Bolshevism and Revolutionary Organisation: Forgotten Legacies, Part 1

by Simon Hardy, (ACI, U.K) on December 31, 2012

The history of the revolutionary left in the 20th century has not been a happy one. If our goals are conceived in terms of achieving a socialist transformation of our global society along democratic and emancipatory lines based upon the working class subject, then we have experienced a ‘double failure’. Socialist regimes either collapsed into authoritarianism and nationalism, or were born with these features, and capitalism achieved a degree of political hegemony at the end of the last century that even its most devout supporters had never dared imagine was possible.

The strength or weakness of the revolutionary forces tends to be linked to the confidence and militancy of the working class and popular radical forces more generally, but the left cannot just keep blaming “objective” factors for their failures. We have to look at our own practices and methods as well.

In many countries today, the revolutionary left is suffering an unprecedented degree of marginalisation, despite the rise of mass anti-austerity struggles and anticapitalist movements such as Occupy. The blame for this decline is usually laid at the door of the working class (“too backward”) or other left groups (“they keep recruiting people who should be with us!”).

If the working class has not yet adopted a revolutionary political outlook and left wing politics remains dissonant from working class communities – then it naturally poses the question of whether this is ‘their fault or ours’? In this context, we could either reappraise our own forms of organisation and politics to make them more relevant, or develop more theoretical justifications for our own marginalization as a left.

democracyI want to argue that  the former course is ultimately much more fruitful than the latter one. The weakness of the radical left today may well be a consequence of unfortunate circumstances or factors beyond our control, but there are errors which are hard-wired into the DNA of Trotskyist-Leninist groups that confound their ability to take advantage of the opportunities that plainly exist. These mistakes emerge through a misreading of traditional doctrines (or a too strict interpretation) which results in inflexible forms of political organisation being unproblematically deduced from the theory. More generally, ‘lessons’ are derived from the past in a manner that suggests were we simply to repeat the same actions, then the same ends would result, thus forgetting Trotsky’s dictum that ‘history does not repeat itself’. 

Modern ‘Leninism’ in particular is plagued by the idea that disunity on the political level is unimportant, at least relative to the apparent dangers of building a party that doesn’t have the politics considered absolutely correctfor the struggle. In contrast, I strongly believe the problem of fragmentation and division is an important contributing factor to the weakness of the left. It is not just that energy is expended on similar publications, websites and campaigns, not merely the psychological problems of socialists hating members of other groups almost as much as they hate the class enemy, or the practical problems of a divided anti cuts movement in Britain today. Rather, the real problem is that we have come to accept this state of affairs as normal. It is considered normal for almost any country in the world to have a myriad of far left groups, some bigger than others (but all mostly small in the grand scheme of things). The status quo has been established by decades of decline and splits, and then cemented by theorisation and justification for those splits. The revolutionary left has to stop spending time legitimising its own practices and a bit more energy on figuring out new ways of working together that can maximise our positive energies and negate or offset our (self)destructive tendencies.

Whilst there is an important discussion to be had about the relationship between Leninism and Stalinism, how to account for the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, and at what point in the years after the revolution did the top down bureaucratic form of party organisation become generalised and accepted as a ‘Leninist’ model, that debate is for another time.

This article is addressed to those who identify with the Bolshevik or Leninist-Trotskyist tradition, because building a revolutionary left today must involve a dialogue with people from this tradition. More importantly modern day Bolsheviks need to stop reifying their own history and uncritically accepting how their tradition has ended up being synonymous with sect ridden failure as if it was just inevitable or necessary.

What follows is an attempt to introduce some critical thinking which might encourage changes in how socialist organisations operate on the ground. We need to work towards making the left more relevant, larger and overcome decades of decline and political confusion.

This is a contribution to that goal, which connects to the work I have done on Beyond Capitalismand is based upon criticisms that a group of us developed during our time in Workers Power, which led to us ultimately leaving that organisation in the hope of building a more plural radical left.

