The Leninist Conception of the Party: Myths and Realities

In recent years, Leninism has again become a reference point for some thinkers on the radical Left. This is cause for celebration after decades in which Lenin’s name was associated — unjustly — with the experiments known as “actually existing socialism” and the torments of Stalinism. Left out of this (relative) return to Lenin as a reference point, though, has been the question of the party. In Lenin’s work, this question is not only decisive but is also probably the most difficult to unravel, since it has given rise to so many myths and fantasies. This article contributes to the reopening of these debates.
  • Marina Garrisi | 
  • October 3, 2021

To take up again the question of the party in Lenin’s work requires confronting at least two types of interpretative schemes. The first one — the one that has, unfortunately, endured for so long — associates Leninism with authoritarianism, and the “Leninist party” with the dictatorship of a self-proclaimed elite (or vanguard) that carries the seeds of a totalitarian obsession and thus foreshadowed Stalinism. The persistence of this reading, in a context of international reaction, has contributed to discrediting the Leninist party among the far Left, even in sectors historically linked to Leninism. Such is the case with the current within France’s New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) that comes from the former Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR), the French section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, as well as its international cothinkers, for whom Lenin as a reference point is at best some variety of impotent folklore and at worst an essentially sectarian concept to be overcome at all costs.

More recently, the debate around the Leninist party has been reshaped in part thanks to research in the English-speaking academic world, notably by Lars Lih. His meticulous study of Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? resulted in the impressive book Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? in Context,1Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? in Context (Leiden: Brill, 2005). which radically challenges the myths that have been made about Lenin’s famous work — long read and considered a “manual” for systematically spelling out a new concept of organization. Lih’s study has provoked many rich discussions,2See, for example, Historical Materialism 18, no. 3 (2010). but his thesis has also been seriously criticized for asserting that Lenin remained a “Russian Social Democrat” until the end, even after his break with the Second International. In the end, Lih’s reading tends to erase some of the most original and politically decisive features of Lenin’s contributions, going so far as to deny that one can even speak of a Leninist conception of the party.3Lih refers to Lenin as an “Erfurtian,” a reference to the 1891 Erfurt Congress of Germany’s Social Democratic Party and the program adopted there, which was considered authoritative within the Second International.

Lenin and “Leninism” after the 20th Century

A discussion of Leninism in the 21st century should begin with saying what Leninism is not. In 2017, as the centenary of the Russian Revolution was being celebrated, Stéphane Courtois published a book in French with a title that reveals the shortcuts promoted by some liberal ideologists: Lenin: Inventor of Totalitarianism.4Stéphane Courtois, Lénine, l’inventeur du totalitarisme (Paris: Perrin, 2017). On Courtois’s side of the political spectrum, demonizing Lenin is nothing new. In his book Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, the American historian and Trotskyist activist Paul Le Blanc notes, “From the triumph of the Bolshevik revolution down to the present, liberal and conservative ideologists of the capitalist status quo have utilized immense resources to spread the notion that Lenin and his works — especially his concept of the revolutionary party — constitute a hideous threat to law, order, simple human decency, and Western civilization.”5Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016). The significance of this hatred and fear that Lenin inspires in the international bourgeoisie cannot be understated. Essentially, it comes down to the fact he helped lead the October socialist revolution to victory, thereby nurturing the hopes of entire generations.

But a return to Lenin is all the more difficult because other powerful distortions have arisen from within the communist movement itself. We cannot ignore that Stalin, agent of the bureaucratic counterrevolution in the workers’ state after Lenin’s death, sought to legitimize himself by systematically referring to Lenin’s ideas. Using and abusing truncated quotations taken out of context and transformed into eternal truths, Stalinism developed a dogmatic and ossified canon of thought under the cover “Leninism,” which it claimed was an argument based on his authority.6This goes under the name of “Marxism-Leninism.” See, for example, Stalin’s own The Foundations of Leninism, which is an edifying example. In it, among many similar statements, Stalin describes “the Party as the embodiment of unity of will, unity incompatible with the existence of fractions,” and states, “The Party becomes strong by purging itself of opportunist elements.” About the party, one can read: “the party [is] a unity of will incompatible with the existence of fractions,” “the party is strengthened by purging itself of opportunist elements.” This vast enterprise of theoretical and political revision has deeply marked the international communist movement, so much so that, as Daniel Bensaïd puts it, “We tend to confuse Lenin’s specific contribution to the conception of the party with the codified ‘Leninism’ that is assimilated to Bolshevization, to monolithism.”7Daniel Bensaïd, Stratégie et parti (Paris: Les Prairies ordinaires, 1986). “Bolshevization” is the name that was given to the turn taken in 1924 in the Communist International to impose Stalin’s dictates and drastically restrict the right to criticism within the Communist parties. Moreover, liberal and Stalinist descriptions of the Leninist party converge in representing an essentially authoritarian Lenin, architect of a party with “iron discipline” that is “imposed from above” and that affords “no criticism” — and so on. In this context, and if we remain with this superficial reading, then Le Blanc’s explanation makes sense when he writes, “Not surprisingly, many revolutionary-minded people have concluded that if this is Leninism, then Leninism is not for them”!8Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party.

Yet, despite the clichés with which many have tried to confine him, Lenin remains an indispensable figure for those who today are thinking through how to build a revolutionary organization. That is the case for a simple but profound reason, as Pierre Broué correctly formulated in his history of the Bolshevik Party:

The party, in Lenin’s hands, was an incomparable historical instrument. Some 10,000 or so clandestine militants got back in touch after the revolutionary days of February 1917 and would, in less than eight months, constitute an organization that the broad masses of workers and, to a lesser extent, peasants, recognized as their own. It was going to lead them in the struggle against the provisional government, to conquer power and keep it. Lenin and his comrades, through factional struggles and repression, were to succeed where other socialists in initially more favorable conditions had ultimately failed; for the first time since the existence of socialist parties, one of them was to win.9Pierre Broué, Le parti bolchevique, histoire du P.C. de l’U.R.S.S. [The Bolshevik Party: History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union] (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1963). Only a few portions of this work have been translated into English; the full text in French is available here.

Because such a “historical instrument” is so critical to confronting the present, it is urgent to return to Lenin — to his theory and practice of organization. The crisis of capitalism is deepening, and we are witnessing an upsurge in the international class struggle against a backdrop of radicalization on the left and right, along with growing government authoritarianism. The “new” radical Lefts have failed to put forth any perspective for how to direct this upsurge toward confronting the bourgeois state and surpassing capitalism’s limits. Worse yet, “new” political projects such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in the Spanish State were transformed into agents of neoliberal policies in record time. In this context, a return to Lenin may be stimulating, not to find ready-made solutions for the current situation, but rather as a way to think about how to (re)construct combat organizations that know how to seize the opportunities the situation presents and exploit them as a way to open the path to socialist revolution in the 21st century — and in doing so, prevent the risk that they instead feed conservatism and, eventually, fascism.

This article returns to Lenin by exploring several events and debates in the history of Bolshevism in his lifetime, from the founding of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) in1895 to the October Revolution of 1917. Throughout, the article asks: What is the meaning of Lenin’s contribution on the question of the party, which Bensaïd says represents “a revolution within the revolution”?

While there is no systematic theory of the party in Lenin, we will see that there is a coherence between Lenin’s theoretical conceptions of organization and his practice of Bolshevism. This coherence prefigures a different tradition beyond that of Social Democracy, which was dominant at the time. While Lenin refers to Social Democracy all the way up to 1914, especially its German section, the specific conditions of the Russian revolution’s development and his own theoretical-political trajectory led him, in fact, to reformulate the relationship between class, party, and leadership, and to give new meaning to the role of the party in the dynamic of revolution. Thus, in the first decade of the 20th century, he took positions within international Social Democracy and against the view that had prevailed within it since the end of the 19th century, and he defended an original path that prioritized unifying to build genuine mass parties, particularly in Germany.

In this respect, Lenin and his Bolshevik current (first a tendency, then a faction, and then, beginning in 1912, an independent party) continued to polemicize against the Germans within the Second International. This put Lenin in a better position in the summer of 1914, at the moment when the Second International’s leaders committed their great betrayal, lining up behind their own bourgeoisies as World War I broke out. But it is also what allowed Lenin to play a decisive role in Russia’s revolutionary process in 1917.

