Introduction to Birth of Bolshevism Volume 1 Lenin’s Struggle Against Economism

Written in 2005
Introduction By Doug Lorimer

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was the founder and, until his death in January 1924, the central leader of the Bolshevik Party. Without the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, the Russian workers would not have been able to conquer power in November (October in the Julien calendar then still in effect in Russia) 1917 and create the world’s first workers state. The world historic significance of the October 1917 Revolution is that for the first time it proved it was possible for the working class to take power and replace capitalism with a new social order, and the workers could forge out of their ranks a political party that was capable of leading that revolutionary struggle to victory.

This is the first of two volumes published by Resistance Books providing a selection of the key political writings of Lenin leading up to the birth of Bolshevism as a political trend and a party organisation.

Lenin (born in 1870) became active in a revolutionary student circle in 1887 while studying law at Kazan University. The following year he joined a Marxist circle organized by Nikolai Fedoseyev. After Lenin arrived in St Petersburg in 1893 to work as a junior barrister he joined a Marxist circle of students at the Technological Institute. The following year he wrote his first major political work What the ‘Friends of the People’ Are and How they fight the Social Democrats, a polemic against the then-dominant current within the Russian revolutionary movement – the Populists (or Narodniks).

The populist movement had emerged in 1870’s as a result of widespread disillusionment among liberal-minded university students at the results of the Tsar Alexander II’s “great reforms” of the early 1860’s.

The centrepiece of these reforms was the 1861 Emancipation Act, which abolished “the serfdom of peasants settled on estate owners’ landed properties, and of household serfs”.

The tsarist autocracy had legally abolished serfdom principally in order to modernise the imperial army, transforming it from a large standing army of poorly equipped serfs commanded by poorly trained aristocratic officers into a smaller and much less expensive standing army of well-trained paid soldiers, equipped with industrially processed weapons.

The failures of the Russian army during the Crimean war of 1854-55 had also driven home to the tsarist government the need to create an extensive network of railways to quickly supply Russian armies in the field with food, munitions, and troop reinforcements. At the end of the 1850’s though, the tsarist government did not have the revenue income to fund a large-scale program of railway construction. Indeed, not only was the government bankrupt but the old army was absorbing up to half of its expenditures.

The tsar’s economic advisors believed that the abolition of serfdom would stimulate peasant production of commodities for an expanding market and generate a new class of rich peasant farmers, who would provide a new base for government revenue. The poorer peasants would be free to migrate to the cities and towns, thus providing an expanding pool of wage workers for the emerging class of capitalist factory-owners.

While formally ending a 1000 years of feudalism in Russia and legally opening the way for 23 million serfs to own land, in practice the Emancipation Act changed little. It declared that all land on landlord’s estates belonged legally to the hereditary nobility, other than the land on which the peasants’ households were situated. To become legal owners of the farm land, including land they had previously used to support themselves, the peasants – who at that time made up 94% of Russia’s population – had to purchase it from the landlords, under the supervision of new local government bodies.

Prior to the 1861 reform, all local government powers had been exercised by the landowners over the serfs. The Emancipation Act granted certain powers of self-government to the peasant village associations – the peasant communes, but subordinated these powers to local government officials who, under an 1864 law, were to be selected by district and provincial assemblies (zemstvo), made up of delegates elected from different social classes. Up to 1906 these were the only elected government bodies. They tended to be overwhelmingly dominated by the hereditary, landowning, nobility.

At the end of the 1850’s, there were about one million nobles in the Russian Empire, of whom, 250,000 belonged to the Russian hereditary nobility, and of these only 90,000 owned serfs. Most of these nobles were so poor that they lived like peasants alongside their serfs. About 18,000 nobles owned a hundred or more serfs and it was from this small group of nobles – constituting, with their families, about 0.5% of the total population – that the government ministers, provincial governors and the top echelons of the civil and military bureaucracy were drawn.

The nobles themselves wanted to abolish serfdom, in order to rid themselves of their debts to the government. By 1858, around 60% of landlords had mortgaged their serfs to the government to cover their tax bills. The Emancipation Act transferred these mortgages from the landlords to the newly freed serfs, giving them a period of 49 years to pay off these mortgage debts (called “redemption payments”).

