V. I.   Lenin

A Conversation Between a Legalist and an Opponent of Liquidationism[1]

Published: Diskussionny Listok, No. 3, April 29 (May 12), 1911. Signed: B. V. Kuprianov. Published according to the Diskussionny Listok text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, [1974], Moscow, Volume 17, pages 179-188.
Translated: Dora Cox
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala
Public Domain: Lenin Internet Archive (2004). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
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Legalist: It seems to me that the extreme bitterness of the struggle and controversy with the liquidators in the Social-Democratic press has over-inflamed passions and somewhat obscured the substance of the disagreement.

Anti-liquidator: Isn’t it the other way round? Isn’t the sharpness of the struggle due to the profundity of the ideological differences? Or you have, perhaps, also joined the camp of the “vacillators”—in other words, the “conciliators”—who are trying to bridge the gulf with hollow phrases and sweeping platitudes?

Legalist: Oh no! I am not at all inclined to “conciliate”. On the contrary. The point I want to make is that the liquidators have not enough understanding of what they want and hence are not resolute enough. They are still groping in the dark and developing spontaneously, if one may put it that way. They are still afraid of pursuing their line of thought to its conclusion. That is the reason for that inconsistency, confusion and hesitancy which their opponents mistake for hypocrisy and for fraudulent methods of struggle against the illegal party, etc. The result is a free-for-all and the public at large, for whose benefit the controversy is being conducted, no longer understands what it is all about. Had they had fewer smart diplomats and more confidence in themselves, the liquidators would have proved their case sooner and smashed you to pieces.

Anti-liquidator: That all sounds very nightmarish.... Still, it would be interesting to hear your arguments.

Legalist: In my opinion, the liquidators are right. They ought to adopt the legalist label which has been hurled at them. We shall adopt it and prove that it is the legalists who give the only correct answer—correct from the   standpoint of Marxism—to the vexed problems of the working-class movement in Russia today. Do you or do you not admit that the period we are now passing through represents in some ways a distinctive stage in the economic and political evolution of Russia?

Anti-liquidator: I do.

Legalist: You do so only in words, just as your notorious “December” (1908) resolutions do. Seriously considered, an admission of this sort means that the open existence of, let us say, the Social-Democratic group in the Third Duma is not an accident, but an inseparable constituent of “the present moment”. The sum total of the present political conditions, the sum total of the conditions obtaining in the working-class movement, is such that it is possible and essential to have an open, legal Social-Democratic group in the Duma, and it is possible and essential to have an open, legal Social-Democratic workers’ party.

Anti-liquidator: Isn’t it rather risky—this jump from a Social-Democratic group in the Duma to a Social-Democratic workers’ party?

Legalist: Not in the least. The only difference is that the forms in which the Social-Democratic group in the Third Duma exists were determined for us from outside; all we had to do was to accept them, to enter, so to speak, into previously prepared premises, whereas it is up to us to find the forms for the existence of a legal workers’ party. Here we must show initiative, we must fight for new forms. Those whom you contemptuously call liquidators have embarked upon this fight, have entered on the new path; but, unfortunately, they have only made the first step. Unfortunately, they are still timid about it, keep looking back and confine themselves to half-measures. This may be inevitable at the beginning of the new road; but the beginning will be followed by further steps. The indecision of the first steps will disappear, and the mistakes will be rectified.

Anti-liquidator: Excellent. Will you be kind enough to explain what these mistakes are and how they will be corrected.

Legalist: With pleasure! We cannot foretell exactly what the legal workers’ party of tomorrow will be like, but we can see the general direction in which the working-class   movement is developing. Once we grant that this is the direction, I can boldly draw a picture of the legal party, knowing that the actual party may not be exactly like the picture, but it will be something like it. And in order to draw this picture for you I don’t have to “invent” anything. All I need is to consider the lessons life teaches us, the experience of activity under the new, post-revolutionary conditions. I need only to sum up this experience, disregarding the irrelevant details, and following the main thread. The working class is legally represented in the Duma. There is a legal Social-Democratic group in the Duma. It is hounded, spied on; it is not allowed to hold meetings, it is deprived of experienced people; tomorrow it may perhaps be scattered in prisons and places of exile—a legal party by no means precludes judicial and police persecution, as your short-sighted followers believe. But the legal group in the Duma exists despite the persecutions. There are legal trade unions and clubs, legal Marxist monthly and weekly journals; they are even more hounded, they are being suppressed, bled white by fines, their editors pay perhaps with a month and a half in prison for each month in the editorial office, the unions are constantly being disbanded but still they exist. Think this over. It is one thing when there are no legal trade unions, no legal Marxist press, and no legal Social-Democratic deputies. That was the position up to 1905. It is a different thing when they do exist, even if they are hounded all the time, even if they are constantly being suppressed. This has been the state of affairs since 1907. This is the new feature in the situation. It is this “new feature” that we must be able to turn to account, so as to extend, reinforce, and consolidate it.

