In a recent debate between, Lars T Lih, Paul Le Blanc, and Pham Binh(1) there is agreement that, it was not the formal aim of Lenin to proclaim the birth of the Bolshevik Party in 1912 in Prague at the conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Nor was it the formal aim of Lenin to create a separate Bolshevik Party. Again the debate clarified, that in 1912 there was not the birth of a party of a new type, free of opportunism, but the birth of a myth of such a party. Yet for all practical purposes, the RSDLP that emerged from Prague, in 1912, was a Bolshevik Party, in all but name.
The methods Lenin used in creating an organisation, all those years ago, has had an important influence of the organised left in Britain today. So the question raised by Lars is: “if indeed Lenin wanted to create a Bolshevik party (in 1912 ) he set about it in a way that was deceptive, disloyal, destructive and not to be imitated.”  But for Lars, since it was not Lenin’s formal and explicit aim to create a Bolshevik party, independent of the RSDLP in 1912, he is not guilty of deception, disloyalty and destructiveness. This begs the question: didn’t Lenin always act as if his faction was the party or the RSDLP? Lenin’s disingenuous and undemocratic splitting methods, and factionalism, culminating in the unrepresentative gathering of 16 Bolsheviks and two Mensheviks in Prague do not deserve to be influential.
As early as 1975, Marcel Liebman, drew the conclusion that during the period of reaction leading up to Lenin’s organisation of the Prague conference of the RSDLP, Leninist Bolshevism displayed intolerance and sectarianism to absurd lengths, leaving a tradition which Stalinism , and Trotskyism, inherited and built on. Tony Cliff, in his account of Lenin‘s party building , which Pham Binh correctly describes as a misleading and distorted account, uncritically followed and exaggerated every undemocratic twist and turn of the great helmsman which served to legitimise his own factionalism as party building.  Alan Woods endorsed in his Bolshevism Leninist political methods as an example of sorting out the revolutionaries from the opportunists, perpetuating the myth of 1912 as a party of a new type. Even so, the Bolshevik organised Prague conference included supporters of the extreme right-wing Menshevik, Plekhanov, who was in a block with Lenin at the time, despite opposing the 1905 revolution. The Bolshevik opportunists of 1917, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin were also involved.
Lenin operated with his faction as a party within a party or acted as if they were the RSDLP. In the period of reaction (1909-12) , factional rights which he had championed in the unity conference of 1906 when the Bolsheviks were in a minority were not tolerated. Bolshevik factions were deemed to be minor groups. Lenin conducted a ruthless factional war using verbal abuse against those who would not accept his views, even on tactical issues. Lenin’s critics inside the Bolshevik faction were labelled deviators, recallists, ultimatists, god builders, and generally described as ultra left rascals of one kind or another. These labels often had a loose association with the individuals on which they were attached .Rather than creative and democratic debate, it was a case of defending orthodoxy by pinning the criminals badge on Lenin’s opponents.
The Duma was an undemocratic unrepresentative parliament. Lenin even wrote the speeches of some of the RSDLP representatives, but the Bolshevik Ultimatists who wanted the deputies to follow party policy were deviationists from the correct Leninist line. As Lars Lih describes it: it was an insanely complicated factional struggle. An illustration of the political madness was Lenin’s factional war against Bogdanov and his Bolshevik followers. Alexandra Bogdanov was one of the key Bolshevik leaders following the split of 1903. In 1907, Bogdanov won a majority of Bolsheviks in an RSDLP conference for the tactic of a boycott of the Duma elections. Earlier in 1906 Lenin had been in favour of boycott, now 14 out of 15 Bolshevik delegates voted with Bogdanov. Lenin in violation of all the values of “democratic centralism” voted with the Mensheviks against a boycott.
Despite his own behaviour, tactical differences were anathema to Lenin during this period. The Bolshevik Leninists saw ideological homogeneity as essential for political effectiveness, So Bogdanov’s philosophy was deemed to have nothing in common with Bolshevism, despite years of unity around philosophical neutrality. Bogdanov himself was deemed to have nothing in common with Bolshevism. He was not formally expelled. However, to all intents and purposes he was expelled. He was excluded from the Bolshevik faction without democratic procedure, by an extended editorial board meeting of a Bolshevik newspaper, packed with Bolshevik- Leninist’s in 1909. Lenin did not risk being outvoted at a Bolshevik conference.
