The role and history of party programs for Leninists

Written in 2010
By Doug Lorimer

Vladimir Ilych Lenin was the founder and, until his death in January 1924, the central leader of the Russian Bolshevik Party, the first party in history to lead a victorious socialist revolution. In doing so, the Bolsheviks proved for the first time in history that it was possible for the working class to forge out of its own ranks a revolutionary socialist party that was capable of organizing the workers and their allies to overthrow the political rule of the capitalist class, establish a working people’s government and to use this government to begin the construction of a socialist society.

Lenin’s greatest contribution to the success of the Russian Revolution was the work of preparation for it, in the construction of the Bolshevik Party. In the wake of the revolutionary victory of the Russian workers in November 1917, Lenin’s Bolshevik Party – renamed the Russian Communist Party in 1919 – rightly became the model for the revolutionary socialist workers in all countries. In a 1956 article, the US revolutionary socialist James P. Cannon observed that “Socialism signifies and requires the revolutionary transformation of society; anything less than that is mere bourgeois reform. A socialist party deserves the name only to the extent that it acts as the conscious agency in preparing the workers for the necessary social revolution.”

This was of course also the view of Marx and Engels. Engels pointed out in a letter a Danish socialist in 1889: “We are agreed on this: that the proletariat cannot conquer political power, the only door to the new society, without violent revolution. For the proletariat to be strong enough to win on the decisive day it must – and Marx and I have advanced this view ever since 1847 – form a separate party distinct from all others and, opposed to them, a conscious-class party.” In June 1847 Marx and Engels had founded the Communist League as the propaganda nucleus of such a party along with the members of League of the Just, an organization of several hundred German artisanal guest workers living in London, Brussels and Paris.

In November 1847 Marx and Engels were commissioned by the second conference of Communist League to draft a “theoretical and practical program” for the organization.  This was printed in February 1848 as the Manifesto of the Communist Party. In it Marx and Engels explained that what distinguished the communists from other workers was that the former had the advantage of understanding the “conditions, line of march and ultimate results of the proletarian movement”. That is, the communist workers have a common understanding of the general social, economic and political conditions facing the working class and, flowing from that scientific understanding, a common understanding of the strategic course of action and ultimate results of the proletariat’s movement to liberate itself from capitalist oppression. This common understanding of the “conditions, line of march and ultimate results of the proletarian movement” is summarised in the party’s program, a written document that sets out the party’s general plan of action to accomplish its ultimate objective.

Russian Marxism v Narodnism

When Lenin became a Marxist at the age of 18 while studying to become a lawyer in 1888  no such class-conscious workers’ party existed in Russia , only scattered and illegal Marxist study circles made up principally of university students. When Lenin arrived in 1893 in St. Petersburg , then the capital of the Russian Empire, to work as a junior barrister he joined one of these Marxist study circles at the Technological Institute.

The following year he wrote his first major political work, the book What the ‘Friends of the People’ and How They Fight the Social Democrats, a polemic against the Narodniks, the then dominant current among the revolutionary opponents of the semi-feudal absolutist monarchy that ruled Russia. At that time “Social Democrats” was the name used by the Russian Marxists, emulating the German Marxists who had adopted the name Social-Democratic Workers Party for the party they had established a national conference in 1869 in the town of Eisenach . The name was intended to provide the German Marxists with legal cover, as it was illegal at the time to openly advocate socialism, and to differentiate the socialists from the bourgeois liberal-democratic opponents of the semi-absolutist German monarchy.

The Russian Narodniks, were intellectuals and students who held the view that the process of capitalist industrialization that Tsarist Russia had begun to embark on after the defeat of its army by the British in the Crimean War of 1854 could be bypassed through a peasant revolution that would not only overthrow the landlord-based tsarist autocracy but create an agrarian “socialist” society based on the peasants’ communal land holdings

The first Russian Marxist group, the Emanicipation of Labour Group, had been founded in exile in 1883 in Geneva by three former Narodniks – Georgi Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich and Pavel Akselrod. In opposition to the Narodniks, they argued that Russia was already undergoing a rapid process of capitalist industrialisation. Indeed, by the end of 1890s, Russia had become the world's sixth largest industrial power, with some 6000 industrial plants. In the 30 years between the early 1860s and 1890, the number of industrial workers—wage-workers employed in large mills, mines and factories—doubled to 1.4 million. In the 1890s, however, the rate of capitalist industrial growth accelerated enormously. By end of that decade, the number of industrial workers had doubled again to about 2.8 million, which was about half the size of the industrial work force in the United States . Almost 60% of these workers were employed in large factories (factories having more than 500 workers), which accounted for 70% of the country's total industrial output. By comparison, factories employing more than 500 workers accounted for only one-third of the US industrial workforce.

