The Final Split with the Mensheviks
Following Stolypin’s coup of June 1907, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDRP) was illegalized and its Duma representatives arrested. Party fractions could continue to exist in legal and semi-legal workers organizations (e.g., trade unions, cooperatives), but the party as such could only exist as an underground organization. The party’s full program could only be presented in an illegal press. By late 1907—early 1908, the RSDRP local committees had to go underground if they were to survive as functioning bodies.
The necessary transformation into an underground organization would in itself result in a considerable contraction of the party. Many raw workers and radicalized intellectuals won to the party during the revolutionary period were unwilling or incapable of functioning in an underground network. Furthermore, the wave of despair which passed over the working masses with the victory of tsarist reaction reinforced the exodus from the illegal and persecuted RSDRP. By 1908, the RSDRP could exist only as a relatively narrow network of committed revolutionaries.
Menshevik Liquidationism and Its Purposes
Thus the conditions in 1908 resurrected the original organizational differences which had split Russian Social Democracy into the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. As we have seen, at the 1906 “Reunification” Congress the Mensheviks accepted Lenin’s definition of membership because, under the relatively open conditions then prevailing, formal organizational participation and discipline were not a bar to broad recruitment. But by 1908 the old dispute between a narrow, centralized party versus a broad, amorphous organization broke out with renewed fury.
Most of the Menshevik cadre did not follow the Bolsheviks into the underground. Under the guidance of A.N. Potresov, the leading member of their tendency in Russia, the Menshevik cadre limited themselves to the legal workers organization and devoted themselves to producing a legal press. These social-democratic activists, subject to no party organization or discipline, nonetheless considered themselves members of the RSDRP and were so regarded by the Menshevik leadership abroad. Lenin denounced this Menshevik policy as Liquidationism, the de facto dissolution of the RSDRP in favor of an amorphous movement based on liberal-labor politics.
The Bolshevik-Menshevik conflict over Liquidationism cannot be taken simply at face value as an expression of antagonistic organizational principles. Menshevik Liquidationism was strongly conditioned by the fact that the Bolsheviks had a majority in the leading bodies of the official RSDRP. Liquidationism was an extreme form of a more general tendency of the Mensheviks to dissociate themselves from the Leninist leadership of the RSDRP.
In late 1907 the RSDRP delegation to the new Duma, in which the Mensheviks were a majority, declared its independence of the exile party center, arguing that this was a necessary legal cover. Publicly denying the subordination of the Duma delegates to the exile party leadership could have been a legitimate security measure. But the Menshevik parliamentarians gave this legal cover a real political content. The opportunist actions of the Menshevik parliamentarians reinforced the Bolshevik ultraleftists, who wanted to boycott the Duma altogether. (On the ultraleft faction within the Bolsheviks, see Part Five of this series.)
In early 1908, the Menshevik leadership in exile (Martov, Dan, Axelrod, Plekhanov) re-established their own factional organ, Golos Sotsial-Demokrata (Voice of the Social Democrat). In mid-1908, the Menshevik member of the Central Committee resident in Russia, M.I. Broido, resigned from that body ostensibly in protest against the Bolsheviks’ armed expropriations. About the same time, the two Menshevik members of the Central Committee abroad, B.I. Goldman and Martynov, circulated a memorandum stating that, in view of the disorganized state of the movement in Russia, the official party leadership should not issue instructions, but instead limit itself to passively monitoring social-democratic activity.
Had Martov, rather than Lenin, been the head of the official RSDRP, the Mensheviks would no doubt have been utterly loyal toward the established party organization (and moreover have ruthlessly used the party rules as a sword to cut the Bolsheviks to pieces). However, as against the Leninists, the Mensheviks were opposed in principle to defining the social-democratic party as an underground organization. Martov’s position on the relation of an underground organization to the party is precisely stated in the August-September 1909 issue of Golos Sotsial-Demokrata:
“… a more or less defined and to a certain extent conspiratorial organization now makes sense (and great sense) only in so far as it takes part in the construction of a social-democratic party, which by necessity is less defined and has its main points of support in open workers organizations.” [emphasis in original]
—quoted in Israel Getzler, Martov (1967)
This position for limiting the significance of the underground represented both a desire for bourgeois-liberal respectability and a tendency to identify the party with broad, inclusive workers organizations.
The Mensheviks were prepared to engage in illegal, clandestine activity to further their own program and organization, while opposing an underground party as such. Beginning in 1911 the Menshevik Liquidators created their own underground network, though this was not as effective as the Bolsheviks’ nor did it attain the latter’s mass influence.
