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

Part 5 Bolsheviks and Mensheviks

Joe Craig

1 December 2006

According to the textbook interpretation WITBD was the central cause of the split of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party into Bolshevik and Menshevik factions.  Those who became Mensheviks finally recognised Lenin’s dangerous political and organisational innovations - through his hyper-centralised view of party organisation, exposed by his restrictive definition of party membership, and precipitated a split.

This led to Trotsky’s prophesy that the party organisation would substitute for the party, the Central Committee would substitute itself for the Party organisation and finally a dictator would substitute for the Central Committee.

But there is a problem with such an interpretation.  Lenin does not mention the party Central Committee in WITBD, or rather he does - once, but only to argue that local organisations should take up the task of choosing when to mount an uprising.

So where did this idea of an all-powerful Central Committee come from?  Lih argues it came from Rosa Luxemburg who never documented where she got her evidence for Lenin’s heretical views.


In fact the real cause of the split is forgotten because it conflicts with this erroneous version of events.  The Bolshevik case was based on the democratic principle of the sovereignty of the elected party Congress and the Menshevik case was based on the vanguardist principle of a vigorous, centrally-directed mobilization campaign inside and outside the party.

The most important issue defining the split, and from which the terms Bolshevik and Menshevik emerged, was over the choice of editors for ‘Iskra’.  The party had made ‘Iskra’ the party paper and the issue was whether it therefore had the right to determine the editors.  Lenin and Plekhanov thought that it did, proposing a three person editorial board of themselves plus Martov.  Martov refused to serve on the party newspaper and joined the three other previous editors of ‘Iskra’ – Akselrod, Potresov and Zasulich (when it had only been a newspaper of the ‘Iskra’ group), in declaring a boycott of their own party’s institutions.  It was called ‘the general strike of the generals’.

For three months ‘Iskra’ was run by Lenin and Plekhanov but Plekhanov then decided that for the sake of peace the old editors needed to be co-opted onto the editorial board.  Lenin had offered them space in ‘Iskra’ to state their objections or even the provision of their own newspaper, but thought this idea of Plekhanov’s was to concede too much to those with opportunist tendencies.  Plekhanov therefore threatened to resign and Lenin, under pressure, was forced to resign himself.  This left Plekhanov as a one man editor and he then decided to co-opt the old editors.  Thus the decision of the party congress had been overturned, the editorial board selected by the party was out and one rejected by it was in.

This was not simply a question of personalities.  In the first issue of ‘Iskra’ under the new editors the majority decisions of the party congress were attacked and the official paper of the party became an organ of the minority, hostile to the will of the party congress.  The content of the new policy presented by ‘Iskra’ was that the party had to emphasis the class distinctiveness of the workers and that this had previously been neglected because of emphasis on the anti-Tsarist revolution.

Lenin’s response to all this was presented in his book ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back’ and this became the important work in defining the polemics of the party split, not WITBD.  In the literary conflict which followed the Mensheviks enlisted the talents of Luxemburg, Kautsky and Trotsky as well as their own writings in ‘Iskra’, which they now controlled.  In response the Bolshevik output was relatively small.  Lenin argued not only the opportunism of the Mensheviks but also their lack of legitimacy, having usurped the decisions of the party congress, but the central party institutions thought that an intra-party struggle was a diversion of scarce resources and forbade agitation in favour of a new congress.  The dispute took a new turn when the Mensheviks unveiled the content of their new political turn and Lenin moved from the dispute on inner-party affairs to taking up the issues raised by this new turn.  Here Lih’s book breaks off its story of the RSDWP’s development, as it leaves the period when WITBD was an issue and enters a new phase of development.  WITBD had argued for the creation of a real party, now the issue was how that party behaved.


Lih then describes what Bolshevism meant at that point and sums it up as partiinost, defined as ‘acting as befits a modern political party’ with a national organizational framework as opposed to the scattered and isolated character of the RSDWP before the second party congress.  Partiinost meant leading members accepting the responsibilities of being the national voice of the party as determined by the congress.  This conflicted with the views of individualistic intellectuals who thought they had rights bestowed because of their original and long established positions in the creation and development of the movement.  They felt they could advocate whatever they wanted no matter what the party policy was that they were supposed to defend.  They lacked the discipline which proper party organisation required, both to be effective and to be democratic.  The objections of Rosa Luxemburg were thus entirely misguided and misconceived.  What was democratic about a minority determining party policy?

Lih states the Menshevik case as follows.  The arguments against the impossibility of having a truly democratic party set forth in WITBD applied equally to the relationship between the committees and the party congress.  The party was also held together by the continuity and prestige of its historic leaders.  The requirements for democracy and continuity of leadership should run together but it was Lenin’s fault that now they did not.  The assertion - that the ideal of recreating the western party model in Russia was too ambitious - also raised its head again.

