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Lars Lih: Workers and intellectuals – A ‘revolutionary Social Democrat’ consensus

February 24, 2017

By Lars T. Lih

In place of an introduction

The following essay was written in 2011 for circulation among colleagues. I have decided to publish it unchanged in 2017 for two main reasons. First and foremost, the essay explains and documents the views of Lenin, the Russian Bolshevik Alexander Bogdanov, and Karl Kautsky on a crucial issue: the proper relations between workers and intellectuals within Social Democracy. It therefore serves as an extension of my earlier attack on the “textbook interpretation” of Lenin’s views.


V.I. Ulyanov (Lenin)

In this essay, I focus on a variation of the textbook interpretation that is put forward by many writers on the Left: Yes, Lenin was “worried about workers” in 1902, when he wrote What is To be Done?, but he renounced this outlook in 1905 because he was so impressed with the revolutionary prowess of the workers, something that was supposedly a complete surprise to him. In contrast to this thesis, Lenin actually stressed that the revolution in 1905 had confirmed his earlier views, making Bolshevism the guardian of the Russian Social Democratic tradition.

Second, the essay serves as a critique of John Marot—a critique not only of a particular thesis but also of an intellectual style that unfortunately appears to be a constant with this energetic writer. Please note that I wrote this critique before Marot appointed himself the champion of orthodoxy against my heresies concerning 1917. (In an appendix, I engage in some polemical details with Marot.)

My essay describes the consensus among revolutionary Social Democrats about the proper relations between workers and intellectuals within the socialist party. Let us look closer at the emphasized phrases, since—although I did not use either one in my 2011 essay—they best bring out what I was trying to do. “Revolutionary Social Democrat” is the phrase used by Lenin and others of his generation to describe their innermost political identity—and although the term itself was dropped after 1917, the political identity itself remained fundamental. “Revolutionary Social Democracy” was the self-description of the left-wing of the Second International whose most prominent spokesman were Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg (even after these two leaders fell out after 1909). Unfortunately, this useful and historically based term has dropped out of circulation and replaced by the misleading phrase “the Marxism of the Second International.” This phrase encourages us to assume as a given that all Social Democrats shared the same outlook—an outlook that was fundamentally “revisionist.”

Lenin himself would have rejected this assumption with indignation. In 1915, there occurred an illuminating polemic on this topic between Lenin and Alexander Potresov. Potresov was a spokesman of the far-right “liquidator” wing of Russian Social Democracy, and yet on this issue he defended a thesis common today among self-described left-wing Marxists, namely, the underlying unity and opportunistic nature of the Second International. According to Potresov, the reaction of the national parties to the outbreak of the war showed the bankruptcy of the entire International, since “a restriction of work and struggle to details, coupled with an all-pervading gradualism,” had led to a lack of interest in developments beyond national boundaries (does this diagnosis sound familiar?).

Lenin vehemently disagreed with Potresov’s thesis that he summarized as follows: Social Democracy “remained a single whole, which, generally speaking was pervaded with gradualism, turned nationalist, and was by degrees weaned away from breaks in gradualness and from catastrophes, and grew petty and mildewed.” (Lenin’s article was intended to pass the censor and he therefore resorted to easily decodable euphemisms: “breaks in gradualness” should be read as “revolution” and “contemporary democracy” as “Social Democracy.” In the quotes below, I have substituted the intended meanings in brackets.)

Where Potresov saw homogeneity, Lenin saw a mortal struggle between opportunism and revolutionary Social Democracy. “In actual fact, events did not follow the pattern described by Potresov. This we know definitely. In the period under discussion, none, literally not one, of the leading capitalist countries was spared by the struggle between the two mutually opposed currents within [Social Democracy]. In each of the big countries, this struggle at times assumed most violent forms, including splits—this despite the general ‘peaceful,’ ‘sluggish,’ and somnolent character of the epoch. These contradictory currents have affected all the various fields of life and all problems of [Social Democracy] without exception.”

Thus, from Lenin’s point of view, it is nonsense to talk of “the Marxism of the Second International” as something uniting all Social Democracy. Lenin was not just talking about leaders such as Rosa Luxemburg. By the time Lenin wrote this article, he had renounced and denounced Kautsky as a renegade from his former, correct principles (“it would suffice simply to place side by side for comparison a number of passages from [The Road to Power, Kautsky’s book of 1909] and from his present writings to show convincingly how Kautsky has betrayed his own convictions and solemn declarations”). Yet he still cited Kautsky—the older Kautsky, Kautsky-when-he-was-Marxist—as an authority on the struggle between opportunism and revolutionary Social Democracy. Lenin also insisted that it was this fundamental prewar division that gave rise to the split between “internationalists” and “social chauvinists” during the war. (See Lenin’s “Under a False Flag.” Perhaps Lenin’s Aesopian language has led to the neglect of this important article.)

