How P. B. Axelrod Exposes the Liquidators

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Author(s) Lenin
Written July 1912

Written late in July 1912
Published in Nevskaya Zvezda Nos. 18 and 19, July 22 and 29, 1912. Signed: V. I.. Published according to the newspaper text verified against the text in the collection Marxism and Liquidationism Part II, St. Petersburg, 1914.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1975, Moscow, Volume 18, pages 175-186.
Collection(s): Nevskaya Zvezda

I[edit source]

P. B. Axelrod is destined to play an original role in the development of the opportunist trend among the Marxists. His idea of a “labour congress”, for example, once made quite a stir. A certain number of workers were attracted and carried away by his propaganda. But the more widespread that propaganda became and the nearer the idea drew to being put into effect, the clearer became the spurious character of the scheme, which fizzled out of itself. Experience con firmed what the Bolsheviks had pointed out more than once, namely, that Axelrod’s “ideas” are an invention of the opportunist intelligentsia, a dream of how to “bypass” grim class and political struggles.

Exactly the same story has now been repeated with regard to the idea of a workers’ publishing house and a “non-factional” workers’ newspaper. Any St. Petersburg worker will recall how much the liquidators made of that idea until very recently, how they tempted the workers with the dream of “bypassing” all struggle among the worker democrats, and how comically they fumed against Zvezda because it showed that the issue of a liberal labour policy (think of the bakers’ decision[1]) cannot be bypassed and that all talk about workers’ control over a non-factional newspaper is sheer demagogy.

And now Axelrod, writing in the liquidationist Nevsky Golos No. 6, has excellently exposed—has had to expose—the demagogy of his own friends. Demagogy means lavishing promises that cannot be fulfilled. The idea of a broad labour congress, a legal workers’ publishing house and a non-factional workers’ newspaper is tempting. But the point is that these tempting things cannot be achieved without first waging a stubborn and difficult struggle for political liberty in general, for the victory of Marxism among the worker democrats, etc. Demagogic promises are easy to give. But life soon shows that they cannot be fulfilled, and exposes the opportunism of “rosy dreams”.

In Nevsky Golos No. 6, Axelrod dishes up an amazing amount of empty declamation, asserting, for instance, that he and his friends are “progressive spokesmen of the Party”, while their opponents are “reactionaries”. Of course, Axelrod likes very much to think so, and the liquidators like to print what he thinks. Only, what cheap talk it is! Praising himself for his “progressive” attitude.... Would it not be better to explain the substance and meaning of the divergencies?

“The idea of a non-factional Social-Democratic (genuinely Social-Democratic, without inverted commas) organ is utopian at present and, moreover, a utopia that objectively runs counter to the interests of the Party’s political development and the organisational unification of the proletariat under the banner of Social-Democracy. Drive Nature out of the door and she will fly in through the window and the cracks.”

That is what Axelrod writes. Those are not bad ideas at all. They are perfectly sound in principle. They show that Axelrod’s liquidationist friends were quite wrong when yesterday they were still putting out among the mass of the workers the very idea which Axelrod now condemns. Only, we cannot regard the lavishing of unrealisable promises as a “progressive” attitude.

“We may be said to have no factions that have taken shape organisationally,” writes Axelrod. “Instead, we have various circles and small groups, of which some hold more or less definite political, tactical and organisational views, while the others waver in various directions, getting in the way of the former.”

The first sentence is not entirely correct. Axelrod knows very well that there is something which has fully taken shape organisationally—as far as that is possible nowadays. But the second is correct: there are many small groups that are wavering and are getting in the way of the others. By stating this truth under the compulsion of events, Axelrod exposes his friends again. Everyone is aware that what Axelrod’s friends are just now making a display of is ostentatious “unification” on paper of the wavering little groups. Do they not promise this fictitious “unification” of all the liquidators and all the waverers in the very same No. 6 of Nevsky Golos?

“The focal point and main source of the discord,” Axelrod continues, “is, on the one hand, the difference in the attitude of the various Party circles to the new, open Social-Democratic labour movement [shouldn’t you have said to the open Party, esteemed P. B. Axelrod? It is a bad thing to distort the essence of the divergency!] and, on the other hand, substantial differences over immediate political tasks and the political tactics of the Russian Social-Democratic movement. The requirements of both these categories are becoming particularly burning and topical issues just now when a new social and political movement is beginning. And it is over them that the Russian Social-Democrats have split into two main camps. The question arises whether the projected labour newspaper will be able to take a neutral position between these two opposed camps, and whether such a position is permissible in principle. Obviously not.”...