Bolshevism in Practice – Not Just a One-Sided Story

Whilst Bolshevism as a political tendency was hardly adverse to the use of force in the pursuit of working class power and certainly the leadership could be ruthless in implementing its perspectives, the revolutionary tradition in Russia is not a simple black and white tale of nasty monolithic Bolsheviks versus more democratic organisations in the workers movement. Neither is it a party educational lesson of Leninists who got the job done because they were hardnosed organisers who told people to shut up and get on with it.


One surprising fact about the history of the RSDLP (Bolshevik faction) or the Bolshevik party (after 1912 [1]) was that despite there being some very serious arguments between members in public, and breaches of agreed positions, very few people were actually expelled.

In fact the central committee (CC) had no specific power of expulsion in the constitution adopted in 1903 – the organising principles of the party simply state that a two thirds majority is needed to co-opt or expel anyone from any party organisation.

Compare this to most Leninist-Trotyskyist groups today where the CC is usually the main instigator of purges (what Lenin called an ‘extreme measure’ in post-revolutionary Russia has become normal practice for Leninist-Trotskyist groups in liberal democratic countries). Indeed, it appears that Bogdanov and his allies were the only faction that was really “purged” prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917 (they were expelled in 1909).

While there was a definite programme and party unity around it, there was also relative leeway for members, depending on the circumstances and the nature of the debates to develop their ideas and criticism in public forums or through literary work, such as pamphlets or books (today that would be on secure web forums and email lists as well as the public press). Even when the disagreements got quite serious and people “broke” discipline, it was very rare for organisational/constitutional reprisals to be brought to bear on individuals or tendencies.

Let’s take three important examples, all in the year 1917.

1) Bolshevik military organisation – Nikolai Kuzmin, Vladimir Nevsky and Podvoisky Nikolai Ilyich were editors of Soldiers Truth and also on the Bolshevik central committee. They called for an armed demonstration in support of the soviets against the wishes of the rest of the Bolshevik leaders. Their actions resulted in “July Days”, serious repression of the workers movement by the provisional government, the arrest of prominent socialists (for instance, Trotsky) and the suppression of the Bolshevik Party per se. Lenin famously whispered to one of them before a rally “you should be horsewhipped for this!”. Yet none of them were expelled for the July Days fiasco, and no one was horsewhipped.

2) John Reed accounts how, at a joint meeting of Bolsheviks, Left SRs and Menshevik Internationalists a vote was taken on whether to suppress the bourgeois newspapers. Larin and the Left SRs opposed whilst Lenin and the Bolsheviks were in favour. Reed explains that: “The resolution of Larin and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries was defeated by 31 to 22; the Lenin motion was carried by 34 to 24. Among the minority were the Bolsheviks, Riazanov and Lozovsky, who declared that it was impossible for them to vote against any restriction of the freedom of the press.” [2] Riazanov subsequently signed a public statement of the Left SRs against the decision, making his opposition to the Bolsheviks position public. Reed also noted that; “Kamenev, Rykov, Milutin, Zinoviev and Nogin resigned from the CC of the Bolshevik party and made public their reasons.” None of the Bolsheviks involved in this were expelled or disciplined by their party for breaking the line in public.

3) A better known example concerns the insurrection itself. Zinoviev and Kamenev published a letter in Maxim Gorky’s paper saying they disagreed with the decision to launch an insurrection and said they had resigned from the Bolshevik CC. Lenin was furious, calling them “strike breakers”. Afterwards, Lenin called for Zinoviev and Kamenev to be expelled from the party, but many members of the central committee came to their defence, while rebuking their actions. Stalin argued that they could not be expelled from the party for what they had done, Sverdlov pointed out that the CC had no power to expel members, but could accept their resignation. Zinoviev and Kamenev were not expelled, and became leading members again, until Stalin had them shot in 1936.