My aim in this essay as elsewhere is to discover and set forth the consensus view that united “revolutionary Social Democracy” and made it a recognizable, coherent grouping. I have come to realize, somewhat to my surprise, that the very project of describing consensus is controversial and indeed, among some circles, highly suspect. Much more congenial, for both academic and activist historians, is discovering various disagreements, breaks in development, rethinkings, and the like—discoveries that lead to what I privately call “rupturous delight.” Lenin is particularly subject to this rupture rapture: I am pretty sure that for every calendar year between 1893 and 1923, I could find some author who claims that there was some kind of dramatic turnaround in Lenin’s outlook during that year.

In the essay presented below, I describe a consensus view shared among a variety of revolutionary Social Democrats (Lenin, Bogdanov, Kautsky), one that persisted over a rapidly changing political environment (pre-1905, 1905 revolution, post-1905), and one that was equally opposed to one-sided extremes (neither workerphilia nor workerphobia). Lenin and Bogdanov had worked closely together before and during 1905, but they had very serious disagreements in the years following. Bogdanov formed a separate group calling itself Vpered (Forward), leading to his expulsion from the Bolshevik faction in 1909. The consensus view described in my essay about workers and intellectuals was conspicuously not among the disputed topics.

Disagreement is easy to document, while shared assumptions are harder to tease out and present effectively. Let us make a few common-sense observations about political consensus. As we have just seen, consensus does not preclude strong disagreements on important issues. Shared assumptions can lead to very different results when mapped onto empirical situations: we can both sincerely support “free speech” but disagree whether the adult store on the corner is free speech. Consensus over time does not mean rigidity in the face of rapidly changing circumstances—surely it makes sense to speak (when appropriate) of a core continuity over time, despite significant modifications under the impact of events. The essay that follows illustrates these observations. We will see that the belief in the existence of something called “the Marxism of the Second International” posits a unity of outlook at a level where little unity existed, while at the same time digging a non-existent gulf between Lenin and his fellow “revolutionary Social Democrats” on basic issues such as the relation of workers and intellectuals.

Workers and intellectuals: A ‘revolutionary Social Democrat’ consensus

(As written in 2011)


Alexander Bogdanov

Many writers on the left want to believe in a “transformation” of Lenin’s outlook in 1905: inspired by the revolutionary energy of the Russian workers, Lenin breaks fundamentally with Kautsky, with “Second International Marxism” and with his own formulations in What Is To be Done? (or at least with their allegedly elitist implications).  One of the few writers to support this story with real research into primary sources is John Marot in his article “Alexander Bogdanov, Vpered, and the Role of the Intellectual in the Workers’ Movement” (Russian Review, July 1990).

This is an important article that presents a provocative interpretation of Bolshevik history.  A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since 1990 in Lenin studies and even more in Kautsky studies.  Nevertheless a critique of this article is still timely.  John Marot continues to stand by the article and I understand that he will include it or a version of it in an upcoming book.  Indeed, he tells me that he will introduce the relevant chapter as part of a “subterranean polemic” with my Lenin Rediscovered (2006).  I see no reason why the polemic need be subterranean.  (Since these remarks are meant to be just a discussion piece, all references are informal.)

Marot’s article is primarily devoted to an intra-Bolshevik dispute in 1909 between the Vpered (Forward) group headed by Aleksandr Bogdanov and the official Bolshevik leadership around Lenin.  In the first half of the article, Marot shows the inadequacy of the usual explanations that maintain that Bogdanov’s challenge was about philosophical issues or about otzovizm (“recallism,” that is, those who wanted the party to recall Social Democratic Duma deputies).  I learned a lot from this part of the article, and I am persuaded by Marot’s critique.

Most writers want to use Bogdanov (“anti-authoritarian”) as a stick to beat Lenin (“authoritarian”).  I side with Marot when he protests against this.  But I part with Marot when, first, he cedes the pre-1905 Lenin to his opponents (yes, Lenin was authoritarian, but then he changed his mind) and, second, he uses the 1909 Lenin as a stick to beat Bogdanov—and not only Bogdanov, but also the pre-1905 Lenin, Kautsky, “Second International Marxism,” and sectarians everywhere.

Marot’s interpretation can be summarized as follows: Prior to 1905, both Lenin and Bogdanov had a “tutelary,” “intellectualist,” or “pedagogical” conception of socialist politics.  According to this conception, the socialist message has to be brought to the workers “from outside,” and therefore intellectuals should run the Social Democratic party.  Lenin and Bogdanov shared this conception with Kautsky and the entire Second International.  In 1905, Lenin observed the revolutionary struggle of the workers and realized that they did not need the party to attain Social Democratic awareness: revolution alone would teach them.  Lenin was transformed, but Bogdanov was not.  Their dispute in 1909 was therefore a clash between the traditional “pedagogical” concept of socialist politics and Lenin’s new one.  Lenin won the dispute and went on to revolutionary fame and glory, while Bogdanov lost and dwindled away into the sectarianism inherent in the pedagogical approach.

