conflict, abuse, & lenin

today (1/9/2021) i learned that the original “bros before hos” leftist shmuck was, in fact, lenin.

like, literally. lenin.

and that him being That Guy was part of what drove the bolshevik/menshevik split.

i’m fascinated, and i think it’s actually pretty important – thus this post. be forewarned: there’s a certain amount of leftist trainspotting involved, but if you’re a movement person it will all feel very familiar.

here’s what seems to have gone down in what’s been called “the bauman affair”:

in early 1903, lenin was part of the editorial group of Iskra, the main russian marxist journal of the time, which functioned as the leadership of the fledgling Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. his colleagues at Iskra were two other young organizers, julius martov and alexander potresov, and three movement veterans, vera zasulich, pavel axelrod, and george plekhanov. trotsky was involved with the group, but not a formal member because of pissing contests between lenin and plekhanov, who were the dominant figures in the group and more or less led the two age-cohorts. all of them were in london except plekhanov and axelrod, who were based in switzerland.

a comrade who had just arrived in london from russia brought the board a letter from his wife. she had recently committed suicide because of abuse she’d suffered from a man called nikolai bauman, who like her was an Iskra distribution agent and member of the RSDLP. she and bauman had a relationship (separate from her marriage), during which she became pregnant, and after the relationship ended he and his buddies publicly humiliated and harassed her, circulating satirical poetry and a cartoon of her as a pregnant virgin mary, captioned “who does the baby look like?”

the bereaved comrade asked the Iskra editors to expel bauman from the party – about the only thing they could do, since the RSDLP had basically no established structures or processes, and so nothing that could have given them options that weren’t all-or-nothing.

most of the Iskra editors said “well, obviously. yes.”

lenin, however, said “but he’s a great organizer!” and then proceeded to use some procedural stonewalling to prevent the group from even formally making a decision.

afterwards, potresov asked martov (who seems to have been the official secretary or record-keeper) to send the bereaved comrade a copy of the full formal text of the procedural non-decision, so he could take it to the press. martov wouldn’t, arguing that publicity would backfire and turn people against the comrade rather than bauman. he advised the comrade to wait until the upcoming party congress had appointed a proper central committee, and then use the threat of publicity as leverage to get that committee to take action.

it’s not clear what zasulich – the only woman present – or trotsky did in the immediate aftermath, or what axelrod and plekhanov’s immediate reactions were when they heard about it.

what is clear is that later that year, at the party congress the Iskra editors had convened to unify the RSDLP under their leadership, what happened instead was a division of the party into two factions, with the Iskra group dividing along exactly the same lines as they had in the bauman affair, not the previous age-based divide.1 in all the debates and votes that defined the two emerging factions – mainly on matters of procedure, that being lenin’s preferred terrain – lenin (joined by plekhanov) was on one side, with martov, potresov and zasulich (joined by axelrod and trotsky) on the other.

significantly, the breaking-point vote – one of the ones that lenin used to name his faction the “bolsheviks” [“majority”] – was on who should run Iskra. lenin’s proposal was to purge zasulich, potresov, and axelrod from the editorial group, retaining only martov from the majority who had opposed him in the bauman affair. offering to include martov was pretty much unavoidable, since he was the de facto leader of the “menshevik” [“minority”] faction, who in fact were the majority in the RSDLP membership. but martov vocally refused to be coopted into the purge, as lenin probably anticipated. and one of lenin’s proxies in the vituperative debate was nikolai bauman himself – falsely accusing martov of having agreed to the purge ahead of time, in a failed bid to make zasulich and potresoy distrust martov.

yes, there were some genuine matters of political strategy involved in the factional split, but everyone seems to have been pretty clear on what was behind the divide (there were only 43 voting delegates, after all, and 8 of them had already walked out2). and within the Iskra group, who had been a formidably united force until then, it was very obviously the bauman affair.

according to krupskaya (lenin’s wife & close political ally), axelrod directly called out bauman on the floor of the party congress. and lenin made the underlying issue quite clear soon afterwards in a letter to alexandra kalmykova (a major financial supporter of Iskra, and then of the bolshevik faction), responding to criticisms of his conduct at the the congress in terms that are incredibly familiar to anyone who has dealt with harassment or abuse in organizing spaces:

You know what the sensitivity and “personal” (instead of political) attitude of Martov, Old Believer [Potresov] and Zasulich led to when, for example, they all but “condemned” a man politically for an incident of a purely personal character. At that time, without a moment’s hesitation, you sided with the “flayers and monsters”.3

the story ends in an equally familiar mode. in 1905, just after getting out of jail, bauman was killed in a fight at a demonstration by an ex-soldier active with the far-right Black Hundreds paramilitary group. by that time, bauman was on the bolsheviks’ central committee, and they used his death – through a fawning eulogy from lenin and a massive funeral march – to call for revolutionary unity under their leadership. bolshevik success at making bauman a major martyr basically squelched the story of the bauman affair; even the ex-Iskra menshevik leaders didn’t dare bring it up in their polemics. after the bolshevik seizure of the state apparatus, they built a monument on bauman’s grave and put his face on stamps. moscow still has a neighborhood, a park, a square, a metro station, a street, and a university named after him.

so: this is great dish, but it’s pretty ancient history.

