From the files of the St Petersburg police: “information card on JV Stalin” dated 1911

Tall tales of 1912

Stalin’s later version of the famous Prague conference of the RSDLP is a parody of his own views at the time, writes Lawrence Parker

David Brandenberger recently introduced an outstanding piece of scholarship - the fruits of his labour with Mikhail Zelenov - in the pages of the Weekly Worker (‘Stalin as historian’, July 23). This new critical edition of the famous, or infamous, 1938 Short course on the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) allows readers to compare the original draft of Soviet historians Y Yaroslavsky and P Pospelov and the many subsequent interpolations of JV Stalin.1 This piece will concentrate on one controversial period of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party’s history covered by the Short course: the January 1912 Prague conference.

The work of Brandenberger and Zelenov appears to show a Stalinist narrative that was still, as late as 1938, a comparatively fragile one, necessitating Stalin’s own hand to make it ‘coherent’, if not factually accurate. As the editors’ introduction puts it,

In his revisions to the Prague conference [section of the Short course], Stalin rewrote entire passages to emphasise the Bolsheviks’ moral obligation to break with the Mensheviks, Liquidators, and Otzovists [so-called ‘recallists’, who wanted the RSDLP to withdraw the party caucus from the Third Duma]. Once independent of these rivals, the Bolsheviks would be free to become a new type of party that could pursue a revolutionary Leninist agenda without compromise (p52).

Stalin’s corrections were, of course, part of what became the long-dominant narrative about the 1912 Prague conference: that it instituted a ‘party of a new type’, marking a final split with the Mensheviks in favour of a homogenised Bolshevik organisation without factions that could be easily dominated by the ‘dictator’, Lenin, and his cronies. There have always been salient facts, long known, that have never fitted this narrative. For example, the attendance of a couple of Mensheviks at the conference, including Kiev delegate David Schwartzman, who chaired the credentials committee.2 The plenary meeting also elected the Menshevik, Georgi Plekhanov, as its representative to the International Socialist Bureau.

Such an interpretation has been more fully disputed by Lars T Lih, who has argued that, even though a Bolshevik ‘party’ may have been a practical outcome of the 1912 Prague conference,

Lenin and the Bolsheviks as a whole did not set out to create a Bolshevik Party, did not think they had created a Bolshevik Party, and denied strenuously that they had organised the conference for this purpose. Not only was this outcome not a goal: it hardly even made sense to them.3

In Lih’s narrative, the Bolsheviks were determined to root out ‘liquidators’, who posed an existential threat to the RSDLP through repudiating the need for an illegal underground; but the division between pro-partyist and ‘liquidationist’ forces cut across the main RSDLP factions, and Lenin was quite prepared to work with ‘anti-liquidationist’ Mensheviks: he did not simply see Mensheviks as ‘liquidators’ and he did not simply equate the Bolshevik faction with the whole RSDLP.

Lih mentions in the article quoted above that by the mid-1920s the whole idea of having a proletarian party composed of factions had been delegitimised, following the ban on factions in 1921 by what had then become the Russian Communist Party. This sense is clearly present in the Short course. Yaroslavsky’s and Pospelov’s draft, when dealing with the emergence of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, states: “Organisational differences were one of the major reasons for the party’s split at the [second] conference into two factions (groups). The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks (p160).” Stalin removes this text, along with the relevant subheading, because he obviously does not want the RSDLP understood as an organisation with factions.

In relation to a conference of the enlarged editorial board of the Bolshevik newspaper Proletary, held in 1909 to discuss the conduct of the Otzovists, Yaroslavsky and Pospelov - still continuing to hold to the idea of party factions - wrote: “The Bolsheviks announced that they had nothing in common with the Otzovists and drove them out of the Bolshevik faction” (p278). This is correct, in that the Otzovists were removed from the Bolshevik faction, but not the RSDLP. Stalin renders this as: “The Bolsheviks announced that they had nothing in common with the Otzovists and expelled them from the Bolshevik organisation.” This radically alters the meaning of the original text, moving it towards the erroneous interpretation identified by Lih: the simple equation of the Bolsheviks with the party, rather than faction. And it now implies, at least according to Stalin, that the Otzovists were removed from the party.


This divide is carried over into the treatment of the 1912 Prague conference. While Yaroslavsky and Pospelov did not produce a truthful narrative of this period, their ambiguity and hesitancy point to the fragility of the whole ‘party of a new type’ narrative, as against Stalin’s more sure-footed, if mostly mythical, treatment. (Stalin did not attend the conference, being in exile at the time, although he was all too aware of the true story.)