I cannot accept this interpretation, for reasons both of evidence and substance.  Marot cannot provide any evidence that he has correctly identified the actual issues in the 1909 dispute.  He sometimes alludes to this difficulty (as noted below), but his excuses (for example, that Lenin had not yet “explicitly theorized” this or that view attributed to him) are unconvincing.  Furthermore, much evidence speaks against his interpretation, even in the very documents Marot uses to illustrate his case.  All in all, Marot’s case is based more on wishful thinking than evidence.  I also maintain that neither Lenin nor Bogdanov held the views attributed to them before 1905, during 1905, or after 1905.  In fact, Marot’s account is a travesty of their real views.

In What Is To be Done?, Lenin says that there can be “no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement.”  Marot quotes this passage (255) as emblematic of the old, bad, pedagogical view of politics.  According to the whole thrust of Marot’s argument, Lenin is supposed to have rejected this view after 1905.  That is, he no longer believed that Marxist socialism represented the only real proletarian ideology, that there was no third alternative besides it and bourgeois ideology, that no one (including the working masses) would ever come up with a new and “independent ideology,” and that it was supremely important for the party to send the correct version of Marxism to its proletarian audience.  But this implication of Marot’s argument is highly implausible and cannot be accepted.

For purposes of clarity, I will set out briefly my own account of the relevant beliefs of Lenin and the others, with the proviso that the purpose of this essay is not to provide evidence for my own account but to show the lack of evidence for Marot’s account.  Kautsky, Lenin and Bogdanov all held all the following views at all times:

  • There is only one genuinely proletarian ideology: the scientific socialism of Marx and Engels.  This great achievement could only have been created by intellectuals—in fact, the most outstanding intellectuals of the century.
  • This fact about the origin of scientific socialism certainly does not mean intellectuals should run the socialist party.  Intellectuals are useful, even necessary, to the party in many ways, but you have to keep an eye on them, and definitely prevent them from running things.
  • Workers are instinctively Social Democratic in the sense that they will understand and accept scientific socialism when it is properly presented to them, because of their class position and their experience of struggle.  In a revolutionary period, the learning process is especially rapid.
  • One high-priority aim of the party should be to train up workers so that they can properly fill leadership roles within the party.
  • A central mission of the party is socialist propaganda, that is, spreading the message in all possible ways as widely as possible.  A failure to do this is a central dereliction of duty.  A failure to send the correct socialist message is also a dereliction of duty.

Since these views were taken for granted on all sides, they do not help us understand the issues at dispute in 1909.  In these remarks, I cannot undertake to give a positive account of the Vpered imbroglio, although some of the actual issues in dispute will be mentioned in passing.  We now turn to some of the problems of evidence faced by Marot’s account.


In 1990, Marot’s reading of What Is To be Done? as “intellectualist” was widely accepted and he did not have to mount any particular defense of his reading.  I provided a critique of this interpretation in Lenin Rediscovered (2006) and will not repeat my arguments here.  But reading this article from 1990 leads me to make the following, not entirely irrelevant, digression.

A number of writers have claimed that my Lenin Rediscovered only repeats, at inordinate length, what Neil Harding said already in Lenin’s Political Thought (1977), because both of us point out that What Is To be Done? was considered to be “orthodox.”  This claim is as unfair to Harding as it is to me, since we have diametrically opposed conceptions of Social Democratic orthodoxy.  The gulf between us is shown by the fact that, in 1990, Marot correctly cites Harding as an authority for a reading of What Is To be Done? fundamentally opposed to mine (fn. 43 on 255).

In an article published prior to Lenin Rediscovered, I discussed Harding’s view of “orthodoxy” on a point that is directly relevant to our present discussion.  Harding writes:

“The privileged role allotted to the socialist intelligentsia in organizing and articulating the grievances of the proletariat and leading the political struggle, far from being a Leninist deviation from Marxism, is central to the arrogance of Marxism as a whole … Marx (and all subsequent Marxists) had to assert that he had a more profound awareness of the long-term interests and objectives of the proletariat than any proletarian, or group of proletarians could themselves possess” (Leninism, 1996, 34).

If we substitute “Second International Marxism” for “Marxism,” Harding’s logic is very close to Marot’s: the “arrogant” claim that a particular doctrine originating outside the worker movement represents the true interests of the proletariat leads inexorably to the privileged role of the socialist intelligentsia.  My response to Harding about Marx is also my response to Marot’s claim that the pre-1905 Kautsky and Lenin were necessarily “intellectualist”:

“Note that: (1) the only way for Marx to avoid the charge of arrogance is to have no opinions at all about the long-term interests of the proletariat; (2) Marx evidently assumed that ‘all subsequent Marxist’ would be intellectuals; (3) that Marx ‘had to assert’ that workers ‘could’ never understand his ideas, agree with them for rational reasons, develop them further, run their own party, and so on” (“How a Founding Document was Found, or One Hundred Years of Lenin’s What Is to be Done?” in Kritika 2003).

