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The Illegal Party and Legal Work

V. I. Lenin

The question of the illegal party and of legal work of the Social-Democrats in Russia is one of the cardinal Party questions. It has been the concern of the R.S.D.L.P. throughout the post-revolutionary period, and has given rise to the bitterest struggle within its ranks.

The struggle over this issue has been going on chiefly between the liquidators and the anti-liquidators, and its bitterness is due in full measure to the fact that it amounted to the question whether our old, illegal Party was to be or not to be. The Conference of the R.S.D.L.P. in December 1908 emphatically condemned liquidationism and, in a special resolution, clearly formulated the Party's view on the organisational question: the Party is made up of illegal Social-Democratic nuclei, which must establish for themselves "strong-points for work among the masses" in the form of as wide and as ramified a network of various legal workers' societies as possible.

Both the decision of the Plenary Meeting of the Central Committee in January 1910 and the All-Russia Conference in January 1912 fully confirmed this view of the Party. The thoroughly definite and stable character of this view Is perhaps most clearly described in Comrade Plekhanov's latest Dnevnik (No. 16, April 1912). We say "most clearly" because it was Plekhanov who at that time took a neutral stand (on the significance of the January Conference). And from his neutral standpoint, he fully confirmed this established Party view, saying that the so-called "initiating groups" - which had broken away from the Party organisation or had deserted it or arisen independently of it - could not be considered as belonging to the Party without a special decision taken by a congress or conference of the illegal nuclei. It is anarchism in regard to principle, and support for and legitimation of liquidationism in regard to practice, wrote Comrade Plekhanov, to allow the "initiating groups" to decide for themselves whether they belong to the Party.

It would seem that, in view of this last explanation by the neutral Plekhanov, the question which has been quite definitely decided by the Party on so many occasions should be regarded as finished with. But the resolution of the latest liquidationist conference makes us return to it in view of the fresh attempts to tangle what had been untangled and to obscure things that are clear. Nevsky Golos (No. 9), along with the most furious abuse of the anti-liquidators, declared that the new conference was not liquidationist. Yet the conference resolution on one of the most important issues, that of the illegal Party and legal work, shows most plainly that the conference was liquidationist through and through.

It is necessary, therefore, to analyse the resolution in detail and to quote it in full for this purpose.


The resolution of the liquidators' conference is headed "Organisational Forms of Party Building", yet its very first clause reveals that it is not a question of "forms" of building, but of the kind of party - old or new - that they want to "build" in this case. Here is that first clause:

"This Conference, having discussed the forms and methods of building the Party, has reached the following conclusion:

"1. The transformation of the Social-Democratic Party into a self-governing organisation of the Social-Democratic proletariat can be effected only insofar as the Social-Democratic organisation takes shape in the course of drawing the mass of the workers into open social and political activities in all their manifestations."

Thus the very first word used in the resolution on building the Party is an unqualified recognition of the necessity for a transformation of the Social-Democratic Party. This is strange, to say the least. To be sure, every member of the Party has a right to seek its "transformation", but then the question has admittedly been, for four years already, whether the old Party should be recognised! Anyone knows that!

The Party resolution (December 1908) spoke in the clearest possible terms of condemning the liquidators, who wanted to "replace" the old Party by a new one. In April 1912 Plekhanov asked point-blank the defenders of the "initiating groups" which planned to (and did) call a liquidationist conference: "Does our old Party exist or not?" (Dnevnik Sotsial-Demokrata No. 16, April 1912, p. 8).

This question cannot be evaded. It is posed by a four years' struggle. It fully expresses the gravity of the so - called Party "crisis".

When a question such as this is answered by saying: "the transformation of the Social-Democratic Party ... can be effected only - ", we see at once that it is a meaning less evasion and not an answer.

