of political economy, written in German, landed on the desk of the tsarist censor. Its author was well known for his socialist theories and all his previous books had been banned. The publishers had no right to expect a different fate for this new work. It was an uncompromising critique of the modern factory system and, although the censorship laws had been liberalized in 1865, there was still a clear ban on any work expounding 'the harmful doctrines of socialism and communism', or rousing 'enmity between one class and another'. The new laws were strict enough to ban such dangerous books as Spinoza's Ethics, Hobbes's Leviathan, Voltaire's Philosophy of History and Lecky's History of European Morals. And yet this German magnum opus — 674 pages of dense statistical analysis — was deemed much too difficult and abstruse to be seditious. 'It is possible to state with certainty', concluded the first of the two censors, 'that very few people in Russia will read it, and even fewer will understand it.' Moreover, added the second, since the author attacked the British factory system, his critique was not applicable to Russia, where the 'capitalist exploitation' of which he spoke had never been experienced. Neither censor thought it necessary to prevent the publication of this 'strictly scientific work'.21

Thus Marx's Capital was launched in Russia. It was the book's first foreign publication, just five years after the original Hamburg edition and fifteen before its first English publication. Contrary to everyone's expectations, the author's as well as the censors', it led to revolution earlier in Russia than in any of the Western societies to which it had been addressed.

The tsarist censors soon realized their mistake. Ten months later they took their revenge on Nikolai Poliakov, Marx's first Russian publisher, by putting him on trial for his next 'subversive' publication, a collection of Diderot's stories, which were confiscated and burned by the police, forcing Poliakov out of business. But it was too late. Capital was an instant hit. Its first print run of 3,000 copies was sold out within the year (the first German edition of 1,000 copies, by comparison, took over five years to sell). Marx himself acknowledged that in Russia his masterpiece was 'read and valued more than anywhere'. Slavophiles and Populists both welcomed the book as an expose of the horrors of the Western capitalist system, which they wanted Russia to avoid. Marx's sociology and view of history, if not yet his politics, spread like a wild craze during the later 1870s. Among students it was 'almost improper' not to be a Marxist. 'Nobody dares to raise a voice against Karl Marx these days', complained one liberal, 'without bringing down the wrath of his youthful admirers.'22

After the collapse of the 'To the People' movement, with its false idealization of the Russian peasant, the Marxist message seemed like salvation to the radical intelligentsia. All their hopes for a social revolution could now be switched to the industrial working class. There was clearly no more mileage in the idea of a peasant revolutionary movement; and from the 1880s work among the peasants was condescendingly described by the Marxists as 'small deeds' (i.e. the sort of charity work favoured by the gentry and zemstvo types). The famine crisis of 1891 seemed to underline the backwardness of the peasantry. It showed that they were doomed to die out, both as individuals and as a class, under the wheels of economic development. The peasants were a relic of Russia's savage past — its Aziatchina or Asiatic way of life — which would inevitably be swept away by the progress of industry. Their cultural backwardness was symbolized by stories that during the cholera epidemic after the famine peasants had attacked the very doctors who were trying to inoculate them because they thought that their medicines were some strange poison. During the 1890s social science publications boomed — whole libraries were filled by the volumes of statistics published in these years; their aim was to find the causes of the famine crisis in the Marxist laws of economic development.

The 'scientific' nature of Marxist theory intoxicated the Russian radical mind, already steeped in the rationalism and materialism of the 1860s. Marx's historical dialectic seemed to do for society what Darwin had done for humanity: provide a logical theory of evolutionary development. It was 'serious' and 'objective', a comprehensive system that would explain the social world. It was in this sense an answer to that quintessential Russian quest for a knowledge that was absolute. Marxism, moreover, was optimistic. It showed that progress lay in industry, that there was meaning in the chaos of history, and that through the working class, through the conscious striving of humanity, socialism would become the end of history. This message had a special appeal to the Russian intelligentsia, painfully aware as they were of their country's backwardness, since it implied that Russia would inevitably become more like the advanced countries of the West — Germany, in particular, whose Social Democratic Party was a model for the rest of the Marxist movement in Europe. The Populist belief in Russia's 'separate path', which had seemed to consign her to perpetual peasant-hood, could thus be dismissed as romantic and devoid of scientific content.

The idea that Marxism could bring Russia closer to the West was perhaps its principal appeal. Marxism was seen as a 'path of reason', in the words of Lydia Dan, lighting up the way to modernity, enlightenment and civilization. As Valentinov, another veteran of the Marxist movement, recalled in the 1950s:

We seized on Marxism because we were attracted by its sociological and economic optimism, its strong belief, buttressed by facts and figures, that the development of the economy, the development of capitalism, by demoralizing and eroding the foundations of the old society, was creating new social forces (including us) which would certainly sweep away the autocratic regime together with its abominations. With the optimism of youth we had been searching for a formula that offered hope, and we found it in Marxism. We were also attracted by its European nature. Marxism came from Europe. It did not smell and taste of home-grown mould and provincialism, but was new, fresh, and exciting. Marxism held out a promise that we would not stay a semi-Asiatic country, but would become part of the West with its culture, institutions and attributes of a free political system. The West was our guiding light.

