One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back


(subtitled The Crisis in Our Party), a work by V. I. Lenin that develops a Marxist theory of the proletarian party, elucidates the organizational principles of Bolshevism, and defines the political significance of the division of the RSDLP into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks at the Second Party Congress. Written between February and May 1904 and published in May 1904 in Geneva, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, is included in the fifth Russian edition of Lenin’s works (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 8, pp. 185–414).

With the approach of revolution in Russia, it became of paramount importance to explain to the party’s masses the reasons for the split at the Second Congress of the RSDLP in 1903 and the nature of Bolshevism’s struggle against Menshevism after the congress. Although they assured the party of their agreement with the Bolsheviks on matters of principle, the Mensheviks stepped up their divisive activities. In addition to distorting the nature of disagreements within the party, they declared the Leninists’ victory at the Congress a chance occurrence and stated that there was no obligation to carry out the resolutions of the congress and the party’s central bodies. They viewed the subordination of the minority to the majority as a crude, mechanical suppression of the will and freedom of the party members, and they referred to party discipline as serfdom. In essence, they worked against the creation of a single, united party built on the principles of centralism, arguing instead that party organizations should remain independent of the Central Committee.

Lenin showed that the division into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was a direct continuation of the division of Social Democrats into revolutionary and opportunist wings, which had surfaced during Iskra’s struggle against economism. Lenin pointed out that “the new division is based on a difference over questions of organisation, which began with the controversy over principles of organisation (Paragraph I of the Rules) and ended up with a ’practice’worthy of anarchists” (ibid., p. 373). The success of the congress was a step forward in the creation of a revolutionary party, whereas the divisive activity of the Mensheviks represented two steps back, for the masses could be prepared for revolution only if there were ideological and organizational unity in the party and a centralized direction of party organizations.

The Bolsheviks regarded the party as the leader of a class; the Mensheviks made virtually no distinction between the party and the class as a whole. Unmasking the Mensheviks’ organizational opportunism, which had cropped up at the congress during a discussion of the first paragraph of the Rules—pertaining to party membership—and had developed into a system of opportunist views, Lenin showed that the Mensheviks’ attempt to give every striker the right to call himself a member of the RSDLP erased the boundary between the vanguard and the rest of the working class. In the final analysis, this approach would doom the party to accommodating the most backward elements of the proletariat. The party, as the vanguard of the working class, must not be confused with the class as a whole. The party is the section of the working class with the greatest political awareness; armed with a knowledge of the laws of social development and class struggle, it is equipped to lead the proletariat.

The party is not only the vanguard but the organized vanguard of the working class. It will be able to fulfill its role as leader only if it is highly organized and disciplined and if its members are united in their will and their actions.

The party is the highest form of the proletariat’s class organization. Its mission is to lead all mass working-class organizations, including professional, cooperative, youth, and women’s organizations, uniting their efforts in the struggle against the exploiting classes. The party embodies the tie between the vanguard of the working class and the broad millions of the proletariat and all working people.

The party can become a strong and united organization only if it is built on the principle of centralism. In other words, the party must be structured and must operate according to a single set of rules; leadership must come from a single source—the party congress or, between congresses, the Central Committee; there must be a single discipline for the party’s rank and file and its leaders; and the minority must be subordinate to the majority, and lower organizations to higher ones.

Lenin pointed out that centralism in no way contradicts democratism, which was characteristic of the Marxist party from its inception, and that when operating as a legal organization the party must be built on the principle of democratic centralism. For underground work, however, Lenin advocated the principle of centralism, since only it could guarantee the ability of the party to fight when subjected to severe repression by the authorities. A centralized and disciplined Marxist party, to be sure, is based on democracy within the party, collective leadership, criticism, and self-criticism.

Lenin’s main point, which runs through the entire book, is the crucial importance for the proletariat of organization. The strength of the working class lies in organization: without organization the proletariat is nothing; organized, it is everything. Lenin wrote: “In its struggle for power the proletariat has no other weapon but organisation. The proletariat can, and inevitably will, become an invincible force only through its ideological unification on the principles of Marxism being reinforced by the material unity of organisation, which welds millions of toilers into an army of the working class. Neither the senile rule of the Russian autocracy nor the senescent rule of international capital will be able to withstand this army” (ibid., pp. 403–04).

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back was distributed widely in local party organizations. It exerted a tremendous influence on party cadres and was a powerful ideological weapon in the battle against Menshevism. In 1907 the book was republished in the collection After Twelve Years, printed by the Bolshevik publishing house Zerno in St. Petersburg.

Lenin’s book occupies an important place in the development of Marxist-Leninist theory and in the history of the CPSU and of the entire world communist movement. The Leninist principles for building a revolutionary proletarian party are of permanent value and have been confirmed by the experience of the world revolutionary movement.

As of Jan. 1, 1977, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back had gone through 151 printings; a total of 9,150,400 copies had been produced in 43 languages of the USSR and other countries.


Istoriia KPSS, vol. 1. Moscow, 1964.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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