What do these three examples, all from the most important year of the revolutionary struggle in Russia, show us?

It shows that, whilst the Bolsheviks strived for unity in practice on agreed political lines, there were many occasions when this was not achieved and people “broke discipline”, but no one was expelled for it.

Even Lenin himself in 1917 became so agitated about the urgency for revolution that by September he was defying the party Central Committee and writing letters directly to Bolshevik factions of sailors telling them to march on Petrograd and seize power.

The sailors read the letters and then, unsure of what to do, decided to burn them. He wrote desperate letters to rank and file members of the Moscow and Petrograd branches of the party urging them to “take power at once!” [3] even though the majority of the CC was delaying any seizure of power until the Second Congress of Soviets. Of course, Lenin was acting in the spirit of a decision by the leading committee, but he certainly was not acting under the authority of anyone but himself. I am not using this example to argue that party leaders should be privledged to break their own rules, it simply means that anyone can “break the rules” at times and there are better ways of dealing with it than drumming them out of the organisation.

Before the revolution there was a substantial degree of tolerance in the Bolshevik ranks which might also be surprising to many people today.

Bukharin, a supporter of Lenin who had been influenced by Bogdanov, developed various heretical positions at the start of the war, including wanting to broaden membership of a future international out to the Zimmerwald Left and Trotsky (which Lenin opposed), and set up a quasi-tendency with some others who supported Luxemburg on the national question.  After initially trying to publish a paper with their views in (which they subsequently dropped after a Bolshevik conference in Switzerland) they established a new journal called Kommunist which had Lenin on the editorial board. But the journal quickly became a platform for their views which Lenin rejected. He resigned from the board and made it clear he would oppose them politically – either in the official Bolshevik press or by publishing a pamphlet with articles by both himself and Bukharin. Ultimately, the journal ceased publication and Bukharin moved closer to Lenin during 1916-17. The matter was settled through a combination of debate and practice, whilst also being overtaken by circumstances (the growing revolutionary tide in Russia itself)[4]. But at no point did Lenin propose expelling Bukharin or his supporters (even though there is no shortage of scathing comments regarding this episode in Lenin’s Collected Works).

Of course, it would be wrong to give the impression that the RSDLP or the Bolshevik Party was a free-for-all where anything goes and people had complete freedom to say whatever they wanted whenever. The struggle for programme and strategy in the RSDLP and the Bolshevik faction (as well as the so-called Bolshevik party after 1912) was something that was taken very seriously, as we can see from the sheer number of debates, resolutions, papers, pamphlets and books which were produced. Lenin himself knew how to make hard decisions about when to work with people and when to break from them – he was single minded in his determination to build a revolutionary party in Russia, no matter the personal cost. The style of polemics that Lenin wrote about political opponents would be notorious today for he was incredibly harsh about those that he considered renegades from Marxism. So it would be wrong to picture the Bolshevik faction as a “soft” political environment to inhabit. Under the conditions of Tsarist Russia, plainly revolutionaries were pretty hardened; they faced serious hardship and persecution, so they needed political and personal toughness.

But we have to be wary of those that prefer the model of the Russian revolutionaries as a hyper-centralised force, the image of the Leninist party as one of iron discipline and unshakeable clarity on all positions, dominated by the master strategist, Lenin himself [5]. The reality is that whilst the RSDLP and subsequently the Bolshevik party no doubt was made up of highly dedicated and active people, it was a party which succeeded in managing differences internally and striking the right balance between democracy and united action. Lenin strived for a homogenous faction within the RSDLP to counteract the equivocations of the Mensheviks and the floating cadres like Trotsky. Of course, Lenin demanded loyalty to the Bolsheviks from its adherents: after all he was building a fighting force to overthrow an autocratic regime, but it was impossible to demand complete unanimity of all members on political questions across the whole of Russia – even within his faction.

