The following is an article from the Summer/Autumn 1992 issue of "Women and Revolution" that has some historical interest for all those who wish to learn about our militant forbears. I will be posting more such articles from the back issues of "Women and Revolution" during this Women's History Month.
The Roots Of Bolshevism:The Russian Revolutionary Tradition
W&R is pleased to present the edited transcript of a talk given by a member of our editorial board, Joseph Seymour, at an educational conference of the Spartacist League/US, held in the Bay Area on 2 May 1992.
The origins of this talk go back a few years to conversations I had with two comrades who were most directly and actively involved in seeking to build a section of the International Communist League in the Soviet Union. We talked about how wretched the present-day Russian intelligentsia was, both the pro-Wall Street self-styled "democrats" and the Stalinist self-described "patriots." Particularly disturbing was the depth of women's oppression and the pervasive¬ness of male chauvinism, not only in Soviet societyat large but even amongpeople who considered themselves communists, Leninists, would-be Trotskyists.
As we were talking, it occurred to me that the present-day Russian intelligentsia is not only profoundly alienated from Bolshevism, but from the many generations of Russian revolutionaries who preceded and culminated in Bolshevism. If the ghost of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, who was the greatest Russian socialist of the pre-Marxist era—a man who had a profound influence on Lenin—could return to his old intellectual haunts in the universities and editorial offices of Russia today, he would not be able to understand how anyone who called himself a democrat could want to transform Russia along the lines of Western capitalism. For him, to be a democrat meant to be for social equality. It meant to be for the rule of the lower classes in society. The Russian revolutionaries despised the bourgeoisie, both the Russian version and the Western version.
Chernyshevsky would be even more uncomprehending about how anyone could call himself a communist and yet be a Russian nationalist, a male chauvinist and an anti-Semite. Because to be a communist meant by definition that you were an internationalist, you were an extreme partisan of women's equality and liberation, and you welcomed Jews as equals and as comrades. From the 1870s onward, Jews played a prominent role in all of the Russian radical movements, all of the wings of populism and later all wings of Marxism.
And women played a far more prominent role in the Russian revolutionary movement than they did in any other country in the world. Women like Vera Zasulich and Sofia Bardina of Land and Liberty, which was the principal populist organization, were hard, tough, dedicated revolutionaries. From the shooting of the police commandant Trepov in 1878 to the assassination of the tsarist general Luzhenovsky by Maria Spiridonova in 1906, Russian women carried out some of the most spectacular acts of terrorism. After the
Revolution of 1905 a tsarist prison official in his own way recognized the equality of women: "Experience shows that women, in terms of criminality, ability, and possession of the urge to escape, are hardly distinguishable from men."
If we could get into a time machine and go back to the world of Chernyshevsky and Land and Liberty, we would have big fights about peasant socialism and the efficacy of terrorism. But at a deeper level we would feel ourselves among comrades. So what we are trying to do is to reinstill in Russia today its own great revolutionary tradition, a tradition which has been perverted and degraded or simply forgotten after decades of Stalinist rule and the pressure of Western imperialism on the Soviet bureaucratically degenerated workers state.
French Jacobins and Russian Decembrists
That tradition begins with the Decembrists, a group of revolutionary democratic military officers who sought to overthrow the tsarist autocracy in December 1825. But the Decembrists themselves begin with the French Revolution, which is the fountainhead of radicalism in the modern world. It is one of the ironies of history that the Russian army which the tsar sent into West Europe to crush the French Revolution in its Napoleonic phase became a transmission belt back into Russia for the ideals of that revolution. One of the Decembrists later wrote:
"During the campaigns through Germany and France our young men became acquainted with European civilization, which produced upon them the strongest impression. They were able to compare all that they had seen abroad with what confronted them at every step at home: slavery of the majority of Russians, cruel treatment of subordinates by superiors, all sorts of government abuses, and general tyranny."
So the Decembrists were a belated attempt to extend the French Revolution into Russia. One of their principal leaders had been the son of the Russian ambassador to Napoleonic France; he grew up in a milieu shot through with former Jacobin revolutionaries, among them Napo¬leon himself. Another prominent Decembrist, when he was stationed in Paris in 1815, went around to the leading intellectuals, among them Henri Saint-Simon, a pioneer
theorist of socialism. Saint-Simon attempted to convince this young Russian nobleman to introduce socialism into his homeland.
