The origins of Bolshevism: Marxism and the class struggle

Submitted by AWL on 21 July, 2005 - 12:33 Author: Jack Cleary

Click here for the series on The Roots of Bolshevism of which this article is part
Jack Cleary continues his analysis of and selection from Lenin’s 1902 book What is to be Done?

Arguing that the educational work of Marxists was essential if the “spontaneous” working class trade “unionist” movement were to become socialist, Marxist movement, Lenin cites the experience of the German labour movement.

“Recall the example of Germany. What was the historic service Lassalle rendered to the German working-class movement? It was that he diverted that movement from the path of progressivist trade-unionism and co-operativism towards which it had been spontaneously

A fierce struggle against spontaneity was necessary, and only after such a struggle, extending over many years, was it possible, for instance, to convert the working population of Berlin from a bulwark of the [bourgeois] Progressive Party into one of the finest strongholds of Social-Democracy.”

Though he greatly admires German socialism, Lenin knows very well that the struggle he describes is never definitively won by the Marxists, never over and done with. The labour movement lives in a hostile capitalist environment, where bourgeois ideas are, so to speak, in the very air the workers breathe. Lenin knows that the class struggle on the ideological front takes place also within the working class movement, as the controversy between the Marxists and “revisionists” in Germany, to which he has already referred, testifies. He recalls that non-Marxist workers’ organisations still exist, even in Germany.

“... Even now the German working class is, so to speak, split up among a number of ideologies. A section of the workers is organised in Catholic and monarchist trade unions; another section is organised in the Hirsch-Duncker unions, founded by the bourgeois worshippers of English trade-unionism; the third is organised in Social-Democratic trade unions. The last-named group is immeasurably more numerous than the rest, but the Social-Democratic ideology was able to achieve this superiority, and will be able to maintain it, only in an unswerving struggle against all other ideologies.”

Lenin explains why the working class movement, without the work of Marxists, tends to develop ideas that serve not the working class but the bourgeoisie.

“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.”

In a footnote [the last paragraph in the previous article, in the 23 June Solidarity] aimed to answer some of the critics of What Is To Be Done, Lenin agrees that “the working class gravitates spontaneously towards socialism… in the sense that socialist theory defines the cause of the misery of the working class more profoundly and more correctly than any other theory, and for that reason the workers are able to appreciate it so easily.” But only, Lenin adds, given the activity of the Marxists, “provided that [Marxist] theory does not step aside for spontaneity, and provided it subordinates spontaneity to itself.”

Lenin now discusses more concretely on the political characteristics of his opponents.

“Rabochaya Mysl does not altogether repudiate the political struggle; the rules for a workers’ mutual benefit fund published in its first issue contain a reference to combating the government.

“Rabochaya Mysl believes, however, that ‘politics always obediently follows economics’ (Rabocheye Dyelo varies this thesis when it asserts in its programme that ‘in Russia more than in any other country, the economic struggle is inseparable from the political struggle’).

“If by politics is meant Social-Democratic [Marxist socialist] politics, then the theses of Rabochaya Mysl and Rabocheye Dyelo are utterly incorrect.”

Lenin is writing long before such 20th century experiences as a Peronist labour movement in Argentina, Stalinist labour movements in many countries, etc, but he understands how such hybrids could develop. The economic struggle of the workers can be linked to anti-Marxist, anti-socialist, bourgeois politics too.

“The economic struggle of the workers is very often connected (although not inseparably) with bourgeois politics, clerical politics, etc., as we have seen.

“Rabocheye Dyelo’s theses are [only] correct, if by politics is meant trade union politics, viz., the common striving of all workers to secure from the government measures for alleviating the distress to which their condition gives rise, but which do not abolish that condition, i.e., which do not remove the subjection of labour to capital.

“That striving indeed is common to the English trade-unionists, who are hostile to socialism, to the Catholic workers, to the [police-run] “Zubatov” workers [organisation in Russia], etc. There is politics and politics.

“Thus, we see that Rabochaya Mysl does not so much deny the political struggle, as it bows to its spontaneity, to its [lack of scientific socialist] consciousness.

While fully recognising the political struggle (better: the political desires and demands of the workers), which arises spontaneously from the working-class movement itself, Rabochaya Nysl absolutely refuses independently to work out a specifically Social-Democratic politics corresponding to the general tasks of socialism and to present-day conditions in Russia…”

A critic had said of a leading article in Rabochaya Mysl that it had been written in a “sharp and fervent” manner.

