by Barry Biddulph
In a recent debate between, Lars T Lih, Paul Le Blanc, and Pham Binh(1) there is confirmation of existing knowledge, that the Bolshevik party was not formally proclaimed, in Prague, at the conference of the Russian Social Democratic Party in 1912; nor was it the formal aim of Lenin to create a separate Bolshevik party. Again the debate clarified, that in 1912 there was not a birth of a party of a new type, free of opportunism, but the birth of a myth of such a party. The main point is: for all intents and practical purposes, the RSDLP that emerged from Prague, in 1912, was a Bolshevik party, in all but name.
The methods Lenin used in creating an organisation, all those years ago, has had an important influence of the organised left in Britain today. So the question raised by Lars is: “if indeed Lenin wanted to create a Bolshevik party (in 1912 ) he set about it in a way that was deceptive, disloyal, destructive and not to be imitated“.(2) But in making these comments Lars Lih is fairly confident that it was not the explicit aim of Lenin to create a Bolshevik party independent of the RSDLP. But this begs the question: didn’t Lenin always act as if his faction was the party or the RSDLP? Lenin’s disingenuous and undemocratic splitting methods and factionalism culminating in the unrepresentative gathering of 16 Bolsheviks and two Mensheviks do not deserve to be influential.
As early as 1975, Marcel Liebman(3) drew the conclusion that during the period of reaction leading up to Lenin’s organisation of the Prague conference of the RSDLP, Leninist Bolshevism displayed intolerance and sectarianism to absurd lengths, leaving a Tradition which Stalinism (and Trotskyism) inherited and built on. Tony Cliff in his account of Lenin‘s party building(4) which Pham Binh correctly describes as a misleading and distorted account, uncritically followed and exaggerated every undemocratic twist and turn of the great helmsman which served to legitimise his own factionalism as party building. Alan Woods from the old Militant Tendency endorsed in his “Bolshevism”(5) Leninist political methods as an example of sorting out the revolutionaries from the opportunists, perpetuating the myth of 1912 as a party of a new type. But the Bolshevik organised Prague conference included supporters of the extreme right wing Menshevik, Plekhanov, who was in a block with Lenin at the time, despite opposing the 1905 revolution. The Bolshevik opportunists of 1917. Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin were also involved. The records of the 1912 conference were kept secret until recently, because the delegates were very unhappy with Lenin’s crude splitting tactics and the unrepresentative and factional nature of the conference.
Lenin operated with his faction as a party within a party or acted as if they were the party or the RSDLP. But in the period of reaction, factional rights which he had championed in the unity conference of 1906 when the Bolsheviks were in a minority, were not tolerated. Bolshevik factions were deemed to be not fully fledged factions, but minor groups. Lenin conducted a ruthless factional war using savage verbal abuse against those who would not accept his views, even on tactical issues. The word liquidator used very loosely outside of Lenin’s followers. Then there were Lenin’s critics inside the Bolshevik faction labelled deviators, recallists, ultimatists, god builders, and generally described as ultra left rascals of one kind or another. These labels often had a loose association with the individuals on which they were attached rather than creative and democratic debate, it was a case of defending orthodoxy by pinning the criminals badge on Lenin’s opponents. The Duma was an undemocratic unrepresentative parliament. Lenin even wrote the speeches of some of the RSDLP representatives; but the Bolshevik Utimatists who wanted the deputies to follow party policy were deviationists from the correct Leninist line. As Lars Lih describes it: an insanely complicated factional struggle. An illustration of the political madness was Lenin’s factional war against Bogdanov and his Bolshevik followers. Alexandra Bogdanov was one of the key Bolshevik leaders following the split of 1903. But in 1907 Bogdanov won a majority of Bolsheviks in an RSDLP conference for the tactic of a boycott of the Duma elections. Earlier in 1906 Lenin had been in favour of boycott, now 14 out of 15 Bolshevik delegates voted with Bogdanov. Lenin in violation of all the values of “democratic centralism” voted with the Mensheviks against a boycott. Tactical differences were anathema. The Bolshevik Leninists as the future of the RSDLP saw ideological homogeneity as essential for political effectiveness, So Bogdanov’s philosophy was deemed to have nothing in common with Bolshevism, despite years of unity around philosophical neutrality; Bogdanov himself was deemed to have nothing in common with Bolshevism. Although not formally expelled, a common theme emerged, because to all intents and practical purposes he was expelled, without democratic procedure, by an extended editorial board meeting, packed with Leninists, of a Bolshevik newspaper in 1909, not a Bolshevik conference.