The most radical of the Decembrists, Pavel Pestel, had not personally been to France although he identified himself wholeheartedly with the French revolutionaries. But he went beyond Jacobinism. By the 1820s the ideas of socialism were beginning to gain currency among the European intelligentsia. Pestel attempted to combine a radical bourgeois-democratic revolution with elements of socialism. He proposed that the land be taken from the nobility and given to the peasants—half given to the peasants to farm privately, the other half to farm collectively so that no peasant family would go hungry. And Pestel called this the Russian Law. After the insurrection was suppressed, the tsarist authorities discovered the Russian Law among Pestel's private papers. Instead of publicizing it at his trial, they thought it was so inflammatory and attractive that they buried it in a secret archive. It did not see the light of day for almost 100 years.
An old reactionary general was on his deathbed when he heard of the Decembrist uprising, and it perplexed him. He said: before we have had uprisings of peasants who want to become noblemen; now we have an uprising of noblemen who want to become shoemakers. The Decembrists did not want to become shoemakers; they were not concerned with their future personal status. But this old reactionary understood something: that this was a movement of an elite, isolated from the peasant masses in whose interests they spoke and attempted to act. And this would be true of the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia throughout the 19th century. Initially this milieu consisted mainly of the sons of noblemen, later on the sons and daughters of what was called the "middle class," the children of tsarist bureaucrats or like Chernyshevsky, of Russian Orthodox priests. It was only at the end of the century, in the mid-1890s, that the Marxist wing of the intelligentsia acquired a mass base among the rapidly growing industrial proletariat.
The Decembrists were the first revolutionary bourgeois-democratic movement in Russia. They were also the last such movement. That is, they were the last movement that attempted to overthrow the tsar in order to remodel Russian society along the lines of contemporary West Europe or North America. After that, those people who wanted to transform Russia along the lines of Western capitalism did not call themselves democrats because they were not democrats; they called themselves liberals. They did not want to overthrow the tsarist autocracy. Rather they wanted to pressure the tsarist autocracy to modernize Russia from above. Their goal was a constitutional mon¬archy in which the monarch remained strong and the constitution guaranteed the rule of the propertied classes. As Chernyshevsky put it: "The liberals absolutely refuse to allow the lower strata any preponderance in society."
The First Russian Socialist Movement
Following the suppression of the Decembrists it took another generation for a new revolutionary movement to emerge. This was the so-called Petrashevsky Circle, a group of a couple of hundred radicals around Mikhail Petrashevsky. At that time the Russian Orthodox Church was sexually segregated, and in order to show his support for the equality of women and his defiance of the state church, Petrashevsky donned women's clothing and he attended a ceremony of the church exclusive to women. However he had forgotten to shave off his beard! He was approached by a policeman who said, "Madam, I think you are a man." Petrashevsky replied, "Sir, I think you are an old woman." The policeman was so flustered, Petrashevsky made his getaway.
Whereas the Decembrists had viewed West Europe in the afterglow of the French Revolution, a generation later Petrashevsky and his comrades only saw in West Europe an arena of the horrible exploitation of the lower classes by the propertied classes. They identified with the socialist opposition to Western bourgeois society and defined their goal as the application of Western socialism to Russia. In light of everything that's happening in Russia today, it's important to emphasize that this very first Russian socialist movement was implacably opposed to Russian nationalism in all its manifestations. They of course opposed the Slavophiles, who idealized Russia before Peter the Great and counterposed the spirituality of the Russian people to the crass materialism of the bourgeois West. But Petrashevsky and his comrades also opposed radical democrats like Belinsky who argued that the progress of humanity goes through nations, not by transcending nations. Against this view they argued, "Socialism is a cosmopolitan doctrine, which stands higher than nationalities...for socialists differing nations do not exist, there are only people."