Petr Struve, one of the leading Marxist theorists, said he had subscribed to the doctrine because it offered a 'scientific solution' to Russia's twin problems of liberation from autocracy and the misery of backwardness. His famous words of 1894 — 'No, let us admit our lack of culture and enroll in the school of capitalism' — became one of the mottoes of the movement. Lenin echoed it in 1921. Here perhaps, as Leo Haimson has suggested, was the intellectual root of the movement's attraction to the Jews.* Whereas Populism offered an archaic vision of peasant Russia — a land of pogroms and discrimination against the Jews — Marxism offered a modern and Western vision. It promised to assimilate the Jews into a movement of universal human liberation — not just the liberation of the peasantry — based on the principles of internationalism.23

Until the middle of the 1890s it was hard to distinguish between the Populists and Marxists in Russia. Even the police (normally well informed in such matters) often confused them. The Populists adopted Marx's sociology, translated and distributed his works, and, in the final years of his life, even gained the support of Marx himself. The Marxists equally borrowed from the Populists' rhetoric and tactics and, at least inside Russia, if not in exile, were forced to work alongside them. The revolutionary underground was not large enough for the two factions to fall out: they were forced to share their printing presses and work together in the factories and clubs. There was great fluidity and co-operation between the various workers' groups — Plekhanov's Emancipation of Labour, the Workers' Section of the People's Will, the student-organized Workers' Circles, the Polish Marxist Party and the first groupings of Social Democrats — which all combined elements from Marx and the Populists in their propaganda.

This was the context in which the young Lenin, or Ul'ianov, as he was then known,* entered revolutionary politics. Contrary to the Soviet myth, which had Lenin a fully fledged Marxist theorist in his nappies, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution came to politics quite late. At the age of sixteen he was still religious and showed no interest in politics at all. Classics and literature were his main studies at the gymnasium in Simbirsk. There, by one of those curious historical ironies, Lenin's headmaster was Fedor Kerensky, the father of his arch-rival in 1917. During Lenin's final year at the gymnasium (1887) Kerensky wrote a report on the future Bolshevik describing him as a model student, never giving 'cause for dissatisfaction, by word or by deed, to the school authorities'. This he put down to the 'moral' nature of his upbringing. 'Religion and discipline', wrote the headmaster, 'were the basis of this upbringing, the fruits of which are apparent in Ul'ianov's behaviour.' So far there was nothing to suggest that Lenin was set to become a revolutionary; on the contrary, all the indications were that he would follow in his father's footsteps and make a distinguished career in the tsarist bureaucracy.

* Jews played a prominent role in the Social Democratic movement, providing many of its most important leaders (Axelrod, Deich, Martov, Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev, just to name a few). In 1905 the Social Democratic Party in Russia had 8,400 members. The Bund, by contrast, the Jewish workers' party of the Pale, had 35,000 members.


Ilya Ul'ianov, Lenin's father, was a typical gentleman-liberal of the type that his son would come to despise. There is no basis to the myth, advanced by Nadezhda Krupskaya in 1938, that he exerted a revolutionary influence on his children. Anna Ul'ianova, Lenin's sister, recalls that he was a religious man, that he greatly admired Alexander II's reforms of the 1860s, and that he saw it as his job to protect the young from radicalism. He was the Inspector of Schools for Simbirsk Province, an important office which entitled him to be addressed as 'Your Excellency'. This noble background was a source of embarrassment to Lenin's Soviet hagiographers. They chose to dwell instead on the humble origins of his paternal grandfather, Nikolai Ul'ianov, the son of a serf who had worked as a tailor in the lower Volga town of Astrakhan. But here too there was a problem: Nikolai was partly Kalmyk, and his wife Anna wholly so (Lenin's face had obvious Mongol features), and this was inconvenient to a Stalinist regime peddling its own brand of Great Russian chauvinism. Lenin's ancestry on his mother's side was even more embarrassing. Maria Alexandrovna, Lenin's mother, was the daughter of Alexander Blank, a baptized Jew who rose to become a wealthy doctor and landowner in Kazan. He was the son of Moishe Blank, a Jewish merchant from Volhynia who had married a Swedish woman by the name of Anna Ostedt. Lenin's Jewish ancestry was always hidden by the Soviet authorities, despite an appeal by Anna Ul'ianova, in a letter to Stalin in 1932, suggesting that 'this fact could be used to combat anti-Semitism'. Absolutely not one word about this letter!' was Stalin's categorical imperative. Alexander Blank married Anna Groschopf, the daughter of a well-to-do Lutheran family from

* The alias and pseudonym 'Lenin' was probably derived from the River Lena in Siberia. Lenin first used it in 1901.