The “great reforms” left the peasantry in possession of about three quarters of the land they had previously regarded as theirs. Population growth during the next half century further reduced the average landholdings of the peasantry, making land hunger a problem serious enough to turn the peasants into a potentially powerful force for revolutionary change.

The Narodniks held out the hope that capitalist development would be bypassed in Russia through a peasant revolution that would not only overthrow the tsarist autocracy but create a “socialist” society based upon the peasants’ communal landholdings. This perspective was rejected by the founders of Marxism who argued that without the assistance of a proletarian revolution in the much more industrially developed West, a process of capitalist development in Russia and the breaking up of the peasants’ commune (mir) was inevitable. In their jointly authored 1882 preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, for example, Marx and Engels argued that: “If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both compliment each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as a starting point for a communist development.”

In 1879 the principle Narodnik organisation, Zemlya I Volya (land and Liberty), split into two rival organisations. The majority formed the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will), while the leaders of the minority – Georgy Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich and Pavel Axelrod – evolved toward Marxism, founding the first Russian Marxist organisation, the Emancipation of Labour group, in exile in 1883. In opposition to the Narodniks, they argued that Russia had already entered onto the road of capitalist development, and that the principle task of Russian socialists was to organise the emerging urban working class as the leading force in the struggle against the despotic tsarist regime.

In his speech to the 1889 Paris international meeting of socialist parties, for example, Plekhanov argued:

In order to overthrow and finally destroy tsarism, we must rely on a more revolutionary element than student youth [the social base of Narodism –DL], and this element, which exists in Russia is the class of proletarians, a class which is revolutionary by reason of its distressing economic situation, revolutionary in its very essence…

In conclusion I repeat – and I insist on this important point – the revolutionary movement in Russia will triumph only as a working-class movement or else it will never triumph! [1]

When Lenin became a Marxist in the early 1890’s Russia was undergoing a rapid process of capitalist industrialisation. The number of industrial workers – wage-workers employed in mills, mines and factories – had increased from 860,000 in 1860 to 1.4 million in 1890. By 1897 the number of industrial workers had increased to about 2.8million. In his 1897 work The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Lenin calculated from the 1897 census that about 17% of Russia’s 125 million inhabitants were employed in mills, mines, factories, on the railways and waterways, in construction work, lumbering, etc.

The employment conditions for Russian workers were among the worst in Europe. The working day in the textile factories, for example, was 14-15 hours, while even in the metal factories it was not less than 12½ hours. Wages were exceedingly low. Most workers were paid less than 8 rubles per month. The most highly paid workers in the metal factories were paid no more than 35 rubles a month. Housing conditions were appalling. In the factory-owned dormitories, workers were crowded as many as 10 or 12 to a small room. Furthermore, strikes and trade unions were illegal.

Like Plekhanov’s Emancipation of Labour group, Lenin saw the principle task of Russian Marxists as building a revolutionary socialist party capable of leading the Russian working class in the struggle for democracy and socialism. But more than any other Russian Marxist he emphasised the enormous importance of the struggle for democracy – including the agrarian question – and its relationship to the struggle for socialism.

In Russia [Lenin wrote in his 1894 polemic against Narodism] the relics of medievalism are still so enormously strong (as compared with Western Europe), they are such an oppressive yoke upon the proletariat and the people generally, retarding the growth of political thought in all estates and classes, that one cannot but insist on the tremendous importance which the struggle against all feudal institutions, absolutism, the social estate system, and the bureaucracy has for the workers.

The workers must be shown in the greatest detail what a terribly reactionary force these institutions are, how they intensify the oppression of labour by capital, what a degrading pressure they exert on the working people, how they keep capital in its medieval forms which, while not falling short of the modern, industrial forms in respect of the exploitation of labour, add to this exploitation by placing terrible difficulties in the way of the fight for emancipation. The workers must know that unless these pillars of reaction are overthrown, it will be utterly impossible for them to wage a successful struggle against the bourgeoisie, because so long as they exist, the Russian rural proletariat, whose support is an essential condition for the victory of the working class, will never cease to be downtrodden and cowed, capable only of sullen desperation and not of intelligent and persistent protest and struggle.