Menshevik Liquidationism of 1908-12 was an extreme expression of social-democratic opportunism resulting from the following major factors: 1) a desire for bourgeois-liberal respectability; 2) a general bias toward identifying the party with broad, inclusive workers organizations; 3) the fact that such organizations were legal, while the party as such was not; 4) Lenin’s leadership of the official RSDRP; and 5) the organizational weakness of the Mensheviks.
The Battle Is Joined
The battle over Liquidationism was first formally joined at the RSDRP conference held in Paris in December 1908.
At this conference the Bolsheviks had five delegates (three of them ultraleftists) and their allies, Luxemburg/Jogiches’ Polish Social Democrats, had five; the Mensheviks had three delegates and their allies, the Jewish Bund, had three.
All participants at this conference (except the ultraleft Bolsheviks) recognized that the revolutionary situation was definitely over, and that an indefinite period of reaction lay ahead. The party’s tasks and perspectives would have to be changed accordingly. In this context Lenin asserted the need for the primacy of the illegal party organization. Lenin’s resolution on this question passed, with the Mensheviks voting against and the Bundists splitting:
“… the changed political conditions make it increasingly impossible to contain Social Democratic activity within the framework of the legal and semi-legal workers’ organizations….
“The party must devote particular attention to the utilization and strengthening of existing illegal, semi-legal and where possible legal organizations—and to the creation of new ones—which can serve it as strong points for agitational, propagandistic and practical organizational work among the masses…. This work will be possible and fruitful only if there exists in each industrial enterprise a workers’ committee, consisting only of party members even if they are few in number, which will be closely linked to the masses, and if all work of the legal organizations is conducted under the guidance of the illegal party organization.” [our emphasis]
—Robert H. McNeal, ed., Resolutions and Decisions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1974)
Lenin used his majority at the 1908 RSDRP conference to condemn Liquidationism by name, presenting it as an expression of the instability and careerism of the radical intelligentsia:
“Noting that in many places a section of the party intelligentsia is attempting to liquidate the existing organization of the RSDRP and to replace it by a shapeless amalgamation within the framework of legality, whatever this might cost—even at the price of the open rejection of the Programme, tasks, and traditions of the party—the Conference finds it essential to conduct the most resolute ideological and organizational struggle against these liquidationist efforts….”
As we have already discussed (in Part I), Lenin regarded Menshevism as an expression of the interests and attitudes of the radical intelligentsia, rather than as an opportunist current internal to the workers movement. In this Lenin followed Kautsky’s methodology, which located the sociological basis of revisionism in the petty-bourgeois fellow travelers of Social Democracy.
The Mensheviks likewise accused Lenin’s Bolsheviks of representing a petty-bourgeois deviation … anarchism. For example, in early 1908 Plekhanov described the launching of the Menshevik organ, Golos Sotsial-Demokrata, as a first step toward “the triumph of social-democratic principles over bolshevik Bakuninism” (quoted in Leonard Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union ). The Mensheviks explained away the Bolsheviks’ working-class support by arguing that the Leninists demagogically exploited the primitiveness of the Russian proletariat, a proletariat still closely tied to the peasantry.
Thus both sides accused the other of not being real social democrats (i.e., working-class-oriented socialists). The Bolsheviks viewed the Mensheviks as petty-bourgeois democrats, the left wing of bourgeois liberalism, the radicalized children of the Cadets. The Mensheviks condemned the Bolsheviks as petty-bourgeois anarchists, radical populists disguised as social democrats. These mutual accusations were not demagogy nor even polemical exaggerations; they genuinely expressed the way in which the Bolsheviks viewed the Mensheviks and vice versa. Since both sides adhered to the principle of a unitary party of all social democrats, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks could justify their split only by declaring that the other group was not really part of the proletarian socialist movement.
Pro-Party Mensheviks and Bolshevik Conciliators
In late 1908, Lenin’s campaign against the Liquidators got a boost from a most unexpected source … Plekhanov. The grand old man of Russian Marxism broke sharply with the Menshevik leadership, established his own paper, Dnevnik Sotsial-Demokrata (Diary of a Social Democrat), and attacked the abandonment of the established party organizations in words and tone similar to that of Lenin.