The Petrashevsky Circle was the exact contemporary of the German League of the Just, out of which came the Communist League for which Marx wrote the Com¬munist Manifesto. Like Marx, Petrashevsky and his com¬rades believed that the spectre of communism was haunt¬ing Europe. And Russia was part of Europe. They looked forward, in the near future, to a pan-European socialist revolution, predominantly proletarian in the West, predominantly peasant-based in the East. They believed that the outbreak of the revolutions of 1848 in West Europe was the beginning of that development, and they immediately wanted to get in on the act. They started discussing how they were actually going to overthrow the tsar. But before they got very far, the tsarist authorities simply crushed them. Nicholas I was panicked in his own way by the spectre of communism and moved to destroy its meager reflection among a small section of the Russian intelligentsia.
The Origins of Populism
The revolutions of 1848 and the ensuing counterrevolutions by the combined forces of bourgeois and monarchical reaction are the great historic watershed of 19th century Europe. Among other things they gave rise to Russian populism as a distinct current of European socialism. Petrashevsky and his comrades had believed that socialism would come to Russia as part of a general European revolution. That vision was defeated on the barricades in Paris, Vienna, Rome and elsewhere.
A witness to that defeat was Alexander Herzen, the founder of Russian populism. Herzen had been a radical democrat who emigrated to West Europe, and he experienced the revolutions of 1848 in France and Italy. But Herzen remained optimistic about the prospects of revolution in Russia. If Russia was going to have a revolution in advance and independently of West Europe, however, it would have to be a predominantly peasant revolution because the industrial proletariat was minute. A German conservative, Baron Haxthausen, who had visited Russia in the 1840s, wrote a book saying that Russia didn't need a socialist revolution, it already had socialism in the form of the traditional peasant commune. After 1848 Herzen accepted this premise and argued that what would require a proletarian revolution in the West could be achieved on the basis of Russian rural institutions if the society were sufficiently democratized.
It is important to emphasize that while the Russian populists saw a different path to socialism in Russia, they had the same goal as Western revolutionaries. Thus Marx was always held in extremely high regard in the Russian populist movement. One of the early under¬ground populist groups wrote to Marx in London and proposed that he represent Russia as well as Germany in the leading council of the First International. The first language into which Capital was translated was Russian. It got through the tsarist censors, who figured that a book so dry and abstract as Capital could not inspire anyone to revolutionary passion, and it became an instant best seller. At the end of his life, Herzen stated that he had always been faithful to the ideas of Saint-Simon, who had an extremely technologically advanced conception of socialism.
Herein lay the fundamental contradiction of Russian populism. The populists projected onto the peasant commune not only economic egalitarianism, but social equality at all levels—the equality of women, a libertarian conception of sexual relations, a belief in materialism and the progress of science. They believed that the tsar-worshipping, priest-ridden, wife-beating Russian peasant could be won to the outlook of a Saint-Simon or a Marx. Such an illusion could survive only as long as the populist movement was exclusively a movement of the intelligentsia. And in fact the "To the People" movement marked the beginning of the end of Russian populism.
Revolutionary populism went through four distinct phases. The first phase was ushered in by the Crimean War of 1853-55 in which Russia was defeated by England and France. This defeat sent shock waves through the Russian upper classes. Tsar Nicholas I died in 1855 (some say he committed suicide out of a sense of shame). His successor, Alexander II, appeared to be a liberal, and in the late 1850s Russia experienced the tsarist version of glasnost and perestroika. Censorship was relaxed very considerably, and the tsarist government began talking about fundamental reforms of the system of serfdom.
Initially populist intellectuals like Herzen and Chernyshevsky demanded that the tsar expropriate the landed nobility and give the land to the peasantry. Some believed that the tsarist autocracy would achieve from above what the French Revolution had achieved from below. However, it soon became clear that the legal emancipation of the serfs was going to be done in a way which perpetuated the exploitation of the peasants at the hands of the landlords and the absolutist state. In the first years after the abolition of serfdom, the economic conditions of the peasantry were actually worse than they had been. When the Emancipation Edict of 1861 was read, it provoked scattered peasant uprisings; the peasants thought it was a counterfeit document by the local bureaucrats and the landlords. The so:called Emancipation Edict marked the beginning of revolutionary populism. The intelligentsia became convinced that in order to establish peasant-based socialism they would have to overthrow the tsarist autocracy and create a democratic republic.