Germany and with this newly acquired wealth launched his distinguished medical career, rising to become a police doctor and medical inspector in one of the largest state arms factories. In 1847, having attained the rank of State Councillor, he retired to his estate at Kokushkino and registered himself as a nobleman.24

Lenin's non-Russian ethnic antecedents — Mongol, Jewish, Swedish and German — may partly explain his often expressed contempt for Russia and the Russians, although to conclude, as the late Dmitry Volkogonov did, that Lenin's 'cruel policies' towards the Russian people were derived from his 'foreign' origins is quite unjustified (one might say the same of the equally 'foreign' Romanovs). He often used the phrase 'Russian idiots'. He complained that the Russians were 'too soft' for the tasks of the revolution. And indeed many of its most important tasks were to be entrusted to the non-Russians (Latvians and Jews in particular) in the party. Yet paradoxically — and Lenin's character was full of such paradoxes — he was in many ways a typical Russian nobleman. He was fond of the Blank estate, where he spent a long time in his youth. When young he was proud to describe himself as 'a squire's son'. He once even signed himself before the police as 'Hereditary Nobleman Vladimir Ul'ianov'. In his private life Lenin was the epitome of the heartless squire whom his government would one day destroy. In 1891, at the height of the famine, he sued his peasant neighbours for causing damage to the family estate. And while he condemned in his early writings the practices of 'gentry capitalism', he himself was living handsomely on its profits, drawing nearly all his income from the rents and interest derived from the sale of his mother's estate.25

Lenin's noble background was one key to his domineering personality. This is something that has often been ignored by his biographers. Valentinov, who lived with Lenin in Geneva during 1904, recalls how he found a rare and deeply hidden source of sentiment in the Bolshevik leader. Having read Herzen's My Past and Thoughts, a work that frequently waxes lyrical on the subject of the Russian countryside, Valentinov had become homesick for his long-abandoned family estate in Tambov province. He told Lenin of these feelings and found him clearly sympathetic. Lenin began asking him about the arrangement of the flower-beds, but their conversation was soon interrupted by a fellow Bolshevik, Olminsky, who, having heard the last part of Valentinov's confession, attacked him for his 'schoolgirl' sentiments: 'Listen to the landowner's son giving himself away!' According to Valentinov, Lenin rounded on Olminsky:

Well, what about me, if it comes to that? I too used to live on a country estate which belonged to my grandfather. In a sense, I too am a scion of the landed gentry. This is all many years ago, but I still haven't forgotten the pleasant aspects of life on our estate. I have forgotten neither its lime trees nor its flowers. So go on, put me to death. I remember with pleasure how I used to loll about in haystacks, although I had not made them, how I used to eat strawberries and raspberries, although I had not planted them, and how I used to drink fresh milk, although I had not milked the cows. So am I... unworthy to be called a revolutionary?

It was not just Lenin's emotions which were rooted in his noble past. So too were many of his political attitudes: his dogmatic outlook and domineering manner; his intolerance of any form of criticism from subordinates; and his tendency to look upon the masses as no more than the human material needed for his own revolutionary plans. As Gorky put it in 1917, 'Lenin is a "leader" and a Russian nobleman, not without certain psychological traits of this extinct class, and therefore he considers himself justified in performing with the Russian people a cruel experiment which is doomed to failure.'26

While, of course, it is all too easy to impose the Lenin of 1917 on that of the early 1890s, it is clear that many of the characteristics which he would display in power were already visible at this early stage. Witness, for example, Lenin's callous attitude to the suffering of the peasants during the famine of 1891 — his idea that aid should be denied to them to hasten the revolutionary crisis. Thirty years later he would show the same indifference to their suffering — which he was now in a position to exploit politically — during the famine of 1921.

The charmed life of the Ul'ianovs came to an abrupt halt in 1887, when Lenin's elder brother Alexander was executed for his involvement in the abortive plot to kill the Tsar. Alexander was generally thought to be the most gifted of the Ul'ianov children, the one most likely to leave his mark on the world. Whereas the young Vladimir had a cruel and angry streak — he often told lies and cheated at games — Alexander was honest and kind, serious and hard-working. In 1883 he entered St Petersburg University to read science and seemed set on becoming a biologist. But after his father's sudden death, in 1886, Alexander fell in with a group of student terrorists who modelled themselves on the People's Will. All of them were squires' sons, and many of them Poles, including ironically Joseph Pilsudski, who would later become the ruler of Poland and an arch-enemy of Lenin's regime. They conspired to blow up the Tsar's carriage on I March 1887, the sixth anniversary of Alexander II's assassination, when there would be a procession from the Winter Palace to a special memorial service at St Isaac's Cathedral. Alexander put his scientific education into practice by designing and making the bombs. But the plot was discovered by the police and the conspirators were arrested (one of them launched one of Alexander's bombs whilst they were inside the police station but the homemade device failed to go off). The seventy-two conspirators were imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress — fifteen of them were later brought to trial.