Anti-liquidator: You started with the promise to be a more courageous and a more consistent legalist than those whom we have heard before, but so far you have done nothing but repeat what all the liquidators said long ago.

Legalist: As I said before, the picture of a consistent and convinced legalism follows logically from close observation of the experience provided by life. Actually all the various elements that go to make up a legal Social-Democratic workers’ party already exist. We must speak out loudly and bluntly and call things by their real names. We must fearlessly   recognise that these disjointed elements will be, must be, brought together—if not today then tomorrow—and such a party will then emerge. It must be founded, and will be founded. It will be persecuted, but nevertheless it will exist, the years when there was no legal workers’ party will be succeeded by years during which a legal workers’ party will lead a precarious existence interrupted by numerous persecutions; and these years in their turn will be succeeded by years when Russia will have a legal Social-Democratic party following the purely European pattern. The years for a legal Social-Democratic party have already begun and It is already something more real than your underground organisation which is ninety-nine per cent demolished. In order fully to rally the legalists and imbue their activity with more confidence, system, and steadfastness, we must not be afraid of speaking of things as they are, we must not be afraid of calling this reality by its real name, we must not be afraid of issuing the slogan and raising the banner. What if the courts and the police wrench the banner from our hands, what if they wrench it from us scores of times—they cannot destroy it, they cannot take it from us for long; for it sums up what actually exists, is growing and is bound to continue growing.

Anti-liquidator: Keep to the point. Or I may have to remind you of the saying: “He sings well, but nobody knows what the end will be”. You promised to speak plainly. Well then, make it plain and more concrete: what are you going to inscribe on your banner?

Legalist: That is exactly what I have been leading up to. We establish a legally functioning association to promote the working-class movement. This association is based on the principles of Marxism. Its aim is to bring about a change in the social conditions of life along Marxist lines, to abolish classes, to abolish the anarchy of production, etc. The immediate aim of the legal party, that is to say, of our association, is the complete democratisation of the political and social system, help in solving the agrarian problem along democratic lines, on the basis of Marxist views, and extensive labour legislation. Finally, the means by which the new association carries on its activity are all the legal means of propaganda, agitation, and organisation.

Anti-liquidator: You don’t suppose that our government will permit such an association to be officially registered, do you?

Legalist: Don’t worry, I am not as naïve as that. Of course, our association will not be registered; but neither will it be right to regard it as illegal—that is the task we set ourselves. In each gubernia, worker after worker will draw up the rules of such an association and submit them to the authorities for endorsement. That will be a consistent and unremitting struggle for legality. The founders and members of such an association will not be liable to prosecution for the “dreadful” clauses of the programme of what is at present our apology for a party; for the R.S.D.L.P. today is nothing but an apology for a party, and the “dreadful” clauses of its programme, such as the demand for a republic and the dictatorship of the proletariat—to say nothing of the “dreadful” clauses in the numerous resolutions about an armed uprising, etc.—frighten no one, are of no significance, and play no role whatever, unless we mean their. “role” in causing people to be sent to penal servitude, although in actual fact they are not guilty of anything illegal. This is the point, this is the tragicomedy of the present situation in the Party. The hand of the dead grips the living. The obsolete “clauses” of various resolutions and of the old Party programme—“clauses” which life itself has repudiated, which have become useless and have actually been relegated to the archives—only serve our enemies, only help them to suppress us, and render no useful purpose, none whatsoever, in promoting the real movement of our days, the actual Social-Democratic work now being carried on in the Third Duma, in the legally published magazines and newspapers, in the legally existing unions, in the legally held congresses, and so on, and so forth. That is why as far as we legalists are concerned, the essence of the question is not the desire to avoid the most dangerous persecutions and penalties (as your followers, who, forgive me for saying so, have been coached to hound the liquidators, would be prepared to conclude), but is, first, the importance in principle of an open working-class movement, and, secondly, in taking advantage of the contradictions of the present regime. Yes, yes, Mr. Orthodox, the principles of Marxism   can by no means be reduced to a sum of words learned by rote, or to “orthodox” formulas fixed once and for all; no, they consist in helping the broad working-class movement, in promoting the organisation and initiative of the masses. What if some word or other remains “unspoken”—I am fully aware that you and your followers make it a point to “voice” what has been left unsaid by the Social-Democratic group in the Duma, by the legally published magazines, etc.; what if some words do remain “unspoken”—what of it, the cause will still go on. Larger sections of the workers will be drawn into the movement. A resolute step will be taken towards uniting open actions. Every politically-conscious worker will strike a blow at the regime which oppresses him, he will aim at the very contradiction most characteristic of that regime at the moment, the contradiction between the formal recognition of legality and the actual refusal to grant it, between “toleration” of the Social-Democratic group in the Duma and the attempts to suppress the Social-Democratic party, between the recognition of workers’ associations in official statements and their persecution in actual fact. To strike a blow at the contradictions of the regime which oppresses the proletariat—that and not dead formulas, is the living soul of Marxism. One of the principal—I may even say one of the fundamental—reasons why the German Social-Democratic Party has been successful, is that it has always been willing to sacrifice the formula in the interests of the movement. After 1871 it succeeded in creating a party whose programme recognised only “lawful” methods of political activity. It succeeded in building up the strongest Social-Democratic movement in the world by means of a Social-Democratic programme which is much more “legal” than ours, for it does not contain and never has contained anything about a republic. You, however, are prepared to show the world an example of a “model-radical” Social-Democratic programme in the model-radical absence of a Social-Democratic mass organisation, of a Social-Democratic mass movement.