The "Common Cause":
Women in the Revolutionary Movement
In the 1860s the first underground revolutionary organizations came into existence. These were easily crushed. Chernyshevsky himself was imprisoned and then exiled. Yet the tsarist repression in no way suppressed the revolutionary populist movement. Over the course of the next decade, a group of perhaps two or three hundred intellectuals became a mass movement of the intelligentsia numbering thousands of activists and perhaps ten times as many sympathizers.
A three-sided political struggle developed during this period within the Russian intelligentsia who opposed the existing social and political order to some degree: the Slavophiles, the liberals, and the revolutionary populists. In this struggle the populists won hands down, and by the early 1870s Russian universities were a bastion of revolutionary populism.
Perhaps the decisive reason for the victory of populism is that they were able to mobilize the vast reserves of the women of the educated classes. This movement literally liberated thousands of women from the shackles of the patriarchal family. A woman was not legally allowed to live on her own without the permission of her parents, or her husband if she was married. To circumvent this, the fictitious marriage became a sort of standard activity within the radical movement. Some young male student would be told by a friend that he knew of a woman of advanced views who wanted to go abroad to study medicine (a woman couldn't study medicine in Russia). And they would meet for the first time in front of a church; they would go in, get married; they would come out, and he would hand her her passport, of which he had control, and say, "Now you are free to go and study medicine and do what you like."
During the 1860s the Russian revolutionary movement acquired the participation of women to a far greater degree than their counterparts in Western Europe. These women at the same time consciously rejected Western-style feminism, that is, the idea of building a separate movement predominantly of women in order to pressure the existing government to pass laws in favor of women's equality. They saw women's equality coming about through what was called the "common cause," a total social revolution in which they would participate on an equal footing with male revolutionaries. Vera Figner, who became the principal leader of the terrorist People's Will in its final phase, recounts how she and her fellow Russian radical students at the University of Zurich viewed this question:
"Generally speaking, as a group the female students abroad were not advocates of the woman question and smiled at any mention of it. We came without thought of pioneering or trying to solve the woman question. We didn't think it needed solution. It was a thing of the past; the principle of equality between men and women had been achieved in the sixties."
Now of course what Figner meant was that it had been achieved within the revolutionary movement, not in Russian society at large. The Russian populists, called "Narodniks" in their own language, were acutely aware of the terrible oppression of women. At a mass trial of populists in 1877, the tsarist prosecutors denounced them for undermining the family. Sofia Bardina replied to this:
"As far as the family is concerned...isn't it being destroyed by a social system which forces an impoverished woman to abandon herself to prostitution, and which even sanctifies this prostitution as a legal and necessary element of every civilized state? Or is it we who are destroying the family? we who are trying to root out this poverty—the major cause of all society's ill, including the erosion of the family?"
"To the People"
In the mid-1870s the populist intelligentsia who were organized in Land and Liberty, which was an all-Russian, fairly highly centralized organization of the Narodnik vanguard, made a heroic 'attempt to overthrow what Bardina called the "social system." This was the "To the People" movement. Thousands of revolutionary intellec¬tuals flocked to rural villages trying to incite the peasants to rise up in a radical democratic and social revolution. The response was not favorable. One of the leading veterans of this movement reported:
"I noticed that any sharp sallies against the Tsar or against religion made an extremely disagreeable impression on the peasants; they were just as deeply perplexed by energetic appeals for a rebellion or uprising."
When the Narodnik intellectuals said that the peasants should have the landlords' land, they got a favorable hearing. But the peasants were unwilling to defy the state to achieve this end.
While the main body of Narodnik intellectuals went to the rural villages, some remained in the cities and sought to agitate and organize among factory workers. Here they were distinctly more successful. They were able to win over some advanced workers, such as Stepan Khalturin, who joined the leadership of Land and Liberty and set up small but significant allied organizations of workers.
One of the leading populist intellectuals involved in organizing the workers was Georgi Plekhanov. Initially Plekhanov accepted what could be called the conventional populist line: factory workers are simply peasants doing seasonal vyork in the factories, which had no effect on their sympathies and ties to the rural villages. But Plekhanov's own experience caused him to question this. In 1879 he wrote:
"The question of the city worker is one of those that it may be said will be moved forward automatically by life itself, to an appropriate place, in spite of the a priori theoretical decisions of the revolutionary leaders."