Plekhanov’s political behavior in 1909-11 is on the face of it puzzling since he had hitherto been on the extreme right wing of the Mensheviks on almost all questions, including vociferously advocating a split with Lenin. Subjective considerations may have played a role. Plekhanov was extremely prideful and may well have resented being eclipsed by the younger Menshevik leaders (e.g., Martov, Potresov). He may have considered that a “pro-Party” Menshevik stance would enable him to re-establish himself as the premier authority of Russian Social Democracy.
However, Plekhanov’s anti-Liquidator position is not at such variance with his general political outlook as might first appear. Plekhanov always believed in the need for a Marxist , ie, scientific socialist) leadership over working-class spontaneity. It was this belief that impelled him into intransigent struggle against Economism in 1900. Paradoxically, Plekhanov’s right-wing position on the revolution of 1905 reinforced his distrust of mass spontaneity. For Plekhanov, a strong social-democratic party was needed to restrain what he believed were the anarchistic, primitivist impulses of the Russian proletariat. In the conflict between Plekhanov and the Menshevik Liquidators we see the difference between an orthodox, pre-1914 Marxist, committed to a bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia, and a group of labor reformists primarily concerned with defending the immediate economic interests of Russian workers.
Plekhanov’s “pro-Party” Mensheviks were small in number and only some of these eventually fused with the Bolsheviks. Plekhanov himself opposed Lenin when, at the Prague Conference in January 1912, the latter declared the Bolsheviks to be the RSDRP, thus creating a separate Bolshevik party. However, the impact of Plekhanov’s “pro-Party” Mensheviks on the factional struggle was greatly disproportionate to their meager numbers. Plekhanov retained great authority in the international and Russian social-democratic movement. His strident accusations that the main body of Mensheviks were liquidating the social-democratic party enormously enhanced the credibility of Lenin’s position, since Plekhanov could not easily be accused of factional distortion or exaggeration. The few “pro-Party” Mensheviks who did join the Bolsheviks in 1912 greatly added to the legitimacy of Lenin’s claim to represent the continuity of the official RSDRP.
By 1909, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in Russia had split into two separate groups competing for mass influence. At a conference of the Bolshevik leadership in mid-1909, Lenin argued that the Bolshevik faction had in fact become the RSDRP:
“… one thing must be borne firmly in mind: the responsibility of ‘preserving and consolidating’ the RSDLP, of which the resolution speaks, now rests primarily, if not entirely, on the Bolshevik section. All, or practically all, the Party work in progress, particularly in the localities, is now being shouldered by the Bolsheviks.” [our emphasis]
—”Report on the Conference of the Extended Editorial Board of Proletary“ (July 1909)
At the same time he stressed the importance of uniting with Plekhanov’s “pro-Party” Mensheviks:
“What then are the tasks of the Bolsheviks in relation to this as yet small section of the Mensheviks who are fighting against liquidationism on the right? The Bolsheviks must undoubtedly seek rapprochement with this section, those who are Marxists and partyists.” [emphasis in original]
Lenin’s position that the Bolsheviks (hopefully in alliance with the Plekhanovites) should build the party without and against the majority of Mensheviks ran into significant resistance among the Bolshevik leadership and also ranks. A strong faction of conciliators emerged, led by Dobruvinsky (a former Duma deputy), Rykov, Nogin and Lozovsky, which stood for a political compromise with the Mensheviks in order to restore a unified RSDRP.
In a sense the forces of conciliation were stronger in Berlin than in St. Petersburg or Moscow. The German Social Democratic (SPD) leadership remained ever desirous of Russian party unity. In a particularly sentimental mood, Kautsky expressed his attitude on the antagonistic Russian factions in a letter (5 May 1911) to Plekhanov:
“… these days I had visits from Bolsheviks … Mensheviks, Otzovists [ultraleftists], and Liquidators. They are all dear people and when talking to them one does not notice great differences of opinion.
—quoted in Getzler, Op. cit.
The SPD leadership opened up their press to the most important of Russian conciliators—Trotsky. Trotsky’s articles in the influential SPD press turned international social-democratic opinion strongly in favor of unity of the Russian party and against the extremists on both sides, Lenin for the Bolsheviks and Potresov for the Mensheviks.
Lenin Fights for a Bolshevik Party
Faced with a strong pro-unity group within his own ranks and under pressure from Plekhanov’s “pro-Party” Mensheviks and the SPD leadership, Lenin reluctantly agreed to another attempt at unity. This was the January 1910 plenum held in Paris. Representation at the plenum closely replicated the last, 1907 party congress. The Bolsheviks had four delegates (three of them conciliators) as did the Mensheviks. The pro-Menshevik Jewish Bund had two delegates as did the pro-Bolshevik Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) of Luxemburg/Jogiches. The nominally pro-Bolshevik united Latvian Social Democrats and the ultraleft Vperyod group had one delegate each.