None but members of the old Party may speak of transforming the Party. By evading the question whether there is an old Party or not, and decreeing without further ado (with non-Party "initiating groups" co-operating) what you call a "transformation", you do no more, gentlemen, than fully confirm that your standpoint is liquidationist! This becomes still more evident when the, resolution, after the perfectly meaningless, declamatory phrase about a "self governing organisation of the Social-Democratic proletariat", reduces the issue to the proposition that the "transformation" "can be effected only insofar as the Social-Democratic organisation takes shape [we will not dwell on the ridiculous, inflated and stupid phraseology used] in the course of drawing the mass of the workers into open social and political activities"!!

What does that mean? Do the authors of this amazing resolution call strikes and demonstrations "drawing the masses into open", etc., activities? Logic suggests that they do! In that case the resolution is sheer nonsense, for anyone knows very well that an "organisation takes shape" even without strikes and demonstrations. The organisation, wise gentlemen, is always there, while the masses resort to open action only from time to time.

By "open social and political activities" (the bureaucratic-liberal style those people use - just like that of Russkiye Vedomosti thirty years ago!) the liquidators mean the legal forms of the working-class movement, and not at all strikes, demonstrations and so on. Splendid. In that case, too, the resolution is nonsense, because it is by no means "only" in the course of drawing the masses into the legal movement that in our country the organisation "takes shape", and has taken shape. We have organisations in many places where no forms of legal movement are allowed.

Thus the main clause of the resolution (the organisation takes shape "only insofar") is definitely worthless. It is nothing but a muddle.

But there is an obvious liquidationist content to this muddle. A transformation is possible only in the course of drawing the masses into the legal movement - that is what the gibberish of Clause 1 boils down to. And this is the sheerest liquidationism.

For four years the Party has been saying: our organisation consists of illegal nuclei surrounded by as wide and as ramified a network of legal societies as possible.

For four years the liquidators have been denying that they are liquidators, and for four years they have been asserting: a transformation can be effected only in the course of drawing the masses into the legal movement. They evade the question of what our Party consists of and what this old Party is like, doing it in exactly the way that suits the legalists. It is very much the same old story; in April 1912 Plekhanov asked: does our old Party exist or not? The liquidators' conference replies: "a transformation can be effected only insofar as the masses are drawn into the legal movement"!

This reply comes from the legalists, who have broken away from the Party and who yesterday were strong and goaded the Party, but today (having been defeated) are timid and defend themselves by eloquence.


Clause 2 of the resolution reads:

"2. In view of the changed social and political conditions compared with the pre-revolutionary epoch, the illegal Party organisations already existing or coming into existence must adapt themselves to the new forms and methods of the open working-class movement."

Fine logic again. A change in social conditions necessitates only a change in the form of organisation, but the resolution in no way substantiates the direction of this change.

Why does the resolution refer to "the changed social and political conditions"? Evidently to prove, substantiate and draw the practical conclusion: it is necessary for the illegal organisation to adapt itself to the legal movement. But the premise does not warrant this conclusion. "In view of the changed conditions", the legal must adapt itself to the illegal - such a conclusion would be just as legitimate!

Why this confusion of the liquidators?

Because they are afraid to tell the truth and want to sit on two stools at once.

The truth is that the liquidators stand for a liquidationist appraisal (made by Levitsky, Larin, Yezhov and others) of the "present situation", for explaining how "social and political conditions have changed" is an appraisal of the present situation.

But they are afraid to state that appraisal in plain terms. Indeed, the conference could not bring itself even to raise this question. Tacitly, stealthily, in a smuggling fashion, it upholds the view that there have come about (some kind of) changes which necessitate "adapting" the illegal to the legal.

This is a view which in no way differs from the Cadet view, as the Social-Democratic Party press has repeatedly pointed out. The Cadets fully admit that their party "as a whole is compelled to remain illegal" (see Clause 3 of the liquidators' resolution) and that, in view of changed conditions, the illegal party must adapt itself to the legal movement. As far as the Cadets are concerned, this is enough. To them prohibition of their party, its illegality, is an accident, an "abnormality", a survival whereas the main, essential and basic thing is their legal work. This view of theirs follows, logically from the "appraisal of the situation" formulated by Mr. Gredeskul: what is needed is not a new revolution, but only "constitutional work".