In opposition to the Narodniks who argued that the principal task of Russian socialists was to organize among the peasantry, the Emanicipation of Labour Group argued that the principal task of Russian socialists was to build a class-conscious workers party to lead the urban working class in the struggle to win political liberty against the despotic tsarist regime. In his speech to an international conference of socialists in Paris in 1889, Plekanov for example, had stated: “Some economists who have too ardent an imagination and more good will than solid knowledge, depict Russia as a kind of European China, whose economic structure has nothing in common with that of Western Europe . That is utterly false. The old economic foundations of Russia are now undergoing a process of complete disintegration. Our village community about which so much has been said even in the socialist press, but which in fact has been the bulwark of Russian absolutism – this much praised community is becoming more and more an instrument of capitalist exploitation in the hands of the rich peasants, while the poor are abandoning the countryside and going to the big towns and industrial centres. At the same time big manufacturing industry is growing and absorbing the once flourishing handicrafts industry in the villages.

“The autocratic government is intensifying this situation with all its might and thus promoting the development of capitalism in Russia . We socialists and revolutionaries can only be satisfied at this aspect of its activity, for it is thus preparing its own downfall. The industrial proletariat, whose consciousness is being aroused, will strike a mortal blow at the autocracy…

“For the time being our task is to defend with you the cause of international socialism, to spread by all means the teachings of Social-Democracy among the Russian workers and to lead them in storming the stronghold of autocracy. In conclusion I repeat – and I insist on this important point: the revolutionary movement in Russia will triumph only as a working-class movement or else it will never triumph!”

The idea that only a party of class-conscious workers could provide consistent leadership to the masses of Russian working people in the struggle for political liberty through the overthrow of the tsarist autocracy was also affirmed by the manifesto issued by the founding congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, held in Minsk in 1898. The manifesto stated: “The further to the east of Europe (and Russia , as we know. Is the east of Europe ) the weaker, more cowardly and baser in its political attitude is the bourgeoisie, and the greater the cultural and political tasks that fall to the proletariat. The Russian working class must and will take upon its strong shoulders the task of winning political freedom. This is a vital, but merely an initial step towards realising the great historical mission of the proletariat: namely, the creation of a social system in which there will be no exploitation of man by man. The Russian proletariat will cast off the yoke of autocracy in order to pursue more energetically the struggle against capitalism and the bourgeoisie until the total victory of socialism.”

The founding party congress, attended by nine delegates representing local Marxist groups in Russia ’s biggest cities, elected a three-person central committee charged with drafting a party constitution and a party program. However, shortly after the congress its members were arrested by the tsarist secret police

Economist trend

A year later, an essentially reformist current become dominant within nearly all of the local RSDLP groups. One-sidedly exaggerating the work of mass agitation around the immediate economic struggles of the broad mass of workers, this current argued for Russian socialists to restrict their activity to assisting the economic struggles of the mass of workers and not to strive to lead the struggle for political liberty in Russia, but to simply assist the liberal bourgeoisie in its attempts to pressure the tsarist autocracy to grant a liberal-democratic constitution. The struggle against this reformist trend, which Plekhanov dubbed “Economism”, was initiated by Lenin from Siberia, where he had been exiled in 1895, but was only taken up in a systematic way after Lenin reached agreement with the three members of the Emancipation of Labour Group to begin in Switzerland at the end of 1900 publication the monthly political newspaper Iskra.

The Declaration of the Editorial Board of Iskra, which Lenin wrote, stated that “we Russian Social-Democrats must unite and direct all our efforts towards the formation of a strong party which must struggle under the single banner of revolutionary Social-Democracy. This is precisely the task laid down by the congress in 1898 at which the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party was formed, and which published its Manifesto. We regard ourselves as members of this party; we agree entirely with the fundamental ideas contained in the Manifesto and attach extreme importance to it as a public declaration of its aims.” This of course was a clear rejection of the idea that a unified RSDLP could be re-established on the basis of the Economists’ opportunist political orientation.

The declaration continued:

“… it is necessary to work for solid ideological unity which should eliminate discordance and confusion that—let us be frank!— reign among Russian Social-Democrats at the present time. This ideological unity must be consolidated by a party program… [W] e intend to devote our efforts to … this task, i.e., to creating a common literature, consistent in principle and capable of ideologically uniting revolutionary Social-Democracy, since we regard this as the pressing demand of the movement today and a necessary preliminary measure towards the resumption of party activity.’

In early 1902, as it was becoming evident that Iskra starting to win a majority within the local RSDLP groups inside Russia in its polemical battle against the Economist trend, Lenin and Plekhanov began to work on a draft party program to be presented to a second congress of the RSDLP.

Lenin on role of a party program

While still in exile in Siberia in 1899 Lenin drafted a number of articles in which he argued that the party’s program should be firmly based on the Marxist theory of the class struggle and the common action by party members required a party program. In one of these articles Lenin wrote: “From comrades active in Russia we have heard the opinion expressed that at this particular moment there is no special need to draw up a program; that the urgent question is one of developing and strengthening local organisations, of placing agitation and the delivery of literature on a more sound footing; that it would be better to postpone the elaboration of a program until such time as when the movement stands on firmer ground; that a program might, at the moment, turn out to be unfounded.