In fact what made the revolutionary party in Russia so effective was that before 1917 (and for several years afterwards) it existed in a state of dynamic tension as various individuals, tendencies and political viewpoints emerged as the course of the class struggle developed, all existing within an organisational framework which proved effective in intervening into the workers movement and eventually marshaling the forces to overthrow capitalism. Through numbers and influence they were able to prove different policies right or wrong in practice in many of the debates that emerged – while theoretical differences were debated (albeit in the context of a common rejection of reformism), the party as a whole resolutely focused on practical intervention around its programme for a revolutionary overthrow of Tsarism.

Indeed, any serious reading of the history of the Russian experience reveals that it was not a free for all. The Bolsheviks had a definite programme and that is what kept them together, however their programme  was relatively short and contained key demands which are mainly strategic in nature. As such tactics and slogans agreed by local units of the organisation could be quite varied at times.

The RSDLP programme

So, what was the programme that succeeded in attracting tens of thousands of workers? The programme that was adopted in 1903 – and not fully updated again until 1919 – was made up of a lengthy preamble about the importance of an independent working class organisation which had as its goal the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat. The programme then goes on to acknowledge that Russia is still economically “backward” and trapped in many semi-feudal institutions inhibiting its development, so the most immediate political task of the RSDLP was “the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy and its replacement by a democratic republic”. There follow fourteen of what can be generally called democratic demands (freedom of movement, freedom of speech, a sovereign people’s assembly), sixteen broadly economic demands (shorten the working day, stronger labour laws, more health and safety inspections) and then five demands to improve the life of the peasantry. The programme concludes with the paragraph: “In striving to achieve its immediate aims, the RSDLP supports every oppositional and revolutionary movement directed against the social and political order prevailing in Russia, while at the same time resolutely rejecting all reform proposals which are connected with any sort of extension or strengthening of tutelage by the police and officialdom over the labouring classes.” [6] It concludes with a call for a constituent assembly.

In today’s context, after the experience of the Comintern and the Fourth International, the RSDLP programme is actually posed quite generally: it is more of a series of policies, rather than definite tactics and the wider strategy is also quite broadly defined. For instance, it makes no mention of using strikes as the primary method for bringing down a government but merely calls for freedom for strike action. What the programme was pointing towards was the central importance of a left-wing party which was orientated to the working class and their immediate concerns as well as the importance of the struggle for bourgeois democracy in Russia. It was broad brush strokes, without much finer detail, but something that was new because it was opposed to Russian populism, liberalism or anarchism. This is what made it distinctive as a working class party.

In broad terms, we can say the following: the RSDLP had a programme but the Bolsheviks had a particular strategy. After all, the Mensheviks also supported the programme of the party, they just had an alternate strategy (which evolved from putting pressure on liberals for social reforms and ended up supporting Kerensky and the Provisional Government).

Even though the programme was quite broad, between 1903 and 1917 a number of differences broke out amongst the Bolsheviks over programmatic and strategic questions, but these were usually resolved through debate and discussion over a period of time. When the differences were irreconcilable, then a split would occur, but these did not tend to happen over tactical issues.

The splits in the RSDLP

After the 1898 first congress of the RSDLP the socialist movement de facto split into a number of local socialist propaganda groups that did not have a national centre, but it was also divided between those who wanted to focus on trade union issues, and those that saw a revolution against Tsarism as being a fundamental part of an independent working class politics (the subject of Lenin’s polemic in What Is To Be Done?).