Alexander, as one of the ring-leaders, realized that his fate was already sealed, and from the dock made a brave speech justifying the use of terrorism. He and four others were executed.

There is a legend that on hearing of his brother's death Lenin remarked to his sister Maria: 'No, we shall not take that road, our road must be different.' The implication is that Lenin was already committed to the Marxist cause — the 'we' of the quotation — with its rejection of terror. But this is absurd. Maria at the time was only nine and thus hardly likely to recall the words accurately when she made this claim in 1924. And while it is true that Alexander's execution was a catalyst to Lenin's involvement in the revolutionary movement, his first inclination was, like his brother's, towards the tradition of the People's Will. Lenin's Marxism, which developed slowly after 1889, remained infused with the Jacobin spirit of the terrorists and their belief in the overwhelming importance of the seizure of power.

In 1887 Lenin enrolled as a law student at Kazan University. There, as the brother of a revolutionary martyr, he was drawn into yet another clandestine group modelling itself on the People's Will. Most of the group was arrested that December during student demonstrations. Lenin was singled out for punishment, no doubt partly because of his name, and, along with thirty-nine others, was expelled from the university. This effectively ended Lenin's chance of making a successful career for himself within the existing social order, and it is reasonable to suppose that much of his hatred for that order stemmed from this experience of rejection. Lenin was nothing if not ambitious. Having failed to make a name for himself as a lawyer, he now set about trying to make one for himself as a revolutionary opponent of the law. Until 1890, when he was readmitted to take his law exams, he lived the life of an idle squire on his mother's estate at Kokushkino. He read law, tried unsuccessfully to run his own farm (which his mother had bought for him in the hope that he would make good), and immersed himself in radical books.

Chernyshevsky was his first and greatest love. It was through reading him that Lenin was converted into a revolutionary — long before he read any Marx. Indeed, by the time he came to Marxism, Lenin was already forearmed with the ideas not just of Chernyshevsky but also of Tkachev and the People's Will, and it was these that made for the distinctive features of his 'Leninist' approach to Marx. All the main components of Lenin's doctrine — the stress on the need for a disciplined revolutionary vanguard; the belief that action (the 'subjective factor') could alter the objective course of history (and in particular that seizure of the state apparatus could bring about a social revolution); his defence of Jacobin methods of dictatorship; his contempt for liberals and democrats (and indeed for socialists who compromised with them) — all these stemmed not so much from Marx as from the Russian revolutionary tradition.


Lenin used the ideas of Chernyshevsky, Nechaev, Tkachev and the People's Will to inject a distinctly Russian dose of conspiratorial politics into a Marxist dialectic that would otherwise have remained passive — content to wait for the revolution to mature through the development of objective conditions rather than eager to bring it about through political action. It was not Marxism that made Lenin a revolutionary but Lenin who made Marxism revolutionary.

Gradually, between 1889 and 1894, Lenin moved towards the Marxist mainstream. But only temporarily. To begin with, like many provincial revolutionaries, he merely added Marx's sociology to the putschist tactics of the People s Will. The goal of the revolutionary movement was still the seizure of power but the arena for this struggle was to be transferred from the peasantry to the working class. Then, in his first major published work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1893), he squared the lessons of Marx's work — that a capitalist stage of development was necessary before a socialist revolution — with his own preference for such a revolution in the immediate future through the bizarre (not to say preposterous) thesis that peasant Russia was already in the throes of capitalism, classifying no less than one-fifth of its peasant households as 'capitalist' and over half the peasants as 'proletarians'. This was Tkachev dressed up as Marx. It was only after his arrival in St Petersburg, during the autumn of 1893, that Lenin came round to the standard Marxist view — the view that Russia was only at the start of its capitalist stage and that to bring this to its maturity there had to be a democratic movement uniting the workers with the bourgeoisie in the struggle against autocracy. No more talk of a coup d'etat or of terror. It was only after the establishment of a 'bourgeois democracy', granting freedoms of speech and association for the organization of the workers, that the second and socialist phase of the revolution could begin.