“We do not share this opinion. It goes without saying that ‘every step of real movement is more important than a dozen program’,” as Karl Marx said. But neither Marx nor any other theoretician or practical worker in the Social-Democratic movement has ever denied the tremendous importance of a program for the consolidation and consistent activity of a political party…”

Then, in a reference to the dispute that with the newly emerged Economist trend, Lenin wrote: “The objection may be raised, further, that the present moment is inopportune for the elaboration of a program because there are differences of opinion that give rise to polemics among the Social-Democrats themselves. I believe the contrary to be true—this is another argument in favour of the necessity for a program… if it is not to degenerate into personal rivalry, if it is not to lead to a confusion of views, to a confounding of enemies and friends, it is absolutely essential that the question of the program be introduced into the polemic. The polemic will be of benefit only if it makes clear in what the differences actually consist, how profound they are, whether they are differences of substance or differences on partial questions, whether or not these differences interfere with common work in the ranks of one and the same party. Only the introduction of the program question into the polemic, only a definite statement by the two polemising parties on their programmatic views, can provide an answer to all these questions, questions that insistently demand an answer.  The elaboration of a common program for the party should not, of course, put an end to all polemics; it will firmly establish those basic views on the character, the aims, and the tasks of our movement which must serve as the banner of a fighting party, a party that remains consolidated and united despite partial differences of opinion among its members on partial questions.”

Lenin then went on to note that the Geneva-based Emancipation of Labour Group had drawn up a draft party program as early as 1895. He endorsed this draft as having the “elements” that are “absolutely essential to a program of the Social-Democratic working-class party”, adding: “In view of this, the Russian Social-Democrats can and should, in our opinion, make the draft of the Emancipation of Labour group—a draft requiring editorial changes, corrections, and additions only in respect of details— the basis of the program of the Russian Social-Democratic working-class party.” These essential elements in Lenin view were that the draft designated “precisely that class which alone, in Russia as in other countries, is capable of being an in dependent fighter for socialism—the working class…; it states the aim which this class must set itself—“the conversion of all means and objects of production into social property,” “the abolition of commodity production” and “its replacement by a new system of social production”—“the communist revolution”; it indicates the “inevitable preliminary condition” for “the reconstruction of social relations”—“the seizure of political power by the working class”; it affirms the international solidarity of the proletariat and the necessity for an “element of variety in the programs of the Social-Democrats of different states in accordance with the social conditions in each of them taken separately”; it points to the specific feature of Russia “where the masses of working people suffer under the double yoke of developing capitalism and moribund patriarchal economy”; it shows the connection between the Russian revolutionary movement and the process of the creation (by the forces of developing capitalism) of “a new class, the industrial proletariat—the most responsive, mobile, and developed”; it indicates the necessity for the formation of “a revolutionary working-class party” and specifies “its first political task”—“the overthrow of absolutism”; it shows the “means of political struggle” and formulates its basic demands.”

Lenin argued however that the draft program needed editorial changes, in particular it needed more on “the specific features of Russia which must find full expression in the specific features of our program. Running ahead somewhat, let us say here that among these specific features are, first, our political tasks and means of struggle; and, secondly, our struggle against all remnants of the patriarchal, pre-capitalist regime and the specific posing of the peasant question arising out of that struggle.” He went on to argue that with regard to “the means of struggle”. “the program of a working-class party is no place for indications of the means of activity that were necessary in the program of a group of revolutionaries abroad in 1885. The program should leave the question of means open, allowing the choice of means to the … party congresses that determine the tactics of the party. Questions of tactics, however, can hardly be introduced into the program (with the exception of the most important questions, questions of principle, such as our attitude to other fighters against the autocracy). Questions of tactics will be discussed by the party newspaper as they arise and will be eventually decided at party congresses.”

The Emanicipation of Labour Group’s draft party program, reworked by Plekhanov and Lenin, became the draft program that the Iskraists presented to and had adopted by second congress of the RSDLP; held in London and Brussels in July and August 1903.

1903 party program

In October 1919 Bolshevik leaders Nikolai Bukharin and Yevgeny Preobrazhensky wrote a book, The ABC of Communism, to provide an explanatory commentary on the program adopted by the Bolshevik party in March 1919. In this book, which was printed in early 1920 by the party as a “textbook for study at party schools”, they noted that “Our present program was adopted by the Eighth Party Congress at the end of March 1919. Prior to this we had not a precise program, written on paper. We had nothing but the old program elaborated at the Second Party Congress in the year 1903. When this old program was compiled, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks constituted a single party, and they had a common program.”

 The 1903 party program had set as the ultimate goal of the RSDLP the carrying out of a socialist revolution, with the “necessary condition” for this revolution being ”the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., the conquest by the proletariat of such political power as will enable it to suppress all resistance on the part of the exploiters.” However, it set  the party’s “primary and immediate task to overthrow the tsarist autocracy and set up in its place a democratic republic”.