Iskra stopped publishing in 1905, after all, and the RSDLP collapsed in 1912.4

here’s why i think it still matters.


it’s always good to have more history to use against the myth that seeking accountability for abuse and harassment in our movements is a new thing. that’s being said now (in attacks on ‘cancel culture’); it was said in the 1990s (in attacks on ‘political correctness’); it was said in the 1960s, and the 1930s, and lenin probably said it too. it’s been a lie the whole time.


it’s always good to have more history to illustrate the consequences for organizations of refusing to act against abuse and harassment. even devoted leninists consider the splits at the 1903 congress a disaster that undermined the RSDLP’s response to the revolutionary upsurge of 1904-6 (the first russian revolution) and led to the collapse of the party. knowing that failure was a result of lenin’s behavior in the bauman affair gives it a whole new meaning. and for those of us who aren’t his followers or fans, the public silence of the majority of the Iskra group is a key part of what made it possible for lenin to consolidate his influence in the RSDLP into a faction, and then a party, and then a state, under his control.


it’s always good to have more history to illustrate the things that tend to accompany refusal to address abuse and harassment. to stick, again, with the things that even lenin’s admirers acknowledge: he was single-minded and considered political effectiveness the only thing that mattered. he was uncompromising, especially about his own right to lead. he was willing to sacrifice even his closest relationships to political goals. when we see people argue for impunity, these are other things we can expect from them. and when we see these things, they are warning signs: this person will protect abusers and harassers (especially if they are politically aligned).


knowing just how long these same dynamics have operated essentially unchanged in our movements shows that we need new strategies for dealing with them.

movement organizations are still offering essentially the same choices to people seeking to address abuse and harassment now as the Iskra group did in 1903: go through formal channels and get blocked by procedural maneuvering; go public as an individual and face backlash; have informal private conversations with a leadership group and hope they fear publicity more than you fear backlash. and the folks within organizations who make the active arguments for impunity are also re-treading old ground: don’t “condemn a man politically for an incident of a purely personal character.” it’s just your “sensitivity”. saying anything in public is bad for the organization (and anything bad for this organization is of course disastrous for the movement). surely anything that needs to be done can be done through direct, private conversations. if there was real harm, why didn’t you go to the state authorities? we can’t be sure that you’re telling the truth about what happened.5

our strategies have evolved to some extent: we understand that active support for folks speaking out is key; we’re better at using the gossip circuits to spread knowledge about people’s past actions; we’re starting to be better at expanding the reach of those networks; we recognize and have started to learn to counter the dynamic that makes the person who names the problem into the problem (as sarah ahmed puts it). but while we now have well-developed political frameworks (of both theory and practice) for responding to harm (thanks to the transformative justice work developed by black feminists, sex workers, trans women, dykes, and others), we still don’t have very good strategies for dealing with organizations that refuse to respond when harms are named, especially when the people doing harm are central to those organizations’ activities.


we need to start really having the concrete conversations about the politics that enable abuse and harassment, and stifle attempts to address them. this isn’t about big ideological labels: we know this happens in groups of all tendencies. just within my own scope of knowledge, i can think of examples within the last ten years in organizations spanning heterodox stalinism, syndicalism, neo-maoism, trotskyism, big-tent social democracy, anarchism, non-denominational socialism, and third-world marxism, plus multi-tendency projects, coalitions, and progressive NGOs staffed by radicals. almost none of these have ended in meaningful action by the organizations (some of which have survived and some of which have not), or led to meaningful consequences for the abusers and harassers (few, if any, of whom have changed their behavior).

we know it’s not about the big labels; we need to talk details of practice, process, structure. the story of the Iskra group’s response to the bauman affair is useful because everyone involved was a writer at least as much as an organizer (and, really, all of them were former organizers at that point, and almost all would stay ‘former’), and they were all deep in detailed, wide-ranging public polemics and debates (both as a bloc and within the group) immediately before and after their bereaved comrade sought their support. and, thanks to lenin’s personality cult, those polemics and debates have been published, translated, and made pretty easily available. having that level of documentation makes it unusually possible to draw connections between their different responses to that request and their specific political outlooks and positions. we need, of course, to check those connections against other experiences, but that’s true of any analysis.

