Reviewed by Bill Jefferies
This is a collection of 25 pieces selected by Richard Mullin most of which “express an anti-Lenin view”. The collection is inspired by the laudable belief that in assessing any argument it is important to read all the contending sides. If there is a criticism of this collection, it is that the translator does not consistently follow this important idea through. He considers these pieces mainly in terms of what they tell us about Lenin, rather than whether they have anything interesting or useful to contribute in their own right.
The collection includes a lengthy background piece in the form of an Introduction, which provides, amongst other things, some biographical information on Georgi Plekhanov who was “without many brilliant successes” (5) the founder of Russian Marxism. Through the course of the book there are extended introductions to each of the pieces, where Mullin explains their individual context, the motives of the authors and provides a form of summary interpretation of them. Mullin’s questioning of the integrity of Lenin’s political opponents are a recurrent feature of these introductions and mar the book. Overall Mullin concludes that the documents provide “a clearer and curiously flattering picture of Lenin’s thought and activity”.
The chronology of the book means that it is implicitly split into two parts. The period of the struggle around Economism up to the Second Congress of the RSDLP in 1903, and the period after that, of the split between the groups that were to become known as the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The major contributor to the book is the aforementioned Plekhanov, who comes out of it with his reputation, at least for this period, restored. The clarity and whit of Plekhanov’s writing, as well as the clear line of advance he presents are the real highlight of the book. Plekhanov dissects Lenin’s weaknesses and shows how the creation of the Bolsheviks was an accident, born from a stubborn schema and an inability to respond to changing circumstances. That it succeeded later was only indirectly related to the reasons for its foundation.
Plekhanov’s Vademecum is the highlight of the first half, a lengthy and brilliant deconstruction of the Economists and the opportunist premises of their argument. It is the most substantial and important document in the collection. It is not anti-Lenin. Quite the opposite, Lenin’s opinions of it are neither here nor there for Plekhanov; moreover, it is clear that Lenin took many of the arguments in his 1902 What is to be Done? (WITBD) directly from it. Although not all, for the collection ends with Plekhanov’s famous article from 1904 The Working Class and the Social Democratic Intelligentsia where Plekhanov provides a pointed and brilliant rebuttal and refutation of the main original premise of Lenin’s argument.
The Vademecum is the first substantial piece in the collection and follows three short Economist documents that summarised some of their views. The introduction points out that Plekhanov wrote it from a position of weakness. At the same time, Lenin was negotiating with the Economists over the establishment of a possible journal and a new party congress.
The Vademecum is a commentary on Economism by Plekhanov, an explanation of the historical background to it, and a collections of correspondence with them. Mullin questions Plekhanov’s ethics in publishing these letters without their authors approval (79), but this was political not personal correspondence, used in a political not personal disagreement. The Vademecum contains a translation of the Credo which was perhaps the key statement of the assumptions of the Economist/Revisionist views in Russia at the time, even though Rabochee Delo’s Editorial Board argued it was just the work of “isolated individuals” (85). This explains an important modification in the understanding of Economism presented by Lenin in WITBD two years later, when Economism had been essentially defeated by Plekhanov’s relentless campaign. The Credo did not argue that the economic struggle spontaneously creates revolutionary socialist consciousness. Rather “The Credo only recommend economic struggle to the working class, saying that political struggle on its part is impossible under Russian conditions and that ‘talk of an independent working class political Party is in essence nothing more than the consequence of transferring alien tasks and alien results onto our soil'” (108). The Credo explained that the factory proletariat joins organisations “slowly and badly” is only good for “loose organisations” and “not durable” ones (116), as the class develops “its aspiration of seizing power will be transformed into one directed towards changing, towards the reforming of contemporary society in a democratic direction adapted to the contemporary state of things (117). Its conclusion was “participating in the economic struggle of the proletariat and participation in liberal-oppositional activity” (119). Plekhanov explained the false history of the Western European socialist movement presented in the Credo. He defended the revolutionary essence of Marxist theory, not as the “abstract preaching of socialism and solidarity”, but as “the correctly indicated road of active struggle” that “teaches the workers to fight” (129).
Plekhanov’s Vademecum turned the tide against the Economists. The collection provides a series of short documents by Boris Krichevskii and A.S. Martynov, which repeat the essentials of their analysis, but in a situation where they are becoming marginalised, albeit not without ups and downs. As becomes clear in a series of letters and reports from Martov, the Bund and Alexandrova.
What is in effect the second part of the book, the fall out and then split between the trends that were to become the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks at the Second Congress of the RSDLP, begins with a report from an underground Bolshevik Pavlovich (338). Pavlovich essentially repeats Lenin’s line from One Step Forward Two Steps Back, in which Lenin attempts to provide a political justification for the split, through a claimed opportunism of anyone who disagreed with him. What is most interesting about Pavlovich’s document, is not its arguments, which are basically second hand, but how it reveals the motivation for Lenin’s position – as the advocate for the underground party apparatus. The strength of Lenin’s argument was that he wanted the movement’s intellectuals to be accountable to the base organisation in Russia. Ultimately, it was the ability of the party organisation to hold its leaders to account, which ensured the success of the revolution in 1917, not the claimed “hardness” of the Bolshevik faction. Mensheviks (Trotsky) led both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. The difference was that when the Old Right Bolsheviks refused to fight for socialism in April 1917, the base of the Bolsheviks were able to overthrow them. The significance of the split was that it enshrined this principle into the organisational DNA of the Bolshevik faction.