At the plenum the conciliatory elements imposed a series of compromises on the leadership of the two basic tendencies. The factional composition of the leading party bodies (the Editorial Board of the central organ, the Foreign Bureau and Russian Board of the Central Committee) established at the 1907 congress was maintained. Parity between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was maintained on all party bodies, thus placing the balance of power in the hands of the national social-democratic parties.
On the key question of the underground, a compromise resolution was worked out. Opposing or belittling the underground organization was condemned, but the term “liquidationism” was avoided because of its anti-Menshevik factional connotation. In turn, the Mensheviks got the moral satisfaction of condemning the Bolsheviks’ armed expropriations as a violation of party discipline.
The artificiality of the 1910 “unity” agreement was indicated by the Mensheviks’ refusal to allow Lenin to administer the party funds. The party treasury was therefore placed in the hands of three German trustees—Kautsky, Klara Zetkin and Franz Mehring. (Kautsky, who was not sentimental where money was concerned, later kept the Russian party treasury on the grounds that it had no legitimate, representative leading body.) Lenin’s critical and distrustful attitude toward the results of the Paris Central Committee plenum was expressed in a letter (11 April 1910) to Maxim Gorky:
“At the C.C. plenum (the ‘long plenum’—three weeks of agony, all nerves were on edge, the devil to pay!) … a mood of ‘conciliation in general’ (without any clear idea of with whom, for what, and how); hatred of the Bolshevik Center for its implacable ideological struggle; squabbling on the part of the Mensheviks, who were spoiling for a fight, and as a result—an infant covered with blisters.
“And so we have to suffer. Either—at best—we cut open the blisters, let out the pus, and cure and rear the infant.
“Or, at worst—the infant dies. Then we shall be childless for a while (that is, we shall re-establish the Bolshevik faction) and then give birth to a more healthy infant.”
Lenin’s distrust of the Mensheviks was quickly borne out. The Menshevik Liquidators in Russia, led by P.A. Garvi, flatly refused to enter the Russian Board of the Central Committee as agreed at the Paris plenum. Thus Lenin was able to place the blame for the split on the Mensheviks and put the Bolshevik conciliators on the defensive. Years later, Martov still berated Garvi for his tactical blunder, which greatly aided Lenin.
In late 1910, Lenin declared that the Mensheviks had broken the agreements made at the Paris plenum and so the Bolsheviks were no longer bound by them. In May 1911, Lenin called a rump meeting of leading Bolsheviks and their Polish allies, which set up ad hoc bodies to replace the official RSDRP organs established at the Paris plenum. For example, a Technical Committee was set up to replace the Foreign Bureau of the Central Committee as the party’s highest administrative body. For Lenin this was a decisive step in building a party without and against most of the Mensheviks.
At this point Lenin’s plans were impeded by the emergence of a new and temporarily powerful conciliator—Leo Jogiches, leader of the SDKPiL. Jogiches was a formidable antagonist. Together with the Bolshevik conciliators (e.g., Rykov) he had a majority on the leading party bodies, such as the Technical Committee. Through Rosa Luxemburg he influenced the German trustees of the RSDRP funds.
The 1911 fight between Jogiches and Lenin is often dismissed, particularly by bourgeois historians, as a personal power struggle. However, underlying the SDKPiL-Bolshevik schism in 1911-14 was the difference between an orthodox social-democratic position on the party question and emerging Leninism. Luxemburg/Jogiches were prepared to support the Bolshevik faction within a unitary social-democratic party. They would not support the transformation of the Bolshevik group into a party claiming to be the sole legitimate representative of social democracy. And Jogiches understood that this was what Lenin was in fact doing. In a letter to Kautsky (30 June 1911) concerning finances, he wrote that Lenin “wants to use the chaos in the party to get the money for his own faction and to deal a death blow to the party as a whole….” (quoted in J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg .
Lenin’s attitude to Jogiches and the other conciliators is clearly expressed in a draft article, “The State of Affairs in the Party” (July 1911):
“The ‘conciliators’ have not understood the ideological roots of what keeps us apart from the liquidators, and have therefore left them a number of loopholes and have frequently been (involuntarily) a plaything in the hands of the liquidators….