A very correct conclusion. Axelrod has given a good thrashing not only to those of his friends who yesterday were clamouring for a neutral and non-factional newspaper, but also to those who today are assuring naïve people of their “agreement”, “unity”, solidarity, and so on, with the neutral little groups.

There are indeed two main camps. One of them has completely taken shape organisationally. Its answers to all the questions listed by Axelrod are quite formal, precise and definite, unlike the desultory and contradictory little articles of certain writers. As for the other camp, i.e., the liquidationist camp, to which Axelrod belongs, it has admittedly not taken shape organisationally (what we have in stead is only hollow promises of an open labour party, only talk about open political societies of the workers, which are even less feasible than a labour congress would have been in 1906–07), nor can it answer, in specific and precise terms, the questions listed by Axelrod himself (what we have in stead of specific answers is only the journalistic exercises of Yezhov, Levitsky, Klenov, Chatsky, and others).

As soon as a working group of publishers and journalists makes up its mind to put forward a specific programme of action, to take a definite stand on questions relating, say, to the election campaign, to put particular tasks and slogans before the workers in the campaign and declare itself for a particular tactic towards the different political parties—as soon, I say, as a publishing association decides to lend its publication the character of an essentially proletarian political Organ, it will be faced with the same vexed questions and differences that worry and rend asunder the Russian Social-Democracy. And then it may happen that that association itself will become a new source of the same kind of discord, unless its members come to terms and reach agreement on these questions beforehand.”

Axelrod hits out at the liquidators very correctly and very well. What the “association” needs, Nasha Zarya and Nevsky Golos need still more badly. Then why cannot they come to terms on the vexed questions and differences? Why cannot they give precise answers at least to the more important questions listed by Axelrod (the attitude to different parties, the tasks, slogans and tactics)?

“Physician, cure thyself.” Axelrod has so well explained to the workers the need for clear and precise answers to the “vexed questions” that the writers of Nasha Zarya and Nevsky Golos (and, perhaps, not only Nevsky Golos) ought to heed his words. One cannot do without precise and clear answers to the “vexed questions”, cannot confine oneself to articles—that would indeed be the circle spirit. Decisions—precise, formal, well-considered, and definite decisions—are needed. After all, it is not for nothing that Axelrod speaks—and very aptly!—of a specific programme of action, of tasks and slogans, etc.

Incidentally, the reason why the liquidators are called liquidators is that, while they have rejected the old, they offer nothing new. That an open party is useful, and that open political societies are necessary, is something which all liquidators have been dinning into our ears. But this talk of theirs is not all that is required, and as for action, there is no evidence of it, none whatsoever. There is no evidence of precisely what Axelrod demands from the workers!

In the Nevsky Golos feuilleton, below the dividing line, Axelrod has given excellent evidence exposing the liquidators who write above the dividing line, in the editorial section of the paper. Read Axelrod’s feuilleton carefully and you will see that it is deception and self-deception for the liquidators to shout about “agreement” concerning an election platform, a “single” platform, etc.

“A Zvezda Supporter” has already exposed this deception in Nevskaya Zvezda No. 16. But the exposure provided by Axelrod goes even deeper and is still more valuable because it comes from Axelrod.

We are entirely in favour of a single platform—namely, the one which the Bolsheviks and pro-Party Mensheviks adopted long ago, and are putting into effect, as “A Zvezda Supporter” justly points out. We are entirely in favour of a single election campaign precisely on that platform, on the basis of these same decisions, of definite and precise answers to all the “vexed questions”.

By shouting about “unity”, the liquidators seek to carry away ignorant workers by the mere sound of the word. “Unity” is agreeable, “non-factional newspapers” are more attractive! But read Axelrod at least, and he will make it clear to you that non-factionalism is impossible, that it is utopian; that there are two camps among the worker democrats, and that these two camps are opposed.

What now? Are the liquidators by any chance going to defend a “platform” in order to conceal their views?—a diplomatic platform, such as the bourgeoisie likes so much?—, a platform that does not furnish any answers to the “vexed questions” but is “simply” and “merely” concerned with “getting into the Duma”?

That would be the height of unprincipledness. But the workers would never accept it. Such platforms, no matter how “open”, could not hold their own even for a single day.