In these years of reaction, following Lenin’s line became the revolutionary touchstone. This was the cult of Lenin. Factional loyalty to the leader was passed off as party patriotism. Paul Leblanc  claimed that Bolshevism could not have become the decisive revolutionary party that it became without this wrenching inner party struggle. Many Trotskyists agree that these relentless splitting tactics, are essential to form a revolutionary leadership. But Lenin loyalists including Stalin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, and Molotov, selected by extreme factionalism, were part of the leadership which transformed the Bolshevik party after the revolution of 1917 into a dictatorship over workers. They helped to consolidate top down centralism in the regime of bureaucratic centralism from 1918. These old Bolsheviks, brought up in the cult of the leader, were important in the transition to Stalinism, as the hammer on critics within the party. This culminated in the ban on party factions in 1921, which saw the consolidation of the Leninist faction as the party again.
When he joined the Bolsheviks in 1917, Trotsky famously declared that he had joined because the Bolsheviks had become de-Bolshevised. In 1917 Lenin discarded his democratic revolution two stage strategy which led his old Bolshevik followers to support the provisional government, and relied heavily on Trotsky, Lunacharsky and the inter-district group in Petrograd for revolutionary agitation and propaganda. The very comrades he had split with as useless to the revolution became the public face of what the mass of workers called the Bolsheviks. In Moscow the revolutionary dynamic found expression in the comrades around the unorthodox Bolshevik Bukharin. Indeed, the mass struggle for workers power from below shaped the Bolshevik party and its strategy. The “Bolshevik Party” became a genuine mass party from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands in 1917. The party was effective with a wide range of diverse views; ideological agreement was not on the agenda. That’s why there is no analogy with “anti-liquidator” struggle as Lars Lih claims. In a sense there was a grain of truth in Potresov’s claim that there was no party to liquidate. There were less than a hundred members at one point. The definition of liquidationism was also elastic with an element of false polemics.
It is difficult to know what evidence Lars Lih would accept to find Lenin guilty of deception – even self-deception. He finds Lenin less than tactful, but not deceitful. Yet false polemics had been a feature of Lenin’s politics from the beginning. The politics of the Credo, (economism) private written correspondence between two socialists with no organised following, were projected onto Akimov and other political opponents. Akimov did not teach workers to concern themselves only with economics. To present the factional gathering of the Bolsheviks in Prague as the party or to presume the Bolsheviks were the RSDLP was giving a false impression. To say, as Le Blanc does, that Lenin knew his factional enemies would not go to Prague, so this somehow justified holding the Bolshevik organised conference under the RSDLP banner is far too uncritical. Why did the Bolshevik faction not hold the meeting under their own banner? Krupskaya wrote in retrospect that “Ilyich did not want a faction, but a party that pursued a Bolshevik line.” [7 ] For all practical purposes this was the party as a faction.
(a) Lars T Lih, A faction is not a Party, Weekly Worker, May 3rd, 2012
(b) Paul Le Blanc, Convergence and Questions, Weekly Worker, May 10th, 2012
(c) Pham Binh, Mangling the Party, Tony Cliffs Lenin, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, January 24th, 2012.
2 Lars T Lih, The Faction is not a Party, Weekly Worker, May 3rd,2012.
3 Marcel Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, Merlin Press, London, 1975
4 Tony Cliff, Lenin : Building the Party, Bookmarks. London, 1986.
5 Alan Woods, Bolshevism, Well Red Publications, London, 1999
6 Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, Humanities Press, London, 1990,p.146.
7 N.K. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, Lawrence and Wishart London 1970,p.179.
13 thoughts on “The Bolshevik faction and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.”
Highlights the need for the revolutionary left to finally get out of the shadow of Bolshevism; just as the commune has largely done.
