We begin with the myth. It runs something like this. In his 1902 pamphlet What is to be Done?, Lenin set out a new conception of a tightly-organised, high-disciplined, top-down ‘vanguard’ party. The Second Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) in 1903 was divided by his organisational proposals, splitting into two factions, hard revolutionary ‘Bolsheviks’ and woolly reformist ‘Mensheviks’. These factions ended up on opposite sides in the revolutionary upheaval of 1917, but the Bolsheviks, thanks to the way in which they had been steeled into an ultra-efficient combat organisation, were able to seize power in a successful urban insurrection in October.
There are four main versions of this narrative. I shall call them, for convenience, the Western, the Stalinist, the Anarchist, and the ‘Trotskyist’ versions (the latter in inverted commas for reasons that will become apparent). In the (negative) Western version – essentially that of bourgeois commentators including conservatives, liberals, and social-democrats – Lenin’s top-down model of party organisation became the basis for the establishment of a communist dictatorship. In the (positive) Stalinist version, ‘Leninism’ (as it came to be called) was the basis of the victorious revolution and the construction of the world’s first ‘socialist state’.
These two versions complemented each other. Western commentators warned that revolution and communism meant a repressive police state with censorship, purges, and gulags. Stalinists, on the other hand, insisted that the Soviet Union was a classless society enjoying economic progress, material abundance, and ‘actually existing socialism’. These were two sides of a fake coin. The revolution – based on mass participatory democracy – had disintegrated under the impact of civil war and economic collapse and then been destroyed in a bureaucratic counter-revolution that was complete by the winter of 1927/8. The totalitarian dictatorship erected on the wreckage had nothing whatsoever to do with socialism.
The other two versions of the myth recognised that Stalinist Russia was the opposite of socialism. But the Anarchists shared with both Western and Stalinist commentators the idea that ‘Leninism led to Stalinism’; the former, as it were, had contained the seeds of the totalitarian state all along, and Lenin thus proved as autocratic as the Tsars. Only the ‘Trotskyists’ defended Lenin, Bolshevism, and the October Revolution, and at the same time denounced Stalinism as ‘betrayal’; some defined Stalinist Russia as a ‘degenerated workers state’, others defined it as ‘state capitalist’, but all were agreed that Trotsky, not Stalin, represented the continuation of the Bolshevik tradition.
But even the ‘Trotskyists’ tended to accept the narrative that Lenin had created ‘a party of a new type’. Most post-war ‘Trotskyists’ aspired to replicate this achievement, aiming to create their own version of the ‘democratic-centralist vanguard’ party which they imagined the Bolshevik Party to have been. This seemed to be the key that would unlock the door to international working-class revolution.
This conception is still with us. It has now evolved and degenerated to the point of Life of Brian parody, where small organisations of a few thousand at the most, sometimes only a few hundred, even tiny outfits of 50 or so, imagine themselves to be the embryo of an early 21st century Bolshevik Party.
Small organisations of this kind exist in all periods. Mass revolutionary parties, on other hand, are never like this. There are no historic examples of a revolutionary party emerging from a democratic-centralist sect through what has sometimes been called ‘the primitive accumulation of cadre’. Not one.
The reason is simple: revolution ‘from below’ – that is, revolution where the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself – means an explosion of democracy. Here is how Trotsky described it in his History of the Russian Revolution:
The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events… at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime… This history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.
Who were the Bolsheviks?
The ideal to which Lenin and the Bolsheviks aspired was therefore an open, mass, democratic party capable of giving effective expression to the revolutionary energy of the Russian working class. Their model was the German Social Democratic Party. The largest working-class organisation in the world, and the dominant force in the Second International (a confederation of European socialist parties), by 1912 the SPD had a million members, was publishing 90 daily papers, and ran a women’s section, a youth section, various trade unions and co-ops, and numerous sports clubs and cultural societies. In that year, it made a dramatic electoral breakthrough, winning one in three votes, becoming, with 110 seats, the largest party in the Reichstag, the German parliament. In the space of a generation, it had been transformed from a small outlawed minority into a mass social movement and electoral machine.