Between 1900 and 1903 this is why the Iskra editorial board persistently hammered away at the need for a revolutionary democratic movement, for an independent working class party and an all-Russian paper to propagate a common line. It is often argued that this early period of the organisation of Iskra resembled the small, highly homogenous and monolithic cadre grouping that today is promoted as the sine qua non of revolutionary organisation, but if one looks at the original concept of the Iskra editorial board, we can see it promoted debate amongst a plurality of tendencies:

Although we carry out our literary work from the stand point of a definite tendency, we do not in the least intend to present all our views on partial questions as those of all Russian Social-Democrats; we do not deny that differences exist, nor shall we attempt to conceal or obliterate them. On the contrary, we desire our publications to become organs for thediscussion of all questions by all Russian Social-Democrats of the most diverse shades of opinion. We do not reject polemics between comrades, but, on the contrary, are prepared to give them considerable space in our columns. Open polemics, conducted in full view of all Russian Social-Democrats and class-conscious workers, are necessary and desirable in order to clarify the depth of existing differences, in order to afford discussion of disputed questions from all angles, in order to combat the extremes into which representatives of various views, various localities, or various “specialities” of the revolutionary movement inevitably fall. Indeed, we regard one of the drawbacks of the present-day movement to be the absence of open polemics between avowedly differing views, the effort to conceal differences on fundamental questions.

One can argue, indeed, in direct inverse to the typical conception of ‘pre-party’ organisation as monolithic, that this concept suggests a substantial amount of political plurality is needed, which allows different positions to co-exist within a single organisational framework and for debate amongst them to be necessary to clarify differences, and to arrive at conclusions in such a way as it strengthens the unity of the political organisation.

The most widely discussed split in the Russian social democracy is obviously that between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. While it initially arose over the political question of how to organise the Russian party – whether it should be a party of activists, disciplined with a common line, and an editorial board for a national paper that reflected the majority line at the party congress – it was ultimately about which class, the working class or the bourgeoisie, would be able to bring the peasants under their banner and play lead the democratic revolution against Tsarism.

Beyond this there is the split between the liquidationists. This was a part of the Menshevik faction that advocated the dismantling of the illegal party apparatus which could only mean advancing a de facto reformist programme in relation to Tsarism, but who split from the Mensheviks in 1912.

And there was the split between the Bogdanovites and the Bolsheviks in 1909: while it drew on philosophical questions, it was ultimately about whether the party should participate in the Duma.

There were persistent attempts by the Bolsheviks to try and win unity on a principled basis (democratic revolution, independent working class politics, leading role of the working class, opposition to revisionism etc) that reflected the positions of the 1903 programme. The latter is an interesting document. It is revolutionary, but it contains few of what we would term transitional demands. It provided though a sufficient framework within which other differences were debated.

A lesson to be drawn is the ability of Lenin in particular to identify what were the key points that were essential for unity to be principled at any one time. For Iskra between 1900 and 1903 it was democratic revolution, independent working class politics, and an all-Russian paper/party.

In 1917 he rejected unity with the Mensheviks, because the Bolsheviks had to fight independently for all power to the soviets, for militias, no support to the provisional government and so on, but this did not exclude attempting to bring in Internationalist Mensheviks and sections of the Socialist Revolutionaries that were closer to his position. It underlines a good degree of flexibility in how we conceive the role that the programme plays in cohering wider forces around the questions that become critical for revolutionary agitation at a given conjuncture.

What was What is to be done?  for?

Lenin’s book What Is to Be Done? (WITBD) has many useful lessons for revolutionaries in a general sense and is often cited as the foundation stone for subsequent Leninist practices.  But it is not a handbook or manual for party building for time immemorial, and certainly on tactical questions it is limited how transferable the conditions of Russia 1902 is for us today.

The arguments and debates that Lenin was having in WITBD are very much a product of the situation in Russia, as Lenin himself subsequently argued. [7] It was first of all a polemic against the Economists and second of all a practical guide to uniting the disparate and scattered workers and intellectual circles in Russia at that time into a unified party. Lenin and his collaborators around Iskra were trying to build a section of the Second International, modelled on the German party but adapted to Russian conditions.

An important part of WITBD concerns centralism which for Lenin meant establishing a centre, a political leadership for the scattered groups and branches of RSDLP. This required a paper and a leading committee that was invested with some authority and respect amongst the membership, i.e. not just a self appointed group of leaders, but people democratically elected and tasked with giving political guidance to the party activists.

