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Deciding history’s future

A 100 years ago, in August 1903, a group of exiled Russian revolutionaries stepped off the boat in London to resume their heated discussions. Little did they suspect that the outcome of their struggle would eventually have a direct bearing on the course of 20th century history in the shape of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Their deliberations hold many lessons for us today.

By Paul Feldman

The conference had started in Brussels in late July. But police harassment proved so intense that the exiles decided to move the second congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RDSLP) to England, where they anticipated less trouble from the authorities. Other exiles living in London were contacted and the arrangements made to transfer the congress.

Iskra [The Spark] the paper of the exiled revolutionaries was in fact printed in London. And delegates like Lenin had already spent time in the capital of the British empire. They had never had much trouble getting into a country which was home to political refugees from all over the world. While the Belgian police mistakenly thought the revolutionaries were part of an anarchist plot, the British police showed little interest in the exiles as they arrived. The first sessions of the resumed congress were held at an anglers’ club in Charlotte Street, off Tottenham Court Road. Various other venues were used but no information about them has survived.

Lenin possessed a reader’s ticket for the same British Library in Bloomsbury where Marx had written Capital 40 years earlier. Lenin’s first application for a pass was rejected but he was granted one after the British socialist and publisher, Harry Quelch wrote him an acceptable reference. Another delegate was Trotsky, who had also been to London before. In 1902, Trotsky, then a 23-year-old firebrand, had got Lenin, who was nearly ten years his senior, out of bed at dawn.

He recalls in My Life, his autobiography: “I arrived in London from Zurich by way of Paris, in the autumn of 1902. I think it was in October, early in the morning, when a cab, engaged after I had resorted to all sorts of pantomime, drove me to the address written on a slip of paper. My destination was Lenin’s house. I had been instructed before I left Zurich to knock on the door three times. The door was opened by Nadyezhda Konstantinovna [Lenin’s wife Krupskaya], who had probably been wakened by my knocking.”

Their meeting at 30 Holford Square, off King’s Cross Road, was the first encounter between two men who in 1917 would co-lead the world’s first socialist revolution. Within three years Trotsky would chair the St Petersburg Soviet during the failed 1905 revolution. They went for a long walk around London, Trotsky recalls: “From a bridge, Lenin pointed out Westminster and some other famous buildings. I don’t remember the exact words he used, but what he conveyed was: ‘This is their famous Westminster,’ and ‘their’ referred of course not to the English but to the ruling classes. This implication, which was not in the least emphasised, but coming as it did from the very innermost depths of the man, and expressed more by the tone of his voice than by anything else, was always present, whether Lenin was speaking of the treasures of culture, of new achievements, of the wealth of books in the British Museum, of the information of the larger European newspapers, or, years later, of German artillery or French aviation. They know this or they have that, they have made this or achieved that — but what enemies they are! To his eyes, the invisible shadow of the ruling classes always overlay the whole of human culture — a shadow that was as real to him as daylight.”

Trotsky gave a public lecture in Whitechapel and one Sunday he, Lenin and Krupskaya went to a Social Democratic meeting in a church, where speeches alternated with the singing of hymns. The principal speaker was a compositor who had just returned from Australia. He spoke of the social revolution. Then everybody rose and sang: “Lord Almighty, let there be no more kings or rich men!” Trotsky was, by all accounts, slightly dumbfounded. Lenin helped him obtain a reader’s ticket and he too spent time at the British Library, where “I gorged myself on the super abundance of books there”. 

Unifying the groups

There was to be no time for that in 1903 when Trotsky joined the other delegates in London to continue the work of the congress. Although nominally their second congress, in practice it was the inaugural meeting of the RSDLP. The previous congress held in Russian in 1898 was attended by only nine delegates. It had only decided the party’s designation and adopted a general manifesto. The objective of the second congress was to unify the scattered groups in Russia and weld them into a revolutionary fighting organisation with a common programme and strategy. That, at least, was the plan. Events turned out differently.

