Tony Cliff

Lenin’s Pravda

(March 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.67, March 1974, pp.10-14.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Workers’ Paper as Organiser

ONE OF the problems facing the International Socialists in Britain at present is how to build a bridge between our small but quickly growing organisation and the rising number of militants and socialists in the working class.

It is true that the consciousness of the working class is lagging far behind the objective crisis. But this situation can change quickly. Take the miners. Many militant miners were arguing in November and December that the overtime ban alone could win, and our members were cold-shouldered when they argued for all-out strike action. Indeed the tactic of banning overtime was initiated by Gormley and the right-wing on the Executive of the NUM precisely to pre-empt the call for a strike. However, the logic of the class struggle was stronger than the wishes of the President of the NUM. Within weeks the mood for a strike became so widespread as to ensure 81 per cent in the ballot. When, after that, Gormley tried to call off the strike using the excuse of the General Election, even traditionally right-wing Durham miners called for his resignation! The lag of consciousness behind objective reality can be overcome very quickly even if there is only a weak lead.

But, despite this analysis, the key problem still remains: how can a revolutionary organisation of a few thousand relate to the tens of thousands of workers who are moving spontaneously towards our politics? The disproportion between the size of IS and the size of the layer of militant workers who are groping towards revolutionary socialism is a fact of life.

There is no single method of overcoming this disproportion. But there are many necessary steps that can be taken – improving IS members’ activities in the unions, in industry and in other places of work; improving the rank and file papers in which IS members are active participants; building a rank and file movement in industry.

In the present article, however, I should like to deal with one measure that can be crucial in bridging this gap – the use of Socialist Worker as an organiser.

The concept of a workers’ paper as an organiser was developed most fully in theory and in practice by Lenin. We can learn a great deal from Lenin’s use of the Pravda as an organiser in the years 1912-14.

THE BOLSHEVIK Party was very weak indeed in the years of reaction following the Russian Revolution of 1905.

In 1907 it had 46,000 members. [1] A few years later it hardly existed and the movement was in a complete shambles. Figures for the Moscow District show: for the summer of 1905, 1,435 members; for mid-May 1906, 5,320 members [2]; for mid-1908, 250 members; end of 1908, 150 members. In 1910 the Moscow organisation ceased to exist when the District Secretary’s job went into the hands of one Kukushkin, an agent of the secret police.

Lenin wrote in 1911: “At present the real position of the Party is such that almost everywhere in the localities there are informal, extremely small and tiny Party workers’ groups and nuclei that meet irregularly ... They are not connected with each other. Very rarely do they see any literature.” [3] Zinoviev, very close to Lenin, could say in retrospect: “at this unhappy period the Party as a whole ceased to exist.” [4]

It took a long time for the Russian workers to heal the wounds they received in the period of reaction. But signs of a cure appeared in steadily growing form in 1911 and 1912, although the Bolsheviks still hardly existed as an organisation.

In 1908 the number of strikers was tiny, 60,000 and in 1910 was even lower, 46,623. In 1911 it rose to 105,110. The Conference of Bolsheviks in January 1912 noted: “the onset of a political revival is to be noted among broad democratic circles, chiefly among the proletariat. The workers’ strikes in 1910-11, the beginning of demonstrations and proletarian meetings, the start of a movement among urban bourgeois democrats (the student strikes), etc, are all indications of the growing revolutionary feelings of the masses against the June Third regime.” [5]

The movement got a great push forward with the terrible massacre of the gold miners in Lena on 4th April 1912. The Lena goldfields were situated in a region of taiga forests almost 2,000 kilometres from the Siberian Railway. When 6,000 miners went on strike, the unarmed crowd was fired on on the orders of a gendarmerie officer, and 500 people were either killed or wounded. The Social-Democratic Duma group questioned the Government on the Lena shooting and got the insolent reply of the Tsar’s Minister of the Interior, A.A. Makarov: “So it was, and so it will be!”

It was quite interesting that the demonstrations following the Lena massacre from the beginning raised the slogan of the democratic republic, reflecting a much higher level of mass consciousness than had existed at the beginning of the 1905 revolution. That had started with a naive petition to the Tsar. In April 1912 the Russian workers started where they had left off at the height of the revolution some seven years before.