Such ambiguity is contained in the following passages, where Yaroslavsky and Pospelov seem to be suggesting there are two processes taking place around the 1912 Prague conference: the fight against ‘Menshevik-Liquidators’ (historically accurate); and a split with the Menshevik faction itself (a subsequent invention). So the draft reads:

In order to defeat the Menshevik-Liquidators in the non-party organisations - the surviving trade unions, cooperatives and hospital and labour insurance offices, etc - it was necessary to complete the rupture and cast them out of the proletarian party (p286).

So far, so good, but Yaroslavsky and Pospelov then add:

The split with the Mensheviks also had to be resolved because the existence of the formally united organisation (and the single party central committee) gave the Mensheviks (and the Trotskyites, among others) the opportunity, along with the conciliators, to create a lot of red tape and sabotage the proceedings of any party meeting or revolutionary affair (ibid).

Stalin marks both passages for deletion and substitutes his own simplified and schematic narrative, therefore ensuring we go from part of the truth to none of the truth. He writes:

The treacherous conduct of the Mensheviks in the period of the Stolypin reaction [Stolypin was minister of internal affairs for the tsarist regime after the 1905 revolution], their attempts to liquidate the proletarian party and to organise a new reformist party, made a rupture with them inevitable … Unity with the Mensheviks within a single party was thus assuming the character of a betrayal of the working class and its party. Consequently, the actual rupture with the Mensheviks had to be carried to its conclusion: a formal organisational rupture and the expulsion of the Mensheviks from the party (ibid).

This is not merely a case of Stalin erroneously equating Mensheviks with Liquidators in the RSDLP: it is rather a case of the Liquidators being disappeared from the party’s history and the general secretary boiling this all down to Bolsheviks (good) and Mensheviks (bad) as the pretext for a rupture. Stalin carries on with this into the detailed editing of the chapter, where “Liquidator Mensheviks” and “Menshevik-Liquidator” are simply erased or become just “Mensheviks” (see p291, for example).

The problem with such renderings is that they make Lenin’s and Stalin’s writings of the period indecipherable. This is Lenin writing at the end of 1911 about the so-called forthcoming “rupture” with the Mensheviks:

… only a rapprochement in the work of these two strong factions [Bolsheviks and Mensheviks] - and only insofar as they purge themselves of the non-social democratic tendencies of liquidationism and Otzovism - represents a real party policy, a policy that really brings about unity; not easily, not smoothly and by no means immediately, but in a way that will produce real results, as distinguished from a way based on a multitude of quack promises of an easy, smooth, immediate merger of ‘all’ factions.4

And this is Stalin writing in October 1912 about the standpoint of the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda:

Pravda is of the opinion that only Bolsheviks and pro-party Mensheviks can be united into a single whole. Unity on the basis of dissociation from anti-party elements, from Liquidators! Pravda has always stood and always will stand for such unity.5

It is this invented narrative of a split with the Mensheviks that formed the basis of the ‘party of a new type’ mythology that was present in both the Yaroslavsky-Pospelov draft and Stalin’s editing work. Therefore, the former have the ‘classical’ Stalinist formulation: “The party strengthens itself by purging its ranks of opportunist elements - that is one of the qualities of the Bolshevik Party, which is a party of a new type fundamentally different from the reformist parties of the Second International” (p291). Stalin here crosses out “reformist” and replaces it with “Social Democratic”, as if to damn all the parties of the Second International without exception.


Indeed, Stalin concentrates his fire on the Second International in line with what Brandenberger noted in his recent Weekly Worker article, where much of the history of the Bolsheviks is recast in Russian sui generis terms. Stalin thus mused in 1938 that the Bolsheviks “could not help seeing that after Engels’ death [in 1895] the west-European Social Democratic parties had begun to degenerate from parties of social revolution into parties of ‘social reforms’ …” (p287).

This, of course, leaves out the huge influence that the German Social Democrats once had on people such as Stalin. Instead, he merely chooses to project such ‘foreign’ influences onto the enemies of the Bolsheviks: “In fighting the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks of all shades - from Axelrod and Martynov to Martov and Trotsky - invariably used weapons from the arsenal of the west European Social Democrats” (ibid).

