July 6, 2019

Appraisal of the Revolutionary Situation and of the Class Tasks of the Proletariat

Report on the Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.
A Letter to the St. Petersburg Workers
Collected Works Volume 10, pages 317-382.

The question mentioned in the above heading was the second item on the agenda of the Congress. The reporters were Martynov and I. Strictly speaking, Comrade Martynov in his report did not defend the Menshevik draft resolution, printed in Partiiniye Izvestia, No. 2. He preferred to give a “general outline” of his views and a general criticism of what the Mensheviks call Bolshevik views.

He spoke of the Duma as a political centre, of the harmfulness of the idea of seizing power, and of the importance of the country’s constitutional development in a revolutionary period. He criticised the December uprising, called upon us openly to admit our defeat, and condemned our resolution for its “technical” presentation of the question of strike and insurrection. He said that “the Cadets, although they are anti-revolutionary, are erecting the scaffolding for the further development of the revolution”. (Then why do you not say so in your resolutions, we asked.) He said that “we are on the eve of a revolutionary explosion”. (Why isn’t that in your resolution, we asked again.) Incidentally, he said: “Objectively, the Cadets will play a more important role than the Socialist-Revolutionaries.” The idea of seizing power is akin to the ideas of Tkachov; the Duma must be put into the foreground as the first step in the country’s “constitutional development”, as the corner-stone of the edifice of “representative institutions”—such was the gist of Comrade Martynov’s report. Like all Mensheviks, he passively adjusted our tactics to the slightest turn in the course of events, subordinated them to fleeting interests, to momentary (or apparent) needs, and involuntarily belittled the main and fundamental tasks of the proletariat as the vanguard fighter in the bourgeois democratic revolution.

I based my report on a precise comparison of the two resolutions before the Congress. I said that both resolutions admit that the revolution is on the rise again, that our task is to strive to carry the revolution to the end, and lastly, that only the proletariat together with the revolutionary peasantry can accomplish this. One would think that these three propositions should lead to complete unanimity on the tactical course to be adopted. But which of the two resolutions more consistently upholds this main point of view, more correctly motivates it, and more accurately indicates the conclusions to be drawn from it?

And I went on to show that the argument of the Menshevik resolution was utterly untenable, that it was a mere collection of phrases and not an argument (“the struggle has left the government no choice”. This is a splendid specimen of sheer phrase-mongering! It is the very thing that has to be proved, but not in this form. The Mensheviks, however, start out from unproved and unprovable premises). I said that whoever really admits that an upswing of the revolution is inevitable must draw the proper conclusion as to the main form of the movement. For this is the fundamental scientific and political problem that we have to solve, and which the Mensheviks are dodging. They argue as follows. When there is a Duma, we will support the Duma; when there is a strike and insurrection, we will support the strike and insurrection. But they are unwilling, or unable, to deter mine whether the one or the other form of the movement is inevitable. They do not dare tell the proletariat, and the whole people, which is the main form of the movement. That being the case, all those phrases about the upswing of the revolution and about its completion (the Mensheviks very ineptly said: its logical completion) are so many platitudes. They imply that the proletariat—whose conception of the revolution is the deepest and broadest, and whose tactics are prompted by the general and fundamental interests of democracy—must not be elevated to the position of foremost leader of the revolution, but must be degraded to the position of a passive participant and humble “labourer” in the bourgeois-democratic revolution.

The Mensheviks, I said, accept only the first half of Hegel’s celebrated proposition: “All that is real is rational, and all that is rational is real.” The Duma is real; therefore the Duma is reasonable, they say, and rest content with that. We say:

the fight outside the Duma is “reasonable”. It is the objectively inevitable result of the whole of the present situation. Therefore it is “real”, although it is held down for the moment. We must not slavishly follow the fleeting moment; that would be opportunism. We must ponder over the more pro found causes of events and over the more far-reaching implications of our tactics.