The "To the People" movement, which necessarily operated quite openly, exposed the Narodniks to massive state repression. This repression, combined with the frus¬tration that the movement had not achieved its basic aim, paved the way for the last phase of revolutionary populism: the turn toward terrorism.
In 1878 Vera Zasulich heard that one of her comrades had been almost beaten to death in prison. She put on her best clothes, walked to the prison, requested that she present a petition to the head of the prison, and when she went into his office she pulled out a gun and shot him pointblank. She did not however kill him. The tsarist authorities thought this was such an open-and-shut case that instead of trying her for a political crime before a special tribunal, they tried her on an ordinary criminal charge before a jury drawn from the St. Petersburg upper classes. And she was acquitted, because the jury found this a justifiable act of moral outrage!
The acquittal had a far more shocking impact than the shooting. Count Leo Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace, expressed the views of the educated elite when he called Zasulich's acquittal "a harbinger of revolution." The populist leaders drew the same conclusion: that if even an upper-class jury will acquit an overt terrorist, then a cam¬paign of terrorism would have enormous popular support. Marx and Engels in London similarly concluded that in the particular conditions of Russia a campaign of terrorism could incite a popular revolution.
The one populist intellectual who dissented was Plekhanov, who warned that the only effect of shooting Alexander II would be to replace him with another Alexander with another digit after his name. He wanted to continue to propagandize and agitate among the rural had been in prison and then in exile for almost 20 years. The tsarist regime had sufficient respect for the effectiveness of People's Will that they did in fact free the old man of Russian socialism. But in the following years Russian populism was basically broken, not so much by the tsarist repression as by demoralization. Neither mass agitation nor terrorism had seriously affected the tsarist autocracy, which emerged if anything even more reactionary than ever.
From Populism to Marxism
The 1880s were the low point of the Russian revolutionary movement. In 1889 a student in St. Petersburg, just ten years earlier a hotbed of revolutionary activism, reported: "There were few self-sacrificing participants who completely consecrated themselves to the cause.... All wanted to finish the course as soon as possible and then to live entirely within the law." Yet just a few years later, a new generation of Russian revolutionaries would enter the scene and finish off the tsarist autocracy
once and for all.
Most accounts of the transition from populism to Marxism within the Russian intelligentsia focus exclusively on Plekhanov and his comrades. It's important, however, to place this transition in its international context. During the 1870s Russia appeared to be the one country on the verge of a radical upheaval. The bomb-throwing Russian Narodnik seemed the model of the European revolutionary. When Zasulich fled to West Europe after being acquitted for shooting Trepov, she was greeted as a heroine not only by socialists, but even by many Western liberals who hated the tsarist autocracy. Yet a decade later the Russian populist movement had almost evaporated. In 1878, the same year that People's Will was formed, the Bismarck regime in Germany passed the so-called Anti-Socialist Laws aimed at breaking the power of the German Marxist movement. The leaders, Bebel and Kautsky, were driven into exile and many activists were imprisoned. Yet unlike the Russian populists, the Marxists became the mass party of the German proletariat despite the repression. So Plekhanov's influence among a new generation of Russian revolutionaries-was not merely because of the intrinsic brilliance of his polemics against populism, but also because he was a cothinker of the strongest, most effective socialist movement in Europe.
After the split in Land and Liberty, Plekhanov attempted to establish a small propaganda group called "Total Redistribution," but the tsarist persecution was so intense that he and his comrades were forced into exile. This compelled them to rethink their basic theoretical premises and strategic perspectives, and in the early 1880s Ple¬khanov made the transition from populism to Marxism. That transition contained two basic elements, one negative, the other positive. Instead of just idealizing it, Plekhanov looked at what was happening to the peasant commune, and he saw that since the emancipation of the serfs, the collective elements of the Russian peasantry were rapidly being undermined. A new layer of rich peas¬ants, known by the insulting term kulaks, or "fists," was increasingly dominating the life of the village because they had the money. That was the negative element. The positive element is that Plekhanov generalized from his own experiences in the 1870s that there was a fundamental difference between workers and peasants, that they were not just part of the narod, the "people," and that only the workers in their mass were receptive to the socialist program. He concluded that a socialist party in Russia must be based centrally on the slowly but steadily growing proletariat.