Anti-liquidator: So far your entire plan reduces itself in practice to a “mass movement” of incoming and outgoing papers in the government offices dealing with the affairs of associations and unions, assuming that in every gubernia   every politically-conscious worker copies your draft plan for a legal Marxist “association” and submits them to the authorities for endorsement. Since you, yourself, say that this association will not be permitted, that means that no open movement, not even an “open” association, is going to be launched anywhere, except in your legalist imagination. But before answering you in detail, I should like to ask you one more question: do you conceive of this legal Marxist “association” as existing in place of the old, i. e., the present Party, or alongside it?

Legalist: That’s just it. You have touched upon a very interesting point! This is one of the unfortunate errors committed by the official leaders of liquidationism. They are afraid of taking a big step forward along the obviously correct road; but at the same time they are taking a number of extremely hazardous steps, totally unnecessary for the cause, in a different direction—namely, that of opportunism. For my part, I would say that one can be a legalist, without being a liquidator. One should be a legalist, without being an opportunist. We must accept the legal forms of the movement, and we must accept them not half way, not in words alone, but seriously and in practice, that is to say, we must immediately set up a legal Marxist workers’ party; but it would be impermissible opportunism to renounce the revolution. Yet many, if not the majority, of our liquidators do reveal such a tendency. The denial of the hegemony of the working class is opportunism, and I roundly condemn it. There is no need for us to renounce anything, to liquidate anything. The new, legal party must exist together with the old, alongside of it. They will reinforce one another.

I see you are smiling. But there is nothing funny in this. You may say that it is “double-entry bookkeeping”. But, then, let me ask you this: Is not the joint existence of a legal and illegal press something fully analogous to my plan, or rather to the conclusions I draw from all the lessons of present-day experience? Before 1905, émigrés could not contribute to the legal press; in those days periodicals were banned for printing articles written by such émigrés, even under a nom de plume, but it is typical of our contradictory era, that well-known émigrés sign their own names to articles appearing both in the illegal and legal press. Yet you do not   object to this instance of “double-entry bookkeeping”! It causes no “confusion” whatever. It is force of habit and nothing else that prevents you from realising that this “double entry bookkeeping” is dictated by all the conditions of our epoch, that we must turn its contradictions to account and know what action to take in that sphere in which the most important events of our times are taking place. In words you all subscribe to the “combination of illegal with legal work”. Then apply it in practice. Having said A, don’t be afraid to say B. Since you have accepted this fundamental thesis for tactics and organisation in general, don’t be afraid to accept it for Party organisation. Get rid of the absurd anarchist prejudice against legality, can’t you, and do it resolutely, seriously and sincerely.

