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Review –‘ Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? In Context’
by Lars T Lih, Brill Publishers, Leiden & Boston

Part 4 The organisation of Russian Social Democracy

Joe Craig

29 November 2006

In his book Lih notes the persistent effort of scholars to associate Lenin as closely as possible with the Russian revolutionary tradition.  This allows them to counterpose his supposed Eastern Marxism with Marxism in the West, the former being a disfigurement of the latter.  The problem, Lih points out, is that Lenin’s opponents, including the Mensheviks, referred positively to the Russian tradition more often than did Lenin.

The supposed debasement of Marxism that Lenin was guilty of is encapsulated in two passages which seem to condemn him and to sum up the whole case against WITBD in particular and Lenin as a whole.  The two passages are traditionally translated as follows:

‘Social-Democratic consciousness could only have been brought to the workers from without.  The history of all countries shows that the working class exclusively by its own efforts is able to develop only trade union consciousness.’


‘the task of Social Democracy is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social Democracy.’ (quoted in LR, p.390)

The traditional understanding of this is that Lenin rejected Marx’s idea that the working class was the revolutionary class, claiming instead that it could not understand its own historical mission, but sought only piecemeal economic reforms.  It had therefore to be diverted from outside in an attempt to curb its own spontaneous self-organisation.  This approach rejected the principle that the liberation of the working class was to be achieved by the working class itself and instead asserted that a conspiratorial band of professional revolutionaries would have to substitute itself for the class.  All this came from Lenin’s sympathy for the native Russian revolutionary tradition which opposed the teachings of Western Marxism.

Lih says that there have been two responses to these passages, viewed as the essence of ‘Leninism’, one condemning ‘Leninism’ as a result, the second dismissing the passages as polemical formulations that shed little light on Lenin’s world view.


In this review we have already called into question much of the interpretation on which both of these have been based.  In Lih’s book he devotes over fifty pages to exhaustive explanation of how these passages came to be written, what the real translation of key words and phrases should be, what really was being meant by them and why they might have been misunderstood. It is not possible to recount all of this here.

He explains that the passages came to be written because, while Lenin set out to write a book on political agitation, organizational professionalism and the use of the party newspaper, he felt compelled in the middle of it to take up a polemic with ‘Rabochee delo’.  In doing so he dragged in assorted defenders of economism, or what he characterised as economism, and employed their language for polemical effect, e.g. stikhiinost.  This word is translated as ‘spontaneous’ in English even though the two words have only a tangential overlap.  Perhaps a better translation in most cases might be ‘elemental’ but Lih resists this because he does not want to repeatedly talk about ‘elemental elements’ or ‘elementality.’  Lenin himself did not translate stikhiinyi as spontaneity so this translation is not the meaning Lenin intended.

The basic metaphor involved connotes the self’s lack of control over the world, while spontaneity connotes the worlds’ lack of control over the self.  To the first we are usually negative and to the second positive.  Lenin used it in a positive sense to note the development of the movement of workers towards socialism and political struggle in 1900.  Lih argues that there was thus no such thing as stikhiinost, or rather, too many things meant by it so that its meaning can only be determined by close attention to the context.

Similar problems exist with translation of the word that is turned into ‘divert’, which has the connotation of straying from the right path.  Lenin’s opponents were saying Social Democracy could not have an influence on workers’ development, Lenin was arguing that they could make a difference.  The problems of translation dog these two passages and form the material for a big part of Lih’s book.

Lih does not deny that Lenin badly phrases his argument but part of Lih’s own case is that they should be understood by reference to their context and that we should seek to make them consistent with this context.  Such ‘sympathetic’ reading of authors is not unusual.  We should read authors as if they knew what they had written before.  We are obliged to look for consistency.  In Lenin’s case so many have been inspired to oppose him that exactly the opposite has occurred.  This, however, can only be sustained in most authors’ case by treating him or her almost as an idiot or pathologically twisted.  This is one reason anarchists often advance arguments against Lenin as if he was an idiot.

