Roland Boer
Original publication:

Sectarianism vs. Ecumenism: The Case of Lenin (2012)

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Originally published in Monthly Review Online as “Sectarianism Versus Ecumenism: The Case of V. I. Lenin.” Roland Boer at the time was Research Professor in Theology at the University of Newcastle, Australia. He also edited the blog “Stalin’s Moustache.” Much of Boer’s research focuses on the parallels between Marxism and religion. Sectarianism as a concept is well understood: it refers the active promotion of one side (“sect”) of a religious or political group against the others. Ecumenism has the opposite meaning, but its use tends to be more restricted to the Christian context: it’s the name of the movement promoting unity between all churches and denominations.
 — R. D.

Was Lenin, as the standard interpretations would have it, a sectarian who sought to destroy all who disagreed with him? Or did he also display ecumenist tendencies alongside, or in tension with, his sectarian bent? Is there perhaps a deeper relation between sectarianism and ecumenism in his work?

The material from the time, especially before the October Revolution, is full to overflowing with evidence of Lenin’s sectarianism, and the list of the various groups and individuals he opposed over the years is long indeed — Narodniks, Mensheviks, God-builders, Bundists, liquidationists, otzovists, Socialist-Revolutionaries, and on and on. Over against these groups, he urged that the “purity of revolutionary Social-Democracy is dearer” than party unity. [1] For this reason, he was opposed to blocs with other left-wing or liberal parties in the limited Dumas (1905-17). He was opposed to the “conciliators,” led by Trotsky, who sought to bring together the warring factions among the Social-Democrats. He even managed to argue that these conciliators, in cooperation with all manner of opponents, were actually aggravating splits. [2] [3] Why? The outcome would only ever be compromise, a dilution of the socialist task. In light of all this, his opponents certainly felt he was a factional player, doctrinaire and unforgiving. And they did their best to lay all the blame for differences, splits, and acrimonious polemics at his feet, to the extent of persuading those in the international socialist movement, such as Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg, let alone subsequent scholars. [4] Indeed, far from being an invention by comrades after the October Revolution, “Leninist” was initially a term of abuse from opponents, an accusation of splitting. [5]

However, a closer reading of the material reveals a constant pattern of bitter polemical struggles with opponents and then simultaneous drives to unity. The most telling example concerns the Bolshevik-Menshevik split, which emerged to the dismay of many in the Social-Democratic Party after the Second Congress. Yet, with the era of the Dumas upon them from 1905, they agreed to have a joint conference, the landmark unity congress of 1906. [6] The congress documents are full of statements such as, “The Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P. has been held. The split no longer exists.” [7] Even more, the agreement included Polish and Lettish Social-Democrats as well as the Bund. But just as the drive to unity gained strength, the sectarian tendency manifested itself once again. So we find accusations of vote rigging and devious machinations, both during and after the congress. [8] Once again, the various factions drifted apart… only to attempt a unified project once again a few years later. [9] It seems as though centripetal and centrifugal forces were constantly in struggle, pushing apart in the very act of coming together.

A similar tension emerged during the same period of the Dumas, when the Social-Democrats often considered alliances with other socialist parties, such as the Socialist-Revolutionaries, and more liberal parties like the Trudoviks and Cadets. Lenin’s text, “The Social-Democrats and Electoral Agreements,” embodies this tension very nicely. [10] On the one hand, it is absolutely vital to remain faithful to the cause and not compromise by making any deals with any other political party, not make any blocs or alliances or joint tickets. [11] Yet, under a situation of extreme necessity it may be necessary to form such an alliance, even with liberal parties but only ever temporarily. As with Lenin’s later arguments concerning the need for working with opponents after the October Revolution, the necessities of struggle may dictate the need for alliances, although those alliances should never sacrifice an iota of ideological independence. On this matter, one may work together for a common cause, but then use the situation to show how the other parties are ultimately wrong — as the Bolsheviks did when joining forces from time to time with the liberals in the struggle against tsarism, with the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries in the crucial months of 1917, and even with Kerensky’s forces from the Provisional Assembly in order to thwart the Kornilov putsch of the same year. [12]

I suggest at least three reasons for this continued tension in Lenin’s political practice and thought. The first is purely practical. In a specific political situation, one may enact a “fighting agreement”: if the Socialist-Revolutionaries, peasant parties and even other semi-political organisations share the opposition to landlords or tsar or Duma or provisional government or capitalist exploitation, and if they represent the broad aims of the peasants and even the petty-bourgeoisie, then the Social-Democrats will join in a united front. Such a fighting agreement is, after all, in the interest of socialism; it will even provide the opportunity to expose the semi-socialist positions of the other parties. [13]