The SPD’s theoretical foundation-stone was Karl Kautsky’s Erfurt Programme (1892), a book-length treatise on the perspective and strategy of the up-and-coming German workers’ party. That Lenin translated it into Russian in 1894 tells us everything we need to know about his political debt to Kautsky and the SPD. That this debt was huge is confirmed by the testimony of other Bolsheviks, all of whom, without apparent exception, regarded the SPD as a model socialist party.
When Lenin returned from exile to active politics in 1899, he had a fully worked out strategy for building such a party in Russia. Most of the debate about ‘Leninism’ hinges on interpretations of Lenin’s theory and practice in this crucial period, between 1899 and 1903, when ‘Bolshevism’ emerged as a distinct current within Russian Social Democracy. Above all, attention has focused on the intention behind certain passages in Lenin’s What is to be Done? – a hastily written polemic of the moment never intended to have the canonical status it has since acquired.
Most of the pamphlet had nothing to do with party organisation: it was an attack on ‘economism’. Lenin’s main target was the argument that Russia stood on the brink of an anti-Tsarist ‘bourgeois revolution’, not a socialist revolution, and that therefore the workers should concentrate on the economic struggle and leave the political struggle to the liberals.
Against this, Lenin insisted on independent working-class political organisation and struggle. But achieving this required something more than the very loose network of small socialist groups that currently existed.
The problem in Russia was the police. How do you build a mass democratic party in a police state? To organise openly was impossible, and without open organisation you could neither make democratic decisions nor hold democratic elections. Indeed, the looser the network, the more vulnerable it was to penetration by the police. The more people you had attending a meeting, especially when many were new and inexperienced in underground work, the greater the risk of discovery and arrests. How, in these circumstances, could the party make democratic decisions? How could the leadership be democratically chosen? Two questions therefore imposed themselves on Russia’s revolutionary underground: 1) how best to build socialist organisation in Tsarist Russia; and 2) how best to uphold the principles and programme of the party (against ‘economism’ and other deviations).
There were two aspects to Lenin’s plan. First, he proposed the publication of an all-Russian socialist newspaper. This would be produced abroad, smuggled into Russia, and then distributed to the underground groups across the country. A coherent set of revolutionary-socialist ideas disseminated in this way would cement together the party’s activist network and help it recruit new members. Moreover, the very process of illegal distribution would itself create and sustain the network. ‘A paper is what we need above all,’ he wrote.
Without it we cannot systematically carry on that extensive and theoretically sound propaganda and agitation which is the principal and constant duty of the Social Democrats … Our movement, intellectually as well as practically (organisationally), suffers most of all from being scattered, from the fact that the vast majority of Social Democrats are almost entirely immersed in local work, which narrows their point-of-view, limits their activities, and affects their conspiratorial skill and training … The Russian working class … betrays a constant desire for political knowledge – they demand illegal literature, not only during periods of unusual unrest, but at all times.
Political education was one function of the revolutionary paper. There was another. He continued:
… the role of the paper is not confined solely to the spreading of ideas, to political education, and to procuring allies. A paper is not merely a collective propagandist and collective agitator; it is also a collective organiser. In that respect, it can be compared to the scaffolding erected around a building in construction … With the aid of, and around, a paper, there will automatically develop an organisation … The mere technical problem of procuring a regular supply of material for the newspaper and its regular distribution will make it necessary to create a network of agents of a united party … This network of agents will form the skeleton of the organisation we need …
The second part of Lenin’s plan was to tighten party organisation to make it more impervious to police penetration. This is perhaps the most widely misconstrued aspect of Lenin’s work. An immediate practical response to the problem posed by the Tsarist police has been elevated into a universal principle of revolutionary organisation and/or a grand strategy for the construction of a totalitarian dictatorship. Here is what Lenin actually proposed:
The leadership of the movement should be entrusted to the smallest possible number of the most homogeneous possible groups of professional revolutionaries with great practical experience. Participation in the movement would extend to the greatest possible number of the most diverse and heterogeneous groups of the most varied sections of the proletariat (and other classes of the people) … We must centralise the leadership of the movement. We must also … as far as possible decentralise responsibility to the party on the part of its individual members, of every participant in its work, and of every circle belonging to or associated with the party. This decentralisation is an essential prerequisite of revolutionary centralisation and an essential corrective to it.