Let’s begin by sketching the main “stages” in the development of the Leninist conception of organization and the practice of Bolshevism within Russian Social Democracy.

Lenin at 20: A Newspaper for All of Russia

Lenin’s fight for the socialist revolution unfolded under the specific, and difficult, conditions of capitalist development in Russia.10Space does not allow for details. Suffice it to say that this development was characterized above all by the slow pace with which it assimilated, in an unequal and combined way, some of the most advanced features of Western capitalist societies, and by the absence of even minimal political freedoms under czarist autocracy. These particular characteristics of capitalist development in Russia are fundamental to understanding the development of Leninism and, more globally, the debates that ran through Russian Social Democracy. For more details on these questions, see Broué, Le parti bolchevique; see also Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (1930). The czarist regime’s intransigent repression explains both the weakness of the liberal political movement and the difficulty in finding a revolutionary path 11As Broué writes, revolutionaries “confronted a regime that — as Alexander II said, and which none of his successors would ever think of denying — admitted to transforming itself from above only in an effort to avoid a revolution from below, because it realized it was suicidal to authorize any form of opposition, however peaceful — but thus left no other path but that of violent revolution” (Broué, Le parti bolchevique). by the workers’ and popular movement.12The Russian bourgeoisie developed slowly and with difficulty, caught in a vise between the weight of the anti-liberal autocracy, the large Russian landowners, and the Western bourgeoisies on one side, and the poor masses of the peasantry and the nascent but already quite concentrated workers’ movement on the other. This fear of seeing the workers’ movement radicalized is what led the bourgeoisie to look for ways to negotiate with the autocracy. In the Russian revolutionary movement of the second half of the 19th century, the Narodniks (populist current) had sought to build on discontent in the countryside but quickly became discouraged by the apathy of the peasant masses and decided to switch to terrorist methods. This played a decisive role in political differentiation in Russia, and it made a strong impact on Lenin, especially after his brother Alexander Ulyanov, a narodnik activist, was executed by the regime for an attempted assassination of Czar Alexander II.

It was largely against this populist current (and then against the current known as “legal Marxism”) that Marxism developed in Russia in the 1880s, thanks in particular to the pioneering work of Georgi Plekhanov to translate the works of Marx and Engels into Russian. In 1881, Plekhanov founded the Emancipation of Labor, Russia’s first group that really could be called Marxist. Lenin joined soon thereafter and set out to transform it into a real party. Lenin’s role was decisive from the outset. As Broué explains,

After the brilliant theoretical struggles led by Plekhanov, the practical problem arose for his students and companions: more than the others, because of the immensity of the obstacles that the autocracy erected for every organization, even at an elementary level, the Russian social-democrats would endeavor to create with which they could — following Marx — transform the world rather than simply interpret it. It is the young Ulyanov — Lenin — who best expressed this pursuit.13Broué, Le parti bolchevique.

A decisive first step was taken in 1898, with the founding congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). But in reality, the party was far from unified, and the local groups that constituted it remained widely scattered. Lenin wrote, “Russian Social-Democracy seems to have exhausted, for the time being, all its strength in making this tremendous step forward and has gone back to the former isolated functioning of separate local organizations.” It was Lenin’s first major battle: from 1895 to 1903, he waged war against what he called the “amateur” methods of the Social Democratic movement and put all his efforts into achieving “unification … into the work of a single party.”14Lenin continued, “To effect this unification, to evolve a suitable form for it and to get rid of completely narrow local isolation — such is the immediate and most urgent task of the Russian Social Democrats.” And, “All that is now lacking is the unification of all this local work into the work of a single party.” Elsewhere, he wrote, “The question, therefore, is whether the work that is already being conducted should be continued in ‘amateur’ fashion or whether it should be organized into the work of one party and in such a way that it is reflected in its entirety in one common organ.”

Lenin had two motivations. The first was to centralize the party. He was convinced that this was necessary if the party was to play a decisive role against the centralized monster of the czarist autocracy. He wrote,

Only fusion into a single party will enable us strictly to observe the principles of division of labor and economy of forces, which must be achieved in order to reduce the losses and build as reliable a bulwark as possible against the oppression of the autocratic government and against its frantic persecutions.

The second was to coordinate and crystallize the achievements of each one-off battle carried out by the nascent workers’ movement in order to extract from them their “significance as examples” — which, without a party, would remain isolated. He continued,

Because of this amateurish character many manifestations of the working-class movement in Russia remain purely local events and lose a great deal of their significance as examples for the whole of Russian Social-Democracy, as a stage of the whole Russian working-class movement. … Without their unification through an organ of the whole Party, these forms of revolutionary struggle lose nine-tenths of their significance; they do not lead to the creation of common Party experience, to the creation of Party traditions and continuity.

The party thus appears as a “catalyst” to centralize and give coherence and continuity to the experiences of struggle of the exploited and oppressed. The same is true for strikes, which are considered a school of war for the working class and revolutionaries: “a school in which the workers learn to make war on their enemies.” To take the measure of Lenin’s ambition and the difficulty of the task he set for himself, it is worth reminding readers of Russia’s sheer size (some 30 times larger than France) and its very low level of economic and cultural development at the time.

To unify the Social Democratic forces, it was the newspaper that quite quickly emerged as the most effective tool. Lenin wrote,

Only the establishment of a common Party organ can give the “worker in a given field” of revolutionary activity the consciousness that he is marching with the “rank and file,” the consciousness that his work is directly essential to the Party, that he is one of the links in the chain that will form a noose to strangle the most evil enemy of the Russian proletariat and of the whole Russian people.

Thus, at the dawn of the 20th century, Lenin had arrived at a first outline of his conception of the party: the party’s basic task is to give a common and organized direction to the initiatives of the proletariat. This conception is broadly similar, if not identical, to that of international Social Democracy at the time, first and foremost its German section, which represented the most advanced example in terms of organization.

1902-1903: What Is to Be Done? and the First Divisions within the RSDLP

The Second Congress of the RSDLP, held in 1903, was expected to be the congress of “genuine” unification. Instead, it became the congress of the original rupture, the first split, between the Mensheviks (“minority”) and the Bolsheviks (“majority,” led by Lenin). It was as part of the preparatory debate for this congress that Lenin penned his famous What Is to Be Done?15Of this book, the Belgian Marxist historian Marcel Liebman went so far as to write that it is “the most coherent exposition of the ideas of a Marxist endeavoring to create the tool by means of which to carry through a plan for revolution.” Liebman, Leninism under Lenin (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 29; first published in French in 1973. In essence, the work is a polemic with the group led by Aleksandr Martynov that Lenin calls the “economists,” and logically includes certain conjunctural developments.16 Lih writes that Lenin used the “economist” label as a discursive device to wage the political battle. “The polemic in WITBD is not against economism — rather, it is a polemic which uses economism as a stick to beat the main leadership rivals of Iskra (the Rabochee delo group). Lenin correctly assumed that, if he could pin the ‘economist’ label on his rivals, they would be discredited.” (Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, 11).

What Is to Be Done? has served as a pivot for dogmatic and “mythicized” readings of the Leninist conception of organization, notably within the so-called Marxist-Leninist tradition. Nevertheless, it is essential for understanding Lenin’s conception of organization. It is impossible to account for every one of the debates the text has provoked, so this article will focus on two ideas in particular that Lenin developed: the connection to class spontaneity and his insistence that the proletariat and, at its head, Social Democracy must commit to the terrain of political struggle.

Throughout his book, Lenin debates with the idea that workers could arrive at revolutionary consciousness “spontaneously” (in other words, only because of the very development of capitalism and its crises). He characterizes this belief in the omnipotence of the spontaneity of the masses, which he also calls “bowing to spontaneity,” as a dead end — one that keeps Russian Social Democracy from correctly figuring out its organizational tasks. Spontaneism, Lenin insists, makes one a prisoner of the vagaries of class consciousness, which does not follow a straight line (a long, progressive, and uninterrupted development). It is, rather, like the movement of a pendulum, with periods of flux and reflux: “the overwhelming of political consciousness by spontaneity … was also done spontaneously.” Further, Lenin reminds us that class consciousness does not develop on some neutral ground but takes shape within a historically determined framework in which bourgeois ideology has at its disposal means that are a thousand times superior to those of the proletariat:

But why, the reader will ask, does the spontaneous movement, the movement along the line of least resistance, lead to the domination of bourgeois ideology? For the simple reason that bourgeois ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology, that it is more fully developed, and that it has at its disposal immeasurably more means of dissemination.17As Liebman noted, “Lenin’s criticism was directed, however, not so much towards the spontaneous activity of the working class as towards its consciousness, as being elemental, instinctive, and consequently deficient.” Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, 30. Further, it would seem that we find here an idea already formulated by Marx in The German Ideology: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”]]

“Bending the stick” against those who indulge in the cult of the spontaneous, Lenin went even further, writing, “Hence, our task, the task of Social-Democracy is to combat spontaneity.”