The illegality of the Cadet Party is an accident; it is an exception from the general rule of "constitutional work". Hence the logical conclusion that the illegal organisation must "adapt itself to the legal movement". And that is how matters actually stand with the Cadets.

But the Social-Democratic Party takes a different view. The main conclusion to be drawn from our appraisal - the Party appraisal - of the situation is that the revolution is necessary and is coming. The forms of the development leading to the revolution have changed, but the old tasks of the revolution remain. Hence the conclusion: the forms of organisation must change, the forms of the "nuclei" must be flexible, their expansion will often occur through the expansion, not of the nuclei themselves, but of their legal "periphery", etc. All this has been stated many times in Party resolutions.

But this change in the forms of the illegal organisation is not at all covered by the formula: "adaptation" to the legal movement. It is something entirely different! Legal organisations are strong-points for propagating the ideas of illegal nuclei among the masses. In other words, we change the form of exerting influence to ensure that former influence continues along illegal lines.

In terms of the form of the organisations, the illegal "adapts itself" to the legal. But in terms of the content of the work of our Party, legal activity "adapts itself" to illegal ideas. (Hence - it may be said in passing - the war which "revolutionary Menshevism" has been waging against the liquidators.)

Now judge how profound our liquidators must be to have accepted the first premise (on the form of the work) and forgotten the second (on the content of the work)!! And they have headed their piece of Cadet wisdom by an argument about the organisational forms of Party building that runs as follows:

"We must build the Party in such a way as to reorganise [it] by drawing the masses into the legal movement and to adapt the illegal organisation to that movement."

The question arises: does this look like the answer of the Party? (To build the Party means strengthening and increasing the number of illegal nuclei, surrounding them by a network of legal strong-points.)

Or does it look like legalising a loophole for the liquidators, since it repeats the ideas of the Cadets and the Popular Socialists? It was precisely these ideas that Mr. Peshekhonov, a Popular Socialist, was defending in August 1906, when he tried to found an "open party" - see Russkoye Bogatstvo, 1906, No. 8, and Proletary No. 4, the article "Socialist-Revolutionary Mensheviks".


Clause 3 of the resolution reads:

"3. The Social-Democratic Party even at the present time, when its organisation as a whole is forced to remain illegal, must endeavour to carry on various parts of its Party work openly and to establish appropriate bodies for this purpose."

We have already pointed out that this is a literally exact description of the Cadet Party, correct from the first to the last word. But the term "Social-Democratic" is out of place here.

It is true that the Cadet Party "as a whole" is "forced" to remain illegal, and that "even" at the present time (when we have a constitution, thank God) they endeavour to carry on parts of their party work openly.

The implicit premise which shows through every line of this liquidationist resolution is its recognition of "constitutional work" as the sole work or, at the least, as the chief, fundamental and lasting work.

That is radically wrong. It is precisely a liberal labour policy outlook.

The Social-Democratic Party is illegal both "as a whole" and in its every nucleus, and - most important of all - in the entire content of its work, which is to propagate and pave the way for the revolution. Therefore the most open work of the most open nucleus of the Social-Democratic Party cannot be regarded as "openly conducted Party work".

For example, the most "open" nucleus of the R.S.D.L.P. in 1907-12 was the Social-Democratic Duma group. It was in a position to speak more "openly" than anyone else. It alone was legal, and could speak legally of a great many things.

But not of everything! And not only, generally speaking, "not of everything", but not, in particular, even of its own Party and its Party work - "not of everything" nor of the most important thing. That is why, even in respect of the Social-Democratic Duma group, we cannot accept Clause 3 of the liquidationist resolution, not to speak of the remaining "various parts" of the Party.

The liquidators advocate an "open", legal party. They are now afraid (the workers have made them afraid, and Trotsky advises them to be afraid) to say so plainly. They now say the same thing using little disguises. They say nothing about legalising the Party. But they advocate its legalisation by parts!