The Mensheviks in their resolution admit that the revolution is on the rise and that the proletariat jointly with the peasantry must carry it to completion. But whoever seriously takes that view must also be able to draw the necessary conclusions. If you say: jointly with the peasantry, it shows that you think that the liberal-monarchist bourgeoisie (Cadets, etc.) is unreliable. Why, then, don’t you say so, as we do in our resolution? How is it that you do not say a single word about the necessity of combating constitutional illusions, that is, belief in the promises and laws of the old autocratic government? It is habitual for the Cadets to forget about this; they themselves spread constitutional illusions. But a Social-Democrat who at a moment of revolution forgets the task of combating constitutional illusions, politically puts himself on a footing with the Cadets. What is the use of phrases like “upswing of the revolution”, “carrying it to completion”, or “a new revolutionary explosion”, if the Social-Democrats do nothing to dispel the constitutional illusions that are widespread among the people?

At the present time the question of constitutional illusions is the best and surest criterion by which to distinguish the opportunist from those who want the revolution to develop further. The opportunist shirks the task of dispelling these illusions. The advocate of revolution ruthlessly exposes their deceptive character. And yet the Menshevik Social-Democrats are silent on a question like this!

Not daring to say openly and frankly that the October-December forms of struggle are unfit and undesirable, the Mensheviks say it in the worst, covert, indirect and evasive way. This is quite unbecoming for Social-Democrats.

Such were the main points of my report.

As regards the debate on these reports, the following characteristic incidents are worth mentioning. A comrade who at the Congress was known as Boris Nikolayevich gave me occasion to exclaim in my reply to the debate: “The ball comes to the player!” It would be difficult to express the “sum and substance” of Menshevism more vividly than he did. He said that it was “curious” that the Bolsheviks should regard the revolutionary movements of the broad masses of the people, and not the legal or constitutional form, as the “main form of the movement”. He said this was “ridiculous”, for there were no such movements, whereas there was a Duma. All this talk about the proletariat being the “head”, or “leader”, about the possibility of it becoming the “tail”, and so forth, was “metaphysics” and “phrase-mongering”.

Take off your Cadet spectacles, I said in reply to this consistent Menshevik. You will then see a peasant movement in Russia, and unrest among the armed forces, and the move ment of the unemployed: you will see forms of struggle that at the moment are “lying low”, but the existence of which even bourgeois moderates do not dare to deny.They openly say that these forms are harmful and needless; but the Menshevik Social-Democrats scoff at them. This is the difference between the bourgeoisie and the Menshevik Social-Democrats. This was exactly the case with Bernstein, the German Menshevik, the German Right Social-Democrat. The bourgeoisie in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century held, and openly declared, that revolutionary forms of struggle were harmful. Bernstein scoffed at them.

Being raised at the Congress, the question of Bernstein naturally led to the question, why was the bourgeoisie praising Plekhanov? The fact that all the numerous liberal-bourgeois newspapers and other publications in Russia, including even the Octobrist Slovo, were most zealously praising Plekhanov could not pass unnoticed at the Congress.

Plekhanov picked up the gauntlet. He said that the bourgeoisie was not praising him for what it had praised Bernstein for. Bernstein was praised for surrendering to the bourgeoisie our theoretical weapon, Marxism. He (Plekhanov) was being praised for his tactics. The situation was different.

Plekhanov was answered by the representative of the Polish Social-Democratic Party and by myself. We both point ed out that Plekhanov was wrong. The bourgeoisie praised Bernstein not only for theory, and, in fact, not for theory at all. The bourgeoisie doesn’t care a pin for any theory. The bourgeoisie praised the German Right Social-Democrats because they advocated different tactics. They were praised for their tactics, for their reformist tactics as distinct from revolutionary tactics; for regarding the legal, parliamentary, reformist struggle as the main, or almost the sole, form of struggle; for striving to convert the Social-Democratic Party into one of democratic social reforms. That is why Bernstein was praised. The bourgeoisie praised him for trying to blunt the antagonisms between labour and capital in the period preceding socialist revolution. The bourgeoisie is praising Plekhanov for trying to blunt the antagonisms between the revolutionary people and the autocracy in the period of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. Plekhanov is being praised for regarding the “parliamentary” struggle as the main form of struggle; for condemning the October-December struggle, and particularly the armed uprising. Plekhanov is being praised because on the question of present-day tactics he has become the leader of the Right Social-Democrats.

