Tony Cliff

Lenin 1

Chapter 3
Towards the building of the party

“Give us an organisation of revolutionaries,
and we will overturn Russia.”

In March 1898 a “Congress” of the Social Democrats took place at Minsk. It was a tiny affair, with only nine delegates, from Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, the journal Rabochaya Gazeta, and the Jewish socialist organisation the Bund. It failed to adopt a program or a paper. Its only achievements were the issue of a manifesto, drafted by Peter Struve (an “economist” who later became a liberal leader and then a monarchist), the promulgation of the idea of a nationwide party, and the election of a central committee of three. Eight of the nine delegates and two of the three central committee members were arrested a few days after the end of the conference. [1*]

At that time, Lenin was in Siberia. The failure of the 1898 Congress convinced him that the building of a national party to lead Russian Social Democracy out of its crisis demanded serious and systematic preparation. Months of thought during his last period of Siberian exile produced a plan in his mind for a national newspaper and a chain of agents to smuggle it across the border and distribute it in cities and factories. The paper would act as a means of fusing the local circles into a national organisation. It would clarify and unify in the fields of both theory and practical activity.

Krupskaya recalled this period: “Vladimir Ilyich began to spend sleepless nights. He became terribly thin. It was these nights that he thought out his plan in every detail, discussed it with Krzhizhanovsky, with me, corresponded about it with Martov and Potresov, conferred with them about the journey abroad.” [3]



The Need to Generalise the Struggle

It was fear of the danger to the movement occasioned by the rise of Russian “economism” and German revisionism in the second half of 1899 that motivated Lenin to bend the stick right over again, away from the spontaneous, day-to-day, fragmented economic struggle and toward the organisation of a national political party. In an article entitled Our Immediate Tasks, written toward the end of 1899, he wrote:

When the workers of a single factory or of a single branch of industry engage in struggle against their employer or employers, is this class struggle? No, this is only a weak embryo of it. The struggle of the workers becomes a class struggle only when all the foremost representatives of the entire working class of the whole country are conscious of themselves as a single working class and launch a struggle that is directed, not against individual employers, but against the entire class of capitalists and against the government that supports that class ... It is the task of the Social Democrats, by organising the workers, by conducting propaganda and agitation among them, to turn their spontaneous struggle against their oppressors into the struggle of the whole class, into the struggle of a definite political party for definite political and socialist ideals. This is something that cannot be achieved by local activity alone. [4]

The narrow, economistic concept of organisation had therefore to be overcome.

Our chief drawback, to the overcoming of which we must devote all our energy, is the narrow “amateurish” character of local work. Because of this amateurish character many manifestations of the working-class movement in Russia remain purely local events and lose a great deal of their significance as examples for the whole of Russian Social Democracy, as a stage of the whole Russian working-class movement. [5]

The conclusions are clear:

The seeds of Social Democratic ideas have been broadcast throughout Russia; workers’ leaflets – the earliest form of Social Democratic literature – are known to all Russian workers from St. Petersburg to Kranoyarsk, from the Caucasus to the Urals. All that is now lacking is the unification of all this local work into the work of a single party ... Enough of our amateurishness! We have attained sufficient maturity to go over to common action, to the elaboration of a common party program, to the joint discussion of our party tactics and organisation. [6]

In order to achieve the unification of the socialists, the central task was to establish a journal for the whole of Russia.

We must have as our immediate aim, the founding of a party organ that will appear regularly and be closely connected with all the local groups.

We believe that all the activity of the Social Democrats should be directed to this end throughout the whole of the forthcoming period. Without such an organ, local work will remain narrowly “amateurish.” The formation of the party – if the correct representation of that party in a certain newspaper is not organised – will to a considerable extent remain bare words. An economic struggle that is not united by a central organ cannot become the class struggle of the entire Russian proletariat. It is impossible to conduct a political struggle if the party as a whole fails to make statements on all questions of policy and to give direction to the various manifestations of the struggle. The organisation and disciplining of the revolutionary forces and the development of revolutionary technique are impossible without the discussion of all these questions in a central organ, without the collective elabouration of certain forms and rules for the conduct of affairs, without the establishment – through the central organ – of every party member’s responsibility to the entire party. [7]

In another article, An Urgent Question, written at the same time, Lenin argued that the unification of the Marxists into a national party would make it possible to develop a division of labour in the movement and thus raise efficiency.