 Bukharin and Preobrazhensky went on to explain that in 1903 “the strength of the Russian working class was extremely small. That is why no one then imagined that it would be possible to undertake the direct overthrow of the bourgeoisie. At that time the best policy seemed: to break the neck of tsardom; to win freedom of association for the workers and peasants in conjunction with all others; to establish the eight-hour day; and to reduce the power of the landowners. No one then dreamed that it would be possible to realize the rule of the workers once and for all, or immediately to dispossess the bourgeoisie of its factories and workshops.” The 1903 program however left unclear what sort of “democratic republic” the RSDLP should strive for to replace the tsarist state. It also left unclear what alignment of class forces would be needed to achieve the overthrow of the Tsarist regime. It also left unclear what would be the relationship between anti-tsarist revolution and the future socialist revolution.

 Bolsheviks v Mensheviks

The split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks initially concerned a dispute over organisation questions – specifically the refusal of the Mensheviks to accept the decision of the 1903 party congress on the composition of the editorial board of Iskra, which was recognized by the congress as the party’s central press organ. Following the congress the Mensheviks, led by Yuli Martov, formed a secret faction with former leaders of the defeated Economist trend to overturn the composition the Iskra editorial board. When Plekhanov, who had been elected party president, and one of the three Iskra editors – along with Lenin and Martov – capitulated to the Mensheviks and together with Martov co-opted a Menshevik majority onto the editorial board, Lenin resigned and appealed to the Party Council, the party’s governing body between congresses, for the convening of an extraordinary party congress to resolve the dispute. Taking advantage of the arrest of a number of Bolshevik members of the Party Council, the Mensheviks gained a majority on it and voted down Lenin’s proposal.

 Writing to Lenin at the beginning of 1904, a worker active in one of the local city-based party units inside Russia, which were called “committees”, denounced all of the leaders abroad as “political intriguers”, but also touched on the important point at issue in the dispute between Lenin and the Mensheviks: “What's the use of having congresses if their decisions are ignored and everybody does just as he pleases, saying that the congress decision is wrong, that the central committee is ineffective, and so on. And this is being done by people who before the congress were always clamouring for centralisation, party discipline, and so on, but who now want to show, it seems, that discipline is only meant for ordinary mortals, and not for these at the top.”

In reply, Lenin wrote: “The squabbles abroad among the writers and all the other generals (who you too harshly and bluntly call intriguers) will cease to be dangerous to the party only when the leaders of committees in Russia become more independent and capable of firmly demanding the fulfillment of what their delegates decide at the party congress.”

 During 1904, the Mensheviks tried to justify their overturning of the decisions of the second party congress by waging a furious demagogic campaign against Lenin, accusing him of being an advocate of "bureaucratic centralism"—for insisting that they abide by the decisions of the party congress. In response to this campaign, in May 1904 Lenin published his booklet One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, giving a detailed account of what had transpired at and after the congress and explaining from a Marxist standpoint what was at stake in the dispute between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, pointing out that the Mensheviks were reviving the previously defeated views of the opportunist Economist trend. Thus Akselrod had begun to argue that the Russian Marxists should concentrate their efforts on the creation of an all-inclusive non-political workers' organisation, which in practice would have meant the liquidation of the still very weak revolutionary socialist party. In One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Lenin observed: “The party, as the vanguard of the working class, must not be confused, after all, with the entire class. And Comrade Axelrod is guilty of just this confusion (which is characteristic of our opportunist Economism in general)… [I]t would be ‘tailism’ to think that the entire class, or almost the entire class, can ever rise, under capitalism, to the level of consciousness and activity of its vanguard, of its Social-Democratic Party.”

 In July 1904, Lenin convened a conference of 22 Bolsheviks in Switzerland which issued an appeal "To the Party" calling for a struggle to convene a new RSDLP congress. Over the following few months, conferences of local party committees inside Russia declared support fir this call and in December 1904 elected a Bureau of Majority Committees, which began publishing a weekly paper, and set up an organizing committee for the Third Congress of the RSDLP, which was held with only Bolshevik participation in May 1905.