So what do these passages mean?  The first can be read as a statement of fact: Marxism grew out of the heads of Marx and Engels (but only after encountering the worker movement in Paris, Brussels and England, and developing Marxism in continuing contact with it– in fact as members of it).  This is the only way it could have come about (if not by Marx and Engels then by someone else) because socialism that is scientific – as opposed to utopian socialism already in existence – could only develop on the basis of the heights already reached by bourgeois science – e.g. British political economy and German philosophy.  This could not have been done by workers although Lenin notes workers did develop their own ideas about socialism.

The second of the sentences can almost be seen as a tautology when we properly translate the term rendered as ‘trade union consciousness’, not as belief in trade unions, which Lenin supports, but belief that only trade unions are necessary and independent working class politics is not.  It is a statement of the need for the merger of the militant worker movement and socialism.  Without the latter the former will be without the latter i.e. the worker movement will lack working class politics– hence its tautological character.  The point for Lenin here is what the worker movement could achieve with socialism and Social Democracy, not the limitations of it without them.

What does the second passage mean?  This seems to clash with Lenin’s usual optimism that the worker movement is developing in a healthy direction, whatever its need to merge with socialism.  His whole argument in WITBD is about how failures on this score are those of Social Democrats not the worker movement.  This second passage seems to contradict the one immediately before and after it.  Again a proper understanding hinges on the word ‘stikhiinost’ which in this context means ‘without Social Democratic influence’.  We Social Democrats thus have to combat this lack of Social Democratic politics which, when this is the case, brings the worker movement under the influence of the bourgeoisie.  Lenin’s intention was to say nothing that was controversial in mainstream Social Democracy of the time and that is how it was generally received, only later to be used to unearth a heresy against traditional Marxism.


When we see the meaning of these two passages and are not diverted by them to seek some strange Eastern form of Marxism we are also in a position to notice Lenin’s frequent references to the model of the SPD in Germany.  For Lenin this was what the RSDWP was going to be. ‘The SPD is a democratic and worker-controlled party that nevertheless is genuinely revolutionary.  It is led by talented, experienced leaders who have gained the justified confidence of the rank and file through devoted service.  It understands the importance of theory.  It is an energetic tribune of the people, tirelessly exposing abuses and acting as the leader of all democratic forces in Germany.’ (LR, p 413)

For Lenin the central problem for the Russian would-be emulators of this party was that ‘The leader/guides have fallen behind this stikhiinyi upsurge of the masses and they have turned out to be unprepared to carry out their responsibilities as leader/guides.’ (Lenin quoted in LR, p.423)  ‘Organisation must be the Russian Social Democrats’ top priority because everything else – the enthusiasm of the masses, the universal hatred of the autocracy – is at hand.’ (LR, p.429)  This response of Lenin in 1901-1902 was very much like his later responses in 1905 and 1912.

The organizational norms that Lenin argued for to help correct this situation were not his inventions.  He gained support from other Social Democrats because he ‘generalised in masterly fashion the organizational experience of the best praktiki.’ (Stalin quoted in LR, p.434)  Lih argues that Lenin’s followers often made a better case for his position than Lenin himself, using different arguments in a more readable style.

The core of the Social Democratic organisation was local committees with strong roots in the worker milieu even if they often had non-worker majorities.  They remained democratic in spirit if not in rules.  Their main activity revolved around the creation and circulation of illegal literature.  Their main threat was Tsarist repression, in the form of arrests but also informers.  They survived because of strong roots among the workers and also because they developed a series of rules for preserving secrecy – konspiratsiia.