This can be summarised as: keep the core cells of the party centralised and closed (to protect them from the police); but encourage the highest possible level of initiative and activity on the part of the wider mass movement within which the party is embedded. What is to be Done? ends with this ralling-cry to all the revolutionary forces in Russia:
If we genuinely succeed in getting all or a significant majority of local committees, local groups, and circles actively to take up the common work, we would in short order be able to have a weekly newspaper, regularly distributed in tens of thousands of copies throughout Russia. This newspaper would be a small part of a huge bellows that blows up each flame of class struggle and popular indignation into a common fire. Around this task … an army of experienced fighters would systematically be recruited and trained.
One party or two?
The establishment of a party newspaper was uncontroversial, but the other part of Lenin’s plan – to make the party more police-resistant – proved far more problematic: it was, in fact, the origin of a factional dispute that would divide the party for more than a decade. It blew up – unexpectedly – at the Second Congress of the RSDLP, held in Brussels and London in July-August 1903, and attended by about 60 delegates representing all the major industrial cities and regions of Russia.
Though issues became tangled and allegiances shifted, in the succession of rows that divided the Second Congress can be detected a fundamental difference between those who sought compromises with others and those whose aim was proletarian revolution.
The most significant argument arose over a seemingly minor issue: the definition of a party member. Lenin proposed that the statutes should define a member as one ‘who recognises the party’s programme and supports it by material means and by personal participation in one of the party organisations’. Martov proposed deleting the final phrase and replacing it with ‘and by regular personal association under the direction of one of the party organisations’. The issue at stake was simple: was the party to be formed only of the activist vanguard, or was it to include anyone loosely ‘associated’ with the party?
There was nothing elitist about Lenin’s conception: anyone could choose to become a party activist. His point was that only those who committed themselves in this way should be empowered to make decisions. The risk otherwise was that the politics of the party would be diluted by a lukewarm swamp of passive ‘members’. At root, Lenin argued, Martov was confusing party and class:
… the party must be only the vanguard, the leader of the vast masses of the working class, the whole (or nearly the whole) of which works ‘under the control and direction’ of the party organisations, but the whole of which does not and should not belong to a ‘party’ … when our activities have to be confined to limited, secret circles and even to private meetings, it is extremely difficult, almost impossible in fact, for us to distinguish those who only talk from those who do the work…
Lenin was right. The revolutionaries were a minority swimming against the current. Confronting them was the whole power of official society, which, by force and by fraud, was deployed to contain the class struggle. When the workers came onto the streets, they faced force – the batons and bullets of the police. The rest of the time, they were sold a fraud – that God had ordained the social order, that the Tsar was their ‘Little Father’, that the Jews were the enemy. Most workers, in consequence, had ‘mixed consciousness’. Because they were victims of the system, they were open to the arguments of revolutionaries, especially in moments when they gained confidence through collective struggle. But because they were also ground down by the system, they were rarely wholly free of what Marx called ‘the muck of ages’ – the piety, deference, and racism that conspire to keep people in their place by their own decision.
If this were not the case – if the working class was instinctively and spontaneously revolutionary (as Marx and Engels seem to have believed) – there would be no need for a party. Martov’s conception, where the party is dissolved into the mass, would then be the right one. But in reality class consciousness is contested and contradictory. A battle of ideas rages across society, with socialists on one side, the propagandists of the system on the other. Consciousness is therefore uneven across the working class.