It is essential for individual party members or separate groups of members to specialise in the different aspects of party work – some in the duplication of literature, others in its transport across the frontier, a third category in its distribution inside Russia, a fourth in its distribution in the cities, a fifth in the arrangement of secret meeting places, a sixth in the collection of funds, a seventh in the delivery of correspondence and all information about the movement, an eighth in maintaining relations, etc. We know that this sort of specialisation requires much greater self-restraint, much greater ability to concentrate on modest, unseen, everyday work, much greater real heroism than the usual work in study circles. [8]

Lenin’s plan envisaged the creation of two papers: a bimonthly theoretical journal (the future Zarya) and a more widely distributed fortnightly (Iskra), which would undertake the organisational and ideological consolidation of the movement.



How Iskra Was Nearly Extinguished

While he was in Siberia, Lenin corresponded with two other exiles, Martov and Potresov, who basically agreed with him about the plan for a national paper and organisation. They carried on a lengthy correspondence about the future paper: who should write for it, when it should be printed, how it would be smuggled into the cities, what its position would be on a number of questions. The three were very close, being of much the same age (Potresov a year older, Martov three years younger than Lenin), their terms of exile ending at more or less the same time, and all of them going abroad in pursuance of the plan to launch the paper – they were so close, in fact, that Lenin called them “the triple alliance.”

All three also looked up to Plekhanov as their master. However, Lenin’s meeting in August 1900 with the “Father of Russian Marxism” was a disastrous shock. The incident is well worth relating, as it throws quite an interesting light on his emotional nature, which he was to suppress for decades to come. It is also important as a forewarning of the future break between Lenin and the old masters, that generation of pioneers of Russian Marxism, Plekhanov, Axelrod, and Zasulich.

The meeting is described in a long confidential report (taking up some 18 pages in the Collected Works). It was intended for the eyes only of Krupskaya, Martov, and a few close adherents and was called “How the ‘Spark’ was nearly extinguished” (a pun on the title of the newspaper Iskra, which means “Spark”).

When they met, Plekhanov

was suspicious, distrustful, and rechthaberisch to the nec plus ultra (holding himself to be right to the nth degree). I tried to observe caution and avoided all “sore” points, but the constant restraint that I had to place on myself could not but greatly affect my mood ... There was also “friction” over questions concerning the tactics of the magazine, Plekhanov throughout displaying complete intolerance, an inability or an unwillingness to understand other people’s arguments, and, to employ the correct term, insincerity. [9]

Plekhanov had also acted in an insensitive and incorrect manner toward Struve during the emergence of his “economism.” This he was not prepared to admit. Lenin says:

We declared that we must make every possible allowance for Struve, that we ourselves bore some guilt for his development, since we, including Plekhanov, had failed to protest when protest was necessary (1895, 1897). Plekhanov absolutely refused to admit even the slightest guilt, employing transparently worthless arguments by which he dodged the issue without clarifying it. This diplomacy in the course of comradely conversations between future coeditors was extremely unpleasant. Why the self-deception with the pretence that he, Plekhanov, had in 1895 been “ordered (? ?) not to shoot” (at Struve) and that he was accustomed to doing as he was ordered (really!)? Why the self-deception with the assertion that in 1897 (when Struve wrote in Novoye Slovo that his object was to refute one of the fundamental theses of Marxism) he had not opposed it, because he never could (and never would) conceive of polemics between collabourators in one and the same magazine? This insincerity was extremely irritating. [10]

Lenin, on the other hand, while arguing that the proposed paper ought to be the unswerving champion of revolutionary Marxism, was in favour of opening it up to polemics with liberals, “economists,” and revisionists. He prepared the draft of an editorial board declaration, in which he explained

the aims and the program of the publications. This was written in an “opportunist” spirit (from Plekhanov’s point of view) – polemics between members of the staff were to be permitted, the tone was modest, allowance was made for the possibility of a peaceful ending of the controversy with the “economists,” etc. The declaration laid stress on our belonging to the party and on our desire to work for its unification. [11]