Yes, we have had enough of self-deception. It is time we faced up to the truth, which this time has also been plainly acknowledged by the leader of the liquidators, Axelrod. If you, liquidator gentlemen, choose to insist on a platform of your “own” (although you have yet to put it forward, and we do not believe in platforms concocted six weeks before elections!), if you choose to insist on tactics of your “own” (although so far you have nowhere stated them precisely, formally, in a manner befitting a party!), then you alone are to blame. Then it is you who violate the unity that is there already. Then it is you who will be held entirely responsible for that violation.

Yes, we have had enough of self-deception. Liquidationist cries about “unity” are no more than a blind. Knowing very well that the workers are against them, the liquidators are equally well aware what a complete, shattering defeat their separate action would bring them. That is why they are willing to promise anything as long as they are elected to the Duma.

That will not do. Only the bourgeois behave in that way. Worker democrats believe only in programmes, decisions, tactics and slogans that have been put into effect for years before the elections and are merely repeated for the hundredth time during the elections. As for those who make up meaningless “platforms” without such decisions, just for the elections, they deserve no confidence whatever.

Axelrod’s feuilleton is useful as a means of destroying all self-deception, of enlightening the various concocters of “new”, “open”, “common” platforms.

II[edit source]

The closing part of Axelrod’s article, of which we spoke in Nevskaya Zvezda No. 18, has now appeared in Nasha Zarya. Taken as a whole, that final part has fully borne out our appraisal, and we can merely repeat that Axelrod’s article is useful as a means of destroying all self-deception, of re vealing the real nature of liquidationism, of appreciating the sheer inanity of the vaunted “non-factionalism” which today is being made so much of, and so very uselessly, in certain quarters.

Axelrod hits out at Trotsky, who is now in alliance (is it a stable one?) with the liquidators, in a particularly eloquent and convincing fashion. “The ideological and organisational union of the progressive elements into an independent faction,” writes Axelrod, who amuses himself by calling the liquidators Party progressives and calling us Party reactionaries, “is—in view of the present state of affairs—their direct duty and pressing task.” “In this situation in the Party, to talk of ‘non-factionalism’ as the sole remedy means behaving like the ostrich, which buries its head in sand at the approach of danger; it means deceiving oneself and others as to the actual state of affairs among the Social-Democrats.” (Nasha Zarya No. 6, p. 15.)

Poor Trotsky! It is downright cruel and ungracious of Axelrod to inveigh against a true friend of the liquidators and a contributor to Nasha Zarya in this way. What are we to expect now? Will Trotsky come out with a devastating article against the factionalist Axelrod, or will Martov reconcile the conciliator Trotsky with the factionalist Axelrod by pasting together, as usual, what is falling apart with a dozen plastering reservations?

Really, how can anyone speak seriously now of the vaunted bloc[2] of Trotsky, and the Lettish and Jewish near-Marxists, etc., with Axelrod?

Axelrod’s article contains a point that is worthy of serious analysis, namely, the one on the “Europeanisation” of our Social-Democratic movement. But before passing to that point, it is necessary to say a few words about one of the methods of the liquidators.

One page in Axelrod’s article (16) is a collection of the strongest, most vicious and choicest terms of abuse, against the anti-liquidators in general and this writer in particular. It would not be worth replying to abuse at all (a person in Axelrod’s position can do nothing but revile and curse) but for documentary evidence indicating that some deliberately use such abuse while others are embarrassed by it.

Mr. Chernov, for example, replying in Zavety[3] to what Kamenev says to prove that he, leader of the “Left” Narodniks, is drifting from democracy to liberalism, selects a bunch of the most abusive expressions of the liquidators and anti-liquidators, chuckling as he does so. Mr. Chernov’s method is so despicable that it suffices to point to it and pass on.

No struggle over principles waged by groups within the Social-Democratic movement anywhere in the world has managed to avoid a number of personal and organisational conflicts. Nasty types make it their business deliberately to pick on “conflict” expressions. But only weak-nerved dilettanti from among “sympathisers” can be embarrassed by these conflicts, can shrug them off in despair or in scorn, as if to say “it is all a squabble!” Those who take a serious interest in the working-class movement always learn—it is possible and necessary to learn it, if only by studying the historical role of the great leaders of the working-class movement—to distinguish between the “conflict” aspect of the struggle of ideas, of the struggle of trends, and that aspect of it which is a matter of principle. People will always be people, and no historical clash between the Marxist and the anarchist trends (Marx and Bakunin), between the Guesdist and the Jaurèsist, between the Lassallean and the Eisenach trends, etc., has ever managed to do without “conflict” material, without “squabbles”.