Contrary to some interpretations, as Lih demonstrates, it was not so much Lenin’s lack of confidence in the spontaneity of the masses that led him to conclude that there was an opportunity coming. Rather it was that the revolutionaries would be unprepared for the great uprisings of the workers and people on the horizon. It was this unpreparedness, the delay in organizing the Social Democratic forces, over which Lenin obsessed, not his mistrust of or supposed hatred of the spontaneity of the masses. The last chapter of Lenin’s book outlines some practical conclusions: there, Lenin radicalizes his conceptions against amateurish methods and gives primacy to “centralization” and professional militancy.18Lenin’s conception of the professional militant should not be confused with the practice of full-time staff, that is, militants paid by the party itself. Rather, what Lenin means is to recruit and train militants who see their “job” as making the revolution. He also sketches out an organizational scheme composed of different circles and organizations, in which he takes pains to distinguish between the organization of workers in trade unions and professional organizations, which must be very broad, and the organization of revolutionaries — the party.

The other striking dimension of Lenin’s publication, this time on a directly programmatic level, is his polemic with Martynov, whom he accused of narrowing and impoverishing political agitation toward the working class by reducing it to “the collective struggle of the workers against their employers for better terms in the sale of their labor-power, for better living and working conditions.” To be sure, the economic and daily struggles of the working class were, for Lenin, an absolute necessity, but they were nevertheless insufficient for sharpening class consciousness from a revolutionary point of view. On the contrary, the political struggle is absolutely essential for at least two reasons: (1) to educate the class and the revolutionaries who must learn to understand capitalist society in all its manifestations so they can grasp its profoundly reactionary character, and (2) to forge the alliances necessary for the victory of the proletarian revolution. Thus, as Lenin wrote,

class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships of all classes and strata to the state and the government, the sphere of the interrelations between all classes.19This formulation of “only from without,” which Lenin actually took from Kautsky, has given rise to many interpretations and debates (space does not allow for details). Suffice it to mention that Lenin gave Kautsky’s formulation a different meaning. For Lenin, it was not a matter of insisting on the role played by petty-bourgeois intellectuals within the revolutionary movement, but on the necessity of the political struggle to develop class consciousness. See Hal Draper, “The Myth of Lenin’s ‘Concept of the Party’ or What They Did to What Is to Be Done?” See also Daniel Bensaïd. “Strategy and Politics: From Marx to the Third International,” Historical Materialism 28, no. 3 (2020): 230–66.

Continuing further on,

The Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.

What is in the making here, fundamentally, is the conviction that to bring down the capitalist system, the working class must claim a hegemonic position.20A few decades later, Gramsci would further develop this conception of workers’ hegemony. It cannot be confined to an economic-corporatist position, but must seek to forge alliances in order to take on the demands of all the exploited and oppressed.

Again, Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? was part of the preparatory debates for the Second Congress of the RSDLP. The congress was a step forward from a programmatic point of view (with, notably, the economists ending up in the minority), but unexpected divergences appeared on the question of organization.21Ironically, both motions were offered by members of the same Iskraist tendency. The debates crystallized in particular around paragraph 1 of the RSDLP’s statutes, which spelled out the criteria for membership. The version presented by Lenin clashed with the one offered by Martov. Lenin’s version, unlike Martov’s, insisted on the “participation” of members in party activities, and not only on their “collaboration” (as Martov’s version stated).22Here are the two versions presented for paragraph 1 of the party rules, as presented by Lenin in his work One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. Martov’s draft reads, “A member of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party is one who, accepting its program, works actively to accomplish its aims under the control and direction of the organs of the Party.” Lenin’s draft: “A Party member is one who accepts the Party’s program and supports the Party both financially and by personal participation in one of its organizations.” Lenin’s motion failed to pass, but when it came time to elect a leadership for the RSDLP and Iskra, its central organ, Lenin won the majority.23The future Bolsheviks were in the minority at the beginning of the congress and became the majority (“Bolshevik”) at the end of the congress, following an unexpected event. Before the end, seven delegates left the congress. This included the five delegates from the Bund (the organization of Jewish socialists), unhappy that a majority (with most of the future Bolsheviks as Mensheviks) had refused to grant them total autonomy within the framework of a “federation” with the Russian party. They were followed, for other reasons, by the two representatives of the “economists.” This is how the majority at the beginning of the congress became a minority (Mensheviks) and vice versa. Supporters of Martov’s motion then contested the vote for the leadership, claiming it was an accident and using that as a pretext to break with Lenin’s supporters.24In the weeks after the Second Congress, and despite Lenin’s proposals, the Mensheviks, led by Martov, refused to work with Iskra unless there was an agreement to revisit the composition of the editorial board and more Mensheviks were included. Plekhanov, at first allied with Lenin, finally gave in to the wishes of Martov’s wing and co-opted the old editorial staff (favorable to the Mensheviks). Lenin decided to leave the Iskra committee and wrote several public letters on this subject, including “Letter to Iskra” and “Why I Resigned from the Iskra Editorial Board.”

In the months after the Second Congress, the Mensheviks levied more accusations against Lenin and blamed the split on his “bureaucratic, formalist, Jack-in-office, un-Social-conception of centralism.”25These are Lenin’s words describing the accusation, in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. The next year, looking back at the events of the congress in a long piece titled One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Lenin demonstrated the consistency between the two currents and their conception of organization. Against that conception of the Mensheviks and Axelrod, whom Lenin quoted as in favor of allowing people who only “help [the party] in one way or another” call themselves party members,26Lenin further quoted Axelrod as writing, “First and foremost we are, of course, creating an organization of the most active elements of the Party, an organization of revolutionaries; but since we are the Party of a class, we must take care not to leave outside the Party ranks people who consciously, though perhaps not very actively, associate themselves with that Party.” To this, Lenin replied, “How, by what logic, does the fact that we are the party of a class warrant the conclusion that it is unnecessary to make a distinction between those who belong to the Party and those who associate themselves with it? Just the contrary: precisely because there are differences in degree of consciousness and degree of activity, a distinction must be made in degree of proximity to the Party. We are the party of a class, and therefore almost the entire class (and in times of war, in a period of civil war, the entire class) should act under the leadership of our Party, should adhere to our Party as closely as possible. But it would be Analogism ‘tail-ism’ to think that the entire class, or almost the entire class, can ever rise, under capitalism, to the level of consciousness and activity of its vanguard, of its Social-Democratic Party. No sensible Social-Democrat has ever doubted that under capitalism even the trade union organizations (which are more primitive and more comprehensible to the undeveloped sections) are incapable of embracing the entire, or almost the entire, working class. To forget the distinction between the vanguard and the whole of the masses gravitating towards it, to forget the vanguard’s constant duty of raising ever wider sections to its own advanced level, means simply to deceive oneself, to shut one’s eyes to the immensity of our tasks, and to narrow down these tasks. And it is just such a shutting of one’s eyes, it is just such forgetfulness, to obliterate the difference between those who associate themselves and those who belong, those who are conscious and active and those who only help.” Lenin declared,

I thereby express clearly and precisely my wish, my demand, that the Party, as the vanguard of the class, should be as organized as possible, that the Party should admit to its ranks only such elements as allow of at least a minimum of organization. My opponent, on the contrary, lumps together in the Party organized and unorganized elements, those who lend themselves to direction and those who do not.

He also defended himself against caricatures that transformed his position into an essentially conspiratorial or sectarian conception:

The Party, as the vanguard of the working class, must not be confused, after all, with the entire class. … It should not be imagined that Party organizations must consist solely of professional revolutionaries. We need the most diverse organizations of all types, ranks, and shades, beginning with extremely limited and secret and ending with very broad, free, lose Organisationen.