Anti-liquidator: That is just the trouble with you; you are merely playing at “legality”, pretending “legality”, whereas the Germans relied on a legality which actually existed. The example of the legal and illegal press is a particularly glaring argument against you. When a Social-Democrat who is working illegally uses the legal press to publish what is legally permissible, he is not playing at legality, but is actually taking advantage of a legality that, within certain narrow limits, actually does exist. Your legal workers’ party, however, or Marxist association (as well as the “open workers’ party” of the liquidators from whom you do not really differ at bottom) is just a legalist mirage, nothing more; for you, yourself, admit that it will not be permitted, that actually these so-called “legal” associations will have no legal existence. Just as the anarcho-syndicalists indulge mainly in “revolutionary acrobatics”, so all you manage to achieve is “legalistic acrobatics”. The Cadets have a party that functions legally although it is legally non-existent, not because they have turned the contradictions to account, but because there is nothing revolutionary in the content of their work, and it does not imply any democratic organisational activity among the masses. Their work is of a liberal-monarchist nature, and the autocracy can afford to permit and tolerate political activity of this kind. But the autocracy cannot afford to tolerate the activity of Marxists among the working class, and it is naive to try to promote the cause   by a masquerade. Your “legal association”, as well as the open workers’ party” of the liquidators, is nothing but a sham association, a masquerade, for actually you are counting on the Social-Democrats. The ambiguous and vague formulations which you have chosen to define the aims, platform and tactics of your “association” are but a verbal disguise, flimsy defences, the same sort of legalistic acrobatics. Our Party must speak out in the Duma, found legally functioning trade unions and speak at legally held congresses and it would be sheer anarchism or intellectualist nihilism to deny this. It is by recognising this kind of activity that we take into account the new conditions of the new epoch. But legality for political activity is still out of the question (except for intellectual opportunists), because the conditions for such legality have not yet been won, and it is a futile dream to think that you can “creep into” it. In the case of the Germans, such legality had been fully created by 1871, the transformation of the country on bourgeois lines had been completed and the conditions for a directly revolutionary movement had entirely disappeared. It is these real conditions and not the skill of the German Social-Democrats that made possible the emergence of a Social-Democratic party that is really legal and does not play at legality or indulge in “legalist acrobatics”.

It is a naive dream and a meaningless pastime to try to copy some of the legal clauses of the programme of such legal party, some of its resolutions, etc., and transfer this sort of “legality” to Russia, for you cannot transfer to Russia the German completion of the bourgeois revolution, the German history of a democracy that had spent itself, the German “revolution from above” of the 1860s,[2] and the actually existing German legality. There are some monarchist countries in which republican parties exist legally; what legality will actually be like in Russia after her bourgeois revolutions have been achieved and we have a bourgeois system similar to that existing in Europe, remains to be seen when the future battles are over; it will be deter mined by their outcome. The task of the Social-Democratic movement today is to be able to prepare itself and the masses for revolution under the special conditions of the period of the June Third regime.

Under these conditions a legal party of the working class, an open workers’ party, is a hollow phrase—it simply conceals the desire for the legalisation of ... a group of legalist opportunists. This is the kind of legalisation actually enjoyed by the Popular Socialists. This legalisation is actually enjoyed by the group of our legal, liquidationist journalists. It is not by chance but of necessity, not due to the “errors” of some liquidators but by virtue of the social composition of all the intellectual-liquidationist groups, that all opportunist elements—all those who nurture the idea of renouncing the revolution and repudiating the hegemony of the proletariat—gravitate and cannot help gravitating toward them. The only way in which the legalist may be distinguished from these people is by his good intentions; actually, he is indistinguishable. The real conditions of the present epoch are such that the legalisation of the Popular Socialists and the legalisation of the group of liquidationist writers is possible and inevitable; but the legalisation of a workers’ party is mere words.

The illegal party of the working class exists, and even the fact that it has, in our days, been extremely weakened, and that most of its organisations have fallen to pieces, does not militate against its existence. Again and again the revolutionary underground is given fresh impetus by newly-emerging study circles and groups. The question reduces itself to the following: what is the organised force, what is the ideological tradition, what is the party capable of influencing, and which will influence, the open actions of the worker deputies in the Duma, of the workers’ trade unions, of the workers’ clubs, and of the workers’ delegates at various legally held congresses? The revolutionary proletarian party, the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, or the opportunist group of liquidationist writers? That is the real essence of the “struggle against liquidationism”, that is the real background which creates a gulf between the adversaries in this conflict. And this gulf cannot be bridged by any good intentions, by any attempts to draw a verbal distinction between legalism and liquidationism.


[1] This article was written following an article by N. A. Rozhkov “An Essential Beginning” sent to the editors of Sotsial-Demokrat.   In this article Rozhkov developed his liquidationist plan for the creation of a legal labour party under the Stolypin regime. Lenin attempted to convince Rozhkov of the incorrectness of his views. “... I earnestly implore you to delay, give up, think over, correspond...” he wrote to Rozhkov on February 23 (March 8), 1911 (Lenin Miscellany XXV, p. 66). When it became clear that Rozhkov insisted on the publication of this article, Lenin published his reply in Diskussionny Listok (Discussion Bulletin), No. 3, a supplement to Sotsial-Demokrat, on April 29 (May 12), under the above heading.

[2] After the defeat of the 1848–49 Revolution, whose main aim had been the reunification of Germany into a single democratic republic, reactionary Prussian Junkers led by Bismarck carried out a policy of uniting Germany “by blood and iron”. Its aim was the formation of a single monarchist state with a Prussian king as monarch. The Prussian Junkers relied on the support of the big German bourgeoisie for the fulfilment of this “revolution from above”.

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