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Vladimir Lenin and The Iskra

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The Iskra was a political newspaper established in Russia in December of 1900, used primarily to promote the cause of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). It was managed originally by Vladimir Lenin, and would serve him well as he sought to revitalize the socialist movement in Russia and form his “proletarian vanguard”.

The idea for the paper was conceived by Lenin during his Siberian exile in 1899 after becoming aware of a societal shift happening in Russian during his absence. The shift Lenin saw happening in the minds of the Russian people was away from ideas of revolutionary change and toward a slow, progressive, change. The proletarian revolutionary cause was being marginalized by the influence of leaders like Bernstein and Lenin thought something had to be done to stop it from being completely abandoned. His answer to Bernstein and his followers was creating the Iskra, an underground political newspaper that would distribute nation-wide to revive the movement toward socialism. Through the paper Lenin would give new life to the revolutionary movement and lay the groundwork for creating the revolutionary avant-garde party of the proletarian struggle that he talked about in his essay What Is to Be Done?

One of Lenin’s close partners in managing the Iskra was Julius Martov whom he recruited early on in the project. Martov would prove to be invaluable at rallying support for the cause and stirring up the population to take part in the conspiratorial activities of the movement. Together, Lenin and Martov were able to mobilize a great number of the population to support the Iskra and its initiatives. They turned people away from the teachings of Bernstein and from the ideas of “local patriotism” and “economism” and towards identification with the revolutionary cause and the plight of the proletarian class.

The agents of the Iskra would procure fake passports for travel, leave any place of employment they had held previously, live off of party funds, and move about the country spreading the message of socialism. These men and women were seen through heroic lenses by the followers of the cause for the sacrifices they made both of their material possessions and livelihood, but also to their physical well-being (agents sometimes went for long periods of time without food or adequate shelter). Their role was in many ways romanticized as being the true revolutionary lifestyle. This idea was lent a great deal of credence when Lenin himself said that “in order to become this political force [vanguard party] in the eyes of outsiders, much persistent and stubborn work is required to raise our own consciousness, initiative, and energy…for this, it is not sufficient to stick the label “vanguard” on rearguard theory and practice”. In establishing the Iskra, Lenin was seeking to create a spirit of abandonment to the cause of revolution in the people of Russia and in that endeavor he was largely successful.

Lenin’s vision would prove to be too strong for some of the other members of the Iskra staff though, and following the split of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party at the Second Party Congress in 1903, Lenin would resign his place on the staff. The official reason for his resignation was over his suggestion to reduce the editorial board of the paper to three people (himself, Julius Martov, and Georgi Plekhanov), but the actual reasons had roots in the ideologies of the men on the Iskra staff. Lenin was possibly too much of a revolutionary for many of the other men. Trotsky would describe Lenin in his autobiography as “hard”, in reference to his commitment to the revolution at all costs, whereas others such as Martov, although a Bolshevik himself, he would call “soft”. Lenin was simply on another level of revolutionary than others were.

The Iskra would subsequently fall under the leadership of the Mensheviks and would be published by Plekhanov until 1905, but without the help of Lenin. The paper served Lenin’s purpose for the time he was in control of it though, as evidenced by many of its staff going on to be part of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

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