 In early February 1905 Lenin wrote to a Swiss socialist leader that the split into two separate party organizations reflected the re-emergence of the same political differences that had existed between the old Iskra and the opportunist Economist trend. Thirty five years later, one of the leading Mensheviks, Theodore Dan, acknowledged that Lenin had been right about this. In 1938, Dan wrote: “[T[he organizational disagreements that, at the second congress, divided the Iskra people into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were merely the cover for incipient intellectual and political divergences … It was not an organizational but a political divergence that quickly split the Russian Social-Democracy into two factions, which sometimes drew close and then clashed with each other at a time when they were nominally within the framework of a unitary party.” Dan noted that “on the question of the relationship between the party and the labouring masses the Mensheviks had gone a long way towards the organizational ideas of Economism.” But he also identified the underlying political divergence, writing: “The basic ideas of the Iskra platform were, as we have seen, the primacy of political tasks over the task of leading an economic struggle of the proletariat, and the originating, dominant role of the Social Democracy, its ‘hegemony’ in the ‘all-national’ struggle for political liberation … There is no doubt that Bolshevism carried on this Iskra political tradition.” By contrast, the Mensheviks, Dan noted, came to believe “in leaving the dominant role in the solution of the ‘all-national’ task of the revolution – the task of replacing the Tsarist by a revolutionary government – to non-proletarian, bourgeois social forces that were trying to give the proletariat no more than the role of an influential opposition `pushing’ the bourgeoisie toward political radicalism and compelling them to make substantial socio-economic concessions toward the working class.” Dan correctly concluded that this “meant essentially liquidating the whole concept of ‘hegemony’”.

Programmatic divergence

During the 1905 revolutionary upsurge, this incipient political divergence manifested itself in the Mensheviks’ opposition to the view championed by the Bolsheviks that the Russian socialists had to carry out propaganda and agitation for an armed uprising of the working class to establish a revolutionary government based on mass fighting organizations of the proletariat. The Mensheviks argued that the coming to power of such a revolutionary government, with revolutionary socialists at its head, would drive the liberal bourgeoisie into the arms of tsarist counter-revolution and that this would doom the anti-tsarist democratic revolution to defeat. The Mensheviks increasing argued that the chief ally of the working class in the anti-tsarist struggle was the liberal bourgeoisie, that the tsarist autocracy should be replaced by a bourgeois parliamentary republic as existed in developed capitalist countries such as the United States and France, and that a socialist revolution in Russia would only become possible when the urban working class became the majority of the population, which would require a prolonged period of capitalist economic development.

 By contrast, Lenin and the Bolsheviks argued that the only reliable ally the working class had in the anti-tsarist democratic revolution was the peasantry and that the democratic revolution could be carried to completion only by a revolutionary government based on the alliance of the workers and peasants. They also argued that this revolutionary government should seek to establish a democratic republic modeled on the 1871 Paris Commune. Thus in July 1905 Lenin argued in the Bolshevik press that “when we study the lessons of the Paris Commune we should imitate not the mistakes it made (the failure to seize the Bank of France and to launch an offensive against Versailles , the lack of a clear program, etc.), but its successful practical measures, which indicate the correct road”. In his first article commenting on the setting up in late October 1905 of the St Petersburg Soviet (i.e., council) of Workers Deputies to organise a city-wide general strike, Lenin argued that the “Soviet must proclaim itself the provisional revolutionary government, or form such a government, and must by all means enlist to this end the participation of new deputies not only from the workers, but, first of all, from the sailors and soldiers, who are everywhere seeking freedom; secondly, from the revolutionary peasantry, and thirdly, from the revolutionary bourgeois intelligentsia.”

 In a September 1905 article on the Russian Marxists’ tasks in relation to the peasant movement, Lenin argued that the Bolsheviks should support the organization of revolutionary peasant committees to confiscate the estates of the big semi-feudal landowners. But he went on to note that,

“Class antagonism between the rural proletariat and the peasant bourgeoisie is unavoidable, and we disclose it in advance, explain it, and prepare for the struggle on the basis of that antagonism. One of the immediate causes of such a struggle may very likely be provided by the question: to whom shall the confiscated land be given, and how? …  this is a question we shall fight out later on, fight again, on a new field and with other allies … for from the democratic revolution we shall at once, and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength of the class-conscious and organised proletariat, begin to pass to the socialist revolution. We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop half-way … To try to calculate now what the combination of forces will be within the peasantry ‘on the day after’ the revolution (the democratic revolution) is empty utopianism. Without falling into adventurism or going against our conscience in matters of science, without striving for cheap popularity, we can and do assert only one thing: we shall bend every effort to help the entire peasantry achieve the democratic revolution, in order thereby to make it easier for us, the party of the proletariat, to pass on as quickly as possible to the new and higher task—the socialist revolution.”

 Clearly, in the course of 1905 the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks began to argue for radically different programs, strategic plans of action, for carrying through both the anti-tsarist revolution and for achieving a socialist revolution in Russia . However, because the Mensheviks continued to affirm their support for the party program adopted at the 1903 congress, the political divergence between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks was regarded by Lenin as a difference over party tactics, hence the title of his major 1905 polemic with the Mensheviks – Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution.