At the second congress Lenin actually warned against seeing WITBD as a universal handbook: “It is obvious that here an episode in the struggle against ‘Economism’ has been confused with a discussion of the principles of a major theoretical question (the formation of an ideology)….We all know that the “Economists” have gone to one extreme. To straighten matters out somebody had to pull in the other direction, and that is what I have done.” Furthermore in 1904, the Bolshevik faction wrote a plotted history of Iskra and its motivations without mentioning Lenin’s tract or the role it played in forming his tendency. [8]

Rosa Luxemburg had written a critique of the Russian section which disagreed with what she saw as an overbearing centralising tendency on the part of Lenin and his Bolsheviks. She compared it to the German party where there were hundreds of thousands of members and many daily and weekly papers published by local branches and regions with a relatively healthy flow of ideas and debates internally. There was also a national paper and theoretical journal. But Luxemburg’s criticisms were entirely misplaced. Dealing with them directly, Lenin argued; “Comrade Rosa Luxemburg says … that the whole controversy is over the degree of centralization. Actually that is not so. … our controversy has principally been over whether the Central Committee and Central Organ should represent the trend of the majority of the Party Congress, or whether they should not.”[9]


So, a key part of what Lenin was fighting for at the 1903 congress was that the paper and the leading committee elected at the congress should reflect the majority decisions at that congress. For the Russian socialists the opportunities for democratic decision making were few and far between, with many of them in exile across Europe and constant police raids, the party had little time for elections or large gatherings. When they did eventually meet at great expense (actually the expense was largely carried by the German party who paid for their travel and lodgings), Lenin wanted to make sure that the congress decisions would ultimately be carried out. This is why he was so outraged when the losers of debate on the party constitution (led by Martov) won a majority on the editorial board of the paper. He was worried that the minority would use their position to not implement the decisions of the congress. That was the cause of the factional dispute.

Despite calling for quite a centralised and tight knit organisation of professional revolutionaries who took matters of security and organisation seriously, after the democratic spring post-1905 Lenin argued for the party to broaden out, to take advantage of the new political liberties won by the revolution. He called for the party comrades to “devise new forms of organisation” (emphasis added) to take in an influx of workers, new forms that were “definitely much broader… less rigid. more ‘free,’ more ‘loose.’” [10] After the reunification congress in 1906 he urged freedom for party members to debate in public, “Criticism within the limits of the principles of the Party Programme must be quite free (we remind the reader of what Plekhanov said on this subject at the Second Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.), not only at Party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism, or such “agitation” (for criticism is inseparable from agitation) cannot be prohibited. The Party’s political action must be united. No “calls” that violate the unity of definite actions can be tolerated either at public meetings, or at Party meetings, or in the Party press.”[11] Interestingly it was the Mensheviks that tried to close down public debate and voted to only allow criticism in the party press, but never in public. While this reflected the balance of forces within the party (the Mensheviks were a majority at the time), it would be doing Lenin a profound disservice and playing into the caricature of him as a mere real politic figure that had scant principles, if we thought of this as a merely expedient statement.[12]

The more disciplined, centralised model was considered necessary for matters of security as the level of police repression was almost crushing (despite these precautions most RSDLP activists spend the majority of their time in prison). But as soon as the opportunity arose he urged the party to break out and adopt as many open, lose, legal forms of organisation as possible. Bringing in new members was very important to the future health of the party.

This policy achieved spectacular results. There had been 8,400 members of the RSDLP (both Bolshevik and Menshevik wings) in Russia at the start of 1905, by 1907 there was 84,000 (with 46,000 in the Bolsheviks). He praised the St Petersburg committee of the organisation, which was one of the largest, saying that “all the Party members decide questions concerning the political campaigns of the proletariat, and that all the Party members determine the line of tactics of the Party organisations.” [13] This was no top down branch, it was a grass-roots organisation with a leading committee, but the members were actively involved in decision making and formulating policy.