According to Marot, the collaboration between Lenin and Bogdanov prior to 1905 was based on their common commitment to a pedagogical view of politics, including domination of the party by the intellectuals.  Lenin Rediscovered contains evidence of Bogdanov’s pre-1905 views that creates problems for this contention:

  • Bogdanov argues in 1904 against the Menshevik assertion that the RSDWP had been and still was an “intelligentsia party”; he shows that workers essentially run the party.  “Do you think [these organized workers] slavishly follow after the intelligentsia?”
  • Bogdanov argues that the refusal of the Mensheviks to accept the decisions of the Second Congress in 1903-4 stems from typical intelligentsia lack of discipline, citing Kautsky on this point.  (In the Vpered platform of 1909, this episode is recalled and the suspicious attitude toward intellectuals is defined as part of Bolshevism.)
  • Lenin argues that factory discipline is one reason that proletarians are better party members than intellectuals.  Luxemburg and Trotsky protest, saying that factory discipline is not a good thing.  Bogdanov rises “in defense of Karl Marx” to argue that if the circumstances of proletarian life do not give rise to proletarian consciousness, then the socialist revolution is doomed.  (Marot attributes directly opposite views to Bogdanov in 1909.)
  • In spring 1905 at the Third Congress, Bogdanov drafts a resolution that is cosponsored with Lenin that mandates greater recruitment of workers onto local committees—a resolution that many writers see (incorrectly) as an indication that Lenin was rethinking the outlook expressed in What Is To be Done?.
  • Not mentioned in Lenin Rediscovered (although it should have been) is a retrospective essay written in 1914 in which Bogdanov looks back to WITBD and specifically disavows Lenin’s famous formula that the worker class needed intellectuals to go beyond tred-iunonizm.  According to the formula, says Bogdanov, Lenin pictures the intellectuals as priests who think up a good thing that the masses simply receive.  Although the Mensheviks made great hay of Lenin’s formula at the time (Bogdanov continues), we shouldn’t draw the conclusion that Lenin actually held such views, but rather that he was “not very competent in general theory matters” (Neizvestnyi Bogdanov, 3:156).  I do not necessarily endorse Bogdanov’s reading of Lenin’s formula.  But Bogdanov’s observation does indicate that neither Lenin, the Mensheviks, nor Bogdanov himself held the views attributed to them by Marot.
  • M. Liadov was also a member of the Vpered group.  In Lenin Rediscovered, I cite an essay of his written in 1911 in which he argued that all the advances in party practice and outlook came from below and not from the leaders (including Lenin).  These views are consonant with Liadov’s pre-1905 views that are discussed at length in Lenin Rediscovered.


Marot claims that differing assessments of 1905 were at the heart of the 1909 dispute, yet admits that he can cite no evidence to back this up.  The following passage from his article is in its way a classic example of one popular approach to documenting “Lenin’s view”:

In Lenin’s view, the experience of the Revolution of 1905 had decisively undermined the pedagogical and intellectualist foundations of the Vpered program. The revolution had shown in practice that workers could achieve revolutionary, Social Democratic ideas on their own. For Bogdanov and his co-thinkers to seek to implement the Vperedist program meant, in Lenin’s view, to assess improperly the experience of 1905 and to fail to develop a fuller, more comprehensive, revolutionary theory.

Lenin did not arrive at these conclusions in the course of direct and immediate polemic with Bogdanov or with the Vperedists generally for these conclusions long antedated the 1909 political dispute: they had become an ideological premise for Lenin and, as such, needed no explicit reaffirmation or development by him. Thus, in his reply to Bogdanov in September 1909, Lenin focused on the Vperedists’ stance on the Duma, virtually ignoring Bogdanov’s propagandistic pedagogical views even though these were central to the Vperedist critique of Lenin’s politics.

In the first paragraph, Marot gives us “Lenin’s view” in no uncertain terms.  In the second paragraph, he admits that Lenin “virtually ignored” his own deeply felt views in his polemics against the Vpered group.  His explanation of this anomaly is that Lenin felt no urge to express his real views precisely because they were so important to him.

In fact, neither side in the 1909 dispute gave the slightest hint that “the experience of the Revolution of 1905” had anything to do with their present debate—except in one respect.  Lenin argues that the mistake of the “recallists” is that they take a tactic from 1905 that was perfectly appropriate in a revolutionary period and that they then misapply it to a profoundly different situation in 1909.  According to Marot, then, the mistake of the Vpered group was that they did not learn the lessons of 1905.  According to Lenin, it was that they over-learned the lessons of 1905.