News of the bloody drama in Lena goldfields aroused the anger of the working class throughout the country. Street demonstrations, meetings, and protests occurred, with up to 300,000 workers taking part in protest strikes, which merged with the 400,000 strong May Day strike. [6] Other political strikes followed.


Pravda’s eight names

LENIN employed many methods to adapt the Bolshevik Party with only hundreds of members to the rising tide of struggle. He used the Duma (the pseudo-Parliament the Tsar allowed), a Social Insurance campaign, and the launching of a daily paper. The first issue of Pravda appeared on 22 April 1912 – 18 days after the Lena massacres.

The paper suffered from regular persecution and it had to change its name eight times: Rabochaya Pravda (Worker’s Truth), Severnaya Pravda (Northern Truth), Pravda Truda (Labour’s Truth), Za Pravda (For Truth), Proletarskaya Pravda (Proletarian Truth), Put Pravdy (The Way of Truth), Rabochy (The Worker), Trudovaya Pravda (Labour’s Truth).

Again and again the Pravda premises were raided, issues confiscated, fines imposed, editors arrested, the newsboys selling the paper harassed. But still the paper continued to appear. From 22 April 1912, to 8 July 1914, 645 issues were published. This was made possible largely by the ingenuity of the paper’s staff in circumventing prosecution, the financial support of the readers, loopholes in the press law, and the inefficiency of the police.

Aesopian language enabled Pravda to discuss the issues of the day without risking automatic confiscation. Since it was forbidden to refer to the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, it spoke of the “underground”, the “hole”, and the “old”, The Bolshevik program of a democratic republic, the confiscation of the landed estates and the eight-hour day was referred to as the “uncurtailed demands of 1905,” or the “three pillars.” A Bolshevik was a “consistent democrat”, or a “consistent Marxist.” The advanced workers knew how to read and understand the paper.

The press regulations required that the first three copies of each issue be sent to the censor. The Pravda editors were determined to distribute the paper whether the censor liked it or not. So they tried to gain as much time as possible between the dispatch of the three copies and the all-too-frequent arrival of the police at the printshop. They solved the problem with ingenuity. While the law required that the first three copies of the issue be sent to the censor, it did not specify how long the journey should take. Thus the daily task of delivering these copies was confided to a 70-year-old worker, whose advanced years and slow gait guaranteed that it would take him something like two hours to arrive the censor’s office. After delivering the papers, the old man remained in the office, ostensibly to rest, but really in order to keep a close watch on the censor, who was examining other papers besides Pravda. If after reading Pravda the inspector turned to another newspaper, the old man returned at a leisurely pace to the printshop. But if the censor telephoned the Third Police District, which included Pravda’s printing machine, the old man flew out of the room, hailed a cab and raced back. Lookouts stationed around the printshop watched for his return and when they saw him coming around the corner at full speed they immediately knew what had happened. The alarm was raised and everyone started working feverishly. The newspapers were removed and hidden, the distribution department closed, and the press stopped. By the time the police arrived, most of the papers were gone, only a few left behind for the sake of “protocol.”

Nominal editors were appointed who would go to prison while the real editors remained free. There were approximately 40 of these “editors,” many of whom were quite illiterate. In the first year of Pravda’s existence, they spent some 47½ months in prison. Of the 645 published issues, the police tried, unsuccessfully, to confiscate 155, and 36 issues incurred fines.

Half the copies of Pravda was sold in the streets by newsboys, and half in the factories. In big factories in St. Petersburg, each department had one person in charge. He distributed the paper, collected funds and kept in touch with the editors. The distribution of Pravda outside St. Petersburg met with great difficulty. It is true Pravda had 6,000 postal subscriptions, but to distribute these was not as easy as may appear. Copies had to be packed in calico for protection, and mailed from five or six different post offices which were changed daily to throw the police off the track. In addition, bundles of Pravda were delivered to the provinces by a number of intricate routes. Party members or sympathisers working on the railways would throw bundles along the route in specially arranged spots where other comrades would wait for them. In one town copies of Pravda were sent directly to the Post Office where a comrade among the postmen took them in hand when they arrived.

The circulation of Pravda was quite impressive, especially if one takes into account the illegal status of the Party publishing it. It was between 40,000 on weekdays and 60,000 on Saturdays.