In rejecting the conception of peasant-based socialism, Plekhanov concluded that Russia at that point in its economic development could not have a socialist transformation of any kind. He conceived a theory of what later came to be called the "two-stage revolution." In the first stage the working class, guided by the socialist intelligentsia, would lead the overthrow of the tsarist autocracy. The liberal bourgeoisie, such as ruled in the West, would then come to power. In turn the workers would gain the political freedom to build a mass proletarian party and allied trade-union movement. Plekhanov also believed that a radical democratic revolution in Russia would enormously accelerate capitalist development, thus increasing the numerical weight of the industrial proletariat and creating the objective economic conditions for a socialist revolution in the future. Thus the program of the Eman¬cipation of Labor group, formed in 1883, stated:
"Present-day Russia is suffering—as Marx once said of the West European continent—not only from the development of capitalist production, but also from insufficiency of that development.
"One of the most harmful consequences of this backward state of production was and still is the underdevelopment of the middle class, which, in our country, is incapable of taking the initiative in the struggle against absolutism. "That is why the socialist intelligentsia has been obliged to head the present-day emancipation movement, whose immediate task must be to set up free political institutions in our country...."
Plekhanov's two-stage revolutionary schema was accepted within the Marxist movement until the beginnings of the Revolution of 1905, when it was confronted, as Plekhanov would have said, "by life itself." It was then challenged in different ways by Lenin's conception of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry and Trotsky's conception of permanent revolution.
"From a Spark a Flame Shall Be Kindled"
In the first decade of its existence, the Emancipation of Labor group was a mere handful of exiles. This reflected both the apolitical mood of the Russian intelligentsia and the continuing dominance of the populists over the diminished radical movement. Slowly Plekhanov began to influence a new younger generation of Russian intellectuals, personified by Vladimir llyich Ulyanov. According to his own account, the future Lenin was an apolitical youth until 1887, when his older brother was executed for participating in one of the last populist attempts to take the tsar's life. Alexander Ulyanov's execution radicalized his younger brother, who, however, did not follow the same path in a programmatic and strategic sense. In the early 1890s the young future Lenin consciously rejected populism in all its contemporary manifestations, and consid¬ered himself a Marxist.
By the mid-1890s, revolutionary populism was a thing of the past and what passed for populism had merged with liberalism. In the 1890s the only people who were calling for a democratic republic were the Marxists, called the Social Democrats. Thus Lenin could write at this time: "All true and consistent democrats in Russia must become Social Democrats." The Russian Marxists had achieved a position in some ways comparable to the revolutionary populists of a generation earlier. They had become the dominant current among that section of the Russian intelligentsia which was fundamentally hostile to the existing social and political order. They had also acquired a small layer of advanced workers. But they had to break outside the narrow circle. This was called the transition from propaganda to agitation. Plekhanov defined propaganda as the explanation of many complex ideas to the few, and agitation as the explanation of a few basic ideas to the many.
The attempt of the Marxist propaganda circle to involve itself in agitation among the workers happened to coincide with a major strike wave. As a result they got a far more favorable hearing and greater influence among the workers than they had initially expected. Lenin, Martov and the other leaders of the movement sought to direct the workers' economic resistance to the employer toward the ultimate goal of a radical democratic revolution against the tsarist autocracy. In a popular pamphlet on factory fines written in 1895, for example, Lenin wrote:
"[The workers] will understand that the government and its officials are on the side of the factory owners, and that the laws are drawn up in such a way as to make it easier for the employer to oppress the worker."
The turn toward agitation incurred increased tsarist repression. Lenin, Martov and the other leaders of what were called the first generation of Russian Marxist "practicals"—that is, the Russian Marxists who actually organized the workers, as opposed to the older veterans like Plekhanov and Axelrod who provided the theoretical direction from exile—were arrested. The movement passed into the hands of younger people whose formative experience was their involvement in the mass strikes. They became so enthralled with increasing their influence among the workers that they decided to drop the demand for a democratic republic, which they argued was remote from the immediate concerns of the workers and was unpopular among the more backward sections who still had illusions in the tsar's benevolence.
Plekhanov denounced this tendency as "economism," which a colleague of Lenin, Potresov, defined as the Utopian notion of building an effective trade-union move¬ment under tsarist absolutism. Nonetheless in the late 1890s economism became the dominant current within Russian Social Democracy, both the underground circles in Russia and the exile organizations in West Europe.