The "initiating groups" of the legalists who have broken away are anti-Party, the neutral Plekhanov told the liquidators in April 1912. The "initiating groups" of the break away legalists are precisely the open conduct of various parts of "Party work", the liquidationist conference replies; they are precisely the "open movement" to which the illegal Party must "adapt" itself; they are the "open activities", the "drawing" of the masses into which is the yardstick and guarantee of the necessary "transformation" of the Party.

What simpletons the liquidators must have found if their story is true that these views were approved by the "anti-liquidators" brought by Trotsky!


The last clause of the resolution reads:

"4. Being unable, on account of the illegal conditions of its existence, to draw into its sphere large sections of the workers to whom its influence extends, the Social-Democratic organisation must link itself with the politically active sections of the proletariat and through them with the masses, by establishing various kinds of more or less developed legal or illegal political organisations and various kinds of legal cover (election committees, political societies founded under the law of March 4, municipal companies, societies for combating the high cost of living, and so on), as well as by co-ordinating its actions with non-political working-class organisations."

Here, too, indisputable arguments about legal covers disguise what is not merely disputable but downright liquidationist.

Establishing legal political organisations is precisely what Levitsky and N. R - kov advocated; it is legalisation of the Party part by part.

For more than a year we have been telling the liquidators: stop talking and start founding your "legal political societies", such as the "society for the defence of working-class interests", and so on. Stop phrase-mongering and get down to work!

But they cannot get down to work because it is impossible to realise a liberal utopia in present-day Russia. All they can do is to defend in this covert fashion their "initiating groups", which are engaged in useful talk and mutual encouragement, in suggestions and considerations about "legal political organisations".

They defend their "initiating groups", officially declaring in their resolution that the illegal organisations must "link themselves with the politically-active sections of the proletariat and through them with the masses"!!! That is to say, it is outside the nuclei that the "politically-active" are to be found! Is this not a mere rewording of the well-known phrases and exclamations to the effect that all the active have fled from the "dead Party" into the "initiating groups"?

Trotsky and the liquidators expelled from the Party are putting more "mildly" what Nasha Zarya and Dyelo Zhizni[1] said plainly in reviling the illegal Party: in their view, it is outside the narrow illegal Party that the most "active" are, and it is with these that one must "link oneself". We - the liquidators who have broken away - are the active element; through us the "Party" must link itself with the masses.

The Party has said in no uncertain terms: in leading the economic struggle, the Social-Democratic Party nuclei must co-operate with the trade unions, with the Social-Democratic nuclei in them, and with individual leaders of the trade union movement. Or, in the Duma election campaign, it is essential that the unions should march abreast of the Party. This is clear, precise and easy to understand. What the liquidators are advocating instead is a hazy "co-ordination" of the Party's work in general with the "non-political", i.e., non-Party, unions.

P.B. Axelrod supplied Trotsky with liquidationist ideas. Trotsky advised Axelrod after the latter's sad reverses in Nasha Zarya, to cover up those ideas with phrases that would muddle them up.

Nobody will be deceived by this company. The liquidationist conference will teach the workers to look more closely into the meaning of evasive phraseology. That conference has nothing to give the workers apart from this lesson, which is bitter and uninteresting but not useless in bourgeois society.

We have studied the ideas of liberal labour policy attired in Levitsky's everyday clothes; it is not difficult to recognise them in Trotsky's gaudy apparel as well.

The Party's views on the illegal organisation and its legal work stand out more and more impressively when compared with all that hypocritical masquerading.

[1] Dyelo Zhizni (Life's Cause) - a legal periodical published by the Menshevik liquidators in St. Petersburg from January to October 1911. Nine issues appeared.

Published: Sotsial-Demokrat No. 28-29, November 5 (18), 1912.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, [1975], Moscow, Volume 18, pages 387-396.
Translated: Stepan Apresyan

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