Marot cites Bogdanov’s view that strictly socialist propaganda (as opposed to anti-tsarist propaganda in favor of political freedom) was a low priority in 1905.  The implication is that Bogdanov looked down on the 1905 revolution for this reason.  In reality, Bogdanov’s attitude was as follows: In 1905, we had more important and urgent things to do than occupy ourselves with socialist propaganda.  When the new and improved edition of 1905 arrives—and may it come soon!—we will again be otherwise occupied.  Therefore, we should make educational activity our priority now, in days of deep reaction, when we can do little else.  We will find that it will serve us in good stead when real revolution breaks out.

Part of this propaganda activity, in Bogdanov’s view, should be to reflect on the experience of armed struggle of 1905.  This idea was an important plank in the Vpered platform to which considerable attention was given.  Marot alludes to it in passing but does not see its relevance to his argument.  Bogdanov’s aim was work out and popularize the experience of the “mass uprisings” of 1905 as well as smaller-scale “partisan” raids (Neizvestnyi Bogdanov, 2:73).

Lenin also did not draw the implications from 1905 that Marot wants him to draw.  In his polemics against Bogdanov, Lenin reflects on 1905 as follows:

“The proletariat everywhere is constantly being recruited from the petty bourgeoisie, is everywhere constantly connected with it through thousands of transitional stages, boundaries and gradations. When a workers’ party grows very quickly (as ours did in 1905-06) its penetration by a mass of elements imbued with a petty-bourgeois spirit is inevitable. And there is nothing bad about that. The historic task of the proletariat is to assimilate, re-school, re-educate all the elements of the old society that the latter bequeaths it in the shape of offshoots of the petty bourgeoisie. But the proletariat must re-educate these newcomers and influence them, not be influenced by them. Of the ‘Social-Democrats of the days of freedom,’ who first became Social-Democrats in the days of enthusiasm and celebration, the days of clarion slogans, the days of proletarian victories which turned the heads of even purely bourgeois intellectuals, very many began to study in earnest, to study Marxism and to learn persistent proletarian work—they will always remain Social-Democrats and Marxists. Others did not, succeed in gaining, or wore incapable of gaining, anything from the proletarian party but a few texts and ‘striking’ slogans learned by heart, a few phrases about ‘boycottism,’ ‘boyevism,’ and so forth. When such elements thought to foist their ‘theories’, their world outlook, i.e., their short-sighted views, on the workers’ party, a split with them became inevitable” (CW, 16:60).

Not exactly an eloquent condemnation of “pedagogical politics,” is it?

Marot sums up: “Lenin and Bogdanov likewise assessed the 1905 Revolution very differently though, again, neither drew the difference sharply in direct and immediate polemic” (259).  More accurately: neither at any time showed any awareness that the dispute between them had any such basis.



Karl Kautsky

Marot brings in Kautsky as a spokesman for the intellectualist, pedagogical politics that Lenin is supposed to have abjured after 1905.  Marot does not say anything in this article about Kautsky’s later evolution, so the following points should be regarded only as suggestive.

In 1905, Kautsky himself spoke very eloquently about how rapidly the workers were learning.  He hoped that the revolutionary situation would last as long as possible for this very reason (see his writings collected in Day and Gaido’s Witnesses to Permanent Revolution).   Were Kautsky’s views also “transformed” by 1905?

In 1909, Lenin and other Bolsheviks used Kautsky as a stick to beat Bogdanov and other members of the Vpered group, almost to the point of equating Kautsky and Bolshevism (see, for example, Kamenev’s 1909 critique of Lunacharsky in Mezdu dvumia revoliutsiami, p. 293).  In his 1909 polemics against Bogdanov, Lenin has this to say about Kautsky’s relation to Bolshevism:

“We Bolsheviks can point to great achievements in winning support [for Bolshevik policy and tactics]. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky—Social-Democrats who often write for Russians and to that extent are in our Party—have been won over to our point of view,   although at the beginning of the split (1903) their sympathies were entirely with the Mensheviks. They were won over because the Bolsheviks made no concessions to ‘criticism’ of Marxism, because the Bolsheviks upheld, not the letter of their own, definitely their own, factional theory, but the general spirit and meaning of revolutionary Social-Democratic tactics. We shall continue to advance along this path, we shall wage an even more relentless war against pedantic stupidity and reckless phrase-mongering with phrases learned by heart, against the theoretical revisionism of the god-building circle of literati” (CW, 16:34).

Note Lenin’s claim of continuity for both Bolshevism and Kautsky.  Lenin seems to think that not he, but his opponents, have broken with the orthodoxy represented by Kautsky.