Around the same time Lenin called for a full and frank public exchange of views and public knowledge about the party’s internal life “We Social-Democrats resort to secrecy from the tsar and his blood hounds, while taking pains that the people should know every thing about our Party, about the shades of opinion within it, about the development of its programme and policy, that they should even know what this or that Party congress delegate said at the congress in question.” [14] Whilst Lenin was describing the workings of united party and not a faction, in conditions of a more liberal democracy this is clearly the most honest and democratic way of organising a revolutionary organisation – full stop. Matters of security naturally factor into any such discussions but they are not an excuse for total secrecy all down the line.

Several years later, as Paul Le Blanc puts it, “In 1917 all major questions were subject to an internal party debate and a vote, there was no conception that the executive committees had to be monolithic and represent only the majority view point – that practice was instituted later.” [15] Indeed, it is clear that the RSDLP of Lenin’s time was not the monolithic and top down organisation of deified leaders that Stalin would later present it as.

Although it is a little historically strained, it is worth considering whether the conditions of building a revolutionary organisation today are closer to autocratic 1902 Russia or more democratic 1906 Russia. If the situation is more democratic than not, then the appeals that Lenin made to a more open organisation should surely be implemented? Wouldn’t this help create a more stable united organisation where freedom of debate exists?

Even the 1912 Bolshevik Party, which was based on a more tightly defined and homogenous faction, emerged with a considerable degree of political openness and was based upon appeals to unite the social democratic movement in one party. As Paul LeBlanc has argued “The Bolshevik party did indeed allow a very substantial degree of freedom for its members to express themselves to each other, to the party as a whole, to those not in the party, even if they held dissident views. Individual activists as well as local organizations also were encouraged to exercise a considerable amount of initiative in carrying out their activities. At the same time, there was an expectation that a significant degree of loyalty to the party, its program and its organizational statutes would guide these activities. In addition, there was provision that democratically elected leadership bodies would seek to ensure the functioning of the organization in a manner consistent with its democratically established program and organizational principles.” [16]

As is now at least becoming more accepted on the left, the totally monolithic party, not just internally but externally, was really developed after the War Communism period in 1921, and codified properly by Zinoviev in his “Bolshevisation drive” of the Comintern from the fifth congress in 1924.

It was supposedly an attempt to develop totally homogeneous combat parties of the vanguard in the face of a capitalist upswing and growing support for reformist parties, but in practice curtailed criticism and dissent in the international.

Looking at the practice of groups like the British Socialist Workers Party today, with a slate system for elections, strangled public debates and an expulsion happy CC – surely this is more a caricature of late 1920s Stalinism, not the legacy of pre-1917 Russian revolutionary tradition?

It would be too easy, however, to simply see the “Bolshevisation” drive alone as representing the origins of the degeneration away from healthy conceptions of the revolutionary party in the communist movement.

1921 was arguably a major turning point on this question, i.e. a period in which the communist movement was largely under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky (posthumously referred to as the ‘revolutionary Comintern’), because in March the Russian Communist Party made the tragic error of banning internal factions and in July the Communist International produced a resolution on the Organisational Structure of Communist Parties that contained no reference to the right to form minority factions either, no reference to the relative autonomy of national sections or local branches, nor even very much about democracy (the section on democratic centralism is almost entirely about centralism in party work).

This represented an important departure from the pre-1917 traditions of Russian Bolshevism. Little wonder that Lenin would later comment the resolution was “too Russian”, that is, presumably, he meant it was too based on the contemporary experience of the Russian party [17]. As with any political experience, it is necessary to put this in context. The Comintern were splitting forces away from social democratic parties and seeking to form tight, cadre parties, but the question remains whether they ended up bending the stick too far and foreshadowing the later process of outright Stalinization. The resolution certainly emphasises the centralist aspect of party building, no mention of internal democratic rights – for instance tendency or faction rights. The resolution reflected the decisions taken at the Russian Communist Party congress in March of that year when factions were banned and effectively rolled out an operational manual across the whole movement which made that tragic mistake an international principle.


