Speech by Vladimir Lenin to the Second Party Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, London, July 20 (August 2), 1903, rejecting the demand by the Jewish Labor Bund to be recognized as the representative of the Jewish working class.
Lenin’s objection to the Bund’s demand was twofold. His stated objection, as he argues in the speech, was that the party should be a unitary organization with a single leadership, subdivided only by geographic regions. This was the classic Leninist position that came to be known as “democratic centralism.” The existence of autonomous divisions with their own leaderships and goals ran counter to his centralist, dictatorial outlook.
The other, unstated reason was that many of his allies were assimilated Jews, such as Julius Martov and Leon Trotsky, who feared their leadership positions would be undermined if the Yiddish-speaking Jewish Bund were recognized as the representative of all Jewish social-democrats.
After Lenin’s speech carried the day and the Bund lost the recognition vote, Bund delegates walked out of the Congress–ironically giving Lenin’s smaller faction a temporary voting majority in a series of procedural measures against Martov’s and Trotsky’s faction, thus allowing Lenin to claim the title of “majority faction” or Bolshevik. History records that Lenin’s voting advantage didn’t last, but the name did.
I shall first deal with the speech of Hofman [Bund member Nachum Mendel Levinsohn, a.k.a. Vladimir Kossofski] and his expression “a compact majority.” Comrade Hofman uses these words by way of reproach. In my opinion we should be proud, not ashamed, of the fact that there is a compact majority at the Congress. And we shall be prouder still if our whole Party proves to be a compact, a highly compact, 90 per cent, majority. (Applause.) The majority were right in making the position of the Bund in the Party the first item on the agenda, and the Bundists at once proved this by submitting their so-called Rules, but in essence proposing federation. Once there are members in the Party who propose federation and others who reject it, there could be no other course open but to make the question of the Bund the first item on the agenda. It is no use forcing your favours on anybody, and the internal affairs of the Party cannot be discussed until we have firmly and uncompromisingly settled whether or not we want to march together.
The crux of the issue has not always been presented quite correctly in the debate. The point of the matter is that, in the opinion of many Party members, federation is harmful and runs counter to the principles of Social-Democracy as applied to existing Russian conditions. Federation is harmful because it sanctions segregation and alienation, elevates them to a principle, to a law. Complete alienation does in deed prevail among us, and we ought not to sanction it, or cover it with a fig-leaf, but combat it and resolutely acknowledge and proclaim the necessity of firmly and unswervingly advancing towards the closest unity. That is why we reject federation in principle, in limine [On the threshold.—Ed.] (as the Latin phrase has it); that is why we reject all obligatory partitions that serve to divide us. As it is, there will always be different groupings in the Party, groupings of comrades who do not think quite alike on questions of programme, tactics or organisation; but let there be only one division into groups throughout the Party, that is, let all like-minded members join in a single group, instead of groups first being formed in one section of the Party, separately from the groups in another section of the Party, and then having a union not of groups holding different views or different shades of opinion, but of sections of the Party, each containing different groups. I repeat, we recognise no obligatory partitions, and that is why we reject federation in principle.
I shall now pass to the question of autonomy. Comrade Lieber has said that federation means centralism, while autonomy means decentralism. Can it be that Comrade Lieber takes the Congress members for six-year-old children, who may be regaled with such sophistries? Is it not clear that centralism demands the absence of all partitions between the central body and even the most remote and out-of-the-way sections of the Party? Our central body will be given the absolute right to communicate directly with every Party member. The Bundists would only laugh if someone would propose to them a form of “centralism” within the Bund, under which its Central Committee could not communicate with all the Kovno groups and comrades otherwise than through the Kovno Committee. Incidentally, as regards the committees: Comrade Lieber has exclaimed with feeling, “What is the good of talking about the Bund’s autonomy if it is to be an organisation subordinated to one central body? After all, you would not grant autonomy to some Tula Committee!” You are mistaken, Comrade Lieber; we will certainly and most decidedly grant autonomy to “some” Tula Committee, too, autonomy in the sense of freedom from petty interference by the central body, although the duty of obeying that body will, of course, remain. I have taken the words “petty interference” from the Bund leaflet, “Autonomy or Federation?” The Bund has advanced this freedom from “petty interference” as a condition, as a demand to the Party. The mere fact that it advances such ridiculous demands shows how muddled the Bund is on the question at issue. Does the Bund really think that the Party would tolerate the existence of a central body that indulged in “petty” interference in the affairs of any Party organisation or group? Is this not, in effect, precisely that “organised distrust” which has already been mentioned at this Congress? Such distrust runs through all the proposals and arguments of the Bundists. Is it not, in fact, the duty of our entire Party to fight, for example, for full equality and even for recognition of the right of nations to self-determination? Consequently, if any section of our Party failed in this duty, it would unquestionably be liable to condemnation by virtue of our principles; it would unquestionably be liable to correction on the part of the central institutions of the Party. And if the neglect of that duty were conscious and deliberate, despite full opportunity to carry out that duty, then that would be treachery.
Further. Comrade Lieber has asked us in moving tones how it can be proved that autonomy is able to guarantee to the Jewish workers’ movement that independence which is absolutely essential to it. A strange question, indeed! How can it be proved that one of the several paths suggested is the right one? The only way is to try it and see. My reply to Comrade Lieber’s question is: March with us, and we undertake to prove to you in practice that all legitimate demands for independence are gratified in full.
When I hear disputes about the place of the Bund, I always recollect the British miners. They are excellently organised, better than any other workers. And because of that they want to thwart the general demand for an 8-hour day put forward by all proletarians. These miners have the same narrow idea of the unity of the proletariat as our Bundists. Let the sad example of the miners serve as a warning to our comrades of the Bund.