Plekhanov's influence was paramount here. It was he who had first mapped out this two-stage revolutionary strategy. With it the Russian Marxists at last had an answer to the problem of how to bring about a post-capitalist society in a pre-capitalist one. After so many years of fruitless terror, it gave them grounds for their belief that in forsaking the seizure of power — which, as Plekhanov put it, could only lead to a 'despotism in Communist form' — they could still advance towards socialism. Lenin, in his own words, fell 'in love' with Plekhanov, as did all the Marxists in St Petersburg. Although Plekhanov lived in exile, his works made him their undisputed leader and sage. No other Russian Marxist had such a high standing in the European movement. His most famous work of 1895 — a stunningly reductionist interpretation of the Marxist world-view published under the pseudonym of Beltov and, like Marx's Capital, slipped past the Russian censors with the esoteric title On the Question of Developing a Monistic View of History — 'made people into Marxists overnight'. He was the Moses of the Marxists. His works, in Potresov's words, brought 'the ten commandments of Marxism down from Mount Sinai and handed them to the Russian young'.27

At first, Lenin made a bad impression on the Marxists in St Petersburg. Many of them were repelled by this short and stocky figure with his egg-shaped, balding head, small piercing eyes, dry sarcastic laugh, brusqueness and acerbity. Lenin was a newcomer and his musty and 'provincial' appearance was distinctly unimpressive. Potresov described him at their first meeting as a 'typical middle-aged tradesman from some northern Yaroslavl' province'.* But through his conscientious dedication and self-discipline, his iron logic and practicality, Lenin soon emerged as a natural leader — a clear man of action — among the Petersburg intellectuals. Many people thought he was a decent man — Lenin could be charming when he wanted and he was nearly always personally decent in his comradely relations — and not a few people fell in love with him. One of these was his future wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, whom Lenin met around this time as a fellow propagandist in St Petersburg.28

The purpose of their propaganda was the education of a vanguard of 'conscious' workers — Russian Bebels like Kanatchikov, who would organize the working class for the coming revolution. But education did not necessarily make the workers revolutionary. On the contrary, as Kanatchikov soon discovered, most of the skilled and educated workers were more inclined to improve their lot within the capitalist system than seek to overthrow it. There was a growing tension between the mainly economic concerns of the workers and the political aims of those activists and intellectuals who would be their leaders. The Marxists were thus faced with the same dilemma which the Populists had confronted in relation to the peasantry after the mid-1870s: what should they do when the masses failed to respond to their propaganda? Whereas the Populists had been driven to isolated terrorism, the Marxists found a temporary solution to this problem in the switch from propaganda to mass agitationf as a means of organizing — and in the process politicizing — the working class through specific labour struggles. The new strategy was pioneered in the Vilno strikes of 1893, where the Marxist intelligentsia, instead of preaching to the Jewish workers, participated in the strikes and even learned Yiddish to gain their support. Two of the Wilno Social Democrats, Arkadii Kremer and Yuli Martov, explained their strategy in an influential pamphlet, On Agitation, written in 1895: through their involvement in organized strikes the workers would learn to appreciate the need for a broader political campaign, one led by the Social Democrats, since the tsarist authorities would not tolerate a legal trade union movement. In St Petersburg the new plan was taken up by the short-lived but windily titled Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class. It was organized in 1895 by a small group of Marxist intellectuals, Martov and Lenin prominent among them, who were arrested almost at once. However, its local activists could claim some credit for the big but unsuccessful textile strike of 1896, when over 30,000 workers came out in protest.

* The merchants of Yaroslavl' had a long-established reputation, stretching back to the Middle Ages, for being much more cunning than the rest.

* For the Marxists of the 1890s 'propaganda' meant the gradual education of the workers in small study groups with the goal of inculcating in them a general understanding of the movement and class consciousness. Agitation' meant a mass campaign on specific labour and political issues.


After a year in prison Lenin was sentenced to three years' exile in Siberia (1897—1900). Unlike the 'politicals' of his own regime, Lenin was allowed to live in considerable comfort. For 'health reasons' he was allowed to choose where he would live, and he chose a remote village called Shushenskoe in the southern Minusinsk region, which was well known for its tolerable climate. He took several crates of books and even a hunting gun with him, and kept in constant touch with his comrades. To enable Krupskaya to accompany him he agreed to marry her. The wedding took place in a church, since the Russian government did not recognize civil marriages, although neither bride nor bridegroom ever referred to this embarrassing episode in their later writings.29

During Lenin's exile the workers' movement in Russia became increasingly dominated by the new trend of 'Economism'. The Economists advocated concentrating on purely economic goals. Their aim was to improve the workers' conditions within the capitalist system rather than seeking to destroy it. To begin with, it was the workers and local factory activists who expressed this view. They believed that the workers should be left alone to run their own affairs, free from the direction of the socialist intelligentsia. But increasingly the same ideas were taken up by the so-called Legal Marxists. Kuskova and Struve, their best-known leaders, were brilliant theorists. Influenced by Eduard Bernstein's Revisionism, which was convulsing the German workers' movement at the time, as well as by neo-Kantian ideas, they sought to challenge many of the basic Marxist doctrines. Like Bernstein, they denied that capitalism was leading to a worsening of the workers' conditions. On the contrary, capitalism could be reconciled with socialism under a democratic system. The two would eventually converge. This meant that the workers should focus their efforts on reform rather than revolution. They should work within the law, in collaboration with the bourgeoisie rather than underground and in violent conflict with it.