And that is why it is the direct duty of the working class to fight side by side with the radical democracy against absolutism and the reactionary social estates and institutions—a duty which the Social-Democrats must impress upon the workers, while not for a moment ceasing also to impress upon them that the struggle against all these institutions is necessary only as a means of facilitating the struggle against the bourgeoisie, that the worker needs the achievement of the general democratic demands only to clear the road to victory over the working people’s chief enemy, over an institution that is purely democratic by nature, capital, which here in Russia is particularly inclined   to sacrifice its democracy and to enter into alliance with the reactionaries in order to suppress the workers, to still further impede the emergence of a working-class movement.

Lenin concluded the polemic by summarising the perspective that was to guide his work for the next three decades:

The political activity of the Social-Democrats lies in promoting the development and organisation of the working-class movement in Russia, in transforming this movement from its present state of sporadic attempts at protest, “riots” and strikes devoid of a guiding idea, into an organised struggle of the whole Russian working class directed against the bourgeois regime and working for the   expropriation of the expropriators and the abolition of the social system based on the oppression of the working people. Underlying these activities is the common conviction of Marxists that the Russian worker is the sole and natural representative of Russia’s entire working and exploited population.

Natural because the exploitation of the working people in Russia is everywhere capitalist in nature, if we leave out of account the moribund remnants of serf economy; but the exploitation of the mass of producers is on a small scale, scattered and undeveloped, while the exploitation of the factory proletariat is on a large scale, socialised and concentrated…

Accordingly, it is on the working class that the Social-Democrats concentrate all their attention and all their activities. When its advanced representatives have mastered the ideas of scientific socialism, the idea of the historical role of the Russian worker, when these ideas become widespread, and when stable organisations are formed among the worker to transform the workers’ present sporadic economic war into conscious class struggle—then the Russian worker rising at the head of all the democratic elements, will overthrow absolutism and lead the Russian proletariat (side by side with the proletariat of all countries along the straight road of open political struggle to the victorious communist revolution. [2]

The idea that only a party of class-conscious workers could provide consistent leadership to the working masses in the struggle to overthrow the tsarist autocracy and secure political liberty was in no way particular to Lenin. As the manifesto adopted by the first congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1898 demonstrated, this was the commonly held view at the time among Russian Marxists.

The manifesto observed:

The further to the east of Europe (and Russia, as we know, is the east of Europe) the weaker, more cowardly and baser in its political attitude is the bourgeoisie, and the greater the cultural and political tasks that fall to the proletariat. The Russian working class must and will take upon its strong shoulders the task of winning political freedom. This is vital, but merely an initial step towards realising the great historical mission of the proletariat: namely, the creation of a social system in which there will be no exploitation of man by man. The Russian proletariat will cast off the yoke of autocracy in order to pursue more energetically the struggle against capitalism and the bourgeoisie until the total victory of socialism. [3]

The 1898 founding congress of the RSDLP, held in Minsk, was attended by nine delegates, representing local Marxist groups in Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev and Yekaterinoslav. However the central committee elected at the congress was soon arrested by the police. The local organisations of the Russian Marxists therefore remained without a unifying political centre or common line of political work.

It was in this context that an opportunist current emerged in 1899 within the ranks of those claiming adherence to the RSDLP. One-sidedly exaggerating the work of agitation around essentially trade union demands among the broad mass of workers, this current argued that Russian socialists should restrict their activity to assisting the economic struggles of the workers and not strive to lead the political struggle for democracy in Russia, but should simply assist the bourgeoisie in its attempt to pressure the tsarist autocracy to grant a liberal-democratic constitution.

The factional battle against this opportunist current (known as “Economism”), which Lenin initiated from his exile in Siberia in 1899 and which was waged in the years 1900-03 by the illegal monthly paper Iskra, was to lay the theoretical and organisational foundations for the creation of the Bolshevik party. This volume gathers together the key works in which Lenin polemicized against the views of the Economists and, in the process, developed many of the conceptions that were to become central to the theory and practice of the party that led the October Revolution.

