The background to Lenin's Iskra

Author: 

John O'Mahony

Click here for the series on The Roots of Bolshevism of which this article is part
By John O'Mahony

The 'Tsar Liberator', Alexander II, was on the eve of his death ready to make some concessions to the reform-minded liberals. The work of the Narodnaya Volya assassins put an end to reform from above for a generation. In the 1880s and 90s, the Tsarist regime was a frozen ice-cap on top of Russian society.

Underneath that inert political regime, Russian capitalism expanded. Market relations became dominant in more and more of Russian life. The working class grew with the growth of industry. Great congregations of proletarians were created around the giant factories that were set up, embodying the most advanced technology of the West, and sometimes on the basis of foreign capital.

A large part of the working class was still half-peasant, retaining links to the countryside and often retaining control of some peasant landholding. Many workers lived in barracks attached to the factories, in the way many Chinese workers do now.

There was often a deep cleavage between the different segments of that working class. The metal workers were usually more fixed than the cotton workers in the proletarian condition of having only the sale of their labour-power to live on. Moreover, theirs was skilled labour. The cotton workers were less skilled and, still half-peasant, often only 'temporary visitors' from the countryside.

Sporadic revolts in the form of strikes and, sometimes, destruction of workplaces and machinery still occasionally broke out. But working-class action was becoming less sporadic, more stable, more rational and more purposeful. A real working class was being created, and slowly a real working-class movement emerged.

Some circles of politically conscious workers existed in a more or less unbroken continuity back to the great days of the populists. The exiled Marxist splinter group from populism, the Group for the Emancipation of Labour - Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich, Deutsch - produced great works of theory and propaganda through the 1880s. Plekhanov settled theoretical accounts with populism in Our Differences (1884).

Inside Russia, Marxism at first existed only in the eclectic, diluted, and adulterated form in which it could be used to sustain the idea of traditional populism, that the village commune holding land in common (the obshchina) could be the basis of a special sort of agrarian socialism in Russia.

The Marxist critique of capitalism was used to bolster this defining idea of the populists. What the consistent Marxists, in the first place Plekhanov, argued was that capitalism had already advanced to dominance in Russian life in the two decades after the end of serfdom in 1861, and therefore the central defining belief of all the populists was now entirely utopian and indeed reactionary.

The village commune was far gone in disintegration. Socialism in Russia could come only through the development of capitalism and as the creation of the Russian working class.

Retaining some of the beliefs that they had held as populists, Plekhanov and Axelrod thought that the bourgeois-democratic revolution - the clearing of the ground for full capitalist development and the creation of a democratic republic - would, because of the weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie, have to be led by the Russian proletariat. Plekhanov told the 1889 founding conference of the Socialist ('Second') International that the Russian revolution would be led by the working class or else it could not happen at all.

But that remained a vague unconcretised general idea. What it meant or might mean would be the substance of much of the pre-1917 discussion among Russian Marxists. Different answers to the dilemmas that it posed would be the primary dividing line between the future Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Trotsky (who developed a distinct variant of the idea Plekhanov and the Group for the Emancipation of Labour propounded in the 1880s). In due course we will examine these differences.

Populism continued despite savage persecution, but mainly as a tradition and in the fragmented activity of local populist circles, some of which included proletarians.

The works of Marx were circulated - Wage Labour and Capital, and Capital, whose first translated publication was in Russian, in 1872 - and discussed in the circles. The quotient of Marxism in the populist mixture taught in the circles gradually increased.

Those who were more Marxist coexisted peacefully in those circles with those who were "more populist" until the onslaught on populist ideas by such Marxists as Pyotr Struve got under way in 1894 and after. It was only then that a sharp polarisation occurred. There are recorded examples of the working-class 'consumers' in education circles deciding that they wanted 'Marxism' and not populism taught. Some of the populist teachers complied and thereafter taught only Marx!

And the working class continued to grow with the growth of industry.

The political impotence of populism, even at its point of greatest victory when populists killed the Tsar, led after 1881 to a decline and then to a discrediting of populism. A diluted 'legal populism', evolutionary rather than revolutionary, became a force among the intelligentsia.

The decisive turning point into a new era occurred in 1892, when famine swept across parts of Russia. It was the indirect consequence of the change in the peasant economy which the Tsarist ministers had orchestrated from the pinnacles of the state power when their demands for money-taxes compelled the peasants to sell their grain and rely on buying some of it back later as food.

As starvation stalked parts of the empire, the state was unable to cope. Having stifled civil society for over a decade, the Tsarist autocracy now evoked private activity as a matter of urgency. It appealed to private citizens to help the people of the stricken areas. There was a large response.

In something resembling the intelligentsia's 'going to the people' in the mid 1870s, large numbers of educated men and women from the towns went into the countryside, this time not to educate the muzhiks or call on them to revolt, but to bring them food, money collected in the towns to buy food, and rudimentary medical care.