The congress lasted – or rather raged - until August 23, almost a month after it had started in Belgium. The minutes show that there were no fewer than 37 sessions. Present were 43 delegates from 26 organisations in Russia and another 14 observers. Eight of those present were women.

Two tendencies – the Bolsheviks (Russian for “of the majority”) led by Lenin and the Mensheviks (“of the minority”) led by Martov – have their origins at this historic gathering. The Bolsheviks organised the revolution of 1917, which the Mensheviks were opposed to.

Yet these groups were in no way fully formed at the end of the 1903 congress. In fact, the final parting of the ways did not come until 1912. Many delegates switched sides after the congress, including 47-year-old Plekhanov, considered by all present as the father of Russian Marxism, while Trotsky found himself more in sympathy with the minority. He later formed an independent organisation and tried fruitlessly to unite the two factions.

The divisions that arose essentially concerned the nature of the party they should build.  The differences were as much a surprise to Lenin as anyone else. He found it painful to engage in sharp confrontations with Martov, someone he regarded as a comrade-in-arms and who he had worked with under the dangerous conditions of Tsarist oppression.

Lenin’s thinking was set out ahead of the congress in his pamphlet What is to be done?  Published in 1902, Lenin called for the creation of a strong, centralised and disciplined party organised by what he termed “professional revolutionaries”. This was a challenge to the old-style revolutionaries with their tendency towards individualist and even anarchist ways of operating in small circles.

The background to Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet was the emergence in Russia of the international trend that wanted the movement to change from a party of social revolution into a democratic party of social reforms. In Russia, this took the form of those who, as Lenin put it, wanted to reduce “the working-class movement and the class struggle to narrow trade unionism and to a ‘realistic’ struggle for petty, gradual reforms”. The group in Russia known as the Economists claimed that Lenin’s supporters overrated the importance of ideology. Instead, the real task was to “lend the economic struggle a political character”, they maintained.

This raised the most profound questions about the role of social revolutionaries in a way that remains relevant for today. The issue was and still is this: Can the working class and all those oppressed by and opposed to global capitalism, by their own struggle and efforts develop the strategy and tactics to defeat their enemy? In other words, is the spontaneous movement in and of itself sufficient to win the day? In 1902 Lenin answered the question in this way:

The theory of socialism

“The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively and by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e. the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophical, historical and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals.”

He added: “Since there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement, the only choice is – either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course (for mankind has not created a “third” ideology, and, moreover, in a society torn by class antagonisms there can never be a non-class or an above-class ideology). Hence, to belittle the socialist ideology in any way, to turn aside from it in the slightest degree means to strengthen bourgeois ideology.

“There is much talk of spontaneity. But the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology … for the spontaneous working-class movement is trade-unionism … and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie. Hence, our task, the task of Social-Democracy, is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social Democracy.”

In other words, because of the nature of capitalism and its dominant ideology, spontaneous activity cannot lead automatically to revolutionary socialist thinking. At best it will lead to a militant trade unionism, which is important but insufficient. The task of revolutionaries is to develop more advanced consciousness that challenges the “ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie”.

The idea of laying too much emphasis on ideology was anathema to Lenin. He regarded this as “bowing down to spontaneity” and insisted: “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity.”

Lenin elaborated an organisational form for the RSDLP that would facilitate the struggle for socialist consciousness, with the perspective of actually taking power from the capitalist class rather than winning some concessions while leaving the ruling élite in control. A “Social-Democrat must concern himself first and foremost”, Lenin explained, “with an organisation of revolutionaries capable of guiding the entire proletarian struggle for emancipation”.

The party, he argued in What is to be done? had to oppose “primitive” and “amateurish” methods. The “organisation of the revolutionaries must consist first and foremost of people who make revolutionary activity their profession”. He argued that the party needed to organise in a centralised way around the publication and distribution of a national newspaper.