But, unlike the orientation of this site, Lars Lih is making statements that are leading to different conclusions, reinforced by the likes of Mike Macnair.
I think I know what you are getting at Jacob, but your comments are rather cryptic. Could you find time to spell out the implications. You might be saying yes, but this kind of criticism of Leninism can lead to a modern rehash of kautskyism or second international politics of democratising the capitalist state and all the reformism associated with that. But what counts is where does the critic stand. This site,as you infer,is criticising from a communist perspective or workers power from below. With the CPGB you have the worst of all worlds. A Leninist style sect with increasingly social democratic content.But for most of its history so did the Bolshevik Faction.
The situation in 1917 and shortly afterwards was a break from pre 1917 Bolshevism and post 1918/19 Bolshevism. Lenin’s state and revolution articulated the revolutionary mass struggle, but did not relate to Leninism prior and following the revolution. So one lesson to draw out of the experience is a return to the old Bolshevik democratic revolution perspective. Democratising the capitalist state —-socialism as an extension of Bourgeois democracy. The 1917 model which the Bolshevik government betrayed is considered to be utopian or unrealistic and an updated kautskyism ( with Bolshevik influences) is seen as the way forward. (Macnair)
The early Communist International (Leninist ) perspective on the Labour Party. Voting Labour,building Labour, transforming the Labour party is obviously social democratic along with all the failed historical tactics associated with theses perspective’s. Recently a young CPGB comrade from Manchester spent some time making some basic points about the dogmatic nature and mistaken politics of these old unthinking perspectives. One illustration is the schema that the labour party will move left in a capitalist crisis and express mass opposition to the cuts. So join Labour, vote Labour Transform Labour,transform the state.But the Labour party has not moved left or expressed mass opposition to the cuts. Labour Councils throughout Britain especially in Sheffield are implementing the cuts.But his rational points were ignored by most members of the CPGB who unthinkingly followed the sects practical leader. This comrade then left. Macnair and others are saying that their critic was not really political, but wanted activism. This is the old Leninist point about factional loyalty. My party/faction right or wrong. Stay in and accept responsibilities for actions and policies you disagree with and hope against hope you can win the party /faction to your line. Because without the party the class is nothing.
I actually wrote the above in defense of Lars Lih’s history contributions, Mike Macnair and the CPGB, adapting Orthodox Marxism to modern circumstances as genuine revolutionary strategy, etc.
However, I should add that I don’t subscribe to their positions on Labourism or to their otherwise valid criticisms of “Labour Mark Two” efforts. If there are to be proper bourgeois worker parties to exist, they need to be formed on a Continental basis (Die Linke, Left Bloc, Front de gauche, SYRIZA, etc.) and not based on the British precedent. There also, of course, need to be communist worker organizations, but more importantly, proletarian-not-necessarily-communist party-movements (Marx and Engels).
Actually, without the party-movement, the class is politically nothing or politically less than nothing. Without the pre-war SPD, the German working class would have been politically nothing or politically less than nothing!
Without the class the party is nothing. German social democracy rendered the class as nothing by failing to oppose fascism. They appeased fascism and defended each reduction of democracy as the lesser evil. looking to parliament and parliamentary leaders left the working class unprepared for a street and workplace struggle. The focus on the parliamentary road or democritising the capitalist state was not orthodox Marxism. the working class taught Lenin the lesson of the Paris commune in 1917. This was classical
Marxist. Macnair is unorthodox in that sense.
In addition in 1918, the German workers were everything in a revolutionary sense, but the leaders of the party or German social democracy were nothing. Well they were everything from a counter revolution viewpoint. The party leaders were the bloodhounds of revolution. Killing workers and Rosa Luxembourg. the phrase the party is everything is a formula for substitutioniiism. the dictatorship of the proletariat as the dictatorship of the party is Russia 1919 0nwards.
without the party the class is nothing, is elitism or vangardism. Conrad or chamberlain, whatever the practical leaders(CPGB) real name is, he probably got the phrase from the new Communist party or stalinism. On the issue of the Labour party,you are right, that is wrong. But if you look at the history of the CPGB, their position on the Labour party was fundamentally different in the 1990’s.