This point can be generalized.  The impact of 1905 on Lenin was immense (as I try to show in my Lenin biography).  But this impact should not be summed up as Lenin saying “I now see that I was wrong before.” Lenin’s reaction was rather “Wow—I was even more right than I realized about worker militancy and revolutionary drive.”  As a result, one constant theme of Bolshevik writings in and around 1909 is that the events of 1905 showed the essential correctness of the party outlook during the pre-1905 Iskra period and that therefore this outlook remained valid (of course, still needing intelligent application to a changed empirical situation).  This insistence on drawing the right lessons from 1905 was a central item in Lenin’s critique of Menshevik “liquidators.”  It played no role in his dispute with fellow Bolsheviks.

Lenin Anti-Intellectual?

Readers of Marot’s article may easily gain the impression that the experience of 1905 had turned Lenin into an anti-intellectual who wanted no truck with book-larnin’ and who insisted that only revolution could teach the workers, so it was useless to indulge in “pedagogy” in a non-revolutionary situation.  I certainly do not ascribe any such absurd assertion to Marot, but the tenor of his argument seems to point to something like this conclusion.

Marot writes about Lenin in 1905: “Lenin transformed his political theory: revolution, and it alone, he now concluded, would ‘teach Social Democratism to the masses in workers in Russia’” (257, emphasis added).  Marot directly connects the well-known “flight of the intellectuals” from revolutionary politics after 1905 to the fact that “Lenin’s leadership of the Party remained unbroken” (254) (an astonishing explanation that I have seen suggested nowhere else, either in the polemics of the time or by later historians).  All of Bogdanov’s suggestions and criticisms about improving socialist propaganda are presented in Marot’s article as evidence of his deeply flawed views, while various comments by Lenin about “books and researches” are taken out of context to suggest that Lenin was opposed to such things on principle (258-9).

In reality, Lenin continued to adhere to the SPD [Social-Democratic Party of Germany] model that sought to combine leadership of direct class struggle with a wide panoply of agitation and propaganda activities.  Again, we find documentation of this attitude precisely in his polemics against Vpered:

“In point of fact the German Social-Democrats, far from standing for parliamentarism at any price, not only do not subordinate everything to parliamentarism, but, on the contrary, in the international army of the proletariat they best of all have developed such extra-parliamentary means of struggle as the socialist press, the trade unions, the systematic use of popular assemblies, the socialist education of youth, and so on and so forth” (CW, 16:34).

Marot gives the project for a party school at Capri what is in my view an exaggerated prominence in the overall Vpered platform.  But I do not insist on this—certainly, the Capri school was dear to Bogdanov’s heart.  The vital point that Marot fails to bring out is that Lenin and the majority Bolsheviks were in no way opposed to party schools in principle.  They were opposed to the Capri school, not because it was trying to teach socialist doctrine, but because it was teaching the wrong doctrine.  They also opposed it because they saw it, rightly or wrongly, as an attempt to set up a dissident factional organization.  While making these objections, they underscored their approval of the general idea of a party school abroad.

In a resolution (evidently drafted by Lenin) that was adopted by the Bolshevik conference in 1909 that kicked Bogdanov out of the faction, we find the following language: “with the present dearth of experienced party activists [rabotniki], a properly constituted and genuinely party school, even if located abroad, might be of some help to local organizations in creating first-rate party activists from among the workers” (CW, 15:450).  The trouble was, of course, that the Capri school was not a “genuinely party school.”

In an attempt to woo students away from the Capri school, Lenin asked them: why not set up the school in Paris, where we have all sorts of excellent theorists available? (CW, 15:472-8). And in fact, in 1911 Lenin did set up his own party school near Paris in Longjumeau (as described in a classic article by Carter Elwood cited by Marot).

Bogdanov Anti-Worker?

In his commendable desire to undercut the use of Bogdanov as a cudgel against Lenin, Marot ends up painting Bogdanov as someone who looked down on ordinary workers, denied the usefulness of their direct experience in class organizations and struggle, and put all his bets on intellectuals who would pass on knowledge in classrooms while running the party. I think this is a travesty of Bogdanov’s real views and I note that no hint of such a portrait arises in the vehement critiques of him made by Lenin and other Bolsheviks.

This is not the place to discuss Bogdanov’s overall theories. I will merely state that my own reading of his works (including the pre-1905 articles discussed in Lenin Rediscovered) leave me with the impression of someone who placed a very strong stress on the value of proletarian organization and struggle, as well as of someone who distrusted the intellectuals in the party, partly because they did not live in a proletarian world.

