Tuesday, September 26, 2006

London Radical Watch: The Birth of the Bolsheviks

Discussing Arab radicals in London, I promised myself to retrieve a favorite passage from Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, on Russian radicals in London a century ago. Good, I found the book. No, wait, the passage doesn’t seem to be there – did I make it up, or is it a different book? Hard to say, but in default of what I planned, I do find this account of a pivotal moment in Russian revolutionary history—the point where Lenin’s faction hived off to become the “Bolsheviks:”

The crucial division took place at the Second Congress of the Social Democrats in the summer of 1903. The congress began in Brussels in a flour mill, infested within by rats and surrounded by Russian and Belgian detectives; and continued, after two of the delegates had been arrested by police and deported, in the dirt and August heat of the Tottenham Court Road in London.

The atmosphere was terribly strained: political conflicts were wrecking personal relations. Lenin himself was so keyed up that he could hardly sleep or eat. It is difficult for us, with our parliamentary habits, to understand an assembly like this, in which the chairman, Plekhánov, the father of the movement, was unable to refrain from interrupting those we of the speakers with whom he did not agree, with such gibes as … “Horses don’t talk; only asses do.” One of the younger delegates begged Krupskaya to get Vladímir Ilyich to take the chair before Plekhánov had made everything worse. … When the congress was over, he collapsed.’

But he won: “Of such stuff are Robespierres made,” said Plekhánov to one of the minority. … He carried a majority for his program. His adherents came to be known thereafter as “Bolshevíki, or members of the majority, and his adversaries as “Menshevíki,” or members of the minority … .

Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station 464-6

(Paperback ed.1972)

Wilson also recounts an episode that gives remarkable insight into Lenin’s revolutionary conviction. It occurred in 1902 just after Trotsky arrived in London, having escaped from a Tsarist prison:

Lenin took him for a walk around London. Trotsky tells of an impression he received on this occasion in a passage so remarkable that it must be given direct in his own words: “From a bridge, Lenin pointed out Westminster and some other famous buildings. I don’t remember the exact words he used but what he conveyed was: ‘This is their famous Westminster,’ and ‘their’ referred, of course, not to the English but to the ruling classes [corrected, but see the Crank infra]. This implication, which was not in the least emphasized but, coming as it did from the very innermost depths of the man and expressed more by the tone of his voice than by anything else, was always present, whether Lenin was speaking of the treasures of culture, of new achievements, of the wealth of books in the British Museum, of the information in the larger European newspapers or, years later, of German artillery or French aviation. They know this or they have that, they have made this or achieved that—but what enemies they are! To his eyes, the invisible shadow of the ruling class always overlay the whole of human culture—a shadow that was as real to him as daylight.

Id., 485-6

An odd slip: a page later, Wilson says that Lenin had the habit “in London, of making excursions to Primrose Hill because it was near the grave of Marx.” (Id., 487). In fact, Primrose Hill is nowhere near the grave of Marx, which is in Highgate Cemetery, several miles away. Primrose Hill is, however, a very pretty place to walk, and not all that far from Tottenham Court Road.

1 comment:

New York Crank said...


From your blog:

"I don’t remember the exact words he used but what he conveyed was: ‘This is their famous Westminster,’ and ‘their’ referred, of course, not to the English but to the ruling lasses."

Sorry, I know it's a cheap shot but I couldn't resist.

-The Crank