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Lenin’s Fight Against Economism 1882 - 1901


Lenin was not present at the First Congress of the R.S.D.L.P. He was at that time in exile in Siberia, in the village of Shushenskoye, where he had been banished by the tsarist government after a long period of imprisonment in St. Petersburg in connection with the prosecution of the League of Struggle.

But Lenin continued his revolutionary activities even while in exile. There he finished a highly important scientific work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, which completed the ideological destruction of Narodism. There, too, he wrote his well-known pamphlet, The Tasks of the Russian Social-Democrats.

Although Lenin was cut off from direct, practical revolutionary work, he nevertheless managed to maintain some connections with those engaged in this work; he carried on a correspondence with them from exile, obtained information from them and gave them advice. At this time Lenin was very much preoccupied with the "Economists." He realized better than anybody else that "Economism" was the main nucleus of compromise and opportunism, and that if "Economism" were to gain the upper hand in the working-class movement, it would undermine the revolutionary movement of the proletariat and lead to the defeat of Marxism.

Lenin therefore started a vigorous attack on the "Economists" as soon as they appeared on the scene.

The "Economists" maintained that the workers should engage only in the economic struggle; as to the political struggle, that should be left to the liberal bourgeoisie, whom the workers should support. In Lenin's eyes this tenet was a desertion of Marxism, a denial of the necessity for an independent political party of the working class, an attempt to convert the working class into a political appendage of the bourgeoisie.

In 1899 a group of "Economists" (Prokopovich, Kuskova and others, who later became Constitutional-Democrats) issued a manifesto in which they opposed revolutionary Marxism, and insisted that the idea of an independent political party of the proletariat and of independent political demands by the working class be renounced. The "Economists" held that the political struggle was a matter for the liberal bourgeoisie, and that as far as the workers were concerned, the economic struggle against the employers was enough for them.

When Lenin acquainted himself with this opportunist document he called a conference of Marxist political exiles living in the vicinity. Seventeen of them met and, headed by Lenin, issued a trenchant protest denouncing the views of the "Economists."

This protest, which was written by Lenin, was circulated among the Marxist organizations all over the country and played an outstanding part in the development of Marxist ideas and of the Marxist party in Russia.

The Russian "Economists" advocated the same views as the opponents of Marxism in the Social-Democratic parties abroad who were known as the Bernsteinites, that is, followers of the opportunist Bernstein.

Lenin's struggle against the "Economists" was therefore at the same time a struggle against opportunism on an international scale.

The fight against "Economism," the fight for the creation of an independent political party of the proletariat, was chiefly waged by Iskra, the illegal newspaper founded by Lenin.

At the beginning of I900, Lenin and other members of the League of Struggle returned from their Siberian exile to Russia. Lenin conceived the idea of founding a big illegal Marxist newspaper on an all-Russian scale. The numerous small Marxist circles and organizations which already existed in Russia were not yet linked up. At a moment when, in the words of Comrade Stalin, "amateurishness and the parochial outlook of the circles were corroding the Party from top to bottom, when ideological confusion was the characteristic feature of the internal life of the Party," the creation of an illegal newspaper on an all-Russian scale was the chief task of the Russian revolutionary Marxists. Only such a newspaper could link up the disunited Marxist organizations and prepare the way for the creation of a real party.

But such a newspaper could not be published in tsarist Russia owing to police persecution. Within a month or two at most the tsar's sleuths would get on its track and smash it. Lenin therefore decided to publish the newspaper abroad. There it was printed on very thin but durable paper and secretly smuggled into Russia. Some of the issues of Iskra were reprinted in Russia by secret printing plants in Baku, Kishinev and Siberia.

In the autumn of I900 Lenin went abroad to make arrangements with the comrades in the "Emancipation of Labour" group for the publication of a political newspaper on an all-Russian scale. The idea had been worked out by Lenin in all its details while he was in exile. On his way back from exile he had held a number of conferences on the subject in Ufa, Pskov, Moscow and St. Petersburg. Everywhere he made arrangements with the comrades about codes for secret correspondence, addresses to which literature could be sent, and so on, and discussed with them plans for the future struggle.

The tsarist government scented a most dangerous enemy in Lenin. Zubatov, an officer of gendarmes in the tsarist Okhrana, expressed the opinion in a confidential report that "there is nobody bigger than Ulyanov [Lenin] in the revolution today," in view of which he considered it expedient to have Lenin assassinated.

Abroad, Lenin came to an arrangement with the "Emancipation of Labour" group, namely, with Plekhanov, Axelrod and V. Zasulich, for the publication of Iskra under joint auspices. The whole plan of publication from beginning to end had been worked out by Lenin.

The first issue of Iskra appeared abroad in December I900. The title page bore the epigraph: "The Spark Will Kindle a Flame." These words were taken from the reply of the Decembrists to the poet Pushkin who had sent greetings to them in their place of exile in Siberia.

And indeed, from the spark (Iskra) started by Lenin there subsequently flamed up the great revolutionary conflagration in which the tsarist monarchy of the landed nobility, and the power of the bourgeoisie were reduced to ashes.


The Marxist Social-Democratic Labour Party in Russia was formed in a struggle waged in the first place against Narodism and its views, which were erroneous and harmful to the cause of revolution.

Only by ideologically shattering the views of the Narodniks was it possible to clear the way for a Marxist workers' party in Russia. A decisive blow to Narodism was dealt by Plekhanov and his "Emancipation of Labour" group in the eighties.

Lenin completed the ideological defeat of Narodism and dealt it the final blow in the nineties.

The "Emancipation of Labour" group, founded in 1883, did a great deal for the dissemination of Marxism in Russia; it laid the theoretical foundations for Social-Democracy and took the first step to establish connection with the working-class movement.

With the development of capitalism in Russia the industrial proletariat rapidly grew in numbers. In the middle of the eighties the working class adopted the path of organized struggle, of mass action in the form of organized strikes. But the Marxist circles and groups only carried on propaganda and did not realize the necessity for passing to mass agitation among the working class; they therefore still had no practical connection with the working-class movement and did not lead it.

The St. Petersburg League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class, which Lenin formed in i895 and which started mass agitation among the workers and led mass strikes, marked a new stage — the transition to mass agitation among the workers and the union of Marxism with the working-class movement. The St. Petersburg League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class was the rudiment of a revolutionary proletarian party in Russia. The formation of the St. Petersburg League of Struggle was followed by the formation of Marxist organizations in all the principal industrial centres as well as in the border regions.

In i898 at the First Congress of the R.S.D.L.P. the first, although unsuccessful, attempt was made to unite the Marxist Social-Democratic organizations into a party. But this congress did not yet create a party : there was neither a party program nor party rules; there was no single leading centre, and there was scarcely any connection between the separate Marxist circles and groups.

In order to unite and link together the separate Marxist organizations into a single party, Lenin put forward and carried out a plan for the founding of Iskra, the first newspaper of the revolutionary Marxists on an all-Russian scale.

The principal opponents to the creation of a single political working-class party at that period were the "Economists." They denied the necessity for such a party. They fostered the disunity and amateurish methods of the separate groups. It was against them that Lenin and the newspaper Iskra organized by him directed their blows.

The appearance of the first issues of Iskra (1900-0I) marked a transition to a new period—a period in which a single Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party was really formed from the disconnected groups and circles.

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