Because of this, the party must comprise a vanguard of worker-activists who have broken decisively with the old order, who reject all its reactionary arguments, who embrace the vision of a world transformed, who come, individually and collectively, to embody ‘the actuality of the revolution’. Only a party so formed would be capable of resisting the pull to the right – towards what was called, in the political discourse of the time, ‘conciliationism’ or ‘liquidationism’ – and instead constitute a solid pole of attraction for the accumulation of revolutionary forces.
A line was drawn at the Second Congress between reformists, henceforward known as ‘Mensheviks’ (meaning ‘supporters of the minority’), and revolutionaries, henceforward ‘Bolsheviks’ (‘supporters of the majority’).
Elitist or democrat?
What is to be Done? and the 1903 split have become fetishised – transformed into the holy text and founding ritual of a mythological ‘party of a new type’. The truth is that all of Lenin’s political instincts were deeply democratic, and that his politics were rooted in a profound belief in the transformative power of mass working-class action. Everything else was secondary: a matter of the strategy and tactics necessary to unleash the torrential force of a democracy shackled by a police state. As Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s partner and comrade, explained, reflecting on his early years as a propagandist and agitator among the St Petersburg workers:
Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin] had implicit faith in the proletariat’s class instinct, its creative powers, and historic mission. This faith had not come suddenly to Vladimir Ilyich, but had been hammered out during the years when he had studied and pondered Marx’s theory of the class struggle, when he had studied Russian realities, and learnt, in fighting the ideas of the old revolutionaries [the Narodniks], to offset the heroism of the solitary fighter by the strength and heroism of the class struggle. It was not just blind faith in an unknown force, but a deep-rooted belief in the strength of the proletariat and its tremendous role in the cause of working-class emancipation, a belief founded on a profound knowledge and thorough study of the facts of life. His work among the St Petersburg proletariat had helped to identify this faith in the power of the working class with real live people.
Only momentarily did Lenin seem to deviate from this vision of the transformative power of mass working-class action. What is to be Done? contains one idea which appears elitist, anti-democratic, and, in its one-sidedness, undialectical and therefore un-Marxist. This idea – which appears only here and nowhere else in Lenin’s work – gets quoted ad nauseam to prove that Lenin was an autocrat through and through. It is clearly stated in two passages which read as follows:
Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle …
There could not have been social-democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness … The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by … intellectuals.
While the first version is open to alternative interpretations, there can be no doubt about Lenin’s meaning in the second: intellectuals detached from the working class create a theory of socialism which they then convey to the working class in the manner of teachers.
The only germ of truth in this is the way in which general socialist ideas were developed first in discussion circles, not in the struggle itself. Indeed, the revolution in socialist thought conceived by the young Marx and Engels (intellectuals both) was precisely a deconstruction of this separation; and their condemnation thereafter of those who persisted in their abstract propagandism – the ‘utopian socialists’ – was vituperative.
Their insight, moreover, arose from the fact that they were active revolutionaries embedded in the class struggle, and the conclusions they reached reflected the arrival on the historical stage of the industrial working class. Marx and Engels were not somehow ‘outside’ the working class: they were part of the movement. In fact, the whole distinction between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘workers’ breaks down as soon as one looks at the composition of the discussion circles. The real distinction is between abstract propagandists and embedded revolutionary activists.
The clunky formulation in What is to be Done? is refuted by almost the whole of the rest of Lenin’s theory and practice (as the Krupskaya quotation above implies). And for good reason: it is sectarian nonsense which violates the central insight of Marxism that the working class itself is the agent of revolutionary transformation.
The dialectical relationship between thought and action in the working-class movement is also apparent in the way in which socialists learn from the struggle. Marx did not discover the form of a future workers’ state sitting in the British Museum: it was revealed to him by the Paris Commune of 1871. Lenin did not invent the mass strike and the workers’ soviet: they were created in struggle by the Russian working-class in 1905. Trotsky did not find the idea of permanent revolution buried in the recesses of his brain: it was demonstrated in practice by the workers before it could be crystallised in theory.
Let us quote Marx on this relationship between experience and consciousness:
Men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their actual world, also their thinking and the products of their thinking. It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness.
Revolution is simply an acceleration of this process:
The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.