In these years of reaction, following Lenin’s line became the revolutionary touchstone. This was the cult of the leader or Lenin, which was institutionalised after the 1917 revolution. Factional loyalty to the leader, hence “Bolshevik Leninists” was passed off as party patriotism. Paul Leblanc (6) claimed that Bolshevism could not have become the decisive revolutionary party that it became without this wrenching inner party struggle. Alan Woods and others also supportive of various forms of Trotskyism tend to agree that this factional struggle, these relentless splitting tactics, were essential to form the revolutionary leadership. But this group of Lenin loyalists including Stalin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, Molotov and Orzhonkidze, selected by extreme factionalism, were part of the leadership which transformed the Bolshevik party after the revolution of 1917 into a dictatorship over workers, substituting itself for the class and then the leaders substituting for the party. They helped to consolidate the top down centralism in the regime of bureaucratic centralism from 1919 to 1923. These old Bolsheviks brought up in the cult of the leader were important in the transition to Stalinism, as the hammer on critics within the party, expressing workers opposition from below. This culminated in the ban on party factions in 1921, which saw the consolidation of the Leninist faction as the party again.
When he joined the Bolsheviks in 1917, Trotsky famously declared that he had joined because the Bolsheviks had become de-Bolshevised. In 1917 Lenin discarded his democratic revolution two stage strategy which led his old Bolshevik followers to support the provisional government and relied heavily on Trotsky, Lunacharsky and the inter-district group in Petrograd for revolutionary agitation and propaganda. The very comrades he had split with as useless to the revolution became the public face of what the mass of workers called the Bolsheviks. In Moscow the revolutionary dynamic found expression in the comrades around the unorthodox Bolshevik Bukharin. Indeed the mass struggle for workers power from below shaped the Bolshevik party and its strategy. The “Bolshevik Party” became a genuine mass party from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands in 1917. The party was effective with a wide range of diverse views; ideological agreement was not on the agenda. That’s why there is no analogy with “anti-liquidator” struggle as Lars Lih claims. In a sense there was a grain of truth in Potresov’s claim that there was no party to liquidate. There were less than a hundred members at one point. The definition of liquidationism was also elastic with an element of false polemics. In terms of the inner Bolshevik struggle, to split on mass tactics when the masses are not in the party does demonstrate a strong political imagination.
It is difficult to know what evidence Lars Lih would accept to find Lenin guilty of deception – even self deception. He finds Lenin less than tactful, but not deceitful. But false polemics had been a feature of Lenin’s politics from the beginning. The politics of the Credo (economism) private written correspondence between two socialists with no organised following, were projected onto Akimov and other political opponents. Akimov did not teach workers to concern themselves only with economics. To present the factional gathering of the Bolsheviks in Prague as the party or to presume the Bolsheviks were the RSDLP is giving a false impression or was disingenuous. To say, as Le Blanc does, that Lenin knew his factional enemies would not go to Prague, so this somehow justified holding the Bolshevik organised conference under the RSDLP banner is far to uncritical. Why did the Bolshevik faction not hold the meeting under their own banner? Lenin also gave a misleading impression, to a socialist international gathering, of what Prague represented. Nor were the false labels simply a product of the poverty and difficulties of émigré life since this political method resumed after 1918. Krupskaya wrote in retrospect that “Ilyich did not want a faction, but a party that pursued a Bolshevik line” .(7 ) To all intents and practical purposes this was the party as a faction.
(a) Lars T Lih, A faction is not a Party, Weekly Worker, May 3rd 2012
(b) Paul Le Blanc, Convergence and Questions, Weekly Worker, May 10th 2012
(c) Pham Binh, Mangling the Party, Tony Cliffs Lenin, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, January 24th 2012.
2 Lars T Lih, The Faction is not a Party, Weekly Worker, May 3rd,2012.
3 Marcel Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, Merlin Press ,London 1975
4 Tony Cliff, Lenin : Building the Party, Bookmarks. London 1986.
5 Alan Woods, Bolshevism, Well Red Publications, London 1999
6 Paul le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (p146) Humanities Press, London 1990.
7 N.K. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin (p179) Lawrence and Wishart London 1970.