In opposition to the Economists, who implicitly assumed that through their spontaneous day-to-day struggles the working class masses would draw revolutionary socialist conclusions, Lenin argued that, in the context of capitalist rule where bourgeois ideas were dominant, the spontaneous activity of the working class could at best only give rise to trade union consciousness, i.e., the recognition of the need to unite with workers of the same trade and industry to fight for economic and political reforms within the framework of the capitalist system. By contrast, proletarian class consciousness, i.e., the recognition that the proletariat is a class with interests fundamentally opposed to those of the capitalist class and those interests can only be fully realised through the organisation of the proletariat into the ruling class, requires scientific, i.e., theoretical, knowledge of the structure and dynamics of capitalist society. But such knowledge does not arise out of the spontaneous activity of the working class masses. This is because the spontaneous activity of the working class masses always revolves around immediate problems which in normal times are concerned with aspects of socioeconomic and political reality that do not directly challenge the very nature of the capitalist system.

Lenin pointed out that proletarian class consciousness, i.e., scientific socialism, was developed by bourgeois intellectuals, i.e., by Marx and Engels, and had to be introduced by them into the working class movement through the recruitment of workers to a revolutionary socialist party.

Again, in opposition to the Economists, who argued that the Russian socialist intelligentsia should orient in an undifferentiated way to the entire mass of the working class, Lenin argued that the Marxist intellectuals had to understand that the working class was not an homogenous, undifferentiated mass, but was stratified in its conditions of life and experience and therefore in its potential to be won to revolutionary socialist politics. He pointed out that in all countries it was the better situated strata of workers who spontaneously organised themselves to fight for their immediate interests and among whom there spontaneously arose workers who can win the confidence of the broad masses of workers, who devote themselves to the education and organisation of the working class, and who respond to the ideas of socialism more rapidly and easily than the broad mass of workers. These advanced workers, Lenin noted, “study, study, study” and turn themselves into conscious socialists, becoming the working class intelligentsia. The key task of the Russian Marxist intellectuals, Lenin argued, was to give special attention to organising and training these workers so as to create an organisation of working class revolutionaries. The central means to accomplish this task was a frequently published all-Russia political newspaper, which Lenin argued in his article “Where to Begin?” would provide the Russian Marxists with a collective propagandist, collective agitator, and collective organiser.

In the early chapters of his 1902 booklet What is to be done? Lenin recapitulated and elaborated on these arguments. Beginning with Section C of Chapter IV of this booklet, Lenin takes up the question of what sort of party organisation the Russian Marxists needed, and it was here that Lenin first projected the concept of the Marxist party of a new type, radically different from the ostensibly Marxist parties that existed in Western Europe – a party of professional revolutionaries.

Lenin first outlines his opposition under the then prevailing Russian conditions to the kind of “broad organisation called for by the Economists. He notes that such a call could only be demagogic, since in police-state conditions even trade union type associations of workers were illegal. Later he also ridicules the Economists’ call for “broad” democracy within the organisation of Russian socialists as demagogic since party members had to try to keep their activities and their identities hidden from the tsarist political police (the Okhrana) – and this obviously made complete democracy in decision-making or selection of leadership impossible. The need to safeguard the party from disruption caused by police repression was one of the reasons favoured by Lenin for restricting membership to those professionally trained in the techniques of clandestine political activity. However, he also set out another reason for a party of professional revolutionaries – one that did not depend upon the prevailing police-state conditions in Russia, but which logically flowed from his previous arguments about the need to create a party of working class revolutionaries. The central task of the Russian Marxists was to help train working class revolutionaries who, Lenin argued, must be on the same level in regard to party activities as the revolutionaries from among the intellectuals. This required a party organisation made of people who, regardless of their class origin, made revolutionary political activity their profession – who were trained by the party to be professional Marxist propagandists, agitators and organisers. It was this conception of revolutionary party organisation that was to prove spectacularly successful in 1917 and was later generalised by Lenin as a goal of Marxist revolutionary parties everywhere.

[1] G. Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Vol. 1 (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1977), p.406.

[2] V. I. Lenin, “What the ‘Friends of the People’ Are and How they fight the Social-Democrats”, Collected Works, Vol.1 (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1977), pp. 290-300.

[3] Reprinted in Grigory Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party – A Popular Outline (New Park Publications: London, 1973), p.202.