The newly reawakening intelligentsia's response to the passivity with which the peasantry suffered starvation and disease would have big political consequences, as had their experience with the peasantry in the 1870s. It radically discredited and helped finally bury the whole idea that the peasantry could be any sort of Russia-remaking revolutionary class.

And as that was happening, the industrial working class, augmented enormously, and already possessing a layer of workers educated in the circles - began spectacularly to revolt. The revolutionary peasantry is dead - long live the revolutionary proletariat!

It was the same pattern that in the late 1870s had led populists like Plekhanov to turn to the working class, even when, in their theory, the peasantry was the decisive revolutionary class. But now it was on a far greater scale, and now the fundamentals of populism were widely seen as untenable. And there was now in existence and, so to speak, fully transplanted by Plekhanov into Russia, a Marxist alternative revolutionary theory for them to turn to.

Following on the lessons they drew from the passive suffering of the starving, disease-hit muzhiks, the rise of the working class drove home to the socialistic intelligentsia, in life and no longer in theory, the centrality of the Russian working class in any Russian revolution.

At first it was the workers in Poland and Lithuania, on the western end of the Tsarist empire, who moved in a wave of strikes and created an underground working-class organisation. The Jewish workers, mainly handcrafts workers, created a fully developed underground labour movement. Then in the mid 1890s the workers' strike movement spread across Russia, despite the fact that police terror there was more severe than in the Western regions.

In 1896/-7 the St Petersburg workers organised a series of mass strikes. From that point onwards, there was a mass underground Russian workers' movement, manifesting itself in tremendous combativity. By 1901 the workers were bursting out into 'spontaneous' political street demonstrations.

The decline in populist credibility, the positive proof given by their revolts that the industrial workers were the revolutionary class in Russia, the reawakening of the intelligentsia after the 1891 famine relief movement, and the intellectual pre-eminence of the Marxism of the Group for the Emancipation of Labour, and of a new generation of Marxists based in Russia, such as Struve, Tugan-Baranovsky and Lenin, now led to a proliferation of Marxist circles across Russia, both worker and intellectual (the workers and intellectuals had their own distinct and separate circles).

Already, in the mid 1890s, the sort of underground Marxist party that only emerged after the turn of the century was objectively possible, had the Marxists been politically experienced enough. The proliferation of Marxist circles across urban Russia already amounted to the rough outline in Russian life of such a party - its prefiguration, so to speak.

Up to the mid-1890s the Marxist circles had engaged in heavy-duty propaganda and education work, giving the small numbers of workers involved in them a pretty thorough education over a long period of time. The Jewish workers in the 'Pale', the area in the West to which Jews were largely confined, pioneered a new method - agitation.

Breaking away from the intensive study work of the old circles, they 'agitated' among the workers on limited issues concerning their immediate interests - wages and conditions in the workshops.

There was in this turn, again, an echo of the past. It was the same pattern as the turn of the intelligentsia of the later 1870s from the broad general educational work associated with the name of the populist writer Peter Lavrov to agitating with the peasants on the question of dividing the landlords' land, calling them to immediate revolt - the period associated with the name of Bakunin.

Whereas the agitation for immediate interests evoked no more response from the peasants than had the general education and propaganda of the first period of the intellectuals 'going to the people', the turn to agitation by the Social Democrats [Marxists] was immediately a stupendous success.

It was what Plekhanov and others had already experienced in the late 1870s when it was workers and not peasants who answered their calls to action - only now it was on a large and seemingly ever-growing scale.

Aron Kramer, one of the leaders of the turn to agitation in the Jewish Pale, now wrote a pamphlet, On Agitation, and Julius Martov wrote an introduction to it. Both Kramer and, fleetingly, Martov would be founders of the Jewish socialist movement, the Bund.

The pamphlet was circulated to the Marxist circles throughout Russia. Everywhere the Marxists turned to agitation, they found a tremendous response from the working class. In St Petersburg in 1896-7, a city Marxist organisation, the St Petersburg League of Struggle, which included Lenin and the future Menshevik Martov, engaged in agitation directed to factory workers with immense success.

It is important to stress that by now a workers' movement existed - circles in factories - which did not depend on stimulation by circles of the intelligentsia, though the workers' circles usually drew on the intelligentsia for education.

This upsurge of the working class had tremendous power because the workers were concentrated in large-scale and sometimes gigantic factories. The state made concessions to the workers, including, in the mid-90s, passing laws to limit hours of work. The significance of this fact too was not lost on the revolutionary intelligentsia.

But the political system remained savagely authoritarian and brutally repressive. The pattern was, as it would continue to be for most of the time until the February 1917 revolution, that the leaders and organisers of Marxist circles would have a short period of activity and then, inevitably, be arrested, jailed, and deported to forced exile in Siberia.

That was the fate of the leaders of the St Petersburg League of Struggle. Martov, Lenin, and others were arrested in December 1897 and, after imprisonment, exiled (until 1900 - Lenin then went abroad).

Continuity and 'tradition' in the Marxist circles was often rendered impossible. The characteristics of whomever replaced those arrested would come to dominate each circle. That ultimately weakened Marxism as a consistent force, and would have as one of its consequences the revival of a sort of populism.