Where Plekhanov differed with Lenin, was not over the attempt to hold the intellectuals accountable to the party, the pair were united at the Congress, but that in Plekhanov’s view this organisational question was not a split issue. After all Lenin’s proposed editorial board of Lenin, Martov and Plekhanov, ensured a majority for “opportunism” if this was really the case. For Plekhanov, the unity of the party behind the revolutionary programme which he wrote, Lenin amended and Congress agreed, meant that a split weakened the party and so compromise was necessary on this issue, at this time.
The collection continues with a resolution from Martov and Trotsky that explains the concerns of the minority. It reflects what Mullin considers to be “at worst” the “crudely egotistical outlook” of a “clique”. Trotsky and Martov’s criticisms are “poorly substantiated” (368). Martov’s article The State of Siege, is a “distortion” of the argument, contains unexplained “silences” on key events and is “flawed” and “tenuous” (373/4). Martov’s reasons for the Editorial Board representing the supreme executive power are “far from clear” (374), and he is “self-serving” (375).
Actually Martov’s argument is perfectly clear. He explains that the division between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ at the Congress “did not have any principled character” (391). He points out the contradictions in this distinction. Martov was on Lenin’s slate so how could he have been “self-serving” given that his personal position would have been assured if Lenin had won? Martov explains that “whoever seriously contemplates the notion of revolutionary work and of ideological leadership, understands that to place the leadership of the ideological life of the Party into somebody’s hands means to give up the leadership of Party work, for how can one remove the element of ideology from revolutionary activity” (411). This was the significance of Martov’s, perfectly clear, reasoning around the Editorial Board. Martov points to the hypocrisy of the Bolsheviks who had doubled standards for different committees depending on who they supported. Plekhanov points out that Lenin casts a “moral shadow” over the motives behind the majority of the EB, reducing “the struggle between two organisational tendencies … to the level of a pitiful, contemptible struggle ‘for places'” (466). Although he then goes onto qualify this statement “I think much of the strangeness of his (Lenin’s) actions can simply be explained by the fact that he is completely lacking a sense of humour” (469).
The collection concludes with four Plekhanov articles, What is Not to be Done, Something on ‘Economism’ and ‘Economists’, Centralism or Bonapartism and The Working Class and the Social-Democratic Intelligentsia.
Plekhanov’s article What is Not to be Done? (483) published in November 1903 is “curious”, according to Richard Mullin, as he outlined a “new attitude” towards the revisionists. Mullin thinks this “yielding” attitude is at odds with his former attack on them. Mullin effectively echoes Lenin’s line that Plehanov had gone “soft” on revisionism, indeed Lenin’s assessment of it was “more honest” (486). Actually Plekhanov’s argument was perfectly honest, straightforward and “hard”. He pointed out that he had fought revisionism to “deprive them of influence on the proletariat” (490), once they were defeated then they should not be prevented from participating in the party. He went on “the discipline which we strive for is entirely different from the discipline prevailing in a barracks. The soldier is subject to the authorities through compulsion: we comply – when we comply – with the demand of Party discipline through free will. The free will of a revolutionary constitutes a solely psychological basis for our discipline (492). Plekhanov wanted to avoid a “very damaging” split once the revolutionary basis of the party had been established (494). He developed this idea in Something on Economism, where he insisted that unless socialism had a “broad mass character” (501) it was “empty activity” that was “capable only of sweetening the unwanted, but long and boring leisure time of an intelligentsia separated from life” (502). He continues these themes in Centralism and Bonapartism.
In The Working Class and Social Democratic Intelligentsia he dissects Lenin’s WITBD. Mullin points out that due to Lenin’s failure to reply “some observers may have concluded that Plekhanov’s criticism is essentially correct”. Some observers like Trotsky no doubt who described it as “biased” and “erroneous” (Trotsky, 1969 : 97). Plekhanov proves that socialism arose as a social phenomenon at the same time as it developed in the minds of socialist intellectuals and so it was “completely unthinkable” to consider the development of scientific socialism “completely independent of the spontaneous development of the workers’ movement” (549, 550).
Notwithstanding any reservations around the informative, but overly subjective and one-sided introductions to the articles, Richard Mullin is to be applauded for producing this collection. Not only are the pieces well chosen, they provide a very important counter-point to the accepted narrative of both the dispute around Economism and the Bolshevik-Menshevik split. They include very important articles, notably Plekhanov’s contributions but also Martov’s State of Siege. This book is an important resource for the study of these important disputes and for the insight it provides into later developments too.
23 June 2015
- 1960  Stalin, Volume I, Rise of a Revolutionary London: Panther.