Thus we find in Lenin an organizational scheme comprising different concentric circles.

In the end, it was not so much a “vanguardist” conception of the party (or “Blanquist,” for which his opponents have often reproached Lenin) that Lenin proposed as it was a redefinition of the relationship between the party, bringing together the vanguard (the most conscious and determined layers of the class), and the masses. It is interesting to note that while Lenin was not explicitly aiming at international Social Democracy, his conception was, indirectly, a first point of breaking with prevalent conceptions of the time. It would give rise to several criticisms, including at the international level, and famously beginning with that of Rosa Luxemburg.27Luxemburg’s famous polemic in her article “Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy” provoked a response from Lenin that Kautsky refused to publish in Die Neue Zeit, the theoretical journal of the German Social Democratic Party. For more details on these debates, see Daniel Guérin’s “Anarchism and Marxism” and Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party.

Finally, although Lenin placed great importance on explaining the issues in the quarrel over the statutes,28Lenin also undertook to resituate this debate between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks within international Social Democracy, writing, “It is highly interesting to note that these fundamental characteristics of opportunism in matters of organization (autonomism, aristocratic or intellectualist anarchism, tail-ism, and Girondism) are, mutatis mutandis (with appropriate modifications), to be observed in all the Social Democratic parties in the world, wherever there is a division into a revolutionary and an opportunist wing (and where is there not?).” he did not consider it to be a sufficient reason for splitting the party. Contrary to what the Marxist-Leninists claim, it was indeed the Mensheviks that initiated the split. As Le Blanc explains, it wasn’t until the autumn of 1904 that Lenin “abandoned the idea of real unity between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.”29Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party.

The episode illustrates the relationship between the Bolsheviks and Lenin and Lenin’s relationship to the question of party unity. He was far from advocating splitting at any cost (how else would we understand his determination to unify Russian Social Democracy or his position — discussed below — in the run-up to the Unification Congress held in Sweden), but also refused to allow party unity to be used by the opportunist wing to blackmail the party into making political or programmatic concessions on matters he considered important. As historian Hal Draper summarized,

[Lenin’s] distinctive approach was: unity, yes, but not at the cost of foiling the victory of the majority. Unity, yes, but on the same democratic basis as ever: the right wing could work to win out at the next congress if it could, but it would not do to demand political concessions as a reward for not splitting.

1905: The Revolution, the Party, and the Masses

The year 1905 was undoubtedly a decisive turning point in Lenin’s theoretical-political trajectory. As he himself stated, the first Russian revolution was the occasion to test his conceptions and those of others in practice.30As Lenin wrote in “The Political Strike and the Street Fighting in Moscow” (1905), “Experience in the struggle enlightens more rapidly and more profoundly than years of propaganda under other circumstances.” Thus, 1905 would end up marking the victory of the Bolsheviks’ programmatic theses over those of the Mensheviks, and it would become a moment when Lenin reexamined the relationship between the vanguard and the masses in the revolutionary process.

At the time, all of Social Democracy was engaged in a strategic debate about the coming revolution. The full details are beyond the scope of this article; suffice it to say that whereas the majority of the currents in the workers’ movement agreed that the content of the coming revolution would be bourgeois (that is, with democratic and agrarian tasks), the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks diverged on the role the proletariat would need to play. The position of the Mensheviks, who mechanically mimicked the “stages” of European capitalist development and applied them to Russia, was that Social Democracy must try to accompany the bourgeois revolution led by the liberals (the Constitutional Democratic Party, known as the Cadets). In the contrary view of Lenin — who in this debate occupied an intermediate position between the Menshevik conception and that of Leon Trotsky31After the 1905 revolution, Lenin maintained that the coming revolution would be bourgeois-democratic “because of the economic and social content of the upheaval it brings about” (“The Agrarian Question and the Forces of Revolution,” 1907). The bourgeoisie would be unable to bring this bourgeois-democratic revolution to a successful conclusion, Lenin posited, because a complete victory would threaten the bourgeoisie. As a result, the proletariat would need to establish a “revolutionary and democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry,” an algebraic formula he put forward in the summer of 1905 in Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution. He occupied an intermediate position between the conception of the Mensheviks and that of Trotsky, who, for his part, advanced as early as 1906 in Results and Prospects a first version of the theory of the permanent revolution. It was only beginning 1917, and in particular on the occasion of his “April Theses” (April 1917), that Lenin affirmed that dual power reflects a situation of “transition” between the first bourgeois stage and the second to come, when “power [should] pass to the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants aligned with the proletariat,” converging from then on with the earlier views of Trotsky. — revolutionary Social Democracy must take the initiative and direct the anger of the masses toward the perspective of insurrection.

The experience of 1905 and its period of intense activity on the part of the masses afforded the opportunity to put these theories to the test and settle these debates. As Lenin wrote in Revolution Teaches, the “new-Iskraists” had begun to express the Menshevik conceptions: 

[One] will at once notice how, under the influence of events, [they] have in actual fact begun to side with their opponents, i.e., to act not according to their own resolutions, but according to those of the Third Congress 32The Third Congress of the RSDLP took place in April 1905 and brought together only the Bolshevik wing. The Mensheviks met the same year and called their meeting a conference. There is no better critic of an erroneous doctrine than the course of revolutionary events.

Moreover, it was on this basis that Lenin — confident that the march of the revolution would inevitably lead the Mensheviks to the left and thus to the Bolshevik positions — again advocated for a reunification of the party and its Bolshevik and Menshevik currents.

In an effort to relieve popular pressure, the czar entrusted Alexander Bulygin, his minister of interior, with forming the Duma, a legislative assembly. This first Duma, whose elective principles remained largely insufficient, provoked lively debates among the Social Democrats. The Bolsheviks, followed by the majority of the Social Democratic organizations,33As Lenin wrote in “The First Results of the Political Alignment” (1905), “The Conference of Social-Democratic Parties and Organizations (the Central Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party, the Bund, the Lettish Social-Democratic Labor Party, the Polish Social-Democratic Party, and the revolutionary Ukrainian Party) unanimously accepted the tactic of an active boycott of the State Duma. … The principles underlying the tactics adopted by the C.C. of the R.S.D.L.P. and advocated by us in Proletary … now underlie the tactics of practically the entire Social-Democratic movement in Russia, with one lamentable exception. This exception, as the reader knows, is the Iskra and the ‘Minority’.” advocated a boycott and launched propaganda and agitation against constitutional illusions. The Mensheviks, though, refused to vote for the resolution on the boycott.34This political indecision confirmed for Lenin his view that the Mensheviks were “the opportunist wing of social democracy.” Lenin, who was living outside Russia at the time, closely followed the strikes and street battles of the Russian proletariat, especially in St. Petersburg and Moscow.35Lenin also noted the students, writing, “The radical students, who both in St. Petersburg and in Moscow adopted the slogans of revolutionary Social-Democracy, are the vanguard of all the democratic forces.” He described them as among the forces “loathing the baseness of the ‘Constitutional Democratic’ reformists who have accepted the State Duma.”

But the great novelty, the “most original creation” (as Marcel Liebman put it) of the 1905 revolution was, of course, the emergence of the soviets. These mass workers’ councils, elected at the level of factories and then districts, appeared during the revolution and spread to many cities over the summer. The most prestigious, the Petrograd (St. Petersburg) soviet, forged in October 1905, brought together delegates representing 250,000 workers. 36Trotsky, then an independent Menshevik militant, was elected president of the Petrograd soviet during the 1905 revolution. These councils allowed for the broad organization and coordination of the various initiatives of the masses in struggle.