“Every man with convictions who thinks he has something new to say writes “fervently” and in such a way as to make his views stand out in bold relief.

“Only those who are accustomed to sitting between two stools lack “fervour”; only such people are able to praise the fervour of Rabochaya Mysl one day and attack the “fervent polemics” of its opponents the next.”

Lenin now discusses the “Appeal of the Self-Emancipation of the Workers Group” (March 1899).

“The authors of the ‘Appeal’ rightly say that ‘the workers of Russia are only just awakening, are just beginning to look about them, and are instinctively clutching at the first available means of struggle’.

“Yet they draw from this the same false conclusion as that drawn by Rabochaya Mysl, forgetting that the instinctive is the unconscious (the spontaneous) to the aid of which socialists must come; that the ‘first available means of struggle’ will always be, in modern society, the trade union means of struggle, and the ‘first available’ ideology the bourgeois ([narrow] trade unionist) ideology…

“The source of [their] confusion is to be found in the ambiguity of the interpretation given to the following thesis of the Rabocheye Dyelo programme:

“We consider that the most important phenomenon of Russian life, the one that will mainly determine the tasks and the character of the publication activity of the union, is the mass working-class movement which has arisen in recent years.”

Lenin now deliniates the Marxist approach to the great spontaneous mass strike movements which the Russian working class had created over the previous decade.

“That the mass movement is a most important phenomenon is a fact not to be disputed. But the crux of the matter is, how is one to understand the statement that the mass working class movement will ‘determine the tasks’? It may be interpreted in one of two ways.

“Either, it means bowing to the spontaneity of this movement, i.e., reducing the role of Social-Democracy to mere subservience to the working-class [trade-unionist] movement as such (the interpretation of Rabochaya Mysl, the Self -Emancipation Group, and other Economists).

“Or, it means that the mass movement places before us new theoretical, political, and organisational tasks, far more complicated than those that might have satisfied us in the period before the rise of the mass movement.

“Rabocheye Dyelo… has argued constantly as though the ‘mass movement’ relieves us of the necessity of clearly understanding and fulfilling the tasks it sets before us.

“We need only point out that Rabocheye Dyelo considered that it was impossible to set the overthrow of the autocracy as the first [prime] task of the mass working-class movement, and that it degraded this task (in the name of the mass movement) to that of a struggle for immediate political demands (Reply, p. 25).”

In a footnote, Lenin says that the article by B Krichevsky in Rabocheye Dyelo, entitled ‘The Economic Struggle in the Russian Movement’, repeats these mistakes.

“On page 4, Krichevsky, protesting against what he regards as the absolutely unfounded charge of Economist heresy, pathetically exclaims: ‘What Social-Democrat does not know that according to the theories of Marx and Engels the economic interests of certain classes play a decisive role in history, and, consequently, that particularly the proletariat’s struggle for its economic interests must be of paramount importance in its class development and struggle for emancipation?’

“The word ‘consequently’ is completely irrelevant. The fact that economic interests play a decisive role does not in the least imply that the economic (i.e., trade union) struggle is of prime importance; for the most essential, the ‘decisive’ interests of classes can be satisfied only by radical political changes in general.

“In particular the fundamental economic interests of the proletariat can be satisfied only by a political revolution that will replace the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie by the dictatorship of the proletariat. Krichevsky repeats the arguments… that politics follows economics, etc... of the Bernsteinians of German Social-Democracy… that the workers must first of all acquire ‘economic power’ before they can think about political revolution?

Lenin turns to the arguments of Rabocheye Dyelo, No. 10.

“…Rabocheye Dyelo saw a ‘diametrical contradiction’ between the proposition:

“‘Social-Democracy does not, tie its hands, it does not restrict its activities to some one preconceived plan or method of political struggle; it recognises all means of struggle as long as they correspond to the forces at the disposal of the Party,’ etc. (Iskra, No. 1.)

“and the proposition:

“‘Without a strong organisation skilled in waging political struggle under all circumstances and at all times, there can be no question of that systematic plan of action, illuminated by firm principles and steadfastly carried out, which alone is worthy of the name of tactics’ (Iskra, No. 4).

“[This] confuses recognition, in principle, of all means of struggle, of all plans and methods, provided they are expedient, with the demand at a given political moment to be guided by a strictly adhered-to plan...