 It was not until 1911 that Lenin drew the conclusion that nominal party unity with the majority of the Menshevik leaders was no longer possible because they wanted to liquidate the illegal party organization. Against the Menshevik-liquidato rs, Lenin sought to forge an alliance with those Mensheviks, such as Plekhanov and Aleksandra Kollontai,  who opposed the Menshevik-liquidato rs and wanted to preserve the illegal party organization. However, Lenin disagreed with their characterization of the problem. “Plekhanov”, Lenin wrote, “depicts the split within the Menshevik ranks over liquidationism as a split over an organisational question”. But, Lenin wrote, “’The question here is not at all one of present day organisational problems. . . it is a question of the fundamental ideas of the Social-Democratic program and tactics, which are being ’liquidated’ by the collective Menshevik ‘work’ issued under the collective Menshevik editorship of Martov, Maslov, Potresov.” In Lenin’s view, the Menshevik-liquidato rs “pursue, not a Social-Democratic, but a liberal-labour policy”.

 In 1912, a Bolshevik-dominated party conference declared the Menshevik-liquidato rs to be outside the RSDLP. However, this decision was not justified on the grounds that the Menshevik-liquidato rs had rejected the “the fundamental ideas of the Social Democratic program” but on the grounds that they refused to abide by party discipline. Writing in 1911, Lenin observed that

“There are not many people among the adherents of the RSDLP capable of sincerely defending the liquidationist trend. Unfortunately, there are still quite a number of  people who are sincerely opposed to liquidationism, but do not understand the conditions under which the struggle against it has to be waged. Of course, they say, liquidationism is a bourgeois trend in the Social-Democratic movement; but why not fight it in the ranks of a single party, just as the Germans fight the Bernsteinians? Why not try to come to an “agreement” with the liquidators? Our champions of “agreement” fail to understand a very important and very simple thing: the liquidators are not only opportunists (like Bernstein and Co.); they are also trying to build a separate party of their own, they have is issued the slogan that the RSDL.P does not exist; they pay no heed whatever to the decisions of the RSDLP.”

 It was only after the outbreak of the first imperialist World War in August 1914 and the open support given by the majority of the leaders of the European Social-Democratic parties to their respective imperialist governments in the war, that Lenin rejected the view  - endorsed by the 1904 congress of the Second International - that Marxist parties should tolerate non-revolutionary and even openly reformist trends in their ranks so long they nominally accepted the party program and said they were willing to abide by party decisions.

 “The collapse of the Second International”, Lenin argued in early 1915,

“signifies the complete victory of opportunism, the transformation of the Social Democratic parties into national liberal-labour parties, is merely the result of the entire historical epoch of the Second International—the close of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. The objective conditions of this epoch—transitional from the consummation of West European bourgeois and national revolutions to the beginning of socialist revolutions—engendered and fostered  opportunism… The crisis created by the great war has torn away all coverings, swept away conventions, exposed an abscess that has long come to a head, and revealed opportunism in its true role of ally of the bourgeoisie. The complete organisational severance of this element from the workers’ parties has become imperative. The epoch of imperialism cannot permit the existence, in a single party, of the revolutionary proletariat’s vanguard and the semi-petty-bourgeoi s aristocracy of the working class, who enjoy morsels of the privileges of their 'own' nation’s 'Great-Power' status. The old theory that opportunism is a 'legitimate shade' in a single party that knows no 'extremes' has now turned into a tremendous deception of the workers and a tremendous hindrance to the working-class movement.”

 April 1917 Theses and revision of party program

The programmatic implications of this conclusion were drawn by Lenin upon his return to Russia in April 1917, and by the Bolshevik leaders when they initiated the Third International. In his Famous “April Theses” Lenin proposed revising the 1903 party program to include an “evaluation of imperialism and the epoch of imperialist wars”, “amending the theses and clauses dealing with the state; such amendment is to be in the nature of a demand for a democratic proletarian- peasant republic (i. e., a type of state functioning without police, without a standing army, and without a privileged bureaucracy) , and not for a bourgeois parliamentary republic” and making alterations to the so-called “minimum program” of demands for reforms that the party sought within the framework of capitalism. Theses proposals were endorsed by the party’s Seventh All-Russia Conference held at the end of April 1917.

The conference also adopted Lenin’s “Resolution on the Current Situation” which set a  line of march for achieving a socialist revolution in Russia based on the line of march that the Bolsheviks had formulated during the 1905 revolutionary upsurge. The resolution stated that

“Operating as it does in one of the most backward countries of Europe amidst a vast population of small peasants, the proletariat of Russia cannot aim at immediately putting into effect socialist changes. But it would be a grave error, and in effect even a complete desertion to the bourgeoisie, to infer from this that the working class must support the bourgeoisie, or that it must keep its activities within limits acceptable to the petty bourgeoisie, or that the proletariat must renounce its leading role in the matter of explaining to the people the urgency of taking a number of practical steps towards socialism for which the time is now ripe.

“These steps are: first, nationalisation of the land. This measure, which does not directly go beyond the framework of the bourgeois system, would, at the same time, be a heavy blow at private ownership of the means of production, and as such would strengthen the influence of the socialist proletariat over the semi-proletariat in the countryside.