some of the things that jump out to me as related, in a preliminary way, are the role of the ‘professional revolutionary’, the scope and function of party discipline, the growth imperative (and ‘scalability’), the distance between leadership and the rank & file, the importance of ‘the personal’, and the ‘state of siege’. and yes, i do think that those connect into clusters that travel together as a unit, and make some ways of working, and some tendencies, more inclined to protect abusers and harassers, and less able to transform harm.

perhaps i’ll get around to writing in more detail about some of that soon.

my main source for the details of the bauman affair is israel getzler’s 1967 biography, Martov, especially pp 66-7 & 81-2 (the book is available here, at the moment). getzler’s account is based on correspondence, party documents, and interviews with martov’s sister lydia dan and other surviving revolutionaries. all the other sources i’ve found rely on his research, directly or indirectly.

credit where credit is due: i was led to this whole story by the generally well-researched Revolutions podcast, which makes the link between the bauman affair and the split at the party congress in episode 10.29: Bolsheviks & Mensheviks.

also worth mentioning is an article from DSA Build which brings up the bauman affair in the context of abuse within DSA. it doesn’t, however, seem interested in taking the story seriously as something to learn from. after telling the story (in a way that may owe as much to a BBC series as to getzler for its details), the piece stays firmly within lenin’s framing of the issues, asking “Who was right and wrong in this situation, and how could it have been avoided? Where should the lines between personal and political get drawn when trying to build a socialist party, specifically when it comes to gendered sexual abuse?” then, having established the necessary structure for avoiding action, the next question is “How best can we build solidarity with survivors?” survivors, apparently, cannot be comrades; the targets of abuse cannot be the “we” which decides on correct action.

the DSA Build piece also doesn’t show much engagement with the concrete work being done to address harm. the main resource it points to (The Revolution Starts At Home), while solid and important, came out six years ago – years in which many books, zines, and other resources have built on, and far beyond, the foundation it laid. To name just a few: ejeris dixon & leah lakshmi piepzna-samarasinha’s Beyond Survival collection; shira hassan & mariame kaba’s Fumbling Towards Repair workbook; and the wide-ranging Transform Harm resource hub.

1) the only thing that the whole Iskra group managed to agree on was rejecting continued autonomy within the party for the Jewish General Workers Union – the Bund – which then quit the party. which says a lot about their priorities overall, since the Bund was the largest socialist group in the russian empire and included almost all of the actual workers in the RSDLP’s membership. some nasty & disingenuous identity maneuvering by the jewish members of the Iskra group (especially trotsky [né bronstein], but also martov [né tsederbaum] and axelrod6) was involved in pushing the Bund out of the party – but that’s a whole other very contemporary story.

2) you may see other numbers elsewhere. these are the numbers of people empowered to vote, not of votes; it wasn’t 1:1, and sources pick & choose which numbers they use, and how they deal with the non-voting delegates.

3) from the letter here.

if you want a taste for the quality of marxist discussion of the bauman affair, take a look at the first place i saw this quoted: a review of what sounds like an awful, red-baiting book, by a (trotskyist) reviewer trying to argue that the bauman affair didn’t actually happen, and if it did lenin did nothing wrong. it’s here.

4) the russian Communist Party claimed continuity with the RSDLP, but that’s about as meaningful as the “third rome” line that makes the tsars heirs to the roman empire, by way of constantinople.

5) these are, of course, the core arguments that people like sarah schulman make in their attacks on collective responses to abuse and harassment – in her case, along the way to equating them with state violence (which is apparently sometimes bad and sometimes something to aim at your comrades). i wish i were exaggerating; here are a lot of details if you want them: (the link takes you to a follow-up piece with references to two earlier ones at the top), with postscripts of a sort here and here

6) trotsky & martov were from assimilated, middle-class, non-yiddish-speaking backgrounds. trotsky was never involved in specifically jewish organizing, while martov was a key figure in the Bund’s earliest years (though not a direct participant in jewish worker organizing, since he couldn’t speak their language). axelrod was from a working-class yiddish-speaking background and did actual organizing among jewish workers – but he was much older and more or less an anarcho-syndicalist all along (and sold kefir for a living while in exile! who knew?). so all three had somewhat different core disagreements with the Bund. later, all three were part of the menshevik leadership who welcomed the Bund back into the RSDLP once lenin’s minority faction was no longer in control of the party, and then part of the menshevik organization that remained in federation with the Bund after the party split up.

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