“Since the revolution, the Bolsheviks, as a trend, have lived through two errors—(1) otzovism-Vperyodism and (2) conciliationism (wobbling in the direction of the liquidators). It is time to get rid of both.
“We Bolsheviks have resolved on no account to repeat (and not to allow a repetition of) the error of conciliationism today. This would mean slowing down the rebuilding of the R.S.D.L.P., and entangling it in a new game with the Golos people (or their lackies, like Trotsky), the Vperyodists and so forth.” [emphasis in original]
In late 1911, Lenin broke with Jogiches and the Bolshevik conciliators. He sent an agent, Ordzhonikidze, to Russia where the latter set up the Russian Organizing Committee (ROC) which claimed to be an interim Central Committee of the RSDRP. The ROC called an “all-Russian conference of the RSDRP,” which met in Prague in January 1912. Fourteen delegates attended, twelve Bolsheviks and two “pro-Party” Mensheviks, one of whom expressed Plekhanov’s opposition to the conference as an anti-unity act.
The conference declared that the Menshevik Liquidators stood outside the RSDRP. It also scrapped the nationally federated structure established at the 1906 “Reunification” Congress, in effect excluding the Bund, SDKPiL and Latvian Social Democrats from the Russian party. The conference elected a new Central Committee consisting of six “hard” (anti-conciliator) Bolsheviks and one “pro-Party” Menshevik for symbolic effect. The Prague Conference marked the definitive organizational break between Lenin’s revolutionary social democrats and the opportunist Mensheviks. In that important sense Prague 1912 was the founding conference of the Bolshevik Party.
Did Lenin Seek Unity with the Mensheviks?
Even before 1912, Lenin was commonly regarded as a fanatical splitter, as the great schismatic of Russian Social Democracy. The world-historic significance of the Bolshevik-Menshevik split is now universally recognized, not least by anti-Leninists. It is therefore astounding that anybody, particularly a group claiming to be Leninist, could maintain that the Bolshevik leader was a staunch advocate of social-democratic unity, while the Mensheviks were the aggressive splitters.
Yet this is just the position taken by the revisionist “Trotskyist” International Marxist Group (IMG), British section of Ernest Mandel’s United Secretariat. As a theoretical justification for a grand regroupment maneuver, the IMG has revised the history of the Bolsheviks to make Lenin out as a unity-above-all conciliator. Referring to the post-1905 period, the IMG writes:
“Far from Lenin being the splitter, far from posing merely ‘formal unity,’ the Bolsheviks were the chief fighters for the unity of the Party…. It was the Mensheviks in this period who were the splitters and not Lenin.”
—”The Bolshevik Faction and the Fight for the Party,” Red Weekly, 11 November 1976
The complete falsity of this position is demonstrated by a series of incredible omissions. This article does not mention the real Bolshevik conciliators, like Rykov, and Lenin’s fight against them. It does not mention the 1910 Paris “unity” plenum and Lenin’s opposition to the compromises made there. It does not mention that Lenin’s erstwhile factional allies, Plekhanov and Jogiches/Luxemburg, opposed the Prague Conference in the name of party unity and subsequently denounced Lenin as a splitter.
This is the IMG’s analysis of the Prague Conference:
“The task of the Bolsheviks and the pro-Party Mensheviks in reconsolidating the illegal RSDLP had been accomplished by the end of 1911—although by this time Plekhanov himself had deserted to the liquidators. This reconsolidation was finalised at the Sixth Party Congress [sic] held in Prague in January 1912. At this congress there was not a split with Menshevism as such—on the contrary … Lenin worked for the congress with a section of the Mensheviks. The split was not with those who defended Menshevik politics but with the liquidators who refused to accept the Party.” [emphasis in original]
It was precisely the Mensheviks’ politics on the organizational question which generated Liquidationism. From the original 1903 split right down to World War I the Mensheviks defined “the party” to include workers sympathetic to social democracy, but who were not subject to formal organizational membership and discipline. It was on that basis that the Mensheviks continually rejected and disregarded Lenin’s formal majorities and consequent party leadership.
The statement that Plekhanov rejoined the Liquidators in 1911 is false. And in this historical inaccuracy the IMG demonstrates its fundamental miscomprehension of relations between the Bolsheviks and “pro-Party” Mensheviks. Plekhanov did not rejoin the main body of Mensheviks. Like Trotsky and Luxemburg, he adopted an independent stance in 1912-14, urging the reunification of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.