I have forgotten to add what stand the Mensheviks took in the debate on constitutional illusions. Theirs was not a firm stand. Some of them said that it was always the task of the Social-Democrats to combat constitutional illusions, and that this was not the special task of the present moment. Others (Plekhanov) declared that to combat constitutional illusions was anarchism. These two extreme and opposite opinions on constitutional illusions glaringly revealed the utter helplessness of the Mensheviks’ position. When a constitutional system has become firmly established, when, for a certain period, the constitutional struggle becomes the main form of the class struggle and of the political struggle generally, the task of dispelling constitutional illusions is not the special task of the Social-Democrats, not the task of the moment. Why? Because at such times affairs in constitutional states are administered in the very way that parliament decides. By constitutional illusions we mean deceptive faith in a constitution. Constitutional illusions prevail when a constitution seems to exist, but actually does not: in other words, when affairs of state are notadministered in the way parliament decides. When actual political life diverges from its reflection in the parliamentary struggle, then, and only then, does the task of combating constitutional illusions be come the immediate task of the advanced revolutionary class, the proletariat. The liberal bourgeois, dreading the extra- parliamentary struggle, spreads constitutional illusions even when parliaments are impotent. The anarchists flatly reject participation in parliament under all circumstances. Social-Democrats stand for utilising the parliamentary struggle, for participating in parliament; but they ruthlessly expose “parliamentary cretinism”, that is, the belief that the parliamentary struggle is the sole or under all circumstances the main form of the political struggle.

Are the political realities of Russia at variance with the decisions of, and speeches made in, the Duma? Are affairs of state in our country administered in the way the Duma decides? Do the “Duma” parties reflect with any degree of accuracy the real political forces in the present state of the revolution? One has only to put these questions to understand the Mensheviks’ helpless confusion on the question of constitutional illusions.

This confusion was revealed with uncommon vividness at the Congress when, although in the majority, the Mensheviks dared not put their resolution appraising the present situation to the vote. They withdrew their resolution! The Bolsheviks had a good laugh over this at the Congress. The victors are withdrawing their victorious resolution—that is what was said about the extraordinary behaviour of the Mensheviks, unprecedented in the history of congresses. A vote by roll-call was demanded and secured on this question, although, curiously enough, the Mensheviks were angry over this and submitted to the Bureau a written statement which said that “Lenin is collecting material for agitation against the decisions of the Congress”. As if the right to collect material were not the right and duty of every opposition! And as if our victors were not, by their chagrin, accentuating the impossibly awkward predicament into which they had put themselves by withdrawing their own resolution! The vanquished insist on the victors accepting their own victorious resolution! We could not wish for a more outspoken confirmation of the moral victory we had achieved.

The Mensheviks said, of course, that they did not wish to impose upon us something we did not agree with, that they did not want to resort to coercion, and so forth. Naturally, these excuses only raised a smile, and led to more demands for a vote by roll-call. For on those questions, on which the Mensheviks were convinced they were right, they did not hesitate to “impose” their opinion upon us, and to resort to “coercion” (why this terrible word, I wonder?), and so forth. The resolution appraising the present situation did not commit the Party to any particular action. But without it, the Party could not understand the principles and motives under lying all the tactics adopted by the Congress.

In this respect, the withdrawal of the resolution was a supreme manifestation of practical opportunism. Our business is to be in the Duma when there is a Duma, and we don’t want to hear anything like general arguments, general appraisals or well-considered tactics—this, in effect, is what the Mensheviks said to the proletariat by withdrawing their resolution.

Undoubtedly the Mensheviks had convinced themselves that their resolution was wrong and worthless. It is quite out of the question that people who are convinced that their views are correct should refuse to express them openly and definitely. But the crux of the matter was that the Mensheviks could not even propose any amendments to their resolution. This suggests that they could not agree among them selves on a single important point concerning the appraisal of the situation and of the class tasks of the proletariat in general. They could agree only on a negative decision: to withdraw the resolution altogether. They had a vague presentiment that if their resolution defining principleswere adopted, it would undermine their practical resolutions. But they did not gain anything thereby. The resolutions of the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks on the appraisal of the present situation can and must be discussed and compared by the whole Party, by all Party organisations. The question was left open. But it must be settled. And a comparison of these two resolutions with the experience of political life, with the lessons taught by, say, the Cadet Duma, will splendidly confirm the correctness of the Bolshevik views on the present state of the Russian revolution and on the class tasks of the proletariat.

Report on the Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.
A Letter to the St. Petersburg Workers
Collected Works Volume 10, pages 317-382.