In 1900 Lenin, Martov and Potresov were released from Siberia, where they had been sent into exile. They joined Plekhanov and his comrades in West Europe to form what was called the Iskra group. "Iskra," meaning "spark," was taken for their journal; it derived from a letter that was written 75 years earlier by the imprisoned and condemned Decembrists to their friend, the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. In justifying their actions, the Decembrists said: "From a spark a flame shall be kindled." In choosing this name the Iskra group was stating that the proletariat was and must be the heir to the tradition of revolutionary democratic struggle against the tsarist autocracy. The very name was an attack on economism.
Although Plekhanov was one of the towering figures of European socialism, it was Lenin who was the real driving force and principal organizer of the Iskra group. Its immediate goal was to wrest control of the movement from the still dominant economists. The Iskra group won rather rapidly, in part because Russian society was beginning to experience revolutionary ferment at all levels. Factory workers in large numbers spontaneously joined student strikes and protests, thereby giving the lie to the economist notion that workers would take to the streets only when their own personal livelihood was involved—a very narrow and degrading conception. The narrowness of the economist perspective was discredited even among the economists themselves.
For Lenin, the leadership of the movement was only the first step. The second and decisive step was to cohere the localized propaganda circles into a centralized party with a clearly defined program, strategic perspective and leadership. Describing the need for a such a party in his principal work of the Iskra period, What Is To Be Done?, Lenin used a metaphor from construction:
"Pray tell me, when a bricklayer lays bricks in various parts of an enormous structure, the like of which he has never seen, is it not a 'paper line' that he uses to find the correct place to lay each brick and to indicate the ultimate goal of his work as a whole.... And aren't we passing now through a period in our party life, in which we have bricks and bricklayers, but lack a guiding line visible to all?"
To establish such a guiding line and a centralized party, the Iskra group called a congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party in mid-1903. As is well known, this congress ended in a deep split between the Bolsheviks (the majority, or "hards"), led by Lenin, and the Mensheviks (the minority, called at the time the "softs"), whose principal leader was Martov. At first it appeared that the split was over narrowly organizational grounds: whether to have a highly centralized party consisting of people who are committed revolutionaries, or, as the Mensheviks wanted, a looser party open to all workers and intellectuals who actively supported the movement in some degree. However, as Russia moved toward a revolutionary crisis it became increasingly clear that the difference over the internal nature of the party was linked to differences over the course of the role it would play in the revolution, in fact differences over the revolution itself.
The Permanent Revolution
In 1904 Russia engaged in a war with Japan over which country would control the Far East. The tsarist autocracy had expected that a wave of popular patriotic solidarity would dampen the growing social discontent. Instead the defeats of the Russian army at the hands of the Japanese further undermined the tsarist autocracy. "Bloody Sunday," the January 1905 massacre of peaceful workers who were petitioning the tsar, ignited a wave of mass workers strikes, peasant uprisings and military mutinies throughout the year. The Romanov throne tottered wildly, although in the end it did not fall. However, in the early months of 1905 the demise of the autocracy seemed imminent, and therefore the various factions and tendencies of Rus¬sian Social Democracy were forced to spell out much more concretely their conceptions of the course of the revolution and its aftermath.
The Mensheviks translated Plekhanov's initially rather abstract conception of a two-stage revolution into support for the liberal wing of the Russian bourgeoisie, organized in the Constitutional Democratic party or Cadets. The last thing that the Cadets wanted was a popular insurrection to overthrow the tsar. What they aimed at was to use the turmoil from below to pressure the tsarist autocracy to create quasi-parliamentary bodies in which the propertied classes would have the dominant place. In practice the Mensheviks' adherence to a two-stage revolution, in which the first stage meant the workers were supposed to march arm in arm with the democratic bourgeoisie against tsarist reaction, turned out to be a no-stage revolution because there was no democratic bourgeoisie with which to march.
Lenin recognized that all wings of the Russian bourgeoisie were anti-democratic and anti-revolutionary, that a radical bourgeois-democratic revolution therefore would have to occur against and not in alliance with the Russian bourgeoisie. This was the core of his conception of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. He projected that a workers party, supported by the mass of the peasants, would be able to purge Russia of all the feudal-derived backwardness, the tsarist autocracy, bureaucracy and the state church. It would eliminate the oppression of nationalities as well as of the Jews and end the exploitation of the peasants by the landed nobility.