There still exists a nasty type of writers who deliberately select “from those days” bunches of accusations of a thousand and one dishonesties, etc. But there are serious Social-Democrats who lay bare the ideological roots of the differences, which in the splits of particular groups, in the circumstances of political exile, etc., inevitably took the form of conflicts in the nature of desperate squabbles.

Let the reader not imagine that we want to frighten anyone away from studying the data to which Axelrod alludes—merely alludes—in the more abusive passages of his article. Quite the reverse. We invite those who want to know every thing about the Social-Democratic movement to study those data. They are available in complete form abroad, and they include not only passionate accusations, but also documents and evidence by neutral persons. A study of those documents and that evidence will supply an answer to the question why the attempt to establish complete peace between the liquidators and the anti-liquidators, made in January 1910, ended in failure.

One of the more interesting passages of fundamental importance in Axelrod’s article is the following:

“To organise and unite as a faction is a direct obligation and pressing task of the advocates of a reform, or rather [listen to this!] revolution, in the Party, for this is the only way in which they will be able to accomplish their task—to Europeanise, i.e., radically change the character of, the Russian Social-Democratic movement as it took shape in the pre-revolutionary period and developed further in the revolutionary period, and organise it on the same principles on which the European Social-Democratic party system is based.”

And so, the liquidators advocate a revolution-in the Party. This exceptionally truthful statement of Axelrod’s is worthy of note, for the bitter truth is more useful than deceit that “uplifts us”,[4] and more valuable than diplomatic quibbles and reservations. Try to carry out a revolution in the Party, esteemed P. B. Axelrod! We shall see whether you and your friends will be more successful than those “revolutionaries” who only a short time ago tried to accomplish a “revolution” (against the republic) in Portugal.[5]

But the chief thing in the statement just quoted is the vaunted “Europeanisation”, which is being talked about in every possible tone by Dan and Martov and Trotsky and Levitsky and all the liquidators. It is one of the main points of their opportunism.

“To Europeanise, i.e., radically change the character of, the Russian Social-Democratic movement....” Think over these words. What determines the “character” of any Social-Democratic movement and radical changes in it? The general economic and political conditions of the country concerned, without a doubt. And there is no doubt that the character of the Social-Democratic movement of a people can be radically changed only if those conditions undergo radical changes.

These are all most elementary and indisputable truths. But it is these truths that expose Axelrod’s opportunist error! The trouble with him is that he wants to bypass a stubborn and grim struggle for a radical change in Russian political conditions, which has not yet taken place, by dreaming of a radical change in the “character of the Russian Social-Democratic movement”.

Just as the Cadets, who readily talk about Europeanisation (the liquidators have borrowed both the Cadets’ catch word and their ideas), by means of this loose term push into the background an exact concept of the solid foundations of political liberty and “play” at “constitutional opposition”, so the liquidators play at “European Social-Democracy”, although—in the country where they amuse them selves with their game—there is as yet no constitution, as yet no basis for “Europeanism”, and a stubborn struggle has yet to be waged for them.

A naked savage who put on a top-hat and imagined him self therefore to be a European would look rather ridiculous. Milyukov, a supporter of the bourgeoisie, reminds one of just such a savage when he asserts in the Third Duma that “we have a constitution, thank God”, and so does Axelrod, a supporter of the workers, when he puts on a top-hat inscribed “I am a European Social-Democrat”. Both of them—Milyukov as well as Axelrod—are ridiculous in their naïveté. They are both opportunists, for, by uttering dreamy phrases about “Europeanism”, they evade the difficult and urgent question of how a particular class, in non-European conditions, ought to act for a stubborn struggle to secure a basis for Europeanism.

Axelrod has proved by his article that the result is evasion of a vital and urgent matter by means of dreamy phrases. Trotsky has prepared a perfectly European—yes, truly and perfectly European—plan for setting up a “press committee” as an “elected collective control body” of the workers for working-class newspapers (p. 18 of Axelrod’s article). Trotsky probably even consulted “European Social-Democrats” about this and received their blessing as a gift—a blessing which he makes a great deal of.