Unlike the Menshevik militants, the Bolsheviks at first found themselves largely disoriented by these new cadres. As Broué notes, “In fact, the Bolsheviks only slowly adapted to the new revolutionary conditions: the conspirators did not know, from one day to the next, how to become orators and gather crowds.” Many historiographical sources show that there was a reluctance, almost a distrust, among them, so much so that the local group in St. Petersburg went so far as to adopt a resolution declaring that the soviet risked maintaining the proletariat at a low level of development. These conceptions were far from those of Lenin who, from abroad, did not hesitate to fight the prejudices of his Bolshevik comrades toward the soviets, writing:

It seems to me that Comrade Radin is wrong in raising the question … the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies or the Party? I think that it is wrong to put the question in this way and that the decision must certainly be: both the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies and the Party. The only question — and a highly important one — is how to divide, and how to combine, the tasks of the Soviet and those of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party.37In Lenin’s conception, the soviets were linked to the party in order to promote the development of the revolutionary process: “The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies came into being through the general strike, in connection with the strike, and for its aims. … It seems to me that to lead the political struggle, both the Soviet (reorganized in a sense to be discussed forth with) and the Party are, to an equal degree, absolutely necessary.” In “New Tasks and New Forces” (1905), Lenin also wrote, “The more the popular movement spreads, the more clearly will the true nature of the different classes stand revealed and the more pressing will the Party’s task be in leading the class, in becoming its organizer, instead of dragging at the tail-end of events. … The wider the new streams of the social movement become, the greater becomes the importance of a strong Social-Democratic organization capable of creating new channels for these streams.”

The emergence of the soviets was Lenin’s occasion for a real theoretical enrichment of his conception of the dialectic between the organization (the vanguard) and mass spontaneity. To the Bolshevik cadres who sought to subordinate these organs, born from and in the struggle of the revolutionary class, to party decisions, he proposed instead that they should be broadened: “To my mind, the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, as a revolutionary center providing political leadership, is not too broad an organization but, on the contrary, a much too narrow one.” This new conception of the revolutionary process would never leave Lenin, and prefigures not only his orientation during the Russian revolutions of 1917, but also the later debates in the first years of the Communist International on the tactic of the workers’ united front. It testifies to a nonbinary conception of the relationship between the two terms of the revolutionary equation: the struggle for the unity of the class in action and the political struggle for its revolutionary leadership, which it would be wrong to oppose.

In drawing up the balance sheet of the 1905 revolution, Lenin defended a genuine reorganization of the party. This had two essential dimensions. The first was conjunctural: it was necessary to take note of the democratic advances the revolution won, advances that were very limited but still significant because they made legal work possible.38Legal work would continue to be a subject of debate and discord within Russian Social Democracy well into the future. The other was a democratization of the party. Lenin fought the conservatism of the “Bolshevik committeemen”39Lenin mocked those who had memorized formulas that they then repeated again and again. and, against them, pleaded for an “opening of the doors” of the party.40To the Bolshevik cadres who were worried about opening the doors of the party, Lenin replied, “Let us not exaggerate this danger, comrades. Social-Democracy has established a name for itself, has created a trend and has built up cadres of Social-Democratic workers. And now that the heroic proletariat has proved by deeds its readiness to fight, and its ability to fight consistently and in a body for clearly-understood aims, to fight in a purely Social Democratic spirit, it would be simply ridiculous to doubt that the workers who belong to our Party, or who will join it tomorrow at the invitation of the Central Committee, will be Social-Democrats in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred. The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social Democratic, and more than ten years of work put in by Social-Democracy has done a great deal to transform this spontaneity into consciousness. Don’t invent bugaboos, comrades! Don’t forget that in every live and growing party there will always be elements of instability, vacillation, wavering. But these elements can be influenced, and they will submit to the influence of the steadfast and solid core of Social-Democrats.” This was part of Lenin’s new methods of organization, particularly the widening of the local circles and the elective principle. Lenin wrote,

The conditions in which our Party is functioning are changing radically. Freedom of assembly, of association and of the press has been captured. Of course, these rights are extremely precarious, and it would be folly, if not a crime, to pin our faith to the present liberties. The decisive struggle is yet to come, and preparations for this struggle must take first place. The secret apparatus of the Party must be maintained. But at the same time it is absolutely necessary to make the widest possible use of the present relatively wider scope for our activity. In addition to the secret apparatus, it is absolutely necessary to create many new legal and semi-legal Party organizations (and organizations associated with the Party). Unless we do this, it is unthinkable that we can adapt our activity to the new conditions or cope with the new problems.

From this perspective, it was 1905 that precipitated the introduction of democracy into the party. Before that, it had been very limited owing to the political conditions of the country, which did not allow for it. The revolution changed this, and the Bolsheviks introduced the concept of “democratic centralism” — which had not existed previously — into the party. This represented the continuity of centralism, as in What Is to Be Done?, with the addition of democracy. Lenin became its main defender within the party. Reacting sharply to a Central Committee resolution on “freedom of criticism and unity of action,” Lenin formulated democratic centralism as follows:

The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organizations implies universal and full freedom to criticize, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticism which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided on by the Party.

The 1905 revolution and the appearance of the soviets were also the occasion for Lenin to reelaborate the link between the party and the masses in revolutionary dynamics. Since the congress of 1903, Lenin had been accused (often wrongly, as we have seen) of underestimating the “spontaneous element”; 1905 demonstrates that, on the contrary, Lenin considered it of decisive importance. The link between spontaneity (the masses) and organization (the vanguard) is to be considered from a dialectical point of view. Sometimes, and especially in periods when the situation changes suddenly, the spontaneous element can even precede the organized element; as Lenin wrote, “The proletariat sensed sooner than its leaders the change in the objective conditions of the struggle and the need for a transition from the strike to an uprising.” But while Lenin enriched his conception of the party, this aspect remained fundamentally the same as when he opposed the Menshevik conceptions in 1903: even in times of revolution (and one could say especially in times of revolution), the existence of a united and centralized party is a decisive question.

Lenin did not renege on his conception of the party as a regrouping of the vanguard of the working class, but the change in the political situation did lead him to insist that the Bolshevik cadres present themselves to the masses everywhere, and all the time. This shows that far from a mechanical relationship between the class/masses and the party/vanguard, there was instead a “movement of permanent exchange between the party and the accumulated experiences of the class,” as Bensaïd puts it. This is what engenders the party’s great flexibility in Lenin’s conception (which strongly contrasts with the monolithic conception that some attribute to him): the party’s capacity to seize on changes in the political situation to update itself and steer clear of becoming conservative. Thus, the organization does not serve as a bulwark against spontaneity; on the contrary, its discipline is an essential condition for it to be able to adapt quickly to changing situations. As the Hungarian Marxist philosopher György Lukács explained,

In no sense is it the party’s role to impose any kind of abstract, cleverly devised tactics upon the masses. On the contrary, it must continuously learn from their struggle and their conduct of it. … All dogmatism in theory and all sclerosis in organization are disastrous for the party.

This conception contrasts with that of the majority of German Social Democracy, which considered the spontaneity of the masses an auxiliary force that could be mobilized by the party from time to time but that was still, in essence, a factor of “disorganization” and an expression of the proletariat’s “immaturity.” Such was the position defended by Karl Kautsky in the 1910–13 debate with Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek on the “mass strike” that shook the pages of Die Neue Zeit and that was based in particular on an assessment of the 1905 Russian revolution. It seems Lenin was not directly aware of this debate at the time, but it is undeniable that the position he defended was much closer to Luxemburg’s than Kautsky’s.

Finally, 1905 also confirmed and accelerated the rapprochement of the Menshevik and Bolshevik currents. The revolution had not failed to reveal the extent of the political and programmatic differences between the two currents,41In his “Report on the Unity Congress of the RSDLP” (1906), Lenin wrote, “The Right wing of our Party does not believe in the complete victory of the present, i.e., bourgeois-democratic, revolution in Russia; it dreads such a victory; it does not emphatically and definitely put the slogan of such a victory before the people. It is constantly being misled by the essentially erroneous idea, which is really a vulgarization of Marxism, that only the bourgeoisie can independently ‘make’ the bourgeois revolution, or that only the bourgeoisie should lead the bourgeois revolution. The role of the proletariat as the vanguard in the struggle for the complete and decisive victory of the bourgeois revolution is not clear to the Right Social-Democrats. … Hence the skeptical (to put it mildly) attitude of our Right Social-Democrats towards insurrection; hence their effort to brush aside the experience of October and December, and the forms of struggle that then arose. Hence their irresolution and passivity in the struggle against constitutional illusions, a struggle which comes into the forefront at every truly revolutionary juncture.” but Lenin was confident that the Mensheviks would be forced to fall in line with the Bolsheviks’ politics under the pressure of the situation. After all, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks had found themselves together on the same side of the barricades during the revolution.