He favoured inviting Struve and Tugan-Baranovsky to write for the journals. But Plekhanov, opposing the admission of contrary views altogether, displayed an animosity toward “allies” that “bordered on the indecent (suspecting them of espionage, accusing them of being swindlers and rogues, and asserting that he would not hesitate to ‘shoot’ such ‘traitors,’ etc.).” [12]

A few days later Plekhanov, Axelrod, and Zasulich met Lenin and Potresov to try and negotiate an agreement between the two generations. The strained relations flared into open conflict. “Plekhanov’s desire to have unlimited power was obvious,” but he started off “diplomatically”:

he stated that it would be better if he were a contributor, an ordinary contributor, for otherwise there would be continual friction, that evidently his views on things differed from ours, that he understood and respected our party, point of view, but he could not share it. Better therefore that we be the editors and he a contributor. We were amazed to hear this, positively amazed, and began to argue against the idea.

When Lenin and his associates insisted that Plekhanov be on the editorial board, the latter asked pointedly how the voting would go with an even number of six editors (Plekhanov, Axelrod, and Zasulich from among the veterans, and Lenin, Martov, and Potresov from the younger generation). Vera Zasulich then moved that Plekhanov be given two votes, while all the others had one vote each.

Upon that Plekhanov took the reins of management in his hands and with the air of editor-in-chief began apportioning departments among those present and assigning articles to this one and that in a tone that brooked no objection. We sat there as if we had been ducked; mechanically we agreed to everything, unable as yet to comprehend what had taken place. We realised that we had been made fools of. [13]

My “infatuation” with Plekhanov disappeared as if by magic, and I felt offended and embittered to an unbelievable degree. Never, never in my life, had I regarded any other man with such sincere respect and veneration, never had I stood before any man so “humbly” and never before had I been so brutally “kicked.” That’s what it was, we had actually been kicked. [14]

It is with deep bitterness that Lenin describes his and Potresov’s reaction to Plekhanov’s authoritarian behaviour:

Our indignation knew no bounds. Our ideal had been destroyed; gloatingly we trampled it underfoot like a dethroned god. There was no end to the charges we hurled against him. It cannot go on like this, we decided. We do not wish, we will not, we cannot work together with him under such conditions. Good-bye magazine! We will throw everything up and return to Russia, where we will start all over again, right from the very beginning, and confine ourselves to the newspaper. We refuse to be pawns in the hands of that man; he does not understand, and cannot maintain comradely relations. We did not dare undertake the editorship ourselves; besides, it would be positively repulsive to do so now, for it would appear as though we really coveted the editor’s post, that we really were Streber, careerists, and that we too were inspired by motives of vanity, though in a smaller way ... It is difficult to describe adequately what our feelings were that night – such mixed, heavy, confused feelings.

And all because we had formerly been infatuated with Plekhanov. Had we not been so infatuated, had we regarded him more dispassionately, more level-headedly, had we studied him more objectively, our conduct towards him would have been different and we would not have suffered such disaster, in the literal sense of the word ... We had received the most bitter lesson of our lives, a painfully bitter, painfully brutal lesson. Young comrades “court” an elder comrade out of the great love they bear for him – and suddenly he injects into this love an atmosphere of intrigue ... An enamoured youth receives from the object of his love a bitter lesson – to regard all persons “without sentiment,” to keep a stone in one’s sling. Many more words of an equally bitter nature did we utter that night. [15]

The incident illustrates the contempt that Lenin was to retain throughout his life toward any pecking order in the movement, any overbearing attitude in its leaders, any dishonest covering up of the leaders’ own past mistakes. It shows him flexing his muscles for the first time, to become a leader in his own right. It taught him never to mix the personal and political aspects of his future alliances and quarrels – he learned to discipline the emotional side of his nature.