“The next steps are the establishment of state control over all banks, and their amalgamation into a single central bank; also control over the insurance agencies and big capitalist syndicates (for example, the Sugar Syndicate, the Coal Syndicate, the Metal Syndicate, etc.), and the gradual introduction of a more just progressive tax on incomes and properties. Economically, these measures are timely; technically, they can be carried out immediately; politically they are likely to receive the support of the overwhelming majority of the peasants, who have everything to gain by these reforms.

“The Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, Peasants’, and other Deputies, which now cover Russia with a dense and growing network, could also introduce, parallel with the above measures, universal labour conscription, for on the one hand the character of the Soviets guarantees that all these new reforms will be introduced only when an overwhelming majority of the people has clearly and firmly realised the practical need for them; on the other hand their character guarantees that the reforms will not be sponsored by the police and officials, but will be carried out by way of voluntary participation of the organised and armed masses of the proletariat and peasantry in the management of their own affairs.

“All these and other similar measures can and should be not only discussed and prepared for enforcement on a national scale in the event of all power passing to the proletarians and semi-proletarians, but also implemented by the local revolutionary organs of power of the whole people when the opportunity arises.

“Great care and discretion should be exercised in carrying out the above measures; a solid majority of the population must be won over and this majority must be clearly convinced of the country’s practical preparedness for any particular measure. This is the direction in which the class-conscious vanguard of the workers must focus its attention and efforts, because it is the bounden duty of these workers to help the peasants find a way out of the present debacle.”

Consequently, during the acute revolutionary situation in Russia in 1917, the Bolsheviks did not concentrate their propaganda and agitation on a “minimum program” of demands to be implemented by the capitalists and their Provisional Government. Instead, in line with the above cited resolution, they concentrated their propaganda work on a program of measures to combat the impending famine in Russia , measures such as the nationalisation of the banks, abolition of commercial secrecy, the nationalisation of the capitalist marketing syndicates, and for workers’ control of production, i.e., workers’ control over their capitalist employers. They stressed over and over again that the realisation of these measures was only possible under a working people’s government based on the workers; soldiers and peasants soviets.

The Bolsheviks summed up this program in two agitational slogans: “Bread, peace and land!” and “All power to the soviets!” These were mobilising slogans summarising what the Bolsheviks advocated the workers and peasants fight for, not demands addressed to the capitalist Provisional Government. A slogan is a short, easily remembered phrase encapsulating an idea, not a demand, a measure that one calls on someone else to implement for you or concede to you.

 In an October 1917 article on “Revising the Party Program”, Lenin observed that the Bolsheviks were “fighting for the conquest of political power by our party” and that “In taking power, we are not at all afraid of stepping beyond the bounds of the bourgeois system; on the contrary, we declare clearly, directly, definitely, and openly that we shall step beyond those bounds, that we shall fearlessly march towards socialism, that our road shall be through a Soviet Republic, through nationalisation of banks and syndicates, through workers' control, through universal labour conscription, through nationalisation of the land, confiscation of the landowners' livestock and implements, etc. In this sense we drafted our program of measures for transition to socialism.”

 Program of transitional measures

A program of measures transitional to socialism was first put forward by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, the first Marxist party program. It argued that “the first step in the revolution of the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.” It then noted that “Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.”

 The Manifesto then presented a list of 10 such measures which it argued were generally applicable in the most advanced countries, including nationalisation of the land, a “heavy progressive or graduated income tax”, nationalisation of the banks, “centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state”, “extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state” and “free education for all children in public schools”. These measures were only conceived of as being transitional to the  complete revolutionizing of the capitalist mode of production because of the revolutionary change in the class character of the state power that would be implementing them, i.e., “the proletariat organised as the ruling class”.

 The Communist Manifesto did not contain a “minimum program” of immediate reforms to be demanded by the workers from either individual capitalist employers or their governments. It merely stated that the “Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class”. Marx and Engels recognized that the “momentary” interests of the working class could not be set down in a revolutionary socialist party’s program, in a strategic plan of action for a socialist revolution, as they would change from day to day. In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels set down only the Communists’ strategic orientation toward movements struggling for the immediate, “momentary aims of the working class”, by adding “but in the movement of the present”, the Communists “take care of the future of that movement”. They were to do this by never ceasing “to instill in the working class the clearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat”.

 Comintern and transitional slogans

In his report on the resolution “On Tactics” to the Communist International’s 1921 Third Congress, Karl Radek, speaking for the Bolshevik-led Comintern executive committee, singled out two slogans that Communist parties should conduct propaganda and mass agitation for. The first was “workers’ control of production”. He pointed out that “one must try to lead all struggles over wage rises, over working hours, against unemployment towards the intermediate aim of control over production, not towards the system of production control effected by the government, by passing a law, which the proletariat has then to respect, that the worker does not steal, and the capitalist has to watch that the worker works. Control over production means education in proletarian struggle, all factory organisations to be subject to elections, their local and district-wide connection on the basis of industrial groups in the proletarian struggle.”