A second reason is personal. Lenin was known to work closely together, on a day-to-day basis, precisely with those he attacked in print or party gatherings. Even more, he would not hesitate either to attack the closest comrade if he thought that comrade had taken a wrong turn, only to turn around the next day and embrace that same comrade on the basis of their common ground. [14] A couple of examples make this abundantly clear: despite his attacks on Trotsky, Lenin and Trotsky were the two pillars of the October Revolution and of the early Bolshevik government in the RSFSR (later the USSR); and the intriguing God-Builder, Anatoly Lunacharsky, whom Lenin attacked remorselessly in the first decade of the 20th century, was appointed Commissar for Enlightenment after the October Revolution and became particularly close to Lenin. [15]

On a theoretical level (not unrelated to the practical and the personal), Lenin felt that the path to unity is not via compromise. Instead, it is dialectical, for only open and sharp arguments lead to deeper union. He argued again and again that, as the epigraph to What Is To Be Done (quoted from Lassalle) puts it, “party struggles lend a party strength and vitality.” [16] He was always keen to have these struggles out in the open, to engage in them enthusiastically, for only then would strong agreements emerge. The key lies, as Lih makes clear in a scintillating analysis of the aftermath of the famous split during the Second Congress, in the sovereignty of the party and its organisations. The chief characteristic of the Bolsheviks was not — as standard interpretations would have it — their bloody-minded sectarianism. [17] Instead, the Bolsheviks had a deep commitment to the sovereignty of the Party, to its guidelines, decisions, and laws, all of which had been achieved through open and at times heated debate. Thus the Bolsheviks, not the Mensheviks, were the ones in favour of an elected party Congress, and adhered to the guidelines laid down at the Congress — for this is where open, vigorous debate should take place.

The conclusion can only be that Lenin’s sectarianism and ecumenism are two sides of the same coin; or rather, they are dialectically connected: neither one, nor the other, but both in tension. Lenin’s passionate commitment to open debate was a path to stronger agreements and commitments by the organisation. [18] For this reason, he was dead against passive abstention, of laisser faire, laisser passer, papering over of differences, of compromising between different groups, even of squabbles behind closed doors. Instead, the key was a very public “unity of action, freedom of discussion and criticism,” which would lead to recognition of a deeper truth and provide the basis of class and party unity. [19] [20]

[1] V. I. Lenin, “What the Splitters Have to Say About the Coming Split” (1907). [web] 

[2] He calls them the “‘vacillators’ — in other words, the ‘conciliators’ — who are trying to bridge the gulf with hollow phrases and sweeping platitudes.” More substantially, Lenin challenges Trotsky’s argument that with the “maturing” of the proletariat, the various factions, which were themselves arguments among intellectuals, would fade away. For Lenin, the outcome is simply compromise. 

[3] V. I. Lenin, “A Conversation Between a Legalist and an Opponent of Liquidationism” (1911). [web]
—, “The New Faction of Conciliators, or the Virtuous” (1911). [web]
—, “Uniters” (1912). [web]
—, “The Liquidators and ‘Unity’” (1912). [web]
—, “On the Attitude to Liquidationism and on Unity” (1912). [web]
—, “Four Thousand Rubles a Year and a Six-Hour Day” (1914). [web]
—, “Disruption of Unity Under Cover of Outcries for Unity” (1914). [web] 

[4] Nikolai Valentinov, The Early Years of Lenin (1969) [1954], Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Translated by R. H. W. Theen. [web]
—, Nikolai Valentinov, Encounters with Lenin (1968) [1953], London: Oxford University Press. Translated by P. Rosta and B. Pearce. [web]
—, W. Bruce Lincoln. Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution 1914-1918 (1986), New York: Simon and Schuster, pp. 235-6. [web]
—, Christopher Read, Lenin: A Revolutionary Life (2005), Oxford: Routledge. [web] 

[5] V. I. Lenin, “The ‘Vexed Questions’ of Our Party: The ‘Liquidationist’ and ‘National’ Questions” (1912). [web] 

[6] V. I. Lenin, “Announcement of the Formation of an Organising Committee” (1903). [web]
—, “A Tactical Platform for the Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.” (1906). [web]
—, “Should We Boycott the State Duma? The Platform of the Majority” (1906). [web] 

[7] V. I. Lenin, “An Appeal to the Party by Delegates to the Unity Congress Who Belonged to the Former ‘Bolshevik’ Group” (1906). [web]
—, “Report on the Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.: A Letter to the St. Petersburg Workers” (1906). [web] 

[8] V. I. Lenin, “The Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.” (1906). [web]
—, “Report on the Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.: A Letter to the St. Petersburg Workers” (1906). [web]
—, “The Protest of the Thirty-One Mensheviks” (1907). [web]
—, “The St. Petersburg Elections and the Hypocrisy of the Thirty-One Mensheviks” (1907). [web] 