The IMG cannot explain why Plekhanov, who fought the Liquidators for three years, then refused to split with them and unite with the Leninists. When Plekhanov, who was notoriously arrogant, began his anti-Liquidator campaign in late 1908, he undoubtedly believed he would win over the majority of Mensheviks and possibly become the leading figure in a reunified RSDRP. Even while blocking with Plekhanov, Lenin had occasion to debunk the dissident Menshevik leader’s self-serving illusions:
“The Menshevik Osip [Plekhanov] has proved to be a lone figure, who has resigned both from the official Menshevik editorial board and from the collective editorial board of the most important Menshevik work, a lone protester against ‘petty bourgeois opportunism’ and liquidationism….”
—”The Liquidators Exposed” (September 1909)
By 1911, it was clear that the Plekhanovites were a small minority among the Mensheviks. Had Plekhanov united with the Bolsheviks at the Prague Conference, he would have been a small and politically isolated minority. He could never hope to win the Bolsheviks to his pro-bourgeois liberal strategy. He would simply have been a figurehead in a de facto Bolshevik party. Being a shrewd politician, Lenin sought to “capture” Plekhanov in this way. But Plekhanov had no intention of serving as a figurehead for the Leninists. In refusing to participate in the Prague Conference, he wrote: “The makeup of your conference is so one-sided that it would be better, i.e., more in the interests of Party unity, if I stayed away” (quoted in Bertram D. Wolfe, Three Who Made a Revolution ).
Even before 1912, the Bolsheviks were essentially a party, rather than a faction, because Lenin would refuse to act as a disciplined minority under a Menshevik leadership. The Menshevik leaders, including Plekhanov, reciprocated this attitude. Unity with the numerically small “pro-Party” Mensheviks did not challenge Lenin’s leadership of the party as he reconstructed it at the Prague Conference. Had the Plekhanovites been larger than the Bolsheviks, Lenin would have fought for another organizational arrangement which would allow his supporters to act as revolutionary social democrats unimpeded by the opportunists.
Unity Attempts After Prague
After the Prague Conference, the Bolsheviks were bombarded with continual unity campaigns involving most major figures in the Russian movement and also the leadership of the Second International. These campaigns culminated in a pro-unity resolution by the International Socialist Bureau (ISB) in December 1913, which led to a “unity” conference in Brussels in July 1914. Less than a month later most of the unity-mongers of the Second International were supporting their own ruling classes in killing the workers of “enemy” countries.
The first attempt to reverse Lenin’s action at the Prague Conference was taken by Trotsky. He pressured the Menshevik Organizing Committee into calling a conference of all Russian social democrats. The Bolsheviks naturally refused to participate as did their former allies, the Plekhanovites and Luxemburg/Jogiches’ SDKPiL. The conference met in Vienna in August 1912. In addition to Trotsky’s small group, it was attended by the main body of Mensheviks, the Bund and also the ultraleft Vperyod group. The “August bloc” thus combined the extreme right wing and extreme left wing of Russian Social Democracy. Naturally the participants could agree on nothing except hostility to the Leninists for declaring themselves the official RSDRP. In fact, the Vperyodists walked out in the middle leaving the conference as a Menshevik forum.
Trotsky’s “August bloc” was a classic centrist rotten bloc—a fleeting coalition of the most heterogeneous elements against a hard revolutionary tendency. After he was won to Leninism in 1917, Trotsky regarded the “August bloc” as his greatest political error. Polemicizing against another centrist rotten bloc in the American section of the Fourth International in 1940, Trotsky looked back on the 1912 “August bloc”:
“I have in mind the so-called August bloc of 1912. I participated actively in this bloc. In a certain sense I created it. Politically I differed with the Mensheviks on all fundamental questions. I also differed with the ultra-left Bolsheviks, the Vperyodists. In the general tendency of policies I stood far more closely to the Bolsheviks. But 1 was against the Leninist ‘regime’ because I had not yet learned to understand that in order to realize a revolutionary goal a firmly welded centralized party is necessary. And so 1 formed this episodic bloc consisting of heterogeneous elements which was directed against the proletarian wing of the party….
“Lenin subjected the August bloc to merciless criticism and the harshest blows fell to my lot. Lenin proved that inasmuch as I did not agree politically with either the Mensheviks or the Vperyodists my policy was adventurism. This was severe but it was true.”