In short, human beings change themselves in the act of changing the world, and they understand the world by observing and participating in mass struggles. Or, to put the matter another way, the working class and the oppressed create their own ‘organic intellectuals’ (to use Gramsci’s expression) in the course of the struggle. These may include professionals, academics, and intellectuals with a higher level of formal education who identify with, and attach themselves to, the movements of the working class and the oppressed; and they will certainly include large numbers of rank-and-file militants who educate themselves through participation in the struggle.
A revolutionary party is a mass grouping of embedded cadre, that is, of class-conscious activists who, irrespective of social origin, become a collective expression of the interests of the working class and the oppressed, and who stand in the vanguard of the struggle for social transformation.
Reform or revolution: the final split
There was no essential difference between the conception of the revolutionary party implicit in The Communist Manifesto in 1848 and that in What is to be Done? in 1903. Both envisaged a party formed of the leading activists in the vanguard sections of the working-class movement. Both assumed that major arguments about programme, policy, and strategy and tactics would take place within the party, not become the basis for separate parties. So far from the Bolsheviks being ‘a party of a new type’, they were in fact simply the dominant faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party – a mass working-class party whose primary architect was Lenin himself.
Bolsheviks and Mensheviks continued to meet together in local RSDLP branches – in some cases until as late as the middle of 1917. Lenin avoided an irrevocable break at the top until 1912. When this came, the Bolsheviks had an overwhelming four-to-one majority inside the party; their supporters, moreover, were almost 90% working class, in contrast to those of the Mensheviks, more than half of whom were middle class.
Even so, Lenin still saw his task as building a mass working-class party on the European social-democratic model. He had not yet generalised the split between revolutionaries and reformists in Russia to the rest of Europe. Then came the seismic shock of 1914, when the socialist parties of the Second International backed their own governments in the First World War. The only major party which did not was the RSDLP. The Bolsheviks denounced the war, called for international proletarian revolution, and committed themselves to the eventual creation of a ‘Third International’.
The First Congress of the Third International in March 1919 was the culmination of an organisational struggle between reform and revolution that had begun in 1903. ‘A party of a new type’ did not spring from the head of Lenin in his Siberian exile: mass revolutionary parties separate from mass reformist parties emerged in the course of great European revolutionary wave that swept the continent between 1917 and 1923. ‘Give us an organisation of revolutionaries,’ Lenin had said, ‘and we will overturn Russia.’ The Third International was the generalisation of this Bolshevik experience onto the scale of world revolution.
Marx and Engels had argued for a mass independent working-class party. Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to stand for a mass independent working-class revolutionary party. This – not ‘democratic-centralism’ or ‘the primitive accumulation of cadre’ – was the critical difference.
Until 1919, most European socialists operated inside mass working-class parties that contained both reformists and revolutionaries. Between 1919 and 1921, most of these parties split into separate ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ parties. Again and again, in the political upheavals of this period, ‘socialist’ ministers, party leaders, and trade-union officials were to be found defending capital and the state against insurrectionary working-class movements. Reformism was not just a matter of ‘gradualism’: when the capitalist system was in mortal danger, it turned out to be actively counter-revolutionary.
Why was this? To answer the question we must understand the deep material and ideological roots of reformism. There are two main aspects to this:
The labour bureaucracy
Established labour movements soon give rise to a full-time bureaucracy of politicians, party workers, trade-union officials, local councillors, etc – numbering, in a country like Britain, tens of thousands of people – who act as the ‘leadership’ of the working class in the struggle for social improvement. They are not ‘shop-floor’ workers like those they claim to represent. They typically enjoy higher pay, better terms and conditions, a range of perks and expenses, and more rewarding forms of work. Their role is to work within the system, not against the system, and, as it were, to mediate between the interests and demands of the working class on the one hand and the imperatives of capital accumulation and state power on the other.