[9] V. I. Lenin, “Towards Unity” (1910). [web]
—, “Party Unity Abroad” (1910). [web]
—, “One of the Obstacles to Party Unity” (1910). [web] 

[10] V. I. Lenin, “The Social-Democrats and Electoral Agreements” (1906). [web] 

[11] V. I. Lenin, “The Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.” (1906). [web]
—, “The Third Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.” (1905). [web]
—, “On the Provisional Revolutionary Government” (1905). [web]
—, “Neither Land Nor Freedom” (1906). [web]
—, “Tactics of the R.S.D.L.P. in the Election Campaign: Interview with L’Humanite” (1907). [web]
—, “The Third Duma” (1907). [web]
—, “The Social-Democrats and Electoral Agreements” (1906). [web]
—, “Blocs With the Cadets” (1906). [web]
—, “Party Discipline and the Fight Against the Pro-Cadet Social-Democrats” (1906). [web]
—, “The Attitude of the Bourgeois Parties and of the Workers’ Party to the Duma Election” (1906). [web]
—, “Plekhanov and Vasilyev” (1907). [web]
—, “The Social-Democrats and the Duma Elections” (1907). [web]
—, “‘When You Hear the Judgement of a Fool…’: From the Notes of a Social-Democratic Publicist” (1907). [web]
—, “Report of the C.C. of the R.S.D.L.P. to the Brussels Conference and Instructions to the C.C. Delegation” (1914). [web] 

[12] V. I. Lenin, “The Social-Democrats and Electoral Agreements” (1906). [web]
—, “A Dissenting Opinion Recorded at the All-Russian Conference of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party by the Social-Democratic Delegates from Poland, The Lettish Territory, St. Petersburg, Moscow, The Central Industrial Region and The Volga Area” (1906). [web]
—, “The Sixth (Prague) All Russia Conference of the R.S.D.L.P.” (1912). [web]
—, “‘When You Hear the Judgement of a Fool…’: From the Notes of a Social-Democratic Publicist” (1907). [web]
—, “The St. Petersburg Elections and the Hypocrisy of the Thirty-One Mensheviks” (1907). [web]
—, “Left-Wing” Communism — An Infantile Disorder (1920). [web] 

[13] V. I. Lenin, “The Dying Autocracy and New Organs of Popular Rule” (1905). [web]
—, “Socialism and Anarchism” (1905). [web]
—, “A Tactical Platform for the Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.” (1906). [web] 

[14] As Krupskaya writes: “One could cite dozens of examples like this. Ilyich hit back hard when he was attacked, and defended his point of view, but when new problems had to be tackled and it was found possible to cooperate with his opponent, Ilyich was able to approach his opponent of yesterday as a comrade. He did not have to make any special effort to do this.” — Nadezhda Krupskaya, “The Years of New Revolutionary Upsurge 1911-1914,” Reminiscences of Lenin (1960). [web] 

[15] Lih provides another example of a heated argument with Georgy Solomon while both were in Brussels in 1908. Arguing about the role of Social-Democrats in the Duma, Lenin became increasingly heated and polemical. Solomon was offended and said so. “Lenin backtracked, gave him a sort of a hug, and assured him that the expressions that escaped him in the heat of argument were not meant to be taken personally […]. (Similar apologies can be found throughout Lenin’s correspondence.) Lenin’s curiously impersonal abuse was not directed at Solomon as an individual, but against all the sceptics, pessimists, defeatists.” — Lars T. Lih, Lenin (2011), London: Reaktion Books, p. 110. [web] 

[16] V. I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement (1902). [web] 

[17] Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? in Context (2008) [2005], Chicago: Haymarket, pp. 489-553. 

[18] Again, as Krupskaya writes: “He always, as long as he lived, attached tremendous importance to Party congresses. He held the party congress in the highest authority, where all things personal had to be cast aside, where nothing was to be concealed, and everything was to be open and above board.” — Nadezhda Krupskaya, “The Second Congress (July-August 1903),” Reminiscences of Lenin (1960). [web] 

[19] V. I. Lenin, “To The Editorial Board of the Central Organ of the R.S.D.L.P.” (1903). [web]
—, “What We Are Working For (To the Party)” (1904). [web]
—, “Party Discipline and the Fight Against the Pro-Cadet Social-Democrats” (1906). [web]
—, “Report of the C.C. of the R.S.D.L.P. to the Brussels Conference and Instructions to the C.C. Delegation” (1914). [web]
—, “What Next? On the Tasks Confronting the Workers’ Parties with Regard to Opportunism and Social-Chauvinism” (1915). [web] 

[20] Daniel Bensaïd, “Leap! Leaps! Leaps!” in Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth (2007), Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, pp. 148-63. [web]