“Rabocheye Dyelo... has made the remarkable discovery that ‘tactics-as-plan contradicts the fundamental spirit of Marxism’ (No. 10, p. 18), that tactics are ‘a process of growth of Party tasks, which grow together with the Party’ (p. 11). This remark has every chance of becoming a celebrated maxim, a permanent monument to the Rabocheye Dyelo ‘trend’.

“To the question, whither?... [it] replies: Movement is a process of changing the distance between the starting-point and subsequent points of the movement.

“This matchless example of profundity is not merely a curiosity (were it that, it would not be worth dealing with at length), but the programme of a whole tendency… expressed in [Rabochaya Mysl’s] words:

“That struggle is desirable which is possible, and the struggle which is possible is that which is going on at the given moment.

“This is precisely the trend of unbounded opportunism, which passively adapts itself to spontaneity.”

Lenin now focuses on the objections raised to the very idea of a worked out plan for developing the movement. Iskra and Zarya have been working to a plan of reorganising the existing Marxist circles around a newspaper published abroad and smuggled into Russia.

“‘A tactics plan contradicts the whole spirit of Marxism!’ But this is a libel on Marxism. It means turning Marxism into the caricature held up by the Narodniks in their struggle against us.

“It means belittling and restraining the initiative and energy of class-conscious fighters, whereas Marxism, on the contrary, gives a gigantic impetus to the initiative and energy of the Social-Democrat, opens up for him the widest perspectives, and (if one may so express it) places at his disposal the mighty force of many millions of workers ‘spontaneously’ rising for the struggle.

The entire history of international Social-Democracy teems with plans advanced now by one, now by another political leader, some confirming the far-sightedness and the correct political and organisational views of their authors and others revealing their short-sightedness and their political errors.

“At the time when Germany was at one of the crucial turning-points in its history — the formation of the Empire [in 1871], the opening of the Reichstag, and the granting of universal suffrage — Liebknecht had one plan for Social-Democratic politics and work in general, and Schweitzer had another.”

[Schweitzer, after the death of Ferdinand Lassalle, was the leader of the sect of Lassalleans, who would fuse with the Marxists at the 1875 Congress at Gotha.]

“When the anti-socialist law [1879-1990] came down on the heads of the German socialists, Most and Hasselmann had one plan — they were prepared then and there to call for violence and terror; Hochbert, Schramm, and (partly) Bernstein had another — they began to preach to the Social-Democrats that they themselves had provoked the enactment of the law by being unreasonably bitter and revolutionary, and must now earn forgiveness by their exemplary conduct.

“There was yet a third plan, proposed by those who prepared and carried out the publication [abroad] of an illegal organ.

“…At a time of confusion, when [Russian] Social-Democracy [is being reduced ] to the level of trade-unionism, and when the [populist] terrorists are strongly advocating the adoption of ‘tactics-as-plan’, that repeats the old mistakes; at a time… when many Russian Social-Democrats suffer from a lack of initiative and energy, from an inadequate scope of political propaganda, agitation, and organisation, from a lack of ‘plans’ for a broader organisation of revolutionary work — at such a time, to declare that ‘tactics-as-plan’ contradicts the essence of Marxism means not only to vulgarise Marxism in the realm of theory, but to drag the Party backward in practice.

“Rabocheye Dyelo goes on sermonising:

“‘The task of the revolutionary Social-Democrat is only to accelerate objective development by his conscious work, not to obviate it or substitute his own subjective plans for this development. Iskra knows all this in theory; but the enormous importance which Marxism justly attaches to conscious revolutionary work causes it in practice, owing to its doctrinaire view of tactics, to belittle the significance of the objective or the spontaneous element of development’ (p. 18).

“Another example of [Rabocheye Dyelo’s] extraordinary theoretical confusion... We would ask our philosopher: how may a designer of subjective plans ‘belittle’ objective development? Obviously by losing sight of the fact that this objective development creates or strengthens, destroys or weakens certain classes, strata, or groups, certain nations or groups of nations, etc., and in this way serves to determine a given international political alignment of forces, or the position adopted by revolutionary parties, etc.

“If the designer of plans did that, his guilt would not be that he belittled the spontaneous element, but, on the contrary, that he belittled the conscious element, for he would then show that he lacked the ‘consciousness’ properly to understand objective development. Hence, the very talk of ‘estimating the relative significance’ (Rabocheye Dyelo’s italics) of spontaneity and consciousness itself reveals a complete lack of ‘consciousness’.