The movement had begun in the early 1890s with the appearance of various uncoordinated committees usually unaware of each others existence even if they existed in the same city.  They had a shared inspiration however from Kautsky’s Erfurt Programme and from the local militant worker movement.  If the latter thrived so did the committees.  Lih records three possible avenues of development for them.  The first came from the Plekhanov group, conditioned by the experience of Narodnaia volia, which put forward a plan for ‘a militant, strictly centralized organisation, with strict rules of konspiratsiia – an organisation of revolutionary Social Democrats, a staff that would prepare itself for recruiting an army’ once political freedom was achieved.  It is argued that they overestimated the possible contribution of the intelligentsia.  The second ‘was so eager to recruit and organize an army it forgot the aims of the battle,’ – the economists.  The third planned to expand as much as possible the framework of a secret organisation, and, while preserving intact the konspiratsiia character of the party staff, would also connect in a whole series of ‘threads to the mass’.  This was the view of a generation of praktiki expressed by Lenin. (LR, p.438)

What made the combination of an illegal underground and ‘threads to the mass’ possible was the operation of the Social Democratic Party.  One praktiki, Olminsky, gave the example of giving out leaflets.  If several praktiki grabbed a pack of leaflets and gave them out right and left they would be quickly arrested or followed back to the underground printing press and the whole operation cleaned up.  By splitting the shipment of leaflets by one person in a separate section of the organisation to, say, five apartments where it is split into another five apartments, the leaflets are eventually distributed across the locality or factory but with minimum knowledge of where the leaflets came from or who else was distributing them.  The second factor making the combination possible was the drive for organisation from below which provided new recruits to the committee when existing praktiki were arrested, provided willing hands to distribute the leaflets and enthusiastic recipients of the message when they received the leaflets.

The ideal of the German party was thus turned into the reality of operating under Russian conditions by the experience of local Social Democratic committees.  ‘Iskra’ and Lenin’s plans for the party were not the work of geniuses but were successful in winning the party committees over because they understood best the experience, problems and aspirations of the praktiki.  A party could not be built from above because many local committees already existed and could not be created in some pre-designed image.  Neither, given the need for konspiratsiia, could it be built from below – the local committees could not meet together to openly decide party policy, strategy and tactics.  It could however be created ‘from the middle’ by means of an émigré newspaper linking the local committees, reflecting their views, and acting as a forum of debate on party strategy and tactics.  This was the role of ‘Iskra’.  The praktiki embraced it because the militant workers embraced it.

More translations

How was all this to be achieved?  Lenin coined two new terms; ‘artisanal limitations’ and ‘revolutionary by trade’, usually translated as professional revolutionary.  Once again, erroneously, they became weapons to accuse Lenin of wanting to create an elite conspiratorial organisation.  In fact, Lih argues, even konspiratsiia, a term already current, does not mean conspiracy.  Trotsky is quoted to give some feeling for what the term meant.  ‘We knew that links with the workers demanded a great deal of konspiratsiia.  We pronounced the word seriously, with a respect that was almost mystical.’  As Lih notes, ‘he did not mean that he could hardly wait to plot and scheme.’ ‘A concise definition of konspiratsiia was “the fine art of not getting arrested.’ (LR, p.447)

Conspiracies are about seeking to restrict information to as small a circle as possible, the aim of konspiratsiia was to get the word out to as many people as possible.  Lenin thought a combination of strict and loose konspiratsiia would allow the combination of an illegal underground and ‘threads to the mass’ to work effectively.  For this to happen artisanal limitations’ had to be overcome (sometimes translated as amateurism or primitiveness).  Lih’s translation is meant to draw the distinction between artisan or handicraftsmen who might be very skilled but who stand in the same relationship to large scale production as the fragmentation, isolation and narrow horizons of local party committees did to a truly national political party.  Such limitations were the breeding ground of economism.