For Plekhanov and his followers in Russia, Economism, like Bernstein's heresy, represented a betrayal of the Marxist movement's commitment to the goal of revolution. Instead of revolutionary socialism, it threatened to construct an evolutionary version. Instead of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' there would be a parliamentary democracy. Perhaps in Germany, where the Social Democrats could now work within the Reichstag, this new moderation had a certain logic. But in Russia there were no such openings — indeed the new Tsar had made clear his commitment to tightening the grip of autocracy — and so the strategy of revolution had to be maintained at all costs. This necessity seemed all the more urgent given the developments in Russian politics during the latter 1890s. In the wake of the famine crisis, which politicized society, Neo-Populism, Zemstvo Liberalism and Legal Marxism converged, and together had the makings of a national movement for constitutional reform (see pages 161—5). If this movement was allowed to grow and win supporters from the workers and peasants, it would have the effect of putting back the revolution for at least a generation — and perhaps for good — while driving the revolutionary Marxists to the outer margins of politics.

The exiled Lenin was thrown into a rage by the 'heresy'. Krupskaya recalled that during 1899, after reading the works of Kuskova and Kautsky, Lenin became depressed and lost weight and sleep.30 The ideological struggle became a profound personal crisis for him. He had embraced Marxism as the surest way to revolution — a revolution that some would say he saw increasingly as an extension of his own power and personality. Yet here was Marxism being stripped of all its revolutionary meaning and transformed into little more than the wishy-washy type of social liberalism of which no doubt his father would have approved. Lenin led the attack on Economism with the sort of violence that would later become the trademark of his rhetoric. Its tactics, he argued, would destroy socialism and the revolution, which could only succeed under the centralized political leadership of a disciplined vanguard party in the mould of the People's Will.

Lenin's views were shared at the time by many Russian Marxists — those who called themselves the 'Politicals'. They sought to organize a centralized party which would take up the leadership of the workers' movement and direct it towards political ends.* 'Subconsciously', Lydia Dan recalled, 'many of us associated such a party with what the People's Will had been.' Although they admired the German Social Democrats, it seemed impossible to construct such an open and democratic party in Russia's illegal conditions. If the police regime was to be defeated, the party had to be equally centralized and disciplined. It had to mirror the tsarist state. The quickest way to build such a party was to base it on the running of an underground newspaper, which, in the words of Lydia Dan, 'could be both a collective agitator and a collective organizer'. This was the inspiration of Iskra (The Spark) which Lenin established with Martov in 1900 on his return from exile. Its title echoed the Decembrist poet whose words appeared on its masthead: 'Out of this spark will come a conflagration.' Iskra was not so much a source of news as the command centre of the Social Democrats in their political and ideological struggles against the Economists. Its editorial board — Plekhanov, Axelrod and Zasulich in Geneva; Lenin, Potresov and Martov now in Munich — was in effect the first central committee of the party. Published in Munich, then London and Geneva, it was smuggled into Russia by a network of agents who formed the nucleus of the party's organization in the years to come.

* The First Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was held in 1898. This founding moment in the history of the party, which in nineteen years would come to rule the largest country in the world, was attended by no more than nine socialists! They met secretly in the town of Minsk, passed a declaration of standard Marxist goals, and then, almost to a man, were arrested by the police.


In his polemics against the Economists Lenin came out with a pamphlet that was to become the primer of his own party through the revolution of 1917 and the founding text of international Leninism. It was entirely fitting that its title, What Is To Be Done?, should have been taken from Chernyshevsky's famous novel. For the professional revolutionary outlined by Lenin in these pages bore a close resemblance to Rakhmetev, Chernyshevsky's disciplined and self-denying militant of the peoples cause; while his insistence on a tightly disciplined and centralized party was an echo of the Russian Jacobin tradition of which Chernyshevsky was an ornament. Lenin's strident prose style, which was imitated by all the great dictators and revolutionaries of the twentieth century, emerged for the first time in What Is To Be Done? It had a barking, military rhythm, a manic violence and decisiveness, with cumulative cadences of action or abuse, and opponents lumped together by synecdoche ('Messrs Bernstein, Martynov, etc'). Here is a typical passage from the opening section, in which Lenin sets out the battle lines between the Iskra-ites and the 'Bernsteinians':

He who does not deliberately close his eyes cannot fail to see that the new 'critical' trend in socialism is nothing more or less than a new variety of opportunism. And if we judge people, not by the glittering uniforms they don or by the high-sounding appellations they give themselves, but by their actions and by what they actually advocate, it will be clear that 'freedom of criticism' means freedom for an opportunist trend in Social Democracy, freedom to convert Social Democracy into a democratic party of reform, freedom to introduce bourgeois ideas and bourgeois elements into socialism.