“If certain ‘spontaneous elements of development’ can be grasped at all by human understanding, then an incorrect estimation of them will be tantamount to ‘belittling the conscious element’. But if they cannot be grasped, then we do not know them, and therefore cannot speak of them.”

Now Lenin focuses on the relationship between the “objective” movement and the conscious Marxists.

“What then is Krichevsky discussing? If he thinks that Iskra’s ‘subjective plans’ are erroneous (as he in fact declares them to be), he should have shown what objective facts they ignore, and only then charged Iskra with lacking political consciousness for ignoring them, with ‘belittling the conscious element’, to use his own words.

“If, however, displeased with subjective plans, he can bring forward no argument other than that of ‘belittling the spontaneous element’ (!), he merely shows: (1) that, theoretically, he [mis]understands Marxism; and (2) that, practically, he is quite satisfied with the ‘spontaneous elements of development’ that have drawn our legal Marxists towards Bernsteinism and our Social-Democrats towards Economism, and that he is ‘full of wrath’ against those who have determined at all costs to divert Russian Social-Democracy from the path of ‘spontaneous’ development.

“Further, there follow things that are positively droll. ‘Just as human beings will reproduce in the old-fashioned way despite all the discoveries of natural science, so the birth of a new social order will come about, in the future too, mainly as a result of elemental outbursts, despite all the discoveries of social science and the increase in the number of conscious fighters’ (p. 19).

“Just as our grandfathers in their old-fashioned wisdom used to say, Anyone can bring children into the world, so today the ‘modern socialists’... say in their wisdom, Anyone can participate in the spontaneous birth of a new social order. We too hold that anyone can. All that is required for participation of that kind is to yield to Economism when Economism reigns and to terrorism when terrorism arises…”

Lenin takes his opponents to task for cutting loose from the experience and tradition of the Russian Marxist movement.

“When Iskra ridiculed Rabocheye Dyelo for declaring the question of terror to be new, the latter angrily accused Iskra of ‘having the incredible effrontery to impose upon the Party organisation solutions of tactical questions proposed by a group of emigrant writers more than fifteen years ago’ (p. 24).

“Effrontery. indeed, and what an overestimation of the conscious element — first to resolve questions theoretically beforehand, and then to try to convince the organisation, the Party, and the masses of the correctness of this solution!

“How much better it would be to repeat the elements and, without ‘imposing’ anything upon anybody, swing with every ‘turn’ — whether in the direction of Economism or in the direction of terrorism.

“Rabocheye Dyelo even generalises this great precept of worldly wisdom and accuses Iskra and Zarya of ‘setting up their programme against the movement, like a spirit hovering over the formless chaos’ (p. 29). But what else is the function of Social-Democracy if not to be a ‘spirit’ that not only hovers over the spontaneous movement, but also raises this movement to the level of ‘its programme’?

“Surely, it is not its function to drag at the tail of the movement. At best, this would be of no service to the movement; at worst, it would be exceedingly harmful.

“Rabocheye Dyelo elevates ‘tactics-as-process’ to a principle, so that it would be more correct to describe its tendency not as opportunism, but as tail-ism (from the word tail).

“And it must be admitted that those who are determined always to follow behind the movement and be its tail are absolutely and forever guaranteed against ‘belittling the spontaneous element of development’.”

Lenin sums it up.

“... The fundamental error committed by the ‘new trend’ in Russian Social-Democracy is its bowing to spontaneity and its failure to understand that the spontaneity of the masses demands a high degree of consciousness from us Social-Democrats.

“The greater the spontaneous upsurge of the masses and the more widespread the movement, the more rapid, incomparably so, the demand for greater consciousness in the theoretical, political and organisational work of Social-Democracy.

“The spontaneous upsurge of the masses in Russia proceeded (and continues) with such rapidity that the young Social Democrats proved unprepared to meet these gigantic tasks. This unpreparedness is our common misfortune, the misfortune of all Russian Social-Democrats.

“The upsurge of the masses [in mass strikes and demonstrations] proceeded and spread with uninterrupted continuity; it not only continued in the places where it began, but spread to new localities and to new strata of the population (under the influence of the working class movement, there was a renewed ferment among the student youth, among the intellectuals generally, and even among the peasantry).

“Revolutionaries, however, lagged behind this upsurge, both in their ‘theories’ and in their activity; they failed to establish a constant and continuous organisation capable of leading the whole movement.”

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