For the first two weeks, supporters of the Iskra group, who nominally had a clear majority with at least 33 votes, seemed united. They had agreed that the demands of the Bund – the Jewish workers’ group – for a separate organisation within the party – were unacceptable and reinforced nationalism. Jews like Martov and Trotsky joined the struggle against the Bund.

The congress erupts

But on August 2, the 22nd session, without warning the unity was shattered. The first signs of real differences between Lenin and Martov began to emerge. They were over what kind of party the RSDLP should become. Consistent with his 1902 pamphlet, Lenin proposed a draft membership rule 1 that said: “A member of the RSDLP is one who accepts its programme and supports the Party both financially and by personal participation in one of the party organisations.” Martov opposed this clause and moved as an alternative that a member was somebody who accepted the programme, and supported the party financially and “gives the party his regular personal co-operation under the direction of one of the party organisations”.

The differences between the two proposals were, on the face of it, only slight. But the implications of the two approaches were of great importance. Martov and his supporters made it clear in the discussions that they favoured a broad-based party with more or less open membership. Lenin wanted a serious party that required some commitment of the membership; Martov’s formula would allow people to join without being called upon to help build its membership and influence. It opened the door to those, who as one delegate put it, might want to “associate” with the party.

The debate and struggle around clause one of the party’s rules was bitter, both on and off the congress floor. In his memoirs, Trotsky noted: “Lenin wanted clear-cut, perfectly definite relationships within the party. Martov tended toward diffuse forms. The grouping of the members determined the whole subsequent course of the congress, and, among other things, the composition of the directing centres of the party.” 

In the end, Martov’s proposal was approved by 28 votes to 23. At this point Lenin, therefore, was in a minority at the congress. Subsequent walk-outs by the Bund and others eventually gave his group the majority when it came to the crucial vote for membership of the editorial board of Iskra. The first steps along the road to a split had been taken.

The events in London greatly distressed Lenin, who was sick for several weeks afterwards with a nervous illness. But the congress marked the beginning of the end for small-circle politics and the emergence of a revolutionary organisation dedicated to the overthrow of tsarist autocracy and Russian capitalism.

Assessing the congress in his pamphlet One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Lenin wrote: “Our party congress was unique and unprecedented in the entire history of the Russian revolutionary movement. For the first time a secret revolutionary party succeeded in emerging from the darkness of the underground life into broad daylight, showing everyone the whole course and outcome of our internal party struggle, the whole character of our party and of each of its more or less noticeable components in matters of programme, tactics and organisation. For the first time we succeeded in throwing off the traditions of circle looseness and revolutionary philistinism in bringing together dozens of very different groups, many of which had been linked solely by the force of an idea, and which were now prepared (in principle, that is) to sacrifice all their group aloofness and group independence for the sake of the great whole which we for the first time are actually creating – the party.

 “But in politics sacrifices are not obtained gratis, they have to be won in battle. The battle over the slaughter of organisations necessarily proved terribly fierce. The fresh breeze of free and open struggle blew into a gale. The gale swept away - and a very good thing it did! – each and every remnant of all circle interests, sentiments and traditions without exception, and for the first time created genuinely party institutions.”

The London congress of 1903 set out to develop a coherent, revolutionary practice to meet new world economic and political conditions. In Russia, capitalism was rapidly taking hold as a result of the penetration of foreign investment which had produced some of the biggest factories in Europe. In other countries, notably Germany, the pressure from imperialist development was corroding the socialist movement in a way that would lead the leaders to support the 1914-18 war for the division and redivision of colonial possessions.

In 2003, the intense period of capitalist globalisation poses similar challenges. We cannot go beyond unbridled corporate power and business governments like New Labour by simply being against the status quo. We have to make the emancipation of humanity our business and build an organisation of people who, as Lenin put it, “make revolutionary activity their profession”. The tradition of rigorous theoretical analysis, open discussion and an uncompromising stand on principles contained in the struggles of the 1903 congress, is where we start from in deciding what is to be done in the 21st century.

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