We had agreed among ourselves not to relate what had passed to anyone except our most intimate friends ... Outwardly it was as though nothing had happened ... but within a chord had broken, and instead of splendid personal relations, dry, business-like relations prevailed, with a constant reckoning according to the principle: si vis pacem, para bellum [If you desire peace, prepare for war]. [16]

This episode, to which Lenin never referred again in any of his writings, not only anticipated the future conflict between individuals – Lenin versus Plekhanov (and his close friends Axelrod and Zasulich) – but was also an expression of the real, fundamental weakness of the Father of Russian Marxism, for which the main reason was probably his years of isolation from any real fighting movement. As Krupskaya describes it:

The destiny of Plekhanov was tragic. In the theoretical sphere his services to the labour movement were very great. But the years of emigration were not without effect on him – they isolated him from the real life of Russia. The labour movement of the broad masses only developed after he had already gone abroad. He saw the representatives of the various parties, writers, students, and even individual workingmen, but he neither saw nor worked nor felt with the Russian labouring masses. When any correspondence happened to come from Russia that lifted the curtain over new forms of the movement, and made one grasp its perspectives, Vladimir Ilyich, Martov, and even Vera Ivanovna would read and re-read the letters: Vladimir Ilyich would afterwards pace up and down for a long while, and could not get off to sleep. When we moved to Geneva, I endeavoured to show Plekhanov correspondence of this kind, and the way he reacted astonished me: He seemed to lose the ground beneath his feet, and a look of mistrust appeared to come over his face. Afterwards he never talked about those letters ... At first I was somewhat offended at this; but afterwards I began to think out the reason for his attitude. He had long since left Russia, and he did not possess that gauge – fashioned by experience – which makes it possible to grasp the relative value of each letter, to read a great deal between the lines.

Workers often came to the Iskra, and they all, of course, wanted to see Plekhanov. To get in to see Plekhanov was much more difficult than to see us or Martov, but even if a worker succeeded in seeing him he came away feeling confused. The worker would be enthralled with Plekhanov’s brilliant intelligence, his knowledge, and his wit, but somehow it seemed that, on leaving him, he would feel only what a great gap there was between this brilliant theoretician and himself. Of the things he had wished to speak about, or seek his advice on, the worker would not say a word.

And if the worker did not agree with Plekhanov and tried to expound his own opinion, Plekhanov began to be annoyed: “Your fathers and mothers were still infants when I –”

I dare say things were not like this in the first years of emigration, but by the beginning of the [20th] century Plekhanov had already lost all capacity for directly sensing Russia. In 1905 he did not go to Russia. [17]

Trotsky summarised Plekhanov’s condition aptly:

Plekhanov was already beginning to enter upon a state of decline. His strength was being undermined by the very thing that was giving strength to Lenin – the approach of the revolution. All of Plekhanov’s activity took place during the preparatory, theoretical days. He was Marxian propagandist and polemicist-in-chief, but not a revolutionary politician of the proletariat. The nearer the shadow of the revolution crept, the more evident it became that Plekhanov was losing ground. He couldn’t help seeing it himself, and that was the cause of his irritability toward the younger men. [18]

In contrast with Plekhanov, Lenin knew and understood the Russian workers.



Exceptional Single-Mindedness

The sharp conflict with Plekhanov was a very early test of Lenin’s willpower and single-mindedness. There has probably never been a revolutionary more single-minded, purposeful, and persistent than Lenin. It is significant that the most commonly recurring words in his writings are probably “relentless” and “irreconcilable.”

Above all, he had unbending willpower. As Lunacharsky wrote in his Revolutionary Silhouettes, “the dominating trait of his character, the feature which constituted half his make-up, was his will: an extremely firm, extremely forceful will capable of concentrating itself on the most immediate task but which yet never strayed beyond the radius traced out by his powerful intellect and which assigned every individual problem its place as a link in a huge, world-wide political chain.” [19] The Russian language, significantly, has the same word for “freedom” and for “will.”