And now the “European Social-Democrat” Axelrod, after waiting two months or so, during which Trotsky plagued all the St. Petersburg Social-Democrats with his letters about “elected collective control bodies”, making everyone laugh, has at last taken pity on Trotsky and explained to him that a “press committee” is no good and is impossible, and that what is needed instead is an “agreement” between the workers and the liquidationist Zhivoye Dyelo (pp. 18 and 19 of Axelrod’s article)!!

This is a small example, and we must unfortunately con fine ourselves to it. But it is a very typical one. The laugh able result produced by Trotsky’s “European” plan for a “press committee” is also being produced by the “European plans of all the liquidators for an “open workers’ party” or “legal political societies of the workers”, for a “campaign” for “freedom of association”, etc.

The only result of Trotsky’s “European” plans for a “press committee”, an “elected collective control body” for the working-class newspaper “of all the working-class organisations that have taken shape”, etc., is that the legalist game of a “workers’ publishing house” has taught the workers a special lesson, while the liquidators have in fact failed to produce either a “press committee” or a working-class press! These are the facts.

The “press committee” was a dream of the opportunist intellectual who, ignoring the difficult non-European conditions of the working-class movement in Russia, drew up a splendid European plan and took advantage of the occasion to boast of his “Europeanism” to the whole world.

This bitter lot of the liquidators is not accidental, it is inevitable. As soon as their “European” plans come near to being realised, they turn out to be soap bubbles, inventions of opportunist intellectuals. This was the case with the labour congress, the “press committee”, the workers’ legal political society (the confused little reservations by which Martov seeks to “rescue” that “plan” in Nasha Zarya No. 5 do not improve matters in the least) and the campaign for freedom of association.

The liquidators describe as “Europeanism” the conditions in which the Social-Democrats have been active in the principal countries of Europe since 1871, i.e., precisely at the time when the whole historical period of bourgeois revolutions was over and when the foundations of political liberty had taken firm shape for a long time to come. The “change in the character” of the Social-Democratic movement in those countries occurred, firstly, after a radical change in political conditions—after a definite constitutional system had been firmly established, comparatively speaking; secondly, that change was only a temporary one, for a definite period (which has lately been nearing its end, as is generally acknowledged by the most cautious Social-Democrats of Europe).

In these conditions of fully established bourgeois constitutionalism, a campaign for, say, freedom of association or universal suffrage, and for constitutional reforms in general, could be, under certain circumstances, a campaign of the working class, a real political campaign, a real struggle for constitutional reforms.

In our country, however, opportunist intellectuals transplant the slogans of such “European” campaigns to a soil lacking the most elementary foundations of European constitutionalism, in an attempt to bypass the specific historical evolution which usually precedes the laying of these foundations.

The difference between the reformism of our Axelrod and his friends, who pose as “European Social-Democrats”, and the reformism of Bissolati, that genuine European, is that Bissolati sacrifices the principles of the class struggle and of consistent Marxist theory and practice for the sake of reforms which are really effected (with certain curtailments) by the really dominant liberal bourgeoisie. Axelrod, how ever, makes the same sacrifice as Bissolati for the sake of reforms which impotent, light-minded, dreamy liberals merely prattle about.

The liberal bourgeoisie here in Russia will become a real force only when the development of the country overcomes the liberals’ timidity and their conciliatory, half-hearted slogans. That is how it has been everywhere. Liberals become a power only when the democracy has won in spite of the liberals.

  1. This refers to the resolution of the Board of the St. Petersburg Bakers’ Union in favour of the publication of an anti-liquidationist workers’ daily. The Board hailed the forthcoming publication of Pravda and called on the membership to collect money for the future newspaper. A report on the resolution appeared in Zvezda No. 27, on April 8 (21), 1912.
  2. Axelrod’s article is dated May 17, 1912, or five months after the solemn formation of the Trotskyist and liquidationist bloc to fight the anti-liquidators under the banner of “non-factionalism”! —Lenin
  3. Zavety (Behests)—a literary and political monthly of a Socialist-Revolutionary trend, published legally in St. Petersburg from 1912 to 1914.
  4. The allusion is to the following lines from Alexander Pushkin’s poem “The Hero”:
    I treasure deceit that uplifts usAbove a myriad low truism.
  5. This refers to the rebellion which the Portuguese monarchists launched in the summer of 1912 to restore the monarchy. The rebellion was put down.