However, Lenin was far from satisfied with the circulation. Thus he wrote in April 1914 an article called Our Tasks:

Put Pravdy must be circulated in three, four and five times as many copies as today. We must put out a trade union supplement, and have representatives of all trade unions and groups on the editorial board. Our paper must have regional (Moscow, Urals, Caucasian, Baltic, Ukrainian) supplements ... The chronicle of the organisational, ideological and political life of the class-conscious workers should be expanded many times over

Put Pravdy in its present shape is essential for the class-conscious worker and should be still further enlarged, but it is too dear, too difficult, too big for the worker in the street, for the rank-and-filer, for any of the millions not yet drawn into the movement. There is need to start a kopek Vechernaya Pravda with a circulation of 200,000 or 300,000 copies [Pravda itself cost 2 kopeks].

We must secure a much greater degree of organisation on the part of the readers of Put Pravdy than there is now, in their various factories, districts, etc., and more active participation in correspondence and running and circulating the paper. We must get the workers to take a regular part in editorial work. [7]

A real workers’ paper

PRAVDA WAS not a paper for workers; it was a workers’ paper. It was very different to many other socialist papers, written by a tiny group of brilliant journalists. Lenin described one such paper as a “journal for workers, as there is not a trace in it of either workers’ initiative, or any connection with working-class organisations.” [8] As against this in Lenin’s Pravda, over 11,000 letters and items of correspondence from workers were published in one year, or about 35 items per day.

A few months after the start of publication, Lenin made clear his concept of what a workers’ paper is:

As they look through the reports on workers’ collections in connection with letters from factory and office workers in all parts of Russia, Pravda readers, most of whom are dispersed and separated from one another by the severe external conditions of Russian life, gain some idea how the proletarians of various trades and various localities are fighting, how they are awakening to the defence of working-class democracy.

The chronicle of workers’ life is only just beginning to develop into a permanent feature of Pravda. There can be no doubt that subsequently, in addition to letters about abuses in factories, about the awakening of a new section of the proletariat, about collections for one or another field of the workers’ cause, the workers’ newspaper will receive reports about the views and sentiments of the workers, election campaigns, the election of workers’ delegates, what the workers read, the questions of particular interest to them, and so on.

The workers’ newspaper is a workers’ forum. Before the whole of Russia the workers should raise here, one after another, the various questions of workers’ life in general and of working-class democracy in particular. [9]

He believed that workers themselves must build a picture of their particular struggles for the whole movement. He argued that:

... workers should, despite all the obstacles, again and again attempt to compile their own workers’ strike statistics. Two or three class-conscious workers could compile an accurate description of each strike, the time it begins and ends, the number of participants (with distribution according to sex and age wherever possible), the causes and the results of the strike. Such a description should be sent in one copy to the headquarters of the workers’ association concerned (trade union or other body, or the office of the trade union newspaper); a second copy should be sent to the central workers’ newspaper; lastly, a third copy should be sent to a working-class deputy of the state Duma for his information ... Only by getting down to business themselves will the workers – in time, after stubborn work and persistent effort – be able to help towards a better understanding of their own movement and thus ensure bigger successes for that movement. [10]

Lenin’s articles

LENIN HIMSELF knew how to write very popular, short articles for Pravda. They were always very factual, every article has one idea that is argued out. He might repeat one theme again and again, but always using different angles, a different example, different stories. To have a feel of what his articles were like I reproduce two samples here.


What a strange comparison, the reader may think. How can a race be compared with a nation?

It is a permissible comparison. The Negroes were the last to be freed from slavery, and they still bear, more than anyone else, the cruel marks of slavery – even in advanced countries – for capitalism has no “room” for other than legal emancipation, and even the latter it curtails in every possible way.

With regard to the Russians, history has it that they were “almost” freed from serf bondage in 1861. It was about the same time, following the civil war against the American slave-owners, that North America’s Negroes were freed from slavery.

The emancipation of the American slaves took place in a less “reformative” manner than that of the Russian slaves.

That is why today, half a century later, the Russians still show many more traces of slavery than the Negroes. Indeed, it would be more accurate to speak of institutions and not merely of traces. But in this short article we shall limit ourselves to a little illustration of what we have said, namely, the question of literacy. It is known that illiteracy is one of the marks of slavery. In a country oppressed by pashas, Purishkeviches, and their like, the majority of the population cannot be literate.