Such nationalism, of course, originates in the 1920s in the debates around ‘socialism in one country’ and does not reflect what Stalin himself wrote when he was a member of Lenin’s faction inside the RSDLP. In February 1907, Stalin wrote a preface to Kautsky’s The driving force and prospects of the Russian Revolution, which began unambiguously:

Karl Kautsky’s name is not new to us. He has long been known as an outstanding theoretician of social democracy. But Kautsky is known not only from that aspect; he is notable also as a thorough and thoughtful investigator of tactical problems. In this respect he has won great authority not only among the European comrades, but also among us.6

This does not quite sound like a theoretician who was a member of a party that had begun to degenerate into an organisation of “social reforms” after Engels had passed away. In 1909 Stalin was stating that “our movement now needs Russian Bebels, experienced and mature leaders from the ranks of the workers, more than ever before”.7 This after August Bebel, the leading German Social Democratic parliamentarian (1840-1913). Stalin returned to the example of Bebel on the occasion of the latter’s 70th birthday in 1910, discussing “why the German and international socialists revere Bebel so much”.8 He concludes:

Let us, then, comrades, send greetings to our beloved teacher - the turner August Bebel! Let him serve as an example to us Russian workers, who are particularly in need of Bebels in the labour movement. Long live Bebel! Long live International Social Democracy!9

Stalin’s standpoint in these years was that of an internationalist - inspired, like Lenin by what he saw as the heroic example of German Social Democracy and politically mentored by Kautsky. The insular, nationalist narrative of the Short course, with its vision of a sui generis Russian Bolshevism, was a complete fabrication.

The Short course is one of those books that everyone seems to know something about, but no-one has actually read. One cannot help but think that some contemporary Trotskyists who do read this modern edition will have a distinctly uncomfortable experience. Many have narratives around the 1912 Prague conference and the influence, or lack of influence, of the Second International on the Bolsheviks that are very obviously garbled versions of Stalin circa 1938. This is the case with monumentally dire sub-Stalinist Spartacist productions, such as Lenin and the vanguard party (1977):

The Prague conference marked the definitive organisational break between Lenin’s revolutionary social democrats and the opportunist Mensheviks. In that important sense Prague 1912 was the founding conference of the Bolshevik Party.10

To indulge, as many Trotskyists do, the Stalinist creation myth of the ‘party of a new type’ in 1912 is actually to partake of a foundation stone for the idea of ‘socialism in one country’: ie, Russia struck out on its own road to socialism, just as the Bolsheviks had struck out from the faction-ridden swamp of the Second International.

One can only hope that the magnificent work of Brandenberger and Zelenov helps render such issues conscious and thus correctable.

My thanks to Ben Lewis and Lars T Lih for their comments on earlier drafts. The interpretation here is my sole responsibility.

  1. D Brandenberger and M Zelenov Stalin’s master narrative: a critical edition of the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) London 2019.↩︎

  2. See letter of VI Lenin to GL Shklovsky (March 12 1912): marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1912/mar/12gls.htm; and NK Krupskaya, ‘Reminiscences of Lenin’: marxists.org/archive/krupskaya/works/rol/rol16.htm.↩︎

  3. LT Lih, ‘A faction is not a party’ Weekly Worker May 2 2012.↩︎

  4. ‘The new faction of conciliators, or the virtuous’ (October 1911), in VI Lenin Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii Vol 20, pp335-36 (translation by Lars T Lih).↩︎

  5. JV Stalin, ‘Results of elections in the workers’ curia’ in Works Vol 2, 1907-1913, Moscow 1953, p266.↩︎

  6. JV Stalin, ‘Preface to the Georgian edition of K Kautsky’s pamphlet, “The driving forces and prospects of the Russian revolution”’, in Works Vol 2, 1907-1913, Moscow 1953, p1. Stalin adds: “That is why our comrades have set to work so zealously to study Kautsky’s articles on tactics: ‘The state duma’, ‘The Moscow insurrection’, ‘The agrarian question’, ‘The Russian peasantry and the revolution’, ‘The anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia’, and others.”↩︎

  7. JV Stalin, ‘The party crisis and our tasks’ Works Vol 2, 1907-1913, Moscow 1953, p156.↩︎

  8. JV Stalin, ‘August Bebel, leader of the German workers’ Works Vol 2, 1907-1913, Moscow 1953, p212.↩︎

  9. Ibid p214.↩︎

  10. Lenin and the vanguard party (1977): marxists.org/history/etol/document/icl-spartacists/pamphlets/Lenin_Vanguard_Party.pdf.↩︎