—In Defense of Marxism (1940)
The consolidation of a separate Bolshevik Party at the Prague Conference coincided with the beginning of a new rising line of proletarian class struggle in Russia. In the next two and a half years the Bolsheviks transformed themselves once again into a mass proletarian party. In 1913, Lenin claimed 30,000-50,000 members. In the Duma elections in late 1912 the Bolsheviks elected six out of nine delegates in the workers curia. In 1914, Lenin claimed 2,800 workers groups as against 600 for the Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks’ legal organ, Pravda, had a circulation of 40,000 compared to 16,000 for the Mensheviks’ Luch.
Privately the Mensheviks admitted the Bolsheviks’ predominance in the workers movement and their own weakness. In a letter (15 September 1913) to Potresov, Martov wrote: “… the Mensheviks seem unable to move away from the dead center in the organizational sense and remain, in spite of the newspaper and of everything done in the last two years, a weak circle” (quoted in Getzler, Op. cit.).
While the transformation of the Bolsheviks into a mass party at this time was of enormous significance to the revolutionary cause, in one sense it could be said to have impeded the theoretical development of Leninism. Developments in 1912-14 appeared to confirm Lenin’s belief that the Mensheviks were simply petty-bourgeois careerists in Russia and émigré literati standing outside the real workers movement. The Bolsheviks’ claim to be the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party seemed to be empirically vindicated. And thus Lenin believed that he hadn’t really split the social-democratic party.
The Prague Conference in January 1912 represented the definitive split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, but the split was not comprehensive. The six Bolshevik deputies elected to the Fourth Duma in late 1912 maintained a common front with the seven Menshevik deputies in a unitary social-democratic fraction. Among the less advanced workers, sentiment for unity was still strong and this created resistance among the Bolsheviks to splitting the Duma fraction, a public act. Lenin oriented toward splitting the Duma fraction, but did so with considerable tactical caution. Only in late 1913 did the Bolshevik deputies openly split and create their own Duma fraction.
The split in the Duma fraction had a far greater impact on international Social Democracy than the Prague Conference since it made the division in the Russian movement all too public. At Rosa Luxemburg’s initiative, the ISB intervened to restore unity in the seemingly incorrigibly fractious Russian social-democratic movement. The ISB’s pro-unity policy was necessarily damaging, if not outright hostile, to the Bolsheviks. Luxemburg’s motives were clearly hostile to Lenin. In urging the International’s intervention, she denounced “the systematic incitement by Lenin’s group of the split among the ranks of other social democratic organisations” (quoted in H.H. Fisher and Olga Hess Gankin, eds., The Bolsheviks and the World War ).
In December 1913, the ISB adopted a resolution calling for the reunification of Russian Social Democracy. This resolution was co-sponsored by three German leaders, Kautsky, Ebert and Molkenbuhr:
“… the International Bureau considers it the urgent duty of all social democratic groups in Russia to make a serious and loyal attempt to agree to the restoration of a single party organization and to put an end to the present harmful and discouraging state of disunion.”
The ISB then arranged a Russian “unity” conference in Brussels in July 1914. The authority of the German-led International was such that all Russian social democrats, including the Bolsheviks, felt obliged to attend this meeting. In addition to the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, the Brussels Conference was attended by the Vperyodists, Trotsky’s group, Plekhanov’s group, the Latvian Social Democrats and three Polish groups.
Needless to say, Lenin was hostile to the purpose of the Brussels Conference. While he wrote a lengthy report for it, he showed his disdain by not attending in person. The head of the Bolshevik delegation was Inessa Armand. Lenin drafted “unity conditions” which he knew the Mensheviks would reject out of hand. These involved the complete organizational subordination of the Mensheviks to the Bolshevik majority, including the prohibition of a separate Menshevik press and a total ban on public criticism of the underground party. When Armand presented Lenin’s “unity conditions,” the Mensheviks were furious. Plekhanov termed them “articles of a new penal code.” Kautsky, the chairman of the conference, had difficulty keeping order. Nonetheless, the respected German leader dutifully presented a motion stating that there were no principled differences barring unity. This resolution carried with the Bolsheviks (and also the Latvian Social Democrats) refusing to vote.
Lenin’s Justification for the Split
The report to the July 1914 Brussels Conference was Lenin’s most comprehensive justification for the split and creation of a separate Bolshevik party. It was intended to present the Bolshevik case in the most favorable way before West European social-democratic opinion. Thus, the report probably doesn’t fully express Lenin’s views on Bolshevik-Menshevik relations.