This conception was clearly influenced by the Jacobin dictatorship in the Great French Revolution. Yet the ques¬tion remained: could the proletariat replay the Jacobin dictatorship in the Russia of 1905; was it possible to take economic actions which would harm the interests of large sections of the propertied class and at the same time not economically expropriate the bourgeoisie? Lenin insisted that this was not a stable form of government, but rather "only a transient, temporary socialist aim." He argued a' the time (although he later changed his view) that in thi absence of proletarian revolutions in West Europe, a rev¬olution in Russia, no matter how radical, could not go beyond the framework of capitalist economic relations.
The person who uniquely argued arthe time that th Russian Revolution could and had to go beyond bourgeois economic relations was Leon Trotsky. Trotsky had bef one of the younger leaders of the Iskra group; in the split he initially sided with the Mensheviks. He played prominent role in the Revolution of 1905, and in the course of that revolution developed what he called the doctrine of permanent revolution, in part based on Marx's writings in the immediate aftermath of the revolutions of 1848. In a preface which he wrote in 1921 to his writings on the Revolution of 1905, Trotsky summarized the doctrine of permanent revolution:
"This rather high-flown expression defines the thought that the Russian revolution, although directly concerned with bourgeois aims, could not stop short at those aims; the revolution could not solve its immediate, bourgeois tasks except by putting the proletariat into power. And the proletariat, once having power in its hands, would not be able to remain confined within the bourgeois framework of the revolution. On the contrary, precisely in order to guarantee its victory, the proletarian vanguard in the very earliest stages of its rule would have to make extremely deep inroads not only into feudal but also into bourgeois property relations....
"The contradictions between a workers' government and an overwhelming majority of peasants in a backward country could be resolved only on an international scale, in the arena of a world proletarian revolution. Having, by virtue of historical necessity, burst the narrow bourgeois-democratic confines of the Russian revolution, the victorious proletariat would be compelled also to burst its national and state confines, that is to say, it would have to strive consciously for the Russian revolution to become the pro¬logue to a world revolution."
In 1905 the permanent revolution did not go further than the beginnings of dual power between the proletariat and the tsarist autocracy. However, Russia's defeats in the first imperialist world war broke the back of the tsarist autocracy and paved the way for the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, the greatest victory of the world pro¬letariat in history. Today that victory is being desperately threatened by the ascendancy of capitalist counterrevo¬lutionary forces.
But I would like to end this talk rather with a story. After the assassination of Alexander II the leadership of People's Will came into the hands of Vera Figner. It was she who negotiated with the tsarist regime for the release of Chernyshevsky, and she managed to hold together an underground group in Russia for the next two years. The police official who finally tracked her down had gained so much respect for her that he requested to kiss her hand before sending her to prison. But sent to prison she was, where she stayed for the next 22 years. She was only released in the amnesty of 1905. When she came out of prison she was a kind of Narodnik Rip Van Winkle; she could not understand or orient to the radically changed political and social conditions.
Nevertheless, she remained active within the left, where she was universally respected.
In 1917 many prominent old populists joined the counterrevolutionary camp and went into exile. Figner, the old Narodnik terrorist, faced with a fundamental choice of political loyalties, chose to stay in Soviet Russia. In the 1920s she devoted herself to writing her memoirs and to an organization called the Society of Former Political Prisoners, who were old populists who considered themselves loyal citizens of the Soviet Union. In that capacity she sought to induce populists who had emigrated to return to Soviet Russia and to serve the interests of the workers state. This eminently worthy organization was disbanded by Stalin in the early '30s.
Figner was still alive and kicking at the age of 89, living in Moscow, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. As the Wehrmacht approached Moscow, the Russian authorities turned to Figner and said, "We will move you to safety further east." She refused, saying, "I am very old. I will die soon anyway. Save your efforts for people who are living, who still have a life to give to the cause." So the last member of the famous Central Committee of the People's Will died the following year in Moscow, a heroic and self-sacrificing revolutionary right to the end, and in that sense an inspiration for us all.