It would be wrong to try and draw, out of these specific experiences within the revolutionary movement in Russia, a timeless blueprint for revolutionary socialist change. A properly historical materialist conception of Marxism should start by recognising how the political programmes and perspectives thrown up across decades of ideological debate and workers’ struggle will always reflect the specificities of their circumstances. This, however, also underlines the need to take lessons from prior experiences that are sufficiently general to be pertinent to a range of historical contexts. Moreover, any attempt to establish a perfect replica of the ‘Leninist party’ as it is commonly conceived will inevitably collapse into an idealist romanticism, which is quite dissonant from its living historical reality. The latter saw Bolshevism emerge out of an attempt to build broad parties, which allowed a diverse number of tendencies to co-exist within a common political project to crystalize a socialist consciousness in the Russian working class.

In the next article I will try and look more practically at how revolutionaries should organise today in the absence of large revolutionary Marxist parties, and in a context where the Leninist-Trotskyist left has been reduced to the existence of ‘warring sects’.

For now, it is worth saying that drawing more general, abstract lessons from the experience of the Bolsheviks prior to 1917 might create greater scope for unity with wider political tendencies outside this tradition.

To develop an anticapitalism for the 21st century then a broad range of experiences and insights from a variety of radical traditions will need to be drawn upon. The contribution of the Leninist tradition needs to be put across in a vernacular that renders it meaningful to today, but retains the lessons of that experience. Amongst other things it can be drawn upon to emphasise:

  • Political parties that put down roots in working class communities and rebuild belief in an alternative to capitalism are needed. They need to promote the idea that human society need not live in want and scarcity, but a communist alternative is possible – one that is radically democratic, and recognises autonomy and diversity.
  • They will need to be parties of struggle, seeking to develop active resistance, and not fall back into the facile parliamentarism of social democracy, and the hopeless illusion that we can return to a golden age of moderated, corporatist capitalist production.
  • Against the top-down and bureaucratic notions of Leninist party organisation that still blight the movement, political parties need to be built from the bottom up, emphasising individual and branch autonomy, freedom of expression, and substantial political plurality.
  • That we put the question of power back on the agenda. As Leo Panitch has recently put it, ‘we have to rid ourselves of the illusion that you can change the world without taking power. It is utterly impossible to progress towards a better world unless the balance of social forces that are in conflict in any society find expression in the transformation—in terms of organisation as well as policies—of the states in those societies.’


[1] A lively debate happened in 2012 between Pham Binh, Lars T Lih and Paul Le Blanc about the meaning of the 1912 conference and whether it actually was a “split” conference in the way that is popularly understood

[2] Reed J, Ten Days That Shook the World, pp.177-178


[4] Le Blanc P, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, pp.232-233

[5] Zinoviev’s history of the Bolshevik Party was notorious for romanticising it in this way – the first presentation of the Bolsheviks as the Stalinist charicature that they became


[7] Lih L, Lenin Rediscovered, pp.26-27

[8] ibid, pp.177-178


[10] Quoted at


[12] This is what Doug Lorimer does in defending a position on public expression of differences that is almost identical to the traditional Workers Power approach on the question

[13] Lenin, “let the workers decide”,


[15] Le Blanc, p.267


[17] V.I. Lenin, “Five Years of the Russian Revolution and the Prospects of the World Revolution,” CW vol. 33, pp.430-43

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

David Berger December 31, 2012 at 3:28 pm

• Political parties that put down roots in working class communities and rebuild belief in an alternative to capitalism are needed. They need to promote the idea that human society need not live in want and scarcity, but a communist alternative is possible – one that is radically democratic, and recognises autonomy and diversity.

Fabulous! A program for a revolutionary organization that doesn’t mention workplace struggle, union organizing, etc.


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