The history of Russian Social-Democracy can be distinctly divided into three periods:
The first period embraces about ten years, approximately from 1884 to 1894. This was the period of the rise and consolidation of the theory and programme of Social-Democracy. The adherents of the new trend in Russia were very few in number. Social-Democracy existed without a working-class movement, and as a political party it was at the embryonic stage of development.
The second period embraces three or four years—1894-98, In this period Social-Democracy appeared on the scene as a social movement, as the upsurge of the masses of the people, as a political party. This is the period of its childhood and adolescence. The intelligentsia was fired with a vast and general zeal for struggle against Narodism and for going among the workers; the workers displayed a general enthusiasm for strike action. The movement made enormous strides. The majority of the leaders were young people who had not reached “the age of thirty-five” which to Mr. N. Mikhailovsky appeared to be a sort of natural border-line. Owing to their youth, they proved to be untrained for practical work and they left the scene with astonishing rapidity. But in the majority of cases the scope of their activity was very wide. Many of them had begun their revolutionary thinking as adherents of Narodnaya Volya. Nearly all had in their early youth enthusiastically worshipped the terrorist heroes. It required a struggle to abandon the captivating impressions of those heroic traditions, and the struggle was accompanied by the breaking off of personal relations with people who were determined to remain loyal to the Narodnaya Volya and for whom the young Social-Democrats had profound respect. The struggle compelled the youthful leaders to educate themselves to read illegal literature of every trend, and to study closely the questions of legal Narodism. Trained in this struggle, Social-Democrats went into the working-class movement without “for a moment” forgetting either the theory of Marxism, which brightly illumined their path, or the task of overthrowing the autocracy. The formation of the Party in the spring of 1898 was the most striking and at the same time the last act of the Social-Democrats of this period.
The third period, as we have seen, was prepared in 1897 and it definitely cut off the second period in 1898 (1898-?). This was a period of disunity, dissolution, and vacillation. During adolescence a youth’s voice breaks. And so, in this period, the voice of Russian Social-Democracy began to break, to strike a false note — on the one hand, in the writings of Messrs. Struve and Prokopovich, of Bulgakov and Berdyaev, and on the other, in those of V. l-n and R. M., of B. Krichevsky and Martynov. But it was only the leaders who wandered about separately and drew back; the movement itself continued to grow, and it advanced with enormous strides. The proletarian struggle spread to new strata of the workers and extended to the whole of Russia, at the same time indirectly stimulating the revival of the democratic spirit among the students and among other sections of the population. The political consciousness of the leaders, however, capitulated before the breadth and power of the spontaneous upsurge; among the Social-Democrats, another type had become dominant — the type of functionaries, trained almost exclusively on “legal Marxist” literature, which proved to be all the more inadequate the more the spontaneity of the masses demanded political consciousness on the part of the leaders. The leaders not only lagged behind in regard to theory (“freedom of criticism”) and practice (“primitiveness”), but they sought to justify their backwardness by all manner of high-flown arguments. Social-Democracy was degraded to the level of trade-unionism by the Brentano adherents in legal literature, and by the tail-enders in illegal literature. The Credo programme began to be put into operation, especially when the “primitive methods” of the Social-Democrats caused a revival of revolutionary non-Social-Democratic tendencies.
If the reader should feel critical that I have dealt at too great length with a certain Rabocheye Dyelo, I can say only that Rabocheye Dyelo acquired “historical” significance because it most notably reflected the “spirit” of this third period. It was not the consistent R. M., but the weathercock Krichevskys and Martynovs who were able properly to express the disunity and vacillation, the readiness to make concessions to “criticism” to “Economism”, and to terrorism. Not the lofty contempt for practical work displayed by some worshipper of the “absolute” is characteristic of this period, but the combination of pettifogging practice and utter disregard for theory. It was not so much in the direct rejection of “grandiose phrases” that the heroes of this period engaged as in their vulgarisation. Scientific socialism ceased to be an integral revolutionary theory and became a hodgepodge “freely” diluted with the content of every new German textbook that appeared; the slogan “class struggle” did not impel to broader and more energetic activity but served as a balm, since “the economic struggle is inseparably linked with the political struggle”; the idea of a party did not serve as a call for the creation of a militant organisation of revolutionaries, but was used to justify some sort of “revolutionary bureaucracy” and infantile playing at “democratic” forms.
When the third period will come to an end and the fourth (now heralded by many portents) will begin we do not know. We are passing from the sphere of history to the sphere of the present and, partly, of the future. But we firmly believe that the fourth period will lead to the consolidation of militant Marxism, that Russian Social-Democracy will emerge from the crisis in the full flower of manhood, that the opportunist rearguard will be “replaced” by the genuine vanguard of the most revolutionary class.
In the sense of calling for such a “replacement” and by way of summing up what has been expounded above, we may meet the question, What is to be done? with the brief reply:
Put an End to the Third Period.
I could also reply with the German proverb: Den Sack schlägt man, den Esel meint man (you beat the sack, but you mean the donkey). Not Rabocheye Dyelo alone, but also the broad mass of practical workers and theoreticians was carried away by the “criticism” a la mode, becoming confused in regard to the question of spontaneity and lapsing from the Social-Democratic to the trade-unionist conception of our political and organisational tasks. —Lenin