Their present position was attacked as Trotskyite auto Labourism. Now we all make mistakes, but the leader of the CPGB always claims the position, on the Labour Party, has never changed. In, i think, 1997, Stan keeble stood against ken Livingstone in the general election. For all the correct reasons. But shortly afterwards they called for a vote for Livingstone, in his first election campaign for mayor of London, for the wrong reasons,without any explanation of why the position changed. We all change our minds but we should say so and explain why.
My sound bite on party vs. “class” is straight out of Marx himself, during his work in the International Workingmen’s Association:
“Considering, that against this collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes […]”
I’m just polemicizing that point.
Your dichotomy of the SPD vs. KPD forgets altogether the USPD. The formation of the KPD itself was sectarian.
This comment does not mean the class is nothing. I will have to look at the context. But it probably means without a communist party the class will not achieve its historical aim of a classless society. One comment does not settle anything. I will be able to find comments about the self emancipation of the working class. Marx did not live to see modern mass organisations which claimed to represent the working class,such as the British Labour party. He did not witness a German Labour party support the imperialist slaughter of the first world war or the Horrors of stalinism. So even if the considered view of Marx was that without the party the class is nothing,implying the party is everything it would be wrong. But that is not his position on party and class. This is an instant response. I will provide you with a fuller response later.
I will try to put together a piece on the general relationship between party and class. But I will make a few more points about the party not meaning a sect or a vanguard counter-posed to the class and its movement as nothing;but about a broad real workers movement.
For Marx, the party is seen as the culmination or logic of mass actions by the class. The lesson of the Paris commune was that the Masses themselves had discovered the political form for their own emancipation ( The First International and After-Marx , Penguin, Middlesex,1974 page 250, Again Workers Soviets 1905/1917. The First International was in essence a united front or agreement for action on the principle of every step of a real movement. It was an attempt to link workers struggles to overcome the division of small competing sects.
For Marx the working class in its militancy united economics and politics (page 270) See his letter to Bolte November 23, 1871: “the political movement of the working class has as its ultimate object, of course, the conquest of political power for this class and this naturally requires a previous organisation of the working class developed up to a certain point arising precisely from its economic struggles” (Marx and Engels on Trade Unions,edited, kenneth Lapides,International publishers,New york,1987.)
So the activity of the class is not nothing or we have to wait for the party to be built with a correct programme for anything of communist significance. The comments that follow your quote make this clear. “that this combination of forces which the working class has already effected by its economic struggles aught at the same time to serve as a lever for its struggles against the political power of Landlords and capitalists” (page 270 FI after Marx) Again as further comments show, ultimately a communist party or a political party which expresses the workers historical interests is indispensible for social revolution.
But the Party is not a small vanguard bringing communist ideas from outside
the workers movement or the struggles of the class which arise in capitalism.The communist organisation is an organic part of this spontaneous class struggle and there is a complex interaction between communists and class militancy. The political arrogance of phrases about the party is everything the class nothing or vice versa are not helpful for understanding how we can form a communist workers organisation as part of the class struggle.
To some extent you are correct, but again my definitions are different.
“Parties in the broad sense” and “parties in the historical sense” do squat compared to “parties in the real sense.” What are they? Well, real parties are real movements and vice versa.
I didn’t quote that second part because history has proven Marx wrong on that one and Lassalle right. Marx was implying that political struggles could be grown out of mere labour disputes and other, equally low-profile, economic struggles. Mass political action here and now is the order of the day, regardless of economic struggles.
Now, it could be said that growing economic struggles out of immediate political action is quite logical, for that raises the question, “Political action for what end?”
Anyway, my point was that, to make an example, the pre-WWI SPD and the inter-war USPD *were* the German worker-class-for-itself.
You’ll note that Lenin did not call for a party based on an interpretation of some historical questions, such as the class nature of the ussr under Stalin, etc. He wanted to unite Marxists. This conception is radically different from the Leninist “improvement”.
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