The report presents two basic arguments, one political, the other empirical. Lenin’s basic political argument is that the majority of Mensheviks, by rejecting the underground organization as the party, stand qualitatively to the right of the opportunists (e.g., Bernstein) in the West European social democracies:
“We see how mistaken is the opinion that our differences with the liquidators are no deeper and are less important than those between the so-called radicals and moderates in Western Europe. There is not a single—literally not a single—West European party that has ever had occasion to adopt a general party decision against people who desired to dissolve the party and to substitute a new one for it!
“Nowhere in Western Europe has there ever been, nor can there ever be, a question of whether it is permissible to bear the title of party member and at the same time advocate the dissolution of that party, to argue that the party is useless and unnecessary, and that another party be substituted for it. Nowhere in Western Europe does the question concern the very existence of the party as it does with us….
“This is not a disagreement over a question or organization, of how the party should be built, but a disagreement concerning the very existence of the party. Here, conciliation, agreement and compromise are totally out of the question.” [emphasis in original]
—”Report of the C.C. of the RSDLP to the Brussels Conferences and Instructions to the C.C. Delegation” (June 1914)
This view of Menshevik Liquidationism is superficial, focusing on the specific form, rather than the political substance, of social-democratic opportunism. Lenin’s belief that the Russian Mensheviks were to the right of Bernstein, Jaurés, etc. turned out to be false. The war found the small group of Martovite Internationalists who had served as a fig leaf to the Mensheviks not only far to the left of the German social-patriots Ebert/Noske, but also to the left of the SPD centrists Kautsky/Haase. The root cause of the Mensheviks’ organizational liquidationism in 1908-12 was not that Martov/Potresov stood qualitatively to the right of Bernstein and Noske, but rather that Lenin, formally the leader of the RSDRP, stood to the left of Bebel/Kautsky.
Most of the report to the Brussels Conference seeks to demonstrate empirically that “a majority of four-fifths of the class-conscious workers of Russia have rallied around the decisions and bodies created by the January [Prague] Conference of 1912.” It is important to emphasize that this was not an argument just for public consumption. For Lenin one of the decisive criteria of a real social-democratic party was the extent of its proletarian following. In his private notes to Inessa Armand, he wrote:
“In Russia, nearly every group, or ‘faction’… accuses the other of being not a workers’ group, but a bourgeois intellectualist group. We consider this accusation or rather argument, this reference to the social significance of a particular group, extremely important in principle. But precisely because we consider it extremely important, we deem it our duty not to make sweeping statements about the social significance of other groups, but to back our statements with objective facts. For these objective facts prove absolutely and irrefutably that Pravdism [Bolshevism] alone is a workers’ trend in Russia, whereas liquidationism and Socialist-Revolutionism are in fact bourgeois intellectualist trends.” [emphasis in original]
As can be seen from the above quote, had the Mensheviks in this period acquired a significant proletarian base, Lenin would have had either to adopt a more conciliatory attitude toward them or justify the split on more general principles.
Lenin’s view of the Mensheviks as a petty-bourgeois intellectualist trend external to the workers movement was impressionistic. The wave of patriotism and national defensism which swept the Russian masses in the first years of the war benefited the opportunistic Mensheviks at the expense of the Leninists, who were intransigent defeatists. When the Russian Revolution broke out in February 1917, the Mensheviks were far stronger relative to the Bolsheviks than they had been in 1914.
During 1912-14, Lenin’s innumerable polemics against unity with the Mensheviks presented a number of different arguments. Some of these arguments were narrow or empirical, as in the report to the Brussels Conference. However, in other writings Lenin anticipated the split in principle with opportunists in the workers movement which defines the modern communist party. Thus in an April 1914 polemic against Trotsky, entitled “Unity,” Lenin writes:
“There can be no unity, federal or other, with liberal-labor politicians, with disrupters of the working-class movement, with those who defy the will of the majority. There can and must be unity among all consistent Marxists, among all those who stand for the entire Marxist body and the uncurtailed slogans, independently of the liquidators and apart from them.
“Unity is a great thing and a great slogan. But what the workers’ cause needs is the unity of Marxists, not unity between Marxists, and opponents and distorters of Marxism.” [emphasis in original]
However, it was not until 4 August 1914, when the parliamentary fraction of the German Social Democracy voted for war credits, that Lenin was made to understand the epochal significance of the above passage, of his break with the Russian Mensheviks. Only then did Lenin seek to split the consistent, i.e., revolutionary, Marxists from all the liberal-labor politicians and all the opponents and distorters of Marxism. In so doing he created communism as a world-historic revolutionary doctrine and movement, as the Marxism of the epoch of capitalism’s death agony.