Unfortunately the contradiction between being a minority yet controlling the official party paper was too strong to allow a coherent Menshevik case to be made.  For Lih this is the ultimate cause of a striking feature of Menshevik polemics: ‘the constant and obsessive personal vilification of Lenin.  Lenin’s views are not just attacked, his actions are not just criticised – his motives are not just impugned, his abilities mocked, his character blackened.  Lenin is a power-hungry demagogue out to destroy the Party for his own dark and discreditable motives. . . There is no counterpart to this in the Bolshevik polemics, angry and partisan as they are.’ (LR, p.505)

Having derided Lenin as a demagogue, but found he had considerable support in the party, the Mensheviks were compelled to belittle this support.  They thus attacked their own membership.  The praktiki were attacked in such a way that it could only have encouraged these praktiki to support Lenin.  While Bolshevik polemics were directed at the ‘Iskra’ editors Menshevik ones seemed directed at the whole underground without discriminating against those who backed Lenin.  Martov attributed Lenin’s success to his pandering to the ‘cheap seats’ whereupon the Bolshevik Olminsky took to signing his pamphlets ‘Cheap Seats’.  The Mensheviks were compelled to express the anomalous position they were in of being a minority leadership by attacking their own organisation.  They reflected their true status: that of a faction.

Eventually they had to accept the principle of congress sovereignty and in 1905 adopted Lenin’s definition of party membership.  ‘Lenin won the debate because, as the Mensheviks discovered, he had the stronger case.‘ (LR, p.508)  How else could the Mensheviks win except by winning a majority, but in what other way could this matter if this majority did not determine policy?  The Mensheviks were thus stuck with the label ‘minority’ and the Bolsheviks retained their appellation ‘majority.’  In fact it was the Mensheviks themselves which had chosen this designation; it had not been foisted on them by Lenin in some clever manouevre. 

The foundation of the Mensheviks case was also undermined as the traditional leadership split into four tendencies – Plekhanov, Martov and Akselrod, Potresov and Zasulich, and finally Trotsky.  The émigré leadership also learned that it was the praktiki of the Russian underground who finally called the shots.

Other criticisms

In this dispute the Mensheviks thought of themselves as the progressive minority and of Lenin as a force of conservatism. This conflicts somewhat with the traditional interpretation of Lenin as the instigator of all new development, including of a new party.  The Mensheviks believed that the party should emphasise the distinctive class interests of the proletariat and its distinctive goal of socialism even as it fought for the goal of political freedom, which was also the goal of other classes and the political parties that they represented.

This, for Lih, is the context for Trotsky’s oft-quoted objection to Bolshevik substitutionism.  It is not that he damns the undemocratic organizational proposals of Lenin.  His objection, according to Lih, was rather that the party leadership failed to educate the organisation on its class interests expressed in the Mensheviks new campaign strategy and the party organisation failed in turn to educate the class.  The substitutionism involved is the result of failure on the part of the party leadership and party organisation to discharge their responsibilities, not their overestimation of what these responsibilities were.  This is certainly the only time this reviewer has come across this interpretation of Trotsky’s famous remarks.  Not that the Mensheviks did not systematically attempt to portray Lenin as a despicable dictator.

These charges did not arise however from what Lenin had written in WITBD.  They were taken from various ‘off-the-cuff comments made by Lenin and his supporters in 1903-4. The Mensheviks cannot be blamed too severely for taking isolated phrases out of context, drawing absurd conclusions and then beating Lenin over the head with them.  This was the way the game was played and Lenin was by no means averse to playing it himself.  But a problem arises when scholars uncritically take these partisan sallies as accurate descriptions of Lenin’s actual outlook, and then, to compound the confusion, assume that Lenin preached these views in WITBD.’ (LR, p.518)

Lih gives the debate over the conditions of party membership at the second congress as an example of such a method.  Lenin proposed that a member was someone who acknowledged the party programme and supported the Party in one of the party organisations, while Martov’s definition was one who acknowledged the programme and gave the Party regular assistance under the guidance of one of its organisations.  Lih reminds us that this was not the cause of the party split since the Bolsheviks (‘majority’) lost this vote.  The Bolsheviks didn’t like Martov’s definition but accepted the will of the congress.

It was Martov’s formulation that represented the spirit of the Russian populist movement Narodnaia volia while Lenin’s represented the spirit of Western Social-Democratic parties.  Akselrod defended Martov’s formulation with reference to Narodnaia volia.  Kautsky agreed with the Menshevik definition but only because it suited Russian conditions better.  However in a situation of political freedom he believed Lenin’s would be preferable.  Finally in 1905 the Mensheviks themselves adopted Lenin’s definition.  The result was not a restriction on party membership.