'Freedom' is a grand word, but under the banner of freedom for industry the most predatory wars were waged, under the banner of freedom for labour, the working people were robbed. The modern use of the term 'freedom of criticism' contains the same inherent falsehood. Those who are really convinced that they have made progress in science would not demand freedom for the new views to continue side by side with the old, but the substitution of the new views for the old. The cry heard today, 'Long live freedom of criticism', is too strongly reminiscent of the fable of the empty barrel.


We are marching in a compact group along a precipitous and difficult path, firmly holding each other by the hand. We are surrounded on all sides by enemies, and we have to advance almost constantly under their fire. We have combined, by a freely adopted decision, for the purpose of fighting the enemy, and not of retreating into the neighbouring marsh, the inhabitants of which, from the very outset, have reproached us with having separated ourselves into an exclusive group and with having chosen the path of struggle instead of the path of conciliation. And now some among us begin to cry out: Let us go into the marsh! And when we begin to shame them, they retort: What backward people you are! Are you not ashamed to deny us the liberty to invite you to take a better road! Oh, yes, gentlemen! You are free not only to invite us, but to go yourselves wherever you will, even into the marsh. In fact, we think that the marsh is your proper place, and we are prepared to render you every assistance to get there. Only let go of our hands, don't clutch at us and don't besmirch the grand word freedom, for we too are 'free' to go where we please, free to fight not only against the marsh, but also against those who are turning towards the marsh!

When it first appeared, in March 1902, Lenin's pamphlet seemed to voice the general viewpoint of the Iskra-ites. They all wanted a centralized party: it seemed essential in a police state like Russia. The dictatorial implications of What Is To Be Done? — that the party's rank and file would be forced to obey, in military fashion, the commands of the leadership — were as yet not fully realized. 'None of us could imagine', Lydia Dan recalled, 'that there could be a party that might arrest its own members. There was the thought or the certainty that if a party was truly centralized, each member would submit naturally to the instructions or directives.''11

It was only at the Second Party Congress, which met in Brussels the following year, that the implications of Lenin's catechism for the party began to emerge. The result was a split in the party and the formation of two distinct Social Democratic factions — the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. The immediate cause of the split may seem really quite trivial. Even those inside the party did not at first realize the historic importance which it would later come to assume. It arose over the precise wording of Article One of the Party Statute, in which party membership was defined. Lenin wanted membership limited to those who participated in one of the party's organizations; whereas Martov, while recognizing the need for a nucleus of disciplined activists, wanted anyone who recognized the Party Programme and was willing to obey its leadership to be admitted. Beneath the surface of this semantic dispute lay two opposing views of the party's role. On the one hand, Lenin was proposing a centralized and conspiratorial party of professional revolutionaries in the tradition of the People's Will. He had a profound mistrust of the revolutionary potential of the masses, who he believed, without the leadership of an elite party vanguard, would inevitably become diverted by the bread-and-butter issues of Economism. 'Socialist consciousness', he had written in What Is To Be Done?, 'cannot exist among the workers. This can be introduced only from without.' This mistrust of democracy was to form the basis of Lenin's centralist approach to the trade unions, the Soviets and all the other mass-based organizations after 1917. The masses should in his view be no more than instruments of the party. This was pointed out by Lenin's critics, who warned that such a centralized party would lead to dictatorship. Socialism, in their view, was unattainable without democracy, which necessitated a broad-based party arising directly from the culture and the consciousness of the working class. Martov's view on Article One was at first upheld by 28 votes to 23. But two factions which supported it — the 5 Bundist delegates (who had been denied their demand for autonomy within the party) followed by the 2 Economists (who had been defeated by the Iskra-ites) — then walked out of the Congress, leaving Lenin with a slender majority. It was on this basis that his faction was christened the 'Bolsheviks' ('Majoritarians') and their opponents the 'Mensheviks' ('Minoritarians'). With hindsight it is clear that the Mensheviks were very foolish to allow the adoption of these names. It saddled them with the permanent image of a minority party, which was to be an important disadvantage in their rivalry with the Bolsheviks.