The intermediate social position and role played by the labour bureaucracy in capitalist society mean that, to a very large degree, it is more open to the influence of bourgeois ideology and the imperatives of the system than ordinary workers. It is therefore a conservative barrier to independent working-class activity; indeed, it is liable to be very hostile to such activity, since it threatens the procedures and protocols inherent in the labour bureaucracy’s role within the system. The labour bureaucracy is the supreme embodiment of social-democratic reformism.
Mass reformist consciousness
The labour bureaucracy uses its control of labour movement apparatuses – mainly social-democratic parties and the trade unions – to block, corral, and derail mass struggle from below. At most, the working class is a stage army to be wheeled out to strengthen the bureaucracy’s hand in negotiations; at worst, it is a threat to the status quo that must be suppressed. But the influence of the labour bureaucracy – a relatively thin social layer – would be far less were it not for the fact that most workers most of the time share its reformist politics.
The reason for this is simple enough. Most workers have ‘mixed consciousness’: they are aware of injustice, but they also accept many of the dominant ideas of class society. The roots of injustice – deep in the substance of the social order – remain hidden. In any case, many people, for much of the time, enjoy a degree of material security and comfort; and few, at any time, experience the sort of collective power that points the way towards working-class self-emancipation and the revolutionary transformation of society. Reformism becomes an application of the law of least resistance: the easiest and safest way to correct injustices which are perceived and resented, but not fully understood.
Reformism is anchored in the routines and ‘commonsense’ thinking of everyday life. It is partly that labour for capital and the tasks of ordinary living consume most people’s time, and it is partly that the fragmentation of society and the privatisation of social life act as barriers to collective organisation, struggle, and consciousness. Most problems are in fact social, but they are experienced as personal, and people are ground down by the stresses and hassles of simply getting by.
The organisational break between reformist and revolutionary parties which took place between 1903 and 1921 was a direct consequence of the realisation that reformism acted as brake on independent working-class action and, in times of crisis, played an actively counter-revolutionary role.
Tribunes of the oppressed
Before concluding, one final matter must be addressed. Among the many distortions of Lenin’s theory and practice are forms of ‘workerism’ – the idea that only the industrial working class really matters, that all serious struggle is workplace based, that the struggles of the oppressed are somehow diversionary.
Like Marx and Engels, Lenin was absolutely consistent that the workers’ movement should stand in solidarity with every oppressed group. As he explained in What is to be Done?:
The rural superintendents and the flogging of peasants, the corruption of the officials and the police treatment of the ‘common people’ in the cities, the fight against the famine-stricken and the suppression of the popular striving towards enlightenment and knowledge, the extortion of taxes and the persecution of religious sects, the humiliating treatment of students and intellectuals – all these and a thousand other manifestations of tyranny, though not directly connected with the ‘economic’ struggle, represent, in general, less widely applicable means and occasions for political agitation and for drawing the masses into political struggle.
The [revolutionary socialist’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 generalise 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 working class.
Lenin shared with Marx and Engels several key tenets on which to base a revolutionary party: that the working class was the agent of universal human emancipation; that the emancipation of the working class would be the act of the working class; that the need was for independent working-class political organisation rooted in struggle; that internationalism, general class interest, and solidarity with the oppressed were inviolable principles; and that the party should be formed of the most class-conscious activists in the vanguard of the working class and oppressed.
But he added something more. The development of the labour bureaucracy and mass social-democratic reformism had made it impossible to adhere to the core tenets of the Marxist theory of the party and at the same time organise all working-class activists in a single party. The contradiction between reformism and revolution – between accommodation to capital, the state, and ‘the national interest’ on the one hand, and the interests of the international working class on the other – could not be contained within a single organisational form without hobbling the class struggle from below.
Lenin did not create a democratic-centralist vanguard party of a new type. He first created a democratic revolutionary party of the Russian working class between 1903 and 1917, and then generalised this model in an international of working-class parties in the context of world revolution between 1919 and 1921.
Lenin, What is to be Done? (1902)
John Molyneux, Lenin and the Birth of Bolshevism (1978)
Lars Lih, Lenin (2010)
Neil Faulkner, A People’s History of the Russian Revolution (2017)