Another example was Lenin’s remark that workers understood discipline better because they had undergone the factory experience and intellectuals hadn’t.  Luxemburg and Trotsky then criticised him about the evils of such factory discipline.  The Bolshevik Bogdanov replied that Lenin was well aware of the evil effects of the factory but that if it really was as bad as his critics maintained then the Marxist project, which picked out the working class as the revolutionary class, was a ’wash-out.’

Lih’s judgment on many of the criticisms of Lenin is scathing.  He describes Luxemburg’s criticism, that Lenin was obsessed with an all-powerful Central Committee, as ‘an unscrupulous hatchet job.’  Her ‘articles provide no evidence that she had even read WITBD.’ (LR, p.526)  This last judgment is rendered because there was no dispute between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks over the powers of the party Central Committee.  There was a difference between Lenin and the Mensheviks over central party institutions but in this dispute the Mensheviks accused Lenin of wanting to subordinate the central committee to the central editorial board, although when they took over the latter they failed to limit its power.  Thus Lih characterises Luxemburg’s picture of Lenin’s ‘devotion to an all-devouring Central Committee as the baseless nonsense it is. (LR, p.529)

A final caricature of Lenin and the Bolsheviks is that they defended the role of the intelligentsia in the party to the exclusion of workers, although some add that the 1905 revolution convinced him to change his mind about this.  This has been dealt with in the explanation given about the role of purposive workers and the importance of the underground’s links to the workers.  For Lenin and all Social Democrats the intelligentsia was necessary, but as Lenin put it in his first major writing: ‘the role of the “intelligentsia” comes to this: to make it unnecessary to have special leader/guides from the intelligentsia.’ (LR, p. 530)

Lih thus dismisses the view from the activist tradition that Lenin had at one point sought to exclude workers.  He quotes from Tony Cliff:  ‘most of the delegates to the Congress were committee-men who were opposed to any move which would tend to weaken their authority over the rank and file.  Buttressing themselves with quotations from ‘What is to be Done?’ they called for ‘extreme caution in admitting workers into the committees and condemned ‘playing at democracy’ . . The unfortunate Lenin had to persuade his supporters to oppose the line proposed in ‘What is to be Done.’  Lih remarks: ’All this is totally false.  No one at the Congress was opposed to the idea of having as many workers as possible on the committees. . . WITBD was not even mentioned in the debate, and everyone was well aware of Lenin’s long-standing position in favour of workers. . . .All in all, the debate as it actually transpired at the Third Congress does fatal damage to the textbook interpretation.’ (LR, p.540-541)


In his conclusion to the book Lih paraphrases remarks from a delegate to the Bolshevik Third Congress of 1905, M.G.Tskhakaia:

‘Two or three years ago I read WITBD and I had a very favourable impression.  I did not feel any need to pore over it (I do not think I have read anything by Lenin more than once), because I did not see anything particularly earthshaking or difficult in it.  I was simply glad to see that a decade of practical experience had not passed in vain for Russian Social Democracy and that it had found someone who could sum up the implications of its praktiki for organizational, tactical and party questions.  Of course, Lenin makes mistakes and sometimes comes up with incorrect or clumsy formulations.  No doubt he himself would now do a better job of formulating and supporting the same basic ideas set forth in WITBD.  Still, I admire him more than any of the other writers of the younger generation.  But let’s not go overboard and start talking about ‘Leninism’, a term invented by our irritated comrades in the other faction.  After all, outstanding leaders such as Kautsky and Bebel (not to mention Engels) do not have ‘-ism’ attached to their names.  When asked, I certainly do not call myself a ‘Leninist’ but a Marxist, a socialist, a revolutionary Social Democrat.’ (LR, p554-555)

If people nowadays call themselves Leninists it is often to insist on concepts now associated with him but which are actually constituent parts of Marxism.  So while Lih notes that Lenin never used the term ‘vanguard party’ ‘the vanguard outlook derives from the key Marxist assumption that “the emancipation of the working classes must be the work of the working classes themselves.”  Sometimes this dictum is viewed as the opposite of the vanguard outlook, but, in actuality, it makes vanguardism almost inevitable.  If the proletariat is the only agent capable of introducing socialism, then it must go through some process that will prepare it to carry out that great deed.’ (LR p.556)

Lih concludes his commentary with a quotation from one of Lenin’s supporters in 1907.  We will also conclude our review here.

‘Russian Social Democracy finds itself in exceptionally propitious circumstances.  Not a single other worker party was formed and began its struggle with such a high level of purposiveness in the proletariat.  If other worker parties had to forge the class awareness of the proletariat by means of long, stubborn and often unsuccessful blows on cold metal, - our Social Democracy works on fiery hot iron that easily takes the desired shape.  We do not yet have the historical tradition of the [European} worker movement that often becomes a huge brake on its development.  Our entire tradition is this:  the passionate faith in the good news [evangelie] of socialism and an inextinguishable longing for knowledge and struggle.’ (LR, p,559)


Return to top of page