For Lenin, if there was a political struggle to be carried out, it could and must develop within the framework of a reunified party. He wrote,

Against this tendency of our Right Social-Democrats we must wage a most determined, open and ruthless ideological struggle. … But in the united Party this ideological struggle must not split the organizations, must not hinder the unity of action of the proletariat.

So, a unification congress was held in April 1906 in Stockholm. There again, what guided Lenin — beyond his analysis of the new political situation — was his conviction that revolution was something that must be resolutely prepared.42Lenin’s real obsession with preparing the party for revolutionary opportunities contrasts with the deterministic/naturalist interpretation of the Second International’s Marxism, in particular that of Kautsky, who famously wrote, “The Social Democracy is a revolutionary party, but it is not a party that makes revolutions. We know that our goal can be reached only by a revolution, but we also know that it does not depend on us to make this revolution, nor on our adversaries to prevent it. Therefore, we do not think of provoking or preparing a revolution. And as we cannot make the revolution at will, we cannot say in the least when, under what circumstances and in what forms it will be accomplished.” He wrote,

Remember that tomorrow or the following day events will certainly call you to rise in revolt, and the question now is only whether you will be able to take prepared and united action, or whether you will be caught off your guard and disunited!

1907–1912: The Years of Reaction and the Final Split

The Mensheviks had the majority at the unification congress that met in Stockholm in April 1906: there were 62 delegates representing 34,000 Mensheviks, and 46 Bolshevik delegates, representing 14,000 militants. Lenin and the Bolsheviks maintained their faction, but Lenin declared that its objective was not to transform into a new party but simply to establish a determined tactic to build the workers’ party. At the London congress in May 1907, the internal balance of power was reversed, and the Bolsheviks held a small majority. This can be explained in particular by the Mensheviks’ disavowal of the insurrectional actions of 1905, coupled with the cohesion of the Bolshevik cadres and their organizational efforts.

The RSDLP, however, would soon face a new situation that was clearly more unfavorable. Indeed, beginning in the second half of 1907, and even more so in 1908, the regime unleashed severe repression against the Social Democratic movement: the workers’ movement and the number of strikes collapsed, Social Democratic committees were dismantled, there were arrests and exiles, and so on. Regarding the staff of the RSDLP, Broué notes, “From several thousands in Moscow in 1907, they were only 500 at the end of 1908, 150 at the end of 1909, and there was no more organization in 1910. For the country as a whole, the number of members fell from almost 100,000 to less than 10,000.”43Broué, Le parti bolchevique In short, after the revolutionary events of 1905–6, the reaction was severe and the ebb generalized.

All this was particularly conducive to the deepening of tensions and disagreements within what remained of the party. The polemics began again, both regarding the balance sheet of the 1905 revolution and on what policy to adopt in the new situation. In essence, the disagreements crystallized essentially around the policy to adopt regarding the third Duma and maintaining the party’s illegal activities. There were disagreements among the Mensheviks, as there were among the Bolsheviks, leading to new configurations. Within the Bolshevik current, Lenin defended a minority position against the Oztovists, supporters of Bodganov, who opposed Lenin with the perspective of exclusively illegal work and boycotting the Duma. Lenin, though, drew from the situation the necessity for the revolutionaries to use every means, including legal or semilegal ones, to prepare and gather their forces and make their program known. Thus, while recognizing the reactionary character of the third Duma and fighting constitutional illusions, Lenin did not hesitate to vote with the Mensheviks against boycotting the elections. The supporters of Bodganov would be joined by the “ultimatists,” a tendency within the Bolsheviks that declared itself against any legal activity, including participation in trade unions. On the Menshevik side, an opposition tendency developed that advocated abandoning clandestine activity and refusing in principle to engage in illegal actions. Against this “liquidators” tendency, Lenin tried to organize an internal front in alliance with the Plekhanov wing of the Mensheviks.

The liquidators launched their offensive at the congress of December 1908. Lenin described it as an effort by some party intellectuals to liquidate the existing illegal RSDLP and “replace it by an amorphous legal organization, to curtail our revolutionary slogans, and so forth.”

Thus, from 1908 to 1912, the RSDLP was not only weakened quantitatively but also consumed by several internal struggles. The reactionary character of the sequence of political events, however, exerted pressure for unity within the party ranks. In a 1910 text entitled “Notes of a Publicist,” Lenin noted a “unity crisis,” described “two fundamentally different and radically divergent views on the nature and significance of our Party unity,” and fought the conciliatory tendencies that existed on both the Bolshevik and Menshevik sides.

One view on unity may place in the forefront the “reconciliation” of “given persons, groups and institutions.” The identity of their views on Party work, on the policy of that work, is a secondary matter. One should try to keep silent about differences of opinion and not elucidate their causes, their significance, their objective conditions. … There is another view on this unity, namely, that long ago a number of profound objective causes … began to bring about and are steadily continuing to bring about in the two old and principal Russian factions of Social-Democracy changes that create — sometimes undesired and even unperceived by some of the “given persons, groups and institutions” — ideological and organizational bases for unity.

In other words, for Lenin the unity and cohesion of the party could not be accomplished without confronting the programmatic and political discussions that ran through Russian Social Democracy and without a “fight on the two fronts” against the two opposing threats of the liquidationism (opportunism) and Oztovism (ultraleftism). The resumption of the class struggle beginning in 1910 and especially in 1911 and 1912, along with his conviction that new revolutionary events were coming, led Lenin to radicalize his conceptions. Revolutionaries must prepare themselves to be ready for the next revolutionary upsurge — which cannot be done without a solidly structured organization. Armed with this understanding, Lenin took advantage of the Prague Conference of January 1912 to proclaim the exclusion of the liquidators and to begin creating an illegal Social Democratic nucleus surrounded by as wide a network as possible of legal workers’ societies. The Bolsheviks were finally an independent party. In this regard, Le Blanc notes,

This split perspective constituted a veering away from the classic example of German Social Democracy, in a manner more profound than any of the formulations of What Is to Be Done? or One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.44Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party.

This decision did not fail to arouse strong reactions within international Social Democracy, and it brought criticism from Luxemburg as well as from Kautsky, who accused the Bolsheviks of building a party with a different content.

1917: The Party of the Revolution

From its formation, Bolshevism evolved within the framework of rather different organizational forms. This became even more the case during the eight most tumultuous months of its history, from February to October 1917.

At the beginning of March 1917, after the insurrectionary days that led to the collapse of the czarist regime, the excitement did not abate. As strikes broke out, the newly appointed provisional government was powerless to control the situation. From the outset, it was confronted with the soviet, then led by reformist currents (Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries) that had resurfaced on the 1905 model. In many respects, the Petrograd soviet (and all the soviets that developed in the rest of the country) had potentially greater power but refused to exercise it and limited itself to advising and pressuring the bourgeois government.

Like the 1905 revolution, the February 1917 revolution took the revolutionaries by surprise. In Petrograd, the Bolshevik Party was led by a “Russian bureau of the central committee” organized around Alexander Shliapnikov, a metalworker. It was a leadership that tail-ended events and found it difficult to orient to what was taking place. When two members of the Central Committee, Stalin and Kamenev, arrived on March 12, back from their banishment to Siberia, the party moved toward a position of national defense and conditional support for and “pressure” on the provisional government.45See Alexander Rabinowitch, Prelude to Revolution. The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968, reprinted 1991); see also Broué, Le parti bolchevique; E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917–1923, vol. 1 (London: Pelican Books, 1966). These positions were diametrically opposed to what Lenin wrote from Switzerland, in his “Letters from Afar” (70), from March 7 to 12, 1917.

Returning to Petrograd on April 3, Lenin immediately entered the fray against his own “Menshevik” party. In his first speech when he emerged from his “sealed train,” he asserted that the February revolution had not solved the fundamental problems of the proletariat, that things could not stop at the halfway point, and that the working class — in alliance with the majority of soldiers — had to transform the democratic revolution into a proletarian socialist revolution. He concluded,

From one moment to the next, every day, we can expect the collapse of all European imperialism. The Russian revolution that you have accomplished has marked the beginning of this and has laid the foundations of a new epoch. Long live the world socialist revolution! (71)

The next day, Lenin published the “April Theses” (72), in which he developed his proposed orientation for the party and the revolution: no support for the provisional government but a determined struggle against it; opposition to any “revolutionary defensism” (i.e., continuation of the war in the name of defense of the revolution); no to any rapprochement with the Mensheviks; “all power to the soviets”; and creation of a revolutionary government that would be the outgrowth of the soviet government and would commit the country to the path of socialism. These positions stood in opposition to the Central Committee majority, but were supported by most of the cadres and the fighting rank and file, which was growing day by day.