But there was another, and strange, dimension to the rise of Marxism to hegemony over the intelligentsia and in the revolutionary circles. In parallel to the growth of a legal, non-revolutionary, populism, there grew up, from 1894, a 'legal Marxism'. A number of writers and intellectuals used aspects of Marxism to try finally to bury populism.

Struve, Tugan-Baranovsky and Bulgakov boldly seized those aspects of Marxism which preached that the development of Russian capitalism was not only inevitable and necessary, but progressive - and the only road through which socialism could, eventually, be reached. They argued that capitalism should, therefore, be championed by those who wanted to promote the welfare of Russia, the Russian people and the Russian industrial proletariat.

They published books and collections of articles - Lenin contributed an essay to one of them - in which they turned Marxism into the champion of Russian capitalism.

The older populists had rejected and resisted that 'objective' side of Marxism, even when the revolutionary side of Marxism was also there full strength. They called the Marxists - or that aspect of Plekhanov's Marxism - apologetics for capitalism and for capitalist exploitation. That had been unjust. With the 'legal Marxists' it was essentially true and, as they evolved to the right, increasingly the dominant side of their work.

The Tsarist authorities looked with limited favour on the work of the legal Marxists with their heavy tomes, seeing them as valuable allies against the populists - who had spawned and would again spawn terrorists against Tsarism - and allowed them to publish some works legally. Thus the name 'legal Marxism', though it came to have other connotations too, those of adulterated, truncated, and part-payment Marxism.

Soon they would subscribe to the 'critical-thinking' revision of Marxism in the West undertaken by some Marxist writers, and in the first place by Eduard Bernstein, breaking with Marxism.

All of these Russian Bernsteinists would become liberals or reactionaries. Bulgakov became a Russian Orthodox priest.

Although initially the 'legal Marxists' did valuable work in spreading a form of Marxism, it would take a political battle between revolutionary Marxists based on the working class - where the labour movements based themselves on elements of the intelligentsia travelling rightwards from populism to liberalism - and the Struves to put Marxism back onto its proper keel.

Decades later, Trotsky would sum up what the legal Marxists did as that they had helped sever the 'umbilical cord' that bound the intelligentsia to populism. He also observed that it was not the revolutionary populists who started with the bomb and bullet for Tsars and Tsarist officials, who destroyed Russian Tsarism, but those who started out with the heavy tomes under their arms and worked to educate and organise the proletariat.

That revolutionary role would be made possible only as a result of a whole series of differentiations among the intelligentsia, in which those who stood with the working class and for working-class revolution separated themselves by way of polemic and dispute from all the others.

In the later 1890s the nebulous state of Russian socialism, consisting as it did of a myriad of separate 'circles', each independent of the others, producing its own factory leaflets and occasionally more ambitious publications, allowed a certain revival of populism. That would lead to the creation in 1901, by Victor Chernov and others, of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, which would insist that socialism was an immediate possibility in Russia, refuse to draw any basic distinction between peasants and wage-workers (all were 'the people' or 'the working class'), and use terrorism against Tsarist officials.

Against that background the pioneers and veterans of the Group for the Emancipation of Labour, and a group of those who had become Marxists in the 1890s, Lenin, Martov, Potresov, Dan and others, set out to bring political and ideological order and organisation to the large but amorphous Russian Marxist movement and to build a revolutionary working-class party.

At the end of 1900 they published the first numbers of Iskra and Zarya, and began a campaign to win the Russian Marxists to common ideas and a single revolutionary party, organised initially around Iskra.

In 1898 a small and unrepresentative gathering in Minsk had declared the existence of a Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Peter Struve wrote its manifesto. Most of the delegates were soon arrested.

The RSDLP existed only as a name and an aspiration until its 'second' - effectively its first - congress in mid 1903, prepared for by two and a half years' work by Iskra and Zarya.


Introduction to the version in the printed paper

This and subsequent articles are part of the series on 'The Roots of Bolshevism', but they are out of sequence. The articles printed so far in Solidarity have dealt mainly with the populist pre-history of the Russian revolutionary movement.

We have taken the story as far as the early 1880s and the culmination of the great populist movement in the killing of the Tsar on 1 March 1881.

I now start to deal with some of the key political ideas of Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich and Lenin, that is of the political current grouped from late 1900 around the paper Iskra (Truth) and the magazine Zarya (Dawn).

This is of direct and immediate relevance to the problems which face revolutionary Marxists now. Later articles will deal with the rise of the Russian working-class movement from the mid-1880s to the 1905 revolution. Without that history, a great deal of what Lenin wrote in his polemics is impossible fully to understand. The guiding ideas of Iskra, those that have a direct bearing on our activities now, can however be understood.

To introduce these ideas, in this article I will briefly outline what happened between the killing of the Tsar and the beginning of the 20th century, when the Iskra-ites - Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich, Lenin, Martov, Potresov - started their work.