In Russia there are 73 per cent of illiterates, exclusive of children under nine years of age.

Among the U.S. Negroes, there were (in 1900) 44.5 per cent of illiterates.

Such a scandalously high per centage of illiterates is a disgrace to a civilised, advanced country like the North American Republic. Furthermore, everyone knows that the position of the Negroes in America in general is one unworthy of a civilised country – capitalism cannot give either complete emancipation or even complete equality.

It is instructive that among the whites in America the proportion of illiterates is not more than 6 per cent. But if we divide America into what were formerly slave-holding areas (an American “Russia”) and non-slave-holding areas (an American non-Russia), we shall find 11–12 per cent of illiterates among the whites in the former and 4–6 per cent in the latter areas!

The proportion of illiterates among the whites is twice as high in the former slave-holding areas. It is not only the Negroes that show traces of slavery!

Shame on America for the plight of the Negroes. [11]

Here is an example of another article by Lenin:


In connection with the recent anniversary of February 19, 1861 a reminder of the present distribution of land in European Russia will not be out of place.

The last official statistics of land distribution in European Russia were published by the ministry of the interior and dated from 1905.

According to these statistics there were (in round numbers) about 30,000 big landlords owning over 500 desiatins each, their total land amounting to about 70,000,000 desiatins.

Some 10,000,000 poor peasant households owned the same amount of land.


It follows that on the average there are about 330 poor peasant families for each big landlord, each peasant family owning about 7 desiatins, while each big landlord owns about 2,300 desiatins.

To show this graphically, we have drawn the above diagram.

The large white rectangle in the middle stands for the estate of a big landlord. The small squares around it represent the small peasant holdings.

Altogether there are 324 squares, and the area of the white rectangle equals 320 squares. [12]

What a marvellous and simple unfolding of a complicated Marxist analysis. No vulgarisation, full of interest. It is far more difficult to write in Marxist terms for the masses than it is to write for Party cadres. For the latter the argument can be developed as a theoretical Marxist analysis. For the former it has to be based on the workers’ own experience without using arguments that demand a knowledge of Marxism. Lenin excelled in writing for both kinds of audience. In addition to the popular articles, like the two above, Lenin wrote numerous articles specially directed to the cadres of the Party – long articles of 2,000-3,000 words each.

Lenin practically ran Pravda. The main editorial line was decisively shaped by him. Every day, he sent articles, criticisms of the articles of others, proposals, corrections, etc. The better to direct the paper he moved from Paris to Cracow in Austrian Galicia, only a day and a night by express train from St. Petersburg.


An organiser

THE PAPER was an organiser not only because thousands of workers read it, wrote for it and sold it, but also because it encouraged the formation of workers’ groups to collect money for it.

Both the Bolshevik daily and Luch, the Menshevik daily, published regular reports of collections and donations. In Pravda of July 12, 1912, Lenin wrote:

From the point of view of the initiative and energy of the workers themselves, it is much more important to have 100 roubles collected by, say, 30 groups of workers than 1,000 roubles collected by some dozens of “sympathisers.” A newspaper founded on the basis of five-kopek pieces collected by small factory circles of workers is a far more dependable, solid and serious undertaking (both financially and, most important of all, from the standpoint of the development of the workers’ democratic movement) than a newspaper founded with tens and hundreds of roubles contributed by sympathising intellectuals. [13]

A couple of days later, he added:

It should be made a custom for every worker to contribute one kopek to the workers’ newspaper every pay-day. Let subscriptions to the paper be taken as usual, and let those who can contribute more do so, as they have done in the past. It is very important, besides, to establish and spread the custom of “a kopek for the workers’ newspaper”.