Lenin won with what seems like amazing speed. His positions were adopted quite definitively at the first Bolshevik conference of Petrograd (April 14 or 22), and then at the seventh All-Russian conference of the RSDLP (Bolshevik), held from April 24 to 29.

After having relied on the party’s radical base, Lenin had to slow things down and try to control the momentum. The political and social crisis continued to worsen, and the demonstrations turned into riots (the first time on April 20 and 21). Within the working class and the Petrograd garrison, there was a significant mass that wanted to overthrow the provisional government as soon as possible. The July 3–5 semi-insurrectional days were the highest expression of this surge, which manifested itself even though the situation was not yet ripe for seizing power with a reasonable chance of success.

During this period, the Bolshevik Party was the very opposite of its image as a monolithic bloc with an all-powerful leadership group and chief. Like the soviets and the factory committees, it functioned hyperdemocratically, with tendencies of the right, left, and center that were continually constituting and reconstituting themselves. But there was also a strong element of federalism and autonomy. Local or sectoral organizations defended their prerogatives and choices, sometimes even defying the Central Committee. The main decisions taken in the capital were often the result of lengthy discussions and, ultimately, compromises between the national leadership and these semiautonomous structures.

In Petrograd it was all about two organizations. The Petrograd Committee directed the party and organized its daily intervention in the capital’s neighborhoods and factories. The leadership of the Military Organization, which directed the political and organizational work within a garrison that included some 215,000 to 300,000 men (depending on the time and estimates of historians). These two structures, the Military Organization in particular, were largely responsible for the July Days initiative — an expression and combination of, on the one hand, mass revolutionary spontaneity and, on the other hand, decisions made by revolutionary sectors, mainly Bolsheviks, and partly against the opinion of Lenin and Trotsky, who then went along with events they had neither organized nor really desired.46See Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution.

From February to October, the party underwent two other concomitant transformations. First, it integrated tens of thousands of vanguard workers (its membership, estimated at only 20,000 on the eve of the February revolution, exceeded 100,000 shortly before the October uprising), who brought new blood and, in a sense, revolutionized the party. Second, during the sixth congress, known as the Unification Congress (July 26 to August 3, 1917), it merged with a variety of groups and individuals who came from the former Bolshevik and Menshevik organizations or who had remained independent of both. The most significant sector was the Inter-Rayons organization, which had 4,000 members, including Trotsky.47It also included other Bolshevik leaders of the first rank: Moisei Uritsky, Adolph Joffe, Anatoly Lunacharsky, and David Ryazanov. The man Lenin had repeatedly referred to with sarcasm, with whom he had stated over and over again nothing would ever be possible, thus became his quasi alter-ego at the head of the party, and soon of the revolution and of the nascent workers’ state.

For Lenin, the decisive criterion was the revolution: it was the program, not considered abstractly but as applied, in motion within the fire of revolutionary events. In this regard, it has often been said that in 1917 Trotsky agreed with Lenin’s position on the party, while Lenin recognized the validity of Trotsky’s conclusions on the socialist dynamics of the revolution. There is some truth in this, to be sure, but it must be emphasized that the Trotskyist and Leninist conceptions of revolution were not nearly as far apart as it has sometimes seemed. Thus, Lenin affirmed as early as 1905 that “from the democratic revolution we shall at once, and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength of the class-conscious and organized proletariat, begin to pass to the socialist revolution. We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop half-way.”

After the July Days, there was a period of reaction and repression that forced the Bolsheviks to go back into hiding. These conditions, however, diminished after a few weeks and were completely reversed by the end of August, when the attempted putsch by General Kornilov (newly appointed by Kerensky, president of the provisional government, as armed forces chief of staff) discredited the official authorities and left them hanging in the air along with their supporters in the reformist currents.

In September, the rise of the Bolsheviks was unstoppable. They became the majority in the soviets, first in Petrograd (Trotsky regained the presidency, which he had held in 1905) and then in Moscow and many other provinces. Lenin recognized this new situation and rejoiced, while continuing to press the Bolshevik leaders to launch preparations for the insurrection without delay. A path to the revolution’s victory was opened, and the official seizure of power by the national Congress of Soviets took place on October 24 and 25.

This has been an all-too-brief sketch of the sequence of events from February to October 1917; it deserves much more development. It is this sequence that allows us to understand the revolution concretely and, in practice, as a process resulting from the link between a party and a leadership that was prepared for and oriented toward revolution and the self-organization of the masses — as in the famous metaphor of the piston and the steam.48As Trotsky wrote in The History of the Russian Revolution, “Only on the basis of a study of political processes in the masses themselves, can we understand the role of parties and leaders, whom we least of all are inclined to ignore. They constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important, element in the process. Without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.” In any case, as Liebman wrote,

if Leninism and the Leninist organization became for a substantial section of the working-class movement a guide, an ideal, and a model, this was due, it is clear, to the fact of their triumph in 1917. It was the triumph of Bolshevism that caused it to become a focus of attention everywhere, whether in a spirit of hatred or one of enthusiasm, of repulsion, or of devotion.49Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, 147.

Lenin’s Party: A “New Type”?

Let’s return to the question from the opening: To what extent is Lenin responsible for renewing the conception of revolutionary organization? This article has shown throughout that there is no systematic theory of the “Leninist party,” nor a monolithic form of its own. On the contrary, Lenin’s work was an ongoing reelaboration, especially in the context of a changing political situation. Contrary to the interpretative schema by which Stalinism turned What Is to Be Done? into a finished manual of the “Leninist party,” we have seen that it wasn’t until 1914 that Lenin even declared he was trying build a “new type” of party, and even then he still referred theoretically to German Social Democracy as the most advanced section of international Social Democracy.

That did not keep Lenin, though, from developing unique positions that were often at odds with what were then the views held by the broad majority within the international workers’ movement (on the relationship between class, party and leadership; on the spontaneity of the masses; on the question of party unity). Nor did it prevent harsh criticisms of his positions from within the Second International, such as from Luxemburg (mentioned above), and from Kautsky, who lamented the position the Bolsheviks took during the 1912 Prague conference to establish an independent party. But Lenin remained, in these years, convinced that his orientation corresponded to that of international Social Democracy, and his conceptions with respect to organization were not generalized beyond the framework of the czarist Russia. As Bensaïd correctly explained,

Until 1914, it was still more of a semi-break with the dominant orthodoxy, which was based on Russian specificities, without developing universal elements of his approach. … The problem became more systematic beginning in 1914.50Bensaïd, Stratégie et parti.

It was World War I that would reveal the deep contradictions of the Second International and that precipitated a complete reconfiguration of the international workers’ movement. In the summer of 1914, the entry into the war of the main European powers confronted workers’ parties with a burning dilemma: break the sacred union51Translator’s note: The Union sacrée (Sacred Union) was the political truce that French Social Democrats made with the government during World War I. It was a promise not to oppose the government or call any strikes during the war. and run the risk of being declared illegal and having to become clandestine, or align with the interests of their own bourgeoisies. With few exceptions, most leaders of the Second International lined up behind the banner of “social chauvinism” and voted for the war credits, breaking with the principles of proletarian internationalism that had been reaffirmed at the Stuttgart Congress in 1907.

Lenin could not believe it when he first heard the news, thinking it was a slander aimed at sowing discord within the revolutionary movement. When it became clear that the working-class organizations and especially their leaderships had betrayed the interests of the socialist revolution and class solidarity, Lenin made understanding this situation his top priority. It was urgent and imperative to grasp the historical significance of this betrayal and to draw the conclusions from a practical and, in particular, an organizational point of view. He wrote,

Most of the Social Democratic parties, and at their head the German Party first and foremost — the biggest and most influential party in the Second International — have taken sides with their General Staffs, their governments, and their bourgeoisie, against the proletariat. This is an event of historic importance, one that calls for a most comprehensive analysis.