Lenin’s lifestyle was a model of discipline, orderliness, and patient self-restraint. Gorky described him as “personally undemanding, a teetotaller, a non-smoker, busy from morning till night with complicated, difficult work, quite unable to take proper care of himself.” [20] In his letters, Lenin never described his environment – whether he was in prison or in Siberia, Geneva, Paris, or London, he was completely engrossed in his work. At their most personal, they were a brief summary of his everyday activity. When his family complained that he did not write from Siberia, Krupskaya wrote: “Volodya is quite unable to write about the ordinary side of life.” [21]

In a hostile memoir written in 1927, Potresov admitted: “And yet ... all of us who were closest to the work ... valued Lenin not only for his knowledge, brains and capacity for work, but also for his exceptional devotion to the cause, his unceasing readiness to give himself completely, to take upon himself the most unpleasant functions, and without fail to discharge them with the utmost conscientiousness.” [22]

Vera Zasulich, according to Trotsky, once said to Lenin: “George [Plekhanov] is a hound – he will shake a thing for a while, and then drop it; whereas you are a bulldog – yours is the death grip.” When she later reported the conversation to Trotsky, she added: “This appealed to Lenin very much – ‘a death grip,’ he repeated, with obvious delight.” [23]

The following interchange between Axelrod (one of the founders of Russian Marxism, and later a Menshevik leader) and a member of the International Socialist Bureau is quite illuminating:

Member of the International Socialist Bureau: Do you mean to say that all these splits and quarrels and scandals are the work of one man? But how can one man be so effective and so dangerous?

Axelrod: Because there is not another man who for 24 hours of the day is taken up with the revolution, who has no other thoughts but thoughts of revolution, and who, even in his sleep, dreams of nothing but revolution. just try and handle such a fellow. [24]

This is what Lenin said to his close friend, German revolutionary Clara Zetkin:

The revolution demands concentration, increase of forces. From the masses, from individuals. It cannot tolerate orgiastic conditions, such as are normal for the decadent heroes and heroines of D’Annunzio. Dissoluteness in sexual life is bourgeois, is a phenomenon of decay. The proletariat is a rising class. It doesn’t need intoxication as a narcotic or a stimulus. Intoxication as little by sexual exaggeration as by alcohol. It must not and shall not forget, forget the shame, the filth, the savagery of capitalism. It receives the strongest urge to fight from a class situation, from the Communist ideal. It needs clarity, clarity, and again clarity. And so I repeat, no weakening, no waste, no destruction of forces. Self-control, self-discipline is not slavery, not even in love. [25]




1*. The organisational concept of this first congress was federalist and loose. One article stipulated that the Central Committee (CC) should not decide any questions that could be deferred to the next congress, and that only the most urgent questions were to be resolved by the CC on its own authority. Even in this case, the decision of the CC had to be unanimous [2]



1. What Is to Be Done?, Lenin, Collected Works, vol.5, p.467.

2. Kommunisticheskaia partiia sovetskogo soiuza v rezoliutsiakh i resheniiakh sezdov, konferentsii i plenumov Tsk, 7th edition, vol.1, Moscow 1953, p.14.

3. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, op. cit., p.43.

4. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.4, pp.215–16.

5. ibid., p.216.

6. ibid., p.216–7.

7. ibid., p.218–9.

8. ibid., pp.222–23.

9. ibid., pp.333–34.

10. ibid., p.334.

11. ibid., p.335.

12. ibid., p.334.

13. ibid., pp.338.

14. ibid., p.340.

15. ibid., pp.341–42.

16. ibid., p.348.

17. Krupskaya, op. cit., pp.54–55.

18. Trotsky, My Life, New York 1960, p.150.

19. A.V. Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes, London 1967, p.39.

20. M. Gorky, Lenin, Edinburgh 1967, p.42.

21. Lenin, Letter to Lenin’s mother, October 1, 1900, in Collected Works, vol.37, p.592.

22. A.N. Potresov, Posmertnyi sbornik proizvedenii, Paris 1937, p.299.

23. Trotsky, My Life, op. cit., p.152.

24. Z. Krzhizhanovskaia, Neskolko shtrikov iz zhizhni Lenina, vol.2, Moscow 1925, p.49.

25. C. Zetkin, Reminiscences of Lenin, New York 1934, pp.50–51.


Last updated on 16.6.2004