These views were expressed as well in writings from the Vpered period.  The following passage is taken from an article published in 1910 in a collection of articles by Vpered members.  Bogdanov predicts that the coming revolutionary upsurge will attract the attention of the “democratic intelligentsia” who had left after 1905, and goes on to comment:

“Our proletariat will use this [newly available] help, but now in a somewhat different manner than before. A majority of these people are rather unreliable and are far from being real socialists, and this time the proletariat will not accept that these elements play such an important role in worker organizations. Not for nothing did the proletariat use the whole period of reaction to create its own, purely proletarian intelligentsia.  We know the kind of worker-Social Democrat that has arisen over these last couple of years: a type of party activist [rabotnik] who in his general development and in his preparation can almost or completely match the average ‘intelligent’ of former times, but who is vastly superior to him in terms of his class definition and his socialist convictions.”

Bogdanov goes on to castigate the “old party intelligentsia” for their disunifying squabbles.  In his view, the new arrivals from the intelligentsia are the ones who need reeducation.  (This article is reprinted in Neizvestnyi Bogdanov, v. 2; see page 90 for quoted passage.)

In the debates at the Bolshevik conference of 1909, Bogdanov did not hide his desire for a new type of local party worker who could eventually replace the old intelligentsia leadership. The majority Bolsheviks perceived this (no doubt correctly) as a desire to remove them from leadership roles, but they too endorsed the general aim of helping to train up local party workers (see the Lenin-drafted resolution cited above).

Although Bogdanov argued that socialist propaganda was a priority in 1909, there is no reason to caricature him as someone who believed that propaganda was the end-all and be-all of party activity. As he said in his remarks on the party school at the 1909 conference, “there can be no question of equating party tasks with socialist propaganda.” (Marot also cites Bogdanov’s remarks on this occasion, although he passes over the words I have just quoted, but unfortunately his article gives an incorrect page reference to Protokoly, ed. G. Swain: in fn. 25, “p. 151” should be “p. 51.”)

There is also no reason to reduce the Vpered group’s interest in socialist propaganda to the Capri school aimed at improving the organizational skills of local activists.  When we read the extensive discussion found in the Vpered platform of possible ways of improving both mass propaganda and propaganda within the party, we see the wide range of activities that come under the rubric of “socialist propaganda” (Neizvestnyi Bogdanov, v

. 2, pp. 59-67).  (Bogdanov’s innovative—I stress “innovative”—idea of “proletarian universities” as part of a new proletarian culture were set forth in writings after the Vpered controversy.)

Marot paints a picture of Bogdanov dwindling away to a mere sectarian because of his misguided loyalty to pre-1905 views about the party.  I do not think the facts of Bogdanov’s biography sustain this picture.  In 1911, Bogdanov quit politics in general because of his disgust with émigré squabbles and financial shenanigans.  His bitter experience included not only his ejection from the Bolshevik faction but the subsequent messy breakup of the Vpered group.  After that, he was not directly part of any party or worker organization, sectarian or otherwise.  He did not play any sort of leadership role with the post-revolutionary organization Proletkult, although they looked up to him as an inspiration.

In 1913-14, Bogdanov collaborated with Pravda, precisely because he saw it as a worker-run enterprise.  Lenin insisted that Pravda reject Bogdanov’s contribution.  From Bogdanov’s description of this episode, Lenin’s actions look like a classic case of top-down sectarian intolerance.

Bogdanov’s reaction to the October revolution was complicated, but it certainly cannot be reduced to his alleged disappointment that it was not run by intellectuals (as suggested by Marot).  We should also keep in mind that some members of the Vpered group later became members of the Bolshevik government (Lunacharsky and Krasin). In contrast, the member of the Vpered group who was most energetically opposed to the October revolution—Grigorii Aleksinsky—was also the one who directly denounced Bogdanov’s cultural views in 1911.  Thus, in itself, membership in Vpered was no badge of sectarianism.

To conclude

In the first half of his article, Marot writes as a historian seeking to set out what actually happened.  This part of the article clears away long-standing preconceptions and still retains its value.  In the second half of the article, Marot writes as an ideologist who is making a case for the correct view, which (he is sure) was also Lenin’s.  Since he has a preconceived idea of what Lenin’s view was supposed to be, he is unfazed by his failure to find this view expressed in the materials from 1909.  Very commendably, he even calls attention to this failure.  Since he also does not see it as his task to provide us with an account of the arguments Lenin actually made at the time, he overlooks much evidence that speaks strongly against his own interpretation.

As a result, we are faced with a choice: either John Marot’s account of “Lenin’s view” in 1909, or Lenin’s own expressed views.  We have to choose one or the other, because we cannot have both.

Polemical Appendix

I first need to explain how this essay came to be written. In 1990, John Marot published an article entitled “Alexander Bogdanov, Vpered, and the Role of the Intellectual in the Workers’ Movement” (Russian Review, 49:241-64). According to Marot’s 1990 article, the dispute in 1909 had its roots in Lenin’s profound rejection in 1905 of his own earlier views about the relation between workers and intellectuals, views he then shared with Bogdanov. There was thus a profound rupture in Lenin’s outlook, but not in Bogdanov’s. So Marot argues.