 Radek named “the arming of the proletariat, the disarming of the bourgeoisie” as the second slogan, drawing the following general conclusion: “One could mention even more slogans of that type. I will not do so. They grow out of the practical struggle. What we say to you, give to you as a general slogan, as a general orientation is, not to counterpose yourselves to the proletariat in all the struggles, which the masses undertake, but to sharpen, to extend the struggles of the masses for their practical necessities, and to teach them to have greater necessities: the necessity to conquer power.”

 These two slogans were conceived of as conveying tasks to be accomplished by the working class in a revolutionary situation, not demands to be addressed to the capitalists and their governments. If fought for by a mass revolutionary movement and partially realised, even before the working class had conquered political power, they would weaken capitalist rule in the workplaces and the bourgeois state power, and provide the workers with organisations capable of carrying out a revolutionary struggle for state power – factory committees and a workers’ militia. The partial realisation of these measures against the resistance of the bourgeoisie, and the attempt to extend them, would pose the question of power in its full extent. They were thus “transitional slogans”, conveying the key tasks to be accomplished by the workers in making a transition from “struggles of the masses for their practical necessities” to the struggle for state power.

 The resolution “On Tactics” adopted by the Comintern’s Third Congress explicitly rejected the idea that the Communist parties should confine themselves to propaganda and agitation for a “minimum program” of  “peaceful reforms to be carried out on the basis and within the framework of the bankrupt capitalist system”. It stated that “All the agitation, propaganda and political work of the Communist parties must start from the understanding that no long-term improvement in the position of the proletariat is possible under capitalism and that only the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the destruction of capitalist states will make possible the transformation of working-class living conditions and the reconstruction of the economy ruined by capitalism.” But it added: “This does not mean, however, that the proletariat has to renounce the fight for its immediate practical demands until after it has established its dictatorship.”

 It further stated the “Communist parties do not put forward minimum programs which could serve to strengthen and improve the tottering foundations of capitalism. The Communists’ main aim is to destroy the capitalist system. But in order to achieve their aim the Communist parties must put forward demands expressing the immediate needs of the working class. The Communists must organise mass campaigns to fight for these demands regardless of whether they are compatible with the continuation of the capitalist system. The Communist parties should be concerned not with the viability and competitive capacity of capitalist industry or the stability of the capitalist economy, but with proletarian poverty, which cannot and must not be endured any longer. If the demands put forward by the Communists correspond to the immediate needs of the broad proletarian masses, and if the masses are convinced that they cannot go on living unless their demands are met, then the struggle around these issues becomes the starting-point of the struggle for power. In place of the minimum program of the centrists and reformists, the Communist International offers a struggle for the concrete demands of the proletariat which, in their totality, challenge the power of the bourgeoisie, organise the proletariat and mark out the different stages of the struggle for its dictatorship.”

 A little further on, the resolution stated: “The Communist parties should make certain that the demands they put forward not only correspond to the demands of the broad masses, but also draw the masses into battle and lay the basis for organising them. Concrete slogans that express the economic need of the working masses must lead to the struggle for control of industry – control based not on a plan to organise the economy bureaucratically and under the capitalist system, but on the factory committees and revolutionary trade unions.”

 The resolution thus mixed together “demands” to be implemented by the capitalists and the governments aimed at meeting the immediate needs of the proletariat within the framework of capitalism with “transitional slogans” to convey to the workers the measures they should themselves implement, with both the former and the latter being termed “demands”. But to demand that a capitalist government implement “workers’ control of production” would be an opportunist deception of the workers, implying that the workers could achieve this through the agency of a capitalist government rather than through their self-organisation into “factory committees and revolutionary trade unions”. The Comintern resolution itself sounded such a warning. Commenting on the pseudo-revolutionar y left-reformists’ demand for capitalist governments to “socialise” or nationalize “the most important branches of industry” it stated: “The centrists want to divert the workers from the real, vital struggle for their immediate goals by holding out the hope that industrial forms can be taken over gradually, one by one, and that ‘systematic’ economic construction can then begin.” 

At the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in November 1922, the Russian delegation (consisting of Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Radek and Bukharin) issued a statement that sought to clarify this confusion, making it clear that the Bolshevik leadership was for the inclusion of “transitional slogans”, not “transitional demands”. into the programs of the Communist parties. The statement declared:

“The dispute over how the transitional demands should be formulated and in which section of the program they should be included has awakened a completely erroneous impression that there exists a principled difference. In light of this, the Russian delegation unanimously confirms that the drawing up of transitional slogans in the programs of the national sections and their general formulation and theoretical motivation in the general section of the program cannot be interpreted as opportunism.”

 This examination of the development of Lenin’s views on the program of a revolutionary socialist party illustrates that this involved a return to the fundamental ideas of contained in the Marx and Engels’ original communist program, but enriched by the lessons drawn from the experience of building a mass-based revolutionary working-class party that was able, for the first time and across one sixth of the Earth’s surface, to organize the proletariat as the ruling class.