This tragedy provided Lenin with an opportunity for profound political rearming. To understand the extent of this rearming on the theoretical level, it should be mentioned that the years 1914–15 were also when Lenin undertook an in-depth study and critical adoption of the work of Carl Clausewitz, the Prussian general and theorist of military art, and a careful reading of Hegel and a reexamination of his dialectic.52See in this regard Emilio Albamonte and Matias Maiello, Socialist Strategy and the Art of War (forthcoming in English); see also Stathis Kouvelakis, “Lenin as Reader of Hegel: Hypotheses for a Reading of Lenin’s Notebooks on Hegel’s The Science of Logic,” in Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth, ed. by Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis, and Slavoj Žižek (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 164. One of the central ideas that Lenin arrived at is that the imperialist war marked a breaking point with the previous period of “peaceful development” that precipitated a reconception of the global historical and strategic framework. In this regard, he wrote,

The European war is a tremendous historical crisis, the beginning of a new epoch. Like any crisis, the war has aggravated deep-seated antagonisms and brought them to the surface. … The Second International, which in its twenty-five or forty-five years of existence (according to whether the reckoning is from 1870 or 1889) was able to perform the highly important and useful work of expanding the influence of socialism and giving the socialist forces preparatory, initial and elementary organization, has played its historical role and has passed away.

The imperialist epoch and the crisis opened by 1914 led Lenin to reassess the role played by opportunism within the workers’ movement. Before the war, Lenin had already returned several times to the struggle against opportunism within international Social Democracy. For example, in the preface to his collection Twelve Years, published in 1907, he gave an account of the political battles within the RSDLP beginning from its founding. It was the same struggle against opportunism that led him to break with the RSDLP and found an independent organization. And Lenin was well aware that similar tendencies existed in the different sections of the Second International. What changed with the tragedy of 1914 was the significance of these opportunist currents within the workers’ movement. He wrote,

The crisis created by the great war has torn away all coverings, swept away conventions, exposed an abscess that has long come to a head, and revealed opportunism in its true role of ally of the bourgeoisie.

For Lenin, in other words, opportunism had demonstrated its historically counterrevolutionary role and could no longer be considered, as he wrote, just “a ‘legitimate shade’ in a single party” — as had been the case until then. The nature of the struggle against opportunism changed, and Lenin drew political and organizational conclusions. It was no longer simply a question of a fight among tendencies within the same organization: “The complete organizational severance of this element from the workers’ parties has become imperative.” That is why, as early as August 1914, Lenin called for a break with the Second International and undertook an international regroupment against opportunism (or “social chauvinism” and class conciliation) — which would lead to the conferences of Zimmerwald (1915), Kienthal (1916), and then to the founding of the Third International (1919).

This new political fault line and the need to build organizations demarcated from opportunism both politically and strategically, nationally and internationally, was the fundamental lesson Lenin drew from the betrayal of 1914. Whoever refused to act accordingly in the new situation and who thought the battle against social chauvinism could be carried out inside a common party — such as the “centrists” (and Kautsky in particular, who to Lenin was the chief “renegade”) — became for Lenin an obstacle on the path to reconstructing revolutionary organizations, and they had to be fought as such. He wrote,

The worst possible service is being rendered to the proletariat by those who vacillate between opportunism and revolutionary Social-Democracy (like the “Center” in the German Social Democratic Party), by those who are trying to hush up the collapse of the Second International or to disguise it with diplomatic phrases.

On a theoretical and practical level, the rupture of 1914 was a break consummated with the “Marxism of the Second International” and with its figurehead, Karl Kautsky, as well as with his conception of revolution as a gradual (“evolutionary”) and almost “natural” (“organic”) process that “does not prepare itself,” in Kautsky’s words, and that led Social Democracy to a form of “socialism out of time” (or of “passive radicalism”).53The expression was used by Anton Pannekoek in his polemic with Kautsky regarding mass strikes. According to these ideas, the organization comes about only as the result of a passive and patient accumulation of forces. Lenin’s role was decisive in the young Third International’s reconception of this, theoretically and politically  (before its bureaucratization). He considered the imperialist war a sign that a new epoch was beginning, one that he called the imperialist epoch and in which political time was no longer “homogeneous and empty” (as Walter Benjamin put it) but composed of discontinuity, fractures, and “crises.” (It was in these years that his notion of “revolutionary crisis,” which had been maturing since 1905, took on its full importance.) In this epoch, the party must know how to intervene in order to take advantage of the situation and direct the energy of the masses toward confronting the state.

Incidentally, on this question of the state, Lenin’s contribution was also decisive, and his opposition to Kautsky, indisputable.54See Lenin, The State and Revolution; see also Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. In this context, the party was no longer a rubber stamp of class consciousness, a passive accumulation of forces, but a genuine strategic operator, a fundamental part with which to work on whatever situation arises, to develop and articulate an arsenal of tactics, without losing sight of the strategic objective — socialist revolution. Even after 1914, Lenin continued to refer to the “Kautsky of before 1914,” as Lih has noted, which does not seem to contradict the break that had taken place. Nor does it justify “rediscovering” the Leninist conception of the party through his 1902 texts alone, as Emilio Albamonte and Matias Maiello have correctly written:

It is not only a question of the “model” of the party, but of the work of strategy needed to put it into practice, which … is a very different matter. The genesis of Lenin’s conception of the party cannot be understood beyond those battles and the struggle against “social-chauvinism.”55Albamonte and Maiello, Socialist Strategy and the Art of War, forthcoming in English.

* * *

Today, the Stalinized Social Democratic and Communist apparatuses have largely retreated as a consequence of their alignment with “social liberalism” and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The transformation of these working-class organizations into instruments for taming the workers’ movement through the actions of their leaderships, increasingly integrated into the bourgeois state, has had dramatic consequences for the workers’ movement. The latter has suffered a series of defeats, especially after the failure of the international revolutionary surge of 1968 and the imperialist and bourgeois counteroffensive of the neoliberal period. This has created a break in revolutionary continuity. All of this has had lasting repercussions for the proletariat on its capacity to organize and its class consciousness, despite that on an “objective” level there has been an unprecedented development of the world working class.

More recently, however, various symptoms seem to anticipate a process of subjective recomposition within certain sectors of the proletariat and the masses more generally. Such a hypothesis is possible to formulate in the context of the upsurge of the international class struggle since 2019, which combines uprisings and revolts sometimes leading to mass strikes, mass radicalism that confronts the limits of bourgeois legality, and a spreading politicization of important sectors of the youth against systemic racism and the destruction of the planet. These elements remain fragmentary but are highly significant. They are a real boon for those who have not given up on the perspective of revolution, given that the emergence of real combat organizations depends in large part on the capacity to merge with such vanguard sectors.

In this context, reconnecting with Leninism in order to rebuild revolutionary organizations is the opposite of an elitist conception of organization or one that cultivates some sort of self-centered minority. On the contrary, we have seen that the Leninist conception of organization can be summarized in the regrouping of the most advanced and conscious sectors of the proletariat in a centralized party whose objective is to prepare the revolution, and that what that party does must derive from a permanent relationship with the activity of the masses in struggle. Concretely, this begins with trying to provide a political and organizational perspective for the fighting sectors that have risen up, a perspective independent of the bureaucratic leaderships of the workers’ movement that has been constrained by decades of conciliatory policies and “social dialogue” with the ruling class. (Another lesson of Leninism could be, One doesn’t dialogue with the enemy; one organizes oneself to fight the enemy!)

In France, it is with this compass that we, the activists of Révolution Permanente, have sought to intervene in the many phenomena of class struggle that have developed in recent years. Whether it is in the context of the “Battle of the Rail” of 2018 with the construction of the Intergare meeting, the Yellow Vests movement, the retirement movement through the RATP-SNCF coordination, or, more recently, the Grandpuits strike, we have intervened by seeking to deploy in each battle a strategic and programmatic arsenal that allows us to push these experiences as far as possible, getting out of the framework imposed by the trade union routine and promoting self-organization. Such a struggle is not contradictory; rather, it goes hand in hand with the struggle to provide the new generation of combative workers with a revolutionary organization that directs their energy into the perspective of going beyond the capitalist horizon. Strengthened by these experiences, it is alongside some of the activists of these same struggles, and despite our exclusion from the NPA, that we are today leading the campaign to construct a revolutionary workers’ party.

First published in French on June 12 in RP Dimanche.

Translated and slightly abridged by Scott Cooper

Notes[+]

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