The significance of such collections will depend above all on their being regularly held every pay-day, without interruption, and on an ever greater number of workers taking part in these regular collections. Accounts could be published in a simple form: “so-and-so many kopeks” would imply that so many workers at the given factory had contributed to the workers’ paper, and if there were any larger contributions, they could be stated as follows: “In addition, so-and-so many workers contributed so-and-so much.” [14]

In 1912, Pravda received contributions of money from 620 workers’ groups, while the Menshevik paper got donations from 89 groups. During the whole of 1913 Pravda received 2,181 contributions from workers’ groups while the Mensheviks received 661. In 1914 up to 13 May, Pravda had the support of 2,873 workers’ groups, and the Mensheviks of 671. Thus the Pravdists organised 77 per cent of the workers’ groups in Russia in 1913, and 81 per cent in 1914. [15] The formation of groups to collect money for Pravda compensated for the lack of a legal party. And Lenin quite correctly drew the conclusion: “Thus four-fifths of the workers have accepted the Pravdist decisions as their own, have approved of Pravdism, and actually rallied around Pravdism.” [16]

The total number of worker groups contributing donations to Pravda from April 1912, to 13 May 1914 was 5,674 (of course there were groups which made several collections, but separate data for this are not available, so that the number of actual groups around the paper was considerably smaller). The average donation from workers’ groups from the period of 1 January to 13 May 1914, was 6.59 roubles or about the average weekly wage of a St. Petersburg worker.

Pravda was almost completely dependent on workers’ financial support. Thus of the donations to the paper between 1 January and 13 May 1914, 87 per cent came from workers’ collections, and 13 per cent from non-workers (as against the Menshevik paper, where 44 per cent came from workers and 56 per cent from non-workers). [17]

But this was not good enough for Lenin. He wrote in 1914 that:

“5,674 workers’ groups united by the Pravdists in less than two-and-a-half years is a fairly large number, considering the harsh conditions obtaining in Russia. But this is only a beginning. We need, not thousands, but tens of thousands of workers’ groups. We must intensify our activities tenfold.” [18]

Unfortunately, the war broke out a few weeks later, and Pravda never managed to achieve the target set by Lenin.

However, the paper had been central in making the Bolshevik Party in 1914 into a mass party, with tens of thousands of members and hundreds of thousands of supporters.


THE REVOLUTIONARY movement today can learn a great deal from Lenin’s use of Pravda. We face a situation where the readership of our weekly paper, Socialist Worker, is many times larger than the membership of our organisation, the International Socialists. That is why the national committee of IS decided at its February meeting that the organisation should make a concerted effort to turn Socialist Worker buyers into sellers, so creating a wide network of sellers and supporters of the paper. Workers who are not yet in IS should be asked to sell the paper to their workmates, to their neighbours on the estates, at trade union meetings, in the local pub. In addition, collection cards for regular donations to Socialist Worker should be issued on the widest possible scale. Last, but not least, the paper needs thousands of workers to write letters and reports for it.

To achieve these aims will not be easy. Members of IS will often find that involving non-members demands enormous persistence and perseverance. But without this involvement, the gap between our organisation and the growing militancy of sections of the working class will remain.

Such measures are not an alternative to building IS itself. Quite the contrary - they are the key to really extending the influence of the organisation. But it is only on the basis of experience that we will be able to see how the hoped-for network of Socialist Worker sellers meshes into our organisation’s structures and what changes, if any, will be needed in these. Only then will we be able to fit in those workers who take a few copies of the paper every week and collect regular funds with the organisation’s factory branches, our work in the rank and file papers and our fractions in the unions.

Life will be our best teacher. Doubtless problems and difficulties will rise again and again as we develop the network of Socialist Worker sellers-supporters. But Marxism as a guide to action is not only a science, it is also an art. Hence it demands improvisation and daring when it comes to organisational forms, while remaining relentless in the pursuit of the final aim of workers’ power and socialism.



1. M. Lyadov, The London Congress of the RSDLP in Figures, Itogi Londonskogo Sezda, St Petersburg 1907, p.84.

2. J. Martow, Geschichte der russischen Sozialdemokratie, Berlin 1926, p.195.

3. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.17, p.202.

4. Lecture on Party History, Moscow 1922.

5. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.17, p.467.

6. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.18, p.105.

7. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.36, p.283.

8. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.20, p.328.

9. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.18, p.300.

10. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.19, p.324.

11. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.18, pp.543-4.

12. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.18, pp.586-7.

13. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.18, p.188.

14. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.18, p.201.

15. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.20, p.363.

16. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.20, p.320.

17. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.20, p.369.

18. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.20, p.370.


Last updated on 1.1.2008