Lenin seized this opportunity to assert his control of the Central Committee and its organ, Iskra, by ejecting the three 'Menshevik' veterans — Zasulich, Axelrod and Potresov — from its editorial board. Lenin's conspiratorial methods hardened the divide between the two factions. Their clash was at first much more to do with personalities, style and emotions than with the articulation of distinctive ideologies. The Mensheviks were outraged by Lenin's shoddy treatment of the three ousted editors — he had called them Iskra's 'least productive members' — and in solidarity with them Martov now refused to serve with Lenin and Plekhanov on the new editorial board. They accused Lenin of trying to become the dictator of the party — one talked of his needing to wield a 'baton' like the one used by army commanders to instil discipline in the ranks — and set themselves up as the defenders of democracy in the party. Lenin's own intransigence, his refusal to patch up his differences with the Mensheviks (differences which, by his own admission, were 'in substance . . . very unimportant'), and his readiness, once provoked, to admit to his belief that there had to be a dictator of the party to discipline the 'wavering elements in our midst', merely heightened the emotional tensions. The meeting broke down in petty squabbles, with each side accusing the other of having 'started it', or of having 'betrayed' the other. People took sides on the basis of hurt feelings and outraged sensibilities and established bonds of loyalty. Lydia Dan recalls that she took Martov's side not so much because she thought that he was right but because:

I felt that I had to support him. And many others felt that way. Martov was poorly suited to be a leader. But he had an inexhaustible charm that attracted people. It was frequently difficult to account for why they followed him. He himself said, 'I have the nasty privilege of being liked by people.' And, naturally, if something like a schism occurred, Martov would be noble, Martov would be honourable, while Lenin . . . well, Lenin's influence was enormous, but still.. . For my own part, it was very tragic to have to say that all my sympathies for Lenin (which were considerable) were based upon misunderstanding.32

For several years the incipient political differences between the Men-sheviks and the Bolsheviks continued to be masked by personal factors. No doubt it was in part because the two factions all lived together — sometimes literally — in small exile communities, so that their arguments over party dogma often became entangled in squabbles over money and lovers. But Lenin's personality was the crucial issue. Bolshevism was defined by a personal pledge of loyalty to him; and Menshevism, though to a lesser extent, by opposition to him. Valentinov, on his arrival in Geneva in 1904, was shocked by the 'atmosphere of worship [of Lenin] which people calling themselves Bolsheviks had created' there. Lenin reinforced this divide by his violent attack on the Mensheviks in his pamphlet One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (1904). He now called them 'traitors' to the Marxist cause. None of his Bolshevik lieutenants was even allowed to talk to any of the Menshevik leaders without gaining his prior approval.33

Only very slowly, during and after 1905, were the differences between the two factions spelled out in political terms. In fact for a long time (right up until 1918) the rank and file Social Democrats, particularly on the Menshevik side, sought to stitch the party together again. This was especially so in the provinces, where the party's forces were simply too small to afford such factional disputes. Here they continued to work together in united SD organizations. But gradually, as the party was forced to confront the dilemmas of real politics, during the 1905 Revolution and then in the Duma period, so its two factions demarcated themselves both in terms of their different ideologies, their strategies and tactics, and in terms of their ever more diverse political styles and cultures.

Menshevism remained a loose movement — high on morals, low on discipline. There was no real Menshevik leader, in the sense that the Bolsheviks had one, and indeed it was a part of Menshevik ideology to deny the need for one. Only slowly and reluctantly were the Mensheviks dragged towards the type of formal party structure which their rivals had from the start. Their spirit remained that of the friendly and informal circles (kruzhkt) of the 1890s, what Lenin mocked as 'the loose Oblomov gowns and slippers' of the movement's salad days. But the Mensheviks were genuinely more democratic, both in their policies and in their composition, than the Bolsheviks. They tended to attract a broader range of people — more non-Russians, especially Jews and Georgians, more diverse types of workers, petty merchants and members of the intelligentsia — whereas the followers of the Bolsheviks tended to come from a narrower range (the vast majority were Great Russian workers and uprooted peasants). This broader social base may partly explain the Mensheviks' inclination towards compromise and conciliation with the liberal bourgeoisie. This was certainly the main distinction between them and the Bolsheviks, who, under Lenin's guidance, became increasingly intransigent in their opposition to democracy. Yet this demarcation — much as it may have been linked with social differences — was essentially an ethical one. The Mensheviks were democrats by instinct, and their actions as revolutionaries were always held back by the moral scruples which this entailed. This was not true of the Bolsheviks. They were simpler and younger men, militant peasant-workers like Kanatchikov; doers rather than thinkers. They were attracted by Lenin's discipline and firm leadership of the party, by his simple slogans, and by his belief in immediate action to bring down the tsarist regime rather than waiting, as the Mensheviks advised, for it to be eroded by the development of capitalism. This, above all, was what Lenin offered them: the idea that something could be done.

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