In 2012, Marot included this article in his collection The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect (Brill, pp. 187-209). In this republication, the article is prefaced with a note stating that “my explanation of the conflict between Lenin and Bogdanov is, retrospectively, a polemic with one aspect of Lars Lih’s exhaustive analysis of Lenin’s treatment of the relationship between party and class in Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done?’ in Context” (pp. 7-8). Marot’s collection also contains other essays in support of his highly idiosyncratic view of Bogdanov as someone who looked down on workers from an intellectualist point of view (all other writers on Bogdanov say the opposite). In 2013, Haymarket came out with a paperback edition. Finally, in 2014 Marot published “Lenin, Bolshevism and Social-Democratic Political Theory” in Historical Materialism (22:129-71) in which he reaffirmed his version of the Lenin-Bogdanov relationship as part of a large-scale critique of my views on just about everything. At Marot’s request, this article was posted online by John Riddell.

As it happens, I had earlier written a detailed critique of Marot’s 1990 article in the fall of 2011, that is, prior to its republication in book form. My critique was not intended for publication but rather for circulation among a small circle of interested historians. Marot responded to my essay privately in a way that makes me assume he read it. Back in 2011, I did not think it appropriate to publish a detailed attack on a 1990 journal article. Given the republication of the Marot’s article, and his assertion in several venues that the Lenin-Bogdanov clash in 1905 stands as a rebuttal of my views, I feel that publication of my 2011 critique is permitted, indeed mandated.

The essay is reproduced here exactly as written in 2011, without any change whatsoever (a title has been added). My motives for exact republication are several. First—a small matter but meaningful to me personally—the essay documents that my scorn for Marot’s scholarly methods predates his mission to save the world from my heresies concerning 1917. Second, the essay reveals Marot’s idiosyncratic attitude toward textual evidence. Marot explicitly admits that Lenin does not actually ever say what he, Marot, maintains are Lenin’s deepest views—but this admission does not faze him in the slightest.

Third, this peculiar methodology of ignoring textual evidence unsurprisingly leads Marot to some weird conclusions. As I sum up my findings, “we are faced with a choice: either John Marot’s account of ‘Lenin’s view’ in 1909, or Lenin’s own expressed views.  We have to choose one or the other, because we cannot have both.” The same can be said in relation to Bogdanov: I venture to affirm that no informed specialist would endorse Marot’s characterization of Bogdanov as anti-worker and pro-intellectual.

Marot pays me the compliment of distorting my views as thoroughly as he does those of Lenin and Bogdanov. The 2011 essay published here documents a typical example. In this essay, I reject Marot’s claim that Lenin had a “tutelary” or “pedagogical” attitude toward the workers. I show that this claim is simply another version of the standard textbook reading of Lenin’s What is To be Done?—a reading that I refute at great length in my book Lenin Rediscovered (2006). In this book I label Lenin’s approach as “Erfurtianism,” a concept that I introduced and which I discuss in much detail; a summary definition takes up an entire page. Needless to say, my concept of Erfurtianism is the diametrical opposite of Marot’s “tutelary” approach. In the 2011 essay published here, I also went out of my way to differentiate myself from Neil Harding. And, to repeat, Marot read this essay and knows my views.

We turn to Marot’s essay for HM, and what do we find? According to Marot, I say nothing new in Lenin Rediscovered (Marot gives us to understand that he himself knew it all along). He then blandly takes the term “Erfurtianism” and equates it with his “tutelary” approach! He says that I merely “reconfirm” Neil Harding. Even though the Mensheviks, Plekhanov, Trotsky, and even Bogdanov all rejected the “tutelary” views they thought they saw in Lenin’s 1902 book as a scandalous distortion of Social Democracy, Marot affirms that actually they all regarded it as the most inoffensive statement of orthodoxy. I am flabbergasted. I expect people to challenge my new interpretations, but I don’t expect them to ascribe to me views that are completely opposed to my stated views, and then, to add insult to injury, to say they agree with me!

Marot is no more reliable on the attack: any resemblance between my actual argument and the arguments Marot ascribes to me in his recent articles is purely coincidental. His radical distortions make it difficult for me to respond directly to his broadsides. Any response on my part would necessarily consist of stating my case once again, punctuated by cries of “I didn’t mean that, I never said this,” etc. If I am going to restate my interpretation of events in 1917, I prefer to do it in a straightforward manner without high-decibel distractions from Marot. A forthcoming article in Jacobin and a forthcoming series of posts with John Riddell both carry the general title of “All Power to the Soviets!”. Let these stand as my answer.

I hasten to add that of course I am ready and indeed eager to engage with anyone who engages with the new evidence I present, who makes a good faith effort to report my own interpretation accurately, and who challenges any aspect of my argument.

For a synopsis and links to some other articles by Lars Lih available online on this or other websites, see:

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