The second term coined by Lenin is usually translated as ‘professional’ revolutionary, but as revolutionary ‘by trade’ by Lih.  In English the former has middle class and elitist associations which are therefore misleading.  ‘By trade’ connotes a skill which can be learnt and is both a source of respect and pride.  Those with this skill would make no distinction between those of a worker or intelligentsia background.  The ultimate aim of the metaphor is to portray the revolutionary as part of the workers’ world, ‘a fellow skilled labourer in the great factory of revolution.’ (In fact the direct opposite of elitism, which is how it is usually portrayed). (LR, p. 460)

These ‘revolutionaries by trade’ were not the only members of the Social Democratic Party but an essential component of the division of labour that allowed konspiratsiia to work and the combination to succeed.  Lih argues that the concept was not fully thought-out and perhaps the lack of clarity reflected the lack of novelty in a concept of something that was already in existence in real life, requiring little elaboration.  He argues that in this very lack of clarity is proof that there was no invention of a new type of party, with such revolutionaries as its centre, the thesis so beloved of the opponents of ‘Leninism.’

Accusations of elitism and contempt for democracy are so far from the mark they must denote either ignorance or malevolence.  Lenin’s commitment to winning the support of the worker class through democratic means under conditions of political freedom make any alternative case built on misinterpretation of two passages of WITBD untenable.  He opposes ‘playing with democracy’ because underground conditions do not allow real democracy.  To attempt elections in the local party committees when there is no openness and transparency is undemocratic.  You want democracy in underground conditions?  This shows you don’t know what democracy is.  This is Lenin’s argument.  In 1905 when he thought the conditions for democracy existed he ‘instantly called for a very broad electoralism in the Party.’ (LR p.473)

When it came to the relations between the local committees and the Party Congress, even during the underground period, Lenin was to be the fiercest defender of democratic functioning.  We shall see this in the next part of our review.

‘Freedom to criticise’

A final assault on Lenin’s democratic credentials might be launched on the basis of the first chapter of WITBD where Lenin criticised the freedom ‘Rabochee delo’ wanted to allow to revisionism to undermine the revolutionary foundations of Russian Social Democracy.  This is what he says is demanded by those who called for ‘freedom of criticism’.  What was at stake was how far a voluntary organisation could tolerate those within its ranks who questioned or rejected the fundamentals on which that organisation was founded.  Lenin came down decidedly on the side of preserving the purity of the party’s politics not because he opposed democracy.  He didn’t propose that revisionists be prevented from presenting their views.  He welcomed the opportunity to debate their errors.  The question was whether the party facilitated the presentation of these errors and whether ‘Iskra’ was justified in its aggressive polemics against them.  The question was whether revisionism presented its views within the party and was regarded as simply a variant expression of the interests of the proletariat, or it argued its views outside the party because it expressed class interests opposed to the proletariat’s.

He accepted that the German party allowed Bernstein to argue all sorts of revisionist attacks on Marxism.  He excused the German party this tolerance because it was, he thought, a long-established and strong party that had a settled revolutionary view.  It could put up with it.  (The year 1914 was to demonstrate how wrong he was when revisionism was shown to have eaten away at the revolutionary character of the German SPD.)  Accepting the bona fides of such revisionism in the Russian Party was not excusable because it was a young party.  In fact so young it had not yet had a proper first Congress.  It should therefore have been more concerned than Rabochee delo was to vigorously defend its revolutionary heritage.

Lih sums up the organizational character of Russian Social Democracy:

‘I have outlined an emerging consensus on the basic norms of the Russian underground.  These include centralism, discipline, opposition to artisanal limitations, opposition to conspiratorial organisations without links to the worker milieu, the need for revolutionaries by trade, at least some division of labour, konspiratsiia, inapplicability of formal electoral principles in the underground.  These norms were the sensible and empirically worked-out implications of the original project of applying the SPD model to the extent that Russian conditions permitted.  Ultimately, they derived from a common commitment to the merger of socialism and the worker movement.  In WITBD, Lenin describes the ideal organisation that would result if all these norms were fully realized.  The actual underground never remotely approached this ideal state.  Nevertheless, the norms that Lenin picked up from the Russian Social-Democratic praktiki and trumpeted back to them and to all other socialist activists were vital to the survival and to the accomplishments – not lightly to be dismissed – of the Russian underground of 1890-1917.’ (LR, p.488)


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